Thursday, May 7, 2015

but what have I turned to recently?

So, it's been a while, faithful old gamebook / hyperfiction blog. Did I convert all the branching narratives?
Looking forward to crossing that one off my list, but we're not there yet.

Not quite. Have I reported on all the new works? Not even close. Life got complicated, free time took a hit and I had to withdraw to a core two primary blogs, leaving my extended projects, including this one, somewhat dangling in the breeze. But I'd noticed that the traffic here had remained constant and continual at a low level (albeit one exceeding that of my more active projects), so I might be well-advised to toss it a bone. (I know that the majority of the traffic is one person stumbling across the blog weekly, then lawn-mowing one game down to the ground with a thousand clicks, but humour me. Unlike my other most popular blogging project, at least I know here my traffic isn't misreported Google Image Search plunderers availing themselves of my goodies without ever appreciating my exhaustive commentary!)

I kept finding excellent candidates for the time- and labour-intensive process of hypertext HTML conversion, and when I followed due diligence and successfully made contact with the creators for permission and blessing, they kept opting out. Really? You want your text to maintain its mute integrity inside its PDF fortress? (I suppose that is the selling point of the PDF format.) You want your story to live out its lifespan on laminated sheets of letter paper for three weeks, then disappear forever? Turns out -- that is what they wanted. Go figure. (One renowned author, upon seeing what I had done with a colleague's work, pre-emptively forbade me explicitly from giving the same treatment to his works.) Then the last straw was finding old works I'd been intermittently converting in spare moments over the weeks, months and years being picked back up by their authors and converted just like I'm doing, only better-done and with the official authorial imprimatur. Good on them for doing my work for me! But it takes the wind out of my sails and leave me twiddling my thumbs a bit, to be fair. All well, I have many other matters to attend to anyhow!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these matters include playing games. A curious consequence of the way my time is spent now that I've achieved full-time employment is that nearly all of my discretionary computing time is on mobile devices rather than keyboard-equipped machines. Consequently (because pounding out phone books with your thumbs and autocorrect is madness), blogging and creative projects diminish dramatically. But on the plus side, I've had an opportunity to acquaint myself with some of the new titans of what I consider to be my field. In short, since it washed up in a recent Humble Mobile Sale, I've had a great time whiling away quite a number of minutes trying to laboriously crack the remote nuts of obscured bonus content from Inkle's award-winning 80 Days, a steampunk take on the Jules Verne classic.

The first thing I had to do upon resolving my first, unsuccessful attempt to circumnavigate the globe in the allotted time limit (confounded Hong Kong opium den!) was to fire it up again and try a different route. Within a week I had logged a couple of dozen replays -- no small beans feat given the substantial end-to-end time it takes to achieve a playthrough -- exploring alternate avenues and subplots like the Polar expedition and the mid-Atlantic murder mystery. It had never even occurred to me that the Gastown that would periodically come up within game conversations was my own local historical boomtown (maybe we can get Barkerville in some future expanseion?) and I will not be satisfied until I can figure out how to log an appearance there along my intercontinental voyages and ask Gassy Jack about his historical steam clock. This is an amazing triumph for Jon Ingold of Inkle Studios, a longtime interactive fiction creator who'd long suspected there was untapped potential in choice-based narratives in his earlier public CYOA engines Adventure Book and (far more recently) Inklewriter, as well as his own games The Intercept (a bit of Turing-inspired suspense) and A Colder Light (a rhapsody on colonization and progress), plus groundbreaking work adapting and vastly expanding Steve Jackson's Sorcery! gamebooks (part 3, one of my very first childhood gamebook experiences, recently released!)

(But in throwing Jon's complete cv at you, don't let me completely obfuscate the essential contributions of 80 Days' main writer, Meg Jayanth! The game's elegant and seamless structure was a beautiful vessel, and she tirelessly filled it with amazing content.)

The problem with these deep games which will only give up 10% of their content in a given playthrough is that if you're enjoying them, you have to keep playing over and over again to tease out more of the hidden goodies! At least with a canvas the size of the globe, there are many entirely discrete avenues; I've also been catching up on some recent offerings from Choice of Games, which are more about running different kinds of characters through the same series of plot beats and appreciating the different shades everything is coloured with. Up to a point, I slavishly covered every permutation of every Choice of Games title; then, two opposite things happened: my free time plummeted dramatically, and their rate of game release skyrocketed. This means that I'm quite behind -- and yet, these things can't just be ploughed through as they must be visited and revisited to coax out the tweaks and twists! But eventually a jaded game critic can blitz through a well-thumbed COG title on autopilot, sensitive only to extraordinary differences standing out.

