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.]

Blue Chairs by Chris Klimas [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blue Chairs
Final placement: 2nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Chris Klimas! Now there’s a name from out of the mists. Klimas released a game called Mercy in 1997 that garnered rave reviews for its writing and its pre-Photopia puzzleless design. (In fact, it was nominated for that year’s Xyzzy awards in both story and setting.) Then, he contributed a little fable called Once to the Textfire hoax, and disappeared shortly thereafter.

Now he’s returned, and what a welcome return it is — Blue Chairs is not only his best work, it’s the best game I’ve played so far in this comp. Klimas has a hold of something very powerful — interactive fiction steeped in surrealism and symbolism. This sort of thing has been tried before, but Blue Chairs is the best realization of it that I’ve seen. At the beginning of the game, the PC ingests a powerful hallucinogenic drug. True, you have the choice not to do so, but if you make that choice, the story winds up in a dead end, albeit an intriguing and well-executed dead end. This sort of thing always feels a bit like a sucker punch to me, especially when the only real choice is followed up with a “why in the world did you do that?” sort of message as it is here, but the game is so wonderfully crafted that I forgave it immediately.

The z-code “special effects” that Blue Chairs uses to represent the drug taking hold are very trippy and extremely effective, and from that point forward the game slides brilliantly between dream and reality. IF is an amazingly powerful vehicle for this kind of writing, because you’re not just reading about someone’s reality shifting around him — in a certain sense, those shifts are actually happening to you as you traverse the game’s world. Blue Chairs got so deeply into my head that when someone interrupted me while I was playing, I felt as if I was the one dreaming, as if the intrusion of reality into my game session was just as sharp and unexpected a lurch as the sudden hallucinations that happen to the PC. What makes these hallucinations so powerful, I think, is the fact that they’re full of compelling symbols and archetypes, mixed with totally ordinary objects. In this way, they really do feel like dreams. Blue Chairs‘ heady blend of symbol and story got its hooks deep into my psyche. It blew my mind. I love when that happens.

The psychedelic design was my favorite thing about the game, but a close second was the writing. Blue Chairs does an outstanding job of creating an utterly convincing PC, showing us the world as described by that character, then fracturing his world all to hell, capturing the interrelated parts of his personality like collecting hurricane-blown leaves. At the end, I felt like I really knew Dante. (Yeah, the PC’s name is Dante Hicks, and not only does he share a first and last name with the lead character in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, he also spends the entire game searching for a girl named Beatrice, a beautiful collision of high and low allusion.)

I don’t know that I had too much respect for Dante, but more on that a little later. There were so many sublime turns of phrase, so many funny moments, that my game transcript is littered with “ha”s and “whoa”s and “very nice”s. The game’s implementation was strong, too. Most actions were reasonably anticipated, often with hilarious or terrifying results. I only found one problem, but unfortunately it was quite a doozy. Late in the game, I was working on a puzzle and had come very close to the solution, but not quite hit it. A look at the in-game hints set me straight, and off I went to solve it. Except… the solution didn’t work. Near as I can tell, some kind of bug makes that puzzle unsolvable, which came as a crashing disappointment to me. In a game as strong as this one, a serious bug is all the more unexpected.

Luckily, Blue Chairs‘ design is open-ended enough that even an unsolvable puzzle didn’t prevent me from finishing, though the time limit nearly did. I just barely got done within the two hour window, and towards the end I was opening hints liberally, because I very much wanted to complete the game before rating it. There are multiple endings, too, though they’re nowhere near simple enough to be classified as “winning” or “losing.” (I’m about to discuss those endings in general terms — nothing too spoilery, but you might want to skip the rest of this review if you’re particularly spoiler-sensitive.)

By the time I saw the endings, I was feeling pretty ambivalent about the game’s main character. Right after Dante swallows the drug in the game’s first scene, here’s what it says:

It seems like now would be an excellent time to reflect why you, once a consistently above-average student full of ambition and love, just bought an unknown but almost certainly illegal substance from a stranger and drank it without a second thought.

