Phantom: caverns of the killer by Brandon Coker [Comp05]

IFDB page: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer
Final placement: 31st place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right up front this game starts sending out the red flags. There’s the fact that its title isn’t in title case. There’s the fact that the debugging verbs are left on. (Not that I remember how to use them decades later.) And then there are the opening sentences:

Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the military ranks faster that any other.

So, whew, just very rough right away. I dialed my expectations down, way down, and kept playing. Here is an advantage to playing the comp games outside the comp period — it had been about 6 months since I played Dreary Lands. Consequently, my patience account had built back up, enabling me to battle through the terrible writing and nonsensical milieu, looking for some things to appreciate.

The impression I got was of a very, very young author (or at least one who hadn’t done a lot of writing or received a lot of feedback), more attuned to the programming part of IF than the writing part. This is a demanding medium, in that it requires authors to be skilled in two traditionally separate areas — prose storytelling and coherent code. Phantom has its problems with the latter (though much less so than, say, Dreary Lands), but falls down very badly on the former.

The result is a game that tries to horrify, but keeps stumbling into unintentional comedy. Horror in particular is a tough genre for an author lacking basic skills, though it’s apparently an attractive one for such authors as well — see Exhibit A, Rybread Celsius. In order for a reader to be scared or creeped out by a fictional world, she’s got to be able to suspend disbelief about that world, and under an avalanche of prose errors, it’s pretty difficult to suspend disbelief.

Another obstacle to believing in Phantom‘s world lies in the weird numbers that occasionally pepper the text. For example:

>open black box
The box opens but a hand comes out grabs your face and squeezes the blood from your veins.1

“1”? I mean, the death message is a little comical as it is, what with the way a hand to the face somehow causes circulation problems, but the “1” afterwards is clearly just a mistake, or maybe a debugging leftover. Given that there’s a “2” that appears after the winning ending, I’m guessing this has to do with the game setting Inform’s death message flag, and maybe printing it out either by mistake or as a way of making sure the right message prints, or something.

Then again, it’s not just death messages — there’s also this:

You can see a Large emerald here.

>x 1
(the Large emerald)
A very large finely cut emerald.

Really not sure what’s going on here, but it did give me a good chuckle.

In any case, Phantom seems like a well-intentioned attempt by someone who does not have control of his tools. I’d prescribe some intense focus on learning basic English mechanics, hopefully with instructional support, and a lot of beta-testing to root out weird code behavior, in order to produce a much improved next game. Or at least, that’s what I would have prescribed 17 years ago — I guess now I’ll just call it general advice.

Rating: 3.6

Jesus of Nazareth by Paul Allen Panks as Dunric [Comp05]

IFDB page: Jesus of Nazareth
Final placement: 33rd place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Between this game and Panks’ previous comp entry, Ninja v1.30, one year elapsed. Between that review and this one, the better part of 18 years has elapsed. In the interim, some things have happened, including the author’s death in 2009, just shy of his 33rd birthday.

Panks contravened many of the social norms in the IF community, and for that reason provoked reactions ranging from shunning to outright hostility. Jason Scott sums it up as well as anyone in the blog entry he wrote shortly after Panks’s death, and the comments from that entry (one of the few times I actually recommend reading the comments) flesh out the picture further.

Many things have changed technologically in those 18 years as well, which meant that I couldn’t just double-click the game file in order to run it the way I might have been able to in 2005. Jesus of Nazareth is a Windows executable, and Windows 10 wants nothing to do with it. I had to fire up a DOSBox instance to run it, and even once that succeeded there was certainly nothing like a scripting capability available, so I was reduced to taking the occasional screenshot so that I could remember notable moments in the experience of the game.

I wasn’t certain I really wanted to go through the bother, because I did not expect the game to be good, and it wasn’t. And if DOSBox had failed, I’d probably have given up. But when it succeeded, and I could at least play the game, I felt like I should at least give it a try, and in light of the author’s short and difficult life, I’m not inclined to be hypercritical.

Nevertheless, what we have here is not great. It’s a homebrewed parser game — one of Panks’ specialties — which is deeply player-unfriendly. Most anything the parser doesn’t understand (which is most things), it responds to with “You cannot do that here.”, giving a “Hello Sailor” feel to the proceedings minus any of the humor or sense of distant potential. In the very first scene, there’s a note, and if you try to read it, you’re told “You can’t make out the note.” If you type “x note” (not “X NOTE” because the parser can’t handle capital letters)… you read the note. You meet a centurion who is holding a spear, helmet, and shield. If you try to examine any of those things, you’re told, “That isn’t here.”

Technical flaws aside, the premise of this game made me smile. You play — not surprisingly — Jesus of Nazareth, and your goal is to get followers. The game knows and relies upon the command “convert”, as in “convert matthew.” The “score” command tells you this, at the beginning of the game:

Your goal is to convert at least 4 disciples to your cause.
Thus far, you have converted:
You still have 6 disciple(s) left to convert.

If you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, this seems like a pretty logical way to keep score! On the other hand, if you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, the parser should probably know the word “forgive”. See, I hadn’t wandered too far when I found myself trapped in a location with the aforementioned centurion, who was insisting on seeing my papers, and wouldn’t let me leave. I had no papers — no inventory at all. Talking didn’t work. Converting didn’t work. Forgiveness wasn’t even an option. And there is no walkthrough.

So I quit, and forgave the game its trespasses.

Rating: 3.5

Xen: The Contest by Ian Shlasko as Xentor [Comp05]

IFDB page: Xen: The Contest
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, it took eight games, but I’ve finally hit the classic “game too big for the competition” issue. After two hours of Xen: The Contest, I had 29 points out of 63, so about halfway through the game I guess. It was enough for me to encounter the big (heavily telegraphed) plot twist, but not enough for me to understand how that twist changed the story. As usual, I’ll be reviewing the game based on what I saw of it in two hours.

