Category Archives: design

zzt interviews: jeanne thornton

rhygar 3

jeanne thornton is a good friend and big sister figure, and has been a part of my literary career since the very beginning, when she edited rise of the videogame zinesters. she’s the author of incredible books like the black emerald and amazing comics like bad mother, but back in the day she produced a bunch of games with a shareware game-making tool called zzt. when i was putting together a questionnaire for my book on zzt, which i sent to people who responded to an open call for interview subjects, jeanne helped me decide which questions went into it. as part of this process, she was also the first person to answer it.

1. what’s your name? this can be a psuedonym, an internet handle, whatever. a name to use when i quote you.

Jeanne Thornton / bongo

2. what are your preferred pronouns? (she, he, they, etc.)


3. what was your first experience with ZZT? how did you encounter it, what was playing it like? how old were you?

I was 13, and I found out about the game in 1996 by doing an AOL search for Calvin and Hobbes video games (at the time, I was involved in a weird Calvin and Hobbes email fandom community that was the first “online community” I was on whatsoever.) There was this neat, really rough C&H world that tried to emulate the Calvin and Hobbes strips where the characters go down the hill in a red wagon by using CW/CCW sliders; it didn’t work well. I remember thinking that the game engine seemed terrible even at the time.

4. did you make any / many ZZT games? what was your first ZZT game like?

I think the first game I tried to make was another Calvin and Hobbes one, to “do it better,” and then a ridiculous LucasArts-styled comedy game about college kids.I remember not knowing how to use STK at all and the boards being really big and gross, and I remember an “action scene” called “Drive like mad” that used bears to represent cars, because bears moved in a straight line, like oncoming traffic! I made a stupid little theme song for it and that’s all I really remember from the game beyond gross color choices.

(Weirdly, I didn’t know you could play ZZT full-screen for a long time, and I had gotten about halfway through making a sequel to that game that used STK colors without knowing that some of the colors flashed on and off—so like when you ran ZZT in a window, those colors showed up as dark foregrounds, light backgrounds, and some of the ASCII characters rendered differently because of whatever Windows installation I had. When I finally realized that you were *supposed* to run ZZT full-screen, I realized that like twenty or thirty boards of this game were just hideous and unusable because I’d inadvertently chosen “flashing colors.”)

5. what was your life like at the time you were making ZZT games? was there any major upheaval happening in your lie?

[paragraph redacted]

Other stuff: I fell in love for the first time; I dated a girl for the first time—I remember going on walks with her around the neighborhood and telling her that a character in this game Rhygar 2 I was working on was “based on her,” which I don’t think was even true, but I remember really wanting it to be true. I remember feeling that my life at school with friends was distinctly not my “real life,” that this weird online world of ZZTers was more in tune with the kinds of friends I wanted to have, corresponded more with the world I wanted to enter. I felt kind of generally disconnected from reality throughout my adolescence, which got more pronounced as it went on for reasons I couldn’t at the time understand, and felt like being a part of this community, working on these games that this just ludicrously small population of people cared about, was real life.

I never mentioned ZZT to anyone I actually knew until later, beyond I guess a couple of close friends—installed it on one’s computer while staying over to make a game about a mutual enemy, confessed to another that I was making a game and showed it to him; he laughed at how completely primitive and awful it was. It had this real weird stigma of being a useless thing, something I had no possibility of communicating to the outside world.

Yet like all of my meaningful memories of adolescence somehow revolve around ZZT or people I met through ZZT. I spent most of my time in the real world just literally thinking of how long, in years, months, and days, it would be until I could graduate high school and move out of my house and into the larger world. I wasn’t picked on, and I had some friends and everything, but it’s like there was some profound sense of not fitting in with anything or anyone I knew in real life outside of a very few people: one girl I fell in love with, one good male friend whom I still talk to, that’s about it.I feel like I wasn’t even there at all, just like this wraith creature waiting to escape out a crack in the door.

6. what influenced or inspired the ZZT games that you made? other games, movies, music? events happening in your life? other ZZT authors?

All of them were shameless ripoffs because I didn’t know how to talk about my life whatsoever, and was in fact terrified of talking about my life whatsoever. When I play my old games, really infrequently, I’m just like completely ashamed because of how little they reflect anything in my life and how much they obviously reflect things I was reading or playing or whatever at the time. Simpsons jokes, the comic book adaptation of Clerks, Final Fantasy games generally, the Wheel of Time, the comic book Bone, just this shameful mishmash of influences.

The one authentic thing in there was this like obsession with women, in particular this proto-dyke character who was like a general and hated my (male) main character, but slowly this weird respect and understanding grew through infinite conversations. I remember thinking over and over that “if I were female, I could create something real; too bad it didn’t work out that way,” and then kind of burying that thought and trying to just replicate something I enjoyed. Now I’m inclined to think of it as this trans feeling before I even know that trans feelings existed: this deep, deep sense that life, creativity, emotion, and human connection were something that only women had access to, and I had just like been born wrong and had to make do, trying to access this thing from the outside. There was this weird quasi-Quranic thing for me about depicting women in any way, in my comics, in my writing, in anything—like I was really, really afraid to do it because it felt like it would be revealing something, like everything would fall apart if I did it—and this one big ZZT game was like one of the few times I felt like I seriously attempted it. And it was okay to do so because not that many people would ever see it, certainly no one I knew for real, and because it was wrapped in this big cloak of fantasy-novel mishmash about magic and destiny and whatever.

I don’t know how obvious it is to anyone else in the world that this was a big deal for me at the time—probably I thought more people were going to perceive what was going through my mind while I was doing it than actually perceived it. (In the never-finished ending, the main character dies, and the female general like goes on to be the main character of future games set in the main world; the idea of just having a female character be the main character just seemed like something too dangerous to actually do, something I was straight-up afraid to do ever.) Later, in one of my online comics, I did a story where the main character’s soul like transmigrates into a female body, thinking it was going to be this really explicit “coming out” kind of confession, but nobody got it at all! So I don’t know what I was even afraid of, or probably still am afraid of. ZZT was some kind of first step out of that all-consuming fear: putting a story I told containing elements I cared about somewhere where other people could see it in a way I couldn’t control.

7. did you interact with any online ZZT communities? how did you discover those communities? what were they like? what did you feel like your role or position in the community was?

Yeah I started posting on the AOL boards, and then eventually migrated to IRC when the AOL boards got shut down. I don’t know if I had any role in the community but I was super arrogant and had some vague notion of trying to make the “best ZZT RPG ever,” even though I knew like nothing about programming, art, or good storytelling. Whenever I think of ZZT days I feel terrible thinking of just how arrogant I was, whether or not anyone knew that, like I was this basically “false person” even in this online community.

