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The Last Game Left
Apr 20th, 2012 by Ice Cream Jonsey

“There’s going to be a point,” I thought, sniveling in a glass of Gatorade and white chaw, “where the rate that good things get made exceeds my ability to enjoy them.”

I thought it would be years from now, in a terrible, dark dystopia when people were forced to drink Gatorade. It happened on April 11th, 2012.

***

I was surprised by a gift from my girlfriend at the beginning of the month: scuba diving! Everything I know about scuba diving can be neatly summarized from the box to this Infocom game:

The following things, therefore, quite clearly happen in scuba diving:

1) Someone cuts your air line
2) Someone sinister comes up from behind you and cuts your air line (I know this shares a lot of the same qualities as #1, but I feel this can’t quite be overstressed)
3) There’s panicking
4) Look at that gentle blue and serene ocean! Quite beautiful, that

Implicit in the box artwork to eyes most deft is the fact that someone, both the “stunt throat” as they say in the biz, and the men who would cut it, can swim. I couldn’t swim. Couldn’t swim! And had scuba lessons in a week. To put a nice bow on all this, I’d probably rather get my throat cut in a two-star text adventure than disappoint my girl, so a week’s worth of swimming lessons were to begin. Which meant I’d miss a whole lot of freshly-released games.

***

First up was Lone Survivor. It is, as far as I can tell, a horror-themed side-scrolling graphical adventure. Rock Paper Shotgun did an article on it, and I purchased it after I had read the article, but before I had descended into the typically abhorrent RPS comments.

I would love to play and solve this game.

Next up was Wasteland — the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter became funded to the tune of two million (and later three million) dollars. I played Wasteland in the 90s, well after its initial release, but I wanted to solve it. I wanted to make sure I would get every reference that might be in Wasteland 2.

It wasn’t made by an 11-year old girl or anything, but I would love to play and complete this classic game.

I was sent Blur, the racing game that reminds me of Road Rash, except that it existed in the 2000s and didn’t suck pole. I’ve tried to not mentally refer to it as “Shut up, Blur.”

I would love to play Blur long enough until I got the Subaru WRX that I assume is in there.

Legend of Grimrock was released. Naval War: Arctic Circle. The contents of the new Humble Bundle. You know, I wouldn’t be totally against trying frigging Cutthroats, too, by the way, number of stars be damned. There’s A Colder Light, Muggle Studies and this year’s crop of Spring Things. It’s not a computer game, but the new BBC show “Sherlock”? I don’t want to say it’s brilliant, but I would say that I like it quite a bit and each episode is an hour and a half. It’s the sort of programme you have to pay attention to. All that, and I’m working on a new text game, I’m testing a friend’s text game and I also enjoyed swimming so much that I joined a gym.

I wish I had time for this (waves hands) ALL of this.

***

There’s one game left. It’s the only game that I have been able to play, because it’s the only game I have time for. It goes like this:

Remember bulletin boards? It was even more primitive tech than games that gave you cyan and magenta color schemes. There are quite a few aspects of bulletin boards that I miss, but one in particular was the whispered asynchronous communication: I called the telephone of someone in Rochester that I didn’t know… I accessed his or her phone line, the modem, the computer, and read messages. I scoured the file bases hoping that someone accidentally uploaded warez. I might have even hoped that they would read my posts and call my BBS.

And the only thing I seem to have time for is to do the same over Twitter. I logon to my @Cryptozookeeper account, where I follow everyone back. I try to find people who are also trying to make their fortune on Twitter by posting fun timelines and following others who haven’t taken off in meteoric fame yet either. Most of the time nothing happens, but sometimes… ah, sometimes two people do make that asynchronous connection and follow each other. When this happens, I consider that we both “won” this little, horrible, stupid game and gained a point. Or level? OK, a point. I know it’s not a great game. It’s not a good game, in fact, it’s a terrible game! But at the moment, it’s the only one I have the time to play.

My 20 Favorite Text Games
Sep 21st, 2011 by Ice Cream Jonsey

Note: Victor is holding a thread on intfiction.org for a list of everyone’s favorite text games here. There is still time to submit yours!

