Sunday, February 24, 2013

head in the sand

The other month, I released "The Next Day," a short art-y game. Now, it does several experimental things and has sort of odd emphases for a text adventure, so I was logically prepared for ambivalent responses. Knowing that, I should be pretty happy with its reception so far, as it has gotten a lukewarm-to-somewhat-warmer reception, but mainly, I am just reminded how much I hate getting criticism, no matter how helpfully constructive.

I mean, I do want to get better as a designer so I should want to hear what people have to say (and my games have been improved by things I've been told), but on the other hand, all I really have to keep me moving forward in this hobby is my enthusiasm and people-not-enjoying-your-vision is a severe enthusiasm dampener, to the point where I wonder if I should try to release games as secretly as possible.

I'm a big hypocrite, too, since when reviewing other people's games, I don't hold back on weaknesses, and I hate to think how many people's enthusiasms I have dampened. Emily Short (wow, mentioned her 2 or 3 posts in a row!) started a blog the other month called Shiny Happy IF Reviews- or something like that- where the rule is, you can only say nice things about any given game. It's funny, because it's a great idea yet there's still some part of me that makes me think that only saying nice things is kind of insincere. I think I'll have to eventually rewire my brain on this one.

It's also a reminder that I probably work best when I cut myself off of all sorts of distraction- not just criticism, so there's that, too.

Credit Where it's Due

Since writing that last blog post, there have been several instances where I've been reminded about the crazy advances we've had in IF over the last bunch of years (so yeah, the exact opposite of the last post's point). Truth be told, while I occasionally harbor certain frustrations towards how I perceive the IF community's stances on things to be, I can't say always say where the root of my frustrations lie.

Recently, Emily Short announced Versu, an IF platform with extensive state-tracking, where NPC-emotions are especially acknowledged. Beyond that, no input from the PC is especially required, so it's entirely possible to sit in with two NPCs and just watch them gab. It might sound like something out of The Sims (except not in Simlish, or whatever they call it), which makes sense, since some Sims 3 guy was also a collaborator.

Now, I'm not personally interested in such a system (which is just as well, as it is currently just on iOS devices), but to me, it kind of sounds like the actualization as the ideal presented by "Storytron" some years ago, a system by Chris Crawford that also placed a big emphasis on character emotions.

When one thinks about it, we have seen a lot of idea actualization over the last several years. You've got Guncho's multiplayer worlds (or TADS 3's capabilities). You've got dynamic object creation in several languages. You've got beautiful-looking GUIs. Emily Short's latest game, Counterfeit Monkey, has a word-letter-dropping mechanic that actually indexes every word's letters, like Hugo's string arrays except on steroids (as far as I understand it).

In a way, it's no wonder that there are Inform 7 games that run sluggishly in browsers and low-end computers, considering all the things they are doing. I mean, sure, part of me thinks that effort should have been spent making sure status lines defaulted to something pretty so all of the low-end games look nice, too, but you can't say that the Inform folks aren't doing lofty things.

Recently, I played Spellcasting 101 for the first time. I was struck with how much the Legend Entertainment interface is a continuation of the Z6 design ideal (it's kind of an obvious observation- I don't know why it took me so long to notice). The thing is, to pursue it, the Legend guys totally dropped the portability of the z-machine. The result is, we have nearly a decade of Legend games that can't be run by cross-system interpreters. It both softens the blow that Infocom guys also gave up on that dream and is encouraging that Inform development is getting to the point where we can succeed where they failed. Juhana Leinonen's Vorple system might be able to do just that.

Now, while I can only barely imagine myself ever getting comfortable with Inform 7 syntax, I doubt even more that I'd learn enough javascript to be comfortable with Vorple. Still, it's just one of the things where it seems like the world will be better for it.

I still haven't gone around the graphic adventure systems to see how the tools those communities have created compare to ours. It might be a real eye-opener.