What I saw, mostly, was your standard “implement a college campus” game, overflowing with stereotypes seemingly lifted from a paonply of 1980s movies, overlaid with a plot in which the PC gradually discovers he has superpowers and why. First, a word about the college stuff. I’ve had a 27-year (so far) career in higher education, moving from administrative assistant, to financial aid counselor, to Java developer, to manager and now associate director in the IT office. For a good chunk of that career, I’ve been in charge of the student portal, which has brought me in contact with nearly every part of the university, so it was with an insider’s perspective that I received the game’s treatment of the college experience.

Reader, it was not good. This game hates college. It hates the faculty. It hates the administration. It hates the students (well, the student athletes anyway.) It hates the grill chef. It hates the bookstore clerk. For crying out loud, it hates the receptionist at the student health center:

>x receptionist
Yet another minimum-wage employee who has been corrupted by the meager authority bestowed upon them, the receptionist has a permanent sneer on her face from looking down on all in her presence. In simple terms, she's a real [expletive].

(Note that the “[expletive]” is the game’s censorship, not mine.) Mind you, the PC is a freshman who has literally never walked into the University Hospital before. But for somebody who’s just showed up, boy does he have a lot of preconceived notions about everyone and everything. The snarling disdain for everything around him is evident in the majority of room and object descriptions. What’s more, there’s quite a bit of disdain set aside for the player and the basic mechanisms of IF as well. Many an object description ends with a “duh” statement, like so:

>x backpack
This is your backpack. You put things in it. Novel concept, huh?

One time, this kind of understatement can be a little bit funny. Over and over, for description after description, it communicates a resentment for even having to write descriptions at all, which causes me as a player to wonder why I’m playing this game that the author didn’t want to bother fully implementing. By the way, do you find anything in that description to suggest that the backpack would be better at extinguishing a fire than, say, a blanket? I sure hope so, because if you use the blanket to smother a fire you die, whereas the backpack is a big success!

That’s the other fundamental problem with snide non-descriptions. Not only is their tone grating, they also actively impede the play experience by failing to provide key facts that the player needs to succeed. Taken together, these qualities add up to a game that feels like a bully, calling you dumb for not knowing information that it intentionally withheld from you.

When it wasn’t making me learn stuff by dying, Xen was making me guess triggers. This is one of those games that waits for a particular command, then dumps out plot or exposition when the player enters it. These aren’t puzzles, really — most of the time the command is something like “sleep” or “sit”. When a trigger system like this is working smoothly, as it does for the majority of Xen, it can feel like traveling effortlessly through a story — just follow the very logical cues and you will make the plot happen. When it’s working badly, as it does sometimes, it can feel like wandering around in the wilderness, trying to guess the magic word that will unlock the only possible path forward. At no point does it feel like you have a choice of actions — scenes are strung together in a single linear path, and until you figure out the trigger that advances you along that path, you will make no progress in the game.

Between its truculence around describing things and its insistently single-track design, Xen: The Contest feels like a prose story whose author decided it would get more attention as an IF game. That may have been true, but it wasn’t a lot of fun for me as a reader or a player, especially given the fact that in two hours, even when resorting to the walkthrough several times to unearth a hidden trigger, I only saw about half. I suppose in a way this is the old “the food is terrible and the portions are so small” joke in action again, but I wasn’t really laughing.

Rating: 4.5

Escape to New York by Richard Otter [Comp05]

IFDB page: Escape to New York
Final placement: 11th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had to swim through some choppy technical waters to even get to this game. Apparently ADRIFT’s latest version isn’t backwards-compatible with games generated by previous versions, or at least it didn’t appear so — the interpreter squawked something about generator libraries at me, giving me an instruction it wasn’t capable of letting me carry out. (I’m guessing the instruction was for authors?) So back I went to a previous version, which required a full windows install and when run complained about how it didn’t have the right permissions to update the registry (surely something the installer could have taken care of?) Anyway, I fought through that — let’s chalk it up to me trying to play this game 16 years after it was released, and move on.

Escape to New York has an intriguing albeit somewhat odd premise. You play a thief who has boarded the Titanic. Now, the game is extremely coy about actually acknowledging the fact that you’re on the Titanic — the name isn’t mentioned anywhere in any of my game transcripts or the supporting materials. In the game, it’s just a big fancy ship that happens to leave Southampton for New York on April 10, 1912. Oh, and it also sinks. Hey, just like the Titanic! I’m not sure why the game is so reluctant about naming the ship — you can even find a pamphlet that tells you a million facts about it (perhaps somewhat anachronistically expressed in metres and metric tons?]… but not the ship’s name. A strange choice. Another strange choice: it names its protagonist “Jack Thompson”, which is really awfully close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Jack Dawson” from the massively popular 1997 film. Why?

In any case, placing the PC on the Titanic creates a weird sense of dramatic irony — we know the ship’s going to sink, but he doesn’t, and therefore it’s a little odd to be running around trying to liberate loot from the passengers on a ship you know is doomed. Apparently the game’s idea of a successful run is to steal as much as possible and make it to a lifeboat, but it’s not clear from the outset that this is your goal. I kept expecting a big twist to happen where suddenly you forget about being a thief and just try to make it out alive, but nope. The game’s insistence on petty goals when the player knows a life-or-death situation is coming made for an offputting dissonance.

The other offputting part is the underimplementation. Some aspects of the game are quite lovingly crafted — it provides lots of good descriptions and creates a fine sense of place, but just as often it frustrated me with its seemingly arbitrary requirements and boundaries. For example, the first section of the game requires you to wander around the ship’s corridors until you find the mailroom. Fair enough, but sometimes travel directions are closed off with the message, “Something tells you that wandering around the corridors of the ship is not the best use of your time.” Well, maybe not, but it certainly is what the game requires! You can’t succeed without doing that, so “something tells me” the PC’s intuition is a little off in that regard.

There are also several learn-by-dying or learn-by-undo puzzles scattered throughout the game. You might enter a room in which someone suddenly pounces on you based on something you’re wearing or carrying, with no warning whatsoever. In another section of the game, you require a disguise to get past a watchful policeman. The only ways to get through this are to either try it and fail with a game-ending message, or to finally acquire enough disguise-ish items that the game tells you, “That lot should make a good disguise.” Mind, it’s given messages before about individual items, saying that they’d make a good disguise on their own, only to snatch the rug out when you try to actually use them. It seems to me that if the PC is capable of assessing how complete a disguise needs to be, he should also be capable of assessing whether or not to assay an attempt at passing a policeman with an incomplete disguise, but the game provides no such internal monologue.

