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Wednesday, February 17, 2010
 
Phantasmagoria Retrospective
GOG.COM has a retrospective on the classic Sierra "full motion video" adventure game, Phantasmagoria. Taken in part from multiple interviews with legendary adventure game designer Roberta Williams, this article explores the inspiration, development, and reception of one of Sierra's more famous (or is that infamous) releases. Plus some interesting bits of historical trivia about the word "phantasmagoria."

GOG Editorial: Smoke, Mirrors, and the Phantasmagoria.

And GOG.COM now has Phantasmagoria available in their store.

I remember enjoying the game (way back in 1997 or something, a couple of years after its original release), but I didn't think it was in the same league as some of the other greats of the time. Maybe it was just that the blue-screen dinner-theater-quality video in a postage-stamp-sized window really didn't thrill me by that time. And scenes of torture and death never really did. So - after two years - the novelty factor wasn't much of a factor anymore. I'm not sure how well the game stands the test of time now FIFTEEN years later.

But like I said, I do remember enjoying the game. And I really enjoyed the retrospective. And for more fun - here's the trailer from back in the day:

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Friday, February 12, 2010
 
The Problem - Or Not - With Adventure Games in the Modern Era
Although I'm not positive it's really a problem... the comic is amusing:

Stolen Pixels: The Solution to All Puzzles

I think I encountered about one puzzle per episode of Tales of Monkey Island where I resorted to this. I pretty much futz over a problem up until the point where it is no longer fun, and then either quit for the day and try again, or futz for five more minutes before looking up the solution. And try hard to resist looking over any other solutions (though it's hard not to have some hints from skimmed-over-text imprint on my brain).

While this has made my adventure-gaming experiences shorter, I don't know that it has made them less fun. It's always way more fun to figure things out yourself (maybe there's some endorphin reaction or something... I dunno), but I'm glad these games don't have to push me past my tolerance level anymore.

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Monday, February 08, 2010
 
Game Design: Suspended in Groundhog Day!
I watched the movie Groundhog Day again... on, surprisingly, Groundhog Day. One of the Best Movies Ever, IMO.

I always thought the last line of the movie, "Let's live here! We'll rent to start." was kind of a weak punchline. But this time I got the "oh, DUH!" revelation. This guy has been living in this town for years. Possibly decades, by some of the implications in the film. Director Harold Ramis posits the opinion in the commentary that it was ten years, and later suggested it was probably more like 30 or 40 years. So how could he possibly go back to his old life?

Yeah, sometimes I'm kinda slow that way.

But anyway - I really brought it up to talk about time loops in games. It's apparently been used in games quite a bit. Some examples include the Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and of course indie game Braid, where manipulating the flow of time is really what the game was about (it was billed at one point as "Groundhog Day" meets "Memento"). There's the Persona 3: FES expansion episode The Answer which takes place inside a one-day time loop. I was kind of disappointed that the time loop didn't play a larger role in the story and gameplay than it did. But it did end up being the big Maguffin plot device that brought the characters into battle against each other, as they took sides over an opportunity to rewrite history - to bring back their fallen friend but risk losing what he sacrificed himself to obtain.

But the game I really think of when I think of the time loops in Groundhog Day was a science fiction text adventure by Michael Berlyn, published by Infocom, called Suspended. It was supremely difficult, IMO. Which is probably why I never beat it. In Suspended, you are a character in cryogenic suspension who's brain has been used as a "living computer" for a central system that keeps a terraformed planet running smoothly and safely. An earthquake has caused a catastrophic failure at the facility, and you awake to full consciousness in communication with several robots who you need to use to repair the facility before too many turns (and too many people die).

If you fail, the population assumes you have gone crazy and are deliberately destroying the world (as, apparently, your predecessor did). They come to the facility and remove you from your suspension - killing you in the process.

Now, the major trick to the game was that each robot was very quirky, having major limitations and a unique ability. One robot always communicated via bizarre poetry about the flow of the electrical systems. Only one robot had visual sensors. Only one had audio sensors. The time limit meant you could not simply move the robots around in one group to get all the information at once to get a clear picture of what was going on and to do everything that needed to be done.

In many ways, the game required you to play it through to failure, many times, to get a better understanding of what was happening and what had to be done. Eventually - well, in theory, as I never got that far - the game would come down to careful management of your robots in some optimal fashion to fix the facility before the angry mob came to kill you. And you could then optimize further to get a better score, or to play at a higher difficulty.

It was a novel concept, and not one often repeated - at least to my knowledge. Maybe because it was so friggin' hard that people got frustrated just getting a handle on what they were supposed to do that they quit. But I think there are ideas there - from the early days of the hobby - which have merit and should be re-explored in modern (indie?) games.

First off - the time loop. Suspended didn't really have one, but as a player you felt like you were in one. The game was very short - it was supposed to be played over and over again until you got it right. What about incorporating that concept right into the game, so that you didn't exactly "lose" the game so much as progress to the next restart.

The other idea was that - in repeating the same scenario - you didn't really control just one character. You controlled several completely independent characters --- the robot. The "you" in Suspended was really a non-entity. You really played the robots - up until the point your frozen meat-suit got sacked. So what about a game of time-loops where you play not just one character trying to "get it right," but several characters, with their interactions compounding on each other. This could be done simultaneously across blocks of turns (which might be confusing), or switched between by player control (as in Suspended), or could be done sequentially - with the formerly player-controlled character becoming an AI-controlled NPC attempting to mimic the player's sequence of actions.

I say attempting to mimic, because the player's currently controlled character could totally change things up - like killing the former player-controlled character and changing that whole timeline.

From a story perspective, this could be a very fun place to explore, too. Do any of the characters have in-game memories of the previous "run?" Do all of them remember the previous runs? Do they know that each other remembers?

And - like my little "duh" moment above - what happens the Next Day? How are they changed? And what happens if there are no "do overs" the next day, but the consequences are almost as dire?

The possibilities seem to be delicious. AND - extra-special bonus - because the game would only simulate one event (say, one day) and a limited number of locations - it could very easily be done by an indie.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010
 
Game Design: Pulp Fiction - And Games, Part 1
A few weeks ago, I came across an old article by Lester Dent (aka "Kenneth Robeson"), creator of the pulp action hero Doc Savage. His article was about how to write a 6000 word pulp story that will sell. Or would sell, if the era of the pulp magazine wasn't a half-century dead-and-buried.

Dent made no bones about calling his method a formula. Maybe we can simply call it "highly structured." But within this tight structure, there is not only plenty of room for creativity and craftsmanship... it is absolutely required. If anything, Dent's formula was simply a pattern to present novelty in a gripping but standardized manner.

As I was mulling over some of my favorite RPGs and adventure games, and distinguishing what made them become my favorites while others never quite pulled me in, I realized that they often shared a few traits in common with Dent's formulaic yarns. I doubt any game designer ever used Dent's formula and tried to adapt it to their games, but I think they had a similar handle on what makes a gripping story, and how to present it to the player quickly so that they are sucked into the game world quickly and feel compelled to see it through to the conclusion.

I wonder how one might apply something like Dent's pulp story formula to stories in computer games. Specifically RPGs and adventure games, as those are kinda house specialties here at Tales of the Rampant Coyote. Not that I'm advocating any kind of assembly-line approach to story-making for games. But - frankly - a lot of games (including many, many indie games) are weak in the story department. Or, rather, they may have good stories, but their presentation is weak. Speaking for myself here - I know I can use any crutch or cheat-sheet that I can find, so I'm really just thinking aloud here.

There's no good way to map a linear storytelling methodology to what should be a non-linear medium, but maybe some cool ideas could be borrowed here and applied to make a better game. Or at least a better game story. I'm going to break this out into a multi-part series simply because there's a lot to chew on.

