August Link Assortment

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It’s been a good month for revisiting classics. Andrew Plotkin’s classic Shade is now out in a French version.

Meanwhile, Adam Cadre’s groundbreaking 1998 IF game Photopia is now available as a stand-alone iOS app, which advertises some UI updates. These aren’t updates in the sense of leaving the parser behind or even offering any particular extra tools for dealing with it — Hadean Lands has more of that kind of thing — but the transition from one color passage to another is slightly animated, and the colors themselves feel like a more natural fit for iOS than they did for the janky old interpreters for which Photopia was originally written.

Finally, Wade Clarke’s Leadlight Gamma — a reworking of his comp game Leadlight, but for modern IF engines — is on sale at itch.io for $1.00 until the end of August (which is to say, the rest of today).

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Another piece of IF-related excitement this month: the debut of Sub-Q magazine, which has published three new and one reprint IF story, as well as a bunch of interview and blog posts. This interview with Chris Klimas gives his thoughts on Twine and where it’s going.

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Digital Antiquarian is always good value, but I especially enjoyed this article on graphical adventure design and its flaws, which looks at Space Quest and Uninvited.

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So far there are only teasers or advance websites for these games, but I’m curious about two forthcoming IF-y pieces: Sun Dogs and Wheels of Aurelia.

sundogsSun Dogs is set in our solar system and appears to have mechanics based on the orbits of the planets, but with a large number of events described in text depending on where the player is and the state of the orbits. It will include extensive modding tools for those who want to expand on its range of options. Anticipated release date is in late October. It’s currently being Greenlit, so if this sounds interesting, you can vote for it on Steam. To quote their own pitch:

Sun Dogs is a game of exploring our solar system once humanity has spread across it. As you travel, you gather items, skills, and alterations to your body. These will affect the text of the world and your journey through it.

WOA01Wheels of Aurelia, meanwhile, pitches itself as half driving game and half interactive fiction, and concerns a female driver in 1970s Italy. That, and the art released so far looks amazingly cool. There’s also a mailing list to sign up for updates, or people going to Fantastic Arcade can get a first look.

Both of these look to combine location-based models with textual gameplay, and that combination has worked out really well in other contexts, from Sunless Sea to 80 Days. So I am curious and optimistic.

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The Island of Doctor Wooby (Ryan Veeder)

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All around you, huge white ribs slice out of the ground like angry grabbing chthonic fingers, and from the center of this ossified ampitheatre a colossal pointed skull looks up at you with toothy indifference. This is a macabre location.

The Island of Doctor Wooby is a short, friendly piece of parser IF, with the chatty narrator, solid parsing, and lightweight puzzles familiar from a lot of Ryan Veeder’s work. It’s somewhat shorter than Dial C for Cupcakes and probably a bit easier than Nautilisia. The premise is that you’re exploring a toy-like island covered with felt dinosaurs sewn by Doctor Wooby.

As for the dinosaurs, their names and characteristics are procedurally generated, giving them different colors of felt and different physical attributes, as well as a range of cute behaviors. You can pet them, feed them, and interact with them in a few other ways — which makes sense considering that Island of Doctor Wooby was an entry in PetJam.

Several of the puzzles turn on recognizing that you’re dealing with artificial things rather than real ones, and therefore you can deal with them differently than you might initially have expected. The game acknowledges its own status as an artificial construct, too:

The sand isn’t diggable in this game. This may be because its components are too securely joined. Maybe it is intended to be a sympathetic character, and digging it would violate the contract of nonviolence implicit in this game’s player-parser relationship. Or perhaps “digging a sand” is just bizarre concept.

In one spot, a river scene is described as “Edenic”; elsewhere, a description of a garden is supplied by a substantial quote from Paradise Lost, though the things described in the quotation are of course not really present, and an attempt to interact with them provokes a disambiguation asking if you’re referring to “the literary flowers”. The setting is thus both childlike and prelapsarian, and yet neither the felt nor the poetry is quite real. In this respect it’s a little reminiscent of Delphina’s House, though DH allows the player to swap between realities rather than making them simultaneously present as Veeder does.

Ultimately the effect of all this remains primarily playful. Gentle, charming, took me about 10-15 minutes to play.

This Book is a Dungeon (Nathan Meunier)

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As indicated in this screenshot, This Book is a Dungeon is a) a Kindle book about game development with Twine and b) the Twine-based dungeon developed as described in the book. The word “Bookumentary” makes my teeth itch a little, so I will pretend I didn’t see that. And I can’t comment on the success of this piece as a self-publishing experiment, so I’ll just talk about the first two aspects.

The book is 81 pages long, which means that the book and game together are definitely far outside the usual “I will play this in 20 minutes in my lunch break” realm occupied by most Twine pieces — though it’s written in a breezy, confident, slightly repetitive style that makes it a pretty fast read:

It’s truly rare to find me doing only ONE thing at a time. Ever. I’ll admit that my rampant ADD is partly to blame. I try to work this incessant need for chaos and spinning plate juggling to my advantage, though it sometimes bites me in the ass. I can’t ignore this one, though. The drive is too great. Plus it’s new and shiny, so off we go!

