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May 2011

Dennis Wheatley Gone Wild


It was while watching the Get Lamp documentary last summer that I first learned about the Dennis Wheatley / JG Links crimefile dossiers from the 1930s.  These books were the first of their kind, enabling armchair detectives to solve a murder mystery with nothing but the evidence laid before them, consisting of police reports, interviews with suspects, telegrams, blueprints, newspaper stories, photos and even physical evidence in the form of matchesticks, hairs, bloodstained curtains, poison pills and the like.  All of the evidence and documents were held together in a ribbon-bound stiff cardboard folio.  The Wheatley dossiers were a breakthrough in publishing and went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies around the world.  

The Wheatley crimefiles were reprinted in the late 1970s as high quality facsimiles of the originals.  They were almost indistinguishable from the originals, execept for an added dustjacket and the fact that they are generally in better condition.  While Wheatley only published four books of this genre, to me they were legendary for inspiring the packaging of Infocom's Deadline, The Witness and subsequent games.

Somehow I managed to find a few of the 1970s reprints on eBay.  And then a few more.  And then I discovered a 1930s first edition in a bookshop.  Many months later at significant cost and effort I've accumulated several dozen high quality 1970s reprints and original 1930s editions from booksellers across the US, Canada, England that are now stacked up in my home office. 

I'm going to keep just one of each of the editions.  The rest, I've started giving away as prizes for various IF competitions and to testers of my game The Z-Machine Matter.  Contact me at ZUrlocker via hotmail if you have a competition in need of prizes or if you'd like to test the The Z-Machine Matter. (And yes, there's another new version based on recent alpha feedback.)


Calling All Testers

It's the memorial day weekend bug blasting extravaganza for The Z-Machine Matter. It's a long weekend in the US and UK, so why not spend that time firing up a Glulx interpreter, head down to the Blakely Estate in Cabeza Plana and figure out how famous fusion scientist Paul Panks died.  Was it really an accident at the hands of the Z-Machine fusion generator?  Or was the ruthless Alan Hugo involved? What about his lovely daughter Beverley Hugo?  What is Charlie Tads hiding about the family's past?  Where was Dietrich Plotkin at the time?  And what is Emile Long really doing there?  

If you're at all curious, drop me a line and I'll send you a link to the private Alpha test version.  The game is about 28.32% finished and every beta tester who has sent me feedback has helped make things much better.  In addition to fixing many ambiguity errors, here are just a few samples of commands I've recently incorporated based on Alpha tester feedback




All you need to do is play the game for 30 minutes and run a SCRIPT transcript so I can see what kinds of commands you type in.  Who knows, you may win one of several Dennis Wheatley 1930 crime dossier reprints just for helping out.  Heck, you can even have a beer while doing this.  In return, your name will be added to the list of alpha testers in the game. 

This is my last big push before entering into IntroComp next month, so if you're on the fence now is the time to give it a shot.  And if you've previously contacted me about Alpha testing and have not run the game yet, be sure to get the latest version that incorporates recent improvements.

Thanks everyone!  

Foyle's War


Somehow ITV's brilliant Foyle's War was totally under the radar for me.  I missed it when it was on BBC America but my wife must have caught an episode because the next thing I know we had a box set of DVDs.  ABC's LOST was long gone and so one Sunday evening we dove in.  

If you're a fan of British police procedural novels (or mystery in general) it's a fantastic show.  It's also set in the coastal town of Hastings during World War II which creates a fascinating context.  Many of the stories that are part of the fabric of Foyle's War are true stories that have never been told before. The result is a unique blend of historical fiction, compelling characters, and expert-level whodunit.

Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is played brilliantly by Michael Kitchen as a man who has seen to much in his life, but still believes in doing the right thing, while keeping a stiff upper lip.  Foyle's under-stated character develops over the series as he deals with the British upper class, politicians, criminals and balances that with the legitimate fear he has of his son's active role in the RAF.   

The show ran on ITV for 6 years culiminating in 19 episodes, culminating in a finale that coincided with Victory in Europe.  By popular request, the show was brought back for 3 more episodes immediately following the end of the war.  All of these are now available on DVD via Amazon.  

