___. .___ _ ___. / _| | \ / \ / ._| \ \ | o_/ | | | |_. .\ \ | | | o | | | | The |___/ociety for the |_|romotion of |_|_|dventure \___|ames. ISSUE #50 Edited by Jimmy Maher (maher SP@G grandecom.net) December 3, 2007 SPAG Website: http://www.sparkynet.com/spag SPAG #50 is copyright (c) 2007 by Jimmy Maher. Authors of reviews and articles retain the rights to their contributions. All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine with the traditional 'at' sign. ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE ---------------------------------------------------- Editorial IF News The H.P. Lovecraft Commonplace Book Project INTERVIEWS IN THIS ISSUE -------------------------------------------------- David Cornelson Michael Gentry Graeme Jefferis REVIEWS IN THIS ISSUE ----------------------------------------------------- Edificio 25 Floatpoint Ghost of the Fireflies Lord Bellwater's Secret Regreso al Eden EDITORIAL------------------------------------------------------------------ SPAG #50 has arrived! If this were a big, glitzy commercial publication, I would feel obligated to fill it with retrospectives, lists, and highlights from the last thirteen years. It's not, though, and the IF community is generally not given to such gratuitous back-patting, so I will let the milestone pass quietly. Feel free to reflect amongst yourselves about the community's now rather startlingly lengthy history and SPAG's role in that history. I must in fact confess to having given considerable recent thought to SPAG's role, albeit from the perspective of a nervous editor looking to do the right thing by the community rather than that of a worshipful fan. (You ARE all worshipful fans, aren't you?) Things have been changing in the few years since I took this gig. Many, although certainly not all, discussions are migrating away from the newsgroups to blogs and forums, and new tools are appearing to allow all of us to share reviews and feedback on games more quickly. The IF Wiki, IFReviews.org and the IF Rating Site have of course been around for a little while; now we can add Michael J. Roberts's rather spectacular new IFDB to the list. That's great. Buzzword or not, it's time for IF to join the world of Web 2.0. Us old fogeys may shed a tear for Usenet, but we need to reach the iTunes generation if we want to make of IF a living, vibrant literary scene rather than a relic of the past. All this does raise a difficult question for me, however: does where does an ASCII-based e-zine fit into this brave new world? I've thought about it quite a lot over the last couple of months, even considering whether it might be time to retire SPAG gracefully after an even 50 issues, leaving the site alive of course for its historical archive of reviews. I decided not to do that, for at least two reasons: 1) I think of SPAG as a community trust, and don't really feel empowered to take that kind of a momentous step without consulting you folks; and, more importantly, 2) I think the old girl still has something to contribute to the community, albeit perhaps something slightly different than what Keven Wilson envisioned all those years ago. As I mentioned, we have plenty of places to go to read and submit reviews now, many of them arguably more satisfying for both readers and writers than an old dinosaur like this. What we don't have, though, are other places for in-depth articles, for interviews, and for careful, detailed analysises of games, all with the editorial supervision missing from the world of Web 2.0. SPAG has kind of been traveling in this direction anyway, with the ongoing series on foreign language IF which should conclude next issue with features on the Italian community. I'd like to formalize this change in emphasis at this point, though. I'm not going to keep pushing for huge numbers of capsule reviews in each issue, because frankly I think that's a losing battle. Other places simply do that better in 2007. What I would like to see are more thoughtful features. Judging from recent feedback, I think many of you feel the same way. I won't be maintaining a reviews wanted list anymore, and won't be pressing for reviews of every game that gets released. I would, however, love to get reviews from you, and if you send them to me I'll certainly publish them. But also please think about articles on IF craft, theory, history, or current events you might like to write, such as Peter Nepstad's feature in this issue about his Commonplace Book Exhibition. Think about figures you might like to see interviewed, and either send me an email telling me who I should be talking to or (even better) offering to conduct the interview yourself. Think abotut review packages you might like to put together, covering and comparing games from certain competitions or even just on a single theme. (I'm planning one of these for next issue myself.) And think about longer, more in-depth commentaries you might want to write on games that move you positively or negatively, or that just intrigue you. You can do this as a SPAG Specifics piece if you like, which affords you the unique opportunity in IF criticism to indulge in all the spoiling you want to do on the way to making your point. I'll do my part, trying to write or drum up interesting features for each issue. I've already got a couple in the pipeline for next time around. As always with SPAG, though, much of the work is up to you. IF NEWS ------------------------------------------------------------------- IF Competition 2007 The biggest annual community event has come and gone, leaving in its wake another handful of games likely to be remembered years from now. Check the IF Wiki page at http://www.ifwiki.org/index.php/IF_Comp_2007 for a complete list of review sets. Congratulations to those who placed well... aw, hell, to everyone who entered. You all deserve it. Look for interviews with the top finishers (assuming they agree to do them) in the next issue of SPAG. http://www.ifcomp.org 1 Lost Pig, by Admiral Jota (writing as Grunk) 2 An Act of Murder, by Christopher Huang (writing as Hugh Dunnett) 3 Lord Bellwater's Secret, by Sam Gordon 4 Across The Stars, by Dark Star & Peter Mattsson 5 The Chinese Room, by Joey Jones and Harry Giles 6 Varkana, by Maryam Gousheh Forgeot (writing as Farahnaaz) 7 A Fine Day for Reaping, by revgiblet 8 Orevore Courier, by Brian Rapp 9 My Name is Jack Mills, by Juhana Leinonen 10 A Matter of Importance, by Valentine Kopteltsev (writing as Nestor I. McNaugh) 11 Ferrous Ring, by Carma Ferris 12 Deadline Enchanter, by Alan DeNiro (writing as Anonymous) 13 My Mind's Mishmash, by Robert Street 14 In The Mind Of The Master, by David Whyld 15 Gathered In Darkness, by Michael Millsap (writing as Dr. Froth) 16 Fox, Fowl and Feed, by Chris Conroy 17 Wish, by Edward Floren 18 Packrat, by Bill Powell 19 Slap that Fish, by Peter Nepstad 20 Jealousy Duel X, by Alex Camelio 21 Beneath: a Transformation, by Graham Lowther 22 The Immortal, by Just Rob 23 Eduard the Seminarist, by Heiko TheiĂn 24 Press [Escape] to Save, by Mark Jones 25 Reconciling Mother, by Glenn Engstrand (writing as Plone Glenn) 26 The Lost Dimension, by C. Yong 27 Ghost of the Fireflies, by Paul Panks (writing as Dunric) IntroComp 2007 Winners Announced The annual IntroComp competition for introductions to proposed longer works of IF is also complete, and I won! It's all about me! Me! (Hey, what's the use of being the editor of an amateur publication covering an obscure hobby if you can't use it to bolster your self-esteem every once in a while?) http://www.xyzzynews.com/introcomp One Room Game Competition 2007 A competition is currently in progress for games taking place within (you guessed it) a single room. There are five entries in English and four in Italian, and you have until December 22 to play them and submit your scores. http://www.avventuretestuali.com/orgc/orgc-2007-eng Commodore C-40 Contest Sam Trenholme is running a contest for minimalist IF games, or other forms of ASCII-based entertainment. Entrants must be capable of running on a hypothetical Commodore C-40 machine featuring a whopping 40K of memory, meaning they must be less than 40K in length and must be in Z-Machine version 3 or version 5 format. 