I enjoy voting. But like most Americans, I hate leaving the house, so I just use an absentee ballot. I have accepted the fact that my votes will just be thrown into a garbage heap of tires and inexplicably bruised organic bananas because 99% of absentee voters are in the military and vote the opposite of how I do. But when I figured out I didn’t have to drive to vote for Victor’s experiment and that Mike Snyder spambans anyone from registering on intfiction.org with a .mil address, it became extremely appealing.

I have been out of the loop as a player for a few years, so this list will look like it was written in mid-2006. (For instance, George Bush invades someone between picks 13 and 14.) I wasn’t going to post it because it’s unfair to all the authors making great games in the current day. The world probably doesn’t need another multi-Zork list. I’m currently playing Savoir-Faire, so I am so far behind the times, I might as well be playing games from the actual 18th French Century. I don’t want to discourage anyone doing new things, but this happens anytime there’s an IF list — the last few years of text games are almost completely ignored. But while players are behind, word does eventually get out.

1. Zork I: The Great Underground Empire by Infocom. The first truly great video game that was ever created.

2. Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz by Infocom. To this day there’s, what, fewer than a dozen video game sequels that were legitimately as good as the first one?

3. Knight Orc by Level 9. They ended up making a MMORPG with characters taking the place of logged-in users. Virtually everyone is reprehensible, there’s a ton of emergent gameplay and it really does feel like you got dumped into an unfriendly world, left with only your wits. This sense of community should be what on-line roleplaying games are trying to achieve, instead of bitcoin-based libertarianism and goblin-slobbing.

4. I-0 by Adam Cadre. Laugh-out-loud funny, with that sense of being able to go anywhere and do anything that I really love in IF.

5. Jinxter by Magnetic Scrolls. I only played this game after Michael Bywater made in appearance in the comments of that forum post where Andy Baio published internal Infocom e-mails without asking anyone if that was OK. This really is one of the funniest games ever made. The author’s challenge in Jinxter seemed to be to give a payoff for every single response the parser gave the player. (I’ve never written a proper review, so excuse me going into depth here.) When I was mid-way through the last game I made, I’ll confess that having to come up with so much text for mundane items was starting to become a chore. How many ways can a man describe a desk? Then I played Jinxter. Jinxter was like one of those personal trainers who yell at you. It made me realize what a gift it is to have the attention of a player. What an *opportunity*. It made me comprehend the rare series of events that need to occur for someone to even begin playing one’s text game in this age and if I didn’t respect that, and attempt to make every line of text as good as I could, I should just give up. Bywater doesn’t give up anywhere in Jinxter. He’s a force of nature here.

(But it’s below I-0 because no hawt chix go topless.)

6. Narcolepsy by Adam Cadre. Full review here.

7. Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin. Loved how smart I felt when I got inside the building, and the jarring shift that happens next. I never got tired of having the interrogator tell me that I couldn’t have possibly done what I did, seeing how what I did resulted in me squicking out. That — along with V.A.T.S. in Fallout 3 and take-downs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution — is one of those unique mechanics that I never ended up getting tired of.

8. Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All The Girls by Legend. A wise man once pointed out to me that after A Mind Forever Voyaging, an artistic triumph that fared poorly financially, Steve Mertezky did "sex game, then sequel." Sure, but after those two games he came up with what I believe is the most entertaining game of his career. S101 was meticulously plotted with a master of his craft leveraging his years of experience for a great story as well as game. There is a certain pleasure to someone experienced kicking ass in their creative years with such confidence. But at the same time, there was a lot of room for exploration within the game’s college campus. You could chose whether or not you went to class or not, and it was better to actually go! Amazing. S101 also holds the distinction of being the only game whose walkthrough of commands has ever made me laugh.

9. Fail-Safe by Jon Ingold. I’ve read some other reviews that indicate that other players had a difficult time navigating things, but this didn’t happen in my case. I’m awful at seeing the trick in movies, books and games, so my brain was perfectly pudgy and ululating to be so magnificently tricked by a game like Fail-Safe.

