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is copyright (c) 2008 by Jimmy Maher.
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A Blind Man's Take on Interactive Fiction
by Ari Damoulakis
Works of Wisdom: A Comparison of
Nate Cull's "Planner" and Aaron Reed's "Intelligent Hinting" by Ron
An Interview with Mike Rubin
Day for Reaping
of a Slaver's Kingdom
I recently attended
Literature Organization's convention
in beautiful Vancouver,
Washington. For those of you not familiar with the ELO
, its stated goal
is to "facilitate the writing, publishing, and reading of literature in
electronic media." Definitions like this, however, seldom
bring much sense of an organization's real orientation. The
ELO has historically tended to focus its attention on less
narrative-oriented forms of electronic writing: e-poetry, collaborative
writing projects, hypertext "fiction," etc. (I put the
"fiction" in hypertext fiction in quotes because I find that most works
in this genre are not really about assembling a coherent narrative at
all.) Of late, however, IF has taken a place under the ELO's
umbrella, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Nick Montfort to
academically legitamize the still vaguely disrespectable form we've
chosen to work in. Granted, it still often feels in the ELO
are the IF people and then there is everybody else, but at
Plenty of insightful papers and interesting artworks were presented, on
IF and other topics, but there was one thing about the conference, and
about the ELO mode of discourse in general, that bothers me:
obsession with form rather than content. It's
a problem that's not unique to the admittedly hyper-academic atmosphere
of the ELO. We do the same thing within our own (culturally
very different) community, and it also disturbs me here at times.
sometimes think we are getting ourselves so caught up in technical and
mechanistic minutiae that we are losing sight of why we might want to
be writing IF in the first place. Let me try to illustrate
with a couple of examples.
First, let me pick on one of the IF works that was presented at the
by Chris Calabro and David Benin. I'm
not going to discuss its merits and problems as a work of IF; Victor
Gijsbers does a very good job of that elsewhere in this issue.
Rather, I want to look briefly at how the authors describes
their own work in their game's byline.
The subject of Hors
is the use of blood-doping and other artificial
enhancements that have caused such controversy in the sporting world in
recent years. The game casts its player as a cyclist
competing in the Tour de France and facing a decision -- you can
probably guess what sort of decision. It's a strong subject
for a work of literature: complex, resistent to black or white
thinking, and of real interest and importance for our times.
How then do the game's authors describe their game in their
own byline? "An experiment in affective, embodied interactive
fiction." Now, this is of course problematic on more than one
level. It is first of all simply bad writing with an
unfortunate air of disingenuousness to it, for as a phrase it is
essentially meaningless, the sort of argument from obscurity that
infects so many in academia. Moving past that, though, I
wonder why the authors chose, after having chosen a really quite
compelling subject for their work, to essentially ignore that subject
and describe their game (or, I suppose, not
game) in terms of vague formal abstractions. Even had they
been meaningful abstractions, the problems would remain. This
was its most
important aspect in their eyes?
Let's consider one of the played, respected, and oft-written
about works of modern IF: Emily Short's Galatea
In all of the reviews and and other discussions of the game
you can find on the Internet and in printed academic literature, you
will be hard pressed to find much commentary on the content of the
piece. Writers rather talk about the piece's technical
complexity, about how well (or how poorly) the conversation flows in
response to the player's inputs, etc. Cool intellectual
responses dominate the discussion, with the exception of the
occasional off-the-wall commentary such as the IFDB reviewer who
to reflect "modern man-hating female disparagement." Galatea
admiration, interest, even a certain amount of awe, and all of it
richly deserved. However, it seems to excite very little love
Nor does it seem to inspire its player to grapple with
more universal than the design of good IF conversation systems.
Is this a problem? Not really, I think, when taken in
isolation. I think that Emily Short, whom I have immense
respect for as a writer, creator, and tireless agent for positive
change in IF, intended her work as an experiment and even possibly a
bit of a provocation, an illustration of what might be possible.
But where is the game that takes Galatea
and technical innovations and uses them in the service of crackerjack
story with a fascinating setting and compelling, believable characters?
Eric Eve's recent works
come close, but how many others do? Galatea
there in splendid isolation. People play it, they tell
themselves and each other how interesting
it was, what potential
for IF it demonstrates, and then they move on. It's
up to Emily to build on Galatea
foundation; if she retires from IF tomorrow, she's done more for the
form than I or 99% of you will ever manage. It's up to us.
Where are we?
Some of us who are very, very good are writing games like
the generally acknowledged best game of 2007: Lost Pig
On the one hand, Lost
is nothing to disparage. It's hilarious;
it's great fun; it's honed and polished to the most beautiful shine.
Admiral Jota deserves tons of praise and respect for his
creation. And yet, on the other hand, it disturbs me just a
bit that, after twelve months and dozens if not hundreds of game
releases, a game about a cartoon-style orc with pidgin English skills
trying to recover a pig was the pinnancle of our achievements.
Best comedy (if such a category existed)? Sure.
Best game? That concerns me a bit. It's
not that the XYZZY voters were wrong. Lost Pig
was the best game of 2007. But why
was it the
best game? Where are the IF games that, to paraphrase a
famous old Electronic Arts ad, make us cry?
We can work to make our parsers more newbie-friendly. We can
more accessible through web-based interpreters like Parchment.
put a more attractive face on the genre through projects like the cover
art drive. We can do outreach to casual game portals like Jay
Games. All of these things are great, and hugely helpful.
I applaud everyone who has worked on these projects and
others. But most of all we
need games that will make us cry, or that will just keep us up late
at night playing because we can't wait to find out what's
happen next. And to get those kind of games we need
authors who are willing to cut themselves loose from both the ironic,
deconstructed, postmodern aesthetic that is the hallmark of academic
from the elevation of craft and accessibility above all us that
is the hallmark of gems like Lost
and put it all out there -- to tell the best damn
story they have in them, or that they can find and adapt; and to do it
in the most compelling, immersive way possible.
made at least some of us cry. And while the academics talk
the general public, that vanishingly small percentage of them who have
ever played IF, talk about Photopia
because it's about something other than itself. It made them
feel something, and in doing so gave us a glimpse of the potential of
this new immersive form of reading, even as it was hobbled by its
linear structure and rather over-sentimentalized plot. What
if we could marry the technical and formal innovations of Galatea
storytelling force of Photopia
What if we could create a work of technically sophisticated
IF that was about something beyond its own technical sophistication?
What would we have then? I think we might just
have, at long last, literature.
Back to Table of Contents
Now this is the sort of cool little idea that comes along every once in
a while and leaves the rest of us wondering why no one thought of it
before. Christopher Armstrong's Planet IF is an RSS feed
aggregator that brings together many blogs and news sites that discuss
IF. With IF discussion increasingly moving from the
newsgroups to blogs and other scattered locales around the Internet,
this is a great way to bind us all together. Check it out,
and if you run a blog or website that deals with IF please think about
setting up an RSS feed (if you don't have one already) and contacting
Christopher to add you to his collection. SPAG will be on
there soon, I promise.
Art Show 2008
Marnie Parker has had to postpone this year's IF Art Show due to other
personal obligations. She does plan / hope to run it toward
the end of the year, however.
Spring Thing 2008
Greg Boettcher's Spring Thing competition for longer works of IF is
complete. All three games were quite well-received and
finished very close together, but the winner was Pascal's Wager
a quite ambitious-looking piece of multimedia IF written in TADS, was
recently released by its author after four years in development.
Varma has developed a Z-Machine interpreter that allows you to play
games directly through your browser. He has also provided a
website that gives access through Parchment to every Z-Code file in the
IF Archive. The interpreter is a little slower than I'd like,
particulary with Inform 7 games, but otherwise works a treat.
we just need something like this for Glulx... oh, yes, Andrew Plotkin
is working on that, or at least on a browser-based
, which is the first step.
Web-based IF seems to be all the rage these days. Andrew
Whaley has also
together a site for playing some popular recent
and classic IF titles directly through your browser. You
presentation still seems a little wonky on at least some browsers -- I
somehow ended up with three separate status lines on my screen -- but
hopefully Andrew will get things smoothed out over time.
Giancarlo Niccolai has released an English translation of his Italian
IF/RPG War Mage
which he discussed
at some length
in SPAG's last issue.
IF Competition 2008
big daddy of all the comps will of course be taking place again this
fall, ably administered as always by Stephen Granade. You
submit your intent to enter by September 1, and submit your completed
entry by September 30. The six-week judging period will begin
David Cornelson's commercial IF startup, has released its C#
implementation of the Glulx virtual machine as shared source.
FyreVM allows programmers to easily design a customized user
interface for IF in a way I don't entirely understand. Nor do
understand all this business about channels. If you are
or at least more persistent than me, however, you can even enter a
contest to design a customized interpreter using the FyreVM.
Entries must be submitted to David by the end of the year,
the top three will each win $200.
A. Lott will be running another edition of her competition for
introductions to proposed longer games. The intent to enter
deadline was July 20, but everyone can play the intros, score them, and
offer feedback to their authors beginning on August 20.
Jacqueline has also been hosting a weekly cooperative
playthrough of a work of IF on the IF MUD
Contact Jacqueline at jacqueline.a.lott SP@G gmail.com, or
drop by the IF MUD, for information about times, schedules of future
Page 6 Reviews
in the day, Garry Francis wrote a series of reviews of adventure games
for the Australian Atari magazine Page
. These reviews,
with the rest of the magazine's contents, have now been placed online.
Garry's reviews are surprisingly well-written and thoughtful
comparison with the general standards of the era, and well worth
perusing for a little dose of nostalgia.
Back to Table of
Blind Man's Take on Interactive Fiction
You are standing in a crowded bar. There
are many tables in front of you. On one is a can of beer and a
packet of crisps. Against the wall there is a pinball table. The bar
to your right, and there are men and women sitting at the counter on
description seems just like another
description of an interactive fiction game. This description also seems
everyday scene that any person can see when they walk into a bar… but
what makes interactive fiction so special to me: I am a blind person.
name is Ari, and I am a student from South Africa.
am writing this piece in praise of interactive fiction and text
As a blind person, there is just so much detail that I miss out on as I
go through life if it is not described to me, or if I don’t know that
something is there. I have been totally blind since birth, yet I have
artistic streak in me that really loves things, scenes, rooms and
described to me. I am also curious and interested in people -- their
lives, problems, challenges, what they do and why -- and I reckon that if I were able
to see, I would
have been one of those photographers who sees an ordinary scene or
room, but are
still so fascinated by it that they take a picture.
gaming opens worlds
for people. Interacting with characters and role-playing a career or
they do not have in the real world allows people to imagine themselves
certain situations, or challenges the person to make certain decisions.
is that aspect of gaming, along with the writing,
descriptions of scenes
and the possibility of interacting with characters that make
interactive fiction so special. As a
blind person, most mainstream role-playing games are unplayable.
fiction is then the bridge that allows me as a blind person, who also
like to participate in the joys of relaxing with a role-playing
to step into an imaginary world.
leaving aside the descriptive writing or
the imaginary world, I enjoy the challenge of sitting in front of my
a cold and rainy evening, trying to solve the wonderful puzzles! I love
one-room games, or games set in a house, which pose the challenge of
out of a room, or of examining a few rooms, trying to get out of, or
the mystery of that place. Examples would be Coming Out of the Closet,
Puzzle In Box,
King Arthur’s Night Out
I also enjoy games which are
set in the real world, and which are based on situations which are
occur in the real world, such as Stranded,
Gourmet or Gumshoe.
Because I’m unfortunately too much of a realist, I am not a fan of
contain fantasy or concepts which do not occur in our world, such as
magical creatures, or fantasy worlds, however, many blind people do
type of games.
How does a blind person play
fiction, and what is the state of accessibility for interactive
fiction? We as
blind people use screen reading programs, which read the text of a
screen back to us. Ideal for interactive fiction! As long as the
written well, there is no barrier that stops us from accessing games in
Windows environment. It is unfortunately quite disheartening, however,
to see that
many authors are incorporating and including graphics that are crucial
solving the plots of their games. An example of this would be the Quest
The Last Resort.
The description of this game seemed very delightful, coupled
with the fact that there were even sounds, but unfortunately the author
incorporated graphical clues which needed to be understood in order to
some puzzles, which was quite a blow for me.
trying to learn how to write in either
Alan or Adrift, so that, in the future, I will also be able to release
games as well. I think IF is a wonderful resource for
people to sketch situations and paint wonderful ideas. A blind person
learns to write IF will have a wonderful paint brush or camera!
the authors of Interactive Fiction, I
would like to say this: thanks for not letting the newer, flashier
gaming put you off from keeping the wonderful pastime of text-based IF
even though a single descriptive photo or picture does say more than
words, and it is easier and quicker to deduce details. Thanks for the
puzzles which carry on trying to twist and smash my brain, and, above
thanks for the brilliant descriptive writing which you use that opens
many worlds, scenarios, locations and events. Interactive
fiction has taught me not to just concentrate on the “larger”
description of things,
but has also trained me to take an interest in and ask people
about finer details when someone describes places or objects
to me, even in real
life. (Unfortunately that is probably irritating to the person doing
describing -- "Why on earth does Ari also want to know if there are
the walls, what they are of, and even the expressions of the people in
pictures! I’m getting sick of him asking me all these questions!") One
friends who does English literature, did once remark to me that she
enjoys describing things to me, as this gives her chances to use words
she hardly ever uses in real life, and it also helps her in writing,
has learnt to write in greater descriptive detail for her
the passion for IF!
free to email Ari at aridamoulakis SP@G gmail.com
with your comments.)
Back to Table of
of Wisdom: A Comparison of
Nate Cull's "Planner" and Aaron Reed's "Intelligent Hinting"
by Ron Newcomb
A comparison between a hinting system to a NPC goal-planner
may seem as fruitful as comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. But
these two extensions cover the identical ground of artificial
intelligence, the capacity of a computer to perform operations
analogous to human decision making. Both extensions are complex, but
that complexity lies in the AI itself, not in how our games use the
information. What is done with the result of that decision making is a
trivial difference: Hinting says the resultant action; Planner does it.
In this article we shall score these extensions against one another on
several features. But first, let's introduce our contestants.
Nate Cull's Reactive Agent Planner is a cross-platform AI
found on various versions of Inform and TADS. Not all ports of it were
necessarily done by Cull alone -- the original was heavily based on
academic papers from the Oz project, and the TADS3 port was done
entirely by Steve Breslin. Software with such a multi-author and
multi-platform history usually possess benefits of maturity, polish,
and reliability since the code base has been worked and re-worked many
times over. The Inform 7 port alone is two years old, nearly as old as
Inform 7 itself.
The new kid on the block, Aaron Reed's Intelligent Hinting,
was recently released in May of this year. Created to encourage
beginner-friendly works by promoting itself as author-friendly to use,
it underwent a brief online peer review before its release. Its youth
is not necessarily a disadvantage, however. Inform 7 is still in beta,
and since Planner's release Inform has added many new features which
Hinting uses to good effect.
Which is easier to use? Which is more powerful? How nimble is
each in fulfilling the other's role? And how do we decide between the
two, if we want both functionalities for the price of one? Let's find
--- Surface Issues ---
As each extension was conceived for a specific purpose, their
respective terminologies differ accordingly. But the concepts map onto
each other nearly one-to-one, and so their terms do as well. Planner
uses the apparently plain language of the Oz project with the point of
view being the character's: goals are achieved by one or more plans.
Hinting uses the language of game puzzles, so the point of view is the
author's -- puzzles are solved by one or more tasks.
Though either work, our deciding factor is in the details of
the code. Planner has a slew of hyphenated names for essential
rulebooks and objects, all of which begin with "planning-". While many
realms of computerdom demand naming conventions, they are out of place
in a naturalesque language where a name can be more than one word.
And so, our first point goes to Hinting.
Documentation and Examples
Reed went to some lengths to document Hinting, including a
handful of examples, and specifically shows how two known works would
be adorned with hints. He further separates all of the Hinting-specific
code from the game's code to emphasize exactly what must be done to
enhance an existing work. Again, if understanding leads to more
understanding, expanding upon two already-known works with a strict
division between the new and old code is a valuable aid.
Planner has a much longer history than Hinting, and has more
written about it over the course of that history. However, you wouldn't
know it by its Inform 7 documentation, which reads like a list of
caveats followed by a history lesson. This is a cardinal sin with
esoteric pieces of code such as AI, and doubly so as much documentation
exists for RAP on other platforms, including an amusing and very well
written Wonderland-themed introduction with earlier ports.
By all rights, Planner had the advantage here. It did not
exploit it. Point: Hinting.
Good authors will customize the output of any extension with
their own prose. How is this done with each, and how flexible is it?
