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.]
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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.]
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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.]
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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.

THEY WERE TURNING PEOPLE AWAY.

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

Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bête noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

>X MARK
"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>blue
There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

>carved
Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

Dungeon by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2001.]

IFDB page: Zork

Archaeology

Zork I was the first text adventure game I ever played, and I played it a lot. That game occupied many, many hours of my time and, to this day, it remains one of only a few Infocom games I was ever able to solve without hints, due solely to my stubborn and relentless attention to it. Between those marathon childhood sessions and the occasions on which I’ve replayed it since, I have walked those underground caverns many times, and their geography is so fixed in my mind that I think if I should ever find myself transported there, I could navigate with ease. Or, at least, that’s how I used to feel, before I started playing Dungeon and got my internal map thoroughly whacked.

Dungeon is the predecessor to the Zork games; it was MIT’s answer to Crowther and Woods’ Adventure and, much like that game, it lived on a mainframe, since its prodigious size was too great for the personal computers of its day. When the authors decided to make a commercial go of the text adventure business, they chopped Dungeon into three sections, rearranging the geography and adding some new elements to each chapter, especially the second and third. I’ve played the Zork games many times, but I had always wanted to play the mainframe version in order to better understand just what was added and what subtracted. So when I opened the WinGlk version of Andrew Plotkin’s C translation of the game, I was prepared for some shifts in layout compared to my deeply-graven memories of Zork I.

What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the way in which Dungeon gleefully confounds any sense of actual geography in exchange for making the game map another obstacle to be overcome. In Dungeon, connections that line up properly (for example, leaving one room to the south and entering the adjoining room from the north) are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, you may go west and find that to get back to where you came from, you have to go west again. In a recent article about crafting a good setting for fantasy IF [1], Emily Short addressed this tendency:

[In] the ideal IF setting, the parts of the setting relate to each other in comprehensible ways. Things are located sensibly. I dislike mazes not only because you do have to map them but also because they interfere with and scramble up the intuitive sense of place that I otherwise build up as I play.

In this sense, almost the entirety of Dungeon functions as a maze, and any coherent sense of place that might emerge is bound to get smacked down as soon as the next exit is explored. I have a pretty good knack for mapping in my head, and thus don’t tend to make a map while playing IF but, with this game, there was no way I could pursue that strategy. Thus, grumbling, I hauled out my copy of GUEmap and tried diligently to record the tortured web of interconnections that make up the Dungeon landscape. When I finally finished, I uploaded the results to GMD so that other players like myself won’t have to struggle through the game’s mazes on their own.

And oh, the mazes — in addition to the general illogic of its structure, Dungeon also sports several mazes, all of which carry the “warped connections” tendency to its furthest extreme. Of course, when seen from the historical perspective, these mazes make sense: Adventure had mazes, and since mazes are one of the easiest kinds of puzzles to create, it follows that the game attempting to top Adventure would have mazes of its own. What Dungeon does, though, is to twist the knife: not only does it present the player with mazes, it confounds the typical “drop item and map” strategy by having an NPC come along and remove or rearrange those items, taunting the player with comments like “My, I wonder who left this fine hot pepper sandwich here?”

When viewed with a modern eye, obstacles like this make clear how different is the stance of modern IF from its ancestors. Dungeon set itself up unambiguously as the player’s antagonist, and it wasn’t particularly concerned with telling a story, nor even with describing a world. Plot is nonexistent, and fabulous treasures are described with perfunctory lines like “You see nothing special about the sapphire bracelet.” Instead, Dungeon puts its energies into confusing and confounding the player, and wacky map connections are but the tip of the iceberg. Along with the aforementioned mazes, there’s the light source, which always runs out at the worst possible times. There’s the Round Room, guaranteed to tangle any map. There are the “secret word” puzzles, some of which still perplex me to this day, even though I know how they operate. And of course, there’s the thief, whose annoyances are both numerous and legendary. Dungeon wants nothing more than to see you fail, and it’s not overly concerned with how much fun you might be having. As Robb Sherwin asserted on rec.games.int-fiction recently [2], “Zork hates its player.”

