Archive for the 'IF' Category

IFComp 2012: Murphy’s Law

Spoilers follow the break.

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Escape from Summerland

Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2012: A Killer Headache

And here’s our first you-are-a-zombie game of the year. Will there be more, like in 2010? Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2012: Fish Bowl

Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2012

It’s that time of year again! In fact, it’s been that time of year for more than a week now, but now I’m ready for it. A manageable 28 games up for judging this year, and the few I’ve already tried have been quite short, so I encourage anyone reading this to give it a go themselves instead of just reading blogs about it. (If you can play four a day, you’ll be done in a week!)

Notably, seven of the entries — fully a quarter of the total — are HTML-based, and five of those are in a new CYOA system called “Twine”. Inform is still the most popular authoring system of the Comp, but Twine is more popular this year than all the other non-web-based systems combined. Whether this is the beginning of a trend or just a band enthusiasts agreeing to enter the Comp together, only the future will show.

Analogue: A Hate Story

Somehow I get the impression that there are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer-thin layers that fill her complex.Christine Love’s hate story is of course a follow-up to her BBS novella Digital: A Love Story, although set centuries later, in what is only minimally implied to be the same world. My first reaction to it is that it is Portal (Activision, 1986) done right. Seriously, the parallels between the two works run far, if not deep. Both are primarily text-based works with multi-leveled narratives concerning a mysteriously vanished population and the player character’s attempts to recover its history from computer records, aided by an AI guide who unearths more records in response to your reading what’s already been presented. And both are only hesitantly identified by their creators as games. As Love put it in a recent interview: “I always thought that I’d just end up being a novelist. Then everyone told me that Digital: A Love Story was a game, just because it had interactive elements…”

So, what does Analog get right that Portal didn’t? Nonlinearity, for one thing. Like the long novels of old, it contains digressions that illuminate the main plot, but aren’t essential to it, and thus can be encountered at whatever point in the storyline you become curious enough to pursue them, if at all. (Actually unlocking 100% of the text items in this game grants an Achievement on Steam, and it’s an Achievement I haven’t gotten yet despite reaching three different endings.) These take the form of diaries or letter exchanges between various long-dead persons that the AI thinks will interest you, or which will illustrate a point. Like Digital, this is mainly an epistolary novella, and that’s another point that’s an improvement over Portal. Instead of using the AI guide as an interpreter of data with a purportedly neutral point of view, you get the raw source material plus the AI’s interpretation, and get to decide for yourself how much you agree with it.

For your guide doesn’t just have a point of view, she has outright biases. Mind you, they’re biases that no reasonable modern person would disagree with. (You get opportunities to act as if you do, but that’s bound to be role-playing.) The basic idea — and I’m delving deep into spoilers here — is that society on the generation ship you’re investigating had regressed to a monstrously oppressive set of antiquated traditions, specifically those of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, in which women in particular are as a whole no better off than slaves, barely regarded as human and valued only as instruments for producing male heirs. The first AI you meet, *Hyun-ae 1As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI., is actually the digitized personality of a more modern person, a teenage girl brought out of cryo-stasis during this period, repeatedly punished for not being submissive enough, and expected to immediately marry against her will. When she pleaded for her independence, the whole notion was so alien to her family-cum-captors that they could only interpret it as a rebellious and unfilial declaration that she wanted to become a prostitute and bring shame on the family name.

Still, as much as you might feel sorry for Hyun-ae, it’s clear that *Hyun-ae 2The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization. is providing you information selectively, even hiding things from you, in the hope of maintaining your goodwill. There’s a particular technique used in the dialogue 3Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions: sometimes *Hyun-ae will start to say something and then instantly erase part of it. (You have to let the text scroll in, rather than click to make it appear all at once, to notice this.) Also, one of the first text items you uncover is a message from the ship’s previous controlling AI, named *Mute. If you show this to *Hyun-ae, she immediately deletes it. This is all to the good of the work. Secret agendas just make seemingly-friendly NPCs more interesting, as anyone who’s played Planescape: Torment can tell you. But it’s easy to excuse her, because it’s clear that her experiences have made her cagey. She doesn’t fully trust you, doesn’t know if you share the neo-Joseons’ world-view or not.

