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December 29, 2008

The End of December Vespers Thing (Or, Back After A December Hiatus)

December was a pretty crazy month. The first half was consumed by a major deadline at work, so I was in "Super Cthulu Crunch" mode (again) for quite some time. This was mercifully followed by some much-needed vacation time visiting family members out of state, and while I did have my laptop with me, I wasn't able to spend much time working on Vespers or the blog. So December basically became a short one-month hiatus essentially by default. I know this was difficult for many of you. Apologies and such.

Now that I'm back to the usual routine, it's time to pick things back up, and there's plenty of good stuff to talk about -- including some hands-on time with a (somewhat) recently released adventure game with some eerily familiar themes. But more on that later.

For now, at least, only a few words on Vespers over the past month.

Despite the lack of production on my end, and despite taking on additional work outside of Vespers, N.R. was able to finish off the last of the LOD (level of detail) work on the monastery complex, which I had talked about earlier. This is kind of a big deal, I'd say, since that represents a lot of work and signals, I believe, the last of the work on the main monastery buildings. There are a few details that need to be added, like some additional decorations and the wooden stairs in each of the towers, but those are objects separate from the buildings themselves. So it might be fair to say that we're finished modeling the main structures of the monastery complex. That's pretty cool.

Right now N.R. has turned his attention to some of the interesting 2D artwork, for a change. That includes a new title logo, with a different font and altered blood spot. We're going to try and do some animation with that blood spot in the intro sequence, but we'll see how that works out. He's also working on some new designs for the main menu and the in-game HUD elements, such as the text output window. I'm looking forward to new graphics after looking at the hack job programmer art I slapped together who knows how many years ago.

We're also looking to try something a little more interesting with the splash screens at the start. Instead of just popping up a couple of static 2D graphic logos to which nobody pays any attention, N.R. thought it might be worth overlaying the logos on top of an appropriate work of art. His excellent choice was The Triumph of Death, a piece by the great Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel (the Elder) from around 1562. Although it's likely that the macabre content of the piece is more a reflection of the violent history of the Netherlands in the 1560's than of the plague, the theme is still highly relevant: death is an ever-present threat in the world, and ultimately seizes all men and women, rich and poor alike, and to struggle against this fate is foolish and futile. In one instance, the content was described as "a vision of hell and its forces loosed on earth"(1). Without being too much of a spoiler, it's quite the fitting selection. Although the painting itself is considered in the public domain, we were fortunately given permission to use a good quality digital reproduction from the Web Gallery of Art (an awesome reference site, by the way).

You can see higher resolution versions of the painting, including detail close-ups, here at the WGoA web site.

The character animation work also slowed down considerably during December for a variety of reasons, so not much new to report on that front. But things are starting back up again, and there should be some new content to work on within the week, I expect.

The next Utah Indie Games night is coming up towards the end of January, only a few weeks away. We were thinking we might have everything from Act I done and ready for that event, although it will be a challenge at this point given the slow progress in December. I'll need to install the remainder of the animations for Ignatius and replace those for Constantin, and then we would need the entire set of animations created for both Cecilia and Drogo. That would get us a roughly complete Act I, although our plan is also to re-do the animations for Matteo and Lucca before declaring Act I officially complete.

And on one final note, the end of December brings yet another anniversary of sorts: December 30, 2005 was the day I received an e-mail reply from Jason agreeing to a 3D remake of Vespers, which essentially marks the start of this project. Coincidentally, that same day I received an e-mail from N.R. asking about being involved in the creation of the game. So tomorrow marks the three-year anniversary of the start of our development. Three

(1) Bruegel's The Triumph of Death Reconsidered, by Peter Thon, Renaissance Quarterly © 1968 The University of Chicago Press.

November 30, 2008

How Iggy Got His Groove Back

(or, The End of November Vespers Thing)

Good grief, another month come and gone already? November was a crazy month, I have to say. A lot of business travel, including a trip to Atlanta and not one, but two trips to D.C. -- at one point, I was having trouble remembering what city I was in and what day it was. But while you might think that Vespers development would slow as a result, in fact this past month turned out to be incredibly productive. One of the most productive in a long time, actually. We're finally beginning to see the fruits of our transition to new animators and a new animation system, and I'm expecting that this will be the start of a series of very productive months on that front.

In the last update, I expressed hope that during November we would start to have some new animations to plug into the game. We met that goal early on, and by the end of the month I found myself with more animations than I could process. Shawn, our animation lead, has really come through for us, and all of the work he put into the body and facial rigs over the past couple of months has started to pay off in spades.

It's difficult to express just how great it feels to have new animation work to incorporate into the game. I honestly can't remember the last time I had a new character animation sequence ready for importing. The last character we had worked on with respect to animation, prior to turning the work over to students and graduates from our local university, was Ignatius -- and according to the files on my system, that was back in the Fall of 2007. At that time, we had his model rigged and about a half dozen animation sequences created, but that was as far as we got before falling once again into the animation abyss.

The transition from 3ds Max to Maya when the students and graduates came on board was (and continues to be) somewhat painful. Unless you're working with an artist or animator who is already familiar with the eccentricities of the Torque art pipeline, it can take a good chunk of time to get to where each of your models and animations can be exported with some consistency -- and actually work when loaded into the game, as intended. At times, it feels like you're fabricating an intricate house of cards that requires everyting to be balanced just so to produce what you want.

But if you stick with it, and learn a little bit more about the system each time you work with it, you find that you can sometimes hit that sweet spot. That point when your models export, your animation sequences export, they load into the engine and work as planned, and suddenly you find you can just start cranking things out. It's a good feeling, one that I haven't had in over a year now, I guess.

Although I'm sure he's been ready to pull his hair out at times, Shawn has really stuck with it, and I think we've reached the point where we're starting to put a serious dent in the animation to-do list.

Shawn started his work with Ignatius, but since we're also trying to add better lip sync animations to all of the characters, he's had a hand in rigging a number of them, including Matteo, Constantin, Drogo, and Cecilia. In fact, Lucca is the only character model he has not rigged, which I think will be good for consistency. Each of our models now has a similar body and facial rig setup, which should speed up the transition from one character to the next.

By the end of November, Shawn had finished up all of the animation work for Ignatius for Act I of the game, which to me is just a phenomenal achievement. But in addition to that, he also has gone back and reworked all of the animations for Constantin as well, aside from a handful of sequences he has left to finish. I understand he has also started to rework the animations for Matteo as well, and once he is finished with that he will start work on Cecilia. I honestly didn't know if we'd ever get started on Cecilia, but there I was last week putting together her animation list and preparing her audio files. Now we're only a couple weeks away from seeing her in action, too. I hope you sense my excitement.

In the meantime, Lem is continuing his work on Lucca, and now that Drogo is rigged, Josh can finally start work on those animations. I can't wait to see how Drogo will turn out. I'm hoping I'll find out soon.

Probably the best part about this is that the quality of Shawn's work is a nice upgrade from what we had previously. He has really paid considerable attention to the details of body and facial movement, so we're seeing less robotic motion and much more convincing expressions, not to mention some nice lip sync. Some of the gestures and facial expressions he has made are far more engaging than what we saw before, and it really adds considerably to the experience of the game, I think.

My sense is that facial expressions and lip sync are things that are not done with great frequency with the Torque Game Engine, so over the next little while I plan on documenting how we went about doing this in Maya, using Shawn's work with Ignatius as an example. I'll also highlight some of the work he has done on Constantin, which I think is going to look great once I get it all imported into the game. I think it will help show some of the cool things that are possible with Torque's animation system which, while quirky, is quite powerful and flexible.

Meanwhile, I've got a crapload of Ignatius and Constantin animations I have to get to work on. And to think, I thought I might never have that problem again.

November 27, 2008

Tale of Tales Goodies

Tale of Tales is the Belgian group led by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn that brought us the thought-provoking poetic "art game" (for lack of a better term, I suppose) The Graveyard. It was an intriguing piece that generated a lot of discussion around the tubes, much of which was unfortunately negative because many people didn't quite get that it doesn't fit the traditional definition of "game". It was also created with the Unity engine, a very cool 3D game engine/development tool that runs primarily on Macs, and which I came very close to using for Vespers. In any case, I thought it was a worthwhile experiment and I have a lot of respect for what these folks are trying to do.

