Reviews

Stephen King's 11/22/63

11-22-63

Somehow over memorial day weekend I ended up stuck in Charlotte airport for about 6 hours. Let's just say it wasn't planned and I'm never flying USAir again if I can help it.  But there were two things that made the stay less miserable than it could have been. 

1. They have a Brookwood Farms BBQ restaurant in Terminal B.  (Ok, perhaps not the best by local standards, but coming from California, it was excellent.)

2. I had Stephen King's latest novel "11/22/63" on my Kindle.  

I'm not a huge fan of Horror, so I really am not an expert in Stephen King.  In fact, the only other King books I've read are "The Stand" and "On Writing".  (And I highly recommend both.)

"11/22/63" is a fantastic book.  I won't explain the whole story, but to those unfamiliar with the date, this is a time travel book in which the main character is able to go back in time to the late 1950's to try and prevent John F. Kennedy's assassination.  It's got romance, nostalgia, plot twists, suspense and a bit of blood and gore.  

It's also a helluva compelling story that draws you in one page at a time. I found myself constantly wondering "what would I do?" if I were the main character.  If that's not a testament to powerful writing, I don't know what is.  King brings the whole theme of the march of time and man's destiny into a compelling and occasionally shocking story.

Yes, at 800+ pages it's too long and could use some trimming.  But, I finished this book in 3 days flat and I was literally glued to it.  As with "The Stand" it's an epic novel that keeps you thinking.  

I don't know that time travel always works in fiction (or Interactive Fiction) but it sure works in this case. 


Kickstarter Jumpstarts Retro Adventure Games

Twoguys

With the recent successes of Double Fine and Wasteland 2 on getting multi-million dollar funding on Kickstarter, new graphical adventure games have been popping up on Kickstarter like mushrooms at a Phish concert in Vancouver.  Personally, I think this is hugely interesting.  Not just because oldschool games are being funded, but because Kickstarter has the potential to disrupt the traditional game publisher who serves as a middleman between creative studios and the buying public.  While publisher fulfill a useful role in many cases, they also work as a gatekeeper that makes it hard for more speculative works to see light of day.  With Kickstarter there's the opportunity to promote create projects that are more specialized and might not have mass market appeal.  

Even Forbes commented on this recent trend:

Drawing on the already-participatory relationship between developers and gamers, crowd-funded video games allow fans to become investors in projects they care about from the ground up.

Customers are always “investors” in a sense since their cash determines whether a game will be profitable or not; but with the rise of crowd-funding, that investment begins long before the game is even developed.

I think this also says something about piracy, at least tangentially. Since piracy concerns have led to a new DRM regime and plenty of fan backlash, it’s a good sign that gamers are willing to pony up prior to a game’s actual release. It reveals a level of trust and enthusiasm that may not be present in much of the gaming industry.

Of course, there's plenty of risk associated with Kickstarter.  Maybe these games won't live up to the lofty expectations that have been set.  And maybe the buying audience will tire of funding games 9 months or more in advance of seeing the end product.  It's not exactly a model that delivers instant gratification.  Still I think it's a great way to build a community around a game.  And many of the projects being funded are giving people the opportunity to get a peek behind the scenes with design materials, documentary footage etc.  

Here are a few interesting projects currently seeking funding.  (And yes, I've pledged to several of these.  If someone wants to port Frotz to the Kindle, I'll pitch in on that also.)

Update:
Unfortunately, Rob Swigart's game has been canceled.  But there is a Tex Murphy game in the works that is quite close to fully funded.  Tex Murphy was the star of several breakthrough FMV adventure games including "Under a Killing Moon" and "The Pandora Directive" among others.   


My Top 10 in IF

The_witness

There's a thread on the intfiction forum regarding the creation of a top 50 list for Interactive Fiction.  Ok, fair 'nuff...  I'm in.  I've probably played fewer IF games than many hardcore fans, so I've limited myself to a top 10 list.  It's not the most varied list around, reflecting my own personal bias towards old school Infocom games and mystery stories.  Still, maybe you'll find a few reasons to try out these games on IFDB.

