Sunday, October 17, 2010

[IF Comp] Under, in Erebus

I had a hard time getting into this game, for two reasons. First, it was set in an apparently illogical after- or underworld, and recent experiences made me unenthusiastic about such a setting. But really, are underworlds the new dungeons and mansion, places where you can just put whatever you think of without having to respect any narrative logic? Second, the game gave very little direction, which wasn;t exactly encouraging. I started up and then quickly quitted Under, in Erebus three or four times.

But, when I finally persevered, I found a game that wasn't bad. I'm not sure I would have figured out how to use those booths without using some help, but once I understood how they worked, the game started to be fun. Or rather, the game started to be fun once I had understood how the booths worked and I had found out that my ideas about how to pronounce "ewe" were completely wrong. English pronunciation is evil.

So, I quickly made a couple of useful objects, and solved the puzzles concerning the Cyclops -- the "goals" commands was very helpful here. I quickly got stuck again, since I hadn't figured out that you could shrink by drinking tea (which also makes the train puzzle impossible to figure out). A little more perseverance on my part would have helped, but the central mechanic was so tedious, with all the object-fetching, that I wasn't in a very experimental mood.

I did make the "good place for reading" by experiment, but I'm not sure how you were supposed to figure this out from anything in the game; I did not figure out how to get help, and had to resort to the walkthrough again. I still have no idea why I went to the trouble of reading the genetics book, because it didn't seem to have anything to do with the final solution.

All of which is a way of saying that, yes, this is a neat game; but it should have been easier to use (no fetching objects after you have fetched them once, no carrying limit!), and a little more direction wouldn't have hurt either.

Wordplay games are really hard to do right, I suppose. Ad Verbum also had some parts which were impossible to figure out without reading the author's mind. Still, I think that it might have been possible to devise a scenario where more of the objects you can create with the booths are logically integrated.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

[IF Comp] A Quiet Evening at Home

If you want to impress me, make sure my first exchange with the game is not:
> enter house
That’s not something you can enter.

you’ve got to use the restroom!
My second exchange was me discovering that "about" was not implemented. One then soon finds out that the author didn't bother to describe the directions of exits, and that we are not given any clear goal either.

Right. I'm not going to play this game. That also means I'm not going to rate it. I believe judges should aim to give as objective an assessment of a game's overall quality as possible in their rating, and you simply cannot do that if you don't play the game quite a bit longer than I have played this game.

[IF Comp] Death off the Cuff

Poirot. He may be called differently, but this is in fact Poirot; and I seem to recall that something close to this game's situation was used at one time in a Poirot book or movie... I might be mistaken, though. Perhaps this situation, where you are the detective who doesn't really know anything but just bluffs his way through the case and gets everyone to confess, is just so natural given the genre that one has the feeling that is must always already have been part of it.

Which brings me to my first pronouncement: Death off the Cuff gets very high points for situation. Very well done. Just the kind of situation you would want a good detective game to explore.

But is it a good detective game? Here I am less impressed. One proceeds by examining everything and talking about absolutely everything. Fair enough. But then some descriptions may change, and you need to examine everything again. And again. And again. And once more. And another time. This is boring. It is also really weird when we suddenly "see" things that should have been visible all the time. And don't think that you can spare yourself some time by making smart deduction, because you cannot: the new avenues that can be opened are in no way predictable, and indeed at the end you'll need to start investigating the single person you have the best reason not to suspect. And somehow, at that point you need to notice that he is wearing a uniform that is not the real uniform of Scotland Yard, which neither you nor anyone else noticed before, even though the guy has been standing there for who knows how long? (The player apparently also needs to know what a Scotland Yard uniform looks like. That, or just obsessively talk about everything.)

So, great situation, enjoyable development, but bad gameplay. This game would have been far more enjoyable if it had been a lot easier, with more in-your-face descriptions of changing details. Still -- it's worth playing. Just hit the hints soon and often.

P.S. One reviewer wrote that with some slight changes, Death off the Cuff would be in the same league as Make It Good. I disagree, but that's not because this game is bad. It's just that Make It Good is one of the best IF games I have played.

[IF Comp] Oxygen

Oxygen is a compact puzzle game set in a space station that is, even galactically speaking, in the middle of nowhere. The intro talks about the Galactic Empire, which made me think first of Asimov and then of Star Wars -- so it was a relief to find that this was not a piece of fanfic featuring Hari Seldon or Jabba the Hutt. (That Spaceballs joke about Pizza the Hutt was just too easy, wasn't it?)

Rather, Oxygen puts you into a situation where, as the on-duty technician of the space station, you must regulate the airflow from the leaking central oxygen tank to two smaller oxygen tanks. Doing this isn't terribly difficult, because the console has only four possible states, and you are provided with a useful chart detailing the effects of these states. But things are spiced up by the fact that the two oxygen tanks are attached to different parts of the space station, one of which is taken over by striking miners; and those miners also control part of the air flow regulation system, so you'll need to work with or against them in order to achieve certain results.

Some reviewers have said that the game implements the Prisoner's Dilemma, but this is in fact not the case. The Prisoner's Dilemma is defined by its pay-off matrix where (a) if we both help each other, that's good for us both; (b) if I help you and you rip me off, that's even better for you, and exceedingly bad for me; (c) if you help me and I rip you off, vice versa; and (d) if we both rip each other off, that's bad for us both, but not exceedingly bad. The interesting thing about this situation is that we need to cooperate in order to achieve maximum success; but at the same time, it is always better to rip the other guy off. This leads to some tough paradoxes, which you could fruitfully explore in a game.

Oxygen doesn't explore those issues, because it's pay-off matrix is completely different. In fact, the player can force the other side to adopt the strategy that is optimal for the player's side. So although the interaction with the people at the other console does add something to the game, it is not, in the end, the main puzzle. The main puzzle is finding out what the optimal ending is, narratively speaking, and then achieving that ending. I managed to get to the optimal ending, where the miners and the captain sign a contract and you stay alive and Andre gives you free drinks -- but it wasn't easy. It was fun, though.

Yes, Oxygen is fun. It is wildly implausible: what engineer would think up an oxygen control system where you have to manipulate two consoles hidden in different obscure and almost unreachable parts of the ship, and where it is impossible to save more than 75% of the oxygen, but possible to lose it all? But it's fun. The central puzzle works, and the story surrounding it is good enough to sustain interest for the time it takes to work through the puzzle.

Although no testers are credited, the game is very polished. I do feel, though, that "attack/cut cable with screwdriver" should have been recognised -- I had to resort to the walkthrough to get past that guess-the-verb puzzle. Also, perhaps the chart could fall out of the book a little earlier, because I had at first given up on reading through it all.

But those are small complaints. This game accomplished what it attempted to achieve.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

[IF Comp] Rogue of the Multiverse

Having played eight games, approximately 30 percent of all entries, I am positive about this competition. Five of them were different shades of good, one has the distinct possibility of becoming good in a future release, and the other two, while not good, were far from disastrous. The game I'm going to review now is one of the five good ones.

Rogue of the Multiverse -- it sounds like a randomised fighting game. And in a sense, it is, but the ties with Rogue are very thin indeed. Since the player character doesn't seem to be much of a rogue either (more an unwilling thief), one wonders where the title comes from. Anyway, let's go on to more important things.

This game is fun. From the zany interview to the running banana joke, from the motorbike action sequence to the weird array of useless junk you can buy to liven up your prison cell, everything has been put together to entertain the player. The game is very polished (although I would "enter" and "get in" to work for supporters like chairs and beds), the writing is crisp, the jokes are funny, the action sequences flow very well, and hardly anyone will get stuck.