In the second act, you get to reactivate *Mute, who immediately presents the devil’s advocate position. *Mute is unapologetically in favor of the status quo, dismal subjugation of half the population and all, and furthermore is kind of catty and sleazy about it: when she shares her digressive epistolary tales of tragically unhappy marriages, it’s for the sake of the pleasure of being aghast at how scandalous they are. So you’ve basically got a good girl and a bad girl at this point, except that this is also the chapter where you learn that it was Hyun-ae who killed everyone on the ship.

And most of the rest of the work is spent exploring that in one way or another. You’ve presumably already come to sympathize with *Hyun-ae by this point, but does that extend to forgiving genocide? Admittedly, she was sorely provoked. But slaughtering oppressors and oppressed alike? Ah, but the story points out that the oppressed had internalized their oppression, and were just as culpable as anyone of perpetuating it. Perhaps when a dystopia gets bad enough, blowing the airlocks is the only way out. True, the historical precedent in the Joseon dynasty — which, according to the endnotes, was even worse than what’s seen in the story here — didn’t last forever. But it did last a long time, and Korea at least was part of a world that was generally advancing, while the generation ship is portrayed as stagnant and degenerating in knowledge.

But frankly, I don’t think such considerations are all that relevant to what decisions most players will make. The fact is, *Hyun-ae is a love interest — as the author puts it in the interview cited above, “Analogue is a game where a survivor of horrific trauma falls in love with the first person she meets”. This is very clear from her behavior, and becomes increasingly clear as the story goes on. In the majority of the occasions where she deletes what she’s said, it’s because she’s stated her feelings too directly. And everyone loves a love story, or at least cooperates with one. This is a lesson I think was most clearly taught by Andrew Plotkin’s So Far (which I will now spoil). So Far is a mysterious and surreal text adventure dominated by a repeated motif of things that have to be kept apart, because things will go disastrously wrong if they’re allowed contact. It ends with a question — “Can you forgive me?” — that, in context, signifies an opportunity to reconcile estranged lovers. Despite everything that the player has learned about how the game works, nearly everyone says “yes” to this the first time they encounter it. If we unthinkingly respond this way in a game that’s doing so much to allow us to realize that it’s the wrong choice, what are the odds we’ll choose any differently in one that’s trying to convince us that the computer has a crush on us?

   [ + ]

1. As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI.
2. The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization.
3. Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions

Apollo 18+20

Twenty years ago this year, a band called They Might Be Giants released one of their better-regarded albums, Apollo 18. In celebration of this anniversary, Kevin Jackson-Mead organized a “tribute album” of short text adventures, one for each song, by various authors, including myself: I did “My Evil Twin”. The full package was released two weeks ago, and got mentioned on various major websites like rockpapershotgun and metafilter. This is about as good as publicity for IF gets these days, but, as one of the participants, I found the coverage unsatisfying, lacking commentary and analysis. Now that I’ve played all the games, mostly to successful conclusions, it’s time to redress that.

Now, if you’re familiar with the album, you might be wondering about Fingertips. Fingertips is the musical equivalent of WarioWare: a sequence of songs about ten seconds long each, with clashing styles and humorously enigmatic lyrics. Rather than simply presenting this as a medley that you listen to as a unit, the CD had each of the songs on a separate track, and encouraged the listener to play the entire album on shuffle — and I can report from personal experience that it’s even more effective to shuffle them into a larger and more varied music collection, so that, say, a Philip Glass composition or one of Satie’s piano pieces might be followed by John Flansburgh belting out “What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here?” and then falling silent.

Yes, each Fingertips song gets its own game. But to imitate the form of the songs, there was a rule that they had to end after only one move. This is a formal restriction that actually has some precedent in IF. Sam Barlow’s Aisle (1999) was the trailblazer, demonstrating the narrative possibilities of a single move, and Rematch, written by Andrew Pontious the following year, surprised everyone by showing that the same structure could make for an elaborate and deeply-implemented puzzle game. But that’s about as far as the experimentation went; in the decade-plus since Rematch, the only other one-move games I’ve seen have been a few joke items, mostly parodies of Aisle. That means that the 21 Fingertips games now form the majority of this sub-genre.