Today’s IF, by contrast, works a bit harder to collaborate with the player, with the aim of creating a shared experience, both in setting and plot. Even the Zork games moved in this direction, at least in comparison to Dungeon, mitigating some of the latter game’s greatest excesses by straightening out many map connections, allowing more flexibility with the permanent light source, and providing a bit more description from time to time. The ways in which Infocom itself engineered the shift from “text-based puzzle games” to actual interactive fiction is a subject for another article, but what’s become clear is that where the emphasis was once on opposition, it has shifted steadily to cooperation.

To my mind, this shift is both appropriate and necessary, and what playing Dungeon illuminated for me is that this movement towards collaborative IF is not the same thing as the concurrent movement towards “literary IF”, though they are often confused for one another. I can envision a game that, like Dungeon, has no particular literary pretensions, but unlike Dungeon, isn’t trying to undermine its player through the use of arbitrary techniques like twisty map connections and unreliable light sources. I would assert that collaborative IF doesn’t need to tell a story, and it certainly doesn’t need to aspire to literary greatness, but it does need to work with the player to create a rich, interactive world, and it does need to be concerned with giving the player a positive, fun experience. Of course collaborative IF can be puzzleless, but it needn’t be — puzzles can be part of the fun, as long as they aren’t geared towards forcing restarts after 800 moves, or making the player do tedious, menial work.

The move away from antagonistic IF is the reason why things like mazes, limited light sources, and starvation puzzles are met with a chorus of jeers these days, but the elimination of these elements doesn’t necessarily dictate anything in particular about how literary or puzzleless a game might be. Instead, the change makes the whole experience of IF more about fun than bloody-minded perseverance; playing Dungeon makes it clear how necessary this change was, and how far we’ve come since those mainframe days.

REFERENCES

[1] Short, Emily. “Developing A Setting For Fantastical Interactive Fiction”, 2001.

[2] Sherwin, Robb. “Re: nevermind”. rec.games.int-fiction, 2001/06/05

Interview from Terra d’IF [Misc]

[I was interviewed in 2004 for Terra d’IF, an Italian interactive fiction zine. Roberto Grassi was the interviewer. I’ve cleaned up the text and added some links as appropriate.]

Head shot of Paul O'Brian from 2004
(Me in 2004!)

> ASK PAUL ABOUT PAUL

I’m a 34-year-old computer programmer and father-to-be, living in Colorado and working for the local university. I’ve been married for 8 years, to a woman who isn’t an IF enthusiast herself but is unfailingly supportive of me and my kooky hobbies. I guess I’ve been hanging around the IF scene for about ten years now. Wow. I have very strong interests in writing, gaming, and programming, and since IF lies at the crescent between these, it’s a natural fit for me. The fact that I have warm memories of 1980s Infocom doesn’t hurt, either. My other interests include comics (as players of the Earth And Sky games have no doubt surmised), music, and trivia.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT HIS IF (with particular reference to IFComp Winning)

Of course, I’m thrilled and proud to have won the competition. It’s been interesting to watch the mini-controversy that the win has caused on the newsgroups, with some people voicing the opinion that my game didn’t deserve to beat its closest competition. To some degree, I can sympathize with this point of view — Luminous Horizon‘s writing doesn’t measure up to the dazzling prose and evocative themes of Blue Chairs, and its puzzles feel pretty desultory next to something like All Things Devours.

I don’t think it’s for me to say just what qualities enabled the game to win despite these shortcomings, but I can tell you that I really try to put a lot of craft into my work. Part of why it takes me so long to produce each game is that I pour a great deal of effort into providing dozens and dozens of NPC quips, unusual parser responses, and situation-appropriate text. I like to think that effort makes a difference in how people receive the game. In addition, I try to make each game I release an improvement over the last one, which is why Luminous Horizon lets you switch between PCs and contains an integrated hint system.

