Category Archives: Games

Feu de Joie (new serialized interactive fiction project begins!)

So for the last few months I’ve been hunkered away getting a new project started, and the first installment is now live.

http://www.feudejoie.net

It’s a work of serialized interactive fiction, with regular installments (give or take a little leeway considering I have three year old twins and a full time job). Here’s the description of Feu de Joie:

“A freelance QA specialist has started archiving an unusual project online that he has been working on. A mysterious company named BUCOLIC ehf, a “digital literature publisher”, is developing an interactive version of Lord Dunsany’s collection of essays about World War One, Unhappy, Far-Off Things. (Lord Dunsany is probably best known as the fantasist who was an early influence on Lovecraft.) Each essay in the collection is being tested as a “Session.” But something is not quite right with the first one.”

So I’m really excited about this as it gets off the ground, working with a completely different cadence (both creative and publishing) than I’m used to.

I’ve also started a Patreon to help support this project. It is the first project that I’ve done where crowdfunding seemed to make sense, and Patreon seemed like a perfect fit for episodic content like this. It also gives a way for supporters interested in the project to deepen their involvement with it in some cool ways. Check it out if you’re interested.

STOP KILLING ME PLZ: a piece of random flotsam from gaming culture

“I remember this, you weren’t suppose to run away ^.^ ..he’s a friend of mine, would trap people like that and place a sign “puppy for sale”, afterwards, he would go inside and drop armor and an sword. Then keep dropping food/armour/weapons till you start loving him. He will release you when you do xD”

news: Cryptophasia and “Wildfires of Antarctica”

I’ve been very busy. I’ve also been doing a social media fast/sabbatical/what-have-you, which has been really great, and has given me a few less things to stress over. I’m just getting more and more weary, and wary, of the capability of rapid-fire social media discourse to really solve too many problems.

 

Just a few items:

 

I released the new version of my Twine game Cryptophasia. It’s a little piece (with actually a fair amount of branches) I did for an interactive fiction mini-competition called ShuffleComp. It’s a “broken space opera” of sorts, and also involves Vienesse tortes, ASMR, and the limits of language. This second version also has chiptune-esque music from Ivy Baumgarten…when I came across it I was thrilled since it seemed to fit the game perfectly, and I’m really pleased to be able to use it. (You can play the game online or download it; an Internet connection is still preferred for the latter).

 

My story “The Wildfires of Antarctica” was also a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award, for best short science fiction of the year. It was an honor to be nominated. If you want to check out the story, it’s either in my collection Tyrannia or in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy that just came out from Prime Books. It’s a story about art.

 

 

 

Solarium wins Best Story Award

The XYZZY awards (http://xyzzyawards.org) showcase the best of interactive fiction in a given year–with voting open to all–and is one of the longest-standing set of awards for indie gaming. And my 2013 game Solarium won in the Best Story category! Lots of other great games that are finalists–check them out. Thank you to my beta testers and players.

 

Ambiguity in the Dungeon of Good and Evil

I’ve been getting back into playing a bit of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, a rogue-like, and came across this in the CrawlWiki, on the entry on “Evil”. I think it’s exceedingly well written and it can apply to a lot of games.

Although the good gods in Crawl are portrayed as adhering invariably to moral absolutes, to the extent that even the unwitting use by the player’s character of items tagged ‘evil’ is cause for divine punishment, there is a certain degree of ambiguity in the notion of evil in Stone Soup. Consider that the ordinary practice of an adventurer is to kill and in many cases eat an entire dungeon full of living beings, many of them sapient. In other words, a player can expect, even in low-rune runs, to perform actions constitutive of genocide. Devotion to one of the good gods hardly alters this. It would not be unusual for a favored worshipper of The Shining One, for example, an ostensibly “good” god who frowns on indiscriminate slaughter, to nevertheless kill all, and eat many, of the elves, orcs and nagas in the entire dungeon.

It is unclear what if anything the various societies of dungeon denizens, who, judging by the absence of intra-monster violence within the dungeon, are wholly peaceful, have done to deserve this horrific retribution. On the face of it, the adventurer is simply seeking the Orb. Since “evil”-aligned adventurers act in essentially the same way that “good” ones do in pursuit of this goal, it is unlikely that the finding of this orb is a sufficiently good act in itself to justify the avalanche of butchery.

In the final analysis, it seems that Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup is the story of a peaceful, multi-cultural and multi-species society falling victim to a single adventurer’s avarice and quest for glory. By the time the worshiper of Zin has waded through the rivers of blood he must spill in order to claim the Orb, it is more than a little difficult to distinguish him from a devotee of Makhleb.

Against the background of the game’s overarching narrative, namely murder, cannibalism, genocide and theft on an industrial scale introduced to utopia, the Necromantic spell “Regeneration”, a spell anathematised as “evil” by the “good” gods, hardly compares.

Solarium design notes

So the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is over, and Solarium placed 6th out of 35 entries, which I’m very pleased with. I’m very gratified by the positive feedback and constructive criticism the game received. I thought I’d delve a bit into the making of Solarium–which ended up being similar to the gameplay texture itself. (A lot of half-starts and backtracking!)

There are probably going to be some spoilers, so if you haven’t yet, feel free to play it.