I remember spending all this time on IRC in this channel my friend Vinhalf-owned called #darkdigital, talking about music or like pornography or games or who knows what. I remember feeling distinctly uncool always—like I enjoyed totally different music than everyone else, didn’t watch MTV, read long fantasy novels no one else liked, felt cut off from cultural things they were talking about. I grew up in Texas where David Bowie wasn’t played on the radio (beyond Let’s Dance and a couple of other 1980s songs) because he was a Weird Gay Freak, and thought his music was this weird arcane thing—just these really mainstream tastes that I still had no way to access and soaked up online. I feel like most people got their sense of culture from real places and I just got it from the people I met in this one IRC channel, these things that were and are still important to me. I remember trying out slang in IRC that I was too reserved to say in real life, reciting the lyrics of songs endlessly, sometimes trying to be cruel to people because I was afraid to actually offend anyone. It was this combination of real life and like hurtful playground—something about online distance made it possible to encounter people with fewer barriers and fears.

8. what sort of reactions did you receive to your work, if any? did any reaction to your game have a strong positive or negative effect on you?

People really really liked one of my games, this like ridiculous Final Fantasy style RPG epic. When I got a piece of fan mail from some kid I didn’t even know, it felt like this was going to be the beginning of my “real creative life,” like I could instantly move into adulthood if the final chapter of this game was really, really good. Everything would begin then.

I worked really hard on the final chapter of the story and never managed to finish it because I was trying to make it so elaborate that it consistently crashed the ZZT “board limit” of 20kb, corrupting the entire file and ruining like months’ worth of work. I made most of the whole game twice only to have this happen, and the second time I just gave up altogether because I wasn’t a good enough programmer to get around the limit. I felt totally doomed by this decision, like I had just wanted to do something great in this little isolated pocket universe of ZZT, and now I was ruined forever because I couldn’t even do that. (Someone who was a fan of the previous games even went through the files and “fixed them” to use less memory and I just didn’t even want to talk to them.) Even today—like literally today, while I’m typing this—I keep thinking in the back of my mind that ANYTHING I TRY, I WILL FAIL AT, because I didn’t release this stupid game when I was like 15. It’s a useful fear and I attribute stuff like finishing my novel, getting a job in publishing briefly, doing comic strip collections to having decisively failed at this one thing that could only have possibly mattered when I was 15 and never, ever wanting to go back to that feeling again.

I don’t know why this was so important to me and I think it’s a strong indication that I was a bad person that I put so much stock into this one stupid thing. But it was like this laboratory of being an adult creative person.

One of my IRL friends actually did end up playing my games, and said he was disgusted by this one board in the never-finished final chapter with these two characters in bed together; like this visceral horrified reaction at the notion that I had depicted sexuality of any kind really stayed with me. I hated knowing that anyone in my life was playing this; it still makes me really uncomfortable when people I know in real life read anything I’ve written.

(Weirdly, like a month before writing these responses in 2013, I got another fan letter about the game asking me what the ending was going to have been—I barely remembered most of the details of it and had to re-download the game and dig around in the boards to try to remember. It’s creepy how something like that follows you, and originally I thought it was some creep from like 4chan trying to mess with me for being trans; as far as I know it wasn’t?)

9. are there any ZZT games that you remember as having a strong effect on you?

tucan’s game p0p was for some reason very influential—tucan’s whole aesthetic made me feel bad about my entire life. There was this richness to it, this sense of joy in language, of being grounded in these kind of real visions: I may be remembering it wrong, but there was this one board where you crawl through these vines and look through a spyglass and see these singing, hallucinatory whales, and it depressed me on some level because it’s like you could feel the joy tuc took in depicting those whales, and I wished I could do that. In particular there was this game by this guy Chronos that I don’t think was ever formally released—I feel like he must have emailed it to me or something like this—that was just this really dense, elaborate, well-programmed reconstruction of his high school. He was doing it as some kind of gift for friends of his. I remember wishing that I could do that, but it felt like there was nothing about my friends or about my life to say, that it was just this weird blank. This one game called Quest for the Floating Isle that felt somehow really pure—it was a big Zelda-style map of a huge island, and the entire game was just exploring this island and solving inventory-related puzzles, all of it really sunny and polished and without this strong sense of individual overwrought teenage “voice” a lot of ZZT games had, which I liked. The Sivion games, because on some level I felt like they were sort of also inauthentic in the same way I suspected my games were inauthentic—like there was this really elaborate presentation of something that wasn’t deeply felt. I felt like the author must have been the same kind of scumbag and took weird joy in this.

10. do you still make games or other forms of art? has working with ZZT informed your current work in any substantial way?

There’s this line in Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comics where Hopey and Maggie are trying to explain punk to this jerky Christian guy, and Maggie says that punk is in everything you do, “the way you stir your coffee in the morning.” I feel like it has something to do with that—there’s no explicit connection but it’s stuck there in the back of my mind. One specific weird memory: in college, thinking about how a paragraph of text in a novel should be as dense as a board in ZZT, like how you should be able to “push on” different nouns in a sentence and have things happen. When I try to write a paragraph of description of a place, I’m on some level thinking about ZZT, how the environment would appear in ZZT. When I think about color combinations in the comics I draw I think about what would look good in ZZT. It’s always there.

11. what’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your life, unrelated to ZZT?

Transitioning, being public/out about transitioning. It was the most horrifying thing to me to have something fundamental about my identity be publicly, uncontrollably *visible* in this way. Thus it was this thing I didn’t let myself become fully aware of for the longest time, and that I didn’t let myself acknowledge as any kind of actual option in my life until long, long after I became aware of it. It’s still really, really hard, and there’s at least one point in every day when I think about how this is clearly impossible. I don’t know what would have become of me had it not been for ZZT, if I had tried to find creative outlets in person in the small Texas town I grew up in. I really don’t know what would have happened had I not had this sort of safe-yet-dangerous online space. NOTHING GOOD.

zzt interviews: jude tulli

princess polyana's descent into the (perilous) underground

princess polyana’s descent into the (perilous) underground was one of the most important games to me in my childhood, the first example i can remember where gender dictates your ability to navigate the world. it was made by partners trish sanders and jude tulli. while working on my book, i managed to track down and talk to jude. here’s an extended version of my interview with him, which is quoted in ZZT.

thanks to a browser port of dosbox and help from jeremy penner, you can now play princess polyana and a bunch of other ZZT games on my website! enjoy.

First, how did you first encounter / discover ZZT? About how old were both of you when you made Princess Polyana?

I must have downloaded it from somewhere! I really can’t remember where now, but I liked the original adventure, and when I found out there was a game editor I was excited by the limitless possibilities. I was 21 years old at the time.

Some of my most meaningful collaborations have been with my partners. What was the process of working on a game together like for you? Do you feel as though your relationship informed the game in a significant way?

I was working on the game when Trish and I met online (and was still working on it when we met in real life three months later), and so it was just a fun thing to talk about, and she says she was impressed that I could program the objects to do things.

When I was having trouble with a particular object being stubborn, I would ask her to test it when I thought it was ready to go so I could see if it needed further editing. She also made suggestions like she does now with my novels. “Maybe the story could go this way, or that way.” She leaves the final decisions up to me, though, which is unlike most aspects of our relationship, where we make important decisions together.

