Werewolves and Wanderer

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This blog post is also available as a video. Would you prefer to watch/listen to me tell you about the video game that had the biggest impact on my life?

Of all of the videogames I’ve ever played, perhaps the one that’s had the biggest impact on my life1 was: Werewolves and (the) Wanderer.2

This simple text-based adventure was originally written by Tim Hartnell for use in his 1983 book Creating Adventure Games on your Computer. At the time, it was common for computing books and magazines to come with printed copies of program source code which you’d need to re-type on your own computer, printing being significantly many orders of magnitude cheaper than computer media.3

Front cover of The Amazing Amstrad Omnibus, by Martin Fairbanks, with its bright yellow text on a red background.
Werewolves and Wanderer was adapted for the Amstrad CPC4 by Martin Fairbanks and published in The Amazing Amstrad Omnibus (1985), which is where I first discovered it.
When I first came across the source code to Werewolves, I’d already begun my journey into computer programming. This started alongside my mother and later – when her quantity of free time was not able to keep up with my level of enthusiasm – by myself.

I’d been working my way through the operating manual for our microcomputer, trying to understand it all.5

Scan of a ring-bound page from a technical manual. The page describes the use of the "INPUT" command, saying "This command is used to let the computer know that it is expecting something to be typed in, for example, the answer to a question". The page goes on to provide a code example of a program which requests the user's age and then says "you look younger than [age] years old.", substituting in their age. The page then explains how it was the use of a variable that allowed this transaction to occur.
The ring-bound 445-page A4 doorstep of a book quickly became adorned with my pencilled-in notes, the way a microcomputer manual ought to be. It’s strange to recall that there was a time that beginner programmers still needed to be reminded to press [ENTER] at the end of each line.
And even though I’d typed-in dozens of programs before, both larger and smaller, it was Werewolves that finally helped so many key concepts “click” for me.

In particular, I found myself comparing Werewolves to my first attempt at a text-based adventure. Using what little I’d grokked of programming so far, I’d put together a series of passages (blocks of PRINT statements6) with choices (INPUT statements) that sent the player elsewhere in the story (using, of course, the long-considered-harmful GOTO statement), Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style.

Werewolves was… better.

Photograph of Dan in his mid-teens, with shoulder-length bleached-blonde hair and wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a snarling wolf, sits in front of a running PC (with its beige case open) on which an external modem is precariously balanced.
By the time I was the model of a teenage hacker, I’d been writing software for years. Most of it terrible.

Werewolves and Wanderer was my first lesson in how to structure a program.

Let’s take a look at a couple of segments of code that help illustrate what I mean (here’s the full code, if you’re interested):

10 REM WEREWOLVES AND WANDERER

20 GOSUB 2600:REM INTIALISE
30 GOSUB 160
40 IF RO<>11 THEN 30

50 PEN 1:SOUND 5,100:PRINT:PRINT "YOU'VE DONE IT!!!":GOSUB 3520:SOUND 5,80:PRINT "THAT WAS THE EXIT FROM THE CASTLE!":SOUND 5,200
60 GOSUB 3520
70 PRINT:PRINT "YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED, ";N$;"!":SOUND 5,100
80 PRINT:PRINT "YOU MANAGED TO GET OUT OF THE CASTLE"
90 GOSUB 3520
100 PRINT:PRINT "WELL DONE!"
110 GOSUB 3520:SOUND 5,80
120 PRINT:PRINT "YOUR SCORE IS";
130 PRINT 3*TALLY+5*STRENGTH+2*WEALTH+FOOD+30*MK:FOR J=1 TO 10:SOUND 5,RND*100+10:NEXT J
140 PRINT:PRINT:PRINT:END

...

2600 REM INTIALISE
2610 MODE 1:BORDER 1:INK 0,1:INK 1,24:INK 2,26:INK 3,18:PAPER 0:PEN 2 
2620 RANDOMIZE TIME
2630 WEALTH=75:FOOD=0
2640 STRENGTH=100
2650 TALLY=0
2660 MK=0:REM NO. OF MONSTERS KILLED

...

3510 REM DELAY LOOP
3520 FOR T=1 TO 900:NEXT T
3530 RETURN
Locomotive BASIC had mandatory line numbering. The spacing and gaps (...) have been added for readability/your convenience.