Beginnings
I’ve been knee-deep in alchemy research for several years now, and I think the first hint of a game structure came about from seeing a more-or-less Jungian “mental map” of alchemical processes. It was in the book What Painting Is by James Elkins (which is fantastic), and included a diagram from Edward Edinger. (Here’s an example of a similar diagram with Calcinatio at the center.) Now, I certainly don’t take Jung part and parcel, and I know that alchemy’s spiritual underpinnings were overplayed by Jung (ignoring the substances and real work inside a laboratory–at times he lost the chemistry of it). But naturally my eye was attracted to this and thought, “wow, this looks like a CYOA structure!” I didn’t do anything with it for a long time, though. I had fiddled with Varytale to tell an alchemical story, but nothing really came of it (first false start: superimposing an alchemical map across a map of North Dakota, and using that as the basis for a sequel to Deadline Enchanter. Maybe some day). When I came across Twine for the first time in the fall of ’12, one of the first things I did was to build this map out (with aforementioned North Dakota cities, believe it or not). But that ended up stalling too. Probably not really knowing what I was doing in Twine didn’t help. It was really only when I started gaining more confidence in using macros and stylesheets in Twine (with Corvidia and We Are the Firewall) that I really had the tools at my disposal to tackle that alchemical map again (which kept nagging at me. In a good way.)

Around the summer I started doing research into the Cold War, in particular with the United States’s covert operations, and what I found there really blew me away. I knew some of it, rather vaguely, but digging into the specifics of Project Solarium and MKUltra were indeed eye-opening. In a weird way, it makes some of the government shenanigans in, say, the X-Files appear tame: this was the real deal. The government was ruining lives indiscriminately, cavalierly, and widely. All in the name of anti-Communism. Indeed the spectre of Communism became an almost implacable force; in the dark, the highest commanders of the United States were swiping at shadows, and then being terrified when the shadows wouldn’t yield.

What I think drew me into combining the alchemy and the Cold War into a story was two things: (a) the “alchemy” of the nuclear age. The terror of nuclear annilhiation was very real in the early Cold War. And terror is part and parcel with alchemy. Strip away the 20th century Theosophy and New Age-isms and you find that alchemy is a high-risk venture, full of wild inversions of meaning (Even more so in a much more Christological world than the one we live in now). And the transfiguration of radioactive elements in order to cause mass destruction seemed part and parcel with alchemy.

This image didn't make the final cut for Solarium, but I was struck how this diagram of an H-bomb explosion mimicked alchemical symbolology.
(his image didn’t make the final cut for Solarium, but I was struck how this diagram of an H-bomb explosion mimicked alchemical symbolology.)

(b) The national security report that came from Project Solarium, NSC 162/2, explicitly mentions American spirituality as part of the anti-Communist arsenal:

…the American people must be informed of the nature of the Soviet-Communist threat…and of the need for mobilizing the spiritual and material resources necessary to meet the Soviet threat.

From there it was a quick hop and step to imagine an archon who tried to trick the United States into striking the USSR first with nuclear weapons.

Well, not really.

Development

The first real draft of this had Annalise, and the major players within the Solarium conference itself, and the protagonist as an Anglican priest, yet the conference itself was front and center. Narratively, though, the alchemy was not really present in the game; much less the alchemical map. It moved more or less linearly from the beginnings of the conference, the introduction of the major players of the fourth committee (text which I used in truncated form in the final game), with the choices presented to the protagonist whether to go along and trust the archon). But…that felt much too static.

Pulling out the Twine map of the alchemical processes, and starting from a different vantage point, it didn’t seem like it would work to have Project Solarium front and center. So I decided to make the apocalypse in the past, that the unspeakable event had already taken place, and that our protagonist was in a search for Annalise. The alchemical machine that he found himself strapped to was going to have a much, much different mechanic: having a fixed amount of time to read (much shorter!) passages of text and to make a choice, or else be dumped into a central “clearinghouse” area of text that described the actual bombs dropping. Well, the problem with that from my perspective was that this was a really complicated story with a lot of players, and that it wouldn’t really do justice to the story to make the game quite such a pressure cooker (with that said, I’m really fascinated by Twine’s possibilities with timed events, and I really want to experiment with them in the future).

So the action became much more contemplative, drawing out the story bit by bit, and various elements came into sharper focus: the back mythology, the immortal body jumping, the possession of Eisenhower, etc. When I had written out the bulk of the story, it was only then that I added the element of the various alchemical elements creating blockages. Mostly as a pacing mechanism (a la the Metroidvania design principle), but also as a sense of extraction of cost; that these elements were literally being created out of the blood of the protagonist in order to allow her (formerly him) to move forward in the story. And I had hoped that the asking of the four major questions in crucial areas of the narrative carried enough weight, in order to make the player feel like there were serious-enough consequences about the information she or he was sifting through.

The ending itself was a whole other matter, one which took a good three revisions. This included having a double of the protagonist (in James’s now-dead form) being grown in a tank in the basement, being fed by memories. In the end, Annalise did make her appearance, and the protagonist was offered the choice of alchemical symbiosis with Annalise, or to continue on in the world. It was in these end parts that a few more…uncomfortable moral questions also crept in; namely, the nature of James/Annalise in the first place, and whether they were really making things better, or worse. The protagonist, I don’t think, had been fully self-aware of how deleterious his body-hopping could be. But perhaps that unsettledness would be yet another factor in the final choice for the player? (Though, even that’s not quite cut and dried: there are two main choices, but three reasons for each of the choices, each of which would have hopefully given an orientation to the choice itself. But based on the questions answered in the main bulk of the text, it was entirely possible to have the second choice not listed, and have three reasons listed to make the first choice. If that makes sense.)

The Annalise-as-Jesus twist (if it could be called that) was an 11th hour change. As often happens with my stories, sometimes characters jump center-stage and demand to have more of their story told.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t want this to be a ‘gotcha!’ moment, but one of complicated emotions and thoughts and yearnings about the characters’ relation to the divine. But a lot of the backstory of these creatures–aside from pseudocanonical works like The Book of Enoch–was definitely informed by reading a lot of theology of late. Particularly “death of God” theology and the works of Christian mystics. There is a fair amount of Simone Weil deep, deep in this game. Without wanting to open the floodgates on this topic, I grapple with these issues–and fears–a great deal in my own life, and I think subliminally or not, some of those themes made their way into the game.

