Archive for 2013

IFComp 2013: Sam and Leo Go To The Bodega

The randomizer seems to be giving me all the Twine clustered at the beginning. Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2013: Our Boys In Uniform

Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2013: Bell Park, Youth Detective

Next up, the first of many Twine entries. Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2013: Trapped in Time

And of course right after I make a post complaining about static hypertext in the Comp, the first thing the randomizer picks for me is a PDF file, accompanied by a brief readme that instructs you to print it out and play it genuinely CYOA-style: the text is a series of numbered nodes, each ending in a list of nodes you can go to next. (Asking around, it seems that few people actually bothered to print it out. I myself played it straight from the screen.) Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2013 and the Twine Revolution

It’s been several months since I’ve posted here, but I’d really like to get back into the habit again. Luckily, the Comp is here to force the issue, late though I am to start it. This year, there are 35 entries. Strikingly, more than half of them — 19, to be precise — are listed as “Web-Based”. I’m told that about 3/4 of these were written in Twine.

And that’s as good a reason as any to go off on a rant that’s been building inside me for a while: the Twine rant. This is in large part a reaction — a visceral reaction, largely unjustified for reasons I’ll describe — to a provocative essay by Porpentine, portraying Twine as a revolutionary force against the gatekeepers and hegemons of capitalism, elitism, and the dominance of the parser-based IF community. As a member of the IF community, this stance really took me by surprise. Dominance? I thought we were the scrappy underdogs. What are we dominating? Certainly not the games industry.

As far as I can tell, our domination is of the term “Interactive Fiction”. Porpentine laments the fact that googling “interactive fiction” yields pages of results about parser-based IF, but little about hypertext. As she puts it, “Some say non-parser isn’t interactive fiction. If the words can be interacted with, it’s interactive fiction.”

Now, my gut reaction to this is that it makes as much sense as Bobby Fisher’s infamous claim that he shouldn’t be considered anti-semitic because Arabs are semites too. Words have histories, and don’t always mean what they sound like they should mean. In the case of “interactive fiction”, Infocom gave it a much more specific meaning three decades ago — essentially, “text adventures, but said with less embarrassment” — and that usage stuck well enough that the hobbyist community that sprung up after Infocom’s demise still used the term, and named the Usenet newsgroups where most of the early information-sharing took place “” and “”. 1 Actually, there’s at least one usage of the term “interactive fiction” before Infocom’s: Robert Lafore’s Interactive Fiction: Six Micro Stories, published by Adventure International. I played this on TRS-80 back in the day. The interface here was command-line-based, I don’t think it actually qualifies as a parser, because it made no attempt at grammatical analysis: it just scanned the input text for certain key words and ignored everything else once it found one. For example, “No problem” would be interpreted as a refusal, because it contains the word “no”.

Not that there wasn’t disagreement about terminology back then! Every once in a while, someone would wander into the newsgroups and tell us all that the stuff we were writing and playing wasn’t really interactive, because it didn’t meet some criterion he had made up — say, for example, that it only counts as interactive if there’s significant plot branches and multiple endings — and that therefore we should all be doing things his way instead. These attempts at redefining our art out from under us seldom went over well, and that’s part of why I’m so defensive about this. Magnus Olsson, in a memorable 1997 raif post, compared the IF community to a jazz club, and these bossy newcomers to someone who goes to the club to tell everyone in the club that jazz is dead and they should all be using pre-programmed synthesizers instead. No matter how good his arguments are, they’re going to be ignored by the people who showed up because they like jazz.

I kind of felt like Olsson was giving these guys too much credit, though. Some years later, I came up with another metaphor that I think better captured the more cluelessly bossy newcomers: Imagine someone who has never heard of baseball. On hearing the term for the first time, this person tries to imagine what it might be like on the basis of the name alone, and comes to the conclusion that it’s probably a soccer-like ball game involving RTS-style base-building, creating structures to protect your goal from the enemy. Intrigued by this admittedly rather interesting idea, he goes off to see a baseball game, only to find that it’s nothing like what he imagined. And so he yells at the players that they’re doing it all wrong.

So anyway, the Twine Revolution strikes me as kind of similar to this scenario, except that instead of demanding that existing baseball teams abandon their ways, a whole bunch of people who are interested in RTS-style baseball got together and formed a league. And they’re getting a lot of press coverage, and people are watching their matches, and they all refer to this new sport as “baseball”. For some of them, it’s the only kind of baseball they know. And somewhere, there are players of traditional baseball (which is what they have to call it now, “traditional baseball”) looking on in bemusement and confusion.

