ISSUE #60 - April 25, 2011

SPAG #60 Cover
The Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games

Edited by David Monath
April 25, 2011

SPAG #60
is copyright (c) 2011 by David Monath.
Cover art is copyright (c) 2011 by Robert Wheeler.
Authors of reviews and articles retain the rights to their contributions.

All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine with the traditional 'at' sign.

Editorial by David Monath

IF Demo Fair 2011:
    Cryptozookeeper Combat Excerpt
    Curveship (1st)
    Curveship (2nd)
    Desiring Flights
    Jason and Medea
    Life Flashes By
    Magical Diary
    Pirate's Plunder!++
    Procedurally Generated Narrative Puzzles
    Renga in Four Parts
    Richard and Larry Build a Time Machine
    The Table
    Using HTML and JavaScript for a modern IF experience
    Vicious Cycles
    what if im the bad guy?
    You Are Here / Winter in the Courtyard

SPAG Specifics:

Interviews with IF Comp and XYZZY 2010 Award Winners:
    Simon Christiansen
    Jason McIntosh
    Iain Merrick
    CEJ Pacian
    Colin Sandel & Carolyn VanEseltine
    Matt Wigdahl

Technical Direction:
    Action Flow Chart -- Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home

Game Reviews:
    Death off the Cuff
    Gris et Jaune
    The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game

Book Review:
    Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7


There's so much content in this issue, thanks to our team of contributors, that a lengthy editorial is both unnecessary and frankly, merely stands between you and everyone's hard work. Looking through past issues of SPAG, sometimes the editorials are short and punchy, other times long and incisive. Sometimes we switch editors and you get two! It's a mad world.

Briefly, you may have noticed something . . . unusual above. Hey, we've never had one of those before! Rob Wheeler wrote in, saying he had an idea which he thought would provide more individuality and a sense of collectability to each issue of SPAG. I wasn't opposed to the idea, but frankly, I had every expectation of a failed experiment and a polite observation that perhaps the addition of a visual medium just wasn't compatible with the magazine's textual character. What resulted, however, was a round or two of back and forth collaboration and ultimately the product you see at this issue's fore. I thought Rob captured the freely interactive environment of the Demo Fair and created a solid balance between color and visual interest on one hand and the written information on the other. When we introduce a pdf version of SPAG in the next month or two, I think Rob's art is going to be the perfect front piece. Great work, Rob!

Now, speaking of art, and unintentially invoking the Least Plausibly Yet Sincerely Accidental Segue Ever, we aren't going to talk about whether or not games are art, I swear. We're going to talk about the meta issue of why we care. There is no one in IF who hasn't thrown their hat into the games/art/Ebert debate, and this probably includes people without internet access or awareness of the industrial revolution. I found two of the earliest recorded incidents of direct commentary on the issue; one British, one Russian, and there's some debate about whether statesman John Bright's speech in 1867 was influenced by Dostoyevsky's 1866 Crime and Punishment, or whether the two developed the same imagery independently and were merely the first to put pen to it.

After a surge of discussion in February and early March I'd almost let this issue pass until some impassioned gentleman pulled the same semantic chicanery I just did, bursting with the calling of his heart to address why games are or aren't art, a subject for which I might recommend the epic commentary threads here and here on Emily Short's blog. (Word of caution: don't try to just "briefly consult" the afore-linked conversations while you're writing your editorial, because an hour of your life is going to disappear, replaced with enlightenment and panic.) Ok, so people care. A lot, and compulsively so.

Given that we're reacting to statements so vapid as to meet the tv tropes criteria for Insane Troll Logic, what's wrong with us? Normally you just ignore trolls. (Unless, in a fine study of dramatic irony made available via recent planet-if links, you write a semi-controversial blog post from which a well-reasoned discussion results while you become progressively more defensive and antagonistic toward your posters until you finally close the thread in anger because the conversation's apparently not going anywhere. And then, in your very next post, you do it all again. Dramatic reveal: You. Are. The. Troll. Cue "Twilight Zone." Also, cue laugh track. ) The difference here, and the answer to "why" Ebert's comments need to be addressed is pretty easy: Ebert's a gargantuan, Ballrog-sized troll standing on the bridge between us and popular legitimacy. Nobody has to address Orc #14 Off on His Own Scrambling for Purchase Before Plummeting to Certain Doom. But the real reason we can't just walk away is that he's not just the guy with the microphone: he pooped on our souls.

For real. It wasn't good enough that he's a vocal, respected man who humiliated us publically. It hurts because he's invalidated our participation in the voice and revelation of humanity. This struck me when Emily Short wrote, "I believe games are able to be art because what I do when I am making a game is an art-making process." Not only does that perfectly encapsulate the "too-obvious-to-refute" refutation demanded by Ebert's statements but so deeply personalizes our collective affront.

Adventure and IF gamers became indignant at Jonathan Blow's remarks and the intarwebz everywhere sprang to our defense, but while many of us found his PC Gamer interview offensive, that was more like a monumental snub rather than an attack on our worth as humans. (Sorry, social game designers.) Plus, he mitigates his comments on adventure/IF somewhat in person, unlike Ebert who periodically manifests in madness from some unknowable dimension where I'm sure in his native form, he undulates blasphemously to hideous pipings or whatever else old H.P. caught him doing.

Maybe that was slightly dehumanizing, too, but sheesh. Let's call it fair.

SPAG #61 Submissions, and Future Direction
I spent much of PAX encouraging people to talk about what it is they care about in IF, want to read, and how best SPAG can serve the IF community in the age of IFDB, IFWiki, and the rise of of dozens (ok, severals) of very well-written, insightful blogs. Everyone I was able to talk to basically concurs that IF needs a journal for lengthier, more academic work, and to capture the human element behind the creative process.

So, I've whittled down the notes I took and found the following foci (and I think this matches up extremely well with where Jimmy was steering SPAG before):

    -- SPAG Specifics style game analysis
    -- Articles on game design/philosophy/technical development
    -- Fusion and analysis of the IF scene (referencing multiple blogs, stepping back and looking at the IF community's events/trends/passion/work overall, in ways that individual blogs typically don't)
    -- Interviews
    -- International involvement

I have to say, everyone I've talked to in the realm of IF, and I mean literally everyone, independently says they love SPAG Specifics articles. This of course owes to the tremendous insight and caliber of writing from SPAG Specifics contributors, and to the IF community's fascination with how and why things work.

Please think about the above categories as you're considering your involvement in our forthcoming issues. Don't hold back the reviews, of course! There's always a place for well-reasoned guidance. However, if a game, particularly a current one but also of any era, has deeply affected you or captured your fascination, think about whether this might be the opportunity to delve into it in a way which illuminates its themes both subtle and overt, or challenges the way we approach an interactive experience. Why does a work matter? Has it accomplished something unique, or even failed in an intriguing way?

As an author, your published story is but one of many you have to tell. Have you been suprised by how a game has been received, or where your playtesters persisted in diverging from your carefully orchestrated lanes? What processes did you use to guide your development, what challenges did you face, overcome, or find it necessary to concede?

Based on my own experience, and conversations with others in the community, there's a tremendous interest not just in technical details (although there's quite the audience for that as well, and we'd welcome creative or elegant solutions to problems both technical and dramatic) but in the human element behind creation. Who? Why? How? (Naturally accompanied by their three additional journalistic siblings.) I almost always watch the director's or writer's commentary after I've finished a movie or show, because I find that understanding the perspective of the creator and the procedures they went through enriches my sense of participation in the work itself.

Thinking ahead to our Summer 2011 coverage, we'd love reviews, interviews, analysis, and author's commentary for the Spring Thing 2011, German Grand Prix, The [ADRIFT] Challenge, and any other new or notable older releases.

A great thanks to all the contributors whose hard work, thoughtfulnes, and time makes SPAG what it is. Cheers!

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IF Demo Fair 2011
Emily Short's (1st Annual?) Interactive Fiction Demo Fair at PAX East 2011 was brilliant fun. Not everything featured was a success, per se, but it was all fascinating, and a great opportunity for creators to interact with users. Many attendees have written of their own experiences at the Fair, but what follows is a series of more-or-less concise opinion paragraphs of each presentation by those who were there.

Many presentations arrived in varying states of completion, which is generally understandable given the time frame in which they were prepared, so the reader should understand certain of the comments in that light.

Jonathan M. Guberman's and Jim Monroe's Automatypwriter wins awards both for "Most Steampunk of 2011" and "Most Likely to Come Pre-Installed with Demonic Forces Which Leave Only Its Users' Lifeless Husks and the Basis for a Stephen King Miniseries." Cool as anything, but I wouldn't use it at night. Well, unless it played Anchorhead. Then, I'd be an idiot, but the last few hours of my life would be awesome.

Juhana Leionen's Vorple has several practical elements, including "clean formatting" wherein it deletes typos and redundant descriptions from the screen to decrease clutter and keep just the most relevant information for the user.

Procedurally Generated Narrative Puzzles by Clara Fernandez Vara, et al., creates a relational database of objects/facts which can create fairly logical puzzles on the fly from random elements, and has the potential to be a powerful tool.

Many thanks to Emily Short for of course organizing the Demo Fair, as well as for orchestrating the commentary below, and for her own input and that of Sam Ashwell, Jacqueline A. Lott, Sarah Morayati, Johnny Rivera, and Rob Wheeler.

Title: Automatypewriter
Author: Jonathan M. Guberman and Jim Munroe
 Author's Description: Like a more literate cousin of the player piano, the automatypewriter is a manual typewriter that types by itself, and takes input. You may have seen the video online where an early version of this project plays Zork -- the one being showcased here is an entirely different typewriter, playing a custom-built interactive fiction piece by Jim Munroe (Everybody Dies, Roofed).
Commentator: Emily Short

The Automatypewriter shown at the Demo Fair is a different one than the one shown in videos: the typewriter itself is more old-fashioned and pleasingly steam-punk-ish. There is something viscerally compelling about watching a typewriter stamp out words without any human intervention -- all the more given the antiquity of the typewriter in question.

I can't speak to the game that it was playing, however, because the machinery needed frequent care and adjustment to work, and so wasn't available to play with when I dropped by.

More information: Project website.

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Title: Cryptozookeeper Combat Excerpt
Author: Robb Sherwin
 Author's Description: Inspired by the user interfaces of The Bard's Tale and the sports simulation Diamond Mind Baseball, this demo attempts to show the Hugo engine manipulated to depict animal-based arena fighting, complete with photos of the combatants and their fighting statistics.
Commentator: Sam Ashwell

Cryptozookeeper is a long-awaited game from Robb Sherwin, rotating around a minigame in which you battle cryptids against one another; this was intended to be a showcase of the combat system. Sherwin's games have always been plagued by bugs and fragile implementation, which is a particular problem because he likes to build his games around combat systems, which are notoriously hard to implement in ways that are both mechanically robust and textually interesting.

As with Sherwin's previous games Fallacy of Dawn and Necrotic Drift, the basic IF core is lovingly complemented by images that mesh perfectly with the grody, slackerish tone of the (excellent) prose. But here's how my play experience went: I walked, as per instructions, through several rooms until I reached a computer console. I beat my head against this console for about a dozen turns before rechecking the instructions to find the specific phrase needed to operate it. I was given a short list of cryptids, picked one, and went into the next room. The cryptid I chose was there and so were some other cryptids. (I'd been hoping for deliciously obscure ones, but oh well.) If they were fighting, or if I was meant to make them fight, I had no earthly idea about how. I floundered for a while and then gave up. I didn't really feel that anything had been demonstrated.

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Title: Curveship
Author: Nick Montfort
 Author's Description: Curveship adds narrative variation to IF, so that an author can specify changes in how the story as told as easily as the underlying story world can be changed in standard IF. Key to this capability are first-order representations of action and a three-stage pipelined text generation system. Curveship is a Python framework and free software.
Commentator: Emily Short

Curveship explores the idea of separating the narrative presentation of the story from the world model.

The current demonstration pieces show off possibilities such as having all events presented in a changed time sequence (for example, in reverse order); or applying surface dialect features, such as a narrator who interjects "like" every few phrases. Different "spin" instructions can be layered together, as well, so that the author can mix and match presentation styles. This makes it at the moment an interesting system for playing with style in short passages, but longer stretches of output tend to become quite repetitive.

What the system needs next is more control over the way events are selected for narration, and over the way that individual event reports are assembled together into complete paragraphs. Those additions would make this a particularly interesting system for representing the behavior of procedurally-driven characters, for instance: traditional IF systems do not provide many tools for putting together a coherent, flowing narrative about the behavior of many characters acting during a single turn. I'd love to see Curveship develop in that direction.

More information: Curveship website, especially the examples 1, 2) used for demonstration.

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Title: Curveship
Author: Nick Montfort
 Author's Description: Curveship adds narrative variation to IF, so that an author can specify changes in how the story as told as easily as the underlying story world can be changed in standard IF. Key to this capability are first-order representations of action and a three-stage pipelined text generation system. Curveship is a Python framework and free software.
Commentator: Jacqueline A. Lott

Nick Montfort's long-awaited Curveship is finally here after years of development and speculation. It was featured not only at the IF Demo Fair, but also in a separate PAX IF session dedicated exclusively to this new system. It was great to see Nick take Curveship for a spin (with a live audience along for the ride), because it finally cleared up all the questions in my head as to just *what*, exactly, Curveship actually *is*.

What is it? In a sentence, it's a Python-based IF development system, and it can do some very slick things with narrative and character epistomology. (There! that clears it up for you, right?)

I think it's still too soon to know what impact Curveship will have on interactive fiction. At present, it feels quite experimental and a little beyond reach, particularly as there's no real documentation, so the system is really only accessible to those fluent in Python who are willing to examine Curveship's code to figure out what makes it tick. It's not just the lack of a manual, though-documentation can be written easily enough. For starters, the parser feels quite rudimentary. While the twists in narrative can surprise you in some very pleasant ways, the output often feels repetitive and a touch stilted in its approach. Perhaps most limiting, particularly in an age where we're trying to get games to run in browsers so that they're easier to run and generally more accessible, is the fact that Curveship absolutely must run from a command prompt, regardless of OS. It's one thing to place a few new technical hurdles in front of potential authors, but it's another thing entirely to force those same hurdles on the player. (Or, said another way, there's a reason why games that are more difficult to get running aren't as popular.)

Speaking solely in interactive fiction terms (there are other purposes for Curveship that go well beyond IF, such as AI research or explorations of computational creativity, which I'm not addressing here), Curveship doesn't feel fully-fledged enough to stand on its own as a system-not yet. If there were some way to, say, incorporate Curveship (or aspects of it) into other existing IF languages, we'd more quickly learn as a community just what it can do. That said, in its present form it's intriguing enough that I think some will explore it despite the hurdles, and I'm looking really forward to seeing where people take this.

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Title: Desiring Flights
Author: Barry Moon and Chris Danowski
 Author's Description: Desiring Flights is a game based on a text by Chris Danowski. There are five levels to navigate, each with a distinct presentation of text, sound, and image.
Commentator: Jacqueline A. Lott

Desiring Flights definitely fits the theme of the IF Demo Fair, particularly the theme of innovative user interfaces. Perhaps a little *too* innovative. I played only two aspects of this one, so I'll just speak to those.

In one section, you are presented with three-dimensional text which starts out fairly standard but soon begins to shift and flow. You fly with agency amongst the words, which are floating about in this two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space. It's beautiful, and it's surreal, and it fits at least one definition of "interactive," but writing this three or so weeks after the fact all I recall is the movement, the flow, the sense of confusion from being flung into something so novel, but none of the meaning behind any of the words. No memory of story.

The other section I played was similar to the first, except that instead of floating and flying amongst letters and words and phrases, you controlled your movement through through scenes depicted in photographs. These were flat images, but images that were designed in such a way that you could, say, look all around yourself in a room (if a room was the type of location being represented). This seemed to have greater promise in terms of interactive narrative, though the overall work felt very alpha in nature and I wasn't sure what to do, where to go, with whom or what I should interact, etc.

In Desiring Flights' defense, the IF Demo Fair parameters explicitly said things didn't have to be polished, that concepts were the point. And in that context, Desiring Flights definitely stood out. But the authors weren't present to show off their work, and the game didn't stand well on its own without someone to explain it. I had no idea what to do, and couldn't even figure out how to get out of one section so that I could explore another without ending the game.

I left frustrated, but intrigued. I'd like to see where they take this in the future.

More information: Downloads for Mac and Windows.

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Title: Frotzophone
Author: Adam Parrish
 Author's Description: The Frotzophone is an interface for making music with interactive fiction. The topography simulated in the game is used to generate sound, as is the player's path through the game. A Frotzophone "performance" looks just like playing a text adventure; but in addition to playing a game, you're also playing music.
Commentator: Sarah Morayati

Many of the IF Demo Fair's offerings could be classified as structural experiments, targeting the form's fiction component less than its interactive side. Among these: Adam Parrish's Frotzophone, an interface that pairs automatically generated music with IF.

In creating the Frotzophone, Parrish was inspired by mapmaking, a classic IF trope, of course, but also one easily applicable outside the form. In this case, music becomes mapping; the musical score is the map itself, waiting to be read by a performer. That map, in turn, corresponds to the one the player creates, at least at the interpreter level, while playing through an IF work.

This works more smoothly in practice than you'd expect. Whenever certain objects make it into the game world, more layers materialize in the music. It's accomplished through a Frotz hack, and players can see the tendrils that make up map connections and, in this case, new sounds.

