Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hallway of Adventures

It's been a little while since I have updated this blog, as this blog is no different than thousands of others that had their output diminish in a fairly predictable trickle. I wish I had more time to work on the game, but my job is absolutely killing me. This is by far the hardest I've ever worked in my life, which I say not to try to impress anyone, but because I feel it's noteworthy in why this game is taking so long to create. I love my job, but I need to get better at it so I can accomplish tasks in less time and get home earlier.

I've also had a recurring physical problem lately for the first time in my life: some kind of neck-tension-based headache. I really do live a charmed life and have had little wrong with my body in my time, but starting on many Friday nights I begin to get a throbbing pain in the back of my neck that continues through the weekend, only to die off when I get to work and back into my routine on Monday. It's bizarre, it might be a withdrawal from coffee, or relating to my shitty monitors at home, but there have been a few weekends in the last few months where I couldn't get any work done because of the annoyance of this. Tylenol laced with codeine helps, but those are supposed to be for Dayna's back, not my limp-wristed neck.

But the game is progressing. One of the things I am trying with Cryptozookeeper is using animatronics, robots, and mannequins for actors. My friend Randy (sometimes credited as "The Milker") has one such mannequin that looks a bit like Christopher Walken. I tapped this Walken-like guy to play a minor character in the game. I was rifling through Randy's on-line photo accounts to grab source material, and all was good. However, over the weekend I was helping him put together his studio one town over, and noticed that he had Walken bundled up for the season. He let me borrow him so I could take some more pics.

Working with a mannequin may seem like it could be a nest of problems, but honestly, with Photoshop and a few points of articulation it's not that bad. It beats trying to work with my brother on Fallacy of Dawn, for instance. I've used inanimate objects before, but to varying degrees of success: for instance, there is a scene in Necrotic Drift where a wraith appears. Gerrit Hamilton (who is playing the lead in CZK!) played a few parts in Necrotic Drift, one of which was the wraith. The puzzle eventually progresses into this scene:

Which, typical of everything I do in text games, was something I was very happy with at the time, but now makes me cringe with how thrown-together it is, looking back. Anyway, before the wraith gets into the jewelry store, I wanted to show it dissipating and reforming and getting all wraithy. I didn't have any pictures of Gerrit from the back, and although my camera had a timer, it was an enormous pain to set the thing up and adjust my position and tweak it until I got correct. Especially when there was a Silver Surfer toy near my desk at the time.

(It was this one, if you are curious.)

And the net result was this picture in Necrotic Drift:

I mention this not because it was some awesome special effect (it does look like a toy being posed from behind), but basically to demonstrate how CZK is a weeeee bit better in production values! Rather than an eight-inch plastic toy providing a body, I now have a six-foot mannequin doing the same!

But here is the thing - this requires putting it (the Christopher Walken-looking mannequin) someplace while all the photos get taken. Since I live with someone, it didn't take very long to figure out that someplace equals "downstairs." I have had the guy set up and assembled all day.

And each fucking time I pass him I have had the shit momentarily scared out of me, because of the life-size intruder in the den.

Seriously, check this shit out. This is what I see everytime I go upstairs for something:

And no matter how prepared I am for him being out there, I get the split-second mental alarm going off when I enter that room. This is how ridiculous it is: in uploading that photo, I saw that I had left my Tang on the Crystal Castles machine. I got up and went out to get it. Even then I had the microsecond-sized mental zinger of "OUTSIDER!!" go off.

So at any rate, that's what it's like to make text games around here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


(There will be some spoilers for BioShock in this post.)

When I was writing A Crimson Spring, I was made aware of the graphic novels "Watchmen" and "Kingdom Come". I intentionally didn't read either one because I didn't want to be influenced by them in making my little text game. I would have liked to, in theory, had the same thing going on with Cryptozookeeper and BioShock. I say, "in theory" because who would have guessed that a first person shooter would have any effect on how I'd be writing a text game?

It does though. I don't think any computer game can go forward without the designers asking themselves what BioShock has made irrelevant and what games *must* have to stay competitive and interesting in a post-BioShock world. And I say this, keeping in mind that the last two scenes of BioShock - escort mission and multistage boss fight - were horrible in every respect. But it did so many other things well that I can forgive them going to the Big Book of gaming cliches to end it.

I think the first major thing I've taken from BioShock is that a designer needs to give his/her players the means to overcome the things that initially suck about the game. Or are at least restrictive. I hope I am not spoiling CZK by saying at some point that cryptids are going to get into a fight with each other. If I am a regular player going through, I might say to myself, "Man, I wish that this guy had more hit points, or could attack faster, or do more damage." And in most role playing games, there is a mechanism for that: leveling. What BioShock did is make leveling interesting and filled to the brim with choices again. The D&D model of leveling up has you killing things to get the experience points necessary to gain a level, and you then get all your benefits at once. With BioShock, you can "level up" at almost any time by buying things that overcome the obstacles the designers initially set forth - obstacles that are present in almost every first person shooter.