A fine question indeed, and the game resists the idea of an answer, insisting that there’s nothing in Dante’s life to explain his rootlessness and ennui, that it “just happened, one second at a time.” That being the case, the sort of slacker malaise that Dante exudes is all the more unsympathetic — it’s tough to feel sorry for somebody who has led an incredibly privileged life, free of hardship, but still manages to be desperately unhappy just because he thought things would be so much more shiny, so much more interesting.

Blue Chairs calls itself “a chance to change,” but leaves it up to us to decide which ending really constitutes the change. I think it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s not the one where a soft-focus lens suddenly snaps onto Dante’s life, where the whole thing turns into a Thomas Kinkade painting. That one felt like the ending of Rameses to me, an insistently perfect fantasy that fulfills the PC’s wishes, wishes that have been unrealistic from the start. I’m not sure the other one is any better, though. There’s a kind of letting go to it, but I’m not sure that it’s letting go of the right thing.

Dante comes to a kind of peace with his inaction, but I’m not convinced he’s dropped the binary thinking, the idea that there’s something perfect just beyond his grasp, and that without it, everything is worthless. I think he still may be lost, because as long as he’s locked in that stark dualism, the next illegal substance from a stranger won’t be that far away. Like I said, I rushed through the end — maybe there are other paths I didn’t find. But from what I saw, Dante may not have a chance to change after all. Anyway, that’s just what I thought. You should really play Blue Chairs and think about it a while yourself.

Rating: 9.5

[Postscript from 2021: Blue Chairs was the last parser game Klimas wrote, but he wasn’t done with IF yet, not by a long shot. In 2009, he created Twine, a parser-less IF authoring tool that has arguably had the biggest impact on the IF Comp, and indeed the broader interactive fiction world, of anything since Inform. He’s created a number of other games too.]

About my 2004 IF Competition Reviews

2004 was a year of endings for me, in terms of my IF hobby. First, to my great relief, I was able to complete the final game in my Earth and Sky trilogy, and what would turn out to be my final competition entry. To my great amazement, that game ended up winning the 2004 competition, which was a fantastic way to go out.

In addition, 2004 was the final year where I attempted to review all the comp games, or at least all the comp games that weren’t written by known newsgroup trolls. There were a few different reasons for this, as I explained in a “postscript” post on rec.games.int-fiction. Those included some amount of burnout on my part, and my growing sense of guilt about the part I played in making the competition such a black hole at the center of the IF community’s galaxy. I alluded much more blithely to what was really the central fact behind it all: my life was changing. In November of 2004, I knew that my wife was pregnant, and that our child was expected in June of 2005. Reasonably, I didn’t see myself devoting 6 weeks in November of that year to hardcore IF playing and reviewing.

I don’t think I realized at the time just how much being a parent would completely consume my time and energy. I certainly didn’t realize at the time that I would also be starting a new job immediately after Dante was born. When I wrote that postscript, I expected that I’d still be playing and reviewing longer games even after leaving the comp crunch. Well, some of that happened, but for the most part, not so much. Dante’s birth marked my exit, more or less, from the IF community. I handed off SPAG to new editor Jimmy Maher, more or less withdrew from the newsgroups, and pretty much checked out of IF, at least until the 2010 PAX East convention where Jason Scott screened an early cut of Get Lamp.

Even after that, right up to now, my involvement has been sporadic. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, though populating this blog has been a wonderful way to revisit those IF-heavy years of my life, and to spur me towards more reviewing ideas, such as the Infocom >RESTART project. More about that, and the future of the blog, after this last batch of comp reviews.

Comp04 was a great one to go out on, and not just because I won. There were some games I really loved, including the time-travel mindbender All Things Devours, the sci-fi drama Trading Punches, and my favorite of the year, a trippy psychological journey called Blue Chairs, whose protagonist happens to be named… Dante. Blue Chairs, incidentally, was written by Chris Klimas, who would go on to create Twine and therefore have the biggest impact on the competition since Whizzard himself.

That’s all in the future, at least the future of the guy who published these reviews on November 16, 2004 — one last big comp hurrah.