No Time To Play

Tag: interactive fiction

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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Weekly Links #152

by on Jan.08, 2017, under News, Opinion

Hello, everyone! We’re having a slow week again, and most of it dedicated to interactive fiction as usual (sorry). For one thing, PC Gamer puts the recent IFComp in the spotlight, thus further cementing the genre’s return to the mainstream. And via K.D. we learn that Douglas Adams was working on a modern Hitchhiker’s Guide game right before his untimely death in 2001. It’s a bit of non-news, really, as the assets being lost means there’s no chance of reviving the project after all these years. Doubly so as those assets were likely made for VGA displays back in the day, which would make them unusable in the 4K era.

And that, of course, highlights yet again the folly of obsoleting perfectly good technology at the drop of a hat. Imagine if vinyl had been completely abandoned within the year from CDs hitting the market. No more support for turntables, nothing. Entire collections of old, rare music becoming completely useless unless people worked hard to maintain failing hardware until there were just no more dead units left to scavenge for parts. That’s what we’re doing with computer games, and before you ask why we should bother preserving some piece of shovelware, the answer is that you can only know a classic in retrospect. If you didn’t take care of it on time, sixteen years down the road — when you finally realize it wasn’t just another piece of shovelware after all — you can only weep for the loss. And that’s terrible.

Last but not least, my friend Kris is at it again with a batch of capsule reviews for tabletop RPGs and board games. Enjoy, and see you next time.

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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.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #150

by on Dec.11, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone, and welcome to my last newsletter for 2016; after this one, I’m taking a holiday break. It occurs to me that I’ve been posting this thing for three years now — half the time that No Time To Play has been around — and I’m yet to miss an update, though many have been late or else not very interesting.

Speaking of which, after failing to sell for a year, even after a fire sale, this autumn I made Tales of Space and Magic free. And it still failed to attract any views, let alone money. So for the past few days I’ve been trying something new, namely to turn the original PDF into a Twine. Which works quite well, if far from perfect, courtesy of all the implicit cross-references (now made explicit). Let’s see if this new edition will fare any better.

In the way of community updates, Vintage Is the New Old has a new face, that makes it look a lot more readable and modern, if a bit same-y. Not as good is the news that textadventures.co.uk will close down unless a new owner can be found before March 1st. We’re talking an order of magnitude more people than there are on IFDB, many of them students using interactive fiction as a learning tool. To ask what famous games have been made with Quest misses the point. This will be a loss no matter how you look at it, and I know from experience that once broken apart, a community can’t simply reform elsewhere: it’s gone for good.

Moving on to game design, Mark Johnson of Ultima Ratio Regum fame posted an article on the private lives of NPCs, while Jimmy Maher concludes his series on Wings (the classic flight simulator) with an excellent lesson for game designers:

Those other flight simulators define realism as getting all the knobs and switches right, making sure all the engines and airfoils and weaponry are in place and accounted for. (…) Wings was a reaction against that aesthetic. Instead of building a game out of exhaustive technical detail, with no thought whatsoever given to the fragile human being ensconced there in the cockpit in the midst of it all, John Cutter asked what it was like to really be there as a pilot on the Western Front during World War I — asked what, speaking more generally, it really means to be a soldier at war. Michael Bate, a game designer for Accolade during the 1980s, called this approach “aesthetic simulation” — i.e., historical realism achieved not through technical minutiae but through texture and verisimilitude.

In other words: dear developers, games are for people. Get a life first.

Happy new year and see you in 2017.

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Weekly Links #149

by on Dec.04, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Aah, that’s better. I actually have a few links for you this week. But first, let me announce that Adventure Prompt now comes with a proper demo you can play. It’s not much, but it highlights all the important features of the engine. Not so much the feel of the authoring system, but that would be hard with an inherently interactive app. Special thanks to Kevin C. Redden for all the research on backpacking that I didn’t have room to mention in the game, and to everyone else for the interest.

In other news, my friend Sera is at it again with an article titled The Woman On The Cover: Becoming A Woman In A Man’s World. It may not sound like it’s about videogames at first, but believe me, it is — though it’s an issue that impacts all of society. As the owner of StoryDevs was writing just recently:

It’s fundamentally immoral to pretend our communities are apolitical. Silence is always a vote for the status quo, one that continues to be cruel and divorced from humanity’s best interests. If we’re to fix the issues at hand we need to be talking about them in all communities, not denying they exist or redirecting people to other places because “we don’t do politics here”.

Politics is always on topic in art spaces because the arts have always been affected by politics. And the times in history that the arts have been most endangered has often coincided with injustices against marginalised groups and political upheaval.

Amen to that. But for now, let’s move on.

Earlier this autumn, I mentioned a PICO-8 clone in development. In the mean time the project went through a name change, and now people are actually using it to make games. Which makes me feel a lot less guilty for not getting around to it myself.

Last but not least, I was just wondering how NaNoGenMo went this year, when this overview of one particular participant group crossed my Twitter timeline. And there’s quite a bit to see in there.

Until next time, keep an eye on new game-making tools.

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Weekly Links #148

by on Nov.27, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Today, for only the second or third time in three years, this newsletter contains no actual links. Apologies. In my defense, I did keep working on Adventure Prompt, after coming up with a game idea that can properly showcase the engine’s specific features. A big selling point of the system is the ability for authors to employ many text adventure tropes just by setting some properties on objects. And it’s surprising how much can be done that way. Scenery/portal objects (they can double as doors that lead elsewhere) were trivial — just another application of exits. Vehicles took only 100 lines of extra code in the interpreter (though that was a 20-25% increase), and the only recent addition to the editor, apart from more documentation. I could have crammed a minimal scripting language in that much space… but that would have shifted the burden on authors. Which is the opposite of what an authoring system is for.