Hinting uses a simple table of default responses which can be
amended via the kind-of-value in the first column. Planner uses a slew
of initially empty rulebooks which allows different characters to
describe a variety of situations. Planner's rulebook approach is far
more flexible than Hinting's table approach, but it has no default
responses. This can baffle authors new to Planner. Ultimately, each
extension uses the appropriate method for its own narrow task, and even
Hinting's method can be slightly expanded by calling rulebooks through
a say phrase.
The tie-breaker comes in the form of the character -- PC or
NPC -- who thinks out loud. Such noisy characters tend to exist in
half-completed works still undergoing testing. Though both extensions
have some debugging support, it is primarily intended for debugging the
extension itself, not the enclosing game, and we don't wish to confuse
the two. And while both extensions also use To phrases extensively,
Planner uses a pair of rulebooks -- "planning" and "planning-testing"
-- to recursively solve problems. Since To phrases cannot be modified
and rulebooks can, our babbling oracle can only be implemented in
Point: A tough call, as Planner lacks default replies while
Hinting lacks that last obscure ability. But Planner's issue is
essentially being a little too ready to accept customized prose, while
Hinting's issue is impossible to overcome. This point goes to Planner.
--- Encoding Desire ---
Representing a Desire
An AI must know what is wanted before it can reason out the
steps to get there. How does each extension represent this?
Planner requires a Goal to be stated as an
object-relation-object triad, such as the cat, the bag, and the
containment relation. But Planner immediately hits a limitation here:
relations cannot be put into tables, nor passed to To phrases, nor even
put into global variables. Planner circumvents this by creating a
stand-in object for every existing relation, called a
planning-relation, and uses these exclusively. This has two drawbacks.
First, it burdens authors with creating stand-ins for each of their new
relations. And second, for all Planner talks of them, it doesn't
actually use relations itself. This is misleading, and is one of the
larger barriers to learning Planner.
Hinting too uses objects connected by a relation, but the
relation is always the same, the Requires relation. Instead, it is the
objects that have stand-ins. These objects, called Puzzles, must also
be created by the author. Like planning-relations, Puzzle objects are
little more than a name that can be attached to things. In this case,
to Task objects and other puzzle objects.
Point: Neither. Although Hinting won the terminology award
here, a surfeit of vacuous objects is always an annoyance. Hinting
needs to shave down the number of concepts, while Planner needs to
rethink its implementation or at least how it is described.
Striving Toward a Desire
The core aspect of an AI is how to specify, step by step, how
to get to where it wants to be. How does each extension represent how
to do what needs be done? Both Planner and Hinting use a rulebook --
"planning" and "requirements", respectively -- that enumerate the
necessary actions to accomplish the given desire:
Planning when the desired relation is being-in and the desired param1
is broth and the desired param2 is the pot:
suggest being-in with the onion and the pot;
suggest being-in with the celery and the pot;
Requirements for Slaying-The-Gorgon:
do the action of the person asked closing eyes;
do the action of the person asked showing the mirror to Medusa.
Both seem straightforward: given a simple desire, list the
steps to finish it. However, there's something else going on here with
Hinting. The requirements rulebook never takes a Puzzle as its input;
it takes an intermediate kind of object, the Task. Tasks are the real
workhorse of Hinting. They remember the individual steps to accomplish
something, they can be marked as complete or incomplete using the
Definition syntax exactly as Puzzles are. Indeed, they can do nearly
anything Puzzles can, which leads one to ask -- why the extra object
Additionally, the requirements rulebook is only ran when play
begins. If some actions are conditional on time (such as a Scene) or
state (such as Darkness), the if statement can't be placed on the do
phrase like it can on Planner's suggest phrase. Hinting states it must
go into yet another place, the Red Flag rulebook. This introduces
another extraneous concept to Hinting which Planner does not have, and
AI is complicated enough.
Evaluating a Desire
How does a work know when the desire is attained? Are we there
yet? Are we there yet? This is a question that a work must ask itself
from time to time, and many different Inform features can be used to
implement it. At its simplest, any condition that fits between if and
then will do the job, but Inform doesn't support conditions as
stand-alone entities. So, Planner uses a rule in the planning-testing
rulebook, predicated on the two objects and the relation stand-in, and
the body of the rule has the if-then statement. Hinting precedes that
same if-then statement with an adjective definition, "Definition: the
(specific Puzzle object) is complete if...".
Point: Hinting, hands down. Less is more here: Hinting's
definition method requires less author typing, less computer memory,
and less of the player's time to execute, and furthermore does so with
no loss in flexibility.
--- Flexibility ---
Eating the other's lunch
Once a particular action is found to be necessary by an AI,
how easily does it pass to the enclosing game the option of what to do
with that action? In other words, how easy is it to make Planner hint
and Hinting plan?
Planner was created before Inform supported Stored Actions,
so, much like relations, actions have stand-in objects, of kind
"planning-action". When Planner has finally found the best next action,
it gives that stand-in to the "planning-acting" rulebook, which
contains the actual Try statements. Given this setup, it's relatively
easy to create a First Planning-action Rule that speaks rather than
Hinting uses Stored Actions, so merely prints or invokes one
as necessary. Unfortunately, a stored action cannot be edited; we
cannot change the actor part of a stored action to someone else, and
Hinting internally describes actions with "the action of" instead of
"the action of the person asked", so there's rigidity here that cannot
be easily overcome.
Point: Planner. Planner's generalized method works though it
is unnecesarily complicated -- many other things would work better as
an action stand-in than more oddly-named objects, and some of them are
easier to update as we create new actions. Hinting's method is rigid to
the point of disallowing games with multiple PCs, or utilizing new
actions in its reasoning at all.
There comes a time in every AI's problem domain when it just
can't find an answer. A new author isn't experienced enough with coding
to tie up all the loose ends; a PC or NPC has been put into an
unwinnable state either purposefully or accidentally; and not even a
hint system knows everything while a work is still being written and
tested. How well does each extension handle failure, either during
testing or during an actual game?
Planner makes an art of it, dividing failure into two kinds:
one when the only conceivable actions are blocked by Check rules
(planning-acting-failure), and one in which no actions can even be
conceived by the AI (planning-failure), possibly indicating a hole in
By contrast, Hinting's position on unintended stuckness can be
summed up in a word: Inconceivable! Consequently, when presented with
such a situation during a game, it falls over dead. While we can change
Hinting's last words, there's very little in the way of leftover
variables or other information for a postmortem to diagnose what
happened. Attempting to construct the hints and a game simutaneously
will quickly send the author to the routines used for debugging the
Dealing with mis-information, NPC ignorance, and unreliable
narrators is not a trivial matter, and neither extension attempts it.
Arguably, Hinting may make the claim that, being a voice from outside
the world, should not deal with this problem. However, in a game with
multiple PCs, they may differ in their knowledge and abilities, so
Hinting would need to tailor hints to each PC's abilities. Related to
this, an author may decide that hints come instead from a semi-reliable
sidekick who only knows so much. Hinting has no provision for either.
Similarly, Planner has no provision for an NPC's imperfect
knowledge. This is more grevious in Planner than Hinting, though
Planner's rulebook-based approach makes this easier to add such
While both extensions may be modified to add this ability, it
is not obvious where to do so, and neither documents how to begin such
--- And Finally ---
Ease of use
Let's assume we're already familiar with a given extension
from our recent heartbreaking work of staggering genius. How quickly
can we throw something new together? That depends largely on what we're
trying to do of course, but we already addressed flexibility. And
terminology and documentation won't be a problem (or benefit) because
we're already accustomed to our chosen extension. Rather, this point
goes to whichever extension does its own job with the least amount of
Planner has no default messages, and even its basic
functionality is extracted to another file, Basic Plans. Furthermore,
it requires a great deal more typing for most everything. Conversely,
Hinting already knows one goal our character has -- winning the game. A
few names, a few relations connecting them to Winning, and we are good
--- Conclusions ---
First, let's tally our scores.
To Hinting, four points: Terminology, Docs & Examples,
Evaluating a Desire, and Ease of Use.
To Planner, four points: Narrative Hooks, Striving Toward a
Desire, Eating the Other's Lunch, and Accidental Ignorance.
And two unawarded points: Representing a Desire and
The overall results probably won't surprise anyone who has
tried to use each. Intelligent Hinting is more polished and
ready-to-use, albeit only for those specific kinds of works that fit
its mold. Planner is far more flexible and powerful, but has a serious
image problem. Planner can easily implement Hinting if it chooses to,
but Hinting can't quite say the same.
If the heart of AI is to represent, attain, and evaluate
fulfillment of a particular desire, it's an interesting observation
that neither extension came away a winner here. This is not a knock
against their respective authors. Software that can introspect asks a
lot from the programming language in which it is written, and much like
a wire cheese slicer will expand the faint line it leaves in a block of
cheddar, into a chasm long after it has passed, a language's small
exclusion grows into colonies of stand-in objects, work-arounds, and
other hyphenated words. The rewards are promising, if distant and hard
to see: hint systems that track and assist hapless players, easier
creation of new implicit actions, auto-created lists of a game's
required commands, and NPCs whose believability improves through the
player's agency, not in spite of it.
All it requires is a little work, and a little wisdom.
extension has at least one example that comes with its documentation.
Below, each of those examples has a little code added so that the given
extension can work both as a hinting mechanism and as an NPC
goal-planner. These were constructed with build 5T18 of Inform 7, and
use the May 2008 version of both extensions. Hinting was slightly
modified per the comments in its example.
We may copy and paste from below into a new Inform project to
immediately compile and run.
"Alchemy" by Nate
1 - The Game
The Laboratory is a room. "A chaos of glassware, dark sigils,
spellcasting apparatus sprawled in disgusting confusion -- in other
words, a perfectly normal research lab, with a cupboard full of food. A
stone archway leads east and another south." The Library
is east of the Laboratory. "The stony
walls are racked with square miles of parchment volumes."
The Alcove is south of the Laboratory. "A
tiny niche carved out of the stone, which opens out to the north."
A rosewood bench is a
supporter in the laboratory. "A
rosewood bench, scarred and burned by years of incantations, fills half
of the room." An iron crucible is an open container on the
rosewood bench. "Bob's crucible
bubbles merrily on the bench." A curiously carved table is
a supporter in the Library. A cupboard is a closed openable scenery
container in the laboratory. A plastic bag is a closed transparent
portable openable container on the carved table. A Chinese puzzle box
is a locked lockable closed openable portable container in the plastic
bag. A pinch of ginger is a portable edible thing in the puzzle box. A
wicker basket is an open container in the cupboard. An onion, a tomato,
a stick of celery, a lemon, and a banana are edible things in the
wicker basket. Broth is an edible thing. A brass hook is a supporter in
the Alcove. "Screwed into the
stonework with grim determination is a shiny brass hook."
The brass hook has carrying capacity 1. A silver key is on the brass
hook. The matching key of the Chinese puzzle box is the silver key.
Every turn when the onion,
celery, banana, and ginger are in the crucible: repeat with item
running through things in the crucible begin; remove item from play;
end repeat; now broth is in the crucible.
Every turn when broth is in
the crucible: if the crucible is visible, say "The
soup simmers, melding into a rich pungent vegetable broth.";
end the game saying "Soup's ready!".
Bob is a person in the
laboratory. "The mighty wizard Bob
potters around his domain." The description of Bob is "Bob is carrying [a
list of things carried by bob]."
Report Bob opening the
cupboard for the first time: say "'Aslan
sesameslan!' says Bob, flinging the cupboard doors wide open to reveal [a list of things in the cupboard].";
stop the action.
2 - add PC stuff
Persuasion rule: persuasion
succeeds. The block giving rule is not listed in any rulebook.
Definition: a person is
other if it is not the person asked.
After an actor going: let
follower be a random other person; say "[The follower] follow[s] [the
actor]."; move the follower to the location
of the actor; continue the action.
3 - Supplemental Intelligence
Test me with "hint/solve/solve /solve/solve/solve/solve
solve/solve/solve/solve /solve/solve/solve/solve/ solve/
Test him with "bob, think/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob,
solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob,
solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob, solve/bob,
solve/bob, solve/bob, solve".
Include Planner by Nate
Cull, Basic Plans by Nate Cull.
1 - Make Planner plan
Procedural rule when the
desired relation is being-in and the desired param1 is broth and the
desired param2 is the crucible: ignore the basic putting things in
Planning when the desired
relation is being-in and the desired param1 is broth and the desired
param2 is the crucible: plan 1; suggest being-in with the onion and the
crucible; suggest being-in with the celery and the crucible; suggest
being-in with the banana and the crucible; suggest being-in with the
ginger and the crucible.
Procedural rule when the
desired relation is being-in and the desired param1 is a person: ignore
the basic dropping objects in rooms rule.
Planning-failure: say "Bob scratches his beard and looks perplexed.".
Planning-success: end the
game saying "All done!".
1b - Make Planner plan using a new action
Doing-asking-for is a
Planning-acting when the
planned action is doing-asking-for: try the planning actor trying
asking the planned param1 for the planned param2.
Planning rule when the
desired relation is being-touchable-by and the desired param2 is the
planning actor and a person (called the owner) encloses the desired
param1: plan 1; suggest being-touchable-by with the owner and the
planning actor; suggest doing-asking-for with the owner and the desired
Instead of Bob asking the
player for something: say "'I say, old
chap,' says Bob. 'Do be a sport and hand me that [second noun].'";
change the action success flag to 1.
2 - Make Planner hint
The new successful-action
rule is listed instead of the successful-action rule in the specific
action-processing rules. This is the new successful-action rule: change
the action success flag to 1.
First planning-acting when
an actor suggesting: change the action success flag to 1 instead.
Understand "solve" as solving. Solving is an
action applying to nothing. Carry out an actor solving: have the actor
plan an action for being-in with broth and the crucible.
Understand the command "think" as something new.
Understand "suggest" or "hint"
or "think" as suggesting.
Suggesting is an action applying to nothing. Carry out an actor
suggesting: have the actor plan an action for being-in with broth and
the crucible; say "[The planning actor] should try
[the planned action][unless planned param1 is no-object]
[the planned param1][end if][unless
planned param2 is no-object] with [the
planned param2][end if].".
3 - Print the planned actions nicely (optional)
A planning-action has some
text called the printed name. The printed name of doing-opening is "opening". The printed name of
doing-taking is "taking".
The printed name of doing-putting-in is "putting".
The printed name of doing-going is "going".
The printed name of doing-unlocking-with is "unlocking".
The printed name of doing-asking-for is "asking".
Darkness" by Aaron Reed
1 - The Game
Foyer of the Opera House is
a room. "You are standing in a
spacious hall, splendidly decorated in red and gold, with glittering
chandeliers overhead. The entrance from the street is to the north, and
there are doorways south and west." Instead of an actor
going north in the Foyer, say "You've
only just arrived, and besides, the weather outside seems to be getting
The Cloakroom is west of
the Foyer. "The walls of this small
room were clearly once lined with hooks, though now only one remains.
The exit is a door to the east." In the Cloakroom is a
supporter called the small brass hook. The hook is scenery. Understand "peg" as the hook. The description
of the hook is "It's just a small
brass hook, [if something is on the
hook]with [a list of
things on the hook]hanging on it[otherwise]screwed
to the wall[end if]."
Understand "hang [something preferably held] on [something]" as
putting it on.
The Bar is south of the
Foyer. The printed name of the bar is "Foyer
Bar". The Bar is dark. "The
bar, much rougher than you'd have guessed after the opulence of the
foyer to the north, is completely empty. There seems to be some sort of
message scrawled in the sawdust on the floor."
The scrawled message is
scenery in the Bar. Understand "floor"
or "sawdust" as the
message. Neatness is a kind of value. The neatnesses are neat, scuffed,
and trampled. The message has a neatness. The message is neat.
Instead of an actor
examining the message: say "The
message, neatly marked in the sawdust, reads..."; end the
game in victory. Instead of an actor examining the trampled message:
say "The message has been carelessly
trampled, making it difficult to read. You can just distinguish the
words..."; end the game saying "You
Instead of an actor doing
something other than looking, going or solving in the bar when in
darkness: if the message is not trampled, change the neatness of the
message to the neatness after the neatness of the message; say "In the dark? You could easily disturb
Instead of an actor going
nowhere from the bar when in darkness: now the message is trampled; say
"Blundering around in the dark
isn't a good idea!"
The player wears a black
velvet cloak. The cloak can be hung or unhung. The description of the
cloak is "A handsome cloak, of velvet
trimmed with satin, and slightly splattered with raindrops. Its
blackness is so deep that it almost seems to suck light from the room."
Instead of an actor dropping or putting the cloak on when the player is
not in the cloakroom: say "This isn't
the best place to leave a smart cloak lying around."
