Upcoming stuff

I’m pleased that Detectiveland has been shortlisted for Reading Digital Fiction’s digital writing competition, with a bunch of other cool stories/games. The winner will be announced at their event in Bangor on 25 May, which I don’t think I’m able to get to.

On 31 May I’ll be at a London IF meetup on new IF tools, presenting the Javascript system behind Draculaland and Detectiveland. Come and say hello!

Lastly, if you’ve left a comment on my blog in the last month or four… sorry. I hadn’t activated the spam filter properly and I’ve come back to 23,000 of the damn things. So they’re almost certainly all getting deleted, babies and bathwater alike.

Detectiveland won IFComp!

I’m so happy to have won the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition with Detectiveland.

I’m grateful to all the organisers, players, and other authors; and to my testers, David Court, Brendan Hennessy, Mathbrush, Mike Preston, Andrew Schultz and especially Eve Morris. My biggest takeaway from this competition is how cool it is to see so many experimental forms: reduced parsers, new systems, parser games that feel storyish, choice games that feel puzzlish. My personal favourites included Inside the Facility, FairTake, and Color the Truth, which is the piece I thought would win.

I chose the $200 prize and donated it half each to Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Take care of each other.

Here’s the traditional postmortem on intfiction.org.

IFComp impressions

IFComp is closed to votes. The games are still playable on the site and will remain so, and the results will be announced at 4pm EST (2100 GMT) tomorrow.

It has been so much fun to participate in IFComp again. Everybody’s game made some people smile, and I hope and trust that most authors entered to share their creativity and take part in an important IF community event, rather than out of wanting to beat other people. Prefacing cliches with “It’s a cliche but” is a cliche, but it’s a cliche but we all win.

These are my brief impressions of other people’s IFComp games. REVIEWING IS HARD: I don’t have full reviews, I haven’t played as many games as I’d like, I haven’t written up every game I played or liked, and I haven’t said as much as I’d like to about most of the games I did write up.

Spoilers are rot13‘d and coloured pink.

Cactus Blue Motel by Astrid Dalmady
Brilliant look and styling, and a good story. The writing was atmospheric and interesting. I did get stuck for a little while in the middle; I thought I’d explored everywhere but I hadn’t (having some of the location entrances differentiated only by room numbers might have been a thing here.)

I’d assumed at first that my goal was to escape from the motel, so it was a little jarring when I realised I was supposed to want to stay, or at least the protagonist wanted to. Then shortly after I’d shrugged and decided to play as if I want to stay, she decided she wanted to leave.

I didn’t get the chance to Have A Talk with Lex before I got to my ending, but I assume that possibility is in there somewhere. I certainly enjoyed myself enough to try for another ending once I’ve had a chance to forget some things.

Fair by Hanon Ondricek
This is funny, and busy, and highly replayable. All of the NPCs are entertaining and the small scope and timespan really work to its advantage.

The Game of Worlds Tournament by Ade
First impressions, the graphics in the web version are beautiful, and it’s an innovative idea.

I’m still getting used to the game itself – like many players, I didn’t quite clock the existence of the rulebook until I’d been playing a while – but it certainly makes me want to learn the tactics.

There’s something really nice about the layers of abstraction and stories-within-stories here – it’s an IF game, about going to a tournament, to play a card game, that itself tells a story about war.

I’d pay money for a printed Game of Worlds set.

Inside the Facility by Arthur DiBianca
My favourite so far. It’s an unashamed puzzle with a reduced parser – the only commands it accepts are NORTH, EAST, SOUTH, WEST, WAIT, LOOK and STATUS, with actions like picking things up and giving them to NPCs triggered automatically. This is surprisingly effective, and the game contains a variety of puzzles of different types. There was one that I solved by accident (tvivat gur ynopbng gb gur znvyebbz pyrex) and a couple where I resorted to the walkthrough (Tebire gur tneqrare, naq gur purzvpny zvkvat ng gur raq) but neither of those felt unfair in retrospect.

I was initially put off by the request to print off a map to fill in as you go, but found it added to the fun, like solving a crossword, and there are certainly puzzles that would have been both harder and less enjoyable without it.

The author knows how to use brevity of writing to good effect – with such a large map, longer descriptions would have made the game more tiring. But they managed to squeeze every drop of clarity and characterisation out of the one-sentence descriptions: I even ungrq Gunqqrhf, naq jnf qryvtugrq gb frr uvz fghoovat uvf gbr nsgre tvivat uvz gur zvfsbeghangbe.