When I encountered Polyana as a kid, what struck me most was the ways in which the protagonist’s gender affect her mobility within the game’s world and her ability to get what she wants. I feel like this is still a subject that games seldom address, especially without sexualizing or objectifying the protagonist. Was this a deliberate choice? Did it emerge naturally as a consequence of writing a girl character?

The first one. It was the theme I had going into the story that she would be fighting an uphill battle because princesses aren’t supposed to do those sorts of things, they are supposed to wear dresses and be princessy (not that she can’t go on an adventure in a nice dress, mind you, if she so chooses). You’ll notice some of the non-player characters treat her with hostility or condescension where if she were a male character they would likely applaud her initiative. The double-standard is still with us to this day, though there have been many advancements.

One of the things that’s stuck with me through the years is the storyteller’s story – about a princess who arranges to have her sisters kidnapped so she can go on an adventure. I like that it’s presented peripherally to the primary backstory – a suggested motive for Polyana’s adventure. What sources did Polyana’s Descent draw upon for inspiration? I know Princess Bride is explicitly mentioned in the game, and Jude’s contemporary writing seems to draw from fairytales a lot.

Yes, there were bits of The Princess Bride in there (the circus performers, the goblet challenge with Wentworth at the end). I picked up a copy of Iron John while making the game, and Robert Bly has been a huge influence for me since I was about 16 years old. The astral trip was inspired by Robert Monroe, whose works I was also reading at the time. The chess game with death of course derives from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Atari’s original Adventure game inspired the secret staircase to the title page. The tea party in Rufus was largely inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which I was rereading for a class on children’s literature. I’m probably forgetting other specific inspirations. I have just always loved the resonance of fairy tales and the fluidity of their motifs and themes, and so I hope that’s infused into every work I create.

One of the most striking scenes in a game that, frankly, has quite a few of them, is the flower scene. Polyana is asked to pick a bunch of flowers, which cry out in more and more visceral agony as they’re killed one by one. The alternative, though, is well-hidden. I like that Polyana can’t pass this trial without performing some kind of violence. Did you think of Polyana as an explicitly moral game while you were making it?

Well, making a game is a vehicle of expression, and one principle that I find fascinating that tends to crop up in my creative endeavors is that of violence, and the question of when, if ever, is it okay.

With ZZT, shooting things is always an option, and it’s not the same as shooting things in real life. So to create a story in that world without any shooting at all would be limiting oneself. . .but the flower sequence was a lesson in empathy and probably was consciously or unconsciously inspired by what I learned in college about Stanley Milgram’s famous psychological study, the details of which are available here:

The central question for the task is this: do you have empathy for the flowers enough to find another way, or do you just do as you’re told to get to the next screen?

I have, in fact, played Rufus on Vacation. It’s significant to me that it was a solo project by Jude and not Trish, since it seems to center on a boy’s exploration of a girl’s secret world. There are some conflicting images of relationships in this game: we’re shown some of the conflict in Polyana’s relationship with her partner, but ultimately arrive at a happy domestic vision of that relationship. Meanwhile, Rufus is forced to form an attachment with a partner he’s just met in order to gain access to that final scene. Were you consciously thinking about the image of relationships the game portrayed as you wrote it, or was it just a consequence of making a silly game?

Rufus on Vacation is obviously not really a sequel to Princess Polyana’s Descent. . . it just made sense at the time to use the same character names and reverse the main/supporting roles. As it’s set in contemporary times, it’s not the same Rufus and Polyana, unless their souls occupy parallel dimensions (the feasibility of which I will leave to every player to decide for him- or herself).

But it is a coming of age story, and in some ways it’s reflective of where I was at the time in my own life, forging an alliance with my now-wife, becoming an adult and the uncertainty of all that lies ahead of that major transition. . .plus Trish thought the part where the character named after her follows Rufus around was funny and endearing, so I left it in the game.

She probably had about the same role in this game’s creation, but asserted that she didn’t do enough to warrant having her name on there, otherwise the credits would have read the same as the first game.

Have you interacted with any ZZT communities at all? Which communities – I think of Prodigy, AOL, Compuserve, the internet, etc. as all having distinct communities – and what was your impression of the communities you interacted with?

I remember uploading these games to AOL and maybe one or two other smaller communities that are now defunct. I also downloaded a lot of add-ons and enjoyed seeing what others created.

Over the years I have gotten very little correspondence about the game. I really have no way to estimate how many people played it, liked it, hated it, loved it, but the few letters/e-mails I have received have all been exceedingly positive, and one child who wrote me several letters way back then even sent me an add-on that included me as a character in his story! My own copy of Rufus was corrupted many years ago, and I was delighted to find a fellow ZZT-er had uploaded it to the Z2 database so I could play it again.

What do you think of videogames now, outside of ZZT – in the mainstream or in whatever forms you encounter them? Do you play games still?

My wife and I play a lot of videogames these days. We have played a few MMOs and were both impressed with and annoyed by the interactivity of these worlds. We play console and PC games as well. I think the evolution of both what appears on the screen and the way the player controls what appears on the screen is just fascinating. Yes, our first videogame was Pong, and we’ve watched the industry grow up from its infancy. Personally, we prefer games that are cleverly written to mindless gore and violence.

How has working with ZZT transformed work or art for either of you? Does it inform what you do now in any significant way? Jude, I know that you write fiction that seems to draw from fairytales in the same way that Polyana does. Is Polyana a footnote or was it a significant project for you?

That’s a tough question to answer, because every project’s significance changes with the passage of time. Back then I was quite absorbed in listening to the world and my life for ideas to infuse into the games, as I am now when writing a story or book. Each game was my biggest creative outlet at the time.

Once a creative project is “finished”, however, we tend not to think about it as much, and our memory begins to recede like a dream from last night, last week, last year, last decade. . .and occasionally we might look at it again and visit like old friends, maybe even make some more changes here and there.

Polyana and Rufus are still dear to my heart, having created them and their worlds, and in a sense they validate that my worldview was relatively complete at that young age, though I’m still not as street-savvy as Polyana. But there have been spans of years when they probably didn’t cross my mind at all. I still maintain they’re always there, in the unconscious. Along with Polyana II’s record player that plays the Beethoven movement I could never master. All there. Somewhere.

Because I didn’t receive much feedback on the games–and like all young, optimistic dreamer types I had of course imagined it might lead to a creative career of some sort, but then the bills started coming in and they were relentless next to the $1.00 I received compliments of the shareware principle–each player whose life the game touched means that much more to me when I hear about it.

So the intangible rewards are not really different from what I hope to find with writing: to have others resonate with a project encourages us to return to the struggle of creating something new. It’s especially gratifying to hear when children who played my games remember them fondly into adulthood. That’s what it’s all about.

zzt interviews: alexis janson

robots of gemrule

one of the most prominent voices in ZZT the book belongs to alexis janson. her games – like code red and mission: enigma – and utilities – the super tool-kit – probably shaped more people’s experiences of zzt than the contributions of any other person. presently, she works as a designer for the card game magic: the gathering.

over the next while i’ll be posting the full text of some of the interviews i did for ZZT, with their authors’ consent. these interviews were conducted via email. here’s the first of those interviews: with alexis janson.

