Larry Hosken: New

Game Report: Episode

Episode is another choose-your-own-adventure game app, kinda in the spirit of Choice of Games and Heart's Choice. But it doesn't restrict itself to text to tell stories; instead it uses a combination of text, pictures, and cartoon-y animations. The book 50 Years of Text Games describes it pretty well, in passing, in its chapter on another game, Choices: The Freshman:

At the same time [as the popularity of the mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood], an app called Episode (Pocket Gems 2013), which let players build their own interactive romance stories, was becoming another unstoppable hit. The app featured 2D characters who could be posed and animated like paper dolls to illustrate dialogue-driven stories; the company described it as "an interactive animated television show" and a "modern, mobile-first Choose Your Own Adventure." Episode also became wildly popular, especially teenage girls able to play through huge libraries of stories built by their peers.

The "huge libraries" are pretty impressive, effort-wise. Episode now has over 100,000 stories. Writing an Episode story ain't easy. When I see the phrase "animated like paper dolls," I nod my head and don't think about it much. In practice, it means that where a text story author might write "Chris paced nervously," an Episode author needs to enter in something like

…then stare at resulting scene, decide it doesn't look quite right, tweak the numbers, stare some more…

I get tired just thinking about writing one scene, let alone one story's worth of scenes, let alone 100,000 stories; but that just goes to show I'm not millions of teenaged girls starved for creative outlets.

By the time I found Episode, it was ~10 years after it started. Things have changed. There are now two tiers of story:
Community: written by anybody (with the gumption to painstakingly move Chris' paper doll around the screen)
Episode Official: Stories guided by Episode's editorial team: hand-picked authors team up with pro editors, artists, etc

Those Episode Official stories are important because they make the money. It's free to download the Episode App; it's free to play the games. How does Episode make money from all this? Episode games can encourage readers to spend money. A game might present you a choice:

Attend the fancy ball…
  • …in an elegant blue gown 19💎 (which you'll see on your "paper doll")
  • …in a sparkly sequined gown 19💎 (which you'll see on your "paper doll")
  • …in a smelly old potato sack (free)

If you want the main character to wear a proper gown to the ball, you'll spend 19 gems, and those 19 gems will set you back about $1.99.

In recent years, the Episode Official games have pushed the gem choices really hard. In an Episode Official game, you know you're approaching a gown-or-potato-sack decision because the characters all start discussing the importance of fashion. When you've clicked through this not-so-interesting dialog a while, you finally get the gown-or-potato-sack choice. When you choose the potato sack, the game immediately asks "Are you sure? It's pretty smelly" and it repeats the gown-or-potato-sack choice, only relenting after you refuse a second time. If you're playing an Episode Official game, you can also expect icky choices like

  • Help your best friend stand up to the bullies 19💎
  • Join the bullies and harass your best friend (free)
…or
The villain tried to kick your dog!
  • Get my dog away from the villian 19💎
  • Prevent my dog from getting away. (free)

You and I, dear reader, see these choices and have the sense to put down that Episode Official game and find something else to do with our time. But Episode keeps cranking out more of those games. I guess they've figured out that these icky choices are their best business model; they've got some customers who who will spend 19💎 to help a fictional dog and not quit the game, but instead keep going.

OK, so avoid the Episode Official games, stick to the Community games. Some of the Community games are pretty darned good. OK, I don't like 99% of them; but there are 100,000+ Community Games, so figure there are 1000 good ones. They might nudge you to spend some gems on a choice, but they won't have the Episode Official icky borderline-abusive-manipulative editorial voice.

The best games play to the medium's strengths. They don't try to convey everything with dialog; instead, they animate the characters to use gestures, body language… but since there's just these pre-made animations to choose from, a game author/director has to get creative. Like, maybe there's no great animation for a swimmer to wave to people on shore, but an author might play a dance-move animation and conceal the swimmer's legs and it'll look like they're waving. It's very constrained; and interesting art comes from interesting constraints.