What’s interesting about the code above? Well…

  • The code for “what to do when you win the game” is very near the top. “Winning” is the default state. The rest of the adventure exists to obstruct that. In a language with enforced line numbering and no screen editor7, it makes sense to put fixed-length code at the top… saving space for the adventure to grow below.
  • Two subroutines are called (the GOSUB statements):
    • The first sets up the game state: initialising the screen (2610), the RNG (2620), and player characteristics (26302660). This also makes it easy to call it again (e.g. if the player is given the option to “start over”). This subroutine goes on to set up the adventure map (more on that later).
    • The second starts on line 160: this is the “main game” logic. After it runs, each time, line 40 checks IF RO<>11 THEN 30. This tests whether the player’s location (RO) is room 11: if so, they’ve exited the castle and won the adventure. Otherwise, flow returns to line 30 and the “main game” subroutine happens again. This broken-out loop improving the readability and maintainability of the code.8
  • A common subroutine is the “delay loop” (line 3520). It just counts to 900! On a known (slow) processor of fixed speed, this is a simpler way to put a delay in than relying on a real-time clock.

The game setup gets more interesting still when it comes to setting up the adventure map. Here’s how it looks:

2680 REM SET UP CASTLE
2690 DIM A(19,7):CHECKSUM=0
2700 FOR B=1 TO 19
2710   FOR C=1 TO 7
2720     READ A(B,C):CHECKSUM=CHECKSUM+A(B,C)
2730   NEXT C:NEXT B
2740 IF CHECKSUM<>355 THEN PRINT "ERROR IN ROOM DATA":END

...

2840 REM ALLOT TREASURE
2850 FOR J=1 TO 7
2860   M=INT(RND*19)+1
2870   IF M=6 OR M=11 OR A(M,7)<>0 THEN 2860
2880   A(M,7)=INT(RND*100)+100
2890 NEXT J

2910 REM ALLOT MONSTERS
2920 FOR J=1 TO 6
2930   M=INT(RND*18)+1
2940   IF M=6 OR M=11 OR A(M,7)<>0 THEN 2930
2950   A(M,7)=-J
2960 NEXT J
2970 A(4,7)=100+INT(RND*100)
2980 A(16,7)=100+INT(RND*100)

...

3310 DATA   0,  2,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3320 DATA   1,  3,  3,  0,  0,  0,  0
3330 DATA   2,  0,  5,  2,  0,  0,  0
3340 DATA   0,  5,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3350 DATA   4,  0,  0,  3, 15, 13,  0
3360 DATA   0,  0,  1,  0,  0,  0,  0
3370 DATA   0,  8,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3380 DATA   7, 10,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3390 DATA   0, 19,  0,  8,  0,  8,  0
3400 DATA   8,  0, 11,  0,  0,  0,  0
3410 DATA   0,  0, 10,  0,  0,  0,  0
3420 DATA   0,  0,  0, 13,  0,  0,  0
3430 DATA   0,  0, 12,  0,  5,  0,  0
3440 DATA   0, 15, 17,  0,  0,  0,  0
3450 DATA  14,  0,  0,  0,  0,  5,  0
3460 DATA  17,  0, 19,  0,  0,  0,  0
3470 DATA  18, 16,  0, 14,  0,  0,  0
3480 DATA   0, 17,  0,  0,  0,  0,  0
3490 DATA   9,  0, 16,  0,  0,  0,  0
Again, I’ve tweaked this code to improve readability, including adding indention on the loops, “modern-style”, and spacing to make the DATA statements form a “table”.

What’s this code doing?

  • Line 2690 defines an array (DIM) with two dimensions9 (19 by 7). This will store room data, an approach that allows code to be shared between all rooms: much cleaner than my first attempt at an adventure with each room having its own INPUT handler.
  • The two-level loop on lines 2700 through 2730 populates the room data from the DATA blocks. Nowadays you’d probably put that data in a separate file (probably JSON!). Each “row” represents a room, 1 to 19. Each “column” represents the room you end up at if you travel in a given direction: North, South, East, West, Up, or Down. The seventh column – always zero – represents whether a monster (negative number) or treasure (positive number) is found in that room. This column perhaps needn’t have been included: I imagine it’s a holdover from some previous version in which the locations of some or all of the treasures or monsters were hard-coded.
  • The loop beginning on line 2850 selects seven rooms and adds a random amount of treasure to each. The loop beginning on line 2920 places each of six monsters (numbered -1 through -6) in randomly-selected rooms. In both cases, the start and finish rooms, and any room with a treasure or monster, is ineligible. When my 8-year-old self finally deciphered what was going on I was awestruck at this simple approach to making the game dynamic.
  • Rooms 4 and 16 always receive treasure (lines 29702980), replacing any treasure or monster already there: the Private Meeting Room (always worth a diversion!) and the Treasury, respectively.
  • Curiously, room 9 (the lift) defines three exits, even though it’s impossible to take an action in this location: the player teleports to room 10 on arrival! Again, I assume this is vestigal code from an earlier implementation.
  • The “checksum” that’s tested on line 2740 is cute, and a younger me appreciated deciphering it. I’m not convinced it’s necessary (it sums all of the values in the DATA statements and expects 355 to limit tampering) though, or even useful: it certainly makes it harder to modify the rooms, which may undermine the code’s value as a teaching aid!
Map showing the layout of the castle in video game "Werewolves and the Wanderer". Entering from outside the castle, to the West, the player must progress through the ground floor, up the stairwell in the Inner Hallway, into the Lift, and then East to the exit, but there are several opportunities to diverge from this path and e.g. explore the dungeons or various dead ends on the ground or first floors.
By the time I was 10, I knew this map so well that I could draw it perfectly from memory. I almost managed the same today, aged 42. That memory’s buried deep!