So, the most basic question first: how did you first encounter ZZT?

I wanted to design my own video games since I was six, nearly as early as I had my first computer. I started learning to program at six (Commodore 64 BASIC) solely to that purpose. When I’d acquire new video games for my C64, I was inherently drawn to any games that had level editors. I’ve probably tried any C64 game during that time period that had any sort of level-editing capability. When I got my first PC and started mucking about on BBSes (on my 2400-baud modem over long-distance connections) I would download and try any game that promised the ability to create your own levels. It was in this way that I stumbled upon ZZT.

ZZT became an instant obsession. I devoured all the game worlds I could find, tinkered with the editor until I understood every possible option and command, and began pushing the game to it’s limits. As I already knew how to program in “real” languages (albeit not very well) I found myself fighting to write complex control structures and other standard programming constructs in ZZT-OOP, which quickly led me to discover many of the game’s inherent quirks. (limitations on number of flags, objects, memory usage, etc.)

I actually had almost as much fun digging into all the nooks and crannies and working around these flaws as I did making the colorful portion of the STK. (The STK wasn’t just colors- it also had a variety of tips, tricks, and hacks bundled with it)

You were actually selling ZZT games at some point. I remember mailing away and getting a disk from you. How did shareware go for you, and how did you start selling games? Were you very successful?

I was pleasantly surprised, in retrospect, at how many people were willing to pay for my silly little ZZT games. A lot more people were willing to pay for MegaZeux, but I’m not sure I would’ve tried had I not already seen that the model worked. Of course, I was a teenager living with my parents, and so my overhead was virtually zero. I used most of the profits to fund my ever-growing Magic: The Gathering collection. I don’t actually remember how much I made- it felt like a ton as a teenager but I’m sure it was a pittance compared to a normal job.

I later (after a couple of normal jobs) went on to try self-employment as a web programmer, which was very eye-opening (in that I was unable to sustain myself financially), however I long for the days where I could spend all my time writing games and getting paid for it. I’ve been seriously considering getting back into indie game design recently, and I credit my positive experiences with ZZT and MegaZeux for that.

I think the ZZT game of yours that has most resonated with me is Robots of Gemrule. (I actually make reference to it in my first published book of fiction, Star Wench). There’s something about a deteriorating society of robots that suits ZZT really well. What art, culture, other games, personal experiences informed your ZZT work? Was that a period of relative stability or tumult in your life? How old were you?

Honestly, I don’t remember much of the inspiration for my games. My family life was pretty stable, but I was somewhat of a social recluse and ZZT was certainly a creative outlet and a way to escape from the world. I didn’t get to the most tumultuous part until after MegaZeux, of course.

When I was little, I remember going online and discovering all these ZZT games that looked so different from mine, that had all these colors I’d never seen in ZZT before. the Super Toolkit seemed like some kind of contraband collection of illegal colors – it drastically changed what ZZT games after it were to look like. Can you explain how it was created? My understanding is that it involved hex-editing ZZT to change the color values of things?

The very first version of STK didn’t involve any hex editing. ZZT had some tricks (and bugs) that allowed you to create some odd color combinations by overlaying one object over another. I don’t remember any of the tricks anymore, but I believe one example was overlaying an object over a passage to get a background color.

Once I realized that there were extra colors available, it wasn’t much of a stretch to open up the ZZT file and start poking around directly in the bytes. Luckily, the format wasn’t that complicated, and it was pretty easy to simply hand-code all the different color combinations in. There really isn’t anything surprising or tricky to tell here – it’s exactly what any programmer or hacker would expect.

I do remember being part way through Code Red when I figured some of these things out- there were portions of the game that were primarily or even entirely done with no special colors, and other scenes that utilized the new technology.

What ZZT communities did you interact with, and what did you think of your role as being within them? The Super Toolkit affected how ZZT games were made in a big way. I’ve been playing lots of ZZT games as research for my book, and a lot of them seem to pattern themselves off of Code Red pretty transparently: busy, thoroughly implemented family house segueing into gonzo adventure. I think you’re the most-mentioned author in response to the “what games or authors had the most impact on you” question in my questionnaire.

The first ZZT community I was part of was on a pre-Internet service called Prodigy. I believe it was called the “ZZT Club Part Two.” I never understood where Part One went. The Three Trials was actually an “entry exam” to join the club- my work up until that point was considered too derivative and the other members wanted to see more originality. I believe I came up with the initial STK as a member of this club, and I distinctly remember initially receiving a bit of pushback for affecting the “purity” of ZZT.

Later on, I was definitely part of various ZZT communities on the Internet, specifically spending a lot of time on IRC. I don’t honestly remember any names.

Code Red was patterned after the classic Japanese RPG cliche of “normal kid wakes up, discovers something crazy is going on, saves the world”. I believe it was directly inspired by Chrono Trigger, including the multiple endings. Of course, my main goal was to write the largest ZZT game ever, and to have multiple endings- the quality of the plot or any individual scene was never a priority. Quantity over quality. At the time i didn’t think about any sort of impact to a community- I was just trying to do the coolest thing possible.

Later, I felt I needed to make up for unleashing this travesty upon the world. Mission: Enigma was an attempt to do exactly the opposite and fit as much content as I could into as few boards as possible. The title cinema emphasized this before you even started the game.

Megazeux was an attempt at a kind of grown-up ZZT, maybe. What led into this project, and how successful did you consider it? How was the community that grew around megazeux different than those that formed around zzt? I always felt like Megazeux’s community sort of resembled a demoscene community in where its interests lie, that emphasis on technical show-offiness. There’s a lot of Megazeux stuff that is very much its own sort of thing – I ran a Megazeux game, Ruin Diver 3, at a convention called Indiecade last year and it was pretty well-received.

MegaZeux was just me being frustrated with the limitations of ZZT. I loved the core concepts, but felt it left so many things short. Coming from programming on the Commodore 64, I was used to editing character sets to create game graphics, and it felt like a natural extension of the ZZT concept.

Initially the community was just an extension of ZZT, and a lot of the initial games were people writing ZZT games with a few bells and whistles. Really, for years, MegaZeux games were very similar in style to the “Adventure Game” model of ZZT. It wasn’t until much later that people started realizing how much more potential power there was in MegaZeux and started writing things like side strollers, space shooters, etc. I specifically remember making Weirdness partly to try and show people there was a lot more to do than write ZZT-style games. (the choice to do the kid-in-a-house-saves-the-world model was somewhat tongue-in-cheek) The “demo scene” mentality seemed to start around that time.

My main regret with MegaZeux is just how terrible of a coder I was. The original source is probably still out on the Internet somewhere. If you have the opportunity to read it, don’t- it’s some of the most painful code I’ve ever worked in. If I had written the code today, MegaZeux would be much faster, more powerful, and intuitive. Of course, it might not have nearly the same charm. A large part of the appeal with both ZZT and MegaZeux was certainly overcoming limitations and trying to push them to do things they weren’t designed to do. It’s possible that if MegaZeux didn’t have any of its quirks or limitations and had a decent language built-in, it just wouldn’t be that interesting.

