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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 terrific things about GET LAMP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Isolato Incident by Anya Johanna DeNiro as Alan DeNiro [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Isolato Incident
Final placement: 22nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first: When I say “Alan” in this review, I’m referring to the programming language, not the author. Second: it’s always bugged me that Alan provides no scripting capability, but it’s never annoyed me more than it did for this game. That’s because this is the first Alan game I’ve encountered that’s been more about language than interactivity, and I desperately wanted to keep a copy of my interaction with the game so that I could refer back to its language when I wrote this review. I finally ended up hacking together a solution by periodically opening the scrollback buffer (thank you Joe Mason for porting Arun to Glk!) and copy-and-pasting the contents into a text file. Now that I’ve got that text file to peruse, I’m becoming even more aware of the strangenesses in the game’s use of words.

The main gimmick is obvious from the start: the entire game is written in the first person plural voice — as in, “Wait, we must stop.” Sometimes an approach just makes me sit back and say “wow, never seen that in IF before” and this was one of those times. The game is apparently from the point-of-view of a monarch, and therefore it’s fairly easy to assume that all this plurality is due to the use of that kingly favorite, the “royal we.” However, there are hints here and there that the “we” doesn’t just refer to the monarch and his subjects, but to some sort of actual multitude. For example, the narrator offhandedly mentions that “We like to coif our hair into shape, exactly like each other.” Each other? Granted, this could refer to the hairs themselves, but that’s not the only reference to multiplicity. For instance, in the first room description, we (that would be the “reviewer’s we”, dontcha know) see this:

Cozy Throne Room.
This is where we rest, tarry, and make our fears vanish. There is
enough room for all of us here.

Is this monarch of such tremendous girth that most rooms fail to hold him? Well, probably not, given the reference to “razorthin hips” in the response to “X US” (the game cleverly replies to “X ME” with “‘me’? We’re not aware of that word.”, thereby deftly employing a parser default response to further delineate the main character.)

All this would be quite enough to take in, but the game has other plans up its sleeve, too. To confusion of voice, The Isolato Incident adds a pile of words whose meaning has simply been displaced. Take this sentence: “We watch our bees, smear their history on our arms and legs.” That’s not some sort of metaphor about honey; instead, it’s a recontextualizing of the idea of bees and the idea of history into an entirely new grid. All this, and we haven’t even left the first location yet! After spending some time with the game, I started to figure out why my response felt familiar: it resembled my reaction to Dan Schmidt‘s 1999 entry For A Change. I’d look at a passage like this:

The Crux Of Our Landscape.
Still, there is much to be admired here. The green slopes are
flatter; thus, the cleft of the wind is much stronger. There are also
choices etched in the road. South leads to the nearly endless royal
road, and to the east of us is the bonegrass field and (further east)
the treasury. We can also pitter-patter back to our hut to the north.

and run it through my hastily-constructed mental filter. “Okay, ‘cleft of the wind’ probably just means a breeze. ‘Choices etched in the road’ is probably indicating that this is a crossroads.” This filter felt more natural as the game progressed, but I never stopped feeling at a distance from the PC, and therefore unable to invest any particular emotional commitment into his struggles.

The game’s not-terribly-surprising twist ending might have removed this barrier, but as it happens, I still felt just as distanced from the game even after it revealed another layer of itself to me. I think this occurred because even after the twist, the game didn’t do much to connect with any particular reality to which I could relate. In the interest of not giving away the surprise, I’ll refrain from going into detail, except to say that the ending happened suddenly enough, left enough context unexplained, and raised enough further questions that it didn’t give me much of that feeling of satisfaction that we tend to expect from the ends of stories. For me, a narrative layer a little more grounded in reality would have done wonders for my emotional connection to the game. As it was, I could admire the prettiness of the words, but only from a remove.

Rating: 7.5

[Postscript from 2020: In the context of 2001, The Isolato Incident wasn’t submitted pseudonymously. However, as of 2020, the author has transitioned to using the name Anya Johanna DeNiro. I wrote Anya, asking whether I should credit her as Alan or Anya. At her request, I’m crediting the game to her as Anya, but noting that she wrote as Alan at the time.]

For A Change by Dan Schmidt [Comp99]

IFDB page: For A Change
Final placement: 2nd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had to take a long break and read some regular English before I could start to write this review. If I hadn’t, no doubt my sentences would have sounded something like this: “The game approaches jigsaw, laying out words and concepts end to end, but skew. It moves whirling, lifting gazes into a rarefied and unknown sphere.” Even now, my language feels highly self-conscious, like a drunk trying to walk a straight line. I’m in this discomfiting circumstance because For A Change put my head into a very weird space through its use of words. The entire game uses an English that, while it makes sense, is just a few degrees off-center. For example, one location is described thus:

In the Shade
The land increases towards your head to the south, and decreases away
from your feet to the north. Mobiles lead accordingly in both
directions. The High Wall may also be approached to the east. A long
walk to the west is a tower, dwarfing your form, and dwarfed in turn by
the wall.

Out of context, it seems almost incomprehensible, but once you’ve been playing the game for a while, you realize that all it means is that you’re standing on sloping ground which rises to the south, alongside a north-south road. At first, I found this linguistic displacement affected and annoying, but as it became more transparent to me, it acquired an intoxicatingly immersive effect. It was like watching a foreign film with subtitles — by about halfway through, the mechanical nature of the device was submerged and I felt fully involved in the milieu.

For me though, there was a downside to this approach. After I had finished the game, I marveled at the cleverness of its linguistic contrivance, and the consistency with which it was implemented, but the pleasure was solely on a cerebral level. Even though the experience of playing the game was interesting, I never cared very much about the story, I think because I found it too difficult to make an emotional commitment to a setting and character that were so completely alien. Consequently, I ended up observing myself a lot, which is a very distanced, passive way to go through something like interactive fiction. Then again, I’m not a person who gets passionate about abstract painting or experimental fiction like that of William Burroughs, so my lack of reaction to the game may be due more to my own idiosyncrasies than any particular flaw in the work.

The other thing I found interesting about For A Change is that it is the product of Dan Schmidt, who, though he doesn’t tend to shout about it, was a member of the team that produced Ultima Underworld I and II. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time that a competition entry has been authored by someone from the professional computer game designing community. Well, actually I suppose that’s not quite true — I know Andrew Plotkin contributed to at least one professional game for the Mac. Still, I found it fascinating, and very encouraging, that a writer of such high-profile games entered the competition, and that he did it with a game that is so thoroughly uncommercial. What’s more, the things that make For A Change special are only possible because it is a text game; even if by some bizarre circumstance a software company wanted to put out a graphical version of the game, that version simply could not capture the very specific flavor that For A Change achieved with its distinctive use of words. How fascinating it might be, then, to see the IF competition become a place where game-writing pros came to fulfill their most unrestrained artistic ambitions, creating pieces of text which would never see the light of their day jobs.

Rating: 8.0