As for my earlier stuff, I still get nice email about LASH, and overall I’m happy with the way that game turned out, though of course with another four years of experience, I now look back at some parts of it and wish I’d done them a little differently. This is even more true of Wearing The Claw, my rather cliché-ridden debut. At that point, I was so excited to even be able to produce IF at all that I wasn’t paying enough attention to producing interesting writing, though given my nascent writing skills at the time, I’m not sure I’d have been able to do much better even if that was my focus. Lately, I seem to have stumbled into a groove for producing games that have a fairly broad appeal, and I’m pleased that lots of players seem to be having a good time with them.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT OLD IF

The first game I ever played was Zork, and it’s still one of my favorites. However, I played its predecessor Dungeon a few years ago, and found myself going crazy with frustration. Some parts of Zork may seem capricious, but compared to the way Dungeon tangles its map connections, snuffs light sources, and gleefully confounds the player at every turn, Zork feels infallibly logical. This experience gave me some insight into what I see as one of the most important shifts that’s happened in IF development: the shift from antagonism to collaboration.

Old-school IF does everything it can to undercut and frustrate the player, and the pleasure of playing it comes from the challenge of triumphing over all these obstacles. As time has gone on, though, we’ve seen more and more IF that tries to work with the player to create an experience of fun or drama. That’s why things like mazes and hunger timers have fallen out of favor — the few current games that include them tend to be strongly informed by the games of fifteen or more years ago. Of course, both approaches can be useful, but personally, I find participating in a story much more pleasant than slogging through restart after restart to overcome arbitrary barriers, so I prefer that even puzzle games eliminate the tedious parts to let me focus on the interesting parts. All Things Devours is a great example of a game that does this.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT CURRENT IF

I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I have difficulty finding the time to play most current IF. I’ve managed to keep up with the competition, both because it only takes place once a year and because I know I won’t be spending more than two hours on any given game. However, given that next year at competition time I’ll have a four-month-old child around the house, I’m trying to shift my focus to non-comp-games, which I can approach under a little less pressure. I got a copy of Kent Tessman’s Future Boy! for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to playing that and Andrew Plotkin’s The Dreamhold soon. Of course, I’ll have to balance them with work on SPAG and on updating the Earth And Sky games, not to mention the other demands of actually having a life. Sigh.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT FUTURE IF

I’m not much of a prognosticator, so I don’t have any grand predictions about where IF will go in the next ten or twenty years. I don’t even have a wish list, really. I do think that right now, several different strands of IF are healthy and growing, from outright literary games to sophisticated puzzlers, and I don’t expect general IF development to lurch suddenly towards one side or the other. The use of pictures and sounds in IF is growing too, and that may continue to expand as the tools to produce multimedia content get easier and easier to use. I guess my basic expectation is that IF will continue to thrive as an underground niche hobby, with occasional eruptions into tributaries of the mainstream.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT HIS FUTURE RELEASES (and commitments, i.e. SPAG for instance)

I don’t have any new games on the drawing board at this point. I do plan to continue with SPAG for the foreseeable future — the 2004 comp issue will come out as soon as I receive the last interview I’m waiting for. Aside from that, my first priority is to update my rather dusty web page, then to produce an updated version of Luminous Horizon that takes into account all of the feedback I’ve received during and since the competition. Then I want to go back and update the first game to include the same kinds of graphical sound effects that the other episodes use, and from there I’m thinking of trying to package them in some quasi-seamless way and maybe promote them a bit beyond the IF world. I really have no idea how long all that will take, so I haven’t really formed any plans beyond that point.

Paul O’Brian’s games are here. [I took the liberty of replacing a defunct link to Baf’s Guide with one to the IFDB.]

Screen by Edward Floren [Comp02]

IFDB page: Screen
Final placement: 29th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

For a rookie outing, Screen really isn’t too bad. That is, of course, if it’s really a rookie outing. In the comp you can never really be sure that anything is what it appears to be, and for all I know “Edward Floren” is a pseudonym for somebody who’s released a half-dozen games. But I don’t think so. There are a number of errors that experienced Inform coders are less likely to make, such as “You have so far scored 0 out of a possible 0, in 36 turns” in response to SCORE. The more familiar you are with Inform, the more likely you have encountered Andrew Plotkin’s web page of tips and tricks that gives the solution to eliminating this untidy message, or for that matter figured out how to eliminate it yourself.