Now, that was my gut reaction. Here’s why it’s bunk. For starters, the IF community is a tiny, tiny thing. Even at its height, the Comp never got more than a few hundred people to vote on it. That is not enough people to dictate common usage. Besides, the whole bossy newcomer scenario described above should have been a pretty good indication that “interactive fiction” was a poor choice of term for what we were doing in the first place, and if people even today are googling the term and expecting hyperfiction, well, something is wrong. If a small group like the IF community disagrees with the rest of the world about what “interactive fiction” means, we can’t reasonably tell the rest of the world that they’re the mistaken ones. Which leads to my second point: we don’t actually disagree with them. There have been plenty of Comp entries with hypertext interfaces in the past. Andrew Plotkin’s last-released work of IF has an essentially hypertext interface, although it does allow you to type the words instead of clicking on them if you really want to. Emily Short’s current project, a highly procedural and simulationist system called Versu, has a touchscreen-friendly contextual menu interface rather than a text parser. And for years now, every time “CYOA” interfaces come up, I’ve been pointing out that a simple interface doesn’t have to mean a simple world model. There has even been parser-based IF that I thought would have been improved by taking the parser away.

But I will draw one line. Regardless of the interface, the world model — the thing you interact with — is an important part of IF. I wouldn’t call static hypertext 2That is, stuff that could be represented entirely in HTML without any scripts. interactive in any meaningful way, even when it represents a branching story. You don’t act on such a work and change its state, you just look at different parts of it, change which already-present page is being displayed. That’s exactly the level of interactivity you have with a normal, linear book. Twine is of course capable of much deeper interaction than this. But static hypertext is kind of Twine’s default state, just as text-adventure-with-directional-movement-and-inventory is Inform’s. It’s the easiest thing to do in Twine, and therefore, as far as I’ve seen, it’s all that the majority of works in Twine do. And all power to them, really. If static hyperfiction is all you want to make, Twine is a pretty good way to make it. The Twine community certainly won’t disapprove. But to call the result “interactive fiction” — can I at least fight this? Or am I edging into bossy-newcomer territory here?

Ultimately, is the terminology even worth fighting over at all?

Well, there’s at least one place where it makes a substantial difference: the Comp. Because that’s where the inevitable static hypertext and the text adventures will be judged against each other. Which is kind of like having a baseball match where one side is playing traditional-style and the other side is playing RTS-style.

There have been static hypertext works entered into the Comp before. (Heck, there was one last year.) But they were always entered by isolated individuals, and voted low by irritated players, and forgotten shortly afterward. The Twine Revolution is bigger than that, and could possibly balkanize the Comp. If the Twine authors are out in force this year, it stands to reason that the Twine players will be too. This could be the first time that there’s a substantial faction of Comp voters who just don’t like parser-based IF at all, just as there is surely a substantial portion (myself among them) who will balk at static hypertext. If they’ve read Porpentine’s inflammatory rhetoric (and forgotten the bits where she says she actually “likes parser”), they may even possibly regard the parser as an enemy, as something to be defeated by staging a mass invasion and voting all the Twine games to the top. And that would make me sad, just like the patrons of Olsson’s jazz club would be disappointed if they suddenly found that the “jazz is dead” guy and his friends were not only booking half the performance slots but winning awards at jazz festivals for their preprogrammed synthesizer recordings.

But in the end, as I said in a previous post, the Comp isn’t where the really exciting stuff in IF is going on these days anyway. And I still intend to get around to talking more about that in a month or so, once my Comp writeups are done.

1 Actually, there’s at least one usage of the term “interactive fiction” before Infocom’s: Robert Lafore’s Interactive Fiction: Six Micro Stories, published by Adventure International. I played this on TRS-80 back in the day. The interface here was command-line-based, I don’t think it actually qualifies as a parser, because it made no attempt at grammatical analysis: it just scanned the input text for certain key words and ignored everything else once it found one. For example, “No problem” would be interpreted as a refusal, because it contains the word “no”.
2 That is, stuff that could be represented entirely in HTML without any scripts.