On Making an Interesting Premise

I think that one of the cardinal sins of an RPG is to be generic. Once upon a time, the scarcity of similar games let them get away with it. But so many games - including indie games - serve up a big ol' rambling dish of backstory without anything to really set them apart. You are introduced as generic hero (or heroes) to play - perhaps of your own making - and then face some simple, generic quests to start out your experience and familiarize yourself with the game.

And all this time I, as a player, wonder why I should care. Why is this? Why can't games kick us in the pants right off the bat? It's not like it hasn't been done several times before in RPGs.

First of all - a good story needs an interesting foundation. The basic plot and setting on which everything else hangs.

Dent suggests four unique elements to form the foundation of the story. I doubt he intended these to be the only four, but they were what he worked with. Dent suggests 1) A unique murder method for the villain, 2) A unique item the villain is seeking, 3) A unique locale, and 4) Some kind of menace to hang over the hero like a cloud. Dent says having one of these elements is nice, two is better, and having three would be "swell."

Okay - so it's gimmicky. So what?

A Different Locale

In fantasy games and space opera, coming up with something truly 'different' can be challenging. Different is sort of the standard in this genre. And so we end up with a lot of games in meaningless variants of some fantasy world, with some war going on in the background between good and evil. Ho-hum.

But there are some good examples out there. In Knights of the Old Republic,you wake up in a space ship in the middle of a battle, set in the Star Wars universe in an era long before the movies! And how about Planescape: Torment? You don't get much more unique than that. Sure, it was a licensed setting (like Star Wars), but it wasn't something the average computer RPG player had experienced before. And in a genre where high fantasy and incredible magic is the rule, going more down-to-earth and realistic may actually be unique. I actually really enjoyed the medieval towns of Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption because of their verisimilitude. I've never studied what medieval Prague was like, but the heavy Catholic influence and realistic, historical touches made the fantastic elements really pop.

And I guess it should be mentioned that with RPGs in particular (Adventure Games typically don't seem to have this problem), simply breaking from a Tolkienesque fantasy world can be pretty unique in its own right. A game set in Tsarist Russia or steampunk Victorian England or some other alternate-historical location might not need much more to make it feel unique. Making it marketable is another question.

A Different Murder Method or Different Villain Objective

How about the murder thing, or the villain's sought-after item? This is surprisingly more challenging in a fantasy or SF world where anything is possible with little explanation. A wizard did it. Wizards can do anything! Well, a wizard, or an engineer remodulating the phase-coupling on the sensor dish array and routing it through the phaser banks. But if a game story writer resists the urge to hand-wave it away, it's still possible.

Take Ultima VII - The Black Gate. You start out with a strange, ritualistic killing to solve. The murder isn't really the focus of the story, but it (and murders like it) help drive the hunt for the killers, and the larger plot surrounding them. Adventure games, again, tend to do better here, as the solving of mysteries (in the form of puzzles) forms a stronger basis for the genre. And they aren't afraid to get a little more silly.

In fantastic or high-SF environments, the theft or pursuit of something moderately mundane can be exceptional. The gold, jewels, and magical Sword of Universal Annihilation get left behind, but poor Simple Simon was turned into a duck and his apple pie was stolen. The first of a rash of pie-thefts. That's interesting! Weird, but interesting.

A Menace Which is to Hang Over the Hero Like a Cloud

Dent doesn't elaborate on this, but I take this to mean some kind of looming, direct and personal threat to the hero. Not just a generic threat to the kingdom or world at large, but a personal danger to the hero himself or those with whom he (or she) is closest. Something that compels action.

There are plenty of decent examples of this. The Vault needs a replacement water chip in 150 days or it will fail. Sephiroth slays Aeris. Bastila is kidnapped and tortured to serve the Sith. Gabriel Knight suspects the recent apparently voodoo-related murders are linked to the nightmares that have plagued him all his life. The Avatar is used by the Guardian to find (and destroy) a threat to his evil plan. The Dark Savant personally begins hunting down the party. LeChuck is going to marry Elaine unless Guybrush does something!

This is so much more satisfying to me than a story with a threat that might as well be addressed, "to whom it may concern." If my custom party of adventurers don't make it to the end, anybody else could come in behind me and finish the job.

So there are some concrete examples of how a game's story might be made to help it stand out among the competition. And believe me, with so many indie RPGs coming out these days, there's plenty of competition. Next time I will talk a little more about Dent's story structure, and how more pieces of his "formula" might be applied by designers and story writers.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009
 
Czech Adventure / RPG "Legie" Now In the Coyote's Den
You know, just a few weeks ago I was thinking to myself, "Self, you know what we need? We need more indie Adventure/RPGs where you have to clean up vomit!*"

And then, appearing as if by summons, comes Legie. Legie, meaning "Legion," is a Czech adventure / RPG that starts out with you as an innkeeper's assistant, serving beer and - yes - cleaning up vomit. Most RPGs start you out at the bottom, but Legie has to stoop a little lower, as everybody in this game is already in pretty sad shape. Plague is ravaging the land, the economy is dying, and people are giving up hope. Instead, they seek solace in their alcohol and the local pub - which means you.

And then you run out of beer.

Ah! Quest time! A quest that will take you deep into the neighboring mines, battling enemies, and consuming alcohol. What's not to like?

Legie eschews the trappings of traditional fantasy to tell a story set in the medieval Czech town of Jilemnice. There are no elves, dragons, wizards, or so forth. Or save-the-world quests.

The movement system takes a little getting used to - you move in ten-foot steps in spite of the environment being "true" 3D. The demo, in particular, is all adventure-game style, though it has some RPG elements later on. It is probably not a game that will appeal to brute-force hack-and-slashers. But I have a soft spot for the strange, quirky, and different, and all three seem to apply pretty well to Legie. Plus, it's a 3D, first-person perspective game (and not cute-anime style, WCG!), which also makes it stand out amongst most other indie RPGs these days.

So I've added Legie to the (rapidly expanding!) collection of RPGs for sale at Rampant Games.

As always, give the free demo a try and see what you think:

Download Legie here

* Okay, no, I didn't, but I should have!

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009
 
The Secret of Monkey Island - The Lost Scenes!
So while creating the Special Edition of The Secret of Monkey Island, Adam Bormann came across a lot of commented out / unused scripts in the original SCUMM code. And some fascinating comments inside the code.

Fortunately, they did not try to re-integrate these "lost scenes" and alternative plots into the remake. From Bormann's perspective, Gilbert & Co. probably had very good reasons for leaving them out. But he's copied the "lost scenes" in a blog post for fans who may enjoy this glimpse into development of the classic game.

The Secret of Monkey Island - The Deleted and Extended Scenes

An excerpt:

When Guybrush gets out of the water after being thrown in by Shinetop, he runs into Governor Marley, and then this alternate exchange starts.

Guybrush

“You came down here to rescue me?”

Elaine

“Well…”

Guybrush

“You were going to dive into that icy water and drag me out?”

Elaine

“…Something like that.”

Guybrush

“You were going to brave the sharks and the eels to save my life?”

Elaine

“Sharks? What sharks?”

Guybrush

“And then you were going to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?”

Elaine

“Don’t push it.”


Enjoy!

Hat tip to Greg Squire of MonkeyTime for sending me the link!

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009
 
The Star Trek Game That Wasn't
Man, I remember looking forward to this game.

Watching the videos now, it still looks awesome. I guess it makes for a good cautionary tale for developers. Risk assessment is better done BEFORE you've spent a couple million on development...

At least Star Trek has given us some good games over the years. Starfleet Command and Star Trek 25th Anniversary (a graphic adventure game) rawked. There may have been others, but I've not played them all.

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Monday, September 21, 2009
 
A Passel Of Adventure Game Design Articles
With Friday's discussion about adventure game elements in RPGs, I have gone back to look over some articles on adventure game design. As far as adventure game design is concerned, I'm strictly a novice (I've just been at it for a pretty long time). So I frequently dig up some articles by much more experienced folk on the art and science of adventure game design to broaden my education.