Carry out an actor taking
the cloak: now the bar is dark. Carry out an actor putting the unhung
cloak on something in the cloakroom: now the cloak is hung. Carry out
an actor putting the cloak on something in the cloakroom: now the bar
is lit. Carry out an actor dropping the cloak in the cloakroom: now the
bar is lit.
When play begins: say "[paragraph
break]Hurrying through the rainswept November night,
you're glad to see the bright lights of the Opera House. It's
surprising that there aren't more people about but, hey, what do you
expect in a cheap demo game...?"
2 - add an NPC
Bob is a man in the Foyer.
Persuasion rule: persuasion succeeds.
After someone going: say "You follow him."; move the player
to the location of Bob.
After deciding the scope of
the player when in darkness: place Bob in scope [because
he can still hear you].
3 - Supplemental Intelligence
Test me with " solve / solve / solve / solve / solve / solve
/ solve ".
Test him with " bob, think / bob, solve / bob, solve / bob,
solve / bob, solve / bob, solve / bob, solve / bob, solve ".
Include Intelligent Hinting
by Aaron Reed.
1 - Make Hinting hint
Noticing-The-Dark-Room, Hanging-The-Cloak, and Reading-The-Message.
Noticing-The-Dark-Room is a
task with venue The Bar. Definition: Noticing-The-Dark-Room is
complete: if location is The Bar or The Bar is visited, yes.
Hanging-The-Cloak is a
reversible task. The venue is Cloakroom. Requirements for
Hanging-The-Cloak: do the action of putting the cloak on the hook.
Definition: Hanging-The-Cloak is complete: if cloak is hung, yes; no.
Reading-The-Message is a
task with venue The Bar. Requirements for Reading-The-Message: do the
action of examining the scrawled message.
2 - Make Hinting plan
Because Inform doesn't understand "change the actor part of the
relevant action to Bob", we have modified the extension, a simple
search-and-replace of all instances of "the action of" with "the action
of the person asked" ]
Carry out someone solving:
now relevant action is the suggested action; unless relevant action is
the action of the person asked fake-actioning, process appropriate
action, actually performing;
Instead of someone
thinking: say "Bob considers [the suggested action].";
Back to Table of Contents
An Interview with Mike Rubin
(conducted by Urbatain)
Mike Rubin, better
known online as Rubes, is currently at work adapting Jason Devlin's
2005 Comp-winning effort Vespers
into a real-time 3D environment using the Torque
from Garage Games. As an attempt to wed the storytelling
sophistication of textual IF with the immersive immediacy of graphical
3D worlds, it's both an interesting experiment and a noble attempt to
use FPS technology in the service of a non-simplistic story.
Urbatain of the Spanish IF community and SPAG's sister
publication SPAC conducted the following in-depth interview with Rubes
about Vespers 3D
and the difficulties and potentials for an adaptation of this nature.
has a somewhat, shall we say, idiosyncratic style of English, and I've
had to heavily edit his questions to make them read more naturally.
My apologies to him if I've overstepped my editorial license
For a start, I would like to know a little more about you. As
I've told you in private, I'm really excited about your project, and
something that struck me positively is that it is not
just theoretical vaporware. You have
considerable progress: there are marvelous screenshots on the
net, there are videos, and you have laid out in detail your design
concept and your plans for modeling Vesper's world. Many of your
labours are already done. So tell us a little bit of yourself
your history with interactive fiction, and tell us whether you
have worked on any IF projects before.
Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say my labours are done; we probably
have only about 20% of the game done so far, but I understand what you
mean and it's nice of you to say that. I've played IF for a long time,
although I haven't played a huge number of games. I remember playing
the original Colossal
on my dad's computer, sometime back in the 1970s,
although I couldn't
tell you which specific version it was. I was probably only about 8 or
9 years old at the time. I remember we had it on a 5.25" floppy, and I
would get excited whenever I typed a command that caused the disk drive
to start spinning -- it meant I had found something new and something
good was about to happen. From there I moved on to mostly Scott Adams
games, like Adventureland
and Pirate Adventure
I loved those games.
Like many others, I moved on to Infocom games and had a great time with
those. I remember Deadline
the best, but there were so many good ones. I didn't really play many
graphical adventure games after that. I tried a few, but none really
hooked me. I don't remember playing very many adventure games at all in
the '90s, but a few years ago I discovered rec.arts.int-fiction and
realized the IF community was alive and well. I've been following along
I've never written any IF myself, though. I think I can
write well, but I don't consider myself a very good creative writer.
I've thought about it, though. If I wasn't working on Vespers
, I think I
might have tried it by now.
Urbatain: Tell us about
your career as an indie developer.
Well, I didn't start from zero, but not far from that. I have created
only one other indie game, a shareware game for the Mac back in the
mid-1990's called Missions
of the Reliant
As a kid, I had learned programming and wanted to make a game so badly,
but like most kids I had no idea what I was doing and never
accomplished anything. But in the early '90s, with some extra time on
my hands, I decided to get serious about it. Well, not too serious,
considering I was a lazy graduate student at the time. And I still had
no idea what I was doing, but at least I got somewhere with
was a 2D sprite-based game, inspired by the old ASCII Star Trek
where you warped from sector to sector on a grid wiping out Klingons
with photon torpedoes and phasers. I made it basically alone, and I
think it did fairly well for a shareware game back then. It was
nominated for MacUser magazine's "Best Mac shareware game" of 1994, I
believe, and came in second place (damn you, Andrew Welch!).
was a fun experience, but as I moved on in life I found I had little
time or enthusiasm for more game development. Then, a couple of years
ago, I got the itch again, so I started looking into it. But that's
really all there is to my history of being an indie developer -- one
little space game some twelve or thirteen years ago.
almost impossible to make a quality graphical game without a
whole team of people. Vespers
is no exception. So tell us something about your indie company. How it
it organized? Do you have an office or do the members just stay in
contact through the net?
You're right, there's really no way to make a 3D game like this without
a lot of help. We're still a pretty small group, though. The company's
name is Orange River Studio, which is something of a tribute
the slot canyons of Utah (where I live) and the room from the original Colossal Cave
Right now, the group consists of me, Jason Devlin (Vespers
author), one 3D modeller (N.R. Bharathae), two character animators
(James Allan and Marc Schwegler), and a composer (Daniel Godsil),
although some of those people work independently from the company. This
project really started as a hobby more than anything, so we're still in
the process of evolving from a hobby project to something more
organized. We're scattered all over North America (and Switzerland), so
there's no single office. We're all working out of our homes, as far as
I know, and I think most of us have day jobs and do this work at night
and on weekends.
Urbatain: When did you
first decide to develop a "graphical IF" game?
Well, as I mentioned a couple of years ago I got the itch again to make
a game. I really didn't anticipate being able to make a 3D game,
though, since I had no interest in the complexity of those engines and
the steep art requirements, but I somehow stumbled across the Torque
Game Engine from GarageGames and suddenly it seemed like a 3D game was
a possibility. There were still huge hurdles to overcome with respect
to content generation, but after some consideration I thought I would
give it a shot.
The easy part was deciding to make a game; the
hard part was deciding what game to make. I don't remember exactly how
it came to me, but sometime early in the process I decided to try and
merge IF with a 3D engine. I thought it would be something that nobody
had really tried before, and it might be a way to combine the best
parts of both worlds, to make an adventure game that was more
interactive and immersive. It seemed silly at first to try and merge
text with advanced 3D graphics, and some days it still seems pretty
silly. But I know that text offers something that AAA FPS games don't
have, and vice-versa. So I thought I would give it a try with a small
"experiment" -- a game that is shorter and more contained. That's why I
initially looked to the IF Comps for possible games to implement.
I'm quite interested in the idea of implementing the same kind of deep
model world interactivity that we see in Inform or TADS in a graphical
game, no matter the interface: point and click, icons, FPS, I don't
mind. I only know that I want to do it, someday...
and then I
find you, developing the same idea and using as your source a game that
is hardly the first candidate one would think of for such an
adaptation. So... why Vespers? It just seems like such a difficult
title to adapt into a 3D environment.
I didn't want to start completely from scratch with this experiment, so
as mentioned I first looked to the IF Comps for a good game to base
this upon. By starting with a completed IF game, much of the difficult
and important ground work would be done, and I could start with a game
that already had good writing, strong characters, and a developed plot
-- something a lot of big-time games don't have. And it's not all that
different from a movie producer looking to base his next project on a
successful book, I suppose.
After playing through a number of IF Comp games from different years, I
found that I enjoyed Vespers
a great deal and realized that it would make a really interesting
graphical game. Some of the things I liked about Vespers
were that it was a short game, it was relatively well contained with
not many rooms or objects, and it had some decent puzzles, so it
wouldn't be a stretch to implement the whole thing. I also loved the
setting and the atmosphere of the game, as well as the characters,
dialog, and story. I thought it worked really well in text, but I also
thought it presented a great opportunity for translating into a
graphical game. I just got the sense that I would enjoy exploring that
world in 3D, and that it would work in that type of medium.
definitely has its challenges, though. The game is heavy on dialog, so
that means the characters have to be modeled, animated, and voice-acted
really well or it will come across as too artificial. There are also a
few scenes in the game that will be difficult to put together, like the
avalanche scene, the scene in the cellar, and the final ending scene.
But I think we'll be able to come up with some satisfying solutions for
those. I hope we will.
I would have expected you to choose a very different sort of IF game.
Many classic IF games are of course just detailed environments where
time is more or less static. But a modern game like Vespers is a much
more ambitious exercise in storytelling. It seems
difficult to adapt into a graphical game. Did you consider
starting with an older, simpler game, with no real character
interaction, no branches in the story, no real need for the player to
direct the plot, or even much of a plot at all? In other words, a
typical old-school cave crawl.
Rubes: Now you tell me! ;)
this is probably true, and if I had thought about it more at the
beginning, I might have started with an abbreviated implementation of Colossal Cave
or something similar. Then again, realistic caves can be a bit
difficult to convincingly model in 3D, so maybe not. When I started
out, my main concern was trying to find an IF game that was brief (to
keep the scope of the project down) and feasible (to limit the
implementation challenges). Vespers
present some feasibility problems -- how to implement the long ride to
the stream, the avalanche, the scene with the wolves, and so on -- but
we'll have some solutions for those issues. What I find most
interesting about those challenges is that they get to the very heart
of the differences between turn-based IF and real-time 3D, and I'm
hoping it will generate a lot of discussion about the alternative ways
of approaching these problems.
I have two games in mind that I think might be good choices to convert
into graphical games. There is a Spanish game, El Anillo (The Ring),
in which the player is a ring that only can do a few things: examine,
look, shine, increase or decrease its size, and talk with the person
wearing it. This might be quite easy to implement -- at least
the first part; in the second part, the ring controls a
retarded hunchback, so it's more like a typical IF game -- in a
graphical game. I would implement it like the flash game
(Google it and play it! It's worth the time). Another one might be
Spider and Web. In fact, I mentioned
this possibility to
Zarf, but he was pessimistic about how well it would work well as an
"arcade" game. So this get me to Vespers 3D. How did you finally decide
on the the interface and model world as it is now? And have
considered other approaches toward implementing a decent IF model world
Rubes: That's a good
question. One of the main challenges to implementing an IF game in
real-time 3D is that IF is traditionally turn-based; activity only
takes place between command prompts, and players have as much time as
they want to ponder the next action. Of course, in a real-time game
there is generally more pressure on players to think and type fast, but
that's not the game I want to create. So I've tried to design the
system and the interface to be this hybrid of real-time and turn-based
A turn-based game is really just a game that waits for
player input before advancing the action a certain amount, and this
game is not really any different -- even though it gives the appearance
of taking place in real time. Things are happening around the player
all the time, but really these are just idle activities, and most just
play continuously or randomly until the player performs some type of
meaningful action to interrupt them. It's really not much different
than a turn-based game, at least the way I'm implementing it.
I'm doing is really a direct translation of a turn-based text game,
making (animated) graphical representations of objects and characters
that are defined much as they are in the original Inform code. Because
of that, our world model is very close to what it is in IF, just with
models, animations, and more salient spatial relationships. But since
that's the approach I've taken, I'm also not exactly pushing the
boundaries of the medium, so to speak. There is a lot more that could
be done, but I'm really just using this experiment to see what this
model is capable of, before testing its limits with a future project.
The real challenges will come in scenes that contain continuous
activity, like the avalanche and cellar scenes from Vespers
It's a challenge to create those in a turn-based text game, of course,
but there is never any deviation from strict, discrete turn-based play.
Once you get into the realm of animated 3D, even if it's
pseudo-real-time, you run into problems waiting for the player to take
action. There are certain things we can do, but it takes a lot of
creative thinking to work out those scenes.
This is an interesting approach. However, there are examples
real-time textual IF, such as some MUDs or Skotos's Castle
and a friend of mine is making a system for MUDs and IF at the same
time (multiplayer IF is at hand at last! ;) how many times have we
heard this?) where actions take time to be done, so a player could see
another player start to pick a lock, then see him picking the lock, and
finally see him finish picking the lock. How do you control the passage
of time in actions like this in your game?
Rubes: I haven't reached any of those situations in the game yet, but I
will soon. There are a few of those in Vespers
like the ones mentioned above -- the avalanche scene, the scene with
the wolves, the scene in the cellar -- where actions take place over a
number of turns. I'm not exactly sure how the final system will work,
but I imagine it's going to be some sort of hybrid between turn-based
play and real-time play. For instance, the player will probably be
given a lot of time to think, but it won't be like a pure turn-based
game where time only advances once actions are taken.
Another game I have thought of porting to a graphical formal is one of
mine called El Extraño Caso de Randolph Dwight. It
experiment into alternatives to compass direction navigation.
Although there are rooms, the player must navigate with the
GO: "Go near the wardrobe and open it", "go through the door," etc.
This game also has a system whereby the player
character automatically goes near the object the player is
attempting to interact with. (Shade by Zarf also uses this approach
quite successful.) Here's an example:
You walk to the wardrobe and open it, revealing your clothes.
implemented this system because my testers protested about the "You are
too far away to do that..." message, and for certain actions this could
be a little odd and tiresome. But I've seen in your screenshots that in
Vespers 3D that sort of thing would be common. Why did you decide on
that approach -- or maybe you are still flexible about it?
I've tried to be flexible with this, although I have to draw the line
somewhere. I am very opposed to taking control of the player's avatar
and moving it around without consent -- it can be disturbing for
players, and it introduces a number of problems to deal with, such as
path finding. But because of that, for most player actions, I have to
perform a series of checks to see if the action is allowable. One of
those checks is for distance, and one way that I've tried to be
flexible is by allowing different maximum distances for different
actions. So for some general actions, like taking or opening, you can
be up to a fair distance away; for others, such as reading, you need to
be closer. It can lead to some frustration on the part of the player,
I'm sure, but I also don't want players to feel like it's okay to close
doors 30 feet away on the other side of the room.
Some of the
other checks are for things like line of sight and field of vision,
just to make sure the player isn't trying to perform an action on an
object that is behind him, for instance. But the goal of these checks
isn't to make the game hyper-realistic; there needs to be some
flexibility so players don't get overly frustrated. We'll see how it
goes once we have people test it out.
You have to be careful with things like this. For instance,
Dwight game, some actions were too dangerous to allow the player to
walk around automatically: a simple EXAMINE would launch them
certain death. I think there's no a perfect solution for this, but
there are things that can be done. For instance, an
EXAMINE that gives different information when near as opposed to far
away from the object. Think of the wolves scene in
Ok, you walk there and
pass near the circle of wolves, who happily make you their next meal.
Yes, I think for some actions like "examine" you can implement
different responses based on the player's distance from the target,
although that introduces more content requirement. But most verbs,
unfortunately, don't conform to that structure.
To speak of what an IF game offers that graphical games lose
completely, at least graphical adventures: I think it is the
eureka factor. You know, the pleasure of solving a puzzle or
advancing the plot, or even better, of changing the outcome of
story through our choices. I think this factor is only possible because
of the natural language interface. In graphical games your possible
actions are all listed for you, so the pleasure of solving a puzzle is
not as complete as in an IF game. So I think your game will show the
world the real potential of a parser to increase the player's sense of
actually disagree with that, but I think you're close. There is very
much a "eureka" factor in graphical adventure games when you solve
puzzles, although the quality of that experience might be
different than in an IF game. I think the "eureka" factor is one of the
main appeals of the adventure genre overall, graphical or text, since
puzzle solving is so integral to game design and play.
input is, of course, one of the more unique features of this project.
So I think the real question, then, is why? Why use a text parser? What
does it add to the experience?
