Evils Yet Unknown: Correspondence From The City

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A while ago I pitched a story about taxi riding in Grand Theft Auto V to various publications. The idea was simple. I would sit in a taxi in the game for a couple of nights, maybe a week, and I would write about what I saw. Just to see what happened. I called it a digital tourism piece because it sounded fancy and I thought I was being clever. Nobody bit, so I filed the pitch away.

The idea kept coming back to me though. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to do something with the concept. So, my greedy heart be damned, I decided to write the piece for free. Something happened though. I guess you’d call it lycanthropy. My games criticism piece changed, slowly but surely, into some kind of weird, delirious fiction. I wrote it in great hunger and sorrow. I wrote it drunk and sober. I carried it with me for three weeks, thinking about it non-stop. We ran together beneath a full moon. I loved and loathed it and now that it’s done I can finally stick it on the internet and kill it with a silver bullet for good.

Enjoy it. Loathe it. Do what you do. You can download a PDF version or an E-pub version here for free/PWYW.

New Game: The Right Side of Town

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I am releasing a new game. It’s one that I made in collaboration with Kitty Horrorshow,  Erandi Huipe, and Matthew Schanuel. It’s called The Right Side of Town and it’s set in the same universe as The Terror Aboard The Speedwell and You Were Made for Loneliness:

Welcome to the future. The remnants of humanity, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event known only as The Fall, have fled a dying homeworld to seek refuge among the colonies of the solar system. Five hundred years later, on a decaying city orbiting Mars, an android lives in secret, passing as a human detective. When a man winds up dead in the richest district in the city, the detective and her partner find themselves taking a case where any choice could have dire consequences for humanity.

Features

  • 40K branching sci-fi story with 6 endings featuring the heroine from You Were Made for Loneliness.
  • No middle ground, no easy decisions. Make your choices and live with the consequences.
  • Included with every purchase of The Right Side of Town: Erandi Huipe’s soundtrack, a selection of Matt Schanuel’s illustrations for the game, and a collection of poems Kitty Horrorshow wrote for the game.

You can buy the game here.

Disability And Gaming Resource List

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Disabilities and games, whether it’s about characters with disabilities in games or people with disabilities playing games, is a subject I’ve been interested in for several years now. Online written work is a bit difficult to find, so I thought I’d throw together a resource list to make it easier for people to find this sort of writing. I’ll check back every couple of weeks or so and update this periodically. –Javy

Writing on Disability and Gaming

“Listen Up: Taking the ‘Video’ out of  ‘Video Game'” –Christina Couch

“Ability, Disability and Dead Space” — Diane Carr

“What It’s Like to Play Games When You’re Colorblind” — Cameron Gidari

“Every Last Bottle Cap: How My OCD Turned Collectibles From Distraction to Obsession.” — Holly Green

“How The Kinect Saved My Health, And Why I Don’t Want To See It Go Away” — Holly Green

“Day In The Life: Disability and Representation” — Javy Gwaltney

“Disability, Diversity, and Evolution in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” — Javy Gwaltney

“9 Things I Learned About Gaming With Disabilities from The Ablegamers Foundation and My Son” — Jason Helton

” Reimagining Disability in Role-Playing Games” — Elsa. S. Henry

“If It Were Any Other Jam, It Would be Illegal: Founders of Accessibility Jam on Disabilities in Gaming” — Courtney Holmes

“Film Victoria Update: a Game Accessibility Success Story” — IGDA

“For Disabled, Video Games Can Be Lifesaver” –Kristin Kalning

“A Look Into Developing Injustice’s Accessibility Mode” –Robert Kingett

“The Struggles and Benefits of Being a Color Blind Gamer” — Bill Lavoy

“A Look at Characters With Disabilities” — Brett McCabe

“Red vs. Green: Gaming With Color Blindness” — Kirk McKeand

” The Sense and Nonsense of Haptic Technology in Games” — Jan Jacob Mekes

“How Video Games and Kinect Change The Lives of Disabled People” –Microsoft

“Making Video Games Accessible: Business Justifications and Design Considerations” –Microsoft