For another thing, there’s the fact that although there are plenty of scenery objects (and I know this because typing GET ALL listed them out — another rookie mistake), many of them aren’t implemented at all. It doesn’t take very many “You see nothing special about the <whatever>” messages for immersion to fall by the wayside. On the other hand, some other aspects of the game are coded rather nicely, such as the custom cant_go messages and the room descriptions that change depending on whether you’re seeing the room for the first time or not.

The prose quality is a similarly mixed bag. Much of the writing successfully evokes a sweet nostalgia as it depicts Jordan the PC’s return to the scene of his childhood games. Riffs on Baby Boomer pop culture are handled lovingly, with a light enough touch to let them feel touching without being cloying. On the down side, this game would definitely have benefited from another round of proofreading.

Consider the flashback to Jordan’s first kiss, where he stares at the girl he likes and the narrator tells us, “She looked so sweat.” This is one of the worst sorts of English errors to have in the public release of your game — not only does it miss its intended meaning, but in fact it squarely hits another meaning entirely, and a rather comical one at that. Certainly it’s an understandable error — it’s only one letter off the correct spelling, and could even be a typo, and for that matter “neat” and “beat” have the intended phoneme. Then again, the word “sweating” is used only three sentences later, which makes the error a little less understandable. In any case, it’s a bad, bad mistake that entirely punctures the otherwise poignant scene. And lest it seem that I’m pouncing on the whole game for one little mistake, I hasten to add that little errors like this (though none worse than that) are present throughout the game, and should have been eliminated before its release.

The prose errors didn’t stop me from enjoying the game overall, though. For the most part, it’s a short and sweet little romp through childhood memories and favorite TV shows. The puzzles, too, are mostly straightforward, though I was unfortunate enough to trip repeatedly on a rather tightly timed puzzle towards the game’s end. The problem there was that although I had figured out the elements of the puzzle, the solution required an extra step that, as near as I can tell, was completely unclued.

Dear me, every time I start to praise this game I end up criticizing it. Overall, Screen is a nicely sketched vignette. Even if it feels rather aimless and disjointed at times (man, there I go again!), I didn’t want my 45 minutes back after I finished it. It’s a nice start at the IF craft, and I look forward to the author’s next work.

Rating: 8.0

About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

>INVENTORY started as a pandemic project. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to get my many comp reviews, and various others, off of my student website, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that I found myself with the time and motivation to get this site started. My son Dante was 14 at the time, and all these new reviews, brought into the light, piqued his interest.

So he started reading, and learning about the 1990s IF cast of characters — Graham, Zarf, Rybread, and so forth. He also learned about IF history as it stood up to that point, and in particular how Infocom loomed large for all of us at that time. We’d talked about Infocom before — in fact, when he was five we played Zork together for about 45 minutes, resulting in much cuteness.

Meanwhile, revisiting those old reviews started to give me a hankering to spend some time in the Infocom worlds again. So I decided to replay some Infocom games, and Dante decided he’d like to join in. Because we (and a whole lot of IF-ers) started with Zork, I thought that’s where we could restart. I listed out what I think of as the 9 Zorkian Infocom games:

  • Zork I
  • Zork II
  • Zork III
  • Beyond Zork
  • Zork Zero
  • Enchanter
  • Sorcerer
  • Spellbreaker
  • Wishbringer

Then, to make it a nice even list of 10 games, I added Moonmist, more or less at random. It was a game I’d never finished, it seemed like it was going to be on the easier side, and it had a little historical significance, apparently, for being one of the first games featuring a lesbian character. Dante is an LGBTQ+ activist, so I liked that connection, though as it turns out the depiction is very slight indeed.

Even before I embarked on this replay project, Dante had been exploring newer corners of the IF world — Lock & Key, Counterfeit Monkey, Steph Cherrywell’s games, and some others. So he was familiar with the basic idiom and mechanisms of these games. Essentially, he was right about where I was at his age in 1984, except that his primary text game experiences had been with 21st-century interactive fiction. Plus, he’d been playing video games of all sorts pretty much since he could talk, as opposed to me whose only other video gaming came at the pizza parlor, skating rink, or occasional arcade. Oh, and those friends’ houses lucky enough to contain an Atari 2600.

A vintage Infocom advertisement, with an image of a brain and the caption "We unleash teh world's most powerful graphics technology".