It's just been too long for me to report on the unique (well, shades of the MIB film franchise) Yeti Parole Officer and Neighbourhood Necromancer before it to give a fair report on them, but it's a moot point as they've been wildly overshadowed by more recent successes. Choice of Robots has emerged as a bona fide Steam hit, with people posting drawings from their playthroughs on Tumblr, and I haven't had opportunity to play it enough times to have much insight to add about it (fatal error on my part -- buying a desktop copy rather than a mobile one... though wouldn't it be nice if games could be buy-once, play-anywhere?) -- but fortunately, it needs none, its happy accident success clearing the way for further Choice of Games appearances in the Steam store.

I came in to The Hero of Kendrickstone prepared to dislike it: an apparently generic high fantasy setting, a ridiculous placename, and by a local author whose previous workmanlike titles, Sabres of Infinity and Mecha Ace, belied a consummate command over a genre -- cinematic militarism -- that wasn't really to my taste. Even after the first couple of playthroughs I wasn't sure what to think of it until I was struck over the head by the realization that here was a spiritual successor to my beloved Quest For Glory series, the stand-out from Sierra's punishing line of Quest adventure games. As in those, here is a scenario concerning a developing hero, free to pursue class specialization but never confined to class-appropriate approaches for solving puzzles. Naturally there is less arcade action and a lower emphasis on inventory puzzles, plus the pun ratio is way down, but the inheritance of the QFG legacy regardless seems clear, in retrospect, and that's a good thing.

Choice of the Petal Throne, conversely, is like nothing else out there, based on M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel -- a disorienting blend of Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica and South Asia. This title went through three shades of vaporware development hell, placing 3rd in 2011's IntroComp and then... falling off the map for four years. Though the campaign setting is contemporary to Tolkien's Middle-Earth, its world is considerably fresher, doubtless due to its not having been run into the ground for some 75 years. Sometimes the variety spice can feel a bit overliberally-applied, baffling readers with the "Call a rabbit a smeerp" factor -- once in a while you hit a page that just doesn't make any sense, but you keep a stiff upper lip and plough on through and eventually things make sense again. The main problem here is similar to other COG games and the first superhero movie of every trilogy: so much time and effort is invested into the early-game character-development (COG actually weighs the impacts of choices differently depending on where in the story they occur!) that by the time you're up to speed, playing the "you" that you've built and defined, it can feel that there's not a heck of a lot of story remaining in the game -- a couple of teaser episodes, then it's ta ta. (Now imagine if all the COG games, instead of unanimously suffering this problem, all built on each other with one epic mega serialized story? Admittedly it's impossible for many reasons, their only fully-successful serial work being the Choice of Romance trilogy -- half points for story extensions in Zombie Exodus -- but more to the point, these games are all explorations into different genres. If I think Tékumel is confusing, that's nothing compared to my SF adventure turning into a murder mystery, which leads into a Western and a samurai tale. If genre-hopping is baked into the premise, then it can be fun, but it's not, so this is a fruitless line of pontification. Next, then!)

Their most recent title (and let's see if I can get this post published while that's still the case!) is Hollywood Visionary, a refreshing departure from Aaron Reed of Blue Lacuna fame (and more recently of such weighty pieces as Ice-Bound (in progress) and maybe make some change aka "maybe i'm the bad guy".) Here he gets to take a break and have some fun, interposing a gentle Game Dev Story style film studio simulation with playful Pleasantville '50s tropes, all against a backdrop of a McCarthyist witch hunt. Plus Reed throws in an unforgettable zany Orson Welles cameo that taps into his madcap Gourmet mode that you thought you'd never see again! The game is quite linear -- all players proceed through the same nodes at the same pace, with the in-game player-responsiveness limited to (admittedly extensive) set dressing and Morton's Forks which hint at further, unexplored possibilities beyond the scope of this game. All the same, as Daft Punk would say: it's good fun.

