Best of 2015

Game of the Year: Her Story

Screenshot of Her Story, showing the main character in a police interrogation room

Sam Barlow's (of Aisle fame) Her Story has already sweeped most of the GOTY awards, and rightfully so.

The gameplay consists solely of searching a database for interrogation film clips and piecing together the full story. It's something that shouldn't work but it does, and it works so well. Even though you could in theory stumble upon the clips in any order, the game manages to direct the player's attention well enough that the whole plot unravels in coherent chunks. I'm hoping this will spawn a whole genre of games with similar gameplay.

Book of the Year: Stand Still. Stay Silent

Stand Still. Stay Silent book cover

This year's book is the print edition of Minna Sundberg's webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world where a virus has wiped out most of the planet's population. Humanity survives only in isolated locations in the Nordic countries; 80% of known survivors live in Iceland that closed its borders before the outbreak reached it.

At times the comic's weak point is the writing, but the setting and stunningly beautiful artwork more than makes up for it. The physical book was crowdfunded and might be hard to come by, but the whole comic can be read at the web site.

Movie of the Year: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens poster

After the disastrous prequels, The Force Awakens is the first real Star Wars movie in 30 years. The plot is a rehash from the original films, but with some clever reversals of some of the tropes.

What makes the film special is that it's replicating the scavenged technology mood of the original films. In the originals everything looks like it's been hand-built from spare parts. In the prequels this angle is completely forgotten and you get aberrations like this silver-plated spaceship:

A silver starship from the Star Wars prequels

In The Force Awakens the scavenging theme is back: you can even see dents and scratches in Kylo Ren's mask. My theory is that paradoxically technology at the turn of the millennium wasn't yet advanced enough to replicate what they did in the 70s with the originals. Similar to how videogame graphics quality took a nosedive in the 90s when the industry started the transition to 3D graphics, there was a period of time when film industry was making use of CGI but it wasn't quite up to the task yet and everything looked plastic and fake. The prequels were made right in the middle of this transition.

Now CGI is good enough to make virtual things that look (almost) indistinguishable from the real things. That allows the filmmakers for example to show both CGI and physical props in the same scene and have both of them look natural. This is, among many other things, a key thing in what makes The Force Awakens a real Star Wars film.

Blog of the Year: Sibyl Moon Games

Logo of the Sibyl Moon Games blog

Carolyn VanEseltine's Sibyl Moon Games covers a variety of topics associated with IF and game design. It is, above anything, practical: it's immensely interesting to read about real life game design instead of just the theory of it.

Many blogs tend to be aimed at either beginners or experts, but there aren't many that focus on the intermediate level. Sibyl Moon hits this sweet spot. The articles are written in a way that anyone with basic background knowledge can understand them, but the topics are usually general enough that they're relevant to a large reader base.

Festival of the Year: Spring Thing 2014

Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction

Moving away from IFComp-style judged competition, Spring Thing is now a festival: entries aren't judged (apart from "best of" ribbons), and there's a "back garden" category that lets authors showcase their work, even if it doesn't quite fit the criteria in the main category. By taking a radically different approach than other traditional competitions, Spring Thing fills a niche that has largely been missing from the community: unjudged game jam type events that encourage experimentation and have a more relaxed feel than strict competitions.

Please excuse the crudity of this model

This is the seventh and last article in the Back to the Future theme week series.

Doc Brown with power cords…I didn't have time to build it to scale or paint it.

To end the Back to the Future theme week, here's a concept of a time travel game I've toyed with on and off for the past five years. It's remarkable because the core mechanics can't be implemented in any of the existing parser IF interpreters, so the Vorple project was started just to make something that could run it.

The demo is completely artificial. It doesn't run on any game engine, only basic JavaScript that animates the elements. While viewing the demo click anywhere to trigger the next turn.

Click here for the Ripple concept demo

There are at least 6 or 7 projects in the pipeline before this one, so it's not realistically going to see the light of day in some while if ever. It also turns out that designing and implementing something like this is really hard in just about every aspect. But it's thematically appropriate, and a neat concept, so here you go.

Doc Brown pointing at an outdoor cinema movie screen that has the Ripple logo on it

This game would require you to think fourth dimensionally.

Feel free to draw inspiration from it as much as you want. Or, in other words, it would be cool if someone else made this because I just really want to play it.

This concludes the Back to the Future theme week. Thanks for reading!

Ex Nihilo

Part of this year's New Year's speed-if event I've released a hypertext story called Ex Nihilo. You may find it interesting.

It's (naturally) Vorple-powered but with a custom engine. It might have been possible to massage Undum into giving the same results, but not without quite a lot of work. Making a simple hypertext engine is not a hard job—the WWW itself is already one big hypertext engine. (Undum's strengths are, among others, ability to save and replay stories, which is a hard job.) Ex Nihilo's custom engine is only about 200 lines of code and mainly takes care of animation effects and deals with nodes in uniform manner.