Something you might notice is missing is the room descriptions. Arrays in this language are strictly typed: this array can only contain integers and not strings. But there are other reasons: line length limitations would have required trimming some of the longer descriptions. Also, many rooms have dynamic content, usually based on random numbers, which would be challenging to implement in this way.

As a child, I did once try to refactor the code so that an eighth column of data specified the line number to which control should pass to display the room description. That’s a bit of a no-no from a “mixing data and logic” perspective, but a cool example of metaprogramming before I even knew it! This didn’t work, though: it turns out you can’t pass a variable to a Locomotive BASIC GOTO or GOSUB. Boo!10

An experimental program being run that attempts to GOSUB a variable, failing with a syntax error on the relevant line.
In hindsight, I could have tested the functionality before I refactored with a very simple program, but I was only around 10 or 11 and still had lots to learn!

Werewolves and Wanderer has many faults11. But I’m clearly not the only developer whose early skills were honed and improved by this game, or who hold a special place in their heart for it. Just while writing this post, I discovered:

A decade or so later, I’d be taking my first steps as a professional software engineer. A couple more decades later, I’m still doing it.

And perhaps that adventure -the one that’s occupied my entire adult life – was facilitated by this text-based one from the 1980s.

Footnotes

1 The game that had the biggest impact on my life, it might surprise you to hear, is not among the “top ten videogames that stole my life” that I wrote about almost exactly 16 years ago nor the follow-up list I published in its incomplete form three years later. Turns out that time and impact are not interchangable. Who knew?

2 The game is variously known as Werewolves and Wanderer, Werewolves and Wanderers, or Werewolves and the Wanderer. Or, on any system I’ve been on, WERE.BAS, WEREWOLF.BAS, or WEREWOLV.BAS, thanks to the CPC’s eight-point-three filename limit.

3 Additionally, it was thought that having to undertake the (painstakingly tiresome) process of manually re-entering the source code for a program might help teach you a little about the code and how it worked, although this depended very much on how readable the code and its comments were. Tragically, the more comprehensible some code is, the more long-winded the re-entry process.

4 The CPC’s got a fascinating history in its own right, but you can read that any time.

5 One of my favourite features of home microcomputers was that seconds after you turned them on, you could start programming. Your prompt was an interface to a programming language. That magic had begun to fade by the time DOS came to dominate (sure, you can program using batch files, but they’re neither as elegant nor sophisticated as any BASIC dialect) and was completely lost by the era of booting directly into graphical operating systems. One of my favourite features about the Web is that it gives you some of that magic back again: thanks to the debugger in a modern browser, you can “tinker” with other people’s code once more, right from the same tool you load up every time. (Unfortunately, mobile devices – which have fast become the dominant way for people to use the Internet – have reversed this trend again. Try to View Source on your mobile – if you don’t already know how, it’s not an easy job!)

6 In particular, one frustration I remember from my first text-based adventure was that I’d been unable to work around Locomotive BASIC’s lack of string escape sequences – not that I yet knew what such a thing would be called – in order to put quote marks inside a quoted string!

7 “Screen editors” is what we initially called what you’d nowadays call a “text editor”: an application that lets you see a page of text at the same time, move your cursor about the place, and insert text wherever you feel like. It may also provide features like copy/paste and optional overtyping. Screen editors require more resources (and aren’t suitable for use on a teleprinter) compared to line editors, which preceeded them. Line editors only let you view and edit a single line at a time, which is how most of my first 6 years of programming was done.

8 In a modern programming language, you might use while true or similar for a main game loop, but this requires pushing the “outside” position to the stack… and early BASIC dialects often had strict (and small, by modern standards) limits on stack height that would have made this a risk compared to simply calling a subroutine from one line and then jumping back to that line on the next.

9 A neat feature of Locomotive BASIC over many contemporary and older BASIC dialects was its support for multidimensional arrays. A common feature in modern programming languages, this language feature used to be pretty rare, and programmers had to do bits of division and modulus arithmetic to work around the limitation… which, I can promise you, becomes painful the first time you have to deal with an array of three or more dimensions!

10 In reality, this was rather unnecessary, because the ON x GOSUB command can – and does, in this program – accept multiple jump points and selects the one referenced by the variable x.