Mind you, some of them really strain the one-move descriptor. There are a couple that let you examine objects freely, only counting it as a move when you take an action that affects things. A lot of them rely on iteration — for example, the adaptation of the initial “Fingertips” (a song that consists of the word “Fingertips” repeated four times over a banjo accompaniement) uses a time-loop premise to excuse the fact that the player has to spend several turns examining objects, taking inventory, and so forth in order to figure out the one command that averts the destruction of the space station you’re on. Although each move is followed by a paragraph describing the station blowing up, it feels more like a single multi-turn playthrough. Mind you, Aisle and Rematch were also heavily based on iteration, but it somehow seems less right to expect the player to keep on entering commands for ten minutes when you’re adapting a ten-second song. And while some of the Fingertips games really are over after a single command, some of them took me longer to bring to a satisfactory conclusion than some of the non-Fingertips games in the collection.

Mind you, the one Fingertip that kept me occupied the longest, Who’s Knocking On the Wall, not only didn’t rely on iteration, it actively discouraged iteration: the whole thing is an elaborate randomly-generated logic puzzle, which gets re-randomized on each attempt, making all your reasoning worthless the moment you make a wrong guess. This is one of the more technically impressive works in the collection, despite its constraints and despite the narrow range of input it accepts.

As for the rest of the songs on the album, the game authors took a variety of approaches. Some attempted to base their story on the song, others took greater liberties, and one or two just launch into a puzzle environment with a vague connection to the song’s title. That last category definitely contains Turn Around, but I say “one or two” because Space Suit is a special case: based on an instrumental, it has no lyrics to adapt. But at least it presents a strange enough environment that you can easily imagine the song playing in the background, which is actually a fairly rare thing in these games — I know I personally didn’t make much effort to make my game fit the tune as well as the words. The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) is of particular note in that it not only tells a story that unites the song’s nonsensical lyrics, it also imitates the song’s structure: just as the song alternates between two sections with different styles and different vocalists, the game shunts you back and forth between two player characters in different, but linked, situations. I Palindrome I, by noted palindromist Nick Montfort, links to its song solely through its form, ignoring its vague suggestion of a story about filial antagonism and menacing intergenerational patterns in favor of just palindroming it up.

The thing is, the vagueness of TMBG’s lyrics makes it difficult to say for sure in some cases what’s a result of disregarding the song and what’s a sincere difference of interpretation. Discussions with friends back in the day revealed disagreement about whether “Spider” was about a guy named Spider or a literal spider. The game takes the latter view, but also makes spiders the villains rather than the hero, which is something that hadn’t even occurred to me: the line “Spider!” followed by “He is our hero” seemed pretty clear, but the whole song is a collage of samples, so I can see how someone else would consider the two lines completely disconnected. Narrow Your Eyes strikes me as pretty far from the spirit of the song, which is about a disintegrating relationship, much like such other TMBG songs as “They’ll Need a Crane” and “I’ve Got a Match”. The game instead has the PC racing to a wedding rehearsal, the only obstacle being a supervillain who gets in his way. The thing is, despite this drastic shift of tone, the game does take care to imitate superficial details from the lyrics (where it provides details to imitate), which raises the possibility that the author simply didn’t see the song the same way I did (although lines like “Our love’s never coming back” make me doubt that). It’s certainly in the spirit of other TMBG songs.

In one case, I have to admit that my own view of the song is probably the weird and atypical one: I’ve never really seen the experience described in “The Statue Got Me High” as a bad one. Sure, it talks about being killed and set on fire, but it also talks about being dissatisfied with human company afterward, which makes the whole dying-and-burning thing seem metaphorical. And this is the sort of metaphor used in describing mystical or religious experiences. This is the same album that contains “See the Constellation”, which describes looking at the stars and having a vision of being the stars looking at yourself on the ground below (an idea disappointingly ignored by its more prosaic game adaptation); a song about experiencing a personal transformation on looking at a work of art would not be out of place here. Mind you, the final stanza about the fire engine and the charred and smoking chair kind of goes against this interpretation. At any rate, the game adaptation takes the death and the burning literally. But I can’t complain about the result, which is to my mind the most brilliant use of the medium in the entire collection. Essentially, the game gives you a situation with no apparent connection to the title, with a clear goal, a puzzle and clues to focus your mind on. And then, just when you have enough information to start making progress, the statue renders it all irrelevant. This is very much in the spirit of the song even in my weird interpretation: whatever it is you think is really going on in those lyrics, the narrator’s encounter with the statue changes everything for him.