Of note, Gamasutra has just posted their postmortem on The Graveyard, which I think is a great read. They posted it on their web site a while back, but it's great to see a site like Gamasutra picking it up. There's a lot of good information in it, including the tools they used, their funding sources, sales figures, and their responses to the crtiques. This was the postmortem that achieved some recognition for noting that their sales conversion rate was a "disastrous" 0.34% -- and also that a large percentage of their sales were to Mac users, which was somewhat unexpected. They also include some good information about their character animator (don't get me started), music composer, and sound designer, which is very cool and something that I have been trying to do as well for my project.

ToT also produced a hybrid multiplayer online game/screensave called "The Endless Forest", although I haven't tried it myself since it's Windows-only. They had another fascinating project under development a while back called "8", but development was halted a couple of years ago due to funding issues and it's not clear from their forums if they will pick it up again. My guess is that they will if their current project succeeds and they can generate some financial interest in it. I hope so, because it looks really fascinating.

Speaking of which, their current project, for those of you who haven't heard, is called "The Path". It's billed as a single-player horror game with a unique form of gameplay, where "every interaction in the game expresses an aspect of the narrative." Now that's something I can get into. It looks to have some basis in The Little Red Riding Hood tale, but seems to feature multiple characters, such as Scarlet, Rose, and Carmen. It has a very dark tone and looks to be a fascinating piece, although it looks like it will be Windows-only again. Disappointing, since that means they're not using Unity again -- I believe, from their postmortem above, that they are using Quest3D instead. I'll figure something out.

The Tale of Tales folks are taking a very open approach to their development, and their web site features a lot of goodies including galleries, wallpapers, and their development blog, which has a load of information on their production process. They're in the alpha testing phase right now, and they include short snippets about each of the testers and their experience with the game, which is a nice touch. I'll probably follow their example in this respect.

Recently, they came out with some new screenshots, which look fantastic. The artwork for this piece is really outstanding, dark and stylish which reminds me a bit of American McGee's Alice to some extent. I don't know much about the gameplay or how the interactions will relate to the narrative, but it looks very promising and I'm really looking forward to checking it out when it's available. I'll just need to find me a Windows machine.

November 16, 2008

IFComp08: The Results Are In

The voting ended yesterday, and the results have been tallied. The winner of this year's IFComp is Violet, by Jeremy Freese - an excellent piece which I thought was well-constructed, well-written, and entertaining. The top ten finishers in the Comp are as follows:

  1. Violet

  2. Nightfall

  3. Everybody Dies

  4. Afflicted

  5. Piracy 2.0

  6. Snack Time!

  7. Opening Night

  8. April in Paris

  9. A Date With Death

  10. Berrost's Challenge

Overall, I thought the competition had some good entries -- some really creative ones like Violet and Buried in Shoes, and some traditional ones with good puzzles and engaging writing like Nightfall, Piracy 2.0, and April in Paris. I also enjoyed some of the more lighthearted entries such as Recess At Last and Snack Time! I think there were a reasonable number of solid entries -- I would say somewhere around a quarter to a third of all entries, which is generally not bad for a Comp, I think.

In case anyone is interested, I thought I'd post some final results and thoughts about the Capture Scores I posted this year.

Here is the overall breakdown of this year's entries by score, where 1 is the best (a game I would definitely go on to play) and 4 is the worst (a game that did not seem to be worth the effort):

Note that 4 of the 35 games were Windows-only, and were not included in the tally. I was expecting that most games would be either a 2 or 3, but I wasn't expecting more games to score a 1 than a 2. In fact, more than half of the 31 games scored 2 or better. I did end up playing the nine top-scoring games, but only a handful of those that scored 2. Was it a worthwhile strategy? Interesting question.

Of the 9 games with a capture score of 1, 6 finished in the top 9 in the official scoring (Violet, Nightfall, Afflicted, Snack Time!, April in Paris, and A Date With Death). The other three finished 13th, 15th, and 17th.

There were 7 games with a capture score of 2, making a total of 16 games with a score of 1 or 2. Of those 16 games, 4 did not finish in the top 16 in official scoring. So a capture score of 1 or 2 essentially picked out 12 of the top 16 games, which I guess is not a bad system for quickly identifying some of the better games to focus on for the Comp, at least if you're like me and don't have enough time to play all of them.

My top five rankings in the competition were:

  1. Violet

  2. Nightfall

  3. April in Paris

  4. Piracy 2.0

  5. Buried in Shoes

...which are the games that finished 1st, 2nd, 8th, 5th, and 13th in the official scoring. Everybody Dies (3rd in the official scoring) was one of the games that I gave a capture score of 2, but which I never got around to playing again, so I'll probably go back and give that one some more attention.

A few other capture score notes: Opening Night (7th) and Berrost's Challenge (10th) finished in the top 10, but both had a capture score of 3, so I may go back and give those another try...I gave Dracula's Underground Crypt a capture score of 4 (not good) but it managed to finish a respectable 20th...there were four Windows-only games in the Comp that I did not play because of the platform restriction; needless to say, not much was missed, as the four games finished 26th, 28th, 29th, and 32nd.

Congratulations again to Jeremy Freese and Violet, and thanks to all of the authors who submitted entries this year.

November 13, 2008

IFComp: Final Capture

With the IFComp voting period about to end, I'll now finish up with the last batch of entries. Here once again I present my initial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location or moves), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

The final games covered here include "Buried in Shoes", "A Martian Odyssey", and "Freedom".

"Buried in Shoes", by Kazuki Mishima

As far as I know, Mishima has written only one IF game prior to this Comp, the short but poetic "Somewhere." I don't know quite how successful it was as an "interactive poem", particularly given how short it was, but I appreciated the novelty and the effort put into it. "Buried in Shoes," his new piece, bears some resemblance to his previous work, and I'm intrigued to see what Mishima might do with a longer form.

The ABOUT screen gives abundant information about the game, including a nice paragraph about the significance of the shoes. Having visited the Holocaust museum in Washington previously, I can relate to the impact the displays can have, and I'm interested to see what Mishima does with this content. Like "Somewhere," this game adopts a fairly minimalist style, which I think works well here too. In his comments for his previous game, Mishima said, "I think interactive fiction can be very poetic," and "Buried in Shoes" appears to be able to continue that thought process.

Capture Score: 1. Looks like an interesting experiment.

"A Martian Odyssey", by Horatio

This game is apparently accompanied by ambient music, but my interpreter (Zoom 1.1.2 for Mac, which is the latest version) doesn't seem to support it. I don't know if that will greatly impact my initial impression of the game, though; I guess it depends on the quality of the music I'm missing. Not much additional information accompanies this game; the CREDITS command notes that it is based on the short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum (don't know it myself), and the HELP command just gives a fairly terse list of valid commands.

The initial location description is about as bare as you can get, and it's not lost on me that two of the characters beginning the game on Mars -- myself and one other person -- are named Dick and Putz. Wandering around reveals more sparsely described locations and a fairly narrow narrative path. Perhaps the descriptions are intended to be as barren as the plains of Mars, but I can't say that does much to draw me in to play more. It's not even clear from the start that my character is moving around within a small space ship. Alas, the odyssey does not last long.

Capture Score: 3. Maybe the music would have helped after all.

"Freedom", by Anonymous

The author of this game wishes to remain anonymous, as it is a piece intended to replicate the "worst case scenario" of a person suffering from social anxiety disorder and, as such, is likely drawn from personal experience. The HELP screen informs me that I should probably play the game first before knowing this information from the ABOUT screen (to avoid preconceptions), but since I typically try ABOUT at the start of each game, I missed that opportunity.

Although I get the sense this piece is probably attempting to do something quite different from the typical IF simulation, I'm still struck by the distinct lack of simulation in the initial locations. Had I not read the ABOUT screen, I'm sure this would be even more jolting. My apartment has multiple rooms and objects, almost none of which are implemented in any rudimentary sense. Other locations have multiple exits, only one of which is actually usable, and it's clear I'm being led down a very narrow path. Although I think the subject matter might make for a fascinating piece, the initial implementation just leaves me notably underwhelmed. I may come back to it later to see where it tries to go -- or, perhaps more likely, I'll just wait and read the various Comp evaluations.

Capture Score: 3. Perhaps could benefit from more refinement.

And that should do it for my "capture score" evaluation of this year's IFComp games. Official voting comes to an end on Saturday, at which time I'll summarize the scores, my thoughts about the evaluation process, and put things in a bit of perspective. Later, I'll explore how the capture scores compare with the final grades and rankings of the games.

