Open Sorcery & the power of text

May 1st, 2017 1:00 PM
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In the course of producing my IndieSider podcast, I discover a variety of surprising, fascinating indie games. Wading through tons of clones and me-toos is worth it when I find a game that refines an old concept or executes something new — or both.

Such is the case with Open Sorcery, a Twine-based interactive fiction Steam game that replaces text adventures' traditional parser with hypertext and links. I saw Open Sorcery at two different game conventions before I finally got some one-on-one time with it at home. I ended up playing far longer than I do more visually complex games, growing attached to the characters and replaying it to get a "better" ending.

I was surprised — not that text can be so engaging, but that I'd ever forgotten it could be. I grew up on the Apple II playing text adventures and MUDs, from Eamon to British Legends, exploring worlds of fantasy and science fiction and getting lost in their puzzles and decisions. When away from the computer, I filled my time with Choose Your Own Adventure and Endless Quest. With text leaving so many gaps for my imagination to fill, it was easy to inject myself into those adventures.

It was wonderful to rediscover the power of text, as described by Richard Bartle in this excerpt from Jason Scott's documentary, GET LAMP:

Modern-day shooters may strive for adjectives such as "gripping" and "compelling"; the best words I can use to describe Open Sorcery are "thoughtful" and "delightful". I highly recommend it.

Steamed Apples at KansasFest 2016

August 1st, 2016 7:06 PM
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I love presenting at KansasFest. Speaking at such an esteemed gathering of Apple II aficionados reaffirms that I nonetheless have something to contribute to this community, despite not having extensive knowledge of Apple II hardware or software.

In brainstorming this year's presentation, I emailed KFest schedulemeister Andy Molloy for ideas. He suggested:

How about something like "10 influential Apple II games" and then you talk about them, demo them and show how they are cool. There's certainly a segment of the audience (i.e., me) who loves to watch old Apple II games, which is why I liked Bruce's stuff. Or something like "here are 10 Apple games that were later remade on modern systems".

It was a great idea — so great, that it'd already been done: I presented "Classic Gaming Inspirations" at KansasFest 2009 and "Classic Gaming Inspirations, Part Deux" in 2010. In each, I demoed modern games for Mac, PC, and iOS that were reminiscent of classic Apple II games. Despite being a familiar theme, I enjoyed giving those talks and felt that enough time had passed, so I decided to dust off the theme for 2016.

This year's constraint: all the games had to be available for Steam, the digital distribution platform for games. And they had to be available for Mac, PC, and Linux. Fortunately, even given these limitations, I was not wanting for ideas, as I'd discovered many such games through IndieSider, my biweekly podcast where I interview indie game developers. Most KFesters know my podcasting efforts in the vintage computing realm, specifically on Open Apple and the Retro Computing Roundtable, but were not aware that I host gaming podcasts as well. It was fun to share this other side of myself with the audience.

Here are the Apple II genres and games I started with and the Steam games in which a modern gamer might find an echo of the past.

GenreClassic gameSteam gameIndieSider?
Point and Click (First Person)ShadowgateShadowgateYes
Point and Click (First Person)ShadowgateRead Only MemoriesYes
Point and Click (Third Person)King's QuestKing's QuestNo
Point and Click (Third Person)King's QuestKathy RainYes
Point and Click (Third Person)King's QuestThe Blackwell LegacyNo
SurvivalOregon TrailOrgan TrailNo
PlatformDangerous DaveVVVVVVNo
PlatformDangerous DavePlangmanYes
PlatformImpossible MissionMaster SpyYes
ActionPac-ManPac-Man 256Yes
RPGWastelandWastelandNo
RPGWastelandWasteland IINo

Thanks to Jason Scott's speedy turnaround, a video of the presentation is already available online:

I had so many games in mind for this year's talk that I had to keep many in reserve. Expect to see more Steam games at KansasFest 2017!

Plangman on IndieSider

March 14th, 2016 11:03 AM
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Candidates for my biweekly IndieSider podcast can be difficult to come by. The show looks behind the scenes at the development of indie (self-published) computer and video games, of which there are many — the indie tag on software distribution platform Steam currently lists 7,391 titles, with more being added every day.

But I limit IndieSider to games that I like, so as to avoid an awkward conversation with a developer of "Why does your game suck?" I instead look for games that offer original experiences and progressive gameplay in genres that I like: action, adventure, puzzle, narrative. There's then an evaluation period where I test a game to determine if it'll be a good fit for the show.

The latest episode of IndieSider features a game that bypassed that evaluation entirely. No game has hit my sweet spot as neatly as Plangman, which caught my attention in the first two seconds of its trailer:

A platform game with the puzzle elements of Hangman and featuring what appeared to be the runner from Microsoft's Olympic Decathlon as the protagonist? Was this game somehow made for me?!

I was quick to get developer Ehren von Lehe on the phone for episode #39 of IndieSider. Through Facebook and Juiced.GS, I thought I knew almost all the major Apple II players out there. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Ehren's interest in the Apple II is as alive and well as any retrocomputing enthusiast. Plangman was inspired by watching his daughter play with his own Apple II, recently taken out of mothballs. The playable character is based on Captain Goodnight, not the Olympic decathlete. Ehren mentioned an Infocom documentary also played a role. Aha! Another fan of Jason Scott's GET LAMP. When I added that Jason had been the keynote speaker at an annual Apple II convention, Ehren asked, "Is that KansasFest?" It was almost as if Ehren and I had been members of the same community for years and had never met!