In a way, it's a meta-puzzle. Which object's going to make it onto the object tree and grant you another note? Especially toward the beginning, when any music that's generated is going to be repetitive, it's a compelling reason to keep playing, even more so considering that the demo presented was a fairly standard Zork takeoff. The device works with other IF as well, though; sample output's provided, for instance, from accompanying Spider and Web.

It also helps, of course, that the music itself is pleasant. Obviously, the further into the game you get, the better things will sound; a couple hundred successful turns and what you'll hear isn't all that far off from, say, a Nifflas piece.

The premise is simple, but there's lots of room for expansion. Any IF game, sure, but even beyond that. What if, for instance, instead of tying musical notes to map connections, you tied chord progressions to story events? Implemented leitmotifs? Switched instruments? None of these ideas are new, of course; graphical games have pretty thoroughly trod this ground with their scores. However, the interaction of text and music is comparatively unexplored but well worth it, just to see what's doable.

More information: Project website.

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Title: Jason and Medea
Author: Victor Gijsbers
 Author's Description: In this demonstration, we look at the possibility of modeling conversation as combat. For that purpose we turn Inform ATTACK into a conversation system where all attacks are verbal, arguments function as weapons, and the price of failure is not measured in blood.
Commentator: Sam Ashwell

Jason and Medea is an adaptation of a scene from the Euripides play Medea, rendering conversation as combat. Playing Medea and using primarily ATTACK and DEFEND, you have to rhetorically defeat your unfaithful lover, where 'defeat' means 'win the support of the chorus.' There's not enough conversation-focused IF, to my mind, but I'm not convinced that this was an ideal subject for the mechanical approach it demonstrates.

Conversations take place in and are about a context; the successful conversational IF that I have thus far played has always had a strong element of cooperation, of mutual exploration of the theme, with antagonism breaking out only at intervals. If you're unfamiliar with the original Euripides, Jason and Medea is strikingly out of context; the attacks feel like expostulation rather than exploration. It is not easy to discern a connection between mechanics and content, which distanced me further from the text. I think that this technique might work very well as a scene towards the later part of a longer work, when the player had been given a firmer grounding in the topics of the argument; normally I don't have much of a problem with a player-PC knowledge gap, but it's very strong here.

The lack of grounding feeds into the piece's themes -- as a woman and a barbarian Medea is at a systematic disadvantage, and throughout the short gameplay I had the feeling of being on unfamiliar ground, of control slipping away from me. The problem was that this wasn't just a feeling about in-game control; it was a feeling about comprehension. Knowing that this was originally a static text, and that the available ways to interact with it were quite limited, made me feel less motivated to carry out the close reading that's normally rewarded in conventional IF. An earlier game that treated social conflicts in a combat-like way, Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, relied on short but very distinctive prose and a fairly high level of abstraction; J&M goes in the opposite direction, and it doesn't quite work.

Part of the problem, I think, is that compelling combat in IF isn't a solved problem. Satisfying combat in CRPGs is largely a matter of accumulating strategic options (items, skills, companions) and then deploying them in strategic ways. This requires quite a large game to work; IF that has attempted it tends to either lose most of its literary qualities (Magocracy) or feel like a thematic reference to RPGs rather than an RPG proper (Necrotic Drift). As a prototype, Jason and Medea suggests some awesome hypothetical games; I can easily imagine an inventory full of dangerous secrets and rhetorical devices, spending points on Flamboyant Classical Analogy or grinding aides in PNAC to rank up Dog-Whistle. But it also indicates a more fundamental problem: who is going to be able to write a game big and richly-crafted enough to make this work?

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Title: Life Flashes By
Author: Deirdra Kiai
 Author's Description: Charlotte Barclay, a novelist of moderate success, one day finds herself in a car accident while on her way to the next leg of her book tour. She then wakes up in the hazy world of her own memories and, accompanied by an impish pixie-like creature called Trevin, finds herself whisked away on a whirlwind journey to relive various vignettes of her life so far. In doing so, Charlotte attempts to make sense of who she is and who she s become, as well as who she could have been had she done things differently.

Life Flashes By is an interactive cartoon with a non-linear story structure consisting of conversational vignettes taking place at various points in time, each featuring a varied cast of characters from Charlotte's past. (Including, of course, several younger versions of Charlotte herself.) Gameplay is entirely puzzleless, focusing instead on free exploration and reflective choices made in Charlotte and Trevin's menu-driven banter. Surrealist artwork, a whimsical instrumental soundtrack, and a heaping helping of dry wit serve to further round out the experience.
Commentator: Sam Ashwell

A not-very-interactive graphic adventure divided into vignettes, any of which can be accessed from the main menu at any time. Halfway-successful novelist Charlotte Barclay revisits scenes from her past and alternate-world variants thereof, accompanied by a goateed fairy. Disenchanted navelgazing ensues. It doesn't seem to be a game in any meaningful sense; it's more of a hypertext novel with an adventure-game-styled interface, apparently interactive only insofar as you choose the order in which it is encountered. This odd hinterland between game and static fiction is not new, and nor are adventure games that heavily emphasize narrative to the near-exclusion of player agency; but it's still an unusual and difficult approach, and one where a strongly-executed work would be notable.

Caveats: I think this was really not very suitable for a demo-fair kind of format. The art is hideous MS Paint stuff; perhaps the point is to avoid glamorizing the mundane, but I found this actively distracting. There isn't much of an immediate hook, either in content, polish or interaction; it's a work whose qualities (or lack thereof) are only going to emerge through gradual layering, which is not feasible in a busy room under time limits. And unordered narratives take significantly more time to grasp; this, I think, would have been true even of the similarly-structured Le Reprobateur, even though it has a lot more going for it in terms of immediate appeal. Life was set up without headphones, and I got the impression that the voice acting was sort of lacklustre, but that could have been because it was competing with a dozen conversations taking place over my shoulder. I was left with the feeling that this would have been better-served with text descriptions. (Partly this is a matter of personal preference; I suspect that a good chunk of players will prefer any art whatsoever over text.) If I had played in a different context, I might have stuck with it long enough to find non-generic reasons to care about the characters. But I didn't.

The story is, from what I saw of it, an uncharismatic recounting of banal frustrations; there is an ostensibly fantastic frame, but it doesn't add any zest to its world. I've enjoyed works wherein a lack of meaningful agency is exacerbated by a protagonist's complaint-based worldview, and it's a bit more difficult to say why I'll defend Rameses but not this. (Some of it is probably because the basic texture of Rameses is punchy prose, whereas the writing of Life is filtered through gormless art and so-so voice acting.) Charlotte is a less obnoxious character than Rameses Alexander Moran, but this largely because she's more boring. Life doesn't depict a furnace of disgust at self and world, the stuff of Houllebecq or Alasdair Gray; it's about a middle-aged dissatisfaction not graced by intensity. I don't claim that this is an unworthy subject, but it's hard to make compelling works about.

More information: Author's website with free download, review by Emily Short, review by Andrew Plotkin.

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Title: Magical Diary
Author: Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar
 Author's Description: A sim set in a magical school, containing free-roaming RPG/Adventure sections. We're applying the open-ended approach of the dating sim to the adventure segments, so that every puzzle can be tackled in an enormous variety of ways depending on what skills the player has been developing. For example, a wooden door might be destroyed with fire magic, or unlocked with object magic, or the wood made to grow warped with plant magic, or the player might simply teleport past the door and ignore it completely.

Beyond that, it is a dating sim with a wide range of characters who are carrying out their own goals unknown to the player. Small interactions can have knock-on effects much later on. The design is intended to make each character's progress through the game feel like their own story (along with which, you can give each character a unique name and visual design at the start).
Commentator: Emily Short

Magical Diary is a visual novel that opens with a long stretch of story before it reaches any real choices or interaction. That made it a challenging selection for the Demo Fair, and several people commented that they didn't feel like they had time to get to the game proper before they needed to move on to other entries. (Moreover, I think the rather leisurely pace of the visual novel genre was unexpected to some of the people trying it out.)

I, however, had the unfair advantage of having access to the demo on my own time, so I played with it more. What I found was a fairly charming piece of work, though still substantially unfinished.

The premise is Harry Potter in Groucho glasses. The protagonist (by default named Mary Sue) is a child of non-magical parents who discovers her true heritage and is taken away to a school of magic. There she joins one of several houses, takes magic classes, participates in school sports, and meets people she might want to date. One of the professors is a surly fellow with black hair who runs detentions and hands out demerits unfairly, and has an unexplained dislike for the protagonist. The school has a variety of quirky traditions and holidays that reveal themselves over the course of the year. Magical society has layers of status, according the greatest status to all-magical families of high pedigree. Etc., etc., etc.

The heavy borrowing doesn't stop there. The magic system itself is a near lift from Magic: The Gathering, with its five colors of magic. Black magic is non-destructive in this version, but otherwise the colors are the same and the color meanings are fairly similar to the ones in the card game: blue for transformation, red for physical force, green for living things, white for spiritual and ethereal tasks. The ability to cast spells depends on the number of mana points the player has remaining in a given encounter.

Familiar premises aside, though, I can see why the game's creators might have thought IF players would go for it. The gameplay combines interpersonal choices (do you date this person? do you lie to that one?) and scheduling (which skills and magic styles are you going to take classes to cultivate?) with more puzzle-like exam portions. Each exam involves overcoming some obstacle using the magical spells the player has learned so far, and that set will vary depending on how the player focused her time.

I found the tests interesting multiple-solution set pieces, but just hard enough (because of the limited mana pool) that I rarely got them on the first try. Failure to solve a test isn't catastrophic, however. If the player can't get through a given exam, the character receives some demerits but gets to continue with her school year.

The result is a visual novel that offers more than the usual amount of inventive gameplay, including some puzzle design that fits in well with multiple-solution puzzle IF. At the same time, it's true to the feel and pacing of the visual novel genre, and while it may close out some ideal outcomes, it never leaves the player too stuck to continue at all. I enjoyed it and I'd be interested to see the full piece when it's complete.

More information: Project website, development blog. (Full game is not yet available.)

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Title: Pirate's Plunder!++
Author: Tiberius Thingamus (Duncan Bowsman, drbowsma SP@G
 Author's Description: In this game, it be yer goal to findeth ye olde, cursed treasure on Loot Island and taketh it fer yer own. Not even that evil Captain Hookhead can stoppeth ye once ye put ye mind to it. Know why? If ye guessed "Because I'm a pirate," yer on the right track, me hearty! // Pirate's Plunder!++ is a port and revision of the ADRIFT game Pirate's Plunder!
Commentator: Jacqueline A. Lott

Pirate's Plunder!++, in the iteration shown at the IF Demo Fair, is an updated version of Bowsman's original game, ported from ADRIFT to Inform. In the context of the IF Demo Fair, this game isn't particularly innovative. Bowsman knew this, and in fact lamented about that while I was trying out his game at the Demo Fair, saying that he was surrounded by experimental, cutting edge stuff. While that may be true, I was glad to see a few standard pieces like this in the show, because there were so many newcomers in the room that if all they saw were ancient typewriters banging out IF or works of interactive fiction that create their own music... well... that's not a representative sample of IF. It probably left a few people wondering if we were a community filled with off the wall misfits (and who knows, perhaps they're right).

None of this is to say that Bowsman's Pirate's Plunder is without its innovation. It makes extraordinarily heavy use of character voice. Nearly all the default messages have been overridden to make the thing drip with Piratese. I'm not a big pirate fan myself, but I think for the right audience it works really well, and shows that with a lot of customizing you can take the narrative voice any place you want it to go.

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Title: Procedurally Generated Narrative Puzzles
Author: Clara Fernandez Vara, Michaela Lavan, Alec Thomson
 Author's Description: This project focuses on methods to generate narrative puzzles procedurally. The point-and-click game Symon was a proof of concept of what an adventure game would be like if players had the chance to restart the game and get different puzzles, because they were being generated by the system. The project here presented are a set of tools for designers which eventually should be compatible with different development environment, including those dedicated to interactive fiction . The tools include a series of building blocks to build puzzle patterns, and a database editor, which designers can use to create the characters and items involved in the puzzles.
Commentator: Rob Wheeler

"Ok, show me what you got," I said to a fresh-faced college boy and girl. He did the typing and mouse clicking, she watched me intently as I reacted to the thing. A thing I was interested in from my own -- hurhurhoohaha ha mad? I am not mad -- experiments, and a years-long investigation into puzzle taxonomy. I knew what they had was a machine demonstrating something not particularly needed, but which potentially could be adapted into some really interesting storytelling technology down the line. This is where, for me, it gets really exciting.

From a database, object properties are collected and given enough definition that a rudimentary IF world (which creates items on the fly from this database) can be compiled and run. The cute trick here is that they are not just talking about NPCs, animals, objects, and rooms, but also subplots, quests, single puzzles, chained or nested puzzles. These are concocted out of basically random atomic elements (a wizard, a magic handkerchief) that I guess I'd have to go as far as to say, form molecular bonds with other atoms. The puzzles you get are very basic, but all complicated puzzles (except the very rare new elemental find) are built out of the simpler building blocks.

In any event, the demo worked like clockwork, and also put a smile on my face. It was written in a only a couple of months, starting in January, which means the authors are very bright young people indeed, and it's a pleasure to see that this kind of thing interests them the most. (And me, too, apparently.)

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Title: Renga in Four Parts
Author: Jason Dyer
 Author's Description: This is interactive poetry. Use the words that appear as a start, but do not feel constrained. Implication and association are possible. Even words that are not recognized may end up being used.
Commentator: Emily Short

"Renga in Four Parts" presents a short poem. The player types a word in response. "Renga" presents another short poem. The cycle continues through four parts: Ash, Clock, Mirror, Dynamo.

"Renga's" strength is that many of the poems are quite striking, and thinking about the relation between the word you typed and the poem it evoked is sometimes rewarding. Sometimes, though, there is no obvious connection -- and experimenting by typing the same word over and over again reveals the clockwork a bit. Often the sequence of poems moves forward in the same way regardless of what you type. So it works best when the player takes seriously the author's note:

Keep in mind that what you type is much a part of the poem as the verse.

Following that guidance led to my favorite exchange with Renga:

The leaves did not think
of themselves
as distinct objects

The cure
for ailments
other than death

More information: Playable version (Hugo download), discussion at the author's blog.

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Title: Richard and Larry Build a Time Machine
Author: Jeremy Penner
 Author's Description: A little web-based point-and-click parserless IF prototype. What if the player always had easy access to all parts of the story, and could try out different things at any point? What would IF look like if the player could undo any action and try a different one instead?
Commentator: Emily Short

"Richard and Larry Build a Time Machine" belongs in the other half of a diptych with "Vicious Cycles": both are games about temporal manipulation, designed to be played in a browser environment with an interface that simplifies away the frustrations of the parser. Both nonetheless retain something of an IF-style world model, encouraging the player to pay attention to individual objects and discover the things that can be done with them.

Where "Vicious Cycles" is polished, challenging, and disorientingly discontinuous, "Richard and Larry" presents a somewhat rough-hewn perpetually shifting narrative. A single scrolling page presents the story in its current form. Every turn or segment of the story can be interacted with at the same time: clicking on an event to undo it then causes ripples forward (and because of the time travel, sometimes backward) on the same page. It's a compelling idea, even though the story itself is not especially rich.

"Richard and Larry" avoids the back and forth effect of "Vicious Cycles" with pop-up menus: click on a hyperlinked object to interact with it, and it brings up a small menu, in place, of the verbs that can be used at this point. (The problem of using one inventory object on another did not come up, that I could see: a simplification that avoids a lot of problems the interface might otherwise have run into.)

I would be interested to see more work in this system, drawing on the idea of a flexibly shifting narrative but with more attention to content -- and, perhaps, a little work on the CSS styling as well. Having all of the story happening on a single page that the player must constantly review and reread means that the content would have to be something short and punchy, but there's still quite a lot of possibility in that space.

More information: Playable version, website for the underlying system, discussion at Emily Short's blog.

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Title: SNOW
Author: Jon Tyktor
 Author's Description: You find yourself alone on a ship that is locked in an ice field. What do you do next? Much like in real life, there is no one goal in SNOW. Just because you have come to an ending, it does not mean that you have arrived at the intended destination, or that there is one. Any meaning you find is your own.
Commentator: Emily Short

SNOW is challenging to get to grips with in the context of a short demonstration: it feels like fairly conventional IF, beginning with the player character stranded in a difficult situation, alone on an abandoned icebreaker ship. There are, besides, a number of odd implementation choices or blips: for instance, a bed that the room description draws your attention to ("One of the bed's in particular peaks your interest.") but that can't be examined, entered, or looked under. It was not entirely clear to me what the author wanted the work to demonstrate, though possibly I simply failed to find a sufficiently revealing path through the interaction.

More information: SNOW website, including browser-playable game.

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Title: The Table
Author: Matt Weiner
 Author's Description: The theme is both a different kind of interface (somewhat) and a different kind of character interaction. "The Table" uses an exclusively keyword interface (somewhat like "The Space Under the Window" or interactive poetry projects like "Figures in My Basement") to represent the stream of a character's consciousness. Guided by the player's input, the game recombines fragments related to various themes in a free-associative way. In "The Table," instead of trying to mitigate the artificiality of the procedural recombination of fragments, I highlight it by using deliberately non-naturalistic prose; but my hope is that the general idea can be adapted to something a bit more smoothly flowing, given enough time.
Commentator: Emily Short

The Table is an intriguing exercise in procedural prose generation. It captures roughly the effect of a person's mind wandering over a series of memories and sensations, and the clever part is the way it seeks connections between one concept and another. The player types a keyword from the output text, and The Table replies with a bit of prose that concerns that keyword but also connects back to has gone before. It's a little reminiscent of Space Under the Window, or Renga in Four Parts, also submitted in this fair.

