For weeks I’ve been strolling through Gregory Maguire’s four-volume fantasy about Oz. These are wonderful books — and yet, at the end of the saga, I find myself curiously dissatisfied.

What was wonderful about the first book, Wicked, was that Maguire took the events from Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, while keeping the framework of the story, transformed Oz into a real place and the characters into real people. They’re filled with uncertainty. They sometimes make wrong choices.

In the ensuing three volumes (Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz), that sense of aimlessness infects most of the characters. They blunder across the landscape of Oz, hiding from trouble and failing to grapple with their adversaries. It’s no accident that the Cowardly Lion emerges as a central character while the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman slide offstage and are never heard from again. The Lion’s angst, his retreats and self-recriminations, and the ups and downs of his checkered life interest Maguire far more deeply than Read more

This Is Your Game on Mugs

Sometimes an upgrade is a mirage. Sometimes cool new features remain tantalizingly out of reach. [Note: This piece has been edited on Jan. 26 to reflect new information.]

I’m getting ready to enlist testers for my almost-completed interactive fiction game, “The White Bull.” I’m hitting what I hope is only a speed bump. At the moment the picture is rather murky. And the speed bump (if that’s what it is) has nothing to do with my work. It’s packaged in the development system. It’s … a feature.

One of the main reasons I decided to go ahead and finish this project, which had been languishing on my hard drive for a couple of years, was the release of TADS 3.1. TADS is a very slick system for writing text adventure games, and the 3.1 release enhances its power in some cool ways. Games compiled using 3.1 will be playable in a web browser, for instance, without the need to download anything. This is a huge step forward, as it makes TADS more competitive with Inform.

But wait — there’s less.

If I understand the documentation correctly, there are two ways to deploy a game for web play. You can upload it to the IF Archive and create a page for it on IFDB. The IFDB server, which is operated by TADS developer Mike Roberts, will make your game publicly available for online play. Alternatively, you can set up your own server.

I so thoroughly do not want to learn how to set up my own server.

The tricky bit is, how am I to test the web features of a game before it’s released? The word “test” Read more

500 Yards of Window Dressing

The first text adventure games were extremely terse, compressed affairs. Players encountered the messages “You can’t go that way” and “You can’t see any such thing” a whole lot — and nobody minded.

Players today have much higher expectations. If, in writing a description of an outdoor location, you mention the distant hills and the flowering shrubs, players will expect to be able to examine them. When the shrubs are mentioned as present in the location but the response to ‘x shrubs’ is “You can’t see any such thing,” the realism of the game takes a nosedive.

I’ve now reached the point in the development of my next game where I’m going through several dozen locations and carefully adding such scenery items to each location. Scenery itself isn’t too difficult; the TADS 3 development system, which I’m using, defines a Decoration class, which serves admirably. But Decoration objects won’t always do the job. In one outdoor location there’s a prominent boulder. The boulder Read more

Sounds Good

There’s nothing new in the world. Everything has been done before. The idea of including music in a text adventure game may seem a bit eccentric — but of course graphic computer games have had music since the very beginning. So why not?

Even novels have had music. At some point — it would have been at least 20 years ago — Ursula Le Guin released a science fiction book that had a bind-in music CD. At least, that’s my dim recollection. I may even have owned the book at one time.

Right now I’m working on a new text game, which is due for release around April 1st. Also, I just finished writing a review of Propellerhead Reason 6 for Keyboard. I have plenty of other great music software on my hard drive, of course, but it occurred to me that it would be fun to write and record some 30-second music cues for the game using Reason exclusively.

Short cues are desirable because in an interactive game you can’t control how long the player stays in any one location. Writing longer music selections that can crossfade when the player moves from one location to another is technically feasible, but it’s a lot of extra work. What’s interesting about 30-second cues, I find, is that you really don’t have time to develop an idea. The music is just a gesture. It suggests a mood, and then it tiptoes away.

If you’re a graphic artist and would like to add yet another dimension to the game, I’d love to hear from you. This particular story doesn’t lend itself to photos, so I won’t be able to do my own graphics. A few illustrations would be a wonderful addition. The game will be released as freeware, so there’s no money to pay an artist. Well, maybe I could shake loose a few bucks. You might make as much as 50 cents an hour at it if you work fast. Tempting, I know. Plus, you’ll get the satisfaction of contributing to a really cool game.

Writing Interactive Fiction

I’m working on a new text adventure game to enter in this year’s Spring Thing competition. The release of TADS 3.1 was one of my main motivating factors; it adds some very desirable features to the TADS authoring system.

I also lurk on the Inform 7 page of the forum. Once in a while I even skate over to the Inform 7 bug tracker, to see what new beasties have crawled out of the woodwork. Most of what I see there makes me very happy that I’ve chosen TADS.

For those who are new to this topic: Inform 7 is about 50 times more popular than TADS 3. There are several reasons for this, but leading the pack is the fact that I7’s programming syntax uses “natural language,” a subset of English — rather a small and stiffly phrased subset — that the compiler can understand.

