ISSUE #51 - April 6, 2008

The Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games


Edited by Jimmy Maher
April 6, 2008

SPAG #51
is copyright (c) 2008 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.


IF News

Interviews with the Top Comp 2007 Finishers:
    Sam Gordon, author of Lord Bellwater's Secret
    Christopher Huang, author of An Act of Murder
    Admiral Jota and Grunk, authors of Lost Pig

The World of Italian IF: A SPAG Special Feature
    A History of Italian IF by torredifuoco
    Italian IF Interviews:
        Enrico Columbini
            A Review of L'Apprendista Stregone by Enrico Columbini
        Giancarlo Niccolai
        Alessandro Schillaci
        Roberto Grassi

An Interview with Peter Nepstad

Reviews of the H.P. Lovecraft Commonplace Book Project Games
    Dead Cities by Jon Ingold
    Ecdysis by Peter Nepstad
    The Cellar by David Whyld
    Handyman Wanted by Roger Tober and Nige Copeland
    Beyond the Threshold by Thomas 'Nihil' Busse
    El Museo de las Consciencias by various authors
    Lieux Communs by various authors

Other Reviews
    1893: A World's Fair Mystery by Peter Nepstad
    Rendition by nespresso
    Sunburst Contamination by Fredrik Ramsberg and Johan Berntsson


Two people who played a big role in the history of interactive fiction recently passed away within a day of each other.  You probably know the identity of one of the figures of whom I will write, as news of his passing has been all over the Internet and even made its way into the New York Times.  The other's passing, though, you may not be even be aware of.  The two gentlemen never met one another and moved in very different spheres, but they do share one thing in common: they both had immense influence on IF without even seeming to realize it.  What can I say?  We swim in a very small pond.

Let's deal with the obvious first: Gary Gygax in the early 1970's invented a little game called Dungeons and Dragons with the help -- exactly how much help depends on who you ask -- of one Dave Arnenson.  D&D begat Adventure when Will Crowther, an early enthusiast, decided to try to bring some of his tabletop RPG experiences to the computer.  Adventure in turn begot not just more text adventures and in turn this community, but also graphical adventures and the more combat and simulation focused genre of computer RPGs.  As the years went by, other forms of computer games in turn co-opted many of the tropes and storytelling methods of these genres.  Meanwhile, computer RPGs went online and became MMORPG's, easily the most profitable niche in the modern PC game market.  To say that the modern gaming landscape would look different without Gygax's creation hardly begins to describe the situation.  Would IF exist today without D&D?  It's a question I can't answer, of course, although I suspect it would, albeit in possibly a very different form.  Certainly we would have far fewer games with dragons cluttering up our history.

It's almost criminally easy to make fun of D&D and (the stereotype of) the people who play it, of course, and many of the articles that have greeted Gygax's passing have indulged in plenty of snark.  I understand.  It's hard for any writer to hold back when presented with such a juicy target.  (For an excellent 2006 article that has its fun with D&D but gets to the heart of its appeal at the same time, go here.)  I do wonder whether many of these writers realize, though, just how influential Gygax's geeky creation has actually been on modern culture, and not just on gaming culture.  I would argue that the recent glut of big-budget fantasy movies can, for instance, be traced back, through many twists and turns and by no means exclusively, to D&D.  People who have no idea what the game even is are feeling its influence when they go to their local cineplex.

Gygax himself didn't seem to understand just what he had wrought.  He came to D&D from the mathematically rigorous, simulation-heavy world of wargames, and always seemed to relate to his creation in those turns.  The standard Gygax model for D&D involved descending into a generic dungeon just because it was there, killing everything inside, and taking away the loot.  He played the game not as a shared story or as improvisational theatre but as a single unit wargame, a series of challenges to be tactically overcome.  As such he was largely an uninterested bystander for the last twenty-five years of tabletop RPG innovation.  Nor do I suspect he would find much of interest in our work in this community.  Still, he was by all accounts a man who genuinely loved games, and he began a revolution -- even if almost accidentally -- in the way we tell, play, and think about stories and games.  Not a bad legacy to have.  The bad Hollywood movies and glut of generically bad fantasy novels all over the shelves of your local bookstore we'll just agree to overlook.

The other person I want to eulogize here is even more tangentially related to IF.  Joseph Weizenbaum's passing has not received the press of Gygax's, but he is nevertheless a fascinating figure.  You might recognize Weizenbaum as the creator of Eliza, the first chatterbot that, in addition to causing a huge stir in the media at the idea of a computer actually doing something clever and at least mildly entertaining, was also a big influence on early IF.  One can see Eliza in the old Scott Adams games, for instance, where the player is assumed to be talking to and ordering about a character in the game world.  This "PC" even occasionally talks back to the "player."  In the modern era we have largely (though not completely) retreated from this model in favor of the player directly embodying a role in the game world.  Still, a "game" of Eliza is indistinguishable in a casual glance from even a modern game of IF.

I had always thought of Weizenbaum as just "the Eliza guy," but recently dived deeper into his life and work while researching a paper on magical and technological AI.  Weizenbaum never had any illusions about Eliza.  He was bemused and eventually disturbed by the reactions of people to what was essentially a clever language hack, to the point of writing a book not about, as one might expect, the wondrous future of computer AI but rather a scathing critique of the field and a warning about the dangers of attempting to reproduce the magic of our humanity in a machine.  I think of Weizenbaum's book when I read about research into creating fully computer-generated stories and when I look at projects like Chris Crawford's Storytron and the fascinating but ultimately frustrating Façade.  

As a newbie IF author just working on his first full project, I don't want to let you create your own story with my game.  I want to rather let you find your own way through my story.  I don't want to railroad you or frustrate you, and I want to make the best use I can of interactivity.  Still, while the interactivity may be yours the fiction is mine.  I don't think that the main strength of new media storytelling is in becoming a sort of wish-fullfilment fantasy, a box from which you can get any story you want.  I rather think it is a way of allowing you to engage with characters, settings, and, yes, story, in a way that is more immersive and immediate than you might find in a conventional printed work.  A novel lets you read and imagine a story; IF lets you directly explore the story.  At the core of both, though, must remain the human author working her magic.  IF must be a good faith relationship between player and author.  If the player tries to break that bond, acting deliberately out of the PC's character and actively attempting to "break" the story in the name of some demand for absolute freedom, I submit that the fault lies with that player.  In other words, I'm pretty much with Stephen Bond on this one.  For better or worse, Weizenbaum's book helped to bring me there.

Here at SPAG I've made some changes, as I'm sure you've noticed.  Some of you may not like it, but I thought it was time to bring the magazine forward, if not all the way to 2008 (we do still play text adventures, after all), at least to the late 1990's.  I won't be sending out each issue to subscribers anymore, but rather sending a link to the page where you can read it.  For those who like to print the issue for offline reading, a printer-friendly version is still available by following the link at the bottom of the framing page.  Publishing the issues on the web page in HTML will allow us to make use of such modern niceties as italics and boldface, allow other sites to link to individual articles, and allow us to return the favor.  I think it will make the magazine easier to navigate, easier to read, and much more attractive to newbies.  Last but not least, it will make my life much easier.  I really cannot express how painful it is to edit a plain ASCII newletter with hard line-breaks.  I look forward to spending more time drumming up and creating richer content and less time cursing in front of my text editor.  Even if you aren't sold on the changes to the delivery model, I hope the content of future issues will make up for it.  I have high hopes and big plans for the future!

But we've got a lot to offer right now as well: a great, in-depth conclusion to our series on foreign IF, with articles, interviews, and reviews focusing on the Italian community; interviews with the three top finishers from last fall's Competition, including the newly annointed XYZZY Best NPC Grunk himself; an interview with Peter Nepstad about his IF work; and reviews of all the Lovecraft Competition games plus a few others.  Enjoy!

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Spring Thing 2008
The Spring Thing 2008 games have just been released.  Only three titles, but at first glance they all look very promising.  You have until April 28 to play the games and submit your votes.

Third IF Whispers Game Released
House of Dream of Moon
is a game written by ten separate authors, each of whom had only the preceding section to base their own work on.

C-40 Competition Results
The C-40 competition to create games for an imaginary hardware implementation of the Z-Machine with only 40K of RAM has concluded.  It attracted three entrants, but all by the same author (the idefatiguable David Fisher) and none of them were actually IF.  Still, they do make an interesting collection of Z-Machine abuses, and one can never have too many of those, right?  Thanks to Sam Trenholme for running the competition.
IF Art Show 2008
Marnie Parker will be running another IF Art Show this year for more avant-garde works.  The deadline for submitting an entry is May 2.

ZLR, a new Windows Z-Machine Interpreter
I don't know about you, but I find it a little mind-boggling that in this age of Inform 7 text adventures are now bogging down our multi-gigaherz monster machines.  Still, here we are, and Vaporware is working on an ultra-high performance Windows terp to address the problem.  Now if he can just add Glulx support.  (Another thing that boggles my mind is that even many moderate-sized games now require Glulx.  Ain't progress grand?)

Flaxo, A Flash-based Z-Machine Interpreter
In other Z-Machine interpreter news, Peter Mattsson is working on an implementation in Flash.  When completed, Flaxco could be a great way to offer IF for web-based play.  To answer the first question that comes to mind: no, it's not hideously slow, at least in running the (Inform 6) sample game.

Folio Z-Code Interpreter
And finally, because mankind can never have enough Z-Code interpreters, we have this cool specimen that renders games in a graphical book format.  Still an early release, but well worth checking out as a novel (pun intended) new look for IF.

Alessandro Schillaci has released WIDE, a Windows IDE for Inform 6 development similar to JIF but written in good old platform-native C++ rather than Java.  It's still in beta, but looks quite far advanced already.  See our interview Alessandro in this issue for more discussion of WIDE.

One-Room Game Competition Results
The 2007 edition attracted an impressive nine entrants: five in English and four in Italian.  David Fisher's entrant Suveh Nox was the winner.  Thanks to Francesco Cordella for organizing the competition.

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom
S. John Ross has created a very, very bad game that he strongly cautions you not to play under any circumstances.

French IF Competition
The French IF community's annual competition has come and gone.  Five entrants, the winner being Eric Forgeot's Les Heures du vent.  

Child's Play
A new game by Stephen Granade.  It's a dog eat dog world in the nursery...  Stephen has also released his Inform 7 source code for the game here.

Ido Flaishon has designed a new system for creating Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories.  Closed source and Windows only, but free for non-commercial use.

Interactive Short Fiction Competition
IF Beginner's Comp
Two competitions recently took place, each challenging entrants to create a game suitable for introducing beginners to IF.  They not only share a theme, but also four of the same games as entrants.  The difference?  Mark Engelber's IF Short Fiction Competition is judged by its organizer, while the winner of David Fisher's (there he is again!) IF Beginner's Comp is determined by popular vote.  It didn't make much difference, though: Mrs. Pepper's Nasty Secret by Jim Aikin and Eric Eve won both handily enough.

IF Cover Art Drive
Emily Short has initiated a project to pair up artistically challenged authors with artists who have enjoyed their work and might want to return something in the form of a cool bit of cover art to advertise and represent their game.  Read all about it on Emily's blog at the link above, and if you have the talent please think about helping out.

Not a traditional IF game, but rather a textual RPG which, in its author's words, "borrows heavily from the genres of  Roguelike games as well as interactive fiction."  By Nathan D. Jerpe.

2007 XYZZY Awards
The 2007 winners of the XYZZY Awards, our community's equivalent of the Grammy Awards if the Grammy Awards didn't suck so bad, have been announced.  Congratulations to all the winners, and especially to Admiral Jota and Grunk, whose Lost Pig cleaned up pretty good.

After a five-year hiatus PAWS (the Python Adventure Writing Systems) is back.  PAWS is, as you might have surmised, a library for creating IF using the programming language Python.

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Interviews with the Top Competition 2007 Finishers

It's been a long-time tradition with SPAG to publish interviews with the top three finishers in each year's IF Competition.  This year, Sam Gordon (author of the third-place game Lord Bellwater's Secret), Christopher Huang (author of the second-place game An Act of Murder), and Admiral Jota and Grunk (co-authors of  Comp winner Lost Pig) were all kind enough to answer my questions.

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Interview with Sam Gordon, author of Lord Bellwater's Secret

Jimmy: Tell us a little bit about that insignifcant portion of your life outside of the world of IF. Introduce yourself to SPAG's readers.

Sam: In "real life" I live in England; I'm married, with three children; and I work as an IT project manager for a large company. I think my family believe me to be a reasonably normal and well-balanced individual...with the exception of my interest in the world of IF, which they regard as a bizarre social aberration, not to be mentioned in polite company.

In my work I have engaged in collaborative projects with other companies in the U.S.A., Canada, the Middle East and continental Europe, so I would like to think that I have gained a slightly greater "world view" than is sometimes ascribed to my fellow countrymen. The famous headline "Fog over English Channel: Europe isolated" doesn't work for me! Although the IF community is probably strongest in North America, it is actually quite international in its make-up and I think that adds to its strength and diversity.

Jimmy: How long have you been interested in IF, and what prompted that interest?

Sam: My first encounter with IF was in 1981. It was my first job in the IT industry and we were developing embedded systems using the new Intel 16-bit microprocessors of that era. We used Intel's custom development systems to compile code and download it into target systems and, one day, one of my colleagues turned up with a floppy disk which he loaded into the development system and showed me a program called ADVENT. I was instantly lost in the world of caves, beanstalks and bears: I "worked" late into the evening that day, until a company security guard virtually threw me out of the building at about midnight.

I enjoyed the Infocom games when they came out but rather forgot about IF until about 3 or 4 years ago when I read something about Inform 6 and, from there, discovered that there was a thriving IF culture.

Jimmy: In addition to Lord Bellwater's Secret, you have written two games for One Room Game Competitions: Final Selection and Urban Conflict. Before we get to Bellwater, tell us a bit about those games, and about the challenges that come with writing in such a restrictive format. (Bellwater is almost one room too, come to think of it...)

Sam: By nature, I'm a great starter of new things and a poor finisher of anything (but please don't tell my boss or our clients!) So, unsurprisingly, I've started writing a lot of games but only finished the three that you mention. I think perhaps the discipline of working within the constraints of a single room scenario is good for me in avoiding over-elaboration and increasing the chances of finishing. Final Selection was my first "published" game: at the time I thought that a one-room game would be a good starting point as I would be able to write it very quickly. In any event it missed the 2005 one-room competition and I ended up reworking it for the 2006 competition, so it wasn't very quick at all. Final Selection was an unashamed puzzle game with very little story: a classic one-roomer, I suppose.
I began working on Urban Conflict (along with several other ideas that have never seen the light of day) almost as soon as as I had finished Final Selection. It was inspired by a visit to a museum in Budapest, which included an interesting exhibit explaining the workings of the Kalashnikov assault rifle. I wanted to do something quite different from the usual one-room formula and instead tried to model the interaction of two people, confined by circumstances to sharing a single room. I think the game received some credit for being ambitious but was generally not liked as a game.

Jimmy: Bellwater is one of the two top three finishers from this Competition that have no supernatural, magical, or science fictional elements at all. That's rather unusual for a genre that is still somewhat dominated by fantastical stories. Any thoughts on this? (Boy, that's vague, huh?)

I'm not very confident in my own writing ability and I suppose I have been rather unambitious in terms of the actual story-telling of my games. I am enormously impressed by authors who can write good fantasy - and for me that means creating a world that is entirely convincing and consistent, in which the laws of physics may not be the ones we are accustomed to, but there are some consistent laws in place, nevertheless. Tolkein was a master of that: Isaac Asimov, Philip Pullman and J K Rowling are pretty good too. Come to think of it, I also admire the more whimsical (and less consistent) fantasy writers like Douglas Adams as well, but I've never tried writing anything whimsical.

I have toyed with writing something a bit more magical: one of my unfinished games involves replacing all the usual "game rules" with a completely different set if the character happens to be holding a particular magical object:. For example they can "see" inside closed containers which they examine. However, I'm making no promises about whether this will ever be finished!

Jimmy: Bellwater had a really nice Victorian feel to its scenery and its writing.  As someone who has read way more Dickens, Trollope and Brontë sisters than is healthy for anyone, I just have to ask whether you are a fan of this era of literature?

Sam: Thanks for the kind words about Bellwater! Dickens is certainly one of my favourite authors: he was a wonderful storyteller and created such vivid characters. I would definitely include "David Copperfield" in my list of 10 favourite books of all time! Dickens wasn't a conscious influence on Bellwater but was probably lurking somewhere in the background (come to think of it, "Lord Bellwater" almost sounds like a name out of Dickens). Also, it's difficult to write that sort of genre without a nod to Conan Doyle. I have to confess to not much liking the Brontës....and I have already been severely reprimanded by one Competition judge for the fact that none of the Brontës' titles appear in Lord Bellwater's private libarary! At the time I was working on Bellwater, I had just been rereading some of Daphne du Maurier's novels. Although they were written much more recently, they have some similarities with the Victorian novels with, for example, My Cousin Rachel being set in the 19th century and being pervaded by a vivid sense of impending doom. Although I wasn't directly trying to copy her writing style or mood, I was certainly influenced.

Jimmy: Your game made a great point of always telling me where I was in the room.  For instance, when I examine the desk after looking at the bookshelves I see this: "You turn from the bookshelves and walk over to the desk." I can't say this annoyed me, but I was a little confused about why the game was so concerned with informing me of my position. Was I just missing something obvious?

Sam: I did something similar in Final Selection as I wanted to create a sense of space and movement, although I was restricting myself to the single room. I decided to do the same with Bellwater, with the same intention. One of the difficulties with a one-room game is that it can seem as though you are standing still, surrounded by a heap of objects and I certainly wanted to avoid that. I wouldn't try to use it for anything other than a (predominantly) one-room game. For those interested in the actual writing of code, I would add that behind the scenes, the game is actually implemented as several "rooms" at the code level, although all remain "in scope" all the time. This has the advantage of managing some of the potential disambiguation problems (the game assumes that the player is more likely to be referring to an object in the current area, rather than a distant corner of the room, for example). However, the automatic movement between areas of the room ended up getting very complicated: if the player types GET KEY, for example, the game can easily move the character to the part of the room where the key happens to be; however LOCK DOOR WITH KEY presents a lot more problems for automated movement, particularly if, for example, the player is in the fireplace, the key is by the window and the door is at the other end of the room!

Jimmy: I was a bit frustrated that I couldn't get an unequivocally happy ending out of the game, to the point of replaying several times in the hope of seeing same. Why did you decide to leave even the winning ending rather mixed in tone?

Sam: Yes, a lot of people were unhappy with the ending! I tried writing several different endings but was unconvinced by an unequivocally happy one. One of the themes of the game was supposed to be the iniquities of the British class system (although I certainly wasn't trying to ram that down the player's throat). I felt that even with the protagonist being successful in his quest for justice, it would be most likely that the British establishment would close ranks and deny him his full inheritance

Jimmy:. Huge compliments on the design of the puzzles, which were clever but always fair and solvable, and on the way you took into account so many incorrect actions the player might try, such as hiding in the fireplace and trying to ambush her attacker. Any thoughts on either of these choices, or the general design of the game as a whole, to share?

Sam: Thanks again for the compliments! The feature that people have commented on most favorably was the bookshelves - people seem to have amused themselves either with taking volumes at random from the shelves or looking up their own favorites in the index. Several have asked me if there are really 1200 books on the shelves, like it says in the room decription. (In fact there are only about 50 titles implemented, but they are allocated to their positions on the shelves only when the player tries to remove them.)

A wall safe is always a bit of a cliche. In real life, you don't leave the combination lying about, but in IF you have to let the player find it. In Bellwater, I think the player has to put together the information from three sources and use a bit of logic to work out the combination. I thought this was fair (and I'm glad you agree).
The final puzzle that allows the player to escape from the room was made unneccessarily hard by some rather weak implementation. I'm fixing this in a bug-fix version of the game.

Jimmy: I concur with your assessment.  I thought the safe puzzle was great fun, and was able to solve it on my own.  The final puzzle, on the other hand, got me because the game didn't understand GO THROUGH WINDOW or even ENTER WINDOW, only EAST.  Grr... Anyway, moving on...

Did you play the other Competition games? Favorites? Impressions?

Sam: Yes I played most of the games.  I thought that almost all were very solid and competent but that Lost Pig stood head and shoulders above the rest, and well deserved its winning position. The character of Grunk and his style of speaking were beautifully depicted and that illusive "sense of immersion" was fully realized.

Jimmy: Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?

Sam: Although I have quite a few partially-implemented games, I am not really working on anything definite (apart from a bug-fix version of Bellwater that just tidies a few things up).  [Fix that window! -- Jimmy] Ideally I would like to try a collaboration with another writer. I think that working with someone else could be great fun. I often feel that IF is more like drama than literature and it would be interesting to work with someone who has had some experience of acting or writing for the stage. However, even just a different perspective would be useful. I think, for example, that Urban Conflict could have been a much better game if I had worked with a collaborator and we had worked together on the relationship between the two characters. However, life outside IF is quite busy at the moment and I don't want to start scouting around for a writing partner until I can definitely commit some time to the project.

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Interview with Christopher Huang, author of An Act of Murder

Jimmy: Tell us a little bit about your life when you aren't writing IF.  Interests, job, geographical location, etc.  Whatever you feel comfortable sharing and that won't attract Internet stalkers...

Christopher: I work in an architectural firm in Montreal.  And yes, I did sketch out floor plans for the house in Act Of Murder.  In my downtime, I while away the hours playing games, unless it's November in which case I'm writing for National Novel Writing Month.
Jimmy: So, ten years or so since your last full-fledged effort, the very well received Muse: An Autumn Romance.  You are part of an interesting pattern of IF authors popping up again from out of nowhere.  (As I write this, Brent Van Fossen has just released a new version of his old classic She's Got a Thing for a Spring after a similar delay.)  What prompted you to write some IF again?

Christopher: Well, I remember talking quite a bit about writing something big -- well, bigger than Speed-IF  anyway -- after Muse, but Real Life got in the way.  By the time I caught my breath again, I'd  forgotten too much about Inform and about the groundwork for any other projects I had percolating at the time to get started again.  Then Inform 7 came out, and I didn't have to relearn anything after all: relearning a coding language is boring as hell, but starting afresh is easy and interesting.

Jimmy: I'm frankly in awe of the randomization in your game, not only because it exists at all but also because it works so seamlessly.  The plot never feels clunky at all.  Tell us how you approached the design.  And just exactly what all is randomly determined on each playthrough?  Upon first playing, I assumed the game just worked like Infocom's Moonmist, selecting from a handful of pre-designed scenarios.  Now, though, I realize what it does is much more intricate and impressive.  Must have been a nightmare to test the thing...

Christopher: I'd actually been wanting to do something like AOM for years now.  I first started out with something with a cast of about 20 to 30 characters, one of whom would be randomly picked for a victim, and eight others who'd be randomly picked to be present in the game as suspects.  As you might imagine, that was rather a bit more than I could chew.

Later on, I thought to approach it from a different angle.  Instead of looking for interesting suspects or stories, I started with the mechanics instead.  I took the classic "method, motive, opportunity" schtick: two people to be cleared by mutual alibis, one person who couldn't have done the deed in the way it was done, and one person with an "anti-motive" -- that is, someone who would have wanted the victim alive rather than dead.  That gave me four innocent people, and of course one more for the guilty party.  After that, it was just a matter of creating characters who would fit into the mechanics, and developing a story that would work.  Also, picking weapons that would fit the requirements.

A lot of this is thanks to Inform 7's table function.  The game would probably not have been possible otherwise.

Jimmy: One thing distinctive thing about both Muse and Murder is the fact that they both take place in our own everyday, mundane reality, without the science fiction and fantasy tropes that still tend to dominate IF.  What led you to set your games in "reality-based" worlds?

Christopher: To be honest, science fiction tends to turn me off; space stations, alien planets, high technology, that sort of thing usually makes my eyes glaze over, unless something special catches my attention really really quickly.  As for fantasy, I'm pretty neutral.  I figure that if something has fantasy elements in it, the story had better be something that cannot be properly told without them; and none of the stories I've come up with so far have required fantasy elements.

But, I love mystery stories, particularly those written between the 1920s and 1940s.  So that's what I tend to read.  And, as I said, I'd been wanting to do something in that genre for years.

As for Muse... well, I'd been reading a lot of Anthony Trollope at the time, particularly Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles.  The first line, "The summer of 1886 found me..." had been percolating in my head for quite a while.

(Believe it or not, Muse was once intended to be a mystery story.  The murder or murders would take place in Barchester, and Rev Dawson would solve them from Switzerland via telegrams to and from his sister Emma.)
Jimmy: Always great to talk to another Trollope fan!  Dickens is good, but Trollope is better, and really deserves more exposure in America.  I spent much of 2007 reading all six Barsetshire novels...

Another thing I notice about both games is that you are trying to tell quite subtle (by IF standards) stories in each.  Let's take them one at a time, if you don't mind talking about your earlier game too much.  Muse is a Victorian romance.  How difficult did you find it to translate such a concept into the IF world of objects and puzzles?  How successful do you feel you were?

Christopher: I never really thought of Muse as a "romance" in the popular sense of the word; to me, it was a story about one man's mid-life crisis: the fact that Rev Dawson is just 1 year short of 60 is a lot more significant than he ever cares to admit, and add to that the life of strait-laced rectitude that his occupation implies.

A number of puzzles had occurred to me before I even began.  I don't know if I thought they were anything special, but I do remember being rather pleased with how well they fit into the story.  In terms of success as puzzles, I think they were, for the most part, satisfactory.  Perhaps the puzzle involving the changing of rooms could have been better clued....

The one puzzle that I think was not so successful was the conversation with Konstanza.  It was a bit of a last minute thing: I'd just read about "conversation mazes" and decided that I had to have something of the sort in the game.  Unfortunately ... well, you only have to look at something like Galatea to see how such a thing should have been done!

Jimmy: Similarly, An Act of Murder is a classic locked-house murder mystery which forces the player to grapple with ephemeral concepts -- alibis, motives, and methods -- rather than locked doors, mazes, etc.  I thought you made heroic efforts to make this feel natural for the player, but also felt the game fell a bit short at times here too, in that I wasn't always quite sure how to translate the notion in my head into actions in the gameworld.  (No shame there, what you were attempting is just SO difficult.)  Any thoughts about trying to map the logic of a mystery novel onto a development library still to some extended focuses on creating more Zorks?

