Weekly Links #211: all about old games
In late 2016 I released the prototype of Adventure Prompt, an interactive fiction authoring system with a couple of twists. While feedback was good at the time, various reasons caused me to set it aside for over a year. But the wheel turned again, and as of last week I've been working on a successor, that will have RPG features, a scripting language and multimedia support among other extras. Question was, what to do with the original prototype. And as it turns out, I can easily backport some of the changes and additions, while fixing some quirks and giving it a better direction.
Two game engines for the price of one. Now that's a good deal.
Otherwise, most news this week are about old games, with a couple of sideways glances at business, and the importance of curation. So let's get going.
Too late to have been caught in the previous newsletter, a foxy friend alerts me of a Metafilter page about The Hobbit, Melbourne House's 1982 classic -- a collection of quotes from various articles written about it over time, and links to other resources. A nice tribute to one of the most fondly remembered text adventures of all time, and a potentially useful resource for scholars. Remember, curation matters!
On Sunday, Vintage is the New Old published a very personal story of one kid's life with the Commodore 64 -- apparently the second in a series, though I seem to have missed the first. While I never owned that machine, being a Speccy user throughout, shoddy hardware must have been universal in the 8-bit world. All that cost-cutting. So was the experience of keeping my professional-grade cassette recorder with its face plate off so I could use the almighty screwdriver to adjust the mechanism, often in real time as the game loaded! (Though if you think loading from tape was a problem, you probably never tried saving to tape.) And yeah, while there was a huge contrast between the glossy-paper, full color magazines and the cheaper ones that sometimes looked like photocopies of typewritten pages, both kinds had their charm, and their value.
No, it wasn't some golden age. The golden age is now, and still getting better by the season. But those days of old taught me that computers are made to be tampered with -- something today's creators must struggle to internalize. And making games is enough work already when you don't have to fight yourself.
On Tuesday, Emily Short wrote about worldbuilding from a game mechanic, which makes a lot of sense to me. Just as when writing a story the details of your setting should support the plot, and by extension what you're trying to say, when making a game your setting should match what the players will do in it. That's why in The Fairy's Throne magic works via items you find, that have one, two or at most three uses. Which just so happens to be a lot like in fairy tales, but not so much like in my stories (so far).
But you won't find much of that in Emily's article, which ends up being mostly about the story proper. There's also a brief detour into justifying features like score and save files in-game, a practice that strikes me as cute -- when it works well -- but misguided. Still a worthwhile read as usual, so enjoy, and remember: always design with purpose!
Over at Vintage is the New Old there's a long, detailed retrospective of the 8-bit Usagi Yojimbo game. I played the ZX Spectrum edition, and didn't know much of anything about the character at the time (or spoke much English), but I remember the strong impression it made: a game where you actually have to sheathe your sword now and then? And greet people? Who may turn out to be bandits in disguise and attack you... after you gave them charity? How many games let you do all that in 2018, let alone 30 years ago?! Add to that the excellent swordplay, something few games ever dared tackle at all, let alone got right, and it was already amazing even without all the details it turns out I missed.
Definitely a game worth remembering, then. Thanks for the nostalgia trip!
Over on the itch.io blog (via their Tumblr) there's a post explaining the team's approach on curation -- a timely post not just because it's a generally important topic, but also because a lot of creators using the service ask how to get their games featured on the front page, and are surprised to hear that particular section contains a manual selection. Other sections, it turns out, not so much, but even the automated parts try to highlight different games at different times and give everyone a chance. That, too, surprises a lot of people. Are we so used to the winner-takes-all, zero-sum attitude of modern capitalism that we forget it's not a law of nature, and it's up to us to do better? I want to sell too; I won't hurt others to achieve my goal. It's that simple. And truly indie services like itch.io are right to try and embody basic humanity.
After a week's delay, Jimmy Maher a.k.a. the Digital Antiquarian is back with a long read about the birth of Sid Meier's Civilization. Of special import is the comparison with competing titles being made at the time by equally great game designers, whose failure only serves to validate Meier's approach:
- fun trumps realism every time;
- capture the spirit of what you're simulating, not the details;
- let your design grow organically through play instead of making a grand plan.
The first two I follow myself. The third, not so much -- making big lists of what you want in the game is good too. Just do it with the awareness that you will have to pare back your grand design. Because if you don't, you'll be forced to, and by then you won't be able to choose what to leave out.
Apart from that, the story underscores once again the importance of taking inspiration from real life and the humanities, not just nerdy interests. But most of the second half only serves to highlight the unmitigated evil of trademarks and the incredibly poisonous misconception that ideas are somehow unique and valuable, and illustrates once again how capital -- otherwise an economic tool that enables many great games to be made at all -- ruins everything in the end as making a profit turns from a reward for enabling high accomplishments into an all-devouring goal. And it's eating us alive.
Until next Sunday, do revisit old games now and then.