2004's C-32 contest, to which this is a succesor, was a lot of fun and produced some surprisingly playable little gems. Deadline for sending your games to Sam is December 4, so there probably isn't time to write something (unless you work really, really fast). You can certainly judge, however. http://www.ifwiki.org/index.php/C-40_Contest Interactive Short Fiction Competition Mark Engelberg is hosting a competition for short, gentle games designed to ease the beginning player into IF. Entries must be written in Inform 7 or TADS 3, and there is a $50 cash prize. The deadline for submissions is February 15. http://mark.engelberg.googlepages.com/interactiveshortfictioncompetition Spring Thing 2008 Greg Boettcher will be running the Spring Thing Competition again next year, focusing on longer works of IF that must pass a quality control standard to be eligible. It's a great idea that never seems to attract the interest it deserves. Perhaps we can finally change that this time. Authors must notify Greg of their intention to enter and pay their $5 US entry fees by March 15 of next year, with the finished games being due on April 2. http://www.springthing.net/2008 IFDB Mike Roberts of TADS fame has just rendered a wonderful new service to the community: the IFDB (Interactive Fiction Database). Taking the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) as its obvious model, the IFDB is place for players to rate games and share their recommendations with others. That's how Mike chooses to describe it, anyway, but really he's selling himself short in doing so, for there are a host of other neat features to be found there, including a new and badly needed system for quickly and conveniently downloading and playing interesting games iTunes style, with the correct interpreter being automatically chosen or even installed if necessary. Check this one out, folks. It well and truly rocks. http://ifdb.tads.org Inform 7 for Linux The Linux version of the Inform 7 IDE has matured enough to stand beside the Windows and Macintosh versions as an officially supported port available from the Inform 7 website. Great news for those of you using Linux I'm sure. http://inform-fiction.org Textfyre on Gamasutra The professional game development webzine Gamasutra recently published an article on David Cornelson's new commercial IF company Textfyre, along with an interview with David. http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=15481 Command Lines: An IF Dissertation Jeremy Douglass has made his recently completed IF-focused PhD dissertation available online. The work, entitled Command Lines, makes a good argument for recasting the traditional narrative about IF history, treating the commercial era as a brief abberation rather than a sort of golden age. More interesting still, though, are his close crtical readings of several works of modern IF. There's a lot here (almost 400 pages), so dig in. http://jeremydouglass.com/dissertation.html THE H.P. LOVECRAFT COMMONPLACE BOOK PROJECT by Peter Nepstad -------------- I've put together this article based on a recommendation by "Urbatain," who at the close of the project recommended that everyone write a little something about the project for the different IF magazines, he for SPAC, me for SPAG. The Spanish language article, an interview between all participants, is in SPAC #51 and a great read, if you read Spanish and/or are willing to copy/paste into Google Trans: http://www.caad.es/spac/spac51.htm. 1. In the Beginning... To start with, I was working on a series of Interactive Fictions based on early fantasy/horror authors who were inspirations to H.P. Lovecraft. I had just completed the first two in the series (based on stories by Lord Dunsany) and was working on a third, when around mid-February of 2007, I decided I hadn't read my Lovecraft in so long, that it was time to re-read those stories, as well. So I started with the books I had, and researched ones I didn't. I kept reading about Lovecraft's Commonplace Book -- his repository for story ideas that he never completed -- and got online to try tracking down a copy. Using the near-mystical powers of Google, I promptly stumbled onto a site that had posted information about an upcoming Lovecraft-inspired art exhibit in Switzerland, based on the Commonplace Book. [The site is Monster Brains, and one that I have bookmarked and now regularly visit, a compendium of monster art, old and new. The posting I stumbled across is located here: http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2007/01/exhibit-of-unspeakable-things.html]. Reading through the invite to exhibit, I immediately noticed two things: One, that it looked like a cool project, and Two, that I had already missed the deadline for Artists contracts, but the confirmation of artist participation deadline was still a couple weeks off. But it immediately struck me that the Commonplace Book ideas would make natural jumping-off points for works of IF. I mean, take this example: - "Ancient and unknown ruins, strange and immortal bird who speaks in a language horrifying and revelatory to the explorers." or this: - "Individual, by some strange process, retraces the path of evolution and becomes amphibious." Great stuff. So, I did a little research. The exhibit was to be held at Maison d'Ailleurs, aka The Museum of Science Fiction and Utopias, which for starters, is a completely cool topic to have a museum for. It is located in Yverdon-les-Bains, a town in the French speaking region of Switzerland. The website is at http://www.ailleurs.ch/uk/index.php, and there you can find additional information about the museum, its collection, and the exhibits. The curator of the museum is Patrick Gyger, who has his own wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Gyger, and who has worked previously on the European Space Agency's ITSF project, which compiled all possible suggestions of Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for space applications. What a project! Combing through science fiction books and documenting the best ideas for actual engineers and scientists to discuss and think about -- a visionary and inspirational project if there ever was one. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be possible to contribute a work of Interactive Fiction for the exhibit. And the more I thought about that, the more I thought that maybe some other authors would be interested in contributing as well. So, I sent Mr. Gyger an email that very same day. I may be too late because of the first missed deadline, I thought, but there was no sense wasting any more time. --------------- SUBJECT: An Exhibit Of Unspeakable Things: Request to Participate I have just today discovered your plans for "An Exhibit Of Unspeakable Things" and am very interested in somehow participating in the exhibit. However, my chosen media is "Interactive Fiction." In short, I write text-based, interactive stories that can be played on a computer. I am currently working on a series of stories adapted from the works of Lord Dunsany. For example, see the adaptation of THE EBB AND FLOW OF THE TIDE, here: http://www.ifwiki.org/index.php/The_Ebb_and_Flow_of_the_Tide --------------- And so my memo began. A little background, a little explanation, and the Lord Dunsany game to give him an idea of what I was on about (note I linked to the ifwiki page for the game, which I felt gave the cleanest introduction to the work, compared to other sites). I went on to make my proposal: (1) that I write a game for the exhibit, (2) that I get other IF authors to write games for the exhibit, and that I would (3) provide at least one work in French. At this time, I had absolutely no idea how I might pull that off, but it seemed like the right suggestion to make for the venue in question. I added a couple links, to JOURNEY OF THE KING (my second Dunsany game) and a review of 1893 (so that he knows I am not just some completely random person emailing him out of nowhere), and I hit send, and waited. It didn't take long to get a response: -------------- SUBJECT: re: An Exhibit of Unspeakable Things: Request to Participate Dear Peter Nepstad, Thank you for your email regarding our exhibition. These works you link to seem very interesting. The Ebb and Flow is great (although I haven't made very good progress in the game, I must admit)... Your idea is very original and we'd be very happy to pursue this further. Something in English + French would be great, so that it would somehow be of interest to different types of audiences. How can I assist you in this project? Also, let me know if I can give you more info about the exhibit. --------------- I was very impressed that he took the time to download an interpreter and download a game and play it before responding (and also he of course showed great taste in his appreciation of the game! :)). At the same time, I had to laugh -- of course, my most rash proposal -- sending a game in French -- was one he seized on immediately. But it looked like it was a go, so it was time to get down to business. And really from that moment on, until the opening of the exhibit in October, I spent some time every single week emailing dozens of people, working with the museum and other authors, developing my game, running the comp, creating a user interface for all the games, making sure they worked, and getting them to the museum in time for the opening. So there are really two lessons about this project for everyone: First, you don't know if you can do something unless you ask. Second, you'd better be prepared to back up your request with a lot of work. - "Drowning sensations—undersea—cities—ships—souls of the dead. Drowning is a horrible death." 