November 12, 2008

IFComp: Slow Capture

Only seven games left to go, and three days left in the Comp. So time to start wrapping things up with the penultimate batch of entries, as I review my initial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

Games covered here include "The Hall of the Fount of Artois", "Riverside", "Magic", and "The Lucubrator".

"The Hall of the Fount of Artois", by Simon

The last of four Windows-only games in the IFComp. I'm a Mac user, so I'll have to find out after the final Comp votes are tallied to see if this is unfortunate.

Capture Score: 4. Fortunately, only four of these this year.

"Riverside", by Jeremy Crockett and Victor Janmey

This is another game that comes without an information file, ABOUT screen, or any HINT or HELP commands, but the introduction and opening scene are written with enough skill and style that I can overlook this. It's a game with a somber tone; at the start, a close friend has been murdered, and we begin at the funeral. Where it goes from there is not clear, but the story is set up well and the atmosphere is believable.

Interested in getting more feel for the game, I played a few moves and realized that there would be more to the story, one that involved a potential mystery around my friend's death. I thought this was a good hook into the developing narrative, at least from a technical standpoint, although I thought the writing stumbled a bit at this point, and a few typos and/or misspellings detracted a small bit from the impact. Still, it looks like a good effort.

Capture Score: 2. Drew me in enough to generate some interest.

"Magic", by Geoff Fortytwo

One of only two TADS3 games in this year's Comp, this game is "a story about the dangers that magicians can face." It starts with a scene of me performing a magic trick in front of a dozen uninterested children; I thought at first it was written fairly well, but when it ended with me running away crying and giving up on magic, I was a bit jolted, particularly as I then wake the next morning in a dumpster. From there, it appears you can explore the neighborhood a bit, which includes the magic shop and some nearby houses.

Overall, it appears to be a moderately interesting game. The writing is generally adequate, with only a few typos, but the writing is awkward in places and the descriptions are not particularly engaging. The description of the magic spell discovered early on is an attempt at humor (I think) with a reference to Paris Hilton and trash, but it comes across as neither creative nor funny. There doesn't appear to be a solid hook after a few moves, although I admit I'm a little curious to see where the story will eventually go. But only a little curious.

Capture Score: 3. Could use a bit more refinement and a better hook.

"The Lucubrator", by Rick Dague

Dague has written or contributed to a number of IF games in the past, although I don't think I've played any of them. His latest game is a bit of an enigma; it starts with my character lying prone on an autopsy table, held down by restraints. There is a sharp cleaver nearby, but the restraints prevent me from doing much with my hands. After a few turns, I was honestly stumped, and actually had to resort to the walkthough; without mentioning the solution, I have to say I don't think it would ever have come to me considering the way that the restraints otherwise preventing me from doing anything.

I was more frustrated than challenged by this one, even in just the opening of the game. The writing is decent, but dotted in places by awkward sentence structure, and there are fairly common actions and objects that are not defined -- for instance, YELL is allowed, but TALK is not recognized. It's fairly clear within a few turns what is happening at the opening of the story, but my overall impression is that it could use a bit more work and some polish.

Capture Score: 3. An interesting idea hampered by its design and structure.

Almost done...

November 5, 2008

Feedback For Better IF Parsing

Over on Twenty Sided, Shamus Young posted a blog today on, of all things, interactive fiction. Seems he's been playing "Phantom of the Arcade" lately, an Inform-based text adventure written recently by Susan Arendt, his editor at The Escapist, and made available online. This spurred him to ponder the familiar issues and frustrations related to the IF parser, and particularly how the parser handles unknown or unacceptable input. "Feedback itself," he states, "is a reward" -- feedback that shows that, even though the command entered is invalid, the author and/or parser has anticipated it enough to provide useful information rather than a generic "I beg your pardon?" response.

One idea he came up with for this involves modifying the IF environment (particularly one that is web-based) to create what he calls a "feedback parser":

To do this you’d just need a bit of functionality added to the parser: Whenever it encounters something it doesn’t understand, it needs to submit something to a database on the website with the subject, verb, and room. (And maybe a couple of other tidbits for housekeeping purposes.) Within a few hours of going live, the author should have a very clear picture of where the rough spots in the game are (what rooms had the most dud entries) and what the commonly attempted player actions are in those rooms. This would be much smoother and more seamless than simple playtesting, and would include the input of all players instead of just a handful of dedicated testers. It would make the designer better at their job, and help focus effort onto the most likely responses.

I had a long, drawn out response to this on his blog, which I thought might be useful to reproduce here as well for discussion. Shamus touches upon one of the more interesting arguments in the IF world, one that has been bantered around for some time: Do we need a better IF parser?

I actually started writing a blog entry with this title a while back, but never finished it. I was thinking more along the lines of a parser than can recognize a broader range of input. The jist of the discussion was going to be No, we don't -- you can argue that the tools are already out there, it just requires more work and dedication on the part of the author to have a system that is better able to handle unrecognized or unacceptable input and provide useful feedback, as Shamus suggests. The issue is not necessarily that we need parsers that can recognize and handle more players actions, but ones that can recognize and gracefully handle more unacceptable input.

Players usually cite the parser as the main problem with IF, as Shamus describes -- players want to try different things, but when the parser just responds with a generic "I don't know what you mean," players get turned off, particularly when this happens over and over. Players get frustrated when the parser doesn't provide sufficient feedback to understand why a particular action didn't work or was not understood. They also get frustrated when the parser doesn't recognize input that it probably should understand (like when players refer to an item described in the narrative, but which is not implemented as an object in the game world). Players are also frustrated when the parser doesn't accept a wide range of input, such as when they try to use adverbs (quickly, carefully, angrily, etc).

Some of these things are issues that the author needs to address, and the community has discussed for some time about how adequate testing is needed to uncover most of these things. Obviously, there's only so much testing one can do -- and often authors use other IF authors or veteran IF players for their testing, which doesn't always reveal some of the problems that might come up when less advanced players try the game. Still, after playing enough games you can generally spot the ones that have undergone thorough testing and those that haven't. Many IF games and engines can capture the full text transcript of a game from start to finish, which the author can then review to see what players did (or tried to do), and learn from that. A good example is Aaron Reed, whose 2005 IF game "Whom the Telling Changed" was a finalist at SlamDance in Park City. He saved all of the transcripts from when the game was on display at the competition, and eventually compiled, analyzed, and published the data on his web site. It was a very revealing look at how many (mostly newbie) players approached IF.

Some of the other issues mentioned above, though, are less author-dependent, but there are still things that authors can do to prepare for such things. The Inform system, for instance, supports a huge library of extensions which can make the parser work better in some cases -- particularly for newbies who don't necessarily understand how parsers typically work. The aforementioned Aaron Reed, for instance, has written a customizable Inform extension called "Smarter Parser", which allows the parser to understand a broader range of input and can direct newer players towards proper parser syntax. There are also extensions which can perform basic typo correction, so that players don't have to re-type commands just because of a simple mistype. And there are plenty of others.

Part of the problem with IF parsers is that they need to operate under a defined set of rules, and it's important for player to learn those rules. But I think it's a valid argument to say that it's largely the author's responsibility to help teach the player those rules (as well as the rules of that particular game world). Those rules are taught through sophisticated and comprehensive error trapping, so when the player tries to do something that breaks either the parser rules or the game world rules, the player is given a good explanation of why he or she cannot perform the desired action. If that happens, players are generally more accepting and willing to continue; in the absence of that, they are more likely to just say "screw it" and get back to blowing things up in an FPS.

This is not to say the solution Shamus describes is not a useful idea -- I think it's a great idea, in fact. What it represents is just a new way of expanding the "test base" for a game in a dynamic fashion. It hasn't been done up to this point probably because playing IF within web browsers is still a very new advance for IF. As the technology develops (there are still a number of issues to resolve), I suspect we will definitely see more solutions like this.

I think the handling of unrecognized input would have to be handled a certain way, because the list of errors could potentially be huge. I think what would probably be more useful is a system that just saves every game transcript to a database and sends it to the author, and if there is any unrecognized input, it can be (for instance) highlighted in red so authors can spot it easily. That way, the author will have the full context of the error on display, without having to figure out when, where, and why it happened.