Christopher: AOM is more a meta-mystery, I guess.  I'm still rather pleased with the master table that organises all the suspects and the roles they are to fill in the story, but I don't know if there's any engine within that could lend itself to a development library.  Otherewise, I was mostly just learning as I went along.

Jimmy: Act of Murder has an unusual number of well fleshed-out NPCs for an IF game. Tell us about the process of designing and coding them.

Christopher: The mechanics came first, and the suspects were drawn up to fill the spaces that the mechanics required.  When I first began coding, I had a bunch of names and no story, no way to actually relate them to each other.  I knew I wanted a "man of action" character -- the Colonel Mustard archetype -- so I randomly assigned that to the suspect labelled "A" in my notes ... and voila, Alexander Wolf.  Then, a woman in a wheelchair, because I just like the imagery ... a prissy, superior, socialist-type ... someone related to the dead man ... and someone in a position of trust, like a lawyer or a manager.  As the story fell into place, so did the suspects' characters and their relationships towards each other.  I do remember that the animosity between Cedric and Deborah was a fairly late development, for instance.

Coding them was largely about giving them things to say in response to the player's questions, since there wasn't much else for them to do or  react to.  And you can never code in enough responses, once you set down that road.  In this case, a lot of their speech was peppered with if/otherwise conditions, to mesh with the scenario as currently set up.  I do think there's a lot more that could be done (but which I doubt I'd get around to doing!).  In the case of their alibis, I had to pull out whole new set of rules to deal with all the if/otherwise conditions.

Jimmy: One problem that has plagued earlier IF mysteries was the necessity to be in the exact right place at the exact right time to spot suspicious behavior.  You avoided this by setting your game after the crime is already complete and giving your player a fairly static crime scene to explore, which enhances playability at (perhaps) the expense of a certain element of drama.  Any thoughts on the tradeoffs you made here?

Christopher: I do miss the action.  There is a possibility, in one scenario and one scenario only, of causing Elinor to move to the Terrace and Benedict to refuse to answer any more questions, but that was the only "action" I managed to put in during the game.

And there'd actually been even less action to begin with: I'd initially put all the details of the case in a text-dump right at the beginning, and had the player start out in the Study, having already presumably met all the suspects.  Some testers complained that they didn't have a good grasp of who the suspects were, and some said the text-dump was a bit too much information all at once, so I created the introduction sequence.

Jimmy: So, you just got paid $500 for writing IF!  That's unusual.  What will you do / have you done with the money?

Christopher: Bank it.  I am a parsimonious, miserly wretch and I like to see my bank account grow.

Jimmy: In this you are a man after Trollope's heart.  He kept careful track of the exact sum earned by each of his books, almost down to the shilling, and gave this accounting prominent place in his autobiography.  Needless to say, his reputation among the art for art's sake crowd was destroyed forever.

But back in the world of IF... Did you spend time with the other Competition games?  Favorites, impressions, opinions to share?

Christopher: I did play most of the other games.  I did enjoy Orevore Courier, despite what I said earlier about my gut reaction to science fiction: it caught me early with the PC's attitude, and then there were pirates.  Pirates are cool.  Plus, I'm rather fond of games like this, where a lot of it is about managing and controlling the reactions between the different elements.

I know I spent an inordinate amount of time on Slap That Fish! and Jealousy Duel X, trying to get everything perfect.

I couldn't get very far into Press [Escape] To Save, but it reminded me of Rybread Celsius so much that I wondered if this might in fact have been him come back, as it were, from the dead.  His early games, however flawed, had a certainly exuberance that I rather miss.

Jimmy: Will we have to wait another decade for your next game, or do you have plans to work on something before then?  Any hopes / plans / ideas for a next game you might be able to share?

Christopher: Oh, I'm thinking of a new release already.  Of course, that's what I said ten years ago, after Muse.  I don't know.  Perhaps you'll have to wait for Inform 8!

Jimmy: Congratulation on your excellent Competition showing, and thanks again for doing this interview for SPAG's readers!

Christopher: You're welcome!

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Interview with Grunk and Admiral Jota, co-authors of Lost Pig

Jimmy: First of all, SPAG is of course a family publication, so I just need to confirm from you before continuing, Grunk, that you are in fact wearing pants at the moment.

Grunk: Grunk not just wear pants. For this, Grunk wear two pants. But wearing two pants not easy, so Grunk put one pants on leg and other pants on head. Pants on head not very good pants because them have big hole. (Not have hole before Grunk put pants on, so Grunk think maybe putting on boots before Grunk try putting on other pants not help there.) Pants with hole not good for covering Grunk up. But hole good for looking out of.

Jimmy: I've read all that over very carefully, but I'm still not actually sure whether you are fully covered in all the important places.  Perhaps we should just wipe that imagery out of our heads and move on...

Grunk, those of us who have read your blog already know a bit about your personal history, particularly illustrious military career.  Perhaps, though, you could fill in the blanks a bit to describe your pre-military, pre-farmhand doings, and also to tell us what you have been up to more recently.

Grunk: Before Grunk work on farm, Grunk at home with mother and father. (Before that, Grunk at home with mother and father and brother, but then Grunk brother join army.) Then one time Grunk walking down road and see tasty pig. So Grunk get hungry and eat some pig. Then man come out and yell at Grunk, say Grunk pay for pig. But Grunk not have any coin! So man say, Grunk work and pay for pig that way. That how Grunk start working on farm.

Now, Grunk not even in army any more. That because army not there any more. Place where army at all fall down. Fall on top of Grunk boss in army, so now Grunk just work for Grunk. Live in woods with some friend from army that not in army any more either, looking for person that give coin and food and thing if Grunk wave sword and go "RARRR!". There lots of person that pay coin and food and thing for good "RARRR", so it all work out OK.

Some time Grunk tell story too.

Jimmy: I think I speak for everyone when I say we can't wait to hear it.  

How did you end up with your own doman name?  Very unusual for an orc...

Grunk: Grunk not know how that happen either. Grunk never say that it OK! Not know what "domain" mean, but that not mean it OK if it take Grunk name. Grunk ask Prgukar, and him say Grunk should get "lawyer". But it turn out that "lawyer" not really kind of spiky club. It just kind of person. Oh well.

Lawyer say that now Grunk get to share name. Then lawyer take all Grunk coin. Next time, Grunk just use spiky club.

Jimmy: Jota, your life has not received all the public exposure of Grunk's.  What sort of things do you get up to when not writing IF with Grunk?  How long have you been interested in IF?  Tell us a bit about yourself, please!

Jota: By day, I'm a software developer in New Hampshire. By night, I fight international crime using a legion of remotely-controlled cybernetic cantelope from my command center deep underneath a converted textile mill in downtown Manchester.

However, of more interest to your readers is how I first started playing IF. My very first exposure to it was sometime around 1990 (give or take), when I was about thirteen. My parents gave me a copy of Star Trek: The Promethean Prophecy for the Apple IIgs. I had fun not just playing the game, but also trying to figure out how the underlying logic worked. (For instance, DAMAGE was implemented as a verb meaning "TELL ME ABOUT..." -- presumably to facilitate parsing lines like "SPOCK, DAMAGE REPORT".)

A few years later, I started playing Sierra's Space Quest and King's Quest games illicitly in the High School computer labs. A friend suggested that if I liked those, I might be interested in this other game, and he showed me a copy of Zork IThere are more of these? I thought. One thing led to another, and eventually I was downloading AGT (since it was for writing adventure games, whereas most of the Internet resources I found only seemed to be for something called "Interactive Fiction"), and the rest just followed naturally from there.

Jimmy: I had that Star Trek game too, and also hacked the hell out of it trying to figure out how to actually beat it.  I'm not at all convinced today that it actually was possible to beat, at least in the Commodore 64 version I had.  Still, remembering that game brings the warm fuzzies in a big way, even if reading the manual that promised the ability to do all kinds of things that didn't actually work when you tried them in the game (again, at least in the Commodore 64 version) was more fun than actually playing.  Sometimes I think about trying to implement something like the game described in that manual (as opposed to the one on the disk), because I've never seen anything quite like it.

How did you come to the name Admiral Jota?

Jota: High School Spanish class. Everyone had to take a Spanish name. Since I used to be called by my initials ("JJ"), I just translated that directly ("Jota Jota"), and then shortened it to just one J.

The "Admiral" part was more of a joke. When you play videogames where you fly around in spaceships and blow things up, everybody wants to be the ship's captain, right? Well, I did that one better. Once I got online, it's what I used whenever I went somewhere that wanted a "full" name, rather than just a simple handle. Before I knew it, it had become my semi-official nom de 'Net.

Jimmy: While you have plenty of Speed-IF and IF Whispers collaborations to your credit, this is your first attempt at a fully-fleshed, polished game I believe...

Jota: What, you don't think Pass the Banana was fully-fleshed out and polished?

Jimmy: Actually...

Jota: Well?

Jimmy: Well...

Jota: Hello?

Jimmy: You see...

Jota: Oh, alright.

Jimmy: ... ahem... I think everyone was impressed by Lost Pig's level of polish: the translation into Grunk's "unique" diction was accomplished seamlessly, the one significant NPC (no, not the pig, although he was cool too) felt very, very alive, etc.  As I wrote in my review, any game that understands REACH IN CRACK WITH POLE has officially impressed me.  Perhaps you can tell us about the game's development history.

Jota: The original concept came to me in 2003. It was shortly after I'd run out of steam at keeping up Grunk's journal. Stephen Granade had decided to save himself a little work by building a web form to let the ifComp authors input their game info themselves (the lazy bum). He wanted some folks to test it for him, so I just tried sticking in some silly stuff: author? "Grunk"!... title? oh, something dumb... Lost Pig... subtitle? uh, let's make it a dungeon crawl... And Place Under Ground. Then Stephen said "You should write that!" And I thought, "Ha ha, right! Hmm..." After that, every once in a while the idea would bubble up to the surface of my brain again, and I'd think about possible puzzles or objects or interactions, maybe take a few notes, and then completely forget about it again.

Then in 2006 I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a month or so (much of which was spent battling the Z-Machine's 64kB limit for writable memory).

Jimmy: I thought your use of a TADS 3 like conversation system worked really well, aided of course by the fact that you wrote out an absolute sledload of responses for our little gnome friend.  Any thoughts on conversation in IF?

Jota: I think conversation in IF should be tailored to fit the game in question.

Since Lost Pig is essentially a puzzle game in the old-school dungeon crawl style, I felt like it should have a topic-driven conversation engine, like the old ASK/TELL systems. Thus, all of the dialogue in the game is represented as simple topics that can be accessed at any time (once Grunk has been exposed to the subject in question) with the TALK ABOUT command (for which ASK and TELL are just synonyms). These topics are parsed like any other game object, and are moved into scope as Grunk learns about them.

On the other hand, the game is also driven by the Grunk's unique perspective, so I wanted the way conversation was presented to reflect his thought processes. Presenting a small selection of the topics that he might happen to be thinking about at the time seemed like a good way to represent this, and displaying them in the stilted syntax of IF commands complemented Grunk's own style of speech.

As for the sheer number of topics, that's purely because of my own style as a player: when I'm playing IF, I tend to try almost everything that I think of, and as an author, it seemed only natural to give responses to the things that I would have tried if I myself were playing the game. In fact, there are many supported topics which are never explicitly mentioned as dialogue options. The current version of the source (which I'm in the process of revising to remove a few bugs that were in the comp release) contains about 250 topics altogether.

Jimmy: Wow!  I think a new standard has just been set...

Grunk, please move on and do not read the rest of this question.  Thanks!

Jota, I have to tell you, I sometimes get the impression that Grunk is not, shall we say, the brightest bulb in the chandelier.  Was he REALLY able to rescuse the pig and escape from underground by solving all those complicated puzzles?  I sometimes got the feeling his adventure might have been embellished a bit when translated into IF...

Jota: Well, I'm pretty sure he did get back with the pig somehow, and I'm almost certain the gnome was real. But to be absolutely honest, I strongly suspect that gnome might have offered him a bit more help than Grunk really wants to admit. I mean, if it were me, I certainly wouldn't have just sat there the whole time while an orc rooted through my home trying to find useful objects...

Jimmy: Okay, Grunk, thanks for not reading that last one.  This one is just for you. Will we ever see more blog entries from you, or better yet a new IF adventure featuring you?  Or perhaps being the world-famous star of a Comp-winning game will just keep you too busy?

Grunk: Lots of thing happen to Grunk, when Grunk still in army and after Grunk in army and before Grunk in army and in between time too. Grunk still like telling story about thing that happen to Grunk. But not know yet how Grunk tell next story that Grunk tell.

Maybe next time, it just normal story like in journal where Grunk talk and other person just listen. That less work than this kind of story. But maybe Grunk make it one long story that have beginning and end, and not have lots of little piece like journal. Or maybe Grunk do some other thing that not like either one at all. Maybe next time Grunk just do song and dance instead. (Probably not, though. Grunk not very good at dancing.)

Jimmy: What will you do with the $500 Lost Pig earned you?  (Or perhaps I should say what have you done...)  Did you divide the cash 50-50?

Jota: My part of the money is sitting in the bank, happily earning interest (interest which is helping to finance my melon-bot army, of course).

As for Grunk's share, we couldn't find a good method of currency exchange, so I set him up on eBay instead. I had to explain to him what most of the things were, of course. He ended up picking out an old color Game Boy, a copy of Super Mario Brothers, and several cases of spare batteries.

Grunk: Little man hit brick and coin fall out. Grunk hit brick and Grunk hand hurt. Grunk play some more, maybe find out what Grunk doing wrong. Maybe Grunk need eat more mushroom.

Jimmy: Did you get a chance to play through the over Comp games?  Favorites? Impressions?

Jota: I did play through some of them, although I didn't have time to play them all. From what I did play, I was especially impressed with An Act of Murder. He did a great job of matching his writing to the style of the genre, and the gameplay was solid -- a good game even without the randomization and replayability. I wouldn't have felt bad taking second place to it.

Jimmy: And finally, what are your future plans, Jota?  Working on anything now?

Jota: For non-IF, even though I'm not updating Grunk's journal, I do periodically write short pieces of my own still, such as the series of posts starting here and continuing on succeeding days.

For IF, I'm working on a collaboration at the moment. It's a humorous fantasy puzzle game as well, but it's otherwise completely unrelated to Lost Pig. I'm doing the design while my collaborator is coding it. It's in Inform 7, a language which I personally find nearly impossible to write in, so it'll be interesting to see how that works out.

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The World of Italian IF: A SPAG Special Feature

For over a year now, SPAG has been running a series of features that highlight the histories and cultures of the various non-English IF communities.  In this issue we wrap the series up with an examination of Italian IF.  We will begin with a general history, followed by interviews with several key players and a review of an exceptional classic Italian game.  Huge thanks go out to torredifuoco, who has been absolutely tireless in putting most of this together.  

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A History of Italian IF by torredifuoco

Enrico Colombini: the Beginning (1982-1985)

The first Italian piece of IF was Avventura nel Castello (Castle Adventure) by Enrico Colombini, released in 1982. He developed it on an Apple ][, after he had met with Adventure at an IT fair two years before. Like in Cinderella's tale, he played only one (quite long) game, and then the very next day didn't find the colossal cave on that monitor. He had to wait until the game showed up on a diskette disguised as Apple Adventure. Only then could he study some code and began developing something in Italian. He came up with a well-designed quest set in a Scottish castle which players must escape -- alive -- using a two-word parser. He soon found a distributor, J. Soft (a division of Gruppo Editoriale Jackson, an Italian IT publisher).  His game sold well enough throughout the country, even though Apple ]['s weren't terribly common computers in Italy.

In 1984 J. Soft came to an arrangement with Apple Computer Italy, and a second version of the game was bundled with the Apple //c.  Meanwhile, videogame publishers and computer magazines started pushing interactive fiction. Users switched from consoles to microcomputers, and the computer market became wild. Piracy was commonplace.  The Commodore 64 was the king of micros, followed by the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (aka Timex Sinclair in the USA). Many users played IF works written in English.

Gruppo Editoriale Jackson brought out three books about writing IF with Basic during 1985: Mike Grace's Avventure e Commodore 64 (translation of Commodore 64 Adventures), and two books by Colombini - Scrivere un gioco d'Avventura (Writing a Text Adventure Game) and Avventure (Adventures). These latter two were the better by far. The author's witty style and up-to-date information trumped the competition.

Scrivere un gioco d'avventura featured the annotated source code of an example game for the Apple ][, easily portable to other microcomputers, while Avventure described the development of a mini-adventure and was bundled with some software: two example games and a tool called Modulo BASE (BASIC Module) for five machines -- the Apple ][, IBM PC, Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum and MSX.  Italian IF players now had the tools to become authors.

Bonaventura Di Bello and the Newsstand (1985-1988)

As a consequence, in 1986 J. Soft released some good titles by new authors in a variety of ways. Some were bundled with Jackson's magazines, such as Etrusk by Marcello Giombini; others were sold by mail-order through ads in magazines,such as Il Mistero della Piramide (Pyramid Mystery) by Enrico Ragaini.  Another popular title was Missione Odessa (Odessa Mission) by Paolo Giorgi.  All displayed the telltale signs of Colombini's Modulo BASE working under the hood.

However, Colombini wasn't the only coder in town. Others developed their applications or used other tools.  It is possible that no Italian software house devoted itself exclusively to IF because piracy strangled the software market.  Everybody could find copies of the latest games everywhere: from friends, from computer shops and, last but not least, from the newsstand!  In the latter case, they changed titles, rewrote credits and added some instructions in magazines.

There were a few exceptions to the rule.  Let's take a step back to 1985, a great year for Italian IF.  The newsstand offered original software, too - i.e. IF works written in Italian.  It all started from a collaboration between Arscom (a "software house", or coders' team) and Edisoft (publisher) giving birth to a magazine, Next Strategy, that developed new Italian IF for the Commodore 64.  They hit the market with series of adventure lines each featuring its own hero. Games were written in BASIC, but made use of Assembly routines to to display graphics.  Here started the first golden age of Italian IF.  It lasted for three years, from 1985 to 1987.  Edisoft's formula was imitated by a number of publishers, which is not surprising: in three years they sold about ten different collections of magazines totalling about sixty issues and over 170 games, mostly for the Commodore 64 but also for the Sinclair Spectrum and MSX, written by a collection of about ten authors. Quite a feat.

One of the most talented, fondly remembered, prolific, and quickest IF authors of all time was one of the "dirty ten".  His name is Bonaventura Di Bello (aka BDB), who wrote over seventy pieces in about a year.  I should add that about twenty more were conceived and written for Sinclair ZX Spectrum during the previous six months.  

BDB began on the Sinclair Spectrum after he being fascinated by Artic's Adventure A: Planet of Death.  He decided to try his hand at IF development and bought an authoring system, Gilsoft's The Quill, which came bundled to The Illustrator, an application that allowed authors to add images to their work.  Soon he had completed his first piece in Italian, Dimensione Sconosciuta (Unknown Dimension), allowing it to circulate freely, with his address on the splash screen. He even submitted his game to a competition hosted by a magazine named Load'n'Run.   Its first prize was a Sinclair QL, the most powerful of the Sinclair computers. He wasn't allowed to participate, but they offered him a fee to properly publish the game. In the meantime, and thanks to the free circulation, a publisher, Edizioni Hobby, contacted him because they needed a coder who could crank out three adventures every month for the Sinclair Spectrum.

In 1986 Edizioni Hobby started a magazine, Epic 3000, with three new games for Commodore 64 by Arscom and three for Spectrum by BDB.  It lasted seven issues, and then was replaced by two magazines, Explorer and Viking.  Arscom fled to another publisher while BDB remained to attend to the new projects. Explorer appeared in late 1986 with three games per month for the Commodore 64 and three for the MSX, and for the first seven issues these were portings of those he wrote for Epic 3000Viking came out in early 1987 with three games per month for the Commodore 64 and three for the Sinclair Spectrum, and these were totally new.  These two project lasted about a year each -- Explorer for twelve issues, Viking for eleven - but games were written for a twelfth issue of Viking.  This totals 69 different games plus three unreleased, each one ported to two machines.  Though the magazines eventually died, players loved them.  Indeed, Explorer and Viking lasted longer than any similar publication.

Let's look at these two magazines.  They weren't too elaborate but rather had a home-grown feel; there was little artwork.  However, they offered all a text adventure fan could want: IF reviews, sometimes hardware reviews, a few technical articles about authoring, introductions and solutions to bundled games.  Most importantly, they encouraged their readers to communicate with them, be it through phone calls or letters or the questionaires they included asking for feedback about players' preferences and thoughts.  They were open to ideas and collaborations.

BDB wasn't solely responsible for the many games.  There were some -- about ten -- collaborations.  Gian Paolo Gentili contributed most of all, but Max Di Bello, Adelaide Mansi, Nick Carpentieri and Lisa Serlini also participated.  Max Di Bello and Francesco Gasparro gave sometimes a little help in the tech department.  BDP followed the Arscom model, featuring well-defined heroes that could reappear in later adventures.  He gave life to about forty different PCs, of which most appreciated appeared in perhaps four or five games.  Every PC was tied to a genre, such as science fiction, horror, western, fantasy and so on.  If I had to compare his games to those of another author I would choose Scott Adams, only with better room descriptions and a generally less minimalist approach.  The games also featured graphics.  BDB had good design and writing skills that compensated for the intrinsic limitations of The Quill.  In fact, he used The Quill and The Illustrator for the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, but adapted Colombini's Modulo BASE for the MSX - omitting the graphics.

Colombini was like a prezzemolo, as we say in Italy.  Prezzemolo, or parsley, we put everywhere, in every recipe.  In 1987 he released the third (still commercial) version of Avventura nel Castello for MS-DOS, distributed by Hi-Tech, while in 1988 the second edition of Avventure came out with a more powerful version of Modulo BASE and a new ambitious example game, L'Apprendista Stregone (The Sorcerer's Apprentice).

However, the glory days were almost over. After Viking went out of print nothing appeared to replace it; the Italian IF market was collapsing.  To release for the newsstand meant to work at a loss, and momentum seemed forever lost even outside Italy.  Infocom itself survived for only a couple more years.

The Dark Age (1989-1999)

The early 90's saw all the remaining software houses publishing to IF quitting the business -- Infocom, Level 9, Magnetic Scrolls, etc.  IF went out of fashion. Computer magazines weren't interested anymore.  The reign of the 8-bit machines came to an abrupt end with the arrival of the new 16-bits -- Amiga, Atari ST, IBM compatibles and so on.  The concept of shareware was spreading, and the World Wide Web slowly gained ground.

In Italy hardcore IF fans kept writing IF as a hobby.  Roberto Barabino is one of the authors who was active during this period, and is appreciated as a good writer and a good coder.  In 1991 he released a humorous piece for the Amiga, Ullisprick, as freeware and it passed from disk to disk as in the old days.

Some lucky players got their hands on the collections of IF games that came out in 1991 and 1992, The Lost Treasures of Infocom I & II and The Magnetic Scrolls Collection I. Meanwhile, was created as well as the IF Archive, and in 1993 Graham Nelson released his specialized IF programming language, Inform, as freeware.

The late 90s were the years in which IBM compatibles and the Internet had their boom - at least in Italy. It started very well: in 1995 there was the first IF Comp, in 1996 Activision released the Masterpieces of Infocom CD.

During 1996 the Italian scene began to show some vitality: Colombini released Avventura nel Castello for PC as freeware and Barabino finished two titles, Alieni per Sempre (Aliens Forever) and Vanilla, written with Visual BASIC.  IF developers weren't very well-organized but in 1998 Ilario Nardinocchi nevertheless released out his translation of the Inform library into Italian.

A New Rise: the Italian IF Community is Born (1999-2003)

The Big Bang that would mark the beginning of a new era for Italian IF soon to followed.  During early 1999 the initiative of a few gave birth to a new IF community.  Simone Zanella created a website, IFItalia, with a specific aim: to collect and make available the Italian production of games, articles, walkthroughs, etc.  Months later, he was among the successful promoters of it.comp.giochi.avventure.testuali, the Italian IF newsgroup, and wrote its manifesto. Then came an IRC channel dedicated to IF.

The newsgroup was soon invaded by graphic adventure players whose concerns were of course off-topic, but they eventually found another group for their discussions.  icgat became the place where IF fans gathered to discuss ideas and start projects.  Two examples: the Avventura dell'Anno (Adventure of the Year) Award and Progetto Lazzaro (Project Lazarus).  The former was a prize given to the best game of the year and the latter a website managed by Sauron and devoted to the search for commercial games and magazines from the 80s with the purpose of preserving them.

Other important developments during 1999 and 2000 included the beta and first version of Giovanni Riccardi's Infit (another translation of the Inform library) and his translation of two example games, and two translations by Paolo Vece --  Adam Cadre's Gull manual for Glulx and Kent Tessman's Hugo Manual. There were also a lot of new games by new authors and a couple of new authoring systems: Paolo Lucchesi's MAC (Mystery Adventure Creator) and Colombini's Idra (Hydra).  Colombini also released one of his books, and all the bundled software, as freeware.

Throughtout the following three years the Italian IF community grew stronger and stronger.  Although Zanella stepped away from IFItalia because he lacked spare time and the website wasn't updated again until 2003, icgat worked like a charm.  Another shared project was the translation of the The Inform Beginner's Guide by Roger Firth and Sonja Kesserich; many people took part in it.  Vincenzo Scarpa was writing a book on authoring IF with Inform in which his annotations and explanations about the Ruins source were the main course.  The number of games written during those years steadily increased, reaching about fifteen games per year in 2002 and 2003.  In 2001 Colombini released another version of Avventura nel Castello, this one for the Apple ][, and its source as freeware.  In 2002 Francesco Cordella organized his first ORGC (One Room Game Competition).  In 2003 Riktik, using a CMS, revived IFItalia, which was hosted again in the same domain thanks to the kind initiative of Tommaso Percivale.  There was also the first title released for Roberto Grassi's From Hell project, which was an effort to stimulate the production of remakes/portings, giving new authors material to practice with.  Finally, during late 2003 Terra d'IF (IF-Land) #1 came out: this Italian IF webzine was another idea by Grassi.  Of course he found many contributors among icgat denizens.