As you suggest, in graphical
games the actions are often simplified -- e.g., grouped together into
larger categories, like "use" or "interact" -- and typically fewer in
number. Some might argue that objects in adventure games often can only
have one or a few actions applied to them anyway, and that adventure
games in general need only a handful of verbs -- so why bother with a
large set of verbs that frequently don't work and only give standard,
I actually looked at this to some degree on
a cursory and highly unscientific manner, and it appears that there are
actually a large number of verbs used in three relatively well-known IF
games, as specified in their walkthroughs. Of course, some IF games use
more verbs than others, and some may use only a handful -- of course
it's highly game- and designer-dependent. But, I find it interesting
that it's not uncommon to see adventure games that use 50, 60, or more
different verbs or actions. That's a lot of options, and I'm not really
sure how you would create an efficient interface for all of those in a
Then there is also the difference between a
concealed system, as with a text parser, and a fully disclosed system,
such as you see in most graphical adventure games. That is, in a fully
disclosed system, the player knows ahead of time the entire set of
possible actions in the game, since the options (verbs) are presented
in some sort of visual menu. I believe what you are getting at with
your comment above is that, with a system like this, you sometimes
don't get that same sense of discovery you might experience in the
absence of a complete list of all options. With a concealed system --
like a text parser, which doesn't (typically) disclose a list of all
possible verbs -- you can get a deeper and more engaged participation
in the game world, and you can utilize certain special actions to great
advantage. There are some wonderful experiences in IF that simply would
not work if all possible actions were given up front, and the parser is
better suited for
creative situations like these.
benefits and detriments, of course -- the most obvious detriment being
that players can get frustrated trying to find or express the precise
action that the game requires for a particular situation. But in many
cases determining (and expressing) how to use an item or perform an
action can be a puzzle in itself. For this to work well, though,
authors need to do a thorough job of (1) designing fair, clever
puzzles, (2) giving the player an intuitive feel for what is possible
and what is not, and (3) testing the game to make sure it accounts for
alternative ways of expressing the same action. Without that, the game
can come across as needlessly complicated or difficult, with many
players blaming the parser itself.
Yes, I agree. Actually, I think we pretty much agree on all of this,
but English is not my first language, and so I did not perhaps express
myself properly. But yes, of course you can have a eureka
in a graphical adventure, but I think that solving a puzzle is more
satisfying in textual IF because of that concealment of the interface
you talked about. Puzzle solving in an IF game just feels
natural to the human mind, because your mind thinks about a solution,
and your mind express that solution in the manner to which it is
naturally atuned: natural language. You type down the posible
solution and the game answer properly (or not).
I think you'll probably find a lot of people who do not necessarily
agree with that, and my sense is that it's probably just a matter of
preference. Some people find a simplified, point-and-click interface to
be easier and more natural, particularly given the typical computer
interface. I think one of the attractions of a text parser is that it
allows players to more naturally express the desired action -- typing
TAKE, DROP, PUSH, or OPEN is more explicit and expressive than moving
or clicking a mouse, so for some people (myself included) it is a more
comfortable way of doing things. But I would say the popularity of
point-and-click adventure games would argue, at least to some degree,
that that type of interface is preferred by many people.
I would say, however, that many complaints that people raise about IF
are implementation rather than systemic problems. The guess the verb
syndrome in particular arises from authors not fully considering ways
that their players might choose to phrase a command, and of course from
inadequete testing. I have read your analysis of verbs in IF
you just mentioned, and because you are duplicating the model world of
Inform, when it comes to mouse shortcuts for lazy players... what kind
of apporach will you take with that? Will it be possible to complete
the game using only the mouse? When the player right-clicks on an
object, will he see the whole set of available verbs, or only the most
Rubes: I was hoping
to create a game that could be played entirely from the keyboard, but
not necessarily the mouse. One of the features of the text parser that
I like is that there is a sense of incomplete disclosure; that is, the
player does not know all of the commands allowed in the game, and part
of the puzzle is figuring that out. With mouse-based point-and-click
games, you need to have full disclosure, and to me that eliminates one
of the challenges of the adventure game genre. This is particularly
true for "special" verbs and things like magic words, where the
designer may not want the player to know certain words or verbs exist
until they are discovered. So there are certain things that I don't
want the mouse to be able to do.
Right now you can do almost
everything with the keyboard. The only things you can't do are to
rotate left or right (only strafing is currently supported), or look up
or down. You can't select objects, either, but you don't have to -- you
can just refer to objects by their name. The game can certainly be
played and finished with only the keyboard, but it probably wouldn't be
an ideal experience. Adding the ability to turn and look up and down
with the keyboard is not difficult, but I'm not sure how many people
are really comfortable doing it that way. That's something that we'll
probably look at once we get to testing.
The mouse is more
restrictive. The cursor is used to select objects by clicking the left
mouse button, which highlights the object. The right mouse button is
used to perform an action based on whatever verb the button is
currently set to. Right now the set of possible verbs is restricted to
four common actions (TAKE, LOOK, EXAMINE, and INVENTORY), and you pick
the one you want by rotating the mouse wheel (if your mouse has one).
You can also pick the verb for the right button by typing the command
SET RIGHT BUTTON TO <VERB>. For the verbs that require an
(TAKE and EXAMINE), the game will automatically assume any selected
object is the target of the action. So for instance, let's say the
right mouse button is currently set to EXAMINE, and the player clicks
on a table to select it. Clicking the right button will generate the
command EXAMINE TABLE and send that to the parser, where it will be
interpreted and executed.
Also, if either mouse button is
clicked and dragged, it will pan the camera for looking around. Holding
both buttons down simultaneously will make the player move forward. So
there is some functionality to the mouse, but you'll still need the
keyboard to play. For the most part, keeping one hand on the mouse and
one on the keyboard should work well, without much interruption.
Of course, most of this is not set in stone, and we can (and likely
will) make changes to it as needed once we get to testing.
Speaking of interfaces, the premise I've talked about just one question
before, I once thought (as did a lot of adventure-game visionaries)
that the natural evolution of IF was going to be toward 3D and
virtual reality games, toward graphical model worlds with deep
interactivity and simulation. However, as the videogame
evolved it rather chased anther kind of vision, one of beautiful high
definition environments with poor world modeling and less
interactivity. Vespers 3D, I think, could take us back to the original
visions of 3D gaming.
to speak again about the eureka factor: you are right, I think
3D games with controls that simulate a model world and have an
element of simulation, albeit simplistic simulation, such as
Quake for instance, you could have that Eureka!
see the enemy, your mind calculates movement, trajectory and timing,
you launch the missile and its flight is simulated
by computational simulation, and... Eureka! Frag! Another
in Clive Barker'sUndying there was a puzzle where an unlit fireplace
was waiting for you to cast the Fire spell upon it. You
just click on the fireplace and select "burn", as you might in a
graphical adventure, but rather had to experiment by casting different
spells until you found the right one.
I can imagine that the
best evolution for 3D-IF would be a parser controlled by natural
speech, with a microphone.
Well, I agree it would be fascinating to see a game controlled by
natural language entered with a microphone, but I think it will still
be some time before we see it. As for the evolution of world models in
general, I think we are moving towards more advanced systems that allow
for creative experimentation and puzzle-solving, and it will be
interesting to see where developers take it. Vespers
however, is really not very advanced in this respect -- it's world
model is really just a straight graphical representation of the IF
world model that Jason created in Inform 6. There are, perhaps, more
options for interaction than you might find in a typical first-person
3D game, but it is designed to work very much like the world model in
IF, to the extent that it can.
That's actually one of the
ultimate goals of this project: to create a 3D world model that
implements the IF world model as closely as possible, so that players
and designers can see how IF might directly translate into 3D. But to
me, that essentially represents just the first step; from there, I'm
hoping people will look at this and begin to think about how we could
begin to explore the medium, to take greater advantage of the things 3D
offers, to make a game that is more than just a direct representation
of an IF world model.
But as I recall the Vespers model world was built with Platypus, so its
level of simulation is quite a bit deeper than that of a game built
with the standard library!
you observe the complex world-modelling in commercial games
planning Vespers 3D? For example I have in mind the Thief series,
especially some of the fan-made missions. Some have managed to tell
quite sophisticated stories within an FPS environment.
I have played a number of commercial games, although as a Mac user I
haven't had as much access to popular PC games as I would have liked.
One of the games I enjoyed the most is Deus Ex
which I thought did a nice job of following a simple but entertaining
storyline and providing nice visuals, atmosphere, and environment.
Still, it was more shooter than adventure, which is not what I'm
looking to create. Not long ago I purchased a Mac Intel laptop and
installed Windows XP using Boot Camp, so one of the things I've been
doing lately is going back to try some of the popular adventure games I
missed, mostly to experience them and study their world models and
interfaces. For instance, I've been playing Dreamfall recently and,
although I'm enjoying it, I'm finding the interface to be a real
should take a look at some commercial action games. Let me
some with particularly complex 3D
Ex of course, the Thief series (if you get a copy of Thief 2 you can
get years and years of out of it with its tons of fan-made missions),
Thief: Deadly Shadows of course, System Shock 2, Half Life 2, Portal,
Bioshock. It's curious: all of my favorites are products of
same group of people, disciples of the same philosophy about
games inherited from Looking Glass Studios. I can't think of
indie game that takes this kind of approach. As for graphical adventure
games, they are mostly stuck in the past; well, maybe Real
would be worth looking at, as it allows the player to move about freely
in a 3D environment; and maybe Zork Grand Inquisitor, with
its magical system adapted from the Enchanter trilogy, albeit not with
quite the full complexity of Infocom's original.
I think some graphical adventures are stuck in the past, but there are
some really interesting games that have come out or are expected to
come out which to me seem very forward-thinking. The Penumbra games
come to mind. Those focus a great deal on storytelling and immersion,
and use advanced 3D graphics and physics. They also have you
interacting with objects in the game world through "natural" movements
like pulling levers or opening drawers with the cursor, although I'm
not sure that type of interaction is necessarily better. Nevertheless,
I admire their thinking and approach.
Another quite important thing to consider for IF vs commercial games is
that text allow us to represent perfect model worlds (although
could imagine problems and puzzles which a 3D engine would be better
suited for modeling). For example, in IF we have containers and
supporters. The concept is so simple -- one thing can be
another -- but in graphical adventure games they must
use lists of
sub-objects or a pop-up window. One could expect that 3D worlds would
fix this; however, they continue using sub-lists of objects,
because they are easy to implement. A perfect 3D world would allow us
to really look inside a container. This is not an easy thing
implement, however; for an example of real 3D containers that
don't work very well, see Thief: Deadly Shadows. And I'm curious about
supporters. Since their "contents" are visible, they should
easier to implement than truly openable 3D containers.
Well, I would say that text does not necessarily allow us to represent
perfect model worlds, particularly with respect to containers and
supporters; depending on the implementation, for instance, you could
have containers holding far more objects than they should be able to
(since weight and space are either overlooked or difficult to
implement). But yes, those types of things are far easier to implement
in text than in 3D. Supporters, like tables, are a little bit easier in
3D these days, particularly if you have a good physics engine at your
disposal. But in general, these are difficult concepts to model in a
does have the advantage of containing only a handful of objects the
player can possess, but even then it can still get complicated. I can
only think of a couple of containers in Vespers
off the top of my head -- the alms box in the entrance hall, and the
cupboard in the kitchen, although I'm probably forgetting others.
Rather than try to model these containers in a highly realistic manner,
however, I chose to model them more practically. In the text version of
for instance, the
only object allowed inside the alms box is the coin -- the code will
not allow the player to place any other object inside. So, I just did
the same thing. The coin is hidden nicely inside the box when the lid
is closed, but no other object can be placed in there.
cupboard is a little more complicated, though. In the text game, the
cupboard is described as having only a single door, and the inside is
not described in any detail. We decided to model our cupboard in 3D
based on some designs we found, but the design included 4 doors. So now
we have four different places that the player can (and should) be able
to place objects. I was able to implement this, but the simplest way to
do it was to create a "holder" for an object behind each of the four
cupboard doors. The problem is that you can only place one object in
each holder. From a game standpoint, this really isn't a problem: the
player rarely has more than a couple of objects at any one time, and
there really isn't any need to place objects there anyway. But from a
mimesis perspective, it can be jarring if you put a small coin in the
cupboard and then are told that there is no more room for other objects
in that space.
There are likely more elegant solutions to this issue, but the work
required for that is really not worth it for Vespers
the Torque Game Engine does not have a very good physics engine built
in, I decided to implement supporters a similar way: I just created a
series of points on top of each supporter for objects to be located
when placed. So for instance, the bed in the Abbot's room has 5
different locations for placing objects, and if the player wants to put
an object on the bed (for whatever reason), it just finds an empty
location and puts it there. Once all 5 locations are occupied, there is
no more room for objects on the supporter. Again, it's good enough for
our purposes since, in Vespers
the player will never have more than 5 objects that he can drop (if I
remember correctly). If there were more objects, we might run into some
problems with mimesis, but as with containers a more elegant solution
is not really worth the effort.
But in text, imagination creates far more perfect worlds than any
3D game could ever presnt. In IF it is so simple to model
something inside another (a match inside a match-box). Today you can
easily add complex control of volume and weight in IF games... actually
even back in the 80's and 90's, the PAW system allowed you to have
volume and weight. But Vespers 3D will represent things inside
containers, as viewable object? in a real 3D view? not using pop-up
windows with sub-lists of sub-objects?
Rubes: Well, there aren't many instances of this in Vespers
mostly because there aren't many inventory items and containers in the
game. But for those that we do have, yes, objects will be visually
represented inside of other objects. The coin, for instance, appears
inside the alms box when you open it, and when the box is closed, you
can't see it. Same for the food in the cupboard.
Of course, the
text will also reflect this, as it would in IF. So if the player types
LOOK INSIDE ALMS BOX, the answer will be "In the alms box is a coin."
Urbatain: Good! Good!
Ok, so only the inventory reverts to sub-lists, for obvious reasons.
take a break from the tough questions for a moment for something more
straightforward. Will Vespers 3D be a commercial product,
or will it be free?
That's actually a tough question to answer. Originally I had planned on
making it free, but I also originally planned on spending a lot less to
make the game. It really is difficult to make a 3D game with characters
and animations on a tiny budget. The plan was to use this game as a
springboard to a subsequent, full-length 3D-if game, but to do that I'd
probably have to recoup at least some of the cost of this game. The
problem with charging money for a game like this is that it is very
short compared to most commercial games, so it's not like I can charge
very much. So if I do end up charging for it, it will probably be a
small amount -- probably along the lines of a movie ticket.
Urbatain: Have you
thought of entering it into something like the Independent Games
I'd certainly like that, that's the goal -- IGF, IndieCade, and the
like. But there's still a long way to go before we can get to that
Urbatain: Well, to be
honest, I always prefer free indie games, and
it's a shame to see a lot of the IGF winners going commercial, whether
through X-Box Live, or (less annoyingly) as shareware with demos. And
meanwhile you can get all these top-notch free indie games, like Knytt
Stories, the 6 days a sacrifice
series, IF games, and the many online Flash games. It seems
to justify paying for games when all of this is out there for free...
but soon TextFyre should be coming out with high quality IF
that I'm sure I will be glad to pay for... so I'm left feeling divided!
Well, maybe you could go an intermediate way like Radiohead, that
soldIn Rainbows online, and buyers could choose what money to pay for
it, between 0 pounds (for free) to 99... ;)
We'll certainly look at different options, but I can also understand
why some of these designers want to charge for their games. It's rare
for an indie game designer to break even on a project, much less make
any significant profit. And it's tough to keep making games for little
or no price -- especially 3D games, which can get very expensive very
fast. I've already spent a considerable amount on Vespers
and it's unlikely I'd be able to make another one of these games
without either earning back some of what I spent, or getting an outside
party interested in supporting it. But if you do the latter, then you
have no choice but to charge for the game. So it's a tough spot to be
Urbatain: Okay, back to
the tough questions! Will you censor
yourself at all? Vespers -- not to spoil the plot
who haven't played it yet -- has a good deal of violence and sex. In a
text game, sex can be written about without going
details. But I simply cannot conceive how you might manage to adapt
these scenes into 3D. Have you decided to just cut
them? Thank God indie developers don't have to deal with
codes, official censure and laws (I hope... I think...). Correct me if
Rubes: It's also
especially challenging with a 3D game that has a first-person
perspective. Anything that requires the direct, coordinated physical
interaction of the player and an NPC, such as sex or violence (or even
simple conversation, for that matter), is going to be difficult in a 3D
FPS game and will require some creative solutions. We haven't decided
to cut any of those parts from the game, but we also haven't worked out
final solutions for them yet, either. We do have some options, and
we'll try them out to see how they work. It's not going to be easy,
though. As far as the sexual material goes, however, suffice it to say
that it won't be graphically depicted (pun intended) in any way.