I think I've shared some of these links before, but here they are again (and a few more) for your edification if you feel inclined to pursue that particular brand of insanity:

Ron Gilbert: Why Adventure Games Suck (and What We Can Do About It)
An old article just as relevant (or more relevant) today as when it was written.

21 Adventure Game Design Tips at AdventureDevelopers
Lotta the same thoughts as Ron Gilbert, plus a few more.

Use Key On Door by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Yahtzee (of Zero Punctuation fame) addresses one Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaw, and considers possible solutions.

The Craft of Adventure (PDF document)
A series of articles on the art and craft of creating IF / Adventure games.

ThenGamer: The Making of Loom
Reflections on the making of a lesser-known LucasArts graphic adventure game classic.

Old Man Murray: Who Killed Adventure Games?
A harsh but not untrue look at one of the real reasons graphic adventure games lost mainstream popularity.

Adventure Game Puzzles: Unlocking the Secrets of Puzzle Design
Boiling down (most) adventure game puzzles into distinct patterns / categories.

Making Better Puzzles
Yet more advice on making adventure-game style puzzles more fair and more fun.

GamaSutra's Interview with Emily Short
She's one of the biggest movers and shakers in modern Interactive Fiction, with a large number of titles (all freeware) to her credit.

Puzzle Design of Myst
Exploring the good and bad of Myst's puzzle design.

Conversation, by Emily Short
A rather lengthy article discussing possibilities for designing conversation in Interactive Fiction (also useful for RPG design, although she does assume a text-based parser).

Interview With Al Lowe at Rock Paper Shotgun
WARNING - NSFW! The creator of the classic Leisure Suit Larry games talks about designing the series and the modern game audience.

Implementing an IF Interface in 3D, by Mike Rubin
Mike talks about the challenges of taking a text-based adventure into the 3D Graphics world (incidentally - Al Lowe did something similar, as the first Leisure Suit Larry was a conversion of a text adventure into a graphic adventure game).

I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg. Do you have some better articles or suggestions for someone who might be aspiring to writing adventure games or Interactive Fiction?'

To maintain the longevity of the resource, I'm maintaining a thread over on the forums devoted to this subject.

Forum Thread: A Passel of Adventure Game Design Articles

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009
 
Dave ("Tales of Monkey Island") Grossman Interview
I just wanted to point to an interview now up at Adventure Classic Gaming with long-time Monkey Island writer and now the guy in charge of the Tales of Monkey Island revival, Dave Grossman

Interview with Dave Grossman of Telltale Games

An excerpt on the "revival" of adventure gaming:
"For a while there, publishers were unwilling to invest in adventure games because it was much easier to make money building other things. But competition in other genres has escalated, the market in general is a lot bigger, older, and more casual, and downloadable distribution is making it easier to reach an audience without fighting blockbuster titles for shelf space. I think all of these factors probably have something to do with the recent resurgence. I'm sure the designers want to make them simply because they find them compelling, but they have opportunities to do so because it makes more business sense than it did a few years ago."
He also comments on how they had to "mainstream" the adventure game genre more, what it was like to go back to the 20-year-old franchise, the use of 3D instead of 2D graphics for Tales, and more.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009
 
Monkey Island Practical Joke in Argentina...
Take it away, Ron Gilbert:

Grog XD

He's right. No commentary can do it justice. This is epic.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009
 
Tales of Monkey Island - Party Like It's 1991!
I have finished the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island - The Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. This marks the return of a series I really loved back in the classic era of graphic adventure games. And it's been developed by indie development shop Telltale Games, licensed from LucasArts.

So how was it?

I enjoyed it immensely. Uh, well, most of the time. There were some head-scratchers that became frustrating to me after a while. But that's part-and-parcel with the traditional adventure game experience. I encountered nothing quite as bad as the ridiculous, illogical monkey-wrench puzzle of Monkey Island 2 that stalled me out for months.

The movement interface took a little getting used to, and I still don't think I like it, but it's forgivable. I haven't played many other Telltale games, so I don't know if it is new to Tales of Monkey Island or something they've been doing for a while.

But I had high expectations, and I wasn't disappointed. It felt like a good ol' graphic adventure from the 1990s. But prettier.

The big question, of course, is this: Is it really Monkey Island?

It's been years since I played a Monkey Island game, and I think that "Monkey Island-ness" may be fairly subjective. For me, it's Guybrush Threepwood, the humorous dialog, and the over-the-top Piratey-ness that looked like it was lifted wholesale from the original Pirates of the Carribean ride at Disneyland (even taken a little literally at the end of Monkey Island 2). For the most part, it's there. I laughed quite a bit at the dialog. My daughter, who has never played any MI games, nearly fell out of her chair laughing when I clicked on the shrunken heads hanging from the ceiling and Guybrush commented, "Worst. Air Freshener. Ever."

And they even have Ron Gilbert's name in the credits. Twice, if I remember correctly (once for it being based on his characters, and once for his consulting on the project). The development team includes some of the original developer / talent types from the previous games. The voice acting is excellent.

So yeah. It seems to be a legitimate heir to the Monkey Island legacy to me. The franchise seems to be in good hands at Telltale. So long as they can maintain the same level of quality in later episodes, I'll be pleased.

Monkey Island is back, baby!

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009
 
Monkey Island Interview
The newest chapter in the Monkey Island series comes out today on the Wii and PC. Arrr, matey! Yes, I'll be showing my colors and getting the PC version when I get home. The new series, Tales of Monkey Island, is by Telltale games, indie game makers of the episodic adventure games Sam & Max Save the World, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Sam & Max Beyond Time & Space, and more.

Gamasutra has an interview with Dave Grossman, the design director for the new Monkey Island series - who was also one of the writers for the first two Monkey Island games.

Gamasutra: Back in the Water - The Monkey Island Interview

An excerpt:
"Something that I always thought was true about the Monkey series was that, while moment-by-moment it's quite silly and there's lots of slapstick, verbal humor, and ironic pointing out of social dysfunctions, the broad strokes of the story there are actually quite serious.

"The first one is about this young man who's come to this island to realize his life's dream, and in the quest of doing that, he falls in love and he finds out, "This is more important to me than my life's dream."

It's actually quite a serious story, despite being a pretty silly experience overall. I've been pushing the team to try and capture that aspect, and when they try and do things in the series that seem baldfacedly hugely ridiculous, I call that into question -- whereas, when the smaller points are ridiculous, that's what I love. "
Enjoy!

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Monday, June 01, 2009
 
Monkey Island Makes a Comeback
Wow.

Telltale games - the not-so-li'l indie game company that could - is releasing a bunch of games based on the abso-friggin-awesome-ly wonderful Monkey Island series. Entitled Tales of Monkey Island, this is a five-episode adventure. Hopefully they come close to recapturing the magic of the original games by Ron Gilbert & Crew. Amusingly, Ron Gilbert is now working at an indie game company that could be considered a direct competitor, with their episodic RPG / adventures. However, he was apparently consulted on this game over a period of several days, which bodes well. And Telltale includes some other team members that worked on previous Monkey Island games, which is also a plus.

Tales of Monkey Island Announced

On top of that, LucasArts is releasing an enhanced edition of the game that started it all, The Secret of Monkey Island. According to the press release, The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition "faithfully re-imagines the internationally-acclaimed classic game (originally released in 1990) for original and new audiences alike. The development team at LucasArts is bringing the game into the modern era with all-new HD graphics, a re-mastered musical score, full voiceover, and an in-depth hint system has been added to help players through the game’s side-splitting puzzles. Purists will also delight in the ability to seamlessly switch between the updated HD graphics and the original’s classic look. "

It will be available for the XBox 360 (via Live Arcade) and Windows.

