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." 

Papers, Please! Now on iPad

Papers please ipad

The brilliant, quirky indie game Papers, Please is now available for iPad. This is an 8-bit retro style simulation where you work as a border control agent in the cold-war era Soviet republic of Arstotzka. If you haven't tried Papers, Please in the original Mac / Windows / Linux versions, this is a great port. The game is still just as creepy as the original. While there's no new content, the touch interface of the iPad works very well in viewing, stamping and passing documents over the counter.

There was a brief flap earlier this week when Apple told indie developer Lucas Pope to remove the nudity from the game (which appears when you use the x-ray machine. But thankfully all of that's been resolved.

Best of all, Papers, Please is on sale this weekend on iTunes for just $5.99.
Glory to Arstotzka!

Z-Machine Interpreter for Android

TextFiction Android

OnyxBits has released a new Android IF interpreter called TextFiction.  While not quite as full-featured as iFrotz on iOS, it looks to do a good job with classic Infocom games using Z3, Z5, Z8 files as well as more modern (and larger) ZBlorb games created with Inform.  It also provides a cool "text message" type of user interface that looks pretty cool.

You can download the app from Google Play or get the source code directly from GitHub.  So if you've got some old Infocom games lying around, or want to investigate modern games written in Inform, TextFiction looks like a good way to bring the games onto Android.  There are plenty of free Interactive Fiction games available on IFDB.

I don't have any Android devices personally, so I've not been able to test it out.  If you're an Android user, let me know how you like TextFiction by posting to the comments below.  


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!


Who Killed John F. Kennedy?


Ever thought about a mashup of Chose Your Own Adventures and Despair Inc's Demotivator posters?  Me neither.  But luckily Justin Sewell, head honcho over at Despair has done just that.  In fact, he's gone one better and tackled one of the greatest conspiracies in modern history with "Who Killed John F. Kennedy?"  It's a modern day parody of those childhood CYOA books complete with feather-haired precocious crime-solving teenagers.  But rather than play it for laughs, Sewell is using his keen wit to question the entire JFK conspiracy and it's theorists.  

In some sense Sewell's book is more like a short-hand version of Oliver Stone's "JFK" film, which was itself largely based on books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs.  If that's tough to follow, then you ain't seen nothing yet.  "Who Killed John F. Kennedy?" will have you jumping between conspiracy theories faster than attendees at an X-Files Lone Gunmen reunion.  Luckily Sewell includes several pages of endnotes which provide details on many of the most glaring aspects of the JFK investigation.  I got the feel the endnotes could have easily been another twenty pages longer had the project gone on much longer.  Sewell has obviously researched the topic thoroughly, perhaps even obsessively.  And given the number of choices that you can make in the book, you'll find yourself captivated for hours as you go down the rabbit hole of grand conspiracy theories.  Sewell doesn't take things too seriously though (Sgt Fanucci anyone?) and some of the theories go beyond over-the-top, if that's possible, involving the CIA, the mob and, of course, Area 51.  

It's a great concept and the retro design style transforms it into a work of art, especially with the larger format "Deluxe-Sized" edition.  For anyone interested in CYOA, conspiracy theories or pushing the boundaries of art and literature "Who Killed John F. Kennedy?" is worth taking a serious look at.  

For those who question whether someone who writes the sarcastic "Demotivator" posters can really step up to a more serious level of work, consider Art Spiegelman's genesis from "Wacky Packages" to "Maus."  It's an apt comparison.  

Note that Despair will also be launching a Kickstarter campaign in September November for the second volume in their "Lose Your Own Adventure" Series called "The Glass Ceiling."  

The Making of Prince of Persia

Making of prince of persia

Jordan Mechner, the game designer behind The Last Express, Prince of Persia and Karateka, has released his design diaries on The Making of Prince of Persia, available on Kindle for $7.99.  

Mechner is also famous creating Karateka and Prince of Persia games on the Apple ][ computer back in the 1980s.  Prince of Persia spawned multiple sequels and remakes over the years as well as a blockbuster Hollywood movie, for which Mechner was a producer and the original screenwriter.  