Losing the Grip? (2004-2008)

Recent years have featured some ups and downs.

First of all the good news: many interesting projects and ideas took shape.  There were some translations, including the second edition of the IBG (2004); the third edition of the IBG (2006), entitled Guida a Inform per Principianti or GIP and translated by many authors; Guida a Inform-Glulx (2006) or GIG which included the Inform Release Notes, Gull and other texts and was translated by Marco Falcinelli and Paolo Vece; and Il "Bibbione di Glk" (The "Big Book of Glk", 2007) which included Andrew Plotkin's Glk API Specifications 0.7.0. and other texts and was translated by Lorenzo Marcantonio.  Vincenzo Scarpa released his book, Come Scrivere (e Giocare) delle Avventure Testuali in Inform e Glulx (How to Write (and Play) Text Adventures with Inform and Glulx, 2006).  In 2005 Rob Grassi announced a new Italian software house devoted to IF, Mondi Confinanti (Bordering Worlds) and the same year took second place in the IF Comp with Beyond (written in collaboration with Paolo Lucchesi and Alessandro Peretti), as well as two XYZZY Awards.  He also started a Google Group, rakontointeraktiva, about localizing IF-specialized programming languages.  Alessandro Schillaci produced some interesting software: JIF (2004), the SGW (Simple Glulx Wrapper) library and StorylandOS (2005), IFPEN (2007) and a beta of WIDE (2007).  The ORGC is also still there, solid as a rock.

But there was some bad news too: in late 2006 Terra d'IF died after just ten issues.  Progetto Lazzaro was temporarily frozen some years ago, and and still is today.  But worst of all, since 2004 the production of new games has dropped considerably.  Due to this, the Avventura dell'Anno Award is not given anymore. At least half of the community's recent production consists of one-room games; the Italian IF community really should write more IF nowadays.

Comps & Awards

There are two traditional events that capture Italian authors' attention: the Avventura dell'Anno (Adventure of the Year) Award, a prize given to the best piece of the past year; and the ORGC (One Room Game Competition), for games that take place in a single room of course.

Avventura dell'Anno was created by the initiative of IFItalia and icgat denizens in early 2000, and it lasted until 2004.  Hopefully it isn't gone forever.  Hosted by many dedicated individuals that did the dirty work, it worked this way: they nominated games through a thread on icgat and then sent votes by e-mail to the host.  The rating methods varied as years went by, as the award became more and more similar to the XYZZY Awards, with sub-categories, a ceremony on the #if IRC channel, and real prizes too.

Winners of the award:

1999    Non Sarà un'Avventura (It Won't Be an Adventure) by Roberto Barabino
2000    Uno Zombie a Deadville (A Zombie in Deadville) by Tommaso Caldarola
2001    Enigma by Marco Vallarino
2002    La Pietra della Luna (The Moon Stone) by Paolo Lucchesi
2003    Filaments by JB Ferrant (Italian translation by Marco Totolo)

The One-Room Game Competition arose from an idea which struck Francesco Cordella in 2002 while playing Andrew Plotkin's Shade.  His first reaction was to write a game, L'Avventura del Ciclope (Cyclops Adventure); then an article; finally, he thought about a competition.  He hosts this comp on his blog, L'Avventura è l'Avventura (Adventure is Adventure) . He sometimes gets some help by others, especially when he enters a game of his own.  The first ORGC took place in 2002.  Since then only one year has been missed, 2004, due to a postponed deadline.  Competition rules have stayed almost unchanged from the beginning, except for a major variation in 2003, admitting games written in any foreign language.

Winners of the competition:

2002    L'Artificiere (The Artificer) by Paolo Lucchesi, Sting1, Percy
2003    Il Barile di Amontillado (The Barrel of Amontillado) by Marco Dattesi
2005    L'Armando by Andrea Rezzonico
2006    Final Selection by Sam Gordon
2007    Suveh Nux by David Fisher

Authoring Systems

Italian developers wrote a number IF authoring systems or editors supporting, but the truly important ones, which allowed authors to build really good games, were few: Enrico Colombini's Modulo BASE (BASIC Module), Idra (Hydra) and Paolo Lucchesi's MAC (Mystery Adventure Creator).

Let's start with the beloved Modulo BASE.  His first version came out in 1985.  As the name suggests, it isn't a system but a module written in BASIC that provides a framework for would-be Italian IF authors.  Its merits shouldn't be underestimated; it showed newbies how a program like these works, the inner secrets of adventure games.  It is well-designed, simple and flexible.  And It came with some great documentation -- two books worth -- explaining all the tricks.  Although it didn't give authors a complex world model and featured only a two-word parser, it was a good starting point for developers because they could build upon it.  Do you need a three-word parser? No problem, a coder could put Colombini's routines to good use, modify this, add that and there you go.  The first version featured short room descriptions, similar to those by Scott Adams, but hackers could easily modify this too.  In 1988 its author released a second version written with GW-Basic for MS-DOS with some major changes.  Messages (nearly all the text) were put in an indexed text file and authors could insert common commands between text chunks -- a sort of embryo programming language.  The new tool borrowed a few ideas from the Infocom games, such as room description management. In 1999 both versions, with example games and one book, were released as freeware.

Paolo Lucchesi's MAC for DOS, Windows and Linux systems appeared in 2000. It's a simple scripting language (sources can be compiled) that allows the creation of old-school IF.  Lucchesi was inspired by Brian Howart's Mysterious Adventures and Gilsoft's The Quill.  No structured world model yet but the parser understands up to four-word commands.  MAC supports .png graphics regarding rooms and messages with some restrictions in the allowed image size and color palette.  Four standard definitions files that contain predefined verbs and system messages in two languages, English and Italian, are provided.  Despite authors complaining about a few design oddities that could be improved, the language was used to write about a dozen titles in Italian between 2000 and 2003, which isn't bad at all.

In 2000 Colombini brought out another freeware tool, Idra, written with HTML/Javascript and designed to create hybrid games that resemble text adventures or simple Choose Your Own Adventure-style games but make use of a point-and-click interface.  With this tool developers can build applications which don't qualify as "games"; in fact it is used mainly outside the Italian IF community.

Of course Italian authors are also able to write IF with a specialized programming language, Inform, and another well-known English tool, ADRIFT, thanks to the effort of a few dedicated individuals who translated libraries and files.

Regarding Inform: the first translation was released in 1998 by Ilario Nardinocchi, who mantained it till 2002.  His translations continued through the Inform 6/10 English library.  Giovanni Riccardi released the first version of his translation, Infit (Inform in Italiano), in 2000.  His latest release was Infit 2.5, which appeared in 2004.  It supports Glulx and the English Inform 6/11 library.  Inform 6 with Glulx is by far the most highly-regarded system among Italian IF authors.

Throughout 2004 Roberto Grassi worked on producing an Italian version of ADRIFT.  His latest release is version 1.5, and he has also found the time to write three tutorials on the system.

Today much is going onbehind the scenes.  Roberto Grassi is again attending to an ambitious project: a translation of the Hugo library.  Giancarlo Niccolai is going to build an IF engine with Falcon, his recently-devised programming language.  Giovanni Riccardi once said he would like to rewrite Infit from the ground up and is having a at the Inform 7 library... Well, time will tell.

Remarkable Games

Alieni per Sempre (Aliens Forever) by Roberto Barabino.
Avventura nel Castello (Castle Adventure) by Enrico Colombini and Chiara Tovena.
Beyond by Mondi Confinanti (Roberto Grassi, Paolo Lucchesi and Alessandro Peretti).
Cosmic Adventure by Davide Orlandi.
Enigma by Marco Vallarino.
Flamel by Francesco Cordella.
Forma Mentis by Paolo Maroncelli.
Il Barile di Amontillado (The Barrel of Amontillado) by Marco Dattesi.
Il Mistero di Rocca Ventosa (Rocca Ventosa's Mystery) by Lorenzo Carnevale.
Il Mistero di Villa Revoltella (Villa Revoltella's Mystery) by Michele Susel, Liviano and Lorenzo Mos.
Il Principe dei Ladri (Thieves' Prince) by Riktik.
Kazan by Francesco Cordella.
La Pietra della Luna (The Moon Stone) by Paolo Lucchesi.
L'Apprendista Stregone (The Sorcerer's Apprentice) by Enrico Colombini and Chiara Tovena.
Little Falls by Mondi Confinanti (Alessandro Schillaci, Roberto Grassi and Enrico Simonato).
Lo Scarafaggio (The Cockroach) by Carcosa Edizioni (Fra Enrico and Kewan).
Natalie by Fabrizio Venerandi.
Non Sarà un'Avventura (It Won't Be an Adventure) by Roberto Barabino.
Schizo by Tommaso Caldarola.
Terry Jones - L'Occhio del Condor (Condor's Eye) 1 & 2 by Bonaventura Di Bello.
Uno Zombie a Deadville (A Zombie in Deadville) by Tommaso Caldarola.
Vanilla by Roberto Barabino.
War Mage by Giancarlo Niccolai.

Italian IF links

IFItalia (archive)
Informazioni (programming language - I6 translation)
Terra d'IF (webzine)

Alessandro Schillaci's website
Bonaventura Di Bello's blog
Enrico Colombini's website
Francesco Cordella's blog
Giancarlo Niccolai's blog
Marco Vallarino's website
Paolo Lucchesi's website
Roberto Grassi's website
Tommaso Caldarola's website


I'd like to thank a bunch of people whose writings helped me in various ways:
Back to Table of Contents

An Interview with Enrico Colombini (conducted by torredifuoco)

In 1982 Enrico Colombini wrote and sold the first text adventure in Italian, Avventura nel Castello (Castle Adventure), for the Apple ][.  In 1985  he published two books about writing text adventures which were hugely successful in popularizing the genre.  Along with the books came a tool written in BASIC, named Modulo BASE (BASIC Module), and more games: L'Astronave Condannata (The Doomed Spaceship) and L'Anello di Lucrezia Borgia (Lucrezia Borgia's Ring), for five different microcomputers.  Later, in 1988, he revised one of his books and made Modulo BASE more powerful.  A new game for MS-DOS, L'Apprendista Stregone (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), showed off the new features.  He developed another small example game, Il Drago delle Caverne (Cave-Dragon), for a course in BASIC in 1989.  These programs were updated and refined until 1999, when they were released as freeware along with the book Avventure per MS-DOS (Adventures for MS-DOS).  In 2000 he released another tool, Idra (Hydra), for writing Choose Your Own Adventure-style games in JavaScript.  In short, he's a living legend, but don't mention that to him or he will scold you.

torredifuoco: Enrico, I wrote a short introduction but it isn't enough. Could you tell the readers a little about yourself?

Enrico:  As a teenager, I guess I could be classified as the quintessential nerd: from Meccano to electronics, I was in full control of technology... and of little else. I read a lot, though, so I had the seeds of my redemption in me. Now I'm married, we have a son and I just lead a quiet life: I've always been a quiet type, but I never ceased being a nonconformist and an idealist, whatever the price (and it can be quite high, at times). I'm sitting at my desk, but my mind is still adventuring out there, as always. What never ceases to amaze me is that, of the many things I designed in electronics, software and publishing, only adventure games survive in the collective memory: they probably happened to be born at the right time (I suppose there's a humbleness lesson in that).

torredifuocot: People still remember you today mainly because of Avventura nel castello, even outside of Italian IF circles. Let's talk about it. How did you decide to write your first text adventure? I'd like to hear about the design phase, too. You credit your wife, Chiara, as co-author... Lastly, why did you choose a (Scottish) castle? Can you recall any source of inspiration?

Enrico: As I wrote (in Italian) on my site, the inspiration came from Adventure, i.e. The Colossal Cave, more exactly from the 350-point 1980 version we played on my brand new (well, new for me, but actually quite used) Apple ][.

We (Chiara, my friends and I) played it a lot: it was fascinating and, above all, it was something utterly new. However, the "no save" feature was irritating; I couldn't get around it by copying the save file between game sessions, because the disk was protected, so I decided to look into it. I wrote a primitive disk analysis utility ("DAN"), found out the protection system (it was just a different sector coding scheme), removed it and added the save/restore commands. I also had a look at the code, of course, but I wasn't particularly impressed with what I saw.

More or less at this point we said "This idea is great, why don't we do something like it in Italian? We can do it better". So the design phase started.
Now, "design phase" is a rather pompous expression: in fact, we just thought about it from time to time, came up with ideas and discussed them. That's my standard way of designing when I'm not under pressure, and it usually works well because my subconscious mind does all the work: I just have to be patient and wait for the results. Chiara had an important role in the design: she discussed, corrected, often rejected my ideas, besides of course contributing with original ideas of her own (we can't really remember which one of us had which idea).

As soon as we had a minimal map and some puzzles in place, I started coding in the evenings. I was the coder, because Chiara wasn't really interested in programming on personal computers (she worked in assembly language on microprocessors at the time).

The first program was rather primitive, sort of many big IF...THEN...ELSE with just PRINTs for output, but it worked and it was promising enough to push us forward. We went on for a couple of months adding locations and puzzles, until I hit the memory barrier: the texts filled the 48 kB (actually, rather less in practice) available on my Apple ][.

So I learned to effectively use the floppy disks and moved all texts to an indexed file to free RAM, then redesigned the program to be more table-driven and, generally speaking, saner. As a side-effect of the program's growth, I encountered two new problems: the extreme slowness of BASIC's garbage collection (it could hang the machine for many minutes at unpredictable times) and the relatively long time it took to look for a word (parsed from user input) in the dictionary. So I did a good thing and a bad thing.

The good thing was studying the insides of Applesoft BASIC and reading around a lot, which lead to a simple but very effective way of partitioning strings in two areas: "collectable" and "non-collectable". As the vast majority of the strings were constant, this approach did away with the garbage collection problem completely.

Of the bad thing I did I'm still a bit ashamed: having had no exposure to computer science and algorithms, I was naively doing a linear search. A simple binary search would have solved the problem with minimal effort but, being unaware of it at the time, I did what I knew how to do: I recoded the linear search in assembly language. It worked, of course, but it's still a dark stain on my (otherwise almost decently clean) programming history scroll.

The game progressed and evolved, design and implementation going hand-in-hand, and a few more months went by while new ideas and puzzles were added. We certanly had many sources of inspiration, first of all the large number of games I played: I'm sure some ideas were stol... er, inspired by early adventure games, but it's difficult to remember what came from what (for example, somebody pointed out the similarity of the plane-crashing introduction with Cranstor Manor, which I vaguely remember playing, but I've no idea when I played it).

The "graphic" fall from the plane came from Adventure's chasm, of course, while the maze was patterned after that of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose; being tired of senseless mapping, I had long been thinking about a non-conventional maze and the library in that book gave me the right idea. Speaking of non-conventionality, the whole game was designed to be a challenge to "standard" ways of problem-solving in games (such as: "go and kill 'em all") and we're rather proud of the results.

Testing played a very important role too: during many months, I looked at friends playing and took note of everything they wrote, however strange or unexpected (especially if strange or unexpected!) then added most of it to the game. I think this should actually be considered part of the design: in fact we were using other people's minds in addition to our own.

About the choice of a Scottish castle background, I really have no idea: perhaps it was the influence of Stevenson's books, or Poe's, or some gothic novel... but when (many years later) we actually went to visit the wonderful country of Scotland, we were happy to realize that we'd been rather accurate in our settings.

torredifuoco: You managed to sell Avventura nel castello, you're one of the few Italian authors who made some money with this kind of software. I know you began by selling it yourself (and this reminds me of Roberta & Ken Williams). What problems did you face? Was it hard to find a software house, later? Could you inform readers about the Italian software market in the 80s? Your game had a long life: three commercial editions, and the third was for MS-DOS. At the end of it, did you get rich?

Enrico: At the beginning, it was just a favour a couple of friends did me: they had this computer shop (possibly the first one in my town) where we exchanged knowledge and tools, and they sold... well, they sold 12 copies around the end of 1982, according to my records.

Next year, the publisher I had begun writing technical articles for (Gruppo Editoriale Jackson) started a software marketing division (J.Soft), so I was able to propose them a couple of games, including Avventura nel castello (which had just won 1st prize at the first Italian computer game contest, Computer Play 83).

With the support of their computer magazines, they sold about 600 copies and, more importantly, managed to reach an agreement with Apple Computer Italy to have the games bundled with the new Apple //c, so a lot of people was able to play them. The other two games (my board game Melopoli and a friend's well-designed strategy game, Signori della Galassia [Lords of the Galaxy]) made a less-lasting impact, though.

The software business didn't prove to be a stellar success, due to hostile conditions in Italy, i.e. few computers around, lack of technical culture, and widespread piracy (often done in full daylight by the resellers themselves and sometimes tolerated if not encouraged by some hardware vendors - Commodore comes to mind).

I still hoped to be able to live by designing and selling games, but it proved to be impossibile. In the meantime, other countries were starting a real computer game industry; I even made a half-hearted attempt to contact a French publisher, but to no avail (I've never been good at marketing).

The nail in my ambition's coffin came when Apple declared it wanted no games for the Macintosh (I was developing one at the time). I continued to earn my bread (and butter too) with computer courses and encyclopedias; as for the games, alas, I had to content myself with playing them, usually on the IBM-compatible PC that was fast becoming the new standard after Apple's marketing suicide (but this is another story).

Anyway, I wanted people to be able to play my games, so I made an MS-DOS version. It was a complete redesign, based on a specialized language I had been designing, and it taught me a lot. For example, I learned that using a specialized language to write IF is not necessarily a good idea, at least when the author is also a decent programmer (later, I got much better results by using a hybrid approach).

Ah, the MS-DOS version sold about 100 copies through Hi-Tech (for which I was writing on a magazine for Apple users); a much, much larger number of copies was undoubtely pirated, but at that point I cared more for diffusion than for income.

About getting rich... well, I made millions! Unfortunately I got the timing wrong: the Euro wasn't there yet, so they were million liras, to be scaled by about a 2000:1 factor. But, technically speaking, text adventures made me a millionaire.

You mention Roberta & Ken Williams: they were undoubtely pioneers, and I enjoyed some of their early graphic adventures, but the IF authors I loved were in the Infocom camp, Steve Meretzky above all but many others also (by the way, Enchanter gave me the basic idea for L'Apprendista Stregone).  Most of their adventures had good stories, good prose, good ideas and good care of detail. It was good, while it lasted.

torredifuoco: After your first game, you hit bookstores with two books, Avventure (Adventures) and Scrivere un gioco d'avventura (Writing a Text Adventure Game). The first included an audio tape or diskette with three programs: two example games (L'Astronave Condannata and L'Anello di Lucrezia Borgia) and the tool you used to write them (Modulo BASE). It was quite a plain tool and you chose BASIC. Did you have a model in mind, i.e. Scott Adams' adventures? Did you look for a wider audience? Now I can say you had a deep impact on (nearly all) Italian IF developers: everybody strove hard to add features, and someone (i.e. Bonaventura Di Bello) even sold games which had your tool as backbone.

Enrico: Actually, the title I requested was Imparare il BASIC scrivendo avventure (Learning BASIC by writing adventures) but my publisher didn't like it and publishers are always right (I mean, their checkbook is). The idea was... well, self-explanatory: programming was pleasure and no degree was needed to learn it.

The only model I had in mind was the engine of Avventura nel castello; Scott Adams' interpreters were designed to save every bit of RAM in really small machines, while I worked in comparative luxury and had no such need for data compression. However, my engine was too complex for beginners to handle and for me to explain in a decent way, so I made it simpler by cutting off features; for example, objects couldn't have states anymore (e.g. a bone that could be whole or broken), but had instead to be replaced by a different object (a whole bone, a broken bone).
To my amazement, the 'reduced' engine proved in some respects better than the original, and certainly easier to use. Redesigning after a bit of experience can yield better results, especially when the aim is to distill and preserve the essence, discarding redundant junk.

Later, the second version of Modulo BASE reintroduced some useful concepts, such as indexed files on disk and a few (often-used) commands embedded in messages, reaching a good balance (as I see it) between power, flexibility and ease of use.

Most people, however, were contented with the capabilities of the first version. It was simple code (at places rather primitive), but I had thought about the underlying concepts for years, so it was an useful tool. Others, such as Bonaventura Di Bello you mentioned, exploited it to the core and beyond: one Sunday morning he called me (waking me up) asking, if I remember well, how to ease some of the program's intrinsic limits (for example, the maximum number of different words, which wasn't as simple as it sounds). Version 2 didn't exist yet, so I gave him some suggestions that he put it to good use: he released a string of acclaimed games for the newsstand, some of which used my tool. At last, that's how I remember it; I hope I'm not confusing him with another power user... you know, old age and all that... I'm sure about the phone call, though :-)

About Modulo BASE, the program had a simple 2-word parser but I still think, after all these years, that a more complete and 'realistic' parser and world model don't necessarily imply more enjoyable games, even if they would certainly be more interesting from an AI (artificial intelligence) perspective and in view of (always-almost-here-but-never-quite) real speech recognition. I feel that's very easy to fall in love with technology and forget playability.

torredifuoco: L'Apprendista Stregone is your favourite, and I like it very much too. It's an ambitious work though you claim you wrote it in a fortnight. Did anybody help you? You had it well planned in advance, right? I guess you had a deadline you couldn't miss: do you work better under pressure? It has an iffy vibe I can spot also in your previous example games: you paid particular attention to the story. What about characters (human or not) and setting? Where did you find the magic system idea?

Enrico: Chiara contributed, as usual; her classical knowledge was very useful, even if I too know, er, should know, a tiny bit of Latin (but, sadly, no Greek). Choosing appropriate names for the spells was an amusing exercise.

The claim that it was written in a fortnight is true... the trick is in the "written". The design took much longer, as usual: we let ideas float and slowly take form, not unlike crystals (with or without flaws, it's for the players to decide).

The forest, for example, came from a trip to Saltzburg: we admired it while comfortably traveling by coach, and wondered about it. On the other hand, we carefully avoided putting in the game the incongruous gnome-miner that sat in the famed salt mines of that beautiful town. I suppose he's there for American tourists to admire, or at least I hope so. But I digress.

The not-to-be-missed deadline suddenly appeared when my publisher asked me to add something for the new edition. I really cared to see L'Apprendista Stregone published, so I put in long hours for a couple of weeks.

I don't know if I actually work better under pressure: the only sure thing is that I work more ;-)

The magic words idea was unashamedly lifted from Infocom's Enchanter, but left for the player to discover, while the narrative approach was of course a design choice: I wanted people to enjoy the story and the settings without having to draw complex maps or to solve fiendish puzzles. The challenges I chose to put in were mostly of the 'lateral thinking' type and I'm quite satisfied of the result, even if I'd have liked some extra time for refinements (but then I'd surely have asked for more).

For the main characters, the old mage Artemio and his young apprentice (the player), I can think of no definite source; it's a common theme, after all. But we had fun placing ourselves in the game, even if there's little resemblance with the originals: for example, Chiara does not do fortune telling but writes programs... uhm, actually, now that I think of it, unpredictabilty plays a big part in both jobs. As for myself and the illusionist... after all, games are a sort of illusion, aren't they? By the way, my math professor scolded me for dropping out of the University, so I made her do the same in the story, disguised as an old wizard.
Lastly, I liked the name I chose for 'my' character, so I adopted "Erix" as my signature on the Net, in those misty pre-Web times, and I'm still happily using it.

torredifuoco: With Idra you steered the wheel towards CYOAs. Could you briefly introduce this tool to readers? Why did you develop it? You didn't release any CYOA, indeed the two examples included in the package are by other authors. I can assume you like this form, and maybe you read similar books in the past or shared this liking with friends.

Enrico: I'm not sure about Idra being exactly a Choose Your Own Adventure tool: it can certainly be used to that effect (in fact, it's the easier way to use it) but, in the hands of a good programmer, it could be quite flexible. I wished to write a complex adventure to show off its capabilities, but that implied complex planning... and time... and resolve... in short, I never got around to do it.

Idra was born from a question: does most people avoid text adventures because they have no wish to read, or because they have no wish to write? So I wrote a simple HTML/Javascript tool that, in a sense, emulated point-and-click graphic adventures, but with no graphics.

The results, I should say, were inconclusive: yes, more people accepted to play the games (as compared to people willing to play text adventures where writing was required), but on the other hand they were easily bored by long texts (I should say, by non-infinitesimal texts). So, in the end, it must be a combination of factors (like having grown up with more books than TV) that controls interest in the written page, be it a book or a game.

By the way, the first time I encountered a Choose Your Own Answer book, it wasn't a game at all. I still have it: it's an "Introduction to genetics" from the Tutor series, 1967 (a few years before the WWW craze...). It posed a question and redirected the reader to another page according to the answer, to explain the mistake or to reinforce the learning. It was well designed.

Much later I bought game-books and found their design rather disappointing and primitive... even if I played them anyway :-)

Back to Idra, I recently started another project: a full DHTML/CSS engine for writing text adventures, with a few interesting twists and a more "pseudo-graphical" approach. I learned DOM and CSS, wrestled with compatibility problems for a couple of months, wrote a library, proved beyond doubt that it was feasible... and then I abandoned it, as usual.

It goes almost always like this: once I have gained the knowledge I'm interested in, an actual application is only wasted work... unless, of course, somebody is really interested in it (or, God forbid, even paying for it).

I have my physical, digital and mental drawers full of such experiments, in more or less advanced completion stages, many of them exploring text adventures approaches and possible innovations in a variety of languages (Basic, C, Prolog, Perl, Dylan, Bash script, Lua...) or just as thought exercises. Unfortunately, the road from basic proof to finished product is long and boring, especially for a nitpicking type like myself. If sometimes a complete work such as Idra sees the light, I'm afraid it's a sort of accident. But, in this imperfect world, accidents happen.

torredifuoco: Tell us more about your experiments with programming languages. It's no secret you think Lua very suitable for developing IF or an IF tool. What's the matter with other languages?

Enrico: Well, after Avventura nel castello I had the illusion that you could build a world model: a perfect, logical representation of the world. Those were the years the object-oriented concept was coming into fashion and I was an early convert, so I tried building an object model in C, or maybe it was objective-C (using the Manx compiler I just bought for my Macintosh) complete with objects (in the adventure sense), attributes and so on.

