The Hugo Newsletter
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WOW!! Or, even better, WOW! Thanks to all of you for signing up for the HUGO Newsletter. I am astounded that so many people have responded. It looks like there is real interest in the HUGO system. I have always been surprised at the low number of questions, queries, etc., posted on raif and wondered whether that was purely because of how easy the system is to use, or that there were not that many users. I truly believe that it is the former reason.
Those of you who managed to get the picture at the top of the Newsletter last issue will notice that I have removed it from this one. I think more people had trouble getting it to show up than didn't so I thought it best for it to go. This is my fault, not you the readers', I am a little inexperienced at this and probably tried to run before I could walk.
This issue contains a massive interview with Robb Sherwin, who many of you will know has just won two awards in the XYZZY 2001 Competition. This is even more special as these are the first awards given to a HUGO based game!
We also have a very interesting tip from Jim Newland regarding nouns and adjectives for objects and should be read by everyone writing their own adventures.
So, my dear reader, welcome to Issue 2 of the Hugo Newsletter.
My personal thanks goes to those people who run online magazines and who have advertised the existence of this Newsletter. Special thanks goes to Brass Lantern (www.brasslantern.org) for thinking I am female (and I give my thanks to Mary-Kate and Ashley for continuing to give people the idea that Ashley is mainly a girl's name). No offence meant and I hope none is taken.
Remember, I am always happy to receive any info, tips, ideas, etc., plus I am considering starting a review section. Would you be interested in reviewing HUGO games that you have played? Let me know at ashleyprice@DELETE-THISbtinternet.com (removing the DELETE-THIS before sending).
Many of you have been kind enough to provide advice and pointers with regard to the layout, style, etc., of the Newsletter and I hope I have answered all of you. If I have missed anyone I do apologise, but I am doing this Newsletter in my spare time (and as I run my own business, I don't have much of it). However, I have taken notice of what people have said and will be looking into which are the best for me to write and for you to read.
It appears that certainly some would like a .pdf format (which is read using Adobe Acrobattm) and many think it would be better to have a proper website set up for the Newsletter, or at the very least one where past issues can be archived.
One idea that Kodrik has shown me is to have the Newsletter on a website and then an e-mail goes out to people giving brief descriptions of each article and a hotlink to the relevant page on the website for those interested in reading the article in full. What does everyone think?
All these ideas are being looked into and as soon as things are settled you will be the first to know.
My informants have put me on to the fact that there is a new HUGO build in the pipeline… Okay, I'll come clean, I e-mailed and asked Kent and he told me there was. This could be within the month. So keep an eye out – although I am sure Kent will announce it on raif for everyone.
Kent is also working on a new HUGO game, although he was a little coy on telling me much more, even after I tried typing XYZZY to see what would happen (apart from Kent asking me what I was talking about, not much actually happened).
Our first interview is with Robb Sherwin. Many of you will have seen his name as a regular contributor on raif. However, he is also a (not so) secret IF author using the HUGO system. His game Fallacy of Dawn has just been given two awards in the XYZZY 2001 Competition for best writing and best NPC character.
Kent brought Robb's name to my attention and when I found out what he had done I agreed with Kent that he was the perfect candidate for our first interview.
I had tried my best to ensure that none of the questions or answers throughout the interview are spoilers, however, I cannot completely guarantee this.
HN: What about you, your background, what you do now, etc.?
RS: Well, I'm a 27 year old computer programmer originally from Rochester, NY, now living in Fort Collins, CO. I work for the company that used to be Cyrix at Colorado, and write some test applications for our in-development chips, along with some updating some LISP scripts for the CPU design team. In addition to writing text adventures in my free time I play catcher -- quite badly -- with my friends in a softball league and defensive end (not nearly as badly) in a flag football league. I used to spend a great deal of time on the weekends at one of seeming fifty or sixty bars that Fort Collins nightlife is able to support with my roommates, in order to collect anecdotes for the text adventures, but I've done far, far less of that recently to the delight of my liver.
HN: When did you first become interested in text adventures and what was the first game you played?
RS: The first text adventure I played was also the one that ruined me forever for other video games and got me so interested in them: 'Zork I' I had grown up with an Atari 2600 and an Intellivision and liked those games well enough, but one night a friend of my dad's had stopped over and was telling us all about a new game he had picked up for his IBM PC. I remember him describing, specifically, the bit in 'Zork' dealing with the thief and the clockwork canary, and how he was initially stumped with the viscous material near the Flood Control dam because he kept misspelling "viscous."
Well, my brother and I were hooked by his descriptions – it was exactly how Infocom described their games: we had dreamt up these grand mental pictures of what the game would have to be like to incorporate the stuff that was described to us, and we begged my dad's friend to bring the game over. He eventually did, and I remember that we were shocked that it was all text. We were really expecting something like SVGA quality in a CGA age, I think. But after playing 'Zork' for a bit, I soon became hooked with it on its own merits, and it fast became my favorite game. I guess it still is, I mean, it was good enough to still influence me some fifteen years later and all.