Anyhow, maybe after this and the last post, I can get back to just worrying about my own games again.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

F**k that noise

I’m not entirely satisfied with the state of IF these days. It bothers me that some herald Inform as the only reasonable choice for IF authors, as enough Inform has enough elements that rub me the wrong way that it basically says authors like myself really have no choice.

Most IF “historians” will admit that the golden age of the IF
renaissance was something like 1998-2002. Lots of great games were released by dozens of talented authors. IF seemed to have unlimited potential, and the community, while often disagreeing, got along.

Somewhere along the way, though, we lost a lot of our fire. The IF newsgroups lost the lively discussion that made it worthwhile to put up with the ever-increasing spam. People drifted away.

It’s a relatively useless exercise, but I sometimes wonder where we went wrong. This post
will cover my thoughts on this issue.

  1. The Political Landscape Changed
    In 1999, George Bush was elected President, and in 2001, there was the September 11th attack. For a lot of us liberal-leaning creative types, the world became a much less fun place, as we wondered just how bad Bush was going to screw things up. It took a lot out of our creative sails.
    Likelihood: Hard to say
  2. Life Just Went OnThe Golden Age caught a lot of people at the same time in their lives. Many were still students; some were making early strides in their respective fields. The thing is, time goes on. People graduate, people have babies, work becomes more encompassing. The Golden Age was just very lucky timing.

    Likelihood: Admittedly, this one will be the most likely of all the things I mention today.
  3. The Internet Became More Interesting/DistractingThere was a time when almost every person I knew through IF had moved on to escape-the-room Flash game type sites like Maybe all it took was a shiny bauble like that to steal momentum away. Then, some years later, you had things like Youtube and social media sites adding even more distraction to the net, diluting the hobbyist attention.

    Likelihood: Probably? Maybe?
  4. Too Self Aware?Adam Cadre's Endless, Nameless makes some nice implications that the IF community was overrun by critics. Maybe too much effort was spent on disparaging design flaws instead of encouraging the craft. Alternatively, maybe too much emphasis was put on acknowledging successes so that the absence of such was too deafening.
    Likelihood: Who knows?
  5. IF Competition Promoted One Type of Game At Detriment To Other Types
    The IF Comp is a great thing, but it's true that its games get way more attention than games released outside-of-comp. That means that longer, more-involved games just don't get the same attention.

    Likelihood: Well, actually, I don't think this one is so likely. I mean, the over-importance of competition games was already a concern back then, but a lot of the best games from the Golden Age were competition games. Still, I think this contributed to people who enjoy old-school sensibilities feeling more excluded as the comp skewered more new-school.
  6.  IF Tools Didn't Keep Pace With Technological AdvancesInform 7 and TADS may have cool GUIs these days, but IF languages, in general, are slow to add multimedia capabilities as new formats become available. Of course, the most frustrating part of this problem is that most of us are at the mercy of the tool-creators.

    Likelihood: While it'd always be nice if this or that were easier/more powerful, the first step of being an artist is not waiting around for the perfect tools but using what you have at hand. While, in general, I'm disappointed with how IF technology has progressed, it's dumb to blame the tools for lulls in progress.
  7. The Application Landscape ChangedIF went from something you played in a full-screen (or most of it) to something that plays in a smaller and smaller window as displays got larger and hip interpreters like Gargoyle defaulted to insanely small window sizes. Maybe there's an argument to be made that there's a psychological effect for how much screen real estate you give to something? Plus, what demanded your sole attention before now is shared with several other windows. Maybe we have diminished our own hobby.

    There's also the browser issue. It seems that a lot of people play their IF in browsers these days. I can't even keep straight which online terps allow saving, but I know at least one of them only allows one save spot. Of course, this is going to have a limiting effect on how one can design his game. Personally, I think the browser-players are wrong, but that's just me.

