Twee2 – Interactive Fiction Authoring for Geeks

There’s a wonderful tool for making web-based “choose your own adventure”-type games, called Twine. One of the best things about it is that it’s so accessible: if you wanted to, you could be underway writing your first ever story with it in about 5 minutes from now, without installing anything at all, and when it was done you could publish it on the web and it would just work.

Screenshot of a Twine 2 story map
A “story map” in Twine 2. Easy interactive fiction writing for normal people.

But the problem with Twine is that, in its latest and best versions, you’re trapped into using the Twine IDE. The Twine IDE is an easy-to-use, highly visual, ‘drag-and-drop’ interface for making interactive stories. Which is probably great if you’re into IDEs or if you don’t “know better”… but for those of us who prefer to do our writing in a nice clean, empty text editor like Sublime or TextMate or to script/automate our builds, it’s just frustrating to lose access to the tools we love. Plus, highly-visual IDEs make it notoriously hard to collaborate with other authors on the same work without simply passing it back and forwards between you: unless they’ve been built with this goal in mind, you generally can’t have two people working in the same file at the same time.

Sublime Text demonstrating multi-line-selection.
Now THIS is what code editing should look like.

Earlier versions of Twine had a command-line tool called Twee that perfectly filled this gap. But the shiny new versions don’t. That’s where I came in.

In that way that people who know me are probably used to by now, I was very-slightly unsatisfied with one aspect of an otherwise fantastic product and decided that the correct course of action was to reimplement it myself. So that’s how, a few weeks ago, I came to release Twee2.

Twee2 logo
Twee2’s logo integrates the ‘branching’ design of Twine adventures with the ‘double-colon’ syntax of Twee.

If you’re interested in writing your own “Choose Your Own Adventure”-type interactive fiction, whether for the world or just for friends, but you find user-friendly IDEs like Twine limiting (or you just prefer a good old-fashioned text editor), then give Twee2 a go. I’ve written a simple 2-minute tutorial to get you started, it works on Windows, MacOS, Linux, and just-about everything else, and it’s completely open-source if you’d like to expand or change it yourself.

(there are further discussions about the concept and my tool on Reddit here, here, here and here, and on the Twinery forums herehere and here)

Get Twee2

Post-It Minesweeper

Remember Minesweeper? It’s probably been forever since you played, so go have a game online now. And there went your afternoon.

A game of Microsoft Minesweeper in progress.
This is actually a pretty tough move.

My geek-crush Ben Foxall posted on Twitter on Monday morning to share that he’d had a moment of fun nostalgia when he’d come into the office to discover that somebody in his team had covered his monitor with two layers of Post-It notes. The bottom layer contained numbers – and bombs! – to represent the result of a Minesweeper board, and the upper layer ‘covered’ them so that individual Post-Its could be removed to reveal what lay beneath. Awesome.

Ben Foxall discovers Post-It Minesweeper
Unlike most computerised implementations of Minesweeper, the first move isn’t guaranteed to be safe. Tread carefully…

Not to be outdone, I hunted around my office and found some mini-Post-Its. Being smaller meant that I could fit more of them onto a monitor and thus make a more-sophisticated (and more-challenging!) play space. But how to generate the board? Sure: I could do it by hand, but that doesn’t seem very elegant at all – plus, humans make really bad random number generators! I didn’t need quantum-tunnelling-seeded Minesweeper (yes, that’s a thing) levels of entropy, sure, but it’d still be nice to outsource the heavy lifting to a computer, right?

Screenshot of my Post-It Minesweeper board generator.
Yes, I’m quite aware of the irony of using a computer to generate a paper-based version of a computer game, why do you ask?

So naturally, I wrote a program to do it for me. Want to see? It’s at danq.me/minesweeper. Just line up some Post-Its on a co-worker’s monitor to work out how many you can fit across it in each dimension (I found that I could get 6 × 4 standard-sized Post-Its but 7 × 5 or even 8 × 5 mini-sized Post-Its very comfortably onto one of the typical widescreen monitors in my office), decide how many mines you want, and click Generate. Don’t like the board you get? Click it again!

Liz McCarthy tweets about her experience of being given a Post-It Minesweeper game to play.
I set up the first game on my colleague Liz’s computer, before she came in this morning.

And because I was looking for a fresh excuse to play with Periscope, I broadcast the first game I set up live to the Internet. In the end, 66 people ended up watching some or all of a paper-based game of Minesweeper played by my colleague Liz, including moments of cheering her on and, in one weird moment, dispair at the revelation that she was married. The internet’s strange, yo.

Anyway: in case you missed the Periscope broadcast, I’ve put it on YouTube. Sorry about the portrait-orientation filming: I think it’s awful, too, but it’s a Periscope thing and I haven’t installed the new update that fixes it yet.

Now go set up a game of Post-It Minesweeper for a friend or co-worker.

The Hardest Hangman

What’s the hardest word to guess, when playing hangman? I’ll come back to that.

A game of hangman; SCAT_A_, wrong guesses are R, E, O, P, L, H.
Whatever could the missing letters be?

Last year, Nick Berry wrote a fantastic blog post about the optimal strategy for Hangman. He showed that the best guesses to make to get your first “hit” in a game of hangman are not the most-commonly occurring letters in written English, because these aren’t the most commonly-occurring letters in individual words. He also showed that the first guesses should be adjusted based on the length of the word (the most common letter in 5-letter words is ‘S’, but the most common letter in 6-letter words is ‘E’). In short: hangman’s a more-complex game than you probably thought it was! I’d like to take his work a step further, and work out which word is the hardest word: that is – assuming you’re playing an optimal strategy, what word takes the most-guesses?

A hanged man being quartered by his executioner.
The rules of hangman used to be a lot more brutal. Nowadays, very few people die as a result of the game.