Here are my faves:

Competitive Edge by Piccalilly
The main character is an aggressively competitive over-achieving college freshman. She landed at the same university as her high school rival. It's pretty funny; the game often presents you with three bad choices, because you're steering a character incapable of being humble, keeping quiet, etc. But things tend to work out OK for her nonetheless.
The Ruby Tiara by Wincy Writes
Vicious palace intrigue. No, more vicious than that.
Switch by Alusza:
A playboy college student has been cursed: He's been transformed into a lady. To restore himself to his old form, he must heal seven hearts he broke. For each broken heart he heals, he turns back into a dude one day a week. Despite these transformations, he's trying to maintain his school life and a budding romance. Wacky hijinx ensue.

Wow, that's not a lot of recommended games, considering that I had are 100,000+ to choose from. I suspect that "100,000+" number includes not-yet-finished games. My recommendations above are all complete, but my reading list on the app includes many many not-yet-finished games. It takes so much effort to crank out content for this platform; I suspect many authors get a few chapters in and give up. There's one game Magicka: Clubhouse of the Cursed, set in a fairy-tale world about a support group for people suffering from curses. Like, what if the Frog Prince and Sleeping Beauty and all them came together to help each other deal with their feelings and even break each others' curses? That's an awesome idea for a story, an awesome idea for a game, an amazing idea for a story-game… and the six chapters I read were great but dammit, the author hasn't updated the story in over six months. How long until I see a seventh chapter? Will we see the end of the story before the heat death of the universe?

There's some good stuff here; just don't get your hopes up about more chapters coming out in those not-yet-finished games any time soon.

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2024-06-13T13:56:43.409936

San Francisco Bay Area folks, heads up: Yesterday I took a weird stroll in Albany, playing The Solano Human Project. I see people comparing it to The Jejeune Institute, and I can see the similarity: you're walking in a city, paying close attention to some weird details and fixtures. You interact with art; you interact with gadgets. The Solano Human Project didn't give me a creepy vibe tho, so that was nicer.

a logo that looks kinda like a handwritten 'th'

Anyhow, if you're into ARGs or immersive experiences or pervasive games or what-have-you, definitely check it out. If, like me, you're an avid puzzler, don't think "Even though the recommended team size is 2-6, I'll solo-solve; I'm sure I'll blow through quickly like part 1 of Jejeune." That's hubris. I wish I'd had another couple of folks along to help spot things.

Hmm, not sure what more I can say without spoiling the surprises. Just: Check it out.

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2024-05-31T23:25:02.501312

I continue to check my little dashboard of San Francisco COVID numbers each morning to figure out whether heading into a cafe for professional-barista-prepared coffee is a lovely indulgence or an embarrassing risk.

The numbers still look safe-ish to me; I'm still swapping air indoors with people. But you might recall the last time I shared my dashboard it was to serenely say that all its numbers were in the "safe" zone; PCR-test-observers and sewage-observers could all agree that things were looking good. Lately, San Francisco's sewage-observers have seen numbers above the "safe" line.

chart plotting three San Francisco COVID stats over the past couple of months: new cases reported, test positivity %, and COVID in wastewater. The wastewater line is a little above the 'pretty safe' level. The test positivity % has been rising lately but hasn't yet gone above pretty-safe (but it's getting close). The new cases line has been rising lately

So… I'm going out for coffee now. And I'm checking on my home inventory of coffee supplies, in case my attitude changes in the coming weeks.

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2024-05-30T15:15:24.648377

Oh neat, the Golden Gate Park beer garden has an actual calendar this year so maybe I won't need to rely so much on having a backup plan "in case there's nothing there this week."

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2024-05-25T18:51:49.686596

To celebrate California's Juror Appreciation Week, the Judicial Council of California created, uh, a word search puzzle(‽)
it's a word search puzzle, a grid of letters with a word list

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2024-05-17T23:58:10.068576

I transcribed a 1924 article by photographer Olivia Wyndham reflecting on running puzzly treasure hunt games in London: Society Treasure Hunts: The Trail and the Chase.

h/t to Bruce Lin who tracked this article down after I gave up.