Finally, one of the last things I did after beta testers’ suggestions was to “seal off” the narrative passages that were already visited and which would not yield anymore brand-new text down the line. Which was kind of a pain. I’m sure someone with more programming experience would have found balancing the various if/then conditions a lot easier!

Images

A quick note about these: most of these I pulled from the Library of Congress images database, an amazing repository of public domain images. And there was a wealth of material from the 50s, when the military-industrial complex was starting to document everything it touched. Originally the plan was to have an image with each panel of text but–it was a design and time choice not to pursue that to the ends of the earth. I did want to include a few more images from 1950s ads and propaganda to balance the images of nuclear test sites and abandoned buildings. Like this amazing one:

rotting

Like, whatever that means, it can’t be good.

On Twine

I do want to say one thing about the use of Twine; one complaint that I heard a couple of times was: “I would have enjoyed this more if it had been written as X.” “X” being: a static piece of fiction or a parser game… As a general rule,I don’t think it’s productive to really respond and nitpick about bad reviews (and I’ve gotten many of them! Face-melting ones, even.), but I hope that this will be talking more of a general aspect of craft which might provide some insight into one person’s creative process.

Every writer is different, but for me, the tools themselves can’t really be separated from the tools used to tell the story. There is no Platonic ideal of Story for me that is just waiting to be expelled into a particular form. And Solarium, whatever its strengths and faults, can’t be extracted from the palette being used to create it. In this case, the interlinking boxes of Twine. Those little boxes and the links between them are inseparable from the writing; they provided the shape for the writing, how the characters were revealed to each other and the reader, and really the flow of the narrative itself. (And the difference between writing in longhand and using a word processor IS there as well; it’s just a bit less pronounced because the final aim is similar for both: creating a linear story.) And yeah, books are made into movies all the time, but those are adaptations. Often imperfect, messy ones. Any reworking of Solarium into a different medium would have to be a similar form of adaptation. Finally, the use of the javascript macros such as replacing text on the page, or cycling through text also allowed a lexicon to be built that became inseparable from the story I wanted to tell.

I don’t think these different forms of storytelling have to be in competition with each other. I firmly believe that writing interactive fiction has made me a better “static” fiction writer. (If you want to read a story of mine for free from my most recent collection that might fit the bill in this regard, here’s “The Philip Sidney Game“.) Having a heightened awareness of spatiality, readerly pacing devices, and empathy for the reader as another human being on the other side of the page/screen–those are writerly muscles that take practice to pull off well, sometimes years of it. Working in various forms of writing help cross-pollinate the imagination, and hopefully lead to jumpstarting a new story in the tool that best suits it. (And I know the talk of writerly muscles makes it sound laborious–well, it can be at times, but if it isn’t joyous as well for me, there’s something missing.) There are, of course, real life issues that can impinge–having two-year-old twins has kind of put a damper on my novel revisions for the time being. But with reasonable expectations firmly in hand, I’m really excited by the amount of tools that are available to writers now.

And I do hope more writers in the SF/F/lit communities that I’m a part of take advantage of these tools. I think interactive fiction is a fantastic meeting-ground for writers and gamers of all types to congregate and trade ideas. And I’ve been very grateful for the IF community’s response to Solarium, and the really thought-provoking feedback it received.

IF Comp begins

The 19th Annual Interactive Fiction competition has begun. Judge and play games (a minimum of 5 games need to be played). Most can be played online. Noted without commentary: I’ve entered this year with a game made in Twine called Solarium. It’s always a fun event and I’m happy to take part in this (as I have every…six years since 2001).

role playing games and multiplicity of narratives

When I was playing red box/blue box Dungeons and Dragons in the mid-80s (the Basic and Expert sets), being 11 or 12, and rather isolated, I often never had enough people to play a session of D&D in precisely the way that it seemed meant to be played: several players, each controlling one character; and a Dungeon Master. PCs and the Dungeon Master controlling the NPCs. Often, though, it was myself and another friend, that was it. So we had to improvise. It’s kind of the equivalent of “ghost runners” in baseball, when you have to pretend imaginary people are on-base when you are shorthanded (something we also did, by the way!) I would often play more than one character, and I would make an honest attempt to keep a veil between them, to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to keep them as separate entities. Or, if I was DM’ing and had to play a character, I would be extremely careful not to give my character any special favors as the narrative was flowing around the party of characters, usually trudging through a dungeon.

Red Box D&D

I began to wonder recently, did this type of performance lend itself in some way to my (much) later interest in trying out different modes of narratives? Each story has to be improvised according to its needs, so I don’t think there can be much of a blanket statement. But…even though the “stories,” such as they were, were purely hack and slash at that age, there was a sense of performance and growth of the character. I had an inner vision of each character that was separate from the narrative we were navigating through.

Similarly, I think it might have helped with delving into characterization later on (much later!), and treating each character as an indivisible unit within a story. More than that though–being a DM is something of a metafictional conceit. In the interplay between player and character, the DM acts as something of an interlocutor an author who cedes control to the story itself (as pushed forward by the players’ control of the characters). Perhaps it was this balancing act that excited me about the possibilities of story–well, at any rate, it was good practice for thinking of story as a blending of various component parts, “plot” being the last important of those parts.

We Are the Firewall released + design notes

I’ve released a “game-novella” that I made in Twine called We Are the Firewall. It’s set in a dystopian near-future Minneapolis (and the Republic of Georgia) and has about a dozen interwoven point-of-view characters. It’s definitely of a piece thematically and style-wise to many of the stories forthcoming in my new collection Tyrannia, and the point-and-click aspects of the gameplay allowed me to dive deeper into a setting in a much different way than with “static” fiction.

