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IFComp 1995: Uncle Zebulon's Will

2020-05-01 00:40:35
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The 1995 ifcomp had two first-place winners: Andrew Plotkin's A Change in the Weather took first place in the Inform division, and the winner of the TADS division was this game, Uncle Zebulon's Will by Magnus Olsson. A more recent version is available, but I played the original comp release.

Uncle Zebulon's Will is a fantasy game: your uncle Zebulon, a wizard, has died, and named you in his will. You may remove one item from his home--which your relatives have already picked clean of anything remotely valuable. Make the best of it!

UZW is a short series of fairly simple puzzles, but it's fun. For the most part, it's clear how to proceed, and just a little thought is required to solve the puzzles, when you come to them. I did find the puzzle involving a tomato to be non-obvious; the only thing hinting at it was a conspicuously useless item.

Coming to this game after years of more modern IF, I nearly forgot to make a save before an (obviously) irrevocable action. Happily, I caught myself in time. It's differences like these that make me interested in playing though old IF, in particular, so that was not a negative experience!

We'd expect more of a game that ranks first in the ifcomp, today, but it's clear why UZW did so well. It's full of character, and the puzzles are entertaining. Sadly, the promised sequel didn't materialize.


IFComp 1995: Toonesia

2020-04-03 22:00:42
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Another in my long-overdue series of ifcomp reviews, Toonesia by C. J. T. Spaulding.

This is a parody of Looney Tunes cartoons, featuring (parodies of) Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Tasmanian Devil.

Oooh, that rascally rabbit! You were out hunting him when he somehow got the jump on you, blindfolded you, and dumped you into a cell. Well, you'll show him. He'll be hasenpfefer by dinner tonight, or your name isn't Elmo Fuld.

The puzzles proceed linearly, and the solutions work largely according to cartoon logic--if you haven't seen the classics, then, for example, it may not occur to you to draw a door on the wall to escape the first room. If you are familiar with the cartoons, then the solutions will largely be familiar, too.

The implementation isn't too deep, and there are a couple of flaws, for example:

>x cliff
Which cliff do you mean, the canyon, or the canyon?

Additionally, feeding Taz an object doesn't actually remove it from your inventory.

I got stuck for a few minutes when I needed to reach the mesa, but that's not really the game's fault--I just didn't notice obvious solution, and guessed that I was supposed to do something else first.

All in all, it's an amusing game, though not one I'm likely to turn to again in the future.

Total play time: about 40 minutes.


IFComp 1995: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents "Detective"

2020-03-27 04:26:56
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With the current global crisis, people are eager to find a silver lining--"now there's time to play all those games I've been saving!", or such. I'm fortunate enough that this isn't impacting me much (I already work from home), but in solidarity with everyone else, here's one from my backlog: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents "Detective", an entry in IFComp 1995.

If you're familiar with MST3k, you know what to expect. It's a bad IF game, Detective, its text interspersed with jeering commentary by the characters of MST3k.

The jokes don't make the game more playable, but they are entertaining. The sheer incomprehensibility of the original game makes the despairing comments relatable. They're not just funny; they give a sense of camaraderie that is just enough to keep you going to the end.

There was a later release of this game featuring a brief interview with the author of Detective: he made the game when he was 12 years old, and he's fine with the parody. Honestly, I'm glad to know it. This parody was, apparently, written without his knowledge, and Detective is so obviously the work of a child that it seems mean-spirited to make fun of it. This story was entertaining, but I'm glad we didn't see a deluge of these in the ifcomp in the following years.

The IFDB only lists two other stories tagged 'MST3K', but MST3k was popular enough to inspire works in various media. I have an email in my archives dated 1996-03-04, Mystery Fanfic Commentary Theatre 3000 comments on "Natsumi, the Magical Girl, chapter one.", and there were plenty more like it in the succeeding months and years.

Total playtime: about 20 minutes


In which several books are finished

2020-02-29 15:58:08
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  • reading

It took me seven months, but I have finally finished reading Shatner: Where No Man..., the biography of William Shatner by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath. It was an exhausting read. Besides being sheer hagiography, it is written in M&C's usual self-satisfied style, and getting through a chapter means enduring pages and pages of their self-congratulating, pseudo-philosophical mumbling. The bits that were primarily transcripts of interviews were fairly interesting, and Shatner's musing on the practice of acting was worthwhile, too, but then you also have to deal with stuff like this:

Does the concept of the "alpha" male--the dominant male of a primate group (with the second most dominant being "beta", etc.) apply to man? Do men strive for dominance in that way? Do women? Is there such a thing as an "alpha female?

If there are men who are alpha males--do they still experience the need to yield? And to whom would or could they yield? An alpha female? But in an Earth context, while that is intellectually possible, it is physically not very convincing. There is a certain issue of plain strength. Muscle.