2. Inviting Other Authors to Participate I resolved in my mind that the exhibit would simply not be possible without a contribution from some French language authors. I thought this was a great opportunity for a global project, and excited at the prospect, but at the same time was (1) mostly unfamiliar with the French IF scene, and (2) took a couple years of French in High School but that was a loooooooong time ago. So it looked like I needed to find a bilingual French author at that. I decided to contact "JB", because he recently released a high quality French game that included graphics, called Ekphrasis, which was favorably discussed. I sent him an awkward message soliciting his interest, which is now saved for all to see in the French IF forum, located here: http://ifiction.free.fr/forumBB/viewtopic.php?t=263. Again, I was pleasantly surprised at the interest and excitement generated by the request. And I knew that we were going to make something happen, when JB included in his response: ...I already have written a piece of IF in french about the Lovecraft universe called "dreamlands", and it won the 2nd place at the 2006 french comp. Actually, I am a big fan of the Lovecraft works... The proposal generated enough interest among French authors that they decided to create a single work by multiple authors, each tackling one entry in the Commonplace Book. This was not exactly to the specifications of the exhibit (which required each work be inspired by only one entry in the book), but I figured it was close enough, and a much more interesting project, as well. The "French Team" as I will call them were an inspiration to me for the project as a whole. I communicated for a time with JB, and then when other matters began to take his time, Eric Forgeot filled the gap. Because they were so pleasant to work with, I wanted to expand the scope of the project, and reached out to the Italian IF community, via Roberto Grassi, but in his words, they were "sleeping" at that time and decided not to participate. I did not know of any other languages that had an IF community at that time, or I would have reached out to them as well. In the event, a few weeks later, I received a communication from "Depresiv" requesting that the Spanish IF community take part, creating a collaborative game after the French model. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and the end product was quite astonishing in its professional presentation. The international contingent of the project was set. And then came the hard part: getting more English language games! Most authors wait for the annual IFComp to submit games, as when you do, you receive much, much more by way of feedback and reviews than you would at any other time of the year. Other competitions tend not to draw very many participants. But by this point, it seemed that inclusion would be the secret to the success of this project. So I opened the competition for Interactive Fiction. And I asked David Whyld to open a concurrent competition on the Adrift forums. My reasoning for having two comps was so that there could be an Adrift "Best in Show" along with a TADS/Inform "Best". In the event, David's entry was the only Adrift entry, so the two comps were combined. I also solicited the graphics-based gaming sites for entries, based on LASSIE, AGS, and other engines. The original announcement is online, here: http://groups.google.com/group/rec.games.int-fiction/browse_frm/thread/d49794384 c593cd4/8fa942f509bcbd14#8fa942f509bcbd14. The competition ran for eight weeks -- too short by many estimates to get a game completed, and many who expressed an interest unfortunately could not complete a game for the exhibit. For myself, I discovered that organizing a competition and trying to write a game myself for it is simply to much. I did manage to complete my entry, "Ecdysis", before the deadline, but it did not get properly tested until after -- illustrated by the six updated versions I eventually did to clear out all the bugs and kinks. I wrote most of the game during a business trip to Washington DC, which given the subject matter, somehow seems fitting. In the end, seven games were created for the project: one in French, one in Spanish, three in English, and two that were graphics-based. I had hoped for more, but in the event, the small number of entries meant that most of them could be featured at the museum, whereas with a larger group, far more would have to be cut from the program and alternate venues determined. My biggest disappointment with the competition game turnout was that there were no AGS games. I feel the AGS community and the IF community could easily cross over. Well, there's always next time. - "Hand of dead man writes." 3. "Best in Show" I wanted to give IF players a way to participate in the exhibit as well, and introduced the concept of voting for the "Best in Show" among the English-language games. I was reluctant to implement a more serious voting system because I felt that sometimes reviews for games that a player doesn't like are often disheartening for the author, and causes the player to unnecessarily dwell on games they would rather not. With a "Best in Show" voting system, instead, players could just focus on the game they liked the most and why and nevermind the others. (I wouldn't favor this system for the annual IF Comp, but it worked well here). In the event, all the games had some positive aspects, and among the many reviews that cropped up around the web, found people favoring each over the other for various reasons. I felt that it was probably inappropriate for me to manage the voting of a comp in which I had a game, and originally planned to not include my game in the competition, but because there were so few, I left it in; also after playing the other games, I didn't worry so much about winning, anyway! Jon Ingold's "Dead Cities" won "Best in Show," and I highlighted that on the Competition website. I also tried to give the game "pole position" in the exhibit and in exhibit materials. In the invite for the exhibit, for example, Jon is listed first over the rest of us poor slobs. In this way I could honor the votes cast by IF players. - "Lost winter day—slept over—20 yrs. later. Sleep in chair on summer night—false dawn—old scenery and sensations—cold—old persons now dead—horror—frozen?" 4. Other venues In addition to the Maison d'Ailleurs, I contacted every other Lovecraft related festival I could find that was running this year, via email. None of them responded to my messages, which generally introduced the project and tried to look for ways that the project could participate in their fests. - "To find something horrible in a (perhaps familiar) book, and not to be able to find it again." 5. Getting the Games to Exhibit Once the games were finished, released, and voted on, there was a lot to do to get them exhibit ready. First, bug-fix versions were released. Then, my game "Ecdysis" and Jon Ingold's "Dead Cities" were updated to exhibit versions, with hypertext linking to make it easier to interact with the work in a gallery environment. Finally, there was a user interface that needed to be created that could launch all the games consistently and easily. This was difficult to achieve, but eventually I decided on an extremely low-tech way of launching the games: a web page with large, clickable images, one for each game, which ran batch files that opened the games in their appropriate players. (I've never designed a webpage this way before, but I actually created it in PowerPoint 2007 and converted it to HTML using its built in converter. Actually, I thought it turned out pretty well and took care of a lot of problems that I would have had to code around. I especially liked the way the web page it produced would automatically resize the graphics depending on the size and shape of the browser window. The resulting file was huge, but that didn't matter since the package would be installed locally.) By this point it was early October, and I was getting a bit nervous that the show would come off at all. After all, we worked the entire time without contracts among any of the parties, just by mutual agreement and friendly discussion. It isn't a bad way to operate, but there is always the chance that it would all amount to nothing. I contacted Emily Short and got her permission to include her Introduction to Playing IF guide as a printout to have on hand at the exhibit, bundled it together and sent it all off: SUBJECT: Re: HPL exhibit: Interactive Fiction - Final Package Interface I've completed the interface package, and believe everything should work. Also, I've included a few instructional files that you may wish to print out and have near the computer terminal... And a few days later, just a couple weeks before opening, Mr. Gyger responded: Hi Peter, All this was extremely clear, thanks so much! Not all worked completely, but one of our staff is a computer geek and he sorted it out in no time... So all works fine. It's really fun and easy to use now, and I'm sure people will enjoy this tremendously! ------- And I hope they are. - "Ancient castle within sound of weird waterfall—sound ceases for a time under strange conditions." 