HN: What was the first game you wrote and the first one you released to the public? How well was it received?
RS: The first one was technically my chicken-comp game, called Saied. I believe it was described in such terms as "amazingly buggy for such a short game," and having "more bugs than a tropical swamp." But really, that kind of honest feedback is exactly what I needed, a kind of kick in the head to get better at writing games.
What blew me away was when Jarvist Frost wrote a review of Saied for SPAG. He was really fair and sprinkled his review with enough positive bits that it inspired me to go on and finish Chicks Dig Jerks for the 1999 Competition. I probably wouldn't have got round to finishing CDJ without that inspiration, so I guess we can all blame/thank Jarvist for what's happened with my stuff since.
HN: You won awards in the 2001 XYZZY competition for Best Writing: Fallacy of Dawn and Best Individual NPC: Yahoweh Porn (Fallacy of Dawn). What is the background to 'Dawn'. Being that 'Dawn' had pictures in, do you prefer this type of adventure or did you just feel that the game required them?
RS: I originally intended for Fallacy of Dawn to be a rather short game (in terms of personal development and how much story there was) that got back to the aspects of IF that I felt I could handle – relating personal stories and (albeit exaggerated) personal experiences, and attempting to create a comedy, rather than a mystery or a poor drama. I blew it at keeping it short, but I was able to handle the other stuff. Really, though, I took the critiques that my previous game (A Crimson Spring) elicited during the 2000 Competition. I eventually realized that it's really difficult to maintain a two-hour-long game when the player character is really pissed-off, really bitter, really short and sarcastic with people and running around with a one-track mind. Well, difficult for *me*, anyway. Instead, I wanted to make a game where the player gradually got to know the PC, got to know his friends, and felt like helping him out with his problems because the PC was kind of a sympathetic case. I also wanted to make a game that was a bit of a homage to all the ones I'd spent so much time enjoying when I was growing up with computer and console games, and tried to keep a lot of the jokes centered around that theme. The ways that characters in your average computer game behave are usually so bizarre and removed from reality, that I thought it would be cool to write a game where, when the central characters found people acting in extreme ways, they'd identify it. Stuff like, "hey, there's a nervous guy with shifty eyes... like the dealer from the old Intellivision 'Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack' game!" My friends and I find ourselves making these observations in real life from time to time, so I wanted to give everyone who'd play FoD a glimpse into that kind of thing.
But to answer the second bit -- I do think that this particular game had to have pictures in it. I really am fine playing text adventures with them or without them. I get the same kick of nostalgia from giving 'The Pawn' or 'Knight Orc' a go that I do from 'Hitch Hiker's Guide' or 'Deadline', so I don't feel that the old Infocom games (or the new ones produced by all of us on raif) have to have pictures or anything. But I did want to get my friends into a game of mine and kind of give them incentive to be interested in its progress and reception, and I felt that I could better express the world that Delarion and Porn wandered around in using Photoshop and some distorted pictures than I could with straight text throughout all the game's streets and building exteriors.
HN: If it isn't 'Dawn', of the games you have written what is your favourite?
RS: It's either Dawn or Chicks Dig Jerks, I think. I try to like them all equally, for instance when I got on a Cafepress.com kick (they make custom t-shirts and sweatshirts) with bright ideas of putting logos from my games on the stuff they sell, I whipped up a Revenger sweatshirt before anything else. (The sweatshirt is actually a size too small for me, so it currently sits on a hanger outside my closet. I attempted to give it to my mother as a Christmas gift but she, no kidding, gave it back to me and ensured it was in my bags when I returned back to Colorado. You can't help but feel sympathetic for a game that one of your own parents so thoroughly rejects.)
Chicks Dig Jerks will always mean a lot to me, as I essentially learned how to program while writing it, and while reading Graham Nelson's Inform manual. So I probably owe my career to him and to that game -- while I'd taken programming classes before, there'd previously been no "killer app" to get me to really learn it the way you kind of have to in order to write functional code. FoD is the cyberpunk story I always wanted to write, and the use of interjections and dashes -- like this -- is something I wanted to use to make Delarion's manner of speaking distinct. Only thing is, after writing that way for ten months I started doing it outside of the game and now, frustratingly, can't seem to shake it... so it's pretty much had a real-world affect on me as well.
So yes, either one of those two. (Although No Time To Squeal was the first game I put together that had no frustrations for me, but that was because Mike Sousa did all the real work with the programming. So I guess, in terms of ratio of development fun, NTTS is my fav.)
HN: Of games written by other authors, which has been your favourite?
