Happy Easter, everyone! I’ll start by reminding you that we’re one week into the Spring Thing interactive fiction festival, and it’s the largest edition ever. Still three weeks to go, too, if you want to vote or something.
The other big news this week is about The CRPG Book Project which, as announced by Indie Retro News is near completion: a free history of computer role-playing games by a largely European team, told in a couple hundred capsule reviews and a thousand colorful screenshots, that gives equal space to famous classics and obscure titles (some never translated into English) that nevertheless had a massive influence on the genre. A labor of love, put together over several years, and amazingly enough released for free.
Still on the subject of videogame genres, the first part in a series of articles on visual novels was just announced on the Lemma Soft forums, and it starts out strong with an analysis of current trends.
Next for a bit of nostalgia: Slashdot points to a look back at 8-bit computing, and it’s pretty damn thoughtful as listicles go. On a slightly different note, someone just came up with a graphic adventure engine for the Pico-8 inspired by LucasArts’ SCUMM, and coming surprisingly close.
To end on a less cheerful note, Play the Past has a feature on death in online virtual worlds. Being part of such a community that was hit repeatedly by the deaths of prominent members, the whole thing struck a chord with me.
But I have more to read and think about, not to mention today to deal with. See you around.
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.
Hello, everyone! With the recently concluded Game Developers Conference keeping everyone busy, I don’t have as many links today as for the last two weeks. But hey, as Michael Cook points out, not everyone could make it, and what they have to say is no less interesting. Like this article about ahead-of-time versus runtime procedural generation. Or this essay on videogames and genre, which comes up with a novel angle: in games, because they’re interactive, genre has two axes, not just one like in static media. In other words, it’s a field, not a line. Which explains why everyone, myself included, have had such a hard time getting a grip on the concept for so long.
In other news, over on Eurogamer Alexis Kennedy writes about game endings (via K.D.). Pretty ironic for someone famous for creating a neverending text-based MMO. I don’t agree with his position, by the way: while Undertale’s habit of remembering past playthroughs blew everyone’s mind, it also frustrated a lot of players who found themselves locked out of the best ending because they played too violently at first, as they’ve been conditioned to do for two generations. And sure, that’s how real life works… but the whole point of games is that they’re not real life. He also seems to forget that MMORPGs (including his own) had to compensate for the players’ inability to save and reload by making death inconsequential, also in order to avoid frustration.
When what you do has permanent consequences, however virtual, it’s no longer fun and games. Not that games have to be fun. But consider what exactly you’re putting in front of an audience.
Last but not least, via Emily Short, here’s a Kotaku article about black people in videogames. Unsurprisingly, the gist of it is that we’re still limited to stereotypes and caricatures, and that’s a terrible state of things this far into the 21st century. Especially as Unesco just hailed videogames as a great way to foster empathy between human beings in a world plagued by violent bigotry.
But that takes us into really dark territory. See you next week.
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…)
It had to happen sooner or later. For the first time since I’m keeping this newsletter, not a single tweet or blog post caught my attention enough to be worth sharing here. So this has to be a skip week. I blame myself. Maybe don’t unsubscribe just yet though. Please?
I will, however, leave you with a thought if I may: It occurs to me that game genres are the equivalent of literary forms, and there’s nothing wrong with liking sonnets over flash fiction. And when you decide what to write next, you don’t just choose a theme, but also how best to express it. Will it be an epistolary novel? An epic poem?
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a time-tested form. Just do it with purpose.
I was going to write a big rant about programming languages for this week, but I tried and it’s just not coming together. Suffice to say, people keep inventing new ones to fix what they perceive as wrong with the old ones. And invariably, the newcomers turn out to miss the point entirely. These days everyone is gushing over Go and Rust. Bwahahaha! Remember Vala? I didn’t think so. Or D, for that matter? Hint: the idea of “fixing C++” wasn’t born this decade. Heck, Java was born from the same misguided good intention. And we all know how that worked out.
Pro tip: technologies that endure are those that build on the past and work with it. Because if you keep tearing everything down and starting anew, you’re never going to make any real progress.
I was tempted to just skip this newsletter. Few links last week, little to say about them, and having full time work these days is not a combination conducive to creativity. (Well, and having my creativity channeled in another direction as of late.) But here I am anyway.
First thing that grabbed my eye is this tweet, itself quoting a longer conversation. And you know, maybe I’m missing some context, but are two of the world’s best game programmers arguing that programmable-pipeline OpenGL is too complicated, and software rendering is better?
And here I present two of the most influential PC game developers talking on Twitter about how to recreate Doom. pic.twitter.com/YJ59PlcxUY
— Benj Edwards (@benjedwards) September 9, 2014
Yeah, yeah, I’m biased. But next time you’re struggling to get basic stuff working properly with the “easier” modern technologies, you want to ask yourself if you really need all the fluff.
It was a week with few gaming news that caught my eyes, and I was busy with other creative work, but what’s there is pretty awesome.
Let’s start with a game that’s just too unique not to mention: Heroes of a Broken Land, a combination of strategy, city building and… first person dungeon crawling. I’ve always liked hybrid games like that, and seeing that people still make them was nice; the gaming world is way too fixated on genres nowadays.
I think pretty much everybody agrees by now that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is bunk. But while language doesn’t really shape thought, it can definitely influence the way we think about things. Just look at the way scientists use the word ‘theory’ versus how the general public understands it — the “but it’s just a theory!” brain bug is sure to drive any knowledgeable person crazy.
As Shamus Young points out, one such problem term is ‘computer game’. In his own words:
I’ve been playing (and reading) some while building up enthusiasm for my next project, whatever that will be. I happened to find a great tower defense game via Twitter, and when I started recommending it in turn people asked me, “are you planning to make one of these?”
My first reaction to that was, “neah, there are too many in the genre as it is”. Then, “you know, I haven’t played any in a long while”. So I set out to look for more, and promptly found another gem. Which wasn’t very hard, as apparently there are only two kinds of tower defense games: excellent and terrible, with nothing in-between.