But essentially, I think what Shamus is talking about is a different, more comprehensive approach to (continually) testing and refining the games that we make. Which is definitely a good idea worth pursuing.

November 2, 2008

The End of October Vespers Thing

Wow, October came and went in a hurry. Halloween and the ongoing IFComp took up a lot of my time toward the end of the month, which threw me off by a few days. So here, at the start of November, is an update on Vespers over the past month.

On the modelling front, N.R. and I spent much of the month improving the performance of the game with some creative workarounds for the problem we have had with portals in Torque. Portalization, for those of you unfamiliar, is a method used by people who model interior structures for Torque (such as buildings) to split up these models into "zones" in order to reduce rendering overhead. So basically, if a building has different sections or floors, for instance, you split it up into zones using portals placed over any of the visible openings into to that zone (such as a doorway or window). The Torque engine then uses the portals to determine when it should render the geometry and any objects within that zone -- if the player can "see" any of the portals to a zone, the engine will render everything inside. If not, all of those polygons can be skipped, which can significantly improve rendering (and game) speed in most cases.

The problem is that it can be very tricky to get portals working in Torque. The interior model must be completely sealed everywhere for portals to work -- there cannot be any leaks of any kind, or the zones will not be set up. Portals are created in the modelling program using special "brushes", and there are a whole series of rules you must follow when using these brushes, or the zones will not be set up. Portals must also be square or rectangular, which presents problems for some of our arched windows.

As an example of how fussy portals can be, there is a page on the Torque Developer Network devoted to creating portals, which has a section titled "Unproven Findings About Portals". Here are actual entries from that section of what modellers are up against:

  • Sometimes thicker portals experience problems.

  • Sometimes portals can be made that are touching more than 4 other brushes.

  • Sometimes portals will not work no mater what; and sometimes a portal works even when you try to build it wrong.

Encouraging stuff, especially when there are so many issues that are qualified with "sometimes" but without any additional information on when one might encounter those situations. In any case, it's likely that the interior models in Vespers are too large and complex for portals to work effectively, and it would take far too much effort to get them working at this point anyway.

So, we decided to try another route to reach the same destination.

As mentioned, the interior models in Vespers, such as the church, dormitory, refectory, and entrance hall, are fairly complex models with a good deal of geometry used to create detail structures, such as the wood beams along the walls and ceiling. Most of the time, however, the player is only able to see a small portion of all of this geometry. Take the screenshot below, where the player is in the main entrance hall, looking out towards the cloister:

Here is a layout of the monastery, with the arrow showing where the player is located and which direction he is facing:

All of those structures in the layout are being rendered by the engine -- the church, refectory, dormitory, kitchen, and so on -- and yet only a small fraction are actually visible from this position. That's a lot of unnecessary rendering. Everything inside of the church, all of the different rooms in the dormitory, even the kitchen and calefactory -- all of these are there, and the engine has to deal with every detail of each one, even though most don't need to be drawn on screen. So if we can come up with a way of not rendering all of these things, then performance should improve dramatically.

The solution we came up with is to create our own set of "zones" -- areas that define which buildings and objects should be rendered, and which should not -- using the game's general room structure as the guide. So for instance, we can define a "Bedroom Zone" such that, when the player is in the Abbot's bedroom, we know to render the bedroom, main entrance hall, and locutory (and all of the objects therein), but we don't have to bother with the kitchen, calefactory, refectory, church, and so on, or any of the objects within those structures. We define these zones and their contents in script, and when the player moves from one room location to another, the triggers at these locations tell the engine to check the new zone and render only what needs to be rendered. The result is similar to Torque's portal system, but in fact we end up with a bit more flexibility.

Sometimes, however, we only need to render part of a building. For instance, when the player is in the main entrance hall, we need to render the refectory -- but only the outside of the refectory, since the player shouldn't be able to actually see anything inside the refectory. Same for the church and dormitory. So to do this, we created multiple different versions of each building -- one with all of the interior details, and additional ones with few or no details inside -- and tell the engine which one to render at each location in the game. We do this by specifying each model version as one "level of detail" (or LOD). LOD is normally used by the engine to draw lower-detail versions of models as they get further and further away from the player, also reducing rendering overhead. But in this case, we use LOD here in a slightly different fashion. Since the engine allows us to "force" the display of a specific LOD when we want, we use this to our advantage to display the LOD version specified by the zone.

The results so far have been mostly good.

In general, we have been able to increase frame rates significantly. Whereas before we were seeing a good deal of "lag" on older machines in many game locations, now most lag issues are completely gone from these older machines, except in some of the most intense rendering areas (such as the cloister) where there is still some optimization to be done. On more recent machines, frame rates are now excellent, and that makes me happy. But all is not perfect.

The problem is that we've now run into the occasional "pause." There are some areas in the game where, upon moving into a new room location, the number of models (buildings, scenery objects, lights, and game objects) being toggled on or off is quite large, causing the game to noticeably hesitate for a moment while it performs all of these actions. Although I'm really only noticing this on lower-end machines, it can be pretty jarring, and is definitely not the kind of thing I want to see.

There are still some things I can look into to help the situation, but overall I'm pretty happy with the results so far.

Aside from that, we've spent some time working on additional environmental decorations, such as piles of scattered dead leaves to distribute around the monastery, including a few versions with leaves that animate with a light breeze blowing through them. Should provide a nice little measure of ambience to the scene.

There have also been some advances on the NPC animation front, although I'll wait to report more the next time. Most of our characters have been re-rigged in Maya now, including facial bone structures to provide expressions and lip sync, but since there's not much to show just yet I'll save it for another blog describing the whole setup process. I'm pretty happy with where the character models are at right now, and hopefully over the course of November we should start having some animations to plug into the game again. Should be fun to be doing that again.

Until next time...

IFComp: Capture Time

It's November, so the deadline for judging this year's IFComp is closing in fast. Time to move on with the next batch of entries, as I review my initial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

Games covered here include "Project Delta", "Escape from the Underworld", "Opening Night", "Afflicted", and "Everybody Dies".

"Project Delta", by Emilian Kowalewski

Another Windows-only game. I can't tell if this is a shame or not. I guess I'll find out after the final Comp votes are tallied.

Capture Score: 4. The third of four Windows-only games in the Comp.

"Escape from the Underworld", by Karl Beecher

This one comes with hints and walkthrough files, but without any background information or an ABOUT command. I generally like to have even a small amount of background info, whether it's about the inspiration for the game, an acknowledgement of the authoring system, or a shout out to the beta testers. There were beta testers, right? I'll have to make do.

Escape has a mildly entertaining but thin premise: I play a demon in the Underworld who, unhappy with his eternal task of torturing evil souls and seeking to better himself, must escape by making my way up to the "top floor." It is written in a humorous style, although the humor only partially succeeds. It comes across as fairly well put together, without any notable errors, but it seems to lack much polish, particularly in the room and item descriptions. I could probably play a game like this if the writing had a bit more style, but as it is it's a bit bland and I'm just not drawn in enough.

Capture Score: 3. A decent idea that faltered in the implementation.

"Opening Night", by David Batterham

As the ABOUT screen notes, this is a game that focuses on story rather than puzzles, which is generally my preference. In this one, my character has saved up a month's pay to purchase a ticket to the opening night performance of my idol, Miranda Lily, on Broadway. Starting out just outside the theater, it appears that at least part of the goal is to make it inside, as the doorman seems intent on upholding the theater's strict dress code. I'm told it will probably not be difficult to solve this game's puzzles, so the story must carry the day here.

Although it appears to be well written, I can't say that this particular narrative captures my imagination right away. There might be considerably more beyond the opening, but I find it more difficult to muster up the desire to play this one than a number of other Comp games. It's probably just a function of the premise more than anything else. I'll be interested to see if my initial impression differs from the final voting.

Capture Score: 3. Just not enough up front to grab me.

"Afflicted", by Doug Egan

Egan is the author of "Pascal's Wager", the winner of the 2008 Spring Thing (although I haven't played it yet). Interestingly, Egan notes it took four years to complete that game using Inform 6, while it took only four months to complete "Afflicted" in Inform 7. His new game is intended to be enjoyed by IF newcomers and veterans alike -- a worthy goal, but one that is sometimes difficult to pull off. Most common verbs are employed, although in the ABOUT screen I'm told that there is one new verb, NOTE, as well as an extra emphasis on the SMELL command.

