A (Moon)Missed Opportunity

In the pantheon of game developers specialising in text adventures back in the golden age of the genre, Infocom’s name looms large, and with good reason. By heavily pushing the line that their products are “Interactive Fiction” – and going out of their way to cover a range of genres from classic videogame fare like SF/fantasy to less traditional subject matter for games, they not only presented their products as refined pursuits for elite gamers who are too good for games which involve hand/eye co-ordination or actual game mechanics, but they arguably also set the tone for the IF fan community who beaver away producing new games to this day.

The “Interactive Fiction” label is still used by those who want to hype up the artistic potential of the medium or who otherwise find “text adventure” to be an embarrassing term – something which rather bugs me, since I think the more effort you put in to make the things you like seem less embarrassing to others, the more obvious it is that you are a bit embarrassed of them, and therefore the more embarrassing it seems. (To take an example from a very different field, the famed Gimp Man of Essex seems to be mostly regarded as a national treasure rather than a weird pervert, largely because he’s very casual about it and doesn’t go out of his way to make it weird; if he acted all embarrassed about his activities then I think he’d have a much more negative reception.)

Another beef I have with the term “Interactive Fiction” is that it’s horribly imprecise. Any videogame with a plot is interactive fiction. A gamebook is interactive fiction. A pantomime is arguably interactive fiction, at least in the sense that the characters acknowledge the audience and respond to their calls. Lots of stuff is a) clearly presenting fiction and b) clearly offering interactivity of some form. “Text adventure” pins down the medium far more precisely, and if it’s got some embarrassing and unfortunate associations you do the work to decouple it from those associations and promote text adventures which don’t go there, you don’t make up a new word for the stuff you are doing to try and set up some sort of elite divide between the text adventures you approve of and the ones you disapprove of.

More positively, the Inform family of languages, which are probably the most common ones used in the field, were developed to let home coders produce games that would run on Infocom’s Z-machine – a virtual machine which lets Infocom games be played on any computer system with a suitable interpreter.

Infocom’s development of the Z-machine is a happy historical accident which has been a real boon to the modern-day text adventure community. Infocom, it should be remembered, were operating at a time before personal computer architectures and operating systems had ossified into the major standards we have these days. By writing their games for the Z-machine, Infocom effectively only had to write each game once – then all they had to do was make a Z-machine interpreter for whichever computer platform they wanted to publish for, and then they could put out all of their games on that platform, which is obviously massively cheaper than having to rewrite each game for each operating system you want to adapt it to. (It even led to major price savings when it came to the packaging – Infocom games of the classic era came out in the same box with the same handouts and inserts for all platforms, and they’d just stick the appropriate disk or cassette tape in the box and put a sticker on the front specifying which operating system the contents worked on.)

This, of course, has also been very helpful when it comes to running classic Infocom text adventures and brand new Inform-based homebrews on modern computers, because the exact same task applies: simply write a Z-machine interpreter for whatever new platform comes out, and then once you have that working everything written in Inform or by Infocom can be played on that platform.

The fan community has also followed Infocom’s lead in recognising that there’s two things which are really key to a good text adventure: an interpreter which is easy to engage with and can understand a broad range of commands, and really solid writing. (After all, if the sole means a game has of delivering content consists of text, it may as well be really nicely polished text that is a pleasure to read.)

It’s fair to say, then, that whilst the homebrew adventure game scene has made some very important contributions to the genre – making a range of interpreters for running new and old text adventures on modern computers, smartphones, and more or less anything with a computer chip in it, as well as expanding the versatility and hence the user-friendliness of interpreters by widely expanding the range of verbs understood – they’re very much standing on the shoulders of giants, and Infocom is by far the largest giant. Usually, I would say that this position is well-earned; of the 1980s-era text adventures I have played, Infocom ones have almost always had the richest and most flavourful prose, the most forgiving and user-friendly parsers, and the most interesting stories and puzzles.

There are, of course, exceptions…

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All The World’s a Text Adventure, and All the Men and Women Merely Players…

It’s January 1603, and it’s a Plague year in London. You are struggling printer Richard Fletcher, and you receive an invitation to dinner with an old friend of yours, John Croft. After you arrive at Croft’s home, however, you find all is not well – and it stems from Croft’s relationship with Christopher Marlowe and a curious unfinished Marlowe play that Croft had been trying to complete with help from William Shakespeare, entitled The King In Yellowe

Adapted by Jimmy Maher from a Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG scenario by Justin Tynes (the original adventure was published in Strange Aeons, a set of scenarios set in time periods not typically addressed by the game), The King of Shreds and Patches is a remarkably accomplished text adventure, with several important strengths. The first is the extremely high standard of writing; the descriptions are vivid but also to-the-point, and usually succeed at making sure that important matters are highlighted. More or less anything which the text draws your attention to in the area descriptions is something that can be usefully examined, for instance, and each and every description contributes something to the atmosphere.