My code worked, but I soon realized many things: first, that building a complete (or even passably realistic) library was impossible because of the combinatorial explosion and the refusal of the real world to be rigidly classified; second, that the more complex the library, the more rigidly and predictably the game interface behaved; third, and most important, that there was no relation at all between world-model complexity and player's fun.

For example, if you _can_ look under an object and behind an object, you _must_ look under all objects in the game and behind all objects in the game, and that's extremely boring and no fun at all.

Around the same time, I also experimented in a different direction: I tried Prolog, a declarative language (you don't write ordered statements: you write assertions, or whatever the correct term is, and the system takes care of the rest). Expert systems were supposed to be very powerful, so I was interested in trying out something of that sort.

I don't know how well it would have played, but I know that I almost immediately exhausted the 640 kbytes of my M24 PC when I tried to port Avventura nel castello to Borland's Turbo Prolog. Too bad.

But I digress; let me return to the point: in my opinion, to make an enjoyable adventure game you don't have to accurately simulate a world, or to simulate a world at all: you just have to answer the player's commands, answer them in a sensible way, and avoid being repetitive or too predictable. It doesn't matter if the answer is logical or not, it just has to be appropriate.

From an implementation standpoint, that translates into a different approach (with respect to the world model): instead of trying to have a logical understanding of what the player says, which would imply a very large number of unspoken assumptions, you can just do a simple (sometimes not so simple) pattern matching. It's the way a child learns a language, after all, and it's probably the way our brain usually works: pattern recognition.

So I don't really care what the words actually mean, but I care that certains expressions, or words, imply certain expectations, so I can give them a meaningful answer.

In practice, that means doing away with almost all logical and syntactical classifications, and centering the data around what the player could actually say and expect. For example, given a button and a carrot, I could expect the player to say something like:
- push the button
- eat the carrot
- push the button with the carrot
but, of course, that is far from exhausting all that the player could say, so I'll introduce wildcards:
- push $1
- eat $1
- push $1 with $2
- push button with $1
- push $1 with carrot
- $1 button
- $1 carrot
- $1 $2 with $3

Note that the system has no idea (at least at this stage) what the words actually mean, for example that "push" is a verb or thet "carrot" and "button" are objects: the answers are tailored to the patterns. Given adequate precedence rules, such a system could be perceived as much more 'real-life' than a full world-model library... at least for a given game.

Two drawbacks can be easily seen: this system is labour-intensive and it does not lead to a general-purpose, reusable library. But that's exactly my point: a good adventure game is a work of art, not an industrial product. If you build a reusable library, most of your game will be predictable; in other terms, you'd have done good engineering... and bad art.

I should say that I over-simplified the matter for space reasons, and also made black and white of things that actually have infinite gray shades. I also perhaps exaggerated a bit the difference between fixed world model and pure pattern matching, just to illustrate the different underlying concepts, even if practical implementations (mine included) may borrow from both schools.

Speaking of actual implementations, I'd like to do away with dictionary, map and such useless things. My ideal adventure definition text file would only contain patterns, that is complete or wildcarded sentences, and answers: all the rest (dictionary tables, map, etc.) should be done by the program.  That's a bit utopic, I know, but I think it's a target worth aiming at.

Anyway, working in that direction I soon realized that statically-typed languages (as much as I like C for other uses) are a real hindrance in this field. Dynamically-typed languages are much better suited to such a task; for example they can create 'properties' on the spot, they allow you to mix code and data, or to pass any type of data around, even one you've just created.

All that, you'll say, amounts to asking for trouble, and you'd be correct. Unless, that is, all this wild freedom is framed in a well-tought-of framework. My Idra is a very limited example of such a framework, but I think it proves the point: a fully dynamic language (Javascript, in this case) can be tamed and put to good use to build a flexible tool, where the framework gives a clear direction and control but the 'dynamic' part leaves endless possibilities open. (well, Idra is not exactly a text adventure interpreter, but the principle is the same).

By the way (and on the same line) I hate compilers: with the computing power we have today on our desks, there's really no need at all for such a nuisance. All table-building, cross-referencing and analysis can be done in a very short time at program startup, without the player even noticing.

So, if you're still awake after all these digressions, I can at last answer your question: why do I like Lua? It's not a religion (after all, I used many languages), it's just a tool I find very well suited for this task because, among other things: it's very compact, simple but powerful, totally dynamic (in practice it's very similar to Scheme - a Lisp dialect - but in a more convenient form), has no syntax quirks (Python comes to mind...), can be easily integrated with C and, last but not least, it's free and wonderfully supported. Being also a sort of toolkit for creating new languages, it's very convenient when designing specialized interpreters such as those that power adventure games.

torredifuoco: Ok, you don't like libraries very much, but sometimes you can change or rewrite them. What do you think about specific programming languages for IF, such as Inform, Tads, Hugo? Did you try their latest incarnations? C'mon, you can't dismiss them too easily... most people write IF this way. You said games would be predictable if everybody used libraries; there's some truth in this statement but my question is: are authors up to the challenge of writing good IF? Remember what the Z-Machine gave you back in the 80s... and I think we still get some good games now!

Enrico: I'll start by confessing my greatest sin: I've not played most of contemporary IF... at least yet. The main reason is that I find cooperative play much more fun than playing alone, but none of my friends is interested in IF anymore.

About tools and languages, I browsed Inform's manual and found it way too formal and static (that's my impression, it could be wrong). It seems to me its main value is in the library, but (as I said before) libraries are a double-edged sword: on one hand they make the author's work a lot easier; on the other hand they make the player's life a lot more repetitive, especially when they are widely reused. Part of this limitation is implied in the established interface used for IF, of course: most of player interaction has assumed 'canonical' forms and it's therefore highly predictable (no, I've not a better idea to propose, not a coherent one anyway).

I've not tried out the other tools you mentioned. I guess they're a wise choice for 'pure' authors who have no interest in getting their hands dirty with technical problems, but I'm like those old painters who preferred to grind their own colors. I'm not lacking programming experience and I like challenges, so building a framework (especially on unexplored paths) is for me a significant part of the fun. Besides, using an existing tool means traveling along an existing road, and that's not what I'm mostly interested in.

torredifuoco: If I were nasty I'd ask you to name the few titles of contemporary IF you played, but I'm not going to compel you. :-) What about your favourite pieces? You said you appreciate Meretzky's work. If you could steal an idea from his games (or any game, if you prefer), what would it be?

Enrico: Having played a very small sample of contemporary IF (chosen more or less at random), it'd be pretty unfair of me to speak about it: I'd inevitably tend to judge it against my own (possibly inflated) expectations, not against the background of other works. So I'll pass on this question.

I've played a number of graphics adventures recently, but that's probably not the wise thing to say in this company... anyway, there's always something to learn about narrative techniques and tricks, and about interfaces, even when the player doesn't have to communicate in writing. I think that IF could benefit from radical interface innovations.

I appreciated Meretzky both for his witty style and for his narrative surprises, notably Planetfall's Floyd character (the #1 idea I would have liked to steal!), even if sections of his games could sometimes be rather empty and dull. But of course he wasn't the only author I liked, even if his name stuck in my memory.
Michael Berlyn's Suspended, for example, was a masterpiece of innovation with its six robots acting as individual senses of the hibernated player. Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was extremely funny (even if somewhat difficult and at times unfair towards the player), also thanks to the cooperation of... oh, Steve Meretsky again.

I've recently been re-playing Enchanter (by Marc Blank and David Lebling) just to see if I was fondly remembering those games just because they happened to be published in the golden age. It seems to me that I wasn't: Enchanter is as fun to read and play now as it whas then.

Modern authors, of course, face much tougher problems than historical pioneers did, the foremost one being that they have to work on established tracks, so it's quite difficult to come up with something really new. Getting out of the tracks gets harder and harder as time gets by, so those who can attain it are really talented.

In a sense, having to work within an established framework, it's probably easier to tell an original story than to devise original puzzles, so readers who prefer a more novel-oriented approach are easier to satisfy than those searching for mind challenges (I place myself somewhat in the middle).

As I said, I think that radical interface innovation could do wonders to rejuvenate IF. I know about Inform's new 'natural language' design: it's certainly an interesting approach, even if it vaguely reminds me of Apple's Hypertalk and Applescript 'easier languages' and that sends shivers down my back. But I could be greatly mistaken: Inform 7 is young, so it's only fair to wait and see what comes out of it. Even if it should not pay out, failed experiments are always better than stagnation.

In the meantime, I'm idly thinking along different lines. For example, a 1-word parser (hugely dependent on context) that mimicks what we actually often say in a real-world conversation between friends. Think about it: how often do you speak complete sentences? Or, along a different line, hybrid systems combining written text with clicking and dragging. I've seen some experiments, but nothing remarkable yet (I may have looked in the wrong places, though). I was working on one such experiment a few months ago, but then I found a new job that took up most of my time.

torredifuoco: You haven't released anything for quite some time now. Are you writing a game? You know Italian players would like to see a new piece of IF by Colombini... You said building a framework is fun: are you hinting at something? Any work in progress?

Enrico: I knew this question was coming :-) Now, I hate to disappoint my readers, but my mind works in a strange way: when I have work to do I'm almost totally absorbed by it (let's say in "on" state) and when I haven't I'm "off" and it's difficult for me to find enough energy to bring a full project to completion (as opposed to a simple study, or to sketching down ideas).

So I'm a bit like Sherlock Holmes, with the difference that I use computer games in place of cocaine to keep my mind from rusting: it's cheaper, more fun (I suppose, I'm not interested in trying it out) and definitely safer.

In fact, most of my games were written as work under publisher's deadlines (or at least in view of publication), with the notable exception of Avventura nel castello. But that one, being an exploration of unknown territory, was exciting enough in itself. As the probability of somebody paying me to write text adventures in the XXI century is low enough, I fear some time will have to pass before I could publish new IF (though I want to leave the door open to that possibility).

By the way, being unable to stand repetitive jobs is the main reason why I am sometimes unemployed, especially in this country where innovation and creativity are four-letter words. But I've just found an interesting job that promises to keep me in "on" state for some time, so maybe (I repeat: maybe) there's hope for an unpredictable future.

torredifuoco: Last but not least... How do you foresee the future of the Italian IF community? Is IF as we know it and like it likely to survive as hobby or is it bound to extinction, without a real market? Will it move on the world wide web or on cell phones?

Enrico: My crystal ball is temporarily out of order. However, I'm pleasantly surprised by the vitality of the Italian IF community relative to its size: most of its members give no sign of tiredness, even if creativity seems to come in bursts (as is to be expected); I also note some interest in trying out new concepts, both in literary form and in technology. The main problem of this community is probably its small size, even if sometimes a new face appears.

I guess (and hope) this community will survive, despite the full-color lure of graphics; of course the relatively small number of readers (with respect to the English-language IF community) means less feedback and thus less incentive for writers. It's impossible to overestimate the importance of feedback: somebody telling you "Hey, I really liked your work" can really make the difference between going ahead at full steam and abandoning one's project.

As for IF in general, I think it'll survive too, probably in the same niche it occupies today, even if 'normal' people don't seem very interested in reading anymore. On the other hand, the Web is a fascinating field to explore (I find it odd its potentiality has mostly been left unexplored by IF authors and programmers) and could definitely give birth to something of value. I'm less sure about cell phones, as they are traditionally connected to hurried, superficial use.

A technology that could revitalize IF is of course voice recognition, which is on the verge of arriving... as has been for about 20 years. Maybe IF could give it some help; I'm even more surprised to find very little experimentation here: I've been thinking about audio-controlled games since the '80s and IF was definitely on my list. You don't need full voice recognition to make an adventure game work; on the contrary, with a bit of imagination you could use recognition errors to your advantage.

Maybe one of the problems is the rigid separation between artists and authors, due to technology's ever-increasing complexity: mastering both creativity and technique, as an artist should, has become quite uncommon. It's difficult to create a work of art in cooperation, or to constrain creativity within a pre-built tool, but it's not impossible. So... I still hope to live to see a new creative age in IF.

torredifuoco: OK, that's all. Thank you very much for your time, Enrico.

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Title: L'Apprendista Stregone (The Sorcerer's Apprentice)
Author: Enrico Colombini & Chiara Tovena
 Author Email: erix SP@G
Release Date: 1988
System: Modulo BASE
Version: Release 3
Reviewer: torredifuoco
Reviewer Email: bianchi.massimiliano SP@G

This was the final piece of classic IF by Colombini and Tovena. She mainly contributed to the design phase while he wrote it in 1988 with GW-BASIC. They later fixed some minor bugs, switched to other BASIC dialects, and built an executable that was released as freeware.

It's a fantasy tale. Artemio, an old white-bearded sorcerer, is sent on a mission by his fellow-villagers. He must face Earth and Fire, and stop the threat impending over their village. The player finds himself in the sorcerer's apprentice robes. The old and the young leave and travel the mountains all through a long cinematic intro. They finally come to the place of a fatal confrontation: Artemio is worn out by the trip; nevertheless he tries to execute his plan. He studied a complex spell to fix all issues and carried a catalyst, a crystal, with him to make magic work. Unfortunately, this catalyst is flawed. Indeed the spell doesn't solve every problem.  It just delays the threat - and Artemio dies by the strain. Now our apprentice is alone, and the adventure begins. Our aim is clear: to complete the mission successfully, which means to get a new flawless crystal and to cast the right spell. By the way, the protagonist couldn't hear its last word because of his master's death.

This quest starts with an exploration of the surroundings. The map stretches to over 40 rooms, that include several paths, valleys, and peaks. Yes, it's a mountain setting, in which the authors feel at ease because they live near the Alps. Indeed room descriptions are so evocative I could state this piece is the Italian answer to Adventure (Colossal Cave) in that regard. Real life creeps into the game, as in Crowther's game's case. Colombini never forgets this is just a game, though. Those descriptions are well-crafted, and I believe he made good use of the Infocom lesson. Our apprentice is almost never mentioned in a room description. Furthermore, I could notice a great care in plotting the map. It's finely optimized and has a regular structure so that players aren't forced to remember every twist and turn or write anything on paper. There are two labyrinths, but I don't complain: they can be solved rather easily.

Puzzles rest heavily on magic, and the magic system is quite original. It's simpler than the usual ones (i.e. see Enchanter).  There's no need to collect scrolls or memorize spells. Players have to figure out how their apprentice can learn new spells. The authors are pretty subtle here. There are no inventory limits, hunger puzzles, light source problems, locks & keys, riddles or codes. There are timed events instead, but they're fully justified and don't annoy. I drew a puzzle graph just to see the connections between puzzles. It's fairly similar to the Enchanter one that you can find in XYZZY News #4. Right after the start players face many challenges that must be surmounted before the climax and the last few puzzles.

The cast of characters is not too wide, but it could depend on what you mean by "characters". There are several living beings running around. Well, scattered around. They're a bit static, but they seem alive, thanks to suitable prose and design. A good dialogue or a well-timed daemon can do wonders. The authors disguised themselves as members of the cast, and are quite recognizable.

Colombini an experienced designer, and it shows. He captures readers with his care for details and the implementation of alternative sequences. He knows where to hide clues -- almost everywhere. The protagonist can die in several amusing ways, but there will often be a nudge in the right direction for your next try, just in case. I spotted a way to block my path towards victory, acting like a fool, but it's in the endgame, and so almost doesn't count.

The plot is linear enough. Puzzles don't allow multiple solutions as the latest fashion would dictate. Of course players can choose the order in which to solve them. I'd like to praise the writing once more. Colombini has a crystal-clear talent for it; he's one of the best writers in the Italian community and they love him just because of that. I like his style very much, as it's full of subtleties and humour. I could find a bit of intertextual irony, too: some characters sing a song which tell readers about some other characters that belong to another Colombini piece, L'Anello di Lucrezia Borgia (Lucrezia Borgia's Ring). He can even handle allegories effectively. What more could you ask for?

A final note: this game features a two-words parser, but it doesn't matter.  You'll have a lot of fun anyway. The author wrote all by himself in 1988. His game works like a Swiss clock and I didn't see a typo (well, maybe one). It's still played today, and not only by Italians. I know someone was translating it into Spanish, porting it to Inform in the process. It's the first time I heard of a foreigner working on an Italian piece. Not too bad for a mere example game bundled to the second edition of Colombini's book, Avventure per MS-DOS (Adventures for MS-DOS).

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An Interview with Giancarlo Niccolai (conducted by torredifuoco)

Giancarlo Niccolai is a computer wizard.  He has many interests, ranging from role-playing to literature, from programming languages to human languages.  He finally released his epic Warmage (in Italian) in 2003, followed by the libraries he used to write it.  He followed that up by devoting himself to the development of a new programming language, Falcon, which first appeared in 2005 but is still in the beta stage.  He recently came back to IF with an English translation of Warmage, now in beta-testing.  He's also working on an IF engine in Falcon.

torredifuoco: Giancarlo, would you like to add something to my introduction?

Giancarlo: Nowadays, my main interests are in genetic evolutionary algorithms and artificial intelligence. Also, I am basically interested in natural languages and concept representation through languages. I have a deep love for Japanese. Other than that, my main hobby is composing music and playing (various instruments, mainly guitar). I am currently working as a senior application designer at a firm writing software for financial markets.

torredifuoco: Let's go back in time... when did you discover IF? Did you play the first text adventures? What about Italian IF? When did you realize you wanted to write a piece?

Giancarolo: Hey, these are 4 questions ;-)!

I begun to play IF when I was a child (about 8), with Atzec Tomb on Commodore 64. At the time, my English was quite basic, but with the help of a good dictionary and together with my father (which was an IT wizard of the early '70s) I made it through. So yes, I think I played some of the first adventures, but not Adventure and Cave themselves.

Around 10-12, with my pocket money, I bought the series of Italian adventures for Commodore 64, starting from the beautiful Etrusk, and then some of the Arscom adventures of the Jack Byteson series. It was by that time that I bought the Editoriale Jackson book Scrivere un gioco di avventura sul personal computer by Enrico Colombini. (How to write an Adventure Game on a Personal Computer. "Adventure game" was the name under which IF went in the Italian literature of the time). I remember the elegance of its BASE Module as one of the first examples of good programming I ever came in touch. I wrote a small experiment on my own, an IF based on Star Trek saga, but I didn't take it too far.

At the age of 14 I had my first XT, on which I was able to get a version of the Enchanter trilogy, while buying Leather Goddess of Phobos for C64. I simply got stunned by the superiority of Infocom IF: both the parser and the stories were superior to the others by many aspects. The contents of the boxes also created a feeling, a connection with the played story whose power has been underestimated by many IF writers of the time.

At the time I begun to think seriously to write an IF on my own, or better, something similar to the BASE Module but written in a more suitable language than BASIC. I was interested in a language called Clipper, used for business applications, which had a strong database handling; IF are all about databases (databases of object, locations, actions, NPCs and so on), and the OOP paradigm was yet to come. Also, Clipper had a strong text-screen oriented handling, so it was easy to do special effects as password inputs, character boxes and drawing, etc. So I wrote a base IF system, and a small IF called Ganymede Project, which was quite interesting at the time. I remember having sold a copy of the module and the manual at age of 16.

torredifuoco: I know it took (maybe 10) years to write Warmage. Would you tell why did it take so long and how the pieces went together?

Giancarolo: Well, said like that makes it seems much worse than it was...

It's a work on which I applied intermittently. There had been years-long periods in which I didn't even think at IF. However, I worked quite constantly to the MFS (Magic And Fight system) at the beginning; but when I realized that Inform code could never be used to expand the basic IF model into something different (i.e. a MUD, or a cooperative IF), I looked back wondering if the effort I put in that was worth.

Ultimately, I answered no, but at the same time, it wasn't worth being forgotten. There wasn't much of WM at the time, and my English was quite basic, so I decided to complete the work in Italian. I like to think at me as a professional user of the Italian language, so I was also quite eager to see if it may have come out with a good "interactive fiction", in the sense of a good dynamic book, that may be also considered a great "game" by itself.

However, I never quite finished the game till I decided it may be cool to see it beside the novel I wrote, which takes place on the same world (different locations and characters, though). I thought it would have been fun to create a complex alternate reality, made of a world and several interconnected "items". The novel and WarMage had to be the first pieces.

So I published the thing, and I got some feedback from the Italian community that caused me to complete the game with the "scenic" interface and adding more background informations.

torredifuoco: Warmage is set in a fantasy world: you developed a library, MFS (Magic & Fight System), which adds RPG-like rules to the game. Could you expand on them? Where did they come from? Is Warmage a piece of IF or a disguised RPG?

Giancarlo: MFS were designed to be easily integrated in any Inform program. I have a three room test with 100 fighting turtles...
They were also thought to treat the player and the other NPC equally, so that an NPC "sees" and "acts" exactly as a player would, with a couple of limitation: first of all, messages are displayed only to the one and only player, and the NPC "mages" have a limited and set of spells at their disposal. However, the difference is transparent to the programmer as the NPCMemory and the Memory (the objects regulating spellcasting for NPCs and player characters) are both derived from a BaseMemory object which can be considered a common interface. The system is so flexible that one could take only the fighting elements, or the magical elements, or both.

They come from ... my mind, I guess. I had a minimal push forward in the right direction by Enchanter and Zork I games, and a final gentle push forward by the DM4, where it was explained how to use "spellwords" (creating new verbs on the fly). The rest is mine.

Warmage was initially though as a not-so-disguised RPG, but then I got caught in the narration and in presenting the player a long set of brainy riddles. So, I used the RPG elements as drivers for the riddles. In example, the final spell sequence that must be used to kill the dragon is not "coded in"; it is just coming down directly from the spell system. Actually, not a single line has been coded to have the player just do what it is supposed to do, and that spell sequence may be theoretically used everywhere in the game. In example, you may get fun killing that way the wandering patrol... However, the morale is that, despite the mechanics are that of a pure RPG, it drifted down towards the slope of a classical IF.

torredifuoco: In Warmage you manage to describe a complex world, Pitermos, with empires, kingdoms, cities, history, heroes, gods, religions, legends, taken from that novel of yours. You even devised a new language (and its fonts), Pitermossian, which gives the game a tolkienesque feel. I'm curious: what natural languages did you choose as a model?

Giancarolo: Well, I developed Pitermossian so that it may be thought as a natural evolution of Earth languages. The basic language model is that of Japanese, with indeclinable words and postfix particles indicating the function of each element in the sentence and its relationships with the surrounding, yet the logic elements are from occidental culture: the list of complements and verb logic are from neo-Latin and Anglo-saxon languages. Word sound was explicitly thought to be a regular alternation of consonants and vowels, not differently from how egiptologists use to "vocalize" ancient Egyptian inserting "e" between consonantic groups; above this overall fashion, words are "evolved" mainly from English and German, with a bit of Italian, Spanish and French, and some Chinese and Japanese. Due to my lack of knowledge (except for the general working principle and basic grammar) of Arabian, Hindy and Russian, they are mostly absent (but many common Russian words come from Latin too, and Hindy resounds of Sanskrit, which was where Latin came from). Then, there is a set of words that are completely "autocton" (invented out of the blue) to emulate a local creative process.

The novel itself is designed to be the first part of a trilogy; it's kind of different from the standards of Epic/Fantasy novels; actually it's mostly SF, with a good deal of spiritualism (I hope I had been able to stay away from fashionable simplifications). Also, the story elements themselves are not very "fantasy": with no such clear distinction between the "good ones" and the "bad ones". At the same time, it doesn't fall in the "reverse good" pitfall; I mean, in the late '80s and '90s I have seen many fantasy novels where the main character was still an hero, but a dark one, possibly a twisted, bad one. IMHO that was just an anti-cliché good as the warrior-of-light cliché. I tried not to fall in any of the former cliché, and except for the President-Warrior (which was in Independence Day, but believe me, I wrote it before the movie was even thought).

torredifuoco: Now you're beta-testing the English translation of Warmage. You began this project writing in English, then switched to Italian, and you're finally back to English, right? Why did you do that? I know from experience that translations are tricky: what were the main issues you encountered on the way, and how did you work them out? Are you going to release the game anytime soon?

Giancarlo: Yes, that's it. That was mainly because I wanted to try to be more narrative. My English may be adequate but, for sure, I am not at a native speaking person level, and I am far from reaching a level that may be definite adequate for literature relate works. Ten years ago, of course, I was still less skilled than today, yet I wanted to write an IF, and there weren't interesting instruments in Italian.

Infit, the adaptation of Inform libraries to Italian, came in a bit later, and when I knew about it I thought I could easily enrich the IF I wrote with much more storytelling and in a more literary language. Also, the Italian scene was a bit "cold", with many interesting works but I thought that WarMage could be an interesting addition to the stock of IF in my own country.

Completing the porting to Italian was a bit harder than I thought; the language is quite different, and Inform has never been thought for internationalization. However, in the end I had the complete product, which was quite wide: it could be compiled only in z8 code with HUGE settings... and it was nearly hitting its limits.

Now I have completed the back-translation of all the additions I made to the Italian version. My English may still not be perfect on the literary registry, but having the model narration in Italian I found it easy to get back to English.

I consider this release "Beta" as I would like to have some feedback from real ESP (English speaking person ;-) before tagging it complete. So, it will happen as soon as someone takes care for beta-testing it.

Of course, I have personally tested the main line and several alternate lines; the English version also includes many evolutions and bugfixes coming from the Italian version, which has been stable for a couple of years now, so I think the only problems may be in mistakes in the English texts.

torredifuoco: I know you chose Inform over TADS for your project, right? Why did you prefer Inform?

Giancarlo: Short answer: Because Inform is guru language.

Long answer: TADS has a better overall design than Inform by far. Its library has an amazing object oriented design, which is outperformed, in terms of clearness of formal declaration, only by Java and .Net. Inform "parser" library (actually a set of include files which must even be renamed to match the correct character case in case sensitive systems) is nothing short of a programmer's nightmare. Changing a dot requires unusual programming skills and amazing insight, not to mention a good dose of courage (ok, here I am joking a bit... but not very much).

