No Time To Play
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Weekly Links #234: historical edition


I remember seeing renders like this in science magazines as a kid and thinking how marvelous it was that computers could show us such views:

Decades have gone by, and nowadays I can code a rendering engine like this as a fun little diversion between more involved projects.

And you know what? People love it! They love the look, and think it's a cool thing to do. The skill level required doesn't seem to be a factor. Hear that? You don't have to prove yourself a programming wizard for your work to be worthy of admiration. It's the results that matter.

Speaking of results, this will allow me to revive an older project, make it a lot more useful (hopefully not just to programmers, either), and move it off GitHub, too. Once I start making games again, it will also be a good fit for a 3D shooter idea that's been rattling around my brain for a while now, without an outlet. Not bad for a toy, is it?

Until then, let's see this week's news.

Let's open the week with Emily Short writing about ways to support interactive fiction tools and creators. To her credit, she mentions not just the free tools that were used to create profitable commercial games, but also all the research bubbling up from that particular community: into narrative structure, AI, NPCs, level design and more. Her shout-outs to other people in this field who perform valuable work also made me nod along all the way.

As for me, most of my recent work was in experimental tools that will need to see actual usage before they change anything, and my own games are obscure at best. But I did make notable contributions back in the day, enough to feel proud for being a part of this big, wonderful thing that is interactive fiction. And who knows what the future may yet bring.

On Friday, Vintage Is the New Old revives for us the failure of early FMV games. The article blames the poor results yielded by a mix of low budets and developers new to film not really knowing how to handle things. This is supported by an actor who used to work on such games, who was interviewed for the occasion; perhaps the best part of it. And sure, that must have been a factor. But there are bigger problems with full motion video: for one thing, neither CPUs nor codecs at the time could handle more than tiny, grainy video. Said video can still fill up even a CD-ROM pretty quickly. You need more of it than you'd think, see, for all those little bits of action that the game engine stitches together. Crossing a room; opening a door; picking up or dropping an object. It didn't help that most of those games insisted on being traditional, puzzle-oriented adventures: the absurdity of the average puzzle must have clashed badly with a live actor trying to take themselves seriously.

One game at the time that did it right was, surprise surprise, Myst, where tiny, grainy video fit right in with the steampunk theme, and most of it was in journals and such. Sounds familiar? It's a technique many later games used successfully. As for Her Story, the game that recently revived the FMV genre, it did so by playing to the medium's strengths, and having not a small dose of metanarrative.

In other words, then and now, the trick is to be smart and not force games into moulds they simply don't fit. Happy development.

Over on The Digital Antiquarian, Jimmy Maher finally gets to the point, namely the games that ran on early Windows. It's an important point, too, as I mentioned in my own guide to TkInter. But the system limitations he describes... you do realize they were also shared by Macs of the era, yes? On the Mac, you couldn't even maximize a window until OS X, let alone make it full screen, and that didn't stop the platform for getting a bunch of historically important games. Yes, even on the original, black-and-white Mac. Also, most computer users prefer simple, colorful, different user interfaces in all their software, not just in games; this is one reason why web apps are so popular. The few I met who actually prefer uniform gray controls usually do so for accessibility reasons.

That said, the history of Solitaire, a family of games that dates back all the way to the Victorian era as it turns out, is fascinating in its own right. And it's not the first time I hear about its value to neurodivergent people, either. Some of my own games, I've been told, share the same quality.

(And no, Minesweeper wasn't an original MS design either, the game already circulated in a less polished form when Bill Gates was writing his first Basic interpreter. Oh well.)

Last but not least, there's a making of Golden Eye for the N64, and a somewhat dry story about OutRun. So, plenty to read until next week. Enjoy!