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Mini-Review: Hotline Miami

Steeped in the 80s-retro aesthetic of its soundtrack (including synthwave leading light Perturbator), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and other manifestations of 80s nostalgia (there’s even cathode ray interference lines over all the graphics), Hotline Miami is a viscerally enjoyable and infuriating slaughter simulator that takes fairly simple principles of play and comes up with a delightful range of challenges based around them. You play an anonymous schlub in a Drive-esque Letterman jacket who gets mysterious phone calls euphemistically instructing them to go to a designated location and murder everyone there – but you’re just as fragile as the various gangsters you fight, so one hit will kill you. Stealth, speed and strategy are therefore your friends; guns are handy but are loud and will bring enemies running and have limited ammunition, whilst melee weapons tend to require you to take the risk of getting up close and personal (though nicely you can throw them too, leaving yourself unarmed) but are nice and quiet.

With a simple top-down presentation and controls (mouse does attacks and facing, arrow keys move), the game is nice and easy to get into but quickly reveals hidden depths. On your crime sprees you wear various animal masks which each have their distinct powers, and selecting the right mask for a job can be a significant tactical choice. The masks also seem to have a bit of a life of their own, confronting the anonymous protagonist in dream sequences between parts of the game, and then there’s the question of who’s setting all of this up in the first place, which is explored down two different timelines…

That said, the game isn’t without issues. The depiction of women is glibly fetishistic, with the protagonist getting an implied lover as a prize on one level and then her getting fridged later on for a cheap extra twist of the knife. There’s also a rather simplistic and cartoonish take on race, where for much of the game the only significant people of colour represented are “big black bruiser” archetypes. It is, in short, about as problematic and glib as much of its source material, which at best amounts to putting fidelity to that above the obligation to improve on one’s inspirations.

In addition, the comparative lack of a conventional mid-level saving process can make the game frustrating at points – though on the other hand this does tend to encourage you to experiment a bit with your tactics rather than constantly trying to get one fiddly bit just right, so I’m hesitant about declaring that an outright flaw. Overall, Hotline Miami is a charming, brief little piece which doesn’t outstay its welcome and offers ample replay value in terms of trying different ways of gruesomely murdering dozens of people.

Piercing the Veil

It’s 1924. Edward Pierce came back from World War I, the last survivor of the Lost Batallion, with a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes a drinking problem that’s well on the way to destroying him. He’s set himself up as a private detective, since that’s a profession where there’s a certain acceptance that people will get plastered and fall asleep on their office couch from time to time – but that hasn’t stopped him being assailed by bizarre dreams.

Then it comes – the big case. Specifically, it’s the case of one Sarah Hawkins – a gifted artist famous for her macabre, surreal works. Sarah had married Charles Hawkins and moved into his mansion on Darkwater, a lonely island off the coast of Boston, and was apparently happy enough turning out additional work and being a parent to her and Charles’ little boy. Then a terrible fire broke out in the mansion, and all three were reported dead.

Sarah’s dad, however, smells a big fat rat. For one thing, very shortly before the fire Sarah had arranged to send him a painting – one suggesting that she was feeling threatened. And the police report has these odd inconsistencies – like how they go out of their way to insist that Sarah was mentally unbalanced but also that the fire was an accident. (If it were entirely accidental, why would they comment on her mental state at all?) Sarah’s father is convinced that the official report is at best bungled, at worst a cover-up, and hires Pierce to go to Darkwater, uncover the truth, and thereby salvage Sarah’s reputation.

At Darkwater, Pierce finds that Prohibition is being openly flouted, a gang of bootleggers is occupying the main town, and the locals are feeling surly and demoralised. Once upon a time Darkwater was a major whaling centre, but these days it’s slim pickings out there – almost like the whales have been consumed or driven away by some apex predator. It’s not like it was back in 1847, when the celebrated Miraculous Catch saved the island from famine and made the fortunes of the major local families. All interesting, all apparently disconnected from the Hawkins case… but as Pierce investigates, he discovers that Charles Hawkins had a very special interest in the Miraculous Catch legend indeed – and, more particularly, the deity the islanders thank for the Miraculous Catch… whose call resounds in the dreams of Darkwater’s inhabitants, inspired Sarah’s talents, and provides the game with its title.

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(Mythos) Monster In My Pocket!

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

As I detailed in part 1 of my epic 2-part Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstopper article, there’s a new regime in place at decades-old game company Chaosium and they’re doing their best to turn the company around. One of the new projects to emerge under the new regime is Cthulhu Chronicles, a mobile game developed by MetaArcade under licence.