The video on the website includes snippets from the enhanced version, and commentaries by Ron Gilbert and the enhanced edition team.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

There's another tidbit to be found in the press release that may cause old-school adventure game fans to salivate. It claims that "these efforts are just the start of LucasArts' new mission to revitalize its deep portfolio of beloved gaming franchises." The original Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is an unlockable bonus in the upcoming Wii title, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. It may not stop there - the press release hints that more announcements will be forthcoming.

Hey, there are a few LucasArts graphic adventure games I missed the first time around - I'd be happy to give 'em a go the second time around.

And that's not all...

Ron Gilbert, the original designer of the first two Monkey Island games, reveals that he's known about these projects for a while, and was apparently consulted (it's not clear) by the Telltale crew for his thoughts on their new project. In the course of designing his upcoming Deathspank, he replayed The Secret of Monkey Island for the first time in 15 years. He offers a bit of a retrospective on the design, little memories and stories from its development, and some lessons he learned from it.

Grumpy Gamer: Stuff and Things and Monkey Island

Enjoy!

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009
 
Persona 4: Don't Trust This Game!
Warning: This article contains spoilers about PS2 RPG Persona 4. It can't be helped. Don't read further if you with to be unspoiled. And yes - I am playing it again. It turns out that my Playstation 2 is okay, but somehow my disc became damaged. Bummer, but I was able to borrow a friend's copy. And now he's going to be torn over whether or not to read this article, as he loaned me the game before he'd finished the game himself...

And now, if it weren't for the Internet, I'd possibly believe that I was done with Persona 4 right now. Oh, I'd have suspicions - there are some tip-offs that all was not right in the world in spite of a fairly satisfying conclusion. There's a plot thread that was never picked up (why you and two others received your power to enter the other world prior to obtaining your Persona ability), and the suggestion that there may be a time in the future when you are all called once more to stop someone from starting the murders all over again. And there's the fact that you achieved max rank in the Judgment arcana - and unlocked a new Persona - after the "final" boss was defeated.

But I was in a hurry in the real world, and I didn't realize that the game itself was conspiring against me and trying to fake me out and prevent me from playing through the final act.

Earlier in the story, there was another option to take on a "bad" ending in the game, but at that time it was simply a confusing maze of dialog you had to navigate. It was actually a pretty dramatic scene - you had the "murderer" trapped, and you realize that except for a kidnapping charge, he's probably going to get off the hook. Nobody can prove anything, and he's probably going to get an insanity plea anyway. You and your friends have the opportunity to dispense justice, right then and there. One shove into the big-screen TV, and the shadows in the next world can finish him off.

At this point, it's clear there's something else going on, and that there's a game-changing decision to be made. Unfortunately, how to resolve it isn't clear, unless you recognize that the theme of the game is about the discovery of truth through the layers of deception. Talking your friend down from committing indirect murder isn't enough - and the game makes it fairly obvious when you've taken the wrong path and should try again.

On the other hand, the false "good" ending of the game doesn't make it clear that a decision is being made. The game itself pushes you to accept what appears to be a reasonable resolution. While I was suspicious there was more to the story than what I had seen, I thought I'd missed a decision earlier in the game - but for the life of me couldn't figure out where. And again - the ending was fairly satisfying and positive. These days, from a meta-gaming perspective, it was simply a set-up for a possible expansion or sequel.

But this was a trick. After a long sequence of hunting down your friends, and having the game "helpfully" reiterate your goal and not allowing you passage anywhere outside the goal, it announces you've achieved your goal and offers to take you to the ending sequence. In fact, it tries three times to conclude the game.

This bugs me, yet also fascinates me. The game is our vehicle into this world. We have to trust the game. We have never at any point established an adversarial relationship with the game itself. We really can't. The game world doesn't exist without it. We've had decades of experience learning to live within the frustrating constraints of games much like this, putting up with limitations and plot-hammering. Persona 4 is no exception. There are roads we can't take, and doors we can't open, which we accept because the game simply won't let us go there. We trust it out of necessity.

And then, as it turns out, the game is in cahoots with the true "bad guy." Er, girl. Well, more of an archetypal trickster. The one who orchestrated both the potential for the world's destruction as well as the hope of its salvation. Whatevah. The game is in league with her, and actively tries to conceal the final chapter of the game from the player.

This isn't the first time. A far more egregious example of this was in the Infocom text adventure, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Each time you'd try to go to the engine room aboard the Heart of Gold, it would stop you, telling you it was too dangerous. The only clue that anything was up was that the messages were different every time. Since adventure gamers love to keep poking around with things to see what the game will tell us, eventually the solution was revealed: you simply had to be persistent. No keys, no big inventory puzzles. You just had to ignore the game's warnings and threats and keep repeating your action until the game relented. This was metagaming at its weirdest. The game lied to you, and broke conventions without warning.

At least in Persona 4, it's easy enough to simply chalk up this final chapter as a "secret" or "bonus" section of the game - a new dungeon, epilogue, and boss battle. After all, I have put 90 hours into this freakin' game and received a hero's ending. This is gravy. And at least the game doesn't explicitly lie to you. It just encourages you to believe that there's nothing further to see here, and that you should move along.

But - it breaks the tools you are used to relying upon, without telling you. It breaks its own rules that you, as a player, have no choice but to live by. After all, I *DID* try and return to the food court before visiting the last of my friends, and found it impossible only five minutes earlier. Why should things change now?

But was there a better way to hide this "true" final ending? A way that doesn't rely upon the player suddenly developing a paranoia about his tools? A non-metagaming solution?

Probably. Probably a thousand other ways. Given the limitations of this sequence, the designer's hand hand was forced at the end - anything else would have been a tip-off. The game has never, until this point, forced you to manually make your way back home to the Dojima residence once you've concluded a quest or action like this. Leaving you in a lurch and even suggestion that you walk home manually would have been big flashing neon light that something else was going on. And suddenly the hidden choice would have been turned into a non-choice.

So what really needed to happen, in my mind, was an additional sequence. An additional choice. One that existed within the context of the game world, not within the metagame. A final confrontation with Adachi, or a serious conversation with Dojima or Teddie which can potentially lead to the revelation of one more path.

We shouldn't ever be required to distrust our tools. That's just playin' dirty.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009
 
Hey! You Got Your Adventure Game in My RPG!
Once upon a time, we didn't really have the term, "Role-Playing Games" (RPGs) - for either the dice-and-paper variety or the computer gaming equivalent. And typically, what soon became called "Adventure Games" (based on the seminal game entitled, "Adventure") ended up lumped into the same category when you were talking computer games. That's right, Ultima, Wizardry, The Wizard and the Princess, Apventure to Atlantis (an Apple II game, can't you tell?), Zork, and the old Scott Adams adventures were often kinda jumbled together into a big mix sometimes called "Adventure Games" or "Fantasy Games."

I still like a dose of adventure game in my RPGs. Maybe because there's still some old programming in my head that still mixes 'em all together like they did in 1981, but a little bit of the old adventure game puzzle-solving makes the grind go down easier. So long as it's not too much of a head-thumping experience, that is - and with the ease of obtaining hints on the Internet, that's not too much of a problem anymore.

The problem is that the adventure game puzzles can run counter to what I consider good RPG design principles, and that creates a jarring experience.

For example - in an adventure game, you've generally got one - usually convoluted and amusing - solution to a problem. A good RPG, on the other hand, should make that puzzle a goal condition and leave other options to achieve that goal available. Failure to do that leads to frustration, as in the "plot-driven door" problem (or as a friend of mine calls it, "objects made of the indestructable material plotonium"). In an adventure game, you expect it - but even then, it gets frustrating when you see what appears to be an obvious solution which doesn't work.

Then there's the expectations of the genre. If an RPG player encounters a dragon on a Persian rug, she is not going to attempt the bare-handed dragon-vanquishing technique. (Then again, that eluded many Adventure players back in the day, too...). Nope. If at first she doesn't succeed with her axe, she's going to go off and level up for a bit and come back - maybe with a bigger axe. Eventually, she figures, that dragon's gotta go down.

