I’m the same age as the kids in Stranger Things. Like them, I rode my bike around the neighborhood a bunch, loved my Kenner Star Wars stuff, and dropped many a quarter on arcade games. Also like them, I played a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a tween and early teen.
Exact ages and dates are a little hazy behind the mists of time, but my introduction to the game happened on a birthday — 11th or 12th I think. On some gift-giving occasions, my parents would send me on a treasure hunt through the house, following a trail of clues until I finally found a present. On that birthday, I opened a drawer at the end of the trail and found… something?
It was a bunch of solid shapes — a pyramid, a cube, and others with many more sides. Each one was a different color, and each side had a number written on it. They seemed like dice, maybe? The note with them said, “What are these? I don’t know either, but let’s find out together!”
The survivors of that original batch of dice — edges worn down from many rolls!
Then out came the purple box, with the red rule book, each of which sported a picture of a couple of adventurers taking on a big water-dwelling dragon. I learned about the dice, the attribute scores, the combat, and all the other mechanics, and was quite intrigued. But what hooked me was this new kind of game playing, one that combined elements of the board games I loved with themes from the Tolkien and Zelazny books I’d been reading, while at the same time bringing in an element of pure pretend play, a part of childhood I’d been leaving behind with some ambivalence.
My dad was the Dungeon Master for our D&D session that night. I was an elf, lured into an underground vault to uncover its secrets alongside another character played by my mom. I still remember our kitchen table, Dad behind the cardboard screen, narrating our adventure. “You creep as quietly as possible through the dark underground passage. From far off, you hear the sound of water slowly dripping. Your torches illuminate gauzy threads, strung across the passageway AND SUDDENLY A GIANT SPIDER DROPS DOWN FROM THE CEILING!!” Oh man, my mom and I just about jumped out of our skins. But I was enchanted.
That was the last time for a very long time that I got to be a D&D player. I corralled some friends to play, but the only way I could sell the concept was if I was the Dungeon Master. That was okay — I was utterly fascinated with the game, and more than happy to spend hours populating dungeons with monsters and making up narrative threads for my friends’ characters. Through a combination of allowance spending and holiday gifts, I acquired all the advanced rulebooks, and many an adventure module. I even branched out into RPGs (role-playing games) from other genres — science fiction, James Bond spy stuff, and of course Marvel superheroes.
On a regular basis, 3 or 4 kids would gather in my basement and I’d take them through adventures. Or try to. As much as I dug everything about the game, there was always something a touch unsatisfying about those gaming sessions. My friends and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength, and I didn’t have the skill to even identify that, let alone talk about it. I wanted to be transported into a story and soar on the high-flown fantasy of it all, but most of the time everything remained stubbornly prosaic, a hack & slash gold-grubbing exercise, never really suspending disbelief. I suspect that’s down to my lack of skill as a DM, our ages, and the overall awkwardness of role-playing among non-theatrical types.
In any case, after a few years all the RPG stuff got packed away, and we all moved on to other pursuits, including — for me — actual theater. I sold a bunch of D&D modules and such on eBay some time ago, happy to recoup a little money for papers that were just mouldering away in a box. Selling that stuff made me quite sure that the D&D part of my life was over.
Then came Dante. As he became a teenager, Dante began to be deeply interested in game design. He’d always been someone who immediately wanted to make up variants to any game we played together, but as his brain matured, he started seriously exploring whatever gaming avenues he could find and learning about all sorts of genres and mechanics. This led him to discovering some retro roguelikes, in particular Angband. As he unpacked Angband‘s mechanics, he got very interested in their origins, which allowed me to explain to him all about Dungeons and Dragons.
Some of those childhood rulebooks and accessories — I didn’t sell everything!
He wanted to try it. Of course, I’d sold much of my D&D stuff years ago, and I had no concept of the way the game had evolved since. But between the Internet and the resources I still had, I cobbled some rules together, getting as far as helping him put together a character and taking him on the rudimentary beginnings of an adventure. Right after that, magic struck.
I’d been talking to a co-worker of mine socially about Dante’s interest in D&D and well, it turns out her husband is a longtime DM who wanted to start up a campaign again. They invited us to join. I was a little shy about it at first, intimidated by the gulf between my early-teen self and my current self, and all the D&D lore that had gone by in the meantime. But “for Dante’s sake”, I warmed up to it, and we created some characters.
Starting then, and for about 16 months, Dante and I took our dwarven cleric and half-orc barbarian through a series of great adventures. The 5th edition D&D rules are a deep well of delight, and I got to be the D&D player I’d always secretly wanted to be, with a great DM and a great group. During that time, I realized something pretty profound: Dungeons and Dragons played a crucial part in making me who I am today, and some of my most ingrained personality characteristics are either extensions of the D&D aesthetic or attempts to complete the experience I reached for as a kid but couldn’t quite grasp.
Take that theater, for instance. You know one way to get involved in a story, becoming one of the characters? Audition for a play! In improv, you can even invent that character’s direction as you go along! I wouldn’t make the claim that my heavy involvement in high school theater was a direct outgrowth of my preteen D&D session frustrations, but I will say that being in plays scratched an itch that I could never quite get at via RPGs.
Here’s a broader, deeper one: systems and randomness. For all of my adult life, I’ve been someone who makes decisions via diceroll, in the framework of a set of rules. Not huge decisions, mind you (usually), but routine and daily ones. Today I decided to drink water (instead of tea or soda) via diceroll, and also what book I would read — 1950s Ditko/Lee comics on Marvel Unlimited, also selected randomly. I’m focused on writing this post today via a random choice. I’m drinking a beer right now because of what I rolled a half-hour ago.
Writing about it a little over fifteen years ago, I called this habit “a coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice.” And that’s still true. But after returning to D&D, I realized that of course I’d imprinted on this behavior because I fell in love with its manifestation in the D&D rules. One of the most fascinating and incredible things about the game is the way that the dice shape the characters’ lives, taking both mundane and exotic moments in directions that nobody can wholly predict, and around which everyone’s stories must flow. Of course, in the game those dice are merely symbolic of the randomness in the universe, but my personal universe’s randomness comes directly from dice and other random number generators.
Once I started thinking in this direction, I was floored to understand how much of my identity has its roots in the D&D experience. My love for interactive fiction, I realized, is also an attempt to find what childhood RPGing didn’t provide. Even the best IF doesn’t let you have totally free rein to take the story in any direction, but honestly neither does the best RPG session. The best IF does give you an interactive experience with a storyteller who is fully committed to immersing you in a compelling fictional world, with no risk of other humans ruining the vibe. Those hundreds upon hundreds of hours I spent text adventuring had an intrinsic value of their own, of course, but they were also a balm to the part of me that just kept longing for a deep, immersive role-playing experience.
Why was that longing so powerful, that it set me on these lifelong courses of extension and compensation? Judging by the ache that comes up in me when I write about it, I think some part of it is deeply connected to loneliness. By most measures, I’m not a lonely person. I have a family who I genuinely enjoy living with, and friends across many different realms, from workplace to trivia to IF to longtime high school bonds. But looking back on those childhood D&D sessions feels lonely in a specific way: the loneliness of being with people who are all there for a different reason than you are.
That’s nothing against those childhood friends, who were perfectly fine and most likely very patient with my D&D obsession. It’s more about trying to find a match for a part of me, and it not being there. For all the friends and family I have, I still never found that match, until my adventures with Dante and my co-workers.
Getting to have that experience after all, almost forty years after first opening that drawer with the dice inside, was an enormous blessing. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending. Our D&D campaign broke up about 9 months ago, foundering on the pandemic-scarred shoals of some ugly real-life events. According to our DM, it’s not coming back anytime soon, certainly not in 2021.
I miss those gaming sessions terribly, with an outsized grief that I only now understand has been sublimated for most of my life into other forms. Finally assuaging that lonely feeling and then having it come back makes it so much sharper. I really, really want to return to Dungeons and Dragons again, or more specifically, I really really want to be a Dungeons and Dragonsplayer again. That’s where I found the joy for which I’d been unconsciously yearning. Dante hasn’t been grieving it the way I have, of course, and unlike me he’s more into mechanics than story, but I know he hopes to return to the D&D table as well.
Anybody want to run a campaign for a 50-year-old lapsed roleplayer and his gentle, genderqueer 15-year-old son?
[GM Note: There are spoilers in this article for Watchmen and the Watchmen-related materials produced for Mayfair Games, as well as HBO’s Watchmen series. Readers who don’t know this material and encounter these spoilers must make an INT action check against an OV/RV of 9/9 with a two column shift penalty or suffer 5 APs of disappointment.]
In 1972, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had an idea. What if you took the rules and mechanics of the board wargames they both loved, and adapted them so that players would control not only pieces, but actual characters in a story? The result was a new beast, a “role-playing game” (RPG) called Dungeons & Dragons, which gestated slowly throughout the 1970s and by 1980 blossomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. In 1982, D&D even showed up in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, still one of the most successful movies of all time.
So of course, as the Eighties rolled on, everybody wanted a piece of that sweet D&D action. Sure, the trailblazing game was set in a fantasy milieu, but no doubt there would be lots of other fun genres in which RPGs could romp, right? D&D‘s publisher TSR Hobbies was already on that train, producing Top Secret (a spy RPG), Gangbusters (1920s crime), Star Frontiers (sci-fi), and Boot Hill (western), among many others. Superheroes were ripe for development, but unlike the aforementioned genres, they were more dependent on character than on setting, and the dominant sets of character IP were owned by the Big Two comic book companies, DC and Marvel.
TSR solved this problem in 1984 by acquiring the Marvel license and producing the Marvel Super Heroes RPG. But they could hardly play both sides of the field, so that left DC to partner with one of TSR’s many competitors. They found a match in Mayfair Games, which had started out publishing railroad-building boardgames, but ventured into the RPG craze with Role Aids, a line of adventure modules and supplements advertised as compatible with D&D. (Not surprisingly, this marketing tactic later got them into legal hot water with TSR. At least they never got sued by Rolaids.)
Be Part Of The Legend!
Thus it was that in 1985, Mayfair released the DC Heroes role-playing game. That game’s tag line was “Be Part Of The Legend!”, and its cover (gorgeously drawn by George Pérez) featured some marquee Justice League heroes along with the New Teen Titans — DC’s hottest team at that time — battling a legion of villains.
This game faced a daunting design challenge, because some of that era’s DC characters were ludicrously powerful — for instance, Superman once destroyed a solar system by sneezing. How to represent such off-the-charts power alongside guys like Batman, who was essentially a peak athlete with wonderful toys? Designer Greg Gorden ingeniously married these extremes by introducing a logarithmic scale for game stats. Everything in the game gets measured in Attribute Points (AP), and every attribute point is worth twice as much as the one before it. As the manual explains, “Therefore, a DC Hero with a Strength of 6 is twice as strong as a DC Hero with a Strength of 5.”