Mirror and Queen by Chandler Groover
Loved this one. It’s another game with an extremely reduced verbset – reduced to zero – but it has a HUGE number of nouns. I think I got a default response maybe twice, and it’s well enough handled that I’m not even certain they were default responses. This is the way to do a puzzleless game without sacrificing the player’s sense of agency. The excellent, slightly disconcerting prose and the horror-adjacent theme were all very Chandler Groover. Anyone who’s a fan of his other works will enjoy this, and probably has already.

Night House by Bitter Karella
Somehow, this is the first time I’ve played a Quest game, and I have to begin by saying how impressed I am with the Quest platform. It’s smooth, lets you click links or type into a parser, and I found it more comfortable to use than any of the web-based Inform/TADS interpreters. I later found out that it has a tendency for it to time out, though, which is a dealbreaker.

As to the game itself: this is a horror story with a child protagonist set in the ’80s or ’90s, so it immediately put me in mind of “Stranger Things”. The atmosphere is created skilfully, making the right nostalgic feeling from the childish perspective and the presence of Ataris, trapperkeepers and so on. For me, the puzzle involving gnxvat onggrevrf sebz lbhe cneragf’ frk gbl broke it a bit – apart from general squeamishness, it relied on me having knowledge that the player character didn’t.

It suffers a lot from underimplementation: many items mentioned in the room descriptions give an “I can’t see that” response. Worse, many objects are referred to by nouns *in their description* that aren’t supported by the parser, such as the “Betamax cassette” which you have to refer to as TAPE. Reasonable verbs are also unsupported – PULL CURTAIN works but OPEN CURTAIN doesn’t. The description of the flashlight says it doesn’t work, even after you put the batteries in it.

After I explored most of the house, it abruptly stopped responding to commands and I gave up. I’ll have another go later, when the author has hopefully had time to fix some bugs.

Screw You, Bear Dad! by Xalavier Nelson Jr
This is a fairly linear Twine story about a bear infiltrating a secret arms facility for… some reason. There are flashbacks to the bear’s childhood and abusive father, which I found tough going, and flash-sidewayses to a simultaneous scene involving some of the people working in the facility. I would have liked to know more about the bear himself and exactly what he’s doing there.

The Skull Embroidery by Jeron Paraiso
It’s great to see so many of the games experimenting with interfaces and world models in this comp. This one is an implementation of a CRPG, with stats, levels and combat, using a text interface written in Ruby, with input by way of one- or two-key choices. It felt like something between a roguelike and a parser game. I was compelled by the story, even though it’s little more than an old-fashioned forest-and-cave crawl, but found the interface a bit repetitive and clunky, especially in combat, where the well-written descriptions are undermined by the fact that after a short time you’re just scanning for the numbers. The author has hinted that they’re going to redo this as a browser game with link-driven controls and separate windows, and I look forward to playing that incarnation.

Toiletworld by Chet Rocketfrak
Okay, I played this one for about one minute, approaching it as a joke or troll entry after reading other people’s reviews. And I have to say, approaching it from that direction, this made me laugh out loud:

>X TOILET
You can’t see any such thing.

That’s worth at least a 2 in my book.

IFComp IFComp IFComp IFComp IFComp!

The 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition – its 22nd year – opens on 1 October. There will then be a six-week judging period closing on 15 November, and the winners announced shortly after that.

The last time I entered in the IFComp was ten years ago, with Aunts and Butlers. The competition has changed since then, both in terms of its official rules and, from what I can gather, some of the community’s attitudes around it.

For the first time, the rather unusual “gag rule”, which forbade authors from talking about their games, has been lifted. Some people are worried this will make it a self-promotion competition, but I think the rule change is a good thing. When I entered Aunts and Butlers I wasn’t even supposed to tell my friends I’d made a game. It was also a very unusual rule for a competition, which put off outsiders and has sometimes led to some unfortunate misunderstandings. I also believe it reinforced, or even celebrated, the insularity of the IF community. And it made even less sense for web-based games (which included almost no IF at the time.)

So I can tell you that I am indeed entering the competition, with another choice/parser hybrid game using an improved version of the Draculaland engine, called Detectiveland. This is a comic puzzler in the hardboiled detective/noir genre, in which you play a struggling private investigator trying to make a living and fight crime in Prohibition-era New Losago.

detectiveland

I’m not allowed to canvass for votes, and that’s not what I’m doing: visit the competition; there’ll be 50+ other games too. Play them, judge them [if you have time to play at least five] – review them, if that’s your thing – and give high scores to the ones you enjoy.