“Access For All: Meet The Organisations and Developers Supporting Disabled Players” — Richard Moss

“Audio-only game Grail to the Thief Puts a Blind-accessible Spin on Old-school Adventures” — Richard Moss

“Blind Games: The Next Battleground in Accessibility” — Richard Moss

“Haptic Technology: The Next Frontier in Video Games, Wearables, Virtual Reality, and Mobile Electronics” — Richard Moss

“The Healing Power of Video Games” –Richard Moss

“Why Gaming Accessibility Matters” –Richard Moss

“Includification: Bringing Video Games to Players With Disabilities” — Kyle Orland

“Different Bodies and Deus Ex: Making Disability The Enemy” –Joe Parlock

“Disability in Gaming: The Problem of Representation” — Joe Parlock

“What It’s Like Gaming With Chronic Pain, And Why I Fear The Future” –Joe Parlock

“Writing Characters, Not Symptoms: A Gamer With Autism Discusses What Our Hobby Gets Wrong” –Joe Parlock

“Why I Cried at Fallout 3’s Quest About Disability” — Joe Parlock

“I’m A Disabled Gamer And This Is My Story” –Nicky Regos

Gamers With Disabilities Battle Indifferent Industry” –Jason Schreier

“Making Video Games Accessible foe People With Disabilities” –Steve Spohn

“Game Accessibility: What It is And Why It Matters” — Joshua Straub

“One-Button Bayonetta: Disabled Gamers Fight for Inclusion” –Daniel Starkey

“Games Have Basic, Huge Accessibility Problems (That We Celebrate)” — Daniel Starkey

“How L.A. Noire Created The Illusion of an Autistic Protagonist” –Jake Tucker

TimeSplitters: Future Perfect Is The Game That Helped Me Survive College.” –Jake Tucker

“Blind Player competes at Evolution, says, ‘If you’re playing me…don’t hold back'” –Ryan Tullis

“Disabled Gamers: Part of your World” — Jordan Erica Webber

“How Octodad Works as an Analogy for Invisible Illness” — Nina White (writing as Ashton Raze)

“Interview – Elaine Biddis on Videogames, Assistive Devices & Accessibility” — Steve Wilcox/ Elaine Biddis

Writing Characters Unlike Me” — Carolyn VanEseltine

Game Changers(purchase required) — Alan Williamson

“A Glimpse Into The Lives of Disabled Gamers” — Kyle Wolmarans

“A Deaf Gamer’s Destiny” — ?

Web Sites

AbleGamers AudioGames

D.A.G.E.R.S.

Ergohacks

Game Accessibility

Game Accessibility Guidelines Game Critics (has a deaf & hard of hearing  info section for all their reviews)

Gamerrazzi

Includification

International Games Developers Association: Game Accessibility  Special Interest Group

Special Effect 

Videojuegos Accesibles 

10 Thoughts About Dragon Age: Inquisition

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So I’ve sunk a lot of time into Dragon Age: Inquisition. A lot, like 140 hours or so. And I have thoughts about the game, all of which could be their own essay, but the truth of the matter is that I just don’t care about the game enough to devote an entire’s essay worth to it. That’s not meant to be a slight on the game itself, which isn’t a bad, but I just get weary thinking about the energy and time it would take to write an essay, especially when there already quite a few out there worth reading that sum up my issues with the game.
Here, a selection:

One by Patrick Klepek.

One by Austin Walker.

One by Becky Chambers.

One by Todd Harper.

The following is basically a post that’s going to house all my thoughts on Dragon Age so I can get them out of me and focus on other games. Spoilers follow.

(1) The biggest sin that Inquisition commits is that it trades depth for scope. The game is focused on giving the player a huge world to explore, one filled with generic RPG quests: collect some ingredients, kill some bandits, rescue a farmer’s pet. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these standard activities except in Inquisition they serve as a direct contradiction to your role in the game as Inquisitor, one of the most important people in Thedas. You have countless people, legions at your command, and yet here you are, stuck doing silly quests because the expectations that go alongside the genre override the need for narrative consistency. Why can’t I just send the servants out to do this stuff? I’ve got dragons to kill, conspiracies to snuff, a world to save.

