In the years 2012-2014, three authors released the biggest games of their career to that point: Adam Cadre’s Endless, Nameless, Emily Short’s Counterfeit Monkey, and Andrew Plotkin’s Hadean Lands.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast some of the features of these three games. Each of three are deeply different in setting, plot, and flavor, but have some similarities in large scale structure and polish. Each of the games is strongly connected to the author’s back catalog. I’d like to talk about each of the three games in three different categories. For people who’ve only played one or two of the games, I’ve put most of the discussion in spoilers.
Adam Cadre produced several of early IF’s most popular games, including Photopia, Varicella, and 9:05. After producing one big game every year from 1997 to 2003, Cadre disappeared from IF to work on other forms of fiction.
In 2012, Cadre released Endless, Nameless at the San Francisco IF meetup. One participant described it as follows: “Adam showed up at our SF IF Meetup last month introducing himself mysteriously as ‘Nameless Adventurer’ (we all completely failed to recognize him from Get Lamp, so he was able to pull this off). He handed over an SD card with this game on it, and left. We played it for about 2 hours. The group seemed to enjoy it, especially given that it was competing for our attention with the Google Goggles that another member brought along. We didn’t get that far, though, I have to say (did not pick up on the emerging theme you mentioned). He has promised to come back this month so we can pester him about what it all Really Means, and stuff.”
The game purports to be a remake of an old BBS (bulletin board system) game from the 80’s, with mazes, rpg combat, and instadeath…but you quickly learn that this isn’t everything. This Cadre’s longest game.
Cadre was disappointed by the reception of the game:
Emily Short’s magnum opus Counterfeit Monkey (currently the top game on the IFDB Top 100 List) had its inception in this way:
Counterfeit Monkey is a wordplay game where every-day objects can be manipulated linguistically. Throughout the game, you gain a series of more powerful ways to manipulate words (such as removing letters, reversing words, etc.). Thematically, the game is about a repressive and protectionist society and those who oppose it.
As an interesting side-note, relevant to modern politics, Short had this to say about the democratic system (and this ties directly into the game’s themes):
Finally, it seems that Counterfeit Monkey is actually getting played more now than it was when it came out; usually IF games get a ton of ratings (half or more) in the first year, and then few after that. Counterfeit Monkey has received half of its IFDB ratings in the last 2.5 years (out of 5 years of availability). More specifically, it got around 10 ratings in 2016 and has already had 15 this year.
Hadean Lands was Andrew Plotkin’s big Kickstarter project, generating $30000 in backing and taking several years to finish, pushing IF tools forward in the mean time.
Hadean Lands is the longest of the three games; while the others could easily be sold for money, Hadean Lands provides the most ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of how much game you get. (In a way, this makes Counterfeit Monkey like Portal, a shorter but satisfying puzzle fest, while Hadean Lands is more like Myst or Riven, longer but less intense).
In one of his earliest interviews, I found this quote:
After it was released, he explained more about the game:
All of these descriptions describe the game very well.
Connection to author’s back catalog
This section is going to spoil every game pretty thoroughly, so I recommend trying the games first. In particular, I give away some of the most significant plot elements of Endless Nameless in the third sentence.
[spoiler]Right off the bat, most IF fans will see something that connects this game to Cadre’s earlier work: this game uses the same bold colors that Photopia uses. Just as in Photopia, color is a major signifier in this game. In particular, much of the effectiveness of the endgame comes from the moment where the entire game goes red as you enter Niraya.
Cadre is known for taking specific IF genre conventions and turning them on their head or doing Meta-commentary. He said himself about his process:
Westfront PC, by the way, is one of Paul Allen Panks’ earliest games (an author notorious for under-implemented BASIC games), and when I tried it while writing this overview, I was surprised at 1) how rich and huge the game is for Panks, and 2) how strongly it resembles Endless, Nameless thematically. I never had played a game before that was like what Cadre was copying here; I highly recommmend downloading DOSBox to try westfront PC if you’re interested in Endless, Nameless at all.
In any case, the play-die-repeat gameplay of Endless, Nameless is strongly reminiscent of Varicella, while the strong characters is a Cadre tradition dating all the way back to I-0. The ‘death world’ reminds me quite a bit of Shrapnel in writing style; the other dead PCs remind me of the time-traveller in that game.[/spoiler]
[spoiler]Counterfeit Monkey takes Short’s three passions (physical systems simulation, conversation, and text manipulation) and combines them in an elegant way. Short got her start with Metamorphoses (a game about mutating the properties of physical objects) and Galatea (a conversational game with many endings), and just the next year started text manipulation with A Dark and Stormy Entry.
