I'm surprised I haven't written about Dave Morris' gamebook "Heart of Ice" before. I mean, I have, but I would have thought in the decade plus that I've been blogging here I would have covered it.

Growing up from about age seven we would leave south Wales during the nicest time of year and migrate to the north of England where the weather could be best described as "Autumnal" and the terrain "open" (read: barren). It was part of a contract to supply hunting falcons - they needed to be supplied trained during that period. I was dragged along because I was a child and couldn't be abandoned to enjoy the summer. On the plus side this is probably why I still revel in warm weather!

One of the highlights (as this was pre-internet access) was the local library. It wasn't amazing but it was substantially better than the one we had in Carmarthen even though it was smaller. Having revisited that library in the mid 2000s I'm still not sure what large sections of it were for.

Anyway the Haltwhistle library had a promotional standee thingy containing books. I seem to recall it showed a gorgeously printed snake creature but that could just be a false memory. In it were a series of choose-your-own-adventure style books. I'd encountered the format previously having been introduced to the Fighting Fantasy series by a friend. The relatively complex dice mechanics and similar didn't really work for me though and so I tended to read them more for the story than anything else.

I borrowed all the books from the standee at various points but the one I kept coming back to was, unsurprisingly, Heart of Ice. It had a clear slip cover on it and I loved it. I borrowed it every summer and desperately wanted my own copy. My mother tried to track one down (she'd often visit book shops and pick books she thought I might like to encourage me to read - a success but possibly the reason I'm crap at picking books for myself) to no avail.

Years later I emailed Dave Morris and he provided both a PDF and somewhere to buy a reprint. I later contacted him about developing a game based on the book. It would have been an open source game done through a small group I was involved with but whilst I received permission things never got started on that project.

Time passed.

Then last year I thought "I'm working on my own Twine/Sugarcube game - why not take a break and port the original book? How hard can it be?"

You might think the answer would be "much harder than expected" but it wasn't. In programming terms the game is relatively simple. There's no randomness, for example. The thing that took a while was importing every passage (400+) as well as scanning and processing the artwork. As mentioned in a previous post I really don't like my Twine games to be a collection of files. If at all possible I want them self-contained and for this game that meant being clever with the choice of compression. Conveniently (the book cover and map aside) all the artwork is in black and white. Literally. There are no shades of grey whatsoever. This meant I was able to use a very limited colour palette to produce high resolution versions of the images. That matters because have you looked at a modern phone or tablet?

I wanted this stuff to look sharp! The art is gorgeous and it'd be such a shame to only have some blurry JPEGs when something better would be possible with some effort. This did mean scanning in all the artwork myself though but what the hell, why not?

Amusingly because of the way Blogger works it will look fairly muddy but trust me, in the game the illustrations look great.

I also upscaled some additional artwork where appropriate from the original artist, Russ Nicholson. You can see some of it here. Quite an iconic style and the reprinted book I mentioned earlier contained at least one extra piece so in it went too!

Something that wasn't in the original book was sound - it wasn't powered by Ultraword™after all.

If I had the right gear and unlimited time I would have liked to create soundscapes for every location but unfortunately that wasn't an option. Many players may not hear the game's sounds though so I thought it might well be wasted effort regardless. I instead included a few sounds for usability:

  • Should you be unfortunate enough to die you'll be subjected to the howling wind over snowy plains.
  • Reloading a barysal gun is surprisingly uncommon and so there's a cue for that too.
  • Being unable to purchase something due to lack of funds also has a little tone.
  • There's also a sound for opening the map. The illustration on the inside cover of the original book always felt it was lacking some sort of noise so I had to figure something out!
Finally I implemented some custom fonts to convey when certain types of character speak (usually mechanical voices - I wanted Gilgamesh to be particularly unpleasant to read. Yes, that font choice was deliberate.).

I did some bug testing (not enough as it turns out - is there such a thing as "enough bug testing"?) and then contacted Dave Morris. Better late than never, eh?

If you follow Dave's blog you'll already have seen this but it became his Christmas present to fans!

You can play the game here: 

The URL isn't very nice, I know, but I don't want to finalise things until I'm fairly confident it won't need to be changed again. Oh and saving the web page should get you everything as it's self-contained.

Right, I'm going to go turn the heating on!

I'm still paying Fallout 4. Whilst I'm enjoying it I'd quite like to reach the end because once I'm done I don't plan on ever playing through it again. Not in a bad way - I just can't see my future self sinking this much time into a single game.

