Apr 28th, 2010 by Ice Cream Jonsey

I’ll admit I had my doubts when I started to play a spirited round of ATC-SIM: The Web-Based Air Traffic Control Sim. I had doubts because I am a highly-functional retarded person who is is quite aware of his own limits, to where I know better than to play an ATC game in case some Ender’s Game shit is going on and I kill thousands of people and some Americans.

Then Pinback told me that there’s such a thing as “Ted Stevens Airport” up in Anchorage, and frankly, anyone who is allowed to fly on planes when convicted felons can get airports named after them deserves what they get from that industry. There’s two people who could MAYBE get stuff named after them in Alaska: Curt Schilling and Will Riker, and every word that’s come out of Schilling’s mouth since the bloody sock game has been intolerable objectivist horse shit.

And Riker is a fictional character. (crosses arms)

“Fine,” I said to Pinback, “I’ll try to land ONE plane.” After all, Pinback has done me a fine solid over the years, playing such dear games to my heart like Knight Orc and Front Page Sports Football. Well, he didn’t vote for their page deletion in the Wikipedia, and that’s close enough.

I went to the ATC-SIM website and picked “Heathrow” because it was the one available airport I’ve been to for more than thirty minutes that didn’t make me want to drown myself in the Captain’s Club toilets. The first time I was at Heathrow, there was an announcement to not crowd the plane that was going to take me and 40 students to Edinburgh. As the oldest person on the flight and lone American, I instantly felt responsible in ensuring everyone followed the disembodied voice’s orders. However, the students crowded the plane door without any regard to order or instruction. I was shocked, nothing had at all prepared me for this, this… this Anarchy in the U.K.! Nothing! It was unheard of.

The instructions to ATC-SIM aren’t on the actual page you play the game on. You might think this meant that I had to use either notepad.exe or my own nootropic-fueled memory to play, but I did neither of those things. I asked Benjamin ‘Pinback’ Parrish for instructions in real-time, as he alt-tabbed away from his OWN game to help me. After figuring out the controls, my long experience as a gurgling text gamer came into play: I got ONE plane down onto the runway. Hooray! I am being absolutely serious when I say that landing the plane in ATC-SIM is a fun experience that actually made me happy. Like, I’m not doing schtick for a second: it was fuckin’ cool.

By this point I had a terrific backlog of departures. There were three planes that had the abbreviation “DET” next to them. I assume those three planes were going to Detroit. Why were three planeloads of questionable Britons headed to Detroit at the same time? Was Australia full or something? I’ve read my history, gents, I know the intent. I never let those planes depart Heathrow. They’re STILL there – go dump your human garbage on Mars, Lady Byng!

Anyway, in the time it took me to beg Pinback for simple instructions, he had a terrible disaster in his own game. He was kind enough to take a screenshot. Remember when he said you couldn’t crash the planes? Well…

Pinback: I cleared two planes to 2000 feet, sent them to the same fix.
Pinback: Once then got there, they both started circling it.
Pinback: Meanwhile I was yapping at you.
Ice Cream Jonsey: Hahahah!
Pinback: They ended up circling right into each other. I have a screen cap.
(screencap is sent)
Pinback: Your fault.

Bwa-hahahahaha!!!! Move over Osama, it’s time for something meatier!

“These blast points are too accurate for Sand People.” — Ben Kenobi

Anyway, there are now exactly THREE Flash games that are not only good, but great: Nanaca Crash, and ATC-SIM. Four stars and, so far, the best game I’ve played in 2010.

Parchment: A web-based Z-machine interpreter
Apr 25th, 2010 by Ice Cream Jonsey

I had known about the beautiful program called Parchment for a few weeks now, but been unable to do anything about it. I assumed it would require throwing a web app on JC and … – I made poor assumptions. This is one of the, if not THE easiest way to play Interactive Fiction. I don’t even know what verbs I should be using here, because I did nothing but type in a link to get this going. “I arranged things so you can play two of my games using Parchment”? No. “I uploaded two of my games and … typed some stuff an-” – No!

“I did the barest minimum and now you can play two of my games over the Internet in a delightful font.” That’ll work.

Chicks Dig Jerks, using the Zcode web terp Parchment.
Revenger, using the same.

Many thanks to the Parchment team! I’m extremely delighted and extremely impressed.

The PAX East Files: From the Desk of Roody Yogurt
Apr 3rd, 2010 by Roody Yogurt

Ellison, Zarf and Rob at Infocom Headquarters

Ellison, Zarf and Rob at Infocom Headquarters

I was going to write my thoughts on my Live Journal, but hey, I haven’t updated that thing in like two years- why start now?

First off, these days, I’m kind of surprised when I meet people that I haven’t met before and find it especially enjoyable (I dunno, I’m fatalistic enough that I just get to a point where I figure I’ve met everyone I need to meet so far). I could list everyone I enjoyed talking to, but for fear of leaving anyone out, I’ll just give a special shout out to Mike Sousa, Worm, Chris Klimas, and Paul O’Brian since they are the most likely to read this.