6. A couple final thoughts Because there were so many different resources working all over the globe on this project, it was extremely difficult to project manage. It would have been a lot easier if my original proposal was smaller (for example, just me), but it just didn't seem as though that would have been very fun. Working on this project, for the most part, was. It remained fun because everyone involved was respectful, interested, and pleasant to work with. There were a couple disappointments: I had hoped to try and get some of the game transcripts in the exhibit catalog, but they were too long. Another author and I trimmed ours down to tiny little 300 word snippets and resubmitted, but the catalog was off to the printer by then. It is a shame, as the catalog as it turns out is a nifty little hardcover book! I also at one point hoped to put the games together on a CD-ROM. But because I was unable to connect with any Lovecraft festivals, there would be no venues through which I could at least get a return on the investment. And finally, it is a shame there were so few reviews of the games by members of the IF community, though this gap has at least in part been filled by bloggers with an interest in casual gaming and Lovecraft who have commented on the works. But these disappointments are small. Weighing this on the other side, we successfully completed a project that included Interactive Fiction authors writing in three different languages, and I hope future competitions will consider setting their parameters to include them as well. (Next time: try to get the Italian and Russian IF communities on board, too!). I met some great people, including Mr. Gyger, and my correspondents from the various IF communities, who I will surely try to gather together for drinks should my work ever take me to their cities. And the final result: the games have joined an exhibit for which they were never requested in the first place, and a new venue for Interactive Fiction has been opened up: IF in art galleries: the wave of the future? Who knows. They are there. When working on the project on a day to day basis, it always seemed such a simple thing, a commonplace thing, but when judged from a distance, it can be seen that, like Lovecraft's Commonplace Book, sometimes "commonplace" is anything but. THE SPAG INTERVIEW ------------------------------------------------------- I recently conducted the following joint interview with David Cornelson, Michael Gentry, and Graeme Jefferis. David is of course the driving force behind Textfyre, a new company which aims to market commercial IF titles to young adults. David, Michael and Graeme are the team behind Textfyre's first game, entitled Secret Letter and planned for release... well, just as soon as it's done. JM: Anyone who follows the IF community at all is probably familiar with David Cornelson from his multitude of projects -- creating the IF Wiki and publishing the Inform Designer's Manual on paper are but two -- and Michael Gentry from his two IF classics Little Blue Men and Anchorhead. Graeme is something of a new figure on the scene, though. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about yourself, how you became interested in IF, and how you ended up with Textfyre? GJ: I've mostly kept quiet in an attempt to foster an air of enigmatic mystique -- really entirely as a ruse to hide the actual unremarkability of myself and my everyday life. I'm a 28 year old software developer from Portsmouth, UK; now living in Edinburgh with my fiancee, who is a disabled person I care for, and her son, who I am of course step-father to. It sounds terribly corny, but IF really has always been part of my life. My earliest memories involve watching my dad play Melbourne House's "The Hobbit" on the ZX Spectrum; and later I graduated to play some of the classic adventure games: by Infocom, Acornsoft, Level 9, Magnetic Scrolls. I was lucky enough to catch Graham Nelson's series of articles in Acorn User magazine back in the mid-90s, so that's how I stumbled across Curses! and the old gmd.de archive, and the then-nascent IF scene. As for Textfyre, I think I got in touch with Dave right away after reading his initial announcement, I was that excited about it. But there's no great mystery or magic there either; it was a job I applied for and I'm very grateful to David for allowing me the opportunity to come on board. JM: David, you have made it clear that you feel that IF that is sold commercially must present a more attractive, professional face to the player than most of the interpreter / game combinations that are currently available. Perhaps you could tell us, in as much detail as you feel comfortable with, how it will feel to play a Textfyre game. How extensive will be your use of multimedia assets? Will there be shortcuts such as word choice menus? I am envisioning something similar to the old Legend games of the early nineties. Am I in the ballpark? DC: No, I don't think so. The interface we're developing is something entirely new. I'll try to give you a visualization as best I can. The user will execute our game by clicking on a Textfyre game icon. A glassy window will open with highly polished comic book graphic illustrations. The interface will show a scrolling list of saved game positions and/or the phrase "The Beginning". The user selects one of these and the select-game dialogue will fly or spin out of the window while the game UI elements spin into the window. The elements moving onto the screen include: - an open book with two panels, optionally switched to a single wide panel. - a 3-dimensional hint element that can be manipulated to retrieve hints about various topics. - context-sensitive help. - a 3-dimensional compass rose. - a title bar (similar to the status line. - a map element that can be manipulated by dragging it to the center of the screen or by clicking on it or by using function keys. As its dragged, it will expand. A slider control will allow you to alter the opacity. - a conversation window, which will be similar to menus, but prettier. All of the illustrations and text will be the highest quality. So the same type of font experience you get with the hobbyist interpreter front-end Gargoyle; we're going to have a similar presentation. There are a couple of other features we're going to introduce that I'm keeping under wraps because they're very special and will coincide with our marketing efforts. JM: So, tell us about Secret Letter, the game you are writing. What's it about? Where is it set? Genre? MG: In Secret Letter, you play Jack, an orphan growing up in the city of Toresal in northern Miradania. When hired mercenaries start chasing you through the local marketplace, you are quickly swept up into a conspiracy that includes the powerful and devious Baron Fossville, your adventuresome best friend Bobby, and even the Royal Family. Why is Fossville after an orphan like you? Why is the Queen interested in Toresal? Why does Bobby drive you so crazy? It's a mystery story, with twists, reveals, and betrayals. It's a lot of fun. JM: You have developed a methodology for the creation of IF that is quite different not only from the current freeware model but also from that used by Infocom. Each game will be created by a team consisting of a designer, a writer, and a coder. Perhaps you could describe the model in more detail, and each of you could tell us about your role on the current project. How is it working out, both for the project as a whole and for each of you personally? DC: I'm going to give a lot of credit for the process working as well as it has to Mike. I started the process with a lot of conceptual elements, started the design, but once Mike got seriously involved, he really made the design document come to life. Mike and I went back and forth on the design elements and then Mike took over to work in the prose. Once we got to a point where we felt it was mostly complete, we brought Graeme in to begin coding. He completed the first cut of code in less than two weeks. Now the design and writing took over six months, but we're fairly sure we can improve on that as we become more comfortable with our processes. We're finalizing the last bits of the design/story and then we have to do what I call "finishing", which will be to have testers play it, and have a few editors go over everything to tighten it up, develop the hint tree, the help, and then we're done. Oh yeah, Graeme is a great Inform 