What about an alien woman now? Say, a Romulan fleet commander? Say, a Vulcan woman? Vulcans are, after all, stronger than humans. Even alpha male starship captains.

See my notes on the book for more details, if you can stomach them.

To cleanse my palate after that mess, I read The Truth Machine, a children's picture book based on Star Trek: The Original Series. It was nothing special, but there was nothing terribly wrong with it, either. My opinion of The Prisoner of Vega, another Trek picture book, is similar.

Since I've been reading so much sf, lately, I thought I'd try one of the non-sf-related books on my reading list: Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong. It's a kind of beginner's introduction to epistemology and ethics, in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue is set off by a question of whether witchcraft is real, and whether a scientific explanation of events is really any better than an appeal to witchcraft as a cause:

You expect me to take that on faith? You don't always know best, you know. I'm actually giving you an explanation. (Mustn't talk too loud.) My neighbour's a witch. She always hated me. Bewitched my wall, cast a spell on it to collapse next time I was right beside it. It was no coincidence. Even if you had your precious scientific explanation with all its atoms and molecules, it would only be technical details. It would give no reason why the two things happened at just the same time. The only explanation that makes real sense of it is witchcraft.

Ethics are also discussed, and the question of moral relativism vs. absolutism, e.g.:

Maybe it doesn’t matter what I tell the slaveholders. There's probably nothing I can say that would ever change their minds. The slaves shouldn't have to wait in chains for the miracle of my finding an argument that convinces the slaveholders against all their prejudices.

It's very easy to follow, and entertaining enough, but also very elementary. A good pick for someone who has never read anything about philosophy, I think.

I've now finished If on a winter's night a traveler, which I've been reading on and off for the last 18 months. The drawback of reading so many books at once--individual books can take a while to get through. But how could one put off starting a book that begins like this?

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice—they won't hear you otherwise—"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or If you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

If on a winter's night a traveler is very interesting, and uses some literary tricks to great effect. I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half, but it was well worth reading. My review, linked above, gives a little more detail (and, unusually for me, without spoilers).

This has been a good month for finishing books. So, in the spirit of sabotaging my progress on my TBR pile, I picked up The Vine Witch using some credit Amazon gave me toward a Kindle book, and started reading The Fourth World, which was free.


Reading roundup

2020-02-22 05:43:37
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  • reading

As projected, I finished up OMNI, April 1979. It was pretty slim pickings, this issue. Bester's Galatea Galante was probably the best story in the issue, for pure atmosphere, but it still wasn't great.

I also read Lemony Snicket's The Bad Beginning. Those books have been on my reading list forever, and I finally took the time to read one... and didn't like it at all. Oh well. At least that knocks its sequels off my TBR list, so it's not a total loss.

I've made some more progress with Great Themes of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution. I read its predecessor, Foundations of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution, back in 2018, and found it poor as literary criticism, but great as a sort of annotated bibliography of scifi, showing the development of various ideas through the years. So far, the sequel looks like more of the same, which is to say enjoyable, if not terribly enlightening, and tending to increase my TBR list... a dangerous book for me to read. It's full of stuff like this:

Telepathy is commonplace in the twenty-fourth century of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1952). Still one of the all-time classic visions of its kind, Bester's novel puts others to shame in its use of inventive style and typographical trickery to convey the sensations of a world in which sharing of thoughts is taken for granted.

Great Themes of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution (1987-10), 59

I've begun reading Science Fiction, Second Edition, a book in The New Critical Idiom series. So far, it's devoted a few dozen pages to defining SF, and the started on trying to trace the history of sf--where does it start? Verne? Shelley? Gernsback? This is pretty unenlightening stuff, for anyone with more than a passing familiarity with sf, but the book's short enough that I'm willing to read the whole thing in hopes of it improving.


SF, new and old

2020-02-17 00:15:20
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  • reading

I finished up Fool Moon. Its story is much better than Storm Front, and the writing is superior, too, but it still has plenty of room for improvement. The biggest flaw in this one is that it's predictable who the villains will turn out to be, and even the way the final showdown resolves is pretty easy to see coming.

I also finished Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1951. None of the stories was that great, but they were generally decent enough. As usual with old scifi (or anything else, I suppose), these stories are very much products of their time. Dark Interlude is a pretty good indictment of racism, while Made to Measure is positively dripping with sexism (and that story is probably meant to be at least partly anti-sexist). Rule of Three just isn't very interesting, nor is Susceptibility. The final story, The Reluctant Heroes is competent, and while it doesn't have any really big idea, it examines the idea it does have well enough.

I'll probably finish up OMNI, April 1979 before I read any more of Galaxy Science Fiction or The Dresden Files. That one's been on my 'currently reading' list since last July. OMNI has some good stories, but I hate the way they break everything up like a newspaper, 'continued on page 103'. It's annoying.