We Are the Firewall cover

(Very vague spoilers ahead)

For one thing, it should be noted that this is not “Choose Your Own Adventure” (or CYOA). There’s no way to affect the outcome of the story; only in how you experience it in following the various paths of the story. I had been struck a few months ago by a comment that Emily Short had made on her blog (which I tried to find but couldn’t! Well, I hope I’m not misremembering it too badly) that interactive fiction doesn’t have to be choice based fiction–that the two often get confused (or let’s say intertwined in interesting or not so interesting ways). Deadline Enchanter also played with this idea of choice, though much more linearly, and more on the side of “player complicity” (since the game is mimicking an “implementation” within the game world).

We Are the Firewall definitely isn’t linear! But its non-linearity is at the service of narrative. That at least is the guiding principle. I have had the idea of telling a story something like this for awhile, with a big cast of characters set in Minneapolis, and some of the passages (heavily edited in most cases) are years old from an abandoned novel project. The often-recurring “framing” passage, for lack of a better term–the (Fire)Wall of Adjectives–is one of these passages of text.

Aside from Twine itself, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story the way I wanted it too without many of the macros created by Leon Arnott. The click-throughs to replace text, and the timed replacement, disappearance, and insertion of blocks of text allowed We Are the Firewall to have the textured quality I was looking for.

For sure, having lots of blocks of text appearing and disappearing with little or no volition on account of the player was something I debated throughout the creation of the piece. But the reason I left that mechanism in was that, in order to tell this story, I wanted to create an experience of interacting with this world that paralleled living in this world.

Because this is a near-future world of stratification and distraction. People from different social classes rarely interact with each other; half of the city (Nordeast) is walled off, drones are controlled in anonymous warehouses (or one can have a “working vacation” and help control a drone while fishing up north), and the only place while acts as a “village green” is the educational first person shooter Math Frag.

More than that, though–aside from these physical and virtual barriers, this is a world in which people really aren’t paying attention to each other, even people they care about. The information overload is much more complete (though also breaking down according to class lines: the ultra-wealthy have implants directly into the eye, the upper middle and “aspirational” classes have “smart” glasses or goggles and the rest have, well, phones). So this is a text medium in which the characters are overloaded by text. Mimetic fallacy? Well, sure, but so be it. To be sure, there’s a tension there between “just telling the story” and creating blockages in the story that replicate how the characters navigate their world. To put it another way: I remember ten years ago how I would be startled at someone wearing a Bluetooth headset barking orders to it, or have a conversation with, seemingly, no one. That has become really normalized for me, but if I think about it, it really is a peculiar phenomenon. We have become adept at filtering out the “noise” from other people. Sometimes scarily so.

BPtTP0CCYAAioUf

So essentially what I tried to do was the extrapolate out the acceleration of this “noise”, particularly as they would often take textual and not merely aural forms (from the bombardment of text from eye implants or smart glasses). Junk forms (a lot of the most-rapidly disappearing pieces of text I lifted and remolded from random Google Groups searches of long-abandoned discussion threads). In that sense, this is nothing new–a lot of the best “social” science fiction from the 50s onwards utilized this effect. I’m thinking off the top of my head Gateway by Fredrick Pohl, which was set on a hyper-commercialized hollowed-out asteroid. And, heck, go back farther to the origins of the novel itself, which often took epistolatory, “found object” forms. But that is probably worth another post. Anyway, the ability to texture the narrative this way gave me access to an extra set of tools dealing with time itself. I should say as well that my hope is that the Wall of Adjectives would be able to be approached and read across multiple playthroughs, and there are screens later on of it that are more or less static.

Whether it works or not is up to the reader/player, but I hoped to create an accretive, accumulating effect by having to go back into the narrative over and over, plumbing different perspectives until they would combine into something of a whole. An imperfect whole but a whole. So the narrative is one of stitching-together rather than breaking apart–and that stitching is the “game” part of game-novella. In that sense, despite how depressing a lot of it is, I wanted the bringing together of different characters–ones who may or may not have encountered each other before, or in a completely different setting–and at least create the possibility of people in this stratified society to meet and break bread (or have a drink or song) together. To make interacting with the characters a way to not only move the story forward, but to have them gain strength from each other. There is a very specific trio of characters in We Are the Firewall that are coaxing this outcome out as well, and they too have their own stories.

I tried to create variety in what types of interactions were on each page. Some were only text; some had only timed events; some I considered a kind of a cyberpunk advent calendar. And some had combinations of each effect. The intersection of the individual page and the individual character. For someone like Harlan, a drug-addicted musician who thinks he is much more revolutionary than he actually is, clicking through his cliches reveals the hidden contexts of his vagueness. For someone like Rosaria, a former soldier dealing with both cancer and PTSD (in the midst of a failing vet health care system), clicking through her memories of firefights keeps going deeper and deeper, into layers and layers of hell. And so on. As usually happens, some characters surprised me about how insistent they wanted their stories told; people who I considered natural villains revealed strengths or vulnerabilities that I hadn’t even fathomed. The Twine medium let me adjust this on the fly. It really is a fantastic storytelling tool, and it is literally getting better every month, as more people build in more functionality. The breadth of stories and games made with it just over the last year is truly astounding.

If you have any interest in leaving a tip for the game, please consider donating to Mercy Corps’ efforts to help Syrian refugees.

Corvidia: cyoa game

I made a very brief CYOA game using Twine called Corvidia.

(on Interactive Fiction Database)
(play it now!)

501px-EB9_Jay_-_American_Blue_Jay copy

I had had the copy in a short story (well, obstenibly one) for awhile but the linkages in Twine seemed to suit it better: particularly in bringing to light what isn’t said. And also to have variations in the text that function kind of like the lines of a villanelle–same lines, different context depending on the replay.

