IF Games from The Commonplace Book Project


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Emily ShortCommonplace Book ProjectMuch interactive fiction requires a time commitment of an hour or two, and sometimes quite a bit more. Not so with the text adventure entries in the Commonplace Book project, in which each entrant took a line from a notebook by H. P. Lovecraft and spun it out into a game. This was an international competition, drawing entries in English, French, and Spanish, as well as a couple of graphical point-and-click adventures.

The English-language text entries include:

In "Ecdysis", by project organizer Peter Nepstad, the player wakes to find himself suffering from something that feels like a fever. "Ecdysis" toys with the player's perceptions in ways that only a text-based game can: the environment reflects two realities at once, and the challenge for the player is to negotiate both and bring about an ending that suits his increasingly divided persona.

This may sound confusing, but it really isn't: game-play is well-guided, and both possible endings make sense and feel suitably horrific.

"The Cellar", by David Whyld, is a fast-paced, grotesque story about what you find in the basement, drawn from Lovecraft's line, "A man's body dies, but corpse retains life...". There's much more to the story than the tag-line implies, though; Whyld has taken the original concept and turned it into a significantly longer narrative.

"Dead Cities", by Jon Ingold, won best-in-show with the most ambitious piece of the three:

"The letter you received from Arkwright's nephew Carter was clear enough: when the old man dies the inheritance tax will be too great. To raise some capital, the nephew has set up buyers for Arkwright's collection of rare and old books..."

Ingold's work is strange and challenging, evocative and opaque like Lovecraft's own stories. I first played "Dead Cities" weeks ago, but its central imagery has stuck with me. One of my favorite lines: "Thunder rolls around the house as if trying to open up the roof with a boot-knife."

As in "Ecdysis", there are several possible outcomes, though I have yet to find one that I would exactly call happy.

These are great pieces of IF to play during lunch or over a coffee break: they reward replay, but a single playthrough feels satisfying and won't take more than ten or fifteen minutes.

There are no online versions currently available, so you'll need an IF interpreter to play the downloaded game files, but the following programs will run each of these games (and most other IF you may want to try in the future): Gargoyle (Windows), Spatterlight (Mac OS X), Zoom (Unix).

If you enjoy these, I also recommend Andrew Plotkin's "Shade" (for short, disorienting horror) and (for a longer dip into Lovecraftian IF) Michael Gentry's superb Anchorhead.

41 Comments

tenkuchima August 15, 2007 2:38 PM

they look like fun but i cant figure out how to play them, the intructions for gargoyle are like reading another language to me

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Just download Gargoyle and install it. Then double click on the file of the game. Your computer will ask you how to open the file - choose the option to select the program from a list. When the list appears, you will probably have to click browse, then manually find Gargoyle (the program). Select that and the game should run (and all files of that type should also run automatically in Gargoyle).

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I just installed Gargoyle and found it rather easy to do.

  • The link to Gargoyle takes you to a page with a download link.

  • That displays a page with several files (admittedly the most confusing part). The one you want is the .exe file, which most Windows install programs are. It's the only .exe file in the listing.

  • Running that file after downloading it installs the program Gargoyle.

  • Now download any of the IF pieces referenced and then just drag and drop the game file onto the Gargoyle icon. Windows may even recognize those file types after installing Gargoyle such that a simple double-click will launch Gargoyle and run the game automatically.

Not too bad all things considered. :)

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The link doesn't seem to be working for me.

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What link are you referring to?

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First of all, I just want to say how excited I am about Gargoyle - I haven't played any IF in a while, and I was always so annoyed that there was no one "unified" interpreter. One question - does it run Adrift games?

Secondly, I think it should be mentioned that the reviewer of these games, Emily Short, is a celebrity in the IF world. Now, on to the games!

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Oi! Spatterlight works great, and has a load and save which is awesome. I'm stuck at the cellar already...I feel like I've used everything given in the room. I

opened the box to find no key, but I can't figure out where else it could be! I'm sure it's really obvious XD

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Emily Short? I remember playing galatea and having a brief go at savoir faire. Didn't know she had other ones until just checking her site now.

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CordableTuna August 15, 2007 3:53 PM

Does Ecdysis have other endings beside

choosing which larvae to eat?