  • The Witness 
    This is my all-time favorite interactive fiction story and really one of the first that I was able to solve without too many hints.  It's definitely old-school with all the good and bad of what was state of the art Infocom in the 1980s. It also included great "feelies" in the package.  My own work-in-progress game "The Z-Machine Matter" has a modest tip of the hat to The Witness and other IF mystery games.    
  • Border Zone
    Another great Infocom title, Border Zone was an espionage story that took place in 3 acts with a real-time clock.  It's tricky, but a fun story where you have to move quickly.  Definitely gets your heart racing!  I was finally able to pick up a copy on eBay many years after having lost my earlier version in misguided spring cleaning years ago.  What memories this game had for me!
  • Trinity
    While I never finished Trinity, I still think it is one of the coolest concepts for a game.  Great historical story telling that goes into a while other level of mythology working on multiple levels.  Also included a very cool comic book and great props.
  • An Act of Murder
    This is a great short "who done it" mystery by Chris Huang.  This was one of the games that got me back into Interactive Fiction after a long absence.  It's very approachable and does a great job of creating a randomized mystery story.  Huang's story is also an inspiration to my own game.
  • Photopia
    While Photopia is more story than game, it's an excellent example of a more experimental style of IF that is actually interesting and moving.  Definitely worth trying out.  Extremely compelling writing.
  • Lord Bellwater's Secret
    This is a short one-room mystery.  While it has some quirks and some puzzles that are not completely logical, it's still a pretty darned good piece of entertainment.  The writing is strong and there's some good surprises for such a tight-knit game.  
  • Spider & Web
    An intriguing piece of IF with some interesting narrative techniques and solid writing by Andrew Plotkin. It might take you a few attempts for the game to pull you in, but once it does, it's a compelling story.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches
    Admittedly, I'm late to this game, trying it for the first time with the recently released Kindle version.  I could use Zoom on my Mac, but I really wanted to see whether IF could work well on the Kindle.  I'm just blown away at what a great job Jimmy Maher has done exploiting the Kindle UI.  This truly captures what an interactive novel should feel like.  Elizabethan stories are not usually my cup of tea, but this is so well done I'm willing to stretch a bit.  If you have a Kindle, how can you not try this out?  

  • Make it Good
    This is the most awesome post-Infocom detective mystery story out there.  It's truly an epic piece of work taking Jon Ingold several years to deliver this story.  But it was worth it.
  • Lost Pig
    Despite the fact that it's not a mystery story, this is a fun game with a helluva great narrative voice.  It's fun, it's entertaining and it's not crazy hard.

IntroComp 2011

IntroComp 2011 is now officially open. This year there are an impressive 13 games entered --more than any prior year.  I don't know that any single factor has led to an increase, but I would imagine it's in part due to the proliferation of good tools (Inform7, TADS, ChoiceScript), excellent documentation (Inform7 book by Aaron Reed, Inform7 for programmersInform7 Cheat Sheet) and the release of the Get Lamp documentary last year.  

But whatever the reason, it's definitely a bumper crop of games of various genres including Science Fiction, Mystery and Speculative Fiction:

  • Bender, by Katz
  • Choice of the Petal Throne, by Danielle Goudeau
  • Choice of Zombies, by Heather Albano
  • Chunky Blues, by Scott Hammack and Jessamin Yu
  • The Despondency Index, by Ed Blair
  • Exile, by SimonGargoyle, by Simon
  • Of Pots and Mushrooms, by Devi and Maya
  • Parthenon, by Charles Wickersham
  • Seasons, by MT
  • Speculative Fiction, by Thomas Mack
  • Stalling for Time, by Dominic Delabruere
  • The Z-Machine Matter, by Zack Urlocker

I hope many readers of this blog will try out some of the IntroComp games and give the authors encouragement to complete their projects. Note that the voting deadline is July 17.  Some reviews are already popping up on the intraweb and I hope more will follow.

As proud as I am of getting my own Infocom-inspired cold-war murder mystery The Z-Machine Matter into the competition, I'm equally proud to be among so many new authors this year.  While I can't vote in the competition, I will be trying out some of the games. And for those who are interested to see the state of the art among new authors, I encourage you to check out many of these games.


Review: Photopia

Photopia
 

Photopia is really more of a story than a game. It's interesting and it's compelling, but if you're looking for traditional IF gameplay, this might not be your cup of tea.  There are no puzzles and not even many choices to be made.  But when it all comes together, it works like a well-written short story.  And you're gonna have an emotional reaction that you might not have expected.  