10. The Circuit’s Edge by Westwood Associates. I used to say this was my favorite book done by my favorite video game company. Then I got older and understood that the Infocom label was being used, though nobody at Infocom proper worked on it. The chief gameplay mechanic of this is just so amazingly brilliant: you can add microchips to your brain and instantly have a new personality or new abilities. This is dead-set sexy for video games. Like, argh, THIS should have been the genre that took over the world, and shooting people in the face with WWII weapons while having the word "of" in the title should have been marginalized. Fantastic soundtrack, graphics that don’t look too dated, random combat you can control to some degree via the microchip thing and the writing of (or in the style of) George Alec Effinger.

NOTE: One of the worst moments of my life was when I was carrying a lot more weight than I am now, and I went into Circuit’s Edge and accidentally had the player character eat too much food in one of the shoppes. This game flat-out tells you that you feel "grossly full" and, Christ – it was one of those "self" moments where you feel sick. Both Marid Audran and me made some lifestyle changes, although his involved a lot more bareback prostitute-fucking.

11. Photopia by Adam Cadre. I don’t have anything special to add, but here’s the reason why Adam is my favorite IF author: he has this way of either anticipating what players are going to type, thus making the parser seemless, like how Richard Bartle describes YOUR dragon in Get Lamp, or else he hypnotizes me by writing so well that I don’t try to get cute and awkwardly type stuff, struggling to make things work. I’ll play in a single setting any IF that manages to make the parser something I barely have to pay attention to.

12. Savoir-Faire by Emily Short. I am still playing this, but the humor and magic system really compliment each other. I feel the same way about most games with magic as people today feel about zombie games: there’s too many, and they suck right in their very reason for being. SF is an exception, like, say, Left 4 Dead 2. But really, the whole illusion with text games is that you can type anything into that prompt. So I like how Savoir-Faire, through the linking of objects, now has everything in play as a possible object that can pay off later. That, to me, is better world-building than a magic system where you find spell books or gain them via levels.

13. Suspended by Infocom. More for the amazing interface and unique way of looking at Interactive Fiction. Truly set up like a game more than anything else, and I think there was even points, in the form of human lives lost, in the game? I don’t remember exactly, but in my defense, I figured the bots were remembering everything for me. Features one of the few player characters I feel I could beat up.

14. Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country by One of the Bruces. My appreciation of this one is similar to Mentula Macanus, but I got more of the references in this one. I think I reviewed it on Trotting Krips back in the day. I think the only video game designer in the world whose games I’ve completely finished is Bruce. The moral of the story is: to be a successful author, develop an atmosphere where people feel that if they don’t finish your work, they’ll wind up with a mishmash of weird genitals sent through the post.

15. A Mind Forever Voyaging by Infocom. There is one thing I really like about this game: Mertezky wanted to write a game because he hated Reagan, and that’s great. More text games need to tell me who they’re pissed off at. Another guy at Infocom, and I want to say it was Lebling, was like, "That’s fine, as long as there’s nobody stopping me from doing a pro-Republican game in the future." (Paraphrased.) I mention this only because in our current political climate, everyone involved in such an exchange at almost any place of employment would be dead via the in-fighting, and that re-includes Reagan.

16. Guilty Bastards by Kent Tessman. I liked this when I originally played it, because I was trapped in the mind of Kent Tessman, who is wry, clever, witty and fun. I then savaged this game’s source as I tried to make things work in my Hugo games, and gained a greater appreciation for it and all the stuff I missed. It was very inspirational – I learned it was OK if you have stuff in a game that all players don’t see. Some people will, and those people will appreciate it.

17. Guild of Thieves by Magnetic Scrolls. I like to think this is what Zork IV would have been like, if Zork IV didn’t become Enchanter and was instead developed 15 years later. Funny, hates the player, gives you an entire world to solve puzzles in and has stunning graphics. Flack and I showed this one on the Amiga during the Oklahoma Video Game Expo, and some frigging reprobate had the unmitigated audacity to write, ">this game sucks" when we weren’t looking. Whoever that person was: YOU suck.