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2024-05-08T22:32:49.965786

I transcribed a 1924 article about puzzle-y treasure hunts in London: London Society's Thrilling All-Night Treasure Hunts. It's kind of an annoying article for a puzzle fiend to read; I guess it was written by some society reporter who was really impressed that the Prince of Wales participated but glossed over clue details. But I got to look back through history and see that Olivia Wyndham had learned the hard lessons of Game Control before Stephen Sondheim was born:
"I do not know which is the greater fun," says Miss Wyndham, "laying a trail or following one. When laying one it is very hard to judge how difficult or easy your clues are going to appear to others who do not know your processes of thought."

It sounds like Wyndham wrote some articles about her Hunt experiences. Dunno how find-able they are. I bet she had more to say than landed in this here article, tho.

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2024-05-06T23:43:42.451426

Game Report: Choice of Games, Heart's Choice Games

Special note to my parents: Though this blog post is about video games, you might be interested. Specifically, Choice of Games has a couple of games ("Tally Ho", "Jolly Good") that are kinda like reading P.G. Wodehouse novels.

Playing a Choice of Games game is something like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book. Each screen of the game shows you some text to read. At the bottom of the screen there's a Next button to go to the next page screen; and maybe above the Next button there's a set of choices. Depending on what you pick, different things might happen on the next screen and further on in the book game. E.g., here's a screen from the game "The Bread Must Rise," in which you direct the actions and attitude of a contestant in a necromantic baking competition. Towards the bottom of the page, the game prompts you to choose a character motivation. This motivation can affect future wording, perhaps even plot direction:

screen shot of game. It's spare for a video game: it's mostly text on a soothing background. There's a row of buttons at the top: Show Stats, Achievements, Menu. There's three paragraphs of text (which I'll transcribe below). There is a menu of four choices (which I'll also transcribe below). And there's a next button. The three paragraphs of text: “This time, instead of a fine and a stern warning, you've received a certificate: ¶ YOU'VE BEEN CHOSEN AS ONE OF SIX CONTESTANTS IN THE GREAT GODSTONE BAKE-OFF. ¶ The certificate says more, but those are the big words, the important words. Those are the words your friends would see, if you had any. Damn, you never thought about that, but here and now, alone in your bakery while you wait until it's time to open, you can't escape the question. Why don't you have any friends?” The four choices: ◎ The thing about friendship is that it doesn't keep the lights on in the bakery. ◎ Friends? More like customers who think they're entitled to freebies and discounts. Please! ◎  I was so focused on the Great Godstone Bake-Off that I didn't have time for unnecessary distractions. ◎ Don't be silly, suddenly nosy voice in my head…Customers are friends!

There's a lot of text in these games; some have a few illustrations, but most get along with just text. When I play these games, I tend to compare them to other choose-y games I found via the book 50 Years of Text Games; those other games have plenty of art: they suggest some of the book's action by superimposing portraits of the characters on an art background showing the setting. In those games, you read a little text, but infer a lot of the story from the art. You might think oh, I bet these text-only games seem drab compared to those with art. But as you play more of these choose-y games, the text games have more variety. I have a theory about this:

In a game with lots of art if an author tells the publisher "This scene is set in something like a bakery, but with necromantic magic, like with skeletons and stuff" the publisher doesn't already have appropriate art on hand. The publisher might say…

The art-heavy games tend to have a lot of same-ol' same-old. You think to yourself, There's that generic restaurant kitchen again. Or you might think Ho-hum, yet another epic struggle of brave rebels against overwhelming odds; but I understand why the publishers wouldn't risk the art budget to try some niche-ier ideas.

There's a lot less constraint on these text-heavy games. You want superheroes? It's a lot easier to type the word "cape" than it is to draw folds in fabric. In Choice of Games and Heart's Choice (Choice of Games' romance imprint), I've played in Pulp-era science fiction, swashbuckling pirate action, 1001 Nights-ish fantasy, Edwardian-era farce, spooky vampire crypts, two undersea mermaid cities (not much alike), two modern-fantasy magical bureacracies (not much alike), the moon, Mars,…

I guess that's why, out of the various choose-y game systems out there, Choice of Games has my favorites. It's got a lot of variety! I'm not into ⅔ of it, too weird, not my kind of weird. But it has some games that are right up my alley.