RS: 'I-0', that jailbait on the interstate game by Adam Cadre is probably my first favorite, of the new-IF days, with 'Fail-Safe' by Jon Ingold coming in second.
'I-0' is the first game I played while getting back into the new interactive fiction "scene," and I remember rushing home from work for a couple nights to get back playing it as quickly as possible. I had no idea of the game's ultimate size or scope at the time, because everything I typed in was understood and implemented and didn't have any idea how many kilobytes a "big" game takes up versus a "small" one. I also recall playing with a stupid grin on my face throughout because it was so funny, and probably irritating my roommate at the time because I kept telling him to download and play it over and over again. (This is fair, though, because I remember him attempting to play 'Myth' (the more-modern PC version by Bungie) around that time with his speakers on and all you'd hear is "CASUALTY" "CASUALTY" "CASUALTY" over and over again, so really, my pestering was really quite subdued comparatively.)
'Fail-Safe' just reminded me of everything I love about text adventures, and really video games in general. When you consider how Jon manages to get you so wrapped up in his game and his story and the action with almost no standard "opening text," well, I'm quite envious. I truly hope to someday write a game that starts off in such a gripping manner and manages to cleverly maintain it.
The game that best sums up why I like the raif community, though, is 'Death To My Enemies' by Jon Blask. When I first played it, I didn't know Jon, and found the game a bit odd and unintuitive. But over time I've managed to become friends with the man, and his sense of humor has rubbed off on me. I can now better appreciate such things as rolling around corpses, and it's that social aspect of text adventures and their creation that I really enjoy. We all basically have a chance to get to know each other and befriend one another and appreciate each other's creativity in terms of the text adventures we all produce – which is, of course, a medium I happen to dig anyway. It's, I think, a unique manner of interaction.
HN: When writing a game we all have a problem that seems difficult to solve and then suddenly it dawns on you that it can be completed with (for instance) two short lines of code? What was your problem?
RS: I really don't have a lot of good "coding" stories. Well, pre-development, anyway. There are a number of shoddy things that have escaped out into the real world (the competition versions of Chicks Dig Jerks and A Crimson Spring especially). That usually stems from stuff that I missed in beta-test, or stuff that I thought I solved, but in reality did not.
One a-ha moment that I did have (and one I caught before a release), recently, though, was a bit in Fallacy of Dawn that crept up. In FoD, the game is always checking to see if there is combat going on. It kind of sees how angry adversarial characters are, and starts up the fighting if conditions (them being royally pissed or attacked themselves) are met. When I was testing the game, I'd do it scene-by-scene. Everyone seemed to attack Delarion only when they should. I gave the game out to Greg D'Avis and took a look at his logs, and he mentioned that one of the characters (Borick from the tattoo parlor) would almost never help him out, he would always not allow conversation and so forth. I really had no idea why Borick would become frosty when Greg was playing the game and not me, so I looked a bit closer.
As it turns out, Greg wouldn't go to the tattoo parlor right away. He'd go do one of the other side quests, get in a fight, and then return there. What happened was that a variable that I kept when a fight was going on was never being reset at the beginning of the turn. So he'd take a shot at the cop or something, get the game into a "combat" state, and nothing ever pulled it out of that state. He'd go see Borick, who wouldn't talk to him because Borick would check the game's fighting state, see it active, and blow off conversation. What I needed to do was set "fight_active = 0" for each turn -- which is something I did correctly and right away with A Crimson Spring.
When starting the creation of FoD in December of 2000, I had forgotten to set that variable and it went roughly ten months before I fixed it. If I'd let it go, virtually everyone in the game would be pissed at Delarion for no adequately explained reason after you got into your first fight. (I mean, depending on how you play they may all end up that way anyway, but they shouldn't initially.)
That's the kind of bug you thank your tester for finding, after you fix it at three in the morning, so much so that your mail ends up becoming strangely uncomfortable when you re-read what you sent the following morning. But it's a good sign -- the "old" me probably would have not noticed or blown it off, so I hope it's indicative of me getting better at testing and fixing my games before they are released.
HN: Are you currently working on anything and how long do you think your fans will have to wait?
RS: Yes, I've currently got a game in the works which, ideally, improves on some of the drawbacks that FoD had: with the new one, I hope to put together a decent user's manual, and ensure that virtually every single jokey "reference" (not that it's reference heavy, and not that it's based on video games, as it's neither) is explained, so that it can be enjoyed more by people who perhaps don't share the same interests as the characters in the game. (Also, to shout-out to my peeps on Download.com -- "hajimo," this will be one that you can figure out, buddy.) But really, I'm going to try to tackle the "splatterpunk" genre again with (hopefully) some funny results.
I'm really terrible at guessing when I can get a game finished, but with luck it will be released this spring. Before the end of spring, I should say. I would have loved to have entered it in either Adam or Jarb's contest, but I just couldn't predict when I'd finish it up, and I want to leave myself plenty of time for testing.