At some point I got annoyed enough with this bait-and-switch behavior that I switched over to using the walkthrough, and once I did I started having a reasonably good time. For one thing, it helped me understand what sort of playthrough the game had in mind — run around gleefully nicking stuff and stuffing it in a suitcase, so that you can escape to boat with your big prize (a stolen painting you connived to get into the mailroom) and a bunch of other loot as well. Strip away the historical scaffolding and it’s essentially a Zorky treasure hunt, albeit with far less clever puzzles — you mostly get stuff via LOOK ON [object] or LOOK UNDER [object].

I also found myself really appreciating ADRIFT’s autocomplete feature, which surprised me a bit. I’m sure it’s been at least 15 years since I played an ADRIFT game, and having recently reposted all my previous comp reviews, my memories of it are not kind. This time, though, I enjoyed the way that its autocomplete let me type just one or two letters of verbs and nouns, really smoothing the playing experience. It was also a useful (though not entirely reliable) way to see if the game had implemented something — it yielded some false negatives, but if you saw it autocomplete something, you knew it was in the game somewhere. It did have a downside, sometimes anticipating nonsensical input and leading me to accidentally enter commands like “put parcel in baggage slip” when I meant “put parcel in bag”, but overall it was a feature I found myself wishing were in other games.

Overall this was a pretty flawed game, with mild issues in premise, writing, and implementation, but once I allowed myself the walkthrough I found it fairly enjoyable, and I appreciated the chance to be in a story that takes such an unusual approach to the hoary set-piece of “You are on the Titanic.” Once I knew it was a treasure hunt, I could gleefully romp through the ship ripping off valuables, in hopes that me, my giant suitcase, and my stolen painting could end up safe on a lifeboat while the rest of my luckless fellow passengers scrambled for their mere lives.

Rating: 7.4

PAX East Part 4: Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the fifth in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
Compared to Friday, Saturday was pretty low-key. Then again, it’s not fair to compare anything to Friday. I let my exhausted self sleep in, then showered, packed up, etc. I met my friend Ruth Atherton for lunch, along with her partner Yigal and their adorable boy Natan. I’ve known Ruth since our freshman year of college at NYU — over 20 years ago now! — and it was wonderful to spend some time with her again.

Ruth dropped me at the Hilton, and I stopped into the IF Suite, where the PAX SpeedIF efforts were well underway. I opted out, given that 1) I didn’t bring my laptop to the suite, 2) it’s been years since I actually wrote any IF code, and 3) I didn’t want to spend my PAX time heads-down coding anyway. So it was off to the convention center, where I undertook my next mission: a present for Dante! I checked out a Boston souvenir store in the Prudential Center and picked up a cute little Boston ball, to use as a backup if I couldn’t find anything in PAX itself. But I did — his own bag of dice. He’s often wanting to play with my dice, so now he’s got his own. (He was quite delighted with these gifts when I brought them home, and as he often does, he immediately turned it around on me. “Pretend that you are Dante and I am Daddy! Dante, I brought you some presents! A Boston ball, and your very own bag of dice!”)

After a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for some trail mix and water, I took the time to explore the rest of PAX, but between the incredible crowds and my own lack of motivation, I didn’t really hook into anything. I wasn’t up for boardgaming with strangers, nor did I fancy standing in line for a chance at console, PC, or handheld games. And of course the panels were out of the question — you had to arrive at least 30 minutes early to have a crack at getting into any panel, and none of the panels at that time were terribly interesting to me anyway.

So back to the IF suite I went. I hung out and chatted with various people, and even skipped dinner so that I could spend more time in the ambiance. (That’s where the trail mix comes in.) There were a few people I missed — I would have loved to hang out with Stephen and Rob a bit more, for instance — but I really enjoyed the various people I talked to. I think part of the connection-missing may have had to do with the fact that while I have a cell phone, it is a creaky 2005 pay-as-you-go model with no internet access and the clunkiest of texting capabilities. Normally, this does not bother me at all, but sometimes during PAX weekend I felt like an timebound mortal in a Kage Baker Company novel, looking on in blissful ignorance while all around me the immortals communicate telepathically. It probably also wouldn’t hurt to hang out on ifMUD more than once every two years.

All part of the thawing process, I suppose. While I wasn’t musing on that, I also kept an eye out for newbies and visitors. I hooked several people up with IF swag and talked to them about the medium and the community, which felt great. Extended social exertion like that is a bit out of my comfort zone — I’m an introvert by nature — but I liked helping with the IF outreach mission.

That mission was the subject of the informal panel at 7:00. That panel featured Andrew Plotkin, Jason McIntosh (aka jmac), Chris Dahlen (gaming journalist), and John Bardinelli (of JayIsGames). It was moderated, in an endearingly prolix style, by Harry Kaplan. (I should mention here that Harry was quite helpful in getting me connected with the pre-PAX discussion, and was particularly welcoming to me in the suite. Also, he’s apparently the cousin of Paul Fishkin, who founded Stevie Nicks’ record company! Remote brush with fame!) Harry would make a discursive, intentionally provocative statement, and ask the panel to respond, offering the lead to a different panelist for each question. The discussion often expanded beyond the panel and into the room, which was great, because the room was packed (seriously, packed) with very smart people.

I am terrible at reconstructing discussions, so I’m not going to try to do it here. Much. I will say that I was particularly struck by the way Emily framed the problem of IF’s learning curve. The parser, she said, makes a false promise, strongly implying by its openness that it is able to handle anything the player throws at it, which is simply not true. Lots of people would like to see IF respond by expanding the range of actions and phrasings that the parser can understand, but Emily disagrees. She could do a much better job than I of articulating this, and probably does so somewhere, but essentially she argues that expanding the parser is a blind alley, because it never eliminates the false promise issue, and creates a ridiculous implementation headache. Even if the game could legitimately understand a much wider range of commands, coding meaningful responses to that radically expanded command set is a misuse of our energies. Instead, she suggests that we embrace IFese while finding ways to help games gently nudge players in the right direction when it seems that they’re struggling to speak IFese to the parser. She did some work toward this in City Of Secrets, and Aaron Reed apparently does even more in Blue Lacuna. She points to Façade as a cautionary example of what happens when you try to go the other direction.