The middle section of the game is built up around a mini game where you are transported to another planet ("You mean he's going to send us to another planet?"), and have to find valuable objects using your scanner and tag as many of them as possible within the fifty turns allotted to your mission. On the one hand, this is a good design: the player can get the hang of what he's supposed to be doing in the first, easier mission; and can go back, and attempt to earn as much money as he wants, as often as he likes. (Or at least as often as I liked.) But on the other hand, the mini game just isn't very good. Once you understand it, there is no challenge: you just walk around, check the scanner, type the right directions, and tag. (There are some enemies you cannot escape from, but there is always "undo".) On top of that, it's a mini game that works against the textual medium: the needed information could have been represented far more efficiently on a graphical map, and the strengths of text are not used at all. After playing three missions, I was not exactly eager for more.

I wonder why Pacian decided to go for such a bare bones mini game, instead of giving us mission that played to the strengths of the medium? It might be meant as a satirical take on RPG quests undertaken for loot, but I doubt it, because it doesn't really connect with that target.

Anyway, the mini game is short and easy, and by the time you realise that it's not going to get more interesting you don't need to play it any more -- so it doesn't diminish the fun provided by the game. I am emphasising that word again, because it summarises both the strength and the weakness of the piece. Everything is fun, yes, but it is not more than fun. The PC is a nobody; the important NPCs are funny, but not interesting; and the political commentary on inequality, sexism and racism takes the form of good jokes, but exhausts itself in that fun-inducing capacity.

In summary: this is a very entertaining piece by an excellent author; but I would like to see him or her (what does that "C." stand for?) move on to slightly more consequential things.

Friday, October 08, 2010

[IF Comp] Divis Mortis

There are three joys in playing the IF Comp. Joy one: playing a game. Joy two: reading a new review of a game you have already played. Joy three: reading all the reviews already published of the game you have just finished playing. Of course, that first joy depends on the quality of the games, and the other two upon either the wit or the wisdom of the reviewers -- but I'm not complaining.

I'm not going to complain (much) about Divis Mortis either. What was the probability of me playing two zombie games in a row? And yet, they could hardly be more different. Where that other game (name omitted because I wouldn't want to spoil it) steered clear of the dominant zombie genre, Divis Mortis embraces its genre roots. There is some narrative here, including a Plot Twist and a Ridiculously Tacked On Romance, but in the end the game is mostly what you get when you turn Left4Dead into an adventure game. A lonely hospital filled with zombies that must be shot down, with food, drink and medicine that must be found, and with inaccessible areas that must be opened up. I guess I was hoping for a ridiculous scene where you get to mow down hordes of wild zombies with a machine gun and hand grenades, then dispose of the survivors with a barrel of oil and a book of matches -- but hey, I'll be satisfied with what I was offered.

For this kind of game, it is essential that the puzzles are easy enough to ensure steady progress. It is, after all, the interactive fiction equivalent of watching a zombie movie, and this means that at no point must the viewer/player/reader be allowed to sit back and think. If you sit back and think, you will notice the emptiness of the genre. In my experience, Divis Mortis did this well -- the only time I consulted the hints was when "throw ammonia at man" didn't work and I had to type "throw ammonia at opening" instead. One progresses steadily, chuckles a little, smiles at the gruesome descriptions, finishes the game, and that's that. Simple entertainment.

How to score such a game? I'm not too critical here. You wanted me to enjoy myself, I enjoyed myself, you get an okay score.

Divis Mortis does need a more polished post-competition release, though. The prose especially needs some work. Watch this:
An assortment of gifts and necessities, designed to milk more money out of patients and their visiting families. The place is quiet and poorly lit, lending to a dystopian atmosphere. There are rows and rows of low shelves containing gift cards, knick-knacks, flowers and balloons.  There is a section containing flashlights, lamps and batteries especially catches your eye.
The second and fourth sentence are clearly ungrammatical, and I'm not so sure you can milk something out of someone either. (But that might just be me now knowing English idiom well enough.)

Also, there are some weird descriptions and responses that might be a result of too much haste:
> take stapler
I believe that belongs to someone else.
I'm taking absolutely everything I find, but the stapler belongs to someone else?
> talk to man
All you get is curses.  He is quite determined to keep you out.  You could always try asking him about something, but it doesn’t
Something went wrong there as well.

Anyway, I liked Divis Mortis. If you feel like killing some zombies, and Left4Dead is too tense for you (and it is tense, I can't play it for longer than an hour before feeling exhausted), you could do worse than load up this little game.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

[IF Comp] The 12:54 to Asgard

"The 12:54 to Asgard" -- that could have been a Viking-themed version of Harry Potter, but luckily, it is not. The player character is a grumpy studio technician who is called in the middle of the night to fix a leaking roof before all the expensive equipment short-circuits. Sounds like a bad job? It is a bad job.

The first thing I noticed when I started playing this game was the incredible amount of objects scattered around the studio. I felt my enthusiasm for the game diminish very rapidly. Solving puzzles is OK, but I want to be introduced to the game gently. Do not give me twenty objects and four puzzles in the first five minutes, because this discourages me.

Anyway, as I went on playing it slowly dawned on me that I had misunderstood the game. Most of these objects were just there for me to be grumpy about, and all I had to do with them was put them away. I found a roof tile, some nails, a hammer -- this was going to be easy. And the title of the game combined with the ever-present hints about how dangerous the situation was made me believe that it was the purpose of the game that I die attempting this stupid roof fix... which is a great premise. At this point I started really enjoying myself. I laughed (!) when the roof tile fell down into the bucket. Finally, it was with both apprehension and glee that I put a suitcase on the wet slippery plank, got on top of it, bended over backwards to get a good swing, and, YES, fell to my death! Weird pleasures are still pleasures.

Now I was transported to the afterlife. After a short chat with Death and a ride on the boat, I met a little girl. And it was at this point that my experience started to deteriorate rapidly. First, I no longer had any idea what I was supposed to be doing. My first aim was to repair the roof. My second was simply to kill myself. But now? No idea. I was lost in a new world. Perhaps the experience the author was after, but not exactly motivating to me as a player.

Second, the girl seemed very unresponsive. I couldn't talk to her -- at least, every subject I could think of got me a response saying that she found that topic uninteresting. (Death, me, herself, all uninteresting.) If I went anywhere, she would complain that I left her. If I tried to grab her train ticket, because this was seemingly something I needed and, hey, I'm a grouch, the game told me it belonged to her. It seemed that all I could do was wait for her to do something, then follow suit.

We quickly came to four coloured stiles. She asked me to choose one, but in the end, she chose one herself. I went through, and found myself harvesting grain. Disorientation complete. What is happening? We walked somewhere (at least I did, and then the girl suddenly turned up in the descriptions again), found some kind of oven, which was also a dragon -- I picked up a key, which was eaten by an insect the next turn, even though I still had it in my inventory -- then I walked through a stile, the girl had disappeared, and I was back in the room with the four coloured stiles. WTF? I couldn't go through that original stile again, though I could return to that world by throwing the grains I still carried with me in the air. Or indeed by dropping them. If I did so, I immediately got a message about some huge ventilators and I was back at the oven, wondering what on Earth had happened, and also wondering whether this was intentional or just the author forgetting to put in the right if-clauses.