So Batman has a strength of 5 (roughly 8 times stronger than an average human), while Superman has a strength of 50 (roughly 18 trillion times stronger than Batman). The two of them can exist on the same scale without having stats that are so long they run off the page. Of course, that mind-boggling gap also points out some of the structural problems of the DCU in those days — many of its heroes were so staggeringly powerful that it was almost impossible to place them in dramatic jeopardy. DC would attempt to solve those problems with its Crisis On Infinite Earths, a universal reboot that set DC characters back to more reasonable power levels. In the 1989 second edition of the game, Superman’s strength was down to 25, a mere 16-million-fold increase over Batman. Well, a little more reasonable anyway.
Crisis was also a 1985 event, a 12-issue “maxi-series” that ran from April 1985 to March 1986. In fact, the DC Heroes RPG got released right in the middle of the series, which put Gorden in an awkward position. Mayfair couldn’t wait a year for the series to complete — they needed to get their game out in time for the ’85 Christmas season — but releasing before Crisis was over meant that some of the game’s information would be drastically wrong almost immediately. In fact, Gorden had to include a section in his (charming) designer’s notes entitled “What about Crisis On Infinite Earths?”, which explained that he was bound not to include details in the game that would spoil developments in Crisis, some of which DC hadn’t decided yet anyway! Nevertheless, he assured us that he’d been working extensively with DC editorial, and that “The information in the game, concerning characters and places and events, are compatible with my latest information as to how things will be when Crisis is over…” mostly.
The yearlong story arc of Crisis wasn’t the only thing making DC Heroes‘ timing awkward. It also came out just before two other epochal publications that would change the tone of comics for years to come: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and another little series called Watchmen. Mayfair had followed up DC Heroes, as any good RPG publisher would, with a blizzard of supplements — adventure modules, sourcebooks, atlases, and so forth. How could they incorporate these radical new visions into the game’s generally sunny tone?
Well, Miller’s Batman was grizzled and futuristic, but he was still Batman, and could be addressed as a kind of “imaginary story” scenario. The Watchmen characters and their universe, though, were brand new, and would have to be statted up in new publications. Mayfair took three shots at this:
Who Watches The Watchmen?, a 1987 module by Dan Greenberg — set in 1966 of Watchmen time,
Taking Out The Trash, another 1987 module, this one by Ray Winninger and set in Watchmen‘s 1968, and finally the
Watchmen Sourcebook, also by Winninger and containing loads of background information for the characters and their world.
It’s worth noting that Moore and Gibbons’ participation makes these RPG materials the only extensions of Watchmen ever created that could reasonably lay claim to any kind of “canonical” status. Greenberg rejects this notion, saying, “Only the Watchmen series itself is canon. My game is only an adaptation — reflected light and not the source.” Similarly, Winninger considers his work “a little footnote in the Watchmen story.”
Ultimately, I think the question of this material’s canonicity is kind of a silly one. Did these stories “really happen” in the Watchmen universe? Are they “really” part of the legend, or aren’t they? Well, does it matter? Would it change anything about the series if they are, or aren’t? As Moore writes in his script for the 1986 final issue of Superman Volume One, “This is an IMAGINARY STORY… aren’t they all?”
Who Plays The Watchmen?
In any case, RPG modules aren’t really stories, but rather frameworks within which a variety of stories could take place. For Greenberg’s module, that meant exploring what might have happened after the failed attempt by Captain Metropolis (aka Nelson Gardner) to create the “Crimebusters” with the book’s six main characters in 1966. The module’s story picks up immediately after this meeting, with Nelly scheming a way to persuade the heroes over to his side.
Echoing the plot of Watchmen itself, Captain Metropolis decides that his would-be Crimebusters must have a common enemy to confront. He disguises himself as a mysterious underworld boss called only “M” (thus rather ingeniously linking not only himself and Moloch, but also two Fritz Lang references), and hires underworld goons to arrange kidnappings of people close to each of the characters, such as Hollis Mason, Sally Jupiter, and even his own mother, Matilda. Still more nefariously, Gardner ties the kidnappings to a civil rights group known as the American Negro Alliance, thus focusing superheroic attention on all that “black unrest” he was so worried about at the meeting.
He calls the heroes together, and asks them to work as a team to help find all the missing victims, since the kidnappings seem to have targeted the not-really-Crimebusters as a group. What happens next? Well, that’s up to the players. Interactive narratives can allow the story to travel down a number of different possible roads. Depending on the range of interactivity available, the story may be more or less “on rails”, but in a tabletop RPG, players are generally offered a very wide range of action. So maybe the characters look into the kidnappings, or maybe they look into why Captain Metropolis is the one to bring them together, or maybe they decide to write the whole thing off and go on patrol, or go to Antarctica, or go back home. Heck, maybe they’re homemade heroes who aren’t even the characters from Watchmen at all.
The module assumes that they are the Watchmen characters (though not Dr. Manhattan, it should be noted), and that they do decide to investigate the kidnappings. It’s up to a Gamemaster (GM) to decide how much to rein the players’ choices into what the module covers. Assuming they do decide to chase down the clues, how much they find depends on their ideas and their dice rolls.
If the players and their dice rolls cooperate with the story’s framework, and/or a GM engineers events such that players proceed through the module as written, they’re likely to visit the offices of the American Negro Alliance, the apartment of an underworld figure called “Mole”, and/or a counterculture rally in Battery Park. The GM is encouraged to play Captain Metropolis as uptight, whiny, and racist — challenging ANA workers for being “uppity”, or complaining at the rally, “That isn’t music! It’s noise! And to think they are playing on the same stand the Air Force Band and the Singing Sergeants play on every Fourth of July. There is no justice.” Even if the players don’t suspect him, they’re sure to dislike him.
Finally, they’ll be led to Moloch, who has indeed been funding more radical protest groups, since their activities draw the attention of the police, thus distracting the cops from Moloch himself. If defeated in battle, Moloch will (truthfully) deny any knowledge of the kidnappings, though, and Gardner will find a way to “discover” a note with information as to the whereabouts of the missing people. If the rescue goes well, the players may believe that Moloch was behind the whole thing. If it goes badly, Captain Metropolis may have to reveal his secret in order to keep his mother alive.
Do the heroes find out who’s been pulling their strings? Do they come together as the Crimebusters after all? Do they splinter again, no different than they were before the beginning of the module? How it goes will vary from one gaming group to the next, an ambiguous outcome which is not only in keeping with the spirit of RPGs, but of Watchmen itself. The last page of the game deliberately echoes the “I leave it entirely in your hands” last page of the book, in the section describing a confrontation with Gardner:
What the Players elect to do with Captain Metropolis is their matter. They could turn him over to the police, ostracize him from hero society, or they could view his act as a noble, if dangerous, one and consider maintaining their allegiances. The decision is theirs.
The Harlot’s Curse Taking Out The Trash
Winninger also cared very much about staying true to the spirit of Watchmen, a fact which shines through several different aspects of his module, Taking Out The Trash. For one thing, it tries to be just as atmospheric and reference-heavy as Watchmen itself. DC Heroes modules are broken up into “encounters” (scenes, more or less), and the title of every encounter in Taking Out The Trash references a pop song — “The Sound Of Silence”, “Sympathy For The Devil”, “I Am the Walrus”, and so forth. (Or at least, most of them do — I couldn’t find a clear referent for a couple.) Not only that, the GM is encouraged to open most scenes with either a snippet of Rorschach’s Journal or an excerpt from William Blake‘s poem “London”. One of the main antagonist groups scrawls graffiti everywhere that quotes from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven And Hell. A literary quote accompanies each main character’s stat block and history, pulling in authors like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Sir Phillip Sidney. You get the picture.
The module also uses a similar storytelling technique to the back matter in Watchmen issues, providing exposition and background via newspaper clippings, interview excerpts, or “found” documents like a letter to Adrian Veidt from his head of marketing. With a smile and a wink, this letter purports to accompany “the manuscript the guy from Chicago turned in for the second adventure in the ‘Ozymandias Role Playing Game.'” Winninger, let it be noted, got the call to write this second Watchmen module while still a student at Northwestern.
That “manuscript” includes a historical breakdown of the Watchmen world, with a writing credit shared between Winninger and Moore. Now, based on everything Winninger has said about the process of creating these supplements, I don’t believe that means that Moore actually produced any of this module’s text at his own typewriter. Rather, I suspect that Winninger (and Mayfair) provided him a co-writing credit because this section of the module was a summary of the work Moore had already produced — with some extra details added here and there. This is different from the rest of the module, which was much more original to Winninger — the Blake-quoting street gang didn’t come from Moore.
In fact, that gang is an example of how the module’s references aren’t always handled with Moore’s grace — they often feel troweled in, or just tacked on. Then again, as Winninger notes in his introduction to The Watchmen Companion, he was all of 20 years old when he wrote the thing, so fair enough. The form and content of the entire adventure represent a bold grasp at the kind of ambition that marks Watchmen throughout. That includes the plot, which finds the main characters at the 1968 Republican convention, working to prevent Moloch from assassinating Richard Nixon, and (if they succeed) thereby ensuring the beginning of the Nixon presidency that continues all the way into Watchmen‘s 1985.
Or, at least, that’s what Winninger intended. Mayfair unfortunately took an editorial machete to Winninger’s manuscript, derailing much of its historicity. He tells it best:
Mayfair editorial excised all its references to real people and places and replaced most of them with goofy parodies. Oliver North became “Findlay Setchfield South.” Max’s Kansas City became “Mex’s Indy City,” home of the “Velour Underground.” Nixon is known only as “the VP,” confusing readers. (Hubert Humphrey was Vice President in 1968; Nixon was VP a full 10 years earlier.)… Worst of all, the book was hastily retitled “Taking Out The Trash.” My title, “The Harlot’s Curse,” was pulled from the William Blake poem that serves as an epigraph to the story, following the template Alan established in naming each of Watchmen‘s 12 chapters.
Now, in fairness to Mayfair, when your market is likely the parents of adolescent boys, having the word “harlot” in your title probably represents an unreasonable risk. Nevertheless, all of Mayfair’s changes do have a significant negative impact on the module, and signify the struggle that they had with incorporating Moore and Gibbons’ dark vision into their world of Teen Titans and Justice League. The “Velour Underground” and “Findlay Setchfield South” feel very mainstream DC, a bit like Metropolis and Hub City.
Mayfair editorial could have helped in the department of fact-checking and proofreading, but several prominent errors remain in the book. The overall plot summary (captioned “The Big Picture”) cuts off mid-sentence, about 70% of the way through. (This error wasn’t created by the The Watchmen Companion‘s reprint — it exists in the original module.) Rorschach gets called “Joseph Walter Kovacs”, when in fact his correct name is “Walter Joseph Kovacs.” The module refers to Hooded Justice throughout as “The Hooded Justice”, or sometimes just “The Justice.” Perhaps it’s a misnomer acquired via Eighties DC comics’ habit of saying “The Batman” rather than just “Batman”?