First, though, we need to understand how hangman is perfectly played. Based on the assumption that the “executioner” player is choosing words randomly, and that no clue is given as to the nature of the word, we can determine the best possible move for all possible states of the game by using a data structure known as a tree. Suppose our opponent has chosen a three-letter word, and has drawn three dashes to indicate this. We know from Nick’s article that the best letter to guess is A. And then, if our guess is wrong, the next best letter to guess is E. But what if our first guess is right? Well, then we’ve got an “A” in one or more positions on the board, and we need to work out the next best move: it’s unlikely to be “E” – very few three-letter words have both an “A” and an “E” – and of course what letter we should guess next depends entirely on what positions the letters are in.

A tiny fragment of possible states for the tree of three-letter words, in hangman.
There are billions of possible states of game play, but you can narrow them down quickly with strategic guessing.

What we’re actually doing here is a filtering exercise: of all of the possible letters we could choose, we’re considering what possible results that could have. Then for each of those results, we’re considering what guesses we could make next, and so on. At each stage, we compare all of the possible moves to a dictionary of all possible words, and filter out all of the words it can’t be: after our first guess in the diagram above, if we guess “A” and the board now shows “_ A _”, then we know that of the 600+ three-letter words in the English language, we’re dealing with one of only about 134. We further refine our guess by playing the odds: of those words, more of them have a “C” in than any other letter, so that’s our second guess. If it has a C in, that limits the options further, and we can plan the next guess accordingly. If it doesn’t have a C in, that still provides us with valuable information: we’re now looking for a three-letter word with an A in the second position and no letter C: that cuts it down to 124 words (and our next guess should be ‘T’). This tree-based mechanism for working out the best moves is comparable to that used by other game-playing computers. Hangman is simple enough that it can be “solved” by contemporary computers (like draughts – solved in 2007 – but unlike chess: while modern chess-playing computers can beat humans, it’s still theoretically possible to build future computers that will beat today’s computers).

Pile of stones, and the text "the best word to choose in hangman is the word that your opponent will not guess"
Zen Hangman asks the really important questions. If a man has one guess left and refused to pick a letter, does he live forever, or not at all?

Now that we can simulate the way that a perfect player would play against a truly-random executioner, we can use this to simulate games of hangman for every possible word (I’m using version 0.7 of this British-English dictionary). In other words, we set up two computer players: the first chooses a word from the dictionary, the second plays “perfectly” to try to guess the word, and we record how many guesses it took. So that’s what I did. Here’s the Ruby code I used. It’s heavily-commented and probably pretty understandable/good learning material, if you’re into that kind of thing. Or if you fancy optimising it, there’s plenty of scope for that too (I knocked it out on a lunch break; don’t expect too much!). Or you could use it as the basis to make a playable hangman game. Go wild.

The hardest three-letter hangman words: xxv, xxx, wiz, oak, vex, vox, aux, fox, yuk, www...
The hardest three-letter hangman words. “Sly” is particularly… well, sly.

Running the program, we can see that the hardest three-letter word is “xxv”, which would take 22 guesses (20 of them wrong!) to get. But aside from the roman numeral for 25, I don’t think that “xxv” is actually a word. Perhaps my dictionary’s not very good. “Oak”, though, is definitely a word, and at 20 guesses (17 wrong), it’s easily enough to hang your opponent no matter how many strokes it takes to complete the gallows.

The hardest four-letter hangman words: xxxv, quiz, jazz, zinc, faux, foxy, hazy, jibe, quay, buzz, gibe, guan, huge...
Interestingly, “oaks” is an easier word than “oak” (although it’s still very difficult): the addition of an extra letter to a word does not make it harder, especially when that letter is common.

There are more tougher words in the four-letter set, like the devious “quiz”, “jazz”, “zinc”, and “faux”. Pick one of those and your opponent – unless they’ve seen this blog post! – is incredibly unlikely to guess it before they’re swinging from a rope.

The hardest five, six, and seven-letter hangman words, including jazzy, quaff, foxed, foxing, queued, favour, vaquero, jazzier, quizzed...
“Hazing foxes, fucking cockily” is not only the title of a highly-inappropriate animated film, but also a series of very challenging Hangman words.

As we get into the 5, 6, and 7-letter words you’ll begin to notice a pattern: that the hardest words with any given number of letters get easier the longer they are. That’s kind of what you’d expect, I suppose: if there were a hypothetical word that contained every letter in the alphabet, then nobody would ever fail to (eventually) get it.

The hardest eight, nine, and ten-letter hangman words, including quizzing, puppyish, picklock, jazziness, pollywogs, cufflinks, humbuggery, juxtaposed, bucketfuls...
Some of the longer words are wonderful, like: dysprosium, semivowel, harrumph, and googolplex.

When we make a graph of each word length, showing which proportion of the words require a given number of “wrong” guesses (by an optimised player), we discover a “sweet spot” window in which we’ll find all of the words that an optimised player will always fail to guess (assuming that we permit up to 10 incorrect guesses before they’re disqualified). The window seems small for the number of times I remember seeing people actually lose at hangman, which implies to me that human players consistently play sub-optimally, and do not adequately counteract that failing by applying an equal level of “smart”, intuitive play (knowing one’s opponent and their vocabulary, looking for hints in the way the game is presented, etc.).

Graph showing the proportion of each word of a given length that take a given number of "wrong" guesses to optimally solve.
The “sweet spot” in the bottom right is the set of words which you would expect a perfect player to fail to guess, assuming that they’re given a limit of 10 “wrong” guesses.

In case you’re interested, then, here are the theoretically-hardest words to throw at your hangman opponent. While many of the words there feel like they would quite-rightly be difficult, others feel like they’d be easier than their ranking would imply: this is probably because they contain unusual numbers of vowels or vowels in unusual-but-telling positions, which humans (with their habit, inefficient under normal circumstances, of guessing an extended series of vowels to begin with) might be faster to guess than a computer.