Easy stuff will be easy no matter what. The trick is making the hard stuff easier as well.

Next: to do some more refactoring before adding what little is left (reading material and hidden object reveal, mainly), and then to see about fleshing out that demo game, because while the map and puzzle structure came easily, I had a hard time thinking of descriptions. And that’s supposed to be my specialty.

See you next time, hopefully with more exciting news. Be well!

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Weekly Links #147

by on Nov.20, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! The 22nd Interactive Fiction Competition ended earlier this week with a result that surprised no-one, despite being a major first: as the official announcement points out, Detectiveland is the very first parser-less game to actually win the event! As the IFComp is the oldest and largest of its kind, that’s especially meaningful. But don’t worry, parser games aren’t going anywhere — although many of them are likely to be of the restricted parser variety, going forward.

In related news, here’s a postmortem of two competition entrants. Note how hard it is even for an experienced author to customize a game engine. If you’re new to game development, not to mention programming, don’t try this at home. Don’t be that guy who fights his tools every step of the way, then blames the tools. Choose an engine that matches your vision on most points, then compromise on the rest. Tip: compromise means you have to yield some too, not just the other side.

To tune into the mainstream news channels for a moment, over on Eurogamer Alexis Kennedy writes about the importance of games in difficult times, while Kotaku extensively covers EVE Online going free to play. Last but not least, someone out there is making a 3D RPG that emulates a tabletop game, complete with rolling virtual dice among the miniatures. An intriguing take on things, to be sure.

Last but not least, my recent launch of Adventure Prompt garnered enthusiastic reactions, giving me a good reason to continue the project. To begin with, I added some missing features to the interpreter. An update to the editor, including more documentation, will follow soon.

Until next time, have fun, and thanks for reading.

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Announcing Adventure Prompt

by on Nov.17, 2016, under Gamedev

Seven years ago, I discovered MUSHes and MUCKs, also known as text-based virtual worlds. I stayed for the community, but what drew me to them in the first place was online building: the ability to build text adventure settings interactively, in the same environment and in the same way one navigates the same settings: by typing commands at a prompt.

Since then, I dreamed of bringing that unique quality to interactive fiction somehow, but could never think of a way to make the concept compelling enough, especially compared to the sophistication of modern authoring systems. So the idea stayed in a corner of my mind.

Fast forward to this spring, when I had an idea for a kind of text-based RPG with interactive fiction elements. As explained nearly a month ago, part of that failed concept found new life in a Twine game prototype. But then I got around to playing Robin Johnson’s Detectiveland, and something clicked. This! This is what I was looking for: interactive fiction with a proper world model, except with a button-based interface instead of a parser (which just isn’t friendly to touchscreens… or attention spans). And because this UI is equivalent to a two-word parser, the simplified world model of MU*s would be a good match instead of a letdown. Moreover, Detectiveland has been incredibly popular, revealing a demand for retro, stylized text adventures closer to classic Scott Adams titles than baroque Inform 7 epics.

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #146

by on Nov.13, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. This week I have few links, and most of them on just one theme. With a few days to go in the Interactive Fiction Competition, Emily Short posted a roundup of the games, and that brings me to the main topic for today.

It occurs to me that this year were launched no less than three highly original IF engines. First there was Texture this summer. Then a game based on Versifier took the IFComp by storm. And Elm Narrative Engine was recently announced. All of them are very welcome, as they open up new directions for interactive fiction, outside of the parser/choice duality. But it worries me to no end that all these new engines, just like Twine, Quest, Squiffy, Undum… basically everything this side of Glulx is all strictly web-based. And while that’s oh so convenient in the short term (I do a lot of my own work in HTML5 for exactly that reason), it means a lot of newer interactive fiction depends on a piece of infrastructure — browser engines — so large and complex that most programming teams don’t have a hope of maintaining or rebuilding it should the need arise.

Perhaps the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation should consider a partnership with Mozilla or something. In the mean time, my upcoming engine is deliberately designed to NOT require any specific technology for implementation. Even the JSON-based serialization I’m going with for now can be easily replaced.

And still in the way of gaming events, another big one ends soon (today, actually). Following its namesake unconference, the Procedural Generation Jam managed to collect 80+ entries, and over ten times as many participants. I didn’t have time to check it out this year, but there’s bound to be a handful of gems among them — for everyone. So have fun with them until next time.

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Weekly Links #143

by on Oct.23, 2016, under News

Hello, and welcome to an eventful week, if you’ll pardon the pun. The PROCJAM unconference took place just before the weekend. Released on the same occasion, the first issue of their newsletter pack a hundred full-color pages of little treasures for anyone interested in procedural generation. Stay tuned for the upcoming game jam of the same name. In the mean time, as Slashdot reminds, the 22nd edition of the IFComp still has three weeks to go. Take a look!

In the way of game design advice, Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a write-up about choice in RPGs, and the gist of it is: let the player feel like they’re making an impact on the game world, even if it’s often an illusion. Give them at least a bit of agency. And elsewhere there’s a long, thoughtful essay about what made Ultima VI great. And while the bit about mapping games by hand is iffy, I actually considered using a flood fill algorithm for visibility in my roguelikes. It just never occurred to me that it simulates environmental awareness better than line-of-sight, simply because we also use memory.

Which reminds me that monitors have their color generation adjusted to match the sensitivity curve of the human eye, the Vorbis audio codec compresses sound based on how people hear, and some features of POV-Ray drop any pretense of physical simulation in favor of sort-of reproducing things we can see in the real world…

I’ll end with Hardcore Gaming 101’s retrospective of Phantasmagoria, and — fresh off the press — my own article in TeleRead about interactive fiction as a media tie-in. Enjoy, and see you next time.

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