I did attempt to write a “better MegaZeux” twice – once as UltraZeux (lost to the ages) and more recently as GCSx (probably still on SourceForge). Neither project got very far, but I definitely feel like GCSx was less interesting as a project precisely because I tried to do everything “right”.

I had already begun transition when I started interacting with the communities that would shape my work. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to transition in a community where my work was already well-known. Was that weird? Difficult? Did you have to distance yourself from those communities, or were they supportive?

I didn’t actually transition “in community”. The need to be myself became more and more overwhelming until I felt my only option was to distance myself from anyone who knew me as Greg. This was when I released MegaZeux into open source, handed the company over to a friend, and disappeared. I completely forgot about ZZT, MegaZeux, and the whole community for years while I dealt with my personal issues.

I didn’t actually transition at this time- I was out to my closest friends, and I spent nearly all of my free time either with them or on IRC, where I could just present as myself and not deal with real life.

One of my biggest regrets is not having the courage to transition during this time period. I knew what I wanted, but was convinced at the time that my parents would never understand and that I could never successfully transition. I was actually convinced at the time that it was an impossibly difficult process and that I would never live up to the standards of society. Trans community, back then (only 15 years ago!) was much, much more focused on passing and standards of femininity, and I took that to heart.

After a few years, I came back to the community quietly- I even entered a “Day of Zeux” contest where you had 24 hours to create a game from scratch, and I came in second place with “Rush”. No one even knew who I was until afterwards. By that time, the community had formed its own rumors about why I had left in the first place, but they quickly settled on the truth because I didn’t try to hide anything, and insisted on being called a different name. Some people didn’t care, some were supportive, and a handful were typical immature teenagers. Well, most of them were immature teenagers, but some of them were still generally OK about the whole thing.

It was a little weird coming back, but mostly I realized I just didn’t fit in. I’d matured a lot and wasn’t all that interested in hanging out with a bunch of teenagers on the Internet who sat around and hacked and chatted all day.

For the record, I didn’t really start transitioning until I started work at Wizards.

You came on staff at Wizards of the Coast through a Magic design contest, right? What was the trajectory like, from digital shareware games to designing for a collectable card game? Has the former informed the latter in any real way? What’s it like to work on a game that’s been around as long, has as much history, as Magic?

I was hired initially through The Great Designer Search (part one – there has since been a second contest) along with several other contestants. Between being done with MegaZeux/ZZT and working at Wizards was a fairly significant gap – 7 or 8 years? – during which time I did no game design or programming. It was interesting to discover that all of the lessons I learned were still kicking around in my head and fairly relevant, even if a bit rusty.

boundaries of play: game design and kink

here’s a talk i gave at qgcon today:

In game design, there’s a concept that game designers sometimes call “the magic circle.” The idea is that the magic circle is a space created by the rules of a game, and within which the normal rules and imbalances that define social interaction do not apply.

A safe space, essentially, where the player can play roles, can enact negotiated aggression and power imbalances without – if the players involved are respectful of boundaries – consequences to the players’ relationships outside of the circle.

19th century robber barons were monstrous figures who exploited hundreds of lives and stole millions of dollars, but within the safety of a game’s rules, players can explore the dynamics of trying to maximize profit by running a system as cheaply as possible, setting other players against each other, driving train companies into the ground and then dumping them on other players for maximum gain and minimum loss.

These are, after all, dynamics that are fascinating and complex, but to explore them outside of the magic circle would have real consequences for real lives.

I’m setting up a comparison here, and though I would never suggest something as simplistic as a one-to-one exchange, I’m keenly aware of and deeply interested in the similarities between one of the roles I play – game designer – and another: domme. As in – and again, this is a bit of a flattening of the complexity of the role – a person who consensually beats up other people.

Most violence occurs in the context of oppression, of one party policing another’s behavior or trying to exert control over that party. You’re beaten up for not fitting cultural expectations for masculinity. Most power imbalance is not consensual – you work at a coffee shop where you serve tech dudes because they control the resources you need to survive. Your choice to tolerate their demands is weighted – you do not have equal power in negotiating the relationship.

Within the boundaries of kink, though, is a safe space for experiencing unequal power dynamics. My girl serves me because it is intensely fulfilling to her to be devoted and attentive, not because I have any kind of economic power over her. It’s a safe space for experiencing violence – consensual violence, within boundaries that have been negotiated by all involved parties, is radically and essentially different than the kind of violence that is inflicted by one party upon another unwilling party.

I’ve acted out forced sex fantasies with partners who were sexually assaulted. I’ve beaten up partners who were beaten up, as kids, without their consent. Within consent, kink can become a place of recontextualizing, of processing, even a place of healing. Kink is a transformative space. And so is all play.

In my work, at least, I’ve gotten a lot out of thinking about the similarities between one type of play, GAMES, and this other type of play, KINK. Let’s talk about role-playing games, because those have some clearly-defined power imbalances right from the start.

Depending on which metaphor means more to you, think of a game like Dungeons and Dragons or Apocalypse World. Those games both have an Emcee or “Dungeon Master” role – someone who invents situations that put the other players in conflict and challenge them to develop their characters. A big responsibility.

The single piece of advice for new game masters that I’ve heard time and time again is: remember that the players aren’t your enemy. Even though you could force them to fight a herd of minotaurs at any time, you’re not trying to defeat them – you’re trying, if anything, to enrich them. D. Vincent Baker, author of Apocalypse World, gives this advice: “‘Make the characters’ lives not boring’ does not mean ‘always worse.’ Sometimes worse, sure, of course. Always? Definitely not.'”

I see a lot of digital games from beginning designers that seem as though they were designed to “beat” the player. To prove, on some level, that the author is smarter, more clever, or more hardcore than the player. In this conceptualization of play, games are quantitative machines which produce a win state.

This is not the reason most people play games, though. Bernie DeKoven’s 1978 book The Well-Played Game (recently back in print) contends that most players are less interested in victory for its own sake than they are in establishing a strong dynamic. Victory is nothing without a struggle – it’s not about being allowed to win too easily, or being made to lose too hard, it’s about a strong back-and-forth, a dynamic that challenges and empowers simultaneously.

It’s easy to see this in kink when we think of kink as a game in which the winner or loser is already decided – which doesn’t necessarily describe all scenes or dynamics, but generally does mine. The outcome isn’t what we’re playing to find out. We’re playing to create, perform and explore conflicts – we’re not trying to see who wins, but to understand the dynamics, and ourselves, better. I’m allowing a bottom to explore vulnerability in a situation in which they know they are ultimately safe.

That’s something we could stand to do more in games: to make the player feel vulnerable rather than superpowered. Well, “make” isn’t the right word here. It’s more accurate to say that we’re doing is CREATING OPPORTUNITIES for the player to feel vulnerable.

