Interview from SPAG [Misc]

[Duncan Stevens interviewed me in SPAG #31, the 2002 IF competition special. It’s rather odd to be interviewed in one’s own zine, but SPAG has a tradition of interviewing the top three finishers in the IF comp, and I won that year. However, when I won the next time, SPAG interviewed finishers 2-4. As with the other interviews, I’ve edited the text and added links as appropriate. The first paragraph is in my voice.]

For the annual competition issue, SPAG traditionally interviews the highest-placing authors in the comp, but I faced some rather unprecedented challenges when putting together this issue’s interviews. For one thing, since I won the comp, there really ought to be an interview with me, but for me to interview myself would be a little… unseemly, as Primo Varicella might say. As he has so often in SPAG‘s history, Duncan Stevens came to the rescue, crafting a set of interview questions which I could then answer without feeling too much like I had multiple personality disorder. Thanks, Duncan…

Paul O’Brian, author of Another Earth, Another Sky

SPAG: Well, you often ask SPAG interviewees to tell a bit about themselves, but SPAG‘s readers may not know much about you, so — out with it. Name, rank, and serial number?

PO: Okay, fair enough. I’m 32, which put me in my teen years during the Infocom boom — just about the perfect age to be, since I was old enough to understand and succeed at the games and young enough to have lots of free time to devote to them. I’ve lived in Colorado all my life, save for one ill-starred year in New York City, and I currently work in Boulder at the University of Colorado, where I got my degrees. My job there is in the Financial Aid office, as an “IT professional,” which basically means that I do all sorts of technical stuff, from programming to maintaining the network to creating queries that pull data from the university’s mainframe.

I’ve been married for a little over six years, to someone who isn’t an IF aficionado but who is wonderful about supporting my work and my ambitions. I’m very verbally oriented (you may have noticed) and love the complex uses of language. I also really enjoy programming, so of course I’m a perfect candidate to love IF. Aside from that, my other passions are music and comics, the latter of which has made the Earth And Sky series such a fun project to do.

SPAG: How did you get interested in IF, and what led you to start writing your own IF?

PO: The long answer to this question is the editorial I wrote for my first issue of SPAG, number 18. In a nutshell: my dad is a computer enthusiast, and we were sort of “first on the block” with a home computer — initially an Atari 400, then upgrading to the sooper-big-time Atari 800. The first games I played on those machines either came in cartridge form or on cassette tapes, but shortly after he acquired a disk drive, he brought home Zork I for us to try together. He loves to bring home the coolest new things, and that was especially true when I was a kid; at that point the cool new thing was Zork. He lost interest in it before too long, but I was enchanted, and became a major Infocom devotee for as long as the company existed.

I learned about the Internet right around the same time I was writing a paper about IF for a graduate class, and so of course some of my first Gopher searches were on “Infocom” and “interactive fiction.” That led me to Curses, and once I figured out that there was a freely available language that would let me write Infocom-style games, suddenly a childhood fantasy was within reach. Being an Infocom implementor is still my dream job — pity about living in the wrong time and place for it.

SPAG: You’ve written four games now. What keeps you writing IF?

PO: Well, in the case of the last game and the next one, it’s the fact that I’ve made a promise to myself and to the audience that I won’t leave the storyline hanging. Other than that, I suppose it’s just the fact that I seem to have an unflagging interest in the medium. My first game was written to fulfill my dream of writing an Infocom-ish game, as I said above. LASH was just an idea that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, and I knew that IF was the perfect medium for it. A lot of the drive to write the Earth And Sky games has to do with the fact that I really, really wanted to play a good superhero game, and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any of the ones that had been released up to that point. So I wrote it because I wanted to play it.

SPAG: Another Earth, Another Sky is the second in a series. What led you to make a full-blown series out of this story, rather than a single self-contained game?