Another rule change, which has been in effect for a few years now, is that authors are allowed to update our games during the judging period, with an understanding that this is intended for bugfixes rather than new content. This I could really, really have done with in the case of Aunts and Butlers – at the last minute I made a change to the interface that, unknown to me, made the game effectively unplayable in the Safari browser. That, plus the even poorer reputation of ‘homebrew’ systems at the time (which meant most Safari users didn’t bother trying another browser), probably cost me several places in the ranking, even though I found out about the bug and knew how to fix it before almost anybody had actually played the game. It’s not (all) about my bitterness, but I see this change as unequivocally a good thing, including for the judges and players, who get to play better games.

(It’s been surprisingly contentious – I’ve seen some people saying it’s unfair and they’ll never enter the comp again – but the kind of competition that you can win because of other people’s bad luck isn’t the kind I want to compete in. It’d be like winning at chess because your opponent’s mobile phone rings.)

Outside of changes to the actual rules: I’ve heard that, what with the Twine revolution and explosion of new choice-based systems in the last several years, ‘homebrew’ games are a little less looked down on these days. That’s good too. The meaning of IF has broadened, and its following has broadened with it.

Honestly, I’ve written this because it’s the day before IFComp opens and I just wanted a way to pass the time. If you’ve entered, good luck! If you’re judging, be fair! If you’re an organiser, THANKS. And if you’re playing, I hope you enjoy it!

The Xylophoniad post-Thing release

XylophoneBicyclopsMinotaur

I’ve updated The Xylophoniad with artwork for all the characters (which you’ll see when you EXAMINE them.) I’ve also released a zip file for offline play in your browser, or a compiled Windows executable if that’s your bag.

(I’m not entirely sure that the software I’m using to compile the Windows executables is the best choice, and I’ve had a report of a game hanging on startup; I’m looking into other ways to do this.)

There are also a couple of minor tweaks [very mild spoilers]: the barber now has a price list in his shop, and you can no longer permanently lose items in the Labyrinth.

Share and Enjoy!

The Xylophoniad (and Draculaland) postmortem

Around the end of last year I had a craving to write an IF game again, which I hadn’t really done in about ten years. My last game had come mid-table in the 2006 comp and after that I got fairly serious about writing theatre.

I’m the sort of person who gets obsessed with things, and I wrote “Portcullis” in two or three weeks. I had expected it to take much longer and perhaps end up in the 2016 Spring Thing, but it was finished in time for the New Year’s Minicomp, so in it went. After all, I had plenty of time to write another game for Spring Thing.

But it turns out that “suddenly finding inspiration to write something quickly” and “writing something quickly on purpose” are very different. I started The Xylophoniad, because I thought Greek myth was both underrepresented in IF and suitably bonkers for my style (seriously – I know The Xylophoniad is surreal, but it’s really not that much wackier than much of the Greek canon.) I got most of the bits set in and around Troy written fairly quickly, which I still think are the best parts of the game, and then… the muse was gone.

I was playing some M Scott Adams games on my tablet when I thought of the engine that became the Draculaland engine. The Adams format seemed to suit mobile devices very well – ultra-terse room descriptions, simple commands, and separate screen areas for “what you can see” and “what’s going on” – if it weren’t for all that pesky typing. So I wrote the bare bones of that interface, whipped up Cloak of Darkness and another very small sample game, and got some positive remarks about it from the euphoria IF channel and elsewhere.

I was aware of the Ryan Veeder Exposition and really wanted to enter it, but I didn’t think I would be able to get a game finished in time. The deadline for intents to enter came and went.

My intention at that time was to finish work on The Xylophoniad for the Spring Thing, and to make a small but complete sample game in the new engine for the back garden. The new game had the working title “Zeppelin Adventure” (which may get finished one day), then somehow got switched to schlock horror as “Scary Castle”. When I realised I was enjoying writing this game more than The Xylophoniad – mainly because I’m a much less worse programmer than I was when I wrote the “versificator” engine 13 years ago, so the internal code structure is much less painful to work with – I decided to seriously attempt making it a good game, rather than a demonstrative one. I decided to make it an adaptation of Dracula. The plot had little in common except for the baddie being a vampire, but then, that’s true of several good adaptations of Dracula.