Wisely, Weiner keeps the demonstration quite short: the player is allowed only a few moves to traverse the thematic landscape of the work, so that the piece ends with a concluding note of some sort before the text has time to become too repetitive.

On the whole, though, I came away feeling that the experience The Table provides is less compelling than it deserves to be, given the interesting code operating it.

Part of the reason, I think, is that the player is so unmotivated. I don't believe it's necessary for the player to control a character to care about an interactive story; but it helps if the interaction (whatever it may be) somehow reinforces the player's understanding of the story and explored world.

Because The Table accepts any input with more or less equal fluidity, and all the output is more or less equally vague and abstract, there isn't really any occasion for the player to form intentions or hypotheses about what he's doing. The most purposeful interaction I had with the work was when some word in the text made me curious -- there is, at one point, a reference to ghosts, and I typed >GHOSTS back because I wanted to know whether these were meant as literal or metaphorical ghosts, and if so, of what. But most of the time I found myself selecting almost at random, without any particular desire for the outcome or direction to my exploration.

More information: Playable version, discussion on the author's blog, including authorial notes.

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Title: Talkpack
Author: Bob Clark
 Author's Description: Jean-Luc Godard said that the best form of film-criticism was filmmaking itself. Why can't the same be true of game-criticism and game-design? In this one-button platformer, players navigate through randomly-generated spike-filled caverns in order to reach and interview sprites from the indie-hits Canabalt and Kill Jet, in conversations that are structured as RPG-style turn based battles. Defend against your enemy by guessing the correct response from the choices of Yes, No & Answer, or fight back by asking a Question of your own.
Commentator: Johnny Rivera

Bob Clark wrote Talkpack, a potentially frustrating one button game, in reaction to two other one button games, Canabalt and Killjet, both covered in his Play This Thing! review of Canabalt. The player steps into the role of Bob Clark himself on a quest to interview Canabalt and Killjet, in the form of each game's mascot. The player, armed with only a jet pack, wanders through spiky passages on the way to each meeting, and bumps into walls to move left and right. Upon reaching either game, Bob can engage Killjet or Canabalt in a battle that uses the unique conversation system, with game commentary worked into the dialogue.

Bob Clark appears as a non-player character early in the game, giving the player the opportunity to question Clark. NPC Bob Clark says that the "QAYN conversation system works like turn-based battles in an RPG--'Answer', 'Yes', and 'No' are defense, and 'Question' is attack. Respond to a question correctly, and you can recharge your health." (NPC Bob does not explain how PC Bob manages to die on a spike as dull as a Crayola crayon.) The aim is to let your opponent's health drain before Bob's does. Holding the Control key slowly drains health as options appear, in order of cost. Releasing the key will make a choice.

In the first available conversation, the two Bobs have the same quips available. The easily repeatable nature battle adds an extra layer of oddness. One Bob can parrot the question the other Bob just asked and the Bob himself just answered. The repetition is less odd when talking to Canabalt, portrayed as a junkie, or Killjet, who is just Killjet. A game with more varied responses or a more complex conversation would make this less noticeable.

While somewhat lacking as a game, Talkpack slips some amusing dialogue and game criticism into a conversation system that doubles as a battle mechanic. Successful or not, this kind of experimentation makes up the stepping-stones on the way to better conversation in games.

More information: Playable version, discussion at the author's blog.

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Title: Using HTML and JavaScript for a Modern IF Experience
Author: Alex Warren
 Author's Description: Web browsers can no longer be second class citizens when it comes to playing text adventure games. On, the number of people playing games online outnumbers those who download for offline play, by as many as ten to one.

Enabling the full experience in a web browser opens up interactive fiction to all platforms, including mobile devices. But not only that, it allows us to interact with text adventure games in more innovative ways. By harnessing the power of HTML and JavaScript, it is possible to create innovative interfaces, and integrate games with the rest of the web.

Quest 5.0 is a free open-source rewrite of Quest, featuring a component called WebPlayer which serves games using AJAX. Because the game is run server-side, even large games can be loaded easily on any device. This demonstration of WebPlayer will attempt to show a few ideas for how modern interactive fiction can use the full power of the web browser.
Commentator: Emily Short

Like Vorple, Parchment, and Quixe, this project makes a strong case for browser-based IF. The demonstration shows off a number of different UI possibilities, including ones with hyperlinks and embedded images, inventory and compass windows. None of these looked quite as sharp (in my opinion) as the Vicious Cycles or Vorple demos in terms of pure graphic design -- but they did demonstrate a smooth, robust interaction with the underlying game engine.

The most daring and intriguing of the examples is one in which two side-by-side windows allow the player to access the same game scenario from two different viewpoints. Actions on one side by one actor are sometimes presented from the other viewpoint in the second window. It's a neat tech demo of something that would not be trivial to do in most systems I'm familiar with.

Overall, Warren makes a strong bid for the new 5.0 edition of Quest to be taken seriously by the community.

More information: Playable version, discussion at the author's blog, discussion at Emily Short's blog.

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Title: Vicious Cycles
Author: Simon Mark
 Author's Description: Story: A game about time-travel, a bomb, and dying many times. Relive the same moment over and over again, peeling back layers of information each time until you have the truth. User interface: An experiment in minimalism and easy accessibility. All interactions, including simple object manipulation, done by clicking on hyperlinks. Browser-based: PHP, HTML and CSS.
Commentator: Emily Short

Vicious Cycles is a parserless remake of a game entered in the IF Comp in 2001. Accordingly, there's a substantial amount of game here -- more, I suspect, than most people were able to see in the time allotted for interacting with a demo.

There is a lot to like about the new design, especially the smooth transitions and attractive text. Important objects are hyperlinked, and clicking on them gives a description and, where appropriate, a list of ways to interact. It's never possible to get stuck finding an action to do next, but there are enough possible actions that the story retains its sense of mystery and puzzle-solving.

At the same time, it's an interface that breaks up the story experience into discontinuous chunks. There is no transcript to scroll back through, no sense of developing history such as Undum provides. At any given time, the main page contains a static location description and, optionally, a boxed segment of text representing what is happening at this exact moment. Clicking on an object to examine it takes you away to another page with a line or two of description; you return to the location description using a back button.

This becomes a little more problematic as you get further into the story, as well. The game turns on replaying a scenario again and again to get it right, and later on one finds oneself waiting through many turns to test a hypothesis about what's going to happen later. Each time, this means reloading the main page in order to refresh the contents of the "what is happening right this minute" box on the screen. It's not exactly hard to follow, but it does make for a highly punctuated experience in which each moment in time seems like a separate entity, disconnected from the next.

Considering the story content, that might not be a bad thing.

More information: Playable version, discussion at Emily Short's blog, original Inform version of the game.

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Title: Vorple
Author: Juhana Leinonen
 Author's Description: Vorple is a JavaScript user interface library designed to be used together with interactive fiction and hyperfiction systems. Vorple provides an additional user interface layer on top of existing web interpreters and systems. Story and library authors can build user interface and web elements the underlying system might not support natively. Through Vorple, stories can display YouTube videos, pull data from Wikipedia, communicate with Twitter or Facebook, integrate to blogs, or use any other services and techniques available for web applications.
Commentator: Rob Wheeler

"Ok, show me what Vorple does," I said in my interested-customer voice. And prompt and eager was he to show me the flashiest thing it does, first. Typing in what appeared to be an IF interpreter running in a Firefox browser tab, he called up a slick graphic of a video screen upon which a YouTube video played. It was a good special effect, the demo worked perfectly, and I'm smiling. But he can see that the customer wants to see the real business, not just the flash.

He shows off subtler special effects: ones that maybe seem a little unimportant at first, but grow in the back of your mind (well, mine, anyway) and later whisper back to you, "This could be a really neat thing, if it were the standard UI." I'm particularly talking about Vorple's ability to cleanly fade and edit out poorly-entered commands once resolved by the parser, so that they sort of never-existed. I must compliment the artistry represented in the editing effect, because it was simple and polished and looked very professional.

It did a few other fun things using real-time calculation and update gimmicks. The author claimed there was a lot left to finish, but what I saw looked solid. Easily the most (big-P) Professional demo at the fair.

More information: Discussion at Juhana Leinonen's blog, discussion at Andrew Plotkin's blog, discussion at Emily Short's blog.

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Title: what if im the bad guy?
Author: Aaron Reed
 Author's Description: Exploring a frozen battlefield moment from a half dozen violently conflicting perspectives, this prototype (part of the author's work towards a digital arts MFA) merges traditional IF with video, sound, and web conventions. Inspired by the currently unfolding trials of six U.S. Marines accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, the project asks what interactive stories can say about contemporary, real-world events, and wonders if there can be such a thing as an IF documentary.
Commentator: Sam Ashwell

Behind the text, video taken from military team shooters plays. The audio is packed with urgent shouts over radio crackle, half-heard snippets of angry War on Terror rhetoric. The narrative repeats over and over, and the narrative voice is that of a bullying, break-you-down officer; there's a strong feeling of brainwashing or hazing, of having thought-patterns beaten into you. The iterations change tense, mention or omit different elements, call things by different names, switch from singular to plural. The noun-switching, in particular, emphasizes multiple levels of perception and the perception-shaping power of names, including some vicious racial epithets. The repetition-and-variation makes it ambiguous as to whether a single incident is being portrayed, or a whole series of similar ones; there's a feeling of brutalized existentialist unreality. The metagame, of expanding available verbs, is not readily comprehended, and working through it has a grasping-in-the-dark feel. My immediate thought when I gave up was that the primary point of the game was to be post-traumatic stress disorder in a can.

Indie theatre-of-cruelty games are not uncommon, but they rarely feel this thorough, this immersive. The main problem is that the IF side of things is sluggish and limited; many actions are not properly understood, and it often breaks into obviously-wrong parser responses. This helps the feeling of grasping in the dark, but weakens the text. The small stable of verbs and nouns encourages unlikely actions (SHOOT SUN) which are then responded to in broken ways, threatening to turn things into a Rybred exercise. This never quite happens, but a more robust parser would be valuable.

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Title: You Are Here / Winter in the Courtyard
Author: Sarah Morayati
 Author's Description: News organizations are increasingly turning toward interactive components, such as virtual tours, games or interactive graphics, to enhance stories. Although many of these are quite sophisticated, they often lack the subtlety and freedom of storytelling that prose can provide. IF, however, includes both interactive and prose elements, and authors have told compelling stories with the medium for years.

You Are Here gives writers a framework to create interactive explorations of their journalism or nonfiction projects. It's best suited to projects that play to IF's strengths -- complicity, sense of place, self-directed storytelling, etc.

Included are two components. First, an Inform 7 extension that, among other things, adapts the parser to suit nonfiction projects, allows authors to track mentioned names and facts and adds a photo component if desired. Also included is a sample story, "Winter in the Courtyard." It's a real story about a real development in Chapel Hill, N.C. and an example of what the framework can do.
Commentator: Rob Wheeler

"Ok, show me what it does!" I said once again, enthusiastically. I had talked to the author earlier, enough to know the basic concept: using the IF medium as a -- to put it mechanically -- a device for communicating non-fiction. The author did the research typical for a background piece on a particular property and its present and former tenants, the shopkeepers, and the community. All of this information could be presented in a newspaper article or magazine essay, but here the experiment is to let the -- let's call them the "researcher" rather than the "player" -- researcher discover all of the information by following their curiosity.

The actual demo was based on using the Inform tool to build a simple model of the storefronts and paths and places, with opportunities to learn a new fact everywhere you look. My take on it, which I said at the time, is that using the medium for non-fiction is absolutely a great idea and has to be developed. The version at the demo fair was just the first scratch at the inside of the eggshell. Uh, not sure where that metaphor came from. I'll have to guess that what I mean is, non-fiction IF may be a sibling medium of its own, with its own conventions, that we have to collectively discover work best.

The big challenge, that came up when I was playing, was "how do you make sure the researcher can get the next thing they're curious about, now that you've caught his interest in something." This demo left me cheerful and excited about the potential.

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Title: Zifmia
Author: David Cornelson
 Author's Description: Zifmia: enable wildly interactive user interfaces for interactive fiction using Inform 7, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery.
Commentator: n/a

Zifmia remains in progress, but technical issues prevented it from being shown.

More information: discussion at the author's blog.

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SPAG Specifics
The following is not a conventional review, but rather a more in-depth discussions of design. As such, it contains some spoilers. You may not wish to read it until after you have completed the game in question.

Title: Gigantomania
Author: Michelle Tirto and Mike Ciul
 Author Email:
Release Date: October 1, 2010
System: Inform 7
Version: 1
Reviewer: Victor Gijsbers
Reviewer Email: victor SP@G

It is easy to criticize Gigantomania. Almost immediately, it throws a terribly overwritten and not quite flawless passage your way:

The grunts and sighs of dozens of men plowing or extracting potatoes and grain with roots firmly in the ground fills up the silence of the sky, the silence of repression. The barren soil matches the thin arms and haggard faces further raping it. I haven't slept for ages either, but the pain of avoiding hunger for even longer and the slight rumble of land constantly being upturned keeps me awake.
which presumably aims to make clear to the reader that Stalinist Russia is not a fun place to live in. This is unfortunate, partly because the game doesn't need such a ham-fisted introduction, ably establishing the gruesome nature of its historical era during play; but even more because it obscures the fact that Gigantomania's ideas are both subtle and subtly conveyed.

Obscuring or muddling what is good about it through questionable design or implementation is the game's recurring sin. From guess the verb situations to the weird farming mechanics, and from the failure to remove quips from the conversation menus when they have been chosen to the opaqueness of the chess notation in the final scene, Gigantomania repeatedly goes out of its way to hide its strengths behind its weaknesses. But those who persevere will uncover a fascinating work that is innovative, thoughtful, and unsettling. It is this good game underneath that I will discuss and analyze in the current article.

Gigantomania consists of four parts, each of which puts the reader into the role of a different inhabitant of Stalinist Russia. In the first part, we are a farmer on a kholkoz, a collectivized farm, struggling against famine and brutal repression. In the second part, we take the role of a young female industrial worker who fervently believes in the ideals of Marxism-Leninism, even though her work is hard and unhealthy and it is almost impossible for her to get food. We then move on, in the third part, to a bureaucrat trying to survive the continual purges carried out by the secret police. Finally, we get to play Stalin himself, the supreme leader of the Soviet Union. With the exception of one off-hand mention of a name and a few historical topics that come up in two of the scenes (the great famines and the Katyn massacre), there is no continuity between these four parts. There are no recurring characters, and decisions made in earlier scenes do not change the later scenes.

This is of course a dangerous design choice. One risks ending up with vignettes related only by the fact that they take place in the same historical era; vignettes which fail to throw light on each other and thus leave the player unfulfilled. But Gigantomania not only evades this pitfall, it manages to establish tight thematic connections between its scenes; so tight, in fact, that any attempt to understand the meaning of the game through a separate analysis of its constituent parts is doomed to completely miss its point. Michelle Tirto has achieved unity the hard way: by having the game's four parts slowly reveal its theme through their differences. To understand the piece, we must see what these differences are and how they hang together.

The most obvious structural pattern of the four scenes, and one commented on by many reviewers, is that of increasing social standing: from the lowly peasant we move on to the somewhat educated factory worker, then to the well-off bureaucrat, and finally to the supreme leader. In itself, this progression -- although it nicely but ironically mimics the farmboy-to-hero or rags-to-richness narrative of many contemporary computer games -- is hardly interesting. But when we see what other changes go along with it, Gigantomania starts to reveal its thematic content.

We should, for instance, note that the increase in social position is accompanied by a distancing from the actual horrors taking place in Russia and the territories it occupies. The peasant from the first scene is starving; his wife is dying and his friends are getting killed. Every day is a struggle for survival. When you play the first section, all the cruelty, all the repression, all the physical hardship is right in your face.

An enormous distancing takes place when we move to the factory worker of the second scene. She is faced with shortages, certainly, but for her the politics of agriculture are only a distant and imperfectly understood topic. Her health is deteriorating in the factories, and we would not be surprised to learn that she is destined for an early grave; but she does not face death every day, as the peasant did. While saying the wrong thing in a conversation with her room-mate Yulia means that she will be killed as a Trotskyite, she can simply refrain from saying the wrong things. Her life is unappealing, and terrible in its own right, but compared to that of the peasant it seems positively carefree.

Another distancing takes place when we get to the third scene. The bureaucrat is immune to all the common hardships of the people. He has the leisure to drink excellent vodka, listen to jazz music and read soppy romance novels. Although the danger of being caught in a purge is ever present, and he is thus no stranger to the threat of death, he is apparently sure enough of his position that he dares to own (if not openly show) many bourgeois artifacts purely for pleasure. We do get a taste of the horrors of the Stalin regime in this scene, since the plot turns around the orders for the Katyn massacre, which objectively speaking is much worse than anything we saw first-hand in the peasant's scene. But the crucial point is that we do not experience it first- hand. We do not even experience it second-hand. Between us and the horrors of Katyn lies a vast gulf.