I don't like ridiculously short games but equally if a game is over a certain length it's almost an immediate non-starter - assuming I know the approximate length of the game going in of course.

This has lead me to wish that Bethesda could do several things with a future Fallout game. I don't think there's any chance of them doing these things and that's pretty much why I'm writing about them. Furthermore as a player I only think I know what I want. Customers often say they want one thing but then purchasing patterns don't actually support that and I suspect the same would be true here. I'd like some of the following tried though!

1. A smaller game world.

As much fun as a sprawling game world is it's still too small. Y'see when it comes to worlds Bethesda doesn't make them to scale. Most developers don't. Reality is big and that's not actually all that fun to traverse. Add to that the task of detailing everywhere being immense and we're at a situation where it's either a matter of procedural generation (hard to do right) or lots of hours of work for a small army of developers (ruinously expensive and also hard).

Modern incarnations of the Gamebryo engine can at least handle tens of NPCs so the place doesn't feel quite as empty but the idea of an in-game location being a "city" is still painfully jarring. It works fine for a "settlement" but no, that's not a city. That's not even a town.

As with many things creativity is often spurred on by limitations. I wish Bethesda would embrace their limitations and try to tell a compelling and reactive story within those rather than aiming for something beyond the scope of what they can realistically realise.

2. A more reactive game world.

I'm making my way through Fallout 4's story but before I really got started I took the time to build a network of well-populated settlements. I dragged many of them kicking and screaming into civilisation. By that I mean I'd take over a settlement with people living in pathetic shacks that would in no way be suitable for the climate they live in. I'd define a perimeter to be defended and build with concrete. Proper structures that could be defended. Solid concrete walls thick enough to provide a barrier against the radiation storms that often blow in from the south west. Lighting. Water. Food.

This sort of thing is very rarely commented on in the game's story though. It's not programmed to react to my exploits most of the time. When I encountered the character of Deacon I was incredibly pleased that he was on my side on the basis of my exploits. He knew that I'd done things and should be allied with as soon as possible.

Similarly I enjoyed having the option to tell a journalist:
"You're all living in rusty shacks, killing each other, and my God, the smell..."
I'm trying to roleplay as my character and whilst she's generally a force for good I also try to remember that she's a pre-war lawyer. She is intelligent, incisive, and doesn't take any bullshit. Sometimes she will ask questions she knows the answers to in order to see what the other party thinks about the matter.

So upon being presented with Bethesda's idea of what 200 years after a nuclear war looks like I would expect her to think "Really? This is the best you could do?"

Note that this contrasts with what 200 years after the war looks like in Black Isle's Fallout universe. There they've realised that they can, in fact, build... new structures. Mind blowing.

The general point being that most of the time my character doesn't seem to be recognised by the game world. It is unaffected by her and she is unaffected by it. Companions will comment on an area but she remains silent. It's pretty immersion breaking.

Scale it down and make it react more. If I do remarkable things or establish trade networks that's a big deal. It's a big deal because everyone else seems to mostly be sitting around sulking rather than getting their shit together.

3. Stop being scared to create.

There's the headquarters of a toy company. They're a Bethesda creation (and their toy, Giddyup Buttercup is too). Well done. On a terminal one can read about possible future models of the toy that would have tie-in branding. Which companies are named? Nuka cola, Vault-Tec, and Rob-co.

Wow. Yes, obviously. Such natural fits and certainly not chosen because barely any other notable named companies exist within the canon. Would it have killed them to create some plausible tie-ins?

Similarly many of the enemies that exist in the Bethesda Fallout games have at best a very flimsy justification for being there. The same is true for various drugs found in the games. Psycho, for example, is a military drug:
A unique delivery system filled with strange and unknown chemicals of probably military origin. It is supposed to increase the combat potential of a soldier.
But of course you find it all over the place in Bethesda's games because why not?
The drug "Jet" was invented during the events of Fallout 2. You can have its creator join your party.

Fuck it though, let's ignore that and have it spread across America rather than California. We could invent a similar drug and call it something else but we didn't buy the Fallout IP not to use it.

Yeah, it's dumb, it's lazy, and it takes me out of the moment. If you need something in the game check if it already exists and could plausibly be found there. If it isn't plausible create something else to fit the bill.

In general I want a tighter experience that feels less like a load of addictive game mechanics strung together and more like a roleplaying environment. Not much point in creating a roleplaying game if the player's actions don't really matter.