The premise is that my character's job as city sanitarian is to complete health and safety inspections of all restaurants in my district, and I start in a place called "Nikolai's Bar and Grill" in a questionable part of town. The place is closed, the front door is locked, and nobody is close enough to hear me knocking. The first puzzle would appear to be getting inside; the rest appears to involve receiving a sanitation rating for the work that I do, although it's not clear how points are awarded.

My impression is that there is probably a lot you could do with this premise. I like the decrepit setting, and the writing is good without being silly, lighthearted, or too cliché. I'm interested to see where this game decides to go after this introduction, and it compares well with many of the other entries in this year's Comp.

Capture Score: 1. I want to see if my impression is correct.

"Everybody Dies", by Jim Munroe

Munroe previously wrote the game "Punk Points", which was entered in the 2000 IF Comp. Although I haven't played it, a review of this game from 2001 starts with: "You're a teenager trying to demonstrate to yourself and to your peers how angry and rebellious you are." This would also probably describe the opening of Munroe's new game, "Everybody Dies", which starts with a young, angry, vulgar kid who works at a supermarket bagging groceries and collecting shopping carts. There is no ABOUT screen, but a CREDITS screen acknowledges an impressively large group of beta testers. The HELP screen provides mostly generic help, although I'm informed that dying is "a part of life, and for most of the game unavoidable."

There's little direction when the game starts, although it seems that I have to retrieve a shopping cart before returning to the store. It's hard to know where this game is leading -- except perhaps for the title -- but with the only visible shopping cart submerged in the frigid river below, I'm a bit intrigued. The writing and construction appear sound, with a fairly convincing characterization of an angry youth.

Capture Score: 2. Would be interested in coming back to this one.

Only seven more to go...

October 26, 2008

IFComp: Adventures in Capture

Venturing ever farther with the next batch of IFComp entries, as I review my initial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

Games covered here include "Grief", "April in Paris", "Ananachronist", and "LAIR of the CyberCow".

"Grief", by Simon Christiansen

This game starts by asking me if I'm male or female. I like when games do this, given the extra amount of work that this typically requires, although I don't yet know how well this is incorporated into the game or what kind of impact it might have on the narrative. Still, it's the kind of thing that could give the game some extra replay value.

The game begins in a dream, at least so I'm told, and there doesn't appear to be much to the experience. "It's just a bad dream. There is no need to do anything," I tell myself, and "All you have to do is wake up and everything will be fine." Listening to the sounds doesn't help, and there is nothing in particular to see. Eventually, regardless of what I do, I wake up and find myself in bed, reminding myself that whatever that was, it was just a dream. I seem to have the belief that it was a bad dream, but there's no real indication why. I can't help but feel the experience, whatever its importance, was lost on me. I trust that will become clearer as the game progresses.

I give the game a bit more since the opening location was so brief, but there isn't a great deal more to explore right off the bat. It seems that I have a goal of waking my child Thomas and getting him prepared for school, although I expect that, given the bad dream and the title of the game, there is likely much more to this than meets the eye.

The ABOUT screen tells me that Grief is a short game, meant to be replayed several times in order to reach "the final ending," which I imagine is the most desirable ending. I enjoy that format, as long as the short experience is worth replaying multiple times. I don't get a good feel for that from the opening, however; there's little to go on except a bit of suspicion and expectation.

Capture Score: 2. Has some good qualities, but doesn't quite grab me right away.

"April in Paris", by Jim Aikin

Aikin, who previously brought us "Lydia's Heart" and "Mrs. Pepper's Nasty Secret", now brings us this piece that takes place at a cafe in Paris while on vacation. Subtitled, "An exasperating social difficulty," it's a highly polished work with quality writing and a playful tone. The opening scene, in which I begin sitting at a cafe with the goal of somehow attracting the attention of the French waiter, is skillfully laid out with good atmosphere and an interesting cast of characters. I get the impresson that it is more of a lighthearted game, one that will likely provide some pleasant entertainment.

There is not much additional information in the ABOUT screen. Aikin includes a small map of the cafe in a PDF file, which is a nice touch. My impression is that the implementation of the NPCs in this game will be key, but given Aikin's previous efforts I have reason to believe it will not disappoint.

Capture Score: 1. Should be entertaining to play.

"Ananachronist", by Joseph Strom

This is a curious entry. It has an interesting, but fairly confusing, premise; as the subtitle suggests ("A puzzle in four dimensions"), it is a game that involves time travel and the altering of time lines. My role in the game is apparently as one of the "ananachronists", the individuals whose job is to repair the "magical time bombs made by a wizard dabbling in the arts of temporal manipulation." It's not a bad premise, generally speaking, although the presentation is hampered a bit by vagueness and complexity.

Even the title is a bit confusing; I can't tell if it's supposed to be "ananachronist" or just "anachronist" -- the latter is used in the introduction, and the name of the game file is "anachron.zblorb", but the former is used is most places. The introduction tries to be witty and entertaining, succeeding in a few places and faltering in others, but the humor does serve to make the confusing background a bit more acceptable. And although the writing in general is good, it is sprinkled with typos and/or spelling mistakes.

Capture Score: 3. Has some promise, but not as much as others.

"LAIR of the CyberCow", by Harry Wilson

I can't really say much about this game, to be honest. No extra information is included with the game, and the ABOUT screen is minimal. I start at a bus stop, with the only exit up a hill to the south, where there is a chapel and a small cottage. I am carrying nothing. No introduction, no background. The writing is terse and purely descriptive, with little embellishment.

No glaring issues or problems, just not much to attract me.

Capture Score: 3. Needs more of a reason to play it.

Still more to come...

October 19, 2008

Monks, Manuscripts, and Modern Technology

And now for something completely different.

This has nothing to do with the IF Comp. Nor does this have anything to do with adventure games, interactive fiction, or indie game development. It does, however, concern a medieval European abbey and the intersection between monks, manuscripts, and modern technology, and if you haven't noticed I just can't help but be drawn to juicy stuff like that.

I caught this story in the NY Times while traveling on a cross-country flight, and thanks to the miracle of the web you, too, can partake. John Tagliabue reports that a vast collection of handwritten medieval books and manuscripts, one of the oldest and most valuable collections in the world, is going online with the support of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Link may require a login to the NY Times web site.)

The monastery in St. Gallen, Switzerland, is so old that it was dissolved over two hundred years ago, in 1805. However, the abbey library (Stiftsbibliothek) still houses a huge collection of handwritten manuscripts, including 350 that date before the year 1000, and is an understandably popular destination for visitors. The St. Gallen project's goal is to digitize all of the library's manuscripts using high-resolution digital cameras and video recorders; 200 are already in the database, and 144 of them are available online, right now, on the project's web site at Even for everyday shmucks like me to stare at in awe while sitting at my computer in my underwear.

It's all part of a larger project to digitize all of Switzerland's roughly 7000 medieval manuscripts, similar to what Google is trying to do with entire libraries here. But where Google's project involves high-speed scanning of printed books, this is the slow, careful, page-by-page scanning of incredible works of art.

The results so far, at least to this completely untrained eye, are impressive.

The web site, which is in Swiss German (and translates well enough with babelfish), has images in four resolutions, from small, low res previews to very high res shots that enable up-close examination of some of the smallest details. The same goes for the front and back covers, and the spines.

It's perhaps no substitute for scholars who might benefit from examining the original manuscripts, certainly. But this represents a phenomenal increase in accessibility for these rare documents, and the doors that a project like this opens might be prodigious. It embodies all that is awesome about technology and the internet.

Plus, it's just so damn cool.

Images are © 2005-2008, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen. Story is © 2008, The New York Times Company.

October 18, 2008

IFComp: Capture Me This

Onward with the next batch of IFComp entries, as I review my initial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

Hard to believe, but with this next set I find myself only halfway through all of this year's entries -- and I'm only reporting my initial impressions.

Games covered here include "Dracula's Underground Crypt", "Search for the Ultimate Weapon", "Cry Wolf", and "Snack Time!".

"Dracula's Underground Crypt", by Alex Whitington

Upon opening the game, I'm notified immediately that this release may be less than ideal because of the author's recently discovered requirement for a social life. Later, after typing HINT, I come across the FAQ list (well, more precisely it's the QTIWBFAIAEAMQATG list, but never mind that), the first entry of which is the uninspiring Are you actually planning on fixing the problems in this game? I'm tempted to proceed no futher. Nevertheless, I do.