Progress on Mt. Tsundoku

2020-02-16 03:41:10
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  • reading

We're well into the new year. I didn't make any resolutions other than the permanent one: work on the TBR pile. And I've even done a little of that, in the past few weeks. Links below are to my reviews.

I have finally--finally--finished reading Storm Front. I read the first fifty pages or so back in 2012, and there I left it. The story is passable, but altogether the book is average at best. If I didn't have a pretty solid belief that the series really does improve--and not just in the minds of its fans--then I'd probably break off here. But I do believe it will improve, so... I've begun the next book in the series.

I picked up ZZT in a bundle last year. I read Galaga and wasn't impressed, so I put off reading the other books. Happily, ZZT is a much better book than Galaga was.

I'm also making some progress on my project to read old scifi: I've begun reading Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1951, which begins the serialization of Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust. Having read the first installment of that... I'm not too impressed. Asimov has written much better books. Here's hoping the short stories in the issue are more rewarding.

On that note, I've also finally typed up some of my notes on stuff I've read in the past year for that project: A Stone and a Spear has some nice anti-war monologuing, and The Tunnel Under the World is almost painfully relevant.

Looking back, it was six years ago today that I finished reading Robert Frost's North of Boston. Perhaps this year I'll read New Hampshire. Can't let the TBR pile get too low, after all...


Journal: 2019-06-27 11:38:32

I've been listening to Spotify radio and it's been giving me lots of new wave stuff. A few minutes ago, it played "Chains of Luck" by Wall of Voodoo. Now, there's something! I first heard of them through a parody of their song "Mexican Radio", a Ranma songfic "Training Ground Jusenkyo". All kinds of things come together, with broad enough experience.

I listened to "Mexican Radio" again, and I liked it better than I remember liking it, last time I heard it. Maybe it's from more exposure to new wave? Or maybe I was just in a bad mood before. Who knows.


Journal: 2019-01-20 23:44:59

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Yesterday evening, I found a copy of the 広辞苑, 5th edition, on ebay for cheap. I made an offer on it, and won it for $11, shipping included. A fantastic deal! There are a few 4th editions on amazon for a little more than that, some 5th editions for about $40, and then sixth editions are $270 and up. There's a 7th edition on ebay for about $200, too. So, getting a 5th edition in excellent condition with its slipcase for only $11 is a steal. I'll not be able to make much use of it, at first, I'm sure, but eventually it should prove a valuable addition to my learning materials.


Journal: 2017-01-10 13:32:02

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When I read The Word Has Become Game: Researching Religion in Digital Games, I found its most interesting idea (not original to that article, though) to be that of players performing religious action in the game space. The paper mentioned framed this as a 'ritual' level of religion in games, and provided fairly superficial examples like creating in-game memorials to either actual people or in-game characters. While these are within the realm of religion, I don't think they are very interesting.

I would rather consider religious activity in games in two categories: sincere actions of the player according to his actual religious beliefs; and the semblance of religious action performed for dramatic purposes, such as role-playing the religious life of the player character. It may not always be possible to distinguish between these cases by mere observation.

Religious activity is of a special kind. In particular, religious speech may be performative, and mere communication may be religious action. So a player speaking (even if through text) a prayer or proselytizing through the medium of the game may be performing actual religious activity.

For the second part (religious action of the PC), some further consideration is required. I imagine there is some literature on the philosophy of acting, considering the relationship between the actor's portrayal of a character's actions on the one level, and the character's actions in and of themselves, on the other level. That is to say, if a character in a play speaks a promise, the actor does not make that promise, even though speaking a promise is usually considered a performative act. No more does an actor gain political office by playing a character that wins an election. The question, then, is: does an actor going through the motions of a religious ritual in a play participate in that ritual in fact?

If the answer is possibly 'yes', then it surely depends on the ritual in question, among other possible variables. So an almost-equivalent question would be: does the practice of acting absolutely preclude performative speech? This probably depends on the definition of 'performative speech', and how we categorize the actor's speech--is the choice to act out a particular scene a separate act of speech (this term broadly construed) on the part of the actor, independent of the content of the scene? Probably yes. Then the in-scene speech of the character may not be performative on the part of the actor, but the choice to act may be. Then the decision to act out a religious ritual, and the practice of doing so, may be equivalent to the undertaking the ritual sincerely.

Pursuing this question seems to be leading me deeper down the rabbit hole, reforming the question without answering it. So I will put it aside, for now.

A related observation: actions taken by the player on behalf of the player character are similar to actions taken by an actor on behalf of a character. In other words, playing a video game is a kind of dramatic performance (consider Laurel's Computers as Theatre).


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