I'll point out some of the specific games that I liked. There are over 100 games within Choice of Games, figuring out what you want to try might seem daunting at first. I hesitate to go overboard with my recommendations, though. A skilled critic can discern between underlying craftsmanship and the critic's own taste; I am not such a skilled critic. When I say "I wasn't into that Battlemage game; it had too many battles for my taste," you know just where to stick that review. That said, some recommendations:

Choice of Games:

Cliffhanger: Challenger of Tomorrow
Pulp-style science fiction.
Elite Status: Platinum Concierge
Rich-people problems require rich-people solutions, and you do your best to provide them. Attempting to save your soul is optional. Tragedy (unusual; most of these games are adventures, romances, and/or comedies)
Tally Ho,
Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale
Edwardian upper-class comedies in the spirit of P.G. Wodehouse
The Daring Mermaid Expedition
Undersea mermaids, pirates,… I'm not sure how much I liked this because it was good and how much I liked this because it was my kind of weird. But I'm sure I liked it plenty.
Creatures Such as We
Moody piece about getting/not getting what you want, set on the moon
The Dragon and the Djinn
Swashbuckling magical adventure in a fantasy world not quite like the 1001 Nights
Choice of Kung Fu
Swashbuckling magical adventure in a fantasy world not quite like imperial China in those movies from my youth
Social Services of the Doomed
You are a government bureaucrat in a modern fantasy world investigating mysterious phenomena

Heart's Choice (Choice of Games' romance imprint):

Belle-de-Nuit
Swashbuckling nonmagical adventure on the streets of old-timey Paris, where you are a duellist for a brothel
Forbidden Magic
You are a government bureaucrat in a modern fantasy world investigating mysterious phenomena

Along with Choice of Games and the romance-ier Heart's Choice, they have another category of games: Hosted Games. As near as I can tell, just about anyone can post a game here. Like, I think when the publishers are deciding whether to publish a story, if they like the story, it goes on Choice of Games or Heart's Choice; if they don't much like the story but it's not illegal/hateful/grounds for a lawsuit, then it goes on Hosted Games. I tried reading two games there, got a few pages into each, and gave up. Those two games were pretty bad. There might be some fun games in there, but I'm not sure how to find those diamonds in the rough; that "rough" is rough.

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2024-05-03T12:53:27.721846

#SFHellscape
photo of flowers. In foreground, out of focus, some cherry blossoms. In background, in focus, a garage door mural depicting flowers, maybe poppies? I dunno, I'm not a big flower guy

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2024-04-26T19:56:02.589100

Leet Numbers

I just watched the Numberphile video about Apocalyptic Numbers. An apocalyptic number is a power of two whose decimal representation contains the digits "666". I nodded along: of course, Christian folks would get interested about numbers that contain "666". But then I thought about it some more and wondered: Why would those Christian people care about powers of two so much? If you're going to look for "666" in some numbers, why not Fibonacci numbers or powers of three or what-have-you?

Who should care about powers of two? Computer programmers, that's who. But not all computer programmers are Christian; not all care about 666.

I think we should instead focus on Leet numbers, powers of two that contain "1337". Yes, I just made up the term "Leet numbers," but I'm sticking to it.

The first Leet number is 2394 = 40347654345107946713373737062547060536401653012956617387979052445947619094013143666088208645002153616185987062074179584.

The first Eleet number (containing "31337") is 2454 = 46517678354918840995156723704832290198633047083988355858015372747560914439257467092876227245680868195888801382801035387746214504231337984.

Now that that's settled, I guess I should come up with 15 minutes' worth of things to say about that and then get in touch with the Computerphile people to make a video.

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2024-04-20T18:48:35.949518

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