But to get beyond the sex and violence issues... you told me before
that some scenes are quite difficult to implement. Let's talk about the
technical issues of an adaptation... The original game has a lot of
"close" contact scenes (maybe this has something to do with that sex...
or not). How do you manage these cinematic or "close contact"
scenes? I have in mind, for instance, the ending scene, and
that cellar scene, that is similar to the well scene in
Anchorhead. I simply couldn't imagine how to do that in 3D.
in the ending scene I suppose you could always show a pretty
picture or a video; but the cellar scene in Vespers and
the well scene in Anchorhead are
interactive; implementing them seems very difficult.
Right, absolutely. It gets back to my point above, that direct,
coordinated physical interaction between the player and another
character is very hard
to resolve in a 3D first-person game. There
are some tricks you can do to restrict where the player might be, or
how much the player is allowed to move or act, but sometimes even those
methods don't always work. The biggest problem is that you can't always
predict where the player is physically located when he tries to perform
a particular task, or when a certain action in the game needs to take
place, which is information that the NPCs need to have in order for
their animations to appear appropriate. One solution is to design the
system so that the player can be manipulated into moving to one or more
predictable locations, at which point the triggered animations will
then make more sense. It's hard to talk about specific examples from Vespers
giving too much away about the game, but hopefully that gives you an
idea what we're thinking.
Urbatain: Not really! :)
But I think that I will have to wait for the final release to have
these questions answered... :)
this brings to mind an important issue: that is, 3D narration.
Commercial game developers don't know where they are going with the
medium; sometimes they copy the cinema approach, a bad idea because
they are, and we are, interactive. To be more direct: I'm thinking of
the difference between a first- person and third-person camera. In the
Quake games, when you die, the camera jumps outside of your
body; in the Half-Life series, the camera is ALWAYS inside
Freeman. Could you tell us something about this? Maybe for those
difficult scenes you could change the camera to third person?
I've never been a big fan of changing camera perspective in the middle
of a game, at least for games where you're playing a particular role
FPS games, I
think it's less of an issue). I prefer first-person view to
third-person view, since I find that allows me as a player to become
more immersed in the character that I'm playing, and I prefer to keep
the camera perspective that way throughout.
There are some situations in Vespers
where control of the camera will be taken away from the player for a
few brief cut-scenes, but we're not planning on showing the player
character (the Abbot) in those instances. We've talked about that as a
group a few times, but I think my philosophy is to give players a role
and to let them imagine themselves in that role, rather than explicitly
showing them the character.
We talked before about the control interface and the difficulty of
allowing the avatar to move around automatically because of the need
for complex path-finding algorithms. However, I think I would like to
see the interface be fully parser controlled. For example, in Facade
the player must use the arrows to move the PC but he must type to speak
to NPCs. I think games that force the player to jump from mouse to
arrows-keys, from arrow-keys to the rest of the keyboard, can be
confusing to play. I would like to be able to control the game
only with text: GO TO THE DOOR, GO NEAR THE TABLE, LOOK NORTH,
LOOK AT THE BLOOD, LOOK AROUND, LOOK TO THE LEFT, TURN AROUND, TURN 45
DEGREES, etc. Yes, this could be a little bit complicated with the need
for pathfinding algorithms and such... but I think it deserves the
effort. Could you comment a little bit about this? About
design... what elements should you abandon for sake of
and what is the final design for the interface?
Well, as I mentioned players can use the keyboard almost exclusively as
is. You can't type GO TO <LOCATION>, but you can move
enough with the WASD-type controls. The real problem with allowing GO
TO commands is that you can never predict where the player is when the
command is entered, so at any time there might be an object, a wall, a
door, or an NPC directly in the player's path. So you're left with two
options: just zap the player to the new location (which I feel is too
jarring, and what if an object is already at the destination spot?), or
develop a sophisticated set of path-finding code, which can be
complicated and time-consuming. I certainly agree that constant
switching between keyboard and mouse can be distracting and annoying,
but it would also seem equally (if not more) tiresome to have to type
such specific commands as TURN LEFT 45 DEGREES when the same could be
accomplished by either pressing a single key or slightly moving the
As for the interface design, I discussed most of the
interface elements above, but there are a few things I haven't
mentioned. One is to make common commands as simple as possible by
using single keypresses, so INVENTORY can be accomplished by pressing
I, LOOK by pressing L, EXAMINE by pressing X, OPEN by pressing O, and
AGAIN by pressing G. I've tried to make the majority of commands fairly
simple; for instance, examining objects becomes a process of just
clicking on an object and pressing X, opening becomes just clicking an
object and pressing O, and so on.
I've also tried to incorporate
some customization by, for example, utilizing the TAB key: just like
the right mouse button, it can be set to a desired verb, which executes
when the TAB key is pressed. The default is INVENTORY, but it can also
be set to LOOK, EXAMINE, or TAKE, and you set it by entering the SET
TAB KEY TO <VERB> command.
The ability to customize (like
with the TAB key or the right mouse button) got me thinking that we
could allow even greater customization if we want. Why restrict the
verb possibilities to four common actions? Couldn't we allow players to
enter SET TAB KEY TO <VERB> and allow any valid verb to
And could we also allow players to attach specific verbs to single key
presses as well? Like what if someone wants the T key to execute TAKE,
while another wants it to execute TALK TO? Why not let them specify
For that matter, couldn't we also allow players to attach
whole phrases to specific keys? The way the game interface is set up,
any time a command is issued -- whether from the command line, a single
key press, or the right mouse button -- it works by generating the
appropriate command in text form, and sending it through the parser. So
if the TAB key is set to INVENTORY, pressing the TAB key actually
generates a text string containing "INVENTORY" and sends it to the
parser. So theoretically, it is perfectly feasible to assign a whole
phrase to a specific key. We could, for instance, let players type SET
F1 KEY TO SET TAB KEY TO TAKE, and the result would be that, when the
F1 key is pressed, the phrase "SET TAB KEY TO TAKE" would be sent to
the parser, and the TAB key would be set to TAKE. All sorts of
possibilities become available.
But the real question is, do
players want that level of customization? I sense that the interface is
already complicated enough as it is, and I sense that adding more and
more possibilities might overwhelm too many people. Simplicity is
something that I believe should be sought, so I'm not sure how I feel
about all of this yet.
One thing that I think is really important in interactive pieces in 3D
worlds is the handling of "close contact" between the avatar and the
object being interacted with (and not just NPCs). For
most FPS's we never see our own body, but in some we do see just an arm
floating in midair. Some of these arms add to the realism, allowing us
to see ourselves pushing buttons, pulling levers, breaking heads, etc.
As a negative example, though, I have one game in mind: Thief Deadly
Shadows, where we are aware of our whole body, but when we decide to
pick up an object, it just disappears from the ground and is
magically transported to inventory. It's jarring. We have
perfect modelled thief but he has telekinesis for moving around
objects. In other games like Blade: Severance (a commercial Spanish
release, also with body-awareness) the the
arm of the
avatar moves somewhat correctly to pick up a piece of bread,
it to the mouth and eat it; or in Dark Messiah where we see the arm
fighting enemies, impaling them, cutting ropes for improvised traps,
etc; this effect is really satisfying. So, the question is,
there be animations of the arm, or even the whole avatar's body, for
every one of Inform's actions?
We've thought about doing some of that, but probably not for this game.
I think if I had another two or three programmers and artists working
with me, we could probably do it, but it's a lot of fairly complicated
work to get it to be convincing. So for now, we'll still have players
who work telekinetically. ;) It's really a question of resources and
manpower vs. the additional benefit this provides.
Urbatain: How will the
game handle negative feedback? Will
there be animations for "You can't do that..."?
In general, the answer is no. At this stage of development, though,
we're focusing more on the translation over from IF, so most of the
responses like that will still probably be in text form. If it makes
sense to do it graphically and it adds to the game to have some sort of
negative visual feedback, then we might do that for some things.
Will the game have an audio element? Will there be a voice
telling us we "can't do that" when we attempt something impossible?
Right now, we do have some voice recording for the Abbot. It goes a
little bit against my approach of not revealing aspects of the player
character to the player (such as appearance and sound, which I think
can sometimes break immersion), but I think it's necessary in some
places. For instance, there are some conversations between the player
and other brothers which are dependent on a back-and-forth exchange, so
we really needed a voice for the Abbot to contribute. I think, in
general, it works out well.
Right now we don't have specific
audio recordings for failed actions, only a text response. I'm
experimenting with different kinds of audio feedback, which I think is
important, but I want to use something that breaks immersion as little
Urbatain: I don't see a
problem here. We are playing a role in the game, so it's ok to that we
hear the voice of the Abbot!
what degree of depth have you implemented Inform's model
For example, have you modeled the system of actions
after, before, react_after, react_before, etc. -- or have you
simplified this? If so, do you plan to extend this feature in the
Rubes: The Torque
Game Engine has its own scripting language, and I've just adapted it to
my purposes here, including some structure that is (vaguely) similar to
the way Inform 6 works. So for instance, when I define objects in the
game (like the alms box or the coin) I give them attributes and
properties similar to the way Inform does. So the alms box has a name
field which includes "almsbox" and "box", and an adjective field which
includes "alms", and the parser uses these to determine whether or not
the player is referring to this object. It also has fields for pronoun
("it"), plural (false), container (true), open (false, initially), and
openable (true), as well as fields for parent, child, and sibling
As for actions and reactions, I've handled that a bit
differently, mostly because the game is played in real-time, and it's
difficult to implement things like before, after, and so on in anything
other than a pure turn-based game. For instance, there are a few
"react_before" cases in Vespers
(the text version) that respond to a movement command, but that would
be difficult to do in 3D since movement is usually by holding down a
key. So many of these instances are hard-coded in different ways, but
that's okay since my goal was not necessarily to design the system to
be completely independent of the game in the way that Inform is.
Finally, have you defined a complete language or script similar to
TADS3 or Inform to for developing the game? If so, could you show us
what it looks like?
I said, I just adpated the scripting language for the Torque Game
Engine to do what I needed. Some of what I designed is similar to
Inform, and some is different. For example, each verb has its own code
for execution. First, it performs a series of checks to make sure the
action can be performed (for instance, the player is close enough to
the object, is facing the object, and so on). Then, it checks the
object itself for any code specific to that verb, and then it executes
the verb action. An example of this would be the INSERT action. If the
player types INSERT COIN IN ALMS BOX, the engine would go to the code
for INSERT and first run through checks to make sure the the coin is in
the player's possession, the alms box is a valid container, the player
is close enough to the alms box, and so on. Then it calls the code
specific to the alms box to see if there are any special issues; in
this case, the INSERT command is only allowed with the coin, and no
other objects. So if the player tried to put another object in the alms
box, here is where the command would return an error message and cancel
the action. But since in this example the coin is the object, it is
allowed to proceed. Back in the INSERT action code, it then performs
the action of visually putting the target object into the container
object, setting the appropriate parent/child/sibling values, and
delivering the appropriate successful library message.
What role is Jason Devlin playing in the development? Is he directly
involved in the programming and scripting, or is he in more of an
advisory role? Will he stay with Orange River for more
I'm curious how many good authors TextFyre and Orange River is
going to steal from the IF scene... :)
For this project, Jason is mostly in an advisory and testing role.
There are so many issues, as you can imagine, when moving from text to
3D -- not just in the translation of Vespers, but in the way the 3D/IF
world model functions, and Jason has played a large role in figuring
all of this out. Occasionally we run into parts of the 3D world that
were either not included or not described in the text game, and Jason
helps us figure out what to put in or how to describe it. I would like
for him to design another game for us to make after we're finished with
Vespers, and it would be interesting to see what he could design for a
3D/IF world specifically, not just an IF world. But due to our long
development times, I wouldn't worry about us stealing many authors. ;)
Urbatain: When do you
plan to release Vespers 3D? :)
I'd love to answer, but I honestly have no idea. Not anytime soon,
although perhaps we'll have a demo version (part of Day One of the
game) sometime this year, if I'm lucky.
Do you have something in mind for Orange River after Vespers 3D is
finished? Maybe, a more ambitious project? Perhaps an original work? Or
another port from a textual IF? Or maybe is too soon to talk about that?
Right now we have no specific plans, but we would be interested in
doing both -- porting a successful IF game (assuming any authors are
interested) and creating a new game that perhaps can take better
advantage of a 3D/IF world model and push its boundaries, as you say.
Movies are a very different medium from books, and each has their own
set of techniques and styles that work only in that medium; similarly,
3D/IF is very different from IF, and to really succeed in this new
medium we need to discover the techniques that work, rather than
relying too heavily on pure IF itself.
We still have a long way
to go before we start looking at new projects, but I'd certainly be
interested in pursuing both pathways, and to hear from anyone
interested in seeing their IF game created in 3D/IF.
Urbatain: That's all
Rubes, thanks a lot for your time and for this project.
Thanks, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it, and I'm glad you
are interested enough to learn more. I hope it turns out to be a game
people enjoy experiencing.
The Monk's Brew:
Mike Rubin's blog
Vespers 3D on The
Great Games Experiment
Interview with Mike Rubin on The Rampant Coyote
Back to Table of
"Frederic Sheppard." Chief Inspector Duffy pulls at his
moustache mournfully and stares up at the house through
the windshield. "Theatrical sort, usually has a finger in some
play or other. He bought up Gull Point about ten years ago.
Never any complaints from the neighbors, never any
scandals." He pulls at his moustache again. "He was found dead in the
cove at the foot of the cliff behind the house about half an hour ago.
Caller said it looked as though he fell from the study window."
Act of Murder
| Author Email:
||odd1out SP@G openface.ca
||October 1, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||bill SP@G billpowellisalive.com
So begins your investigation of a lethal drop from high society. If you
enjoy a good Golden Age detective story, you'll want to play An Act of Murder
The game placed 2nd in the 2007 IF Comp, both among the judges and the
authors, and I'd say it deserved it.
The beginning had both strengths and weaknesses. I appreciated the
quick instructions about how to use "ask" and "tell"; these are the
kinds of quick parser instructions that can save hours of a player's
life. On the other hand, I did get anxious at the rather forced
introduction to the main suspects. Fortunately, you're soon left to
your own devices.
world is consistent, crisply described, and just spacious enough for
the story. The characters are clearly delineated, and easy to imagine.
Implementing five separate suspects whom you can ask about anything may
seem ambitious, (in the Credits, the author admits originally planning
over 20) but in general, the interaction goes well. As hours passed,
and Chief Inspector Duffy's arrival became imminent, I did get
frustrated at a few "obvious" questions that soared over their heads,
but perhaps this is unavoidable.
I admit that I eventually "had" to have recourse to the hints. There
was one puzzle that I simply missed. My bad. But there was also a
certain vagueness towards the end about just what I had to do
who was the murderer. I'm not sure how to explain this, since I don't
want to spoil anything. Perhaps I've been spoiled myself by too many
murder mysteries where the vital detail is withheld until the detective
springs it on everyone. You can't wait for surprises here. You're the
detective, and you have to make an airtight case, ferreting out details
like motive, alibis, time of death. On reflection, this is exactly how
such a game ought to work. But I think the opening dialogue fooled me
into thinking this would go down more as a drama, with further action
and excitement, instead of a good clean
As a good clean murder puzzle, this Act
and merits an 8 out of 10, at least. I look forward to further games
with a similar Hugh.
Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||stephen SP@G granades.com
||December 31, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||maher SP@G grandecom.net
A personal hang-up of mine is undoubtedly going to affect the
following review: I don't like babies. Not at all.
a little bit. Further, the feeling seems to be mutual.
Every time I reluctently interact with one of the little
generally to play along and satisfy cooing friends or family, I seem to
end up with some unpleasant substance or another on my clothing.
Once children hit about five, some (still dismayingly small)
percentage of them become "cute" to me. But I'll take kittens
over human babies any day.
Why then am I reviewing Child's
The cynical side of me says that it's an important game that
want to cover, and nobody else came offering; the idealistic side says
that it does some very interesting things that I would genuinely like
to talk about, once we get past all that babyness. The truth
probably lies somewhere in the middle.
then, is a day in the life of a baby, as played by you. In
course of its several chapters, your playgroup arrives and a central
conflict develops with a certain little red-haired girl who wants to
play with the same toy as you. To win the battle with your
nemesis you must use the other babies, the parents of said babies, and
of course the various bits and bobs lying about the living room.