7 developer. MG: In the writing department, the biggest challenge has been establishing a format that is easy for the programmer to convert into code, while not requiring the writer to know a lot about Inform. In IF the writing and the coding are difficult to separate, because the writer must pay attention to not only *what* the player will read, but *when* and *in what order* -- and those last two things are handled with code. I think we've managed to hammer out a good middle ground, where the writing document is structured according to certain coding coventions, without making reference to any specific coding language. All that said, the second biggest writing challenge has been hitting deadlines. GJ: David and Michael have loads of IF experience between them, and so it's been remarkably easy for me to take their design and implement it as Inform 7 code - and it helps that I7 itself is already so intuitive and feature-rich. I've found programming in it to be a pleasure; there's no doubt in my mind that it's been absolutely the right choice. JM: Tell us about the tools you are using. Inform 7 for the game, right? Subversion for bug-tracking, I believe? Tell us how you fit everything together into a managable team project. Any chance that any of your tools or techniques could be released for the use of other IF authors in the future? DC: We're using Inform 7, Subversion with Trac, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Visio. We're also going to be developing side tools to help with complex conversation systems, but these tools will simply generate Inform 7 syntax. It's entirely possible that we will share some of our internal processes and tools with the hobbyist community. Now that Jesse McGrew has developed the VM and I've had a chance to get a working prototype running, it's very exciting to see and I would love to share our stuff with everyone (when the time is right of course). We're also going to be developing authoring tools that enhance the design and writing processes and as those are completed and vetted, I can see those being opened up for everyone to use. JM: How are you handling the testing process? Have you already recruited a team of beta-testers? DC: Nothing formal yet. We've had a few inquiries, but so far we're keeping things pretty closed. We have just recently received some feedback from a few eleven year old market testers and the results were actually great. They were excited about the idea of being the main character and the parser almost no impact on their enthusiasm. They simply asked direct questions on how to do things. When the prototype has the help and hints implemented, these kids will probably fly through an episode in a few hours, which is exactly what we're targeting. We also received some interesting marketing ideas from the testers that we need to move on. They had some ideas that they thought would make the whole thing a slam dunk with their age group. For now, those ideas are top secret. JM: Will Secret Letter be the first release from Textfyre? And can you tell us a realistic release date for both it and for your other games in development? DC: Secret Letter will definitely be the first game, but a firm release date is still unknown. As I have said in the past, we'll get there when we get there. Now: once we get past the first published game, we'll be going full speed on every release thereafter and games will be appearing every month or two. I'm hoping that we can meet a Q1 release date, but I can't be sure. Maybe we'll honor Graham and Inform by releasing our first game on April 30th. JM: I would like to talk just a bit about your marketing plans for Textfyre. Your games will be (at least initially) download only, correct? Have you settled on a price? What about advertising? You have stated that you will target the young adult market that made Harry Potter such a success, but how will you reach that market with this new-fangled (to them) sort of interactive book? DC: Download is actually one strategy. We're also going to produce a CD version in a DVD case with a comic book. Online and mobile versions will follow soon after. One goal is to get Borders and BN to display our games in the young readers sections of their brick and mortar stores. Prices are likely to be in the $15 to $25 range. We're going to push our online marketing towards parents and school teachers. We may spend marketing dollars on magazines that connect with that audience as well. I'm also toying with the idea of putting special editions on smart USB thumb-drives. JM: I have a couple of questions that arise from Peter Nepstad's experience in selling 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. First, Peter feels that the only way to really get IF noticed is to sell it as a physical product in stores again. Do you agree at all, and do you have hopes of getting Textfyre's games into stores at some point? Peter also found from his survey of purchasers that his game's parser was just about the least-loved thing about it. Any thoughts on this rather disturbing piece of information? DC: We're planning to push physical product, no doubt. I take Peter's experience very seriously. On the parser subject, I think kids are a lot more forgiving. I've already done some testing in this area and kids generally feel challenged by the parser. Here's the deal. The Infocom parser wasn't all that great and they really didn't make a huge effort to provide a lot of assistance. But what they did do is create great stories. The humor and game play was fabulous and some of those games hold up extremely well, despite the parser. I'm not knocking Peter's humor or story, I like 1893 a lot. But I don't think he was focused on the same things we're focused on. We're trying to entertain kids. There's a sizable difference there. JM: David, you caused a stir of excitement recently when you revealed that you have been in touch with Activision about licensing the old Infocom properties. This won't happen, at least right away, but it does make me wonder what your plans for them were. To re-release them as is? To give them a facelift and general sprucing up and re-release them that way? Or something more ambitious? DC: I'd prefer not to say too much, but Activision was very interested in our proposal. We feel we have a chance to close that deal. When that happens and what resulting products are published is not something I'm ready to disclose. JM: Have you considered licensing other media franchises for Textfyre? DC: Yes. I have contacted J.K. Rowling's agent. I've also talked to a few prominent Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors about their willingness to partner on their existing works becoming IF games or on new material. JM: David and Michael, you were both recently interviewed for Jason Scott's forthcoming video documentary Get Lamp. Can you tell us a bit about the experience? DC: Jason came over, set up his cameras, asked a lot of grueling questions, packed up, and left into a snow storm. I barely remember what he asked or what I said. I'm likely to end up on the editing floor. MG: Jason is a formidably intelligent guy who thinks -- and sometimes talks -- about a hundred and fifty times faster than anyone I know. He pointed the camera at me and I did my best to not come across as a complete doofus. Unfortunately, we had to cut our time short because my neighbor's home-improvement project kept intruding on the soundtrack. But with any luck, in the final cut of the film you'll see a 2-second snippet of me sitting there with my mouth hanging open. JM: Finally, I have to ask a purely selfish question just to Michael: what does all this Textfyre activity mean for our Special Edition of Anchorhead? Has this been put on hiatus for the time being? MG: Yeah, unfortunately I've had to put Anchorhead SE on hold for a while, but it's still something I'm excited about and have every intention of finishing. When Secret Letter is wrapped and the second game is underway, we should have our process organized enough that I'll have time to start working on it again. In the meantime, Inform 7 will have had a chance to percolate a bit more, which ultimately means more/better/cooler features when Anchorhead SE is finally done. JM: Huge thanks to all three of you for taking time from your work with Textfyre to do this interview! KEY TO SCORES AND REVIEWS-------------------------------------------------- Consider the following review header: TITLE: Cutthroats AUTHOR: Infocom EMAIL: ??? DATE: September 1984 PARSER: Infocom Standard SUPPORTS: Z-code (Infocom/Inform) interpreters AVAILABILITY: LTOI 2 URL: Not available. VERSION: Release 23 When submitting reviews: Try to fill in as much of this info as you can. Authors may not review their own games. REVIEWS ------------------------------------------------------------------- From: Maureen Mason (antares SP@G well.com) When the fall 