Eaten By A Grue

Eaten by a grue

If you have any interest in the classic Infocom Interactive Fiction games of the 80s, you should check out the wonderful podcast "Eaten by a Grue" where computer historians Kay Savetz and Carrington Vanston make their way through every Infocom game ever made. It's a fun show, with plenty of insightful analysis, witty banter and hints well covered by spoiler fences.  There's also a great interview with master game designer Steve Meretzky and also reviews of post-Infocom games that came out of the IF community. 

I hope they'll give Chris Huang's An Act of Murder a try! 

I'm almost tempted to fire up Inform7 and get back to work on my long-stalled game The Z-Machine Matter. Or maybe I should get back to work on the sequel to my novel "The Man from Mittelwerk." 

The NaNoWriMo Marathon


This year, I was fortunate to be able to participate in National Novel writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The idea behind the Z-Machine Matter started as an interactive fiction game I prototyped and has been kicking around for a couple of years getting scant attention. I knew there was a good story to be written, but I just never seemed to have the time to focus on it. This year I was had the time and the inclination.

This was my first NaNoWriMo, but I was not going in unprepared. I had a set of characters, and the basics of a noir murder mystery story crystal clear in my foggy optimist mind. Nonetheless, I spent much of October writing detailed character backgrounds as well as rough outline of the beats in the story, using a three-act structure.

I had previously spent a lot of time researching the time frame of the story (coldwar era 1950) and some of the events of that time, specifically the arrest of Russian atomic spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and David Greenglass. And as anyone who has fallen into the wikipedia rabbit hole, I did extensive research into a few related areas such as Operation Paperclip (the recruitment of German scientists by the US Army in 1945) and the Venona Project (MI5 and the FBI's joint cooperation to decrypt top-secret Russian cables). Of course, research can easily become a distraction from writing, but I was glad I had done this work previously.  

Z-machine matter wordcount graph 11-28So a few observations on NaNoWriMo... First of all: it works! Yes, there's something to making a commitment to write 50,000 words in a month and then just getting up and writing every frigging day. While I believe only a small percentage of people who sign up for NaNoWriMo hit the 50,000 word target, every writer can benefit from the discipline of writing every day.

The NaNoWriMo approach is based on the idea of just writing for 30 days and not worrying about editing until later. While some might say this puts too much emphasis on quantity as opposed to quality, I think it does serve to help you build momentum. Writing and editing are two different things and for many beginning writers, it's better to just get the words down on paper and worry about making them perfect later on.

However, I think it's also important to note, there's no way I could have written 50,000 words without a solid understanding of my characters and a decent outline. Yes, the story deviates slightly from what I planned, but for the most part the outline worked. And it made it much easier for me to just focus on writing scenes. When I did run into problems in week three, it was because the later sections of my outline were too vague. I wrote every day except for Thanksgiving and even then it was only because I was flat on my back sick with a stomach virus.

Z-machine matter twitter horowotizThere's also a sense of community from having several hundred thousand word nerds working in solitude together for a month. There's some nice #NaNoWriMo camaraderie on Twitter. Heck, I even got a shout out from my favorite author Anthony Horowitz

So what's next?

The story is roughly 54,000 words at this point. And while it is complete, I think it is probably about 10-15k too short. I expect that I can make some of that up during editing. There's a subplot around a historical document that needs shoring up and I can imagine that taking at least 5,000 words. And some sections are probably heavy on dialog and short on descriptions. I'd also like to add some historical documents (newspapers, letters, diaries, journals, telegrams) to the book. 

My expectation is that it will take at least three rounds of editing to complete this story and I'll need an outside editor to help in some areas. My friend Tal tells me he basically re-wrote his book The Punch Escrow three times during editing before it was finished. 

And of course there's the whole debate about traditional publishing versus self-publishing as well as various hybrid models that I will need to research. I would love to get input from other authors who have successfully pursued these options. Feel free to leave comments below or otherwise get in touch with me.

Chris Huang's Peterkins Game

Peterkins game 2

Noted IF author Chris Huang is back in action with a short piece of IF called "Mustard, Music and Murder."  Though the title seems a bit eccentric, maybe that's the point. This is a tie-in with Huang's golden age detective novel "Murder at the Veteran's Club" which is available for pre-order at Inkshares. Although I expect this game to be shorter than his previous murder mystery "An Act of Murder", I'm sure it will be a lot of fun. 

"Murder at the Veteran's Club" is published via InkShares and is at the half-way point of achieving it's pre-order goal. For $10 you get the book and help an author who has contributed so much to IF. Heck if you're a first time buyer at Inkshares, you can even get $5 off. I hope many IF fans will step up and support this creative project. Don't just tweet it, buy it.

You can get regular updates at Chris's blog.

Camouflaj République Available on iOS


One of the hottest games funded on Kickstarter, Camouflaj République, is also one of the first to be released.  While not exactly ahead of schedule, the game is coming out for iOS on Dec 19, ahead of some other high profile Kickstarter games that were launched earlier including DoubleFine's Broken Age, Jane Jensen's Moebius, Tex Murphy Project Fedora, Two Guys Space Venture etc.  Even Andrew Plotkin's interactive fiction game Hadean Lands has past three years of development. I've funded all of these and I'll I've seen so far is email. 

