No Time To Play

On cross-pollination in text-based games

by on Apr.28, 2016, under Case study

Having recently played a very nice text-based RPG made in Twine of all things, and tested a new (to me) authoring system in addition to resuming work on a text adventure, I was once more prompted to think about the similarities between different genres of text-based games. For example, nowadays we associate parser-based interfaces with brainy puzzlefests, or else sophisticated story games, but Adventure and Zork had RPG elements and a strong exploration component. And while works like Hunter, in Darkness or Kerkerkruip are generally seen as experimental, Eamon has always explicitly been an RPG engine, and proudly so (yes, I know people who still swear by it), despite looking for all the world like an interactive fiction authoring system. After all, is there really that much of a difference, mechanically speaking? It’s still a world model based on a graph of discrete locations, with objects that can be manipulated in the same basic ways: examine / take / drop. And the parser itself, as a mode of interaction, has inherent appeal to at least some players, orthogonally to the content. We shouldn’t mix up genre and medium here, like we do with videogames at large, where Heretic and Doom are seen as largely interchangeable simply because they’re based on the same engine and core verbs.

(I’d give newer examples, but I’m not aware of any fantasy first-person shooters this side of Hexen; all the famous titles appear to be sci-fi. Did the Daikatana debacle scare off everyone, or have games like the Elder Scrolls and Might&Magic series been covering the demand for first-person fantasy fans? Oh wait, there was Hellgate: London, another commercial flop. Fair enough, there’s a pattern.) (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #117

by on Apr.24, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone! Last weekend being Ludum Dare 35, my good friends Chip Caramel and Jimun couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And their new game looks especially fun, so you’ll forgive me for giving it a plug.

In unrelated news, a new mini-scandal swept up the industry in the past week. Yet another huge argument about working conditions, specifically crunch. Out of all the bloggers I follow, however, only one stood out. I give the stage to Emily Short.

I will add that you never actually need crunch. If you’re a decision maker and you have to drive your developers into crunch mode, you screwed up the release schedule. And the most likely reason is, you got overambitious. Probably against repeated warnings, too. And now they have to pay for your unchecked greed? With their well-being and personal lives?

No. Just no. Leave us alone.

To end on a more lighthearted note (ha ha… sob), it turns out that the average web page today is as large as the original Doom. And it’s not nearly as entertaining or revolutionary. Or, to turn the comparison on its head, that’s how much they could do 23 years ago with the amount of bytes a modern website requires just to show you a pretty picture, a few words and a “subscribe to our newsletter” popup. Seriously?

Luckily, public opinion is slowly but surely turning against this bloat. And if we can do better in web design, we can do better in games.


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Weekly Links #116

by on Apr.17, 2016, under Gamedev, News

There’s something about parser-based interactive fiction. For years, my interest has been slowly declining, but never entirely vanishing. I kept playing, and reviewing… and once every four-five years even authoring a new one. My “new” work in progress was actually started last year, but I became discouraged and abandoned for a while. Guess that wasn’t meant to last. Especially as for the past few months, finishing old abandoned works has been my modus operandi.

So stay tuned for City of Dead Leaves, a puzzle-light interactive fiction mood piece about someone looking for their lost love in a post-apocalyptic city. It won’t be especially deep, or smart, but hopefully you’ll like it either way. Doubly so as how the game came to be is a story in itself, that you’ll hear when it comes out.

And now, for the important news. After a long delay, SPAG Magazine issue #63 is finally out! A rather thin issue, from which stands out an article about voting blocks the likes of which have plagued the Hugo Awards as of late, and their impact on interactive fiction. Also, the magazine appears to be in new hands (again), which might just be good news.

Still in the way on interactive fiction, allow me to plug a friend’s recently launched Twine game, a text-based RPG reminiscent of traditional gamebooks. Dragon Fate may be ISO Standard Fantasy, but it’s no less interesting for that. It even makes fun of some genre cliches. And while it’s not exactly deep, there’s some metaphorical meat on those bones. Give it a try.

Last but not least, a couple of post-mortems: From Ars Technica, The Making of RuneScape, occasioned by the game’s 15th anniversary. Happy birthday! As for Gamasutra, this week they brought us the story behind NetHack’s latest update, which concludes with a promise that it won’t be the last one. Hopefully the next release won’t take another 12 years, either.

With that, I leave you to enjoy the Sunday. Have fun and make games!

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Weekly Links #115

by on Apr.10, 2016, under News

Well, things certainly didn’t go as planned this week. After a newsletter long enough that I had to set a link aside, then giving up on it and writing an entirely different article instead, today I have only two links for you. Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun we have an article arguing in favor of letting players enjoy a game’s story, without having to run the gauntlet of RPG combat if they don’t want to. Parts of it even echo Cheetah’s old rant about configurable games. And I’ll add, probably not for the first time either, that it’s grand time for game developers to stop thinking they have to make the players earn the story, a bit a a time, by running a gauntlet repeatedly. That doesn’t make your story interactive any more than making players click to advance a fixed dialogue. Learn to let the story move forward constantly, even if you lose control to a degree. That’s the whole point — you’re ceding some control to the player. If you don’t want that, why are you even making games in the first place? Go write a novel instead. I like novels more than games these days, anyway.

In unrelated news, @ifictionfr alerts me of an old interview with Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame, recently republished. It contains some trivia I never heard before, as well as scans of the design documents for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — a surprisingly informal mish-mash of handwritten notes. Not much to say there, except to recommend it. So have fun, and see you next week.

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Markers and highlighters: a gamedev metaphor

by on Apr.10, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev

It’s common nowadays to see people complaining online that there are too many games out there (or books, or music, you name it). It’s not nearly as common to hear them complain about too many game development tools, but that’s mostly because fewer people are game developers; if you hang around in the right circles, you’re bound to come across that one sooner or later. Interactive fiction, in particular, seems to suffer from this; a big part of nurturing new authors is helping them pick an authoring system. Already in the 8-bit era multiple companies sold competing products, in addition to the proprietary tools of major studios. Nowadays, the Cloak of Darkness website alone compares no less than 20 of them, and that’s just for parser-based works! As for me, I created as many (toy) authoring systems as I did text adventures — one of which actually saw real-world usage, to my eternal surprise and gratitude.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

With so many authoring systems out there, some of them come so close in features and overall feel as to seem redundant. That’s inevitable. I will also argue this is a red herring. Funny, isn’t it? You never hear anyone complaining that markers and highlighters are redundant. Or crayons and colored pencils. Tempera and gouache. You get the idea. Arguably, software is different because it tends to proliferate in a way physical media do not, due to programmer hubris and the nature of computers, and I can’t fault people for feeling overwhelmed. But even subtle differences may matter more than you think.

In the rest of the article I’d like to compare three authoring systems for browser-based interactive fiction, with remarkably similar design, that nevertheless make for a far from trivial choice. (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #114

by on Apr.03, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. I don’t have much patience to watch video anymore, so when something on YouTube catches my eyes these days, there’s a good reason. Via Konstantinos Dimopoulos, here’s a short documentary about the much-maligned CGA graphics the IBM PC originally launched with, and its many hidden qualities.

Speaking of retro graphics, Jay Barnson alerts his readers of the just-started Low Rez Game Jam, that challenges entrants to make a game running in just 64×64 pixels! That may seem too restrictive — less than the Game Boy — but as I pointed out in the past, creative people have been able to make do with only 16×16! What can you do with 16 times as much?

In unrelated news, the authors of 80 Days recently wrote about the decision to open source their development tool. Among various details, one thing that grabbed my eye was the idea that the story always moves forward if you don’t specify anything else. Which is not unlike how Ren’Py works, and answers one of the thorniest questions in interactive storytelling. But more of this in a future article. For now, while we’re on the topic of interactive fiction, Emily Short just posted a brief bibliography about IF history, which just so happens to include material of particular interest to regular readers of No Time To Play.

I had one more link for today, but it warrants much ampler commentary, so I’m leaving it for another write-up. Stay tuned.

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Weekly Links #113

by on Mar.27, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. Once again I have a handful of links but this time there’s much more to say about them. At this spring’s GDC, a new voice rose to talk about the way emulation may be the only way to preserve old games going forward — and with them, a big part of our era’s culture. Which echoes Shamus Young making a similar argument exactly one year ago in The Escapist. You already know my opinion so I won’t insist.

In unrelated news, we have this short Golden Axe retrospective. I must confess my experience playing the game was very different. While my 15-year-old self wasn’t above staring at pixelated nudity, that was the last thing on my mind while playing a fast action game on a small EGA monitor. And I’m pretty sure that at least in the PC version the dwarf did have an axe — the whole point was that he had a slow attack that could cleave in half multiple enemies at once, while the woman had a light, fast blade that did pitiful damage, with the male barbarian being average in that department. And guess which character was my only chance of actually making any progress…

To change the topic once again, someone who worked on many of the big LucasArts games made public a bunch of design documents. And it turns out there was a proper sequel planned for the Atari classic Star Raiders — not the one that ended up on the market. What stands out in the PDF: how game designers at the time did consider potential marketing needs, but at the same time made provisions for when a feature was just too hard to implement properly. Which is the opposite of my experience in software development: what the boss decided absolutely HAD to be implemented at any cost. Yet somehow I was always the one being accused of inflexibility. Somehow.

It’s also amusing to see just how much of a Star Wars rip-off the game concept was, plus the terms liberally pilfered from Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (the first one). Originality may be overrated, but there’s inspiration and there’s just sort of making a childish mash-up of cool concepts with no rhyme or reason. Then again, that perfectly describes Ultima I, and that’s the game that single-handedly launched the modern CRPG genre. Your mileage may vary.

Last but not least, it’s been three weeks since Rhianna Pratchett was mentioned on this blog, and here she is taking the stage again to remind people that storytelling in a game is more than just the writing — the entire design contributes, and developers need to learn how to work together in telling a story.

Then again, if people knew how to truly work together, the world would have become a utopia long ago. Cheers.

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Weekly Links #112

by on Mar.20, 2016, under Miscellaneous, News

Hello, everyone. I’ll start by highlighting a couple of rants. Over at The Guardian, Michael Cook comments on public reactions to AlphaGO’s recent victory, and why our view of artificial intelligence may be skewed. In related news, Newsweek reports on a talk at the recently concluded Game Developer’s Conference about Muslim stereotypes in videogames. I wrote about it just two months ago, so I won’t insist. And on his blog, Jay Barnson comments on the old contract, recently unearthed, that nearly killed the Ultima series. Last but not least, an article over at Gamasutra explains in detail what makes award-winning game Her Story work so well.

If I were to draw any conclusion from this week’s news, it would be that mentalities are everything. But that apparently remains too hard to grasp by people who make a fetish of high technology. And one day this willful blindness will get us all in really hot water. Have a nice week.

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Weekly Links #111

by on Mar.13, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Another very short newsletter today, featuring a retrospective of Double Dragon in three parts (with two more to come), and the big news of the week: the scripting language used to code the mega-success 80 Days has been released to the public, and under a liberal open source license, no less! It runs on Unity, so I can’t try it out, and the tutorial on GitHub is overwhelming, but my first impression is that of a modern, friendly language that’s more markup than code, in the same spirit as the one used in Ren’Py or for that matter Choice of Games. Too bad it also looks kind of cryptic. Still, anything that makes game development more friendly is always welcome. Thanks for reading, and see you next week.

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Weekly Links #110

by on Mar.06, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Nearly thee years ago, I was writing about the importance of making story an integral part of your game, rather than a bandaid applied towards the end of development. And here’s Rhianna Pratchett again, standing up to say, no more narrative paramedics. An article from last week, actually, but I missed it at the time, and it’s too relevant to pass up. The good news is, game developers are learning. At long last. But the battle isn’t yet won.

In unrelated news, Emily Short writes a post highlighting the diversity of media underlying storygames, and the many different ways you can use text alone. A good reminder that stories can take many shapes, and few of them are pure anymore. And while having preferences is fine, dismissing any possibility as inherently inferior is self-defeating.

Last but not least, Michael Cook delights us with an article about those times when procedural generation goes wrong. From personal experience, I can say it’s always a problem, and my approach has always been to mitigate the worst cases — to ensure the game remains winnable, or at least playable and fun, no matter what. Which is a lot like what you want in real life.

But that’s all for today. Thanks for reading, and see you next week.

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