78 – Serpent in the Staglands, Take 2

It turns out it was not actually a pair of wolves who showed up to eat my characters the moment they walked outside–it was, more embarrassingly, a pair of foxes; and even more embarrassingly, I found it out while I met them for the second time and got eaten again.

(This time I’m putting the blame on the game–like Dark Souls, it doesn’t seem to pause when you open your inventory and so my party was getting quietly mauled while I read some scrolls.)

Third time’s the charm: With a slightly better idea of how the system works, I rolled another party, met up with the foxes, and killed them, losing only one party member and getting 6 whole XP.

Down the road, my game pauses: I’ve learned about the autopause settings and have it set for whenever an enemy is in sight, and at the edge of the screen is a single dog. I can totally take a dog. Combat is Baldur’s Gate-style real-time-with-pause, so slightly empowered by reading the manual again, I queue up some spells and set my melee fighters to take care of business, and unpause the game…

…at which point a literal dozen dogs appear from just off of screen and rip us all apart.

Now that it’s the weekend, I’m going to spend a good chunk of time trying to actually get into the system and figure the game out–it’s not that it’s so convoluted that it’s impossible to navigate menus or anything like that, but it’s very much its own beast. While the UI may be slightly too complex in certain spots, it’s not unmanageable. Probably the biggest thing of the game is navigating the spells and skills: From what I can gather, spells are more focused on buff/debuff kind of things rather than the one fireball spell, and I get the sense that the buffs and debuffs are actually useful provided you can figure out how they hit up against each other. There is a moment waiting in the wings, I can tell–a moment that’s gonna have everything click, and I’m looking forward to that very much. This game is a very particular vintage–it’s explicitly not intended for kids, so to speak–and I am so glad that we’re in this weird CRPG renaissance. It’s like the late 90s all over again!

77 – Serpent in the Staglands

Le premier est pour le chien: It’s true for crepes and CRPGs. Most old-school games, if they include enough options for different character builds, have a pre-generated party, the reason being not necessarily that you’re going to actually play these characters, but because if you’re playing with a new system, particularly one with a wide variety of skills, you’ll need at least a little guidance. So you take the starter party, which is usually a fairly decent set of well-rounded characters, and you gauge roughly how stats work in the game, how many levels you’re going to gain, and after you’ve sunk a few hours and made your beginner’s mistakes, you start over and roll a new party. That’s how I did it with Might and Magic, it’s how I did it with Wizardry 6, with Wasteland 2–and it’s how I expected to go through Serpent in the Staglands.

See, SitS is billed on how hard and old-school it is. The manual literally tells you to take out a pen and paper because you’re going to need it. There’s a subtle, friendly challenge in all of the marketing material: This game doesn’t hold your hand like all of those other games do. This is one you’ve got to figure out yourself.

And in that spirit, Serpent in the Staglands does not contain a pregenerated party, gives you only so many stat points available and so, so many types of skills you can put your points into, with their own dependencies–it is a game that quite literally begins and then throws you to the wolves, as in, I began the game, talked to a couple of people outside the first room, walked about 20 feet, and immediately got eaten by a pack of them, at which point, I put the game away, said a few prayers, and fired up Disciples: Sacred Lands, which sucked away two hours of my time and I’ll write about that later.

But it’s shit like this that’s my bread and butter. In the first area, you find a couple of scrolls, one containing a runic language you’ll have to translate, another detailing a keyword-based magic system. That’s separate from the regular magic system which you pour points to. That’s separate from a book that asks you to draw symbols in your own blood. It is a game that incarnates you, gives you hints of some of the challenges to come, and then immediately murders you.

Welcome to the Staglands!

76 – Elminage Gothic

The Big Three of 80s RPGs–Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry–all finished up in different states circa 2000. Ultima 9 is spoken of bitterly if at all–even if it weren’t a bug-ridden mess it still goes against a lot of thematic and tonal things that were long established in the series; at least Ultima Online was popular in its day. Might and Magic 9 isn’t an inherently *bad* game, and it is very much a Might and Magic game in spirit, but it’s underdone: Every single element feels like a rough draft that needed another year to refine and pare down; as it is, we get gigantic, aimless areas with nothing in them. Wizardry ended up the best–6 and 7 were and are very well-received, and if Wizardry 8 is not without its flaws, it features some frankly heroic direction on the part of Brenda Garno-Brathwaite-Romero–one of the most interesting takes on a turn based battle system I’ve seen, with this weird real time system that I haven’t seen any other game pick up on. The stats–which, frankly, in 6 and 7 were confusing and slightly convoluted–were also completely revamped, and for the first time, character classes had distinct abilities and passives, as opposed to the earlier games which mostly affected stats and equipment. I read that one of the first design-related things she ever did, as a teenager, was rewriting the encumbrance rules for a game she’d been playing with her friends, and I guess what I love about Wizardry 8 is how it takes a set of mechanics that had worked fairly well and makes a few tweaks here and there and suddenly they’re that much better.

Wizardry is, however, Big In Japan–it’s one of the inspirations behind Dragon Quest–and there’s been a fairly solid base of dungeon crawler fans over there; not only are there tons of clones, but due to a quirk of rights or licensing or something, there’ve been a *bunch* of Wizardry sequels developed in and for Japan–one or two have been released in the US, but that’s only been in the past few years. The Nintendo DS was (is?) a pretty good time for these kinds of games–stuff like The Dark Spire and Etrian Odyssey had a natural home on there (and there’s probably an essay or two about how the Nintendo DS exposed a lot of people to things like roguelikes and more avant-garde RPGs, and man, I’m gonna start waxing nostalgic for the PS2 days if I continue on this way). They’re usually, oh, about as hardcore as a niche genre of Japanese-developed RPGs can be, which is to say, you’re gonna be grinding, you’re gonna be bashing your teeth against it, it’s gonna be hard. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen–masochism is half the fun.

Elminage Gothic is one of these such games; it’s the kind of game that I spent some time mapping the first level, looked up, and realized two hours had passed: If you’re the kind of person who likes drawing graph paper maps, it’s got you covered. I can’t say I understand the mechanics as far as character stats are concerned, but I’m playing with the default party, and it’s the kind of game that, you can tell is going to encourage you to swap your party in and out. (One of my favorite parts of Etrian Odyssey, in fact, was its extremely low level caps; when your character hits it, you can “retire” them and swap them out with a character with higher starting stats and a higher cap. By the end of the game, I’d cycled my entire party out a good two or three times, each incarnation stronger than the previous one, and a completely different party than I’d started the game with–giving the feeling of managing a guild of adventurers rather than actually role-playing as one.)

In some ways it’s a few step back from Wizardry 6. Wiz 6 begins with your party trapped inside a ruined castle they’re exploring, and throughout you get short messages talking about the abandoned decay. DW Bradley writes, frankly, fairly purple, but it kind of works–it has a melodramatic tone of elegance corrupted into decadence and finally rot. And the very substance of the level propels you through–it’s shaped like you’d imagine the floor plan of a castle to be, and you’re restricted to certain sections that you gradually unlock, Resident-Evil style. The castle also serves as a sort of hub–you branch out into other areas which lead back to the castle through different ways, unlocking deeper areas of the castle. Even the endgame takes place behind what is more or less the last door you couldn’t get through.

“There’s monsters in the cave,” a messenger says at the beginning of Elminage Gothic, and by golly, you’re gonna solve it–and that’s about as basic as you can get and fine for a game of this type. But there is nothing to the cave beyond it being a cave–there’s no flavor text, and I guess that’s what I’m missing. There’s a couple of bits where it basically says, oh, a bloodstain! or oh, some bones!, but it’s very flat and matter-of fact. A couple of NPCs give gameplay tips to you. That’s about it.

You know, it’s clear that this is just the first level, and it is enjoyably twisty to map. I’m also finding the game surprisingly easy, to the degree that I double-checked to make sure I didn’t have a setting on. Again, I’m playing with a default party, which may simply be stronger than a created one, but I also do have the feeling I’m gonna eat my words soon enough. The monster design is very good.

The equipment also feels a few steps back: In the shop screen, there doesn’t appear to be any way to compare a prospective piece of equipment against your current one. I can forgive Wizardry 6 for not having that–even though by 1990 when W6 came out, there was beginning to be no excuse, Wizardry was necessarily foot-dragging in that regard–but as old-school as Elminage wants to be, that’s not not so much a convenience anymore as it is a requirement.

I am looking forward to defeating the monsters n the cave, though.

75 – The Samaritan Paradox

The Samaritan Paradox is one of those backlog games that I played, got stuck on a puzzle, and moved to the “games I’ll probably never play again” category in Steam. Adventure games are a funny thing for me–I played them almost exclusively in middle school, half of my friends either design old-school-style adventure games or run podcasts on them or whatever–and yet I don’t always like to play them. (I still haven’t gotten to Part 2 of Broken Age.) I decided to give Samaritan another go, based on Ben Chandler mentioning that there was a certain twist at the end that was extremely polarizing; that Vince Twelve (developer of Resonance, which itself contains a couple of fantastic plot twists) chimed in to mention that he liked the twist settled it, and over the course of the next couple days I played and beat Samaritan–a couple of light nudges over Twitter helped me with a couple of puzzles, but I found it a mostly successful game with a really interesting story that falters in a couple of bits–some having to do with the fact that it is an adventure game and it takes on a lot of flaws with the genre.

Uh, spoilers.

The game revolves around the suicide of a writer known for political investigative journalism and potboiler detective stories; you play a down-on-his-luck cryptologist who gets involved in the search for the manuscript for the writer’s last novel. The writer has hidden the various manuscript pieces along a breadcrumb trail that begins to illuminate a deeper mystery, a conspiracy to sell weapons to third-world countries in turmoil. (The game is Swedish; I didn’t know that Sweden had a history of doing these things, but it’s nice to know that it and America have a lot more in common than you’d think!) The story is indeed interesting–the mystery is paced very well, the revelations about the conspiracy are parceled out in satisfying chunks, it’s the kind of game which answers a lingering question and then introduces a character who brings up two more questions and may or may not be untrustworthy. As you can imagine, there’s a bunch of secret codes and a couple of puzzle boxes, and thematically they fit: You’re a fan of puzzles who’s on a literal treasure hunt. When you find a section of the novel, the game shifts and you play through them; they’re a fairy tale story about a young woman fighting dragons and attempting to stop a ritual. In these sequences–and they’re some of the most visually beautiful in a game that’s lovely throughout–you have some more standard adventure game puzzles, and they fit here. Like I said, the game was very solvable–a couple of slight hints from friends were all I needed.

One puzzle seemingly falters. One of the things I’ve picked up from Andrew Plotkin’s game reviews is the question of: If you have a puzzle which clicks together in a complex and satisfying way, but where the player completely misses the clue which ties everything together and resorts to trial and error, is that a bad puzzle? One sequence in Samaritan features a locked chest; there’s an illustration of a harpy, a dial of numbers, and a blocked keyhole. The harpy refers to a series of constellations–constellations you learn from a segment of the missing manuscript and which you can view through a nearby telescope. Locating the Harpy constellation gives you a pair of coordinates, which you obiously dial in, letting you access the keyhole.

The key comes from a chessboard in the room. There are eight queens; if your Stock Puzzle Senses are keen or you found a book in the game which mentions the puzzle, you know that this is called the Eight Queens puzzle and it goes a little something like this: Can you place the eight queens in such a way that no queen threatens the other? I hate chess and I hate stock chess puzzles; I hate chess metaphors and I hate it used as shorthand; but more importantly, I hate stock puzzles. (Everybody hates Stock Puzzles; there’s a reason why everybody loves Richard Cobbett’s riff on the Towers of Hanoi in The Sunless Sea.) I don’t mind blundering through a weird Adventure Game Puzzle; but if I have to figure out Nim or Peg Solitaire or a sliding tile thing I am looking that shit up; 30 seconds on Google and I solved the chess puzzle, got the key, opened the chest, and moved on with my life.

I mentioned this bit to Chandler after the fact, and he said, oh, the clues were in the room with you, I liked how it connected to the constellations–and at that point the puzzle clicked. The Harpy constellation consists of eight stars, and if you recreate it with queens on a chessboard, you’ll see that no queen threatens any other: The Harpy constellation is the solution to the chess puzzle. In this light, it’s an excellent puzzle–everything is centered around this one constellation–and yet I just plain didn’t make that insight until after the fact, largely because I didn’t need to. Plotkin’s Maxim: I am a player, therefore I am lazy. If you put a series of riddles on a plywood door, and I’ve got an ax, I’m not gonna solve your riddles. In some ways, it’s kind of nice that there are multiple ways to arrive at the solution, but the one I used was mildly disappointing. It’s largely a question of lost faith: If I see something that looks like a stock puzzle, I’m going to assume that it’s a lazy designer padding his game–and you know, it’s really hitting me how neither player nor designer can be having a good time during a stock puzzle. They’re kind of cheating each other, or bullshitting each other, or whatever: It’s a totally bad-faith moment. And maybe players have had so many bad faith moments from lazy designers that a clever designer can’t quite do a clever variation on a stock puzzle.

And part of the problem is that there are moments where the game doesn’t justify that faith. The fairy tale segments of the game handle more adventure gamey puzzles in a better or at least more thematic way, but there are some in the real-world segment of the game that just blow up. You use a small saw to get through some drywall, timing it with a man’s snoring in order to mask the sound. You sneak into an office by setting up a series of dominoes involving a fan, some extension cords, and a stack of papers. In probably the worst moment of the game, you meet up with someone who can show you the boat that the writer drowned himself from; oh, but he’s entering a crossword puzzle contest and he’s got to solve this thing before the post office closes.

It wouldn’t–it couldn’t–you think, and for a moment, The Samaritan Paradox doesn’t let you down. “This would take an ordinary person hours to solve”, you say, at which point the screen fades to black: “FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER”–and of course, your character is a brilliant cryptologist with an omnivorous thirst for knowledge, this would be a piece of cake for him–except there’s one clue he can’t solve, one which he leaves to the player. And the clue is the name of the detective in the novels written by the writer you’re investigating. The writer is popular enough that it’s like if you had _OI__T as the answer for “Agatha Christie’s detective”, if you didn’t know it yourself you could ask someone or look it up.

But this is an adventure game, and you’ve got to solve a puzzle to do that, and it’s a puzzle I solved entirely accidentally. There are half a dozen very obvious places to look, not the least of which is the writer’s daughter, who you’re working for. Even considering that she’s estranged from her dad and actively uninterested in his writing, the game doesn’t even give you the option to ask her if she knows the name. But there aren’t any mentions of the character anywhere in his house, none of his books around anywhere. Worse, the entire game is kicked off by your discovery of a code to the writer’s daughter Sara *in one of his novels*–while your character scoffs at it as pulp detective trash and actively hasn’t read it, the book completely disappears from your apartment, taking away the option to look at the blurb on the back. You can’t even call the friend who *lent* you the book and ask him what the detective’s name is. The newspaper article about the writer’s death doesn’t mention it. Hell, the guy who gave you the crossword in the first place knew the writer personally and might even be familiar with it–you can’t even ask him if he knows the final clue on his own puzzle! I spent a good 20 minutes traipsing through the game (making several ferry trips to and from a nearby island, going across town sevearl times, the post office likely closing and reopening six times in the intervening time), asking everyone about everything, and ultimately blundered my way through when I noticed a hotspot that I hadn’t seen earlier, one which gave me an item–

–okay, I’ll get into it because the only copy of the writer’s novel that exists in the world (there are no bookstores, it seems, in Sweden) is in a bar, where a pissed off guy is reading it. I of course used everything in my inventory on him to no avail–it’s not even clear if he’s a puzzle piece or a background character. Over to the side is a “rocker” who’s fiddling with a jukebox and trying to change the song–again, unclear if he’s a piece or scenery. And finally, something I legitimately thought *was* scenery–a sofa whose hotspot is such that I didn’t even think it had one the first few times I went into the location. Clicking on it gives you three coins from under the cushions: What you need to do is give a coin to the rocker, who puts on a heavier song, disrupting the reader’s concentration and driving him from the scene, leaving the book behind for you to read the back and finally find the detective’s name. As a final, almost cruel punchline, the coins icon changes to show that you’re now holding two coins: Okay, this may not have been the best puzzle, but it was a clumsy way of forcing you to have these coins in your inventory, they’ll likely be used later on and they’re trying to avoid a dead man walking scenario. Except that’s not the case–the two coins are never used again. The sequence is *entirely unnecessary*–it’s an excuse made up by a very minor character to prevent the player from going to the next bit just yet, one which yields no insight into the world or anything, which could be solved in multiple ways, and which doesn’t really provide any other reward. It’s a bit that should have been cut: Ask to see the boat, the character takes you there without the hassle.

And yet, if that and a bunch of puzzles are based around poking at things until you find the dominoes are in place and the sequence goes in the intended way, I *did* solve the game without a walkthrough. The crossword puzzle puzzle was not one of the areas I needed a nudge on–one of the ones I did was a relatively fair puzzle where I simply didn’t realize a certain action was possible; another was a completely fair puzzle–the one I initially got stuck on–where I just needed to be reminded to read the instructions again. It’s one of the fairy tale segments: A dragon challenges you to a battle of wits in a contest involving poisons and antidotes, and I think I simply hadn’t made the right efforts towards figuring out how the mechanics of the puzzle actually worked.

As for the twist, I simultaneously liked it a lot and didn’t quite love what they did with it. The weapons conspiracy eventually leads to the writer’s son who is the lead arms dealer; you find the final piece of the manuscript in his apartment and figure, at this point, you more or less know where it’s going to end: The main character–who’s explicitly identified with Sara–defeats the bad guy (obviously modeled after her brother), and finds a home in the house of a kindly middle-aged man who’s recently lost his son: Who’s identified explicitly with the writer himself. It’s a sweet, heartwarming ending…which suddenly takes a very shocking turn when the young woman realizes the feelings of desire she has for the older man, and the two embrace–

–and suddenly you realize that the writer had molested his daughter and that the entire thing was an extended confession. The arms conspiracy was definitely a thing, and the writer had been investigating it, but it’s almost a red herring. While he was indeed murdered, it was not for what he knew or to stop him from publishing, it was a character who, realizing the writer planned to finally confess, decided to stop him before he could ruin Sara’s life. She’s got a career, she’s expecting a baby, she has a life apart from all of this–and a budding romance with the game’s protagonist–and this would crush her. It protects Sara and punishes him at once. It’s the kind of motive that’s both well-meaning and heartbreaking and completely wrong. And yet–it’s a motive that the game seems to agree with. The final action of the game involves rewriting the story’s ending. The Sara-analogue returns home, regains her memories, and is reunited with her lost lover (the son of the kindly older man who remains, thankfully, her doting father-in-law in this version), who’s obviously our protagonist writing himself in. In general, it’s a much better ending–it ties up a lot of the story’s loose ends in a way that “incest” doesn’t–and yet Sara isn’t completely fooled. She recognizes the ending’s been rewritten, but she finds it romantic and charming, and is content to dismiss the unread original version as “probably not very good”.

Listen, this woman is going through a hell of a lot of trauma at this point. Her father apparently committed suicide but was revealed to have been murdered by her mother’s nurse–a woman who’s more or less one of the family at this point. Her mother is deep into Alzheimer’s and en route to a nursing home over the course of the game. Her brother runs an illegal and immoral international arms trade and is arrested for it. A hell of a lot has happened and her life is experiencing some extreme changes, and to add “by the way, you were molested” to that is, well, yeah, it’s an additional stress. But at the same time, we’re talking about a highly-educated woman with a successful career as a chemist, who is about to have a child that Sweden’s generous childcare benefits will help out with, and she’s beginning a relationship with a more or less decent guy. If her support system isn’t as strong as it could be, it’s still there, and nowhere in the game is it even suggested that she’s a delicate flower who’ll crack at this news. There’s even suggestions that she sort of already knows–she’s estranged from her father, wants nothing to do with his writing, and seems worried about finding something very specific in the manuscript–even if she truly has consciously forgotten about or repressed the incidents, they would help her understand a lot about her feelings toward her father and towards herself.

So I guess to me it just feels wrong–it feels like hiding from someone the fact that they’re adopted, or lying to a cancer patient and telling them it isn’t terminal. It’s an old-fashioned, paternalistic attitude. Now, the game does take place in the 1980s, in Sweden, so it’s possible we’re dealing with a different attitude than an American in 2015 would have–but at the same time, the game wasn’t *written* in 1984; in general, it seems like an ending involving a housewife in Long Island in the 1950s.

But again–i think the reason the flaws are sticking out was because I did enjoy the game very much. It lasted a Friday and a Saturday evening–which is a great length for an adventure game, as far as I’m concerned–and the more satisfying puzzles *were* satisfying. I didn’t see the twist coming, and I mean that in a positive way–the game’s sense of misdirection did force my head to look at the wrong things and ignore the actual plot. And I’m really excited to see the next game. So I guess I’m glad I rescued this one from the backlog then.

74 – Come to Bag by PaperBlurt

I totally dropped the ball about writing about this because I’m a lazy fuck, but PaperBlurt–who was responsible for the visual design of TWEEZER and Zest–has released a new work called Come to Bag.

Come to Bag is a “cacaphony”–it’s a collection of a bunch of short pieces. If you know Blurt’s style, they’re all of a piece and show off his range–there’s some really nicely eerie stuff, some shaggy dog stories, some experiments–16 stories in all. My particular dog in this race was the writing of the story A Big Fuck You, which is based on a joke my dad made up when I was a little kid.

If you’re interested in some of Blurt’s other work, and I hope you are, I think Capsule is one of his more popular works (and for good reason!), but my personal favorite is The Sadness of Rocky Barbato. I’ve never been able to get the latter’s final image out of my head; I think it might qualify one of the best endings in Twine.

While I’ve got you here–I’m working on a digital boardgame and I’m scouting a team. If you’re an artist who can help me make a game that looks like the team behind Fantastic Planet doing a movie based on a Dr. Seuss screenplay, or you’re interested in helping design the ruleset for a digital board game with ties to Talisman or Suspended, then come at me, bro. I’m looking for people in the same boat as myself–who’ve made a couple of minor things and are looking for a bigger project that we can sell for a buck or two and get the cred we need in order to be able to Kickstart the *next* project.

73 – #altgames and Fear of Twine

I wrote Zest with the help of lectronice and PaperBlurt and released it under the name Fear of Twine. We wanted to release under a band name of sorts, and after a few failed attempts decided that the potential confusion would be funny: Fear of Twine was the name of a Twine exhibition I curated last year. We talked about the idea of expanding it into a sort of loose collective, about other projects we could do together under the name–and if those went nowhere, it’s because we all got distracted by shiner projects.

(That we were releasing Zest in the Interactive Fiction Competition, which has a fairly complex relationship with Twine, was part of the impetus for the name: Never let it be said that Blurt, lectro and I aren’t cheeky.)

lectro and Blurt were the first people I noticed to use the hashtag #altgames to talk about their stuff. It’s a logical term: Indie and Alternative, in music, are two ways of talking about roughly the same aesthetic, and while genre scholars will certainly weigh in on the formal differences between the two–a conversation that, as a musician, I’ve had many, many times in smoky basements and will again until the day I die–for our purposes, they’re just different decades’ words for the same thing. #altgames comes with the understanding, as well, that Indie has become meaningless–it covers both Double Fine and bedroom games. There’s even a tinge of success that Indie implies–that, even if you’re not exactly making your rent payments, you’ve got enough Patreon subscribers to help you afford to go to GDC where you show off your game to people who are interested in it.

One of my big challenges has been keeping my eyes on my own paper; I don’t know if this is a universal thing, although I suspect it might be, but it’s certainly something I have in common with most of my friends. It seems everyone I know is either bitter or naive, or, hell, both. I don’t know anyone who’s making a Minecraft clone but I see so many of them in Early Access on Steam and I can completely imagine their mindset: This is popular, I can make a better one and make even more money–and, inevitably, Why am I not as successful as notch, that piece of shit in his goddamn mansion.

I mean, can I point out that most of my friends are Twine devs or otherwise working in extremely niche forms? There is no money to be made in niche game forms. And every single one of us is bitter: About the lack of attention, about our relative successes, about the fact that we aren’t satisfied with what we’re doing. And that you’re a heretic if you express doubt. I remember I said, at IndieCade 2013, that “there’s no money in indie games” and three devs I’d been having a pleasant beer with suddenly snapped: What about Minecraft? What about Braid? What about Fez? It’s considered almost offensive to question the premise that anyone can be a successful game dev. But it’s a lie. Anyone can form a band, but you’re probably not going to be even a minor rock star. How many of us with creative writing degrees sold that novel? How many famous actors do you know? How many high school football players play professionally?

Indie games feels like a club we’re not allowed into. And we are tired of seeing the same people insist, time and time again, that it’s not a clique; of hearing people with dozens more followers than us talk in interview after interview about the lack of attention paid them–and when you consider how unusual notch’s case is, that even the most successful #altgames devs aren’t making much money at all, you can’t blame them for feeling like they’ve been sold a bill of goods even as they’re selling it right back to the next tier. Let’s stop bullshitting ourselves and fucking admit it, cards on the table: No one in indie games is happy or satisfied or having a good time.

I mean, really: Are you?

The arguments about #altgames that I woke up to this morning on my twitter feed: What I am hearing are the sounds of yet another meaningless pissing contest–Game scene politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low. My understanding is we’re arguing about people arguing about whether or not they’re #alt enough, about the money that you can or can not make in #altgames, about who has the right to use the term. To take a cue from Orange is the New Black, we’re trying to strangle people so we can sell mascara in prison.

I’m thirty two fucking years old and I could not find this funnier. Over the past few years  I’ve meditated a lot, smoked a lot of grass, gotten a prescription for antidepressants, dropped acid and yelled at my reflection in the mirror, made some new friends–it’s been a lot of work to get even this much perspective, and I still find it remarkable how awful I feel when I think about stuff like GDC or whatever. I don’t have it in me to do the con circuit, I don’t even want to do it, if being a game developer means doing that shit all the time then I’m taking my ball and I’m going home.

Here’s the secret: Everybody feels left out. Nobody is happy. I’m friends with a bunch of people at different levels of success, guys making Twines in their bedrooms, people whose games have won awards–and they’re all lonely. Maybe it’s inherent to the game developer experience. There’s an alienation to developers that a lot of musicians have too–that most artists have. You don’t get good at playing guitar unless you spend a lot of time practicing. Hell, if I had been the type of person who wanted to go to parties and who got invited to them, I wouldn’t have had the time to learn to play. If you love games enough that you want to make them–and that your games are idiosyncratic and niche–then it’s not unlikely that you spend a lot of time alone, playing or writing. That’s what I do.

There was a bunch of all of that going around when I did the Fear of Twine exhibition–an element of I’m gonna throw my own party and it’ll have better music and a dog. I’m a little heartbroken at everyone who feels left out of the indie scene, of #altgames, of Twine, and I see how upset everyone is that the indie scene, that #altgames, that Twine completely ignores them.

So the only way I can think of to clean up my street corner is to basically open up my house and pray no one breaks my TV or anything. I’ve got this Fear of Twine name and I want to do something with it. I want to see if I can turn Fear of Twine into that loose collective in a way which is inclusive. I think there could be some basic guidelines about how to credit things and stuff like that, but beyond that, if you want to declare your game as a Fear of Twine game, you can.

In terms of intent, I’d like this to be a club in which membership is entirely self-determined. I don’t want people to be arguing over whether someone’s game is FoTty enough or whether they’re really a member–fuck that. I want this to be something that you almost agree to a certain behavioral standard–in other words, if another Fear of Twine member gives you the secret handshake, you’re friends.

This is, of course, utterly impossible, and is either going to fail from not enough people being interested or from too many people doing it and this going the way of all groups–as Carlin says, after a while groups of people formed around a common purpose start to get these nifty hats and armbands. I reserve the right to shut this down when it gets to the armband phase. It’s an experiment.

What I’m thinking in terms of guidelines are something like this:

–It’ll have to be in Twine. Naturally. Whatever that means is up to you, I don’t care about version or genre or anything, but it’s just got to have been created with Twine at some point and running in an .html file at the end.

–I’d like to restrict this to unreleased works, just because that makes more sense to me logistically; if you’re expanding or rereleasing something, we can talk.

Now I will be making an exception for Zest, since that was released under the name. I’m going back and forth about whether I want to include the games from the FoT exhibition or keep that as a separate thing; I might also want to talk to Blurt and lectro and see if they want to include some of their stuff…I guess basically I’m saying that initially there will be some exceptions to this rule–I’d like to start with a few works in the catalog so it doesn’t look empty, frankly–but it’s my house and I’m allowed to do that and you probably won’t be one of them. We can still be friends.

–If you want to put a game under the name, drop me an email. I’ll be putting up a main page on fearoftwine.com that’ll list all the games, maybe give them a catalog number so it’ll seem fancy, maybe put up a description, I’m a little fuzzy on this right now but I’ll come up with some general info.

–I don’t want to host anything but I’ll link to it. Drop me a line if you change where it’s being hosted.

–I don’t care if this is something you’re releasing for free in a Dropbox link or if it’s something you’re selling on Itch. I will, of course, not take any money you make.

–I’ll work on the language, but there will be need to be something along the lines of “Fear of Twine presents…” or “by Fear of Twine” on the title page or first screen, and authors credited separately. I would like there to be an About page with a link to the fearoftwine.com site, but this is all boilerplate that we can figure out later.

–If you’re a Tweeter, I’d probably like you to use the #FoT hashtag as much as humanly possible.

–I’m serious about the secret handshake, though. I know a lot of people on Twitter and in the community feel very–uncomfortable around strangers, let’s say. People worry about randos in their mentions, people worry they’re not good enough to talk to other people–it’s stupid and understandable. So I guess I’m gonna be open to anyone who approaches me, and I want it to really feel like if you’ve got a game in Fear of Twine, that you can talk to anyone else who does. Maybe it’s as simple as “you both know me, now play nice”. Consider it a letter of introduction.

–I’m not going to be curating this in any way beyond updating the list. I don’t want to be in the business of deciding what does and does not belong on the list. Listen: If you’re sending something in, make it a serious entry, don’t be an asshole or an idiot, just be an adult. You know how you’re supposed to act and so do I. So let’s act like that, I guess.

–Showing a version of this to a couple people, the idea of a forum was floated around, as well as some kind of moderation.

Like I said, I don’t want to be in the business of gatekeeping, but at the same time I can totally get that we don’t want troll entries (at the same time as I realize that the concept of a “troll entry” is a nebulous term and that while I think there’s a sniff test for them, I’m not sure if that’s enough). I know I full stop don’t want to do something like “well we can have the members vote on it!” because, well, you know, and I *really* don’t want to do something like finding a subsection of people to make these decisions, because that’s falling headfirst into the problems we’re trying to avoid. Any thoughts?

A forum will be easier–if there’s enough interest, I’d be happy to look into one. There’s a few options: We could do an entirely private forum limited to people who have Twines in the collection; we could do one limiting FoT people to post but which is open for people to read; we could have a completely public forum, a public forum with a FoT section–there’s basically a lot of options; either way I would probably assume this would be something for the future–nothing worse than a forum no one posts in–but it’s something I want to keep in the back burner.


That’s basically where my head is at on this. Don’t take any of this as set in stone or anything, but is this the kind of thing any of you readers would be interested in? Do you have any ideas, or spot any potential problems I can’t?


I’m mostly enjoying Arcanum–this is about the fifth or sixth time I’ve attempted it and I think it’s more or less sticking. I’m happy with Witzfilliam, my disenfranchised gnome who’s a heavy tanky melee fighter with light buffing skills, and if I can’t quite see the use of all of the spells, well, everyone tells me Arcanum is a delight for roleplayers.

I guess if I have to describe Arcanum, it’s Troika-y, which means that it’s got bugginess to it, an underbakedness to it, one which is married to a huge amount of potential, a rich skill system which lets you poke fairly deeply into the world, a series of sidequests and hidden content that leaves a lot of resolutions, a general sense of freedom for the player that Troika was never quite able to one hundred percent accomplish. The Temple of Elemental Evil is one I’ve never gotten more than a couple minutes in, and Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines was an amazing game that had way too many unfinished levels. Bloodlines is famous for, among other things, the tension between The Sewer Level That Lasts Forever, which is about as enjoyable as it sounds, and for the Ocean House Hotel, which is one of the finest haunted houses in gaming and a legit masterpiece of scripted scares.

Arcanum is making it clear where Troika loses me–I tend to think the flaws outweigh the great bits and find their games to be more fascinating failures than successes–and is helping to clarify a lot of thoughts I’ve had on RPGs and length. RPGs–JRPGs in particular–have a very impressionistic sense to them. In other words, you’re on a continent with a town, a castle, a cave, and a tower. You’re in a village that consists of four houses and a half dozen people. Even when the land’s isolation is part of the plot–see Dragon Quest VII, which starts you off on that size island and tells you, explicitly, that “in this world, only this island is”–there’s the understanding that this isn’t a literal depiction of the world: It’s a standin. Even in the smallest village, those four houses represent a few dozen, maybe; those half dozen-people, let’s say they speak for about a hundred. RPGs tend to abstract everything–this is a genre that, in its classic form, represents combat by menu clicks and subtraction–and the physical environment is no difference.

The other day a friend of mine asked me what the first RPG I played that really got to me in terms of story, and I said, well, I got Dragon Warrior in that Nintendo contest back in 1989, when I was about seven years old: I’ve been there since the beginning, really. Now, Dragon Warrior has the barest skeleton of a plot: The evil Dragonlord attacked and kidnapped the princess and is somehow menacing the land; you level grind and grab a bunch of macguffins; you save the princess, defeat the Dragonlord, and return peace to the land. Playing it as an adult, I’m surprised by how lean the story is, largely because I remember living this game as a kid. Being seven had a lot to do with it, obviously–it’s not exactly hard to get a seven-year-old’s imagine to run away with something–but Dragon Warrior does earn a lot of the credit because it’s a hell of a skeleton.

Dragon Warrior dealt with a lot of space limitations, the patience of an audience that didn’t quite know what RPGs were, that was used to games with even less plot, and it chose its skeleton well. If a town can fit a half dozen residents, each of whom can do a couple of lines of dialogue, you have to make all of that dialogue count. Every word in Dragon Warrior–like in Might and Magic–has to carry a lot of weight. And so you get a decent outline that you’re encouraged to color in yourself. If “let’s tell a story together” is the best definition of interactive fiction I’ve encountered, well Dragon Warrior does exactly that: Where Might and Magic lets you work in collaboration with the designer in order to reconstruct the physical environment, Dragon Warrior lets you work in collaboration to reconstruct the narrative.

There’s a term that comes up from time to time in old school CRPG manuals–Might and Magic and Wizardry 6 are the two that spring to mind–and that term is “fantasy simulation”. This term describes the likes of Skyrim much better than role-playing-game does, at least to me: I’ve never played an Elder Scrolls game for the plot and I’m still shocked and confused when people talk about the story elements in Skyrim. Elder Scrolls games are less about exploring a narrative, less about charting a world, and more about a simulation of the experience of being an adventurer. There’s an element of simulated realism–the way encumberance is handled, the way everyone keeps a paranoid eye on their possessions, the way character development tends towards minutiae–that takes the center stage. There’s a certain soullessness to Elder Scrolls–the personalities of the various NPCs tumble headfirst into the uncanny valley because we’re expected to take everything so seriously and representational: The Holy Grail of The Elder Scrolls is a game which would exactly match the experience of actually being there.

So I guess I feel like Arcanum squanders its narrative potential–its plot is pretty good and compelling, its structure sprawling and free–by edging towards that simulation aspect. It doesn’t quite get off on its own size the way that Skyrim does, but there cities–during which you spend most of the game–are much larger than they need to be. The experience of Arcanum has been entering every door in a block and talking to everyone I meet; half of the houses are empty, most of the citizens have nothing to say beyond a few generic lines. This is completely unnecessary: Exploring a city is miserable enough, trying to find a specific person to receive a quest reward an exercise in tedium. I’ve started looking everything up on a map I found online–which wouldn’t happen if all of the buildings had something useful in them.