After the panel, there was a bit more chatter, and then it was time to for SpeedIF contestants to turn in their games. I had no laptop, but Juhana Leinonen very kindly let me use his to play Sarah Morayati’s Queuelty, which I found quite enjoyable.

More chatting, more hanging out, but eventually, sadly, it was time for me to go. There would be more events on Sunday, but my flight left early Sunday morning — I hadn’t wanted to take undue advantage of Laura’s generosity with the childcare, so I kept my trip to two days. I’m sorry to have missed Sunday, though. From what I read [in a livejournal that has since been deleted and purged, even from the Wayback Machine — 2022 PO], it was great.

The rest is uninteresting travel details, except for this revelation, which traveled home with me: it has become painfully, unmistakably clear that working every night and weekend is ruining my life and blocking me from doing the things that actually make me happy. The truth is that nobody ever told me to do that (well, with some exceptions) — it’s just that I’m so overwhelmed all the time, so behind all the time, that I feel like I have to do that in order to have a remote chance of success at work. But keeping my head above water there has come at the cost of drowning the parts of myself I treasure more. So I’m going to stop doing that.

I’m going to try, anyway. It’s rather shockingly hard to draw firm boundaries around work when they’ve been obliterated for so long. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m on Day 6 now, and even in the last week I’ve been able to produce these blog entries, which would have seemed ridiculously out of reach a few weeks ago. That makes me happier than I’ve been in quite a while.

PAX East Part 3: Do You Like Movie? [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the fourth in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
In the afterglow of the panel, intentions were formed in the direction of dinner. Boston residents Dan Schmidt and Liza Daly kindly guided us to a fabulous sushi restaurant: Samurai. Delicious food, wonderful company, beer — what’s not to love? Only one thing, it turns out: the place was too small to accommodate the 12 of us at one table, so Emily, Rob, Dan, and Liza ended up at their own table beyond earshot of ours. And we got split up just as I was in mid-sentence with Emily: “I think some topics that didn’t get touched in the storytelling panel were–”

(For the record, the rest of the sentence was “integrating hints adaptively into the story in a way that feels seamless, and exploring PC emotion — how and whether to convey it.”)

After dinner, we paid the check (or rather, Stephen paid the check and we paid Stephen) and headed back towards the convention center to get in line for GET LAMP! Then, confusion ensued as we realized we’d inadvertently left behind Christopher Huang and Sam Kabo Ashwell. We went back, they weren’t there, we milled, we shivered, we went back to the convention center and found that they were in line ahead of us. It was like a French farce, only huge and freezing cold.

Anyway, we hung out in line for a while, then made our way into the “theater” — really just another convention center room with a projection screen set up. We got seats in the back, but the point is: we got seats. Others in the room ended up against the walls, on the floor, etc. There weren’t enough chairs, but everybody got into the room, which is a decidedly good thing. Jason was contemplating a second showing if they’d had to turn people away, but that showing would have started around midnight.

And now, a discursive aside about GET LAMP. About four years ago now (actually, now that I look at it, exactly four years ago today [“today” in this case being April 2, 2010, the day I originally posted this piece –2022 PO]), I got an email from somebody I’d never heard of, a guy named Jason Scott. He claimed to be a filmmaker, working on a documentary about IF. He wanted to know if he could interview me. I checked out the website, and he looked legit — for one thing, he’d already completed one such project, a huge multi-episode docu about BBSes. So I told him I’d be delighted to talk IF with him sometime.

Then, nothing until January of 2007, when I suddenly got notice that Jason would be in town in a few weeks, and did I still want to be interviewed? I sure did, so on a snowy Saturday night we met inside my deserted workplace (this was back before everybody at my job was working weekends) along with Robb Sherwin (who was apparently the guy who gave Jason my name — thanks Robb!) and his girlfriend Dayna. Jason set up his camera and asked questions. I blathered for 90 minutes, wondering if any of this was remotely usable. Then Jason took us out to dinner at an excellent French restaurant. All in all, not a bad night at the office.

Jason interviewed a bunch of other people throughout 2007, and then GET LAMP seemed to go dark for a while. Work continued sporadically, but it was hard to see what the endpoint would be. But last year it caught fire again. Jason lost his job and rather than look for another one, he ran a Kickstarter project to raise $25,000, and damned if he didn’t do it, and even go beyond. To me, that was a huge statement about the confidence and trust he’s built in the community of people around him. He used the money to pay living expenses while he finished GET LAMP, with the result that he was able to premiere it at PAX East. What he showed wasn’t the final cut of the movie, but rather a 70-minute “mix” tailored to the PAX audience. The whole shebang is going to be a 2-DVD set, with boatloads of bonuses, games (including my own), and even a branching path at one point in the movie. Heh. He’s sending me a copy, because I was an interviewee — a very classy move, according to me.

So that brings me back to PAX. What I can say about the movie I saw is this: I loved it. Yes, there were a few pieces that needed some technical polish, and a couple of spots that made me cringe a bit, but overall, WOW. It conveys what’s special about IF with such passion and cleverness, and it brings in some angles that feel fresh. It’s touching, it’s funny, it’s very effective at conveying information, and it’s quite entertaining. Also, it’s 70 minutes of very smart people discussing something about which I care deeply, so it’s pretty much made for me.

Top 5 terrific things about GET LAMP

1. Egoboo. Yes, okay? It was quite gratifying to see myself managing to speak somewhat coherently about IF in the clips that featured me, and I felt quite honored to be placed in a context alongside people whom I hold in very high esteem.

2. Insight. A lot of thoughtful people had a lot of thoughtful things to say. Some of them I’ve heard a thousand times already, but they’d feel fresh to somebody for whom this was a new subject. Others felt fresh to me too. One example that sticks out: Jason Shiga observing that when you’re a kid, you don’t get to make a lot of choices. You don’t decide where to live, where to go to school, how to spend much of your time. When you’re in that situation, having a game offer you control of the story you’re in can be a very satisfying feeling indeed.