All this would favor TADS. As a programming language. Not as a tool meant to create interactive fiction games. What you get (for free) with Inform is a whole lot of ready-to-use black magic at your disposal. Give light and ta-dah, you got light. Give container and ta-dah, you have a thing where to store things. Give locked and openable, and ... and so on. That's quite something different from having to instantiate your objects from the right class. This consideration applies also to some "automagical" properties, which may be strings or routines, as description and initial, and to a quite long list of built in constructs, as Verb and objectloop, or the built-in parentship hierarcy. Determining if you are in a room or in a container inside a room still gives me headaches, but building up a complex maze with funny effects is fast and fun.

Last but not least, Inform parser, while clumsy in its implementation, is stunningly complete and powerful in the overall result. Adjectives, pronouns, the ability to interact directly with the action structure (callback-based parsing, a concept quite unique for the time when Inform came into the world)... they are not cheap meat, and can really make some difference between a robust IF and a silly one.

If you were to do something wider or deeper or different than an IF, then TADS would be the way to go. If you have to write a good IF, Inform just gives you too much things to even look anywhere else. And then... its guruish grammar makes you feel like a guru when you apply some black magic to your objects... so it's even fun to work with.

torredifuoco: What about Inform 7? Its natural language programming (and IDE) is finding many supporters among English-speaking IF newbies, once scared by programming itself. Nelson's new approach to IF writing differentiates his "creature" from any IF tool.

Giancarlo: Well, it's an amazing piece of code. It's kinda intriguing, and it's every programmer's dream to write something like that. There was much talk about natural language based programming systems in Italian universities some time ago.

Then, everything went out of fashion, and for a very practical reason: it's useless.

Programming is all about making things easier to think and to understand. Best languages go towards synthesis and flexibility, all the contrary of Inform 7. (Btw, I would have never called it "Inform something", as it has no relation with its predecessors). In example, the thing I regard with most interest nowadays is NSCRIPT and its open source counterpart Ren'py.

The most interesting phenomenon in the wild about computer based fiction are the Japan originated DOUJIN games. They are very like interactive books with multiple choices at some spots, which is integrated in quasi-static graphics background atmosphere music and sound effects. Part of their success is in the fact that Japaneses are bibliophile by their very nature (believe me, reading Japanese is way FUN on itself), but part is also in the NSCRIPT system, which is a very synthetic scripting system which allows to put text, 2D graphics and sound together, keeping track of choices. Because of its intrinsic limitations, there are only few DOUJIN games that offer some relevant interactivity, but the fact that their success as "interactive fiction" is way broader than the success "our" IF ever had, and the fact that their popularity is GROWING even in these days of virtual realities, is calling for some non-superficial analysis. The main component of a DOUJIN game is a rock solid story, which must be written with above-the-normal writing skills. Many of the DOUJIN scripts I have seen are far better than the mean paper book novel I have come in touch recently. At spots, I cried. This is one of the goals pursued by the "perfect IF", but usually narration takes the second place with respect to other aspects.

Ren'py is an open source clone of NSCRIPT, based on Python, which provides a simple and powerful scripting language. With it, you can do pretty good jobs (absolutely comparable with commercial games developed with NSCRIPT) with a very limited set of small and powerful commands, without ever knowing a thing about programming; but if you bother to dig a bit, you can escape to Python from inside a simple Ren'py script and do serious gaming with that, even much more serious than the thousands of commercial games written with NSCRIPT.

Of course, the endless combination of events in the IFs as we are accustomed to know it are much more complex to deal with than a simple multiple choice based game, and requires some more sophisticated tools; yet, in my opinion and experience, the direction to go to is that of making PROGRAMMING simpler, rather than WRITING simpler. For sure, I7 can attract a lot of IF writers, or just curious people, into writing some game even for the fun to describe the game idea they have in mind in their own language, but the necessary rigidity, verbosity and ambiguity of such an approach will actually make the task of writing complex games harder rather than simpler. So, a natural language descriptive approach seems not to be a good solution either for simple narration based games, nor for complex and articulated deeply interactive IF. It may occupy some space in the middle, offering a nice toy to write simpler IFs, but that's the kind of game you wouldn't like to play, I am afraid. If I6 was a guru language, causing some headache even to the most experienced programmers, the solution to make it better was not that of use natural language to instruct the computer, but to remove the idiosyncrasies that were "built in" I6, possibly also providing some higher level construct to do the simpler things (as i.e. create a room with its description, scenic contents, exits, doors and so on).

Last but not least this choice is a bit English-centric, which is quite a non-sense in the world as it is evolving. There's 1.5 billions of Chinese people around, and "exotic" languages that were considered useless and bound to extinction, as Tigrit and Ainu, are revived by IT and interest for cultural complexity. I am afraid I7 may be misunderstood by many as a chauvinistic piece of software. That was not the case of course, but the problems non-English speaking persons (read, 9/10 of people in the world) find in writing IF in their own languages is mainly due to the short sight of their early developers; it took years to have a workable version of the Inform 6 libraries in other languages. In many cases the porting is still incomplete or not completely adapted, and there are some languages they could not possibly be ported to due to Z-machine limitations. Asking the world to do the same effort all over again is far from fair, and would be a fully valid reason to question about I7 even if the other considerations were not relevant (and they are).

torredifuoco: Now you're developing your programming language, Falcon. Why did you commit yourself into such a huge project? How is it going? Could you describe its main features? Is it true that you borrowed some ideas from Inform 6?

Giancarlo: Reasons behind Falcon were quite various. Of course, I was in the field (languages, VMs and compilers), or I wouldn't even start with it. The main reason was because I needed an highly flexible configuration system in a very complex application. The configuration had to be so flexible that the only viable alternatives were either writing a very complex XML based configuration engine or using an embeddable scripting language. I didn't like the limitations and the rigidities of the first solution, so I went for the second. I took into consideration various scripting engines, including PERL and Python, but they were too big and messy to be included in light application we were developing. Also, there was some license issue, I didn't want to stick with, and finally, they completely sucked in a multithreading environment. I then looked into LUA, which was quite interesting and much more efficient than the other engines I looked at. It also handled MT issues better, but I didn't like its grammar in the first place, and the partial/clumsy implementation of OOP constructs was absolutely insufficient to my needs. There were other issues as well, but I won't digress about them here; the point is that between learning, digging and hacking the needed features into existing things or making my own one fitting my needs from scratch I went for the second.

I am currently releasing version 0.8.4. In this version, being part of the "beta" development phase, I have completed the grammar structure of the language, including very advanced features as explicit variable declarations, nameless nested functions, lambda expressions, singleton objects, classes with multiple inheritance and many more. This new release is characterized by the introduction of the "FTD" (Falcon Template Document) support; it's similar to ASP/PHP concept, where you have a document in any format (text, HTML, XML or even another programming language...) and then you can "escape" to Falcon code which is dynamically compiled and executed on the fly. A module which integrates Falcon and Apache (the web server) is nearly complete, so Falcon may be used also as an alternative for dynamic web content providing. Falcon has also been included in KDE, and is part of the Kross project, which is the base common layer for scripting KDE 4. Important modules as XML parser and MYSQL/ODBC integration are planned in the next future.

The main feature of Falcon is a small, flexible and MT compliant Virtual Machine which can run separate, stand-alone modules. Modules may be seamlessly generated from Falcon sources on the fly, pre-generated binary modules (i.e. something like z5 files) or native machine code (i.e. DLLs). Its grammar is minimal but quite powerful; from the "outside", it looks like a mix between Ruby and TADS. Modules can link other modules with either a static request model (load directive) or dynamic compilation and linking support; in other words, you can write Falcon application plugins directly in Falcon, as you would do i.e. with Javascript for Mozilla; yet, plugins for your Falcon may also be native DLLs. Other than that, a very important commitment for Falcon is that of being internally efficient and fast, especially for the most common tasks scripting languages are called to perform: string manipulation, binary file and data processing and script-to-application interface layer have minimal or no overhead with respect to direct C code. A last feature worthy to be noticed is a strong support for multilanguage environments; in example, it is possible to name functions, classes, variables etc. in any language, including Arabian, Hebraic, Hindy, Chinese or Japanese, just to name a few.

I actually borrowed three features from Inform 6. First, singleton objects. Falcon supports classless objects, but it extends the concept of Inform "objects" by making them a bit more "important"; they provide also a mean to create "module shells", that is, something similar to Python namespaces, and have an initialization routine that can be executed at load time, before the main script gets a chance to be run. The second feature I learned from Inform and I didn't want to live without anymore was the "attribute" concept: a cross-class characteristic which can be dynamically assigned or removed from any instance, be it a singleton object or a class instance. Of course, give/has constructs have been used to support attributes, but their grammar has been evolved and adapted a bit. Attributes are currently working, but I plan to extend them in the future and make them a bit more powerful. The third feature is the "provides" and "in" operators, that inspect the contents of an instance in search for a specific property. The "in" operator has been extended and can be also used to search for data in containers, or for substrings in strings.

Falcon home is at; we need hands, so if anyone wants to join he/she will be welcome!

torredifuoco: I know you're writing an IF engine with Falcon. What are the reasons behind your choice? Would you appreciate some help or will you attend to this project personally? Are you going to take advantage of the Falcon VM and pre-generated binary modules?

Giancarlo: I am writing the sequel of WarMage in Falcon. First of all, I consider IF quite a piece of software; for sure, it's worthy test field for a 4th generation language, both in the fields of functionality (it doesn't break) and language expressivity (it's fun to program with). In this sense, I want to apply IF to Falcon as a test field and even as a regression test, that is, as a test that can be repeatedly applied to future versions of the language to test everything is still working after a change in the code.

Another reason I want to use Falcon instead traditional tools to write IF is that of having a more flexible and open tool. Having a full multi purpose language with an IF-dedicated library, or better, an IF-dedicated engine allows to extend the concept of IF and apply it to other kind of games, in example to MUDs, to cooperative adventures or even to new kind of games that I have in mind. In example, I'd like to merge DOUJIN games with the IF concept and see what I can come out with. Also, I am stuffing some AI material in Falcon, and I would like to use it with IF NPCs.

Of course, there were also other ready-to-use "things", as an IF module for Python, but that wasn't even near to what I wanted to have.

I am definitely in need of help here. The problem is the lack of time, I cannot currently dedicate time in developing the IF engine I have in mind right now, but I could help and direct someone willing to give a try at it. If I can't find anyone I will complete the project by myself at a later stage; at the moment there are more urgent things that require my attention, I am afraid...

torredifuoco: What are your favourite pieces? What about the "new school"? Do you think Italian authors and players have peculiar tastes regarding IF or they're like any other?

GN: In the old school Trinity, but only the first part; the last section was obviously drawn a bit too fast and needless complexity was added to push the hintbook. Other than that, A Mind Forever Voyaging; in storytelling, AMFV was even superior to Trinity. IMHO its sole defect was that to be a bit short, but I understand it was hard to stuff that much in the Z-machine...

In the new school, the thing I like probably the most is Theatre, whose storytelling and internal coherence are remarkable. It serves Lovecraft much better than many novels I read. A nomination goes to Tapestry for its originality and for the fact that makes you to reflect rather than to think, and to The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet for having "restored magic", that is, for having blended old style IF and new style IF, covering everything with a touch of meta-nostalgy.

I don't really think Italian players have particular tastes, except for the fact that they prefer... Italian IF. It's not just a matter of language, which is relevant, but also of language meta-constructs. It takes a very long frequenting of real-life spoken English for an Italian to understand that he can search the box to look inside it, as in Italian "cerca la scatola" means try to find out where that damn box is now. This changes the meaningfulness of some hints and of some quests. Apart from this I can't spot any major difference in the taste of Italians and other IF players; possibly, bibliophiles are all alike worldwide...

torredifuoco: You already explained your projects in progress (the translation of Warmage into English, the development of Falcon and of an IF engine that would allow you to write the sequel of Warmage), so if you don't add anything to the list, I'd like to ask you another question. What about the future of IF? Will it find a new market? Will it move on cell phones or on the world wide web? Will smaller communities be able to survive?

Giancarlo: IF definitely has a future. The fact that the "Interactive Fiction" games as we know them ("You are standing in an open field west of a *white house...")* is a bit confined and failing to expand doesn't mean there's no space for read-and-play based games. Let me spare my analysis of the facts with you.

I said elsewhere (i.e. in many threads of our Italian NG) that it's not true that modern gaming with galore graphics has killed IF: people read books even when there are movies made out of them. Reading carries a pleasure on itself that has nothing to do with the "alternative" media you may have at your disposal. Even if you have a PSP in your pocket during daily commuting to the workplace, at times you'll still want to read a good book, or the daily newspapers.

IMHO The problem of IF having troubles gaining new fans is not because of "competitors", it's because of how IF is commonly written.

IF provides far more interactivity than other kind of story/text based games; however, that interactivity is rarely exploited to create an interactive FICTION; IF writers are more interested in creating interactive WORLDS that are DESCRIBED rather than SEEN. One reason because that happened in the first place was that it was easier to code such games rather than others. It was harder to WRITE them, but easier to CODE them, so people wishing to do some gaming and having more fantasy than coding skills (or finding more intriguing to use fantasy rather than to code pixels and sprites) went down this road. In example, MUDs were available and frequented much before than MMORPG...

With graphic 2D and 3D galore now being available even for amateur coders, this way to intend IF seems a bit outdated. If one wants to open the red door with the blue key, he can even try that in DOOM. So, IMHO, there's not much room left for THAT kind of games.

IF game writers have also been lured into writing quite "gamey" things rather than "reader-wise" things by the tools they have at their disposal: it's fun to write the code for a safe; probably, reading its description is much less fun. Reading the poetry of a sunset is fun; it's much less fun to code it in a game sequence, though.

I think we can revive IF by giving more weight to the "fiction" rather than to the "interactive". IF has little chance to beat any other modern game on the gaming side. On this side, development tools must come in the help of IF writers so to help them writing more and coding less.

Also, exploiting modern technologies wouldn't hurt. In example, adding images, sound, voices, background music to IF may help. I think that they may be a good pay-back for a reader dropping the traditional reading media (the paper) and using a new one (the screen). I am not talking about adding photos to IF, I am talking about giving an "atmosphere" in which the reader may be more attracted by what he's reading; I am talking about delivering a more complete reading and gaming experience.

There has always been resistance about introducing those elements in IF; I think this is mainly because they would require teamwork, as nobody can be a good story writer, a good programmer, a good musican and a good designer all at the same time. Somehow, after the "industrial age" when there was companies making money out of IF, this art has always felt as a solitary exercise. Mainly, the IF writer is nowadays seen as a novel writer; there are novels written by more hands, but they are rare, and not always fun to read.

These are probably one of the keys behind the success of Doujin games in Japan:
- Japanese people natural attraction for reading.
- Cooperation spirit of Japanese people, leading small groups to perform coordinated tasks.
- Tools (i.e. NSCRIPT) enabling cooperation, distributed work and simplifying the role of the story writer.

Would it be possible to separate the description of a room from the code of the object representing it in the game? And then, would it be easy to separate the files so that someone takes care of one area, or even of some aspect as the scenic content of the rooms written by someone else?

No, it wouldn't. At Infocom times, there were time to write the story on paper and have the programmers copying it into the software, but now that time is no more.

That's the point, and that's where I7 mostly fails. I7 confirms me that IF authors see their things as a solitary job, a job from which to extract some personal joy, which may at least be shared with some old friends.

Talking about my future plans, in the IF world, they are exactly that of addressing those problems. In other words, to provide a development tool that may be used by distributed workgroups integrating natively storyboards/text scripts, graphics, sounds and interactive elements. My plan is to prove I am right in this analysis, and that the way to survive and prosper, even for small groups, is that of going more towards the "reading experience" abandoning the "> unlock door > open door experience". With WarMage I went a long way towards the RPG disguised as an IF; with its sequel I would like to experiment in the field of interactive novel writing. I want to develop a full fleged "active novel", a real "book" but without dropping openness, exploration freedom and RPG elements. If I had to say what it would look like, I would define it as something in between a Doujin game, with very long text sequences and a traditional IF with keys opening doors. So, on one side we have a game model, which requires cooperation of many skills working on the project, and on the other side we have the tool to allow this to come true.

torredifuoco: Any idea about how to make your game model work in practice?

Giancarlo: Let's start the description from the "just text" part, so that the reader doesn't get the impression that we're trying to convert IF into some kind of Graphic Adventure.

The idea is that of presenting an open world with a great degree of action freedom BUT with a booklike-story feeling which develops as the player progresses. Imagine a set of dearranged pages in a book, and the ability to pick randomly one of them depending on the action(s) you perform. That's the basic idea.

Description of locations is kept at minimum or absent for the reasons we'll explain below. OTOH there are long sequence of texts, that we may call "paragraphs" associated with actions or action combinations. At spots (i.e. at the beginning, or at crucial stages), the player is presented with long sequences of pure text which are actually meant to be real "fiction"; they are "the book". As the "contract" with the player, that is, what the game has to offer, is namely an interactive "story", we expect our players to be willing to read. We're trying to "sell" them a "Book Dynamic" (adjective inverted as in "punishment divine") and not a type-in toy. Compared with traditional TA, this is meant to be a read-out toy.

Focus is more on story progress rather than on action performing, and progress is always available, even if at times it leads to dead ends or parallel stories. There is no need to always "end well"; a book can have also a bitter ending, and it may even be more appreciated for that, as happened with the higurashi no naku koro ni DOUJIN game series.

As we want to give an "open book" feeling, there may be both open actions and forced choices at spots. In example, follow the sample transcript below:

[Outside the Old Lantern Inn]
Wind is blowing cold, thrilling you to the bone in this clear moonless
winter night. The elven robe you are wearing makes its best to protect
you from the whirls seeking for your skin, but it barely keeps them at
bay. Even the unhealthy yellow blazes coming from under the door of the
Old Lantern seems to be inviting; and then, there's the letter in your
pocket saying not much more than "Be there at midnight, or thou shall
You reach for it, as if it may have been vanished in the mean while, or
maybe as if it was a daydream coming from your fears. But it's still there.

(free action) - enter the inn

[The Old Lantern]
So you entered. Of the wisest choices, you went for the one you knew it
was worst; you'd have rather prefer to run through the Plains of
Despair, but ... a man must face his fears.
<stripping here a book piece about what happens in the inn>

(free action) - Sit down

You pick a lonely table and sit on a legged board. For a while, you
think about asking for some drink, but you'd rather prefer to be sober.
Trying to seem natural, and failing, you just sit in wait... <rip here>
And then he enters the Inn. A tall figure in a black cowl emerges slowly
from the outside darkness, surrounded by the frigid air of the winter
night. Withouth even letting his eyes to emerge from the hood he walks
through the inn has hovering on the thin air, almost unnoticed by the
other guests, and sits right in front of you.
"Are you Toret Vargas?" <rip the description of his voice>
--> Yes
--> No
--> Run Away (* picked choice)

Your military train never comes handy as in moment like this. Without a
single movement letting to betray your intentions, you orderly send the
command to prepare for the run to every single muscle in your body,
calculating with calm, but rapidly, the simplest movement needed to
stand, get out of the reach the person sitting in front of you and
then rush away, and then consider the best path to get outside of here.
All its ready. You know you can do it.

So you start...



What's that? You know you can do it, you know how to do it, but ... you
don't. Though you sent your muscles the order to stand up, but they
didn't listen. You would like to open your mouth in a surprise
expression, yet you discover you can't do even that. You are barely
allowed to breath.

A movement under the hood of the figure in front of you lets you imagine a
cold smile.

[end of transcript]

You get the picture. As this is a static interview, actually you had no choice to make at the moment, but I guess that many out there are already willing to know how it goes on...

Of course, when you exit the Inn after this encounter, the "description" is different, and must be somehow related with what happened, and the third time you wander around the inn the description is still different. You actually don't have a description of the places, the objects or the people, but you have an ongoing story sensitive to what you would like to do in a particular moments. At spots, the whole thing may look more like a traditional IF, somewhere else you will face sequence of forced two/three way choices, yet the overall feeling will be of great freedom in reading a book the way you want.

Add adequate background music, sound effects, descriptive graphics and possibly "insert games", as graphical safes with secret combinations, card or table games to be played against NPCs, and things like that, and you'll have endless fun.

The addition of graphics in the equation doesn't just mean giving an eyecandy or letting see the player some nice spot. It may actually have functional roles. The most immediate may be that of selecting the direction in which to go rather than having to type n/s/e/w. But it can play a major role also in removing heavy and useless object descriptions from the game. In a pure IF, if the player ask "examine the dice" you have to write (and he to read) something a bit idiotic as "It's a regular cube with dots on every face. Each face has a different number of dots, so that one has one dot, another has two dots and so on..." etc., or you must go for even more idiotic answers as "It's a normal dice." Having graphics at disposal... you just show the dice, unless there is really something relevant, in which case you show the dice and add the text "it rattles".

Having graphics at disposal, you may actually drop some IF constructs as "examine <everything>". The "I can't see such thing" syndrome has plagued both authors and players for too much time now. How many times you have seen/written/played something as...

The dark room
The room is barely lit as a single shaft of light falls down from a
window in the ceiling. (etc)
examine window
It's in the ceiling
examine ceiling
I can't see such a thing
examine shaft of light
I can't see such a thing

Adding FUNCTIONAL graphics you just don't have to provide an "examine" verb to relate the player with the fictional world, and you (and the player) can concentrate on the storytelling.

Last but not least, a game like this has a place for actors. I'll never forget the great acting performed in Zork Nemesis; the slyness of the characters in the final sequence is what is actually saving your life... as you realize in that moment what's really going on.

Another possible usage of actors is in reciting the spoken parts. In example, the fade-in of the "Are you Toret Vargas?" sentence in the above script may have been underlined by a voice reciting it. That was a very witty feature in the famous Doujin Narcisus (actually, it couldn't even been defined a "game" as there was not a single choice to make in that; it was just and exactly a dynamic book). All the sentences of the only character were recited by an actress. Yet, this limits internationalization by some degree.

With cheap 3D cards and free and simple 3D engines and modeller programs being available around, it is now possible also to integrate 3D graphic in text-based games. I don't have in mind to bring IF and FPS (first person shooter) to some merge point, but being able to draw 3D scenarios with some cinematic element instead of static frames may be worth an experimentation.

A project like that would require the following talents to cooperate:
- 1 Subjectist (specialized in writing general ideas and character outlines).
- 1-2 Storyliners (specialized in laying down the game storyline, including every possible development)
- 1-4 writers (writing the definitive text)
- 1-2 programmers
- 1-2 designers (pencil artists)
- 1-4 graphic artists
- 1-2 musician
- 1 sound effect expert
- eventually actors at will.

In small project, it happens that more roles are covered by the same person; in example, a subjectist may integrate also the roles of storyliner and writer, or a graphic artist may be also a designer. In some case, there are also interesting cross competences, as for some storyliner-programmer-musician I know of.

The point is that games like the one I mentioned are meant to be teamworks, and that explains why, while the Doujin games keep having a growing success, and despite the open source community has superior products as Ren'py at disposal to write them, "amateur doujin" are still few in number and low in quality. IMHO a minimal team meant to do a good job should be made of no less than 4 people: one taking care of the "literature" part, one programmer, one designer with graphics skills and one musician/sound designer. The minimal product to be considered "valid" should be a Book Dynamic that can be read in 3-4 hours (for each possible path except for the dead ends, of course), with no less than 8 background tracks and about 50 drawings. It is not necessary to associate a different drawing for each location, and in some books dynamic even the concept of "location" may be dropped...

torredifuoco: What about the tecnology behind the scenes? Could you provide some examples to the readers?

Giancarlo: Well it's all being defined in these days, so I can't provide any working sample now. The idea is that to use the Falcon Programming Language as a base to build a powerful library that can handle these games smoothly.

Falcon provides both Object Oriented programming constructs, which can model the game world quite efficiently and intuitively, and functional programming constructs, which provide a powerful mean to deal with sequences, parsing and pure logic processing.

Other than that, Falcon provides in-bound message programming constructs. Modelling "events", "actions", interception and reactions to events and so on is much more easy when the underlaing language understands and supports this 1-to-N interaction between program entities. In example, "actions" in Inform are events broadcasted to every object being "in scope", which can intercept them at many levels by providing callback hooks as react_before, before, etc. Falcon provides similar mechanisms, but in a much more generic fashion so that messages can be used outside the context of a single usage pattern.

What we would like to do is that of providing a powerful and simple library that automatizes the vast majority of the process of defining location, actions and so on.

A model I look at with much respect is that of Ren'py; Ren'py provides a simple scripting language that allow to build "scenes" with simple commands. They look like this:

  $ s = Character('Sylvie', color="#c8ffc8")
  $ m = Character('Me', color="#c8c8ff")

label start:
  "I'll ask her..."

  m "Um... will you..."
  m "Will you be my artist for a visual novel?"

  "She is shocked, and then..."

  s "Sure, but what is a \"visual novel?\""

This sample is taken from Ren'py quick start guide.

As you can see, this "command oriented" model is mainly aimed to perform scrolling dialogs with choice points. There are also commands to change background, foreground images and provide some visual/audio effects.

Other than that, the Ren'py script can "escape" to Python (meaning, start to program in real Python language) for serious processing when things get hard.

The model I have in mind is something in between Inform 6 (i.e. rages of guru-oriented code) and the above sample (i.e. do-everything one-liners).

I would use directly Falcon, rather than having a meta-language; Falcon is powerful and flexible enough to provide simple one-liners for doing simple things. The above example, rewritten in Falcon using the library I am developing would look like:

object sylvie from Character( "Sylvie" )
  color = "#c8ffc8"

object me from Character( "me" )
  color = "#c8c8ff"

function start()
  game.say("I'll ask her...")

  me.say("Um... will you...",
    "Will you be my artist for a visual novel?")

  game.say( "Silence.",
    "She is shocked, and then...")

  sylvie.say( "Sure, but what is a \"visual novel?\"" )

For sure, this is a bit more verbose than the above text, but the functional model may be exploited to do things very similarly to the one-liner commands:

function start()
    "I'll ask her...",

    me, "Um... will you...",
      "Will you be my artist for a visual novel?",

    game, "Silence.",
      "She is shocked, and then...",

    sylvie, "Sure, but what is a \"visual novel?\""

That's much more compact, and can be much more handy in long sequences of uninterrupted texts. The readability with respect to the Ren'py script gets just a bit worse, but the flexibility it brings in (and that we need for a non-simple-visual-novel IF model we have described up to date) is very probably worth the distress.