Anyway, I walked into another stile. This time I found myself in some quiz, where I gambled my afterlife away even though I didn't know what I could lose and didn't know what I could win. The quiz masters started asking me questions, beginning with "Do you know what yes/no questions are?" "Yes," I answered, truthfully -- but the game apparently didn't, because it told me that nobody had asked me a question. WTF? Several other attempts at interaction also failed, and I finally decided to step through the exit stile.

Next I came to some kind of snow world. Confusing geography, unimplemented objects:
> x fence
You can’t see any such thing.

> w
You are almost too weak to climb over the fence. Somehow you manage.
but at least there also was a house. Not that they would let me in. So I decided to go to sleep in the snow:

The snow covers your head. You feel sleepy now.

> sleep
You aren’t feeling especially drowsy.

You close your eyes... just for a moment.
which is a really weird exchange. Anyway, I managed to die, and got back to the room with the four stiles. I decided to enter the snow world once again, with the walkthrough ready, because I was losing faith in both the game and my ability to do whatever was necessary to have it move forward. The walkthrough told me to "give blanket to beggar". I have no blanket. There is no beggar. The walkthrough told me to go south and enter the turnstile. I went south. There was no turnstile. In fact, I couldn't find any way to leave this world, and had to reload.

Well, maybe everything would become clear through the final turnstile! Nope -- it just brought be back to the beginning of the game. Okay, no problem, I'll just walk away. Maybe getting back to life was the aim of the game. But trying to leave the studio just gave me:

You’re not leaving until you finish your job.
What do you mean, I'm not leaving until I finish the job? I got myself killed! My brains were bashed out against the studio floor! I just managed to escape from some senseless afterlife where I don't ever, ever want to go again! You can be damn sure I'm going home, and if anyone complains, I'm sure there are union regulations against having to work in unsafe circumstances. I will not finish this job!

As you see, I got just a little irritated. How did a game that was so much fun suddenly turn into a frustration-fest? What is the aim of this game? Put me into incomprehensible situations and watch what happens? Why, oh why, didn't the author include a hint system that could have given confused player some much needed guidance?

And why does a game with five beta-testers have so many bugs -- and I'm not talking about obscure bugs, but about in-your-face bugs. "Wait, where’s the damn roof tile? WTF?" still getting displayed after I have found it. Getting a description of how I fall down the stairs in my haste every single time I go down the stairs. The unimplemented fence. The unimplemented tree. (If you turn some important object into a tree, what about letting me look at that tree?) The quiz master who asks me questions I cannot answer. The girl who disappears without a trace. The key that gets eaten after I have taken it. The chaff that gets blown away by fans even where there are no fans. (And by the way, "push sponge" should be a synonym for "wring sponge". Always assume that players will try the standard IF commands first.)

It makes me mad. I first had a lot of fun, and then, well, then I had a lot of non-fun. I guess that I'll rate the game somewhere between those two experiences.

This is one game where I really want to read a "My design decisions"-post after the competition, because I still have no idea what Mr. Wheeler was trying to achieve.

[IF Comp] Gris et Jaune

After looking at the title of the game and the "handbill" that it comes with, I had a pretty good idea of what Gris et Jaune was going to be about: a fair, probably in London, lots of variety artists with weird names, perhaps a Blavatsky-like medium, and of course the approaching horrors of the Second World War.

But when I started playing the game, these expectations were quickly changed. Was I a pig, being fattened for the slaughter? No, wait, this was an interactive fiction adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau! But -- perhaps, after all, it was a zombie slasher?

As you can see, it took me quite a while to understand that this was a game set in New Orleans and concerned with Voodoo. If you know a little about Voodoo, I'm sure the names of the handbill would have tipped you off immediately, but I didn't, so they did not me. (I wonder whether that sentence is grammatically incorrect or only pragmatically awkward.) From that point on, I spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia pages on the entities and concepts encountered, which perhaps didn't help immersion, but was nonetheless enjoyable.

Zombies in Voodoo are evidently a lot more interesting than other zombies: they're not mindless creatures searching for brains, but tragic figures conjured forth by people meddling with powers they should have left alone. One of Gris et Jaune's main strengths is how it first turns the doctor from the embodiment of evil (I was quite prepared to kill him) into a tragic figure one sympathises with; and how it then turns Mother John from a saviour into the embodiment of evil (whom I was quite prepared to kill) and then once more into a tragic figure. That final transformation was less successful than the others, but still, this is quite impressive characterisation.

The game is set up well: you start with a very limited set of options, and this slowly starts to widen as the game progresses, as you start to understand what is going on, and as you character gains more, well, character. Perhaps the set of options becomes a bit too much at the end: I played the final sections using the hints and the walkthrough, partly because the game was very long, but also partly because there was a lot to do and little clear direction. I very much doubt, for instance, that I would have been able to get Agau to do my bidding without the walkthrough; and merging with the doctor was not exactly an obvious course of action either. There may have been in-game hints for this that I missed, though.

The puzzles were almost uniformly excellent, in the sense that most of them were not at all arbitrary, but simply the important actions in the narrative. Gris et Jaune is an example of how to blend puzzle and narrative, the kind of example you wish to brandish when people quote that old claim of Graham Nelson's about IF being a narrative at war with a crossword. There's no war. The narrative is the crossword. Gris et Jaune is perhaps a bit too difficult, puzzle-wise, but the integration of the puzzles is impeccable.

The game does need a bit more polish: we have descriptions that are shows double, people that are named in parser messages before we discover their names in the game, some few spelling errors. But these are all minor complaints. I found two bugs: I found a note in the furnace of the burnt-down house, but the game refused to understand the word "note"; and one of the climactic moments of the game turned into this:
> attack her

[** Programming error: tried to read from –>64 in the array “match_list”, which has
entries 0 up to 63 **]

[** Programming error: tried to read from –>64 in the array “match_scores”, which
has entries 0 up to 63 **]
You can’t see “her” (Anna’s mother) at the moment.
but this didn't seem to adversely affect the gameplay. It's hard to remove all bugs from a game this size.

Size. Gris et Jaune is far too big for the IF Competition. Even with copious use of the hints and even the walkthrough at the end, I spent far more than two hours with the game. (And I'm not even sure I have found everything, because even after talking down John and convincing her to stop the experiments, the game told me I felt like I lost. Is there a winning ending?) Games are of course allowed to have any size, but we must judge after only two hours of playing them. At that point I gave the game an 8. Having completed it, I think that it is perhaps worth a little more, though it's hard to say given that I didn't really try to solve the final puzzles myself.

All in all, this is a very solid effort. The best game I've played so far.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

[IF Comp] East Grove Hills

A socially awkward male teenager in the company of a somewhat less socially awkward girl he probably secretly likes? Right, let's choose MC Frontalot's Goth Girls as background music... and let's then become aware of the obvious truth that you cannot listen to rap music and play interactive fiction at the same time. "I avail myself of the local cafe, light a clove up, / thumb through Camus (in French, which I can’t read, but so what)." Okay, song over, I put on some instrumental music (Vivaldi), and finish this spoiler space paragraph. How informative!

Ahem. East Grove Hills is a game about a socially awkward male teenager who experience a school shooting -- which reminds me of another rap song, even though I am not into rap all that much... "When a dude's gettin bullied and shoots up his school / And they blame it on Marilyn". (You know that rapper. He's a tiny bit more famous than Frontalot.)

Uh, anyway. A socially awkward male teenager who experiences a school shooting in which he loses his sister. Afterwards, he bonds with another girl, a friend of his sister's. This is a momentous event in his life, since he has never bonded with anyone outside his family.