So our Infocom odyssey was a combination of me revisiting childhood memories, with dim recollections of puzzles and landscapes, and him seeing these vintage games through fresh eyes, his expectations shaped by a far more evolved version of text games and computer games in general. I’m still the faster typist between us, so I sat at the keyboard and read aloud, while he directed the action. We transcripted all our interactions, so that I could remember how they went when I wrote the reviews. We also used the invaluable Trizbort to map our progress, generally starting out with the automapping and then inevitably abandonding that when some mazy thing confused its relatively simple algorithm.

If I remembered a puzzle’s solution, I’d try to keep my trap shut and give him the pleasure of solving it for himself, though sometimes if we crossed the line between fun flailing and ragequit flailing, I might drop a subtle hint. More often than not, I didn’t remember the puzzle either, so we could genuinely collaborate on solving it. When we got really stymied we’d turn to the invaluable .z5 Invisiclues at the Infocom Documentation Project, but that wasn’t terribly often.

So as I write about these games, I’m writing about that experience. I’m not trying to write the definitive history of an Infocom game — for my money Jimmy Maher has got that territory 100% nailed down. Instead, I’m presenting an idiosyncratic and personal account of how Dante and I experienced those games — how I felt upon returning to those oft-trod trails and how Dante’s insights illuminated them for me like a trusty brass lantern.

We started Zork I on August 5, 2020, and finished Moonmist on December 20. Given sufficient time and interest, there may be more to come! Note that all of these reviews will be spoiler-laden — they aren’t written to promote a game but rather to analyze an experience, so I won’t shy away from getting specific.

Silicon Castles by David Given as Jack Maet [Comp01]

IFDB page: Silicon Castles
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Silicon Castles clearly owes a debt to Andrew Plotkin’s Lists And Lists. Like that game, Castles prominently features a genie, one who boasts voluminous knowledge on one particular topic. Like Lists, Castles is a very impressive technical achievement. And like Lists, Castles isn’t really interested in being interactive fiction. Where Lists and Lists was an ingenious implementation of Scheme in the z-machine, Silicon Castles is an ingenious implementation of Chess in the z-machine.

I suppose it was inevitable — every year, a few more z-machine abuses come out, many of them raising the stakes for complexity and ambitiousness, and Silicon Castles may be the most ambitious yet. When a match is underway, the game neatly expands the status line window to display the board, a key to the ASCII codes in that display, a score, the game status, and what moves the genie is considering. Unlike Zugzwang, the PC is a chess player rather than a chess piece, and can type in moves as “move knight to C3” or just “move b1c3”. The genie has an adjustable setting for how many moves it can look ahead, and the game even has the option of setting up custom board layouts before play begins. It’s all very cleverly done.

Now, here’s something about me: I suck at chess. When it comes to computer chess games, well, I’m a great text adventure player. I can see, in an abstract sense, the beauty and elegance of it all, and in the right mood I can appreciate the intellectual rigor of chess problems, but for whatever reason, my turn of mind doesn’t lend itself to such strategic amusements. Consequently, I really don’t enjoy computer chess that much, and that held true for this game as well.

Moreover, even if I did enjoy computer chess, I don’t think the z-machine is a particularly good environment for it. A drag-and-drop mouse interface is about a thousand times easier and more logical than “move b1c3”, and while the little IF touches like the genie and the object descriptions are fun, they don’t do much to improve the clumsiness of the main experience. In fact, there are some problems with even the minimal IF content of this game — there’s not nearly enough cueing for the transition between IF and chess match, making that transition into a rather pointless puzzle.

Finally, there are some serious flaws to the chess section as well — I don’t think it’s completely functional. One of the command styles described by the game, “move <piece><space>”, as in “move nc3” (move knight to c3) doesn’t appear to work at all. In addition, although the game described how to perform castling, I couldn’t get it to respond to the command it suggested (“move O-O”). So although I was impressed as hell with Silicon Castles‘ technical achievements, I found it a rather unsatisfactory experience. As chess, it’s not bad, but its interface is clunky and it appears to be missing some critical functionality. As interactive fiction… well, it’s pretty much absent.