Except, often the compiler doesn’t understand it. Inform 7 is a little like a burlap bag full of cats — it’s a seething mass of “edge cases,” places where a human’s natural way of phrasing something runs afoul of the compiler’s inflexible logic.

This stuff simply doesn’t happen in TADS 3. T3’s syntax is closely based on Read more

Complicity Through Silence

Sometimes I make statements critical of religion. Not infrequently, someone (usually it’s someone who apparently espouses a religious faith) responds by pointing out the good things that religion brings into the world.

It would be silly to deny that religious people sometimes do good things. Quite often, the good things are suggested by their pastors, or by their peers within the congregation. The question that has to be asked is, does that fact let religion off the hook? Should we respect religion as an institution because it sometimes leads people to undertake good and praiseworthy actions?

The default presumption — and this may be especially true in the United States, because it was founded by people who firmly believed in tolerance toward all religions — is that religion is entitled to respect. Today I’m going to suggest that the default presumption has it exactly backward. By default, religion is entitled to contempt.

If you feel that all religions, or some religion in particular, should be respected, the burden is on you to demonstrate why. Of course, this will require that you Read more

Remaining Tolerant

Among today’s headlines, an Indiana state legislator has introduced a bill that, if enacted into law, would allow local school boards to force teachers to teach Creationism in science classes.

The legal niceties of this don’t interest me. I’ve read that such a law would clearly be unconstitutional, based on an existing Supreme Court decision — but on the other hand, I don’t trust the current Court not to overturn that decision. I regard the legal situation as essentially fluid. If the law were passed, and if a school board chose to act on it, the lives of teachers and children would be disrupted for years, whatever the Court’s eventual determination.

What I am concerned about is whether it’s possible, or desirable, to remain tolerant of religion, given the fact that a person who is so manifestly a dangerous lunatic (a) has a passionate commitment to a religious faith and (b) has, in the 21st century, been elected to high public office.

I try to be tolerant; honestly, I do. I have friends and professional colleagues who are deeply religious, and I almost never discuss religion with them. Such a discussion would only lead to Read more

Why Not? Here’s Why Not.

I don’t have a TV, nor do I subscribe to a newspaper. But lately I’ve become a regular reader of Huffington Post. (A news junkie always finds a way to get his fix.)

Over on the right flank, we have a bunch of rich, arrogant morons competing for the Republican presidential nomination by advocating ideas based on religious zealotry and economic dogma, neither the zealotry nor the dogma having the remotest connection to reality. These people are extremely dangerous.

On the left flank we have a disorganized bunch of idealistic young people who have no leadership and are in constant danger of being beaten up by the police. These people have not, as yet, shown any interest in actually governing. Their message seems mostly to boil down to, “Not this — we need something better.”

In the middle we have the shamelessly corrupt Democratic Party, whose sole claim to our loyalty is, “Vote for us! We’re not nearly as scary as those other guys!”

It seems to me there’s something missing from this picture, and I think I know what it is — Read more

Something’s Happening Here

Watched about 20 minutes of a live video stream from Occupy Oakland tonight. Nothing much to be seen except people standing around on streetcorners, a bunch of cop cars lined up along a curb, assorted signs, whatever. What was interesting was not the video, which was frankly dull, but the meta-messages in the video:

(1) The whole world is watching, or at least can watch. This is one of the things that makes the police crazy, I’m sure — they don’t get to beat on people’s heads and then claim they didn’t.

(2) The invisible people who rule the world are runnin’ scared. Why else would they send out bunches of police in the middle of the night to bust the heads of folks who are doing nothing but stand on the street carrying signs?

(3) It isn’t local. Thanks to Twitter and other social media, people who are doing things in widely scattered places can stay in touch, pass ideas around, and support one another (emotionally or even financially).

(4) Ordinary people can make a difference.

I found myself singing, “Something’s happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?” A very early Bob Dylan song, from back when Bob Dylan was still cool — a period that ended in 1969, about the time “Lay, Lady, Lay” was a hit. The social protests of the ’60s pretty much coincided with the Vietnam War; when the war ended, the movement dissolved. What we have now may prove to have more legs. For one thing, the economic injustices are more broad-based. More diffuse than young men getting killed in a jungle somewhere, but also a lot more broad-based.

Also, the religious right has become a potent negative force. I haven’t noticed anybody in the Occupy movement pointing a finger at the religious right, but I think it’s implicit. There are no Jesus freaks in Occupy; the two movements are diametrically opposed.

If you look at the Republican candidates for President (I’m writing this the week of the New Hampshire primary), what you see is a bunch of plastic men who are loudly and proudly championing vicious regressive social policies of the Christian persuasion, and they’re doing it as a smokescreen. It’s a conscious attempt to whip up fervor over things that don’t matter, in order to minimize the discussion of things that do matter.

In calling attention to the things that matter, Occupy is engaged in demonstrating that the concerns of the religious right are irrelevant. Something’s happening here.