I’ve seen a lot of folks reacting favorably to discovering new areas opening up in the game. To me though, these discoveries are ones of horror and fatigue, not of excitement at the prospect of doing more…well, chores. Chores are what they are. A series of large locales filled to the brim with chores that lead to more chores. None of them are really that engaging, but hey, I’ve got at least four writing projects I need to procrastinate, so why not?

(2) The lack of urgency. I can respect why reviewers, like Phil Kollar over at Polygon, dig what they perceive as the game’s philosophy of generosity, allowing the player to do the quests they want in the order they want to while the game’s main plot is suspended in stasis for their benefit. Hell, Mass Effect 2 did the same thing, and that’s part of the reason I love that game.

And yet, DA:I’s plot just never sold me on the idea that I was a figure of importance saving the world, mostly because the game’s bad guy is an evil buffoon. Each sequence in the main plot is about you foiling his plans. Every. Single. One. There’s no moment where all hope is lost (like Thessia in Mass Effect 3, or Cailan and Duncan’s deaths in Dragon Age: Origins). The whole storyline is basically about the Inquisitor just beating the crap out of Corypheus. Nearly everything is always in your control and that’s just a dull shame.

(3) The characters are wonderfully written. There’s never been a Bioware game with a stronger cast. Nearly everything Iron Bull says is either hilarious or wise, and the moments that reveal how genuinely kind he is are well done. Cassandra is a fascinating character as well: a holy warrior with  legitimate concerns about her religion who also enjoys romantic poetry and reading smutty novels. Cole, the withdrawn, miserable spirit who wants to help everyone. Then there’s Vivienne whose wit and bluntness make her a fantastic frenemy.

Too bad they’re part of a game set on minimizing interaction opportunities with them in favor of having you shuffle around mountains and forests collecting herbs.

(4) Why is there so much fucking elfroot?

(5) The combat is stale…at first, and then it turns into something pretty fun and satisfying once you start unlocking neat abilities, especially if you’re playing as a mage and raining down fire on your foes. I just can’t stand the overhead tactical camera though. The UI, on consoles at least, isn’t competent enough for the game to mimic tactical games like XCOM, or even Origins’ paused combat planning in a satisfying way.

(6) I wish Bioware would commit to showing the nastiness of relationships sometimes. Most Bioware romances have the same sort of courtship structure:

1. Interact with character.

2. Make the right dialog choices.

3. End up with character.

And those romance-specific conversations seem kind of creepily tilted to the player, almost always drawing attention to the fact that Shepard/Inquisitor/Warden/whatever is saving the world/universe during those sequences. I’d be interested in more variety here. Sure, there’s the standard breakup option, but what about integrating relationship difficulties. What about conversations that can turn into arguments? Petty jealousy? Helping someone try and get through memories of a traumatic incident only for them to snap at you?

Inquisition did some interesting things with romance in the game that could often result in a player being shot down by their love interest if they weren’t attractive to the LI (like Cassandra turning down a woman Inquisitor) but on the whole relationships in these games are still treated as relatively simple things to understand and do well at. And I don’t really think that’s the case at all, realistically, so it’d be nice to see future Bioware games strive for some of that complexity.

(7) Glitches. Glitches and bugs galore. This is, without a doubt, the most broken AAA game I’ve played this year. Shit just falls apart out of nowhere. I’ve had dragons fly up into the sky when their health was low and get stuck there; I’ve also had them glitch during their death animation so that I couldn’t loot their corpses for the victory spoils. I’ve had three quests break on me to the point that I had to restart several hours of progress since there was no workaround for them. I had one quest, related to tracking and killing a dragon, just break entirely so that I couldn’t progress in it at all without backtracking about 20 hours. Today, during my second playthrough, I uncovered another bug where an old quest that I’ve already completed remains stuck on my screen and will, according to other folks who have had the same problem, remain there for the rest of the playthrough.

Some of these are bordering on game ruining bugs, which I guess is a byproduct of what happens when you decide that you’re going to Skyrimify your character-driven series.