PO: One of the things I loved about superhero comics as a kid was their episodic nature. I really dug the way the stories just kept going and going, with characters and themes woven through the whole thing, disappearing and reappearing as the saga unfolded. Now, with the emphasis on story arcs that can be collected into trade paperbacks, that’s becoming less true in comics, but when I decided to write a superhero game, I knew it needed to be episodic. Besides, I really wanted to take another shot at the competition, and didn’t want to write something so big that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the comp. Also, as a corollary to that, I guess, I really wanted more and faster feedback than writing the whole thing as an epic would have given me. LASH took a very long time to write, and I wanted my next piece to be a bit smaller in scope.

SPAG: The first installment was essentially a superhero game, but Another Earth, Another Sky has sci-fi elements along with the superhero aspect. Is the series becoming a sci-fi series, or are there more genre twists ahead?

PO: I wouldn’t say it’s becoming science fiction, really, and I didn’t set out to do any genre blending with this game. What is true, though, is that these games are heavily influenced by the old Marvel comics from the 1960s, particularly The Fantastic Four — one of the reasons I chose “Lee Kirby” as my pseudonym for the first game was to acknowledge my debt to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who wrote many of those early comics. The tropes of alien invasion and Big Science were intrinsic to many of Lee and Kirby’s stories, probably as an outgrowth of the science fiction comics that preceded that period’s big superhero revival, so that’s why you see those themes reflected in my games. Ultimately, though, I see superheroes as more a subgenre of fantasy than of science fiction, if the division has to be made.

SPAG: There seem to be allusions to other IF games here and there in AEAS — the setting for a large part of the game is reminiscent of Small World, the dome in the desert evokes So Far, the underwater scene has echoes of Photopia, and the touchplates reminded me of Spider and Web. Or am I imagining these connections?

PO: I wouldn’t say you’re imagining them, but I also didn’t consciously try to pay homage to any of those games with the elements you mention. However, I have played all of them, and there’s no question that everything that goes into my brain has an influence on me. Lots of people have mentioned the Small World connection, and I certainly remember feeling delighted with an IF landscape that formed a sphere, but the idea of having the PC be able to travel between disparate locales by means of superhuman leaps came more from old issues of The Hulk than from any particular IF game.

SPAG: The game is sprinkled with Emily Dickinson quotes. Any particular reason for relying on that particular poet?

PO: Well, aside from the fact that she’s pretty much my favorite canonical poet, Dickinson was also part of the genesis of the series. I went through a period where I decided to read every Dickinson poem, but I found it too exhausting to just read them one after another, so I interspersed them with comics. Indulging in this weird combination while thinking about what I wanted to write next gave birth to this superhero series where the codenames are some of Dickinson’s favorite touchstones, and the protagonists are named after the poet and her brother. The title and part of the inspiration for Another Earth, Another Sky came from the Dickinson poem that begins “There is another sky.”

SPAG: Will the third installment wrap up the series?

PO: That’s the plan at this point. I love writing these games, but it’s a little disheartening to realize that each episode takes about a year to complete. I certainly wouldn’t rule out further Earth And Sky games somewhere down the line, but I’ll be ready for a break from them once the third episode is finished.

SPAG: Any other plans for more IF writing?

PO: Beyond the third Earth And Sky game, I’m not sure. I think I’ll probably want to turn towards writing static fiction for a while, but I plan to keep editing SPAG, and I don’t see myself leaving the IF community unless it seriously deteriorates. So I’d say there’s an excellent chance I’ll find myself struck with some great IF idea and banging out code again sometime in the future.

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.]

Interview from InsideADRIFT [Misc]

[I was interviewed by Ken Franklin for the May/June 2004 issue of InsideADRIFT, a fanzine for users of the ADRIFT IF development system. I’ve cleaned up the text and added links as appropriate.]