Now that the series is over, I miss DCS Foyle on Sunday evenings.  And I can't help but wonder what the personal vendetta is that he's dealing with in America.  If you have a theory, please post a comment below.

Trivia:  The name Christopher Foyle was inspired by the late eccentric bookseller Christina Foyle whose recently modernized shop has been a fixture on Charring Cross Road for more than 100 years.  And I'm happy to say it's an awesome bookstore.

LA Noire

LA noire

I don't often get excited about big-budget video games, but Rockstar games' release of L.A. Noire has made me stand up and take notice.  It's of a similar genre as my own IF game The Z-Machine Matter, though obviously with a multi-million dollar production budget and heavier on the noire elements including gruesome serial murders and other violent crimes.  The game appears to lean heavily towards the investigative side of things, rather than the standard first-person shooter action. And of course, there's glorious use of technology to recreate an eight mile landscape of crime-infested Los Angeles of 1947 as well as unique facial motion scan technology that lets you catch every nuance of the actors as they respond to your question and accusations.

The game has been getting excellent reviews from mainstream media including The New York Times and others.  By focusing more on detection and less on action, Rockstar hopes to bring in more casual gamers and fans of traditional detective noire movies and books.  

While it's not exactly Interactive Fiction in the style of The Witness, it's a heckuva a step in the right direction and it should be interesting to see inspires a similar approach from other studios.  The game includes many elements of a traditional IF mystery game from exploring vast regions, discovery of clues & evidence, and interrogating suspects.  Plus it's all wrapped up in a beautifully produced game with great visuals, music and top-notch acting.

Check out the trailer below for a preview of how LA Noire looks.  You can pick it up at Amazon as well as other retail outlets.  

Z-Machine Matter Manual


I've been keeping the manual for The Z-Machine Matter reasonably up-to-date as I alpha test the game to avoid having a mad rush at the end where I need to both be fixing bugs in the code and writing a manual from scratch.  

For those who are curious, I thought I'd post a link to the current manual.  Much like the box shot above, the manual is an homage to Infocom's classic style, providing an overview of IF, some common commands and the lastest Alpha status.  You can view the manual below or download it directly.  I'm looking for testers to help me with a final set of tests before I enter the game into IntroComp, so if you find this interesting and would like to take it out for a spin, by all means, let me know by sending me an email to ZUrlocker via hotmail.  Or post a comment below.  Or tweet me at @ZUrlocker.  


And yes, I still have a few Dennis Wheatley reprints available for the best alpha test feedback.

Update: Thanks also to the current alpha testers.  I've posted an update with several bug fixes.

Recent Alpha Updates

Small Cover

Based on feedback from testers, I've added several new capabilities to The Z-Machine Matter. This includes the previously described Keyword interface to accomodate both objects and locations as well as new commands TOPICS, SUSPECTS, CONFRONT and hopefully elimination of some parser ambiguities.  The game is chugging along now at over 58,000 words, 174 objects and 44 rooms.  With still plenty of work to be done.

Several testers have given me feedback that it's difficult to know what topics are valid for ASK and TELL commands with the non-player characters, so I've implemented a very basic TOPICS command that suggests some topics.  Right now, the TOPICS command is largely (but not completely) static, but over time I'll dynamically suggest topics based on game play to help move things forward.    

I've recently implemented a new command called SUSPECTS that tells you which of the NPCs are suspects.  Both the TOPICS and SUSPECTS commands provide a mechanism to help the player along but fall short of really giving away any significant hints in the game play.  For those who get really stuck, there's always the built-in HELP system.  I figured these new commands are a good way to provide a ramp for players who want a little advice but don't want full-blown hints.

I've also added the ability to accuse a character of lying using commands in the form:

> ACCUSE Beverley of lying
> TELL Charlie he's lying

The logic on how the characters respond depends on what evidence you've uncovered in the game.  Each of the suspects has something they're hiding, and so if you find out what that is, you'll get different answers to some questions.  