So it's a little tricky. In the pilot experiment for Frayed Knights, I made a gate which is locked and capable of being picked by the party rogue.... but extremely difficult. The hard way is to brute force the way through the door, which will probably result in a lot of random encounters. (Ideally, the party will get spotted and face an organized defense as they hang out in front of the locked gate, but that was just way more effort than I felt like putting into it.) Or you can just go find the key in a nearby room. The concern here is - like the dragon problem - that without providing a lot of hints and nudges, players will fixate on the brute-force answer rather than searching for alternatives. (Shades of myself pummeling locked doors into submission in Ultima Underworld...)

Ultimately, the solution is to set the expectations in the game. Hints and nudges in the exposition can help. There's a puzzle in the early stages of Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest that hints right up front that there's a monster in a cave that's beyond your ability to take on. I don't know if it's possible to level up and defeat the beast at any point (I never tried), but when I entered the cave my goal was already framed as a puzzle I had to solve, not a monster I had to vanquish.

Unfortunately, the other problems of adventure game design begin rearing their heads. Most RPGs with adventure game puzzles often commit the kinds of design mistakes that adventure game developers have since learned to avoid. The kinds of sins Ron Gilbert harped about ages ago.

Still, I don't think these problems are insurmountable. But now - will we see more graphic adventure games with RPG elements, too?

Hopefully.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009
 
Adventure Games - The Genre That Would Not Die!
Veteran game designer, speaker, and author Ernest Adams takes a look today about the state of graphic adventure games - the genre which, contrary to rumors, is still alive and kicking. Just not on quite the "mainstream" front:

The Genre That Would Not Die

As he explains, "Game journalists often glibly announce that adventure games are on the point of extinction, but they're wrong. Adventure games will never again be the dominant genre they once were, but they have a well-established market niche and the overall number of people who play them is rising, thanks to the recent arrival of large numbers of female and casual players. "

He talks about what has changed, what has stayed the same, and offers some praise to the indie game movement that is allowing for these kinds of games (and many more) to hit the market outside of the controls of the mainstream publishing and distribution industry.

From my own perspective - I was one of those people who thought the graphic adventure game was dead, and was pleased to discover a few years back that I was very wrong. I've since bought several (and might actually finish them all one day...) So far, I haven't found any with quite the level of charm and awesomeness of Grim Fandango or Monkey Island - but those are classics among classics.

But we've got some developers with great potential out there, and I've been impressed with what I've played. I agree with Adams. While they've disappeared from the mainstream's radar for the most part, and sales of the top games are no longer tipping the scale on the level they used to in the late 80's and early 90's, the graphic adventure game - as a genre - seems as robust as ever.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009
 
Released: Legends of Zork
The "casual online adventure game," Legends of Zork, is now out.

It looks clever and cool, though there are not many options for character portraits yet. But the overall gameplay seems reminiscent of Kingdom of Loathing - with a more Zork-like sense of humor. But from what little I have played, it's really not... well... adventure-game-y. It's more RPG-esque. Like KoL, it's primarily text-based with some artwork to illustrate what's happening. But not stick-figure artwork. The game is free, but of course there are all kinds of opportunities to pay real money to give your character bonuses and more action points per day.

If it sounds interesting, give it a try and tell us what you think:

Legends of Zork

Hat tip to Sam Graber for the heads-up!

UPDATE: Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a none-to-kind first look at the game, with suggestions on how it can be improved. There are many comparisons as to why this game - at least for now - fails where Kingdom of Loathing succeeds. Whether or not this opinion holds water is up to you to decide.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009
 
A ZORK MMO?!?!?!?
Ya gotta be freakin' kidding me:

Zork to be Revived as a Browser MMO.

Then again, now that I think of it, that could be pretty cool. Though I don't know how in the world the puzzle-based adventure gameplay of Zork would possibly work. I'm guessing by the description that they are leaning more in the direction of traditional MUD style text-based RPG-esque-ish-ness.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008
 
The Evolution of the Adventure Game
While I wouldn't call it exactly mainstream, Strange Horizons is a weekly online magazine about speculative fiction - which apparently dabbles into video games.

Several weeks ago they published an article about Adventure Games - defining the genre, explaining its differences from virtually every other kind of video game, defining its constructs, verbs, and the evolution of adventure game interfaces. They hit many key games in passing (or in screenshots), including Colossal Cave, Myst, King's Quest, Maniac Mansion, and this year's Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis, but the focus is definitely upon breaking down mechanics and abstractions of gameplay rather than discussing individual titles.

So if you have an academic or designer leaning, I'd recommend giving this article a read if you missed it (like I did) the first time around:

Searching Under the Rug: Interfaces, Puzzles, and the Evolution of Adventure Games

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Thursday, November 27, 2008
 
Original Zork Manual Sells for over $2300
We're talking the original PDP version here, with less than 100 copies sold:

Zork Infocom PDP-11 First Edition Manual

Wow! We have history! And it's worth something!

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Monday, November 03, 2008
 
Vespers 3D Development Update
Maybe it's just a case of misery liking company - but I really enjoy Mike Rubin's updates on Vepers 3D development. His October post is up now:

The End of October Vespers Thing

One of the issues he's dealing with in this article is the less-than-perfect handling of interiors and culling of objects / polygons by the engine - in this case, the Torque Game Engine, which I am also using. His headaches sound amazingly familiar. We made some assumptions when working on the Frayed Knights pilot that the engine would handle culling a lot like the Quake engine. We were wrong. We had to make some of the same kinds of manual optimizations with LOD, and we'll be making more in the future. We've got a big "Dracula's Castle" thing coming up (I still have to get pen & paper maps finished and sent off to Kevin, dang it!) which is going to make the Temple of Pokmor Xang and the monestary in Vespers look puny by comparison - I don't see any way of doing it besides breaking it up into multiple pieces with different LODs the way Mike has done.

The portal thing is another big headache that I've never quite gotten my brain entirely around - at least not how to use it correctly. This post helps.

I should also note here that these kinds of "work-arounds" are the sorts of things we've done as professionals in every game company I've worked - even with our own custom, homebrewed engine. Developing games usually involves a heck of a lot of problem-solving that usually involves an incredible amount of contortionism on the part of both code and content. And for every two problems you fix, you create one new one.

I don't know of anybody who'd do this if they didn't love it.

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Monday, September 22, 2008
 
Infocom Text Adventure Sales Numbers
So how much money DID Infocom really make on all those text adventures in the 1980s?

GameSetWatch has the numbers!

Not actual dollar amounts, but unit sales over several years in the 1980s. And that in itself is fascinating. Some notes:

Total Zork I sales: Nearly 380,000.

Total Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sales: Over 250,000.

Zork I sold more copies its fourth year than the previous three years combined (152,100 compared to 144,000). What a far cry from today's games where a game only has a shelf-life of about 90 days!

The "Average" adventure game sold around 80,000 copies from 1981 to 1986. However, that ranges everywhere from a mere 8,000 copies (of Fooblitsky), all the way up to Zork I at 380,000. If you remove Hitchhiker's and the Zork games and the trilogy packs from the mix, you are talking an average of under 52,000 units sold. So those licenses really skewed the mix. So... "average" is a pretty meaningless value. Remember this when you ask how much an "average" indie game sells!

Zork I went on to sell over 50,000 more copies from 1987 - 1989, seven YEARS after its initial release.

The other big "sleeper hit" was Deadline, which sold over 140,000 copies. But that success might not have been due to the game, so much as it benefitting from being one of the first games "from the makers of Zork."

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008
 
Episodic Adventure Game Site Launches Soon
Touting itself as a "channel of episodic stories," the new website Identifiction opens on October 15th. They are committed to producing weekly, browser-based episodic gaming with heavy story-based episodes that are as immersive and innovative as any television series.