And finally, there is Stalin. Although he could easily have been portrayed as a paranoid, Michelle Tirto gives us a character who seems at ease and unafraid of anything. While his thoughts are almost uniformly about the greatest evils of the times -- the Katyn massacre again, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, World War II in general -- his primary concerns are with devising petty personal slights against Hitler and other heads of state. While the bureaucrat at least felt horror about the coming slaughter, Stalin feels nothing. He is completely removed from the reality of evil. We have reached the farthest distance possible.

This change in our distance from the actual horrors is accompanied by a change in tone: as Gigantomania progresses, it becomes funnier and more light-hearted. While the first scene is completely humourless, and written to be as depressing as possible, the second scene already contains some mild jokes -- especially the "don't you mean comrade Yulia" joke. The repeated references to Murky Passions, the trivial illegal objects, and the absurd dialogue option about pirates give the third scene a distinctly comic undertone; and with Stalin, we cast all pretences at seriousness aside: he is cast as a buffoon who has lost all contact with reality and tells some very bad jokes indeed.

The result of this change in tone is startling. At one level, we are very uncomfortable with the increasing distance between our characters and the grim reality they inhabit, and with the lighter tone that is made possible by this distance. We know from the first scene how bad things really are. How then can we feel anything but revulsion for the woman who still defends communism; even greater revulsion for the man who profits from the system; and pure loathing for the man who embodies and perpetuates it? We may laugh at his Hitler jokes, but we know the condition of possibility of our laughter is a blindness to what is really going on. Standing alone, the fourth scene would have been a shallow joke about Stalin. But in context, the very fact that it is a joke makes enjoying it a guilty pleasure. And yet enjoy it we do, because we are glad with the change in tone. We want to look away from the starving peasants, and from the labourers slowly working themselves to death. We'd much rather enjoy a good game of chess and the pleasant ravings of this man of steel. Gigantomania makes us laugh, but it is the uneasy laugh of someone who knows that his irony is only spineless escapism.

Reinforcing this uneasy feeling is a fourth dimension of difference between the scenes: as we climb the social ladder, distance ourselves from the actual horrors, and increasingly indulge in fun, we also lose the ability to make meaningful choices. As the peasant, we are thrust into a complex situation where our efficiency and the choices we make mean the difference between life and death for a handful of people. We are firmly embedded in a social structure where what we do makes a real difference to concrete persons.

Once again, everything changes when we get to the factory worker. She has left her family behind in order to serve the communist ideal, and has received only extremely limited forms of social contact in exchange. Nothing she does changes the lives of those around her. But she does at least have one meaningful choice: she can choose to stay true to her ideals, or betray them for a piece of bread. Limited as it is, not even this space of possibilities is open to the bureaucrat. He has no ideals left that could be betrayed; and he will be forced, in the final conversation, to frame his father-in-law to save his own life. The only thing left to the bureaucrat is the possibility to attempt to frame someone else: these attempts will fail, and he will have to implicate his father-in-law eventually, but at least he can try. He is so much a part of the state machine that he no longer has any choice, except the choice to feebly struggle against that machine before succumbing to its inevitable and preordained motions.

And finally, with Stalin, we lose even the pretence at choice. Several reviewers have panned the final section for its lack of interactivity, but in doing so they have missed the point completely. Stalin's mind has been made up. There is no longer room for doubt and critical investigation; Stalin has already submitted himself to Stalinism wholly and unconditionally. He no longer acts, but watches his own thoughts run their courses. He is immune from all real human contact. Presenting this Stalin in the form of a multiple choice menu where none of the choices make a difference was the only possibility, and the logical thematic conclusion of the piece.

Gigantomania, then, suggests that as we submit more and more of ourselves to the systems that govern society, our distance to what actually happens increases; that with distance comes loss of meaningful choice, loss of the possibility to make a difference in the lives of real people; and that humor and irony serve, or serve in these circumstances, as distancing tropes that stand between us and a reality that we would rather not contemplate. Far from being a facile "communism is bad" piece, as it has been called by some, Gigantomania has something subtle and important to tell us.

Given this message, the final scene can be seen as a triumph of game design. Here, the player inhabits the mind of Stalin as he plays a game of chess against himself, thinks about his future courses of action, and listens to visitors -- visitors whose words do not even penetrate the inner mind of the dictator. Screened off from the world by a literal veil of ideas, we are presented with the horrors of war and Stalin's personal ruthlessness, and at the same time protected against having the appropriate negative feelings through a liberal use of jokes and absurdity.

Best of all, there is the chess game. The anachronistic "Pearl of Wijk aan Zee" (Roberto Cifuentes Parada vs Vadim Zvjaginsev, Wijk aan Zee 1995; and one of at least two games known by that title, the other being Garry Kasparov vs Veselin Topalov, Wijk aan Zee 1999) was undoubtedly chosen for the fact that Zvjaginsev callously sacrifices most of his pieces on his ruthless path towards victory. But it is not so much the specific game that is important, but the fact that the player is now playing a chess game as well as a piece of IF. To experience Gigantomania as it should be experienced, I highly recommend taking an actual material chess board and placing it before the monitor and keyboard, where it can physically distance us from the game as well as mentally. (Though if a chess board is unavailable, one can replay the game online instead.) Playing the chess game and IF game side by side will give the final scene a better pacing, but, more importantly, will also remove us yet further from the fictional world. Our eyes will skip over the massacres and executions and war crimes, because we want to see the next move. We will refrain from contemplating what the world would look like if Hitler had not ordered Operation Barbarossa, and contemplate black's sacrifices instead. We are turned into the decadent aesthetes in the ivory tower; into the ultimate Apparatschiks, infinitely removed from any human reality. We have succumbed to everything Gigantomania warns us against.

And when we simultaneously enjoy the beautiful last moves of the chess game and relish the final humanising exchanges between Stalin and his daughter Svetlana -- a humanising that we, bourgeois sentimentalists that we are, are particularly sensitive to -- Gigantomania has beaten us in every possible way. It warned us from the beginning, and yet we could not resist its lure. Checkmate indeed.

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Interviews with IF Comp 2010 and XYZZY Awards 2010 Winners
Thanks to Irfon-Kim Ahmad, Christopher Huang, Valentine Kopteltsev, Sarah Morayati, and Felix Plesoianu for their engaging interviews, and of course to all the interviewees for their time and jolly cooperation. -- I hope you all enjoy seeing how the different interview styles play out in the ensuing discussions as much as I did!

Simon Christiansen, Author of Death Off the Cuff
    as interviewed by Irfon-Kim Ahmad

Simon Christiansen is the author of three published interactive fiction games: 2005's political thriller, Internal Vigilance, which netted tenth place (of thirty-six) in IFComp 11; 2008's controversial emotional exploration, Grief, which garnered sixteenth place (of thirty-five) in IFComp 14; and the recently-released (2010) comedic detective mystery, Death Off the Cuff, which took fifth place (of twenty-six) as well as the coveted Miss Congeniality award (honouring the game best-liked by other competition authors) in IFComp 16 as well as winning the Best NPC title in the 2010 XYZZY Awards for its entertainingly classic lead inspector, Anthony Saint Germain. Simon took some time to talk with me in the wake of his recent successes.

Irfon-Kim Ahmad: How about we start with a brief background of who you are, what you do outside of IF, etc.?

Simon Christiansen: Of course. Well, I am Simon Christiansen. I am currently working as a software engineer for a company that designs logistics software. In my spare time, I read a lot, work out, play video games and write short stories.

IA: Do you find a lot of overlap between writing short stories and writing interactive fiction?

Simon: To some degree, yes, but IF has a lot more focus on writing descriptions, as opposed to static fiction where I tend to focus more on the action. I have definitely been able to use the feedback I have been getting from IF reviewers to improve my writing in general. The actual game design is an entirely different matter, of course.

IA: That's an interesting dichotomy. Would you say that you treat the prose of an IF work and its game-like aspects as two completely different parts?

Simon: That's a good question... Trying to make the writing flow properly can definitely influence how I structure the actual gameplay, so they are not entirely separate.

IA: Do you usually come up with a story idea first, or a game mechanic?

Simon: I would say it's mostly the latter. With Internal Vigilance I wanted to create a game that explored an ethical question, Grief was an attempt to experiment with the structure of the game, and Death Off the Cuff started as an attempt to experiment with conversation systems by focusing the conversation on objects in the environment. I felt this might avoid the "guess the topic" problem with ask/tell while also keeping away from the lawnmower effect (where the player systematically tries every option until they're all exhausted) you get with conversation menus.

IA: Congratulations on all the awards for Death Off the Cuff. Did that come as a surprise for you?

Simon: I was pleasantly surprised with how well the game was received since I didn't really feel the gameplay worked very well myself. In fact, I almost didn't enter it, but then I decided I might as well get it tested and my testers loved it. Some reviewers did point out that the gameplay was a bit thin, but most seemed to think the humor made up for it.

IA: Did you have any worries about pulling off an interesting "one room" game when you started designing Death off the Cuff?

Simon: Not really. I don't think the number of locations have much to do with the size and complexity of a game. A one room game with a ton of stuff happening might very well be larger and more complex than a game with hundreds of boring rooms with nothing to do in them.

IA: Some people to have expressed surprise that it came from the same author as Grief, which was both dark in tone and comparatively sparsely-written. Was that a conscious decision to shift focus?

Simon: With Grief I had this silly idea that by making everything very sparse and generic I would allow people to project their own life into the game and imagine that the events were happening to them. This was a terrible idea, of course. I have later learned that generic writing is considered one of the worst things you can do as a writer, so I have tried to avoid making that mistake again. As for the tone, both Grief and Internal Vigilance were attempts at some very serious artsy stuff, neither of which worked very well. With Death Off the Cuff, I decided to try and make something that was just fun and then wait for the great works of art until I have figured out how to write a fun game. I try to learn from my mistakes, and I really appreciate all the people in the IF community who are willing to spend their time giving me feedback. When I write short stories, it's hard to get very many people to read them and tell me what they think. With IF, I can submit a game to the comp and have 30 people write detailed dissertations on exactly what I am doing wrong and how to improve.

IA: You've also received many positive reviews, both to Death off the Cuff and to your earlier games. Are the negative reviews ever difficult, or is it all good food for the next game?

Simon: Sometimes it's tough to get negative reviews, of course - especially with Grief where some people seemed to get outright angry -- but I always try to take all the feedback to heart and use it to improve. The only reviews I don't appreciate are ones that contain no constructive criticism at all.

IA: Your games seem to be becoming more focused over time, especially in your approach toward multiple endings. Vigilance had a lot of completely optional material, and no firmly "correct" ending. Grief had a series of endings of which a player had to experience most or all to get the real impact of the game. Cuff does seem to be the first with a single "correct" ending. Is that aspect a different experiment each time, or do you so that as a progression?

Simon: I don't think of it as a progression. Some games work best with several endings, and some don't. Grief really only had one correct ending. You haven't truly completed the game until you reach that one. Reaching the other endings and restarting was supposed to be part of the total gameplay experience. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that you reach all the endings in the correct order, which is one of the design flaws of that game.

IA: There were three years between your first two games and two years before the next. Have you started germinating ideas for your next game?

Simon: Absolutely. I have a lot of ideas for things I would like to try, but I haven't gotten seriously started yet. I hope to finish something in time for the next IfComp though. I have definitely gotten better at planning my projects -- becoming a professional software engineer might have something to do with that. With Internal Vigilance I started out with an idea to create the most awesome and profound game ever, and only finished it years later after cutting out most of the amazing stuff that I'd wanted to do. The interview scene, for example, was supposed to put Galatea to shame in terms of complex NPC interaction, with the option to have long philosophical debates with the prisoner. It ended up being a pretty simple scene where you just need to ask about a couple of topics to complete it. With my two later games, I had a much more well-defined idea of what exactly I wanted to accomplish and finished them in much less time as a result. However, the thing that takes the most time is probably just finding a project I want to finish. I tend to start on a lot of stuff, only to decide that it sucks and drop it later. That usually leads to some new ideas being generated, though, so it is not a total waste of time.

IA: Death off the Cuff's conversation model seems to be further from the kind of intimate exchange that you spoke of. Do you think that's something you'd like to return to in the future?

Simon: Perhaps, but intimate conversation is really, really hard to do properly. I used to think it was just a matter of implementing as many conversational topics as possible, but that just turns the NPC into a machine that produces a specific output for each input. You really have to model the NPC as a person with moods and desires of their own to make the conversation feel even remotely realistic. I still want to experiment with that at some time, but I have no idea when it will be.

IA: One of the things you mentioned trying to avoid that's a frequent critique of conversation-based games is "lawnmowering." Could that be addressed by simply closing off some paths when other paths are chosen?

Simon: That doesn't really solve the problem since people can just keep reloading until they have seen every path, and then select the one they would like to go with. "Lawnmowering" is pretty much unavoidable whenever the choices are made explicit. Even if some paths rule out others, the player still knows exactly what he is missing and can just undo to see all the options. The advantage of an ask/tell system is that you have to think for yourself to figure out what you can ask about, and you never know what you might be missing.

IA: Was part of the motivation of the dream sequence in Internal Vigilance to come up with choices that influence the game but aren't explicit to the player?

Simon: Yes, that's right. Your choices there influence the later game, but you don't know that at the time. Of course, this has the side effect of making some late game choices unavailable depending on what you did in the early game, which some people might not like. Personally, I prefer it to the alternative where all the chapters in the game are completely independent of each other.

IA: This was a really interesting conversation. Thanks so much for the time!

Simon: It's completely ok :). I found it very stimulating as well. And thanks for your time too!

Back to Table of Contents

Jason McIntosh, Author of The Warbler's Nest
    as interviewed by Christopher Huang

[Note: The following interview contains numerous SPOILERS owing to extensive discussion of the author's intent, design process, and details of gameplay. Also check out Ruth Alfasso's culinary take on the classic computer game feelie.--Ed.]

(I, Miseri, met up with Jason McIntosh -- under the handle of "jmac" -- in the mysterious 7th Sea region of IFmud, where he was enjoying a Guinness.)

jmac says, "Howdy"

Miseri says, "Good evening!"

jmac exclaims, "I have walked ze plank to adventure!"

Miseri says, "This adventure has a tape recorder. 'tis the adventure of interviewness. So, to get the adventure underway, how about you tell us something about yourself?"

jmac says, "Hello! I am Jason McIntosh. I run a small software consulting company by day and I pursue too many projects at night. One of my favorites is a blog thingy I write with Zarf called The Gameshelf. I am currently engaged in drinking a Guinness that I am enjoying very much."

Miseri asks, "Ah, the Gameshelf. As I understand it, it takes a good hard look at non-mainstream games, is that right?"

jmac says, "*Originally* it was a public-access cable TV show that I started in 2005, where it would focus on non-mainstream games, yes. But I was never really able to hold myself to producing new episodes regularly. While I still do make occasional new video episodes (all of which are viewable on the Gameshelf website), the site's evolved into more of a written blog on general "game studies" and game criticism.

"I'd say our scope has grown to embrace all kinds of games now, including well known ones. We try to differentiate ourselves from most every other online game publication by treating them from the perspective of works of art that deserve study and critique, rather than awesome videogames to get really enthusiastic about.

"That said, because it is a blog by Andrew Plotkin and myself, half of our posts end up being about Interactive Fiction, so by definition it tends to spend lots of time on non-mainstream games anyway. (The URL is, by the way.)"

Miseri says, "You've been interested in the non-mainstream (and in interactive fiction) for somewhat longer than 'since 2005', though. You had an entry in IFcomp 1999, Calliope. 1999 to 2010 is quite the hiatus. What brought you back to writing IF rather than critiquing it?"

jmac says, "Oh wow. So, Calliope was a completely ridiculous game, very obviously the work of a first-timer who wasn't culturally aware enough the know how the comp frowns on overly cute game-set-in-your-house games. My best takeaways from that were some very kind reviews I got from folks like Paul O'Brian, who acknowledged all that while saying that at least the writing and structure were solid and they looked forward to my next work.

"So I took that and started planning my next game. Calliope, obviously, was just the warmup. What would come next would be a vast, sweeping epic, the game that I'd really make my mark with! And here I made ignorant newbie error number two, which is having no realistic notion of scope whatsoever.

"So for years I was obsessed with a handful of ideas I was sure would make great games, and every so often I'd return to them and kick them around a little, but (in part because I was thinking way too big) nothing ever gelled."

Miseri asks, "And then the idea for The Warbler's Nest hit?"

jmac says, "Yeah... to actually answer your first question, the thing that actually made me an author again happened in the spring 2010. Well, it was probably primed to happen because of PAX East in March of that year, which also held the first-ever IF Summit, the surprising energy of which you know about as well as I do."

Miseri says, "Oh yes, it was quite a rush."

jmac says, "So by this point I was re-energized about IF and the IF community... I'd started hanging out on the Mud again after around 10 years(!) of absence, just so I could meet all the people I'd meet at PAX, before I met them. Er. If that makes sense."

Miseri says, "Perfectly!"

jmac says, "So that all happened, and I was thinking about IF in new ways again, writing articles and posting new videos and stuff about IF to the Gameshelf (as was Mr. Plotkin). And then in May I played this totally amazing video game.

"There's this game, made by a small Chilean independent studio named ACE Team called Zeno Clash. I believe it first came out for PC in 2009, and more to the point it appeared -- I kind of have no idea how, because it's so damn weird -- as a downloadable Xbox 360 title in May of 2010.