Photopia definitely pushes the boundary of story-telling in a way that few could have predicted when Interactive Fiction was first introduced.  In fact, I would say Photopia is best viewed as an experimental work whose impact is found in later works of IF by Cadre and others.

"Photopia" was written by Adam Cadre using Inform 6. It took 1st Place in the 1998 IF Comp and ushered in a new style of creative story telling. You can download this game directly from IFDB and it's playable using any standard Z-Machine interpreter on Windows, iPhone, iPad etc.

This review was originally published at the IFDB.  Links below provide more information.


Review: Lord Bellwater's Secret

Lord
 

Lord Bellwater's Secret is a well-crafted single room mystery in a historical setting. The mood and style are nicely conveyed with excellent writing that sets the stage and provides the right motivation for the character.

Despite the seeming simplicity, I was definitely stumped on a couple of verb / parser issues that sent me to the built-in hints. The hints are well-done and thorough, but it made me feel like this was more of a "dig for clues" kind of puzzle than something that could be logically deduced like "An Act of Murder". Some of the puzzles had a laborious feel to them. But the story is good and the writing always pays back your efforts as the story proceeds.

There's quite a good drama that unfolds and the ending was tense and exciting. It got my heart racing! I hope the author will continue with more Interactive Fiction in the mystery genre.

"Lord Bellwater's Secret" was written by Sam Gordon using Inform 7. It took 3rd place in the 2007 IF Comp. You can download this game directly from IFDB and it's playable using any standard Z-Machine interpreter on Windows, iPhone, iPad etc.

This review was originally published at the IFDB.  Links below provide more information.


Review: An Act of Murder

Actofmurder
 

This is a great, short piece of mystery. It's the classic "locked house, dead body, 5 suspects" genre of murder mystery done in an Infocom style --complete with Sgt Duffy.

For me, just coming back to the genre after many years, this was a great intro. It's got a simple map with around 10 location, not too many objects, some modest red herrings and a good *logical* story.

Not to mention that, if you do get stuck, there are built-in clues. All this makes for a good easy game for newcomers also.The actual who/how/motives are randomized, so there's some replay value, though some of the fun is really in the first time.

"An Act of Murder" was written by Christopher Huang using Inform 7.  It took 2nd Place in the 2007 IF Comp. You can download this game directly from IFDB and it's playable using any standard Z-Machine interpreter on Windows, iPhone, iPad etc.

This review was originally published at the IFDB.  Links below provide more information.


Review: The Witness

Witness_box
 

The Witness was one of Infocom's early games, following in the footsteps of Zork and the earlier mystery Deadline. Given Deadline's reputation for being quite difficult, some might find Witness too easy. I thought it was a good game with quite a few interesting twists. It's your basic murder mystery with several suspects, some interesting clues and a few red herrings. There are a few things that need to be pieced together and sometimes you have to wait for someone or something to happen. Still, I admit I was tempted by the InvisiClues! In case it's not clear, the inspiration for the title is that you're the witness to a murder that you then need to solve.

Given the relatively primitive state of computers back in 1983 when The Witness was written, it's an impressive game. Maybe by modern standards, it's a little sparse. Back then, Infocom games clocked in at 64k for standard games and 128k for the largest, so there isn't a lot of verbose writing. As a result the number of rooms, people and objects is limited. Still, Stu Galley does a good job of capturing the "hard-boiled" detective feel of '30s pulp-era fiction even if it's more of a novella than a full blown novel. Still, Witness and Stu Galley's later games defined the golden age of Interactive Fiction that inspired many more authors to come.

This game is available as part of the Lost Treasures of Infocom series. If you like mysteries, you should seek this one out. The "feelies" in the original game are quite cool including a telegram, suicide note, "Detective Gazette" a matchbook with a phone number and more. You can also find versions of the InvisiClues for download at http://www.waitingforgo.com/invisiclues/main.html

Witness_feelies
 

"The Witness" was written by Stu Galley of Infocom in 1983 using ZIL. It is part of the "Lost Treasures of Infocom" and "Classic Masterpieces" collections published by Activision in the 1990s.  

This review was originally published at the IFDB.  Links below provide more information.
If you have a copy of The Witness or other Infocom games you would like to donate, please let me know.