I designed a party game recently: it’s a note-passing game where the none of the players are aware of the rules until they receive the note. Everyone who receives the note is required to draw a weapon on it and pass it to the next assassin, thus inducting them into the game. If the “target” of the assassination notices the note at any time, the player holding it is required to expose the failed assassination attempt.

The rules leave a lot of room for expression and negotiation. What counts as a weapon? At what level of detail should my drawing be? Can I hide in a bedroom while I draw my picture? The things that the rules leave undefined are as calculated as the things the rules make explicit. In essence, I’m giving players the opportunity to perform as dangerously as they feel safe doing.

Don’t think that kink is merely about punishing people. It’s also about giving them opportunities to show their strength.

This is why having space around rules in games is so important – that’s the space where negotiation happens. And that’s part of why I’ve been moving away from the single-player digital game lately, aside from the fact that they’re usually really boring. Digital games are generally interested in having airtight, strictly-enforced rulesets.

What does negotiation mean in the context of a digital game? Let me suggest it DOESN’T mean an “Easy,” “Medium” and “Hard” setting. Those labels, offered to the player before they’ve even played the game or developed a context for it, are meaningless.

One of my favorite examples of player negotiation in a single-player digital game is the game Asphyx by Droqen. In this game, one of the rules is given to the player to keep. The player is required to hold her breath whenever her on-screen avatar is under water.

Naturally, in keeping that rule the player is given a lot of room to make her own rules about how the game will be played, to set boundaries. How strict am I going to be about the breath-holding rule? If I lose my breath but I’m about to get out of the water, do I let it slide? Do I ignore the rule entirely because I can’t hold my breath for shit?

Consider that as a designer, your role is more complicated than just “the one who wields all the authorial power.”

As a responsible “DUNGEON MASTER,” it’s not as much about the experience that I want to create as it is about the experience the player creates. It’s not about dragging a player kicking and screaming through my masterpiece. Responsibility does not begin and end with a conversation about limits.

I am at my most attentive, my most reactive, when I’m topping. And this is where the metaphor starts to strain, because when we’re designing we’re creating a set of rules to act in our place when we may not be there. But I think it’s useful to think of a game not as a show that the player is lucky to get to watch but as an experience we’re allowing her to perform, a conversation.

I once heard a definition of being dominant that really impressed me. It was: a dominant person is someone who “receives submission.” I like that definition because it doesn’t mention control or power. It suggests instead that while there isn’t equal authority within a D/s relationship, there is an exchange.

I want to suggest that a game designer isn’t someone who creates or packages a product, but someone who allows play to happen. You are a player; I am someone who receives play.

diy’s game designer skill

diy is a rad site that encourages kids to make stuff by offering a loose curriculum in various skills and incentives to document and share the things they create while completing the site’s challenges. there’s an “animator” skill, a “historian” skill, an “interior decorator” skill. there are lots and lots of skills. each skill is made up of a bunch of tasks: complete three to earn a badge, complete six to “master” a skill. you complete a task by posting pictures or videos of the thing you made, and then other kids tell you how cool the thing you made is so you want to make more things. they commissioned me to create their game designer skill, which just went live.

they already had a “game developer” skill – that one is digital game-oriented. the “game designer” skill would be an introduction to all different kinds of games: board games, card games, physical games, big games, story-telling games. we wanted to include as many different ways of approaching games and as many different uses of them as possible.

curating examples for all of the different tasks was tricky for a few reasons. one is that the diy folks prefer video examples, because kids can just watch those using the diy phone app. i wanted to communicate, though, that game design is primarily the design of rules, and it’s rare to find videos that emphasize the rules of a game and not just what the play or components look like. i compromised by trying to include at least one video for each task; for the rest of the examples, i didn’t sweat linking pages of rules text. i also tried to avoid too many videos of white dudes explaining things to a camera, which, surprise, there are tons of on youtube.

in some cases i called on designers to post or to allow me to post works of theirs for free, on the web, in more accessible formats. in particular, i’m grateful to james ernest for allowing me to post the rules to WoRDWeRX and to mcdaldno for creating an html version of brave sparrow.

i’m looking forward to seeing what these tasks inspire kids to make, and what kinds of things people who are thus inspired as kids will make as adults.

dys4ia post-partum

after friday’s romero’s wives reading, i unwound by delivering a post-partum of my game dys4ia with liz. parham gholami was gracious enough to not only record the thing, but to edit it – my slides weren’t quite working, so there was a little fumbling. you can download the audio recording right here, and the transcript is below. thanks to parham gholami again for creating a transcript of liz’s talk.

i also gave an improvised talk on thursday at the lost levels unconference which was held in the park next to GDC, for free. my talk was on zines and rethinking game distribution. it was recorded, along with a bunch of other talks, although many of my friends’ brilliant talks weren’t. you can see it near the beginning of this video. lost levels was rad, especially in opposition to a conference that charges thousands of dollars for admission – i want it to happen every year.


this is going to be a post-partum for dys4ia. not a “post-mortem.” i know that videogames are really violent most of the time but your game isn’t dead when it’s finished. in fact, when it’s out in the world being played, that’s the only time your game is alive. before that it’s merely gestating, deaf and blind. only when it is interacting with people does a game possess life.

that’s lesson 1.


so what is dys4ia? or


well, to wrap it in a cute, accessible videogame metaphor- actually, it’s hard to put in videogame terms, because videogames are one of the few places in life we’re asked “what gender would you like to be? what would you like your body to look like?” dysphoria exists where that choice does not: it is seeing the reality that has been shaped around you like a wax coccoon, and feeling utterly helpless to change it.

but i did attempt to put it in videogame terms.


dys4ia is an autobiographical game, or “not a game” if you ask someone with a thick enough beard. raph koster called it “a powerpoint presentation.” by his definition, a game is a puzzle to be unraveled. it is a system to be understood. an enemy to be defeated. a country to be conquered. but


is none of those things. what it IS, i need to believe, is a relatable human experience. and what a game actually is is


this is why, if you were paying attention, your game isn’t a game until someone’s playing it. because someone needs to be EXPERIENCING it. well, the experience of


– and the experience of dealing with the gatekeepers one has to go through to start dealing with dysphoria – is one that’s characterized by FRUSTRATION. and i expect i don’t have to prove to anyone in this room that the rules of videogames are capable of creating the experience of frustration.

so to be explicit, dys4ia is a game about the experience of being a transgender woman, which i am, and undergoing hormone replacement therapy, which i have been for over a year. at the time i started making the game dys4ia, i had been on HRT for a few months, and by the time i finished it, i had been on it for about six months. the game became a record of all the different frustrations and transformations i was experiencing, it made sense for the game to be constantly changing scenes, shifting to different facets of the experience. i reached to warioware as a model, because that’s a game that borrows from the player’s existing learned vocabulary of videogames to establish a format that’s in constant flux and yet playable.

so yeah, dys4ia was conceived as a game in the same format as warioware and so, unsurprisingly, it borrows some of the same tricks that warioware uses to be accessible despite its constant flux. here are some of those tricks.