Interview: Paul O’Brian questioned by KF

This issue’s interviewee is the editor of that vital organ of the IF community, SPAG, a newsletter that packs in loads of news and game reviews. Having started on 15 May 1994, today represents the tenth anniversary of that first issue. That first issue was mostly packed with reviews of some of the games included in the Lost Treasures of Infocom package, with many of the reviews from Stephen Granade. Paul O’Brian has been editor since issue 18.

Paul, thank you very much for agreeing to answer a few questions for InsideADRIFT.

My pleasure — thanks for inviting me!

Q1. I always tend to start with this one. What brought you into the world of interactive fiction (and keeps you here)?

Probably the best and most complete answer to this question is the first editorial I wrote for SPAG, in issue #18. The short version is that after my dad introduced me to Zork in the early Eighties, Infocom became one of my teenage obsessions. Then, in the early Nineties, my interest in IF was reawakened by Activision’s release of the Lost Treasures of Infocom collections. I was discovering the Internet right about the same time, so one of the first searches I did was on “interactive fiction”; that led me to the newsgroups and to the discovery that IF is still alive and thriving, with a whole range of tools allowing people to write works just as good as or better than anything Infocom ever produced. Playing and writing new IF games was a dream come true for me.

As for what keeps me around, I think it’s a combination of things. Certainly, I’m still fascinated with the medium of IF, and I love seeing it continue to grow and evolve. In addition, editing SPAG and writing the Earth And Sky series have proved to be rather tangible commitments to participation in the IF community — even at times when I’ve felt like drifting away, I’ve found myself unwilling to leave SPAG rudderless and my game series incomplete. Finally, the IF community contains some of the most interesting people I’ve encountered in any social sphere. Being around such bright and creative people can feel a little intimidating at times, but it’s so rewarding.

Q2. The SPAG newsletter is a valuable resource for finding a wide range of reviews for the whole community. Does it currently meet the targets that you have for it and do you have more aims for the future?

Heh. “Targets.” I’ve never been inclined to set goals for SPAG, because it would drive me crazy to have specific aims for something that is largely out of my control. My only real goal is to hustle up enough reviews every three months to produce a viable issue of the zine.

Thanks to SPAG’s legions of volunteer contributors, I’ve always been able to reach that goal, though sometimes it’s meant stretching the definition of “viable” a little further than I’m comfortable with.

Remarkably, SPAG has survived for 10 years (as of May 15th, 2004), and that’s only because people continue to be interested enough in its project that they still want to submit and read IF reviews. I’m really not sure what the next ten years will hold for it. I’ll probably hand off the mantle of editorship at some point, though I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, I don’t plan any major changes to SPAG — I think it’s working pretty well in its current format, so aside from some possible improvements to the web site or any spiffy new features that occur to me, I’m planning to stay the course.

Q3. Editing a publication that survives on input from others can be stressful. Do you find that people are keen to write or do you have to twist arms regularly to get sufficient content?

You know, I think both are true. I believe that people are quite keen to write in theory. That is, the idea of writing a SPAG review appeals to a lot of people, and that’s why I receive work from such a variety of contributors. However, what’s also true is that people approach IF as a hobby, maybe one of many hobbies occupying their free time. So IF already exists as just a little slice of most people’s time, and when writing a review is a little slice of that IF time, it’s very easily delayed or abandoned. This is perfectly understandable, of course, but what it means is that most people need a little nudge to reignite their interest in writing a review for SPAG. I post these nudges a few weeks before each issue comes out, and I try to make them varied and somewhat entertaining, but ultimately, their purpose in life is just to serve as a little reminder and motivator for anybody with the intention of reviewing a game for SPAG. I think I’d get a lot fewer submissions without those little reminders, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t keen on the idea of writing reviews.

Q4. The interactive fiction community is an odd group, so often supportive yet also often aggressive in their arguments. Do you believe that this is all part of the healthy debate of a lively group or unnecessary conflict that detracts from its aim of producing games?