For example:

- Man, these Big Daddy monsters are tough. (Here's a way to make them fight for you for a little bit.)

- Man, everyone seems to be homing in on me. (Here's a target dummy to draw away attacks.)

- I'm bad at hacking. (Here's a powerup to get less bad tiles.)

... And so forth. For every restriction in the game, or everything that is difficult to navigate around, BioShock gives you the chance to overcome those things. It's like it gives you access to the cheat system just by playing.

How does this relate to IF? Well, what things are restrictive in text games? Well, actually, it's the whole "typing the right phrase into the prompt," but beyong that. I think not knowing certain facts about the NPCs you encounter, at least in one of my games, is a restriction. Wouldn't it be great to get the game's state of Some Monster? So let's put in a way to scan its hit points, and easily see its weaknesses. Let's provide an interesting path to getting health packs and extra attacks... faster healing and recovery time. Let's provide a way to make these things better in combat than just having them slog through a Mortal Kombat-style fighting pole. And I've been thinking about how to do this for several weeks, and I think I have a good idea on how to accomplish this for CZK. I'm just not ready to lay it all out yet.

(Oh, and I think having screens that break up the action and give you advice are critical. There's no "LOADING" screens in IF, but there are chapter breaks, at least in my games. In BioShock, I found out that some weapons have a zoom mode in BioShock on the last level, because I was told on the loading screen. Nobody reads the manuals any more, if they even get them, so having help like that is awesome. And it's pretty easy in IF to have randomly-displaying chapter screens. So that's a good idea, too.)

Maybe this is just a long way of making some carrot and stick comment, but my expectations for what I hope to accomplish with CZK have definitely risen with BioShock, and I promise not to let anyone down.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rise of the Robots

Last night, I had a chance to do a little time-saving by writing a program to generate a bunch of Hugo code I need for CZK. There are going to be a bunch of animals in the game and they all need statistics and attributes and such.

I had a big list of everyone who is to be represented, so I just threw together a quick program in Java that spit out the list and had the noun field come up correctly. It was pretty CS101, but I was happy to gain enough experience developing text games with an object oriented structure, over the years, where I was able to recognize early on that I'd need to do this. Plus, it helps eliminate a few bugs along the way by using an automated process. (It let me know that I had included the Thunderbird animal twice, for instance.)

Still need to start building automated tests for the game, however. Using an accented "e" character in Necrotic Drift apparently breaks the game when played on Linux, and that's something I could have discovered if I had a Ubuntu install all those years ago (OK, I am not 100% certain when Ubuntu came out, but still) and just threw the automated scripts at the game when I went there. It's coming together for CZK.

Lots of text game things on the plate for 2008 from a variety of people. I'm still searching for my place in this hobby, and I want CZK to make it impossible to not mention in a article or feature on modern-day text games. That, and finally winning the "best game" xyzzy are my goals for this thing.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


I'm still whittling away at this thing, still making progress. I've found that, on those nights where I am not into slaving away in front of a hot keyboard, deciding to code up the combat stats of one of the monsters is a great gateway drug. It seems like I've been working on the same "scene" forever. And it's had some feature creep, sure, which will result in a better game, but man, I really don't know when this will all be finished.

On the other hand, the way I wrote Necrotic Drift was to first code the bare minimum I'd need for the game to be "finished." I then went back from the beginning and filled in with extra scenery and situations and depth. But the whole time I was against deviating much from the story. It made the game linear, I'd imagine. I'm trying something different with CZK, which is to allow for as many crazy situations as the writing leads towards, but it means it looks (to me) like I am not getting as much done.

I'm trying to keep the reality that I'm coming up on a year of solider development. The source code to CZK says, "April 18th, 2006 - November 21st, 2006" for the first phase. There wasn't a lot of development there, and I went entire weeks without doing much IF related. The second phase started on 11/21/06, and I have been going as hard as I can go for this game since then. Well, as hard as I could go within reason: I'm not taking vacation days to work on it or anything. (Well, not yet, I'll take some time off around Christmas that I will hopefully be able to use for the game.)

Meanwhile, the life events that are going on now include the monitor breaking in Spy Hunter, the Milker running a Haunted House (that I will help work on tomorrow night) and my desire to get my MAME cabinet running.