Word Guesses taken “Wrong” guesses needed
quiz 24 20
jazz 22 19
jazzy 22 18
quaff 22 18
zinc 21 17
oak 20 17
vex 20 17
vox 20 17
foxing 22 16
foxed 21 16
queued 20 16
fuzzy 20 16
quay 20 16
pinup 20 16
fox 19 16
yuk 19 16
vaquero 22 15
jazzier 21 15
quizzed 21 15
hazing 21 15
favour 21 15
yoking 21 15
quays 20 15
quark 20 15
joked 20 15
guyed 20 15
foyer 20 15
bumph 20 15
huge 19 15
quip 19 15
gibe 19 15
rump 19 15
guan 19 15
quizzed 19 15
oaks 19 15
murk 19 15
fezzes 19 15
yuck 19 15
keno 19 15
kazoo 19 15
Download a longer list
(there’s plenty more which you’d expect to “win” with)

If you use this to give you an edge in your next game, let me know how it works out for you!

Movie Title Mash-Ups

I’ve got a new favourite game, this week: Movie Title Mash-Ups (with thanks to Cougar Town). Ruth and I sat up far too late last night, playing it. Here’s how you do it:

Cougar Town characters playing Penny Can.
Cougar Town characters playing… no, wait… this is that OTHER game they play.

Movie Title Mash-Ups

Take two movie titles which share a word (or several words, or just a syllable) at the end of one and at the beginning of the other. Shmoosh them together into a combined movie title, then describe the plot of that movie in a single sentence by borrowing elements from both component movies. See if anybody can guess what your mash-up movies were.

Here are some examples. The answers are ROT13-encoded, but if you’re reading this post directly on my blog, you can click on each of them to decode them (once you’ve given up!).

Zombies claw their way out of a graveyard, and Batman spends most of the film hiding in the attic.
Gur Qnex Xavtug bs gur Yvivat Qrnq

While trapped in an elevator at the end of October, a superficial man is hypnotised into murdering a bunch of high-school students with knife.
Funyybj Unyybjrra

A crazy professor and a kid travel back in time in a souped-up car, where local bully Biff cuts off the kid’s hand and tells him he’s his father.
Gur Rzcver Fgevxrf Onpx gb gur Shgher

Bill Murray has to live the same day over and over, until he can survive the zombie apocalypse by escaping to an island.
Tebhaqubt Qnl bs gur Qrnq

A pair of alcoholic, out-of-work actors stay at the countryside house of a Monty, dangerous robot who has learned to override his programming.
Jvguanvy naq V, Ebobg

An evil genie who maliciously manipulates words and misinterprets wishes opens a portal between Eternia and Earth, which He-Man and Skeletor come through.
Jvfuznfgref bs gur Havirefr

A bunch of outlawed vigilante superheroes fight shapeshifters and werewolves as they investigate a mystical curse which threatens to shatter the fragile cease-fire between Dark and Light forces in Russia.
Avtug Jngpuzra

Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer hold a seance to communicate with subterranean humans who worship a giant bomb.
Jung Yvrf Orarngu gur Cynarg bs gur Ncrf

A lion cub born to a royal family grows up, climbs the Empire State Building, and fights aeroplanes.
Gur Yvba Xvat Xbat

James Bond is sent to investigate the murder of three British MI6 agents, who turn out to have been killed using a military satellite that concentrates the sun’s rays into a powerful laser. (hint: both films are James Bond films)
Yvir naq Yrg Qvr Nabgure Qnl

Your turn!

So, what can you come up with?

Counterfeit Monkey

Earlier this year, I played Emily Short‘s new game, Counterfeit Monkey, and I’m pleased to say that it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve played in years. I’d highly recommend that you give it a go.

Counterfeit Monkey
Counterfeit Monkey is one of the best interactive fiction games I’ve played in years. And not just because I love puns.

What makes Counterfeit Monkey so great? Well, as you’d expect from an Emily Short game (think Bee, which I reviewed last year, Galatea, and Glass), it paints an engaging and compelling world which feels “bigger” than the fragments of it that you’re seeing: a real living environment in which you’re just another part of the story. The island of Anglophone Atlantis and the characters in it feel very real, and it’s easy to empathise with what’s going on (and the flexibility you have in your actions helps you to engage with what you’re doing). But that’s not what’s most-special about it.

A game of Counterfeit Monkey, underway.
I’m in a bar, presumably in need of a pint of apple. Apple? That’s not what I mean! Where’s my P-Remover when I need one…

What’s most-special about this remarkable game is the primary puzzle mechanic, and how expertly (not to mention seamlessly and completely) it’s been incorporated into the play experience. Over the course of the game, you’ll find yourself equipped with a number of remarkable tools that change the nature of game objects by adding, removing, changing, re-arranging or restoring their letters, or combining their names with the names of other objects: sort of a “Scrabble® set for real life”.

Brought your pet abroad? Consider linguistic realignment therapy. Even a domesticated cat can give birth to chatons. (A public service announcement by the Bureau of Orthography)
Wise words from the Bureau of Orthography.

You start the game in possession of a full-alphabet letter-remover, which lets you remove a particular letter from any word – so you can, for example, change a pine into a pin by “e-removing” it, or you can change a caper into a cape by “r-removing” it (you could go on and “c-remove” it into an ape if only your starting toolset hadn’t been factory-limited to prevent the creation of animate objects).

Dental Consonants Ltd. - what we can't do isn't worth doing. Absolutely no palatials or labials, guaranteed.
Poster for Dental Consonants Ltd. Get your consonants here!