The environment is an impressively active one: there are
going on around you virtually all the time. Not only are all
the other babies hobbling about the room pursuing their various
agendas, but the parents also converse and act. In
favorite part of the game is its dead-on satire of various parental
"types." I particularly enjoyed (in-game joke coming) Perry
the sole male adult, who engages the females with an awkward
determination to fit in as a nurturing, sensitive modern man even as
his desire to get in his Prius and drive somewhere -- anywhere -- else
The game's puzzles involve a fair amount of the
usual object manipulation, but you are subject to some pretty strigent
physical limitations due to the fact that you are a baby. You
cannot even walk yet, although you can "pull up" on various objects --
something you'll find yourself doing quite a lot. There are
plenty of unique verbs in the game, and all -- like the aforementioned
"pull up" -- are well-implemented and provided with plenty of synonyms.
In fact, the source code, which Granade chose to release with
game, provides a wonderful example for other Inform 7 authors: it's
tight, it's well-organized, and it's elegant. I've already
into it a few times with questions relating to my own work in progress,
and have always come away impressed, not to mention jealous when I
compare it with the ramshackle mess that is my own game.
to say, I probably won't be releasing my own code anytime soon, but I
can't commend Granade enough for taking the time to tidy up
release his source as a sort of super-worked example for the rest of us.
the game is not just a technical feat. The writing, as I
to above, is very good. Granade establishes
voice for his PC -- so unique in fact that I don't quite know how to
convey its flavor here. A sort of hyper-self-centered idiot
savant with a strong twist of snotty teenager, perhaps? No,
that's not quite it. Here's the first room description you
This is the middle of the living room, it is all big
and vast. But it would be bigger and vaster if there weren't all these
pillows and stuff in a big ring around you. The mom is totally all
paranoid and whatever, she is a new mom.
I don't quite know why
the writing works as well as it does, but it does, and Granade plays it
to the hilt throughout the game with the confidence of a fine writer.
In its way, the PC's voice in Child's Play
distinctive as that of Grunk in Lost
I was less impressed with the game's actual puzzles and, truth be told,
with the game as a whole, particularly as I got to the mid-point and
beyond. Things start out fairly painless and intuitive, but
difficulty ramps up quickly enough, and I never felt like I was quite
on the same wavelength as the game. The very idea of a baby
really solving any of these problems is of course absurd, but that's
not the root of what bothered me. The puzzles eventually
rely on timing, requiring you to observe carefully the actions
of the various NPCs and not only do just the right thing, but
do it at just the right time. My tolerance for fiddly puzzles
not what it once was, and the game's plot -- such as it is -- was not
exactly inspiring to me. Thus my playthrough was punctuated by many
trips to the walkthrough.
For this reviewer, then, Child's
is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, a strong, polished
technical effort combined with fine writing that never really builds
into a compelling game
I enjoyed in an idle way the couple of hours I spent with the
game, but don't regret turning to the walkthrough, and must admit that
by the time I finished I was ready for it to be done. For all
cleverness, it never really gave me a good reason to care about it,
wearing rather thin once I was past the "isn't this neat and unique?"
phase. Some of this is undoubtedly down to personal
but perhaps some is also down to fiddly puzzles that make the game more
tedious than it really needs to be. I feel that a "lighter,"
frustrating puzzle design would have suited the mood and subject much
better while letting the game's core strengths shine through more
Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||adeniro SP@G gmail.com
||October 1, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||maher SP@G grandecom.net
I was pretty hard on Deadline
when I played and rated the Competition games last year.
I was just not in the frame of mind to give it the attention it
deserves, or perhaps I just couldn't look past the overwrought writing
without having first seen the game taken very seriously by other
reviewers that I respect. A work like Deadline Enchanter
that refuses to yield up its secrets easily, is always a dangerous
subject for a reviewer to tackle. I'm reminded of some of the
famously negative early reviews of James Joyce's Ulysses
from reviewers who saw the book as nothing but a garbled mess.
How does one know, faced with a filing deadline, whether a
"difficult" work has a solid thread of meaning, or whether it really is
just a huge postmodern joke that signifies nothing? I'm not
convinced that Deadline
is a Ulysses
but it certainly does do some interesting things with the relationship
between the IF player and the narrator.
of the game continues to make little sense at all to me even after
playing through a few times. It does seem, however, to take
in a city in the Dakotas -- a nod to A Mind Forever Voyaging
perhaps? -- at some time in the future, after some sort of apocalyptic
event -- possibly a nuclear war, possibly an alien invasion, possibly
both, or neither, or something else entirely. You are a
faceless adventurer tasked with rescuing the lover of an alien -- or
angel, or mutant, or something. All this is easy enough to
dismiss as pretentious claptrap, which is what I did the first time I
played the game.
The really clever bit is this: the alien
(and/or alien and/or mutant) which you are trying to rescue has in fact
prepared a sort of interactive instruction manual meant to teach you
exactly how to go about effecting said rescue. (Actually, you
not precisely rescuing her
at all, but in the interest of avoiding even more spoilers, we'll leave
it at that.) It is this
which you are actually playing when you play the game. This
number of effects. Firstly, it gives DeNiro a reason to write
of his text in the voice of the being you are trying to rescue,
scattering commentary and even a couple of flashbacks amidst the
typical descriptive text. Secondly, it means that there is
absolutely no challenge to the game in the conventional sense, for the
being behind the simulation has dropped into the environment clues
telling you exactly what to do to proceed or, failing that, sometimes
just flat-out tells
to type next even as she describes your surroundings. (There
of course remain the meta-challenge of piecing together What Is Really
Going On Here, a challenge of which I have perhaps barely scratched the
surface.) Finally, and most conveniently for DeNiro, any
his game's implementation can be dismissed as flaws in his heroine's
hasty simulation. He thus manages the neat trick of at least
being able to claim to add mimesis through his game's lack of mimesis.
This last business bothers me a bit. Ever since Rameses
did it so
well, we've seen a number of authors try to make a virtue of their
games' limitations. It worked for me in Rameses
but I'm not sure it's ever really worked since, and here (as in most
places) it comes across to me as rather a cheap joke. Casting
game's flaws as intentional does even entirely work on its own terms.
There are plenty of places where the default Inform library
of Graham Nelson pokes through amidst the heroine's diction.
Unless she is meant to be writing her simulation in Inform 7,
this is a bit of a problem.
The writing -- and I'm not sure how
much of it is the author's actual style and how much is written in
character -- also left me cold at times, being much too
self-conciously affected for my taste. There
are some nice
turns of phrase and clever moments here and there, such as the running
riff about how the entire economy seems to be fueled by various brands
of coffee grounds, but the references to Infocom -- in the game's
title, in the constant references to implementations and implementors,
etc. -- come off as particularly strained.
Just as I respect
Joyce more than I love him, I am left appreciating
the clever idea behind this game, but not left all that enthusiastic
about the actual playing experience. If your literary
is different than mine, though, you may find even more to appreciate
here than I did.
Back to Table of
Fine Day for Reaping
| Author Email:
||revgiblet SP@G gmail.com
||October 1, 2007
||maher SP@G grandecom.net
Sometimes you play a game that you ought to treat harshly
in light of its flaws, but that has such an energetic friendliness
about it that you just can't bear to give it the stern talking-to it
deserves. Many of Robb Sherwin's games fall into that
for me, and now James Webb's A
Fine Day for Reaping
does as well.
The game has you playing a version of Death (a.k.a. the Grim Reaper)
inspired by the portrayal of same in Terry Pratchett's Discworld
I haven't read that depiction -- I bounced hard off a couple
novels that did not feature Death years ago, and can't work up the
interest to return to the series -- but I can say that in game form he
(or He) is very, very funny. It's a pleasure to play a
funny game, and one that doesn't come along as often as I wish, as most
jokey IF tends to feel labored to me. Death in this game is a
of a loser, really, with a pronounced lisp and a decided lack of
self-confidence, but he's only the tip of the proverbial comedy
iceberg. There are many, many funny situations and turns of
phrase that made me smile often and laugh out loud at least
occasionally, engendering enough good will to let me overlook -- or at
least not punish too
badly -- plenty of faults.
Death, you have been instructed by the Powers That Be to reap five
unfortunate souls who have proven reluctent to leave their bodies
behind. (Death in this milieu is, it seems, is a kind of
second-level troubleshooting service, dealing only with those souls who
prove problematic and presumably cannot be reaped by lower minions.)
These souls are located all over the world, but easily enough
reached through the use of the unimaginatively named Horse, your
skeletal steed. The game design is really quite clever, much
intricate than the typical effort. The scenes of all of these
passings -- plus your extra-dimensional home and a few other
locations you may discover as you play along -- interrelate with one
another. Items from one are often required to solve puzzles
another, etc. Further, the problems surrounding each soul can
solved in two or three different ways, all of them generally clever and
satisfying. The end result is an impressive example of open,
non-linear gameplay. It wouldn't work quite so well in a more
serious, intricately plotted game, but here it's a real treat.
All is not sunshine and roses, though. There's the terrible
parser, which I'm not even sure is worthy of the name. The
author wrestles actively with its limitations, but that only leads to
ugly solutions like this to the problem of using an elevator:
Type either 0,1,2 or 3 depending on whether you want to go
to the lobby, first or second floor or simply exit the lift at the
floor you are already on.
Apparantly something like "push first button" is too much for the
ADRIFT parser. In other places Mr. Webb has come up with some
quite clever, intricate puzzles, but the game solves them for
you in response to the simplest beginning on your part, which
really leaches a lot of the fun out of them.
And then there is a certain sloppiness here that cannot be
blamed on ADRIFT, including lots of typos, run-ons, etc., that could
have been corrected with a bit more proof-reading, and some significant
bugs and glitches as well. I found I could solve the Paris
problem at least twice due to the game's not recognizing that the soul
there had already been reaped. And stuff like this
Room 247 (Paris)
You are in a hotel room in a luxurious Parisian hotel. The
decor is of the usual standard expected by those who have plenty of
money but no class. Gold trim and regal, red wallpaper with
extravagant, crystal light fittings and a white smoke alarm that looks
out of place. The floor is polished oak, or some other kind
of luxury wood. There is a four-poster double bed against the
far wall. Everything is very wet from the sprinkler, and the
chalk-line has been erased.
Agathe Laurent's corpse lies on the bed.
A large, soft bed. It's probably very, very bad for your
back. Agathe Laurent beckons you over, grinning.
annoyances and problems in this one never overwhelmed my enjoyment,
though. It kept me entertained and interested throughout, and
stands for me as one of the real gems of 2007.
Back to Table of
Town: The Lost Treasure
| Author Email:
||j3nsby SP@G gmail.com
||July 30, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||uux SP@G mail.ru
It's amazing how often strange coincidences happen in our life. For
many years, games in any way related to Scott Adams and me peacefully
coexisted in the world of IF, never crossing our paths. Well, of
course, I knew there was such an author, but that really was it.
Recently, the situation changed radically. In the previous SPAG issue, I reviewed Sunburst Contamination
a work meant to parody Scott Adams games in general. When I picked up a
game at random for this issue's review, I found out it was interactive
fan-fiction based on Scott Adams' Ghost
. Starve today and stuff tomorrow indeed! The more so,
since I had a look at the origin to obtain a more complete picture of
the game to be reviewed.
Since the original work by Scott Adams is bound to represent a
reference point for Mr. Byriel's game, let me say a few words about it
first. I considered myself more or less ready to face it, thinking Sunburst Contamination
had prepared me well enough. The reality, however, surpassed my worst
expectations. They say Zork
is cruel. Heck, Zork
is a most forgiving game compared to the original Ghost Town
least, it has logical solutions to puzzles, and features helpful,
albeit somewhat terse, descriptions. Mr. Adams' work, on the other
hand, seems to be a champion in defining rules and conventions for the
player, and then breaking them. For instance, the game's ascetic
interface implies that a short title followed by a list of available
exits and manipulatable (or, rather, enterable) items goes for the room
description. On some occasions, however, it tends to "forget" about
this communication standard, relocating the manipulatable items to the
title, thus providing for a huge confusion for the player, who got used
to the fact the room title didn't react to any commands in the previous
dozen or so rooms. Combine this with puzzles that are, to a no small
degree, of the "try everything on everything at every possible place"
kind... To put it short -- I found it barely playable even with a
walkthrough, and only managed to get through its first third or so. The
game left me with a thorough incomprehension for Scott Adams fans
somewhere deep within me.
Thankfully, Mr. Byriel didn't write a faithful remake. In fact, he
mastered a great job in retaining the original work's atmosphere, and
removing its most annoying features at the same time. He expanded the
room descriptions a little bit -- just to the extent one can call them
descriptions without paltering; shuffled the locations somewhat
(although their style basically remained quite recognizable); inherited
the non-obvious commands from the prototype, but provided hints telling
the player those commands were needed. The best thing, however, was the
fact he gave more or less logical solutions to the puzzles. There was
only one exception -- an optional puzzle that required referring to an
object not even mentioned in the room description; totally impossible,
of course (I had to decompile the game to beat it), but so very much in
the spirit of the original Ghost
. Besides, the game world is reduced in size compared
to its "ancestor"; I'm not sure whether this was intentional or the
result of some deadline limitations (the game was written for the Scott
Adams' Ghost Town
Redux Event), but it turned out to be to the favour of the game, too --
otherwise, the puzzles based on rather primitive interactions probably
would become repetitive pretty quickly. Another nice bonus are the
built-in hints -- while they never give away the final solution, they
should help the player out in most situations.
Mr. Byriel also managed to keep his game fair for the most part. There
are only two occasions for the player to lock her/himself out of
victory, of which only one appears to be intentional. The other one
seems to be a semi-bug -- at some point, you use a certain item for
transportation between rooms. This usage implies that you take the
item, but the game neither automatically moves it to your inventory nor
blocks your attempts to manipulate it while it isn't taken -- it just
transfers you to a different location, leaving the "transporter thingy"
behind, and thus bereaving you of any means to return back. This may
sound like a trivial problem, but I spent certainly not less than
fifteen minutes feverishly looking for a way to escape.
But enough burying into details. What is, as Russians say, the solid
residue of the whole thing? What's the overall quality of the game?
Well, it wasn't too impressive, to be honest. Yes, all the
aforementioned improvements made the game much more playable and even
moderately fun, but they weren't able to pull it up to the upper
league. It still barely has any plot, and only scarcely animated
characters. Even its main asset, the puzzles, are not too original, and
lack in variety. I think the game is only likely to attract very
undemanding, or hopelessly nostalgic, players. For most people spoilt
by the best pieces of modern IF, however, it'd be a half-hourly pastime
at best, and then would get forgotten even quicker than that.
SNATS (Score Not Affecting The Scoreboard):
PLOT: Rudimentary (0.8)
ATMOSPHERE: Very rarefied (0.8)
WRITING: Dominated by brevity... which isn't the sister of talent in
this particular case (0.8)
GAMEPLAY: Typical treasure hunt (0.9)
BONUSES: Retaining the spirit of the original work without inheriting
its most annoying features (1.0)
CHARACTERS: There are some (0.8)
PUZZLES: The game's main asset (1.0)
DIFFICULTY: Ghostly (5 out of 10, impossible optional puzzle excluded)
Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||cejpacian SP@G googlemail.com
||March 12, 2008
||victor SP@G lilith.gotdns.org
You are Mute Lawton, and you must save Elias from being hanged by the
no-good sheriff. Armed only with your trusty six-shooter, you will have
to traverse a post-nuclear Wild West town and depose of all members of
the sheriff's posse until you can face down the main bastard yourself.
That's easier said than done, because of course they shoot back.
Make no mistake: although Gun
is all about shooting, it is strictly a puzzle game.
In this respect, it is akin to Slap
by Peter Nepstad and Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies
by Øyvind Thorsby, and not to games that model fights in terms of
health and chances to hit. Still, these three IF games all have a
different take on combat puzzles. Attack
of the Yeti Robot Zombies
uses an assortment of
traditional puzzles (find the right thing to do with the right object)
which--when solved--allow you to get rid of your enemies without having
to use your weapon. The challenge comes from trying to solve the game
on the first attempt, and trying to find the optimal solution, in which
you fire no shot at all.
Slap That Fish
combines two kinds of puzzles. On the one hand, there are several
traditional IF puzzles (search the right objects to acquire other
objects; use those other objects in the right situation). On the other
hand, there is a system of four different combat moves, and you must
find out for every fish which moves or which sequences of moves are the
most effective. Here we have a pre-defined fighting system that gives
us a set of possibilities, and we must find out what are optimal
possibilities in which circumstances. Only the fact that Slap That Fish
contains no randomness sets it apart from the standard cRPG-approach.