(8) The War Table is a great idea with an absolutely terrible execution. The countdown timer on each operation, designed much like certain segments in many F2P games, shoos player away to lengthen a an already ridiculous playtime for a game. I don’t understand why Power, used to unlock most of the main missions in the game, couldn’t have been used as the same currency to unlock the side quest operations or the operations that are tired to opening up certain areas in the game. Instead of being a well-designed feature allowing the player to draw themselves further into that fantasy of being the inquisitor making choices that have consequences for all of Thedas, it’s just another barricade to enjoyment.

(9) Tired. That’s the word that comes to mind with I think about my time with Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s a game that left me tired. The kind of tired I feel when I leave a theater after watching a three hour special effects extravaganza that didn’t know what to do with its plot. I’m tired of fetching things, tired of waiting for an arbitrairly placed timer to tell me I can play this quest, tired of having to replay an hour because the quest item I needed disappeared from the world, but most of all I’m tired of the most interesting sections of games, snippets of brilliant storytelling and risky narrative maneuvers, being devoured by the philosophy of “more CONTENT.”

(10) Inquisition seems like a game that was manufactured to win Game of the Year awards, with its focus on being the biggest RPG around, but it’s a bummer that in giving so much space to all those RPG chores it doesn’t give enough to its cast of characters, all of them well-realized and worth anyone’s time. What a shame.

Interactive Fiction Fund Guidelines

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Welcome! Feeling the urge to tell a story? Maybe you want your audience to have some part in telling it? Wanna get paid for it?

You’re in the right place.

These are the submission guidelines for pitching a piece of interactive fiction to The Interactive Fiction Fund (IFF).

We’re accepting pitches for March until February  27th. 

There’s two criteria for judging pitches editors will use when deciding what piece(s) will be commissioned.

1.  How interesting is the idea?

2. How feasible is it to produce this idea within a month?

Your pitch should be straightforward. Sell us on your idea and then make us believe you can pull it off by telling us a bit about you. Tell us about your experience with IF or why this story means something  to you. If you have a 1-2 page preview of the project you’re proposing,  you can include it, but nothing longer than that.

Email your pitches to editorsIFF@gmail.com

Pay is $50 for an accepted pitch that leads to a creation delivered by the deadline. The creator keeps the rights to their work and can do as they wish with it. They can sell it on an online marketplace or release it free on the internet. Patreon supporters get the game earlier than anyone else.

FAQ about pitches:

Q: What genres are off limits?

A: None. If your idea is interesting to the guest editor and I, it will be taken into consideration no matter the genre. Want to write an epic fantasy? Cool, tell us about it. A personal story that makes great use of the IF format? We want to hear about it.

Q: Are works limited to a particular format and engine, like text and Twine?

A: No. You can submit pitches for games to be made with development programs other than Twine. Text parser games, games made with RPG maker, and the like are all encouraged. Again, the prevailing criteria here: (1) Is the idea interesting? and (2)  can the creator pull it off within a month?

Q: Are implementing sounds and visuals into my IF creation allowed?

A: Sure. Go for it.

Guest Editor Guidelines

Each month we’ll have a new guest editor so that it’s not just me (Javy, hi, that’s me) picking submissions. Guest editors will be someone who has had some experience either writing IF or writing about IF. If this is you and you want to be a guest editor one month, send me an email: JavyIFF@gmail.com.

Pay for guest editor is $20.

If you wish to make a one time donation to IFF instead of donating via Patreon, you can do so here.

My Favorite Games of 2014

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It’s the time of year where folks are snarking about Game of the Year lists, but I think they have their uses and are fun, so I’m gonna do one. HAH.

My Ten Favorite Games From The Year 2014

10. Dragon Age: Inquisition

There is no game released this year that I’ve had more ambivalent feelings toward. I love Bioware games. I think fighting the forces of evil while developing your relationships with your fellow quest members is a they game make rather well. Dragon Age: Origins, though I wasn’t nearly as enamored with it as I was with Mass Effect for genre reasons, told a compelling yarn and had some memorable characters.