In any case, the story of the module follows the heroes’ discovery of a gang called the Bretheren (the Blake-obsessed criminals), who turn out to pose a threat to the convention, which in the Watchmen game universe takes place in New York rather than in Miami. An NYPD captain and a Secret Service honcho ask the heroes to provide security for the convention, and players can find a number of clues that help them track down the gang. After a climactic battle on the convention floor, successful players may discover that Moloch was directing the Bretheren’s attacks, in hopes that he could eliminate the competition for a candidate called Ken Shade, who had essentially “sold his soul” to Moloch’s organized crime network in order to pay gambling debts. They may also choose to take down the gang once and for all at its headquarters.
Strangely, there’s a subplot running through the module that involves only The Comedian. In these scenes, The Comedian follows “Findlay Setchfield South”‘s orders to eliminate a different rival to Nixon. I haven’t logged the world’s most RPG hours myself, but I’ve played my share, and the experience is almost always a group one. Having a GM play out a separate series of scenes with just one player, especially when those scenes are meant to be interleaved with the main action and kept secret from the other players, seems like it would require a pretty unusual gaming group dynamic. I wonder how many of the GMs who ran this module ended up just jettisoning the extra Comedian stuff entirely?
As always, there are plenty of ways for the story to end, depending on what directions the players chose and how well the dice cooperated with their intentions. In the module’s epilogue, which assumes that they’ve successfully foiled Moloch and The Bretheren, the characters watch on television as Nixon (or rather “The VP”) accepts his nomination, and then the GM reads out a final Blake quote, this one incorporating “the youthful Harlot’s Curse” and how it “blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” Even in success, players get a very downbeat ending, in keeping with the mood of Watchmen itself.
Back To The Source
The third Mayfair Watchmen publication isn’t an adventure at all, but what the game calls a sourcebook. Here’s their explanation:
A sourcebook contains game-related and background material on a certain subject relating to the DC Universe, most often a specific group of heroes, a certain location, or a special genre. GMs who prefer writing their own adventures will find sourcebooks especially helpful, since in addition to characters’ statistics, sourcebooks contain historical, organizational, and reference material about the sourcebook’s subject.
By 1990, when this book was published, Mayfair had produced plenty of sourcebooks — Batman, Superman, Doom Patrol, Justice League, Apokolips, et cetera. These books tended to be detailed breakdowns of the characters in question, plus articles about their gear, their headquarters, their supporting casts and rogue’s galleries, and so on. The Watchmen sourcebook took a different tack.
Rather than just writing article after article about Watchmen characters, Winninger took a page from Moore’s book (often literally) and provided background in the spirit of Watchmen‘s back matter — newspaper clippings, correspondence, psychiatric reports, ID cards, excerpts from Under The Hood and so on. I say he literally took a page because maybe 25% of the sourcebook is reprints of Moore’s back matter itself, often reformatted or parceled out into different pieces, but otherwise intact.
Some of the new material reinforces the book’s story (such as a newspaper clipping whose headline reads “Nite Owl breaks Rorschach out of Riker’s Island!”), but much of it builds on tiny hints in the book. For instance, we get full stats and descriptions for every villain or joke-villain that even gets a whisper of a mention in Watchmen — Captain Axis, Underboss, The Twilight Lady, The Screaming Skull, and so on — with a brief origin story, a “whatever happened to” section, and even the most famous crime pulled by each. The book has a full writeup of the “Owlcar” that Dan and Laurie walk by in his basement, complete with budget and possible issues (“Standard Tires are woefully inadequate. Tires must be armored against damage.”) There’s a floor plan of Minutemen headquarters.
Winninger managed to throw in a few jokes himself. For instance, in the Rorschach section, we get a scrap of Rorschach’s journal proclaiming that he has “at least one ally here in the lair of the weak”: a taxi driver. It seems Rorschach was fleeing the police when a cab driver offered him a ride. “Told me I was his hero. Told me he was compelled to war against the sinners and the politicians and the false prophets as well.” Winninger’s insertion of Travis Bickle (obviously) into Rorschach’s backstory draws similar conclusions to what annotators would be arguing for in years to come.
He also took open questions from the text of Watchmen and closed them. For instance: who killed Ursula Zandt, the Silhouette? Hollis Mason in Watchmen only tells us that “she was murdered, along with her lover, by one of her former enemies.” Winninger names this enemy in Taking Out The Trash: it was apparently “the Liquidator.” The Sourcebook gives us a description of the Minutemen’s battle with this Liquidator, his hospital report after the battle (including his real name), and the section of her biography that details the murder scene.
In a similar fashion, Winninger nails down the identity of Hooded Justice, which brings us at long last to the Watchmen web annotations. In their endpages notes for Chapter 3, those annotations state:
Hooded Justice was likely killed by the Comedian. (If Mueller (sic) was Hooded Justice. There is no evidence for this anywhere in the comic; but the Mayfair Games DC Heroes Module, “Taking Out the Trash,” agrees with this assessment, in the section co-written by Moore.)
This note resolving Hooded Justice’s identity is ironic when it annotates a page where Hollis Mason writes, “Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it’s seldom when anything ever really gets resolved.” Mayfair’s Watchmen materials are messy at times, but they’re pretty consistent, and at least when it comes to the sourcebook, they resolve a lot. Hooded Justice’s section of that book has immigration documents for Müller’s parents, police reports of their domestic violence cases, a note from Rolf’s father leaving his mother, ads from his circus strongman career, newspaper clippings, the New Frontiersman smear on him, and more.
It’s wonderful stuff, full of story hooks for enterprising GMs, but from today’s vantage point, at least for someone who’s watched the Watchmen HBO series, its neat resolutions have acquired some competition. I couldn’t help reading all the Rolf Müller stuff with a sense of disappointment, because while that take on the Hooded Justice story is fine, I found Damon Lindelof’s alternate origin of Hooded Justice as Will Reeves to be orders of magnitude more compelling. Perhaps it’s because the Watchmen sourcebook is an invitation to creativity, but the HBO series is an outpouring of creativity, a response to Watchmen‘s questions that, like the original, constructs a crystalline and multi-layered story that works on a myriad of levels.
It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for an interactive narrative to meet that standard, and that’s one of the fundamental problems with trying to make any aspect of Watchmen interactive. The book is a self-contained universe, a precision timepiece whose pieces fit together exquisitely, allowing for no deviation. Where all the other DC books (with the possible exception of The Dark Knight Returns) just go on and on and on, Watchmen has a very clear stopping point, after which most of the characters are either erased or so radically changed that they’re basically starting from scratch.
Consequently, when Mayfair wanted to create interactive experiences in the Watchmen universe, they had to go back into the past — 1966 or 1968 in their two attempts. Of course, because Watchmen is only 12 issues, and only part of those detail the past, there’s not a large menu of options to choose from — hence both modules’ reliance on Moloch as a villain. Similarly, the sourcebook pours a lot of effort into detailing character histories, but by the time Watchmen ends, most of those histories have ended permanently. To play through any scenario that matters with them, you’d have to go back into the past.
That’s what made Lindelof’s choice to go forward instead such a brilliant one. He was able to still make use of some of the book’s characters, but he accepted the challenge of starting anew. Could Angela Abar’s story play out in an RPG? I can’t say it’s impossible, because there’s a world full of creativity out there, but I think it’s fair to say that the structures of the story inherently resist interactivity, because the way they travel through time, the way they reveal themselves gradually, and the sense of inevitability around them, is just too precise.
Doctor Manhattan personifies this inevitability, which is why he’s quickly written out of both modules. Well, that’s not quite true. Greenberg’s module allows for the possibility that Dr. Manhattan could be a player character, one with knowledge of Captain Metropolis’ plan, but cautions:
It is vital, however, that the Player not act on this information and confront Captain Metropolis because, in his timeline, Dr. Manhattan did not confront Captain Metropolis in the past, is not confronting Captain Metropolis in the present, and will not confront him in the future. Dr. Manhattan is tied to his timeline, and while he knows the future, he cannot alter it.
But in this case, really, what’s the point of role-playing? Not only that, unlike the Dr. Manhattan of the text, it’s completely impossible for an RPG Manhattan to see all eras simultaneously, because he’s not in a text. In a book or show where every narrative turn is already worked out, such a character is like someone who’s already read or watched the whole thing. But an RPG is tied to time far differently – not even the GM knows how things will work out.
I would argue that Watchmen inherently resists expansion, and all the projects that have tried have all had to find ways to escape the original’s gravity. I haven’t explored them all, and I don’t plan to, but reading Mayfair’s material makes it clear to me that another self-contained dramatic effort has a much greater chance of success than an open-ended interactive one. RPGs, like William Burroughs’ cut-ups, explore the way randomness can drive narrative, but Watchmen leaves nothing to chance.
I’ve created a new blog called >INVENTORY. It will (eventually) house everything I’ve ever written about interactive fiction. I’m planning to add to it every day for the next… couple hundred days at least? We’ll see. The first post explains why.
In 2019, Steph Cherrywell became only the second person in the 25-year history of the Interactive Fiction (IF) Competition to win it twice. The other person to have done so is writing this post. So I was inspired to check out Cherrywell’s work, and managed to find some time over the holiday break to revisit my old IF-reviewing ways.
Now, I should make clear that I’m no longer keeping up with the IF world overall, so I haven’t been reading other reviews of her work, or of anybody’s work for that matter. I’ve played very few games from the last 15 years, so something that seems new and exciting to me might be old hat to people who’ve kept up. My perspective is basically that of a former expert who’s done little more than toe-dipping since 2005. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s jump in!
Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s first comp winner, from 2015, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Plus, for my next Watchmen essay I’m researching a bunch of background on 1950s sci-fi movies, and Brain Guzzlers looked like an affectionate parody of ’50s sci-fi, so I was predisposed to dig it.
And dig it I did, though I quickly learned that the game wasn’t exactly parodying ’50s sci-fi movies, which generally involve earnest scientists and square-jawed military types grappling with monsters, aliens, giant bugs, or giant alien bug monsters. This game’s tone is closer to Firesign Theater’s “High School Madness” sketch — a broad exaggeration of ’50s teenage tropes as seen in Leave It To Beaver and Archie comics. (Malt Shop Archie, that is. Not Sex Archie.) Cherrywell crashes the ’50s teen universe into the ’50s sci-fi universe, and comedy ensues, with a subversive edge provided by details like mixed-race NPCs, homoerotic undertones, and the ’50s-defying female action lead.
That comedic tone is Brain Guzzlers From Beyond‘s greatest strength — you can’t go three sentences without running into some delightful turn of phrase, well-crafted joke, or witty perspective. Take, for example, this description of a “Modernist Living Room”: “This circular room is ultramodern, like something from twenty years in the future. The sleek, smart-looking furniture is a symphony in avocado, orange, and mustard-yellow.” Or this description of the Drive-In: “You’re standing in the drive-in on the edge of town, where all the coolest teens come to ignore movies. To the north is Make-Out Mountain, and flanking it are a number of less controversial mountains.” Those mountains? “There’s Propriety Peak, and Constance Crag, and Mount Homework.”