Rating: 7.2

Journey From An Islet by Mario Bencroft [Comp01]

IFDB page: Journey From An Islet
Final placement: 12th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

First of all, how big a coincidence is it that I’m playing two games in a row penned by New Zealanders? Are we seeing the harbingers of a Kiwi revolution in IF? Well, maybe not. Journey From An Islet isn’t a bad game, but it doesn’t give much context for either the PC or the story, and the result feels a bit like walking around in a painting. The beginning of the game deposits you on a mountaintop, with only these words by way of introduction:

You have seen many strange and wonderful places in your travels, but
the world where you have fallen remains quite dark and enigmatic.
What will time bring; how will you continue your journey...?

Fair questions, but I was hoping I could get some others answered, like: “Who is the PC?”; “Why is he/she traveling?”; “How did he/she get to this islet in the first place without a boat or something?” These questions never got answered — not even close, really — and consequently I felt pretty disconnected from the gameworld even as I explored it. Granted, even some of the most revered IF offers empty PCs and no explanations, but those games (like the Zork series) tend to offer an absorbing setting and tons of clever puzzles, which help shift the emphasis away from questions about the story. Journey is pretty sparse in every department, and I found it pretty hard to engage with.

Actually, I should amend my earlier statement. The game isn’t sparse in every department — one thing it provides is a fairly thorough implementation of first-level nouns. Of course, given that most of the game concerns itself with describing a pretty landscape, most of those nouns have to do with the landscape, too. Usually, I find exploration satisfying, and feel pleasantly immersed by deeply-implemented description, but for some reason, this game’s text just left me cold. I think perhaps that vivid, forceful landscape description is a lot harder than it looks. Take, for example, the game’s description of a mountain path overlooking a forest:

Southwestern mountainside
A narrow path twists dangerously around cliffs and chasms as it
passes down the mountainside. Protruding crags cast weird shadows
against the snow. A dark green carpet of dense treetops rolls across
the west, smothering the ground, not penetrated by sunlight.

Compare this with a similar passage from Andrew Plotkin‘s A Change In The Weather:

Rocky Outlook
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches
off to the north and west, a vast expanse of bright meadowland,
patched with dark woods and stitched with streams that glitter in the
sunlight. In the distance, a lake reflects white fire from the
setting sun.

In the first passage, the room name is as one might identify the spot on a map, while in the second, the name reflects the direct experience of the PC. In the latter passage, we get striking, original images — a “tongue” of rock, a lake of white fire — whereas in the former, the images are flatter, more clichéd: “weird shadows”, a carpet of treetops. Finally, Plotkin maps inanimate landscape features onto active verbs, further strengthening the imagery by relating the woods to patches, the streams to stitches. The Bencroft passage attempts the same trick by having the treetops “roll across the west”, and indeed that’s a stronger point of that passage, but the sentence ends up tripping over itself by throwing a final descriptive clause that is too distant from its object and unlinked by any connective phrases, making us pause to figure out whether it’s the ground or the treetops that the sunlight isn’t reaching. And once we’ve made that pause, we have to wonder: how is it that we know from way up on the mountain whether or not the sunlight is penetrating the trees beneath?

I don’t intend that breakdown to demonstrate that Journey‘s prose is awful — in fact, it’s quite serviceable throughout. However, while serviceable prose describing a puzzle can be pretty transparent, it is unable to carry landscape descriptions all on its own; these require something stronger. For this reason, I was most engaged with the game when it was describing puzzles, and least so when it was in its more common contemplative, exploratory state. Between the flat writing and the lack of context, I found it difficult to care what was going on in the game — it all seemed a little arbitrary.

The game employed some visual tricks that were helpful. Crayon sketches were scattered judiciously throughout, and unlike Arrival‘s crayon-work, these sketches had the effect of creating a soft, watercolor ambience rather than a childlike one. Also, the game selects the background color based on the time of day, and this too is an effective trick. Still, these techniques weren’t enough, for me, to counterbalance the sluggish prose, and I left the game feeling pretty unmoved. I know from experience that about the only way to become a better writer is to practice, and I look forward to seeing the author’s next game, to see that improvement in action.

Rating: 5.3