Twine itself is incredibly cool and at some point (when I’m feeling less sick) I want to write about it as a gaming tool, and some of the amazing, subversive games made with it.

MMORPG Eschatology

What happens when a shared world dies? Witness the quiet, strange, unsettling end of The Matrix MMORPG.

A grand finale was planned where all online players were to be crushed, however due to a server glitch, most players were disconnected before the final blow came. What had been envisioned as a last hurrah transpired as a gruesome slide show. High pings and low framerates caused by the developers giving out advanced powers (with graphically demanding effects) and abilities to all players, coupled with the flooded chat interface, meant many players were unable to experience the final event as intended.

I do love half-empty online spaces, which is one of the reasons I enjoy MUDS–they give the solitude and space of, say, the early Infocom games where you are alone in an underground empire or a giant spaceship. In an MMORPG, when someone pulls the plug, there are always going to be consequences.

Metroid: The Other M; or, the Girl with a Cannon for a Hand

Samus, Alone

When I look at various forms of criticism and reviewing–literary, music, etc.–and consider how moribund they can be at times, I take solace in the fact that it will never reach the nadir that gaming journalism seems to dwell in. As a whole. I am talking about the various organs that are there to ceaselessly promote product, to ensure that the surprises elicited in a game are unarticulated, to enthrall themselves–and presumably the audience–with cheap kills and thrills. Truly moribund. Though there are always exceptions.

There’s a new Metroid game out, called Metroid: The Other M. I haven’t played it. I have played the first two of the Metroid Prime games (though not finishing them) and I must have Metroid on my mind because I am playing Super Metroid on the Virtual Console now. Other M has received mixed-to-good reviews, and part of the complaint has been about the increase of cut-scenes and narrative.

“Ham-fisted controls and storytelling turn Samus into a clumsy blabbermouth…”

After years of silence, Samus now sure loves to talk, and we can’t find the ‘Off’ switch….But then, she does shut up, and the game takes over.

I came across this user review on Metacritic with someone with the handle of “Hynda”, and it was truly the most fierce and moving piece of writing on games I had ever read–it was so powerful, in fact, that it made me rethink why I enjoy certain games and not others. Here we go:

There is a lot of sexism around this game [and its bad reviews -ed.], people who says its the worst metroid ever are probably machist. They love games like metroid prime where you barely see samus body or face, you can only get to see her eyes so you feel related to her, she doesnt even talk, she got no personality, no soul, no life, she is just a puppet for the players, in this game Samus comes to life, and she is not a silent mad bounty hunter who wants to kill gods or anything, she is not like that crappy master chief or kratos, not even like that copy of Indiana jones called Nathan Drake. She is more than that, she is a human, like you and me, and like a human she got her weaknesses, she can die, cry, worry and respect others, she is sad all over the time and she covers her face with a visor because that way she can hide her sorrow, this is a story about a girl who wants to teach the universe you can be a good person and still be great, unlike those PS3 games where everyone is evil, bald or with giant muscles, samus is like the girlfriend everyone have had, but I know most of gamers dont even have a girlfriend that is why they cant understand that, they cant feel related, they only feel related to games with old bags smoking with a patch in their eyes(MGS4). Really dudes, you should try to get a girlfriend, maybe then you will understand this game greatness

The reviews depicting Other M as being egregiously hammy are pretty universal–and that might indeed be the case (I do want to pick up the game and give it a thorough go). And the some of the design decisions do seem misguided (e.g., in most Metroid games, Samus loses her awesome equipment by accident, which she has to retrieve over the course of the game. In Other M, she isn’t “authorized” to use certain pieces of equipment by her commanding officer until certain points of the game). The point is–or rather Hynda’s point is, because she said it better than I possibly could–is that, when we control a character, it’s not a simple matter of narrative linearity. It’s complicated. The identification of a character when playing him or her is complicated. We are complicit with whom we play. Nintendo is known for characters as empty urns–we don’t go to Mario for the vicissitudes of life as a plumber.

Clearly the preferred archetype for Samus is that of the strong, silent female warrior of the Metroid Prime Trilogy, and I have enjoyed those games (not as much as I have enjoyed Super Metroid, though). But to fill that urn–the very act of filling it–can create its own sort of power. The how and the execution of this can be either effective or ineffective, of course, but it seems that a lot of reviewers (and players) don’t want anything to do with this attempt at characterization. They just want Samus to shut up. And stop emoting.

It’s men, young men, who drive this industry. And on the screen the caricaturing of musculature, both male and female, is done for these young men in mind. The aforementioned puppets.

But in a game, the player has the choice to create control in a different way–to identify with a woman on the screen “who is like you and me.” And that feeling–feelings that many games try to viciously uproot with cheap spectacle–is a precious treasure indeed.

More later, when I play this.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

(This is going to have a fair amount of spoilers, so if you have a Wii and are thinking of playing this game, at all, don’t read this. Just buy the game.)

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played. Now, this is also the first Silent Hill game I’ve ever played, and so I don’t really have an appreciation of the “canon” of the world. All I can go on is what I see–which, come to think of it, is one of the keystones of the game itself. As Harry Mason, in a car accident and left with nothing but a trusty flashlight and (later) a jack-of-all-trades cellphone, much of the game is spent with said flashlight peering into dusty corners of the near-abandoned town.