3. The section on blind players. Jason very astutely taps into the subculture of blind IF players, for whom this is one of the only feasible genres of computer game available. One of his subjects, Michael Feir, was somebody I kept in contact with when I was editing SPAG. Michael was the longtime editor of Audyssey, a gaming zine for the blind. Anyway, this section of the film had some wonderful pieces to it. I loved the woman who observed that one of the skills IF helps you build is mental map-making, and suggested that playing IF has made her more confident when she’s exploring an unfamiliar place. And Austin Seraphin is great, cracking that when a game tells him, “It’s pitch dark. You can’t see a thing,” he just thinks: “So what does that matter?”

4. Infocom. Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Stu Galley, Marc Blank, Brian Moriarty, Amy Briggs, et cetera. These names lit up my teen years so much they may as well have been rock stars. This movie had fantastic footage of each of them, telling great stories from the company’s heyday and offering perceptive opinions about the form in general. What a pleasure it was to see their faces, hear their voices, and get to know them a little better.

5. Explanatory power. I am very, very accustomed to getting befuddled stares when I talk about interactive fiction. I love that such a compelling visual text exists, that can introduce the subject to somebody new with both the intellectual clarity and the emotional weight it deserves. I’m very hopeful that it’ll bring a fresh wave of enthusiasm into the IF community itself, and that I can use it with my friends and family to shed some light on my ongoing fascination.

The best part of all, though, wasn’t so much the film itself as the moment it created. Jason sums it up: “this had, by dint of using my film as the stone in the stone soup, become the largest assembly of interactive fiction folks in history. Creators, players, and legends were going to assemble on PAX East, and make it something very, very special.” That’s exactly what happened, and nothing exemplified it more than the panel after the film:

* Dave Lebling (Zork, Enchanter, Spellbreaker, The Lurking Horror)
* Don Woods (Adventure, need I say more?)
* Brian Moriarty (Trinity, Beyond Zork, Wishbringer)
* Andrew Plotkin (So Far, Spider And Web, Shade)
* Nick Montfort (Twisty Little Passages, Ad Verbum, Book And Volume)
* Steve Meretzky (A Mind Forever Voyaging and so many other great games that just the thought of typing them out exhausts me.)

Again, Jason will release the footage at some point, so I’m not going to try to recap the panel. Suffice it to say that it was an unbelievable confluence of talent and history, a great discussion of IF, and oh by the way Meretzky is FREAKING HILARIOUS. Stephen later asserted that Steve Meretzky must be on every panel, everywhere, from now on. I quite agree.

After the film, I got to shake the hands of some legends and thank them for the huge positive impact on my life. We toddled on back to the suite, buzzing. The conversation there felt infused with joy; it glowed in the dark.

It’s hard to explain what this day meant to me. It was one of the best days I’ve had in years and years. Jason said to me later, “This weekend is like one big hug for you, isn’t it?” He’s not wrong. It was emotional, even more so than I expected, to be a part of this gathering — Rob called it the “IF Woodstock.” I tried to say so in the suite, though I’m not sure how articulate I was. I felt filled with love, for interactive fiction, for the IF community, and specifically for these people who shared this experience with me. It was vivid, elevating.

After the party broke up, I grabbed a taxi back to my hotel (the T had long since closed), and before I went to bed, posted this on Facebook:

Back when I was active in the interactive fiction community, and also going to conferences for work, I used to daydream about an IF conference where we’d have bunches of key people from the past and present, panels about various aspects of the form, face time with all these people I just knew as words on a screen, etc…. Today said: “I’ll see your dream, and raise you an IF movie!”

PAX East Part 2: There’s More At The Door [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the third in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
After some suite chat, 2:00 rolled around, which was the time PAX was officially supposed to open. So a large contingent, myself included, headed con-wards. My first and most lasting impression of PAX is: PEOPLE. People, people, and also, more people. Behind them are other people, who block your view of the people already inside, and if you turn around, you can see a long line of people, stretching back farther than you can see. I feel like if I’d missed my plane, I could probably have walked a couple of blocks from my house in Colorado and gotten in line for the PAX keynote with Wil Wheaton. Good lord, there were a lot of people.

Serious luck was on my side, as I had Rob Wheeler along to act as my Virgil through the utterly overwhelming and confusing human ocean that was the PAX entrance. He’d attended the Seattle PAX the previous Fall, and had also scoped out the scene beforehand to pick up his Speaker badge. (More about that later.) He helped me navigate my way into a long entrance queue, along with Sarah Morayati, a very friendly (and talented, I later discovered) woman who came on the scene in the last few years.

Meeting Sarah was my first taste of a feeling that was to get very familiar over the next couple of days. I am, I discovered, Unfrozen Caveman IF Guy. It’s as if I’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years, and I thawed out at PAX, like Captain America looking up at the Avengers and thinking, “Who are you guys?” When Dante was born in 2005 (and really, a little before, as we were preparing for his arrival), I withdrew pretty thoroughly from the IF scene. I handed SPAG over to Jimmy Maher, I pretty much stopped writing reviews, I stopped reading the newsgroups, and I stopped visiting ifMUD. There have been exceptions here and there — my review of 1893, for instance, or my work with Textfyre — but for the most part, I have been absent. It turns out that a lot can happen in five years! I’m excited but a bit overwhelmed at how much there is to catch up on.

Speaking of overwhelming, when the line finally moved into the convention proper, we quickly heard that we wouldn’t make it into the keynote. We connected up with Stephen, and headed into the expo hall. This is about the point when sensory overload started attacking my brain cells, making it impossible for me now to retrieve my memories of who was where when. I know there was a group of us, and we met up with another group, and Mark Musante was there, and Jacqueline Ashwell was there, and Iain Merrick was there, and Dan Shiovitz was there, other people I don’t know very well were there, and probably lots of others I do but everything is blurring together because have I mentioned that good god there were a lot of people?