Inquisition tells more or less the same story (boo) but has more fascinating characters and couple of nice moments that are buried in the game’s ridiculous amount of filler garbage and terrible navigation system, both ripped from Bethesda’s games. Inquisition traded depth for scope, and I really, really hate that.

And yet, those little moments are just enough. Every conversation with Varric about Bianca or every time I tried to solve the enigma that is Iron Bull, got me to wade through all that mundane, design-contradictory nonsense for over 60 hours. And you know what? I’ve already started a new game.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a mess of a game, but damn it Bioware got me again.

9.  Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

Danganronpa is probably the weirdest, zaniest game I played this year. It’s also one of the two reasons to buy a Vita. It’s a giant melting pot of various games (Persona 4, Virtue’s Last Reward, Phoenix Wright) that somehow works really well, even when it expects the player to sit through hours of reading text. The story is a familiar one, a Saw-esque spin of Christie’s And Then There Were None. The characters are funny and interesting enough even though most of them amount to little more than fodder.

Danganronpa is, in every sense of the word, a wicked game.

8. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Advanced Warfare is an impressive game on several fronts. The campaign is exactly what the series needed after Ghosts‘ tepid, boring one. The addition of exo suit abilities–jetpacks, ROBOT PUNCHING–gives the player a surprising amount of options when it comes to taking on foes in multiplayer and singleplayer. Equally impressive, is Sledgehammer’s attempt to tell a story that aspires to be just a little bit more than a white dude mindlessly shooting other dudes. Some aspects of that story, such as the villain, don’t work quite as well as I’d like them to, but other bits, specifically bits that incorporate a diverse cast and focus on disability, are impressive.

You can read the piece I wrote about disability and diversity in Call of Duty:Advanced Warfare for Paste here.

7.  Queers in Love at The End of the World

Queers in Love at The End of the World is a twine game by Anna Anthropy. It’s the end of the world. You have ten seconds to spend with your lover. What will you do? The game’s free, so instead of telling you why it’s so great, I’d rather encourage you to take a minute of your day and play through it a couple of times. It’s a game that speaks for itself.

6. Alien: Isolation

I love Alien. Deeply. I think the 1979 film by Ridley Scott is one of the few perfect movies. Alien: Isolation is the best adaptation of that film (other games have sought to emulate the gun blazing action in Cameron’s Aliens) and is, separated from the source material, a really good game. For the most part. The majority of the game had me on the edge of my seat, holding my breath alongside Amanda as she hid in a locker, waiting for the creature to pass by so we could make a long dash down the hallway to safety.

If only the game was about five hours shorter.

You can read my review of Alien: Isolation here.

5. Glitchhikers

Glitchhikers is the most personal game I’ve played this year.  As an eerie, surreal late night driving simulator, Glitchhikers made me recall a period of my life where I was on the road quite a bit, and it made me remember some old friends as well.

4. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of Mordor is brilliant and bland and delightful and infuriating, and good god I wished they would have just clipped the story. I’ve spent a lot of time with Mordor, toying with its rad Nemisis system, creating rise & fall stories about certain Uruks. I actually felt a tinge of sadness and disappointment when I accidentally beheaded one before I wanted his story to end.

But the rest of the game, the majority of it, in fact, is mediocre at best and absolutely horrendous at its low points. The protagonists are dull. The story is poorly written, with a lot of fridging and some damsel in distress quests.

But the Nemesis system? I could play in that sandbox forever.

You can read my review of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor here.

3. Sunless Sea

Sunless Sea, by the makers of Fallen London, is a great game that lets you create your own story as a seafaring (or, Zeefairing, I guess) captain trying to make their living off an underground ocean. The game’s story creation tools, from the immense diversity available in selecting who your captain is to what the game win conditions are, are particularly impressive. I’ve gone mad at sea from staring at monsters in the murky depths too long, and I’ve had my boat sunk by a giant shark with a cage over its head as I sailed back to port. I have yet to beat the game, despite my many, many attempts, but nearly every run has been a memorable experience (including the one where my captain met his fate without leaving the harbor of London).

Alas, maybe the Zee will treat my poor captains better in 2015.