The first game available on the channel is a science-fiction / adventure entitled "Aosphere." It involves the crew of starship called the Icarus (I can't hear about a space ship by that name without thinking of the Babylon 5 storyline, but that's just me...), one of several ships sent out with a mission to find and settle habitable worlds in deep space. The crew is supposed to be in cryogenic suspension during their 22-year voyage. I would expect, in the first episode, that something goes wrong... :)

Two more series are planned in short order, and will be available in multiple languages. Each episode is geared for adult (meaning "grown up") audiences, inexpensive to play, and will be relatively short in length - something you could play through on a lunch break.

If you are interested, there's a beta sign-up available now. You have until September 5th to apply.

I have to admit, I'm intrigued. Intrigued enough that I would like to try it out, but probably not for the beta. I think this a really good chance of being one of many, many gaming start-ups that shrivel up and die within the first two years. It sounds like they have plenty of big dreams and high aspirations, but the question is whether or not they have the professionalism, skill, and marketing expertise to pull it off. However, it also possible that this could turn out to be pretty cool.

Check out Identifiction.

Hat-tip to CasualGameChick for the heads-up.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008
 
Indie Adventure Game Rips Off Oblivion?
Important tip for aspiring indie and small game developers:

Want to make sure that you are never, ever able to get a publishing deal again? You want to ruin your career and business? Then just blatantly rip off content from a major mainstream game, call it your own, and let your publisher take the heat for it when a gaming website posts screenshots showing what would be pixel-perfect comparisons if only your rendering was better.

Bad, bad, bad idea.

Now, we don't know that Majestic Studios actually ripped off content from Oblivion and other games for their adventure game, Limbo of the Lost. There are allegations that content has also been ripped off from Thief: Deadly Shadows, Morrowind, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Unreal Tournament, and even - Diablo II? That may be a bit of a stretch, but once that particular can of worms gets opened, things get crazy.

But we do know that publisher Tri Synergy, has offered the following press release:

Sharon, MA, May 11th, 2008

Tri Synergy, Inc. (www.trisynergy.com) would like to publish an official comment regarding recent comparisons of level design and artwork between Majestic Studios' *Limbo of the Lost* and Bethesda's *The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion*/Eidos Interactive's *Thief: Deadly Shadows*.

Tri Synergy is just as shocked as everyone else is by the recent screenshot comparisons. At no point during our dealings with Majestic Studios up until the point that the comparison was first publicly made by a third party did we have any knowledge of these similarities. Additionally, Tri Synergy will discontinue distribution of *Limbo of the Lost* in both retail and online outlets.

We have contacted the developer, Majestic, and are anxiously awaiting their response. As soon as we know more on this matter we will issue another statement.

More information about Tri Synergy is available from www.trisynergy.com.
Curious? GamePlasma.com was the first (as far as I know) to break the news, complete with screenshots:

GamePlasma's Screen-By-Screen Comparison of Limbo of the Lost and Oblivion

While nothing has yet been proven or admitted yet, the comparisons are... ummm.... Well, unless those screenshots are a hoax by GamePlasma , it's pretty freaking obvious that content was ripped off from Oblivion. I don't know about Thief and the other games. But except for low-quality rendering, they are identical. An artist or level designer would have a very, very rough time TRYING to duplicate these areas that precisely.

So there's no kidding around here: It's the same content. So unless Majestic Studios legally licensed the content, there's some epic copyright / IP violation going on here.

And here's the extra sucky part: These guys, Majestic Studios, are / were - as far as I can tell - basically indies. I don't know how much (if at all) that Tri Synergy funded the game's development, but these guys have been working on this adventure game since the Amiga days, according to this JustAdventure Preview.

So who's to blame? Did Majestic Studios even know about the problem? Or did they get screwed over by a contractor? If the latter, I really, really hope they got a legal document from said contractor stating that it was his original work. Not that it will prevent Majestic from ceasing to exist, and possibly dragging Tri Synergy with it, but at least it might reduce the owners' liability should Eidos, Bethesda, and Tri Synergy get litigious. Which they might.

But it it might not stop there. Tri Synergy is not a major publisher. They are a second- or third-string publisher that gets tiny games like this to market, both at retail and online. This is potentially a pretty monstrous disaster from their perspective. Every publisher's nightmare, I expect. Or one of their nightmares. Hopefully not enough of one to sink the company, but definitely a bad, bad situation.

What sort of ripple effect might this cause among the small publishers and developers? The indies of the world looking for a publishing deal to take their game to retail? I'm foreseeing a lot more paperwork (and expense) going into due diligence, and publishers being a lot more gun-shy about signing on new studios that haven't been around long enough to establish a track record.

So to whomever is responsible: Gee, thanks for making the lives of all the tiny little game producers in the world a little bit harder. We really had it too easy trying to survive and put food on the table with our little niche titles.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008
 
The Lost Sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Revealed!
I know there's a few of us who fondly remember Infocom's text adventure, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, co-written by Douglas Adams himself. Andy Baio found himself with access to a treasure trove of information in the form of a a copy of Infocom's backup shared network drive from the time they were bought out.

Some of the information contained included a great deal about a sequel (originally, two sequels) to the classic and best-selling Hitchhiker's. Andy's blog also includes a (barely) playable copy of the prototype - which obviously never got very far. Unfortunately, more than information about the game, the documentation reveals a bit about the state of what was once the darling of the game business that had now gone past its prime, and was now struggling.

What's more interesting is that several of the people involved have now posted comments on the article, helping to clarify or give perspective to it. Some other influential folks (like Emily Short) from the current IF scene have also popped in. Controversy rages, particularly concerning the ethics of posting decades-old emails to the public.

But if you are curious, head on over and take a look:

Milliways: Infocom's Unreleased Sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Hat tip to good ol' Rock, Paper, Shotgun for the link!

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Friday, April 11, 2008
 
LOLGRUES
If you are familiar with LOLCats pictures, and the old Infocom adventure games (okay, yeah, I imagine that's probably a pretty slender intersection, but the Internet is all about niche!), you will get a kick out of this one:

LOLGrues

("TIP HAT AT WHINER FOR LINK")

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Thursday, April 10, 2008
 
Strongbad's Cool Game For Attractive People
Coming soon from Telltale Games (Bone, Sam & Max) for the PC and Wii:

Strongbad's Cool Game For Attractive People

It sounds vaguely... uh... adventure-game-ish, doesn't it?

I don't know about you guys, but from my perspective, Telltale and Hothead are two up-and-coming game studios to keep an eye on. I'm sure SOMEBODY told them that graphic adventure games are dead, and you can't make money on RPGs if your name doesn't begin with Bioware, Bethesda, or Square. But these guys keep ignoring the "facts" of the industry and seem to be kicking butt. Telltale got into a partnership with GameTap, and Hothead is in a sweet arrangement with Penny Arcade.

And they are pulling it off by espousing the indie attitude, and they seem to be largely bypassing the mainstream publishing and distribution system.

Cool. Also: "Gimme!"

Strongbad's Cool Game For Attractive People Information at Gamasutra

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Thursday, March 20, 2008
 
From Text to 3D Character
Over at The Monk's Brew, Rubes (Mike Rubin) has the third part of his ongoing saga to bring text IF (Interactive Fiction) characters to life as animated, 3D characters in Vespers 3D. In this case, it's the character of Brother Ignatious, who was described very simply in the original text adventure as follows:

"A fiery man, whose devotion to God is rivalled only by his devotion to protecting God's people, Brother Ignatius was a soldier before joining Saint Cuthbert's. After losing an eye against the Turks in Nicaea, he came back to Italy, and started fighting for God in the only way he could now: with prayer."

Mike goes through the process, including concept art, 3D modeling, animation, and finding the right actor to provide the voice-overs for Brother Ignatious.

Awesome stuff, if you are interested in taking a peek inside the sausage factory.