11 Aside from those mentioned already, other clear faults include: impenetrable controls unless you’ve been given instuctions (although that was the way at the time); the shopkeeper will penalise you for trying to spend money you don’t have, except on food, presumably as a result of programmer laziness; you can lose your flaming torch, but you can’t buy spares in advance (you can pay for more, and you lose the money, but you don’t get a spare); some of the line spacing is sometimes a little wonky; combat’s a bit of a drag; lack of feedback to acknowledge the command you enterted and that it was successful; WHAT’S WITH ALL THE CAPITALS; some rooms don’t adequately describe their exits; the map is a bit linear; etc.

× × × × ×

Twinebook – Printable Interactive Fiction

Twine 2 is a popular tool for making hypertext interactive fiction, but there’s something about physical printed “choose your own adventure”-style gamebooks that isn’t quite replicated when you’re playing on the Web. Maybe it’s the experience of keeping your finger in a page break to facilitate a “save point” for when you inevitably have to backtrack and try again?

Annabe enjoying Choose Your Own (Minecraft) Story books.
These are the first branching novels I’ve introduced her to for which she’s felt the need to take notes.

As a medium for interactive adventures, paper isn’t dead! Our 7-year-old is currently tackling the second part of a series of books by John Diary, the latest part of which was only published in December! But I worry that authors of printed interactive fiction might have a harder time than those producing hypertext versions. Keeping track of all of your cross-references and routes is harder than writing linear fiction, and in the hypertext

Hand-written note showing branching path story plan, from John Diary's Twitter.
John Diary tweeted about his process back in 2017 and it looks… more manual than I’d want.

Twinebook

So I’ve thrown together Twinebook, an experimental/prototype tool which aims to bring the feature-rich toolset of Twine to authors of paper-based interactive fiction. Simply: you upload your compiled Twine HTML to Twinebook and it gives you a printable PDF file, replacing the hyperlinks with references in the style of “turn to 27” to instruct the player where to go next. By default, the passages are all scrambled to keep it interesting, but with the starting passage in position 1… but it’s possible to override this for specific passages to facilitate puzzles that require flipping to specific numbered passages.

Thumb in the page of a Sorcery choose-your-own-adventure gamebook.
In some adventure games, keeping your thumb in the page feels like it’s essential.

Obviously, it doesn’t work with any kind of “advanced” Twine game – anything that makes use of variables, Javascript, etc., for example! – unless you can think of a way to translate these into the written word… which is certainly possible – see Fighting Fantasy‘s skill, stamina, luck and dice-rolling mechanics, for example! – but whether it’s desirable is up to individual authors.

If this tool is valuable to anybody, that’s great! Naturally I’ve open-sourced the whole thing so others can expand on it if they like. If you find it useful, let me know.

Twine screenshot showing many branching paths of the game "Inpatient".
Mapping a complex piece of interactive fiction is a job for a computer, not a human.

If you’re interested in the possibility of using Twine to streamline the production of printable interactive fiction, give my Twinebook prototype a try and let me know what you think.

× × ×

Mackerelmedia Fish

Normally this kind of thing would go into the ballooning dump of “things I’ve enjoyed on the Internet” that is my reposts archive. But sometimes something is so perfect that you have to try to help it see the widest audience it can, right? And today, that thing is: Mackerelmedia Fish.

Mackerelmedia Fish reports: WARNING! Your Fish have escaped!
Historical fact: escaped fish was one of the primary reasons for websites failing in 1996.

What is Mackerelmedia Fish? I’ve had a thorough and pretty complete experience of it, now, and I’m still not sure. It’s one or more (or none) of these, for sure, maybe:

  • A point-and-click, text-based, or hypertext adventure?
  • An homage to the fun and weird Web of yesteryear?
  • A statement about the fragility of proprietary technologies on the Internet?
  • An ARG set in a parallel universe in which the 1990s never ended?
  • A series of surrealist art pieces connected by a loose narrative?

Rock Paper Shotgun’s article about it opens with “I don’t know where to begin with this—literally, figuratively, existentially?” That sounds about right.

I stared into THE VOID and am OK!
This isn’t the reward for “winning” the “game”. But I was proud of it anyway.

What I can tell you with confident is what playing feels like. And what it feels like is the moment when you’ve gotten bored waiting for page 20 of Argon Zark to finish appear so you decide to reread your already-downloaded copy of the 1997 a.r.k bestof book, and for a moment you think to yourself: “Whoah; this must be what living in the future feels like!”

Because back then you didn’t yet have any concept that “living in the future” will involve scavenging for toilet paper while complaining that you can’t stream your favourite shows in 4K on your pocket-sized supercomputer until the weekend.

Dancing... thing?
I was always more of a Bouncing Blocks than a Hamster Dance guy, anyway.

Mackerelmedia Fish is a mess of half-baked puns, retro graphics, outdated browsing paradigms and broken links. And that’s just part of what makes it great.