2. Velocity 2X 

Velocity 2X is incredible to watch, let alone play. The game jumps across several genres, often instantly, with a rhythm that’s hard to believe. One minute you’re flying a space ship,  shooting down alien ships in a typical bull-hell screen only to be running along corridors, collecting gems, and solving puzzles. The transitions never feel jarring and it’s kind of incredible how easily the various modes bleed into each other to create Velocity 2X as a single experience rather than a game made up of various parts that don’t quite mix well together.

1. Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order is the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a game made by developers that approach the game’s ludicrous, alternate-history subject matter with a serious face and a respect for both the world and its characters. The game’s shooting mechanics, rather than distract from the story like so many games do, compliment BJ’s character arc as a man proud of his work as a killing machine but also as someone who’s growing weary of war.

Wolfenstein is my favorite game from 2014 because it’s a game that works as a whole. Many of the games released this year (Mordor and Alien, for example) have bits and pieces that are absolutely incredible, but they often clash with other areas, design-wise. The New Order is, in contrast, a single,  consistently great experience from top to bottom.

—-

Honorable Mentions:

Banner Saga

Murdered:Soul Suspect

Bound by Flame

Worst Game I’ve Played This Year

Destiny

You Are Never Alone: An Essay on Glitchhikers

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Years ago, when I was in a long distance relationship with the woman I love, I spent a large portion of my time on the road, traveling from Rock Hill, South Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia. Usually, it was night, probably the early hours of the morning, and the journey took three and a half hours. Sometimes I’d pull into her driveway just in time to wake her up at sunrise.

It was nice.

These journeys meant that my social life deviated from that of my peers. While they were out drinking, fucking, and having a grand time, I was usually locked away in my dorm room, reading novels or making playlists for the weekend drive. Of course, I was never one of those craven music fiends who could manage a somewhat steady high on tunes alone. I relied on other, more obvious stimulants to keep me from nodding off and veering into a guard rail. Coffee worked for a bit, as did smoking a pack of cigarettes. If I was truly desperate and tired, I’d take one of my ADHD pills and hoped my girlfriend would understand and forgive the temporary fit of depression and self-withdrawal that always occurred when the medicine petered off.

Staying awake on the road isn’t enough, though, especially when you’re making the same trip every other weekend, always having the same beautiful, yet dull drive to look forward to. Sometimes to stay sane you have to give in to the tomfoolery of the mind. In my case?

I split.

I often had long conversations with different versions of myself, aloud and otherwise, about various subjects—film and literature were the constants. There was haughty, arrogant, somewhat detestable Javy who was always planning the next great novel. Kind, timid Javy who always talked about why social justice and ecological preservation should be humanity’s top priorities. Javy who had a two hour rant on why Brazil was the greatest film of all time. Javy who constantly worried about finances and the strength of his relationships.

After four years of talking with all these versions of myself, the long-distance aspect of my relationship came to an end. My girlfriend and I moved in together. I don’t travel as much anymore—only on holidays to see the folks—and so I had no use for my passengers anymore. I didn’t need their voices or, at least, my awareness of their voices. I made an effort not to think about them.

That is, until I played Glitchhikers.

Glitchhikers is a video game developed by ceMelusine and Silverstring media. I’d guess you lump it into the “abstract with no clear win-condition” category of games championed by indie connoisseurs and reviled by those who would be quite happy if games were about shooting dudes ad infituim. In the game, you drive a car along the interstate at night. Above, the stars pepper the night sky. You can change lanes with the A/D keys, you can accelerate with W, and you can look to your right and left with Q/E. You cannot crash the car. You’re simply driving, unburdened by danger, though there’s something uneasy going on here. Your character is always blinking. Music that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch flick plays on the radio while, from time to time, you’ll also pick up a hitchhiker. You don’t pull over to the side of the road to pick them up. You glimpse them in the distance and then, after a couple of seconds, they are transported to your passenger seat. You have conversations with them. The hitchhiker will talk and you can respond with choices from a conversation wheel. Conversations are often eerie and philosophical and they drift on to an abrupt ending in which the hitchhiker disappears from your car.