But it's not a momentous game. This is one of those pieces where the player doesn't really get to do anything, and one is left wondering why it was created as interactive fiction at all. One's helplessness during an episode of violence could have been communicated very well using our medium, but that doesn't seem to be the focus of the game. The extremely limited and awkward set of conversations options you are often stuck with is effective in giving us a sense of social awkwardness, but it is not, in my opinion, enough to justify the choice of medium. (See, when you write IF, you are asking me to do more than read the text; I want to be rewarded for that extra effort. A piece must show me that it is better as IF than it would have been as static text.)

The premise is good, but the writing isn't quite up to the job. Telling me that I am socially awkward already seems to be breaking the "show, don't tell" rule; but telling it a hundred times is simply a bad idea. Socially awkward people don't go around thinking about nothing but how socially awkward they are. (And if they do, they probably think about specific past or future situations, not about the abstract concept of being socially awkward.) The plot needs work as well: we've got a mildly effective build-up, but the final scene doesn't even come close to being a narrative climax. At first I couldn't believe that the game was really over, but yes, it was.

East Grove Hills is harmless: there is nothing that it does terribly wrong, and it's too short to get on your nerves. But there's nothing it does really right either, and that makes it quite forgettable.

Monday, October 04, 2010

[IF Comp] Sons of the Cherry

Sons of the Cherry is a multiple-choice game. (Let's all agree that that is a better name than "Choose Your Own Adventure", shall we? It's more descriptive, and less tied to a specific series of game books from already half-forgotten history.) It is set during the U.S. war of independence, and casts the player as a young occultist who quickly gets into trouble with the Christian authorities for being a witch. Perhaps I am mistaken, but this seems to me to conflate two parts of history that are separated by almost a century: the witch hunts in the second half of the seventeenth century, and the war of independence in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Whatever the historical accuracy of the narrative, Alex Livingston quickly moves us forward from scene to scene, with every few paragraphs being followed by a multiple-choice question that allows you to choose what you want to do next. Points for good narrative flow.

Unfortunately, this interactivity is a fa├žade almost all of the time: one's choices have almost no bearing on how the narrative progresses. If you can choose to help someone or not help someone, choosing the second will still having you helping the person in question. If you decide to run away before you are discovered, rather than wait for whoever is coming, you will be discovered nonetheless, without the writer even going through the trouble of writing an escape scene. If you decide to fight rather than run, the guy who's with you will grab you and force you to run anyway. And so on.

There does seem to be one choice in the game which affects the further narrative, to the point that an entire sequence gets cut out and the game ends rather differently if you make the "wrong" choice. Whether this is enough to justify choosing the medium of interactive fiction is of course debatable.

Anyway, back to the story. I was sort of enjoying myself, slowly getting into the story, and then we seemed to have finished the introduction and to have come to the point where stuff was going to happen. Great, I thought to myself, I get to kill George Washington! Let chaos ensue and let history be rewritten! We will scorch the arcane symbols of paganism into the very earth of this land, kick out the English with an army of naiads and dryads, and forever close our shores to monotheism! This is a story. I put on some Inkubus Sukkubus to get into the right mood, and clicked the violent option.

And then... Washington lived? I went my own way? The game ended? But -- surely that was only an introduction? Where is the rest of my story?

Ultimately, then, a rather unsatisfying game.

[IF Comp] The 12:54 to Asgard - help needed

Okay, this is not a review, it is a call for help. It does contain some spoilers, so only read it if you have played this game.

Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess. Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess. Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess. Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess.

I haven't timed it very exactly, but I suspect that I am already nearing the two-hour time limit for this game. I played through the first part at my leisure. I understood it. I enjoyed it, especially once I figured out that I could just fool around, try some things, and then have it all escalate.

But after that -- WTF? I have absolutely no idea what I am supposed to be doing. I get into a couple of weird worlds where I cannot really do anything. I escaped from the world with the grain, but I seem to have lost Polly on the way. The quizmaster gave me a list of objects to look for, but I don't seem to have that list anywhere physically, so I have no idea what it was he wanted. Also, he started to ask me yes-or-no questions, but when I tried to answer them, the game told me that nobody had asked me a question? I went to the snow world, died, went to the snow world again, and -- what are you supposed to do there? I looked at the walkthrough, which said:

give blanket to beggar
give coins to beggar
enter turnstile

But there's no beggar anywhere, and going east and south from the farm doesn't bring me to a turnstile. I couldn't find any way to escape from the snow world again, so I restored a save.

The final turnstile brings me back to the beginning of the game. That doesn't seem to help either.

Summarising: I am utterly confused, have no idea what I ought to be doing, and am running out of time to play this game, given the 2-hour time limit. The walkthrough makes no sense to me (and I don't want to just type it in from the beginning), and there are no hints. Can anyone point me in the right direction? I'm sure I'm missing something obvious.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

[IF Comp] Flight of the Hummingbird

Flight of the Hummingbird is a super heroes game. Now you should know that I hate superheroes. Not that I've ever read any super hero comics (these seem to be a predominantly American phenomenon), but I have seen some super hero movies. I tried two of those recent Spiderman movies, but stopped both long before the end. A couple of years ago, friends made me watch all of X-men 2, which gets a respectable 7.8 at the IMDB. I found it incomprehensible and utterly boring.*

Does that mean I hate Flight of the Hummingbird? No. Sure, it has a really bad story, as predictable as possible with characters made out of the thinnest cardboard the author could buy. But while this would be fatal to a movie (although as far as I could tell X-men 2 didn't even have a plot), it isn't much of a problem when you are playing a short and polished puzzle game. That is what this game is, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else. The story and the characters are so obviously only there to provide a backdrop for the puzzles that it would be infelicitous to complain about them.

How are the puzzles? The key word here is "friendly". It's unlikely that you will get stuck, since the game always makes quite clear what obstacles you need to overcome and often points you into the general direction of the solution as well. Every object that looks significant for solving a puzzle will be significant for solving a puzzle, often quite quickly after you have encountered it, and the world is quite sparse. The only puzzle that is perhaps a little less friendly is the navigation puzzle, but even that worked better than I expected -- it was far less confusing than the navigation sequences in Seastalker, for instance.

Add to this a sprinkling of light comedic touches, and you've gotten yourself an enjoyable and easy puzzle romp. Flight of the Hummingbird is not great, and is not even aiming for greatness, but it achieves its humble aims very well.

* However, Kenneth Branagh is apparently directing a super heroes movie called Thor. I love Branagh. His Hamlet is among my favourite movies -- I can watch its entire 4+ hours without a moment of boredom. So that's one super heroes movie I might try.

[IF Comp] The Blind House

It's that time of the year again: the interactive fiction competition has arrived. Two announcements. First, all my reviews contain as many spoilers as I want to use. Second, no first paragraph contains any spoilers -- it can therefore serve as "spoiler space" for the blog aggregates and so on.

The Blind House by Maude Overton is named after a song by Porcupine Tree, the author tells us. Since I had just gotten some Porcupine Tree albums to check out from a friend, I put The Incident (which contains the song in question) on repeat while I played this game. Not exactly the soundtrack I would have chosen for it, I think -- it's all relatively sane -- but good music nevertheless. It sounds a bit like Dream Theater meets Opeth, if somewhat softer. (If this comparison makes the Porcupine Tree fans angry, feel free to complain.)