I've made better choices. The text is riddled with typos, spelling errors, and questionable grammar. It might be a secondary language issue -- and then again, maybe not. It comes across as sloppy and inadequately tested or reviewed; perhaps this was rushed to get it done in time for the Comp, perhaps not. It's a comedy about Dracula's crypt. It has potential, I suppose, but my expectations have already been lowered.

Then I'm hit with phrases like, "He carefully prizes open the pages of the book..." and, "Some sort of melding of english medieval folklore and hindu iconography? Or a cheap device to make the game harder? It's up to you..."

Capture Score: 4. Yes, it is. I'll just wait for the promised "deluxe" version.

"Search for the Ultimate Weapon"

This appears to be a Windows-only game. There are no instuctions for running this on a Mac. That's unfortunate.

Capture Score: 4.

"Cry Wolf", by Clare Parker

I believe this is Parker's first work of IF, which apparently has been in production for "an embarrassing amount of time" and right up to the Comp deadline. Still, it has some polish to it, certainly much more than other entries in this Comp. The author does a decent job setting up the opening scene, as I am awakened during the night by a creature (likely a wolf) that was just injured on the porch outside my bedroom. A relationship with a woman named Celia has recently ended, and I presume the exploration of this relationship will be a main focus of this game.

I'm told this game employs a somewhat different menu-based conversation system, one that is intended to discourage lawnmowering; SAVEs are disabled during conversation, and UNDO will retract the entire conversation back to its beginning. I don't recall playing a game with this type of system before, and it sounds interesting. I'm also told that "If you are particularly sensitive to descriptions of surgery, perhaps this is not the game for you." I wasn't expecting that; now I'm intrigued.

There appear to be a few rough spots in the first location that seem like they should have been caught easily through testing. PUT ON CLOTHES actually only performs a TAKE CLOTHES action; I have to PUT ON each individual piece to actually dress myself. EXAMINE BOOKCASE returns, "The bookcase is made of dark, carved wood and is full of novels. The works of James Herriot are on the bottom shelf," while SEARCH BOOKCASE returns, "In the wooden bookcase are books and James Herriot."

Although I'm not immediately captured by it, this game seems to have enough good qualities to put it high on the second-tier list.

Capture Score: 2. Looks like a worthwhile first effort.

"Snack Time!", by Hardy the Bulldog (with help from Renee Choba)

Every year there are a few Comp entries that employ an alternative perspective for narration, and "Snack Time!" is one of those. The player takes on the role of a dog (a bulldog, I assume), and the game is narrated in second person. The human is described as my pet, and the rooms are described by their functions (the Sitting Room, Sleeping Room, and the Food Room). I'm a dog lover, so this is a Good Thing.

The writing is smooth and the voice fits well with what I imagine a dog's voice might be. I like the descriptions of objects like "the thing you can't scratch" and "the long soft thing." I tried LICK PET and got back "You love on your pet with some little licks," which is just terribly cute. I can also SCRATCH, CHEW, and BARK AT things, which should make things interesting.

No issues came up as I tried this one out, although it seems a little strange that I have to use the object name "the thing you can't scratch" instead of "the thing I can't scratch," which would have made for better consistency. Still, it's only a minor quibble. This looks like a lighthearted, fun game, and one that I look forward to completing.

Capture Score: 1. Hard to go wrong with dogs.

Still more to come...

October 13, 2008

IFComp: EnCaptured

Continuing yet again with the next batch of IFComp entries, as I review my intial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

Games covered here include "Violet", "The Absolute Worst IF Game in History", and "The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom".

"Violet", by Jeremy Freese

"Violet" is a game that begins with a more minimalist approach; no long introduction, just what sounds like an initial conversation between two people. And I'm apparently a procrastinating writer; the ABOUT screen notifies me that I am the boyfriend of the character (Violet) narrating the game. It's an interesting and not often used perspective, and it's a nice touch to see everything, including the ABOUT screen, narrated in this voice. It is effective at making me feel like I'm playing along with another. The fascinating part is that the opening scene informs me that Violet is not actually physically present with me; I'm merely pretending that she is.

I also like that the ABOUT screen is written as a letter from Violet to me. It gives the character additional personality while performing a typical game meta-function ("I'll be desolate if you QUIT."). An intriguing option is that you can change gender by typing FEMALE (which seems easier than the accepted HETERONORMATIVITY OFF), although it's not clear what impact that would have on the narrative of the game. Even the CREDIT screen is written in this style, effectively separating Violet and "the game" from its author, Freese.

The writing is solid and stylish; there are many small touches that make the experience feel dynamic. Given how much appears to take place in the initial location, I played for a few minutes only to get a good feel for the game, and I left impressed and intrigued. Really looking forward to playing this more.

Capture Score: 1. This game "gets it."

"The Absolute Worst IF Game in History", by Dean Menezes

I have to admit, I'm not looking forward to this one. I highly doubt that the title is wry or satirical, given some of the Comp entries we've seen in the past. The introduction is brief, the initial location described only as "Entrance" with reference to a nearby maze. There is no ABOUT, HELP, or HINT screen, and no readme file. Just to be sure, I head toward the maze, and I'm met with twisty little passages. No more need be said.

Capture Score: 4. Is it the worst in history? I'm not sticking around to find out.

"The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom", by Anssi Räisänen

This game wins for most alluring title. This is Räisänen's sixth game according to Baf's Guide, although I haven't played any of the others, so I don't know what to expect.

The setting seems cliché, but still worth investigating: my female partner has left to pursue her studies at a school she could not divulge; after searching for her in pursuit, I have finally found the hidden Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom, with its notorious deadly entrance exam. I must pass this exam to be reuinted with my love, a test which consists of three trials. Hmm.

The setup promises a game with puzzles, and the opening would seem to confirm this. It's a challenge, and I'm tempted to take it up, but I'm just not sure the setting draws me in enough. The writing is fair; I cannot spot any obvious errors, but there's not the same polish as I've seen in other games. Some sentences are clumsily worded, and I just don't think the introduction gives me a clear enough visual of the scene to engage me.

I'm carrying a piece of paper with writing on it; READing it produces an empty response. I'm not sure if this is intended, a bug, or a problem with the interpreter. I'm just not sure. That about sums it up.

Capture Score: 3. Give some credit for a good title.

More to come...

October 10, 2008

IFComp: Searching For Capture

Forging onward with the next batch of IFComp entries, as I review my intial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

Games covered here include "Nightfall", "Trein", and "Red Moon".

"Nightfall", by Eric Eve

This is the next game from Eve, another veteran IF author with previous notable works like "The Elysium Enigma" and "All Hope Abandon". I'm already biased, knowing the quality of his work, but even if I could evaluate the opening of this game objectively I'm sure it would score well. The quality and polish of his writing is quickly recognized, and the theme is strong and engaging: I begin on an empty train platform, in the early evening after the last train has left, taking with it the last remaining people in the city -- except for myself. Something important is about to happen at dawn, although I'm not sure what -- but the HELP section indicates that there is an important time limit on the game. Intriguing.

It looks like Eve tackles the distance between player and player character using a couple of interesting commands such as REMEMBER to see memories associated with different locations, RECAP to see all triggered memories, and GO TO to traverse the local geography to reach a destination that should be already familiar to the player character. The hint system sounds a bit different with the THINK (and THINK HARDER) commands, which sound interesting. Also, included with the game is a PDF file with a map of the city locations, which is reasonable (and helpful) since the player character is technically already intimately familiar with the city.

Capture Score: 1. Has the potential for another solid piece by Eve.

"Trein", by Leena Kowser Ganguli

This game jumps right into a lengthy introduction, which identifies me as a character named "Archer", trusted subject to the King who has been given the task of investigating the disappearances that have occurred in recent years on the night of the Blood Moon's rise, during the festival of the dead. It's a good deal of information to digest, but it is presented very well, with solid writing and an engaging setup.

I start in a small, broken down town with a suspiciously empty feel, and a tavern beckoning to the East. The game has a nice feel to it; a bit of fantasy with a bit of mystery, although no additional info since there is no ABOUT, HINT, or HELP commands. It's a shame, as I'd like to learn a bit more about the author and this piece, but it doesn't detract from my interest in seeing more. The only minor issue is an inventory item labelled "a Dark Clothing."

Capture Score: 1. Should be interesting to see this one through.