There's more. Falcon functional constructs allow to "cache" whole function calls for later processing. Look also at the following sample:

function start()
  if first_time
    thing_to_say = generateFirst()
    thing_to_say = generateNormal()

  //do initialization stuff


  // do cleanup stuff

function generateFirst()
  return [ SayALot,
    "I'll ask her...",

    me, "Um... will you...",
      "Will you be my artist for a visual novel?",

    game, "Silence.",
      "She is shocked, and then...",

    sylvie, "Sure, but what is a \"visual novel?\""

function generateNormal()
  return [ SayALot,
    "We knew where we standed...",
    me, "You already know, eh?",
    game, "Silence.",
    sylvie, "Yes I do."

Thing_to_say in start() is a "callable array" (a processable list), which is returned by the chosen function and then processed at a later moment.

torredifuoco We're done. Thanks a lot, Giancarlo.

Back to Table of Contents

An Interview with Alessandro Schillaci (conducted by torredifuoco)

Alessandro Schillaci is one of the most active members of the Italian IF community.  He developed in 2004 a Java IDE for Inform 6, JIF, that was a big hit around the world.  He co-authored Little Falls for Mondi Confinanti: both the Italian version of 2005 and the recent translation into English.  He released a library in 2005, SGW, which helps newbies to develop code for the Glulx VM; a PHP tool in 2005, StorylandOS, that manages collaborative writing by many authors; and in 2007 a C++ app, IFPEN, that allows the execution of text adventures directly from a USB key.  His latest project, named WIDE, is now in beta.  It is an IDE written with C++ for Inform 6 but suitable for other programming languages too.

torredifuoco: Alessandro, could you give the readers some more information about yourself?

Alessandro: I'm 34, have a degree in electronic engineering, my main hobby resembles my present job very much: I'm a programming analyst. I live in a city near Torino (Turin) since 2003, the year in which I married my wife. We have a beautiful son who is 2 years old. Now I work in the IT for a firm near Torino (yes, I have to travel by car 3500 km every month, too). I attend to programming (particularly to Java or J2EE-based tecnologies).

torredifuoco: Do you remember the first text adventure you played? Tell me how you did approach IF.

Alessandro: Apart from the first text adventures I played on the glorious Commodore 64, I discovered real IF in the last few years. Two titles above all: La Pietra della Luna (The Moon Stone) by Paolo Lucchesi and Uno Zombie a Deadville (A Zombie in Deadville) by Caldarola. I reapproached IF while I was looking for an engine to write graphic adventures. My first reaction after spotting Inform was to write an IDE for development, I believe this happened because of "professional deviation": I'm a software developer and I like to think about what "stays behind" every production. However, my second "close encounter" with IF took place towards the end of 2002.

torredifuoco: A small digression: I understand graphic adventures were a huge passion of yours. Did you definitively give up writing one yourself? Do you prefer text?

Alessandro: They were one of my passions within the limits of "playing videogames". Among those I have always preferred, there are: Zak McKraken, The Day of the Tentacle, Manic Mansion. I began developing a graphic adventure (with the help of the same graphic artist of Little Falls, Enrico Simonato) in cyberpunk style. Now the work is held up because I have no time and because the most imposing portion of its development is (exactly) the graphic one. Only the beginning of the first chapter of this GA exists: I wrote the music, the drawings are by Simonato and I made use of the Wintermute Engine.

After I had noticed that if you hadn't too many resources available for your graphic part you wouldn't go very far, I concentrated on text adventures: in fact it's more likely to bring the development of a TA to an end than that of a GA (which wants taking up many more resources). Now I regard TAs and GAs to be on the same level of complexity.

torredifuoco: You said you developed JIF "because of professional deviation": were you already experienced in programming an IDE or did you have to work new problems out? Was there anything that put you in trouble? What was the original aim you proposed to yourself? Am I wrong or the implementation did follow the suggestions and desires of the Italian and international audience?

Alessandro: I began programming JIF for fun. Then I mainly attended to server-side J2EE programming, therefore on the contrary, I felt the need of creating an application which made heavy use of the Java graphic libraries instead. It has been a very large project (the matter is to write more or less 13-16 thousand lines of Java code) and I wasn't really experienced on how to code a proper IDE though I can tell I have coded with Java for about 10 years. Every single feature has been handled as a new subject-matter. I tried and check the Italian and international IF scene, and found surprisingly this project could matter to someone. In a short time I built a working demo, added several features other IF editors didn't have (i.e. the possibility to export all the strings, correct and finally import them directly in the Inform code, compile and execute works in progress directly from editor, the management of Inform projects...). Most interesting has been the possibility to see JIF running on different environments: Windows, Linux and even MacOsX.

I received a lot of feedback from the Italian, Spanish and English-American community: I got help translating JIF into 5 languages (Italian, English, Spanish, German and French), and this has surely been a huge satisfaction, that undoubtedly "rewarded" me for the several months/years of (night-)development. Finally, some people joined me in coding JIF so I seize this opportunity and thank them publicly (Luis Fernandez and Peter F. Piggott). Now JIF is fairly mature and they can deem it finished (as far as Inform 6 is concerned).  Of course there were times of "jam" for practical reasons: some implementations temporarily jammed developments until we were able to find a way out. The biggest troubles are mostly tied to text files management with Java and generally text components. Another detail was to try and make JIF as flexible as possible (i.e. in Spain they have several Inform keywords translated into Spanish, therefore we had to make JIF configurable regarding possible keywords). After all: JIF is a project for which I care and it gave me great satisfaction.

torredifuoco: You wrote Little Falls, your first piece, with Roberto Grassi for Mondi Confinanti. Could you tell us how you began collaborating and if there were difficulties? Did you "build" the subject together? How did you split up tasks?

Alessandro: I know Roberto since the far-off 2003 when I began the development of JIF.

The basic idea of Little Falls was born around November 2005 as soon as my son was over 1 month old and my new job obliged me to live as a pendular so that I had 3 hours a day available for IF exploiting the time of my "acrobatic" trips by our beloved train. I was going to partecipate in the ORGC but the original plot was quite expected: Roberto had the brilliant intuition to make me change my mind. I had been in touch with Enrico Simonato for some months then because of the graphic artwork of Forme Evanescenti (Fading Shapes - a game which unfortunately I haven't been able to turn into reality yet). Therefore it was easy: I asked Enrico to collaborate with us developing Little Falls. Roberto simply worked on its logic part, that is plot. It's very difficult  to create a game (even if as short as Little Falls) keeping a certain amount of consistency. Enrico made the drawings of the characters, while I preferred using digitalized images for the rooms. I attended to all the coding with Inform: it was my first work with it. I preferred testing the programming language with a game small enough, to rushing into coding a more complex game (Forme Evanescenti).

torredifuoco: In a message on it.comp.giochi.avventure.testuali you define the plot of Little Falls as retroactive. Could you expand on that and tell why you took such a decision (without too many spoilers)?

Alessandro: The original LF plot was linear, without branches. After several discussions with Roberto (on plot consistency and not-too-likely situations told in-game) we finally chose a game with 7 different endings, on the ground of player's actions. The seven endings follow different plots, but they don't have details in common: or all the different plots aren't bound to each other.

torredifuoco: Little Falls is one of the first Italian games to make full use of the Glulx multimedia features. Enrico Simonato drew characters whereas you used photos for the rooms: why didn't you allow the worthy Enrico to draw all the images? Who plays the soundtrack and how did you find the sound effects? Was it difficult to get at the final product or Glulx passed the test?

Alessandro: The answer is simple: everyone of us has a life, a job. Which often (or, on the one hand, luckily) fills a good 80% of our day. I would have let Enrico draw every location (as we had thought for Forme Evanescenti) because he is an excellent artist: our main problem was lack of time. Some characters devised by him were already prepared, and he would have created many more quickly. Unlike locations, that engage the artist differently as long as time boundaries are concerned instead.

As regards soundtrack, the Main Theme has been entirely composed by Roberto, some sounds have been directly created by us and for others we took royalty-free sounds like inspiration.

(Spoiler warning!  Highlight the line below to read!)
The music that's played when Gene is attacked inside the house has been created by me in a moment of madness... :-)

As regards Glulx: in my opinion it did its excellent "job". The biggest difficulty was due to the fact that Italian libraries didn't support Glulx yet. The first demo I created was that of Forme Evanescenti with an Italian library I had modified. Then luckily Riccardi (author of Infit) released a Glulx-compatible version. Little Falls was created before the SGW (Simple Glulx Wrapper) library: therefore from this point of view it has been a test for me to realize whether Glulx could actually be an "useful" platform.

torredifuoco: Soon after Little Falls you released SGW, a derivative library. What are its main features?

Alessandro: In Little Falls I wrote all the functions that manage images and sounds: it took a very long time but gave me also a lot of satisfaction. After the official release of the Italian version of Little Falls I thought on how to recover my work for other possible games (this is professional deviation, and I can't do nothing about it...). The first version of SGW (Simple Glulx Wrapper) was born from there. I'd like to thank those who collaborated fixing mistakes or adding features to the original version (Vincenzo Scarpa and Paolo Maroncelli). SGW is sgw.h, a library which "wraps" Glulx functions. Therefore in practice it's possible to view an image or play a sound inside a Glulx game, simply using already prepared functions and authors need not know well Glulx. The most interesting thing (in my opinion) lies in the fact it's possible to write a Z-code adventure and then convert it in the Glulx format (with images and sounds) merely importing the SGW library and using the available functions, without attending to any Glulx technical aspect.

torredifuoco: In the last few years you enjoyed yourself developing any kind of IF application: could you briefly tell us about the IFPEN and StorylandOS projects?

Alessandro: They are two different projects both Open Source.

The former is a C++ project for win32 environments, for creating some sort of menu which installs itself on the trayicon and allows running programs installed on an USB key. In theory the original idea was to create a tool for memorizing text adventures inside an USB key (possible saved games included). In practice this program is fully configurable and it's possible to execute any kind of application (always from an USB key). The project is based on wx-Widgets libraries.

The latter is an experiment: it's a tool written with PHP for the creation of stories by several authors on the WEB. Written in little more than 10 days (maybe even less). It's a kind of online wiki where it's possible to write stories (through a validated account): an author begins a story inserting some text, images and links to other pages (or chapters). Other authors can expand the story adding new pages (with images) and/or new links (that stand for "player's" choices). In practice players find themselves in front of a sort of CYOA created by other authors via WEB. In this moment I regard them as stable and finished projects.

torredifuoco: You recently released the English translation of Little Falls: what do you advise authors to do when they are up against such a complex matter?

Alessandro: Yes, it's a complex matter. Writing and coding using your mother-tongue is easy. Way much more difficult is to succeed in writing a fully translated version, which doesn't seem an adventure by a 5 years old child. Best is to get in touch with a mother-tongue for the real editing in order not to take a false step.
We involved J.Robinson Wheeler in the development of Little Falls and he checked all our text. From the Italian version of Little Falls we got a first flat translation into English making use of the JIF string import/export function. That first English version was produced by Italians: in this phase we also relied on the OldGames group. From that beginning, we created the actual translation after a massive "editing" by J.Robinson Wheeler, which made the translation less twisted, avoiding the "5-years-old-child-writing" effect.

torredifuoco: Nowadays you're developing WIDE that is another IDE: are you going to exploit your previous experience? How is it going?

Alessandro: WIDE is an editor for Inform 6, totally written with C++. It was an experiment for testing wx-Widgets libraries. It uses an element that wraps Scintilla, which manages the text (the same engine, I could say, is inside SCITE, a great source editor). Written during my summer holidays in little more than 10 days. I was able to rewrite many JIF functions in a very short time, using elements I already tested. You can install WIDE on an USB key and it's possible to create a portable Inform development environment. The editor is a beta version, even if in practice it's stable. I had some positive feedback by the Spanish community. Unfortunately I don't have too much spare time nowadays in order to devote myself to WIDE as I would like.

torredifuoco: What are your favourite (Italian or not, old or new) pieces? What tools (or programming languages) do you specially like?

Alessandro: I feel more like an author than like a player (notwithstanding I created only one game till now). I didn't play many TA, but among those I tried I'd choose La pietra della luna and Uno zombie a Deadville.

Development tools!? I tried a lot of them, but weren't bound to IF. I developed a little demo with Allegro (a vertical shoot'em'up). These days I'm testing a few 3D engines, particularly Irrlicht. In the past I tried some engines for developing graphic adventures, producing a short demo. I'm always ready with a plot for a videogame set in some future and in cyberpunk-style. I should find some time, but I have a little child and a job that takes from 12 to 13 hours a day too... However my favourite languages are Java and C/C++.

torredifuoco: Do you believe the Italian community differentiates itself from others regarding tastes or anything else? How does it seem, are we too few? Lazy?

Alessandro: Well, the Italian community is very strange. We surely are few, if compared with the English-American one. We're not very active, but every now and then the community catches fire again almost by chance, rediscovering IF. These times we're active enough, with some international-level initiative. Yet other European communities are light years away from us (i.e. the Spanish community, which I warmly salute...)

torredifuoco: Do you think IF will change in the future or this form will succeed in surviving our generation - that is the children who played commercial titles when they were young (i.e. the Infocom canon)?

Alessandro: IF has something that no MMORPG or 3D RPG can boast: a literary soul. Rather than be an adventure, a game is a story. I hope it will last as a way of expression in our future.

torredifuoco: Reveal us some future projects of yours: I know that before joining the Mondi Confinanti team you were developing a piece named Forme Evanescenti. If an almighty genie allowed you three wishes bound to IF what would your wish list be?

Alessandro: Forme Evanescenti is a dream in my drawer. The script is ready. I created a little demo with Inform-Glulx, adding some tunes and hand-made drawings (by Simonato), getting quite a pleasant (to the senses) outcome. I also searched for new ways of development, producing the same demo with a graphic adventure engine (Wintermute Engine): even in this case I bear in mind very well what they could do and what are the results they would get. Unfortunately I lack spare time for these things too. The original project included at least 50-70 different rooms, various characters. This project would be way too long with my and Simonato's (graphic artist) present rhythms. It isn't proposable.

The genie of the lamp? Mmm... one wish is enough. I'd like to finish Forme Evanescenti, in Inform-Glulx format.

torredifuoco: Well, I have no more questions. Thank you very much Alessandro.

Back to Table of Contents

An Interview with Roberto Grassi (conducted by Urbatain)

There's been considerable crossover between the IF community and the independent tabletop RPG community in the last few years, with two tabletop RPG designers, Victor Gijsbers and S. John Ross, authoring worthy IF efforts.  However, the IF / RPG connection goes as far back as the original Adventure, which was first authored by a Dungeons and Dragons fan at least partially in a bid to recreate the tabletop experience on the computer.  I strongly believe that these two branches of interactive storytelling can continue to learn a lot from one another.  I'm currently myself at work on an IF adaptation of a classic Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG adventure, and very interested in continuing to build bridges between the two communities.  I was thus thrilled when SPAG friend Urbatain offered me this interview with Roberto Grassi, a prominent name in the world of Italian IF who has developed a new tabletop RPG system to share with the world.

Urbatain: I'm here with the main mind behind Mondi Confinanti, main author of games like Beyond and Little Falls, mystery adventure games very acclaimed for their multimedia appeal and other merits: Roberto Grassi. He was editor of the Italian e-zine Terra de IF in addition to filling many other roles, as promoter of the internationalisation of the Interactive Fiction. But today we talk to him about his new RPG system, Levity.  Maybe we can talk some IF too.  Let's let Rob tell us, what is Levity?

Rob: Levity is a simple system for interactive storytelling and role-playing (tabletop, not online roleplaying). I used (and still use) it to play with my nephews (and my son, for the last few months) so you can say it's good for newbies to the genre and children/kids. Furthermore, the openness and flexibility of the system allows it to be used for more experimental and complex narrative RPG sessions with experienced players.

Urbatain: I hear that Levity is a commerical system. Tell us why, what are your plans to make money with it and why people should pay for it?

Rob: The only plan, about money, at the moment, is to pay the production costs. Anyway, it looks like they selling well, considering the kind of market and product. Why the people should pay for it... It allows you to easily start and conduct an RPGsession without losing the time to generate character sheets, present the setting and so on... In 2 minutes you're up and running and in the centre of the action.

Urbatain: Do you think there is a market out there for it? Although I think Italy is a place where RPGs are quite popular...

Rob:  The tabletop RPG market is no more the heaven it was in the '80 and '90s. Anyway, I've no plan to dominate the market.  :)  I'm quite happy if someone takes a look, sees its potential and then tries it at home, to verify how easy it is. I've made some sessions with families (never played RPG's before) where I started the game as Narrator and after a few turns, I've left the table and players were able to play on their own...

Urbatain: At what stage of production is Levity now?

Rob: Levity 3.0 was released in September '07. The second version is available for free from the Levity site.

Urbatain: I think, that nowadays, for every thing that must be paid for, there must be a free component (as a feelie maybe), a community component...

Rob: There are plans to release the 'core rules' under the "Creative Commons" license. I'm thinking to release it after at least the English version of the manual.

The commercial version is a full color 32 page system for interactive storytelling and roleplaying. There are plans to publish during 2008 expansions and further manuals.

Urbatain: So it will be distributed by a professional distributor?  Will it be found in brick-and-mortar shops?

Rob: Yes, it's published by Rose and Poison and is distributed by Giochi Uniti. Shops should have it, but you know... it's not D&D.  :)

Urbatain: Tell us how many years did you spend building this project?

Rob: It's 4 years now. Version 1 and 2 were freely available from 2004 and 2006 respectively. Major changes occurred from version 1 to 2. Version 3 is an enhancement with respect version 2. It is, at the moment, a solid version. I really hope not to release any other version of the core rules.

Urbatain: And tell us a little bit of the making off of the system, how it gets from an idea, version 1.0 until it gets to the commercial release.

Rob: Basic idea was that I'm growing old but I still like to 'role play'. That said, I've no time to learn or remember rules and even less time to convince others to prepare character sheets and things like that. So I needed a simple system to be 'kept in mind' and a way to handle narration, primarily.

Urbatain: Tell us something more about the work of being alone writing such a system, testing sessions, how RPG system author comprehends that his system needs a revision, etc...

Rob: The system was born 'around the table', during the Christmas of 2003. I decided to let my nephew play a role-playing session. What I had was a 6 sided die. I needed an 'easy to remember' system, in which rules must be logical and easily adapted to the playing situation. When you write an RPG system there're some recurring 'design patterns' to be considered: how you handle the magic, how you handle the fighting, task resolution, and so on... While playing I had to find simple criteria to adopt and they were: speed about decision if to roll or not the dice, speed about the interpretation of the resolution (action succeeded or failed, for example). This approach has been the most important factor from the beginning. As always the first version was wrong. It was too overloaded with unnecessary rules, especially for fighting. Version 2.0 was very close to the current third edition. It was only 14 pages with all the basic concepts needed. This version, unfortunately, had the opposite problem. It was too "light" and many concepts that I do apply during my sessions weren't explicitly stated. Third edition is very solid and complete from this point of view and really is a good building block upon which many rpg settings may be built and played. As far as testing is concerned, apart from my nephews and their friends (15-16 guys per session), many test activities have been done on "play by forum" basis. That was very useful for me.

Urbatain: Of course it will be an Italian product, but I'm sure you intend publish an English version too. Any more languages?

Rob: English of course, but I'm seriously thinking about a Spanish, French and Deutsche versions BEFORE the English release.

Urbatain: How many euros? Can I ask?

Rob: 12 euros. It is available in specialized game shops and online.

Urbatain: Good. Let us know when it arrives Spain, because you have a new user :) I'm always trying to play with my child at pirates vs undead, or Munchkins, or "Sí Señor Oscuro" (Sì, Oscuro Signore! (also known as "Aye, Dark Overlord!"), to fill that gap in the market where children are not considered, so I think your system is very useful. And I never been a player of classic RPG's, in my hometown, there were only a few players and they were seen as such freaks... so a nice guy like me didn't get involved in such things.... Jokes apart, for people like me that have little idea of RPG's, tell us an example and comparison of the good things of Levity, you know, that about being easy for children and newbie people vs a normal RPG system.

Rob: Playing a normal RPG system is not an easy thing. You have a lot of things to learn (implicit and explicit rules, behaviours, roles and so on...). One thing I had in mind was that the preparation time had to be near "zero". Of course, this approach has pros and cons, but if the session succeeds all the players are really happy about this type of roleplaying.

Furthermore, there's much of Interactive Fiction in it. Most of the rules in normal RPG's try to handle probability of success of a task or a "conflict". In the IF world, the probability is either 0% or 100% for both the task to succeed and for the result. Approaching the RPG in the IF way allows me to propose different (and unusual) approaches for standard players. Other things that I've taken from IF are the possibility to change the played character at any time, and the one-playing-character approach, so each player does not necessarily take the role of one character in the game. Another thing that make the system "easy" is that the story authorship is delegated to players, in some cases. The Narrator, because of this, has an easier task because he doesn't have to control everything.

Urbatain: Please elaborate on that part about "changing played character at any time" in your system. This means that at any time my children could want to "change sides" or "change their roles" and the system allows that? "Now I want play Indians!!!"

Rob: Absolutely yes. The Narrator can switch the characters between players at any time. This seems to be an unbreakable rule in normal RPG. But it is possible. This approach, too, helps to break the, sometimes, insane relation between the player and the played character. If a player is no more "owner" of a character his interest goes toward the story and not to the evolution of his avatar.

Urbatain: Elaborate this too: "the one-playing-character approach, with no regards about the number of players".

Rob: This one means that even if there are 6 players at the table you can force them to move a single character in-game, as if they're playing a gamebook or an IF game. They must discuss around the table and make a decision about the best move. Negotiation and cooperation are enhanced.

Urbatain: Elaborate this too: "the narration authorship is delegated to players" This sounds to me like when kids play alone, they play as characters, players and narrator at the same time.

Rob: Exactly. There may be portion of the game, in which the Narrator only checks the correctness of the narrational flow that is told directly by the players. There're different "powers of narration", according to what you can actually tell in the game. But this may become too technical...

Urbatain: When does a system author think... "This should be on stores! I'm going to publish!?"

Rob: Difficult to say, because an author always thinks that with some more time he could polish the product even more. Anyway, I know that it's impossible to have an 'error free' product so I think that when you are satisfied with the result it's time to release the product. About Levity, the published edition is the third. Most of the text was is the same as the second edition, so there was not so much proofreading to do, because the text had already been almost completely reviewed. Nevertheless, there're still errors there in the manual.

Urbatain: Tell us something about your partnership with Rose and Poison, how you got their attention, how they tested the product, how much they pressed you to reach certain quality...

Rob: I met Sergio Giovannini and Giacomo Sottocasa, who are the minds behind Rose and Poison, during a conference by Luca Giuliano presenting a book in which I co-authored about one chapter about interactive fiction. Luca introduced me to them. At the time, I was working on the third version of Levity.

About the testing side, there was really no problem since the game was already been tested in years of application.

Let me say some words about the drawings. I wanted the third version to be the 'final' release. In fact I don't want to work again on the core rules, and move my attention to the additional settings. But the final release had to be very good from the editing and drawings layout. I searched for artists and found Eleonora Forlani, who was exactly what I was searching for. Soft drawings, no computer graphics... A wonderful artist.

Urbatain: Where can we learn more about the game?

Rob: The site for Levity is Registered users receive a newsletter in which I explain how to use Levity at its best and news about future product releases. You can find in the subsection Worlds, too, original scenarios and settings that can be built upon the core rules of Levity; adaptations, any non-original scenario or setting that can be built upon the core rules of Levity; a Gamebook section, with gamebooks written using the core rules of Levity; and a kids-specific section: simple Rpg or Gamebooks explicitly written for the younger ones. A forum too, only for registered users.

Urbatain: Let's talk a little bit about IF. What are you working on right now in IF?

Rob: I'm sorry to say that IF is not at the top of my priorities, at the moment. Anyway, I'm slowly making the localization of Hugo in Italian. About games, there's a game called 6 Days in a pretty advanced design state. And another one called Nemesis in draft state. The problem is that I always strive for the multimedia approach and on the programming side, I'm no good at programming, but they must be "top notch", so IF games with my overview are at least a one year job.

Urbatain: And what about Little Falls and Beyond?  They have been quite successful, and overall they project a "vision" of what IF must be about:  multimedia and presentation. How do you think IF enthusiast have received them?

Rob: I've received a lot of good and enthusiast feedback about them. Looks like they've been a quite good compromise between the textual side of an IF work and the sounds / images counterside. I strongly believe that IF must move toward different ways of interactions, even if the textual side must be prominent. There are a lot of interesting projects out there about this. Mike Rozak's one, for example. And there was SUDS, sometime ago. One thing that I really don't understand is that there's been no change in playing an IF game in more than twenty five years. Isn't it strange? IF should look at other forms of "interactive games" in order to find new and fresh ideas to be incorporated in its strong paradigm.

Urbatain: Beyond, I think, was the climax of success in the Italian community, but later everything cooled and the Italian scene nowadays is almost extinct. Why!? What do you think are the reasons behind this?

Rob: I'm sorry to say that Beyond has not been at all perceived as "the climax" of a success. Italian scene is somehow too much nostalgic about the past. And by past I mean old ways of thinking about an IF game. Nonsense is prominent, the maze, the sudden death... and so on. Anyway, there's been the One Room Comp recently and one or two good Italian games have been released. We've too few authors and too few players. Add to this the fact that in order to make a good IF game you must work at least for 6 months and this is the result.

Urbatain: Ummmmmmm, internationalisation and opening for new users must be the solution...

Rob: Maybe. I really believe that non English players that share similar problems about authoring and playing an IF game should share knowledge and information.

Urbatain: Talking about Beyond, have you played Hotel Dusk for Nintendo DS? I've played it and I think the model world and the interactivity are quite poor and limited, and in every moment until I was absorbed by the good story, I always was thinking how good would fit Beyond in that medium but with a better interactive model world and better implementation of puzzles, but with the same presentation as Hotel Dusk. What do you think about that idea? Nintendo DS... and the new graphic adventures, that I think, models like Hotel Dusk are quite close to Interactive Fiction, more than any Monkey Island has been ever...