I was very impressed with the quality of panels we had over the entire weekend. I was a little worried going into Robb’s panel that, being the one where people unfamiliar with the medium would go to, it would be the most watered-down talk of the weekend. Instead, it was quite the nice talk about various aspects of IF, and unsurprisingly, Robb delivered many of the funniest lines.

We had a panel the next day in the IF Suite about “IF Outreach”- promoting IF to new people. I was impressed with the caliber of the panelists. One guy was an AV Club writer for The Onion and another did stuff for jayisgames. It was great getting outside-the-community perspective from people who still appreciated the format.

The last talk on “adaptive difficulty” was good, too, but I’d like to chew on it some more before I really say much about it.

“Get Lamp” was good fun (and gave me my chance to finally thank Lebling personally for The Lurking Horror).

I think the weekend did a great job at showing new people that, yes, there is a community bundled with this gaming interest (which, sure, everyone knows but there’s just something about being crammed into a room full of people you’ve only known virtually). For us older people, many of whom are not as excited as we were when we found IF on the internet 10+ years ago, it was a great reminder that there are still new frontiers to be discovered in IF and that more progress and innovation are still ahead of us.

I know of at least three IF authors who haven’t written anything in years that have either already started coding something new or intend to, and I’m sure there are several more.

Near the end of the weekend, I was once again reminded that some of the recent IF games most mentioned aren’t similar in scope to the games I intend to write (I aim to continue writing games that are somewhat old-school, in at least limits-of-implementation and keeping-wordage-on-the-less-verbose-side aspects if not actual old-school puzzles), but the weekend was effective in making me rethink some scenes in the game I want to write (and I think it will be better for those changes).

Also, I have to admit, watching people code in Inform 7 is pretty even if I intend to stick with Hugo. Just the same, seeing that in person helps contribute to the whole “brave new world” feel.

All in all, the various game design talks were great, but just because I personally didn’t get into work-in-progress game mechanic discussions, I have found myself wanting another IF meet-up for authors where we concentrate on more on the applicable than the theoretical. Some other people feel the same way; we’ll see if it happens.

The PAX East Files: The Panel
Apr 1st, 2010 by Ice Cream Jonsey

Before I start: if anything I write below comes off as obnoxious or pretentious, it’s not intentional. Benjamin “Pinback” Parrish is under strict orders to punch me in the mouf if I get that way while talking about my experience at PAX East last weekend. He’s looking for an excuse; you have no idea how much he would love to fight me right now.

I was determined to go to PAX East once JScott said he was premiering GET LAMP at the con, so when Emily invited me to speak on the panel called Storytelling In The World of Interactive Fiction, it was a bonus to what was already going to be a great weekend. There was only one “problem,” scare quotes: I don’t talk about text games, verbally, with anyone.

It’s not because I don’t want to, it’s just because, well – the experiences I have as a player are solitary. My experiences as an author are also solitary, with the exception that one of three cats will attempt to carve their source code contributions into my arm using their claws. (Shit code, too, filled with semicolons.) I get my social fix from all this by going to a mud and reading a newsgroup instead of hanging out at an IF Suite. At one point during the weekend, Jeremy Freese asked me how I pronounce “Cryptozookeeper,” the name of the game I’m working on now. I really didn’t have an answer for him, because I’ve probably only referred to it five or six times in my real life. (Jeremy is a professor, so I’d be going with his recommendation anyway.) So I didn’t want to mess anything up due to simple inexperience about formulating my thoughts in the real world. I didn’t want to be asked a question and then have to write it down on paper, muttering “hold up…” while I crystalized my thoughts.

I also had no idea how any of these panels work. I asked over at Caltrops and got some good advice. From “N” over there:

[Y]ou probably want some talking points like:

o How to analyze storytelling and how somebody can even measure or determine efficacy.
o List of effective storytelling mechanics and some examples.
o List of ineffective storytelling mechanics and some examples (in other panelists’ work if you want the rest of the session to take care of itself).

I’m not recommending anyone head over there, but I’m very fond of all of them, and those are the kind of people I didn’t want to “let down,” I guess. It’s a jagged alliance at Caltrops anyway. Passing out on stage wasn’t going to help me. Slagging each other’s games would have made for an entertaining hour, but I don’t think it would have furthered the art form much.

The Panel, photo credit Ben Collins-Sussman I was the first person to make it to the Wyvern Theater at PAX, but that’s only because my friends helped me find it well before. Aaron Reed joined me a few minutes later with his laptop and I was slightly relieved – if nobody else showed up I’d commandeer his PC and the panel could be him giving me hints while I finished Blue Lacuna on the projector. I realize now it wouldn’t have done much for anyone attending, but I would have had a great time.