2007 Spanish-language IF COMP was announced on r.g.i-f, I decided to be a IF tourist and give it a go. I'd tried some non-English games from time to time but never got far, finding myself defeated by playing "guess the verb" and not knowing whether the fault was mine or the game's. The Spanish comp proved welcoming and very fun: not only did I discover several well-polished and original games but also a community of friendly IFers ready to give hints and encouragement. If you're curious about international trends in IF, or are just looking for a game that feels fresh, I recommend you brush off that language you took in college, fire up a decent online dictionary, be willing to ask for hints, and take the plunge. The Spanish language comp ("FICOMP") has a different theme every year: in 2007 it was science fiction. The games were discussed on the community's web forum (www.caad.es/foro) all through the judging period, and authors regularly offered hints there and responded to player critiques. Four games were submitted in 2007, all quite thoughtful and polished. The overall winner "Macetas" (Best Game and Best Story) by Incanus from Chile, aka Juan Sebastian Armas Maturana, is a mystery set on an asteroid mine and stars a funny, jaded space worker with an anti-authoritarian streak reminiscent of Jayne in "Firefly" or one of the Marines with Ripley in "Aliens". The game was a sequel to Incanus' 2006 FICOMP winner "Goteras" (see http://www.caad.es/incanus for download links to both games). Two of the 2007 games were entered by a single author, Jarel aka Luis David Arranz Perez from Madrid, and for comp entries they were surprising in their range and polish. "Edificio 25" was a well constructed puzzle-box, "Regreso al Eden" (which won Best Puzzle) an action-packed epic. They both contained high quality, homemade multimedia, including original music and sound fx, and Eden had some excellent animation made using layered PNG images and an Inform-Glk real-time function. This is an author who knows how to make a game *move*, and both of these stories included some of the best chase scenes I've ever experienced in IF. I've always been drawn to "literary" IF. I tend to side with the narrative over the crossword, and so really appreciate the advances in interactive storytelling--evocative writing, branching plot-lines, multiple endings, increasingly sophisticated NPCs--that I've seen in the English-speaking IF community. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Jarel's games, though difficult and puzzle-laden, were just terrific fun. His immersive action sequences and multimedia effects come closer to a good graphical adventure game or videogame than any IF I've tried. His games feel choreographed, or cinematic, not only because of the graphics but because timed sequences and well integrated puzzles--this author has the enviable ability to just churn out good puzzles effortlessly--keep the story and the player in motion. The effect is fun and original and more than a little addictive. TITLE: Edificio 25 (Building 25) AUTHOR: jarel E-MAIL: genhag SP@G yahoo.com DATE: September 1, 2007 PARSER: InformATE 6 (Spanish) SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF-Archive URL: http://usuarios.lycos.es/gen/av_aventuras.html VERSION: 1.0 El Edificio 25, at its core, is a treasure hunt set in a puzzle-box of a mansion inhabited by nonconversational NPCs who variously help, hinder or ignore the PC. But what a mansion! The setting is retro-futuristic or quasi-steampunk, spiced with a dash of horror, and you are as likely to come across an elegantly dressed android servant amid old-world furnishings as a Frankenstein-style talking head, dirigibles, vast libraries that violate the laws of physics, groomed gardens, high-tech surveillance robots and more. The atmosphere is enhanced by black- and-white photos that accompany room descriptions, as well as music and other sound effects ranging from echoing footsteps to birdsong to humming forcefields to eerie laughter from far-off rooms. Some IF players can't hear the sound effects in games, or just find them annoying. Jarel's effects are very professionally done, and normally fade out to silence, only persisting in a very few situations. Sounds that alert you to possible danger, like approaching footsteps, are also described in the text so if you prefer to play without sound, you can just toggle the command "sonido" to turn them off. I recommend trying out the sound if you can. There are a few scenes where it is extremely immersive, including one where you are threatened by a surreal, manic character and another where the *absence* of sound suddenly becomes very threatening, making you suspect that someone is waiting to ambush you. At first Edificio 25 struck me as overly chilly and spare--the PC is a complete cypher ("Citizen 429") and there is only a bare outline to the story--but the game drew me in and became quite addictive as the puzzles built up. The mansion opens up to you as you find pieces of what you need in one area and move on to the others. The puzzles are well-clued and interlaced in interesting ways. Best of all, many actions and objects are implemented, so you don't have to play guess-the-verb (this is really important if you are playing the game in a foreign language), and the game nearly always rewards further exploration and thought any time you are stuck. While the house seems rather static at first, you quickly discover that the androids who are drifting through it--part of a vast number of humanoid workers that were constructed to serve a dwindling and now completely passive human population--have agendas of their own. They may ignore you, help you or even try to kill you. In fact, you won't enjoy this game if you hate to be killed. As the game progresses, missteps can be fatal and undo (or reload) will be your friend--the game's Inform-based parser responds to "undo" even though the stock game-over message doesn't offer you this choice. At first the threat of violence is only implicit, or perhaps discovered by accident--e.g., a dignified android playing a haunting melody at the piano will, if provoked, stand up and instantly beat you to death with a chair!--but eventually you reach a point in the story where you must respond with the right moves very quickly, i.e., in one or two turns, or die. Edificio's endgame has a short action sequence that has the feel of a good movie or arcade game, and puts to use everything you've learned so far about how to avoid being chased down and killed. Every move counts. You fumble with doors, try to remember which way to run, think about what you might use from your inventory--there is no time to waste a turn looking at anything. Instead of being just annoying or artificial, this is actually quite suspenseful and I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I *didn't* have to undo or reload a saved game. My one major criticism of the game is that a central puzzle, evading a killer android known as a "Narizotas" (apparently it stalks you by smell, using its "nariz"), is extremely difficult and game-stopping if you are unable to solve it. The author plans to revise this puzzle in his next release of the game. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Maureen Mason (antares SP@G well.com) TITLE: Regreso al Eden (Return to Eden) AUTHOR: jarel E-MAIL: genhag SP@G yahoo.com DATE: September 1, 2007 PARSER: InformATE 6 (Spanish) SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF-Archive URL: http://usuarios.lycos.es/gen/av_aventuras.html VERSION: 2.0 Jarel's second entry in the FICOMP, "Regreso al Eden", is an ambitious space opera with the length and quality of an excellent commercial graphic adventure- -in fact, it was far too long for a comp game and few people finished it in time. Extensive action sequences, punctuated with blocks of text, tell a complex and well-written story. There are long conversational cutscenes, beautiful cinematic multimedia and constant video arcade-style obstacles, where you have to make the next right move or be killed. It was one of the most original and polished pieces of IF that I have played in a long time. Here's how the story begins, zooming you in from the galaxy to the middle of a firefight. If you want to try it, type "fuera" at the first prompt in the game's prologue. (Note: Translation and all the ellipses are mine.) "The human race left the solar system and expanded into the galaxy, flowering into two great empires, Napua and Masanai. In the Uruma system, the ship Tanis takes off from the Vegan cruiser Eberrenan and heads towards the Trisolian system... Forest creatures flee into the shadows as the Tanis lands. The ship tears at the vegetation with gusts of turbulence, flooding the surrounding forest with light and expelling a hot cloud of gas from the reactors. The airlock opens and a group jumps to the ground: four humans