You can trace the physical simulation thread through many of Short’s games, starting with her ur-game Not Made With Hands (simulating fire, light sources, cutting, material strength, etc.), running through Metamorphoses (with its texture and size changing machines), to Savoir-Faire’s linking system and When in Rome’s procedurally generated aliens with certain tastes. Counterfeit Monkey shares in this by the fact that the items that you create are all classified into different groups on their properties (like animateness, personhood, vulgarness, etc.).
The conversational thread is the easiest to follow. Short started with Galatea (the most impressive implementation of straight Ask/Tell to date), followed by Best of Three & Pytho’s Mask (with their combined menu and topics), to City of Secret’s impressive implementation of multiple NPCs, Glass’s threaded conversational topics (which wrote text for transitions between topics rather than topics themselves), and Alabaster’s crowd-sourced conversation. Counterfeit Monkey isn’t focused on conversation, but it acheives NPC interaction in incredibly complex ways while making it seem easy. It sneaks a menu system in by putting suggested topics in gray, the same color used for tutorials. The best interactions with NPCs come not with words, though, but with items; from eagle-eyed officers to scared tourists, everyone has set reactions to different classes of objects that makes for interesting object-based gameplay.
Finally, text manipulation has been a long interest of Short. A Dark and Stormy Entry lets you select qualities of a short story, and then generates it. Mystery House Possessed also deals with procedural generation. Floatpoint takes different recordings and applies transformations to the text. First Draft of the Revolution took things quite a bit further (along with Liza Daly) by introducing clickable links that morphed the text, later inspiring Twine to include the same concepts. Counterfeit Monkey takes this to its logical extreme by having the player actually manipulate the spelling of individual words.[/spoiler]
[spoiler]When preparing this essay, I laughed when I realized that Hadean Lands is just Plotkin’s Lists and Lists dressed up to look fancier. That old game is a LISP programming tutorial, and that’s what Hadean Lands’ midgame is: a programming tutorial. You prepare an environment for your program (using different ‘programming languages’ like the Eastern Rituals or the Greek Rituals), you have headers and footers/opening closing braces (sealing and unsealing). It became much clearer when I was making the universal tarnish remover and something spread out into a general class (becoming a variable rather than a constant) and you add a drop of Java. It may be unintentional, but it’s all there, including calling pre-defined functions (by using rituals you’ve already conducted) and optimizing your code, in the end.
There are no NPCs in this game. At least, no real NPCs. Like Plotkin’s first works Change in the Weather and So Far, you experience others around you from a distance. The multiple repeats are reminiscent of Spider and Web, and the slow, almost unnoticed evolution of your environment brings Shade to mind. Delightful Wallpaper is openly referenced in the first corridor you enter, and the quality-based puzzles are reminiscent of both The Dreamhold and Dual Transform. (In fact, Hadean Lands could easily be part of one time continuum that starts with The Dreamhold in medieval times and extends through a present with Dual Transform to Hadean Lands’ future).[/spoiler]
Aids to the player
Each of these games goes out of the way to help the player, more than is usual for a text game.
I actually think that all of Cadre’s problems with getting attention for this game actually come from these features, and not (as he supposed) a fragmentation of the community (since both of these other games attracted a great deal of commentary and attention).
[spoiler]Cadre is intentionally mimicing a tedious system here, a very risky strategy (as the authors of Pogoman Go discovered).
The rpg elements of the game (especially the very annoying dart puzzle at the tavern) require repetitive actions. Cadre’s solution was to mention that players should use the RECORD/REPLAY feature of many interpreters, essentially assuming the players will meta game.
It’s unfortunately a fact that every player plays differently, and many (if not all) players are unaware of or not interested in using RECORD/REPLAY. In fact, by the time the game was released, online play was becoming the standard, where RECORD/REPLAY was completely unavailable.
Second, and perhaps more problematic from a design viewpoint, is the fact that consulting the help system is required. Many, many players are loath to consult the help system, considering it cheating or a failure. The Gostak is another game where the help system IS the game (and Robin and Orchid). So many people who feel bad they can’t beat the Gostak never tried the help system; many IFComp reviewers missed out on Robin and Orchid’s enormous backstory contained in the help system; and many players quit Endless, Nameless due to ignoring the help system.