A couple of weeks later, I had finished “Draculaland”, and The Xylophoniad was still where I had left it. After coding something properly, working with the mess of my old homebrew parser was just too much of a headache. I even tried starting The Xylophoniad all over again with the Draculaland engine, but I had coded quite a lot of the game already and wouldn’t be able to finish in time.

I asked nicely if I could submit Draculaland late to the Ryan Veeder Comp, and Ryan and the stewards graciously allowed it (on forfeit of not being allowed a cash prize, and being punted to the end of the prize queue – fair enough.) So, unlike some of the games in the Ryan Veeder Comp, there was almost no deliberate gearing towards Ryan Veeder, except that I know he likes comic writing. The only really deliberately-done-for-Ryan-Veeder bit of “Draculaland” is the homemade theme music, with chords played on a melodica because it’s the thing I’ve got that sounds most like an accordion.

The Spring Thing deadline was approaching faster than I thought it had any right to, and The Xylophoniad still wasn’t finished. Most of the puzzles in Minos and Hades ended up being a lot simpler than I had envisioned them.

SPOILERS (select to read): Assembling the bicycle was a thing you were going to figure out yourself, and require more components, including handlebars and pedals. It turned out to be, essentially, Daedalus saying “BRING *TREASURES* HERE!” The handcart was going to start somewhere else and be pushable. There was going to be something about a snowball in Hades, where you had to carry the snow in Daedalus’s refrigerator, which was too heavy to lift so you had to put the fridge in the handcart. Prometheus and his vulture were going to be in Hades, giving you a choice of which two souls to rescue, and Cerberus was going to be on guard for three angry dog puzzles in one. Daedalus and the Minotaur would have been an actual puzzle rather than a throwaway gag. There was even going to be a whole other labour where you had to steal a thunderbolt from Zeus.

The result of this is that The Xylophoniad is a bit front-heavy: Troy and the Medusa have the best puzzles and NPCs, then Minos and Hades are a bit of a breeze. I thought of shuffling the areas around so the simple puzzles came first – easy enough to do with the temple teleportation system – but I just didn’t think they worked in any other order. I was proud of the Trojan Horse puzzle and wanted that to come first; I wanted the silliness to escalate with the Bicyclops; and Hades just seems to fit last thematically.

I recruited “beta” testers with about a week to go. They were all wonderful and found some horrible clunkers of bugs, some of which made the game impossible to complete. One of them gently asked whether I really thought the game was polished enough for Spring Thing. I worked intensely in that last week, not just fixing bugs but adding a lot of scenery descriptions and other “flavour” stuff, and if it hadn’t been for the testers I don’t think the game would have stood a chance.

When more than one reviewer called it “polished”, I was floored. When it won Alumni’s Choice I was through the floor and outright cellared. Thanks so much to everyone involved in the Thing, organisers, players, and the other authors.

Spring Thing non-reviews

Spring Thing has been brilliant. I’m grateful to all the organisers, authors and players.

My game The Xylophoniad won the Alumni’s Choice ribbon, by which I’m delighted and, frankly, floored. Astrid Dalmady’s Tangaroa Deep won Audience Choice.

I haven’t played all the games yet, and as a participant I was never planning to write full reviews. Here are my thoughts on some of the games I’ve got round to, in no order at all.

Three-Card Trick, by Chandler Groover
Brilliantly macabre. The PC is a stage conjurer in what feels like a sort of grotesque Victorian circus setting, trying to outdo their smarmy rival. The playing area is small, but intricately implemented, and uses an ingenious navigation system (the only directions that matter are IN and OUT) to give a sense of being much larger. The twist, when it comes, is both horrifying and hilarious. Of all the games I played, this is the one I would have put money on getting a ribbon.

Dr Sourpuss is Not a Choice-Based Game, by P B Parjeter
This is one of those games where I am not sure what was going on, but I’m sure I enjoyed it. Dr Sourpuss is a talking, mortar-board wearing cat created by a genetic-engineering accident involving a lemon tree. He and a couple of other characters take the player on a winding story involving a sinister corporation that manufactures multiple-choice test marking machines, making good use of absurdity to smuggle a clever commentary on the effect of standardised, one-size-fits-all education on students. The puzzles are simple but clever: some objects, when they are mentioned in the story, appear in your inventory, and at any time you can go to a lab and choose two of them to combine into some new object that is the key to getting past each stage.