"It's a brilliant little game, a 'first person brawler' whose actual gameplay (running around beating people up) is almost beside the point; it's such a lovely and subtle work of horror fiction, taking place in a crazy alien world that's all painted up in ways that remind of the French animated film Fantastic Planet or the book The Codex Seraphinianus.

"And the story, dialogue and visual / music / sound effects all combine to produce this lovely evocative feeling that you-the-player are intruding in this completely alien landscape, just two degrees away from normal, and the whole experience is unnerving and (if you like this sort of thing, as I do) awesome. Even the player character is one of these slightly-wrong people, so that you feel uncomfortable just being in his skin.(I wrote a post about this, at the time:"

Miseri says, "I think I can see where the general atmosphere of The Warbler's Nest comes from."

jmac says, "It's funny in that I wasn't making that connection until now -- the super-specific connection, I haven't mentioned yet -- but you're right.

"There's a secondary plot point in Zeno Clash that more or less recapitulates the European folktalkes about changelings, where (in the game) a monstrous fairy-creature steals away infants and replaces them with -- pigs, actually. And at one point you meet a mother who is raisng a piglet as her baby, but is OK with this.

"I had heard the gist of the old changeling legends before this, just as cultural background knowledge, so it was cool to see it play out (in absurdist variant form) in a videogame like this. So, y'know, I kept on playing Zeno Clash and finished it, and wrote my review. But it planted the seed of me thinking both about the kinds of horror fiction I like, and specifically how horrifying the changeling legend is -- the fact that this isn't a pure fairy tale, that it's something that people actually believed as common folk wisdom once.

"Sometime in the following month or two, it suddenly struck me that the idea of making a believer of said folk wisdom a player-character, and forcing them to make a decision based on it, struck me as very deliciously awful and a set piece for a possibly excellent work of interactive fiction. So there you go.

"Another bit of background is contained in that article I just linked to; I've lately been introduced to the whole genre of horror fiction by way of a podcast called "Pseudopod", the best of which (in my opinion) isn't overt splattery stuff but really creepy dreadful subtle works. I'd been listening to that every week for a couple of years, and that definitely fed me with a lot of inspiration from a multitude of modern authors."

Miseri asks, "It seemed to me that there was some ambiguity as to whether the changeling switch had in fact occurred, though. Was this ambiguity something you actively strove for?"

jmac says, "Yeah, definitely. I'll come right out and say that in my own mind, the model of the game world that I'm working with, the baby is just a baby; the PC's terror about the night really is just fueled by her medieval ignorance, about which she can do nothing but cope. Or, she can rebel against it -- but only through the shears, the cold iron shears, which I try to suggest have a kind of dispelling power within them, when she cuts the blanket. So even if you get the "good" ending, I still try to keep it open that there still might have been something to her fears after all. (Or maybe I was just trying too hard to be cute and symbolic.)

"I mean, again, in my head, her belief in the power of the cold iron is what sort of lets her cut through her own denial about the baby's real identity, and lets her memories of his birth some rushing back. Nothing supernatural in it."

jmac exclaims, "On the other hand, I loved reading other players' interpretations of the game on the message boards during the comp, many of which assumed a less mundane world, and I wouldn't dare to disagree with any of them!"

Miseri says, "It's certainly a risk when your story is submitted alongside tales of spaceships and fairies."

jmac asks, "...oh, you didn't get to the UFO ending?"

Miseri says, "My tin foil hat got in the way. What I loved about your story, though, was that sense of uncertainty. I don't think it would have been possible in static fiction."

jmac says, "Yeah. That's definitely what I put the most work into... kind of at the expense of doing practically anything else, which is why the game's so short. I just wanted to deliver this single, horrible moment, and have the player's heart sink and have no idea what to do -- even though the options are more or less clear. Everything in the game's content is just leadup to fuel that.

"I know at least one friend of mine (not a regular IF player) who found only the 'worst' ending, where you carry the baby outside. He didn't know enough about IF conventions to think that there might be more endings. And he thought the game was great!! I have no idea how uncertain he felt about the whole matter.

"Anyway, hmm... one of the first things I know I coded in the game is what I called 'the baby state machine', a simple sliding scale that tracked the mother's attitude towards the baby.

"It starts in the middle, and if you do things that indicate fear, mistrust, or worse towards the baby, it slides one way; if you make more loving motions it slides the other. I was really excited by that idea, going in, so I wrote up its code before I even wrote any prose. I mean, literally before I even knew what I'd stick outside the cottage to make the player wander around for a while and build up the tension.

"The fact that the state machine made conceptual sense, and that you could have it, as a game-world effect, change the way that the player regarded reality... I loved that idea. And being able to play with that... you could do it in static fiction, of course, but obviously not in such a directly interactive way with the reader.

"I wanted there to be complicity with the way the reader chose to even refer to things in the game world. One of my very first design ideas was that, if the player types in a command to harm the baby, the game says, basically: Oh, so that's the game we're playing? OK then. Here it is. Everything else in the interactions in the cottage followed from that notion.

"The other thing I think I did right was making the 'hopeful' ending slightly harder to get to than the 'tragic' ending. I'm pleased with how that turned out. It works, I hope, to suggest that letting the mother give in to her fears (and the to tailor's suggestions) is easier -- even from a gameplay perspective! -- than pushing back against them, finding an escape.

"The one thing I'm not sure I did right -- and I mean to think about this out loud, someday, in a Gameshelf post -- is my decision to have all three of the game's ending banners read 'The End'."

Miseri asks, "Do you think that weakened your story in any way?"

jmac says, "I noticed that other players caught that you only get the in-game invitation to read my afterword on the web if you get the 'hopeful' ending, which suggests that I-the-author consider it the 'actual' one. I think what I really had in mind was that the players would discover the endings in ascending-difficulty order, which in retrospect is kind of silly on my part.

"I'm really of two minds whether the 'The End's weakened the story. I did it knowingly, as an experiment, and I don't plan on changing it. But it would have changed the experience to make the banners, like, 'You have walked away from your baby', because even a self-evident statement like that would suggest that there are other paths. But I just didn't want to stand there in the game pointing at them.

"Anyway, I almost certainly sacrificed some clarity there for the sake of... well, not bering obvious, I guess. It's something I still need to think through."

Miseri asks, "In any case, you've crafted a fine little gem here. How do you feel about the Best Story Xyzzy?"

jmac says, "I was really surprised that I won a Xyzzy! I received in the the best possible circumstances, though... Amy and I were holding a Xyzzy Awards-watching party in our apartment, and had invited a bunch of our friends over (including two other nominee-authors). And my friend Ruth brought Warbler's Nest cakes.

"And we were all watching the MUD on our TV. So when Warbler was called, I was totally unprepared to actually say something, so I made some lame joke about player agency or something, trying to riff off of something Emily [Short] had said earlier in the evening? I think? Anyway, it was nutty.

"Anyway. I'm really humbled and pleased with the award, especially after the game's... humble performance in the comp. I've put it on my resumé. So there. And it does spur me to write another work! I just hope it doesn't take 11 more years. Gosh, 10 years, now. The clock's already ticking."

Miseri says, "I was wondering where you thought you might go from here ... if you had any intentions of distilling your post-Calliope Grand Ideas, or pursuing anything else."

jmac says, "I think that one thing I learned is that I should just forget about the grand ideas. I work best small. Maybe I can write a vignette that's carved out of one of those would-be epics. Who knows!

"I do have two 'real' game ideas, both of which have come to me fresh since finishing Warbler. They're both too big, and they know it. I'm working on paring them down, doing some historical research, talking about them over beer with friends. It's fun!

"I don't expect I'll have written either before this year is over, but with luck I might have actually started one, and that would be awesome."

Miseri says, "Well, I certainly look forward to it. Congratulations on the Xyzzy, Jason, and thank you for the interview!"

jmac says, "Hurrah! Thank you Chris, it was my pleasure."

Back to Table of Contents

Iain Merrick, Author of Tourist Trap
    as interviewed by Felix Plesoianu

Felix Plesoianu: Hello, and thank you for accepting this invitation. Please tell our readers a little about yourself.

Iain Merrick: I'm a software engineer, currently living in London. I got into IF via r*if around 1995, for two reasons: the first IF Comp, and Graham Nelson's game Curses. I joined for the crazy and creative games, and I stuck around because I liked the crazy and creative people. r*if is sadly defunct now, but ifMUD is still around, and I've been a semi-regular there for... yikes, well over a decade.

FP: Your contributions to interactive fiction are numerous and diverse. What can you tell us about them?

IM: Like most IF people, I have a ton of old unfinished projects kicking around. More than anything else, I always wanted to write a great game! It hasn't yet happened, but some day, some day...

All the little bits and pieces I've contributed are really the result of procrastination on my "real" projects. I did a number of reviews for the IF Review Conspiracy, if anyone remembers that, and I've done a lot of beta-testing. I've also written a few tools, generally because I wanted to use them myself. I was really excited when Mike Roberts released HTML-TADS, but as a Mac user I wasn't able to use it, so I wrote a Mac port (HyperTADS). Similarly, when he released T3, I did a Mac port of the compiler (T3 Toolkit). Later on, I was excited by the possibilities of glulx, but it seemed to be getting an unfair reputation for being slower than Z-code, so I wrote a new interpreter that was faster (Git).

I wish I'd been much more careful and methodical when writing those tools. David Kinder valiantly stepped up to maintain Git when I lost interest, but I left the code in a very gnarly and unfriendly state. No unit tests, no source control! As a professional software engineer, it's a bit embarrassing to have used such shoddy practices in my own work.

Apart from all that, I have written a few small games. I seem to have a fondness for writing wacky games with portentous titles. I think The Lion in Winter and Into That Good Night are good fun and still worth playing.

Looking those up on IFDB reminds me that I also wrote a whole bunch of AAS games. This was an April Fool's joke from long ago, where we created an entirely new authoring system from scratch. I don't know about the other collaborators, but my inspiration was the programming language "HQ9+", which is specifically designed to look impressive in the usual example programs: the command "H" prints "Hello world", "Q" prints the program's source code, "9" prints the lyrics to "99 bottles of beer". ("+" increments the accumulator, so you know it's a real programming language.) Similarly, AAS had built-in features to support all the most important elements of terrible IF games: all objects had hit points and could be on fire and/or poisoned, and clothing was lovingly simulated.

Sorry to ramble on, but remembering all this stuff reminds me why I love the IF community and culture so much. Even if you don't succeed at writing a substantial game, there are tons of other ways to contribute.

FP: You have returned to IF authorship after a long break, and promptly won IntroComp 2010. Tell us a few things about your participation.

IM: For me it started at PAX East in 2010. I went there mainly to meet up with ifMUD friends, and was pleasantly surprised at the level of interest in IF, both at PAX itself and in the "hospitality suite" organised by the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction. It reminded me strongly of the kinds of discussions we'd had on r*if back in the 90s, when the community first outgrew the Infocom mold. I was enthused, but aware that writing a complete game is a huge undertaking. Then Jacqueline made a well-timed pitch for IntroComp, and that seemed like the perfect way to dip my toe back into the water.

I spent a long time going back and forth between various ideas; then as the deadline approached, I decided that my idea didn't have to be complete and perfect: I just needed a fun intro. I focused on the setting and characters, and had good fun writing all the dialog. I spent about a week on the coding, pulled an all-nighter to get it finished, then another afternoon polishing it after Jacqueline extended the deadline.

It was great watching the reviews roll in. I had no idea there were so many IF blogs out there. Just like the main IF comp, if you enter IntroComp you're pretty much guaranteed to get lots of really valuable feedback. Tip for authors: give your game a distinctive name so it's easy to find all the reviews in Google.

I intended to go to the award ceremony but somehow got the time wrong and missed the start. The very first I heard of it was Andrew Plotkin on Twitter, congratulating me for winning. I dashed onto ifMUD just in time to thank the judges, and to see a group playthrough of my intro in Club Floyd. That felt like the real prize -- seeing people play and enjoy your game has to be the most rewarding experience there is for an IF author.

Now I need to write the rest of the game. Winning the comp feels like kind of a double-edged sword: it's a great confidence booster and endorsement of my approach, but it also sets high expectations -- I don't want the full game to disappoint people! So I'm afraid my progress has been very slow. Winning IntroComp has not magically solved my procrastination problem. (That seems to be the case for most people; relatively few intros have actually been finished.) I don't know how long it will take, but I do hope to release the full game eventually.

FP: You mention ifMUD a lot. Do you frequent other MU*s? How do you see the relationship between text adventures and their multiplayer cousins?

IM: I don't use any other MUDs. I've tried a few others very briefly but never stuck around. For me, it's all about the social aspects and I'm not especially interested in the IF-like aspects. ifMUD is much more like an IRC server than a text adventure.

However, the reasons why multiplayer IF has never really succeeded are very interesting. Partly it's the real-time nature of a MUD-it's hard to concentrate when people are running around like crazy. Also, some of the innovations in single player IF are very difficult to translate over to multiplayer games. For example, early single player games tended to be focused around exploring dungeons and picking up objects, and that obviously translated directly across to the first Multi-User Dungeon. To make more a interesting single-player experience, we can add a complex, well-paced storyline-but how do you do that for several players simultaneously? Or well-implemented NPCs-but how can they react sensibly to multiple players? And won't the other PCs always stick out like a sore thumb?

I suspect that real multiplayer IF will have to divorce itself from the social aspects of MUDs and MMOs. The standard multiplayer framework those give you isn't actually very useful. Something like a MUD could still be useful for out-of-character discussion, "table talk", but the game itself should be a standalone, self-contained thing.

In fact, that's exactly how Club Floyd works, and that arguably *is* multiplayer IF. (Club Floyd is a regular gathering on ifMUD where people play an IF game together, using a chatbot as the interpreter. It's very much like playing IF on a big screen with a group of people in the same room.) Another popular parlour game that gets played on ifMUD is Werewolf, and that's almost like multiplayer IF too-the story is rather limited, but there's a clearly defined set of rules, mediated by computer, that provides a framework within which people can roleplay. Neither Club Floyd nor Werewolf really needs a MUD to operate, except that it's a convenient way for people to chat to each other while playing.

FP: More generally, you seem to place the emphasis on the community itself. How do you view the transition from the good old r.*.i.f Usenet newsgroups to the modern Web venues -- IfWiki, IFDB, Planet IF and so on?

IM: I think it's great. For a long time I figured the IF community was basically dead -- r*if was completely moribund, and ifMUD was just a social club without any particular focus on IF. A few little websites popped up here and there, but it seemed like none of them would ever be able to take r*if's place as the single canonical source of IF culture. Then, very belatedly, I realised that the community is actually bigger and healthier than it ever was before. We don't need a single central meeting place, and in fact the community is too big and diverse now for that to be possible. Diversity is good.

The spark that brought this new community to light is definitely Inform 7. That's the common thread that binds all the disparate communities together. It means we still have a monoculture in some ways, though. I'd love to see some of the other classic IF languages revived, like TADS and Hugo, to encourage as much diversity as possible. Probably the best way to do that is to get everything playable on the web, so all the languages can compete on an even playing field. Various people are working on tools to make I7 more web-friendly, and some of those could probably be reused or adapted for other languages.

FP: Funny you should use the word "monoculture". That was exactly my thought when I noticed just how utterly Inform 7 has dominated the last two IFComps. But IntroComp 2010 was much more diverse in terms of authoring systems used.

IM: That's true, I hadn't even noticed that. T3, Hugo, Windows executables. And while an I7 game won in each case, the second place intro used Hugo and the second place IFComp game used T3. That shows you can use a minority system and still have a chance of winning one of these comps.

Don't get me wrong, I7 is great, definitely the best all-round IF authoring system there has ever been. But as a community, we should never stop trying out other approaches.

FP: Anyway, back to Tourist Trap. It is a very different work from its competitors (and your own older works, for that matter). For one thing, it is puzzle-less. Was that a deliberate decision, and will that still be the case for the completed story?

IM: It was kind of deliberate, in that thinking up puzzles is one of the things I tend to get stuck on when trying to write a game, so I just decided not to worry about it for the intro. The full game doesn't have puzzles in a traditional sense, but it does have pacing mechanisms-stuff to do, things to play with, rather than brainteasers.

I'm not really much of a fan of puzzles in IF. It just now occurs to me, thinking about your question, that the games I've written in the past don't actually have puzzles, they have *jokes*. In each case there's something funny or unusual about the environment, and once you figure out what it is -- once you get the joke -- the next command is obvious. I think that's a really nice model, although it lends itself more to small games than to big ones.

FP: Speaking of completing Tourist Trap, what other plans do you have for the future?

IM: I have no end of plans, I just need to get better at finishing them! Let's see, I have some ideas about tools to make TADS and maybe Hugo games playable on the web. I'm kicking around a few IF game ideas, though I haven't started coding any of them. And I also have some ideas for non-IF browser-based games-or maybe "toys" is a better word. That's actually what catches my interest the most (at least right now). I love playing with cool little web toys. For example, did you ever play the Flash game Fly Guy? If not, you should! That's what I aspire to. If I can write or build something that gives a few people a few minutes of good clean fun, I'll be very happy.

FP: Thank you very much, Iain, and to more successes in the future.

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C.E.J. Pacian, Author of Rogue of the Multiverse
    as interviewed by Valentine Kopteltsev

Valentine Kopteltsev: Would you please start by confirming your name?

Pacian: I'm C.E.J. Pacian. The first three letters stand for pretty much what you'd expect.

VK: And do you identify as male or female?

P.: Mostly male.

VK: Have you ever had any form of unprotected sex with an entity that exists in more than four macroscopic spatial dimensions?