Asynchronous online multiplayer

Lately I’ve been playing a couple of games with a friend back east via iPhone apps. First we played a few rounds of Ascension, then a few rounds of Ticket to Ride. These are both adaptations of games designed for non-electronic play: Ascension is a card game, Ticket to Ride a board game. In their original forms, they would be played face-to-face in a single session, which is to say, in a period of time set aside just for play. As mobile games, no set-aside time is required. You can take your turn at any idle moment of your day. It’s no surprise that this transforms the experience of the game. It’s a little less obvious that it transforms it in very different ways depending on the rules of the game.

Ascension isn’t a CCG, but its design is informed by them. As in Magic: the Gathering, most cards are in some way exceptional, with special-case rules printed directly on the cards themselves. And if the central act of gameplay in a CCG is deck construction, Ascension manages to approximate it within the body of the game: the players start with small identical decks, and vie to acquire cards from a central pool, to add them to their decks and use them later in the game, most often for acquiring more cards. On every turn, you’re dealt a fresh hand of five cards from your deck, and your turn doesn’t end until you’ve played them all and your hand is empty. Importantly for the mobile adaptation, you’re dealt next turn’s hand immediately on the end of your turn, so you can contemplate what you’re going to do with it while your opponents are going.

Ticket to Ride is about trains. The board is a map of a rail network. Players compete to claim the tracks between cities and complete connections between particular distant pairs of cities assigned to them in secret. Each track can be owned by only one player, so some of the strategy is in dealing with, and exploiting, congestion: trying to foil your opponents by claiming the tracks they need while trying to plan for alternate routes in case your own efforts become blocked. Buying a track costs varying types and numbers of resources in the form of cards, which build up in your hand over the course of play. On any given turn, you can either draw two cards, or buy one track, or get additional contracts to connect cities (which is risky, because any contracts left uncompleted at the end of the game count against you).

Now, the big difference between these two games is in the length of the turns. Ticket to Ride turns are short. You do one thing, and that’s it — and if all you did was draw a couple of cards that you didn’t really need, it hardly feels like doing anything at all. Ascension turns are long, and get longer as the game advances and your deck becomes more powerful, enabling you to do more stuff. Moreover, Ticket to Ride separates the act of acquiring resources from the act of using them, and the result can be fairly excruciating: you finally get the fifth green card that you need to buy the St. Louis to Pittsburgh line and complete the connection you’re aiming for, but then you have to wait hours for your next turn before you can complete the transaction. In Ascension, your purchasing power is also tied to the cards in your hand, but it’s transient, not something that builds up from turn to turn, and so you use it the moment you get it. It’s a little strange to say this about a game that’s all about collecting things for future use, but turns in Ascension feel pretty self-contained, or at least self-sufficient. They’re like full sentences, where Ticket to Ride turns are sentence fragments, only meaningful in groups.

Another thing: Both of these games involve a struggle to get stuff before your opponents, and the possibility that a thing you really want will be taken away before you can get it. But the degree of consequence is very different. In Ascension, if I don’t get the sweet card I wanted, well, it’s just a card. There will be others. But in Ticket to Ride, if someone nabs the track I wanted, I’m devastated, and have to rework my plans. This again relates to the relative unimportance of forward plans in Ascension, which is more about seizing whatever the circumstances offer.

The end result: Ascension works more or less the way I want asynchronous multiplayer to work, with turns as satisfying nuggets of gameplay that I can take care of whenever it’s convenient. With only two players, there came times when we shuttled several turns back and forth in a short period of time, but this wasn’t a necessary part of the experience. Whereas in Ticket to Ride, the times when we made multiple moves in rapid succession were the only times that the game really felt like it was going anywhere. After submitting a move, I’d keep impatiently checking my phone for an opportunity to finish what I started. In other words, despite the asynchrony, I wanted to treat it like I was in a dedicated game session. Whereas Ascension is so well-suited to the format that I feel like it would be weird to play it face-to-face.

So, I’m speculating that this is generally applicable. Games that are well-suited to asynchronous multiplayer play will be those with long, self-sufficient turns, and without a great deal of forward planning. What does this predict for other games?