Tangaroa Deep, by Astrid Dalmady
Deep-sea diving simulation with excellent atmospheric writing, and a deserving winner of the Audience Choice ribbon. Like Will Crowther’s orginal Adventure before the fantasy elements were added, it’s an effective simulation in words of exploring a space, with some ambiguous fantasy elements in some endings. The conversation between the PC and her assistant on the surface is charming, and in a nice touch, the ending shows you pictures of the sea creatures you encountered.

Ms Lojka, by Jordan Magnusson
A surreal horror story. The text appears in a typewriting effect, which I thought was unnecessary till I saw someone else point out that this is a clever way of making players read rather than skim. Unfortunately I accidentally closed my browser somewhere near the end of the game, and the unskippable slow text made it too much trouble to catch up again (I’ll replay when I’ve had some time to forget the story so I can enjoy it again from the start.) The sound, illustrations and design were excellent.

Foo Foo, by Buster Hudson
A “cartoon animal noir” game in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime books. I’m not familiar enough with the Veeder canon to get all the in-jokes, but enough to see why it won first place in Ryan’s Exposition. It stands on its own as a comic story anyway. As someone on &if said, noir is already abstracted enough from reality that making the characters cartoon animals actually adds something to the style.

 

Old IF books: “How to Write Adventure Games” by Peter Killworth, 1984

When I was developing my keyboardless javascript IF engine (the one used in Draculaland), I first envisioned it as a thing for creating very old-school style, ultra-terse IF – in fact I came up with the idea while playing old Adams games on my small tablet – so I scoured eBay and the second-hand listings on Amazon for books from the 1980s and ’90s on writing text adventures.

Most of these follow a standard formula. There’s an introduction, sometimes written by a guest, telling of Colossal Cave, Infocom and Adventure International. There’s a discussion of what a text adventure is (the term “interactive fiction” is used occasionally) – the books are unanimous that an adventure is, at heart, a puzzle. The idea that the game might tell a story is still firmly on the back seat. Then there are the sample games, usually listed in some monstrous home-computer BASIC, with annotations going into various levels of detail.

Peter Killworth’s How to write Adventure Games for the BBC Microcomputer Model B and Acorn Electron is one of the most interesting of these books.

It has some nice thoughts on puzzle design – which it calls “plotting” – particularly about building multi-stage puzzles where the player must solve a chain of logical steps one after the other. These do make good puzzles – the Babel fish vending machine in Hitchhiker’s Guide being the canonical example. (Killworth prefers to kill the player off or make the game unwinnable when they get one of the stages wrong, which has happily gone out of fashion, but other than that his thoughts on this type of design are still worth reading.)

On the other hand, the sample game Roman is deservingly cited in the Inform Designer’s Manual as an example of bad design, because almost the entire game consists of essentially one such puzzle-chain, so there’s only one thing for the player to do at a time. This sort of game needs to be broad as well as deep, and if I had to choose one over the other, I’d choose breadth.

Killworth also sees it as fundamental to the job of the IF author to make the player suffer (I’m not interpreting; he repeatedly says this in exactly those words.) One of the things Roman has going for it is the choice of setting, ancient Rome. It’s a setting that’s easy for the player to imagine – which helps when you’re limited to a describing any room, NPC or object in a sentence or so – and instantly provides some seeds for plot or puzzle ideas: gladiatorial combat, corrupt senators, Julius Caesar as an NPC. Then in one room there’s a “pilum” lying about. This would be a nice bit of flavour if the game bothered telling you what a pilum is. Not a Latin scholar? Well, you’ve got Google. But in 1984 you might have had to go to a library to find your nearest Latin dictionary. This isn’t an oversight – Killworth discusses putting in this information but deliberately leaves it out: “If we refer to it as a pilum, the player will probably not know its use, which is all to the good.”

This might make some sort of sense in, say, a time travel game where a Roman legionary tells you about his pilum and you have to figure out what he means – but no, you are a Roman, you see the pilum itself, and the game chooses not to tell you what is in front of your eyes. There’s no EXAMINE. You really do have to go and look it up in a Latin dictionary or a history book (or, and I fear this might be what Killworth is thinking of, have the right sort of education.)

The great cryptic crossword setter Araucaria described setting a puzzle as “a game in which the goal is to lose gracefully” – you shouldn’t want to stump the player completely, any more than a novelist wants the reader to give up after chapter 2. The idea that the IF author is trying to ‘beat’ the player is one that’s thankfully alien these days.

The book does include something in its introduction that is still certainly true after 30-odd years, though: “No matter how small an Adventure you write, it will take far, far more time and effort than you thought it would.”