République will have five episodes on iOS, each costing $5.  Or you can get the season pass for $15.  That may be a lot for an iOS game, but it's a bargain compared to what AAA games cost on xBox or PS4. 

It's no doubt ironic that the game that nearly didn't get funded is the first out of the gate. Unity can chalk up another big win with this game.  Remember folks, shipping is a feature!

So far I've just had a couple of hours to put Republique through it's paces, but so fa the game is great.  It's especially well designed for those who are not hard-core gamers; the controls are simple and the least frustrating I've seen in ages.  I've added a few links to reviews and will follow up with another story in the coming weeks.

Here's the launch trailer:

Papers, Please!

  Papers Please screenshot

Papers, Please is a brilliant retro-style simulation of working as a border control agent in the mythical cold war soviet republic of Arstotzka.  I say simulation, because it is definitely more that than game.  Some of what "Papers, Please" simulates is the pure drudgery of having a job where all day long you verify passports photos and entry cards, check for expired dates and generally make sure people are who they say they are.  If you do all that you'll earn a few ruples per day and maybe prevent your family from starving, shivvering or dieing.  But you'll have to be pretty sharp about it.  

Clearly, author Lukas Pope has put a lot of thought into creating a balance between tension and tedium in this simulation.  People's lives hang in the balance and there's a growing background story of corruption and underground scheming.  But I think there is perhaps a bit too much drudgery and it would be nice if there was somehow a way to put a bit more gamesmanship into it, or at least a few concessions to enabling the player to feel more of the tension.  A better soundtrack could help convey the need for speed, the tension of incorrect decisions, etc.  As an illustration, I can still recall the sad sack theme in SimCity when I was making bad decisions.  That helped set a mood that was quite important to conveying how you were doing over and above any of the regular stats.

Maybe I'm just not that good as a border control agent, but I could not seem to keep my job long enough to get to the heart of the story underlying the simulation.  There's some kind of shady underground organization and I had a couple of interactions in that area, but if it means starting all over again to replay the same scenarios just to try to make slightly better decisions, that's a lot to ask. 

If Lukas Pope considers an iPad version or an update, I hope he'll also think about other ways to better surface the story elements, have more random replay or otherwise consider the option of an "easy" mode.  "Papers, Please" has the potential to be as engaging as the original versions of SimCity, but for now it falls shy of that mark.  

Nonetheless, for a mere $10, "Papers, Please" is still worthwhile, and I hope this will encourage more experimentation around the fringes of gaming.  The artwork is a beautiful homage to classic '80s VGA style games with their weird washed out palate and chunky graphics, the theme song is fantastic and the game exudes indie charm.  "Papers, Please" is available for Mac and Windows directly from the publisher, on and via Steam.  

Glory to Arstotzka!


Theme from Lovecraft


I've finally got some time to devote to my game The Z-Machine Matter. But rather than dive immediately back into programming, I have been working on tightening up the story.  It's a murder mystery, so the most important thing is to make sure that the suspects, motivations, clues and red herrings all fit together in a cohesive fashion.  No point programming up a bunch of interesting objects if the underlying story doesn't make sense.  

I've also been working on the underlying themes. One area that I've lifted from is the works of HP Lovecraft.  The story is more murder mystery than horror and is set in cold-war era 1950s.  However, it does tie into some interesting themes of Cosmicism as explored in many of Lovecraft's works and makes reference to the fictional town of Arkham Masschussetts and Miskatonic University.

For those seeking a more complete Lovecraft interactive fiction game, there are a good many to choose from including Infocom's The Lurking Horror, Michael Gentry's award-winning Anchorhead, Jimmy Maher's The King of Shreds and Patches, and a recent trilogy of shorter works by Marshal Tenner WinterThe Surprising Case of Brian Timmons, Ill Wind, and Castronegro Blues.

Using Scrivener for IF

Scrivener Z-Machine

Although I managed to get my game The Z-Machine Matter to a intro-level prototype stage a while back, I realized I needed to take a different approach for the next stage of implementation.  I realized I need to take a step back from the mechanics and programming and focus more on the characters and story.  Maybe better IF writers can mix and match plot and character development while coding in Inform7, but I found I needed to get out of programming mode in order to focus on the story.

The Z-Machine Matter is an old-school murder mystery --an homage to Infocom's "Witness" and "Deadline" among others.  The classic "cozy" murder mystery has more structure to it than the average novel and for that reason, I believe it lends itself quite nicely to IF.  To make the story work, you've got to haveclear motives for each of the characters, the requisite means & opportunity, evidence, alibis, clues and, of course, a few red herrings to keep the reader guessing.  Scrivener makes it easy to define templates that encourage a consistency and thoroughness when you define characters, locations, puzzles and so on.  The templates are flexible though, so you're not locked into them. 