It’s also “a short story that’s about the loss of digital history”, its creator Nathalie Lawhead says. If that was her goal, I think she managed it admirably.

An ASCII art wizard on a faux Apache directory listing page.
Everything about this, right down to the server signature (Artichoke), is perfect.

If I wasn’t already in love with the game already I would have been when I got to the bit where you navigate through the directory indexes of a series of deepening folders, choose-your-own-adventure style. Nathalie writes, of it:

One thing that I think is also unique about it is using an open directory as a choose your own adventure. The directories are branching. You explore them, and there’s text at the bottom (an htaccess header) that describes the folder you’re in, treating each directory as a landscape. You interact with the files that are in each of these folders, and uncover the story that way.

Back in the naughties I experimented with making choose-your-own-adventure games in exactly this way. I was experimenting with different media by which this kind of branching-choice game could be presented. I envisaged a project in which I’d showcase the same (or a set of related) stories through different approaches. One was “print” (or at least “printable”): came up with a Twee1-to-PDF converter to make “printable” gamebooks. A second was Web hypertext. A third – and this is the one which was most-similar to what Nathalie has now so expertly made real – was FTP! My thinking was that this would be an adventure game that could be played in a browser or even from the command line on any (then-contemporary: FTP clients aren’t so commonplace nowadays) computer. And then, like so many of my projects, the half-made version got put aside “for later” and forgotten about. My solution involved abusing the FTP protocol terribly, but it worked.

(I also looked into ways to make Gopher-powered hypertext fiction and toyed with the idea of using YouTube annotations to make an interactive story web [subsequently done amazingly by Wheezy Waiter, though the death of YouTube annotations in 2017 killed it]. And I’ve still got a prototype I’d like to get back to, someday, of a text-based adventure played entirely through your web browser’s debug console…! But time is not my friend… Maybe I ought to collaborate with somebody else to keep me on-course.)

Three virtual frogs. One needs a hug.
My first batch of pet frogs died quite quickly, but these ones did okay.

In any case: Mackerelmedia Fish is fun, weird, nostalgic, inspiring, and surreal, and you should give it a go. You’ll need to be on a Windows or OS X computer to get everything you can out of it, but there’s nothing to stop you starting out on your mobile, I imagine.

Sso long as you’re capable of at least 800 × 600 at 256 colours and have 4MB of RAM, if you know what I mean.

× × × ×

Bus Station, Unbound

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Back in February my friend Katie shared with me an already four-year-old piece of interactive fiction, Bus Station: Unbound, that I’d somehow managed to miss the first time around. In the five months since then I’ve periodically revisited and played through it and finally gotten around to writing a review:

All of the haunting majesty of its subject, and a must-read-thrice plot

Perhaps it helps to be as intimately familiar with Preston Bus Station – in many ways, the subject of the piece – as the protagonist. This work lovingly and faithfully depicts the space and the architecture in a way that’s hauntingly familiar to anybody who knows it personally: right down to the shape of the rubberised tiles near the phone booths, the forbidding shadows of the underpass, and the buildings that can be surveyed from its roof.

But even without such a deep recognition of the space… which, ultimately, soon comes to diverge from reality and take on a different – darker, otherworldly – feel… there’s a magic to the writing of this story. The reader is teased with just enough backstory to provide a compelling narrative without breaking the first-person illusion. No matter how many times you play (and I’ve played quite a few!), you’ll be left with a hole of unanswered questions, and you’ll need to be comfortable with that to get the most out of the story, but that in itself is an important part of the adventure. This is a story of a young person who doesn’t – who can’t – know everything that they need to bring them comfort in the (literally and figuratively) cold and disquieting world that surrounds them, and it’s a world that’s presented with a touching and tragic beauty.

Through multiple playthroughs – or rewinds, which it took me a while to notice were an option! – you’ll find yourself teased with more and more of the story. There are a few frankly-unfair moments where an unsatisfactory ending comes with little or no warning, and a handful of places where it feels like your choices are insignificant to the story, but these are few and far between. Altogether this is among the better pieces of hypertext fiction I’ve enjoyed, and I’d recommend that you give it a try (even if you don’t share the love-hate relationship with Preston Bus Station that is so common among those who spent much of their youth sitting in it).

It’s no secret that I spent a significant proportion of my youth waiting for or changing buses at (the remarkable) Preston Bus Station, and that doubtless biases my enjoyment of this game by tingeing it with nostalgia. But I maintain that it’s a well-written piece of hypertext interactive fiction with a rich, developed world. You can play it starting from here, and you should. It looks like the story’s accompanying images died somewhere along the way, but you can flick through them all here and get a feel for the shadowy, brutalist, imposing place.