In fact, Endless, Nameless is more or less unsolvable without its help system, which is not only required, but is its own puzzle; the help system gives incorrect advice, and trying to adjust the advice to figure out how the current system works is part of the game.[/spoiler]
[spoiler]I’ll let Emily Short speak for herself:
[spoiler]Hadean Lands’ major innovation is in remembering what tedious tasks players have done before, and accomplishing it for them.
Imagine if, when playing Zork, once you had made the diamond once in a past life, you could type MAKE DIAMOND, and the game would get the garlic, open the trapdoor, navigate the mazes,etc. for you. This would make Zork much easier, and shorter. The only way to make such a game fun would be to provide a lot of content, and to use the helps as puzzles themselves. That’s what Hadean Lands acheives.
As Plotkin said:
All three games are essentially power fantasies. Each was an attempt to make something truly remarkable. And each hit on the same method of doing so, which makes me wonder if it’s not just a trick, but an archetypal component of a certain type of story.
All 3 games are power fantasies that establish certain limits early on that are later shattered mid-game, giving the player a rush.
Note that this method is a contrast to, say, Curses! or Spellbreaker, which are power fantasies but with a gradual accumulation of power with few ‘holy cow I’m suddenly more powerful’ moments.
[spoiler]This occurs over and over. The first time is when you die, and all of the fiddly, description-free/conversation-free world is replaced by a slick NPC-oriented world with different colors.
The second time is when your PC is ‘upgraded’ with conversation, leading to incredible moments with the dragon, troll and so on (I just realized I never tried talking to the bartender or other random NPCs after gaining conversation; I don’t think much is there, though).
The third and biggest ‘rush’ is when you simultaneously kill the dragon, enter the third, blood-red world, and gain admin powers.[/spoiler]
[spoiler]Short purposely does this; you are carefully corralled in what you can do: no animates, no abstracts.
It makes you, the player, think, ‘Ah, Short has been clever; she got rid of those categories because no author could implement all the possibilities’.
So when the game actually opens up those possibilities, it is shocking, and a huge rush.
The pile of gadgets in the endgame are a similar rush.[/spoiler]
[spoiler]The first ‘big moment’ is the Great Marriage. The game goes out of its way to tell you its ‘unusual’, ‘not real’. It’s clearly something difficult and experimental. This is the first time you perform a ritual not the way it was supposed to go, when the black marks finally do something, and when you first create something animate.
The second ‘big moment’ is after getting through the glass window into the void. The map carefully sets up the notion that the ship is everything; when you get through the window, you expect instant death or a single scrap of paper.
Instead, you discover an entire other ship, and an entire other way of performing magic, unlocking the meaning of the black marks,
and so on.[/spoiler]
I’ll end my essay with comments on the endings of the games. These are extremely different from game to game, and reflect the author’s tendencies.
[spoiler]There are multiple endings here. Cadre is not afraid to have happy endings, endings that explain everything, or allowing the player to try out all the endings. Once you have one ending, the others are easy to try out.
This reflects Cadre’s style; he’s from the film school, with writing designed to hit solid emotional notes (like the sadness in Photopia or the intrigue in Varicella).[/spoiler]
[spoiler]Short forces a major choice partway through the game, lading it with emotional feeling by making it a major lose-lose choice.
The choice of identity for the player is something that is gut-wrenching, and makes the ending more powerful. It is difficult to go back and change your choice, requiring you to replay a big chunk of the game.
This fits Short’s style; she rarely, if ever, has a happy ending, preferring melancholy and nuanced endings.[/spoiler]
[spoiler]There is one ‘real’ ending to this game, but it comes in four flavors, depending on the active dragon. This makes it difficult to get all the endings, as a major chunk of the game comes after the dragons are activated.
In true Plotkin style, the ending leaves almost everything to the imagination, purposely calculated to make it feel like the author knows everything, chuckling in a dark corner, and that if you just tried a little bit harder you could understand, leading to intense speculation on forums.[/spoiler]
These are three of the best games of this decade, all produced by top authors who had been writing for years. Endless, Nameless, suffered from requiring meta-gaming, but is still popular on IFDB top 100, as are the others. You should play all of them, including buying Hadean Lands.
Pacian’s Superluminal Vagrant Twin and Inkle’s 80 Days are similar masterpieces by experienced authors, but they don’t fit into the ‘powertrip fantasy’. Continuing my Class 0/Class 1/Class 2 analogy from a previous post, I would say that the three games I discussed today are the pinnacle of the Class 1 school (with Plotkin shading a bit towards Class 0), while the other two games I mentioned are excellent Class 2 games.