and numerous android BARP troops... "Ten to the entrance and five here!" The BARP obey. Some start to shoot their way down the corridor; the rest deploy around the entryway and then let go with all of their firepower. "I think this is it," Gina Lambo says, her voice shaking slightly as she holds up one of the discs. Neka takes it and snaps it into a protective case. "Let's go"... Debris is falling from the roof and walls, burying pieces of the BARP robots th! at have already gone down... You press yourself to the floor at the south end of the room. On the other side--to the north--Gina Lambo and Mondur have barricaded themselves behind a fallen structure. You can see a protective case." All of this is accompanied by beautiful graphics at the top of the screen, along with the sounds of the battle. There is only one move that can save you; all other options--including waiting too long to figure out what to do--lead either to capture or instant death. This opening exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of the game. The story is overwhelming at times, and it's hard to keep track of the various alliances, empires, and character names without taking notes. On the other hand, the game uses the story's large sweep to move you between worlds, and back and forth in time, and also between four different major PCs. For example, early on you switch from playing the main character, a mercenary who steals a data disc holding the key to a powerful alien technology, and become the military commander on Masanai who is supervising the forces trying to capture him. This makes for an interesting story experience as the two characters' agendas conflict and, as more treacheries and twists are revealed, begin to coincide. The other feature which is outstanding is the immediacy of the danger you feel. You hit the ground running, escaping one Indiana Jones-like trap only to run straight into the next. Lost that group of bounty hunters who were hot on your heels? Managed to avoid drowning horribly in that tunnel with the water rising? You can be sure when you turn the corner you'll find a sentry has just caught sight of you, or a vicious pack of alien wolves is running your way. Together with the excellent multimedia effects, this really lets you know you are not reading a book. You are playing a game! Of course, some people will hate this experience of being chased and harried and killed. After all, in a *bad* videogame it's just boring and frustrating to keep failing and dying and having to restart. You will most likely be using "undo" (or save and reload) early and often. And yes, the story, at its core, has a linear plot with puzzle after puzzle that you must solve to advance. The reason I had fun in spite of this limitation was that those puzzles are very smart and very fair--even the ones that involve (mercifully short) mazes. (Note: I was surprised to find that just about every FICOMP game had a maze of some kind. Clearly mazes do not have the bad reputation in Spain and Latin America that they have elsewhere.) Also, there are often alternative solutions to the puzzles. For example, the mountain range that the fugitive PC must cross in the first part of the game has three separate routes through its subterranean tunnels, each with different obstacles of its ! own. Finally, there are in-game hints which are clever and lighthanded and never spoil the satisfaction of solving a puzzle (just type "pista" to see if a hint is available). If there is no hint at your location, that's a sure sign you are in cul-de-sac and need to search for the solution elsewhere. One persistent drawback to this game, however, is that because there are so many locations--this game is just huge--you will be getting the "That isn't important right now" message a lot. This is not a game where you can leisurely explore scenery, lovingly implemented. You don't have to let this spoil the immersion for you, though. Just take it as a sign to keep moving. My one major criticism of the game is that by the second half I began to get impatient with long blocks of text that broke up my interaction with the story. There are so many interesting plot twists, hidden identities and double crosses in this game that I found myself wanting to *make* some character choices instead of just reading about them. Is that shipmate who is behaving suspiciously a spy? Should I trust an enemy who insists he has changed sides? I longed for some agency to act on the conclusions I was drawing, the way I can in some of Emily Short's games or in a role playing game, where my choice of allies has consequences. The author seems aware of the difficulty of keeping players engaged in such a long linear game and keeps injecting new elements, including a brief (and very funny) menu-driven NPC dialog, a chess-based puzzle and a space-navigation logic puzzle. In the end, the fresh puzzles and my desire to see how the story came out kept me going. Overall Regreso al Eden is quite a feat, and Jarel's two games in the FICOMP showed a remarkable range. I really look forward to playing whatever he makes next. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Michael Bacon [I was unable to reach Michael to thank him for his review, as the email address he provided did not work. So Michael, if you're out there, drop me a line! -- JM] TITLE: Floatpoint AUTHOR: Emily Short E-MAIL: emshort SP@G mindspring.com DATE: September 30, 2006 PARSER: Inform 7 SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF-Archive URL: http://emshort.wordpress.com/my-work/ "Good" is not high praise. It is praise though, and I praise Floatpoint with disappointment. Puzzles are of little importance or challenge in this mildly short work, which is a matter of little consequence, because the focus is on story, artful prose, and player choice rather than on player ability. The final "puzzle" is really a decision reflective of a particular player's reaction to the primary situation portrayed in the story. This sandbox-esque element of the game is rewarding by way of its delicate responses to each choice. Emily Short's prose is good, and her morally-interested science fiction world is exceptionally well-developed, mostly by way of careful descriptions, for so short a story. Most prominently, several of the endings and player-character flashbacks made me want to think more highly of the work than when analyzing it as a whole. It impressed some emotions and concerns upon me, as intended. The overall design of Floatpoint is elegant, as one would always expect of Short, but the actual implementation is oddly impaired by several odd bugs which do not prevent the completion of the game. One of them, however, starkly emphasizes the necessity of disbelief in the fiction before the reader/player which had been so well built up by descriptive writing. Now, nearly a year later (in the midst of IF Comp 2007), these problems have still not been addressed, which confuses me further since it is the fiction of such a productive and usually, I felt, meticulous designer. Floatpoint is not in the same category as the strongest of Emily Short's interactive fiction, but its worth is very much equal to the time one puts into it. I recommend it to the many who seem to have only completed one or two of her pieces, but not as highly as some of her other works such a person might have missed. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Valentine Kopteltsev (uux SP@G mail.ru) TITLE: Ghost of the Fireflies AUTHOR: Paul Panks DATE: September 30, 2007 PARSER: home-grown SUPPORTS: MS-DOS AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://if-archive/games/competition2007/windows/firefly.exe This review is going to be somewhat unusual, in that it's only going to describe the positive aspects of the game. The reason? Well, this work's author is Paul Panks. I think that over the last few years, he had the opportunity to gain more than enough information on things people *don't* like about his games; I myself rated the vast majority of them a one. Ghost of the Fireflies, on the other hand, while still problem-ridden, does represent a major change. It still hardly can be recommended to most players, but it shows potential; at the very least, it isn't a slightly modified version of one and the same text RPG with rearranged locations and repositioned monsters, as, say, all his entries in the last year's Comp were. Thus, this review is more for the game author himself than for the players; FWIW, there is certainly at least one person who'd be going to like his games better if he took account of my comments in his future projects: me. So, first of all, I'd like to concentrate on the technical aspects. Let's start with *the parser*. A short digression: I'm not someone who'd complain about the parser just because it isn't advanced enough. In particular, I can be pretty content with a two-word parser -- provided