All the puzzles in Gun
ask you to find the answer to this question: what do
I have to shoot when? (And related, when do I have to take cover?) In
each case, you must discover two things. First, by examining the
environment, you must find out what you have to shoot--sometimes this
is your enemy, sometimes it is a part of your enemy, and sometimes it
is another object altogether. But then, second, you must execute the
required moves at the right moment. So if there is a guy with a double
barrelled shot-gun, you must not leave your cover when he has just
reloaded, nor must you leave it after he has shot at you once (since he
will still have another bullet in his gun). You must act between his
second shot and the moment that he reloads again.
C. E. J. Pacian has managed to create a satisfying variety of puzzles
around this simple formula. These puzzles are not difficult, and the
whole game shouldn't take more than perhaps half an hour when you play
it for the first time, but they are all entertaining. One does have the
feeling that at the end of Gun
most of the possibilities of the formula have been
tried--it is doubtful whether many more games could be made using Gun Mute
idea--but that doesn't take away from the charm of this offering.
Two other things set Gun
apart. First, the setting, which feels much fresher
than standard Western or standard Sci-Fi would have felt. Post-nuclear
Wild West is not a crowded genre, and Pacian has given us just enough
detail to make the town be more than just a background. And second, the
storyline, which is very simple but nevertheless manages to
be touching. Mute Lawton is a man driven by love, and he can have
positive interactions with several of the people who are not trying to
kill him (and even with some that are). The game doesn't stop
immediately after you have saved Elias and killed the sheriff, but
allows you to meet those sympathetic characters again, and it wraps up
with a more satisfying conclusion than the exclamation "You have killed
the end boss!" would have been.
My one complaint concerns the writing. Although it is mostly effective,
there are a few moments where Pacian reaches beyond his capabilities
and writes sentences like this:
Rolling dunes stretch in every direction, ending in a
distant horizon broken only by a few low, jagged mountains.
Rolling things don't stretch; horizons are always distant; and the
sentence contains numerous cliches like "jagged mountains" and "rolling
dunes". Another round of editing could remove these annoyances.
In general, though, Gun
is successful in the modest aims it sets itself. It
is short, but entertaining; it has interesting puzzles that explore new
territory for IF; and it manages to cram quite a lot of setting and
story into a very small space. I can only hope that in a future work
Pacian--who claims to be a pacifist and warns against trying to solve
real-life problems with a gun--will explore the theme of violence in
more depth, while making the experience as much as fun as playing Gun Mute
Back to Table of
||David Benin and Chris Calabro
| Author Email:
||ccalabro SP@G cs.ucsd.edu,
dbenin SP@G ucsd.edu
||October 19, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 6)
||victor SP@G lilith.gotdns.org
is, according to authors David Benin and Chris Calabro, an experiment
in "affective, embodied interactive fiction". They seem to have gotten
their terms wrong--to be embodied, a piece of interactive fiction would
have to be implemented in a physical medium, in a body. Hors Catégorie
mostly about the protagonist's body--which is interesting, although not
uncommon in interactive fiction--but it is not itself embodied.
In this piece, you are riding in the Tour de France. You wake up in
your hotel room, and have to prepare for the day ahead, a day which
will involve climbing a mountain of the highest category--which in
French are called the "hors catégorie" mountains. The entire piece
takes place within the confines of your room (which has three
sublocations), and your actions are limited to things like adjusting
your bike, taking a bath, watching TV, and eating a banana. Oh, and
taking drugs--for the piece takes on the question of drug use among
The first thing that you will notice when you start playing Hors Catégorie
however, is that Benin and Calabro have written an Inform 6 game
without using either the Inform 6 library or the Inform 6 parser.
Instead, most of their source code (which is publicly available under a
free software license) consists of a library and parser they have
written themselves. The result, alas, is very bad. Commands like
"save", "restore" and "transcript" are not implemented. Standard IF
verbs like "push" are not recognised. To give you an idea, this is a
typical interaction with the game, that happens when you wish to get
out of your bed:
> get out
The bed is lumpy and disappointing. One might even say, provincial. But
Paris is far away.
On the bed is yourself and a blanket.
First, the game doesn't understand that if I am in a container or on a
supporter, "get out" ought to be interpreted as getting out of that
container or supporter. Second, the game asks me to specify what I want
to get out of, but then misinterprets my answer as an examine command
(and doesn't take me out of bed). Third, the game misjudges the number
of things on the bed and uses the verb "is" rather than the verb "are".
None of these errors would have occurred if the authors had simply used
the standard Inform 6 library. It is a total mystery to me why they
chose not to do so. This decision makes their piece a serious pain in
the butt to play--which admittedly does fit in well with the embodiment
theme of their piece.
The implementation of the game world is also sparse and erratic. For
instance, "put coffee in cup" produces the message that you can't put
the coffee in the cup; but when you type "drink coffee", the
protagonist is described as first putting the coffee in the cup. This
kind of thing only adds to the frustration caused by the bad library
and the bad parser.
But let us move to the content of the game. The authors describe their
aims as follows in the source code: "Game to explore the moral dilemmas
of elite athletes wrt drug use: on the one hand, they expect and are
expected to perform, and drugs tend to enhance performance; on the
other, much of the audience supporting the sport is queezy about drug
use, and side effects could be detrimental to the overall health of the
athlete." Now that is an interesting premise.
One way of exploring this dilemma would be like this. You let the
player go through the race itself, and no matter how hard he tries (by
solving puzzles, or whatever) you let him lose if he hasn't taken drugs
beforehand. One obvious ploy to make the player want to win is to give
the protagonist an opponent that is a real bastard. The player can only
humiliate this opponent by taking drugs; otherwise, the opponent
humiliates the protagonist. All of this ensures that the player is in
the same situation as an athlete who wants to win: he can only get what
he wants by taking drugs. Will he? Ensure that the unfairness of using
drugs, as well as the health risks, also play a role, and you could
have an interesting game exploring a very real moral dilemma.
does nothing of the sort. It falls far short of
actually exploring the moral dilemma of drug use. Instead, it defines
some actions (like eating a banana) as "healthy" actions; and other
actions (like taking drugs) as "unhealthy" actions; and it then
randomly calculates how the game ends based on how many healthy and how
many unhealthy actions you have taken. If you have been very healthy,
you become the champion of the Tour. If you have been unhealthy, you
either die or are caught by the police. Now, the authors write in the
source code (I have fixed a typo):
! i know it's a bit
heavy-handed, but what can you do?
! _any_ mechanism will inject some
programmer bias into the game.
All right, perhaps it will--but the main problem with the mechanism
that is actually implemented is that it entirely destroys the moral
dilemma that the game is said to explore! The athlete wins by not
drugs. That is the exact opposite of the original premise, which states
that drugs enhance performance. What was a genuine moral dilemma has
changed into the opposite, a clear and unambiguous choice. You can
either choose to act legally and fairly, remain healthy and win the
Tour, OR you can choose to act illegally and unfairly, risk death and
imprisonment, and not win the Tour. That is not a moral dilemma. What
has happened here is not that some unavoidable programmer bias has
entered the program. What has happened here is that the authors have
(perhaps unwittingly) negated the dilemma they wanted to explore and
have instead asserted a naive ideology of fairness which states that
those who play fair are also those who will win.
This makes Hors
a rather painful failure.
Back to Table of
||Grunk and Admiral Jota
| Author Email:
||grunk SP@G grunk.org,
jota SP@G grunk.org
||October 1, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 6)
||maher SP@G grandecom.net
Having rather unfairly criticized Lost
in this issue's editorial, I'm happy to turn around and write this
review about what a fine, fine work of modern IF it really is.
You play an orc named Grunk in search of a lost pig from the
on which he works. It's not exactly a complex plot, but then
don't exactly play a complex character either.
is the best element in a game that has plenty of strengths.
characterized to the hilt. Not only the main text but
every standard libray message has been rewritten into Grunk's pidgeon
English. The IF author in me positively shrinks
of effort this sort of thing entails. When told that the
game is written in pidgin English, one might that that it would quickly
become annoying, but it never does. Grunk is such a charmer,
the whole game is so continually cute and laugh out loud funny, that
it's a delight. This is, in fact, easily the funniest game
played this year, with an innocent charm worthy of its main character.
But the game has plenty of other strengths. Just about
everything you might attempt has been anticipated and provided for.
There are absolutely no parser frustrations here, and
sometimes the extent of the parser's understanding shocked me.
Any game that can understand REACH IN CRACK WITH POLE has
earned itself considerable respect in my book.
There is also a very impressively implemented NPC. No, I
don't mean the pig, although he's pretty entertaining in himself.
I mean the gnome magician, who has absolutely oodles of
things to say about all sorts of topics. While talking with
you, he putters about in his workshop happily, always doing something
interesting and amusing. Conversation takes place using a
simplified version of the TADS 3 "ask / tell but with suggested topics"
system, and it works really well.
I did get a little frustrated toward the end of the game, when
I just could not make any more progress and had to turn to the hints.
I wouldn't say any of the puzzles are blatantly unfair, but I
think another clue or two to the solutions of some wouldn't have been
amiss. And then there was a particularly cruel red herring
about a magic word that kept me distracted from working on the real
solution for a while. I found these difficult puzzles
somewhat at odds with the general tone of the game. How on
earth could Grunk, not the proverbial sharpest knife in the drawer,
solve these? I wonder if it might have been possible to work
in more solutions that made Grunk -- guided by the player -- seemingly
blunder into the solution through luck or strength.
even if the structure of the whole design isn't an unmitigated success
for me, there are many, many individual pieces that delighted me.
My criticisms relating to it have little to do with what Lost Pig
is doing, and much more to do with what the rest of the IF community
isn't doing. But you've probably already heard that spiel.
For now, play it (if you are one of the few who haven't
laugh, and delight.
Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||davidfisher SP@G australiaonline.net.au
||November 18, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 6)
||Release 1, version 1.1
||maher SP@G grandecom.net
There's a special art to the one-room game. How to
provide the player with a logical succession of challenges whilst not
overwhelming her with a mountain of objects to manipulate right from
the start, a la early efforts like The
and even some recent titles such as the
otherwise impressive Final
? David Fisher manages to avoid
virtually all of the pitfalls of the form in Suveh Nux
by centering his game around a clear series of challenges to overcome
mostly through magic, rather than the the aforementioned pile of
objects to be manipulated.
Anyone familiar with Fisher's
IF activities -- he serves as a sort of resident librarian and
community memory, compiling gems of wisdom spanning the past fifteen
years and tirelessly compiling them into usable lists on the IF Wiki
and the newsgroups -- will probably guess his game to be
flawlessly implemented, employing all of the community's established
"best practices" in its design and development processes and showcasing
a boundless attention to detail. And that someone will not be
casts the player as the apprentice of a master magician. As
game begins the player has through an unfortunate circumstance found
himself trapped in a single, dark room. The objective, then,
simply to escape. A complex plot or mileau the game does not
have; nor is its writing ever more than clean, grammatical, and
sufficient to the purpose. Sometimes, though, that's more
good enough. Suveh
plainly wants to do two things: to present its player with a series of
challenging but fair puzzles to work through; and to do so in an
environment that rewards experimentation and even idle play with
sometimes unexpected but always logical results.
puzzle design here is very strong. Solving the game mostly
involves acquiring, understanding, and finally casting appropriately
magic spells made of sequences of magic words, each of which has its
own unique effect. The game's magic system thus has an oddly
lingusitic flavor to it that adds an extra dimension to the typical IF
magic schemes found in games as old as Enchanter
In keeping with the game's fun-first approach, you are
with always accessible notes about the various magical words as you
acquire them, eliminating any need for memorization or
and allowing you to focus on what you really want to be doing --
stringing the words together in various sequences to see what they do.
It's this process that gives the game much of its charm.
Sometimes getting it wrong here is more fun than getting it
right, due to the game's impressive level of simulation. Suveh Nux
magic system is very "juicy," to use a term Emily Short recently
employed in her blog to refer to games which offer a lot of unexpected,
playful responses to their players.
Indeed, everything fits
together just as it should in the game's little one-room world, and
even if you actively try to "break" the game you'll be hard-pressed to
coax from it an inappropriate response, or to even find a place where
it denies you your freedom. Virtually everything you might
the game works, and works as it should, and there are no "you don't
feel like doing that" messages here. That's impressive, even
a game set in one room with no intelligent NPC's to muck up the works.
If Suveh Nux
has a weakness, it might be that it sometimes feels more like an
exercise in craft than one of inspiration. Everything works
seamlessly, but while there are smiles aplenty to be had there is no
real boldness in any aspect of the design, story, or writing.
Taken on its own terms, though, as
a toy and puzzlebox to fool around with, few have done it
Back to Table of
|| Treasures of a
||S. John Ross
| Author Email:
||sjohn SP@G cumberlandgames.com
||December 22, 2007
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||maher SP@G grandecom.net
How much meta-fiction is enough? How much is too
much? Your answers to these questions will likely have a lot
do with your perception of Treasures
of a Slaver's Kingdom
, as will your age and cultural
background. If you are a person of a certain age who played
tabletop RPG's like Dungeons
and its derivatives during their commercial peak -- in other words, if
you are an aging nerd -- you'll probably know just where this game is
coming from. If not, you might just be utterly baffled by it.
Luckily for Mr. Ross, many of us in the IF community are
aging nerds, and while that is perhaps a problem for the community's
diversity and longterm health, it certainly gives this game a nice
So, then, let's try to unpack the layers of
this thing. Mr. Ross, a veteran independent tabletop RPG
designer, has invented a sort of alternate nerd timeline in which a
game called Encounter
was published in the late 1970's, just in time to
catch the big tabletop RPG wave. Encounter Critical
is much like Dungeons
but worse, at least from a worldbuilding point of view.
takes place in a generic fantasy universe with a healthy slab of
science fiction slathered incoherently over the top, thus allowing the
young nerd to get both his Conan
and his Star Wars
fixes in the same place. Treasures
is a computerized game based on the Encounter Critical
rules in which the player, as a buff but not terribly
bright barbarian, attempts to defeat the evil overlord from
slave pits he has just escaped. More importantly, he also
slaughter hordes of monsters, build up his statistics, and even work in
a little hot and heavy action with a certain delicate doxy
who embodies the male adolescent dream of the nubile
then, as Mr. Ross himself has not been shy to tell us on its website
and in the newsgroups, is very, very bad. And yet, for the
player with the right background, it can be very, very good.
writing rises to dizzying heights of innocent Eye of Argon
splendor. Here's the PC's description, just to give a bit of
have the savage bearing of an upland tribesman, quick like a THESKIAN
MOUNTAIN CAT and cruel of eye, though 'tis truth that your heart is not
unkind. Your mirth is as mighty as your gloom, and your ire as potent
as your warmer passions.
The game's technical
implementation, at least at first blush, is as adolescent as the
writing. Most of the standard IF verbs have been stripped
leaving you only a bare handful with which to work.
REGARD (i.e., examine) something; you can USE something; you can SEIZE
(take) something; you can DISCARD (drop) something; and of course,
and most importantly, you can ASSAIL (attack) someone or
something. Other than the usual movement commands and
that's pretty much it. While guess the verb problems
aren't likely, anyone who is
completely invested in IF as a serious literary form is
shrieking at this rejection of the last thirty years of
who are willing to take themselves and the form a little less
seriously, though, may soon discover something else: for all its
aggressive surface awfulness, Treasures
is a superbly crafted little game that contains none of the usual
annoyances of games of its (fictional) age and genre. You are
provided with a clear map of the game's logically laid-out terrain; the
puzzles are, fair, neither too difficult nor too trival, and
surprisingly clever in light of the limited parser; and even the
randomized combats are crafted in a logical stairstep pattern that
means you will never have to fight an opponent who is too difficult to
defeat. You will die plenty of times, but when a powerful
kills you you can feel assured that the time is simply not yet right to
fight him, that you should explore elsewhere and come back when you are
stronger and better equipped. The monsters in fact play the
that locked doors do in much traditional IF, blocking access to those
parts of the map you are not yet allowed to visit, and getting past one
even carries with it the same little thrill of satisfaction.
can of course also attempt to game the system by saving before
each combat and trying again and again for a favorable series of die
rolls, and the surreally ridiculous ease of doing so is even part of
the game's general ambience. Soon enough, though, you begin
have faith in the game's design and quit bothering.
course no real literary value whatsoever to any of this, beyond a hazy,
affectionate nostalgia for a bygone era in gaming. The
question thus becomes: is it fun? For me, yes, it
surprisingly so. There is something hugely, childishly
about watching random numbers scroll over the screen, wondering if you
or the deadly lizard maiden will run out of hit points first.
Ross even manages to inject a surprising amount of variety into the
simple combat formula by giving the later monsters a variety of attacks
beyond the basic hack, slash, bite, and claw.
is unusual among modern IF in that it carries a price tag.