In the expo hall, there was also a lot of noise and sound. Wait, make that A WHOLE GODDAMNED LOT OF NOISE AND SOUND!!! And people. Of course. We watched Rob play Dante’s Inferno, which apparently involves Dante kicking lots of ass and not, as someone pointed out, fainting a lot, the way he does in the book. We watched Stephen play some game that involves falling and is impossible to Google because its name is something like “AaaaaAAaaaAAAAaaAAAAAa!!!!” We saw lots of booths and bright colors and LOUD SOUNDS and so forth. You get the idea.

After some time, I went with a subgroup of people to attend a 4:00 panel called “Design an RPG in an Hour.” It was crowded! I ended up leaning against the back wall. The panel was more or less like improv comedy, except take out the comedy and put in its place boilerplate RPG elements. What will our setting be? What is the conflict? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What are their special traits? (i.e. What will their stat categories be?) It was pretty well-done, albeit dominated by what Stephen accurately termed “goofy high-concept stuff” from the audience. For instance, the guy shouting out “talking dinosaurs!” got a round of applause. I was happy to be there in any case, because there was a 5:30 panel on IF that would be in the same room, so I figured we’d stake out the good seats.

Now, this is a very cool thing. Some IF community folks pitched the idea of a PAX panel called “Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction,” and to our general delight, the PAX organizers made it part of the official con schedule! Going to this panel was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Boston. So when it became apparent that PAX enforcers would be doing a full room sweep to prevent the very camping behavior I was counting on, it was time to make a new plan — and apparently, there was quite a line forming. So we snuck out before the panel ended to get in line.

And my goodness, it’s a lucky thing we did. When I first saw the room, I couldn’t imagine how we’d fill it with people wanting to hear about IF. But after we took our seats (which were quite good), people started to flow in. And then more came. And then more. The chairs: filled. The walls: filled. The aisles: filled.


I get chills again as I write it. I mean, I’m very sorry for the people who got turned away. I met several of them over the course of the weekend, and they were quite disappointed. But holy shit, what hath PAX wrought when we can cram a huge room with people interested in our medium, with tons more hoping to get in? It was stunning, absolutely stunning.

The panel itself was great. It consisted of some of our best: Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Robb Sherwin, Aaron A. Reed, and Rob Wheeler moderating. I won’t try and recap the panel, except to say that it was wonderful to hear sustained, intelligent, live discussion of IF. The charming Jenni Polodna, another arrival during my years on ice, wrote some very thorough notes about it, and Jason Scott filmed it, so you’ll probably be able to see it yourself sometime. Which, if you were one of those turned away, might help a bit.

All I know is that at the end, I felt like I had a whole lot of games I needed to play.

Top 10 IF games to play if you’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years

1. Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed

2. Violet by Jeremy Freese

3. The games of the JayIsGames IF Comp

4. Lost Pig by Admiral Jota

5. Make It Good by Jon Ingold

6. De Baron by Victor Gijsbers

7. Alabaster by a Emily Short and also a whole boatload of people.

8. The Shadow In The Cathedral by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold. [Hey, one I’ve played! I was even a tester for it!]

9. Floatpoint by Emily Short

10. Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe

PAX East Part 1: The Suite Life of Zarf & Co. [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the second in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly.]

There were further travel adventures after the plane arrived — I found my way to the subway without any trouble, and got off at the right stop, but it was dark and raining, and I was quite disoriented. Lucky for me, there appeared on the horizon a lovely Au Bon Pain with free wireless access. I ducked in and got my bearings over a delicious lemon danish & chocolate-dipped shortbread. Mmmmm… empty calories. Also, let’s hear it for the Internet — it was so great to 1) figure out the right path to my hotel via Google Maps, 2) write Laura to tell her I’d made the plane, and 3) look up sunrise tables to figure out when I’d have a little light on my side.

Armed with this information, I walked to my hotel as the sun rose, and asked them if there was any way I could pretty please get into a room early so I could grab a nap before proceeding with the rest of my day. Unfortunately, they’d been sold out the night before, so they didn’t have any rooms open that early. They took my phone number and suggested I grab a leisurely breakfast — they’d call me when something opened up. The rain had turned to snow at that point, so I opted to stay within the hotel. They had a cafe with a nice (albeit hotel-expensive) breakfast buffet, so I camped out up there for the next couple of hours until they finally called me with the good news.

Got a room, got into bed. Blessed sleep.

At 12:30 I arose, cleaned up, figured out my train path, and headed over to the IF hospitality suite. This was a room in the Hilton arranged by Andrew Plotkin (aka Zarf) on behalf of the People’s Republic Of Interactive Fiction (a Boston-based IF group) to be a welcoming space for PAXies interested in IF. They printed up friendly fliers and everything (click images for larger versions):

Photocopy - the front side of a flyer advertising "The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction" Hospitality Suite at PAX East 2010, listing various IF-related events at the con and in the room.

Photocopy - the back side of a flyer advertising the IF Hospitality Suite at PAX East 2010 - a faux IF transcript about finding the suite.

When I got there, I was pleased to find that it was pretty crowded! Not only that, it was full of people I’d known online for more than 15 years! Zarf was there, of course — we’d never met, although we’ve been in the same community since 1995. Also there was the estimable Stephen Granade, another guy I’ve known since the very beginning but never been face-to-face with. A few people I’d met at an IF gathering several years ago, so I wasn’t completely overwhelmed with face-to-name energy, but still, it was pretty amazing.

Top 5 awesome things about the IF suite

1) The swag! Robb Sherwin put together a great IF promotional CD (this, but updated with newer stuff) to give out to visitors. There was also a nifty postcard, with art on the front and a handy how-to on the back. Plus: badge ribbons, stickers, buttons, and nametags!

2) The food! Zarf & co. were kind enough to provide lots and lots of chips, M&Ms, and soda, and others brought delicious treats as well. Across the hall, Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch even provided beer! Woo hoo!

3) The energy! At any given moment, there were usually two or three conversations going — newbies connecting with veterans, different subsections of the community interconnecting, people getting acquainted who had never really met before. People talked about IF, and also about their lives, what was happening at the conference, and what was for dinner that night.