Chess and Go are big losers in this model, having both short turns and heavily planning-based gameplay. Scrabble, I suggest, is a winner — sure, you only get to do one thing per turn, but my experience is that it the turns tend to take an uncomfortably long time for face-to-face play anyway. And indeed asynchronous Scrabble-oids such as Words for Friends have been immensely popular. Settlers of Catan? Ignoring the problem of how to handle trading, it seems a pretty good candidate to me, despite sharing Ticket to Ride‘s congestion and resource-accumulation aspects: the congestion is never as individually crucial as in Ticket to Ride‘s routes, and resources can be spent as soon at they’re acquired. Magic: the Gathering might seem promising at first glance, what with its long turns, but it involves a degree of out-of-turn interactivity that’s unwieldy even for synchronous online play, let alone asynchronous. Diplomacy more or less fits the bill, and is also one of the few board games that I know to be more satisfying played via email than in its original form, but it’s also such an oddball with its all-players-move-simultaneously thing that I’m not sure it really fits into the same model as these other games at all.

Let me tell you a little more about Homestuck

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous post about the gamelike attributes of Homestuck: sometimes Homestuck is difficult. Sometimes just reading it is a challenge. That’s not just because it’s a sprawling and complex work with a lot of characters to keep track of. It’s also because the text is often obfuscated in some way.

Most of the story’s text is in the form of chatlogs, and quite a few of the characters have “typing quirks” of some sort, such as leet-style letter substitutions, which somehow carry over into their speech and even sound effects. The simpler and more consistent substitutions are easy to get used to, but then you get contextually-variable ones, where the same substitution has more than one meaning. For example, one character uses “8” for both “B” and the sound of the word “eight”, or sometimes even for just a long “A” sound, and when she’s upset she just starts sticking 8’s into words where they don’t make sense at all. Occasionally the quirks become incomprehensible enough to baffle the other characters.

There’s one character who speaks in white text — the website’s background isn’t quite the same color, but it’s still most easily read by highlighting it. The effect is sometimes that you see other people’s reactions to what he said before you see what provoked those reactions. There’s an infrequently-used alien alphabet, stolen from the Elder Scrolls games. There’s a character who’s a firefly, who’s completely mute and communicates (or tries to communicate, anyway) by blinking in morse code, transcribed for the reader in dots and dashes. There’s a brief appearance by a character who speaks solely in bad Japanese. It all becomes a sort of gesture of amiable hostility on the part of the author, who knows that anything he does to thwart his readers will be decoded in short order and posted online by the more dedicated ones. And that adds up to another bit of gamishness: even outside of the interactive sequences, people are getting to the full content by looking up hints online.

Let me tell you about Homestuck

After seeing Homestuck mentioned here and there for a few years now, I finally decided to give it a try back in January. It took me about three weeks to get all the way through the archives. During those three weeks, reading Homestuck was pretty much all I did when I was at home. In particular, it consumed the time that I would have otherwise spent playing games. It seems to me that Homestuck displaces games particularly easily. It scratches the same itch, because of the various ways it’s connected to them. I’ve never seen a work in any medium whose relation to games and gaming is so multi-faceted.

Before delving into that further, I should explain just what Homestuck is. It’s usually classed as a webcomic, but that’s misleading: much of the story is told through lengthy text passages, animation (usually simple animated gifs, but with the occasional longer Flash-based movie with musical accompaniment), and even interactive sequences, with no separation. But it’s definitely a work of serialized fiction, written by Andrew Hussie (with sporadic collaboration on art, music, and code) since 2009 and still ongoing as I write this. The story concerns a group of teenagers playing a videogame called “SBURB” that affects their reality, and which turns out to be major part of the cosmic cycle involving the end of the world and the creation of a new one. Although greatly given to rampant silliness, it’s got very good characterization and a twisty, turny plot that pitches wildly from heartwarming to slapstick to horrified “OH MY GOD” at the drop of a hat.

So, just from that description, the most obvious connection to games is in the premise: this is a story about a game. It goes further than that, though. Gamishness pervades the world of the story, and fake videogame user interfaces are just part of the way that world is presented. The characters struggle with obtuse inventory systems, have JRPG-style battles with family members, and gain experience levels before they’ve even started playing SBURB — if they can ever truly be said to be in such a state; in a sense, we later learn, they’ve been part of the game for their entire lives. (You may think it’s hinting at an obvious just-a-dream-style twist ending where the entire story and all its characters turn out to be just parts of a larger game, but honestly, that wouldn’t even be a twist at this point. The twist is the uneasy fusion of game and reality; simplifying that would be an untwist.) It’s not just videogame imagery, either: there are entire plot structures and groups of characters organized around card suits, chess, and pool (to one-up Carroll).