    Likelihood: Personally, I think that in rebelling against '90s sensibilities and trying to make everything look hip and awesome, we have forgotten that the old ugly way was good in its own way for getting shit done. Maybe that's just me.
  8. The New-School Ideals Sunk UsPhotopia was definitely a game-changer. A lot of people interpreted it as tacit permission to release games with no puzzles, something which other people have vocally supported. That's all good and fine, but I feel that it also left the door open for the crazies. We had trolls like Jacek P. who supposedly saw the potential of IF-as-literature but would bother us for years since no game was ever good enough (ironically, he reserved his most pointed hatred for games like Photopia that were closest to the ideal).

    Also, writing a new-school game is a lot more work than an old-school game. You are expected to have a fitting response to nearly everything, so besides the never-satisfied narrative critics, you have to please the simulationists.

    Maybe the old-school was bane to the worst of the trolls (of course, somebody might use Panks as an counter-argument, but he wasn't really a troll). Maybe the new-school made IF too much like a creative writing class, where it's just hard, in general, to have enthusiasm for other people's writing.

    Likelihood: This point is probably too intangible to be of any use. No matter how you approach it, writing IF is hard.
  9. We Have Traded Cool Features For ConvenienceThe IF landscape today is very much the result of certain visions- much of them by Andrew Plotkin. There's glk which popular interpreters like Gargoyle uses, and the blorb package which fits Inform great but is slightly uncomfortable for everyone else. It feels like we spent more time in the naughts figuring out ways to strip color, font effects, and multimedia out of games instead of figuring out ways to put them in.

    Sure, tools like Vorpel allow Inform users to inject multimedia into their games, but it requires enough Javascript knowledge that I'm guessing that the people who will be able to use it are the same people who could practically write their own games in Javascript anyway.

    Of course, part of the problem is that many of the dissenters to zarf's vision gave up when he didn't incorporate their ideas. The IF community probably could have used more branches and more options, even if people who have done so have historically caught very little attention.

    I mean, even Inform 6 wasn't so readable that I don't see why someone else didn't write a language that compiles to the z-machine. It's a lot of work, sure, but we had a lot of motivated crazies back then to do such a thing.

    My point is, maybe the streamlining of design made us lose some of the elements of IF that made it "pop."

    Likelihood: I dunno. This is another intangible thing, I guess. Anyhow, I feel like we could be further along on this issue, but I should probably take a look at other freeware game (graphic adventure, rpgs, whatever) creation systems to see if they have made the strides in useability and capabilities that I'm expecting from IF. Maybe it's just not out there.

Last Thoughts

So, if any of these things are true, what does it matter and what can be done? My main point is, I think IF is an ever-evolving beast, and it frustrates me to see people (especially non-authors who consider cheerleading Inform as a form of being invested in IF) disparage other IF languages, as none of them are perfect yet. While not-writing-your-own-IF-language is mostly good advice, it also can't be said that there's absolutely no merit to reinventing the wheel. IF could probably still use some fresh perspectives. People thought the ADRIFT and Quest guys were crazy for starting new systems, but other than Inform, they have among the greatest new-user rates.

To this day, there are Inform games that are released with ugly-ass menus and status bars. I'm doing what I can to make Hugo better, even knowing that a lot of people won't give my games the time of day just because they can't be played in a browser.

It's frustrating because people will dismiss my work (and the work of others) because they perceive conventional wisdom as against us. I think those people use popularity to reinforce their own preconceived notions, and hey, that's okay. The world is not going to be changed by those people.

I'm not saying I'll change the world or that IF is even world-changing, but believing in something is always more interesting than the alternative. I also know the only way I can champion my perspective is by just putting my stuff out there. The act of creation is the purest way to make an argument against those people, even if my ideal audience is not them but those with unformed opinions. It's likely that I won't change the mind of the majority of those people, either, but almost definitely, there will be some small percentage of people who play my games who enjoy the same things I do, and when they come across those dismissive, over-generalized comments, they'll also think, "Fuck that noise."

And the world will be better for it.