The game itself, then, is mad, and not mad in a funny "mad hatter" way, but mad in an unpleasant, disturbing way. It's not quite Jack Nicholson with an axe, but that is the general direction you need to be thinking of. Knives. Diaries written in blood. Disturbing paintings. Murder. But, and this is the masterstroke of the game, these darkest layers of madness meld seamlessly into other forms of madness and psychological trouble: repressed memories, hallucinations, depression, paranoia, up to and including common stuff like excessively low self-esteem and an abusive relationship characterised by excessive claiming. Never in the game does it become clear to the player what is real and what is false in this web. Does the player character invent the fact that she has murdered a woman in order to project the guilt she feels for her abusive relationship to the Melissa? Does she invent this relationship in order to escape from the guilt of the murder? Did she really kill a woman because she couldn't stand sharing Melissa? I still don't know.

This does lead to an interesting experience, because each new hint the game drops will change your idea of what is going on; and you will in fact have multiple ideas at the same time. At one point fairly late in the game, I was both quite sure that I was about to enact the famous scene from Psycho on Melissa, and that I was about to quietly snoop into her bedroom in order to find the information I needed to save her -- two completely opposite ideas. This does keep the player on edge.

On the other hand, the game's finale was a bit of a let-down. If I interpret it as literally true, and not just one more figment of the imagination, then most of the scenes earlier in the game must have either not happened at all, or happened in a completely different way, order and time-frame. In a sense, that is fine; but it does make me feel cheated as a player. I have been accumulating evidence and formulating theories; I have solved puzzles in order to find out what was going on. If it turns out that that evidence was so unreliable and fragmentary that I could not possibly have hit on the truth (or at least could not have seen it as particularly likely), then, well, why have I been doing it? It's like reading one of those detective stories where you are fed red herrings for 200 pages, and then the detective solves the case by using a clue that wasn't given to the reader.

On the other hand, if the final scene is just some further unreliable narration, then the ending of the piece is arbitrary and unsatisfactory.

Since I have seen from other reviews that people got different endings, let me state that I read the diary while Melissa was in the shower; then met her in the corridor as she was running towards her bedroom; where I found her in tears, talked to her, and then re-established en strengthened my abusive dominant-submissive relationship with her. I have absolutely no idea how you could get another ending.

I would not call The Blind House a total success, then: it should either have rearranged its fragments of madness so that they would have clicked together better at the end; or it should have set itself up less like a detective game. Things do not have to click -- but I should be able to recognise this as an integral part of the work of art. Just think of how creepy this game could have been if it had started degenerating even further into madness once Melissa came back! Or how emotionally powerful it could have been if enacting the abusive relationship rather than solving puzzles had been the central aspect of playing.

That said, this is still a very fine game that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

[ATTACK] New bug-fix build

Get it while it's hot, the new Inform ATTACK (or download the current latest version - it's the same now, but will lead you to any future updates). Changes:

1. The combat states are no longer called "Normal", "Act", "React" and "Reacted", but are now called "at-Normal", "at-Act", "at-React" and "at-Reacted". This was done in order to avoid namespace clashes. (Updating any existing code should be trivial: just search for "combat state".)

2. Several bugs and unintended aspects of the reloading system are fixed.

3. A few other very minor fixes.

The manual and the example game have been updated to reflect these changes.  

You need this new version of ATTACK to compile "'Mid the Sagebrush and the cactus"!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

[Announce] "'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus", version 1

'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus is a relatively small game based on a combination of Inform ATTACK and several custom conversation commands. In it, the player character will have to interact both verbally and physically with David, the son of the man you have just killed. Will you be able to survive the encounter, and if so, how?

(This game is certainly not what I believe a typical game using ATTACK will look like, so it should not be seen as a poster child of the extension. Rather, it is a project in its own right which more or less happens to use the extension.)

Find out more at the IFDB.

Oh, and for those who are wondering: I'm not planning to release even more games in the next couple of weeks. ;) The next plan is the Spring Thing... but that's still going to be a vast amount of work.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

[Announce] "The Game Formerly Known as Hidden Nazi Mode", version 1

I once wrote a game called Hidden Nazi Mode to make a point about the difference between closed and open software. This was not a success, as discussion with my testers showed me that the game was making lots of points, but not the one I wanted it to make. (I explain this at more length in a short essay that accompanies the current game.) So I decided not to release Hidden Nazi Mode.

But there was still a playable, perhaps even a cute, perhaps even a slightly unsettling game left if you took out the hidden Nazi mode. Which is what I did, thus creating The Game Formerly Known as Hidden Nazi Mode. It is small, it is not necessarily intended for adults, it is not ambitious. But there were those who enjoyed it.

Get if at the IFDB.

[Announce] "The Art of Fugue", version 1

A game currently comprising eight puzzles, The Art of Fugue turns a musical form into a logical challenge. Can you get four player characters to do what you wish, given that every command you type will be performed by each of them... but with increasing delays?

Find out more at the IFDB.

[Announce] "Figaro", version 2

In 2007, I released a small example game called Figaro as part of my entry in Innovation Comp. The main aim was to show that even within traditional IF systems, you can give the player a lot of authorial control. (Of course, it doesn't tackle the problem of how to do this in a larger game.) The secondary aim was to create a fun little diversion.

But Figaro was plagued with some nasty guess-the-verb problems that made it not so accessible and not so fun. Also, I was bugged by this sentence from the IFWiki: "Since the game is only an example, it isn't fully implemented. You cannot, for example, kiss your wife."

So I revisited the game and give you Figaro, version 2. Now with more synonyms, more kissing, more endings, more beta-testing, more cover art, and a source code that has been commented to make it accessible to beginning Inform 7 authors. Of course, everyone is invited to add to the game; it is released under the GPL version 3 or any later version.

These links are to the "unprocessed" part of the IF-Archive, so they will stop working soon -- I will replace them when needed:

[Announce] New Inform 7 extension "Permadeath"

The Inform 7 site now hosts a new extension of mine, Permadeath. This extension implements rogue-like saving. What does that mean? It means that (1) the player can save the game whenever he or she wants, but saving immediately results in quitting the game; (2) every saved game can only be restored once; and (3) when the player dies, his previous save game becomes unusable. In other words, you can only save to "pause" and then "resume" the game, but you can never use it to undo something that has happened. This makes for very tense games, as (to name one obvious example from which the extension gets its name) death is final.

Obviously, this extension is not to be used lightly. Think long and hard whether your game will become more fun by adding this feature, or whether it will only become more frustrating.

The extension also allows the author to switch at will between "normal" and "permadeath" saves. As a somewhat classic example, you can have a town where the player can make normal saves, which can be restored without limit and independent of whatever happens to the character afterwards; and a dungeon where you can only make "permadeath" saves which will become unusable after restoring or the death of the character. This allows you to fine-tune the balance between good tension and bad frustration.

Because it uses an external file to write down data about the save games, this extension is Glulx only.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Thoughts on "Twisty Little Passages", part 2

It's not long, but for completeness:

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Thoughts on "Twisty Little Passages", part 1

Posted on my regular reading blog:

(This is normally in Dutch, but I've made an exception for this IF-related book.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Parser, No. 1

If you can read German and somehow missed it, check out the new online IF journal The Parser, which is something of a German-language SPAG. (I recommend the PDF-version, because it has stellar production values for a free internet magazine.) This first issue is mostly focused on GerX, the German translation of Inform 7.

It's good to see that the German IF scene is coming back to life!

Special conditions, elemental damage, and resistance I

In this post, I continue thinking about combat systems. As you can guess, this is part of the design phase of a larger game using Inform ATTACK. Today those staples of the RPG genre: poison, diseases, curses, fire damage, and so on.