Secondly, there are those interactive sequences I mentioned. This flows from the game-centric plot: when you read about a game, it’s only natural to want to play it — so much so, in fact, that the fans’ craving for a Homestuck-based game resulted in one of the canonical highly successful Kickstarter projects. But even before that, Homestuck contained multiple games, or game-like things, as part of its narrative, in a sort of inversion of the usual game/cutscene relationship. Now, understand that these are still games more in presentation than in function, hinting at the presence of mechanics you can’t actually use while really just providing an alternate frame for dialogue: walking a sprite around a map and pressing a button at people to trigger canned conversations. But then, consider how many actual games try to get away with essentially the same thing, modulo annoying random encounters. In Homestuck, at least it’s completely clear from context that any interactive elements are subordinate to a linear story. Also, by virtue of its episodic format, Homestuck gets to keep experimenting with the pseudogame systems, or even completely replacing them. At one point a character explores a long-dead world, and the minigames adjust appropriately: instead of a tile-based RPG imitation, you get a short but fully-functional Myst-like.

Even if the gameplay in the interactive Flash parts is driven by plot, the plot on a broader level has been to some extent driven by gameplay. Probably the most prominent game element in Homestuck is the command prompt: pages are linked, one to the next, with simulated text-adventure commands addressed to the characters. Although this is just a stylistic quirk today, for the first few chapters these commands were a form of audience participation, chosen from suggestions submitted to the website. Not that this put the audience entirely in the driver’s seat. As Hussie explains on the site, “When a story begins to get thousands of suggestions, paradoxically, it becomes much harder to call it truly ‘reader-driven’. This is simply because there is so much available, the author can cherry-pick from what’s there to suit whatever he might have in mind, whether he’s deliberately planning ahead or not.” Homestuck inherited this mechanism from the three previous projects that it shares the website with, and those previous projects were much more reader-driven: in the first such experiment, Jailbreak, he simply picked the first suggested command at each juncture, which inevitably produced a story mostly about poo and dismemberment. In Problem Sleuth, the story immediately preceding Homestuck, Hussie was exercising choice, but also quite clearly didn’t have a lot planned out at first and used the suggested commands for ideas, kind of like in improv comedy. For example, at one point early on, a reader suggested building a fort out of the Sleuth’s broken office furniture, and Hussie immediately started spinning pseudo-game mechanics around play forts of this sort: sitting in a fort provided access to an imaginary but objectively real world, but only if your Imagination stat was high enough, although if it wasn’t, you could get a temporary Imagination boost by drinking alcohol, etc. Although much about the overall structure of Homestuck was planned out before it even began, some the details came out of this sort of give-and-take.

Now, I actually read Problem Sleuth for a little while when it was still ongoing, and only learned of its connection to Homestuck shortly before starting to read Homestuck. I gave up on PS when it was about halfway to completion, at a point when it shifted its focus from fake contrived adventure-game puzzles to extremely long fake JRPG combat sequences. (Homestuck is closer to the latter register from the get-go, but somehow it’s held my interest better. Possibly because it starts out in that register.) But at its best, it left a strong impression that the author had managed to invent an online crowd-playable version of Mentalia.

“Mentalia” is the name that some friends of mine gave to the pseudo-tabletop-RPG that they played sometimes, although I imagine other people have come up with the same idea independently. It works like this: Like in D&D, there is one GM (Mentalia uses the term “Madmaster”) and one or more players; the players control the actions of specific characters, while the GM controls the world. However, the world runs on whim. There are no outright rules other than non-contradiction. If you say your character can fly, then your character can fly, and no one can tell you otherwise. There is, however, one very strong guideline: that simple, straightforward solutions to problems should never work, and if the reason they don’t work is absurdly implausible, so much the better. (This attitude in particular is all over Problem Sleuth.) So, for example, directly attacking the fearsome beast guarding a passageway would probably just break your sword. You’d have more luck with an indirect approach like, say, getting the beast on your side by converting it to Christianity — which would doubtless require sub-quests like fetching books on theology for the beast to peruse. A really off-the-wall approach like replacing the beast with a statue, and doing it so quickly and stealthily that not even the beast itself notices, might work without further complication simply because it’s amusing in itself. A lot is up to the Madmaster. Now, I’ve been in good Mentalia sessions and bad Mentalia sessions. The worse ones are the ones where the participants just treat it as a way to show off how wacky and off-the-wall they can be individually. But at its best, Mentalia involves everyone building off each other’s ideas, collaboratively inventing not just a story but a set of assumptions that allow a story to take place. The story starts from nothing, flails about randomly for a while, and then somehow coalesces into structures and goals that you can follow towards a satisfying conclusion. And that’s what Homestuck is like.