This mechanic, coupled with a doubtless monumental amount of effort on Emily’s part, makes Counterfeit Monkey have perhaps the largest collection of potential carryable objects of any interactive fiction game ever written. Towards the end of the game, when your toolset is larger, there feels like an infinite number of possible linguistic permutations for your copious inventory… and repeatedly, I found that no matter what I thought of, the author had thought of it first and written a full and complete description of the result (and yes, I did try running almost everything I’d picked up, and several things I’d created, through the almost-useless “Ümlaut Punch”, once I’d found it).

Atlantida
Atlantida, nominal ruler of Anglophone Atlantis.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever played. If you’ve never played a text-based adventure before, and want a gentler introduction, you might like to go try something more conventional (but still great) like Photopia (very short, very gentle: my review) or Blue Lacuna (massive, reasonably gentle: my review) first. But if you’re ready for the awesome that is Counterfeit Monkey, then here’s what you need to do:

How to play Counterfeit Monkey

  1. Install a Glulx interpreter.
    I recommend Gargoyle, which provides beautiful font rendering and supports loads of formats. Note that Gargoyle’s UNDO command will not work in Counterfeit Monkey, for technical reasons (but this shouldn’t matter much so long as you SAVE at regular intervals).
    Download for Windows, for Mac, or for other systems.
  1. Download Counterfeit Monkey
    Get Counterfeit Monkey‘s “story file” and open it using your Glulx interpreter (e.g. Gargoyle).
    Download it here.

(alternatively, you can use experimental technology to play the game in your web browser: it’ll take a long time to load, though, and you’ll be missing some of the fun optional features, so I wouldn’t recommend it over the “proper” approach above)

Fetch Quest

Commissioned, a webcomic I’ve been reading for many years now, recently made a couple of observations on the nature of “fetch quests” in contemporary computer role-playing games. And naturally – because my brain works that way – I ended up taking this thought way beyond its natural conclusion.

Today’s children are presumably being saturated with “fetch quests” in RPGs all across the spectrum from fantasy Skyrim-a-likes over to modern-day Grand Theft Auto clones and science fiction Mass Effect-style video games. And the little devil on my left shoulder asks me how this can be manipulated for fun and profit.

A typical fetch quest, taken to an illogical extreme. It's only a matter of time until you see this in a video game.

The traditional “fetch quest” goes as follows: I’ll give you what you need (the sword that can kill the monster, the job that you need to impress your gang, the name of the star that the invasion fleet are orbiting, or whatever), in exchange for you doing a delivery for me. Either I want you to take something somewhere, or I want you to pick something up, or – in the most overused and thankfully falling out of fashion example – I want you to bring me X number of Y object… 9 shards of triforce, 5 orc skulls, $10,000, or whatever. Needless to say, about 50% of the time there’ll be some kind of challenge along the way (you need to steal the item from a locked safe, you’ll be offered a bribe to “lose” the item, or perhaps you’ll just be mobbed by ninja robots as you ride along on your hypercycle), which is probably for the best because it’s the only thing that adds fun to role-playing a postman. I wonder if being attacked by mage princes is something that real-life couriers dream about?

This really doesn’t tally with normality. When you want something in the real world, you pay for it, or you don’t get it. But somehow in computer RPGs – even ones which allegedly try to model the real world – you’ll find yourself acting as an over-armed deliveryman every ten to fifteen minutes. And who wants to be a Level 38 Dark Elf Florist and Dog Walker?

YAFQ.

So perhaps… just perhaps… this will begin to shape the future of our reality. If the children of today start to see the “fetch quest” as a perfectly normal way to introduce yourself to somebody, then maybe someday it will be socially acceptable.

I’m going to try it. The next time that somebody significantly younger than me looks impatient in the queue for the self-service checkouts at Tesco, I’m going to offer to let them go in front of me… but only if they can bring me a tin of sweetcorn! “I can’t go myself, you see,” I’ll say, “Because I need to hold my place in the queue!” A tin of sweetcorn may not be as impressive-sounding as, say, the Staff of Fire Elemental Control, but it gets the job done. And it’s one of your five-a-day, too.

Or when somebody asks me for help fixing their broken website, I’ll say “Okay, I’ll help; but you have to do something for me. Bring me the bodies of five doughnuts, to prove yourself worthy of my assistance.”

It’s going to be a big thing, I promise.

Video Games I Have Been Playing – Part Two

Last week, I wrote about two of the big-name video games I’ve been playing since I suddenly discovered a window of free time in my life, again. Today, I’d like to tell you about some of the smaller independent titles that have captured my interest:

Minecraft

A well-developed Minecraft city port, on the edge of a sprawling and mountainous landmass.

I’d love to be able to say that I was playing Minecraft before it was cool, and I have been playing it since Infdev, which came before the Alpha version. But Minecraft was always cool.

Suppose you’ve been living on another planet all year and so you haven’t heard of Minecraft. Here’s what you need to know: it’s a game, and it’s also a software toy, depending on how you choose to play it. Assuming you’re not playing in “creative mode” (which is a whole other story), then it’s a first-person game of exploration, resource gathering and management, construction, combat, and (if you’re paying multiplayer, which is completely optional) cooperation.

Your character is plunged at dawn into a landscape of rolling (well, stepped) hills, oceans, tundra, and deserts, with infinite blocks extending in every direction. It’s a reasonably safe place during the daytime, but at night zombies and skeletons and giant spiders roam the land, so your first task is to build a shelter. Wood or earth are common starting materials; stone if you’ve got time to start a mine; bricks later on if you’ve got clay close to hand; but seriously: you go build your house out of anything you’d like. Then begins your adventure: explore, mine, and find resources with which to build better tools, and unlock the mysteries of the world (and the worlds beyond). And if you get stuck, just remember that Minecraft backwards is the same as Skyrim forwards.