This topic really falls into two: on the one hand there are attacks that deal something else than damage; on the other hand, there are attacks that deal special types of damage. We will deal with them in turn, focussing on the first in this first post.

Here are some of the special conditions that successful monster attacks can inflict on the player in D&D3: poisoned, diseased, cursed, level drained, ability drained, blinded, deafened, confused, dazed, dazzled, exhausted, frightened, nauseated, paralyzed, petrified, stunned -- and this list is not exhaustive. Apparently, giving monsters such powers was felt to be very important. Why? What's wrong with monsters just doing damage?

The answer is: because damage is either too dangerous or not dangerous enough. Monsters generally need several hits to kill a character; if this were not the case, if damage totals where close to hit point totals, combat would become very random (and increased randomness means increased lethality for the player). But this means that if you are nearly fully healthy, there is little risk in fighting. Even if you meet a strong monster, you have a couple of risk-free turns to see how things turn out.

This obviously deflates the tension of combat. In order to get the tension back, we need bad stuff that can happen at any time, but which is not by itself lethal. This is where poisons, diseases, and so forth come in: fighting that snake is tense, not because he might kill you (you know that you will win before your hit points run out), but because any of his attacks might poison you, which will weaken you for a time that extends beyond the current combat. The snake may not kill you, but he can soften you up for the next monster.

Apart from increase of tension, such special attacks can also be used to influence tactics in several ways. You can give the player a limited supply of "resist poison" potions, and make him decide whether this snake is enough trouble to use them. You can make different combat engines optimal: fighting against the snake requires you not to get hit, which means that ranged attacks, slowing effects, and so on, become much more useful. Or you can temporarily shut down certain combat engines or abilities: for instance, dexterity damage ensures that the rogue can no longer sneak effectively; being blinded makes the wizard unable to read scrolls; being exhausted makes hit-and-run tactics impossible.

When done well, then, such special attacks can really add something to the game. But it is not easy to do them well. Let's think about curing the conditions first. We can put them into three classes: short-term, long-term, permanent.
  • Short-term effects do not last long beyond the current combat. This means that they must significantly raise the danger of that combat, because otherwise they will be of no consequence. It is possible to do this, but the danger of making the effect too deadly looms large.
  • Long-term effects last far beyond the current combat. Generally, they lead to a "rest until over" kind of play -- pressing "." a couple of hundred times in NetHack, or taking some days or weeks rest in D&D. This is generally quite boring; but we want special attacks that raise the tension, not special attack that punish with boredom! Long-term effects only work if you can somehow force the player to go on with the game. (One could put a strict time limit on the game; but it perhaps better to use a carrot, and make the condition go away after a certain number of monsters have been killed, or something like that.)
  • Permanent effects last forever, unless cured. Generally, weakening the player forever is too harsh -- it makes achieving game balance impossible. So we add possibilities to cure the player: potions of extra healing, wands of stone to flesh, cure disease spells, and so on. But the net effect of this is that we turned the game into multi-dimensional attrition warfare: the monsters attempt to inflict conditions X, Y and Z just a little more often than the player can find ways to cure X, Y and Z. Now this may be a matter of taste, but in my experience, such gameplay sucks. Is there anyone who enjoys constantly having to find potions of cure poison, and applying them whenever he is poisoned, and then hoping that he won't be poisoned too often? It offers no tactical depth, and is a bit too much like bookkeeping.
  • Some games have conditions that immediately kill the player. ("Finger of death", anyone?) This either makes the game very lethal in an arbitrary way, or forces the player to find some means of immunity. We'll come back to that below. In general, I'm not a fan of this.
So, we want conditions that are self-curing; and that inspire interesting tactical behaviour, rather than boring behaviour. Being in such a condition should, at a certain level, be fun, at least in the sense that they require you to break your routine. (Conditions that merely make you go through your routine at reduced efficiency are Bad: I'm thinking of you, poisons and diseases and level drains in D&D3!) The same goes for trying to avoid such a condition: in NetHack, voluntarily blinding yourself by wearing a towel over your head when you meet a monster that could blind you for far longer if you don't, is fun.

This, then, is the primary design challenge: to design conditions that can be inflicted on the player as alternatives to damage; in such a way that both trying to avoid and being afflicted with those conditions makes the player abandon his optimal routine (either by sticks or by carrots or by a combination); while not making the optimal curing strategy for such conditions boring.

A last thing: resistances and immunities. Most games that have conditions also have items or skills of whatever that either give you a better chance of resisting them, or make you outright immune.

This is a design failure.

It works somewhat in a game with many characters, like D&D. If the monster inflicts diseases and only the monk is immune to disease, the party can try and formulate a new tactics where only the monk gets next to the monster. This is sometimes interesting. (It rarely works that way in practice, either because there are many monsters with the ability and the monk cannot stop them from approaching the other characters; or because it is one seriously nasty dude and the monk alone doesn't have enough staying power to survive his hits.)

But it absolutely doesn't work in a single player game. As designer, you should have made those conditions a fun part of the experience; otherwise, they shouldn't be in the game. Presumably, you have designed them to give the most fun mix of tension, survivability, and so on. Giving a character resistance to the condition therefore removes some of the fun. Worse, making a character immune to a condition simply removes it from the game.

Take NetHack. A character apparently cannot survive very well without being immune to a whole set of things: poison, sleep, fire, cold, spells, and so on. Once a character has all those immunities, it is as if all those special attacks no longer exist. In other words, you have transformed a vast number of monsters from being interesting, to being run-of-the-mill. There is simply no way that can be a good design decision.

The only kind of resistance that seems really interesting to me, is one that comes at a price. Wearing that towel to be immune against the medusa is a good example, since it also makes you unable to see anything else! Another good example from NetHack is levitation: you can no longer fall into traps and you can walk on water, but you can't take the stairs down or pick anything up from the floor either. Additional examples are easy to think of. Magic resistance that protects you against spells, but with a certain probability that the deflected magical energy turns into something perhaps even nastier. Immunity to sleep that makes you unable to, well, sleep, including getting restful sleep. Immunity to poison gained at the price of becoming undead. That kind of stuff.

Coming soon: elemental damage (and anything that is structurally the same).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Beta-testers for small combat/conversation game

My post on didn't exactly lead to a huge number of responses, so let's try again here. I'm looking for a few testers for a small game called 'Mid the sagebrush and the cactus that explores the possibilities of combining combat and conversation. (It is also a test game for ATTACK.) If you would be interested in testing, please send an email to [my first name]

(Quite a lot of people mailed be about this, so I now have more than enough testers. Thanks!)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tension, Exploration and IF

I stated in my previous post on NetHack that the game mechanic in Rogue-likes where dying is final, and loses you your character, is a great mechanic to make combat tense. I also stated that part of the fun of the game is to explore the game, learn how everything works, slowly identify all items, and so on.

These two things are partly opposed. The greater the tension, the greater the temptation to look up what every monster, item and dungeon feature does before you interact with it. This opposition can be resolved, or at least lessened, in three ways:
  1. By making the game less deadly, we make exploration more viable.
  2. By randomising that which needs to be explored, we make it impossible to spoil it.
  3. We accept that part of the exploration is done through reading the internet rather than through playing the game.
NetHack chooses the latter two options. The game is quite deadly, and unless you are willing to spend years with it, out-of-game exploration is necessary. But not everything can be explored out-of-game: descriptions of scrolls, potions, and so on, are randomised and they must be re-identified every game.