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 10.52.49 AM

What I find fascinating about Glitchhikers is that it’s an astounding recreation of a certain time and place that feels like it’s stuck between the world we know and some fantasy realm beyond our understanding. Those who have experienced it, burning rubber beneath a late moon, desperately trying to stay awake, know the sort of Twilight Zone feeling that emerges: an uneasy mixture of fear and soothing relaxation. You’ve never been more comfortable in your life, traveller. You could just close your eyes for a second, y’know? You’re strong enough, you’re not foolish enough to fall asleep behind the wheel. You know the stats. You’ve seen too many public safety ads for that to happen, for fuck’s sake.

However, on the road, there is no greater enemy than comfort. That’s why those voices mattered. They created loud inner debates that shattered my calm and my relaxation. I would not say Glitchhikers (or any game, I hope) is a Javy Simulator. However, Glitchhikers is game that’s about some kind of surreal journey and it’s a journey open to interpretation enough so that it invites the player to fill in the blanks with their experiences. That invitation reminded me of some old friends that might have saved my life at one point or another.

Sometimes I still get the urge to go driving at night. I don’t, though. Gas is too pricey. And there’s also a fear that I might not stop at the edge of town and come home. That I might just keep going, y’know? I miss the road. I miss the stars and traveling with the pines on either side of me and the glimpses of truckers drinking their jugs of coffee and the burnt, ashy cigarette hanging from my mouth and the conversations with those loathsome passengers of mine.

I really, really do.

Terror Aboard the Speedwell, Lights Out, Please, and Her Pound of Flesh

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Javy:

Emily Short on The Terror Aboard The Speedwell, Lights Out, Please, and Her Pound of Flesh.

Originally posted on Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling:

In keeping with the season, three short reviews of horror IF. The review of Her Pound of Flesh gets into some spoilers, but they’re clearly marked; otherwise, these should be safe to check out even if you haven’t played the games in question.

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Making The Terror Aboard The Speedwell

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Conception and Production

I started working on the original version of The Terror Aboard The Speedwell started over a year ago. I had finished writing a novel in grad school and was sending it around to agents and publishers. People seemed to like it, but couldn’t take it because they couldn’t market it, and I wasn’t interested in turning the story into a young adult novel.

I spent around four years writing this book, so I was understandably depressed and frustrated. I wanted to distract myself and, after playing Depression Quest and reading Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, I decided that I’d make a Twine game.  I wanted to make something that was goofy. I opted to create an R-rated version of the Choose your Own Adventure books I read when I was a kid, most of which featured a survival horror concept.

There was no outline. I just started writing about a couple of people in spacesuits exploring a long-dead Earth. What came out of that was a horror story reminiscent of Alien, The Thing, and Dead Space.  I spent about a month writing the rough draft of the main narrative that all the other paths would eventually branch off of. It took two more months to create those paths and edit them.

By this point I was more than a little sick of the game and haphazardly decided that, since no one was going to play it anyway, I would release it into the void of the internet as is. I had another project I wanted to work on anyway, one about love and free will, called You Were Made for Loneliness.  The original version of Speedwell was super buggy and had at least ten endings closed off.  It got some buzz though. People seemed to like what they played of it.

I started asking folks  to write for You Were Made for Loneliness.  Ultimately 17, including an artist contributing a beautiful cover for the project, did so. All in all that project took two months from conception to the end (you can read about the process here if you want), and I’m really proud of that one. I think we made something special.

Anyway, after YWMFL was done my mind kept going back to Speedwell.  I kept thinking about all the mistakes I had made with that project and all the Twiney tricks I had learned while working on YWMFL. In the end, I decided to go back and spend a couple of weeks fixing up the game. I’d release a special edition of it for a buck or two just as an experiment to see if people would be willing to pay for it.

I contacted Elizabeth Simins, who had done the art for YWMFL, and commissioned another piece while I got to work editing.   Two weeks turned into a month; so much of Speedwell was just plain broken or held together with gum and duct tape. A good portion of my summer was dedicated to rooting out broken branches, duplicated text, crossed wires, and poor writing.