Parts of it remind me of NetHack, which is one of the computer games that consumed my life: the open world, the randomly-generated terrain, and the scope of the experience put me in mind of this classic Rougelike. Also perhaps Dwarf Fortress or Dungeon Keeper: there’s plenty of opportunities for mining, construction, trap-making, and defensive structures, as well as for subterranean exploration. There are obvious similarities to Terraria, too.

I think that there’s something for everybody in Minecraft, although the learning curve might be steeper than some players are used to.

Limbo

This is not a game for those with a fear of spiders.

I first heard about Limbo when it appeared on the XBox last year, because it got a lot of press at the time for it’s dark stylistic imagery and “trial and death” style. But, of course, the developers had done a deal with the devil and made it an XBox-only release to begin with, putting off the versions for other consoles and desktop computers until 2011.

But now it’s out, as Paul was keen to advise me, and it’s awesome. You’ll die – a lot – when you play it, but the game auto-saves quietly at very-frequent strategic points, so it’s easy to “just keep playing” (a little like the equally-fabulous Super Meat Boy), but the real charm in this game comes from the sharp contrast between the light, simple platformer interface and the dark, oppressive environment of the levels. Truly, it’s the stuff that nightmares are made of, and it’s beautiful.

While at first it feels a little simplistic (how often nowadays do you get a game whose controls consist of the classic four-button “left”, “right”, “climb/jump”, and “action” options?), the game actually uses these controls to great effect. Sure, you’ll spend a fair amount of time just running to the right, in old-school platformer style, but all the while you’ll be getting drawn in to the shady world of the game, set on-edge by its atmospheric and gloomy soundtrack. And then, suddenly, right when you least expect it: snap!, and you’re dead again.

The puzzles are pretty good: they’re sometimes a little easy, but that’s better in a game like this than ones which might otherwise put you off having “one more go” at a level. There’s a good deal of variety in the puzzle types, stretching the interface as far as it will go. I’ve not quite finished it yet, but I certainly will: it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a nice bit of “lightweight” gaming for those 5-minute gaps between tasks that I seem to find so many of.

Blue Lacuna

Those with limited capacity for imagination should be aware that this is not an in-game screenshot. An in-game screenshot would consist pretty-much of just text.

I know, I know… as an interactive fiction geek I really should have gotten around to finishing Blue Lacuna sooner. I first played it a few years ago, when it was released, but it was only recently that I found time to pick it up again and play it to, well, it’s logical conclusion.

What do you need to know to enjoy this game? Well: firstly, that it’s free. As in: really free – you don’t have to pay to get it, and anybody can download the complete source code (I’d recommend finishing the game first, because the source code is, of course, spoiler-heavy!) under a Creative Commons license and learn from or adapt it themselves. That’s pretty awesome, and something we don’t see enough of.

Secondly, it’s a text-based adventure. I’ve recommended a few of these before, because I’m a big fan of the medium. This one’s less-challenging for beginners than some that I’ve recommended: it uses an unusual user interface feature that the developer calls Wayfaring, to make it easy and intuitive to dive in. There isn’t an inventory (at least, not in the conventional adventure game sense – although there is one optional exception to this), and most players won’t feel the need to make a map (although keeping notes is advisable!). All-in-all, so far it just sounds like a modern, accessible piece of interactive fiction.

But what makes this particular piece so special is it’s sheer size and scope. The world of the game is nothing short of epic, and more-than almost any text-based game I’ve played before, it feels alive: it’s as much fun to explore the world as it is to advance the story. The “simplified” interface (as described above) initially feels a little limiting to an experienced IFer like myself, but that quickly gives way as you realise how many other factors (other than what you’re carrying) can be used to solve problems. Time of day, tides, weather, who you’ve spoken to and about what, where you’ve been, when you last slept and what you dreamed about… all of these things can be factors in the way that your character experiences the world in Blue Lacuna, and it leads to an incredibly deep experience.

It describes itself as being an explorable story in the tradition of interactive fiction and text adventures… a novel about discovery, loss, and choice.. a game about words and emotions, not guns. And that’s exactly right.

It’s available for MacOS, Windows, Linux, and just about every other platform, and you should totally give it a go.

Video Games I Have Been Playing – Part One

As I previously indicated, I’ve recently found myself with a little free videogaming time, and I thought I’d share some of the things that have occupied my time, over the course of two blog posts:

Skyrim

Ava, a level 38 Dark Elf Florist and Dog-Walker, glad that he's wearing thermal underwear beneath his dragonscale armour.

Well; here’s the big one. This game eats time for breakfast. It’s like World Of Warcraft for people who don’t have friends. No, wait…

Seriously, though, Bethesda have really kicked arse with this one. I only played a little of the earlier games in the series, because they didn’t “click” with me (although I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Fallout series), but Skyrim goes a whole extra mile. The game world feels truly epic and “living”: you don’t have to squint more than a little to get the illusion that the whole world would carry on without you, with people eating and sleeping and going to work and gossiping about all the dragon attacks. The plot is solid, the engine is beautiful, and there’s so much content that it’s simply impossible to feel that you’re taking it all in at once.

It’s not perfect. It’s been designed with console controls in mind, and it shows (the user interface for skills upgrades is clunky as hell, even when I tried it on my XBox controller). The AI still does some damn stupid things (not standing-and-talking-to-walls stupid, but still bad enough that your so-called “friends” will get in your way, fire area-effect weapons at enemies you’re meleeing with, and so on). Dragons are glitchy (the first time I beat an Elder Dragon it was mostly only because it landed in a river and got its head stuck underwater, like it was seeing how long it could hold it’s breath while I gradually sliced its tail into salami).

But it’s still a huge and beautiful game that’s paid for itself in the 55+ hours of entertainment it’s provided so far. Recommended.