The whole thing is a great deal of fun to read, and pretty fun to play too, thanks in part to Cherrywell’s smooth fusion of parser and choice structures. The game follows a familiar pattern of using the parser for exploration and multiple choice for conversations, and that works well, especially with Cherrywell’s charming illustrations of each character to flavor the dialogue. But she takes the structure a little further by rendering the action scenes via choices too.
Action scenes, though they can be done quite well, are rather difficult in parser IF, because there’s always the chance that some confused response or failure to understand input will deflate the pace and tension. Cherrywell makes sure this doesn’t happen by flipping her action sequences into a structure where input is limited and can’t be misunderstood, but still preserves a sensation of choice with options like:
1) Swing around and punch that monster square in the snoot!
2) Scream for help and try to pull away.
Another ingenious use of choice comes right at the outset of the game, in which the player is asked a series of questions. The game’s conceit is that you’re taking a quiz from a teen magazine, but in fact what you’re doing is defining the PC. Those choices affect gameplay in both superficial and substantial ways — everything from altering the “X ME” description to bypassing a puzzle entirely.
The tone and writing were my favorite parts of playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond, but they weren’t flawless. There were a surprising number of typos right in the beginning, which gave me an uneasy feeling: “corresponding your choice” rather than “corresponding to your choice”; “absense of stars”; “your were practically almost sort of his girlfriend”. But either the game got better as it went along, or I just stopped noticing because the experience was so absorbing. Either way, it’s laudable, and in fact may have even been more fun for exceeding my wary expectations.
Brain Guzzlers combines fun writing with clever structures, but I can’t leave out its puzzles. Time after time, this game made me feel smart by presenting puzzles with just the right amount of clueing and lateral thinking, always perfectly in tune with the light and breezy feel of the story and setting. It rewards thorough exploration and leads players right up to the gap that they need to jump across, without building a paved bridge there.
My favorite puzzle of the game was the RPS cannon, and I was pleased to see that it also won the 2015 Best Individual Puzzle XYZZY Award. I confess that I didn’t solve this puzzle on my own, but seeing the solution made me wish I had. All the clues were there, I just didn’t put them together.
All in all, playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond made it easy to see why the game won the 2015 IF Competition, and made me eager to play the follow-up. So that’s what I did.
Zozzled was Cherrywell’s 2019 IF Comp winner, and where Brain Guzzlers was a funny pastiche of 1950s tropes, Zozzled is a hilarious pastiche of 1920s tropes. It becomes clear when playing these two games consecutively that Cherrywell is in fact a master of pastiche. She scoops up a whole bunch of slang, stereotypes, and style, stringing them together in rat-a-tat fashion for a wonderfully enjoyable ride. The best comparison I can make for Zozzled‘s style is to Alan Moore’s pieces in the voice of Hildy Johnson at the end of some of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. In other words, excellent.
Sure, she hits a bum note once in a while — using the term “sheba” for a woman is great once, cloying many times in a row — but overall, at pretty much every level, the writing in Zozzled is sharper than that of Brain Guzzlers, which is high praise. It’s quite a bit funnier, for one thing. Where Guzzlers frequently made me smile or chuckle, Zozzled had me laughing out loud. Some of my favorite examples:
The response to EXAMINE GLAD RAGS (because this game would never call a dress a dress if it could instead call the dress “glad rags.”):
If the right dress makes you feel like a million bucks, this little black number makes you feel like Rockefeller’s bank account. And much like Rockefeller’s bank account, it generates plenty of interest.
This description of a refrigerator:
This refrigerator, much like the old lady that time she chaperoned your senior year homecoming dance, is sitting in the corner, humming quietly and radiating bitter cold.
And finally, a great easter egg for Zork fans, in the description of some locked-away valuables:
Just a few odds and ends that guests have deposited – brass baubles, golden eggs, platinum bars, ivory torches, sapphire bracelets, that sort of thing.
It’s not just turns of phrase either — there’s a character who is described as “constitutionally incapable of telling the truth”, which the game then plays out literally to great comic effect. Not only is the wit superb, the story is more sophisticated too. Where Brain Guzzlers was pretty much “fight the sudden arbitrary menace by solving puzzles”, Zozzled sets up story beats in the beginning that pay off in the end, giving the puzzles a reason to exist that transcends “something bad and inexplicable happened here”, replacing it with an unexpected love story to which the PC is a witness.
So, if Cherrywell upped her writing game in Zozzled, how about her… game game? I’m sorry to say that the game aspects of Zozzled were a little weaker than those of Brain Guzzlers. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a weak game overall. I’m about to dive into criticizing a couple of its flaws, so I want to make clear that generally speaking, Zozzled is well-crafted — solid implementation, intriguing design, and reasonable puzzles. It takes the same approach as Brain Guzzlers, which is to say “breezy puzzle romp fusing parser and choice mechanics”, albeit without the illustrations. Its concept is equally solid, maybe even a little less checklisty, but it does stumble in a couple of places mechanically.
The first of these is the transition from introducing the ghost conceit to turning the player loose on the puzzly middle game. In a long choice-based sequence, Zozzled stages a conversation between the PC and an elevator operator named Kipper Fanucci (another Zorky reference, methinks.) That conversation does a lot of expository work, explaining that the hotel setting is haunted, and that Hazel the PC has the rare ability to see ghosts, at least once she’s wearing a pair of magical “cheaters”. Then it transitions from a conversation to a choice-based action sequence, except unlike in Brain Guzzlers, where the possible actions were rendered in prose, Zozzled phrases them in parserese, like so:
1) >ASK KIPPER ABOUT GHOST.
2) >KILL GHOST.
3) >TALK TO GHOST.
Eventually, this sequence reveals the way in which Hazel can exorcise ghostly presences, a command which nicely ties together her carefree flapper persona with her ghostbusting abilities. Moreover, once you exit the Kipper sequence, wearing the cheaters allows you to see ghostly presences in various places, with the spectral stuff rendered in bold, a cool and effective choice.
Except… now that you can see the ghosts, you can’t interact with them anymore! Try to EXAMINE GHOST and you’ll get tersely rebuffed: “(That’s not something you need to fiddle with.)” The entire ghost concept gets introduced via specific IF commands allowing the PC to interact with and contain a ghost. Then, immediately afterwards, there are a bunch of ghostly encounters in which the ghosts aren’t even implemented as game objects. Pretty unsatisfying.
Eventually, I figured out that you have to first solve the puzzle with which the ghost is associated before you can interact with it, which makes perfect sense but could be much better explained. If the answer to X GHOST had given a description indicating that the ghost was deeply embedded in its container and would have to be driven out before I could deal with it, that would have felt much less jarring and buggy.
Similarly, some solution-adjacent feedback would have also helped with the game’s most frustrating puzzle, the fruit bowl. Without spoiling anything, this puzzle has a solution which is logically sound and emotionally satisfying, but which requires quite an intuitive leap. Moreover, the solution requires the destruction of game objects, which goes pretty heavily against the grain of experienced IF players. As with the RPS cannon in Brain Guzzlers, I found myself turning to the hints, but unlike with the RPS cannon, I didn’t feel dumb for failing to solve it myself.
On the contrary, I saw that I came extremely close in a couple of different ways, but the game didn’t give me the feedback I needed to make that final leap. In fact, I would argue that the puzzle should be more tolerant of solutions that fit the spirit if not the letter of the intended answer. Luckily, this puzzle was an outlier. Others, such as the seance and the oyster, brought together actions that made perfect sense in context and worked beautifully with the tone.
Playing Zozzled right after Brain Guzzlers made it impossible not to compare the two, and what I found was that each game was very strong on its own, but each also had its strengths over the other — Zozzled its (even more) masterful writing, and Guzzlers its silky-smooth structure and puzzles. It turns out that Cherrywell has written one other Inform 7 game besides those two, so it was my third choice for this survey.
Chlorophyll came out in 2015, the same year (amazingly) as Brain Guzzlers. Where Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s entry into the main IFComp, Chlorophyll was for a Spring competition called ParserComp, a themed long-form game jam focused on traditional text adventure format, i.e. excluding choice-based mechanics. Consequently, Chlorophyll is pure parser, unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers.
And you know what? It turns out Cherrywell is still a hell of a writer, even when she’s not penning snappy dialogue for branching-path conversations. Chlorophyll really has no conversations — it hews closer to old-school IF by ensuring that the PC is on her own, navigating through a seemingly abandoned outpost, albeit one that bears unsettling evidence of violent disruption. Until the third act, her only encounters are with minimal-personality robots. Structurally, the game is deeply reminiscent of Planetfall, albeit without Floyd.
Except, instead of Planetfall, a more apt title might be… (I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to stop myself) Plantfall? See, in Chlorophyll, the PC is a sentient, walking plant, a la Groot, but with a better vocabulary. (Or, in the specific case of the PC, Teen Groot I guess.) She and her species depend on sunlight to produce nutrients (hence the title), and without it they slip quickly into unconscious torpor. In the first act of the game, this works out to a tight hunger timer, keeping the PC tethered closely to sunny areas and requiring her to find ways to light up more and more of the outpost with artificial sunlight. In these explorations, she also figures out that her goal is to power up the outpost so that it can restore sunlight to the whole planet — which happens to align perfectly with the 2015 ParserComp’s theme of “sunrise”.
Now normally, hunger timers are one of my major pet peeves in IF, but the one in Chlorophyll worked, for two reasons. First, rather than being an arbitrary limit imposed in the name of “realism”, this game’s hunger timer was a crucial character detail, one that drives the PC’s initial problem and that lends lots of tension to the first several sequences. Second, about a third of the way into the game the PC finds an object which obviates the timer altogether, so that it goes away permanently. Not only that, the mechanism that eliminates the hunger timer also has strong emotional resonance, lent further weight by the player’s relief at removing the constraint. More about that a bit later.
Unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers, there’s very little humor in Chlorophyll. Instead, Cherrywell creates a strong atmosphere of eeriness and foreboding. After playing those first two games, I was all the more impressed that Cherrywell has a whole other register, and is equally great at it. The SF concept was intriguing and logical, the setting evocatively described and sensibly constructed, and the mood of the whole game was just terrific, all the more so for not being another wacky pastiche of a bygone era.
The story was well-structured too, with sudden action at the beginning leading to a series of increasingly compelling discoveries. There are powerful, stomach-dropping moments as the PC discovers more and more effects of the antagonist’s presence, and a sensational climax and denouement.
The puzzles for the most part are solid, with a particularly expansive middle game, in which two entirely different different chains of puzzles (one for good behavior, one for bad) can be pursued, either of which unlocks the climax. I quibble a bit with one solution on the “good” track, as it involves the breaking of an object described as “unbreakable”, with no clear rationale that I can see for how that breaking makes sense. But no matter — that’s a pretty minor objection to what is overall an accomplished piece of craftsmanship.