One of the things that makes this game so compelling is that your responses–your input; that is, what you choose to see and say–alters the playing experience. If not in gameplay then in characterization. Drastically, I might add. At certain intervals in the game (including the beginning), you find yourself in a first person view in a therapist’s office, and he asks you penetrating questions about your life, as well as provides opportunities for (mind) games of a sort, in order to probe your moral values. I played the game twice (which is almost a necessity to catch all the different nuances and story trails of the game), answering the questions the second time around the opposite way than the first, and the game changed with an accumulation of subtle cues that was both striking and unsettling. Different people encountered treated Harry very differently. Certain rooms were blocked off and others opened up. There was a scene in which I had to call a security guard (one of the delightfully mysterious things about this game is that the walls throughout the city are peppered with random phone numbers, which you, of course, can call). The first time he didn’t believe I existed and thought it was a prank. The second time he said he “had my back.” And the end…well, the end.

I guess I won’t reveal the MAJOR spoiler to this game after all. It’s that good and it’s that worth playing. Not in a “gotcha” sense, but in a way it reorients how one played the entire game that went before. And thus the very gameplay mechanics took on a totally new light.

Let me try to explain in a certain way that won’t SPOIL everything.

At certain intervals of the game, the world of Silent Hill freezes over, encasing everything in surreal ice. Geography becomes twisted. And what you traversed before becomes devilishly hard to navigate. These are the times of “the nightmare”, which you must escape. Creatures, called “raw shocks” (which mutate as well throughout the course of the game), chase you in very clever fashion. And you have no way to kill or hurt them as they hunt you down. At best you can shake them off and slow them, and keep them away for a time with a flare, maybe two, that you might find in the maze of the inverted town. It can be frustrating, as you bang through corridor after corridor, only to end up where you started out, but this is where the retroactive kicker has the most paydirt after finishing the game. And the lack of combat — no zombies to blow the heads off here, not that there’s anything wrong with that — becomes utter genius. Thinking back to the title, you as Harry Mason find yourself in a field of “frozen memories”. But what is the trauma that the raw shocks don’t want you to find? That is the unreal, fluttering heart of the game.

The Gamebook/the Interactive Novel: Fables of the Construction

Of late I’ve been exploring and trying to fetter out online what in 80s parlance would be called a gamebook: a novel with choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) plot branching but also with more of an RPG element as well–usually with a character with attributes and chanced to impact the story through combat and chance. Some of the best known series from that era are Fighting Fantasy (which I did not play growing up) and Lone Wolf (which I did).

Although I’m not intimately familiar with the publishing vagrancies of the genre, it had seemed like the form went into something of a decline in the 90s, but lately there have been some interesting applications of the gamebook online–which might be the natural home for such a storytelling medium after all. There are two particular examples online that I found striking–one a new, rather wild creation that pushed a lot of my “fiction buttons”, and another a “port” from a rather remarkable older series.

Age of Fable

Age of Fable by James Hutchings is quite literally the trip, a metafictional romp through all sorts of storytelling conventions. The art–usually gathered from paintings from the surreal to the macabre to the whimsical–adds to the sense of story-as-emblem (which might not get at exactly what’s going on here). It’s extremely fast and loose, but it works. There are twelve attributes to your character, and this panoply of various ability scores adds to the fierce sense of play to the work, especially when traversing the land with a randomly generated character named: Be-Steadfast Owl-Waits-For-The-Moon, an assassin.

Yes sometimes the puns don’t quite work, and the recursiveness of some of the quests becomes repetitive, but on the whole Age of Fable succeeds resoundingly as a new way to approach storytelling; it has that sense of a concocted world that one can only see small but bright glimpses of when playing.

The Fabled Lands

The Fabled Lands is a far sturdier proposition, one with more traditional high-fantasy underpinnings, but no less exciting and with even more depth of play. The interface was obviously created with a great deal of passion and care. It’s truly the greatest example of a “sandbox novel” that I’ve ever seen. One can literally traverse between the six novels–represented by different geographic areas–and in the downloadable App version, this is done seamlessly. Much like Age of Fable, there is no real overarching quest–although there are many quests to be had–but the level of what one can “do” in the novel is far deeper: there’s exploration, of course, but also trade, owning property in cities, sailing, and much more. It’s truly a lived-in experience, one in which the second person POV is given a panoply of sensations–perhaps most importantly, the sense that one really doesn’t know what’s behind any unknown corner.

If one of the purposes of a gamebook (or any work of interactive fiction, really) is to increase the player/reader’s agency, then these two projects are some of the strongest and most interesting examples around of giving authorship to the reader, in a way that is entirely different yet as utterly beguiling as the best of parser-based interactive fiction.

Zombies! Touch-typing!

One of my favorite gaming blogs is The Stack. Reading his posts on Final Fantasy V really sold me on playing it, which was a hundred times more to my taste than the rigid, overrated Final Fantasy VI (sorry, I know that’s heresy, but…). Level grinding is one of the few things you can do when you’re sick. More on Final Fantasy V and identity later perhaps…

Anyway, the next game on the Stack’s docket is a really intriguing port of an old Dreamcast game called Typing of the Dead. Which is, yes, a touch-typing instruction game overlayed into the horror shooter genre:

The genius of this is that it naturally encourages touch-typing: you don’t dare look down at the keyboard when there are zombies shambling toward you, and there are as many in-game motivations to type quickly and accurately as there are to shoot quickly and accurately in the original game.

And instead of guns, everyone has keyboards strapped to their backs. Wicked!

Deadline Enchanter news

I’m really pleased to say that Deadline Enchanter was a finalist for three XYZZY Awards–for Best Writing, Best Story, and Best Use of Medium–and won the XYZZY for the latter. Needless to say–considering I’m decidedly Not a Programmer, to find an audience for any of my game-creation endeavours is a giant thrill. I’m really appreciative of everyone who worked on Inform 7–designers, extension-creators, helpers of all stripes.