every scene of dys4ia is different, plays different, has a different context. one scene is about shaving, another’s about navigating a maze, another’s catching pills in your mouth. but what’s consistent about the game is what buttons are used to play it: just the arrow keys.

the game may have just changed into something completely different than it was a few seconds ago, but the player has some idea of where to start, because the same buttons she used in one s ccene are the same she uses in another. and the arrow keys are buttons that suggest things, because they represent ideas about space that make sense in a two-dimension image.

the arrow keys are established as the player’s means of input as early as the title screen. instead of press ENTER to start, or SPACE, or click the word “START” with the mouse, i put the player’s hand on the place the game needs it to be. if i had used the spacebar as the “start button” game, that would have introduced the possibility that SPACE is part of the game’s vocabulary of input. every screen, the player would try the spacebar before she tried the arrow keys.

if the game involved pressing the spacebar, i’d have opened the game by making the player press the spacebar. if it involved HOLDING DOWN THE SPACEBAR FOR THREE SECONDS, the game would begin with the player holding down the spacebar for three seconds. if the game was about clicking on brightly-wrapped christmas gifts, you can be the game wouldn’t start until the player clicked on a brightly-wrapped christmas gift.

the frame screen, the screen from which the player selects which acts of the game to play or re-play, is also designed to emphasize, and to be navigable with, the four keys that the player uses to play the game. i want the player’s fingers to stay on those keys, remember. i see a lot of games that play exclusively with the keyboard, and then ask the player to remove her hands from the keyboard between stages, to click on the next stage with the mouse. and then to move her hands back to the keyboard. don’t do that. if the game is designed to be played with the arrow keys, let the player advance the game with the arrow keys.

at this point in writing this talk i had to pause and swallow a spironolactone pill, a testosterone blocker. i take two a day, every day: one when i wake up every morning, and one at eleven p.m. every night. i have an alarm set on my phone to remind me.


here’s one of the reasons warioware is as accessible as it is, given that the player has seconds at most to internalize the objective and rules of any given scenario. it’s because it puts those rules in the context of games the player’s already familiar with. that’s why a third of warioware’s scenes are based on basketball and volleyball, a third of them are based on nintendo games like super mario, and a third of them are based on everyday tasks like cutting hair and washing dishes.

the player who comes to your game has expectations and learned knowledge that can be exploited.

the first scene in dys4ia is about fitting a tetris block into a hole in a wall. this is my metaphor for dysphoria, and the reason i use this metaphor is because it’s one that gives the player expectations: about what to do with this block, about where to put it.

the “i feel like a spy when i use the women’s bathroom” scene contextualizes anxiety over using the woman’s bathroom as a stealth game. the player expects that the goal is not to be seen.

in another scene, my nipples are flashing and moving through a field of spiked balls. players know that flashing objects are sensitive and spiky things are dangerous.

the reason you want to communicate the rules of your game as quickly and succinctly as possible…


…is so you don’t have to resort to exposition. exposition is when you interrupt your game to explicitly tell the player something you could have guided her toward learning yourself. it’s when you have a portrait of THE COMMISSIONER pop up the screen and say “by the way, agent, word’s come down from on high that you can use the UP button to leap over obstacles that might get in your way.”

never explain to the player how to move the story forward if you can lead her toward moving the forward herself. partly this is a matter of choosing stories that you can tell through the vocabulary you’ve established: “cutscenes” mark those places where designers have failed to do this.

on the subject of vocabulary, let me provide an important corollary to my earlier lesson…


…about piggybacking on existing player knowledge, which is: exploiting player knowledge is different than being dependent on it. when the game requires certain knowledge on the part of the player, that makes a game less accessible. and, frankly, i’m sick of games that require twenty years of previous videogame-playing experience in order get anywhere. there are enough games in existence that pander to those people. i’m more interested in making games for the people who who don’t have a master’s degree in strafing while shooting. and on that subject,


if you’ve played dys4ia you may have counted the references to the valve software game “portal,” for example jokes about cakes and about deception involving cakes. there are ZERO. when you put a portal “joke” in your game, and hopefully you can hear from my voice that “joke” is in quotes because there’s nothing inherently funny about the phrase “the cake is a lie,” what you’re actually saying is “i want only nerds to play my game.” if that describes you, i suggest you leave because the things i have to say will hopefully be of no use to you.


I just have a few minutes here, but I wanted to talk about doing the audio for the game, because I believe that audio is extremely important and something that a lot people don’t really take seriously. It’s kind of like an afterthought and a lot of times it’s contracted out. I think it’s important especially in serious games. There’s a tendency in so called “serious games” to be very heavy handed with the audio and try to manipulate people emotionally. I wanted to have something that was very emotionally resonant, and very emotional; but, not manipulative and very true to the experience.

So, I had to take from my own experience as also a trans woman, who has been through what Anna’s been through to some extent. I don’t really want to talk about the original inspiration for the audio right now, since that would take up too much time. But basically, the audio combines Anna’s voice sounds, which are the sounds that bring you through the game, that respond to the actions that you’re doing and then, in the background, there’s a soundtrack, which is a meshed together blob of ambient noises, talking, closing doors, and there’s this tentative melodic thing that starts and then as you move through the game, I treat it as one continuous piece, but it’s split into four parts– five, including the title screen. It’s all part of the same progression, the same instruments.

By the end, when she’s starting to feel more like things are starting to move forward, a melody takes over. This game is sort of a patchwork-like game; it’s very difficult to score something like this. I wanted to just do something that encompassed that patchwork-like feel in the audio. It’s frustrating because this is a game that does something that other games have not done before and because of that people focus on that. But, I think that the aesthetics, both the visual style and audio, are extremely important. It’s always frustrating to me that people don’t really talk about it; don’t really understand how to talk about it in a vocabulary that makes sense. Hopefully, in the end, it really contributed to the experience and made it more emotionally resonant with people, even if you haven’t been through that. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say.


think about the rules you introduce in your game as characters. characters develop, characters grow and change, characters face conflicts and are transformed by the experience. we can watch a character develop over the course of a story.

in dys4ia we revisit characters, symbols. try having the player move around your “level select” screen the same way she moves around the levels. the practical benefit of this is that you get to reuse things, and that’s economical. you don’t have to redraw this brick wall, you don’t have to code a new way for the player to move a character around. the benefit to the player is that she’s actually watching the characters and her relationship to them grow.

i could go into how super mario bros. is actually about the developing relationship between mario’s horizontal movement and mario’s vertical movement, but i think i’ll leave that as an exercise for you instead. play the game and notice how the relationship between moving left/ right and jumping develops over the first world alone.


dys4ia takes five to ten minutes to play. that’s exactly how long it takes to express the ideas in the game. in a contemporary super mario game, once you’ve figured out how to grab the bomb from over here and carry it all the way back over here and throw it into the boss’s mouth during the short time that it’s open and hurt it, you still need to repeat the same sequence of actions five more times before you can go on with the game.