I think my favorite part of Chlorophyll is its strong emotional core. Neither Zozzled nor Brain Guzzlers prepared me for this. While there’s a love story in Zozzled, Hazel (the PC) is just a bystander to it, really, with no particular emotional investment in anything. Bonnie, from Brain Guzzlers, witnesses a close friendship but is herself mainly either a cipher or a punchline. But Zo, the PC of Chlorophyll, begins the game enmeshed in an instantly familiar and warm mother-daughter relationship, so when her mother gets incapacitated, I found myself drawn in immediately.
Zo is an adolescent, who feels like she’s grown out of childish things but that her mother doesn’t recognize her abilities. Then she’s thrown into the adult role without that mother’s support, and must become the caretaker herself. That makes it all the more moving when Zo discovers evidence that her mother really does recognize Zo’s growth, emblematized in the new solar vest that deactivates the light-hunger timer. This is a wonderful example of using IF constructs to serve and strengthen the story — as we remove a game constraint, we also remove a mental constraint from the PC, allowing both more access to the world and more understanding of her place in it.
Similarly, when Zo finds her unconscious mother, and realizes the jeopardy that they are in from the antagonist, the moment lands harder than anything in Zozzled or Brain Guzzlers. Granted, nothing in those other two games was meant to land that hard, as a sudden emotional jolt would have really wrecked the mood, but having played those two games first, I was all the more surprised and transported by the weightiness of this one.
With these three games, Cherrywell has become one of my all-time favorite IF authors. I’m grateful to have spent my time on them, and I greatly look forward to whatever she releases next.
The Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) started in 1995, and for its first ten years, I was a very active participant. I entered the comp 4 different times (1996, 2001, 2002, 2004) and wrote hundreds of reviews. I reviewed pretty much every game submitted to the comp from 1996-2004, with a few scattered exceptions (stuff I’d tested, languages I don’t speak, troll games, etc.)
Then, for the next 10 years, I didn’t vote in the comp at all. Not coincidentally, my son Dante was born in 2005. Once that happened, the time I used to set aside for IF got drastically curtailed, and I pretty much slipped into frozen caveman state. I’ve dipped my toe in a few times, writing reviews of various comp games that were nominated for various XYZZY Awards, but for the most part I’ve remained quite disconnected from the IFComp at large.
As Dante gets older, though, he becomes more independent and my time opens up again. So this year I decided to take a shot at reviewing some IFComp games. However, I discovered rather quickly that the IFComp of today is drastically different from the one I left behind in 2005.
I followed my usual comp reviewing method, which is to let some program dial up a random order and play through the games it selects. My time is still a lot more limited than it used to be, so out of 53 games, I ended up playing 9. Of those 9, the composition was thus:
By way of contrast, of the 33 games I reviewed in 2004, 2 were homebrew and the rest were parser-driven. None were CYOA. The 2015 comp, in my experience, has a completely different quality than the 1995-2004 comps had. The definition of “interactive fiction” has opened wide, wide enough to admit even so-called games whose idea of interactivity is basically “click here to turn the page.”
Now, at this point I should make a couple of things clear. First, I understand that non-parser IF games participated in the first 10 years of the comp. A CYOA game called Desert Heat comes to mind, which at the time seemed like a surprising experiment. Those comps had their share of minimally interactive games too, most of which were roundly panned. There was Ian Finley’s Life On Beal Street, whose interactivity was pretty much “Would you like to read the next paragraph? (Y/N)”. There was Harry Hardjono’s Human Resources Stories, a fake job-interview quiz from somebody who was clearly really angry at employers. There was the infamous (to me) A Moment Of Hope, which pretty much totally ignored whatever you’d type in many scenes, just steamrolling on with whatever story it wanted to tell. Heck, even Photopia, one of the most acclaimed comp games of all time, drew its share of criticism for a perceived lack of interactivity.
So yeah, I get that 1995-2004 wasn’t some kind of perfect golden age where every game was a great IF experience (though I hasten to say that Photopia is a really, really great IF experience). Anyway, trust me when I say that I remember the bad times. The second thing I should make clear is that I enjoy CYOA well enough for what it is. It’s a neat little narrative trick. I had a good time with CYOA books as a kid, and can still have a ball with a well-written CYOA work. But stacked up against full-blown parser games which offer a constant sense of openness and possibility, multiple-choice is just pretty boring by comparison. I find myself so indifferent about the choices presented that I just roll a die to pick one, so that I can get on to the next bit of story.
So I reacted with dismay at the suddenly flipped proportions of the comp’s 2015 games, at least as presented to me in random order. Where in 2000 “Desert Heat” was an odd curiosity, here it was the parser game that was the outlier! I felt like I’d come to a film festival, but that in most of the theaters, I’d instead be handed a coffee table book. I mean, coffee table books are cool. Some of them are spectacular! But for me they’re not as much fun as movies, and it’s a bit of a disappointment to get one instead of a movie.
I rated the comp games the way I always do: based on how much I enjoyed the experience. And the fact is, I don’t enjoy CYOA games as much as parser games, so even the ones I liked a lot could only get an 8 or so. Also, unlike parser games, CYOA games are extremely difficult to transcript while they’re happening, which really drains my ability and inclination to review them. So I won’t review them, but I will provide the list of responses I wrote while playing. CYOA and lists, a match made in heaven! (Fair warning that those lists may contain spoilers — I wasn’t trying to be careful about that.)
Here then, for whatever they may be worth, my “reviews” of 9 2015 IFComp games:
I THINK THE WAVES ARE WATCHING ME by Bob McCabe
I downloaded this Windows executable, and despite my trepidation about running .exe files from unknown people on my machine, I ran it, hoping that the IFComp gods had ruled out any viruses. I got a DOS-looking window, with some DOS-looking text:
I Think The Waves Are Watching Me.
By Bob McCabe.
(P)lay the Game.
(S)ecrets I've unlocked.
Then I typed “g”. Then “G”. Then “P”. Nothing happened, any of these times. I typed “Play the game”. I typed “Help”. I typed “Helloooooooooo?”. Each time, after hitting enter, my words disappeared, with no other effect. Then I closed the window.
I guess this isn’t really a review, but it does explain why I gave the game a 1.
SWITCHEROO by Mark C. Marino & family
Engaging, appealing, well-implemented. Smooth and beautiful.
Surprisingly a combat card game is an alternative to the story?
Some weirdness: “Born a slave on a plantation, Jazmine became a hero when she escaped through the Underground Railroad to a Midwestern whistle-stop town. Later, she was railroaded into selling her story to a motion picture company who fast-tracked the film into theaters. Ironically, she would become an R&B legend best known for her performances on a popular dance show with a train theme.” So she lived how long?
Funny: “Shazbot! You use the Electric Slidekick!” Lots of great humor — take-off on Percy Jackson with dentistry substituted. “Lightning teeth”.
Interesting — not sure how the math is working, but the card game feels like it’s a bit slanted to prevent the player from losing.
Once the story begins, much of the interactivity starts to consist of “show the next part”
Whoa – wheelchair boy into able girl.
Scale of girly fictional types – Hermione, Dorothy, Little Prince
Possibly adopted by “Mr. and Mrs. Sheephead.” Upon clicking mention of California Sheephead: “Ah, I’m glad you were curious. The California Sheephead is a salt water fish, found off the coast of California. It has the unusual property of all the fish being born female and then, given certain circumstances, like when she gets sick of all the long lines at bathrooms, changing into a male.”
Mostly writing is smooth. Found first error after about 15 mins: “They were amazed at how much Denise could eat at the burger place after their just a short adventure.”
Doll in wheelchair. Moving. “The only word he could think of was: home”.
Ending choice, also moving.
I wish there was a way to “undo”
NOWHERE NEAR SINGLE by kaleidofish
“Because the only way to show you’re serious about someone is to only be with them,” Sarai says sarcastically. [Hmmm.]
You’d rather be homeless than have awkwardness in your relationship? You must live somewhere warm. And safe.
“Hey, Jerri…” Sarai starts. “Since you don’t have a bed, you can sleep on my side of the bed. I’ll take the couch.” [I thought I had my own room. Wish there was scrollback on this. Oh hey, the back button. That’ll work. So yeah, “Her apartment has two bedrooms. You have yours to yourself.” I have a bedroom but no bed? And Sarai is offering to put me in bed with Nayeli? That is awkward.]
It must have taken some stamina to make up 100 fake pop girl star names.
From kiss on the forehead to Jerri saying “Yeah. I keep thinking that any day now they’ll finalize what image they want to have, but I think there’s been some setbacks.” Feels like a page is missing.
“You heat up leftovers from the fridge and go to your room. Yeah, the one with the wooden floor and no furniture.” [That explanation would have been helpful earlier.]
“Tonight’s aout you and me, and no one else.” [Typo]
“A large screen television sits on top of dark mohagony drawers.” [Another. Writing is pretty spot-on, but not flawless.]
Oh, nice effect on revising the words of advice to gay youth.
It never seems to occur to camgirl to just get a regular job.
ONAAR by Robert DeFord
I have to admit, at this point I was pretty excited just to not be picking from a menu for my interactivity. That context probably improved my reaction to Onaar over how I might have rated it in a previous comp. However, it’s also true that Onaar is pretty fun at the beginning. The story starts fast-paced, with the PC needing to escape impending danger. A few commands and a custcene later, and you’re into a whole different environment. From there it’s the usual challenge of exploring the landscape and figuring out the plot. Sadly for me, these fun activities were accompanied by a couple of less fun activities: managing a hunger timer and a decreasing health timer. The latter of these was caused by a poison bite, but it was also less bothersome, as the antidote can be found and the timer stopped. The hunger thing, on the other hand, is a peeve of mine in IF games unless it’s serving some very interesting purpose. No such purpose is to be found in Onaar — it’s just the usual inconvenience which doesn’t engage the mind or enrich the story. Oh well, at least there’s no sleep timer.
I would soon discover that the mechanical aspects of the game are by far its dominant theme, well ahead of anything like story or puzzles. My first clue was in the PC’s self-narration:
As you stand on the sand dripping wet, you remember Father Marrow’s advice to become an apprentice alchemist. “Well Father,” you say under your breath. “It looks like I’m not off to a good start, but I can at least make it a little side quest to report those marauders to the authorities when I get to someplace civilized.”
“I can at least make it a little side quest?” Does the PC know he’s in a game? As it turns out, yes, but not in any kind of interrogative postmodern way — rather just a casual consciousness, as if this is how everyone naturally approaches reality. In Onaar, it really is how everybody approaches reality, as a passing traveler revealed when giving advice:
“Say, you don’t look so good. I’ll bet you have at least one malady. You really ought to be checking your stats more often. Those maladies will kill you if you don’t treat them in time.”