Anyway, this seems like a serious downer. If I weren't having fun developing the game, I wouldn't expect anyone to have fun playing it, and it's still the best concept / game idea I've ever had, and I'm pouring my soul into the writing. Steven Spielberg was once asked which movie he wanted to be remembered for, or which one he wanted to take to his grave or what not, and if I remember correctly, he replied "E.T. and Schindler's List." I get what he was trying to say. What I'm striving for is the kind of game that I'd include in such a question 50 years from now. I want it to be significant, and it fuels me every night I spend on it.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Fatal Frame

I had a successful weekend in Las Vegas during the Computer Gaming Expo. I probably haven't completely recovered from it, because that takes two days of quiet meditation and I went straight to work when I got back. We bought melons on the way back from a town in Utah, and I could suck one of them dry with a straw in like seven seconds right now. Hello, I am Robb, I am interested in vitamins, water, little else.

I was able to hang out with some great people that I don't get a chance to see often while at the CGE. Two guys are going to be in CZK, Adam Thornton and Jon Blask. Jon -- otherwise known as Roody Yogurt -- is one of the main characters, a guy named Grimloft. I had been trying for a while to get someone to play this part, but nothing has really worked out. Surprising, you'd think more people would jump at the opportunity to star in game for an obscure medium like "text game." Oddness!!!

In fact, this will be a real problem when I run out of women to put in these things, I mean, I know plenty of girls, but there's no good way to phrase, "Be in my text game." To me, the previous sentence always comes out as, "Let me show you my Pokemons." There needs to be some sort of international, "I'm Not a Pervert!" registry so I can make a request on Craig's List and get some help. OK, there needs to be this registry and I need to pass the test. So, a number two to that plan, definitely.

Roody was great, even though I got the sense that he really wanted to take a nap that night for a couple hours. I shot him with two cameras -- Dayna's, and then one belonging to Jason Scott. I'm glad I involved someone else's camera. Ours apparently has a "Motion Blur" setting, and it was enabled for a lot of my pictures. Ha! Ha ha! Nothing like checking afterwards and seeing that many of the pics are no good. I mean, I can work around them, but still. Unbelievably disappointing: I should have reset Dayna's camera for beginning. The little viewfinder doesn't have enough pixels to really inform me that everything I am shooting isn't much good.

Luckily, the game has me in Photoshop for every single graphic anyway, so I'll be fine. Just some user error with the camera - never happened to me before on any of the previous games, so I guess I was do. That being said, I thought of a new characteristic for Roody's character: he's, uh, very very fast, or something.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


CZK takes place in New Mexico. I've done a bunch of games set in Colorado, but I think the tally to this point is:

Colorado: 3
Boston: 1
New York City: 1
Phobos: 1
Las Vegas: 1

I can safely say that if I do a sequel to A Crimson Spring, it won't be based in New York City, which is the one area of the planet I dislike more than any other (almost solely due to NYC sports fans, the most ignorant yet arrogant subsection of people on the face of the planet). I think you can write an effective game if you loathe the setting due to intense personal experiences, like if you lived there. Otherwise it's a pretty short game:

In a world where people with the worst accent on the planet believe that Chien-Ming Wang is a better pitcher than Roy Halladay, someone is picking off citizens ... with a sniper.

Johnny Hollywood: "..."
Holy Avenger: "..."
The Wonder Twin Jayna: "Form of, crickets!"
Jayna: "..."

See? There's no reason to tackle the plot. You'd hit "z" a zillion times to let the deaths pile up. Sort of how like you've only won in Circus Atari when you've killed five of those flailing speds intentionally.

But yeah, the new one is in New Mexico, a state I've had good experiences in. We're taking a trip to Vegas and then, on the return side, we're going to see some of Utah. While I have taken photographs for CZK in New Mexico proper, running around the wasteland is close enough for my purposes. So the trip becomes one where I can get some additional material. We are living in a world where "Rumble in the Bronx" was shot in Vancouver, so I think I'm in the clear if I use a dusty side street in Nevada instead of Pueblo, in other words.

This all leads to a greater point, which is that the creation of these games does take up almost every facet of my life. I'm going to try to make a couple arcade-style games after CZK, but for all I know I'll feel dead inside like I normally do after finishing a text game, in that time slice where the next game isn't defined or conceived.

But man, would it be fun to get a joystick-controlled game done. The only reason I hesitate is because the first one will be a learning exercise and probably crap. Ah well, it will be free and there's no archive of arcade games that will let it be downloaded for years to come, so it will work out OK.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Movies

Oh yeah, I should in-line the new short film "The Pillow Case" starring Gerrit Hamilton. (Gerrit plays the player character in CZK.)