I suppose one of the biggest challenges for the authors was coming up with goals and motivations. Even when TMBG’s songs aren’t outright nonsensical, they’re usually more descriptive than narrative. “Dinner Bell” and “Mammal” consist largely of lists of things, and so both were adapted into treasure-hunts; the strange part is that in both cases the authors motivate it by adding on a premise involving oppression by animals, something that wasn’t a factor in the songs at all. “She’s Actual Size” is basically just words of idiosyncratic praise for an unnamed woman, and I’m still not entirely sure what’s supposed to be going on in the game.

I speak of the vagueness, the nonsense, and the lack of obvious goals in the lyrics as challenges for the authors, and this may have given you the impression that some other album, from a different band, would have made a better basis for such a project. But from a player’s point of view, these attributes are strengths. They make for a greater variability than adaptations from a more narrative source would, and that leaves the player guessing wondering what on earth the game version of, for example, “Which Describes How You’re Feeling All The Time” will be like. (It turns out to be a fast-paced word game.) It also has me inevitably thinking about how I would have adapted the same songs. I think the only game that’s more or less the same as my imagined version is Fingertips: I Don’t Understand You, because the joke there is kind of inevitable in an IF context. I already had specific plans for If I Wasn’t Shy and Fingertips: I Walk Along Darkened Corridors from before they were claimed by other participants, but it was only after playing Fingertips: What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here? and seeing how far it was from my expectations that I realized I had expectations for it, and consequently clarified those expectations in my mind to something like a design. I almost feel like I want the whole project to be run again so I can get some of my ideas into more concrete form.

Ah, but that would take away from the time to work on genuinely new projects. Better to tackle a different album. Anyone up for Flood?

Demoniak: Giving Up at Getting Started

Today, another random pick from my catalog of titles I own on CD-ROM.

Demoniak is one of the few commercially-published text adventures I own but haven’t completed. Created by comics writer Alan Grant in 1991, it’s a sci-fi/superhero story mostly remembered for the novelty that it let the player switch control at any time to any character — even antagonists. I obtained it some years after its original release, when Memorex of all companies re-released it in a 2-pack CD-ROM bundle with Darkseed, a graphic adventure based on the paintings of H. R. Giger.

This was clearly a hasty bit of shovelware, because it failed to account for Demoniak’s copy protection. It uses a key word system: at some randomized point within the first dozen or so turns, it prompts the player to type in the Xth word from line Y of page Z of the manual, and refuses to proceed until you get it right. Memorex provided the entire contents of the manual as a text file, but since it’s not paginated, this is of limited use. (Plus, the game occasionally asks for a word from something other than the manual, such as the box or the diskettes.) I suspect that few people noticed this problem. The people responsible for the package presumably tried at most a command or two to make sure that it was working, and probably most of the customers quit the moment they realized that it was a text adventure, something that the packaging tried to obscure.

I already knew all this when I pulled it from my box of games abandoned for technical reasons, but I was hoping that the internet would help me. I mean, it’s 2012. Someone, somewhere, had to have either cracked this game or posted a list of the key words somewhere. Alas, the internet failed me. Even when I found Demoniak on abandonware sites, it was uncracked, and accompanied by less documentation than Memorex provided.

There was a time when my usual response to key word copy protection would be to hack it out. Generally speaking, it’s the easiest kind of copy protection to hack: somewhere in the code, there’s got to be a point where it compares your input to a target string and conditionally branches to success or failure, so once you’ve identified that point (by tracing through the execution with an assembly-language debugger), all you have to do is replace the conditional branch with an unconditional one (or a no-op, as appropriate). But a game whose chief mode of interaction is text is likely to process its key word input by the same means as all other input in the game, and messing with the parser seems risky, even if the game isn’t programmed in its own proprietary byte code format like the Infocom games were.

Today, I’ve gone as far as to install a debugger anyway, just so I can look at memory where the game has unpacked its strings and try to find something promising. But I’ve had no luck yet. If anyone reading this has access to a Demoniak manual, or any other means of bypassing the copy protection, help would be appreciated. I promise my copy is legitimate.

IFComp 2011: Hat Mystery

OK, something very cool happened last night that people watching the IF Comp from the outside should be told about. An enigmatic post appeared on the forum at

No one has yet put together the full truth. Will the man with the hat ever be redeemed?