P.: No way! I don't want to catch hive-linked cortex worms.

VK: Now, after we got the formal things out of our way, let's move on to more personal questions. Could you tell us something about yourself - like, where you reside, what's your family like, and what you do for your living (that is, at times when you're not exposed to radiation or consuming another one of your offspring)?

P.: I live in sunny England; I work in financial software and hate it; I have a cat.

VK: Cats are cool - can't deny it, in spite of preferring dogs;). Could you perhaps say a few words about yours?

P.: My cat's personality is a lot like mine. He's pretty timid, but when he sets his mind on something it's surprisingly difficult to dissuade him.

VK: Thanks to your blogs, I know of two of your hobbies - writing IF games and writing, well, non-IF games. Are there any other hobbies? And what's their interrelations - do they support each other, providing for (let's throw in a cool word) synergetic effects, or are they just getting into each other's way?

P.: My hobbies are mostly introverted and nerdy – reading, watching movies, playing games and creative writing. I think they complement one another, but there are only so many hours in the day. I usually feel like I'm neglecting one or more of my interests.

VK: That's a common feeling for me too;). And just how did you get introduced to IF? Is it the usual story about your dad/uncle/elder sister bringing an Infocom tape home when you were a nine-year-old child, or something more original?

P.: That is the usual story, isn't it? I'm in my twenties, so the first computer games I played were on the Nintendo Gameboy. I didn't encounter IF until I was a teenager browsing Home of the Underdogs. I suppose I was vaguely aware that games were text-only at one point, but for me it was actually something quite new and exciting. I'd always loved books and games – here was this niche sitting neatly between the two.

VK: You described the motives for writing IF pretty thoroughly in one of your interviews. Could you add something to that, or maybe tell the SPAG readers how the idea of writing a text adventure first occurred to you?

P.: Writing a really simple text adventure was actually an exercise in the first year of my Computer Science degree – just a simple parser for compass directions that would move you around a two dimensional array of locations. I remember the guy sitting next to me really took it to heart and added a little ASCII map and simple puzzles. The graduate teaching assistant apparently knew a bit more about IF and told him that if he was interested he should look at using an existing parser, and showed him some website – no idea if it was TADS or Inform or something else.

Anyway, I was eavesdropping the whole time and thought it seemed like a cool idea.

VK: And one more question before I start to grill you about your creations proper: what did stipulate your selection of development tools? Or, to put it another way, considering the availability of a (British originated) system that allows the user to concentrate on the artistic aspects of her work without bothering too much about mundane implementation problems, why would a halfway intelligent person choose TADS, which, to top it off, was written by an American?

P.: I do mean to use Inform on a project at some point, if only because I want to write a game you can play online, and because TADS doesn't play well with keyword input. Still, I find that I really struggle to get my head around Inform. A little TADS goes a long way – if you know the basic syntax you can do pretty much anything. The real problem is actually *not* doing things – figuring out how to work around the functionality built into the library.

With Inform I find the opposite is true: extremely complex things can often be done with a single sentence, but unless I know the syntax for what I want to do, I can't do it – even if I feel like it should just be a logical application of what I already know. I also find having to write everything out in full sentences is really exhausting. In TADS you can define a scenery object with one word of code (the name of what class object it is), everything else you type for that object will be vocabulary or description. Having to add unnecessary words doesn't feel like something I should be glad of, especially when the compiler then turns around and tells me I can't do things that might potentially confuse it.

VK: One of the most striking things about the vast majority of your games is for me the huge number of bizarre characters inhabiting them. Walking giant squids, saurian scientists, damselflies, reprogrammed half farm machines, and other icekins... There're enough authors out there capable of creating vivid characters (Adam Thornton, to name an example), but it seems to me you easily outdo everybody concerning the number of monster NPCs and their peculiarity. Could you please comment on that?

P.: I'm often surprised to see the same kinds of characters cropping up over and over again, even in speculative fiction, always framed with the same value judgments. Creating someone or something outside human norms, and then challenging your audience to sympathise with them, it's just something I find interesting. Especially if that character's existence is at odds with accepted wisdom on what makes a “good” or “healthy” person. And it's fun to do, as well. When I create a fictional world I like to make up as much of it as I can, and that extends to the types of creatures and people that live there.

VK: Another distinguishing feature of your games is, they barely use the traditional IF navigation system (the single move in Snowblind Aces and the "missions" in Rogue of the Multiverse being exceptions corroborating the rule). What are the reasons for this abhorrence of the trusty old compass? Or is it just pure coincidence?

P.: It's not coincidence. I hate that damn compass. I don't know what way is north in real life – not ever. And almost nobody thinks in compass directions – even if they're looking at a map. Having said that, functionally, compass directions work perfectly in IF. If you're going to represent a set of locations that you have to navigate spatially, then you can only ever do as well as compass directions, or come up with something simpler.

Now, I'm a fan of the “tank controls” in the classic Resident Evil games. I don't think ease of use should always be paramount. The fact that compass directions come somewhat easily to players but often fit characters and stories badly to me says that there should be a spectrum of styles for navigation. Removing spatial navigation or simplifying it are two options that are often more naturalistic for both players and characters. But there's also making movement more complicated, to a specific end.

Before you ask, in Rogue of the Multiverse, I used relative directions the way I did because I wanted players to have to try and picture themselves in the facility as if they were really there. I wanted them to be rats in Dr. Sliss' cage, rather than detached adventurers pondering an overhead map.

VK: Let's talk about Rogue somewhat more specifically. What, in your eyes, are its strong and weak sides? And do you feel you achieved the goals you set when you started working on it? (Apart from winning the IF-Comp, of course;).

P.: My goal wasn't actually to win IFComp. No, really. I just noticed that my games seemed to be getting more attention outside the usual IF community than within it – that there seem to be quite a few IFers who'll only notice a game if it's in the comp. I wanted to submit something as a way of saying “Hi” to those people, and I finally came up with the idea for Rogue on the day that sign-ups to the competition closed. For the next month I devoted almost all my spare time to working on it, finished it in time and entered it. Primary goal achieved.

Something else I'm interested in doing is exploring different ways of making IF games. I don't think every game has to be very deeply implemented, nor do I think every game has to respond to every sensible or syntactically valid command. Given that I only had a month to make Rogue, this belief was really put to the test, and I think the fact that the game I got out of the process is not very deeply implemented, but is still widely reported to be fun and straightforward to play proves my point. Deep implementation is cool, but it isn't necessary.

In terms of its weaknesses, well, I think they all come down to the player character. A generic PC and a linear story isn't a very complimentary mixture, and although I tried to give players ways to express themselves, they're mostly token gestures.

VK: Yeah, the player character is pretty weak - practically a walking buffet. But I'm surprised you didn't name Dr. Sliss among the strong aspects of Rogue. Does she have a prototype in real life?

Thankfully, Dr. Sliss isn't based on anyone I know, although maybe my life would be more eventful if she was! I suppose she probably is the game's greatest strength, when I think about it, and it might be that the shallow-but-fun aesthetic works so well because she's the driving force behind it. One of the things I did right with Gun Mute, by accident I think, but which I want to keep doing with all my games, was to have the gameplay stem directly from the characters. Giving proceedings a voice and an identity can help even the most menial tasks feel like a part of the wider story.

VK: What do you think of this year's IF-Competition? Did it impress you, or did it just make you nostalgic for bygone days?

P.: The first game I played was Aotearoa, because it had dinosaurs in it, and so does my game. A few turns in, I thought, “Well, that's that then. This is the first place entry.” Overall I think the standard was really high this year. In particular, we seemed to be spared the usual gamut of joke and “my first game” games.

VK: Please tell us a few words about your rivals. What other entries in the Comp (if any) you've been especially fond of?

P.: I was really impressed with Aotearoa, which I think is the direct opposite of my own entry in a lot of ways (for a start it had quite a lengthy development period). Divis Mortis was my second favourite game of the comp. I know there have been a lot of zombie IF games, but for me this one really captured the feel of a good zombie movie. And I think The Blind House is a really great something, although I'm not sure exactly what that something is.

VK: Have you got any plans for future games? Would you mind sharing them with SPAG readers?

P.: Oh, there are always plans for future games. I'm currently working on something that hopefully won't take too long to develop, but I'll keep the details vague for now. After that, I've promised myself I'll get cracking on the next episode of Walker & Silhouette...

VK: Thank you a lot for the interview, and let me wish you good luck with your future works!

Back to Table of Contents

Colin Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine, Authors of One Eye Open
    as interviewed by Christopher Huang

Christopher Huang: Let's start by having you tell us about yourselves. What do you do when you're not leading people through hospital corridors full of body horror and blood?

Carolyn VanEseltine: Currently, we both work for Harmonix Music Systems -- the company that makes Rock Band and Dance Central. I'm the production assistant for the Rock Band Network, a project that allows any musician to put music into Rock Band.

Colin Sandel: And I'm a tester and dancer for Dance Central.

Carolyn: Of course, work isn't everything. I also dance (squares, contra, and DDR), read a lot (science fiction, fantasy, horror), play strange board and card games (Arkham Horror, Innovation, Race for the Galaxy), make jewelry (there's nothing of importance in these parentheses) ... you know, all the normal stuff.

Colin: My writing background is mainly in prose. I have a novel about people in an epic fantasy near-future city who work in a supermarket. It's called Tales from the Securemarket&trade and you can read it online or on an ebook reader for free ( or buy a physical copy on Amazon for not free. Like Carolyn, I love dancing, but I'm more of a pop-n-lock or liquid waving kind of person. Also I play a lot of video games.

CH: Ah, we all love our video games. And speaking of video games, what drew you to interactive fiction?

Colin: I found out that you could write your own text adventures in the mid-nineties, but I've never been much of a coder and all of the languages were too much for my poor tween brain. I wrote a few things in SPAM, an ultra-simple language for Mac, and also played around with Ray Dunakin's graphical World Builder system (most notably, I made a birthday game for my mother), but ultimately I didn't rediscover IF until Carolyn pointed me at it about a year ago. I'm pretty new to all this, really.

Carolyn: My father introduced me to a version of Colossal Cave Adventure when I was extremely young. He actually printed out the entire source code in FORTRAN for me. I remember carrying it to daycare. He also wrote a few easy text adventures for me himself, which was the coolest thing ever. I didn't discover modern interactive fiction until 2004, but when I discovered it, I'd already been working for years on the MUD GemStone IV. As a result, I had a lot of experience in a text-based format. Discovering modern IF suddenly gave me the ability to build my own world. It was amazing.

CH: Collaborative works are of course nothing new, but it seems to me that every partnership works out differently. What can you tell us about the logistics, dynamics and challenges behind your particular partnership?

Carolyn: One Eye Open started almost by accident. There was a website (we're completely forgetting which one) that had a "write your own game in a month!" event in May 2010, rather like the game equivalent of NaNoWriMo. We were just chatting on the subway together -- "Hey, what if we were going to do that? What kind of game should we write?" and then ... well, everything snowballed.

Colin: "Supernatural romance," I think, is the answer we came up with. Then, more specifically, "Horror romance." Then we realized how weird that was and went with "Character-based supernatural horror." Rather than being like "ha ha ha" and moving on, we immediately started brainstorming ideas. Before we knew it we actually had a game concept. That's really how most of our planning sessions went; one of us would throw an idea out and we'd riff on it until it had been spun into something awesome.

Carolyn: Or one of us would throw an idea out ... and the other one would throw the idea OUT. We had a deal that I could only code the zombie hamster if I got everything else done and unbuggy, for example. (You will note the distinct lack of a hamster in the final game.) But that was actually really important -- because we kept each other on track. Because there were two of us, once we realized how big our game was and how dedicated we really were, we got very good at figuring out priorities. We un-derailed each other all the time.

Colin: In terms of the actual breakdown, Carolyn handled far and away the bulk of the game's code -- nearly all of it, in fact. Initially, she constructed the bones of the game while I was busy writing the journal entries. I would also write out scripted scenes (such as the morgue sequence), and she would convert them into code as well as doing some polishing and editing work. She would also send me piles of placeholder text to be filled in, which I would knock out to-do-list style. The game's text is very much an amalgam of her work and mine, though you can see more isolated examples of our work in the journal entries (mostly me) and the flash-forwards (mostly Carolyn). In terms of challenges we faced, we sort of address that in the next section.

CH: Share with us some of the lessons you've learned about the collaborative process. What advice would you give to any group of two or more people planning to work together on IF?

Colin: I think it's really important to not get caught up so much in what you're doing that your partner's work isn't a focus.

Carolyn: Working on a project together really has to be a process of enthusiasm and repeated volunteering -- not completing assignments against a schedule. Sure, the schedule's important, but only if you have a deadline. Deadlines are more flexible than the project is, when you're doing it for fun.

Colin: Carolyn and I, as romantic partners who actually live with one another AND share a workplace, had to be especially diligent here because the risk of letting a poisonous work dynamic leak into other areas of our lives was high. I think the most important advice here is that if a dynamic feels weird, or one person feels like they're doing too much or too little, probably a new strategy for balancing the workload needs to be found. Preferably sooner than later.

Carolyn: And at the end of the day, what matters isn't where the credit (or blame) goes -- but what you create as a team. And how you create it. If everyone has pride and enthusiasm and joy -- then you'll make something you'll be happy to have made.

CH: Thank you, that's a very wise way of looking at it. Now, on to the game itself. One Eye Open had some rather ... interesting imagery and a fairly complex story. I personally found it highly compelling, despite (or because of?) the gore. Can you tell us something about your inspirations?

Colin: I had a lot of direct influences that I brought to the table in our brainstorming sessions. Fans of the Silent Hill series are certain to notice a certain similarity not only in the horror imagery we employed, but also the "random strewn literature" habits of the narrative. I'm a great big fan of horror video games, which I feel are underrepresented in modern IF. We definitely got some fingers shaken at us by critics who felt that the 'splatterpunk' feel of OEO was overdone, but I stand by our choices as a fan of Penumbra, Amnesia, Silent Hill, and other classics that are unafraid to force you to wade through a room full of malevolent sloppy joe mix.

Carolyn: I can't play horror games. Or watch horror movies. But I can appreciate the genre -- in text only! P.F. Sheckarski entered a game called Storm Cellar in IntroComp 2008. It scared the crap out of me -- I was playing it at home alone, and then a couple friends arrived, and I remember whipping around in my chair and screaming "You can only come in here if you're not scary!" It convinced me that there was room for horror that wasn't strictly psychological or Lovecraftian in IF. I'd also cite the work of Stephen King, particularly the novel Firestarter (which deals with similar themes).

CH: Our hero spends a significant amount of time "becoming" other people. Your collaborative entry for the PAX East 2011 SpeedIF also played with alternate points of view. What is it about this theme that especially interests you, and would you care to explore it further?

Colin: Well funny you should ask that because we switched brains for this interview and I'm actually typing using Carolyn's body.

Carolyn: ...that did not just happen. ANYWAY. I remember originally reading the [Inform 6 Designer's Manual] chapter on swapping bodies (into the body of a warthog, I believe) and thinking, "When would I ever use that?" The answer is apparently over and over and over, because the ability to do it is so cool. (It's all done with variables in Night of the Brain-Guest, though - no 'change player to' involved.)

Colin: I don't think I'd say that being other people is a discrete theme that either of us had in mind when we were writing things ... it's more that we had the perspectives of a lot of different people that we needed to express. The 1978-era residents of Mt. Airy Hospital could communicate using the written word, but the 1998-era residents had no such option, and journal entries wouldn't have been enough to convey the weight of their predicament. Since psychometry is, in some ways, 'being' an object, it seemed natural to let the player 'be' other people in these visions of the future.

CH: What would you consider your proudest achievement, or your very favourite part, in One Eye Open?

Colin: My favorite was reading transcripts of players trying and trying to get that goddamn fire axe and then their reaction when they see that somebody else has taken it. Ditto to players noticing the ficus/fake palm switcheroo early in the game.

Carolyn: We had these bizarre spirals of dark humor -- he would come up with something, and I would top it, and he would top it, and then we wouldn't really know who wrote the line, but we would sit there laughing at each other, and then I'd say, "We can't write that." And he'd say, "Oh yes we can." And the end result would be something like the carnivorous washing machine message "You momentarily find yourself wondering whether, if you could manufacture machines like this, the American public might be able to overlook its flesh-eating properties for its clearly superior garment care." There are other lines like that scattered all over the game. Some people protested because they felt lines like that damaged the "scare" factor, but -- well, for me, they're comic relief. They make everything else bearable and fun.

Colin: Also, I'm proud of how hard we worked on our pseudoscience. There really was a government project to develop psychics, specifically focused on the kind of remote viewing that Ian was being asked to do by Corona. Some of our names and references are calls out to the real-world Stargate project. Also, we did some serious research into the symbiote and the medical treatments in the game. It's bad science, but it's extensively researched bad science.

Carolyn: Naegleria fowleri, check it out! (The TV show House was our inspiration on that one.)

CH: Ah, I very much appreciate those spots of humor in a horror story; they provide both relief from the tension and contrast to the horror. As for the serious pseudoscience ... that's rather frightening, actually. Let me change the subject. Carolyn, before One Eye Open, you had a winner in IntroComp 2008, with Phoenix's Landing: Destiny. Have you any intentions of fleshing it out into a full story? Would either of you care to produce works independently of each other?