"Red Moon", by Jonathan Hay

I'm not sure what to make of this one. It starts with a mysterious introduction, as I'm apparently trapped inside a wooden room with unspeakable horrors beyond. A number of facts are presented, although it's difficult to know what to do with them or how to put them together: there is an unlocked door, which I would apparently be crazy to open; I have a sister with me, huddled and mumbling incoherently from insanity; my parents died in "the war"; a computer sits on a nearby desk, offering some suggestion of time period, but there is no plug.

There is little additional information, however -- even the opening suggests I don't know where I am or how long I've been there, and there is no ABOUT command. Perhaps a bit too much vagueness and confusion, and not enough of a background to hook me into wanting to know more. I sense there is a reason for the terseness, but I'm not sure how long I want to spend trying to figure it out.

The writing is fair enough; not quite as polished as other works, but no obvious typos. The TAKE ALL command lists everything, including the walls, floor, and ceiling, which is a bit odd.

Capture Score: 2. I might come back to this one, time permitting.

More to come...

October 9, 2008

The Winner: Frayed Knights

A few of the scattered individuals who stop by here every now and then might not be aware, but there was a year-long competition sponsored by, a group dedicated to developing tools to help indie developers create RPG games, including MMORPG games. The contest started in April 2007 and, I would assume, finished in April 2008, with the goal of creating the best CRPG game based on one of the Torque Game Engines. First prize was an impressive $10,000, and a number of groups entered.

I say that I assume it finished in April 2008 only because I never heard anything about a winner, and had completely forgotten about it. I do know that Jay Barnson of The Rampant Coyote had entered, and up until the April deadline was doing a fantastic job of grinding through the workload on his entry, "Frayed Knights", an RPG "of comedy and high fantasy." His frequent updates on the project were entertaining to read, especially from an indie developer's perspective, and put a very personal touch on the project.

I'm not sure why a winner took so long to announce, but on Wednesday night Jay and his team were announced the winners of the contest. A very deserving win!

Jay did an amazing job getting the community involved in the development and testing of his game, and was an inspiration for me to start this blog. Now he's got some serious bucks to take the game even further. Sweet!

For those of you interested in trying a humorous, creative indie-RPG game, I highly recommend stopping by the "Frayed Knights" site to download and play the pilot.

October 7, 2008

IFComp: Screening Capture

Forging onward with the next batch of IFComp entries, as I review my initial impressions of each game's opening (introduction, "About" screens, and the first location), summarized by the Capture Score from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable). Just a reminder, no spoilers here, just early impressions.

Games covered here include "A Date With Death", "When Machines Attack", and "Berrost's Challenge".

"A Date With Death", by David Whyld

Whyld's game, subtitled "being the further adventures of the king who wished to die but whose subjects just weren't ready to let him go", is the third game in a series that began in 2004 with "Back to Life... Unfortunately" and continued in 2007 with "The Reluctant Resurrectee" (second place, Spring Thing 2007). I never played either one, but Whyld includes a short summary in the "About" screen of their bizarre premise: a king who had been assassinated and brought back to life by his adoring populace then seeks to kill himself in various elaborate ways because he preferred being dead. In the third installment, I'll be trying to avoid being killed instead. Not bad.

The intro is lengthy, but with that background I'm ready for it. The writing is good; a little awkward in places, but in all it is very entertaining with a nice touch of humor, especially with the Grim Reaper. You can tell Whyld's been at this for some time and has many games under his belt. The opening includes some hints -- checking the archives, for instance, and preparing best you can for midnight -- and I see it will keep track of locations visited and the rough time of day. The time limit promises to keep game play focused and brief.

Capture Score: 1. "Can Death be cheated?" I'll give it a try.

"When Machines Attack", by Mark Jones

This one strikes me as a little clumsy. The title is a bit blunt for my tastes, and the intro text is peppered with small typos and minor grammatical errors, as well as a few rough edges ("Pretty nice. It smells clean, and it is nicely spaced out with nice, leather chairs on one side of the room..."). I'm also told that I'm twenty minutes late for my appointment, even though the appointment was at 3:00 and it's now 4:30.

The premise is that I've been selected to work at the "Planetron Defense Laboratories" on a spacecraft project, which is supposedly a prestigious job that I am excited about. But I'm told about things that seem odd or suspicious about this appointment, even though I can't tell what is odd or suspicious. Then, even though I'm usually not late for anything, I show up extremely late for the exciting, prestigious job I've always wanted, and I have no idea why. The initial experience, particularly with the receptionist, purposely comes across as suspect, which does provide some intrigue -- but only a little.

The "About" screens provide little additional information. It was written intentionally for the competition, so anyone finding this game outside of the IFComp is effectively excluded in the help section. Also might want to change the "Contacting the Author" section to say "They benefitted me greatly" rather than "They benefitted greatly"...unless I'm misinterpreting. I hope not.

Capture Score: 3. Might end up having some good puzzles, but I'll likely pass.

"Berrost's Challenge", by Mark Hatfield

Transitioning back once again from futuristic science fiction to magical fantasy, I'm presented with this tale of the player character's journey from floor mopper to "proper" wizard. But is that what this is? The intro describes how the master, Berrost, is planning on kicking out the apprentice player character because he is "too vexing" to invest the time it would take to mold him into a proper wizard. So instead the plan is to kick him out, but after teaching him a few spells. What?

On top of that, instead of teaching him the spells he has devised a challenge: the player must find the spell scrolls hidden in the village. That sounds like a pretty shaky premise for the game, but then who isn't up for a good easter egg hunt once in a while?

This one is also sprinkled liberally with typos and various spelling and grammatical errors, and the writing is awkward in many places. For instance, examining the murals in the opening room, I get: "Berrost spends a lot of flooglemids on ornamental junk that's primary function is to require constant cleaning," which is not exactly inspirational stuff. Also, in the intro: it's servitude, not serviture.

ABOUT produces a long list of commands, many of which are unique to this game. Spell success is apparently impacted by concentration, which is affected by hunger and fatigue; this can be turned off with the interestingly named CURMUDGEON command. Score is kept and ranges from 0 to a possible 100, altough it is framed as "wit." There are also numerical measures for "Manna" (which I assume pertains to spellcasting) and Concentration, as well as inventory bulk and weight.

Capture Score: 3. Could have been a 2 with some more polish, although I still might give it a go for the subject matter.

More to come...

October 6, 2008

IFComp: Capture Quest

After a brief intro yesterday, my filtering of this year's IFComp entries shifts into gear as I continue to walk down my randomly generated list of games. No spoilers here, just some initial impressions of each game's opening, which includes any introduction, "About" screens, and the first location, summarized by the Capture Score. The range is from 1 (intriguing; a definite play) to 4 (dreadful and forgettable).

Bear in mind that my intention is not to judge the the complete piece, only to report my first impressions of the entries to see which ones engage me enough to pull me in for more. I'll play the ones that do to see if the experience matches the anticipation, and afterward if any games that I pass on place high in the competition, I'll go back and see what it was that I missed.

"NerdQuest", by RagtimeNerd

So my random game list generator came up with this one first, and then I find out it's written in MechaniQue, with which I am completely unfamiliar. I have to slip into the Mac Terminal app, navigate to the directory, and run a Java interpreter from the command line. Already I know why it's called NerdQuest.

The title does not inspire me, and the opening appears to be an exercise in brevity. I'm locked in a server room being forced by my manager to fix a hacked system while potentially missing a date with my new girlfriend. The setup is simplistic and uninviting. Still, I'm slightly intrigued by the programming language and how this game might differ from the more traditional IF systems. But only slightly.

This summarizes my brief experience with the opening:

Server room, second floor.
Here is an old disused desk with a terminal on it.
To the north is the storage room. To the south is the
exit door.
Not possible.
Server room, second floor.
>search desk
Not possible.
Server room, second floor.
>examine terminal
Not possible.
Server room, second floor.
Not possible.
Server room, second floor.
Not possible.

Capture Score: 3. "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?" the game asks. The answer: play something else. I know that's possible.

"Recess At Last", by Gerald Aungst

"The daily school routine of going out to recess, transformed into an epic quest." I get to play a fourth grader, itching for recess outside during one of the only sunny winter days in as long as I can remember. But it turns out I can't join the others until I finish my missing assignment, and I'm stuck at my desk. There is an origami fortune teller here -- I haven't thought about those things in decades. There's also a closet, but for what purpose I'm unsure. Interesting, I'm intrigued. I have to figure out what this assignment is. Did I already complete it? Did I leave it at home?