Shadows Out of Time

You may recall that on Halloween I mentioned that the Bodleian had released a mini choose-your-own-adventure-like adventure game book, available freely online. I decided that this didn’t go quite far enough and I’ve adapted it into a hypertext game, below. (This was also an excuse for me to play with Chapbook, Chris Klimas‘s new under-development story format for Twine.

Shadows Out of Time: A Bodleian Choose Your Own Destiny Story

If the thing you were waiting for before you experienced Shadows Out of Time was it to be playable in your browser, wait no longer: click here to play the game…

Further reading: IFDB entry.

Note #11557

Today, @bodleianlibs releases Shadows Out of Time, a Choose-Your-Own-Destiny story. It’s amazing – go read it: https://s.danq.me/Np #halloween #InteractiveFiction

Oat the Goat

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Oat the Goat (oatthegoat.co.nz)

Oh my Goat! We just finished reading this awesome pick-a-path story that helps children learn the power of kindness. Have a go… #OatTheGoat

Oat the Goat

Discovered this fun interactive storybook; it tells the tale of a goat called Oat who endeavours to climb a mountain (making friends along the way). At a few points, it presents as a “choose your own adventure”-style book (although the forks are artificial and making the “wrong” choice immediately returns you the previous page), but it still does a reasonable job at looking at issues of bullying and diversity.

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

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EEBO-TCP Hackathon

Last month I got the opportunity to attend the EEBO-TCP Hackfest, hosted in the (then still very-much under construction) Weston Library at my workplace. I’ve done a couple of hackathons and similar get-togethers before, but this one was somewhat different in that it was unmistakably geared towards a different kind of geek than the technology-minded folks that I usually see at these things. People like me, with a computer science background, were remarkably in the minority.

Dan Q in Blackwell Hall, at the Weston Library.
Me in the Weston Library (still under construction, as evidenced by the scaffolding in the background).

Instead, this particular hack event attracted a great number of folks from the humanities end of the spectrum. Which is understandable, given its theme: the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) is an effort to digitise and make available in marked-up, machine-readable text formats a huge corpus of English-language books printed between 1475 and 1700. So: a little over three centuries of work including both household names (like Shakespeare, Galileo, Chaucer, Newton, Locke, and Hobbes) and an enormous number of others that you’ll never have heard of.

Dan Q talks to academic Stephen Gregg
After an introduction to the concept and the material, attendees engaged in a speed-networking event to share their thoughts prior to pitching their ideas.

The hackday event was scheduled to coincide with and celebrate the release of the first 25,000 texts into the public domain, and attendees were challenged to come up with ways to use the newly-available data in any way they liked. As is common with any kind of hackathon, many of the attendees had come with their own ideas half-baked already, but as for me: I had no idea what I’d end up doing! I’m not particularly familiar with the books of the 15th through 17th centuries and I’d never looked at the way in which the digitised texts had been encoded. In short: I knew nothing.

Dan Q and Liz McCarthy listen as other attendees pitch their ideas.
The ideas pitch session quickly showed some overlap between different project ideas, and teams were split and reformed a few times as people found the best places for themselves.

Instead, I’d thought: there’ll be people here who need a geek. A major part of a lot of the freelance work I end up doing (and a lesser part of my work at the Bodleian, from time to time) involves manipulating and mining data from disparate sources, and it seemed to me that these kinds of skills would be useful for a variety of different conceivable projects.

Dan Q explains what the spreadsheet he's produced 'means'.
XML may have been our interchange format, but everything fell into Excel in the end for speedy management even by less-technical team members.

I paired up with a chap called Stephen Gregg, a lecturer in 18th century literature from Bath Spa University. His idea was to use this newly-open data to explore the frequency (and the change in frequency over the centuries) of particular structural features in early printed fiction: features like chapters, illustrations, dedications, notes to the reader, encomia, and so on). This proved to be a perfect task for us to pair-up on, because he had the domain knowledge to ask meaningful questions, and I had the the technical knowledge to write software that could extract the answers from the data. We shared our table with another pair, who had technically-similar goals – looking at the change in the use of features like lists and tables (spoiler: lists were going out of fashion, tables were coming in, during the 17th century) in alchemical textbooks – and ultimately I was able to pass on the software tools I’d written to them to adapt for their purposes, too.

Dan Q with two academic-minded humanities folks, talking about their hackathon projects.
A quick meeting on the relative importance of ‘chapters’ as a concept in 16th century literature. Half of the words that the academics are saying go over my head, but I’m formulating XPath queries in my head while I wait.