18. At Wit’s End by Mike Sousa. I used to like that, with everything that happens in this game, the Red Sox winning the World Series was still the least believable. Then they won twice and took to scoring like 25 runs a game against the Blue Jays. Therefore this is downgraded to #18 to signify the 18 years since the Jays have last been to the playoffs.

19. Rameses by Stephen Bond. Having a text game that basically doesn’t let you change anything is such a good idea — but it also didn’t occur to me what was going on until I finished playing it and went "HEY, WHAT THE." This is because I am very stupid. But this game takes an enormous chance by giving us a charismatic player character that we have no real reason to care for. It’s that level of guts that made me adore the game so much.

20. Annoyotron by Ben Parrish. Because, well. OK. It’s here because I can type several thousand words about the best genre in the world and it doesn’t change that, to the rest of the populace, they imagine these games we love so much to be exactly like this one.

The IF Theory Reader
Mar 7th, 2011 by Ice Cream Jonsey

I’m trying to backfill a little bit, having been away from a computer for much of last week, trying to help orchestrate the revival of the Old Man Murray Wikipedia page from a cruddy mobile phone. One such event that happened to me was the release of the IF Theory Reader.

Edited by Kevin Jackson-Mead and J. Robinson Wheeler, the IF Theory book contains over 400 pages of articles on the art and theory of making games in text. I wrote a piece on NPC (Non-Player Character) Dialogue. Here’s how my piece starts:

The very first time I recall being completely smitten by NPC dialogue, I was a kid playing “Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All The Girls.” The game depicted a group of role-playing college students engaged in a round of ‘Malls n’ Muggers.’ I had plenty of things I could do in the game at that point – classes to attend, spells to find, co-eds to maybe seduce once my parents had gone to bed and it wouldn’t be quite so weird – but I had my player character stay put in the dorm and just listen to this group of NPCs play a game with each other.

I wrote whoever I could find on my phone when the news dropped earlier this week, but I already received a comment, which I’ll post here, because the comment was in a private e-mail, and 2011 is all about transparency. In between rounds of driving my dear friends away from my bulletin board, Benjamin “Pinback” Parrish had this to say about non-player characters:

The best NPCs I ever saw were in Infocom’s “Cutthroats”. Not because they had great dialogue, but because they would talk to you, and then tell you to meet them somewhere at a certain time, and then leave, and then go do other things, and then meet you on time, but not a minute before. At that point, I’ll listen to what they have to say.

I have never played “Cutthroats,” never even started it. I have a boxed copy I bought from eBay years ago on a stand downstairs with some other games. I dated a girl who was a cutter many years ago, playing that game together probably would have saved the relationship. That and a spork.

Er, anyway, you can check the entire IF Theory Reader out as a PDF here, or buy a printed hardcopy.

The PAX East Files: The Disc
Mar 30th, 2010 by Ice Cream Jonsey

My favorite game developer is Steve Meretzky. I could go on at length about exactly why – I could totally spaz out in excruciating detail, like how the Malls n’ Muggers scene in Spellcasting 101 is one of the things I like best about video games… but I’ll simply say I want to make games like he does.

In 1998 I went to E3 with my pals Walrustitty and his girlfriend-turned-wife Cathy. It was in Atlanta, and I recall it behind hot, humid and miserable at day, but quite pleasant at night. The citizens seemed to have an almost palatable dread that their football team wouldn’t win it all before their rivals in New Orleans. I’m just kidding, nobody in Atlanta cares about the local teams. Douglas Adams was at E3 promoting Starship Titanic, an adventure game that he created with The Digital Village.

Douglas was sitting by himself before the official thing for Starship, and I had my “Masterpieces of Infocom” CD. I said hello and asked if he would sign it. He did and I thanked him and immediately left before I made a jackass out of myself. That was critical, I thought at the time.

I had always said that if I could ever add one autograph to that disc, it would be that of Douglas’s co-collaborator on the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game, Steve Meretzky. Well, on Friday, thanks to the generosity of GET LAMP director Jason Scott, I was able to meet Steve and tell him I love his games. I wanted to just put a picture of the CD on the Internet because otherwise it will just continue to be one of my favorite things at my house, and nobody can get here because of the hollyhocks and sunflowers.