Neither. Both. I’m not sure I accept the premise of the question, actually. Certainly I’ve seen aggressive arguments on the newsgroups, but I’m not sure I’d call that a trait of the interactive fiction community per se. In part, I think it’s a trait of Internet conversations everywhere, though of course the degree of vitriol can and does vary depending on the forum and the topic. I’ve seen my share of people who I think of as IF community members aggressively pursuing a point — sometimes I don’t like it, and sometimes I take some pleasure in it, depending on how much I agree with the point and how much I think the target deserves the aggression. I’ve been guilty of it myself from time to time.

However, I wouldn’t say there’s some monolithic IF community that can be characterized as “aggressive” — what we call the “IF community” is really a very loose agglomeration of people collected around a bunch of different loci, containing personalities that range from enthusiastically friendly to dismissively sarcastic. There are also a couple of downright vicious people who haunt the newsgroups, but I don’t really think of them as members of our community so much as forces interested in wrecking whatever positive energy exists in it.

In any case, I tend to be annoyed or dismayed by most of the aggressive arguments that appear in IF fora, whether they be from established community members or from other people charging in and tossing around accusations of elitism, intellectual stagnation, provincialism, or what have you. However, my experience is that those little flamewars tend to be a rather small fraction of the mainstream of IF discussion, most of which is polite, friendly, and often thought-provoking.

Q5. The ADRIFT community can tend to feel that we are often on the margins, getting a few scraps from the wider group. I suspect this can partly be attributed to the fact that when working with the mainstream languages RAIF is the place you go for discussion, in contrast the ADRIFT forum provides us with a dedicated support group. Do you think this gives an appearance outside ADRIFT of us being different and standoffish?

Hmm. I’m not sure I have an answer for this. Just as I don’t believe there’s one dominant definition of the “IF community”, I’m not sure there’s a dominant perception of ADRIFT forum users. Even if there were, I don’t think that I’d know what it is. For my part, I think of the ADRIFT forum as one of the loci I mentioned above when I was calling the IF community a “loose agglomeration.” Others include raif, rgif, ifMUD, alt.games.xtrek, and the SPAG subscriber list.

Because I tend to follow the int-fiction newsgroups and (to a lesser extent) ifMUD, I’m not terribly aware of what goes on at the ADRIFT forum, but I’ve never thought of that as ADRIFT users’ fault — it’s just divergent interests. I suppose it would be nice if everybody had a common gathering place, but as long as there’s some cross-pollination, I’m not bothered, and certainly it’s never occurred to me to take offense at the ADRIFT forum’s existence separate from the int-fiction newsgroups. After all, what’s on the margins depends solely on what you define as the center.

Q6. I was just looking at the list of back issues, it is an impressive list and makes our 16 issues seem very small. Does it become easier the longer things go on for? (KF asked hopefully)

Easier. Well, the inescapable fact is that coming up with good original content takes work, both for you and for your contributors. That truth never really goes away. However, I do think that the more good issues you produce, the more you gain a reputation as something worth contributing to. So maybe it does get a little easier to elicit submissions as time goes on. I sure hope so, anyway.

Q7. As usual, I will end the interview by asking you what you are currently working on, and what you are looking for in the future for yourself and interactive fiction?

I’m working furiously on Earth And Sky 3 in hopes of having it ready by the fall. Speaking of which, it’s been a lot of fun to spout off and I appreciate the opportunity, but I think I’d better get back to coding now…

The Great Xavio by Reese Warner [Comp04]

IFDB page: The Great Xavio
Final placement: 11th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had a lovely time during my first half-hour with The Great Xavio. Similar to Infocom’s Sherlock, you play the “man of action” assistant to a prodigious but inscrutable thinker. In this case, you’re a graduate student named Hagerston, in unending thrall (the way only a graduate student can be) to your adviser, an odd duck named Dr. Rex Excalibur Todd. Dr. Todd is a logician, obsessed with debunking anyone who challenges the reign of empiricism, and that’s why he’s dragged you out of bed at 3 AM, to the hotel housing sensational magician The Great Xavio — your job is to prove that Xavio is a fraud.