“You really ought to be checking your stats more often?” I found this very jarring, and rather unusual. Generally in IF, the mathy aspects of the simulation are pushed well under the surface, revealed only in the tone and urgency of messages, e.g. “You’re starting to feel faint from hunger.” Onaar is much closer to a CRPG experience in which various numerical stats (health, strength, mana, etc.) are right up front for the player to watch. This is fine too, but even in a typical RPG session (be it mediated by computers or people), there is an observed separation between what the players perceive and what the characters perceive. While all the stats, saving throws, and so forth are available to the player’s knowledge, from the character’s point of view it’s more or less “did I succeed at what I just tried?” Only in the land of parody would another character say something like, “Well, thanks to your Charisma stat of 17, you’ve convinced me of your point of view!” Or for that matter, “You really ought to be checking your stats more often.” Yet Onaar is completely straight-faced.
This kind of naked machinery is on display throughout the game. Various numerical stats are listed after objects, tasks list what stats are needed to perform them, and so forth. It’s weird, but I got used to it. Once the dramatic beginning was over, I found myself with a steep learning curve, figuring out all the intricate rules of this very intricate gameworld. That slowed the narrative pace down considerably, but eventually I got on track with what turned out to be a tutorial for the game’s primary mechanic of alchemy. That mechanic itself turns out to be quite involved, with requirements to gather ingredients from far and wide, take them through a number of magical steps, etc. The procedural quality of this ended up generating some drama in my playthrough as I was dealing with a (different, second) poison timer and only barely managed to synthesize the cure before my health ran out. For the most part, though, all these fiddly rules just made me tired. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of detail and care has gone into this game, and in fact it is an ideal game for somebody who really enjoys putting together complicated recipes from a detailed list of ingredients. The scales are weighted away from lateral thinking and emotional engagement, and towards grinding repetitive tasks. I’m not so much that kind of player, but I didn’t mind stepping into that mindset for a couple of hours, if for no other reason than even this CRPG routine still felt like so much richer an interactive experience than CYOA multiple choice. Of course, after those two hours I was nowhere close to finishing the game, and I doubt I’ll go back to it, but I appreciated being there as a reminder of how the comp used to feel.
KANE COUNTY by Michael Sterling and Tina Orisney
“You tap on the break and hold the wheel straight.” – not an auspicious beginning
“Choose a class” – again, exposed game machinery
ARGH, back button restarts the game. Very reviewer unfriendly.
“On the other hand, if climb on top of a nearby hill” – then Tonto see you!
Some things strangely don’t lead to choices: ” There are three ways to get up it: follow a gravel wash, trace a well-worn track along an old, torn-down barb-wire fence, or go up directly and push through some junipers and shrubs.” but the only link is “Continue”. Oh, I see, the choice comes a bit later.
“You open the bottle and drink.” Why is this called interactive, again?
“but you might find some other use for it later on. Gain a Boat Part.” Oh, and uh, spoiler alert.
“This might be a good time to use one of your food items…” Not that I’m going to give you the option to do so.
“Look at the other area or chose a site.” 1, misspelling, and 2, this is one link that is presenting as two options.
“Make a fire – requires a digging tool” – why offer me an option you know I can’t pick?
CYOAs like this feel so arbitrary — you’re more or less choosing blind each time. And there’s no “undo”.
LAID OFF FROM THE SYNESTHESIA FACTORY by Katherine Morayati
I was relieved and encouraged when I saw Katherine Morayati’s name. I had played some of Broken Legs and enjoyed it. So I kicked open that Glulx interpreter ready for some true text adventuring at last. Then I read the help info, because that’s how I roll, and saw this “About The Author” blurb:
Katherine Morayati is a music writer by day and by night and an interactive fiction person the rest of the time. She is the editor-in-chief of SPAG and the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition. This is nothing like that.
Slightly ominous, but I’m sure she just means it’s a totally different tone or genre or something. After all, she says clearly elsewhere in that help info, “Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory is a work of parser interactive fiction.”
Except, after trying to “play” it, I figured out that no, it isn’t, either, and in fact the biggest difference between this and Broken Legs is that Broken Legs is an IF game, whereas this is more akin to a text generating machine that can sometimes be prodded to respond to various keywords, but is also quite happy to do its own thing no matter what you type. In fact, on my first playthrough, the PC ended up by a lake and I tried to type “swim”, except my fat fingers typed “seim” instead. Despite my nonsensical input, the game went ahead telling the story: “I decide he isn’t coming and head back to my car. With every mile marker I resolve to turn back, or turn off and find the nearest bar, or turn off and crash…”, so on and so forth, THE END. Seriously, “*** The End ***”. “Seim” was the final command of the game, causing it to spit out a bunch of final-ish text and stop. Next prompt I got was the old “Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT or UNDO the last command?” Undo, obviously. Except that the game replied: “The use of ‘undo’ is forbidden in this game.” Well then, I riposted, perhaps if you wish to disable “undo” in your game you ought not prompt me to type it in? Except, you know, far less calm and polite.
So, just as I was set up by the overall CYOA-ness of this comp to enjoy Onaar more than I might have, I was set up to be much more frustrated by Laid Off than I might have otherwise been. After that first, disastrous playthrough, I wrapped my head around the fact that this game is much more The Space Under The Window than Spider And Web. I tried again, this time just typing keywords and letting the game take me where it wanted. I enjoyed the experience a lot more that second time. The writing and overall concept of this game is a bit impenetrable, on purpose I think, but it still pulls off some lovely turns of phrase, articulating complex concepts: “What you are: A trim, functional paragon of a woman in lifelong battle with a disheveled unraveled omnidirectional grab of a girl.”; “What Brian is: deflatingly human when you’re with him, horribly beguiling when you’re not.” I’m grateful to have played it — I just wish it had been the spice to a better meal.
TAGHAIRM by Chandler Groover
“Turn the page” style interactivity
Creepy. Creepy may not be a very tough emotional note to hit.
Oh ugh animal abuse.
Hm, timing matters. Throws off my randomizer. But then again my participation was pretty detached after the beginning.
All in all, pretty horrible. Felt like I was in a Milgram experiment.
THE WAR OF THE WILLOWS by Adam Bredenberg
Running Python 3.4, I get a title card, 4 ominous seeming verses, and then this:
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "C:\Users\Paul\Dropbox\IF\IFComp2015\willows\PLAY.py", line 26, in
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 1525, in start
game = intro()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 82, in intro
NameError: name 'raw_input' is not defined
THE MAN WHO KILLED TIME by Claudia Doppioslash
Oh dear. Another unpromising beginning, this time even before the game starts: “Notes: – English is not my first language. – While I was writing it, I realised its nature is more that of a non-branching story, but I wanted to have an entry at IFComp and I could use the feedback anyway, so here it is.”
A bit hard to read. Also “Responsability” – you don’t have to be a native english speaker to use spellcheck.
This is a tough slog.
This is 100% “turn the page” interactivity so far, 10 minutes in.
“on the whole it looked like it might be an appropriately assistantely time to show up.” Hoo boy.
OMG, a choice! A yes/no choice, but that’s as good as it gets so far.
“In fact he had a, not unfounded, feeling that he already was in this over his ears. Or at least a future self of his was.” I wonder if this actually makes some kind of coherent sense to someone somewhere.
Parts of this are compelling. The English plus the intricacy of the theme make it hard for me to hang on, and the interactivity is pretty much the same as a book. But as a story, with a good editor, I might enjoy it.
“He didn’t want to realise he was alone, to risk relinquish the mode of being under scrutiny. Because if he did, then he nothing would stop him from doing that. He must not let his eye wanted to the cabinet. Yet as he the thought first entered him, it kept growing in his mind, as it usually did and does.” …Annnnd you lost me again.
One of the few choices turns into a non-choice.
Whuh? Ends altoghether when it feels like it’s about to step out of the prologue.
Now, in fairness, it turns out that the random selector may have done me wrong. Looking at the results, it appears that none of the games I played landed in the top 25% of the final standings. And in fact, only Nowhere Near Single and Onaar were in the top 20 games. Moreover, the top 3 games (and 7 of the top 10) were parser-driven, so it’s not as though IFComp has fully turned into CYOAComp. For that matter, perhaps some of those highly placing CYOA games could have given me a much different impression of how immersive and enjoyable that medium can be.
Until next year, though, I’m probably going to seek out the parser games, and leave the rest be. It’s possible that being an IFComp judge is better left to people with enough time for IF that they don’t mind spending much of it frustrated. That used to be me, but it isn’t anymore.
I’ve belatedly realized that I never posted about this here, but like last year, I was recruited to write reviews for the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews.” Unlike last year, the category I chose had only one game in it: Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura was the sole nominee, because it was so good that no other game garnered more than a single nominating vote.
What made it so good? That’s the topic of my review.
This year’s music mix isn’t nearly so autobiographical as last year’s was. I’m back to making mixes that are just songs I’ve listened to and loved during the year, and I like it just fine that way. Emotional pain, even when you’re emerging from it, makes music feel more meaningful, but it’s a pretty rotten trade-off. I prefer being happy, thank you very much. I certainly don’t love the music any less.
1. The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby (Strings Only)
This was a very Beatles-y year for my listening habits. I found that in my job upheaval and subsequent office moves, I’d inadvertently packed away a Beatles A-Z collection my friend Robby had made for me, so I retrieved and listened to those. Besides that, I also dug into the Anthology series for the first time. I’m obviously a Beatles fan, but when those Anthology CDs came out, I wasn’t all that excited about them. They seemed like alternate, inferior versions of the tracks I knew, alongside tracks that didn’t make it onto an album because they weren’t all that good. Recently though, Trish told me they were worth listening to, and since my Beatlemania had been reawakened by the Love show, I decided to put them on my wish list. Now I’ve got them all, and I find that we were both right. There’s a lot of stuff on there that doesn’t excite me, but there are also a number of very cool tracks, and this is one of them. I went to a couple of great lectures this year by a guy named Scott Freiman, a Beatles scholar who does a series called “Deconstructing The Beatles.” He explains everything about the history and behind-the-scenes info of a particular Beatles album, and then plays tracks where he’s pulled apart the different parts of the mix, explaining how the song was put together, talking about earlier “draft” versions, playing sounds in isolation that you’d always heard but never noticed, mapping out how the technology of the time influenced the group’s sound. Super cool. This track reminded me of those lectures — it’s amazing to hear just one part of a Beatles song in isolation, and this one really emphasizes the loveliness of George Martin’s string arrangement. Plus, it makes an excellent backing track for car karaoke. Woo hoo!
2. Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
It is seemingly becoming a trademark of mine to enthusiastically latch onto a group long after the rest of the world has taken a seat on the bandwagon. This year, it was Arcade Fire. My sister has been trying to get me into them for a some time now, and while I haven’t been hostile, I also just hadn’t put them on my list. That changed when I was preparing questions for a trivia bowl, and decided to do a bonus question on musical mash-ups, where two songs get blended into each other. I found great ones where Madonna merged into the Sex Pistols, or Nirvana into Michael Jackson. I also found this song merged into Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass”. I knew I had to seek out the song on its own. The lyrics grabbed me immediately: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” It also has just a beautiful energy to it, and a great vocal. I found myself listening to this song over and over again, and then doing the same with the whole album. The parenthetical title comes from a book by Tracy Kidder called “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about a physician who fights tuberculosis around the world and who encounters and embodies the Haitian proverb, “Beyond the mountain, there is another mountain.” I relate to that.
3. Indigo Girls – No Way To Treat A Friend
In the early days of seeing Indigo Girls concerts, they didn’t have very many albums out, so they’d play all kinds of unreleased stuff. Some of this would show up later, and some of it wouldn’t. This was one of the songs I saw them play a couple of times back in the day, but which never made it to a studio album, so I more or less forgot about it. This year, I downloaded some tracks from the amazing Lifeblood site, which included a collection of pre-1989 studio recordings. I rediscovered this song on that collection. I think it’s a gem. Why did they never put it on an album? Maybe Amy was embarrassed about “walking right out of your eyes.”
4. The Beatles – Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
This is one pulled from the Beatles A-Z collection. I listened to those CDs at work a lot, and because I was sharing an office with someone, I tended to listen on headphones. That helped me really appreciate the sitar part in this song. I always liked the tune and the words (so sneakily risque for the day), but it’s amazing how headphones can illuminate details in a recording that you just don’t notice or appreciate as much without them. This song is also the source for the title of this year’s collection. I quite like how it expresses appreciation and doubt simultaneously. (Though in the song, I think the contrast is between sincerity and sarcasm.) I want to notice how good things are, even as I remain alert to the ways it can go wrong.
5. U2 – Silver And Gold (live)
I’d had Rattle And Hum on tape for ages, but burned it to CD for the first time this year. On revisiting the album, this song stood out for me. Not, mind you, because I think it’s the best song on the album, or even the best version of “Silver And Gold” — I prefer the studio B-side. No, it’s all about Bono pausing at the end of a long rant about apartheid to say, “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to BUG YA.” I just love that. It’s so funny to me. I even made it my email signature quote at work for a while.
6. Miles Davis – Blue In Green
For the most part, I’m not really a jazz guy. Most of the time, it just makes me think of the Paul F. Tompkins routine about jazz — “It’s just a bunch of dudes playing solos at the same time. It’s like a genre of music that is defying you to like it.” In fact, instrumental music in general I find hard to latch onto. I’m a lyrics guy. (Interestingly, I don’t think of the first track on this CD as instrumental music… because I can hear the voices singing over it even when they’re not there.) However, as part of my ongoing project to obtain on mp3 everything that I currently have on tape, I picked up Kind Of Blue, since a friend of mine had put this track on a mix tape. I liked it. It’s still not anything I’d seek out on my own, but I found that listening to it while driving put me in a calm, meditative state of mind. So long as I was sufficiently caffeinated, that is. Otherwise, it made me kinda sleepy.
7. Pink Floyd – What Shall We Do Now?
My concert-going habits have been drastically curtailed due to the one-two punch of lack of funds and lack of time. However, I did make it a point to see Roger Waters perform The Wall this year. He’d come around with it once before, and seemingly 50% of my co-workers and friends went to it and loved it, whereas I’d blown it off immediately because I’m not a fan of solo Waters. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I bought a “cheap” seat (yeah, like $90) and watched the show from the back of an arena. It was AWESOME. The Wall is one of those albums I listened to over and over again in high school, and Waters pulled it off impeccably, with tons of clever staging approaches, and some very clever updating of the material. He also performed this song, which isn’t on the album (the much shorter “Empty Spaces” is in its place), but is in the movie. I decided after that show that I needed a better version of The Wall on my iPod. I own these crazy 24k gold CDs of it, but ironically their sound is mastered so quiet that whenever a song from them comes up in a random shuffle, it fades into the background unless I notice the lack of music and turn up the volume. So I found a remastered version that is much better, and on top of that ripped the audio from the movie, so now I have two different versions of this great stuff. This one is from the movie.
8. Jonathan Coulton & GLaDOS – Still Alive
For Christmas 2011, my friend Tashi gave me a couple of computer games: a game called Portal and its sequel, Portal 2. Now, normally I’m just as late to the gate with computer games as I am with any other kind of entertainment, and this was no exception, at least in part. All my IF friends had raved about Portal when it came out in 2007, but it never even made it into my queue. However Portal 2 came out in April 2011, so for me to play it in January 2012 was amazingly current, for me. Anyway, the plot of Portal is that you’re a test subject running the gauntlet at the whim of a crazy computer named GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain). At first, everything seems legit — you’re even promised cake and a party at the end of your tests. But it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well. You have a “neat gun” — one that doesn’t shoot bullets, but instead can create dimensional warps — portals — that let you travel between different parts of the landscape. The game constructs a bunch of clever puzzles around this mechanic, ending in a climactic scene in which you dismantle GLaDOS (by directing her own weapons at her via the portals) and “throw every piece into a fire.” At the very end of the game, this song plays. It blew my mind when I first heard it. I’d never heard pop music used in a computer game like that, just exactly the way movies sometimes play a new song over the credits to sum up the emotional journey of the story. I thought the song was brilliant, the way it recast the adversarial video game relationship as a failed romance. Plus, it eerily informs you that GLaDOS wasn’t really destroyed, setting up the sequel. I immediately bought the song. It comes on an album called “The Orange Box” (named after the game bundle in which Portal was originally sold), and thus wraps up the colorful section of this CD — silver and gold to blue and green to pink to orange.
9. Arcade Fire – We Used To Wait
Here’s another selection from that Arcade Fire album I kept listening to this year. Again, it’s the lyric that grabs me. I love the observation, that slow communication imparted a kind of hope. You could always believe a letter was on its way — something email, facebook, etc. just doesn’t afford. I think we’re still working to understand all the ways in which the Internet changed our lives. I love it, and I would never want it to go away, but I do understand a bit of the nostalgia in this song. I don’t necessarily equate paper with authenticity in the way that it does, but I do believe in patience, despite the constant acceleration of our lives around us.
10. Elton John – Pinball Wizard
I picked up the rerelease of Caribou and listened to it this year. This was one of the bonus tracks. I knew and loved Elton’s Beatles cover (Lucy in the Sky), but I never realized that he’d covered The Who. I adore piano rock, and this is a fantastic slice of it. The arrangement brings in the piano beautifully, and I love the way he works the “I Can’t Explain” riff and chorus into parts of the song. It was also wild to listen to it and hear *new* lyrics, which (at least according to Wikipedia) were written by Townshend. Of course, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I totally should have switched the order of this one and the previous one. “Pinball Wizard” would have continued the game theme from the Portal song, and the sense of bafflement would have transitioned into “We Used To Wait”, which in turn would have fit well with “Your Mother Should Know” in looking backwards. What was I thinking? Oh well.
11. The Beatles – Your Mother Should Know
More Beatles. I’ve always dug this song, partly because it has one of those impeccable McCartney melodies, and partly because I like the idea that even as they were at the top of the world, the group still paid its respects to the music that came before it. It’s funny, too, to hear it as I age and my musical taste gets just a bit more mired in the past, little by little, all the time. I still try to keep up with at least some of what’s new, but as time goes on I’m just out of touch. I have to laugh at myself when Jeopardy! runs a category about current music. I’m a music guy, but I am hilariously CLUELESS on those questions. (Also, based on its sponsors, I surmise that the Jeopardy! audience itself is not exactly a bunch of spring chickens.) I’m not sure if that’s how it has to be, but that seems to be how it is.
12. The Zombies – Time Of The Season
And now, let’s all get up and dance to this song, a hit before I was born. I have always loved “Time Of The Season” (along with the other classic Zombies tune, “She’s Not There.”) The unique rhythm, the breathy vocal, the keyboard part… it’s just so much fun. I’d burned a CD this year of classic rock mishmash, and this is the standout from that collection.
13. Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
I’m a Paul Simon guy, and have been since I was about 8 years old. Amazingly, he is still writing great songs. This one was the title track from his 2011 album, which fell into my 2012 music year due to backups in the queue. The basic message of this song — “life is what you make of it” — is so simple as to be a cliche, but the way he puts it across is just beautiful, grounding it in everyday details like cooking and parenting. Then the chorus lifts into a higher realm of observation, distilling wisdom into quotable rhyme — I especially love the bit about “mistaking value for the price.” And then, unexpectedly, he draws the scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Did that story have a happy ending? Maybe yeah, maybe not.
14. Indigo Girls – Gone
Those Indigos. I love how they’re still at it, after all these years. This was another 2011 album that fell into my 2012 music year, partly because I mark the year from November to October. Beauty Queen Sister was a nice return to form after their Christmas album, and it had a number of highlights — “Share The Moon”, “We Get To Feel It All”, the title track, and “Damo”, but I finally settled on this one. I love the romantic feel of it, how you meet your new life and wave your old life goodbye. Also, I have a fond memory of Dante hearing “I’ve seen a million suns go down on this tired town,” and replying, “A million suns? What planet is she on?”
15. The Beatles – Get Back (rooftop version)
Here’s the final Beatles entry in this collection, another entry from the Beatles A-Z collection. Robby and I have been doing this A-Z thing for decades — the first one was a Steive Nicks A-Z he made for me for my 18th birthday, which I thought was one of the most epic gifts ever. One of the fun things we do with these is try to introduce interviews, rarites, and other fun stuff to spice up the collection. This was a great example — I’d never actually had the rooftop version of this song in my collection. I love this song, and I love this version. John’s famously witty topper — “I hope we’ve passed the audition” — ushers in the comedy section of this CD.
16. Flight Of The Conchords – Business Time
A few years ago, Trish recommended that I watch season one of HBO’s Flight Of The Conchords show, a comedy built around Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, “New Zealand’s 4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy-folk duo.” She loaned me the DVDs and everything. I loved it, and began the process which eventually landed all their albums in my house. It’s a tough, tough choice to select a favorite from their self-titled album, but I eventually landed on this one. It’s just such a perfect choice to lampoon gettin’-it-on songs by casting one in the context of a long-since-settled domestic partnership. “Then you sort out the recycling — that isn’t part of the foreplay process but it is still very important.” The self-deprecation is dead-on — the song wouldn’t work without it, really. I’ve heard this song dozens of times, and still find it funny.
17. Loverboy – Working For The Weekend
Okay, so this isn’t technically a comedy song. For me, though, it is inextricable from two hilarious images:
1) Mike Reno in his ultra-80s outfit (headband, bandana, leather jacket & pants)
2) Shirtless Chris Farley competing for a Chippendales spot against Patrick Swayze
So it makes me laugh every time. Also, it’s just a totally fun song. I don’t subscribe to the “guilty pleasure” concept — I’m over having shame about the things I like. So it’s just a pleasure. Also, pairing it with “Business Time” pretty much covers the whole week!