You can click on it to get the larger photo. I know that HHGG isn’t actually on that disc (both Hitch-Hiker’s and Shogun were unable to be included, as they were based on previous novels) but I like it anyway. I probably even like it because of that. I don’t have many autographs or anything, but it makes me happy every time I look at that.

How Text Games Affected My View of UHC
Jul 24th, 2009 by Ice Cream Jonsey

I’m replaying Circuit’s Edge, which was a graphical text adventure developed by Westwood, under the post-merger Infocom label. I once said it was the 59th best game ever made. While that list, um… is in desperate need of an update, I still feel it’s excellent, playing it in 2009 instead of 1989.

It’s great, yeah, but not perfect. In many cases, default dialogue is used for all characters on some plot-insensitive subjects.  The manual’s map is just wrong about the locations of certain shoppes. You can only save in Marid’s (the protagonist) apartment. There’s a police computer that will let you look up anyone if you know their full name – while it’s never mentioned in the game, I’ve read the three Budayeen books enough times to have the name of the Marid’s ex-girlfriend memorized (Yasmin Nablusi) and she’s not in there. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it could have been perfect.

(I’m going to hope the fact that the first thing I did when I gained access to a futuristic criminal database was look up an ex-girlfriend is just sort of glossed over here.)

But the game rocked my world during those years where your world can get rocked by things, and I’m thankful to know that it still holds up.

Circuit’s Edge was developed in part with the author of the source material, George Alec Effinger. George wrote three novels that featured Marid Audran, commonly referred to as the Budayeen series, for its setting. I’ve tried, over the years, to acquire everything George ever wrote. He’s my favorite author, and I suppose he always will be. But I have this “thing” about finishing games and reading everything a deceased author wrote, which is just – if you finish everything… then it’s over. There’s no new stuff. So long as I didn’t do the last couple of missions in Circuit’s Edge, the game would never really be over for me. But as I start to accept the fact that I’m going to have less and less time for gaming over the next thirty years,  well… okay, I just wanted to finish it.

Same with George’s books. I purchased a recent anthology titled A Thousand Deaths. It’s not a Budayeen-based work. Rather, it contains the stories involving one of George’s other protagonists, Sandor Courane.  Sandor – and this is not a spoiler, it’s on the dust jacket – passes away in a number of the stories George wrote that featured him. I’m just getting around to reading all the short stories within, but the feature is definitely the complete 1981 work The Wolves of Memory.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but George passed away at 56 after a long battle with stomach problems and while he wrote it well before having any idea of what his fate was, you can retro-fit some things as metaphor.

As an professional author, George didn’t have proper health insurance. He was great at what he did, but he wasn’t making the kind of money where money wasn’t a problem. After years of treatment at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, which he did not enjoy, he finally had an operation in “the early 1990s” at Tulane University Hospital. He wasn’t able to pay the bill, and the hospital went after the most valuable thing he had, his intellectual property.

I mean – okay, the hospital obviously needed to be paid, I have no problem with that. George shut it down, when it came to the Budayeen, after that. He got two chapters into the fourth Marid Audran novel (and honestly, having read them, they are the best work he ever did, his characters absolutely crackle with life, and whatever reservations I had with much of the third novel, The Exile Kiss, are blown away. The man was at the top of his game.) and that’s all he ever did. He wasn’t going to work on it if every penny was going to directly go to the hospital.

You can criticize his decision. You can criticize the heartlessness of the hospital. My hobby of making text games is, at some level, and attempt to make the kinds of things that people that loved George’s writing might enjoy, without mimicking him. It’s that way for me because I feel there was at least one amazing novel we never got because of circumstance. So that’s why I’m in favor of some kind of universal health care in this country. I couldn’t speak to the details, or how anyone’s going to pay for anything, but it seems silly that lives are saved and financially destroyed at the same time.