Fortunately, Mr. Ross has made a demo version of the game
available, which should be sufficient to judge whether it is indeed
your cup of tea. If it is, you will find the full version a
surprisingly lengthy adventure. I'd estimate I spent a good
to ten hours on it. The last few were perhaps not quite as
enjoyable as those that came before, as there does come a point where
the jokes have all pretty much been told at least once, where the many
combats start to get a bit tedious, and where the whole thing flirts
dangerously with becoming an all too typical cRPG slog.
Before that quite happens, though, everything is wrapped up
suitably rousing, over-the-top final combat.
is the sort of game that will inevitably only appeal to certain people.
If it does resonate with you, though, you can feel confident
you are in for a big, well-designed game from an experienced creator.
Much as I enjoyed Treasures
I would be even more excited to see Mr. Ross bring his talents to
something that doesn't have to live and die by its irony. And
yet, and while I'm not particularly excited about games like this
turning into a long-term trend in IF, and could even point to its
retro-gaming fixation as one of the things that still painfully hobbles
the form today, I can't deny that Treasures
kept me entertained. I can perhaps best describe it as a Paul
Panks game that is actually competently designed and implemented.
If such a description appeals to you, you're going to have a
of fun with Treasures
if it doesn't, stay far, far away.
Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||October 1, 2007
||Glulx (Inform 7)
||maher SP@G grandecom.net
This vividly imagined game has plenty
of strengths, but also some real weaknesses. It's a
story, taking place in a world reminescent of the
adult novel (and classic computer game) Below the Root
You play Farahnaaz, a library employee and repairer of books
in the backwater city-state of Arg Varkana. As the game
begins, a diplomatic delegation has just arrived from another,
apparantly larger and more developed region for trade negotiations of
some sort. Your mentor has requested that you repair and keep
hidden away a mysterious book of poetry that the Ashtartans -- those
are the visitors -- want very much to get their hands on.
As the imaginative names may demonstrate, the author has clearly put a
lot of work into her setting, and it comes across very well.
In fact, it's by far the best thing about this game.
She hasn't settled for a collection of typical fantasy
tropes, but rather designed a world that feels alive and believable,
and that represents a surprising combination of fantasic and
technological elements. For instance, the various people that
fly into Arg Varkana's airfield use either winged creatures or
mechanical flying machines, depending on their cultural predilictions.
The gameplay is not a disastor by any means, but less impressive than
the setting, being a collection of fairly typical text adventure
puzzles which are mostly satisfying enough to solve but not compelling
or innovative in any way. However, things really break down a
bit in the area of NPC conversation. I got hopelessly stuck
at one point and had to turn to the hints, whereupon I learned that I
had been trying to ask the right question all along, but had not chosen
the One True Keyword. Further, all of the NPCs are so
unresponsive that finding the few things you can
talk to them
about quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. Something
like Eric Eve's Inform 7 conversation extensions, or just biting the
bullet and going with conversation menus, would have improved this
aspect of the game greatly.
I was also a little annoyed by my complete lack of agency in the game's
plot. Toward the end of the game you are forced to switch
sides, as it were, and help the individual who starts out as the
adversary to steal the book and escape. I saw absolutely no
reason to do this, and so was continually trying to find a way to turn
the tables on him and capture him. I was rather shocked when
I realized I was neither expected nor allowed to do this.
this is a very solid overall effort. The writing is
are the technical aspects of the game, the occasional glitch in both
aside. The few original illustrations that pop up
there are also nicely done and do great job of adding to
the setting and atmosphere. In spite of a handful of
represents a promising first effort from a new author.
Back to Table of
The following is not
a conventional review, but rather an in-depth discussion of design.
As such, it contains
, and is recommended reading for after
completed the game in question.
| Author Email:
||emshort SP@G mindspring.com
||October 1, 2000
||victor SP@G lilith.gotdns.org
is instantly recognisable as a work by Emily Short. Many of her
fictional worlds, including that of Metamorphoses
distant and slightly surreal, described to us as if seen through a
veil. These worlds are not our own; they are not even for fantastic or
science-fictional version of our world: they follow different rules.
What rules? The rules of the symbol, of order, of a totality of meaning.
Objects and people in these worlds do not appear in their
individuality: they act as symbols of ideas and principles. And it is
these ideas and principles, rather than the objects and people
themselves, that dictates what will, can or must happen. There are no
brute contingencies; the metaphysical reigns supreme, while the
physical and the psychological are relegated to a purely supportive
The result is that everything fits together and that everything makes
sense. But the fit is so perfect that we can only see the world's
surface--there are no cracks through which we can peek into the heart
of existence, where chance hides, and ugliness, and the failure of
meaning. In many of Short's works, these things do not exist; the
world's surface is polished and unbroken like that of an ivory ball;
and we are doomed to remain strangers, always at a distance, always
looking through the veil that separates us from these perfect,
This artistic effect works better in some pieces than in others.
In Pytho's Mask
it bled too much of the life out of what might otherwise have been an
emotionally charged political struggle, without adding real
metaphysical depth. It worked better in Savoir Faire
it accentuated the powers and personality of the protagonist, although
it did make it hard to care about his problems. In Bronze
, it allowed
Emily Short to fruitfully appropriate the fairy-tale La Belle et la Bête
which after all comes to us from 18th century French literature,
already highly stylised and set in a universe ruled by Morality. (It
is, I take it, no accident that Savoir Faire
in the same country and the same period; and also no accident that
Short's games are often set in the elevated realms of aristocrats at
court, and extensively feature highly symbolic and "elementary" objects
like mirrors, glass and noble and base metals. Two of her games are
even called after such substances.)
But is there any material in the history of ideas that would respond
better to this artistic effect than the philosophy of Renaissance
Platonism and Renaissance Naturalism? In this worldview, everything is
a symbol; the whole world is one organic, interrelated whole where
nothing happens without an intelligible reason; and the metaphysical
world of Forms is more real than the mundane world of Objects beneath
it. This is the worldview that Short chooses to explore in Metamorphoses
the techniques of elevation, abstraction and distancing that she
handles so well can perform their work--turning the base substance of
Inform code into the gold of art--anywhere, it must be here; and
perform it they do.
The player character in Metamorphoses
is, if not quite a slave, at least a servant with little freedom. Her
Master is an Italian alchemist. He practices mystical alchemy, and
instead of fiddling around with sulphur and mercury in some dank
cellar, he sends his servant on spiritual quests. It is on one of these
quests that the PC finds herself. She must gather and bring back the
four elements--earth, air, fire and water--by entering a laboratory
that exists somewhere between the material world and the world of Ideas
(which is also the mind of God). The four elements are symbolised by
the Platonic solids, an identification that goes back to
Entering the laboratory and finding each of these solids is the task
her Master has set for the PC; and she will have to solve several
puzzles in order succeed.
The puzzles all involve alchemical transformations of one sort or
another. In one room, you will find a dragon-shaped oven that can
change any object into one of five substances: wood, stone, glass,
metal, or cloth. In another, you will find an asymmetric hourglass that
can change the size of any object by enlarging or diminishing it. Most
puzzles are solved by taking an object, putting it through the
appropriate transformations, and using in the right way. This is a
satisfying scheme: you will find out the basic actions you can take
relatively early, and after that most of the puzzles make perfect
sense. The only puzzle which could have been better clued is the one
involving the hook: it doesn't give you much feedback when you try
something that doesn't work, and it is not obvious why some of the
objects aren't allowed to be used to solve the puzzle. The solution
that I finally hit upon--turning the dress to metal--could only be
arrived at by trial and error, since there is no reason to believe that
a metal dress will be attachable to the hook if a wooden one is not.
(It turns out that the metal dress is made of chainmail, but you cannot
know this in advance.) However, all of the puzzles have multiple
solutions, so it is unlikely that you will get stuck often.
The world is rich and carefully described. As I argued above, Emily
Short is very good at conjuring up the atmosphere that this work needs;
and it is no surprise, then, that the mood of Metamorphoses
its subject matter admirably. The half-real laboratory is made both
substantive and ethereal by the wondrous sights in every room, such a
glass trees, concave mirrors and naked statues holding golden keys. The
human factor is slowly brought into play through memories of the
protagonist, memories mostly of her Master making her do dangerous and
disagreeable things in the interest of his experiments; but memories
also of a happier life that she led before that. Finally, a series of
paintings on the walls of two of the rooms gives cultural and
historical context: we see the protagonist's village, several great
cities of Europe, and the New World, complete with noble savages and
Spanish ships. These three layers (metaphysical, individual,
historical) work together well, and present a rounded view of
the fictional world, which remains, however, curiously self-contained.
One thing about alchemy that Short has understood very well is that it
is primarily, at least in the minds of its more serious practitioners,
a way of spiritual purification. The Philosopher's Stone and the Elixer
of Life would be fun to have, no doubt; but what alchemy is really is
about is to rid one's soul of all that is base, and to understand the
mind of God. Another thing that Short has understood, and that the
Master in this game has not understood--or, what is more likely, what
he has understood but is too cowardly to act upon--is that it is the
process of alchemy that purifies, not its final product. The Master
hopes to purify himself by letting his servant do all the difficult
work; but the only possible outcome of this scheme is that it is the
servant herself who is purified.
And indeed, early on in the game, the protagonist is reminded that
there are more than four elements, and that the fifth
element--quintessence--will allow her to escape the bonds that hold her
back. As she finds more of the elements, more of the four humors that
plague her (at the start of the game she is melancholy, sanguine,
choleric and phlegmatic, the four humors of ancient and medieval
medicine, each corresponding with a substance in the body as well as
with an element in the world) are shedded, until she is ready to ascend
to the highest room and pick up the final element that sets her free.
At that point, she can return to the real world at any place she
likes--back to her Master, to show she has surpassed him, or to some
other place (Paris, London, the New World, death) to escape forever
from the memories of her native Tuscany.
It is a beautiful story, splendidly told.
It is not perfect; but then again, at the same time it is too perfect.
I now wish to discuss three aspects of Metamorphoses
work against it: its multiple endings; its depiction of Renaissance
Platonism; and, most importantly, its relative lack of emotional and
The multiple endings do not work. This is not surprising for a game
written in 2000; we are only slowly learning how to do this well, and
we still haven't really succeeded. The problem in Metamorphoses
that all of them are open to you until the very last move you make, and
this means that you can easily "undo" your first choice and then try
them all out. You probably will
do this, for three reasons. First, there is the standard obsession with
wanting to see everything that most of us suffer from. Second, the
epilogues are beautifully written, and it would be a shame not to read
them. And third, since it is very unclear what the different endings
will be before
you have tried them out, you'll have to try them out in order to
understand what the possibilities are and which one you'd like to
Is this a problem? Yes, it is. If you choose all of the endings in
quick succession, none of them will feel real. It is as if you didn't
make a choice at all, but just looked at all the possibilities. There
is nothing special about the first choice you make, or the last
one--they are just terms in a series that includes everything. So
paradoxically, by allowing the player too much choice, you take it away
Arguably, though, the multiple endings are there not as a real dilemma,
but to show how many possibilities the protagonist has in the rest of
her life, now that she has freed herself from spiritual bondage. That
is an interesting interpretation, but if it were true, the epilogues
should have been written differently--for some of them do not stress
possibility, but instead suggest only a new imprisonment (in death, in
courtly intrigue, in ignorance). So irrespective of whether they were
meant as a dilemma or as the representation of possibility, the
multiple endings do not fulfil their role.
There are also some elements of the game that don't fit in well with
the metaphysics of Renaissance Platonism, and thus diminish the
philosophical and spiritual unity of the story. Some minor complaints
could be made, such as that the dragon oven changes things to wood,
stone, glass, metal or cloth, while such a classification of substances
surely has never been proposed. However, we understand why Short chose
these categories, rather than (say) those of quicksilver, sulphur and
salt: it is far easier to make interesting and sensible puzzles with
them. One other minor complaint: the "noble savage" idea that is
expressed in one of the wall paintings is very much a late 18th century
invention. It doesn't fit into the historical context of Metamorphoses
But there is a more significant problem, and it has to do with the
mechanical contraptions that appear everywhere in the game, including
in a model of the Universe at the top of the tower that figures heavily
in the penultimate scene. Mechanical contraptions are, of course, very
common in interactive fiction, and this is not surprising: the idea of
mechanisms fits in perfectly with the standard end-means rationality of
the puzzle-solving and point-scoring interactive fiction protagonist.
But it does not fit in with Renaissance philosophy.
For the Renaissance Naturalist, the world is not a clockwork. That
metaphor appears only in the late 17th century; since the game can be
reliably dated as set in the early 1580s (through the John Dee
reference), mechanistic thought could not play a role in it. This is
not just a historical accident; it is philosophically important.
Renaissance Platonism posits in the superiority of the world of Ideas.
This means that fiddling with material stuff and building intricate
machines out of it is utterly useless in any quest for spiritual
purification. More relevantly when we talk about alchemy, Renaissance
Naturalism thinks of the world as a great web of correspondences and
analogies. It believes that the human body must have certain properties
because otherwise it would not be analogous to the heavens; it believes
that plants that look like eyes will cure eye diseases; it believes
that one can treat a wound by putting a salve on the weapon that caused
it. It doesn't think in terms of law-abiding processes, but in terms of
correspondence. Its thought is essentially non-mechanical. Hence, an
alchemist working in this tradition would never ever think of
enlightenment as the result of applying laws of optics to physical
problem (as you have to do to get the Fire element), or the result of
building intricate machinery (as you have to do to get the Air
element). And it is very unlikely that he would build a clockwork
planetarium to represent the Heavens.
In some ways, the analogy-based magic system of Savoir-Faire
have fitted this game better than the mechanical puzzles which it in
fact contains. The mechanisms and the alchemy in Metamorphoses
not belong together, and that undermines its philosophical and
spiritual unity. Here was a perfect opportunity to rise beyond the
means-ends rhetoric still dominant in interactive fiction, but
unfortunately, it is not made use of.
My final critical point is that, for two reasons, Metamorphoses
achieves little emotional and spiritual resonance. The first of these
reasons--and it is one that plagues most interactive fiction--is that
it is too short. We would like to have seen the characters in action,
especially the Master; we would like to have felt the humiliation and
fear of the protagonist ourselves, rather than just being told that she
once felt them; we would like to play out more scenes before and after
her purification, to see what difference it makes to her actual life.
This is all hard to accomplish, since writing IF takes a lot of time;
but at some point, it will be necessary for us to start writing longer
pieces. However, this is not a specific complaint against Metamorphoses
The second reason is that its aesthetics of abstraction and distance
are a mixed blessing for the game; for while they make it an almost
perfect work of art, they also form a significant limitation. We can
understand, intellectually, a process of purification that happens
through the collection of Platonic solids--but we cannot relate that to
actual things we ourselves could do or could go through. We can
understand the metaphysics of Metamorphoses
we cannot see how they affect us. This world is too distant, too
unreal, too far away from the chance and ugliness and absurdity of our
daily lives. Metamorphoses
is a beautiful and delicate work of art, but it is not a work of art
you can live by.
If my characterisation of Emily Short's work at the beginning of this
essay is right, this would seem to be an always-present danger for her
interactive fiction. Because of the techniques she uses and the
artistic sensibilities she has, her works always run the risk of
becoming too perfect, and thereby inaccessible; too laden with meaning,
and therefore meaningless.
This is a risk, not a necessity; but in Metamorphoses
risk becomes a reality. I stand in awe of this work, but I cannot love
it. To a lesser degree, this is true of the other works I have
mentioned as well.
I would like to contrast Metamorphoses
with John Crowley's Aegypt
novels. These too are about Renaissance Platonism, about the spiritual
quests for understanding and purification of Bruno and Dee and their
contemporaries, as well as being about the spiritual quests of people
here and now. But unlike Short's interactive fiction, Crowley's novels
are full of details that do not have a place in the overall scheme,
full of people who try to find
a meaning in their fractured lives, rather than having their lives
ruled and ordered to perfection by a meaning that is always already
there. Thus, Crowley is much more true to life. Aegypt
is about us
and how ideas influence us; Metamorphoses
only about the ideas.
Now, I believe that Emily Short has written at least two pieces in
which she does not succumb to the risk of self-enclosure. In Floatpoint
are still some traces of it, most obviously in the way that colours,
decisions and fates map so neatly onto each other, but these traces do
not affect the whole very strongly. But it is especially in City of Secrets
that Short allows contingencies, ugliness and individual idiosyncrasies
to enter her world, and this makes it the most life-like of her works.
I think that it is here, rather than in Metamorphoses
we can glimpse the future of her art. If she can further increase the
humanity of her work, can further increase its resonance with our
actual lives, and if she will be able to do so without sacrificing the
depth that is already present, then she can become more than just a
good and innovative author, namely, a great author--by wider standards
than those of our community.
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