Update: between first drafting and actually publishing this list, I’ve finished the main questline of Skyrim, which was fun. 85 hours and counting.

Modern Warfare 3

I was incredibly excited by the opportunity to fight my way through the London Underground, until I realised that the Tube in the game was designed by aliens rather than TfL.

I should confess, first, that I’m a Call Of Duty fanboy. Not one of the these modern CoD fanboys, who rack up kills in multiplayer matchups orchestrated by ability-ranking machines in server farms, shouting “noob” as they teabag one another’s corpses. I mean I’m a purist CoD fanboy. When I got my copy of the first Call Of Duty game, broadband was just beginning to take off, and games with both single-player and multiplayer aspects still had to sell themselves on the strength of the single-player aspects, because most of their users would only ever play it that way.

And the Call of Duty series has always had something that’s been rare in action-heavy first-person shooters: a plot. A good plot. A plot that you can actually get behind and care about. Okay, so we all know how the World War II ones end (spoiler: the allies win), and if you’ve seen Enemy At The Gates then you also know how every single Russian mission goes, too, but they’ve still got a fun story and they work hard to get you emotionally-invested. The first time I finished Call of Duty 2, I cried. And then I started over and shot another thousand Nazis, like I was some form of human tank.

Modern Warfare was fantastic, bringing the franchise (complete with Captain Price) right into the era of nuclear threats and international terrorism. Modern Warfare 2 built on this and took it even further, somehow having a final boss fight that surpassed even the excellence of its predecessor (“boss fights” being notoriously difficult to do well in first-person shooters inspired by the real world). Modern Warfare 3… well…

It was okay. As a fanboy, I loved the fact that they finally closed the story arc started by the two previous MW games (and did so in a beautiful way: I maintain that Yuri is my favourite character, simply because of the way his story is woven into the arc). The chemical weapon attacks weren’t quite so impressive as the nuclear bomb in MW2, and the final fight wasn’t quite as good as the previous ones, but they’re all “good enough”. The big disappointment was the length of the campaign. The game finished downloading and unlocked at 11pm, and by 4am I was tucked up in bed, having finished it in a single sitting. “Was that it?” I asked.

Recommendation: play it if you’re a fan and want to see how the story ends, or else wait until it’s on sale and play it then.

Part Two will come when I find time, along with some games that you’re less-likely to have come across already.

The Board Games Are Breeding

A a means to take a break from the code I was working on for half an hour (I’m doing some freelance work for SmartData in my spare time, since I left them to go and work for the Bodleian Library, in order to help wrap up a project that I was responsible for at the end of my time there), I decided to go downstairs and do some packing in anticipation of our upcoming house move.

The first four boxes full of board games.

I packed about four boxes worth of board games, and then stood back to take a look at the shelves… and damnit, they look just as full as they did before I started.

I swear that my board game collection must be breeding, somehow. “Perhaps that’s where expansion packs come from,” suggests Paul. Perhaps: but that wouldn’t manage to explain the optical illusion that makes it look like I’ve got four boxes full of games when in actual fact they’re all still on the shelves, unless they’re breeding as fast as I can pack them.

This might take a while.

Ruth & JTA’s Stag/Hen Party Weekend, Part I

With their wedding just around the corner, Ruth and JTA had a combined stag/hen party weekend, a couple of weeks back (yes, I know it’s taken me a while to blog about it. Here’s some of the highlights. As usual, click pictures for bigger versions.

Friday

Jordans

Most of the party was to take place at the youth hostel in a Buckinghamshire village called Jordans. With a little sweet-talking to the lady who runs the hostel – which we’d rented outright for the weekend – we were able to check-in a little early, to at least be able to leave our bags and cars there.

Jordans Youth Hostel

Matt, who was to join us for the next part of the adventure, was running late, so we explored the nearby Quaker meeting house – one of the oldest, right on our doorstep, and the burial place of William Penn – while we waited for him to show up.

Ruth, JTA, and Paul, standing around wondering where Matt could have gotten himself to.

Eventually we had to set off to London without him, on the train. We hid his train ticket inside the least-likely-looking leaflet we could find at the train station, texted him instructions to find it, and got underway.

In which leaflet do you think we’ve hidden Matt’s train ticket?

Paul split from us shortly after Marylebone Station to pursue a quest of his own: to find a stack of foreign candy and purchase it. Meanwhile, we went on to…

Volupté

The festivities started with lunch in Volupté for Ruth and JTA, accompanied by maid-of-honour Matt (when he caught up with us) and I. You might recall that Ruth, JTA and I had been before for their “afternoon tease” a few months ago, and loved it. Volupté is a fantastic little burlesque club buried in the middle of London, and we enjoyed their ostentatious and eccentric cocktails as we ate our dinner, listened to some live music, and watched JTA help a young lady undress by tugging on the end of one of the series of wrap-around dresses she wore.

JTA and Ruth at what we’ve now decided is our ‘usual table’ in the cocktail lounge, waiting for Matt to arrive.

Given our dormitory-style accommodation, he probably thought that this would be the only time he’d be helping a young lady to undress all weekend, but this assumption would turn out to be false later in the weekend…

Ruth & Dan’s Stag/Hen Party Game Which They Couldn’t Agree On A Name For

Back at Jordans, our other guests were beginning to arrive. Ruth’s brothers, Owen and Robin, were among the first, followed by Alec and Suz, Siân, Adrian and Abby. That’s when we got the phone call from Liz.. giggling as she went (perhaps from the painkillers?) she wanted to apologise that she and Simon wouldn’t be able to make it, because she’d suffered a rather unpleasant injury. And so began the first of our evening’s entertainments: coming up with awful and tasteless puns about poor Liz’s accident.

The drinking begins. Here’s to you, Liz, for being so unflappable.