4) The special guest stars! Don Woods, co-creator of the original Adventure, came to an IF panel and chatted with folks. I got to hang at the edge of a conversation between Emily Short and Steve Meretzky, so I got to thank the latter for his work, which has meant a lot to me over the years. Especially A Mind Forever Voyaging. Wow. Jason Scott hung out for a while doing his larger-than-life, bursting-with-anecdotes thing. It was a bit like a bunch of indie bands hanging out together, and then occasionally Paul McCartney or Robert Plant might drop by.

5) The people! I suppose this is a superset of the previous one, but holy cow, this room was PACKED the entire weekend! There was something really special about this locus of passion and force about IF. I loved talking to people who were new to the scene. I loved talking to people who had become community celebrities in the time I’ve been out of the loop. I loved talking to people I’ve known for years from the other side of a screen. I loved being in that room.

Prelude to PAX: Drive Like The Wind [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the first in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which not only revived my interest in IF after becoming a parent (Dante was 4 years old at the time), but also gave me the mental clarity to put boundaries around my out-of-control job. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly.]

Thursday, January 25, 2010

You’ve been looking forward to it for months: a unique gathering of interactive fiction authors, organized around the huge gaming convention PAX East and the new IF documentary GET LAMP. As is your habit, you’ve arrived at the airport plenty early — you pull into the the shuttle parking lot at 9:15pm for an 11:25pm flight. You open the trunk to see your suitcase and… wait. What about your laptop case? What about your little travel bag? Good lord, what about your TICKET?

Oh no.

A non-interactive recounting by Paul O’Brian

Shuttle Parking Lot
It’s dark, and the lot is full. The bus waits to take you to the airport. Of course, the airport is for people who have plane tickets, unlike yourself.

Your car is here, with the trunk open.

No matter how many times you look, your other bags do not appear in the trunk.

That doesn’t help. Well, maybe it helps a little.


You climb back into the driver’s seat and shut the door.

Your Car
The air in the car is still warm, and so is the engine.

You start talking on the answering machine, and Laura picks up the phone. “Okay,” you say, “is my backpack sitting by the front door, or am I just having a bad dream?”

“Oh, and your little black bag too,” she says, her voice full of concern. Immediately, she’s trying to figure out how to help. Can she meet you somewhere halfway between the airport and the house? Sure, she’s been sick with a horrible intestinal bug and Dante just got tucked into bed, but she’s ready. What a partner. Still, you can’t quite bring yourself to drag them out of the house to make up for your stupid mistake. Not when you still have a chance. You tell her to sit tight, and that you’ll call her if you need her to go somewhere.

First things first. You have to find your way out of this shuttle parking lot, which you’ve never used before. You waste precious minutes looking for exit signs, and when you finally find one, it points you back down the trail you just came from. Finally, you’re out of the parking lot and back on the road.

The time is 9:20pm. Your flight leaves at 11:25, and the gate closes at 11:10.

You’re back on Peña Boulevard, driving as fast as traffic allows, wondering if there’s some smarter way to get home.

Opening the glove compartment reveals, among other things, a GPS.


With practiced thumbs, you tell the GPS to take you home by the fastest route. Yeah, you can still do this while going 70mph.

Probably not the best idea, but you reach forward awkwardly, trying to snap the GPS into its mounting bracket on the windshield. The car swerves as you lean against the steering wheel, veering off the road at alarming speed!

Last turn undone.

Holding the GPS against the steering wheel, you follow its prompts back onto I-70, then I-270.

The time is 9:50. Your flight leaves at 11:25, and the gate closes at 11:10.

Done, once again. Man, you spent the whole day making sure everything was ready, and then you drive off without half your stuff? What’s up with that? Laura said it was because you’re fried, and she’s not wrong about that. Aside from the fact that your day job has turned into a day, night, and weekend job, there’s the fact that you’ve been nursing both Laura and Dante through the same icky illness. You’re low on sleep and burned out. That’s part of why you were looking forward to this trip. Well, it’s certainly started out relaxing, hasn’t it?

You arrive in your driveway and Laura, bless her, is immediately hustling out the door with your bags in her arms. She throws them in the car, gives you a quick goodbye and you’re back on the road.

The time is 10:00. Your flight leaves at 11:25, and the gate closes at 11:10.

The trip goes without incident, but not one minute faster than you had hoped. You’re still pushing your luck. As you approach the airport, you can drive to the shuttle lot, the economy lot, or the garage. The closer you get, the more you pay, but then again, doesn’t every minute count?

Garage it is. $18 a day, but that’s a lot less than trying to rebook a flight, isn’t it? You find a space close to the terminal and park.

The time is 10:45. Your flight leaves at 11:25, and the gate closes at 11:10.

You quickly haul your bags out of the car and sprint into Denver International Airport.

DIA, Terminal East
It’s late, and all the stores are closed, not that you have time for shopping. You offer a silent thanks to JetBlue, who allowed you to check in online. Your gate is in Concourse A, and you can head straight to security. The north security checkpoint is to the north, and the south security checkpoint is, well, to the south.

> N
Your feet pound against the smooth floor and your heart pounds in your chest.

North Security Checkpoint
A long, winding snake made of freestanding posts connected by extensible rope-line barriers. You can enter security from here, or go north to the Concourse A bridge.

> N
Concourse A Bridge
The bridge to Concourse A is uphill — of course it is — but it also seems to be under some construction. The security checkpoint is ahead.

One of the workers stops you. “That security checkpoint is closed,” she says. So how do you get to security? There’s only one checkpoint open this time of night. Which one is it? It’s the south one. Of course it is.

Still not helping. Much.

The time is 10:48. Your flight leaves at 11:25, and the gate closes at 11:10.

> S. S. S.
North Security Checkpoint

DIA, Terminal East

South Security Checkpoint
Oh, no wonder the other checkpoints looked so deserted. Everybody’s at this one. Who knew so many people took redeye flights on a Thursday night? The line winds around a few times, and seems to be designed for your personal maximum inconvenience.

By the way, your burning legs have informed you in no uncertain terms that you will not be doing any more running in the near future, so don’t ask.

