No Time To Play

Case study

Eamon: between CRPGs and interactive fiction

by on Apr.13, 2017, under Case study

It’s safe to say that I like interactive fiction a lot better than computer role-playing games. Just about the only CRPG that ever piqued my interest was Planescape: Torment. Which, sure enough, may well be the most adventure-like such game ever created, with much more of a focus on storytelling than combat, and with a setting that came alive (literally, within the game’s fiction) in a way few other games managed. You could say it’s a matter of patience, but I spent countless days, weeks at a time, playing strategy games, and also sank plenty of hours in roguelikes — the RPGs’ low-tech, mechanistic cousins. So this isn’t about preferring story over gameplay, either; in fact, some of my all-time favorite games are shooters.

May seem strange, then, that someone like me would be interested in trying out Eamon, an RPG as old-school as they get, and of a flavor that wasn’t all that popular even back in the day.

But inspiration can be found in unlikely places. For one thing, Eamon is a cult classic: released as public domain software in 1982, it was recreated more than once, and the Deluxe edition (easily playable forevermore thanks to DOSBox), was last updated in 2012 — no less than three decades since the original! Apart from the early Ultima games and Infocom’s library, I can’t think of many games the same age that people worked as hard to preserve.

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Weekly Links #158

by on Feb.19, 2017, under Case study, News, Off-topic

Hello, everyone! It’s yet another good week, despite my interests still lying well outside gaming for now. Let’s start with a couple of game retrospectives from Hardcore Gaming 101, first the long-lost and recently unearthed Warcraft Adventures, then of a much newer title: Tim Schafer’s big comeback Broken Age. Which, if anything, illustrated both the potential and the danger crowdfunding holds even for a veteran game designer with countless fans. And still in the way of game retrospectives, Emily Short’s latest RPS column is about games that involve dressing up and going to a party, preferably with a good dose of swashbuckling. Much like her own creation Pytho’s Mask, that’s still among my all-time favorites.

In more technical news, we have another RPS article, this time on tools for RPG writing (think branching conversations and quests), and via Juhanna Leinonen, the announcement of a tool for translating interactive fiction. Not much to say there, except that tools are as hard to make as they are increasingly needed for good games, so it’s worth paying attention.

I’ll end with a story that’s more about art, culture and people than games, but still relevant in my opinion: Vanishing Point, or How the Light Grid Defined 1980s Futurism. On this note I bid you a good week. Until next time.

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Rescuing the interactive fiction parser from oblivion

by on Dec.25, 2016, under Case study

It’s 2016, and for the first time (in over two decades) a game with no parser won the Interactive Fiction Competition. Not only that, but in spring a game made in Twine swept the XYZZY Awards for 2015. And two-thirds of the Spring Thing entrants, including one of two winners, were choice-based.

Why does it matter? Because no earlier than 2014 there was a huge dispute over parser-less games raising to prominence in the IFComp. And doubts about the future of the parser stretch all the way back to 2010 — not coincidentally, the year Twine started getting notice.

How ironic that just a few months before that it was hard to find an interactive fiction piece made with anything except Inform 7.

No wonder that fans of the parser can get defensive. Not that parser-based games are going anywhere, but, you know. Down from the top of their game, and all that. (Pun not intended.) Worse, there’s a simmering dread that the parser failed to keep up with the times and appeal to new players even as interactive fiction slowly became mainstream again. And not for lack of trying.

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User interfaces in text-based games

by on Dec.18, 2016, under Case study

Maybe I write too much about text-based games, but in my defense the written word is awesome. It’s the closest you get to a digital medium without actual computers (what, with letters and words being discrete symbols by definition), and one of the most flexible as well. Communication doesn’t get more pure than a stream of symbols flowing back and forth; you can write them down on paper, ticker tape, or walls, going left or right, up or down, and even lay them out in three dimensions, as the Ancient Egyptians amply demonstrated. You do have to pick one path when reading, but hey, that’s what we call hypertext nowadays.

Early computer games, from Hamurabi (Doug Dyment, 1968) to Adventure (Will Crowther, 1976) were limited to a linear stream of text, simply because they had to run on teletypes. For the same reason, input was also limited to typing words on a keyboard. But that limitation also meant you exchanged words with the computer from equal footing — what people in the real world call a chat.

And so, a command line remained the defining way to interact with text adventures, helpers like a clickable compass rose notwithstanding. Oh, there were always a few games that tried to emulate the pick-a-choice interface popularized by gamebooks in the 1980s. But those were hardly on anyone’s radar until 2009, when Twine swooped in. At which point it became impossible to ignore all the people shouting that the emperor is naked.

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Three faces of Twine

by on Oct.20, 2016, under Case study

This spring, a friend of mine came up with an excellent gamebook made in Twine (now also on itch.io). At the time I appreciated not just the story itself, but also the way it worked around engine limitations to offer the player a character sheet at appropriate moments. And Kris isn’t the only one making RPGs in Twine, as I started to notice more recently. Which is a bit of a problem when using an authoring tool designed to display one passage at a time from a choose-your-own-adventure story, and not much else.

But what if I told you Twine has another face, one that allows you, with minimal effort, to make games with all the usual bells and whistles:

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  • a proper save dialog with multiple slots;
  • more generally, a modal dialog system;
  • graphical user interface elements;
  • a fully customizable sidebar;
  • toolbars and status lines.