Here's a behind the scenes video that shows some of the original video footage Mechner shot.

Dan Marlowe's Darkest Noir

Name of the game

I've long been a fan of hardboiled detective stories, whether in fiction, games or movies.  Dan Marlowe is probably high among the ranks of long forgotten noir authors.  I discovered him after a reference by Stephen King in his Hardcase Crime original The Colorado Kid.  Marlowe wrote over 40 books in his career of almost 40 years. 

I read Marlowe's book The Name of the Game is Death on my Kindle and was immediately hooked.  His style is certainly gritty, but it's also gripping. He's not necessarily writing about good guys, either.  His characters can be pretty nasty, but they are not completely without principles.  Marlowe worked as an office manager, bookkeeper, PR agent, salesman, and a gambler before settling in on his career as an author.  He also befriended some pretty unsavory characters including convicted bankrobber-turned-author Al Nussbaum.  In later years, Marlowe actually suffered from one of the biggest noir tropes ever: he had a serious case of Amnesia.  

Many of Marlowe's books have been reissued on the Kindle for around $3, so it's well worth picking up a few. Hardcore noir fans may also enjoy a recent biography about the life of Dan Marlowe called Gunshots in Another Room by Charles Kelly.

The Cabrera Brothers' Cypher

Cypher Feelies

I'll admit, I'm a bit of a sucker for old-school Interactive Fiction.  So I went ahead and bought what looks like a great retro cyberpunk noir game called Cypher by the Cabrera Brothers, two enthusiastic gamers from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I'm not sure when I'm going to have time to play it since I'm already behind a backlog of work, games and real life.  But I thought the web site and game feelies looked so cool, I just had to support their efforts.  Also, it was on sale.

Here's a video the good brothers put together.  


Cypher appears to go beyond the classic Inform-style all-text layout to provide a split screen approach with graphics and sounds that add to the atmosphere.  Some of the press reviews look pretty good, but there's been a lot of questions raised about the grammar and limited capabilities of the homegrown parser.  Lets hope it's not a triumph of style over substance and they put some more polish in those areas with additional updates.  

The Last Express on iOS

Last express

Jordan Mechner's graphic adventure game The Last Express has been ported to iOS and is now available in its full rotoscoped glory for iPhone and iPad.  It's a classic murder mystery set in 1914 at the onset of World War I and takes place on the Orient Express as you travel from Paris to Constantinople.  

The original game took almost five years to create and was widely heralded upon its release in 1997.  Mechner combined Hitchcock-style storytelling in a game that was rich with visuals and had a dramatic background soundtrack.  Unfortunately, The Last Express fell victim of weak marketing and disappeared from site within a year.  Though the game was widely praised, it never got the audience attention it deserved.

Luckily, French gaming company DotEmu has ported The Last Express to iOS and it's available for the bargain price of $4.99 --less than the price of a decent beer in San Francisco and far less than the original PC version.  And considering that The Last Express offers 15-20 hours of game play, it's a steal.  There are 30 different characters in the game ranging from Russian anarchist to British spy, all of whom play a role in a mystery that you have to unravel.  The game takes place more-or-less in realtime, and the outcome depends on timing as much as careful sleuthing.  But don't expect to solve this in one sitting and without getting killed a few times.  Luckily the game has a built in rewind feature as well as multiple levels of hints.  

Despite the fact that The Last Express is fifteen years old, the story remains compelling, much the same way that a classic black & white movie can outshine the latest 3D gimicks from Hollywood.  And even if the game controls are not perfect, I found them easy to use.  The result is an engaging game experience even for those who aren't intrigued by nostalgia. In many ways, The Last Express is Mechner's most dramatic work, and I hope that the rumors of a film adaptation come to fruition.

Mechner is also famous creating Karateka and Prince of Persia games on the Apple ][ computer back in the 1980s.  Prince of Persia spawned multiple sequels and remakes over the years as well as a blockbuster Hollywood movie, for which Mechner was a producer and the original screenwriter.  Mechner published his original design journals as The Making of Prince of Persia, available on Kindle for $7.99.  

Here's the official iOS trailer for The Last Express: