Necessity is the mother of invention, right? Well, not always. Steven Johnson shows us how some of the most transformative ideas and technologies, like the computer, didn’t emerge out of necessity at all but instead from the strange delight of play. Share this captivating, illustrated exploration of the history of invention. Turns out, you’ll find the future wherever people are having the most fun.
This week IFComp 2016 announced the winners in their 22nd annual interactive fiction competition. After a seven-week play period, the entry with the highest average rating was “the noir standout ‘Detectiveland‘ by Robin Johnson,” according to contest organizers (while the game earning the lowest score was “Toiletworld.”) A special prize is also awarded each year — the Golden Banana of Discord — for the game which provoked the most wildly different ratings. This year that award went to “A Time of Tungsten” by Devin Raposo. (“The walls are high, the hole is deep. She is trapped, on a distant planet. Watched. She may not survive…”)
Source: IFComp 2016
Instead of using a braille writer to create bumps on paper that spell out words, kids with a set of Braille Bricks can spell them out on a baseplate, which also means they can easily make corrections if they’ve made a spelling mistake. And the Braille Bricks can be stacked and assembled to build other objects, so they double as a genuine toy.
Voting is concluding this week for the 21st Annual Interactive Fiction Competition. All the games are available free online, and on November 15th the contest’s organizers will announce the game that’s received the highest average ratings. “This year’s contestants entered 55 original text adventures – a new record,” notes one technology blog, which argues that the annual competition provides a link to the history of both gaming and computers. New game-creating tools have “democratized” the field, and the contest may also ultimately lead game creators to explore even more forms of digital media.
It’s a problem that the video game industry has had for some time: the conflation of “realism” with maturity. The more plausible your graphics are, the more dignified your stupid ghost slime murder boobs story will be. Much as it is today, many of these plays for “realism”—especially the hunger for a legitimacy that might come with expensive Hollywood actors—actually makes worse games out of unsustainable development budgets. There’s a reason that “FMV games” never ‘stuck’.
So I’ve been reading up on hexcrawling and pointcrawling and dungeon and adventure design in anticipation of running an Iron Falcon game. I’ve looked at random generation, including online generators, of which there are many very nice ones. I’ve looked up the various bloggers out there who are mapping, and even looked at some tutorials about doing my own maps. Sadly I have very little artistic talent, and I can’t even begin to compare myself to some of the talent out there. To sum up, I felt defeated.
You step into an early build of The Magic Circle as a player getting a sneak peek, but even this demo is still in flux, and the world changes around you. It’s a joke at the expense of Steam’s controversial Early Access program, where players can willingly buy unfinished games to play them as they develop, paying in full even if they’re never finished. Early Access games can be trainwrecks, and The Magic Circle is no exception.
The “demo” only lasts a few minutes, additional quests are removed for budgetary reasons, and the boss fight is quite pointless considering the fact that Gilder took your sword away, afraid that you’ll use it to murder innocent AI characters. The developers are represented by gigantic floating David Bowie eyes, gods of this unfinished world, bickering over creative decisions and dramatic word choices.
But there is something deep inside the game calling for help, a lonely AI created for one of The Magic Circle’s earliest versions that needs you to break the cycle and end its living hell. As you embark on a new quest to save this AI, it gives you the ability to hack the world around you, reprogram enemies, and revive vapourware against Gilder’s will. If there seems to be a platform too far away, you can give turtles the gift of flight and hop along them. If you want to get real creative, you can steal a teleporter’s niche and warp around reprogrammed mushrooms. Catch a plant queen off guard by giving a rat a railgun. Revive a sci-fi DOS-era version of the game to send the mighty Gilder into a panic.
The most important thing we learn from pen-and-paper roleplaying games is that anyone can be a storyteller. Books, movies, TV, video games—all of these can inspire a would-be writer, but the audience’s role is still fundamentally passive. These media are fun, but do nothing to fill the chasm separating us from creative “professionals”: the gulf between “Wow, that was cool,” and “I want to do what they did!” At the end of the day, we’re still standing outside the dream factory looking in.
Roleplaying games burst right through that wall, Kool-Aid-Man style. By their very nature, RPGs force audience members to take control, to see themselves as storytellers. RPGs are improv, and even the best-written adventure module is still only a stage for the participants. Creativity is mandatory, and as people game, they come to identify as creative. I can’t count the number of professional authors I’ve met who were drawn into writing by the urge to create more elaborate backstories for their characters, or settings for their game, or journals of their parties’ adventures. Gaming breeds writers like salad bars breed bacteria.
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home launched in 2013 and became an instant classic among video game fans. The atmospheric game cast you as a girl exploring her family’s new home, half-unpacked, in search of clues about your missing sister. The story told through that exploration—the pillow fort and stained pizza boxes in the VHS-littered living room, the printed zines and childhood scribblings spilling out of storage areas—is so delicate that to talk too much about it collapses it. But the game, along with other rebelliously observation-oriented, “action”-averse games like Dear Esther, helped prototype an entire genre: Telling the stories of people, of a place, through gentle exploration.
It was no happy accident for the four-person Gone Home team, which had experience working with environmental storytelling in more traditional video games, like the BioShock series. Those games are about clobbering aggressors, but they’re also often atmospheric works about grand social decay and weaponized morality. You can imagine wanting to hone in just a bit more on the latter part, to tell the human stories, to remove the “fire plasmids” and rusty wrenches entirely and just draw the lived-in world.
Created in the open-source interactive fiction tool Twine, Porpentine’s text games are beautiful, unnerving and essential, explorations of strange worlds populated by dangerous angels, vampire tennis players, and murderous AIs. Soon, they’ll be available in one neat digital bundle titled Eczema Orifice Angel, with a Mac and PC demo currently available on Steam Greenlight.