Carolyn: I don't expect to finish Phoenix's Landing. I learned a lot from working on it ... but the whole game would have been about the size of Planescape: Torment. It would be feasible, but as a solo project -- well, even in text alone, it would take years, and there are too many other things I want to do. This is especially true because everything I did would have to be rewritten. This is both because it doesn't compile any more (Inform 7 updates sometimes make me cry a little) and because I learned a lot about the difference between providing direction and building a railroad. Innately, it was cool but it wasn't fun. If I get reinspired, I'll come back to it, but there are so many other cool things to work on.

Colin: We totally plan to write our own stuff, though I have a lot to learn about coding before I could do anything of OEO's complexity. Keep an eye out for our individual projects in this year's IFComp.

CH: I'll certainly be on the lookout! Speaking of the IFComp, you've no doubt played a few of the other games in the competition. Did you have any favourites, or any other comments or impressions about the competition itself?

Colin: Like everyone ever, we were both super impressed by Aotearoa. I particularly enjoyed The Blind House, and if Gris et Jaune had shown a stronger mid/endgame, it almost certainly would have been my favorite.

CH: So, what are your plans for the future? Are there any projects in the works that we can expect from the two of you?

Carolyn: From November to mid-March, I was working on an entry for Spring Thing called Five Gods Exiled, but I realized that I couldn't complete it in time, so I've had to backburner it. I've had a lot of fun doing bite-sized IF with Colin though -- Brain of the Night Guest at PAX East and Moonwrecked as a warmup the week before -- and I'm hoping to do more bite-sized games and speed games, alone or in company. There's just something really positive and wonderful about the feeling of "Three hours ago, I had nothing, and now I have a playable game."

Colin: Totally go play Brain of the Night Guest, it's funny and short.

Carolyn: Buggy but funny. (Sorry. Three hours.)

Colin: Yes, it's pretty buggy. Don't 'go door' at the end. Or do, and be confused. Anyway, I've just started working on another serious prose project that is likely to take up a lot of my creative attention, so probably I won't be producing anything major on my own for a bit. The only IF project that I feel committed to is my upcoming entry for IFComp 2011, but it's likely that between now and then you'll see more short-form IF from me and Carolyn.

CH: I actually did play Brain of the Night Guest, and enjoyed it, so thanks for that. And thank you for your time doing this interview!

Carolyn: You're welcome!

Colin: Sure, we like talking about ourselves.

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Matt Wigdahl, Author of Aotearoa
    as interviewed by Sarah Morayati

Sarah Morayati: What's your story? How did you get into interactive fiction?

Matt Wigdahl: I'm 41 years old, which puts me in the original Infocom generation. I live in the Kansas City area with my wife Robin, three kids, two dogs, and two escape-artist dwarf hamsters. I program for a living -- C++, SQL, and finally joining the 21st century with some C#.

I can't remember when I first encountered Zork. I'm sure I borrowed it from a friend at some point. But back in those days, there was literally nothing else like Infocom titles. If you had any taste for IF at all, the sense of immersion, the puzzles and the advanced (for the time) parsing put it head and shoulders above anything else, graphical or otherwise, you could get in the '83-'87 time period when I had a computer and started getting into computer games.

When I was in 8th grade or so, I was talking to my parents about how much I loved Infocom games, and how I wished I could test them. I'm sure I'd read about game testing in a New Zork Times issue or a Scorpia column or something like that. They encouraged me to write in to the company and volunteer as a tester. So I did! As it happened, Infocom was just bringing Seastalker into beta and wanted some younger testers to play it. I got selected, and apparently did a good enough job on my bug-hunting and reporting that they decided to keep me on for other games after that. If I remember correctly, I tested Seastalker, Cutthroats, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Ballyhoo, Hollywood Hijinx, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, and Trinity.

The greatest thing about testing for Infocom was that you not only got to play the game you were testing, but you got to pick another one as compensation! When you're a broke Infocom-addict high-school student, that's about the perfect deal! So my collection of early Infocom titles is much more complete than it would have been otherwise.

When I was in college and got my first IBM PC, I bought the old shareware TADS 2, fully intending to sit down and write some cool text adventures. In fact, I had designed a short time travel game (that involved dinosaurs, naturally) and started coding it, but life issues such as graduation, graduate school, getting married and getting a job shut that down, and by the time I thought of it again, I couldn't make myself pick it back up. I program for a living, so the thought of spending my free time learning yet another arcane specialty language was not really appealing. When I read about Inform 7, however, I was fascinated with it, and I was interested enough in how it worked to overcome inertia and start working on a game.

SM: Aotearoa was your second IF Competition entry. What did you learn from your first time around in the Comp, and how did you apply it?

Matt: I learned a few lessons loud and clear:

- Lesson 1: Four months is not enough time for me to write a good, Comp-worthy game. I'm really jealous of C. E. J. Pacian, who put Rogue of the Multiverse together in one month! Family and work time pressures meant I really had to scramble to get even a cut-down game out the door, and although I found and fixed a lot of bugs, lots more ended up in the final game. Due to this, I started Aotearoa immediately after I entered Grounded in Space in the 2009 Comp, and even as it was I didn't have too much room for error.

- Lesson 2: Just like any other software project, when you think you're done with an IF game, you're half done - if that. I budgeted way more time for testing Aotearoa than for Grounded in Space, and I still wished I had more.

- Lesson 3: Complex geometry puzzles are right out. A few people respected the work that went into Grounded in Space's engine puzzle, but I don't think a single person actually liked it as a puzzle. It was obvious that if I was going to use puzzles in future games, they were going to have to be more organic, more sensible, and more accessible.

- Lesson 4: Minimizing player frustration in general was paramount. In Grounded in Space, I had a really annoying guess-the-verb issue that lots and lots of people tripped over. I'd tried to handle all sorts of alternate syntax and added yet more during testing, but I never got it completely right. I would have been better served to totally redesign the puzzle so that it used more standard wording. No aspect of design justifies frustrating the player unnecessarily.

- Lesson 5: I needed better design before I launched into coding. I didn't know Inform 7 very well to start with, and some of the early sections of Grounded in Space were incredibly poorly coded and difficult to work with. I fell into some very poor design decisions due to not understanding how I could do better, and by the time I did start to master the language it was too late in the process to unsnarl the early parts and improve them and still make the Comp deadline. In retrospect, I should have passed on the Comp that year and spent the time necessary to improve the game. Add me to the list of folks who entered their "I learned Inform 7" game in the Comp.

- Lesson 6: Despite all the problems, I learned that I actually could write a complete IF game! I came away with the understanding that although Heinlein-juvie-homage fiction was not universally appreciated, a lot of people did respond positively to the action-adventure plot where the main character had an identity and a backstory. If I could smooth out the rough places and improve quality across the board, I thought I had a shot at doing much better in the Comp -- maybe even as well as you had, Sarah!

SM: It's obvious that a lot of research went into Aotearoa. How much did you do, and what did it entail?

Matt: I did a great deal of research into the geography, flora, fauna, and history of New Zealand, mostly from Internet sources. I spent many hours with a Māori / English dictionary coming up with the right terms for things in the game, and finding the idiomatic phrases that the captain and Eruera might use. That research let me do a good job generating the geography, the scenery, and the animals in the game. When it came time to write the Māori characters themselves, I read as much as I could about Māori history and folktales, both contemporary and pre-colonial. I found an excellent book called Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori Values, which really helped in trying to gain an understanding of Māori culture and let me project a bit about what New Zealand might have been like if the Māori had had the military might to match the British and other European colonists.

SM: How did you craft the backstory?

Matt: Aotearoa was initially conceived as "Dino Island", a quick one-off for my son that would also provide a testbed for some of the convenience features I wanted to use. I started from the basic point of wanting dinosaurs on a tropical island with a solid, if fantastic, explanation for their presence and worked from there. When I decided that a world where the microcontinent of Zealandia never sank was where I wanted to set the game, I tried to think through how a much larger New Zealand with large, formidable native fauna might have affected the history of the island. That line of thinking, combined with my research, led to the Māori-dominant Aotearoa I wrote about in the game.

As far as the protagonist's backstory, I skimped a bit. Really, I just needed a way to plausibly get our young hero off on his own in an area where an adventure could happen. The Conservation Service and the Program were duly created, and I gave Tim a sketchy background that explained his bittersweet memories of his Dad and some of the fears he had to deal with. I considered doing more with Tim's backstory and the details of Aotearoan government, but it kept slipping, and eventually I ran out of time.

SM: On your blog, you go into great detail about the convenience features you implemented in Aotearoa, and most reviewers praised your extensive effort, often comparing the work to such award-winning stories as Aaron Reed's Blue Lacuna. What was your thinking behind this, and would you continue it for future works?

Matt: Like I mentioned before, minimizing player frustration was a big lesson I learned from Grounded in Space. And this game was explicitly designed to be a game for novices and/or young people, so I wanted to provide every ease-of-use enhancement I could reasonably handle.

Although I hadn't played Blue Lacuna all the way through at the point where I started deciding what technological infrastructure I was going to create for Aotearoa, I'd played enough to be very impressed with the keyword interface. I knew I wanted to use Aaron's keyword technology, and I had been very impressed by the status line exit lister in Eric Eve's Snowquest. I also wanted a decent conversation engine, which had been a major failing in my first game. When I discovered there was a family of Inform 7 extensions (Eric Eve's Conversation Package) that gave the capability of emulating the TADS 3 interface so aptly used in Lost Pig, I knew I wanted to use it. While I was at it, I added some of Aaron Reed's other extensions such as Numbered Disambiguation Choices and Smarter Parser. Finally I hacked up Emily Short's Tutorial Mode extension and incorporated it also.

I've gone over all this in the postmortems on my blog, but I'll restate the main points here. I would probably not use the keyword interface again until there's better support baked into the parsing engine itself to better handle all the anomalies that crop up. It was just too painful to get all the bugs ironed out, particularly the many, many interactions with other extensions. And I think there have been further improvements in disambiguation extensions since the one I used. Almost everything else was pretty easy to use and had at least some benefit in terms of improving the player's experience. Particularly with the new omnibus ease-of-use extensions that have come out recently I don't see why anyone wouldn't use them in future works. I certainly plan to.

SM: One element of Aotearoa that was uniformly praised by almost all reviewers -- and players! -- was the colorful cast of dinosaur "pets." What's their story?

Matt: Right from the start, I wanted lots of cool animals, and I wanted them to have lots of interesting interactions with each other. As several authors have noted in the past, in a lot of ways animals are perfect for IF - you don't expect to have a conversation with them, but they can do a lot of fun things and interact in clever, realistic ways. They give you both realism and heightened interactivity, when so often you have to trade one off for the other, so from the project perspective it was really rewarding to have the animals in there.

Part of being a kid adventuring in the wilds with a bunch of animals is giving them cool nicknames, so the naming technology was one of the first things to go into Aotearoa. I lifted most of it from an Inform 7 example, so I was a bit surprised with the overwhelmingly positive reaction it received; I was sure that others would have used that feature in the past and it wouldn't have seemed as unique as it apparently did.

For the nanakia specifically, I had a few constraints. I wanted to preserve the almost mammal-less biosphere of New Zealand, so that meant I couldn't just use a monkey or dog or something like that. In the real world, prior to the advent of the Māori, the only mammals that managed to cross the ocean to New Zealand were bats. So although I wanted a small, agile companion animal for the player, it was going to have to be bat-derived. Fortunately, there were several examples of divergent bat species to start from, and it wasn't hard to dream up a variant that had evolved into a primate-like niche. Making it explicitly monkey-like led me to think of "monkey see, monkey do" imitation behaviors, and that led to me implementing her characteristic behaviors and, eventually, the river crossing puzzle.

I had always envisioned the little oviraptors as having the personality of obnoxious geese, so making them bluster and overreact to everything that was even a potential threat seemed natural. After making the mischievous nanakia give them a poke now and then just to get a rise out of them, I had a pretty interesting and amusing set of behaviors to work with.

SM: Some people raised concerns about the portrayal of Māori people in the work. I imagine you might have a response to this.

Matt: I got three different types of criticism on this aspect of the game. There were people that had a general objection to a story featuring a white kid having an adventure and solving problems in the context of a (presumably non-white) foreign culture. I see and appreciate the general point here, but I believe comparisons to Dances with Wolves or Avatar are a bit oversold. I deliberately set things up so that Tim was not some super-competent hero, but a fairly ordinary, even frightened kid who happened to land in a situation that forced him to rise to the occasion. And without Eruera's pretty constant guidance, he wouldn't have made it. He didn't save the whole culture; he basically just saved himself and Eruera, and although he was appreciated for what he'd accomplished, he didn't turn into some kind of cultural savior. He was just the guy that was on the spot, not inherently superior to the Māori in any way.

The second type of criticism I got was an objection to a white, non-New Zealander author writing about the Māori in the first place. That's a valid objection. Particularly after having read Māori fiction by actual Māori authors, it's clear that although I did a good job of research and tried not to cut any corners in my portrayal of Māori characters and culture, no amount of research could give me enough true insight into Māori culture to represent it the way a Māori author such as Patricia Grace could.

The third type of criticism I got, and there was very little of it, was specific, detailed criticism from knowledgeable people regarding the descriptions of the Māori and Māori cultural references in the game. I have taken all of this type of feedback very seriously, and will be making several changes in my (eventual) post-Comp release to address them.

SM: Your thoughtful responses are appreciated. It's clear that you've put much conscious effort into Aotearoa, both in development and afterward. What would you do differently the next time around? Are you planning a post-comp release?

Yes, there will be a post-Comp release, although it's going slowly. I burned out pretty badly after the sprint to get Aotearoa finished. It was hard on me and harder on my family, and I've taken a very long break from development. The next time around, I'll slip the date if I'm not going to make it rather than madly scrambling to make the cutoff.

Another thing I would do differently next time is to manage my schedule better so I could actually attend the XYZZY Awards!

SM: You were certainly missed! I imagine, though, that during the voting period you got around to some of your fellow authors' entries.

Matt: I actually played all of them! I should post my reviews from the authors' board up on my blog, but I'll just say that I felt this was an extremely strong year. I would agree with other reviewers that there were not any revolutionary games in the Comp this year, but the sheer number of well-crafted titles was very impressive.

As far as where the games finished, I didn't feel things were too far off except in a couple cases. I felt Gigantomania got a lower score than it deserved - it was an ambitious game that had a lot going for it. It had issues, and 90% of people seemed to think the chess moves in the fourth sequence were a bug, which probably means they should have been better explained, but it was a game that made me think and left a lasting impact after I'd played it.

I was also a fan of Bible Retold: Following a Star. It also had issues, but I felt that the quality of construction, the ambitious structure of the plot, the puzzles, and the character interactions should have placed this game in the top 5 for sure. I had it as one of my Miss Congenality votes.

The author's forum, by the way, was one of the best things about the Comp in the two years I've done it. Since everyone but the authors can discuss the games out in the wide world, having a forum where authors can freely share their thoughts and build a sense of camaraderie was priceless.

SM: In the past few years, and this year in particular, there's been a lot of discussion both online and in offline gatherings at PAX East and elsewhere about the future of IF and what the form will look like several years down the road. Any thoughts?

Matt: First of all, I think IF will still be around and going strong in 5 years. We have a great opportunity to stand up right alongside the other indie game developers and have our creations increasingly available and visible. Web and mobile play is going to help this tremendously.

I think we're going to see almost everyone producing Glulx games with Inform 7 -- the critical mass is there, the tools are excellent and improving over time, and the increasing number of great extensions and other resources are going to be hard for an aspiring author to ignore. Assuming Zarf's Quixe optimizations go well, we'll mostly be playing in-browser unless there are good reasons not to. I'm also really interested in seeing where David Cornelson's Zifmia project is going to go.

I think we're making continual progress on resolving the major ease of use issues. The work of Aaron Reed in particular, and that of everyone else who's been throwing major effort at this problem, is improving play experience across the board. "Ye can't get ye flask" will die hard, but I think we can smooth out the learning curve a tremendous amount.

I think there'll be an increasing recognition that standard, default messages break immersion unnecessarily, and games that prioritize a strong story are going to find it almost a requirement to customize them appropriately.

On a technical level, what I'd really like to see is some cleanup of the inner parser loop for Inform 7 - something that fixes the anomalies relating to disambiguation and makes it easier to integrate keyword support, which I think is going to be important as we attempt to attract a wider audience of casual gamers.

SM: And speaking of the coming years, what's on the horizon?

Matt Wigdahl: I have a fun project in design stage that I hope to have ready for the 2012 Comp. After that I'd like to try something long-form. My dream long-form project is a loosely-connected sequel to A Mind Forever Voyaging that deals with the ethics of artificial intelligence, the existence of free will, the nature of reality, and -- tangentially -- the fundamental theodicy. I'll have it ready right around when George R. R. Martin finishes A Song of Ice and Fire, at the rate I'm going.

I'm looking forward to reviewing the 2011 Comp; it will be an interesting change!

SM: That it will! Now, just a couple questions for fun. What was the most surprising / EEEAGH WHY IS THIS HAPPENING moment you encountered during development or beta testing?

Matt: The speedboat on the beach at the end of the game was implemented as a rideable vehicle. Early in beta I had a problem where the player wasn't blocked from walking directly into the poacher camp at a very early point in the game. When that happened, none of my state-based code would fire, and one of the testers just strolled onto the beach, got in the speedboat, and proceeded to drive it back through the poacher camp and all around the forest. I think he eventually took it up the tree, got out of it, and left it there. That transcript was a trainwreck!