an eighty-hour game is one hour of ideas padded out with seventy-nine hours of bullshit. i want you to get past the idea that “more play time is more value.” the most valuable thing a player has is time. the most harmful thing a game designer can do is waste the player’s time.


and here’s my last lesson. when i started working on dys4ia i was only a few months into hormone replacement therapy. i had no idea how the game was going to end. but i kept taking time off from the game – to spend time with friends, to work on other projects, like KEEP ME OCCUPIED. when i came back to dys4ia, time had passed, things had changed, and i knew how to finish the game.

this industry has unreasonable expectations for the time and labor of all of us. we’re taught that working hours and hours of unpaid overtime without seeing our families is part of the culture – “crunch time,” we call it. but it’s not part of the culture, it’s not a rite of passage or a mark of pride. it is corporations disregarding our human needs. let’s not be naive and let’s not be fooled.


the story that i like to tell is when i was working on lesbian spider-queens of mars. the game was almost finished – i had just added the boss and was getting ready to show the game to adult swim. i was so close to getting the game complete. i had work to do.

my partners begged me, pleaded, dragged me muttering and protesting and snapping at them to a beach house on a cliff at sunset beach. the next morning, instead of tweaking numbers on my computer, i was building sand dongs with my loved ones on the beach.

what we need right now are videogames made by human beings, not machines. people care about dys4ia because it’s a personal game that drawns from my personal, human experience. when we lose our ability to be human, we lose the ability to create games that are relatable by other humans. let’s remember to be human beings. don’t let corporations dehumanize us. this is my last advice to game developers: go outside. kiss someone who loves you.

make your first game in twine

being the author of a book about digital game-making for non-coders and a hopeful ambassador for game creation, i figured i should have some link on the front of my site where someone with no game-making experience can click and learn how to make her first videogame. naturally, i picked the simplest, most non-coder-friendly, and my favorite game-making tool: twine.

knytt syndromes

knytt stories is an amazing introduction to level design. it attracts a lot of amateur designers, which is rad. but i also see lots of amateur designers make the same mistakes, and it’s frustrating.

there’s a zzt game called zzt syndromes that tries to identify common design errors in zzt worlds, created in the hope that making designers aware of common errors and suggesting simple solutions would lead to an improvement in the quality of levels. i figured the same thing couldn’t hurt knytt stories.

knytt syndromes is a collection of design problems i see in a lot of knytt stories: making the player guess where a platform is off-screen, confusing background and foreground tiles, being stingy with save points. if designers are conscious of design pitfalls, maybe they won’t fall in – and drag the player in with them.

game design lesson: courage, cunning and three arrows

cloudy mountain (aka “ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS cartridge”) for the intellivision is a pack of neat little ideas. today an ad&d-licensed game would probably involve talking to bartenders in rural towns to take quests to go investigate a cave and kill blork the orc and bring back his stolen magic sigil, bringing you one half-step toward your ultimate goal of reaching the ancient temple and banishing the mad god. it would probably look a lot like the new elder scrolls game, basically. but in 1982 tom loughry of mattel’s “blue sky rangers” had to choose just one aspect of the dungeons & dragons experience to focus on. he chose the suspense of navigating an unknown cave system while a trecherous dungeon master springs traps and monsters on you every time you discover a new room.

what aids the sense of suspense and strategy in cloudy mountain is the limited stock of arrows the player has with which to slay enemies. she starts the game with three, and she can pick up more in the caves but they can be hard to find. the player needs to be careful in choosing which monsters to kill, which to avoid, and which to try and lure away from the treasures they’e guarding. the player can’t see into the next chamber until she enters it, but there are visual and audio clues to whether a monster is lurking in the next chamber, and what kind. a cow skull in a room, for example, indicates a dangerous monster laired in one of the adjacent chambers. standing near the doorway, the player can hear the flapping of bat wings, the snoring of a dragon, or the slurping of a slime.

this kind of clue is distinctive of cloudy mountain’s approach to design, which is to convey as much information as possible through the game world itself, rather than say a list of numbers on a status screen, like an elder scrolls game might. for example, the protagonist’s health – the number of monster attacks she can withstand before dying – is represented by the color of the protagonist on the screen, changing from black to warmer colors as she approaches death. the player’s remaining lives are represented by the number of dots that make up her adventuring party as she wanders around the map screen. the only other number to track is the number of arrows the player has in her quiver, and the game does something pretty clever to keep this off the screen.

(the player also accumulates a few tools, an axe, a boat and a key, but these are one-time use items that require work to obtain so relying on the player to remember she has them isn’t asking too much.)

one of the buttons on the controller is a “count arrows” button (the intellevision controller has a grid of buttons and an overlay to slide over them, specific to the game, to remind you what they are). when the player presses the count arrows button, the game plays a series of audio ticks – one tick for each arrow left in her quiver. if she’s only got, say, five or fewer, then the ticks are easy to count, and the number of arrows available to her is important. if the player has too many to easily count, then the specific number’s not important: it’s clear she’s got a lot, and she’s safe for a while.

using an audio reminder is super smart in a game that already places such importance on having the sound up and listening for the telltale sounds that convey information, and forcing the player to stop and take count of her arrows makes sense in a game that emphasizes planning over panic. and it lets the game cut out a level of abstraction, of distance, that having a big number plastered on every screen would create. as a similar example, look at the brilliant nes game AIR FORTRESS, and how it uses audio and visual tells, not a clock on the screen, to indicate how close a fortress is to self-destructing.

here’s a video of cloudy mountain (or rather its unlicensed prototype, “adventure”). notice how clean the game is, and how much the audio tells us about what’s going on. when you hear a series of rapid-fire ticks, that’s the player checking her arrows.

a place to download game maker 8

game maker is an incredibly valuable tool for non-programmers and non-professionals who want to explore game-making. discovering it in 2004 was life-changing. in 2011 there are other easy-to-use game making tools, but game maker still occupies an intersection of versatility and transparency that few other tools can lay claim to. unfortunately, yoyo games, the company that was founded to distribute game maker, is more interested in spinning it as a product for professionals and small studios than for hobbyists, dabblers and non-professionals. the new release of game maker being marketed on yoyo’s site, game maker 8.1, comes with a forty dollar price tag. at least, the “standard version” of game maker does. yoyo has always maintained both a pay version of game maker and a free, “lite” version. the real problem is that the alternative to the forty dollar purchase, game maker 8.1 lite, requires an author to stamp an ugly “made in game maker” watermark on every screen of a finished game. hell of a way to kill pride in someone’s very first videogame.

mark overmars, the creator of game maker and founder of yoyo games, suggested to me that people who are interested in making game maker games without a watermark can just use older versions of the free program, like game maker 8.0 lite, which “can still be found on the web.”  this version just displays a “made with game maker” banner on the game’s loading screen, but doesn’t interfere with your precious game itself. and while game maker 8 can still, yes, be found on the web, it can’t be found at yoyo’s own website, and i don’t trust the third-party download links scattered around the web to stick around. so here, then, a permanent home for game maker 8. click here to download game maker 8 lite, and make games with mark overmars’ blessing.