I believe that Fyodor Dostoyevsky said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons.” (For real, it’s what I believe, I had the quote totally wrong in my mind and did some Googling, and came up with that. It’s totally not fact-checked.) And that’s fine, but I think you can say something similar regarding how it treats its artists.

Milliways
Apr 21st, 2008 by Ice Cream Jonsey

hygraed directed me to the following blog post about an Infocom hard drive saved from years ago. This is a drive that contains some internal e-mails relating to the development of their games, as well as a ton of other stuff. Little is officially known about it – I’m not going to speculate or pass bad information, or compromise what little info I have picked up on it. Unlike the decision a journalist or blogger must make when scooping something that is dynamite, I am more motivated by a sad, pathetic and altogether desperate desire to simply have people like me.

I kid! The initial attraction of the post is that you get to play a snippet of what could have been the sequel to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, through the magic of the Java zcode applet. But what ended up happening was a sort of exploding dramabomb, as internal e-mails to the development of the sequel to HHGG (referred to as “Restaurant,” or “Milliways”) were included.

Everyone running a blog gets to make this decision someday, I think. That is, if they stick with it long enough and don’t, like, abandon it after a few months, or something. The two main arguments seem to be:

Well, you shouldn’t post internal e-mails without contacting those involved

Hey, this is unfiltered access to a shop that made important games in my childhood, gimme gimme!

And there are nuances to both (post the stuff after checking with the people who wrote the frigging things / I MUST POSSESS MAGIC INFOCOM DRIVE).

I had to make a similar decision myself recently regarding the urban legend arcade game I am quite obsessed with, good ole Polybius. I had been running the Polybius Home Page for a little bit, and had shot a viral Youtube video and so forth, when I was contacted by Gerald Torensen. Gerry runs www.sinnesloschen.com and pointed me to this website where he saw a Polybius cabinet huddled within some others.

Of course, since I really am one stupid son of a bitch, and no journalist, I didn’t do any clicking at first. If you do scroll down a bit and click on the Poly cab, you’ll get taken here, and you’re well on your way to downloading his modern-day recreation of what Polybius could have been like. I was slow to figure it out, but I did figure it out eventually.

Now, the question is – what to do with this info? I got curious on my own, without any help. Even though it was literally clicking on what was one button, it was still the most interesting alternate reality “game” I’d been involved with since the Dead Kids Foundation stuff. I can either blab about it on the Polybius Home Page, or I can let other people discover it for themselves.

… Of course, that all went out the window when another blog got to the same conclusion as me a couple weeks later, and posted everything.

I wasn’t sore or bitter, because honestly, the stakes are so low. There’s a quiet rumbling of people who are into the myth of a fake arcade game. We’re not going to be in the same situation as someone getting an Infocom hard drive, because – due to the fact that there was no actual Polybius – we can’t exactly have the programmers stop in and chat and receive some compliments, since they don’t exist.

Not the case with the Milliways post: Infocom developers arrive very quickly. If they are agitated by the fact that their stuff got posted, they did not show it. The exception is author Michael Bywater, and his exception is very understandable in the original post. Some of the blog commenters quickly descend into name calling against Mr. Bywater, for the CRIME of having an opinion, and seeing how Bywater was the writer of Jinxter (which had and continues to have an amazing effect on my own writing) it was evident to me that he was holding back and choosing to not go nuclear on the drive-by cretins that infect the average Slashdotted / Dugg post.

My brother and I got Magnetic Scrolls games when we were growing up. I’ve always been more nostalgic for their games, with the exception of Zork. I’ll confess that I am on one hand happy to see Magnetic Scrolls brought into a bit of a limelight again — I decided long ago to refrain from writing the creative people whose work I respect, as it was extraordinarily unsatisfying in all cases — so you might think that being able to lurk and read from afar is a good thing, as it’s the only option I’ll have. But man, the ends don’t really justify the means here, and I think access to those who were at Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls is going to be made more difficult in the future. They didn’t precisely get King of Konged here, but it was pretty close. My lasting take here is that it’s now going to be more difficult than ever to hear the stories of the people involved.  

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