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groksocket August 15, 2007 4:53 PM

CordableTuna -
All else I've found so far is to

stab Helen or the children with the shard,

which doesn't accomplish much. There is supposedly a "better" ending, one that's merely depressing instead of horrifying.

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Gargoyle is indeed pretty sweet, but unfortunately, there are as few types of games it won't run, and a few types that i won't run quite right or it will have to run without all the features. Still, it's the closest thing out there to a universal IF interpreter, and it's damn nice when all goes well.

btw, it's not super short, but one of the IF games I always recommend is Slouching Towards Bedlam. it has a fantastic story, very creepy and interesting.

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These games always make me crazy. It says there are stairs down to the kitchen but it doesn't recognise the word stairs or kitchen. It's hard to get into it when it takes four tries to get it to recognise anything.

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To people baffle who have trouble with Ecdysis:

It is apparent the guy is nuts. He will eat his wife and children if you let him. If you want to save his family you have to make him remember stuff.

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Shade is my favorite of the 5.

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Kat: Like any genre, IF has certain conventions that, once you get used to them, become second nature. In most IF you travel by simply typing the direction you want to go--so in the case you mentioned, you would simply type "down" or "go down."

(On a more technical level, the reason the game doesn't recognize either "stairs" or "kitchen" is that neither are actually in your current location. It may seem odd at first, but the more IF you play the more you get used to it.)

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Emily Short, you are so cool! I recommend your site to anyone even remotely interested in IF. <3

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Anyone find a "better" ending for Ecdysis?

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I need some help for Ecdysis...

I tried to make him remember by typing in remember Helen, remember Michael, remember Mary, remember home, remember blanket, remember bathroom...wake up, kiss large larvae, kiss small larvae...to no avail....I could really appreciate some help here. I took the blanket too, and looked at it repeatedly, but it also didn't help.

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Yeah I tried remembering all that stuff too. He mentions the light from the opening as being like from a window he saw on earth but trying to remember anything related to that didn't work either.

I did eventually figure out the "go down" thing. I guess I just keep trying to make it too complicated.

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I can't sleep.

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Aha, I figured out the trick to the other ending (which is only marginally more cheerful).

Remember earth

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Okay now I'm stuck on Shade. Messed with all the items I saw but it doesn't seem to have really accomplished anything (besides finding the flight tickets).

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Without meaning to plug myself too much, I did a
review
a while ago which included Shade (and some other IF by the same author), and the comments there include some help.

General tips are to just follow what's on the list. The flight tickets are the hardest part of the game, but I believe the trick is to

Search every possible location, including the jacket, desk, luggage and possible vacuum cleaner.

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now I'm having trouble with the cellar. I'm

stuck in the kitchen with an egg, a cob, a sandwich, and lettuce.

Help!

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Ecdysis just struck me as a little too incomplete, and thus very guess-the-verb-y. That might have something to do with the time frame of the competition, but the world just felt very empty. In general, if an object (like the bedstand) is in the room description, it should be examinable, no? Also, there were a few buggy points, like how WASH HANDS WITH WATER yields "You cannot explain it, but you do not wish to touch the water, or have the water get on you in any way." TOUCH WATER, however, gives a simple "You feel nothing unexpected." Huh?

Dead Cities was very nice, and I think I found the "happy" ending. I never got his signature or the especially valuable (non-evil) book, but at least the world didn't end and I came out of it alive. I wasn't quite sure I understood the purpose of the Orbis, though. Usually when there's an encyclopedic character or book in which you can LOOK UP something (e.g. HOSEA in the very excellent Babel), you're going to want to use it to find more information about something, but none of the articles I found told me any more than I'd heard from Arkwright in the first place. Curious.