As our chefs in the kitchen prepared everybody’s dinner, Ruth and I began to explain the rules of Ruth & Dan’s Stag/Hen Party Game Which They Couldn’t Agree On A Name For.

Paul, Robin, and Ruth prepare dinner.

Two teams were formed. The aim for each team was to help their team-mates traverse a Twister mat by competing in a series of challenges to win a number of “spins” of the Twister spinner. When a team-mate got across the mat, they were awarded a hat; and the first team to be entirely “hatted” is the winner. Easy, right?

Sian stands with one foot on the mat as her team-mates struggle to complete their first challenge.

The challenges were about as varied as Ruth and I could manage to come up with. The first, for example, had blindfolded players trying to solve a jigsaw under the (verbal-only) guidance of the rest of their team. Another required the team to transport water from a stack of jugs to a distant bucket using only a leaky length of guttering. A third had each team playing charades.

Alec and JTA, blindfolded, attempt to solve jigsaws.

Remarkably, few people were hurt. Sure, the water-pistol-fight-while-carrying-lit-candles game was pretty safe, but the “human jousting”, which saw piggybacking riders attempt to dismount their competitors by beating them with foam swords, stopped barely short of bruising poor Suz as she was repeatedly whipped by Matt.

Human Jousting.

Quite-remarkably, Alec lost to Paul in a doughnut-eating competition. Meanwhile, the most spectacular bobbing-for-apples competition ever seen – between JTA and Owen – ended with a spectacularly close and exciting finish… and water pretty much everywhere.

Alec having lost a doughnut-eating competition; still wearing the blindfold, tiara, and earrings from two previous challenges.

Drunk, tired, and – in some cases – wet and covered in doughnut crumbs, we went to bed. Tomorrow was to be a long day… [to be continued]

Civilization V Release Day

For those of you in the USA, at least, today is the release day for the much-anticipated Sid Meier’s Civilization V. With the promise that this will be the most groundbreaking Civ game since Civilization II, I’ve managed to acquire a leaked screenshot of the very first thing that players will see when they launch Civilization V for the first time:


With apologies to those of you who haven’t had the experiences to find this funny.

Troma Night Adventure

Because I promised you some Aber-nostalgia.

Do you remember the RockMonkey Wiki? Many years ago, Ruth bought the domain name rockmonkey.org.uk as a gift for Andy K, who’d been nicknamed “Rock Monkey” for longer than anybody could remember. He decided that what he wanted to host there was a wiki engine, and I helped him get one set up. Soon, every Abnibber and Troma Night veteran was using it, filling the pages with all kinds of junk.

Soon, Jon launched the wiki’s first WikiGame: a maze exploration game using littered with Dungeon Master Java screenshots and monsters aplenty (monsters like Tubgirl and Lesbians and The Splurg). This kicked off a series of other WikiGames, mostly by Jon, Andy R, and myself (although Andy K started about a dozen of them and Ruth got some way through developing her first).

My biggest contribution was probably TromaNightAdventure, a text-based adventure in which the player attempts to explore Aberystwyth to collect (at least) three Troma Night stars, some pizza, some beer, and some films. It was an epic quest, far larger than I’d meant for it to grow, with multiple non-linear ways to win and a scoring system that told you exactly by how much you’d beaten it (some, but few, people managed to score the maximum number of points).

The screenshot above isn’t from the RockMonkey Wiki. It’s from my relaunched version of Troma Night Adventure. That’s right: I’ve dug up the final backup of the RockMonkey Wiki, extracted the relevant content, knocked together a mini version of the wiki engine and the WikiGameToolkit, and re-launched the game. It’s read-only, of course: this isn’t a real wiki; the real wiki is long-gone. But it does have a few extra features than the original, like a pictorial inventory and a nippy Ajax-powered interface. If you’re looking for some nostalgia about the old RockMonkey Wiki or about Troma Nights back in Aberystwyth, here’s your ticket:

BiCon: The Game

I shan’t be at BiCon this year, but I thought I’d share with you all something that tickled me today. Last year, at a Naked Lunch, I ended up chatting to several geeks about Interactive Fiction, and I through out a few ideas for a BiCon-themed piece of Interactive Fiction. Little did I know that this idea had sunk in, and cogs had begun to turn…

Rach has just released BiCon 2010: The Game, and it fully embodies everything that’s fabulous about BiCon. It’s also a really good bit of IF, for a first full adventure, and involves some fascinating hacking of the gender pronouns system for Inform. I tip my hat to the author.

(there’s some discussion going on about the game on the BiCon LiveJournal community)

What I’ve Been Up To This Weekend

This post should have appeared on Monday 24th March 2008, but owing to technical difficulties didn’t make it online until Thursday 27th. Sorry!

Like many others, I’ve had both Good Friday and Easter Monday off work, and as I haven’t blogged enough recently, I thought I ought to provide a quick update about the things I’ve been up to:

Aberystwyth Goes Silent

Okay, so that happens about this time every year: the last week has been the usual lull between the disappearance of the majority of the students and the appearance of the Easter weekend tourists. But this year it was particularly quiet, because even many of the people I’d sort-of expected to be around are elsewhere: Matt‘s still in Cornwall, Sarah‘s also absent, and of course Ruth and JTA are away on a skiing holiday with Gareth and Penny. So it’s been even quieter than we’re used to at this time of year.

Bedroom Tidy-Up

It’s been long overdue, but anybody who ever went into Claire and I’s bedroom at The Cottage will know that it contained bags of clothes that we’d never got around to unpacking since we moved in, over a year ago. So, I finally unpacked them: many of them right into other bags which made their way to the nearest charity shop.

Why do I share this with you? Well, because it leads to an interesting guessing game. You know how Claire pretty much never, ever wears a dress or a skirt (and makes a point of mentioning this to people). Well, having unpacked/washed/sorted/re-hung all of her clothes, take a guess at the exact number of skirts and dresses (total) that she owns. I’ll reveal the actual figure (assuming there aren’t any I’m yet to discover in the final bag) a little further down.