However, Rob, Zarf and Em arrived quickly thereafter and we were a go. Jason was also there filming, and he placed the lantern from his movie on the table next to me. I decided right then that if I froze up or something, my “out pitch” was going to be shoving the mic in the lamp’s face and letting it answer. That sounded a lot better in my anxious mind than it does typing it out, so I got lucky there. We all did.

I had two things mentally prepared for the panel, one of which I actually used. I wanted to note the intentional disconnect between player and player character in Pantomime, hoping to relate how I tried to start the character of Raif in an inevitable position to gain player sympathy, and then drive a wedge there, leveraging the fact that the exact opposite happens in three of my previous games. I got that in, but I was cognizant in the actual act of speaking that it that it was coming off as rehearsed. (The other bit I had planned beforehand was regarding stories in a non-traditional order: in No Time to Squeal, Mike Sousa and I centered a story around an unborn baby, and as someone who doesn’t have children and isn’t trusted with their care, I knew trying to write a game AS a baby wasn’t going to work. By me, I mean – Stephen Granade did a great job in the game Child’s Play where you’re just that. But one of the strengths of IF is that you can make a game with five different settings, because it’s the same “cost” to do a golf course, house, hospital as it is a Magnetic Scrolls-inspired-Wonderland. We were able to take advantage of the fact that all text costs the same… so go IF!) I never really prepare things beforehand because I hate how phony I sound when delivering it. When we got further into the panel and I was able to relax, I think I did a better job coming off as someone genuinely interested in IF.

My heart was racing during Emily’s opener, but by the end I felt completely at ease. I could have talked text games for another two hours. Three if we’re counting The Circuit’s Edge as a text game and, er, Inshallah. So my advice, if you ever find yourself on a panel for custom Doom 3 levels or something, is to surround yourself with a brilliant moderator and three other talented speakers. It takes the edge off; it would have been much more difficult if I were up there with Matt Barringer and Three Panks. I think the only part where I really diverged from my colleagues was when discussion turned to first-person shooters, Half-Life 2 specifically. I enjoy shooting people in the face, but I didn’t really care for HL2, so that was about the last game whose defense I was going to jump to. Although I would say that one of the most satisfying video game experiences of my life was in the level “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm,” the first time I threw one of those giant, circular, industrial razors at a zombie from half a mile away. (I didn’t want to say anything because it would take time away from IF, and there were other panels to discuss shooters, like every other video game panel in the whole of recorded human history.) But here’s the thing, even with that – Aaron had mentioned how he would have liked HL2 if the entire game had been hiding out from those fascists, and when I personally think back to HL2 for good thoughts, I remember throwing razors… and the part where you go up into the building at the beginning and look down at the troubles below. Offhand comments kind of inspired ideas for games I want to make one day, if that makes any sense.

One thing I noticed attending panels is that you can’t deadpan a joke initially – the audience, as a group, needs some sort of indication that you were kidding around. After that, everyone’s expectations have been set, and it’s all good. I attended the General Computer talk, and Kevin Osborn said something hilarious in a steady voice, and he didn’t get the laugh his comment deserved. I’m sure sociologists have researched group chortling dynamics to death, but still. (The General Computer talk was also notable as the guys there mentioned Racing the Beam to describe the method used to display four monsters-turned-ghosts via the Atari 2600. Racing the Beam was co-written by Nick Montfort, who was on the panel for GET LAMP. I wanted to text Nick that he just got his ass name-dropped!!!! by the GC guys, but I didn’t want them to see me texting on my phone because they would have had no idea it was texting through awesome, not boredom. But I loved how it was referenced, it was like, “fuck that 2600; read this one guy’s book describing it, we can’t get into that silicon monstrosity here.”)

We had some interesting questions at the end of the Interactive Fiction panel, although it’s my understanding that every one of these in the world gets multi-part, multiple questions. Alter Ego thought some of the questions went on for a while. Don Woods, Don FREAKING Woods got up to join the Q&A line and I was really pumped to hear what he had to say, though it was funny that HE was asking US something. The last question he asked me, 20 years ago, was if I was going to kill a dragon with what, psh, my bare hands, so it was great that there was a follow-up after all that time.

The final bit from the Q&A was from Jon Blask and it was there that I sort of completely and callously dropped a major spoiler for Pantomime. I had a half-second of mental hesitation before deciding to do it, but what the hell – hopefully it would be something crazy and unpredictable and leave everyone there with one last laugh.

I had an amazing time and if you were there, I hope you did too. If you got turned away, I feel terrible – if I could have done anything to help, I would have. I can’t wait to do all of this again sometime, although you’re gonna want to make sure you either finished Annoyotron or plan on skipping the Q&A, narmean.

I’ve got one other post in me about what it was like to be at the vendor table that I’m going to write up for the next issue of SPAG.
I tried for two minutes to attach a proper caption to that photo. It’s by Ben Collins-Sussman. Thanks, Ben!

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