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I found out about this artist who collect these shells it might help us understand ecdysis better. Miho Hatori loves words. As one half of the international pop phenomenon Cibo Matto, Hatori sang in French, Portuguese, Japanese and English, creating lyrics that made words dance and flow as sweetly as a stream of summer water slipping down a mountainside. "Every language gives you a new perspective," Hatori says, even if that language is the language of insects. "I grew up near a river where there were a lot of pear fields and every summer I went out to pick up cicada shells. When the cicadas do ecdysis (ek duh sis,) the shells they leave behind are brown, but they emerge with a beautiful, glistening green color that's impossible to describe. I was thinking a lot about how stunning nature's work is while I was working on this album." The music on Ecdysis -- Miho's debut solo album to be released on Rykodisc -- has a wide-open, adventurous spirit with multi-layered arrangements that draw you deeper with every listen. Hatori has created an album that tips its hat to the past, present and future of pop music with its unlimited vision and openhearted generosity of spirit. Rhythms from Japan, Jamaica, Brazil, Bali, Africa and Arabia rub up against American rock, blues and pop to produce an album of global resonance that draws upon the past while leaping fearlessly into the 21st century.

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This combines two of my favorite things: intriguing text adventure games and Lovecraftian works. Excellent find!!!

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I'm kind of stuck on Dead Cities - Arkwright collapsed and I don't seem to be able to help him..

To best ending I have so far, with the super valuable book, but Arkwright not rescued:

GET OFF HORSE, TIE HORSE, KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK, SHOW LETTER TO MAID, IN, GIVE COAT TO MAID, GET LETTER, Z, Z, Z, IN, SIT, ASK ARKWRIGHT ABOUT PRINCIPIA, YES, OUT, UP, ASK MAID ABOUT ATTIC, UP, DOWN, ASK MAID ABOUT TRUNK, YES, UP, UNLOCK TRUNK WITH KEY, OPEN TRUNK, GET PRINCIPIA, MOVE SHEET, EXAMINE PORTRAIT (hmm, I wonder who that could be..), EXAMINE JUNK, GET STRINGLESS VIOLIN, GET VIOLIN BOW, GET METRONOME, DOWN, GET BROOM, DOWN, IN, ASK ARKWRIGHT ABOUT SIGNATURE, OPEN BUREAU, GET INK, GET PEN, GIVE INK TO ARKWRIGHT, GIVE PEN TO ARKWRIGHT, GET INVENTORY, Z until Arkwright leaves the room, OPEN PACKAGE, GET GLASS, READ BOOK THROUGH GLASS until the horse "looms at the window", Z until you hear the housemaid (the gas leak will never kill you), YES, ASK MAID ABOUT ARKWRIGHT, THROW BOOK AT WINDOW, GET BOOK, SMASH WINDOW, OUT, SMASH HORSE, GET SHARD, FOLLOW PATH, EXAMINE STATUE, GET STONE KEY, UNLOCK DOOR, OPEN DOOR, IN, Z until Arkwright joins you, GIVE BOOK TO ARKWRIGHT until he slumps on the floor, EXAMINE ARKWRIGHT, GET BRASS KEY, GET HANDKERCHIEF, OPEN OAK DOOR WITH BRASS KEY, IN, GET PRINCIPIA (it somehow appears here!), GET any other books you want from the shelves, OUT, GET the Kaman-Thah if you want, OUT, OUT.

But if you wish to spoil the atmosphere completely, there's a fun bug: the parser equates FEED with GIVE. So when the maid appears (for instance) you can FEED LETTER TO MAID. You can also FEED the Kaman-Thah to Arkwright when he asks you for it. However, if you try and FEED LETTER TO HORSE at the very start of the game, you'll find that your horse isn't considered animate.

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I hate to double post, but I'm stuck in the first room in The Cellar... (I could have sworn I've looked EVERYWHERE for the darn key, and I can't leave the room!)
A hint would be very much appreciated
PS: I LOVED Shade and I believe I commented on it in the previous review. Ecdysis was very cool but felt far too short to be

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I meant that I had found the tickets but hadn't accomplished much else. This is what all else I've done:

Watered the plant
Got something to drink
Turned off the computer
Turned on the radio
Tried to vacuum with no benefit
Got the crackers

It seems to keep hinting at the sand on the floor but I have no idea what I'm supposed to do about it.

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Kat: The only thing I can say without spoiling what happens next is to

keep trying to use EVERYTHING! Open, close, turn on, off, pick up, everything. Anything more will be a blatant spoiler and it would ruin the game.

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Well then I give up on Shade because I've tried everything I can think of on everything and it hasn't done anything.