As an aside: It’s been awhile since I played my first text adventure–and I had a weird realization that it WASN’T an Infocom work; rather, it was Scott Adams’ Pirate Adventure on my Texas Instruments TI994/A (combo cartridge and cassette!). Never really got that far.

Notes on “Deadline Enchanter”

I wanted to get some notes on the design of Deadline Enchanter, since it seemed a couple of reviewers were interested in the genesis and thought behind the game. (I don’t even know if it can be called a game. But more about that later.) So as always, these opinions are solely my own, and are subject to alteration, etc. etc. And it’s pretty long. (Later note: Really long!)

Probably none of this is going to make sense if you haven’t played DE. So go for it! Needless to say, spoilers, but I doubt they’ll make sense anyway if you haven’t played the game. Hell, it still might not make sense even if you have played the game.

History
The first drafts of Deadline Enchanter probably came about in 2002, not terribly long after Isolato Incident was released into the wild. It was a very, very different proposition at that early stage though. For one, I was writing the game in ALAN–and I have to say that as much as I loved ALAN as an introduction and primer to writing IF, the time it would take me to figure out how to do certain things in ALAN could have been better spent working on the game itself. And any experience of writing IF is going to be dampened when the authoring system doesn’t have an UNDO feature (to be fair, ALAN 3 does). It was called Green Nights, by Anonymous, or something like that. There was The City (called St. Saul), and there were the Folk, and the princess in the Tower, and the Faux, and the Sanka/Taster’s Choice magic.

And yet the feel of that early draft was totally different than what I ended up with, and this unsatisfaction with the world and what I wanted to DO with the world helped contribute to why it took me freaking forever to finish the game. For one, my first big goal was to create a rather larger, explorable city–where the story with the Folk would intertwine with the Faux, and there would be interactions with the environment that could loosely be described as “puzzles”. This first draft actually did have some stuff that I rather liked, content-wise, that never made it to DE. For one, a few touchpoints with Gawain and the Green Knight, with (nearly?) all of those traces excised by the time of the final draft. And a lot more jazz; there was a Charlie Parker feast day in the city…

And also, the germination of the steganography of the game did emerge in this early stage, although I never actually got the chance to CODE it. See, near the end of the game, it would finally dawn upon the player (meaning you, not the meta-situated game-playing that resided within the story) that the whole point of the game would be to work out the escape route for the Princess. This revelation would have been the final twist of the game–but before that point, one woudl have played the game thinking that it was, actually, a (reasonably) grounded work of interactive fiction, with (relatively) clear demarcations of, and between, player and character. Very early on, the character would be given a charge/mission by a female knight of the Faux, with certain goals to accomplish, and a series of mimetic spaces in which to wander and find clues as to how to solve those goals, meeting denziens of the City, finding one’s way into the Tower, etc. At some point (though I didn’t get nearly this far into the programming), more of the steganography would have come into the game, but it wouldn’t have overwhelmed it.

That, at least, was the plan. But I was still too fuzzy about what, in fact, I wanted the game to do. In interactive fiction, even when one gives the player the illusion of free choice, I think that oftentimes, relentless reductionism is the way to go–at least in terms of what you want to accomplish in the game. Green Nights was too much of a tweener. I had the feeling that it was kind of the worst of both worlds–too hesitant in being, to put it crudely, a total mindfuck; too sketchy in terms of providing a full mimetic experience. For one, I’m just not good at writing puzzles. Any puzzles, including poorly implemented puzzles. And I did, actually, want to pursue the idea of a game-within-a-game-world (some of the in-game help files were written at this early stages, though I did rewrite them and temper them according to later revisions). I just wasn’t feeling like I was hitting a mark with it.

Well, years passed. Inform 7 came out and the project piqued my interest again. At this stage it WAS retitled to Deadline Enchanter. (I do think some of the earlier drafts came across as a bit too in-jokey, and I really tried to exorcise a lot of the direct references to the pre- and post-Infocom community. But, I was too in love with the title to screw with it–in writing a lot of my short stories, I’ll just start with a title before having any clue as to what the story is about. Plus, scrunching the two words together were hopefully evoking the kind of ‘eldritch noir’ that I was going for.) Anyway, the port to Inform was astoundingly easy, but then once again I kept hitting roadblocks regarding “that vision thing.” There was no voice to the game, only rooms.

It was this last summer where DE started to take its final shape. I’d dusted it off again, and–I’m not sure what, exactly, precipitated this–decided to distill the game as to what interested me most about it. It sounds stupid, now, writing this (and italicizing it…sorry) but it’s often really difficult to put into practice, with any piece of art. What do you want to do with it? What are your parameters, spoken or unspoken? I’d realized that what interested me most about DE was, in fact, the Princess’s predicament, and how the player-character would discover the path to set her free. But what if I started with that path? What if the discovery didn’t involve the what (i.e., the very fact that the game is an act of steganography becoming the big revelation) but the why (i.e., what’s going on in this world? Who is this person that desperately needs your help?).

And so, the Princess would set the game on rails, and the player would know exactly where to go and what to do. Cutting out exploration in the game almost entirely was a liberating experience! I stopped trying to cram the game into what I thought it ought to have done and just let it be what it needed to be. Which, obviously, is nothing new–there are games far, far more brilliant and moving than mine that are completely (or almost so) linear. But it felt good to at last discover the shape that it would take.

From there, I could concentrate on the voice–and it was really fun to write in the narrator’s voice. That, more than anything, drove the story forward. I could concentrate on letting her have a relationship with the player in her world (and by extension, the actual player)–cajoling, entreating, vain, angry, fragile. It gave me an avenue into characterization that I actually never have had before, with more static forms of fiction.