Though COG's mouthpiece is hooked up directly to my ear, as noted I've been missing out on all kinds of amazing games they've been putting out -- Psy High and Thieves' Gambit for instance -- which I may need to give big, juicy belated reviews to. And what's more, there have been a bevy of their hosted games that flew right under my radar despite being exactly the sort of thing I'm always keeping my eyes open for: a Lovecraft horror game by the author of Tin Star? (You know: Tin Star, the best Western genre game ever made, currently undergoing a Steam Greenlight campaign?) They made a game about the Spanish Civil War and I didn't find out about it until how long? That was a shock like first hearing about Ready Player One, a book which was custom-written for me with a laser-like precision, by finding it in my mailbox one morning years after its publication date. Basically: Choice of Games has gotten so big (well over a year ago I initiated interview proceedings with them by making the observation that they had at that point published more adventure games than Infocom ever did!) that the titans in the catalogue are overshadowing the very existence of a mass quantity of perfectly serviceable games (plus Tin Star, in my estimation the greatest work yet written in ChoiceScript) thriving in the undergrowth beneath its canopy. It's, uh, a rich ecosystem.

Then there's the elephant in the room: Tin Man Games held a Humble Sale, and though I had some time ago bought their Gamebook Adventures titles on sale in the Apple Store, our iOS devices conked out not long after and I suffered the sting of having bought still-maintained games and being unable to play or review them. Their segue into inheritors of the Fighting Fantasy legacy seemed almost inevitable, also ingratiating them to me in their commitment to converting more gamebook titles beyond the same three or four which had been covered over and over again. (I have a soft spot for FF gamebooks; looking back at them, the soft spot must be located in my skull, since the games are brutal and their difficulty is largely derived from factors which are external to fun gameplay. But we don't get to choose our nostalgia, we just look back fondly on whatever we're dealt.)

Fighting Fantasy is not the only license they've picked up; there are other classic franchises under their roof but the elephant in question is not The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, but rather Hamlet... which is to say, its choose-your-own-adventure adaptation by Ryan "Dinosaur Comics" North, the man who Kickstarted a half-million dollars to turn Shakespeare's play into a gamebook entitled To Be, Or Not To Be.

It's an odd duck. There is good work here -- clever, postmodern (surely everything pomo is good, right?) and even occasionally important, as in the investigation of the awesome, modern life Ophelia might have enjoyed if she had not allowed herself to get sucked into Hamlet's consistently making the worst choice possible. But to get there, you have to penetrate a dense layer of self-indulgence (just how critical is a Hamlet version of Will Smith's theme to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air?) and accessibility. I know, that last bit will sound contradictory, but let me unpack a bit: the game desperately wants to be your friend, but at the same point, like an adult trying to be hip and jive teenagers in their own savvy lingo, the effect is kind of repellent. For an unsophisticated hyperfiction -- following the Choose Your Own Adventure model rather than a gamebook system of state tracking -- it does well, even providing skully signposting allowing readers to play along with the version of the plot Shakespeare foolishly (if dramatically) opted to present. Every ending has an illustration, but anyone serious about lawnmowing the game (which rewards the patient with substantial isolated story sections) will avoid filling their illustration gallery because achieving the pictures interferes with the game's rewind function, checkpoints being located so far back as to be unuseful. In conclusion: it's epic and awesome, but perhaps better served in 10-minute read/play sessions over a week than over hours of frenzied reading and re-reading over a couple of feverish evenings. There's a reason Dinosaur Comics is so much more appealing in a 6-panel format rather than a 600-panel one.

And of course, I just had another article published in the latest issue of SPAG, hot off the presses! I cover the most "recent" regular topic here in this blog, The Active Fiction Project -- choose your own adventure printed on laminated cards on city sidewalks, for those just now tuning in.

And there you have it. Why write one review a month when I can store them up and write 12 reviews, once a year? I figure that this site is probably better served maintaining its earlier character and remaining primarily as a preserve for the games hosted here; I have plenty of reviews I could write (I maintain an off-site collection of literally hundreds of children's gamebooks and solitaire adventures) but if I do go down that route (hopefully, because really, what else am I going to do with them all?) I probably will lift up stakes and resettle at the site name we came up with when the CRPG Addict was discussing New World Computing's CRPG adaptation of Flying Buffalo's Tunnels & Trolls tabletop RPG (expansively packed with content from its numerous solitaire adventures): The CYOA Addict.

But even that is probably off the table until my kids are old enough to read the books with me and weigh in, so I'll see you there in a few years (don't worry, at this pace that will probably be measured out in four or five posts here 8)