Even in its post-collaboration phase, this is a story that keeps revealing more and more of its underlying rules. Partly this is because the author keeps on inventing new rules, but partly it’s because it’s to a large extent a story about people figuring out how their world works. For example, there are long sequences of pages devoted to showing the players experimenting with the game’s crafting system, making ridiculous weapons by fusing the essences of ordinary household objects. One player even writes up a strategy guide for GameFAQs! This sort of figuring-out is of course a big part of the gaming experience — according to some theories, the joy of learning to master a complex system is the core of what makes games fun. And yet, it strikes me that it’s something that very few works of fiction concerning games have tried to depict. Homestuck, to its credit, depicts it quite a lot. As the characters learn the ins and outs of the game, the readers learn alongside them, getting some of the game-fun for themselves. And even when the story isn’t focusing on the characters figuring stuff out, there’s stuff for the reader to figure out about the story. Major revelations come in forms that you only come to understand gradually, after noticing repeated patterns, or callbacks to things that appeared hundreds of pages ago. Or, as one reader put it, “[I]n Homestuck, answers are freely revealed while the reader has no idea that it is an answer to anything or what sort of question it could be answering… When the question is finally revealed later in the story, the reader is reminded of the answer being presented to them way back when absolutely nothing made sense, and the entire plot begins to fall into place.” In short, the story is a kind of riddle, a ludic element in itself.


Antichamber is distilled essence of Portal — by which I mean, it’s got the same underlying components, but with the flavor replaced with a chemical tang. It’s purged of impurities like plot and humor, abandoning any pretense of setting, leaving just a gun for manipulating the environment in novel ways and a labyrinth of stark white corridors, illogically-connected and rendered in a deliberately non-photorealistic style to enhance the sense of unreality. The strongest way it differs from the formula established by Portal (and followed by Qube and Quantum Conundrum) is that it isn’t a linear series of puzzles. It’s a network of them, with obstacles you can’t overcome the first time you encounter them, Metroidvania-style, and enough loops and branches that you can actually get lost.

It only takes a few hours to beat, leaving aside optional collection for completists. It strikes me that there’s a particular design problem to providing a sense of finality in a thoroughly abstract and unexplained environment; Antichamber manages it largely through a longish final animation that communicates “massive forces unleashed”. Browsing forums afterwards for stuff I missed, I came across an interesting question from someone who hadn’t played the game yet: “Is Antichamber scary?”

I’ll say right off that the answer is “No”. But it’s an interesting question because it’s a reasonable one. This is a game whose basic premise is that the world doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. That alone can be very nervous-making. The last game I played along similar lines was The 4th Wall, which I found extremely frightening. Not everyone’s in agreement about that, mind you; comment threads about T4W tend to be split between people completely creeped out by its disorienting alienness and people who it completely left cold. (There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. It might be interesting to compare the gaming habits of the people on either side.) But T4W at least tries to make things feel unsafe, pulls tricks like having things that chase you, punishing you for ever standing still, even while you’re still trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. Antichamber never really punishes you, except with puzzle-solver’s frustration. Even when the floor crumbles and vanishes under you, and you fall down a very deep pit, friendly signage at the bottom reminds you that what you’ve really done is find a hidden passage.

For another thing, the “doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to” aspect doesn’t really last the full length of the game. It really only has so many tricks, and once you’re used to them, well, it’s no longer the case that it doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. There are portals, of course, but we’re definitely used to thinking in terms of those by now. Some portals are obvious and highly visible, but one of the basic ways it disorients you is with inconspicuous one-way portals, or possibly just silent teleport triggers that send you to a place that looks exactly like where you teleported from until you try to go back the way you came in and realize it isn’t there any more. But that’s a trick as old as Wizardry; once you know it’s something that can happen, you just get into the habit of checking your tail once in a while. Then there are innovations in the use of look-triggers: not just where you are, but which direction you’re facing can be important. A more realistic game might use this to control NPC behavior, making enemies dodge when you aim at them and the like, but in the Myst-like solitude of Antichamber, it either controls more of those unnoticeable teleports I just mentioned, or affects the environment in more direct ways. Early on, for example, there’s a door that slams shut whenever you look at it, and which you therefore have to walk through backwards. Then there’s the relatively trivial matter of walls/floors that appear or disappear as you near them. And that’s basically it as far as violations of physical law go. The opening area has some stair-stepped walls that hint at an Escher-like variation in the direction of gravity, but that never happens.