Rob: I've heard about Hotel Dusk but I've not played it. I'm sure that IF authors are very good in handling a world model, with a deeper insight at what the player can do inside that. For example, when I run an RPG session, it's quite simple for me to handle interactions with inanimate objects in the world model. That comes from my IF experience. If you must write a game and consider each possible interactions with the in-game elements, you'll be not scared at all
about an on the fly answer for a possible interactions by RPG players.

Urbatain: A little bird told me that you are developing a "A Unified Model For Roleplaying". Could you tell us a little about this essay? What is this? Does it have something to be with Interactive Fiction? Purposes?

Rob: The model represents the synthesis of all the years I've spent analysing and playing different forms of 'interactive' games. What I'm trying to do is to define a unified model that will incorporate most (all?) forms of roleplaying. A sort of UML (Unified Model Language) for roleplaying games. Interactive Fiction is considered, of course. I've noticed that different forms of interactive games have developed their own theory but, in most cases, the ideas, concepts and assumptions are similar. There's no need to invent new words or hypothesis or thesis. The first part, that places the cornerstones for the model, is a
"Public Draft" available from my website:

Urbatain: That's all Rob, thanks a lot, and good luck in your enterprises. Remember to contact us when Levity is released in English. You have SPAG at your disposal.

Rob: Thank you very much, Urba.

Levity d6
Sistema per la Narrativa Interattiva ed il Gioco di Ruolo

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An Interview with Peter Nepstad

Peter Nepstad first made a name for himself in IF circles in 2003, when he released for commercial sale what I believe to be the largest IF game ever made, 1893: A World's Fair Mystery.  Peter has since sold several thousand copies of 1893 online and through Chicago gift shops and book stores while also releasing several more, much shorter games for free distribution.  Last year Peter put together the H.P. Lovecraft Commonplace Book Project, an assemblage of IF and point-and-click adventure games based upon a sketchbook of unfinished story ideas left behind by the pulp-era horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.  See SPAG's last issue for Peter's history of the Project, and below for a collection of reviews of the Lovecraft games.  But for an interview I recently conducted with Peter dealing mainly with 1893 but also touching on Peter's other IF work, read on.

Jimmy: Hi, Peter.  Perhaps you can begin by introducing yourself to those readers who don't know you, telling us a little bit about where you live, what you do for a living, etc.

Peter: Well, I live in Chicago, in the neighborhood where the 1893 Fair was held.  I had always lived on the North Side of the city before this, but after writing 1893, I became familiar with the neighborhood through a lot of site visits, and finally decided to move down here.  When I'm not writing IF, I work as a technology trainer in the legal industry. Please don't fall asleep yet, that was just the first question.

Jimmy: zzz.... What?  Oh, sorry!

When and where did you first discover IF?  And when and why did you decide to start writing IF of your own?

Peter: My first encounter with IF was waaay back, when I used to visit the only friend I had who had a computer, in maybe 1981. He had some Scott Adams games and we used to play them. When my family finally bought a computer (An Apple IIe), I got two folio edition Infocom games for Christmas: Infidel and Planetfall, and they are still very close to my heart. This would be before Infocom switched to the grey box packaging. I never owned Zork, but another friend who had a Commodore 64 that I was envious of did, and we would have sleepovers staying up all night trying to solve it.

As to when I started writing IF of my own...well, would you believe 1984? When I was in Junior High I had a friend with the unusual name of Paymen (Iranian, I believe), who was in college and was in to BBS stuff and computer programming in a big way. He decided he wanted to write Interactive Fiction of his own, and he did, in Pascal.  I remember when my father took out a computer on loan from the college (as he was in fact teaching Pascal classes), I took my friend's incomplete game home with me on a floppy and played it for hours and hours. It was a mind blowing experience, the idea that not only you could play these games, you could write them, too. I so wish I still had a copy. (Or, remember his last name and could get in touch with him).

Anyway, he inspired me, and I decided to write my own Interactive Fiction for an 8th grade programming competition. I coded the game on the Apple IIe in Basic. It was some sort of haunted house thing. The main thing I remember, though, is that I kept track of game state using nothing but variables, and it took only ten minutes of playing or so before the game crashed because of a memory overload (to this day, I am a lousy programmer). Some other kid programmed a graphical race game, where you moved your little car back and forth as it went up the screen, avoiding other cars, and that won first prize. The judges didn't play my game long enough to see it crash, and I won a runner-up ribbon. I think at the time I felt more proud that I was getting away with something than of the game itself.

But that was it for me as far as writing Interactive Fiction, until I came across TADS. It took me quite a while to decide to try and code something with it (time enough for the game to move from shareware to freeware), with 1893: A World's Fair Mystery being the eventual result.

Jimmy: Tell us a bit about the development of 1893.  When did you start working on it, and when was it completed?  Did you initially conceive of it as a commercial product, or did that come later?

Peter: It took about four years from when I first decided I would write the game to when it was finished and released. Of course, sometimes I didn't work on it for a few months, but mostly I did. There was a time one summer when my hard drive crashed, and my last backup was from three months earlier -- and I had been working hard on the game during that time. I almost chucked it. But thankfully, the subject was always interesting enough to me that I kept coming back.

I never conceived it as a commercial game as I started. But as it evolved, and began to really take shape, I came to realize that my audience really wasn't regular Interactive Fiction players. I wanted other people with an obsessive interest in the World's Fair to play it. Historians, collectors, Chicagoans. And I realized from that to reach those people, I would need to market the game, and sell it as a commercial product.

Jimmy: From your perspective today, are you happy with 1893 as a game?

Peter: There are of course a few wince-inducing moments when I look at it today, mainly when it doesn't know this or that noun when it really should, but overall, I am very happy with it. It still does what I wanted it to do: transport the player back to the World's Fair, give the player an opportunity to explore it in a depth that no other media can match. And despite the huge popularity of the topic now, what with the bestselling book Devil in the White City, a documentary narrated by Gene Wilder of all people, and now a university sponsored project to create a 3-D virtual simulation of the Fair buildings that you can wander through, none of them match the depth I was able to achieve by writing the Fair as Interactive Fiction.

Jimmy: Personally, I was staggered by the amount of rich detail in the game, but also found it so huge and daunting that I had a hard time figuring out how to seriously begin solving the mystery at its heart.  Emily Short expressed similar sentiments in her review, as did several would-be SPAG reviewers who found the thing just too much for them to finish.  Do you feel this to be a valid criticism?

Peter: Well, right. I do think this is a valid criticism. But it was a conscious design decision. I was looking at the traditional way that adventure games work: small group of rooms, solve puzzle, open next group of rooms (done either spatially or through Chapters), and I decided that it was unnecessarily constraining. So, 1893 is almost entirely open. From your very first move, you can go to almost every single room in the game. So, if nothing else, now here's some evidence to weigh on the other side of that particular design decision.

The way I look at it is that the traditional construction takes the burden of a certain amount of planning off of the player's shoulders, to allow you to better focus on puzzles or whatnot. In 1893, it seemed appropriate to leave that burden with the player, because it better represents your experience when visiting some great fairground or amusement park. You get a map, you study it, and you choose where you want to go. I wanted to enable the player to do that. I included the map in the disc extras for that purpose. Also, the Visitor's Guide, which is printed verbatim from an actual guide to the fair, includes a hint page on how to visit the fair which, while written in 1893 for the real fair, nevertheless works as advice for approaching the game. Giving the player the opportunity for this sort of out-of-game planning session was, and in the case of 1893, still remains, a more compelling idea to me than being more directive in-game of your activities.

I consider figuring out how you are going to approach 1893: AWFM the first puzzle in the game that you need to solve in order to solve the mystery. If you don't have a strategy, you'll end up losing items in strange places, forgetting where certain exhibits are, and missing appointments.

Jimmy: I believe you have been selling 1893 in the gift shop at the old Chicago World's Fair site for several years now, and I see from your website that you have now been able to place it in the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust gift shops.How were you able to negotiate these deals?  What has your overall experience been of selling physical copies of IF in traditional retail environments?  How well has the game sold in these places?  Any hopes or plans to get your game into more brick and mortar shops, or for that matter is it currently being sold anywhere else that I wasn't aware of?

Peter: 1893 is also being sold at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Chicago Cultural Center, Field Museum of Natural History (the collection of which was founded based on the Ethnology exhibits at the fair), and the Museum of Science and Industry (which was the Fine Arts Building at the fair and is the only exhibit building remaining on site). Generally I negotiated these deals quite clumsily.  I remember at one point when talking to one of the buyers I said, "look, I'm the guy who sat in my room on the computer coding this thing for the past four years. Which means I have no idea what I'm doing right now talking to you, except I think your customers would really like this game." Anyway, the approach seems to have worked for the most part, but it is very trying, to say the least. But without getting into these brick and mortar stores, 1893 would not have been the success that it is. The Architecture Foundation alone has been responsible for almost half of my sales.

One thing I've never done is left anything with anyone on consignment. The store needs to make an investment in the game, or they have no stake in selling it.

As for getting it into more stores, I have no plans, unless or until I can write a sequel.

Jimmy: I was very happy to 1893 show up on my Manifesto games, and even more pleased to see it make Manifesto's top ten seller list for at least a few months.  How has your overall experience with selling through Manifesto been?

Peter: I really like the Manifesto crew and even managed to pay them a dinner visit the last time I was in New York City. Working with them has always been straightforward and pleasant. Basically I have no complaints. Sales through Manifesto are generally small these days as compared to the brick & mortars, though, once again underscoring the fact that the vast majority of buyers are not buying online.

Jimmy: This may be a sensitive question, so feel free to answer with as much or as little detail as you like: how well has 1893 sold?  And how well have you done with each of your means of distribution (through you own website, as an electronic download through Manifesto, as a conventional retail product)?

Peter: Well, I've always been open about this, so I don't mind. The answer is: I've lost count. But if I take a look at the number of games I have left, then subtract the amount I think I've given away as review copies or gifts (for example, one year it was the prize for the top entrants in a Chicago-wide High School History Fair), I'm somewhere around 3700, the vast majority through brick & mortar. For example, in the first three months of 2008, I've sold 100 copies to the gift shops, compared to about a dozen through all online sources combined.

Jimmy: You recently sent out surveys to your customers to try to better understand their take on 1893.  Many people that you surveyed liked the game but disliked the parser.  As somebody who absolutely loves his parsers, I was very discouraged.  How do you feel about this?  Do you think we can do anything to make IF more accessible while not losing what we love about the form?

Peter: Well, I think this complaint has always existed, and the solution already exists, too: it's called Myst! But I think the positive message to take from those responses is that people are willing to play Interactive Fiction even today, provided they are given a work that is about a topic that interests them in some way. So the content can override their dislike of the interface, at least to a certain extent.

Other than that, 1893 already had a point-and-click compass and system verbs. Its possible to expand that to a point and click menu system of verbs as well, such as what Legend Entertainment created. This might help a bit. Also, of course, we need to write better, to make sure all possible options are explored and accounted for, and the game provides hints not only to solve the puzzles but to work with the parser. Really I think authors like Emily Short do a good job of keeping this sort of thing top-of-mind when writing, and it is something that I hope I can continue to improve in as I continue to write games.

Jimmy: Will you be releasing more commercial IF in the future through Illuminated Lantern, or was 1893 a one-shot?  (I'm sure I heard somewhere that you were working on a sequel set at another World's Fair, but I can't for the life of me remember where.)

Peter: I have been working on a sequel, 1894, which actually still takes place in Chicago. But I've mainly gotten stuck in the research phase, and am still not confident enough to go forward with the project aggressively. So I've set it aside for now. If it comes to fruition, then it will also be commercial. If not, I'm not really sure any of my other projects will have a commercial side. I think it depends on the subject matter, and how I think it will best reach the intended audience.

Jimmy: You have recently released a couple of short free games based on stories by Lord Dunsany.  Could you tell us a bit about their creation and reception?

Peter: I've long had a fantasy to write a game based on the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. Even my work back in 8th grade had a bit of the Lovecraftian to it (I remember hoping, in any case). I've always been especially fond of his Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.  Through reading about Lovecraft several years ago, I began to learn about his inspirations, and started reading the authors that inspired his works, chief among them, and especially influential in regards to his dream work, Lord Dunsany. And to my surprise, I found that when it came right down to it I favor Dunsany, and some of his other influences, over Lovecraft's own work, perhaps partly because Lovecraft is so over-emphasized these days.

In any case, I wanted to write a Lovecraftian story, but found myself instead with better, and more importantly, more public domain, material.

I was also interested in the idea of adaptation of a literary work into Interactive Fiction, and exploring various what I hoped were creative ways of doing so. I didn't really consciously select which of his works to adapt, they just sort of leapt out and presented themselves to me as candidates. Both are highly static short stories: The Journey of the King takes place only in the King's throne room as he hears from ten prophets what will become of him after he dies, while The Ebb and Flow of the Tide is about just lying there dead. I changed the premise of Journey so that the King would have to do some exploration, and hid the prophets in various places, in effect making their Dunsanian monologues the "treasures" of the piece. And in Tide, movement occurs temporally rather than spatially, through sensation rather than movement.

Journey of the King was my first return to writing Interactive Fiction since 1893: A World's Fair Mystery and took about four months, with some of that time spent trying to remember how to code properly. Tide took less than a month by comparison.

Overall I think they were received rather well, though with not a lot of love for The Journey of the King's rather difficult Old Testament style english and prophetic monologues, which I can sympathize with. The experiment was successful enough that I hope to continue it with additional adaptations in the future.

Jimmy: The Ebb and the Flow of the Tide was recently selected for viewing at the Electronic Literature Organization media show that will be taking place along with an ELO academic conference in Vancouver, Washington in a few months.  Congratulations, first of all, and tell us a bit about the submission process.  Were you surprised to have your work selected for display?  And will be making it out to the conference?  I will be giving a presentation there, and at least a few other folks active in IF will be either presenting or attending.  Should be great fun, and a great way to increase the attention paid to IF in the larger electronic literature community.

Peter: Although as I mentioned Tide was received well by the Interactive Fiction community, I have been looking for ways to help it reach a wider audience. Of all the games I have written, it remains one of my favorites.  And Tide well represents the concept of Media Art, as opposed to game or story. So, when I saw that the show was accepting entries from a listing over on Grand Text Auto, I decided to submit it. Well, actually I thought it over until the day before the due date, then scrambled to put the package together, and sent it overnight using FedEx. A month or so later, and weeks after they had said they were going to notify all artists that were accepted, I received the acceptance letter. I'm greatly honored by the recognition, needless to say, and now several of my friends might actually kill me if I keep referring to myself as a "Digital Media Artist." But why not? As for being surprised, I don't think I was -- but then, I follow Woody Allen's philosophy that 80% of success is just showing up. There is an Interactive Fiction component to the Commonplace Book exhibit in Yverdon-les-Bains, for example, primarily just because I asked.

I hope to make it to the conference, but haven't booked anything yet and just haven't had time to work out the logistics and costs that would be involved. Sometimes, Just Showing Up can really be quite complicated.

Jimmy: I was interested to see that you still do your work in TADS 2.  Any reason for not making the switch to TADS 3, other than lack of time / interest in learning a new system?

Peter: No, those are pretty much the two big reasons. For now I've decided that I only want to move if I am trying to do something in TADS 2 and I can't. So far, that hasn't happened. I'm comfortable with how TADS 2 works, and as I mentioned before am a fairly terrible programmer.

Jimmy: The other half of your website is dedicated to Asian Cinema.  Tell us about this interest.  Care to recommend some movies?  (All I know about is Wong Kar-Wai.)

Peter: Interestingly, the Asian Cinema website came about one day because progress on 1893 was so slow. I was itching to publish something, anything, to feel like I've actually accomplished something, and decided on a site that not only talks about movies but really explores culture through film. So I put up the first article back in 2000, about Taoism and the sharp difference between the Taoism of the Tao Te Ching and the Taoism of Hong Kong movies, which typically includes frenetic combat with hopping vampires. And it just sort of grew from there. I've written articles for a few Asian Cinema and culture related books, and contributed to several websites. These days I just throw stuff up on my site when I feel like commenting on something, sort of like a blog that updates once every couple months. Wong Kar-Wai has made some great movies, but these days he is making BMW commercials and an English-language movie starring Norah Jones which I don't think I can bear to watch, so I don't know what to say anymore. If you haven't seen it yet, you should really rent Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, which is something of a comedic masterpiece, and oh yes, inspired the use of Buddha's Palm in my game Slap that Fish. Otherwise, these days I've been watching a lot of Japanese films from the 70s, and Tamil (Indian, but not Bollywood) films from the 60s. Best not to ask.

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Reviews of the H.P. Lovecraft Commonplace Book Project Games

In SPAG's last issue, we featured an article from Peter Nepstad about his Commonplace Book Project, a unique gathering of textual IF and graphical adventure game authors to create games based on plot ideas jotted down but never fleshed out by pulp-era horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.  Seven games in all are included in the Project, written in three languages.  These works are not only available for download from Peter's personal site, but are also currently on exhibit at the Maison d'Ailleurs in Switzerland.  I am please to bring you the final part of SPAG's coverage of the Commonplace Book Project in this issue in the form of reviews of all the participating games.

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Title: Dead Cities
Author: Jon Ingold
 Author Email: jon.ingold SP@G
Release Date: June 19, 2007
System: Glulx (Inform 7)
Version: Release 8
Reviewer: Dark Star
Reviewer Email: darkstar SP@G

"An impression – city in peril – dead city – equestrian statue – men in closed room – clattering hooves heard outside – marvel disclosed on looking out – doubtful ending."

John Ingold's Dead Cities captures H.P. Lovecraft's obsession with forbidden knowledge, in a game that’s not only well written, but also crafted to draw you in. It's a small, tight design that doesn't take long to finish. With some amount of replayability, you can find a few premature/alternative endings. But the mood the game creates hangs heavy throughout, with settings richly described though not overly Lovecraftian.

You find yourself auditing Arkwright, a dying old man burdened by inheritance tax, searching through his books with an inventory provided by his nephew. The family lost contact since the death of his wife, and they want you to bring back his prize possession, an early edition of Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

Throughout the game you can see the author's real love: books. Not only are you searching for rare books like Newton's Principia, but once you settle in for a bit of gameplay, you’ll learn of the Kaman-Than (an ancient text possessing the power to brings cities to life). Deep within its pages you’ll find lines such as:

"...Books too are dead cities, whose creators wrought word-patterns from a living mind that is now timeless and inert. Words are the skeletons of thought, gifted time and existence only by a reader's eye...."

The writing is exceptional, showing real passion.

The game generally did a good job of telling me what I should be trying to do, but the implementation is not always perfect, especially if the player does things in an order different from that which Ingold evidently anticipated.  At one point I had figured out what I needed Arkwright to do to advance the plot, and given the required items to Arkwright, but could not get him to take the next logical step because I had not asked him about the correct topic.  My frustration was made even worse by the fact that I was by this point in a race against the clock for survival.

An embellishment that might sit well would be an encyclopedia that could expand the Lovecraftian universe -- some sort of dark, cryptic tome that might explain in better detail what is really going on in the game.  I know that the game was completed in a short amount of time -- eight weeks is nothing -- and something like this couldn't be included in the first version. But it would be nice in a second version, if it doesn’t seem completely out of place.

One thing I found really interesting is that the story draws you in and away from the main goal with enticing bits of secret lore. This happened twice for me.  In fact, I got so caught up in the tales the game has to tell that I missed out on important opportunities.  Finishing some of these stories is likely to finish you as well, so beware.

In the end I think there is a definite theme to the game: knowledge comes at a price. And in the world of Lovecraft, that price can be extreme. The more I played Dead Cities, the more I felt it has some strong similarities to Adam Cadre's 9:05. Both try to lead you down the path of ruin. In Dead Cities, your first play-through will likely end with end with your character mad, or worse.  Several unsatisfactory endings are in fact possible. As Lovecraftian as this feels, you probably want to walk away with a sense of having won.  To do that, you'll have to push on a little more to get to a more positive ending.

I see two clear paths in this game. You can go down the road of forbidden knowledge and discover the ancient writing's of the Kaman-Thah; or, once mastering the game, you can save Arkwright from himself. But, like some of Lovecraft's finest fiction, you cannot have both.

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Title: Ecdysis
Author: Peter Nepstad
 Author Email: petern SP@G
Release Date: June 19, 2007
System: TADS 2
Version: 1.6
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

"Insects or other entities from space attack and penetrate a man's head and cause him to remember alien and exotic things--possible displacement of personality."

Peter Nepstad's own Commonplace Book Project entry is short but genuinely disturbing, a nighmarish Lovecraftian version of Kafka's The Metamorphisis.  You play an average husband who wakes up in the middle of the night in a cloud of weird visions and physical pain.  As the short, linear narrative plays out you will be gradually transformed into something Other.  It's genuinely creepy to guide your character's figurative and literal descent, although one might wish for a bit more interactivity to go with the solid writing.  You can affect the overall story in only the most minor of ways until the very end of the game, when at least two endings are possible.  Be warned, though: none of them are pleasant.

Perhaps with an eye toward the game's exhibit in a museum setting, Mr. Nepstad has used TADS's hyperlinking abilities to make the keyboard largely optional.  Those with Windows PCs at least can mostly proceed through the story hypertext-fashion, by simply clicking the various links that appear in the text.  It's not a bad idea for a simple puzzleless piece like this one, but a number of problems keep it from working as well as it might.

First of all, some words that should be hyperlinks aren't.  The game begins with the customary message to type ABOUT for more information, for example, but this word is not hyperlinked.  It is not always even possible to advance the plot using only the hyperlinks.  You will occasionally have to revert to the keyboard to kick things forward, which is likely to frustrate casual exhibit-goers who are unfamiliar with using a parser.  Secondly, it is not always clear just what clicking a hyperlink will actually do.  (If the game tells me my wife is none too happy, and I click on that phrase, what happens?  Turns out I will kiss her...)  Finally, the limited number of links available at any given time has an unfortunate tendency to highlight the essential linearity of the game as a whole, something a conventional IF interface can often do a good job of hiding.

In the end, though, you are free to ignore the hyperlink features if you wish.  Ecolysis is very brief -- fifteen or twenty minutes tops for a thorough playthrough, I'd say -- but is genuinely creepy, and fits in well with the spirit of the Commonplace Book Project as a whole.  This is a story I could very much imagine H.P. himself writing.

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Title: The Cellar
Author: David Whyld
 Author Email: dwhyld SP@G
Release Date: June 19, 2007
System: ADRIFT
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

"Man's body dies -- but corpse retains life.  Stalks about -- tries to conceal odor of decay -- detained somewhere -- hideous climax."

From this stub David Whyld has created an impressive story of pulp adventure that feels straight out of Lovecraft's time.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that you the player have no role whatsoever in said story, which is conveyed to you via a series of extended infodumps.

You play Nevare, an eleven year old boy who has been given strict orders by his father to never, under any circumstances, go down into the family home's locked cellar.  Naturally, then, that is the first thing you decide to do when father travels out of town on business.  That's the frame story, and unfortunately also the only story you get to play a role in.  The more interesting story is relayed to you by what, or rather who, you find down there in the cellar.  It's a lot of fun, but not interactive in the slightest.  On a few occasions you will need to perform some little task to get the next chunk of the story, just to remind you that you are playing a work of IF.  For the most part, though, you just read, and type talk to [somebody] when the text stops coming to get it going again..  The story within the game is even formatted like a short story, including section titles.

And it's a fun story with a great pulpy feel to it.  The game is worth playing just to read it.  The minimally interactive bits of game that surround it, though, don't really add anything to the experience.

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Title: Handyman Wanted
Author: Roger Tober and Nige Copeland
 Author Email: nigec999 SP@G
Release Date: June 19, 2007
System: Flash
Version: 1 Final
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

The first of two point-and-click graphic adventures included in the project, Handyman Wanted casts you as an odd-jobber who has been hired to clean up and repair an old house that the bank foreclosed on after a recent "family tragedy."  I think you can guess where this is going: it's a good old game of explore the deserted and presumably haunted house.  Luckily, it's a decently well-done, if very short, entry in the genre.

The graphics are very sparse and simple but nicely done, with a bit of a ray-traced feel.  This being a haunted house, animated ghostly figures occasionally make an appearance in the otherwise static environment.  I can't say that the whole is particularly scary, but it is consistently moody and non at all unattractive.

The interface works well enough, although you'd advised to glance at the instructions before diving in, as it is a bit non-standard.  Basically, you have in addition to movement commands three verbs to choose from for interacting with your surroundings: examine, take, and talk to.  Once you have items in your inventory, you can combine them with others in typical point-and-click fashion.  The puzzles aren't bad on the whole, although there is a dreaded slider puzzle which I  had to spend far more time on than the whole rest of the game put together.  The whole game has a bit of the contemplative Myst feel to it, which perhaps isn't exactly what I think of in the context of Lovecraft.  It feels a bit like an already-existing project that had the Lovecraftian elements shoehorned in at the last minute.  What story there is comes largely in the intro-screen.  After that, it's just a matter of solving the usual sorts of puzzles while exploring the mansion's half-a-dozen or so sparsely furnished rooms.

I ran into a few glitches, but overall found this to be a competent effort, for what it is.  I'd have liked to see less Myst and more Lovecraft, however.

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Title: Beyond the Threshold
Author: Thomas 'Nihil' Busse
 Author Email:
Release Date: June 19, 2007
System: Wintermute (point and click)
Version: Release 2
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

The documentation that comes with Beyond the Threshold informs us that the game was originally designed for an "escape the locked room" competition.  This tells a lot about what you can expect.  As an example of that rather (too) ubliqitious genre, it works decently well.  In the context of the Lovecraft Project, though, it's a bit disappointing, if only because the most interesting parts of the game all take place as a rather extended non-interactive introductory sequence.  You are a professor who has traveled the world researching the lore of the Necronomicon and have (predictably enough) crossed beyond what it is safe for man to know.  That's the more interesting part.  Now, you are trapped in your study with the forces of evil literally howling at the door, and must find a way to escape using the skills you hopefully acquired from the 1000 other "escape the locked room" games found all over the Internet.  That's the less interesting part, but unfortunately also the part you get to actually play.