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In Shade, you need to

make sure you keep checking your to-do list. It will update during the game and provide some hints about what to do at intermediate points.

Re. the key in Cellar:

Have you had a good look at the table?

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In Shade, you can pretty much just keep on reading the to-do list and it'll always tell you something you should try next.

If it's blank, explore and discover more things.

Shade is far more about "the experience" than doing puzzles..

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Shade walkthru:

GET UP, GET LIST, GET BOOK, READ LIST, READ BOOK, EXAMINE PLANT (do these 3 throughout the game, they are important!) ENTER KITCHEN (glitch: you 'stand up' even though you stood up already), GET GLASS, FILL GLASS, DRINK WATER, Z, OUT, READ LIST (note description changes).
Look for the tickets in 3 places - you can do these in any order, and they'll always be in the last place you look (of course! :) )
1: EXAMINE CLOSET, EXAMINE JACKET, SEARCH JACKET.
2: EXAMINE DESK, SEARCH DESK.
3: EXAMINE LUGGAGE, SEARCH LUGGAGE.
GET TICKETS, (what was that underfoot?), LOOK, EXAMINE SAND, READ LIST (description changed), EXAMINE VACUUM, GET VACUUM, TURN ON VACUUM, (eh?) TURN OFF VACUUM, EXAMINE SAND, OPEN VACUUM, (listen to news broadcast..) Z, Z, Z, READ BOOK (description changed).
Things start to get weird, and dark... ENTER KITCHEN, OPEN FRIDGE, OPEN JAR, OPEN CUPBOARD, GET BOX, OPEN BOX, EXAMINE PLANT (different!?), READ LIST (changed - need to water the plant, so) FILL GLASS, READ LIST (changed again!), EXAMINE CLOSET (hang on, there's a DOOR now!?), OPEN CLOSET, TURN ON STOVE, GET CRATE, READ LIST (you can tell where this is going..), OPEN FRIDGE, OPEN LUGGAGE, TURN ON SHOWER, CLOSE CUPBOARD, READ LIST (note last entry, and the result!.. and this continues..) SEARCH DESK, FLUSH TOILET, Z, READ LIST (weird change..), READ BOOK (different?), EXAMINE PLANT (Different again?), OPEN DOOR (wuh..?), (time for the big moment!) OPEN SHADE, EXAMINE WINDOW, LOOK, EXAMINE PLANT, EXAMINE MIRROR (are we starting again?) GET LIST, GET BOOK, SIT (nope..) GET BOOK, READ BOOK (the truth revealed), TURN OFF STEREO, TURN OFF COMPUTER, SIT ON FUTON, EXAMINE FIGURE, GET FIGURE, do anything you like to the figure (BLOW ON FIGURE / KILL FIGURE / FIGURE, HELLO / KISS FIGURE) until it dies, READ BOOK, Z, Z.

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In Ecdysis:

You don't need to remember earth. When in the tunnel, at the dead end with the larvae, look out the opening. You'll need to remember Michael or Mary then. Now jump out the window.

That's the best ending I got.

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NOTE: In Ecdysis, that's the best ending I've ever found. I'm not sure you can win without either dying or becoming senile. If you get a better one, though, post it.

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Never would've occured to me to

open the vacuum

Thanks!

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I just finished "Ecdysis."
It's a quick play--took me 5, maybe ten minutes to get both endings without starting over, but it was brilliant.

Although the transition from normal human to alien was sudden, somehow it managed to make no sense, and complete sense at the same time.

And, it really is true--both endings work very well, and are strangely horrific, yet amazingly perfect.

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Snowmiddy Author Profile Page April 15, 2008 5:50 PM

hmm, i've only played Ecdysis so far, it didn't take me to long (it helped that you just had to click on the highlighted words) and i did it in about ten minutes waiting for my sister to get ready for school. i really liked it, and even though i don't have much experience with interactive fictions, i thought it was a pretty easy one to figure out. now, i'm playing beyond the threshold which is on the site when you click the link, and it is a bit harder, but hey it has graphics so it's worth it! xD

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One quick question about Ecdysis...

I absolutely love it, though I can't help but feel that I'm missing something... Are there any endings possible, besides

the ones in which you eat the kids, kill your wife, and leap out of the window?

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