The time is 10:53. Your flight leaves at 11:25, and the gate closes at 11:10.

The line entrance is at the other side of the — no wait, it’s on this — where the hell is the line entrance?

Trying not to knock anyone or anything over, you attempt to smoothly slide under the fabric of the barrier. Of course, you’re not used to wearing a backpack, so you do knock over the the posts on either side, and manage to make the extensible line reel back into one of the posts. A kind woman helps you reassemble it. You feel like such an ass. You can’t help thinking of Homer Simpson charging through a crowd, shoving people aside, saying, “Out of my way! I got here late!”

You take a few deep breaths and try to pull it together. The line in front of you seems impossibly long.

Nice try.

> Z. Z. Z.

Time passes.

Time passes.

Time passes, and you finally make it to the front of the line. The security people are very friendly and reassuring. “You’ll make it,” they keep telling you. More deep breaths. Shoes off, coat off, laptop out, etc. etc. You get through the line, and then reassemble. Laptop away, coat on, shoes on, etc. etc. Past the checkpoint, down the escalator, to…

Train Platform
This is where you can board trains to any of the concourses. The train is not here.

The time is 11:00. Your flight leaves at 11:25, and the gate closes at 11:10. The minutes seem to be stretching out now that you’re getting close to your goal. About time those minutes did you a favor.

> Z
Finally, the train arrives.

You board the train, which whisks you to Concourse A past 5,280 spinning propellers mounted on the passage walls.

From here, it’s smooth sailing. The train deposits you at the concourse, and a brisk walk takes you to the gate. The doors are open, and you get straight onto the plane, with 5 minutes to spare and adrenaline jetting through your body. Oh yeah, you’ll be sleeping soon.

*** You have won ***

Your score is 100 out of 100, giving you the rank of Tired Traveler.

More soon about the actual trip. I just had to recount my most ridiculous act of self-sabotage so far this year.

Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies by Øyvind Thorsby [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2007.]

IFDB Page: Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies

Attack Of The Yeti Robot Zombies announces two facts right upfront. First, it is a “try-to-win-on-the-first-attempt game”, which means that while SAVE, RESTORE, and UNDO have not been disabled, players are honor-bound not to use them. Secondly, the game tells us that “Examine, look at, look inside, look under, look behind, look and search have not been implemented.” I was surprised to discover that the latter aspect threw me off much more than the former one did. It turns out that examining things is so ingrained into my IF approach that having that feature disabled made me feel like an amputee. Frequently, I would try to examine an item before being reminded: no, that limb is missing. Taken together, what these features present us with a game in which the crossword has decisively defeated the narrative, to use Graham Nelson’s terms.

AOTYRZ presents a world, but it’s only scraps of clothing over otherwise bare puzzles. The title monsters are a perfect example of this. What on earth could a “Yeti Robot Zombie” be? A cybernetic duplicate of an Abominable Snowman who was killed and then revived to be even more mindless than it was before? Is there any universe in which that makes sense? Aren’t “robot” and “zombie” mutually exclusive categories, since something that was never alive can’t be killed and brought back to life? The game doesn’t know, and it doesn’t care. It might as well be called “Attack Of The Generic Monster Placeholders,” because that’s all that the YRZs are. If you don’t believe me, just try examining one.

So, given that this is a puzzle game whose story is sputtering and gasping for breath, how are the puzzles? Mixed, I’m afraid. I took the “win-on-the-first-attempt” rule rather seriously, and ended up feeling quite disappointed at the number of times I had to learn the game’s mechanics by dying. Now, in its defense, AOTYRZ does go some reasonable distance towards making the game winnable on the first try. Similar to Wishbringer (though quite a bit cruder), it gives the player a resource which can be used as an alternative solution for all the puzzles. This resource can only be used a limited number of times — fewer than the number of puzzles — which means that some of the puzzles must be solved in order to win on the first attempt. That’s not too bad though, because some of the puzzles are pretty easy.

However, unlike Wishbringer, it is impossible to win the game (near as I can tell, anyway) without using that resource a couple of times. There’s no way to know this fact in advance without some outside information, which throws a serious obstacle into the path of anybody trying to win on the first attempt. The game chided me every time I used the resource rather than finding the cleverer solution, and after a couple of rounds of this, I felt the message was clear: there will always be a better solution available, so I should always figure it out and use it. Then, a few puzzles later, the game hit me with a situation for which there was no better solution. Even worse, this situation was so thinly implemented that it almost seemed to be a bug rather than a change-up. It was there that my first attempt at AOTYRZ ended in ignominious death.

From that point forward, since I had to restore, I tried some alternative solutions, and found that while some were rather nifty and scrupulously fair, others were impossible to use without either knowledge from a prior life or some pretty lucky guesses. Also, a note to game designers: if something is chasing me, and you block my path with something I can move, please allow me to use that something to block the door behind me. Thank you.

Once it wasn’t my first attempt anymore, I started having a lot more fun with AOTYRZ. Yeah, it’s a bare puzzle game, but some of the puzzles are pretty snappy, and the plot (such as it is) moves along at an enjoyable clip. In addition, while the game world’s implementation is necessarily sparse due to the absence of EXAMINE, what’s there is competently constructed — I didn’t find a single bug. The writing isn’t quite as flawless. There are a number of typos, some of which serve up some unintentional (but very funny) comedy. My favorite comes in a cutscene where the PC is receiving remote instructions from a guide:

“The teleporter worked.” you say in the phone.
“It did? Really? That’s great! Now walk up the stairs and you will find two doors. It doesn’t matter which one you take, both will lead to a roof.”
“Then what?”
“On each roof there will be a helicopter. I assume you know how to fly one?”
“Off course.”

Oh, well is there anybody there who can fly a helicopter without going off course? Anyway, those moments aside, the writing serves its purpose well enough. I can’t muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for AOTYRZ — it takes a pretty audacious approach and then fails to provide a sufficient follow-through. However, if you don’t mind an IF world with no depth and you don’t worry too much about really winning on the first attempt, the game can provide a pleasant diversion for an hour or two.