In terms of its format, Cthulhu Chronicles is basically an extremely cheaply-produced visual novel – the artwork being either recycled from existing Chaosium resources or derived from public domain photographs from the 1920s (which can occasionally throw the player if you recognise that, say, Charles Fort has been cast as a prominent character). You pick your character who has a Health score measuring how much punishment they can take before expiring, a Sanity score detailing how much their mental stability can be shaken before they are unable to cope, and three basic skills to cover all areas of human activity – Athleticism for physical stuff, Intelligence for mental stuff, and the highly misleadingly-named Appearance for social stuff. When attempting something challenging you can be obliged to make a roll against Athleticism, Intelligence, Appearance, or occasionally Sanity, with your odds of success being based in part on your score in those attributes and in part on the difficulty of the test.

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GOGathon: What a Lovely Thing I’ve Seen In the Black Mirror!

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The curiously-named Black Mirror Castle – nothing to do with the Charlie Brooker TV series, don’t get confused – is the ancestral home of the Gordon family. It’s so named because legend has it that the castle was built over a portal to Hell by Mordred Gordon, tyrant and diabolist, before Mordred was defeated in a confrontation with his brother Marcus back in the 13th Century.

Closer to the present day – internal evidence suggests that the action of the game takes place in the mid-1980s – and the castle’s present owner, the elderly William Gordon, is up late writing to Samuel Gordon, who left the castle and the family circle a long while ago in order to deal with his grief after his wife died in a fire at the castle. You see, William has discovered some important things about the Gordon family line, matters which Samuel must be made aware of – but before William can send his letter, a mysterious intruder flings him out of the lonely tower in which his study is located. Thus, Samuel does return to Black Mirror – albeit not at William’s summons, but to attend his funeral. Taking control of Samuel, your task is to guide him through his investigation – first of William’s death, then of the matters William had uncovered – in order to finally face the truth about your family.

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The Sega Mascot History Tour

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

People have given a lot of stick to AtGames’ recent Sega Mega Drive Flashback HD model. AtGames have produced emulation-driven handheld and TV-hookup consoles under licence from Sega for a while now, and the most recent Flashback which hooks up to your TV with an HDMI cable to allow for mild upscaling to 720p quality has come in for a barrage of criticism. AtGames claimed that the bad early reviewers were down to a bad production batch and the issues were corrected in the retail version; since the product is pretty cheap and cheerful I decided to give it a go and I’m actually inclined to believe them. I can spot small but important distinctions between the menu presentation on mine and in the reviews, for instance, which suggests that these got an urgent firmware update.

Yes, there’s a bunch of shovelware non-Mega Drive games on here which AtGames could have happily left off without complaints from everyone, and yes the main menu system is a bit off – but Sonic the Hedgehog feels like it plays like it always did for me, and the controller feels close enough to my recollections of the Mega Drive controller that I have no complaints there (though I didn’t have a Mega Drive myself – ours was a SNES house, I only occasionally got to play with friends’ Sega consoles). I hadn’t noticed either the wireless controller lag or the emulation issues others have flagged, and I suspect part of the enduring animosity towards the product hails from the fact that emulation geeks can get incredibly fussy about stuff like dropped frames which no human being would actually notice by themselves unless you drew attention to them or analysed the output from the emulator.

In general, the box feels like it accomplishes what these retro consoles are supposed to accomplish – giving you the experience of playing a cross-section of classic games from the console in question, in something which feels like the original hardware without taking up a bunch of space with a stack of cartridges. (That said, a nice touch is the inclusion of a cartridge slot, which means that many – but not all – Mega Drive cartridges can work on the system.)

One of the nice things about Sega was that they were a bit friendlier about backwards compatibility – one of the first peripherals they put out for the Mega Drive (and perhaps one of the few which actually constituted a good idea) was an adapter that let you play Master System games on it, and because the Game Gear shared enough of its guts with the Master System that it could run its games, some Game Gear titles are included here too. That’s a really nice touch – in particular, it’s nice to have a collection with all four of the original Phantasy Star games in the first place. (Though Sega have put out numerous compilations of their games over the years, many irritatingly don’t include the full run of Phantasy Star I to IV.)

There’s some frankly odd gaps in the collection – why include Sonic & Knuckles without also including Sonic 3? Why leave out Alex Kidd In Shinobi World when it was considered to be one of the better Alex Kidd games? Still, there’s enough here that you can actually use the flashback to explore a fascinating cross-section of Sega’s history – and in particular, their multiple attempts at producing a corporate mascot who could compete with a certain rotund plumber who was drawing lots of dimes for Nintendo at the time.

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