And here’s where I made a discovery: the folks I was working with (and presumably academics of the humanities in general) have no idea quite how powerful data mining tools could be in giving them new opportunities for research and analysis. Within two hours we were getting real results from our queries and were making amendments and refinements in our questions and trying again. Within a further two hours we’d exhausted our original questions and, while the others were writing-up their findings in an attractive way, I was beginning to look at how the structural differences between fiction and non-fiction might be usable as a training data set for an artificial intelligence that could learn to differentiate between the two, providing yet more value from the dataset. And all the while, my teammates – who’d been used to looking at a single book at a time – were amazed by the possibilities we’d uncovered for training computers to do simple tasks while reading thousands at once.

Laptop showing a map of the area around Old St. Paul's Cathedral.
The area around Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was the place to be if you were a 16th century hipster looking for a new book.

Elsewhere at the hackathon, one group was trying to simulate the view of the shelves of booksellers around the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, another looked at the change in the popularity of colour and fashion-related words over the period (especially challenging towards the beginning of the timeline, where spelling of colours was less-standardised than towards the end), and a third came up with ways to make old playscripts accessible to modern performers.

A graph showing the frequency of colour-related words in English-language books printed over three centuries.
Aside from an increase in the relative frequency of the use of colour words to describe yellow things, there’s not much to say about this graph.

At the end of the session we presented our findings – by which I mean, Stephen explained what they meant – and talked about the technology and its potential future impact – by which I mean, I said what we’d like to allow others to do with it, if they’re so-inclined. And I explained how I’d come to learn over the course of the day what the word encomium meant.

Dan Q presents findings in Excel.
Presenting our findings in amazing technicolour Excel.

My personal favourite contribution from the event was by Sarah Cole, who adapted the text of a story about a witch trial into a piece of interactive fiction, powered by Twine/Twee, and then allowed us as an audience to collectively “play” her game. I love the idea of making old artefacts more-accessible to modern audiences through new media, and this was a fun and innovative way to achieve this. You can even play her game online!

(by the way: for those of you who enjoy my IF recommendations: have a look at Detritus; it’s a delightful little experimental/experiential game)

Output from the interactive fiction version of a story about a witch trial.
Things are about to go very badly for Joan Buts.

But while that was clearly my favourite, the judges were far more impressed by the work of my teammate and I, as well as the team who’d adapted my software and used it to investigate different features of the corpus, and decided to divide the cash price between the four of us. Which was especially awesome, because I hadn’t even realised that there was a prize to be had, and I made the most of it at the Drinking About Museums event I attended later in the day.

Members of the other team, who adapted my software, were particularly excited to receive their award.
Cold hard cash! This’ll be useful at the bar, later!

If there’s a moral to take from all of this, it’s that you shouldn’t let your background limit your involvement in “hackathon”-like events. This event was geared towards literature, history, linguistics, and the study of the book… but clearly there was value in me – a computer geek, first and foremost – being there. Similarly, a hack event I attended last year, while clearly tech-focussed, wouldn’t have been as good as it was were it not for the diversity of the attendees, who included a good number of artists and entrepreneurs as well as the obligatory hackers.

Stephen and Dan give a congratulatory nod to one another.
“Nice work, Stephen.” “Nice work, Dan.”

But for me, I think the greatest lesson is that humanities researchers can benefit from thinking a little bit like computer scientists, once in a while. The code I wrote (which uses Ruby and Nokogiri) is freely available for use and adaptation, and while I’ve no idea whether or not it’ll ever be useful to anybody again, what it represents is the research benefits of inter-disciplinary collaboration. It pleases me to see things like the “Library Carpentry” (software for research, with a library slant) seeming to take off.

And yeah, I love a good hackathon.

Update 2015-04-22 11:59: with thanks to Sarah for pointing me in the right direction, you can play the witch trial game in your browser.

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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)

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Bee

Bee, by Emily Short
Bee, by Emily Short, uses the Varytale platform to produce a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style tale that’s insightful and compelling.

On account of having a busy life, I only just recently got around to playing Bee, Emily Short‘s interactive book on the Varytale platform. Varytale is one of a number of recent attempts to make a modern, computerised system for “choose your own adventure“-style fiction, alongside the likes of Undum, Choice Of Games, and my personal favourite, Twine/Twee. As a beta author for the platform, Emily was invited to put her book on the front page of the Varytale website, and it’s well worth a look.

Bee is the story of a young girl, home-schooled by her frugal and religious parents. After a few short and somewhat-linear opening chapters, options are opened up to the reader… and it doesn’t take long before you’re immersed in the protagonist’s life. Her relationships with her sister, her parents, and the children from the local homeschool co-operative and from her church can be explored and developed, while she tries to find time – and motivation – to study for the local, regional and national spelling bees that are her vocational focus.

