I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then. But at last I awoke.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.

Fear of Twine, Room 1

Text-based games have always called to me because I’m a bad illustrator. It always seemed like if I were ever going to make a game, it would have to have no art, no music, no real-time action: only words. In my mind, the inevitable corollary was that any game I made would bore almost everyone. I knew this because even I got bored playing text-based games — most of the time I would’ve rather just been reading a book.

Well, thankfully we have the Fear of Twine online exhibition of text-based games to prove me and everyone else wrong about the subject. I particularly like the framing of this set of games as an exhibition rather than a contest or, just, like, a bunch of games. At an exhibition, one wanders, glances, chit-chats, glances again, juxtaposes, has a glass of free wine, then strolls out the door. And in that same spirit of letting creativity flow, here are my thoughts about each of the pieces of art in Room 1. Hope to get around to writing about the rest of them soon.


by Tony Perriello

Remember all that stuff I said about feeling like text games can’t have music or real-time action? Turns out that’s wrong. Playing Debt feels a little like watching an action movie from the perspective of someone back at home base operating a flying kill-bot via an 80s-style black & green terminal. Text crawls across the screen at a fixed rate, moving the player right along with almost no stopping. The timing of everything is really well-done: countdowns tick down ominously, car chases unfold one character at a time, sound effects explode at just the right moment. This sense of speed and urgency combines with the near-total lack of player choice to create the feeling of one’s kill-bot being on autopilot, of being trapped blind in a murderous, metal oubliette. Which, I think, might be the intent.

In addition to being technically delightful (the text game equivalent of having “awesome special effects”), Debt manages to be quite poignant at the end. The word “debt” itself is dense with meanings and this game grapples with at least two of them: monetary debt and debts to society. In the space of five or ten minutes, the game draws a technological dystopia. Half arena, half debtor’s prison, inescapable and self-devouring. Very well done.

Duck Ted Bundy

by Coleoptera-Kinbote

The first time I played through Duck Ted Bundy, I answered a Craigslist ad intending to murder whoever posted it, and was instead murdered by him. The second time, I entered a strange loop that seemingly allowed me to commit an infinite number of murders. The third time, I clicked once and saw a duck penis staring back at me. It probably didn’t notice the bemused grin I had had on my face the entire time, brought on by the revelation that I’m the kind of person who finds this stuff funny.

If there’s one thing this game gets completely right, it’s tone. Perhaps you are thinking there is no such tone for “craigslist-browsing messiah-complex serial-killer duck.” Perhaps you have never played this game. In the wrong hands, this material would probably be as horrible as it sounds, but our duck protagonist is written with just the right mix of arrogant, self-deprecating, bewildered, and insane that the game works on a higher level than “he’s a duck, that’s the joke.” Not too campy, not too silly, not too much satire, and short enough that it doesn’t wear itself out.

The Conversation I Can’t Have

by Morgan Rille

If I understand correctly, the technology underlying Twine is wiki-based. Story nodes are just pages in a Twine wiki and actions are links between those pages. I feel this is somehow appropriate, since playing The Conversation I Can’t Have felt like wandering through someone’s personal wiki, a digital extension of their memories. Some passages were practical, almost like lecture noes. Others were stories, bits of the past, annotated and cross-referenced, but no less powerful in the telling. Other passages were questions, though it is not clear if we are asking them or if it is the mind interrogating itself.

Many conversations about sex end up being awkward. Even more so ones that touch on secret, possibly transgressive, kinky desires. A conversation about the particulars of the punishments you enjoy, have enjoyed, would perhaps be too awkward to have. But I suspect there’s another reason this is a conversation that can’t be had. A conversation between two people is mediated by so many things: their personal history, their moods at the time, body language, involuntary responses, emotions. What if it were possible, when clumsy speech fails, to transport someone to your mind? To take them by the hand and walk with them through a landscape of perceptions and memories and self-interrogations? Would it look like this game, like a mental wiki that opens onto a vista of clouds, somehow both serene and dark?

The Matter of the Great Red Dragon

by Jonas Kyratzes

In accordance with the author’s note, I only played this game through once, but it took willpower. The Matter of the Great Red Dragon feels like a fable told by those from a time beyond dystopia, the product of a culture that has seen two apocalypses, the first evil, the second wise. Medieval in execution, with a cool little character development bar on the side, it had the lushness of a historical backdrop without burdening the player with exposition sandbags. Really, names like “The Gate of Burnt Trees” speak for themselves. I love it when a story doesn’t feel the need to explain itself too much.

That said, my favorite part of the game occurred about halfway through, when I relived the ancestral memories of participants in an ancient battle. Here the pace quickened. Long passages became short ones, choices came much more rapidly. Even though it was a hallucination, it felt real. In this game, there is heroism, there is the hollowness of a pyrrhic victory, there is the the battle between good and evil fought in the hearts of people everywhere. This is a fairly dense game, and, as I said, my urge to replay it many times is strong, but even a single time is enough food for thought to last a while.

Transition Metal

Transition Metal. Original airdate: 2002-10-11.

Poster art by Marcelo Gallegos.

Dawn: “Falcula”
Satyricon: “Domains of Satyricon”
Darkwoods My Betrothed: “Burn Witches Burn”
Emperor: “Inno A Satana”
Svartr: Svartr

Cryptopsy: “Phobophile”
Nile: “Black Seeds of Vengeance”
Cannibal Corpse: “Shredded Humans”

Esoteric: “Creation (Through Destruction)”
Cradle of Filth: “Saffron’s Curse”
Summoning: “Ashen Cold”

SNLS: “The Crystalline Art Decays”?
Autumn Tears: “Black Heaven”
Blood Axis: “Electricity”
In Slaughter Natives: “Angel Meat”

Arcana: “Dark Age of Reason”

Remove “Design” from Web Design

In my dream society, web design elements like fonts and colors would cease to be mandated by the publisher. Sites would send meta-data that says, for example, “this is an article” and the visitor’s browser would format it according to that person’s reading specifications.

You can already see this happening in ebooks, where I think most authors and publishers expect the text to be reformatted in seventy different ways based on user preference. Reader software puts fine-grained controls for fonts, margins, colors, leading, etc., as easy to reach as the bookmark and page-turn buttons. To some extent this is true with Twitter clients as well, e.g. Twitterific, and I doubt you’d find anyone who cares what font their tweets are read in.

Yet for blogs, magazines sites, newspapers, and the like, web designers seem intent on recreating the one-size-fits-all layout of the glossy magazine. The advantage of purely textual data is the flexibility of its representation and the fixed-format approach totally negates that. This, I think, is the worst lesson that web designers have learned from print design.

(originally posted as a comment on Coyote Tracks)