However, if we wish to implement the combination of deadliness and exploration in interactive fiction, this solution seems to me largely impossible. At least, it becomes largely impossible if we want to tap into that most venerable of IF game elements: puzzles. Puzzles are one of the things IF is really good at, since you can use them to reward the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that can most forcefully be expressed in a game with a parser. Why use IF if you're not going to use its unique abilities to describe anything at all and have the player interact with it in any way she and the author can both imagine? Puzzles can either coexist with tactical combat, by allowing you to win a combat outright if you solve them; or, more interestingly, be integrated with tactical combat, by giving you advantages that you might not otherwise have. For instance, the gnomish inventor might be a lot easier to defeat once you have figured out how to short-circuit his lightning machine.

But here is the problem with puzzles: spoiling them, well, spoils them. Really spoils them. NetHack is still fun with the NetHack wiki at your fingertips; Anchorhead is not much fun if you're constantly looking things up in the walkthrough. So it seems that strategy 3 above is not available to us.

But strategy 2 is problematic as well, since puzzles cannot be randomised in meaningful ways -- at least not puzzles that are worth solving.

So it seems that to lessen the opposition between deadliness and exploration, we must tone down the deadliness. The player must be able to explore the world, and try out different solutions to puzzles, without having a high probability to permanently die. Exploration must be rewarded far more often than it is punished. There are several ways to do this:
  1. The classical solution is to use the save/restore cycle, or its shortcut, the undo-command. You try out some moves, lock yourself out of victory, go back to a previous situation. It solves the problem, but at the cost of almost completely deflating the tension.
  2. Lessen the penalty for failure. Instead of your character dying and being gone, you (a) lose gold, experience, what-have-you, and/or (b) are revived at some distance of the place where you died. You have to strike a fine balance here, because of the penalty is too great, exploration is still discouraged; if it is too small, tension is still deflated. And there is the nagging suspicion that that the "too great" and the "too small" category overlap...
  3. You can make exploration relatively safe while keeping combat dangerous. There are multiple techniques that will achieve this, but it all depends on what kinds of thing you want the player to explore. For instance, you could have the puzzles in rooms without monsters, or in rooms from which the monsters can be first lured away or killed -- but this will not work for puzzles that ought to interact with combat, and it will not allow the player to safely "explore" the special abilities of the monsters. You could have a special mode in which the monsters are passive and invulnerable but the world can be explored -- something like a time stop, or a character who can walk in spirit form, or whatever. Not all puzzles could be easily fitted into this framework, though.
Ideally, then, we would have something of the third category but without the drawbacks of the specific options mentioned there. The best option I can think of right now is this: make combat so that the player will always be able to survive the first several rounds of it, will not be able to kill tough opponents in that time (at least not without using strictly limited resources), but will be able to retreat if things do not go as hoped. This boils down to having a retreat option that is safe as long as you are not in big trouble, and have it take a couple of successful attacks of your enemies before you are in big trouble. This way, you can attempt whatever you wanted to attempt, see that things are going wrong, and retreat before it is too late. I am assuming that you can get back to full strength outside of combat.

All right, but doesn't this deflate the tension as well? No, provided that you need to take risks in order to prevail in combat. If the monster cannot kill you in four turns, but you cannot kill the monster in four turns either, and if the monster heals as quickly as you once you have retreated, then you cannot defeat the monster without running risks. You must at some point fight a more extended battle if you ever want to be victorious.

Let's give an example using a toy combat system that is like ATTACK in one crucial respect: combat becomes deadlier when it goes on for longer. Here is how our toy system works: when you attack, you have a 50% chance of hitting if you are the player, a 40% of hitting if you are the monster. Player and monster both have 20 health. The first hit of the combat deals 1 damage, the second deals 2 damage, and in general the nth hit deals n damage. Finally, when you retreat your enemy gets to make a single attack you which deals double damage if it hits.

In this system, as long as your health is greater than 2 * n, you can retreat without risk. This means that if the player does not attack, she will generally be able to explore for some 7 turns, and still be able to retreat in complete safety. But what if he wants to defeat the monster? Let us take the ideal scenario where the player has delivered the first 5 strikes, dealing a total of 15 damage. Even at this ideal point, the player is no longer safe. If the monster hits now, the player will lose 6 life, and can no longer safely retreat (since 6 + 2 * 7 = 20). Thus, it is impossible in this toy system to kill this monster without running any risks.

ATTACK doesn't quite work that way, but it is certainly possible to implement a good risk/reward-cycle with it. (Remind me to rethink the tension mechanic; this toy example has given me some new ideas.)
So the basic idea is: give the player some time to explore, and to flee if he doesn't like what he sees, but make sure that winning a tough fight requires a commitment to risk. This will give you the best of both worlds.

Engines and Combat (and D&D)

In an interesting series of columns on rogue-likes (such as NetHack and, in this particular case, Crawl), John Harris talks about "engines":
A character with no skill in anything would be quite hard to play. The numbers are stacked against such a character; starting stats and skills tend to be just enough that most players will need to rely on class-specific abilities to get a leg-up on the monsters. These skills make possible the character’s engine, the system by which he kills monsters and earns experience within acceptable levels of risk. Having an engine is not strictly necessary, and for some race/class combinations is as simple as walking up to monsters and hitting them with stuff, but without one the player will have to resort to making use of random items and extreme tactics more often, strategies that bring with them necessary dangers.
(Italics mine.) This idea of an engine is an excellent piece of terminology when we think about the design of tactical games. As soon as part of your aim is to provide the player with different playing styles, different ways of going about combat, you will want to ensure that the game allows the use of different engines. This may sound obvious. However, it is hardly ever done.

Game designers almost always realise that they need to diversify the game, and to this effect they put in different classes, or races, or types of equipment you can find and use. But they rarely realise that this diversity amounts to little if it doesn't add up to different engines, different ways of playing the game. Let me give you some examples from Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, a game with which I am familiar enough and which is perhaps not entirely unknown to most of my readers.

Let's call the system of walking up to an enemy at your maximum possible speed and hitting him with an attack every turn the basic melee engine. Numerous classes use this engine almost exclusively, including the barbarian, the paladin, the fighter, the non-ranged ranger, and the monk. So what have the designers done to vary these classes and change their engines?
Well, they have done a lot to vary the classes, but few of these variations actually change the basic engine.
  • The barbarian's illiteracy and trap sense have little effect on combat; his uncanny dodge, improved uncanny dodge and damage reduction are passive abilities that make him survive a little longer but do not change his strategy. Fast movement has some tactical relevance, but will only rarely make you do something you wouldn't otherwise have done. Finally, his signature rage ability only locks him further into the basic melee engine: once activated, the barbarian hits harder, and loses a couple of combat options he probably would use anyway.
  • The fighter has two specials: he is the only one has really specialise in weapons, and he has a lot of bonus "feats" -- which makes him a bit like a pick-and-choose class. The specialisations are merely a passive bonus without tactical import. The feats are more interesting: some of them actually do change the engine (the mounted combat tree, things like "improved trip" which add combat options, to a certain extent things like "whirlwind attack" which require you to wade into the fray).
  • The monk has lots and lots of specials -- and almost none of them make a difference to the engine. You can attack without weapons, you have a multiple-blow attack, you get armour bonuses (to make up for the fact that you cannot wear armour), you get vast amounts of passive resistances -- fine, but walking up to someone and hitting him is still the only viable thing you can do.
  • Let's look at the paladin last: again, lots of passive resistances, some healing capabilities that are hardly different from having a potion of cure wounds in your inventory, and at higher levels a few minor spells. Once again, you have little choice but to walk up to your enemy and hit.
(There are also examples of "good" variety in D&D3.5, make no mistake. Wizards and sorcerers possess multiple engines, and rogues have a very different fighting style because they have to position themselves carefully in order to deal significant damage. It's especially the pure fighting classes that are all very much the same. This includes the prestige classes, which very often give nothing but passive bonuses.)