The choices you make will affect her motivation, her spelling proficiency, and her relationships, and in doing so open up different choices towards one of the book’s four possible endings. But that’s not what makes this piece magical (and, in fact, “choose your own adventure”-style games can actually feel a little limiting to fans of conventional interactive fiction):

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Minor spoilers below: you might like to play Bee for yourself, first.[/spb_message]

What’s so inspirational about this story is the compelling realism from the characters. Initially, I found it somewhat difficult to relate to them: I know next to nothing about the US education system, don’t “get” spelling bees (apparently they’re a big thing over there), and certainly can’t put myself in the position of a home-schooled American girl with a super-religious family background! But before long, I was starting to really feel for the character and beginning to see how her life fit together.

To begin with, I saw the national spelling bee as a goal, and my “spelling” score as a goal. I read the book like I play The Sims: efficiently balancing the character’s time to keep her motivation up, so that I could get the best out of her cramming sessions with her flashcards. Under my guidance, the character became highly-academic and driven by achievement.

Spelling Bee (British TV show)
Apparently there existed a short-lived British game show called Spelling Bee, which was on television way back in 1938! Click the picture for more information.

After I’d won the local spelling bee with flying colours, I came to understand how the game actually worked. Suddenly, I didn’t need to study so hard any more. Sure, it was important to get some flashcard-time in now and then, but there were bigger things going on: making sure that my little sister got the upbringing that she deserved; doing my bit to ease the strain on my family as financial pressures forced us into an even-more-frugal lifestyle; finding my place among the other children – and adults – in my life, and in the church.

By the time I made it to the national spelling bee, I didn’t even care that I didn’t win. It was almost a bigger deal to my mother than to me. I thought back to the blurb for the story:

Sooner or later, you’re going to lose. Only one person wins the National Spelling Bee each year, so an elementary understanding of the odds means it almost certainly won’t be you.

The only question is when you fail, and why.

Then, everything made a little more sense. This was never a story about a spelling bee. The spelling bee is a framing device. The story is about growing up, and about finding your place in the world, and about coming to an age where you can see that your parents are not all-knowing, not all-understanding, far from perfect and with limits and problems of their own. And it’s a story about what you do with that realisation.

And it’s really pretty good. Go have a play.

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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.

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The Play

It’s that time again, the highlight of the interactive fiction year (for me, at least), and IFComp 2011 is upon us. I’ve been playing my way through this year’s entries, and – as I have in previous years – I’ll be sharing with you any that leap out at me as “things you really ought to try.”

The first of which is The Play, by Deirdra Kiai. This entry stands out for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s one of those uncommon (but growing in popularity) pieces of hypertext IF. I remain not-completely convinced by hypertext IF: perhaps as a result of the medium, the games often feel shorter than they might otherwise be, and while I don’t miss playing “hunt the verb” to try to find exactly the word the designer hoped I would, having the option to click on any one of just a handful of links seems a little… simple.

Play the game online here.

The Play, a recent piece of hypertext interactive fiction

That’s not to say that I don’t like the medium: hell, I feel like I was a pioneer in it, thanks to things like Troma Night Adventure (originally on the long-dead RockMonkey Wiki, and revived in its own engine last year). It’s just… different from most IF that I play, and that difference is stark.

If there’s one big advantage to hypertext interactive fiction, though, it’s that it lowers the barrier to entry. Everybody knows how to use a web browser, there’s nothing to install or set up, and they typically play really well on mobile devices, which is a growing market for this kind of game. I’m excited to see tools like Twine/Twee, ChoiceScript, and Undum (the latter of which powers The Play) appearing, which make creating this kind of game reasonably easy.

Secondly; it’s unusual. And I do enjoy a bit of quirky fiction: something that takes the genre in a new direction. And The Play does that. You play as Ainsley M. Warrington, the director of a disaster-ridden play on the eve of the first night, orchestrating a last-second dress rehearsal. The story is told through alternating segments of your experience and “script”: segments of the play as they are performed (which may vary, depending on how lenient you allow the cast the be with the script and how much goes awry), and this is a wonderful use of the semi-graphical nature of the medium.

Mostly, you’re trying to balance and improve the moods of your cast members (and your stage manager), in order to gain a good review. This is made challenging by the fact that they all have quite different ideas and attitudes towards the nature of the play, how it should be performed, and so on. They only thing that they all seem to agree on is that you’re not doing a very good job.

But beyond that theoretical (and, frankly, self-imposed) goal, it’s actually a lot of fun just to play off the different actors against one another, to experiment with how much you can improvise the ending, and to see how things turn out if you try different choices. And that’s exactly how interactive fiction ought to be. Like a good book, I want to be able to read it again and again. But unlike traditional fiction, I can enjoy it in profoundly different ways based on my moods and whims.

It’s a little short, but quite beautiful for it. There’s certainly plenty of reasonably well-written text to amuse and entertain. I’d thoroughly recommend that you give it a go, whether you’re an IF veteran or if you’ve never played this kind of game before in your life: play The Play in your web browser. And then play it again to see how much of a difference you can make in this well-crafted and inspiring little world.

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