As you can see from the shot above, the graphics are quite nicely done, certainly several steps above the typical retro-Sierra Adventure Game Studio effort.  Also present are some very spooky music and sound effects.  Combined, all of this gives the piece a very effective atmosphere of mounting dread.  The writing, however, needs lots of work.  The author is apparantly a German speaker, and the English text in the game veers wildly between present and past tense and suffers from a host of other problems -- spelling errors, subject / verb disagreement, etc.  It's all perfectly comprehensible, but I found it more than a little distracting.  A number of glitches and bugs, including the occasional "Wintermute script error" message, also didn't exactly leave the game feeling polished.

Beyond is a first-person node-based game, a design choice I often find very spatially disorienting.  That was the case here.  I never felt quite sure where clicking an arrow would lead me, nor did I ever formulate a confident picture of even the single apparantly small room the game takes place in.  I always felt nervous that I was missing an essential view somewhere, especially when I became stumped on the puzzles.  There are only a few of them (this is a very short game), but one of those I found impossible.  Luckily the author provided the solution, for this puzzle and this puzzle only, in his documentation, which indicates to me he perhaps knew there was a problem there.

So, you solve a few puzzles, curse at the interface a bit, and finally are rewarded with an appropriately macabre conclusion.  The author shows some real talent, particularly in the artwork, but it never really comes together here.  I was left feeling I'd seen the one completed chunk of a much more ambitious project.  And even at this modest size, this one needed some more time in the oven.

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Title: El Museo de las Consciencias
Author: Mel Hython, Santiago Eximeno, Grendel Khan, Urbatain, and  Depresiv
 Author Email:
Release Date: June 19, 2007
System: Glulx (Inform 7)
Version: Release 2
Reviewer: Dwalin
Reviewer Email:

[A huge thank you goes out to Depresiv, who translated the following review from Dwalin's Spanish original.]

I must confess that I'm not the biggest fan of Lovecraft. I've got at home a couple of his books and short story compilations, but the cosmic horror of Lovecraft never has grabbed me like the epic fantasy of Tolkien or the science fiction of Dune. I've never felt compelled to study in depth his myths, and I've always found his stories quite repetitive.

Somewhere I read -- I don't remember where -- that spanish interactive fiction was once divided between the epic fantasy of CAAD (under the influence of Colossal Cave, and with works like the ones from JSJ, or the saga of El Señor del Dragón (The Dragon Lord) by Grupo Creators Union) and the horror sagas inspired by Lovecraft mainly developed by members of Sindicato del Software and the Year Zero Club.  (For example, Whitman Day by Jon and Nueve de cada diez lápidas están cambiadas (Nine Out of Ten Headstones are Changed) by Fran Morell, among many others). Personally, I've always enjoyed fantasy more.  An adventure with orcs is better than one without them in my book.  Still, having reached a certain age, it looks like my tastes may be changing. Without a doubt Museo de las Consciencias and its ancestral horror has smoothed the way for me to leave behind the elves and the dwarves for a little while and start looking for more ancient creatures... and more horrifying too.

I must confess that I started to play El Museo de las Consciencias completely thrilled. The presentation of the game is excellent, and I felt as if I were assisting at a première. The game includes a copy of the Commonplace Book in PDF and a presentation in Flash. All of this grants the game a special attraction even before starting to play. I know these are only circumstancial aspects in an adventure, but all of these files help to get us in the mood, grant a special setting, the predisposition to play, and give that special touch that a project like this really needs.

"Your father abandoned you ever since you can remember. He left you in a house on top of a small hill..."

This is the beginning of what at first could seem the typical story of discovery, the abandoned child who looks for his origins... to finally discover that they are more horrible than what any human could bear.

The idea of developing a collective story as the Spanish entry on the project has been a good choice in my opinion, and very well solved. Every participant has developed a tale based upon an entry of the Commonplace Book, tales which have been linked to a parent story, the one of the Consciousnesses Museum. The protagonist establishes contact with this museum, a legacy of his father, to discover that it houses connections with experiences that are not his own. Strange psychic objects have trapped a moment in the life of a person, an event that is cyclically repeated, and the visitor to the museum can experience these moments flesh, or at least in the mind.

This links the different sub-stories with the main story in a way that allows each of them to keep their independence. In fact, to finish the game -- done by solving the main story -- it's not necessary to finish any of the sub-stories. The psychic connection between the one and the others, the visit through the museum, is completely optional within the framework of the story as a game, but of course not within the framework of the story as an interactive tale. Because here is where we reach the key element in the Museo de las Consciencias. You must look elsewhere if you want a puzzlefest, as the museum is closer to what I understand as interactive fiction than what I understand as a text adventures. The objective here is not to solve complicated puzzles, nor to discover the weak point of a character, nor even to collect objects... here it's the ambience and the narrative the ones that are important, and the interaction in the majority of the stories is quite minimal. In a sense we only have to wait for the story to develop in front of our very eyes.  We do not have much influence at all.  This lack of interaction could bother us at the beginning ("what I want is to play!"), but if we think about it in the framework of the main story it's completely reasonable. The visitor to the museum cannot change the stories he experiences, as those stories have been lived before by someone else, in another time and another place.  In general, the narrative tone of all the sub-stories is excellent, although we can also notice the differences in style of each author.

Depresiv's sub-story develops most fully its characters and setting, and it keeps a structure most similar to the main story of the museum. It's the one I've enjoyed most.  The final sentence in particular is excellent in a dreamlike way.

Grendel Khan has set his two stories in a completely contemporary world. It's a risky decision, but works for the most part. My first impression when playing the first story ("La última noche de Ángela" - "Angela's last night") was, if not of rejection, at least of unease. The change between the ambience of the main story and Grendel's story seemed quite abrupt. Nonetheless, upon re-reading the transcription of the game I decided that it's probably the one I enjoyed the second most. When describing it to my wife I found myself becoming fascinated all over again. The other sub-story of Grendel, "El Ritual" ("The Ritual") is the strangest of them all. Trying to convey with words what a drugged mind feels is quite difficult anyway... and on top of that in this case is the interactive element. The result is quite disconcerting at the beginning (I almost felt like having fallen inside a song by El niño gusano... I didn't understand a word), but little by little you manage to get the hang of it and go on. This story is probably the most interactive of them all (you can even die), and it sadly has some "guess-the-verb" moments. Anyway, within the chaos of the whole story, the "guess-the-verb" syndrome is quite concealed.  (Those who have tried to take off their contact lenses when they are drunk will know that, because of their mental state, knowing what to is only half the battle).

Eximeno's story is probably the least interactive, as you really only have to wait for the story to happen by itself. However, the writing is excellent; you definitely notice the good hand (or pen) of Eximeno.

I enjoyed greatly the way in which Mel's story is linked with the main story. In the rest of the sub-stories you assume completely the personality of the protagonist, while in this one there is sketched the duality between the fish-man and the character who watches from the museum. The distressed shout of the observer who understands that his bursting has pushed the happy fish-men to catastrophe is only comparable to the broken crystals we find when we come back to the museum. Very well linked.

But the story I enjoyed the most is the main one, the museum story. Following a very Lovecraftian structure, the story is all SETTING -- like that, in upper case. I've found more adventure in the museum's office than in other whole works I've played. Among its main puzzles is one that is very shocking, involving a devastating, horrific turn of the screw. Then there's the central puzzle, a conventional crossword puzzle. This has turned into my favourite puzzle so far, not because of it's difficulty -- it isn't that difficult, although I did spend two hours following a false hint -- but because of its form. For once, the form is more important than the function.

And still...

How short the game was for me! To discover it, to go beyond it... and to see that everything finished right there. A spectacular ending, very much in the style of Lovecraft, of a final surprise, suspected, yes, but not less horrific once it was revealed. I was disappointed after I finished it, because I expected much more... more horrors to discover, more puzzles, more adventure... but the fact that I was left with the desire of more, is really the highest praise of all for the authors. I don't know how good the other participants in the Project are -- my level of English is not good enough to enjoy an adventure in that language -- but if they reach the quality of this game, the Commonplace Book Project will be remembered as a major event in IF history.  In Spanish IF history, it already is.

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Title: Lieux Communs
Author: Le Jibe, Samuel Verschelde, Eric Forgeot, Hugo Labrande, Jean-Luc Pontico, and Stab
 Author Email:
Release Date: June 19, 2007
System: Glulx (Inform 6)
Version: Release 4
Reviewer: Despresiv
Reviewer Email: pablote2es SP@G

Lieux Communs is the result of the collective work of several members of the French interactive fiction community. Just like Ekphrasis, it makes heavy use of images and sounds. The game has a gorgeous look, although it also can be enjoyed without all those accesories.

The story places us in a dreamlike scenery: We arrive at a strange and creepy place next to a river, where we find an old caravan. Within this caravan, several objects open the doors to "new realities". Each one of these different worlds is developed by a different author, as a different "subchapter" needed to finish the whole story. The dreamlike atmosphere we percieve in the beginning will follow us throughoutl the game, through a large number of different scenes and situations.

This approach to making a collective work can have (as we'll see further on) the dissadvantage of losing the coherence between the different sections, due to the differences in style among the authors. Although we play the same main character throughout the whole story, we'll be able to notice subtle "changes of personality" from one part to another. This can be jarring if we try to percieve Lieux Communs as a whole.

Since each section was programmed by a different author, I think it's better to review them separately. I'll try to keep the "spoilers" to a very minimum.

The first of the stories I tried, the one with the snow globe, seemed intriguing at the very beginning, but it dissapointed me at the end. It displays a very common frustration of Lovecraft's work: introducing several story elements which aren't fully explained at the end of the narrative. But while Lovecraft manages to provide the sensation that, although there is no explanation provided, such an explanation really exists, here we have the feeling that many of the plot nodes have been improvised at the very moment of being written. In my opinion, this section lacks an aim.

The second story, the one with the stone, takes us to a beach at night, with an evil musical instrument just about to summon "something" awful from the sea. The sensation of urgency and foreboding is quite well concieved, and it's much more interesting as a story than the previous one. However, the last puzzle doesn't make much sense. (I still don't understand why it worked, even after seeing the solution.)

The story with the postcard takes place in a museum, and it's probably the most "commonplace" of the sections in the game. Here we are in a well known, normal and human environment, and even the antagonist is less terrible and abstract than in the other stories. There's even a bit of humour in a couple of the situations we have to go through, which is always wellcome amongst so much cosmic horror.

The story triggered by the coral earring is my second favourite. It reminds me of one of those horror stories with castaways along the same lines as "The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," a situation of constant anguish and a fight for survival. The character in this story is gradually submerged in a frightening mystery, a story far beyond him.

The fifth story (the one with the teddy bear) is the shortest of the lot, but it's also one of my favourites. When I definitely found out what I needed to do in order to finish the section, I must confess it made me shudder. A short "micro-horror story," very creepy and very well done.

The story with the old book reminded me of the ambience of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It may be the one that seemed most out of context, as it almost completely lacks any elements of horror (the only elements of horror, in fact, seemed like an afterthought). This is not necessarily bad, but I also felt that the characters and situations were mere excuses for puzzles.

The last part, the one with the sand clock, is my favourite one by far. It takes place in a desert, in the presence of a huge stone idol, and it mixes past events with present events in a way that manages to increase the sensation of mystery until it reaches the climax at the very end. In contrast to the first section, here the author manages to use the Lovecraftian trope of leaving unresolved plot threads in a very satisfiying way: not everything is explained at the end, but we get the sensation that there is some explanation hidden in there.

Finally, when we manage to finish all the subchapters, we reach a short endgame, after which we are rewarded with a somewhat deceiving final conclusion to the story.

If we consider Lieux Communs as a whole it is something of a falure due to the lack of coherence between the different sections. However, if we enjoy it as a collection of short tales, it archieves its goal of intriguing and entertaining completely. Very recommendable.

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Other Game Reviews

Title: 1893: A World's Fair Mystery
Author: Peter Nepstad
 Author Email: petern SP@G
Release Date: October 15, 2002
System: HTML TADS 2
Version: 2.05
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

1893 has to be the largest work of IF ever created.  A complete city was constructed just to house the 1893 World's Fair which is its setting, and Mr. Nepstad's games reproduces the vast grounds in remarkable detail.  That, then, is the World's Fair part of the subtitle.  The Mystery part involves the theft of eight precious stones by an international criminal ring.  You are a private detective assigned by the Fair's chief of security to recover said stones, along with solving some other more minor crimes that will surface over the course of the game.  You thus can enjoy the game on two levels: the goal-oriented type A part of your psyche can solve the mystery while the more relaxed type B part immerses itself in the wonders of the Fair.  Theoretically.  There are some problems in meshing the game's two levels just as there may be in meshing the two halves of your personality.  We'll get to that -- in the context of the game only; your psychology is your own problem -- shortly.

You are constrained hardly at all, having virtually the entire fairgrounds open to you  from the very beginning.  And it is an absolutely huge map you have to explore.  You'll find just about everything that existed at the real fair: exhibitions on every subject imaginable, eating establishments of every variety, a bewildering variety of statuary and architecture built just for the Fair and (sadly) largely demolished after, even a working tram system to get from one end of the enormous grounds to the other with relative efficency.  Some parts, such as the ethnographic exhibits where natives from various tribal cultures are housed and displayed like animals, are heartbreaking; others, such as Nikola Tesla and his functioning Tesla coil, fascinating; still others, like the exhibits in the cavernous agriculture building, a bit boring.  I love old steam trains, and quickly took in  the train display just as I would if I visited the Fair in the real world.  That I felt the urge to do so says something about the game's success in immersing me into its world.  Your favorites may not be mine, but there is plenty here for everyone.

Mr. Nepstad has included several hundred black and white period photographs from all over the Fair, a nice touch that adds even more to the sense of atmosphere.  A staggering amount of research must have gone into recreating this vast world inside an IF game.  There is an elegiac quality to the whole for us visitors from another time, although I cannot say if it was intentional or not.  Everyone here is filled with enthusiasm for Science and Progress and the century to come; we who know what horrors that century will bring cannot help but sigh at the breathless naivetee of it all.

The wide open design is not always a positive, however.  In leaving absolutely everything up to you, the game makes a real argument that too much freedom in IF can be a bad thing.  After a brief, optional tour of some of the major sights you are cast adrift, left completely to your own devices to explore this almost inconcievably vast map and solve the mystery.  Clues could literally be anywhere, and the game gives barely a whiff of guidance about where to look or what to do.  As a diligent sleuth you must therefore examine and poke and prod at everything, and this leads to frustrations pretty quickly.  

So, then, we essentially have two separate games here.  One allows -- nay, actively encourages -- you to wander and gawk and enjoy the scenery, while the other will require all of your old school puzzle-solving skills.  When the two sides of the game's personality clash, it can be a bit disorienting.  The tourist side of the game recreates the environment of the Fair with considerable attention to realism.  The adventure game side, though, is filled with typical adventure game puzzles -- in other words, you must discover outlandish Rube Goldberg solutions to simple dilemnas.  It's like having Sam and Max suddenly parachute into the middle of a meticulous historical novel, and it pulls you out of the environment entirely.  The criminals you chase, meanwhile, are straight out of Scooby Doo, cartoon names ("Greenback Bob") and all.  They offer you clues to help you track them down for no apparant reason, other than that they are in an adventure game and that's the sort of thing villains in adventure games do.  Sophisticated, believable plotting this is not.

Although the map is vast, the implmentation is not particularly deep at all.  Thus you will have to bounce off plenty of unimplemented scenery while searching for clues.  Worse, poking too much at the environment begins to reveal a fair number of glitches, all the more disconcerting in that this is a commercial effort with the attendant additional expectations of quality control.  For instance, I ran into one or two individuals who switched sex at random from message to message.  (I assume this sort of behavior wasn't as common in 1893 as it is today.)  In places the scene-setting photographs also fail to appear, although clearly intended to do so, leaving an ugly blotch on the screen.  

On top of these frustrations you must deal with a time limit: you begin the game at 10:00 on a Monday morning, and have one week to solve the mystery.  One minute passes with every turn, which may sound generous enough, but the game is so vast that you could easily find yourself very pressed for time if you don't plan properly.

And always there's the sheer size of this thing to contend with.  Just like (I would imagine) going to the real Fair, there comes a point where viewing exhibit after exhibit simply becomes mind-numbing, and you start wishing for a little more to actually do.  The ratio of puzzles to rooms is extremely low, but you don't dare not examine everything meticiously because, well, we all know what happens when you get lazy in an old-school adventure game.  Suffice to say that the many IF newbies who have purchased the game from the Chicago gift shops where Peter sells it haven't got a prayer of getting much of anywhere.

But still, 1893 is in so many ways an amazing accomplishment that I kept wanting to find a way to experience it all.  I tried several times over a period of years to complete it, but was always defeated by its immensity and the family of little frustrations that come along with its good parts.  However, I finally found a way to get through it recently, when I found a very nicely done guide to the game here.  It includes an agenda for each day; literally a list of things you should accomplish that day.  If you reference this part and only this part of the guide, you have a handy list of what you should work on each day without getting any outright spoliers.  I found it immensely helpful in giving my wanderings a focus and letting me enjoy the scenery rather than stressing over the time.  I now knew what tasks I needed to accomplish on each day to stay on schedule.  If you are like me and want to solve the game but just find it too daunting and, yes, too flawed to invest the effort required to do it all by yourself, give the guide a try.  Should something like this guide have been included either in the game or its documentation?  I would say yes; Peter in his interview above seems to come down quite emphatically on the other side, and it's his game, so fair enough.  You know where to get the guide if you want it.

Of course, it is also possible for the less goal-directed among you to simply wander about the Fair at will and enjoy the environment, ignoring the mystery entirely.  Doing so will engage with the game's greatest strengths.  While I do wish the mystery plot and its associated puzzles were more worthy of the setting, as a recreation of a place and time 1893 stands alone in the world of IF.  Even if you don't have the energy to complete it, the game is more than worth dipping into just for a taste of this vanished piece of history.  Be warned that unlike most modern IF 1893 does cost money.  However, I think the experience it offers is well worth the price.  It works on a whole different scale from anything else, and that alone is worth experiencing.

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Title: Rendition
Author: nespresso
 Author Email: insectsneverhurtme SP@G
Release Date: May 18, 2007
System: Z-Code (Inform 7)
Version: Release 1
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

The subject of this game -- the torture of "enemy combatants" that has been and probably still is being conducted by the Bush administration in my name -- is about as serious as it gets.  Just so my own opinions on the subject are clear, let me say that I would like to see Bush, Cheney, Rice, and the their whole sorry crowd not only run out of office one and all but also put on trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity.  They have disgraced the country that I love for decades to come, and that pisses me off more than I can express.

I'm always very interested in seeing IF employed to address serious topics.  So: I was immensely predisposed to like this game.  It probably says something, then, that I have to give it such a terrible review.  It fails on every single level.

You play a nameless, faceless (well, "as good looking as ever") interrogator who has been assigned to give a beating to a would-be suicide bomber named (of course) Abdul.  Actually, interrogator is not the right word for you at all, I suppose, for you don't speak a word of Arabic.  You are to give Abdul a good beating and humiliation; nothing more, nothing less.  The goal of the game is to come up with enough creative ways to abuse Abdul to score at least 30 points.  If you think it sounds distasteful, you're right -- it certainly is.  That's not the game's real problem, though.  In fact, a little dose of this reality might be good for those Americans who voted Bush back into office in 2004.  The problem is that there's nothing else here.  There's no thought at all here, really, just wanton ugliness.

You can interact with Abdul in only one way -- by abusing him.  Most of his body parts are (minimally) implemented, and you are free to kick, punch, poke, pull, etc., at all of them.  Once you run through the obvious possibilities, you will have to get more creative if you hope to win.  (Hint: your own everyday bodily functions provide some options.)  You can't use a given method of violence more than three times, though, because that could lead to the convening of a war crimes tribunal.  Additionally, you cannot use a given method of violence more than once on a single body part, for similar reasons.  No, it doesn't make any sense to me either.  Sexual abuse is also "sadly less acceptable."  In light of everything else here I think we can all agree to breathe a sigh of relief for that.

The implementation is pretty awful.  While most body parts are present, the game gives no consideration to whether the action you are attempting actually makes sense with that part.  Thus you can happily pull Abdul's eyes and twist his belly.  But then, everything about this game is lazy, most of all the thought behind it.  You are a psychopath, taking gleeful pleasure in your work.  If you were hoping for a consideration of what it means to be a scared kid who joined the military to get money for college and is now thrown into a strange, hostile land where most of the people want to kill you, and how that situation might lead you into doing things that would be unthinkable back home, you won't find it here.  If you were hoping to understand what could lead a man to hate so much in the name of religion that he is willing to strap dynamite to his chest and detonate himself in the midst of a crowd, this game won't help with that either.

Its rhetoric is facile, lazy, and wrong.  About the aforementioned necessity to not "overdue" the torture, you are told that "Whilst the resulting legal cases usually have minimal success, the resulting media fallout is particularly damaging to the regime and its legitimacy."  Or consider this, the game's charming final words: "Let that be the lesson to anyone who dares to fuck with the chosen people."  Americans, even the most reactionary Republicans, simply don't talk like that.  Inserting comic book Nazi dialogue into their mouths doesn't do your cause any good.  It just makes you seem kind of lazy and stupid.

But then, lazy and stupid is a good description for this game as a whole, and that's a shame, because as I sit here writing this I can imagine several ways in which IF could really explore the issues this game utterly fails to engage with.  But that would take energy, ambition, and nuanced thought.  So much easier just to shock with some absurd, contextless depravity instead.  I suspect I've put more thought into this review than the author did into his game.

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Title: Sunburst Contamination
Author: Fredrik Ramsberg and Johan Berntsson
 Author Email: johan SP@G
Release Date: March 9, 2007
System: Z-Code version 6 (!) (Inform 6)
Reviewer: Valentine Kopteltsev
Reviewer Email: uux SP@G

I have to confess: I probably don't have any moral right to review this game.  It's been intended to parody an "old Scott Adams text adventure"; the thing is, I've never played any games by Scott Adams, only knowing of them through hearsay. However, I think I understood the aspects that were spoofed; Sunburst Contamination made them kind of hard to miss.

In fact, the game impressed me from the very start: I was really amazed by the huge amount of programming work that obviously had flown into turning the sophisticated default Inform parser into a verb-noun rudiment. I have no Inform knowledge, but from my TADS 2 experience, I can say it must have been quite a feat -- even considering Inform's parser is said to be easier to hack than the one of TADS. The more so as a few weird, but clearly deliberate side effects (such as some of the items being manipulatable, but not examinable) had been implemented, too.

All in all, the authors did a great job of making their work appear somewhat untidy around the edges. The ultra-short descriptions contain "occasional spelling mistakes" (as the authors put it) and misformattings.  The game's ABOUT command gives a presumably complete list of verbs understood, but at least one crucial verb is not there (although, to be fair, I didn't have any problems guessing it). Sure enough, lots of things mentioned in the descriptions weren't accessible. The game never bothers itself with realism: for instance, your goal is to collect emergency packages scattered over your spaceship together in a safe place so that the slimetoads that have infested the spacecraft won't eat them. The thing is, some of the packages are hidden in containers that are, in their turn, takeable. So, if you bring a package within a container to the safe place, it doesn't help you: the slimetoads find it anyway -- and of course, you never receive any explanation how this could have happened.

Finally, the game features a bug -- the RESTART system command doesn't work as it should, and tries to load a saved game instead. (I think that's because the Scott Adams-like parser recognizes the words by the first three letters, and thus isn't able to distinguish between RESTART and RESTORE).

Sounds like quite a list of sins, doesn't it? Well, they didn't really impede my game experience, because I believe they all were deliberate and part of the spoof. Someone might object that this is a pretty lame excuse. Usuallly, I'd join this person -- I fully agree that the mere fact of a game being made bad on purpose neither automatically redeems it nor adds anything to its play value. In this particular case, however, it worked for me, although I can't tell why or how. I even found some of the jokes based on the limitations and intentionally bad aspects of the game hilarious; for instance, there is a seemingly fully functional flashlight (at least, the game never tells it's broken), but you can't use it for the simple reason it's switched off, and TURN ON isn't in the set of recognizable verbs. There were only two things I found slightly annoying: the absence of a VERBOSE playing mode, and the inventory limit of four items. I understand why the authors made these choices, but I certainly wouldn't mind if they bent the old-school rules just a bit here.

The most amazing feature of the game is that, for all its limitations, the authors managed to set up fairly challenging and interesting puzzles. The primitive parser never really gets in the way. The game is fair, in that you can't put it in an unwinnable state. There are a few opportunities for instant deaths, but, honestly, I don't understand the general abhorrence against them in an age of multiple undos. For me, the only situation where an instant death becomes an issue is when I'm fully immersed by a deep, emotion-loaded story that moves me very much. With all respect to Sunburst Contamination and its authors -- "emotions" and "deeply moving" certainly aren't the words I tend to associate with this game; thus, the instant deaths fit in its cardboard world quite naturally.

But let's return to the puzzles. As I said before, they're partly pretty challenging, yet fair. I had to refer to the walkthrough three times. In two cases, I had a "stupid me" feeling after doing that. In the third one, the solution was based on a "try every item" approach; since, as I mentioned before, many items in the room descriptions can't be manipulated, the player is very likely to ignore most of them unless her/his attention is turned to them specially. However, the game also hides a few important items among these "nonentities". The only way to find them -- apart from the walkthrough -- is to go through the rooms one more time, reading the descriptions carefully and checking every single object explicitely mentioned there. The relatively small number of rooms, and the descriptions being anything but wordy make this venture far less tedious than it sounds. Even so, I'm ready to admit such a puzzle balances on the verge of being bad style (to say the least); however, I strongly suspect that's another nod to Scott Adams.

To sum up, I'd say Sunburst Contamination isn't a game for everyone. It also doesn't fit into the procrustean bed of the SPAG scoreboard format; if the latter was applied to it, it probably would receive a much lower rating than I believe it deserves. Thus, let's just say -- if it participated in the IF-Comp, I'd rate Sunburst Contamination at least a six; its spoofing value probably is even higher.

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