Troma Night Lite Ultralite

Pretty much every Saturday for about four years, we’ve held Troma Night, our film night of the best and the worst films ever made, and, over the years, it’s gathered a number of interesting traditions. One such tradition is that it only counts as a Troma Night if there are four people present. That’s fine and dandy, and there have been a number of three-man Troma Nights, which we’ve instead called Troma Lite. But this Saturday was the first ever (that I’m aware of) Troma Night with only two people present.

That’s right: only Claire and I were there. We’ve now dubbed this event Troma Ultralite – a Troma Night with only two people present. So we (re-)watched the RiffTrax‘d version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, followed by Watership Down, which I hadn’t seen since I was a small child (it gave me nightmares, I seem to remember).

(A Very Small) Geek Night

Yesterday brought us a Geek Night, of course, hosted by Rory, but only he, Claire, Paul and I were present, and Paul had to disappear before then end because unlike the rest of us, he’s still working his usual crazy number of hours this Easter weekend. Unlike last week, when I played like a complete moron, I rocked last night and thoroughly trounced everybody, which I shan’t be letting them forget for a while. Well, until next week.

Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty

I got hold of a copy of Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, a new video game, and played through it this afternoon. In it’s favour, it’s a very clever idea for a game. Apparently, in 1931, Winston Churchill was hit by a taxi cab while in New York, which gave him a characteristic limp for the remainder of his life. In the game’s alternate-history universe, this accident killed him, and he never went on to lead Great Britain during the Second World War. In 1940, Britain surrenders and comes under the occupation of Nazi Germany, who never forge a wartime alliance with Japan against the United States, and do not turn their sights on Russia.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, of course. The time travel of the Command & Conquer: Red Alert series of games played the idea to death (of course, they instead had a young Adolf Hitler killed, but the principle is similar). But there’s something quite well-executed about this particular alternate history. In 1953, Greater Germany and Japan launch a combined surprise attack against the United States, capture key cities on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and force the President and Vice-President to step down so that they can replace them with a “puppet President” during the first part of the occupation.

The game plays as a first-person shooter: the player’s character is a New York construction worker who for some reason is highly proficient with a huge variety of firearms and can withstand several simultaneous bullets to the chest time and time again without dying. The game opens as bomber and paratrooper blimps, accompanied by bomber wings, attack New York, and it’s here that you really see how beautiful the game can be. The draw distance is fantastic: you can see the distant planes passing over Liberty Island as they get closer and closer until eventually they’re strafing the buildings you’re above. And so your adventure begins.

Unfortunatley, it is – at heart – a console game, for the Xbox 360, and it shows. The controls are somewhat clunky and ill-described (and why oh-why are you forbidden from using the mouse to navigate the menus?), the aim “assist” that’s so essential on most console shooters feels out-of-place when you’re playing with a nice accurate mouse, and it’s impossible to save the game except when you pass a “checkpoint.” Worse yet, these checkpoints get further and further apart as the game goes on, as if the developers couldn’t think of how to make the game challenging any more so they just made it more frustrating: here’s a clue – doing the same thing over and over isn’t challenging, but it is boring. They’ve tried to make it not feel exactly like Half-Life 2 (even some of the scenes seem to be copied directly from the game, like the Tower Bridge mission) by adding in the “plant a bomb” minigame, but this is about as challenging as picking your nose: all you have to do is press the appropriate coloured buttons in order. There isn’t even a time limit to doing so – at least not one that I ever found.

The middle of the game draws on and somehow skips over the key elements of the story, which could otherwise have been fascinating. Perhaps I’m looking at the “wrong” things, but I’d really like to have seen more of the politics, the formation of the resistance movement, and the German propoganda slowly appearing on the walls of the city. Oh, and the civilians! Where do they all disappear to? When they’re not part of the plot, they disappear after the first chapter never to be seen again.

And then the end brings it all back again – those huge draw distances, those beautiful wide fight scenes, and the (really cool) blimps (including a fucking flying aircraft carrier – how cool is that?). It’s a bit easy at the beginning but it makes up for that by being really quite hard towards the end, except for the very final scene which was a bit peasy (although I don’t think the level designers expected me to have saved myself an anti-tank rocket launcher and a dozen rockets from way earlier in the level, the use of which was my entire strategy for defeating the Third Reich).

So, in summary: it’s a good way to waste an afternoon if you “do” WWII first person shooters, and you’re interested in alternative history, AND you can put up with the fact that this is, in the end, a console shoot-em-up that’s been half-heartedly ported to the PC.

Fire! On The Beach!

Not-gay Gareth’s free tonight for the first time in ages, so he and Paul have organised that we’ll be having a fire on North Beach tonight when Ruth and JTA get back into town (or maybe starting a little before then). There’ll be a barbeque, so if you’ve got anything to grill, bring it along. It’s on Abnib Events, of course, as well (which I fixed last week and is now working properly again – sorry about that!).

So, How Many Skirts And Dresses?

And the answer to the earlier question? 24. Yes, 24 skirts and dresses are now hanging in the wardrobe of a woman who never ever wears any of them. How did this happen? I’ve known Claire for six years, and I’m not sure I can count 24 times I’ve ever seen her in a skirt, never mind some of the things in her wardrobe which I’ve never seen before in my life. How does she manage it?

A Comment From Thailand

Oh yeah, and you’ll remember a while back I blogged about a postcard from Jimmy in Thailand. Well, it turns out that somebody from Thailand (allegedly, at least) found the page and corrected his spelling of the name of the island he was on, in a comment on this blog.

Right; that was longer than it should have been. I’ll try to be less of a sloppy blogger.