The writing is pleasant and appropriate, and the setup is well done. "Almost in unison, twenty-four fourth graders sighed in relief, twenty-four fourth graders put away their math books, and twenty-four fourth graders began to line up." It comes across as light and fun. For some reason, I think of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. This is a good thing.

Capture Score: 1. This one deserves some attention.

"Channel Surfing", by Mike Vollmer

This one starts out with some kind of cross between amnesia and jail cell tropes. You start out in a room called "Box" with featureless blank walls and only a chair, a table, and a huge, flat TV displaying plain white light. I don't know where I am or how I got there, or what it is I'm supposed to be doing.

There are, however, some other devices: a remote, a letter, and a post-it note, enough to engage my curiosity for at least a little bit.

The "About" screen provides a little more information, and the letter confirms it; I'm a test subject for an experimental new television, which sounds somewhat intriguing except for the part where it goes on to confirm the amnesia thing. It's just tough to get very excited about the amnesia trope these days. I'm also made aware of multiple-choice dialog sequences to come. Not my favorite, but it's dealer's choice.

Still, aside from a minor typo, the writing appears to be a strong point. So while the setup is hardly inspiring, I'll probably give this one a few minutes and turns to declare itself.

Capture Score: 2. Worth at least a few more turns.

More to come...

October 5, 2008

And In Other News, Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead

With October comes once again the start of the annual IFComp, this being the 14th competition. It's hardly breaking news at this point, of course, what with the bevy of blogs and websites reporting it to the world and already posting early game reviews. We're not even a week into October and I feel like I need to catch up.

Comp time is a sweet time, though, because once it arrives we get a huge bolus of new IF games to play, and who knows what we might discover in the collection. The IFComp is where we got Vespers, and some really fantastic games have won over the years. But unless you keep up with it you can miss some really entertaining games that don't necessarily finish that high. Aaron Reed's "Gourmet" finished 5th in 2003, and Andrew Plotkin's "Delightful Wallpaper" finished 6th in 2006; both were games that I thoroughly enjoyed but might never have gotten around to playing had I missed the Comp and returned after the fact.

But there's also a lot of chaff to sift through, which can be tedious at times. There have been some real winners in the past, and this year's "The Absolute Worst IF Game in History" by Dean Menezes sounds like it's positioning itself well for 2008.

One of the problems people (like me) seem to have with the IFComp is that there are usually too many games to play and evaluate before the end of the competition, and far too many that just aren't worth the time and effort. So it got me to thinking: what about just rating the games for their introductions, for their ability to draw me in and make me want to play further? That's what books are supposed to do, and the same is often said for IF. So over the next few days or weeks I'll try to make it through all of this year's games with the purpose of evaluating how well each one "captures" me with just the opening passage. And nobody has to worry about spoilers, either.

To do so, I'll provide my "capture score" for each game, on a scale from 1 (great opening, definitely worth playing) to 4 (forget it, don't even bother). If there's still time, I'll try to go back and play through any games that score 1 to see how well they follow through.

Just to start things off, I'll throw a couple out there. These are the first two games I opened up at random.

"Piracy 2.0 - A Text Adventure in Space", by Sean Huxter.

The title "Piracy 2.0" is a bit unusual, and I don't recall ever playing Piracy 1.0 or anything else by Huxter in the past. This game opens with a space military theme, complete with captured space pirate prisoner, hints of an inside job, and an ambush:

"After the brief battle your ship was boarded, and, as far as you know, your crew completely wiped out by the ruthless marauders. They might have murdered you too if they hadn't thought you would be useful to them."

Sure, not the strongest writing, and not the most original idea, but it seems harmless enough. Still, the intro ends with this awkward passage:

"Now, Whitehall, with a key code for the Brig he must have tortured out of your Security Officer, escorts you personally to the cell and shoves you in. He laughs as the door locks behind you..."

I wasn't terribly hopeful for this one, but due to the title I did quickly check out the ABOUT screens, and in fact Huxter's "About the Author" pages are gems. I'm not exactly sure why, but I really enjoyed reading them, and I'm more inspired now to give the game a try. And what can I say, I'm a sucker for space pirate games.

Capture Score: 2. Would have been a 3 without the "About the Author" screens.

"The Lighthouse", by Eric Hickman & Nathan Chung.

The opening of this game contains this passage: "You walk up to the lighthouse. It's large wooden frame creaking in the wind. You then step in front of the door and knock. Silence. Then the door opens and reveals the face of Mr Webster."

Not to mention this gem: "With that comment he mounted his trusty steed and rode off into the rainy abyss."

It took two people to come up with that. Typing ABOUT returned "That's not a verb I recognise." 'Nuff said.

Capture Score: 4. Mount your trusty steed and head the other way.

September 30, 2008

The End of September Vespers Thing

Another month has come and gone, which means it's time for a quick Vespers update.

Nope, it's not finished yet.

Was September a good month? In general, I'd say it was pretty good. On the one hand, another student animator has left the project, which means we're down to three. At least I'm assuming he's left the project -- like so many that came before him, he's just no longer responding to e-mails. It's not too troublesome since he never really got off the blocks with this project, but it just animators, or are other people like this as well? In the face of overcommitment or disinterest, is it everybody's instinct to lie low and hope nobody notices? Or just animators?

On the other hand, the remaining three animators are progressing nicely, and one in particular, Shawn, has agreed to devote a good deal of time and effort over the next few months to get these animations done. That would really be fantastic. The slowest, most tedious part is getting the models rigged, setting up the faces for lip sync, and making sure the models and animations export properly and appear in the game engine the way they're supposed to appear. Once that's done, then the animations can be cranked out. We've just about reached that point with a couple of the characters, so I'm hopeful that we'll have a batch of new animations soon.

Guys, if you're reading this: don't do the vanishing act thing!

On the modeling front, N.R. and I have spent the past month mostly on two fronts: decorations and the calefactory. The decorations at this point have been mostly cobwebs, which look great. Animating them has been a challenge, however -- it's really difficult to replicate the typical motion of cobwebs blowing in a breeze. We'll use them sparingly to save on frame rates, but they should provide an extra little bit of atmosphere. Now all we need is a smattering of dead leaves around the place, and we should be set with the decorations.

Then there's the calefactory.

It's quite interesting how little information is readily available to describe precisely what a calefactory is and what typically went on inside one. I think that's part of the reason Jason left the calefactory description in the text game so limited -- in fact, other than the heat in the room, there isn't much description of it at all:


Positioned directly between the dormitory and your own room, the calefactory warms both, although lately it is less than adequate. While the calefactory itself is stiflingly hot, its heat stays confined. Your brow grows damp: your body, feverish. Slightly melted snow creeps in from the cloister to the northwest.

Nothing on the shape of the room, its contents, if it has any windows, even the source of the strong heat in the room. Is it a fireplace? A stove? Any chairs or tables? Jason is essentially giving us freedom to improvise, but it's a little tricky -- on the one hand, we need to figure out what a calefactory normally would look like and what would appear inside, while on the other we don't want to start adding a whole set of objects that the player would want or expect to be able to interact with and which might mess with the established game structure and mechanics.

It brings up one of those interesting differences between textual and graphical interfaces: with text, authors have the freedom to paint with broad strokes and allow the reader to fill in many of the details, while with graphics, designers are forced to provide those details. With respect to setting, this can work well both ways. In the text version of Vespers, for instance, Jason provides little detail in the descriptions of locations such as the calefactory and the kitchen, but it doesn't diminish their impact on the player's mental model of the game setting; despite not knowing what was actually in those rooms, they still felt real and not at all empty -- and Jason didn't have to worry about implementing all of the different items that would probably be there. But there's also something magical about recreating a setting visually down to the last detail and providing the audience the opportunity to experience that setting in ways they couldn't otherwise. To me, that is one of the pleasures of watching historical (fiction or non-fiction) movies.

Of course, that also means we have to go and figure all of this stuff out, and to try and retain some semblance of historical accuracy. I've done some rudimentary research on calefactories, but as I said it's surprising how little information is readily accessible. About all I know for certain is that there should be a fire source and probably some places to sit.

This is about as far as we've gotten so far. Look, a firepit!

Until next month...