It seems to me that any interesting combat game that is either long or wishes to be replayed will need to give the player the choice between multiple engines. What's more, you need to make sure that the things you are putting into your game either enable new engines, or tie in with them. Implementing poison that continues to deal damage to a monster once he has been poisoned is fun even when its just a nice little bonus during your fight; but it becomes much more fun if it enables new tactics, such as a hit & run tactic where you poison some one and then run away, only to come back later when the poison has done its work. Or a hybrid weapon/magic-tactic, where the player poisons his enemies and then takes advantage of their lowered magic resistance (assuming that poison works this way in the game). Or even a hybrid weapon/diplomacy-tactic, where you poison someone and then tell them that you yourself are the only person who knows the cure!

I tried to make a small example of different engines in the ATTACK test dungeon. Combat using the dagger and the cloak of shadows is quite unlike combat using the mace: instead of the back and forth of attacking, defending and concentrating, there is the slowly rising tension as the player decides whether or not to risk another turn of observing the target... and the mad dash out if the attempted assassination fails.

Another matter for careful thought is the availability of engines: you can have the player switch between them at will during the game; you can make him choose in advance and lock him into that choice (i.e., choosing a certain class); you can have him develop skills, such that at a certain point in the game he is more or less locked into the engines he has chosen to develop; and so on. Here, I would intuitively think that locking someone into an engine is the less interesting choice, motivated more by a desire for easy "balance" than by something else.

Some thoughts on Nethack

I once again made the mistake of installing NetHack. This is a mistake because the game is incredibly addictive, easily rivalling, perhaps even surpassing, current big budget RPGs. Not bad for a bunch of ASCII-characters, is it? (Let me immediately admit that I play the graphical version.)

So, what is the secret of this game? What are the design principles that make it such a success? I suspect they are four (or three, depending on how you count):
  1. Tension. In NetHack, your character will often be in a dangerous situation, a situation that could easily lead to his or her demise. These situations can come into existence pretty suddenly. (My character, having gone further than any of my previous ones, met a "quantum mechanic" this evening. Ought to have been no problem... except that this guy had a wand of monster creation, zapped it half a dozen times, and out-of-the-blue I was surrounded by a horde from which I could not escape... another death.) And, even more importantly, these situations are really dangerous, because if your character dies, he or she dies. There is no going back. Your save game will be destroyed. Really. This makes for a kind of tension that no game with save/restore-options can provide.
  2. Complexity. There are so many monsters, items, spells, special abilities, special situations, random effects, special levels, possible actions and so on in this game... it is quite overwhelming. This leads to two effects:
    1. NetHack lends itself to a lot of exploration. It is fun to find out new things.
    2. NetHack possesses great tactical and even strategic complexity.
  3. Hiddenness. For lack of a better term. Even if you use, as I certainly do, the internet to look up the monsters and items you encounter, there is still so much that remains hidden. Every new dungeon level is a mystery, because it is generated randomly. But more importantly than that is the identification of objects. Not only is every object either cursed, uncursed or blessed (which you are generally not told and cannot always easily determine), but all potions, wands, spellbooks, scrolls, rings, amulets and other miscellaneous items start out unidentified. You find a "dark potion", or a "swirly potion", but you do not know what it does. Nor can you look it up on the internet, because these description are mapped onto the kinds of potion randomly in each individual game. There are ways to identify stuff, but they are limited -- you will be spending a large portion of the game slowly finding out more and more. (You could just start drinking all potions, but this is not advisable.) And there are other kinds of hiddenness in the game as well: there is for instance no way to look up your innate abilities (which you can lose and acquire in multiple ways), your luck, your standing with your god, whether you can pray again, and so on. (There are ways to determine these things, but they are limited and not always without danger.) Where most RPGs revel in revealing as much as they can and showing you complex character sheets, NetHack loves keeping you always slightly guessing.
  4. RPG. It's a traditional role playing game, where you get further and further, acquire new items, gain new levels and powers -- everybody knows that this is addictive.
Some of these things could be usefully incorporated into an interactive fiction game using ATTACK, I think. That's certainly something I want to explore. Though I firmly believe that if you go the IF route, you must drop the idea of generating huge random dungeons -- that's not what text is good at. And you would certainly want to add much more story and perhaps narrativistic decisions, because that is something that NetHack certainly doesn't have.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Inform ATTACK - initial release

I'm pleased to finally publish my Inform 7 combat extension, "Inform ATTACK".

* What is Inform ATTACK?

Inform Advanced TActical Combat Kit is a large (10.000+ word) extension for Inform 7 that allows authors to implement tactical combat in their interactive fiction. The system is powerful out-of-the-box, and very easily extendible. But please read the introductory section of the manual for more information.

* What is the development status of Inform ATTACK?

There are no known bugs and no known missing crucial features. However, ATTACK has only be used by me, and only in two small test games. Thus, there undoubtedly ARE many bugs and missing crucial features. This software should be consider as being beta quality right now, and may be expected to go through non-conservative changes in the near future.

* Where can I get Inform ATTACK?

Download the zip-file at:

* What's in that zip-file?

1. ATTACK-Manual.pdf is the manual.
2. Inform-ATTACK.i7x is the extension. You need to import this into your Inform 7.
3. is the source code of the example game described in the third chapter of the manual.
4. ATTACK-Manual.tex is the LaTeX-file from which the manual was created; you very likely don't need it (but since I release the manual under a free license, it seemed courteous to include it).

* What is sadly lacking?

A polished game integrating combat and story that will prove to the sceptics that tactical combat and IF can be fruitfully combined. (I have a half-finished example game that does this, but I don't know when I'll be able to finish it.) This release contains only the tools for the purpose, not the proof that the purpose is worthy.

* I have questions!

Please read the manual. It has that many pages for a reason.

* I have other questions! I have found bugs! I have things to discuss! I have...

You can react here, or mail me at -- please remove the "q" (added for simple spam protection).

Sunday, February 28, 2010

PC Gamer Top 100 of all times

Did I miss this? Or is this news? PC Gamer's top 100 PC Games of all times contains an interactive fiction game at spot 97. And the good news is: it's not Zork. It's not even Trinity or A Mind Forever Voyaging or anything else by Infocom.

It's Anchorhead. And so it should be. Congratulations, Michael Gentry!

My own favourite PC game of all time is at number 8, which shows that the people at PC Games have excellent taste. (Hm.) Half the top ten are RPGs, by the way (including the number 10, Fallout 3, which has been misleadingly labelled as a FPS).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

XYZZY Awards 2010, first round

Don't forget to vote for the first round XYZZY Awards, people! Here is the link.

The two categories I found hardest were "Best individual PC", because there was no one PC which really grabbed me; and "Best individual puzzle", because there were too many individual puzzles which did.

I decided to go for an underdog in the latter case (Tower of Hanoi in The Bryant Collection), but even that meant slighting another underdog (truly defeating the monster in The Ascot).

As a result, I didn't vote for a single game from the IF Comp... will this be a new trend? (And this too makes me feel a little bad, because there were several very worthy games in the IF Comp. Well!) The competition was just too stiff, and I gave four votes to a game set on an island, two to a game set in a dark wood, two to a game involving whisky, and one to a game involving tentacles. You know what I'm talking about.