(signed) Lyman Clive Charles, Pam Comfite, Cameron Fox, and Edmund Wells.

The four signers are the authors of Cold Iron, Playing Games, Last Day of Summer, and Doctor M, respectively. Since Edmund Wells was known to be a pseudonym, it seemed likely that the other three were as well.

This sparked excited discussion on IFmud, the MUD were various IF authors and enthusiasts gather. No one seems to have suspected a connection between them beforehand, but once you isolate them like this, some patterns jump out. Yes, all four involve a mysterious stranger in a vaguely-described hat — although in Doctor M, the one where he plays the largest role, he isn’t wearing the hat when you meet him; he’s lost it and you have to find it for him. Which links to another commonality: in all four games, you trade a found item to the stranger for something else. Furthermore, the items are repeated from game to game: you trade a pocket watch for a gemstone in Games, a gemstone for a knife in Iron, a knife for a hat in Summer, and a hat for a watch chain in Doctor M. Clearly something was up. Other confirming details became apparent. For example, both Iron and Summer prominently feature a storybook written by a reverend, and a set of four paintings in Doctor M clearly depict scenes from each of the four games, once you’re sensitized to the connection.

A few hours later, a collaborative effort had put together the clues found in all four games and finally redeemed the man in the hat. I won’t go into detail here — Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin has posted a near-complete transcript of the proceedings if you’re interested — but it turns out that some of the games involved contain hints for actions you can perform in other games, some involving details that served no obvious purpose within their own context.

Once the riddle was solved, the authors unmasked themselves. Lyman Clive Charles tuned out to be Zarf himself, who had been discreetly observing the unraveling without comment. This surprised me, because Cold Iron had seemed rather cursory and incomplete, but I suppose that’s because so much of its content was bound up in the hat mystery. Also surprising is that Doctor M is the first released work by its author, Mike Hilborn. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Apparently the authors were hoping that someone would discover the secret during the Comp, and worried that the clues were too obvious, that people would pick up on the secret too quickly. It’s always hard to judge how difficult a puzzle is without testing it on people, which is difficult for secret puzzles like this one. I recall that Kit Williams, creator of the treasure-hunt book Masquerade, expected it would take a week or two for someone to solve its puzzle and find the jewel, but in the end, even the person who claimed the prize turned out to have cheated.

For my part, I recall noticing two indescribable hats in two of the games I played in close proximity, but thought of it as just a funny coincidence, not worth mentioning in my reviews. The thing is, there were a lot of funny coincidences in this Comp. I myself joked in a previous post about collusion between the authors of all the detective games. I mentioned the odd coincidence of two games about little girls playing hide-and-seek, but I didn’t even realize at the time that both were by Australians. Even the games in the hat mystery have strong connections to ones not involved. Cold Iron and Last Day of Summer both involve a rustic’s relation to a reverend, but so does Beet the Devil, which, like Playing Games, uses a tunnel hidden by a bush to divide the prologue from the midgame. (If I had noticed this during the Comp, I probably would have wasted some time searching Beet the Devil for that storybook.) Furthermore, 38 games is a lot, so without that nudge advising us to look at that group of four together, we didn’t really have a foothold. The nudge, however, is all it took.

IFComp 2011 Conclusions

As mentioned previously, the Comp results are up already. (I managed to play through the last of the games a couple of days ago, but I’ve been slow to write up my thoughts for this blog.) First place went to Taco Fiction, which isn’t a big surprise; I myself gave it the highest score this year. Six was second, and The Play was third, an amazingly high showing for web-based CYOA. Doctor M took the Banana, and richly deserves it.

The obvious big pattern this year was of course the private eye, but that accounts for only four of the 38 entries: PataNoir, Schlig, Camelot, and Falcon. It strikes me that we had something of a stealth theme in religion. Aside from the two blatantly biblical games, we had four games (Beet, Calm, Summer, Iron) that had clergy of some sort as prominent background characters, seen or unseen. Benevolent background characters, at that. That’s a break from tradition. Back when IF was all about exploring dungeons, if you found a chapel or a shrine, it was a safe bet that it was used for the unholy rites of unspeakable and demonic gods, and probably human sacrifice as well. The only game in that tradition this year is Kerkerkruip.

Anyway, that’s it for this year. Next post, we get back to the Stack. I’ve already got some play to report on, days late.

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