Even though I don’t know if DE can be called a work of interactive fiction per se, working in Inform and having tbe player drive the story forward gave an uncertain, kind of unpredictable texture to the narrative that, for me, got a lot of its juice from altering narrative pacing (more on this below). Splicing in cut scenes, having a place where the player thinks he or she is interacting with the story but it’s actually JUST a cut scene, the one yes-or-no question, etc. All of these, obviously, are old, effective tricks. But in writing DE, I was having a character implement these tricks. I was letting her create the narrative–using, in a way, the forms of “conversation” of her ancestors to dictate what the player could experience (BADGER, SEDUCE, MOLLIFY, etc.).

All of the sudden I had a very tight deadline, but at least the writing was flowing through that voice. When I got about halfway through, close to the point with the doll and the doll’s massacre of the guards, I began to wonder if our fearless/fearful narrator was a bit more complicated than I had initially conceived. Part of this had to do with the ending–what would happen? Would the player-character somehow manage to open the cell and let her roam free in the game world? It seemed a bit anticlimatic. But I also began wondering just what kind of character she was. She didn’t seem the type who would just ride off into the sunset, her lover being captured. Did she even want to be free? And what did “freedom” mean to her? A twist began to develop, in which she offered the player the choice to sacrifice her to save her lover, or…nothing–to stay at home, turn off the Implementation and let them both perish.

Projective Fiction
So, there are a “few” notes on the narrative. Moving into larger issues of classification, I don’t know if the work is “interactive fiction” per se as much as “projective fiction.” I keep bouncing in and out of Olson’s “”Projective Verse” essay; the “composition by field.” That is (and this might very well be mangling Olson’s intentions), a way of creating a “breath” or beat for a narrative work. It’s not work that really tries for mimesis or simulacra (except, of course, in the sense that any static work of fiction creates a relationship with a reader through sentences and paragraphs), but rather uses the parser to shape the temporal information presented to the reader. It’s a different type of linearity than that on the printed page, yet is a way to determine that, as Olson said, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.”

Comics/graphic novels also manipulate the reader’s perception of the narrative–through visuals, of course, but also through tweaking time: the size of the panels, the level of information presented in a panel (which can be broken down as a unit of composition, much like a line of poem; for a work of IF/projective fiction, what is that unit? The space between one given command to the next. Even if that command is “Press Space to Continue.” That is the “panel” that each writer/coder has to work with. I doubt very much, btw, that this was what Olson had in mind.)

Notes for thought and the faintest possible thumbnails, for future work.

A Last Note on Conversation
One other aspect of game design that didn’t actually occur to me until the game was long finished–that DE could be considered one giant conversation system. A back and forth telling superimposed on a landscape. Not that this was intended by any means, but it makes sense.

What’s to be Done
Quite a bit; a whole hell of a lot. I need to fix some of the sequencing in the prison cell (providing a walkthrough in the form of a book there, as well). I’ve been working on converting all the default parser responses into Folk speak (the narrator’s or the vestigal Implementation that has been superimposed upon by our narrator; actually, that is turning out to be a huge problem–to figure out how to clue to the player which of the two is “speaking”). The fight scene with the doll really needs to be fixed. Along with the normal draft issues, that will all take some time, but hopefully the most recent build of DE, when it does come out, will make it a more enjoyable experience.

KoL random update

So Kingdom of Loathing had a major overhaul, and has some really interesting new content, and some fiendish puzzles. Any puzzle that combines one of the traps from the third Indiana Jones movie and Gwen Stefani lyrics is a-ok in my book.

It’s a weird game for me (a very weird game in general) in that I’ve been playing it really cyclically, off and on, for more than 3 years now. I’m sure my account would have been erased from negligence many times over if I hadn’t bought a Mr. Accessory that prevents such a thing. A great investment, in that it allows me to dust off the account every 6-8 months and get back into it. Anyway, if you’re an old or new player, check it out. There’s nothing else out there like it. Our not-so-sikrit clubhouse (aka clan) is Infernokrusher. Anyway, this either makes sense or it doesn’t.

Aaaand, in relation to a lot of the genre discussions of late, I thought this post from one of the head honchos of the game was compelling in a lot of ways (speed ascenders are people who try to run the game like an obstacle course, blowing through it in as quick of time as possible…my own needs in the game are much more…slowcore/shoegazing).

You can go back and play the previous game. Sure you can. Here’s the thing, you don’t really want to. You think you want to because you’ve spent a day with the new content. I know you speed ascenders don’t care about content, but, more content. Let’s not even say that. Content-neutral, you still have so many more strategies and choices, so many ways to get through it, things to cook and wear, it’s… you kept playing this game because you like making those choices, we’ve given you so many more things to play with. You can’t tell me right now that you want to go back to the previous game just because you understood it. You really don’t want to. I’m just waiting for you to find out. I’m not angry. You guys are misguided. If you were brought up playing Pong, how you might find, I don’t know. I almost think… no. No good analogies tonight, what’s going on. If you play Pong against a computer and you start playing Bejeweled or something, you would say, god, this is so hard, it’s so different, I want to play Tic Tac Toe, but you don’t because it’s not as solid a game. We made this game so much better and you will figure it out, it’s better.

Fantasy Bodies

Really interesting analysis of sexual dimorphism in World of Warcraft characters:

Even if you wanted to have a female troll with tusks, you couldn’t. Which seems especially bizarre given that this game is supposed to be all about fantasy, and turning yourself into whatever you want to be.

Professional Starcrafting

I had no clue that Starcraft had professional leagues and stadia in South Korea. This is my favorite/illuminating quote from the brief profiles of the star players (who are really rockstars in Korea):

Garimto had to quit SC in order to do his Korean military service, but now regularly acts as a commentator for games. In his commentary he is known for criticizing current Protoss players for playing sloppily and hence not achieving the potential of the race.