Beyond that, hopefully I can one day cobble something a bit more serious and slightly deeper. I have always been in awe of the authors in our midst who are able to display mastery of different types of tone, setting and emotion.
HN: Anything else you want to say through the newsletter?
RS: Well, only to reiterate how good Hugo has been to me. I totally get that if you're currently writing with an IF language, you're going to want to keep with it – understandable, as you'll only be getting better at it, and more familiar with it. But if you're new to the scene and you're looking for a language to program your first game with, I can definitely recommend Hugo. It's really quite powerful and well maintained, and has certainly allowed me to implement all the foolishness I've been able to dream up so far.
Thanks, Robb, for taking the time to answer the above questions.
If you are interested in playing Robb's games they should all be available on the http://www.ifarchive.org/ site. Fallacy of Dawn is a huge game (in terms of megabytes) as it includes graphics and is provided in a .zip format. If you have any problems, please do not hesitate to contact me and I'll see what I can do.
The following tip is provided by Jim Newland. It goes into the detail of how HUGO's setup can be "hacked" to ensure more parser flexibility. Take it away, Jim…
Although Hugo's parsing abilities are quite extensive, a designer often runs up against situations that have to be dealt with in clever and unconventional ways. I'd like to here briefly touch on one of those situations, and show how, with a solid understanding of the language, a person can confront and deal with just about any problem. It's true that the default Hugo setup is geared toward making it easy for relative newcomers to code simple games. However, Hugo is also eminently hackable and modifiable for those who know what they're doing. Moreover, sometimes it's not even a matter of hacking, but simply understanding the underlying mechanics well enough to make Hugo do cute pet tricks without altering his fundamental behavior. What I'm about to show you is one of those things.
Let's say you want to include an item in one of your games: a golden stream (literally, a stream of gold). That seems easy enough, doesn't it? You'd just define it as something like (since we're only going to be talking about the grammar here):
object golden_stream "golden stream"
Right? Now if the player wants to refer to the stream, he just types "x stream" or "x golden stream" and everything is hunky-dory.
Ah, true, but there's a problem. The stream itself is made of gold (and may very well be referred to as a "stream of gold" somewhere in your very own text)! Shouldn't we then allow the player to refer to the stream by that name – "stream of gold" – as well as in the more plain-Jane form, "golden stream"? Well, of course. Obviously, we want our grammar to be as flexible as possible, but then the question becomes, how do we do it? Isn't "golden" an adjective and "stream" a noun? How in the world are we going to make this happen?
Well, the answer is that, no, "golden" is in fact NOT an adjective and "stream" is NOT a noun. To Hugo, they're simply symbols, just like any others. Thus, we're actually free to put them wherever they'll do the most good (while avoiding doing harm). So let's do this: let's make each of them BOTH an adjective and a noun. That will cover all the bases, right?
object golden_stream "golden stream"
nouns "stream", "gold"
adjectives "golden", "stream"
There! Now we've got it! Now if the player types either "x golden stream" or "x stream [of] gold" Hugo will understand, right? Or will he? Let's take a slight detour into the parsing process of the engine to find out.
When parsing an input sentence from the user, one of Hugo's main objectives is to determine what the objects are that the player is attempting to act upon. Hugo does this by comparing what the player typed to what you, the designer, have listed as the "nouns" and "adjectives" for that object. In doing so, the rule Hugo follows is basically this: nouns may be modified by adjectives, and adjectives may be modified by adjectives, but adjectives may not be modified by nouns. (Nor may a thing be referred to by two "nouns"; you can't call Old Betsy "car vehicle" and expect to get away with it!) Thus, if we were to use the above object code, "x golden stream" would be parsed and understood properly by Hugo, but "x stream [of] gold" would not, since it violates the rules.
So what are we to do? How can we get Hugo to understand both usages? Is there a way? Yes, there is. Let's try the following:
object golden_stream "golden stream"
adjectives "golden", "stream"
Ok. Now we're good. We're not in violation of the rules, since Hugo does allow us to use several adjectives in a sentence, even in the absence of an explicit noun. Thus, even though in reality the word "stream" is not an adjective, by treating it as one we're able to expand our game's grammar and give the player the kind of flexibility he wants and expects out of a professional-level game design.
You may want to experiment a little bit and try incorporating this trick into your own game. If nothing else, perhaps it will serve as an impetus for you to go back and consider all the various ways a player might be inclined to refer to the objects in your game, and get you to beef up your game's grammar a bit. Nothing impresses a player more than attention to detail in the parsing arena. Maybe one out of a hundred people will ever refer to the above stream as a "stream of gold," but the one that does will be impressed indeed, and the other ninety-nine may try to do the same thing with some other object instead.
The Hugo Development System is copyright © 2002 by Kent Tessman