Adventures with NPCs IV: Ignatious at Monk's Brew

P.S. - He's also got a very awesome retrospective on Atari's Adventure worth taking a look at, too.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008
 
The Monk's Brew
I haven't mentioned it directly on the blog here yet because I was waiting for him to get a few articles up first, but I think it's time I mention Mike Rubin's new blog, 'The Monk's Brew." We talked about this a little bit at the last Utah Indie meeting, and exchanged a few emails about the subject.

The Monk's Brew is very Adventure Game / Interactive Fiction - centric, and is sort of a look at that side of the indie gaming fence from the perspective of a developer (kinda like here). Mike Rubin lends his expertise and perspective as someone who loves classic text-based Interactive Fiction, but also sees new ways to bring the game style to new audiences. You'll find regular updates of his big "magnum opus," Vespers 3D, as well as discussions of other topics and stories from the adventure game side of things.

So... I'll pass it along... enjoy!

Visit The Monk's Brew! Add it to your RSS Feeds! And Have Fun!


(Vaguely) related adventures in topical chaos:
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin on Vespers 3D (Part 1)
* Indie Interview: Mike Rubin on Vespers 3D (Part 2)
* A Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different
* How Do I Get Past the Harpies?
* Utah Indie Game Dev Night, Summer 2006

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Saturday, February 09, 2008
 
"Gabriel Knight" Creator Designing "Women's Murder Club" Games
In an interesting note for old-school adventure gamers, designer Jane Jensen of Gabriel Knight fame has teamed up with mystery author James Patterson to create a series of games based on Patterson's "Women's Murder Club" book and TV series, according to the Hollywood Reporter. At least, it is expected to be a series - naturally, it depends upon the success of the first game, due out in May. featuring mysteries created by Jensen.

Jensen co-founded Oberon Media some time ago, which indies may recognize as one of the major players in the casual arena. So as you can probably guess, it's not going to be geared towards hardcore 20-year-old male action gamers. In all likelihood, they will be closest Oberon's "Agatha Christie" Hidden Object games, also designed by Jane Jensen. These combine "hunt the hidden image" gameplay with puzzles in-between segments, and dialogs / story segments.

"We are sort of baby-stepping our way towards a full adventure game while still keeping the elements that I believe are really good about casual games," she says, "meaning that it has to be immediately intuitive with no barriers for entry and it has to be immediately rewarding."

Jensen is personally heading up the this project full-time as writer, creative director, and game designer.

There is still no word yet on the completion of her more tradition adventure game Gray Matter, only that its schedule release date is still "Q1 2008." That would be... in the next seven weeks or so, wouldn't it?

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008
 
IGN Visits the State of the Adventure Game Genre
Wow - an Adventure Game discussion on IGN. Pilots, please try to avoid running into flocks of pigs at 35,000 feet...

State of the Genre: Adventure Games at IGN

Some interesting commentary here. They invoke Dreamfall, Undercover: Operation Wintersun, The Longest Journey, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, the upcoming Penumbra: Black Plague, and of course the new Sam & Max games. And lots of classics, as well as newer adventure games that have been largely flying under the radar in the mainstream games biz.

I personally got a little annoyed at them constantly talking about how cool these games would be on the Wii, to the point where Steve Butts even complains, "Too bad we're talking about PC games."

Bah.

But they do bring up some of the problems facing adventure games now. Well, they are the same problems we had 17 years ago, but they are more acute with the broader audience than the computer-geeks of 1991. Adventure games still have a terrible problem with "hunt the pixel" puzzles.

Also, Steve Butts comments, "Well, one of the problems is that it's almost impossible to scale the types of puzzles that we're used to in adventure games. That would be like trying to create an IQ test where everyone got a different number of correct answers but still all got the same score. There's really no easy solution to that. I mean, either you can just toss the players into the deep end and hope to sell a lot of strategy guides, or you can toss out hints that are so obvious that they remove all of the challenge. It's not easy."

Hmmm.... wasn't this addressed back in the early 90's or so with difficulty levels for some adventure games? We need the same thing today for action games. But it's much harder to gauge puzzle difficulty.

Enjoy the article. They bring up some good points.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008
 
Guest Post: Fatal Hearts Review
Note: This isn't a review site, though I give my opinion often enough. However, in this case, game journalist, blogger, and good friend JanaLee Stocks (AKA JenaRey) had something a little more playful in mind in addition to her "official" review for the mainstream gaming sites. So - I'm turning over the microphone to her to talk a little bit about Fatal Hearts, the latest game from Hanako Games (of Cute Knight fame).

Fatal Hearts Review

I blame, Jay. No, seriously…it's all his fault. If it wasn't for him I likely never would have found Fatal Hearts, and thus my life would still be my own instead of feverishly clicking on the next dialogue because I simply MUST know what happens this time. My house is a mess but I can't take the time to clean it. Will I find out who is the mysterious stranger in my dreams? Will I join the Wolfriemen? Will I die in my sleep? *whimper*

It's all Jay's fault.

Okay, so maybe it's not Jay's fault, but it's definitely Georgina's who is the chief cook and bottlewasher when it comes to the game Fatal Hearts. It's a clever piece that's a cross between a typical adventure game and a wonderfully written choose your own adventure book. Like most adventure games there are sections where there's stuff to click on (though no pixel hunting, thankfully) and clues to find all combined with a variety of puzzles and plenty of NPC interaction.

The game tells the story of pretty fifteen and a half year old Christina who is having funky dreams (pretty boy mysterious strangers, hubba hubba!) and finds herself in the center of a supernatural drama and only four chapters to decide who will live and who will die, herself included. As Christina you have the opportunity to make choices all through out the game that will take the story in different directions. Do you get into the car with a strange boy? Do you tell the police what you saw in the forest? Do you lie to your mother? This one was strangely difficult to click on. I think I've been so thoroughly brainwashed by my own mother to never lie to her, so it was a hard choice even in a game. The dialogue and action trees are so perfect for a typical teenager that I found myself regressing about fifteen years. There was squealing even…I'm not proud, but there you have it. Even small things - like a discussion about what you want to be when you grow up - can have a significant impact on where you end the game (at any of its 14 end points).

The puzzles in the game are hugely fun and get more complex every time you come across them. I adore the number of different types of puzzles that are represented because they keep me from getting bored. Even better is the fact there's a strategy guide that comes with the game which features cheat codes. I love a good puzzle, but there are some that just don't have as much appeal for me. Like driving Jeremy's car, which connects with a spasmodic part of my brain and all I can do is run into buildings and die. Over and over and over… after about fifteen minutes of frustration it was nice to be able to use the code to skip over that puzzle. It was the only one I skipped without having finished it at least once. Some of the others I skipped on the fourth or fifth iteration because I'd already beaten them and knew they took forever and I wanted to get back to the story. Sue me.

Maybe the very best part of this game was the fact it sucked in my mother. I'm not revealing her age, but neither of us are fifteen anymore. She'd come for a visit to help me assemble wedding invitations and saw what looked like a Sudoku puzzle on the screen. And we have a conversation that goes like this:

Her: "What's that?"

Me: "Just this game I'm reviewing."

Her: "It looks like sudoku."

Me: "This puzzle is."

Her: "The bottom row is wrong."

Me: "No it's not."

Her: "Is so. If you do it that way then these other two boxes don't work."

Me: "…"

Her: "Can you start the puzzle over again?"

Me: "Yep."

Her: "Good…put the one that looks like a devil guy right there…"

So we work the puzzle together and she gets sucked into the story too. We finish that ending.

Her: "That was a stupid ending! I don't want to be the vampire bride. It says ending 04 of 14. Start the game again!"

On the second time through she makes the choices for Christina. Right up until she has to go visit my sister and the sick grandkids. Mom doesn't want to leave because she wants to know how it ends, but she must. So she calls me a couple of hours later, demanding to know in detail what happened.