The resulting conversation can be heard in this audio podcast:

or this video

It's not unusual for my gaming pursuits to introduce me to people who got their start on the Apple II and who remember the platform fondly. It's unprecedented for me to encounter in that course someone who's actively keeping the Apple II alive through modern software development. If you want a retro aesthetic in a new game, I highly recommend you check out Plangman.

(Hat tip to Javy Gwaltney)

Scoring Dangerous Dave

December 21st, 2015 11:39 AM
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On IndieSider, my biweekly podcast, I interview game developers about the creative process. The Apple II is one of the platforms that got me into gaming, so I enjoy the opportunities to feature it on my show, bringing everything full circle. For example, Episode #16 featured the voice talents of Brutal Deluxe's Antoine Vignau, whereas episode #26 highlighted the work of Wade Clarke in interactive fiction.

Some of my podcast subjects come to me through public relations specialists such as Emily Morganti, whom I've found to be a gamer with excellent taste in games. She recently pitched me a game she didn't realize I have a long history with: Dangerous Dave. This franchise of side-scrolling platform games was founded on the Apple II, where it had two famous names attached to it: publisher Softdisk and developer John Romero.

John has been a friend to the Apple II community before, during, and since his success with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake: he was the KansasFest 2012 keynote speaker, and his writing is featured in this month's issue of Juiced.GS. He recently ported one of his Dangerous Dave games to iOS — but it was not Mr. Romero that Ms. Morganti was representing. Instead she was putting me in touch with Dren McDonald, the composer who created the score for Gathering Sky, a game I featured in IndieSider #28.

I took the opportunity to interview Dren about his long history of collaborations with the Romero family; creating an original soundtrack for an Apple II game; the programming tools that a digital musician employs; and what constitutes the "chipbilly" genre he invented for this game, seemingly inspired by chiptune. The resulting interview became IndieSider #34, which can be viewed on YouTube:

or listened to in your podcatcher of choice:

I appreciated featuring one of the many creative artists who contribute something to a game other than design or development. It takes a village to keep the Apple II alive!

Interviewing Wade Clarke of Leadlight Gamma

August 10th, 2015 9:47 AM
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As host of the IndieSider podcast, I'm constantly on the prowl for new indie (self-published) computer and video games. I like to help my listeners discover obscure titles that represent a variety of genres and themes whose developers are available for podcast interviews about the game development process.

Last month, I found my biweekly guest within the Apple II community with Wade Clarke, creator of Leadlight, a text adventure released in 2010 for the Apple II. The game was featured on the cover of Juiced.GS Volume 16, Issue 1, and Wade declared his intention to translate the game from Eamon to Inform in Volume 17, Issue 2. That project was completed earlier this year with the release of Leadlight Gamma, a game that runs natively on Windows and Mac and is one of the first products under Wade's new label, Heiress Software.

Since Juiced.GS has already covered interactive fiction at length — we have an entire themed PDF on the subject — associate editor Andy Molloy and I decided to give the genre some love in another outlet — namely, the IndieSider podcast. And since I'd already asked Wade about the genesis and influences of Leadlight, I focused this conversation on its transition from the Apple II to modern platforms. The result is episode #26 of IndieSider:

In addition to subscribing to the show in iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or your podcatcher of choice, you can also listen to the above audio interview paired with video of the game being played on YouTube:

Text adventures may not lend themselves to a visual medium like YouTube, but that's exactly why I did it: there are far fewer examples of interactive fiction on YouTube than there are other genres of games. Wrote one of my regular viewers, "I've never seen this type of game in life."

Getting the word out about games, genres, and developers that mainstream gamers may otherwise overlook? Mission accomplished!

IndieSider goes French — sort of

January 26th, 2015 11:26 AM
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On July 2, 2014, I launched the IndieSider podcast. This biweekly show pairs gameplay footage with developer interviews. It's a unique combination that allows me to interview indie game developers while experiencing their creations. I try to focus on games that are doing something unusual, such as This War of Mine, which simulates the reality of being a civilian in a war-torn country; or developers working in uncommon situations, such as Dan Dujnic, who releases a new version of his twin-stick shooter, Breakers Yard, to the web every week.

Recently I discovered the puzzle game Cubot and was charmed by its calming aesthetic, uncomplicated gameplay, and challenging levels. I reached out to developer Nicolas Pierre-Loti-Viaud of Nicoplv Games for an interview. He liked the IndieSider format and wanted to participate, but his spoken English is as good as my French — which is to say, nonexistent. On those grounds, he regretfully declined.

Fortunately, I don't take "no" for an answer! I figured if I could just get a translator, then the interview could proceed. Who did I know who could serve as a bridge between these two languages?

I didn't have to look far.

Juiced.FR

Vive le Juiced.GS!

Antoine Vignau of Brutal Deluxe recently translated an entire issue of Juiced.GS into French. The resulting special edition was mailed for free to all the magazine's French-speaking subscribers. I asked Nicolas: may we conduct the interview via email in French? And Antoine: would you translate to English and provide me an audio recording of the translation?

All parties were game. The interview was on!

IndieSider #16 went live last week and is available in audio and video editions, with French and English transcripts. The voice you hear is Antoine's, but the words are Nicolas'. Antoine and I recorded our tracks separately, which made for a fun time editing, since he never heard the exact tone or phrasing of my questions and responses until after the show had aired!

While the content of this interview had nothing to do with the Apple II, it nonetheless would not have been possible without the Apple II community and this unique collaboration. My thanks to Antoine for lending his expertise and for being willing to play such an unusual role!