So what does the game spend its time on once you’ve got a handle on its limited repertoire of space-manipulation? Block puzzles, mainly. It’s not quite what it sounds like: the blocks are cubical, maybe fist-sized, and completely immobile, even if suspended in midair, unless affected by your upgradable block-manipulation gun, which, in its simplest form, just lets you pick the blocks up and place them elsewhere. Some doors can only be opened by solving a self-contained block-manipulation puzzle in a panel next to it, which seemed at first like soup-cans design (although I’d hesitate to call anything a soup can in this game; it’s more like the whole complex is one massive soup can), but in at least some cases, the panels are really tutorials in disguise, teaching block-manipulation techniques applicable outside the panels. It reminds me of something pointed out in Portal‘s developer commentary, how they put a checkerboard pattern on the floor wherever the “fling” maneuver was useful, but only up to a certain point in the game, after which you were expected to be able to think of it on your own. I do have a complaint about the block gun, which is that using the more advanced powers — such as sending a group of blocks moving along a vector — requires moving the mouse while holding down the middle button (that is, the scrollwheel), which is especially awkward on my trackball. There’s currently no way to rebind controls in-game, although apparently you can do it by editing .ini files.

So basically this is a confusingly-laid-out 3D puzzle game, mostly about blocks but themed around counterintuitive spatial weirdness. It’s still a pretty good game, with satisfying puzzles based around slowly realizing what your capabilities are, but I feel like the surrealism aspect has been exaggerated, because it’s the most obvious thing about it at first glance.

New directions for 2013

Year 6 of this blog came to a close in one of those long dry spells. I’ve come to think of that entire year as a kind of early sabbatical, at least from the Oath, but it looks like that’s drawing out into an entire lazy weekend of years. I’m not going to attempt the annual summary post, because it would be extra-difficult this time around: so much of my gaming in 2012 went undocumented here that I would have to be working mainly from memory.

And, realizing this, I definitely want to get out of this slump, of playing games without writing about them. One of the inspirations for starting this blog in the first place was Adam Cadre’s rationale for his book and movie write-ups: “posting about these things assures that I’ll actually think about them”. I don’t just want to think, I want a record of my thoughts that I can look back on. Through a combination of business and laziness, I’ve been cheating myself out of that. I said that the original Oath was a failure due to interfering with clearing old games off the Stack, but that was never really the primary purpose of the blog. It was pretty good at getting me to post.

That said, what next? I have two posts I’d like to write right off: one on Antichamber, which I purchased and played to completion this weekend, and one on how I spent most of my leisure hours in the month of January instead of playing games (and why this is relevant to a gaming blog). After that, I want to finish doing the alphabet. I’m up to D now, which means I could try to finish Deus Ex, but given my previous sluggishness at getting into it, I’m actually kind of inclined to pick something fresh off the Stack (and I think I know what). Now, although it wasn’t part of the original plan, I have so far been doing two games for each letter: one that I have on physical media, which gets the full one-post-per-day treatment, and one that I don’t, which gets one post only. I may bend that further — I don’t want to limit myself to one post if I’m inclined to make more than one — but it’s a pattern I’m willing to follow further. I might even extend it to include a work of IF as a third game per letter. I haven’t really been touching IF on this blog lately outside of the annual Comp, and that isn’t where the really interesting stuff has been happening lately.

At any rate, the distinction between stuff I own on physical media and stuff I only have as downloads is one that I’d like to formally acknowledge in the new Oath. It fits with the aim of playing older games: in my stack, the games on physical media are the older ones, because I basically don’t buy games on physical media any more. Which also has the consequence that the physical sub-stack isn’t growing, and is thus in theory completable. So, from now on, these games are the ones that really count, as far as my self-imposed rules go. You know what doesn’t count? Bundles. Humble Indie Bundle, Indie Royale, Bundle in a Box: as far as I’m concerned, if it’s on a pay-what-you-want basis, it has the same status as all the free stuff on Newgrounds. This decision alone cuts the size of the Stack by about a third. I’ll be updating the Oath to reflect this new understanding shortly, and then start abiding by it again.