The source code is available from GitHub, and archivists can download the whole thing from the "zip" link on that page. Playing offline is not possible, you'll get a network error at one point if you don't have a server set up. A text-only Glulx version is also available, but it's severely lacking compared to the real thing so it's not really recommended unless the online version is not accessible.

Starborn: the Vorple edition

A screenshot of the story, showing the story text, the map and the keyword listAlmost one year ago to the date I released Starborn, a short keyword-based scifi story made with Inform 7. Now I'm proud to present an Undum-based version, enhanced with Vorple, of course.

The content is essentially the same. Instead of typing the keywords you click on hyperlinks that are highlighted in the text and shown in a separate list next to the story. A clickable, dynamic map of locations is displayed on the opposite side. There's background music, but sound support is still a bit shaky in some browsers. Internet Explorer 7 or earlier will not work.

It uses the yet-unpublished version 1.2 of Vorple and demonstrates the use of the button interface in the map and in the keyword list, and tooltips that are displayed as brief instructions and as labels for the map. Under the hood it uses disposable links and other similar features. It's also using the IF Recorder plugin, probably the first time for an Undum story.

Undum Cloak of Darkness

I've made an Undum port of Cloak of Darkness. A literal translation of a parser IF game into hypertext fiction doesn't really turn out to be the best game design there is, but it does demonstrate most of Undum's core concepts pretty nicely.

Introducing Vorple

Emily Short and the comrades from People's Republic of Interactive Fiction are hosting a demo fair for user interface and NPC interaction innovations.

Screen shot of Vorple showing a demo game and a balloon tooltip pointing to the input line, instructing the player to type a command

My entry to the fair is Vorple, an interface layer to be integrated with existing web interpreters and an accompanying UI library. It would work together with Parchment, Quixe, Undum, or some other web interpreter or system that would provide the engine running the actual game.

Vorple has two main features: giving games access to JavaScript and Vorple's library, and providing ready-made functions and features that could be easily added to games. For example, an Inform 7 author could do something like this:

After examining the television:

play YouTube video "oHg5SJYRHA0".

To players it would be just like any other web interpreter, but for authors Vorple would provide means to break free from the virtual machine into what is admittedly another sandbox, but one with a lot more possibilities. Authors who want total control could insert JavaScript commands that control the user interface or add whatever JavaScript/HTML elements they wish. People who don't want to mess around with JavaScript could use the ready-made elements and functions like shown above.

The players would benefit of an independent UI layer even if the game author wouldn't use any of Vorple's features. You could use independent JavaScript widgets like notepad or (auto)mapping that would work with every game.

An interesting side effect would be that if Vorple were made to work together with Parchment and Quixe it could act as a general-purpose interpreter like Gargoyle or Zoom, making the difference between Z-machine and Glulx even more invisible to the player.

The features demonstrated at PAX will be:

  • Keeping the transcript clean: hiding error messages and UI hints the next turn, showing meta information (about, credits) in popups
  • Changing the content of previous turns. In the demo you can change temperature and speed units between metric and imperial. Doing so will change the previously displayed units as well.
  • Bubble popup hints, as seen in the screenshot
  • Linking to Twitter
  • Sending commands to the parser from the user interface, either as normal commands, silently, or as partial commands (for example clicking on the word "examine" fills the input line with that word and lets the player to add the noun)
  • Images in different layouts and popups
  • Playing videos (local videos for now because internet access at the demo event might be difficult to come by, but YouTube videos would work just as well)
  • Accessing and displaying the system time (although it's not that amazing anymore now that Glulx supports this)
  • An interactive version of the How to play IF card!
  • + more

This is just a taste of what the library will include. The best part of course is that because the user interface and the game could communicate between each other the author would be free to come up with all sorts of interesting new interfaces and game mechanics outside the standard set of features. For example I had an idea of a time travel game where travelling into the past would actually change the content of previous turns that happened in the future—this would be impossible in any of the current interpreters, but perfectly doable with Vorple.

As said Vorple will be presented at the demo fair at PAX East in Boston this Saturday starting at 8 pm. If you're around come take a look; you won't need a PAX badge. The demo will be posted online later, but I'm travelling during March so it might take a couple of weeks.

Vorple won't be out for some while as it's currently just a bunch of stuff thrown together to demonstrate the basic concept. In the meanwhile you can follow @VorpleIF on Twitter for release announcements and updates on the progress.

Still going strong

You might have heard that Neophyte from In the Company of Grues blog had to drop out from the IF Trainer project at least for a little while because of real life issues. This doesn't mean the project is dead—I'm still working on it and it's going through alpha testing right now.

If you're interested in helping or seeing how it looks like right now you can head to the alpha testing information page and take a look. The project schedule has been pushed forward about a month and I'm hoping to release something in time for PAX Prime at the beginning of September.