The new version was ready to go in August. The price was $2.50. I opted to go with itch.io because the distributor was new, the creator seemed friendly, easy to use, and didn’t charge a service fee.

Promotion and Release 

Before I released the game to the public,  I sent review copies to a number of publications and indie sites. I didn’t expect anyone to bite, but I had already committed myself to reworking this project so what was a couple of hours spent sending emails destined to the spam filter or the trash? Kotaku, Polygon, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Indiegames.com, Indie Haven, and about a dozen smaller sites all received a review copy of the game. Only Indiegames.com posted something about it during that first week. I certainly don’t blame the other sites for not giving it coverage then. If, when I was a Games Editor, I had received an email about some guy who had written a 50,000 word twine game, I probably wouldn’t have run a story on it or told someone to review it.

People shared it a lot on Twitter and Facebook. Sales were decent. I had made back the commission fee for the artwork and then some by the end of the first week. People were enjoying it. Slowly, more people started playing it. I saw a surge of buyers after indiegames.com posted its story. Shortly after that the number of purchasers went down. I had one or two people buying a copy a day.

I was satisfied. I had a made nice profit on the game, decided I’d buy myself something nice, and thought that was the end of it. But then two weeks after release Danielle Riendeau wrote a Polygon piece called “the best Alien game is a text adventure game.”  Beyond making me feel super proud of Speedwell, that piece linked enough people to the game that for three days people were buying copies every ten minutes. After this a couple of other sites, like IndieHaven, asked for review codes and posted pieces as well.

Numbers

As of this writing, The Terror Aboard The Speedwell, with both itch.io and VODO sales taken into account, has sold over 500 copies and continues to sell more copies everyday. The game has made back its development cost nearly eight times.

DLC

As part of Speedwell’s  development and marketing, I decided that I would do a quasi-Kickstarter stretch goal thing with free DLC for the game featuring characters from Speedwell. I promised a single DLC for every 75 dollars the game made up to 8 DLCs.  All DLCs were funded and I’m in the process of working on #3 right now. This initially started out as a joke I made when I was working on You Were Made for Loneliness, but I decided that DLC for a twine might be something people would be genuinely interested in, so I incorporated it.

DLC

Protagonist(s) Creation

One of the interesting questions I’ve been asked since the game’s release is why there’s two playable women protagonists but no man. The easiest, possibly cranky sounding answer is “well, because I wanted to make it that way.”  But to explain: there are games released year after year that star only a dude. Usually muscular, usually white, usually deals with his problems by shooting or stabbing them. If you take away games that allow the player to choose their gender (Bioware games, Diablo, etc), then you have a dearth of games that put women in the starring role. Sure there’s games like Tomb Raider, Remember Me,  The Walking Dead: Season 2, and Portal, but those are exceptions in a medium crowded with brotags. I thought I’d do something different.

As far as the two heroines go (Julia/Zoe), I basically wanted to create two characters that, in terms of the player’s power over shaping a character’s identity, exist somewhere between Commander Shepard and Lee Everett. What I love about Everett, in particular, is that he is very much his own person with his own morals and thoughts that exist outside of the player’s choices. The player has some leeway in choosing what Lee does throughout the course of the story, but they can’t really change his personality on a fundamental level.  He’s just not malleable in that way.

I wanted that kind of characterization, but I also wanted to introduce a twist to that sort of design. Zoe and Julia are very different people. I don’t want to to go into the details of how they’re different (because spoilers) but their personalities and their dialog choices are presented differently from one another even if the story demands that they walk along path, though there are exceptions throughout the game, situations where a dialog option is available to Julia but not Zoe or vice-versa.  I designed it this way because I wanted part of the game to be about discovering who this person is that you’re playing as.

What’s Next?

As fun as designing The Terror Aboard The Speedwell and You Were Made for Loneliness was, I think that I’m about done making games with Twine. I’ve got one more Twine project that’s about to be released (plus the DLC I’ve promised to folks who have bought the game, of course) and after that I think I’m going to start fiddling around some more with Construct 2 or RPG Maker.

I also have two non-game related projects I’m working on that I hope to share details about soon.

 –Javy