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Windhammer Prize: ‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

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The Windhammer Prize is a yearly competition for gamebooks, specifically the on-paper, distributed-by-PDF variety. Last year I covered a few of the games, and this year the competition is about to open again, so I thought I would honor the occasion by looking at Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club, the winner of the top prize in 2013. (Past entrants are archived on the competitions site.)

The image I’ve used as the header illustration for this post is a map of the town you’re exploring, and it contains some information (besides the numbers themselves) that you may need to use to solve the adventure. Its cartoony but confident feel is a pretty good introduction to the experience as a whole: lighthearted, accessible, soundly constructed, with the game/puzzle side more prominent than the story side.

‘Normal Club here refers to paranormal research, which in this world is an after-school competitive activity like chess team or debate club. The protagonists are a Buffy-style Scooby gang, and you get to pick three of six prefab characters to include. This choice determines your gang stats and opens up a number of character-specific extra paragraphs throughout the story. For any given situation, one or two of the gang members might have a personal response.

As one might expect, the resulting narrative uses characterization mostly as a spice, and none of the protagonists can afford to have unique motivations that might cause a surprise swerve in the MacGuffin Quest. Likewise, most of the choices you encounter, up until the very end, are tactical rather than moral decisions.

Like many gamebooks, ‘Normal Club starts with some forms to fill out with these stats, and spaces for inventory. Initially I tried to play using the online PDF and just keeping my notes in a notebook, but that was a mistake, for reasons I’ll get into at the moment. If you want to play, you probably need to print this thing off. (It runs to 45 pages, so this isn’t insuperable, but I usually avoid printing longish documents for the sake of the planet.) You will also need a 6-sided die or a reasonable online facsimile.

The discussion below isn’t all that spoilery, but if you want an innocent first experience of this book, you may want to stop here.

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Conversations We Have In My Head (Squinky)

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Conversations We Have In My Head is a very short, real-time dialogue game by Squinky, describing a conversation between a genderqueer protagonist (Quarky) and their ex (Lex). As the player, you’re choosing responses Lex can make to Quarky’s revelations and questions; new options come and go on the screen. This gives the game a smooth, relaxing quality — this is an odd analogy, perhaps, but it felt a bit like a driving game to me, in which you’re looking at the scenery sliding by and deciding which way you wanted to steer, but didn’t have any brakes.

If you want, you can be totally silent and just listen to Quarky monologue about the changes in their life. Or you can offer lots of feedback, or even more or less wrest the conversation around to yourself on a regular basis, reminding Quarky of the differences between you and of harm done in the past. I like the way this flows, though after about the fifth playing I started to wish I could fast-forward to important junctions in order to try some of the alternatives. Still, the game is so compact that even re-listening to the same opening doesn’t slow things down too much.

Squinky includes the following paragraph in their description of the game:

Many of us have voices in our heads that constantly remind us of our perceived failures and inadequacies. Sometimes, those voices appear to us in the form of a once-important, now-estranged person from our past. This is a game about having one of those conversations with that voice in your head, and the many ways it can go.​​

Despite the conflict implied in this paragraph, I found that the majority of the conversations I generated with Conversations We Have In My Head were net positives, rather than negative reflections on the protagonist or on what happened in the past. Perhaps growing up and coming to know themselves better has opened the possibility that the characters might be kinder to one another and keep things in better perspective than they used to. There are of course some exceptions.

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Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story

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Blackbar is an interactive puzzle story, for various mobile platforms, about censorship: you see one side of a correspondence, and must guess the missing words in order to move forward, as the participants try to communicate through the filter of an oppressive regime. It got a reasonable amount of enthusiasm at the time, and appeared on some top-ten lists for 2013.

screenshot-2-3.5-outlinedI have to confess that I went to a walkthrough for some of the later puzzles. One of the issues with riddle-style puzzle design is that it isn’t very explorable: you either have that flash of understanding or you don’t, and if you are thinking along the wrong lines, it can be very hard to get back on track. A few of the puzzles in Blackbar are divided up into components that you can try to solve individually, which moves it more towards crosswords territory — you can figure out some bits, get confirmation, and then use that to work out the parts you don’t understand — but others aren’t as friendly.

I also thought there wasn’t all that much to the story when it was all stitched together. Others described its storyline as Orwellian and said that it critiqued censorship, but that critique mostly boils down to: “Censorship. It’s bad.” Orwell made points about how controlling language ultimately means controlling thought, as sophisticated arguments become impossible to form. Blackbar is more about goofy ways to try to get around the censors, and casts the censors themselves as pretty incompetent. Surely a censor who really wanted to suppress information would black out more at a time, leaving us with puzzles that were harder to solve. Still, it was entertaining and competent and lots of people had fun with it.

I was reminded of Blackbar again recently because, while I was looking for a completely different thing, the iOS app store recommended Interactive Sexy Story, a free to play app with in-app purchases. I downloaded it as a piece of potential kusoge, and I was not wrong.

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