I've also expended some efforts to eliminate many of the annoying ambiguities that arise in Inform.  The worst case is when ambiguity arises when you ask about an object and the parser asks if you mean some new undiscovered object.  These messages tend to act as spoilers telling the player about objects they haven't even seen yet.  For example, I have two different newspapers, the San Moreno Informer and the LA Times in different areas of the game.  

Most of the time, it's not a problem, but if you ask someone about newspaper, Inform won't know which one you mean, even if you've not yet encountered one of those objects.  I've eliminated the ambiguity, by implementing several "Does the player mean" rules such as:

[ Disambiguate other newspapers ]

Does the player mean quizzing about the Informer newspaper when last thing examined is the Informer newspaper: it is very likely. 
Does the player mean quizzing about the Informer newspaper when location is not in the Blakely Estate: it is very likely. 
Does the player mean quizzing about the Informer newspaper when it is visible and The Times Newspaper is not visible: it is likely. 

That said, I'm not sure outguessing the parser is always a good idea.  It seems to lead to some occasional odd behavior.  Maybe the best solution may be to just eliminate ambiguously named objects from the get go, but that sometimes leads to awkwardly named objects.  And even though I have two differently named newspapers in different areas of the game, it's entirely reasonable that a player would simply refer to either one as newspaper and expect the game to figure out which one is appropriate.  

Alpha testers, feel free to contact me to get the latest version.  And if someone wants to do a code review to help me that would be awesome!  

Update: Also, if you've contacted me about alpha testing and not gotten a response, please check your spam folder or send me another email.  Thanks!

Keyword Interface, Topics and more


One of the great things about working in Inform7 is the ability to incorporate extensions and code fragments from other authors.  I can't say I always understand exactly how to use these extensions, but for the most part, they work great.  

Above is a screenshot of The Z-Machine Matter running in the Mac Zoom interpreter showing off the use of Aaron Reed's Keyword Interface extension.   The idea is to highlight important objects or locations making it easier for newcomers to know what to interact with. You can also see Eric Eve's Exit Lister extension at the top left of the status area.  

Using extensions is easy.  First include the code in your source:

Section - Extensions 
Include Exit Lister by Eric Eve.        
Include Keyword Interface by Aaron Reed.
Include Menus by Emily Short.     

[ Extensions to help with parsing.  They also make the game larger ]
Include Extended Grammar by Aaron Reed. 
Include Small Kindnesses by Aaron Reed.
Include Smarter Parser by Aaron Reed.
Include Poor Man's Mistype by Aaron Reed.    

Then in the case of Keyword Interface, you just put text format directives [o] [x] to highlight certain objects or [d] [x] for directions or locations.

Section - The Front Hall
[ Beverley meets Dollar in the Front Hall ]

The Front Hall is north of the Front Steps.  "The front hall opens onto a large adobe walled room with a tall ceiling.  To the [north] you can see a [d]hallway[x] running east and beyond that a kitchen area.  There is a spiral staircase that leads up to the second floor.  To the [west] is the [d]hall closet[x].[first time][paragraph break]A beautiful blonde woman in her early twenties greets you.  She has a glass in her hand.  'Hello there...  I'm Beverley Hugo.  You must be Mr Dollar, the insurance investigator the police said would be coming.'[only]"

Understand "hall closet", "closet" as west when location is Front Hall. Understand "hallway" as north when location is Front Hall.  

Understand "upstairs", "stairs", "second floor", "second floor landing" as up when location is front hall.  

Similarly, I've used other extensions like Assumed Conversers by Michael Martin and Menus by Emily Short, and a half dozen others to give The Z-Machine Matter a lot more fit & finish than I could otherwise code on my own.  

One of my Alpha testers suggested implementing a TOPICS command to make it more obvious how to interact with the other characters in the game.  There are full-blown conversation extensions out there, but to keep it simple, I just borrowed a couple of lines of code inspired by Implied Conversers and was able to get something going in under an hour.  How cool is that?

Alpha testers, if you can fire up the latest version that's much appreciated.  It's available at the usual location or let me know via email if you'd like me to send it to you.