Although there's nothing I've written using Scrivener that couldn't be written with Microsoft Word or even a generic text editor, I have found that Scrivener's structured approach and tools lend itself to what is needed in defining the key characters, puzzles that are so important in IF.  While it's relatively easy to get started with Scrivener, there's a richness (and complexity) to it with plenty of menus, submenus, obscure icons and advanced features.  The good news is, you can safely ignore most of these bells & whistles and just focus on the things that matter in your story.

Scrivener is available for Mac and Windows for $45 with an iPad version in development.  However, I found the tutorial to be overly quirky and completely inadequate.  So I highly recommend the eBook Writing a Novel with Scrivener by David Hewson which can give you an easier introduction to writing a complex work of fiction with Scrivener for just another $6.  Hewson also makes available a free Scrivener template for novel writing which is a good starting point for creating your own template for Interactive Fiction.

If you've used Scrivener or other tools for writing IF, please let me know your thoughts by adding a comment below.

Double Fine Cracks $2m on Kickstarter


A few weeks back, game studio Double Fine Productions posted a Kickstarter project to raise money to develop a new graphic point & click adventure game.  Within 8 hours the project was fully funded at the original goal of $400,000.  And by the end of the day, the project hit the $1m mark to become Kickstarter's fastest funded project ever.  Last week it cracked the $2m threshold --and there are still two weeks to go.  As a result of coming in over budget, Double Fine has committed to delivering more local language editions (French, Italian, German, Spanish), more platforms and more rewards for the backers.

If you're a cheapskate, $15 will get you a DRM-free digital download of the game for Mac, Windows, Linux, Android and iOS.  Or you can step up to $30 and also get the soundtrack and documentary video.  $60 will get you a PDF 100+ design book and $100 will get you special edition packaging and poster, along with DVD or Blu Ray disks.  Beyond that, there are donation levels from $250 up to several thousand dollars.  

Double Fine has posted a great video interview between Tim Schafer (Maniac Mansion:Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Brütal Legend) and Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, The Secret of Monkey Island) where they talk about the history and challenges of creating great adventure games.

Congrats to the Double Fine team and all the backers for making this happen. I hope you'll join me and back this great project.

Adding a Clues command


Most of my effort on The Z-Machine Matter has been spent on cleaning up the writing and incorporating feedback from IntroComp.  But last weekend, I had an idea and decided to implement a new feature.  Since part of the game involves finding clues, I thought it might be worthwhile to have a command CLUES that tells the player how many items there are still to find in the current location.  For newbie players, this would enable them to get some idea on where to focus their efforts without resorting to the full built-in HELP system.  I also implemented a change to the status line so that the current location includes a * to indicate that there are items to find.  

While not a particularly complicated piece of code, as with most of my work with Inform7, it took several failed attempts to figure out a way to implement this.  I'm sure it's not the prettiest code, but it works.

For each room, I create a list called discoveries that includes all of the interesting objects that are hidden in that room.  It might be something on a book case, in a locked drawer etc.  

[ Each room has its own potential discoveries. ] 

A room has a list of things called discoveries. 
[ Set up interesting clues for each room ]

When play begins:
    now the left hand status line is "Hotel Room *"; 
    now discoveries of Hotel Room is {gun, bible, postcard};
    now discoveries of Hotel Bathroom is {matchbook}.

Then whenever an object is examined or taken, I check if it's in the discoveries list and remove it.  

Carry out examining something (called the item):
    now the item is found;
    if item is listed in discoveries of location:
        remove item from discoveries of location.

[ Taking something also makes it found ]
Carry out taking something (called the item):
    now the item is found;
    if item is listed in discoveries of location:
        remove item from discoveries of location.


And then every turn, I check if there's a need to update the * on the status line.  

[ Check the status line after every turn. Show a * if there are undiscovered items.  Avoid flicker if nothing has changed. ]
Every turn:
    if discoveries of location is empty:
        if last status location is not "[the player's surroundings] ":
            now the left hand status line is "[the player's surroundings] ";
            if last status location is not "[the player's surroundings] *":
                 now the left hand status line is "[the player's surroundings] *". 

And finally, here's the code for the Clues command.

Understand "clues" or "clue" as asking for clues.
Asking for clues is an action out of world.

Carry out asking for clues:
let L be discoveries of location;
let N be the number of entries in L;
if L is empty:
    say "You've found all the items in the [location].";
    if N is 1:
        say "There is 1 item left to find in the [location].";
        say "There are [N] items left to find in the [location].";

I've also posted a short Inform7 project you can download if you want to try it out yourself. It's a plain text file, so it might be easiest to cut & paste this into the Inform7 IDE.

Slow Progress


As cynics may have predicted, progress on The Z-Machine Matter has slowed to a crawl since IntroComp.  I've been in a new job for some months and the workload continues to increase.  I love my job, so that's not going to change any time soon.  I've given up exercise for the most part, and my guitar playing is suffering.  But I still haven't found much time for programming.  

Still I managed to get in a couple of hours of editing this past weekend to focus on improving the writing in the game.  Seems to me I have to make some big improvements in that area before worrying about finishing the game. I will keep at this as long as I can, but I'm hoping that over Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays I might get some more time. 

Otherwise, I'm open to ideas...