I think Mom's getting an early mother's day present.

So there it is. Excellent game. Low learning curve. Romance, action, supernatural critters, death, sacrifice, malls… who could ask for more?

Now all of you nice people go away and buy your own copies. Christina has just made chocolate chip cookies for the seventh time and I'm hungry.

Obligatory Numeric Scores:
Puzzle variety: 9
Teenage girl regression: 10
Hunky mysterious strangers: 10
Dramatic Supernatural Story: 10
Stupid Jeremy's car: -2
Times I'm going to play this game: 14+


Fatal Hearts is available from RampantGames.com

Jana's gaming blog is Eeps, Meeps, and Ipes. Besides being fully in touch with her inner fifteen-year-old, she also seems to have a thing for the hyperkinetic rabbity-thing in the Sam & Max adventures, and pretending to be a rock diva in Rock Band and Guitar Hero.


(Vaguely) related... stuff
* Aveyond 2 and Fatal Hearts
* Cute Knight Deluxe Available From Rampant Games
* The Power of Text in Gaming

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Thursday, January 17, 2008
 
Aveyond 2 and Fatal Hearts
Rampant Games has two new titles available in the Adventure & Roleplaying section of the site... Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest and Fatal Hearts. One is an RPG, and the other is an adventure game - of a non-traditional sort.

Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest is the next latest epic in Amaranth Games' role-playing game series, which began with the freeware Ahriman's Prophecy (link temporarily unavailable) and continued with the best-selling indie RPG Aveyond. The series uses the RPG Maker engine, and is reminiscent of the classic 16-bit SNES / Sega console RPGs of the early 90's. It has cute characters, lots of dialog, turn-based combat (and LOTS OF IT), a BIG storyline, and a very playful sense of humor that doesn't stop it from getting serious at times.

In Aveyond 2, you control a party centered around the main character, an elf named Ean. Ean comes from an elven community in a place called the Vale that has been magically secluded from the rest of the world. But when your best friend, Iya, disappears without a trace, and everyone's memory of her but your own has been completely erased - as if she'd never existed - it is up to you to leave the safety of the Vale and rescue her from the clutches of the Snow Queen. And that's only the beginning! Your quest soon gets you embroiled in events that threaten the entire world.

Many moons ago, I had an interview with Amanda Fitch, the creator of this game. She's an awesome person to chat with, and is frankly an example to me of what an indie game developer ought to be. She's driven, professional, and yet devoted to her community and fans. If you missed the interview, I recommend checking it out here:

Interview with Amanda Fitch

The other game is Fatal Hearts, by Hanako Games, the studio behind the other hit "casual" RPG, Cute Knight. I would describe Fatal Hearts as being more on the "Adventure Game" side of the fence, but even that doesn't begin to describe the game. It could be described as a "visual interactive novel" done in anime style.

For me, I draw the parallel with the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series of the 1980s - stuff I kinda grew up with, back in the days where the "home computer" concept was still waiting to catch on. Well, okay, I could play Zorks and Ultimas on my computer, but I still read / played the books. In the books, you'd read a page or two of story, and then you'd be presented with a choice. Your choice would have a page number you'd be instructed to turn to in order to continue the story.

Fatal Hearts does the same thing, but with the advantage of memory of past actions. So your actions may not have a major impact on the story immediately, but may come back to haunt you later. In addition to this, there are several challenge sections - often puzzles are clue-hunting adventure sections - that you may need to solve. For example, you may come across what appears to be a journal, but it is locked with a concentric-ring combination-lock style puzzle.

Fatal Heart's story deals with a fifteen-year-old girl with mysterious dreams, the supernatural, and murder. Because of its subject matter, it is not recommended for young children. The developer has recommended it for teens and above. And older male gamers like me might find it a little trickier to get in touch with their inner teenaged girl mindset of the game. But hey, I can imagine myself a battle-hardened athletic super-soldier with supernatural speed and resistance to damage in dozens of games, so how much more of a stretch is it?

I've interviewed Georgina Bensley, the principle designer / developer of Fatal Hearts, in the past. She complained before the interview that she didn't think she actually had anything interesting to say about herself, but then immediately proved herself wrong. If you missed the interview, you can catch it here:

Interview With Georgina Bensley

If either of the above game descriptions tickle your fancy and you feel you'd like to try them out, you can download the demos and try them out right away. Let us know what you think!

Download Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest

Download Fatal Hearts

(Vaguely) related opinions offered absolutely free and worth every penny:
* Aveyond 2 First Look
* What Makes a Good "Casual" RPG?
* Guest Post: Survey of Top Indie Graphic Adventure Games
* The Evolution of Computer RPGs


You can post comments here, or in the forums.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008
 
Ron Gilbert's Next Thing
Ron Gilbert (creator of, among other things, the classic Monkey Island games... at least the two that started it all) has announced his next big thing:

DEATHSPANK

Episode 1 is entitled "Orphans of Justice" (as you can see from that website you just clicked on). In his words, it "can only be called the perfect melding of a Monkey Island style adventure game with the wicked RPG game play of Diablo." And it's episodic (in case the "Episode 1:" part threw you.)

He's partnered up with Hothead Games, the guys responsible for the upcoming Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Which, as you may recall, Gilbert consulted on. In fact, he's now moved up to Canada and is working as their creative director.

Wanna learn more? Of course you do. Here's the story in Ron's own words:

"Oh Crap!!!" at Grumpy Gamer

I dunno, man. This. And Tim Schaffer's upcoming "Brutal Legend?" I don't know if these old-school legends have enough sell-out-edness to make mega hits. But I'm betting they still have what it takes to make Awesome. I'm looking forward to seeing more of this.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007
 
Help Test Christmas I.F. Game
RandomGamer has a request up for people to help him test his 4-room entry into the TIGSource Winter Interactive Fiction contest.

Check It Out Here. Comment in the forum if you find bugs or have suggestions.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007
 
New IF Competition
TIGSource is running an interactive fiction (previously known as "text adventure") competition called, "Text the Halls." It started at midnight last night, and ends on Christmas Eve. The theme is Winter / The Holidays / Christmas. Get cooking!

Text The Halls IF Competition.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007
 
Penny Arcade Adventures Interview
You know, when I first heard about Penny Arcade Adventures (Subtitled, "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness"), I thought "Graphic Adventure Game." Like Sam & Max, or the old LucasArts / Sierra adventures. Especially when Ron "Monkey Island" Gilbert came on board to help with the design. But from the sounds of it, it's going to have a lot of RPG-style action going along with it.

It looks like we'll have yet another comedy-oriented indie RPG out there soon. I think there's room for two :)

The combat system is a "blend of turn-based and real-time," according to this interview. It's definitely off the beaten path. The setting is... well, all kinds of awesome to my ears. According to Jerry Holkins (AKA Tycho Brahe),
"Story-wise, it's meant to be a kind of ridiculous horror game. It's modeled in kind of a winking way after the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and it's designed from the ground up to be a kind of pulp serial. It takes place in what seems to be a slightly mystical, prohibition-era urban and suburban setting."
Sign me up. This sounds pretty dang awesome.

Check out the Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Interview at RPG Vault.

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Monday, November 26, 2007
 
Game Design: Yahtzee On "The Keyring Syndrome"
Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw (author of the extremely funny Zero Punctuation series at The Escapist) is also an adventure game designer, and has a a series of blog articles about common adventure game flaws. Several are appropriate to adventure games and RPGs. This one in particular concerns what he calls the "Keyring Syndrome."

The problem comes from the simplified interfaces of graphic adventures as they "evolved" to the point where there were so few verb / object combinations available that you could brute force the solutions. In particular, the "Use on " combinations that allow you to unlock a part of the game simply by going through your inventory blindly.

But more than that just criticize the problem, he also suggests some solutions. It's a good read whether you are a designer or a fan of adventures or RPGs:

Ben Crowshaw: Use Key On Door

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