it doesn't impede gameplay. In the context of most Mr. Panks' works, the parser was pretty adequate; in GOF, he seemed to exceed himself by even making it customizable. Also, kudos for removing the "feature" that was so annoying in earlier games -- now "EXAMINE" can be abbreviated to "X". I don't even mind being called a "weirdo", although I suspect that's partly because Russians generally are more immune against insults (this last remark has nothing to do with chauvinism -- I believe such an attitude is just a matter of training; in everyday life, an average Russian citizen has to deal with rude behavior and offenses a lot more than most Americans or Europeans). Another purely technical improvement is *the multiple save feature*. While it's not free of bugs, it'd certainly help in any at least the slightest bit advanced RPG -- especially after the problems are sorted out:). Now, I start crossing the bridge between technical and creative aspects of the game's design, for *the battle system* can be put into either of these categories. Panks chose single-step combat for this particular work, allowing the player (at least theoretically) to select a weapon and/or an action (such as "hit", "run", "cast a spell", etc.) after each turn. As funny as that might sound -- it even didn't matter none of those options seemed to work; such a system is clearly a step forward compared to fully automated fighting most of his other works sported. I felt the author was on the right track here; of course, the ultimate answer would be a combination of both approaches (letting the player switch forth and back between the two modes any time (s)he wants; say, use step-by-step for developing the optimal tactics for defeating a specific enemy, then change to automatic mode once one made sure the tactics works, and then returning back to single-step if something goes wrong). Now, to *puzzles*. So feeble they may appear against the ones of any decent modern game, they represent a great progress compared to previous works by Panks I played. In particular, I liked the "rainbow wall" puzzle: on one hand, it's not trivial, on the other hand, it's actually recognizable as a puzzle (although it's also a bit guess-the-verb'y, and can be solved by brute force). An approach to keep up (and to improve, of course)! Finally, I'd like to praise the game's *writing, atmosphere, and backstory*. The backstory may be inconsistent, but at least (again, contrary to most other works by Mr. Panks I've seen so far) it's there. The writing is probably the best thing about the game: it's somewhat uneven, but (oh no, I'm starting talking in cliches!) it hints at brilliance. I also appreciate the amount of personality the author gave to the player character and the NPCs. Yeah, I read in other reviews that the dog who follows you around through the whole games is one of the most annoying sidekicks in IF-history, and, speaking objectively, it even may be true (although I for myself didn't mind having him around at all); but it's still better than having no other company than primitive monster bots for NPCs. (BTW, the few enemies in the games I encountered had a personality of sorts, too.) Now, don't get me wrong: Ghost of the Fireflies is by no means a good game -- it's bug-ridden, it's barely playable, and has lots of jokes most people (me excluded, though) would find offending. Still, it's probably the first game by Mr. Panks that made me wish seeing an updated, decently debugged and polished version of it. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Valentine Kopteltsev (uux SP@G mail.ru) TITLE: Lord Bellwater's Secret AUTHOR: Sam Gordon E-MAIL: sam_r_gordon SP@G hotmail.com DATE: September 30, 2007 PARSER: Inform 7 SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF-Archive URL: http://if-archive/games/competition2007/zcode/bellwater/bellwater.zblorb All the way while playing Lord Bellwater's Secret, I couldn't help myself comparing it to the game by the same author I reviewed in the previous SPAG issue, Final Selection. It must be said LBS gives lots of occasions for such a comparison. Even more, in many respects it seems to be a downsized version of the older game, although initially, it hints at a better developed backstory. First of all, both works are essentially one-(Victorian)-room games. The clever idea with the PC moving to a "sublocation" within the room when he wants to manipulate a specific item is still there, too; the problem is -- well, I've seen it before. Now, don't misunderstand me -- there is nothing wrong with the author repeatedly using his own code in later projects; it's just not as impressive when you see exactly the same thing for the second time. Another aspect where LBS clearly loses points (at least, in my eyes) in comparison to its predecessor are the puzzles. In Final Selection, they were challenging and creative, with cleverly inserted red herrings. Here, we have a really great starter (and I do mean it's great -- not too difficult yet not totally trivial, either, evoking that "aha!" feeling so often mentioned in reviews), followed by a sequence of "read the instructions carefully and carry out them directly"-type of problems. The final puzzle, again, might have been crowning the story decently (although I wouldn't call it outstanding anyway). However, at this point the game suddenly demonstrated refractoriness, becoming overly sensitive to the wording of the commands; well, the fact at least one of the game themes were courts and lawyers probably showed through here;). Seriously, the game's reactions to my basically correct, yet inaccurately formulated directives were so unhelpful they even made me think I was using an entirely wrong approach, so that I tried a different tactic, which also seemed reasonable in the context of the story. But no -- pretty soon it became clear the author hadn't had this alternative path in mind at all, which left me with no other choice than check the walkthrough. This issue appears to be especially annoying since in every other respect, the game implementation shines. For instance, we have a bookcase here with over 1000 volumes, which can be referred to individually (well, it probably doesn't really provide an individual description for each book, but at least enough for the vast majority of players to give up before all descriptions are exhausted); a similarly implemented diary with entries on each day for half a year or so; finally, it was amazing to find out (from the game's "About"-section) how much historical detail the author had to consider to make his game authentic. However, I'd really appreciate it if he invested a driblet of these efforts into making the final puzzle recognize a few more synonyms. LBS certainly would profit from that (well, at least if the author wasn't trying to make a point here -- in which case, I have to admit, I must have missed that point entirely). But enough of this. Now we come to the part where LBS could potentially recoup itself -- namely, to the aforementioned backstory. Unlike Final Selection, where the PC basically does puzzle-solving for the sake of puzzle-solving, here the protagonist breaks into his master's study to find out the truth about his bride's seemingly accidental death. The author chose a very good device for establishing the PC's personality: namely, sudden remembrances about "his beloved Elsie" that occur when he examines certain things. Unfortunately, these reminiscences quickly fade out, so that towards the middle of the story, our hero seems to turn into an impassive treasure- and secret-hunter. That's a pity; normally, I'm not too enthusiastic about melodrama, but here, a little more tear-jerking certainly would help building up the atmosphere. Considering all the above-said, I rated the game 6 out of 10 (which means "Pretty solid, but nothing special" on my scale). My final comment on the game ending may be somewhat spoilery; thus, if you haven't played LBS yet, you should stop reading here. S P O I L E R S P A C E I really was stunned by the optimal ending. It seemed to me our PC collected enough materials any modern court would consider cast-iron proof of him being the legitimate inheritor. Well, maybe "modern" is the keyword here, and I'm just underestimating the class prejudices of the XIX-th century. SUBMISSION POLICY --------------------------------------------------------- SPAG is a non-paying fanzine specializing in reviews of text adventure games, a.k.a. Interactive Fiction. This includes the classic Infocom games and similar games, but also some graphic adventures where the primary player-game communication is text based. Any and all text-based games are eligible for review, though if a game has been reviewed three times in SPAG, no further reviews of it will be accepted unless they are extraordinarily original and/or insightful. 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