SM: And last but not least, the question everyone's wondering about: what did you name your dinosaurs? Any names that stood out to you?

Matt: My names were pretty boring; I usually sped through that part using the Skein so I'd end up with something like Bubba (for the big notoceratops) or Nana (for the nanakia). My son likes Pokemon names, so there was a lot of Raichu and Torterra and the like. A lot of players seemed to like naming the oviraptors after celebrities, which made for some pretty funny mating and fighting scenes. Out of those, I think I liked the names that Chris (from Eat Lamp) picked. Actually he went through quite a few: John Ritter / Suzanne Somers / Don Knotts; Snape and Harry; Snowcone and Hot Dog. I particularly liked his Hulk Hogan for the notoceratops.

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Technical Direction
This isn't necessarily a new SPAG department. At a minimum, however, it's what happens when an author or interested party says, "I seem to have documented the behind-the-scenes mechanisms, source text/code, organization, or methodology behind a given effort; also, please find the results attached."

Gothic cathedrals are majestic and sometimes wondrous beyond words; but the fact that they are usually designed with a cross-shaped floor-plan with the head facing toward Jerusalem, eventually employed sexpartite arches at a 33% increase in load-bearing efficiency over quadripartite arches, and that the trinary progression of ground-level stonework to vault-level expanses of stained glass was intended to draw the beholder's thoughts from the material to the spiritual plane . . . is just cool.

Action Flow Chart -- Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home
I'm pleased to present this flow chart Andrew Plotkin created out of Hoist Sail for the Heliopaise and Home which details the path of actions for ship operations. Much has been made of the depth of vocabulary in Heliopause, but I think there were two related factors contributing to that perception / success: first, relative to most other games there are few actions to engage in; and second, Heliopause largely shepherds the player into them. The few key verbs make it easier to employ a battery of synonyms without becoming bogged down in implementation, and at the same time, most synonyms are casually included in descriptions and game narrative for the player to absorb "naturally."

Most games won't be able to take such advantage, but this reinforces the point that it can be more satisfying to do just a few things beautifully than many things decently. Personally, I furled and unfurled. Any reefers out there?

Believe it or not, the chart as you see it below is merely a thumbnail constrained to 700 pixels in width: for all 1600 x 2000 pixels of delineated possibilities (plus the added feature of readability), click the image or save it and open wth a viewer.
Heliopause Action Flow Chart

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Game Reviews
Thanks to Christopher Huang, Valentine Kopteltsev, Marius Müller, and Felix Plesoianu for keeping us caught up on reviews in the break between comps!

Title: Death Off the Cuff
Author: Simon Christiansen
 Author Email: simonchris1729 SP@G
Release Date: October 1, 2010
System: Inform 7
Version: Release 2
Reviewer: Marius Müller
Reviewer Email: marius.ts.mueller SP@G

Death off the Cuff is an homage to Agatha Christie-style mysteries. All the suspects are gathered in one place, and the clever detective (you) will now explain the plot and mark the suspect. The only problem(and one of the funniest premises I've seen in some time): you actually have no idea who the murderer is. So you have to find out as you play along.

The plot itself is nicely done -- it has all the twists and turns you expect, with nearly everyone not being what they appear to be, and a satisfying if somewhat predictable conclusion.

I'm not sold on the execution, though. It hinges on talking about visible things, mostly clothes or items of the suspects. They become visible in layers, being discovered through talking about them and examining the people. Depending on the flow of conversation, descriptions will change. While a good idea, in gameplay it mainly means looking at people again and again, to see who has changed. It also means that you don't really feel like you're doing any detective work, but uncover the plot at the pace and in the order the game sets. It also means you can't talk about things which are not present, like


But all in all, the game is short enough and has enough funny responses that I can forgive it for this. How can I not love a game that has a response to >TWIRL MOUSTACHE ?

[Note: Wish granted! Release 2, available at IFDB, features abstract topics, clues which exist from the start of play, and numerous other improvements. --Ed]

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Title: Gris et Jaune
Author: Jason Devlin
 Author Email: stevevngl SP@G; jdevlin1984 SP@G
Release Date: October 1, 2010
System: glulx
Version: 1
Reviewer: Valentine Kopteltsev
Reviewer Email: uux SP@G

More than twenty years ago, I read the novel A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. I remember it impressed me a lot back then; and though it subsided deeply towards the bottom of my subconsciousness later on -- so deeply I finally didn't know the author's name and the novel title -- it seemed to just be waiting for an apropriate moment to reveal itself again.

This moment came when I started Gris et Jaune. I didn't recall Scanner at once, but the details that previously were latently hidding in the outskirts of my memory started popping up, providing enough information to make my Google search for the novel title short and effective.

In fact, the match between the final scene of Scanner and the opening scene of Gris et Jaune in theme and atmosphere was almost perfect. A man with a drug-ruined personality in the middle of a field -- a zombie in the middle of a garden. "Back to work, Bruce" -- "Till the soil, zombie." No matter whether this match was coincidental or deliberate, it certainly left its stamp on how I was perceiving Gris et Jaune, making me much more indulgent towards the game's weaknesses.

In fact, the initial part of Gris et Jaune had very little to require indulgence. The outset was almost perfect in atmosphere, pacing, and building up tension. Problems started to crop up when the player character broke out. Then, I often found myself with too many opportunities and too few clues. The initial impact I described above made me put off consulting the walkthrough as long as possible, but finally I gave up. As it turned out, solving some of the puzzles required prolonged non-obvious sequences of rather obscure actions I'd hardly ever hit upon on my own. It took me far more than two hours of the "official" judging period to complete Gris et Jaune. On the other hand, the detailed setting and vivid characters made my unassisted exploring of the game world a rewarding experience, so that I never regretted spending so much time on it.

I rated Gris et Jaune a seven, which means an excellent game on my scale; if the author could make the gameplay in the later stages somewhat more directed, it could be this year's winner.

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Title: The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game
Author: Taylor Vaughan
 Author Email:
Release Date: October 1, 2010
System: Inform 7
Version: Version 1
Reviewer: Christopher Huang
Reviewer Email: christopher.huang SP@G

It must have been serendipity that the IFcomp game randomizer gave me this one right after Gigantomania.

I found The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game to be amusing, irreverent and subversive. While on the surface it would appear that the objective is to bring on the communist revolution, the simplistic approach suggests that the author's true intention is to mock the sort of neo-Marxists who sit around spouting quotes from the Communist Manifesto while their trust funds pay for their clove cigarettes: people whose concepts of politics and economy are so simple that they imagine that the mere appearance of a communist symbol in a public place should be sufficient to win over the masses. (The author exaggerates, of course, but the game seems to be built on caricatures as it is.) I am further convinced of this reading of the author's intentions by the fact that half the Marxist quotes spouted in-game are from Groucho Marx rather than Karl Marx, and that no-one seems to notice. Our hero (whose name, it turns out, is Karl Marx) is clearly a bit of a poseur, what with the papakha and the less-than-successful attempts at facial hair and all. I'm surprised he didn't turn out to be still in high school.

[Note: Due to a carefully orchestrated release of high-grade SPOILER into the public, the Party has flagged the following two paragraphs for the People's safety. --Ed.]


While it is not stated outright, it would appear that Semenov's last invention, the activation of which wins you the game, is a mind-control device. The implication here seems to be that the many of the crowd celebrating the revolution at the end are in fact brainwashed into the communist way of thinking. This is ironic, given how often our hero describes others as having been brainwashed into the capitalistic way of thinking. It would seem that his ultimate solution is no better than the perceived problem.

Of course, the mockery cuts both ways. It turns out that one of the characters has gone capitalist -- and has, with his lowly grunt work, amassed enough of a fortune to make Scrooge McDuck look like a pauper. Well, McDuck looks like a pauper anyway, the old miser, but you know what I mean. He too (the traitor, not Scrooge McDuck) is a caricature, made ridiculous both by our view of him through our hero's admittedly biased eyes, and by his own attitudes.


So much for the story. With regards to the gameplay, the puzzles are fairly run-of-the-mill: hardly revolutionary. However, most of these puzzles have multiple solutions, and a few of those solutions may affect the completeness of our hero's victory. At one point, trying to get past the mansion guards, I realized I had at least three possible items I could use in my inventory. All three of these potential solutions worked. Many games will insist on a single specific solution in spite of a plethora of available alternatives; clearly some thought has been given here to reducing the frustration that comes from such situations. This was much appreciated.

In terms of technical competence and production values, I found the game quite free of bugs. The only issue, I thought, was the use of paragraph spaces: the game does not insert a blank line in between paragraphs when speech is involved. This is consistent enough that I am satisfied that it is a design choice rather than a lack of coding expertise. I do think I caught it out on a double-line break once, though.

I was not blown away: the game, for all its good points and its subversive humor, does not present us with anything particularly out of the ordinary. But it is competent, and it has attitude, and in the end, I had fun with it.

If this game were breakfast, it would be a bagel with cream cheese and a side of turkey bacon. Plus a glass of sweet, sweet orange juice, hand-squeezed by the joyous proletariat.

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Title: Starborn
Author: Juhana Leinonen
 Author Email: juhana.if SP@G
Release Date: January 8, 2011
System: Inform 7
Version: Version 3
Reviewer: Felix Plesoianu
Reviewer Email: felix SP@G

They say you can't properly implement puzzles with a menu-based interface, and it's true. But not all interactive fiction needs puzzles. What it needs, as with all art, is something to say, and here we have a piece that delivers.

Starborn is one of the new crop of text adventures which use a keyword-driven interface (a menu by any other name). An ironic trend, I could say, after decades of improving parsers and mercilessly slamming works that stuck to the good old two-word format. Oh well.

It is also the tragic story of a child, and I will say nothing more, lest I spoil it -- Starborn is short enough as it is. Suffice to say, very few text adventures ever made me cry. This is one of them. The impact is amplified by the fact that, unlike in Photopia, you can see the ending coming a while away, and you know that even if you had the chance, it would be wrong to avoid it. And this is my only (mild) criticism: Starborn could have accommodated a little more content, possibly even a choice. Then again, a more sprawling work might have diluted the emotional impact, so I'm not going to hold that against the author. Verdict: highly recommended.

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Book Review

Title: Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7
Author: Aaron Reed
 Author Email: aareed SP@G
Reviewer: David Monath
Reviewer Email: davidm.spag SP@G

This book almost derailed my life.

As most students have found, especially those juggling both work and school full-time, you don't have the luxury of doing a great deal of leisure reading; every spine you crack open is imprinted with "Intro to [Whatever]" or "Theories of [Whatever] in [a random number from 16 to 20]th Century [Tourist Destination]." In the last year, however, I've managed to print out and devour Writing with Inform (the Inform 7 manual proper), Jim Aiken's Inform 7 Handbook, and Ron Newcomb's The Inform 7 Programmer's Manual in three to four one-hour chunks weekly on the elliptical machine at my gym. Not only are they all instructive, but I've found them considerably slimming.

On the other hand, Aaron Reed's Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 (Creating IF henceforth) showed no respect for my courseload or work schedule whatsoever: my nightly 15-20 minute ritual of settling into bed with a glass of wine and Creating IF lasted exactly to page 68 before my intellectual dispassion had been obliterated and I had to write. It was a week before I forced myself back into the academic grind after dusting off the old work-in-progress I shelved when I first kicked classes into overdrive. So, after keeping the siren call of artistic bliss stopped from my ears for a solid six months whilst I nonetheless motored through ~1,000 pages of instruction, what did Reed do to me in 68 pages?

Creating IF's stated intent is to show the reader how to tell an interactive story with Inform, even readers who have no interest in programming. That's a rather ambitious goal, as Inform is most unmistakably a programming language, albeit a pretty one with a minimum of curly brackets and inscrutable pseudo-math, and an emphasis on readability. "Every turn when a container is bursting, say 'Whoops!'" is perfectly valid source code, "source text" in IF terms. Reed sets about accomplishing his objective in four key ways: by first making a case for interactive fiction as an artistic medium and Inform 7 as a toolset; by following a logical progression of concepts throughout the book in the design and creation of an interactive fiction; by limiting the book's scope to those elements both necessary and easily comprehensible to a beginner; and by at all times using an engaging, conversational didactic voice.

The introduction and first two chapters of Creating IF sell the concept of interactive fiction for storytelling and familiarize the reader with the Inform 7 integrated developer environment (IDE). For Reed, the answer to "why interactive fiction?" is that the written word is the cornerstone of civilization, and the need to explore, discover, and experience is the driving force of the human condition. As he says early on, "text endures. And adventure is forever." Reed goes on to cite many strengths of IF, such as the enormous resource advantage enjoyed by IF writers, who can produce a roughly 20-hour game in a year or so of dedicated work with no financial backing beyond their day job and a computer, compared to AAA titles that cost a studio millions and require up to 70 or more developers in the same time frame. Afterward, Reed explains how interactive fiction is played and structured, goes into more detail on the strengths of IF (setting, exploration, systems and mechanics) and challenges (action, precise spatial relationships), and walks the reader through navigating both the Inform 7 IDE and the IF online community.

The vast majority of Creating IF walks the reader through the development of a sample game, "Sand Dancer," addressing major design elements in a logical sequence. Creating IF is on one end of a spectrum with Writing with Inform at the opposite end and the Inform 7 Handbook in the center. Whereas the other works are focused (and quite valuable for it) on communicating individual rules and mechanics, Creating IF shows the reader how to produce a finished, playable game from concept to credits. In sequence, we're shown how to set the stage, give it color and detail, bring it to life, control the flow of time, populate the environment with characters, change fundamental details of game operations, and then how to polish, test, debug and release. By demonstrating each lesson with source text from "Sand Dancer" and encouraging the reader to innovate, Reed makes each segment deeply practical and engaging.

There is much, as evidenced by other works on IF, that cannot be addressed in a single wieldy volume. Writing with Inform is of roughly equal length as its peers, but while replete with examples, is almost pure coding explanation, in contrast to the shepherding and metadiscussion of Creating IF. (Does a truck need to be a vehicle if it doesn't go anywhere?) Two such elements which are acknowledged in the brief section on Advanced Inform are indexed text and tables, both of which most experienced authors use routinely. This focus lets Reed spend approximately 40 pages on time management and how to use scenes to compartmentalize a discrete phase of gameplay, things a new writer must understand to pace a well-developed story. Much of that chapter deals with the inherent structure of story as a concept, such as the Hero's Journey and rising and falling action relative to sandboxes and gateways.

Some books lecture you. Some books talk to you. But Creating IF mentors you. The book is as much about the why and how of writing with Inform as it is the what. Reed maintains a conversational voice without sacrificing authority and anticipates the questions a novice is likely to ask. The book, to mix media only slightly, feels rigorously play-tested. For example, Reed first defines the problem of disambiguation in the form of a question, by asking, "What happens if more than one object is available that might match a typed command?" He goes on to provide examples of possible conflicts from the source text the reader has already encountered or generated, describes the sort of response a player might encounter with an ambiguous command, discusses why the parser reached the erroneous conclusion, and then develops methods for avoiding disambiguation problems where possible. Every chapter includes numerous exercises, words of caution, tips, programmer's notes and figures to engage the reader, demystify the counterintuitive, and illuminate the obscure. Never is the book unclear on why the matter at hand is important or how it applies to game development, and all of it is written in the tone of an understanding teacher beside you at the computer.

Reed also brings a creative analysis to the subject. He doesn't merely explain what Inform's authors thought should be done with the language, but examines the root mechanics and follows their logical trails to unexpected implications. While Reed would be the first to warn you about unintended consequences when venturing afield, he's also the first to subvert the rules in brilliantly practical ways. The chief example in the book is his "BENT" principle, which stands for "Bracket Every Notable Thing." BENT overcomes a common hazard of interactive fiction: the failure to implement, where the author has referred to an object in their narrative without creating a corresponding game object to be interacted with. By enclosing key words in the narrative inside square brackets (normally indicating a text variable), Inform cannot compile the game unless the author has also created the object the compiler expects to find there. Exercise 10.3 in the chapter "Challenging Assumptions" provides another equally practical yet amusing example, by suggesting a quick line of source text which appends a visual marker like an asterisk to all portable objects, so when one encounters "Before you stands a *majestic oak" in a playtest, it is easy to swiftly change the tree to be "fixed in place."

Creating IF is not only thoughtful, but well-structured as a guide and reference book. The eight-page table of contents (outlining 12 chapters, plus introduction and appendices) is detailed without being cluttered, and for those who remember a concept addressed in the book and just need a reminder or a quick reference, the 50-page glossary and index is a blessing. While everyone processes information differently, there were numerous occasions in which I found something almost exactly where I expected to (such as tracking down the example of disambiguation, above) without resorting to the index.

Although Creating IF certainly does not stand alone amongst the body of references on Inform 7 (except perhaps for being solely available commercially in an otherwise predominantly open-source, labor-of-love community), it is unique in that it so adeptly accomplishes its stated objective of plainly conveying to both programmer and layman the craft of writing a playable interactive fiction.

But what, one may ask, is so special about page 68? Nothing per se ... except that it comes 27 pages into "Chapter 3: Creating a Story World," follows a lucid 4-page explanation of relations (a concept I find deeply fascinating), and it somehow tripped an unquantifiable threshold for me personally. But that's the point, isn't it? After 80-some pages (including the introduction) of challenge and imagination and empowerment, I just couldn't take it any more: I had to write. I let myself roll with it for a week before brutally stamping down my artistic drive and returning to my textbooks. For that, Aaron Reed's Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 is well worth the price of entry.

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