18. Stephin Merritt – What A Fucking Lovely Day!
As I noted a few years ago, when I saw The Magnetic Fields in concert, they played a bunch of songs I’d never heard before, from the various crannies of the Merritt catalog. This is one that just cracked me up, predictably, from the moment I heard the first line. Especially coming from Merritt’s deadpan baritone, it was just so funny. The recording took me a while to track down. It turns out that Merritt wrote the music for a few different theatrical musical adaptations. This one comes from a musical version of a thirteenth-century Chinese play called The Orphan Of Zhao. It’s sung by the cast member from the show, which is too bad, as it loses something without Merritt’s voice, but nevertheless, it’s well worth the 82 seconds it takes up.
19. Steve Martin – Grandmother’s Song
Laura and I have evolved a little tradition for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. It’s a two-part gift. First, the honoree gets the day off from childcare (an ironic but still delightfully freeing way to observe the day.) Second, the honoree buys a gift for the partner to give. It saves effort and takes the pressure off the day. So this year, my gift from Laura to me for Father’s Day was a couple of Steve Martin CDs — Wild & Crazy Guy, and Let’s Get Small, from which this track is taken. I had these on vinyl, but never transferred them to tape, so hadn’t listened to them for ages. When I finally did listen to them, I happened to have Dante in the car when this track came on. He was utterly tickled at how this song gets sillier and sillier. He couldn’t wait to come home and play it for Laura. We all sat in front of the computer listening to the song, and he just about burst, waiting for “Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant” to come on. I like sharing all kinds of cultural artifacts with him, but it’s especially fun to share the ones I myself loved as a kid, since it gives me both the pleasure of nostalgia and the joy of watching him experience it for the first time.
20. Stevie Wonder – Sir Duke
We finish with a couple of songs about the joy of music. I said a few years ago that I’d rehabilitated my image of Stevie Wonder, which had been unfortunately maimed by the fact that when I was discovering music, he was all, “I Just Called To Say I Love You, Part-Time Lover!” So this year I got the greatest hits, and started allowing the exuberance of songs that everybody else has already known and loved for ages. It was awfully hard to pick a highlight, but I went with this one just because it so gorgeously exudes a love of music, while encased in an excellent tune of its own. Plus, I just know that one of these days I’m going to ask a trivia question about which musicans he names in the lyrics. (Okay, that day was yesterday.)
21. The Byrds — Mr. Tambourine Man
Here’s another love letter to the elevating power of music. Now, I’m a language-oriented person, and I favor lyrics over music. In a contest between this version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan’s original, I would have to favor the original — it just has so many brilliant words that this one leaves out. However, musically, it’s no contest. While Dylan has some mostly monotone strumming and a bit of lead guitar, The Byrds have a *killer* riff, a hypnotic beat, and harmonies as clear and sparkling as diamonds. This is the song that invented folk-rock, and it still sounds good after all these years.
Here’s another entry in the series of 2012 XYZZY nominees game reviews: Robb Sherwin’s Cryptozookeeper. It’s the most Sherwin-esque Sherwin game I’ve yet seen. It’s gonzo, it’s funny, it’s extreme, and it’s shambolic, and it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen Robb accomplish, which means it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen anyone accomplish.
On day 2 of TCONA, the first trivia event was scheduled at 8:30am, but it was the Quiz Bowl Seeding Test, which I co-wrote. So I wouldn’t be taking it, which was all for the best, since I’d had a late night. I left my sister asleep in our room and toddled on down to the conference room around 9:45, as the test was breaking up.
The next event was “Learned League Live!”, hosted by Shayne Bushfield, or rather his alter ego, Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity. If you’re not familiar with Learned League, it requires a bit of explanation. The game is played over the Internet, six questions per day in a variety of categories, and with varying levels of challenge. The twist is that each 6-question match places you head-to-head against another player. You must not only answer the questions, but also play defense against the other player by assigning a point value to each question — a zero, two ones, two twos, and a three. The points are how much the other player will score upon answering the question right. Consequently, you’re required to both assess the difficulty of each question and also guess your opponent’s chances at getting it right, depending on his or her skills in the category. And LL provides zillions of stats, so you can make this analysis just as painstaking as you like.
When I first heard about the game, it sounded a bit overwhelming, intimidating, and time-consuming. I stayed away for a while, and then even after I was ready to join, I had to wait to be invited by a trivia buddy. Now that I’m in it, I love it. The questions are excellent, the format is fun, and the whole thing is quite addictive. The live version of it was a lot of fun too. The group was seated at a bunch of tables, 8 people to a table. Each player was assigned a number and given a packet of questions. Then we faced off in a series of 7 four-minute matches — you’d turn the page to reveal the questions, scribble down your answers and assign points to them, then the Commissioner would read off the answers. You’d compare notes with your opponent to learn your scores, and figure out who won the match. Here’s a sample set of questions, along with the point values I gave them and whether I got them right or wrong:
Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. (1 point, wrong)
This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. (3 points, wrong)
Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. (0, right)
The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? (2, wrong)
What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 (2, right)
This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. (1, right)
It was a whole lot of fun. I ended up with a record of 3-2-2, which is pretty comparable to how I tend to perform in online LL (I ended my first season 13-11-1, and I’m 18-15-3 overall.) That meant that I didn’t advance to the championship round which was held later that day. My teammate (and tablemate, and the guy who actually invited me to LL) George Doro did, though, and ended up taking the silver medal overall! (Did I mention that TCONA gave out actual medals to event winning individuals and teams? It was pretty cool.)
After lunch was one of my favorite parts of the entire event: a panel featuring Ken Jennings, Bob Harris, and Ed Toutant, talking about Jennings’ match (with Brad Rutter, who bailed on TCONA in the 11th hour) against IBM’s Watson computer. This, as you may know, was an event that I found fascinating, so a live panel on it with Jennings himself was catnip for me. Even better, it turns out that Toutant, in addition to being rich and famous (well, game-show famous), spent his career as an IBM engineer, and served as a consultant to the team that built Watson. He observed the computer’s behavior in its middle stages, and wrote a report that provided his insights as both a software designer and a game-show expert. After that, he played against Watson in its final practice matches before it went in front of the cameras. Toutant’s report is available online at edtoutant.blogspot.com. I particularly enjoyed his entry on gamesmanship, which not only has very insightful tips about Jeopardy! strategy, but finally explains why Watson chose such bizarre dollar amounts for its Daily Double wagers!
The panel explained that there are four strategic elements in Jeopardy:
Daily Double wagering
Picking a square
Buzzing or not
Final Jeopardy wagering
Watson was programmed to take advantage of all these strategic elements to the best of its ability. It picked squares to maximize its chances of finding a Daily Double — these generally occur in the harder clues (the bottom 3 clues of each row), and I was fascinated to discover that according to the unbelievably comprehensive J! Archive, the first column on the board has by far the highest percentage of Daily Doubles found. Watson based its buzz on its confidence level — a delay was intentionally built in on answers where Watson was less confident. And the reason why it wagered such peculiar numbers for Daily Doubles was basically to increase its chances of screwing up an opponent’s mental math. As Toutant wrote, “One of the most challenging parts of Jeopardy! for many players is the need to do quick math in their head under pressure, especially when making a bet. It is always easier for humans to do math that involves only round numbers. Unlike humans, Watson can’t get flustered and forget to carry the one during addition. So Watson should exploit his inherent math superiority by never using a round number on a Daily Double wager… This may give viewers the impression that Watson’s thinking is very precise, but the real motivation is to make the math more difficult for his opponents when they have to make a wager.”
Another great aspect of this panel, and of TCONA in general, was the opportunity to spend some time with Jennings. I wasn’t watching Jeopardy during his run, so he isn’t an icon to me at quite the level he is to some people, but he’s still the closest thing the trivia world to has a rock star. How cool it is, then, that he is down to earth, funny, and personable. In a roomful of trivia nerds, social skills stand out, and Jennings excels in this arena. Interestingly, he didn’t dominate every competition. He held his own, but was beaten in some events. I ended up convinced that his knowledge is very strong, but what made him so hard to beat in Jeopardy was his extraordinary touch on the buzzer — he’s just about peerless in this physical aspect of trivia. Well, unless he’s competing against a computer. Jennings’ own account of TCONA is here.
After the panel were the quiz bowl matches. If you’re not familiar with the quiz bowl format, I explain it here. I think it is still my favorite trivia format. It combines individual challenge (in the toss-ups) with team synergy (in the bonuses), and it encourages that zen trivia flow state that I love. This time, unfortunately, the fates were not with my team. The six-person Anti-Social network added a couple of friends and split into two four-person teams. In addition to that, our team took on an extra person, a Las Vegas native who had shown up solo at TCONA and was seeking a team to join with. He was knowledgeable, but a bit eager, and not terribly accustomed to the format, so there was a bit of a breaking-in period there. Unfortunately, once that period was over, we only had a couple of games left. We played five games in a round-robin format, and ended up doing well in the later ones, but it wasn’t enough to advance us to the finals. On the plus side, I got to spend some time with Dave Gatch, who wasn’t participating in TCONA as a player, but who came out to Vegas to serve as a reader for the quiz bowl portion. (Dave and his mom come to Vegas a lot, so apparently it wasn’t a big sacrifice.)
After flaming out in the quiz bowl, that was pretty much it for my trivia day — the only other events that day were playoffs for which I hadn’t qualified. So that meant that my sister and I got to hit the town! We took the monorail to the Bellagio, saw the fountains, gambled a bit. She took me to a fancy dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Olives, where we had so much delicious food. Once again, we wandered around gambling and hanging out. I taught her a bit more about video poker and she taught me a bit more about slots. At the end, we headed back to Bill’s room for a little more pseudo-Jeopardy, then gambled into the night. It was a great, great time, and a great close to a second day of Vegas and trivia.
Day 3 was playoffs and championships, and I wasn’t much involved. I stuck around to watch the quiz bowl finals, but for some inexplicable reason they chose to repeat a set of qusetions for the semi-finals — not a lot of fun to sit and watch the same questions asked twice. So I bowed out at some point and went to a final buffet lunch with my sister before she caught her plane for home. I still had one more night at the hotel — I had tickets to see The Beatles’ LOVE (Cirque Du Soleil show) at the Mirage that night. I decided after hearing the album that I had to make a pilgrimage to see the show, so there was no question that if I was in Las Vegas, I’d be going.
And I’m so, so glad I did, but that experience deserves a post all its own. For now, let’s revisit those Learned League questions:
Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor Avenue, Marvin Gardens
This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. Rodeo (You’ve probably heard its most famous song, Hoe-Down).
Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (This.)
The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? Tehran
What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 5 (Mode means the number occurring most often.)
This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. codicil
I ended up tying my opponent in this match, with a score of 5 points each.