It’s called SugarCube, and it’s as well-documented as it is powerful. Also heavyweight, which is why Twine 2 ships with the older, less capable branch in the package. For some reason, however, its capabilities aren’t well-known, even though plenty of Twine-using authors prefer it to the default Harlowe.

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Weekly Links #126

by on Jun.26, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Hard to believe it’s been only one week since I started work on a desktop port of Glittering Light, because it already looks like this:

Mind you, it’s not even an alpha right now, and there are compatibility issues that may yet kill the project; but even if it does, I’ll still recommend sdlBasic as a nice little tool for rapid prototyping and such — it’s a surprisingly well-designed dialect and implementation, with a tiny but friendly community.

In the mean time, the Bring Out Your Dead game jam, after closing yesterday, reopened again for a few more hours. (If you’re reading this on Sunday, you might still catch it!) My list of favorites however remains unchanged: Total Oblivion, an experimental tabletop RPG with an intriguing subject matter that’s quite relevant these days; Kulhwch, a text-based room escape game made in Twine (and in verse, no less), which proves — in the small — that you don’t need hunt-the-pixel puzzles for the genre to work; and an interactive comic prototype by a veteran of the interactive fiction community. Other entries are worth a look as well; if you drop by, leave the authors a comment, because socialization has been scarce during this jam as well.

On to more conventional news. While my neighbor from the south Konstantinos Dimopoulos writes about implying size and complexity in game cities (goes for any kind of virtual environment, really), one of Defender‘s creators talks about the bright future of arcade games. Last but not least, in Le Monde of all places there’s an interview about what made Super Mario 64 so special. It’s all in French, but the short version is, that was the first console game to feature a vast, wide open 3D world with sandbox gameplay — something we nowadays take for granted on all platforms.

So, games to play, lessons to learn and a new toy to play with. It’s been a pretty good week after all. Have fun, and see you next time.

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Weekly Links #120

by on May.15, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev, News

Another week, another delay. If you were waiting for my latest text adventure, I’m afraid it’s still in beta-testing, for reasons outside of my control, and I’d rather not lose patience and release an untested game. Maybe if the delays continue. In related news, I started porting RogueBot to the desktop, something I should have done long ago. Got plans for another port as well, to be announced when it’s certain enough.

In other news, Vice magazine has an article about the importance of Doom, and Gamasutra is running a piece on action RPGs. The former makes familiar arguments, but the latter came up with a new one (for me at least): namely, that computer RPGs letting one player control an entire party misses the entire point of tabletop games, namely to let each player identify with their one character. And why bother with a party at all, since you lose the social interaction aspect in the first place? Suddenly, I’m seeing roguelikes and games like Morrowind in a different light…

(That said, I just have to point out that the original Diablo totally failed to keep the novelty level high, its generated dungeons lacking both variety and especially color.)

But this week’s big story is Eurogamer’s feature on Lionhead, occasioned by the legendary studio’s closure at the end of April. (Warning, long read.) And you know what? This may be Peter Molyneux and Fable we’re talking about, but the story of their ultimate failure is drinking game material. Take a sip every time:

  • unchecked ambition;
  • mistaking chaos for creativity;
  • months-long death marches;
  • brodude culture;
  • massive overextension;
  • poor quality control;
  • flights of fancy;
  • greed-driven financial decisions;
  • tone-deaf marketing;
  • executive meddling.

We’ve all heard this exact same story so many times by now, studios and publishers alike really have no excuse anymore. And still they refuse to learn. So be it then. But consider how many amazing games — games out of reach for a small indie team — simply never get made because of it.

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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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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 #105

by on Jan.31, 2016, under Case study, News, Opinion

Hello, everyone. I had yet another week of writing and editing, with more editing and art coming, not to mention other things. So yeah, still not much attention span to spare here. But the news are no less worth it.

The big one this week was that a computer had beaten a world-class GO champion. Which is incredibly meaningful, because it’s not the kind of problem you can solve with more processing power (unlike the time when Deep Blue defeated Kasparov at chess). You have to build genuine intelligence into your code — and somebody did. It’s part of the same trend as self-driving cars; funny how fast AI has advanced once we gave up on trying to blithely imitate people, and just treated it like another tool in the box.

Anyway, in unrelated news, it turns out that procedural generation of text predates computers by centuries. Which makes perfect sense, because the concept of computation has been around for much longer than the idea of an universal computer, and indeed doesn’t depend on it. In fact, there is a staggering variety of natural processes that can perform computation — one of them, DNA self-duplication, gave birth to us. That people thought of it (in a very meta way it turns out) so long ago is a lesson worth learning.

In the way of actual game development, one of my favorite people in gaming interviews the creators of 80 Days, and while it’s not exactly new information, the way it’s put together makes it fresh again, so give it a read. Last but not least, another story that made waves this week: in a lengthy blog post, an indie game developer explains why they had to fire most of the crew after a successful game launch. And you know, I can understand just fine why someone would make the kind of mistakes described in the article, having seen very similar stories play out before (from the perspective of an employee who had to be laid out). But I wish people would figure out already that:

  • ambition is bad;
  • you shouldn’t put all your eggs in a single basket;
  • ambition is bad;
  • Steam is not your friend;
  • ambition is bad.

No, seriously. I’m sick and tired of hearing how you’d supposedly never have started anything without ambition. I seem to start — and finish — a whole lot of different things, and while none of them has reached epic size or widespread success yet, I have a lot more to show for my efforts right now than my friends who rushed to build a dream castle before they had a solid foundation, and it all crumbled to rubble one day.

Until next week, consider the virtues of patient work.

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