These characters apparently feature in some short stories and a novel penned by this game’s author, and Dr. Todd in particular is obviously the product of tremendous affection. The premise provides plenty of room for exploration, and Dr. Todd’s constant presence at the PC’s elbow gives the game many opportunities for humorous metacommentary and the occasional helpful hint. There were a few irritating defects here and there, but after the first 30 minutes, I was enthusiastically looking forward to the rest of my time with Xavio.

Unfortunately, after that things began to unravel a bit, and oddly enough the unraveling started with a key and a locked door, a situation that replicated exactly what I’d discussed in my editorial for SPAG #34. It occurs as the PC is trying to get into a hotel room, a room to which he holds the key. I’d like to quote the exchange exactly, but it would be too much of a spoiler to do so, so here’s a slightly altered version of it:

>e
You can't, since the room door is in the way.

>open door
(the room door)
The door is locked. However, next to it there is a slot for your room key that might do something.

The elevator doors close

>unlock door
(the elevator door)
Unlocking generally requires a key of some sort.

>unlock door with key
(the elevator door with the room key)
That doesn't seem to be something you can unlock.

>put key in slot
The light above the slot flashes green, and you hear the door's lock click.

>e
You can't, since the room door is in the way.

>open door
(the room door)
You open the room door.

>e
Inside The Hotel Room

This was an incredibly aggravating interaction, made more so by the game’s sudden substitution of the elevator door as the default object for “door”, and because I kept needing to visit the room, it kept happening until I trained myself to behave as the game wanted me to. In my editorial, I argued that things like opening and unlocking a door to which you have the key should be handled automatically by the game, rather than forcing the player to manually go through all the fiddly steps of door and lock management. This argument brought several responses, which rightly pointed out that if that strategy is carried to its logical extreme, the game could just automatically do everything for the player — a game like this is more properly called a “book.”

Instead, the game should keep an internal model of the PC’s knowledge and intentions; it should automate fiddly steps only when they match the set of actions that the player knows how to do and clearly intends to do. Within that structure, I’d like to offer a further refinement to my argument: IF games should automate actions which require little to no thought on the part of the PC. Any of us who have spent time using hotel keys as described above know that it quickly becomes second nature. We don’t need to think through every step — rather, we form the intention of entering the room and habit takes care of the rest. I would so much rather have seen this:

>e
You swipe the room key through the slot; its light flashes green and
you hear the door's lock click. Opening the door, you step inside.

Inside The Hotel Room

See, there’s nothing fun about typing out PUT KEY IN SLOT and OPEN DOOR a bunch of times, and it actually weakens mimesis to force players through such menial moves, especially after the first time. I still grant that there can be plenty of good reasons to break this rule — in fact, I force a very similar card-swipe at the beginning of the first Earth And Sky episode. In that instance, I chose to do so for purposes of pacing and dramatic tension, but if the PC had to go through the door more than once, automating that passage would be the right thing to do.

I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing a small piece of this game, but that piece was emblematic of my experience with Xavio. Despite all the game’s appealing traits — its engaging characters, its friendly design, its entertaining story — I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I ended up feeling like I’d played the beta version of something with great potential rather than something that was already great on its own. Erratic newlines and shaky punctuation contributed to my impression that the game wasn’t well tested, and so did basic mistakes like embedding dialogue into room descriptions so that it repeats every time you look at the room. In addition, there were some issues that may have been intentional, but were functionally bugs. For example, inside that hotel room with the difficult door, there’s a window on the north wall (again slightly altered to avoid spoilers):

>x window
The hotel's old enough that it's a window you can actually open.

>look through window
You look out the window. There's a thin ledge, just barely possible as a space to stand if what you saw wasn't a mirage. Looking out further to the northwest you can see a few cars crossing the Golden Gate bridge.

>x ledge
You can't see any such thing.

>open window
Nothing like a breath of fresh air.

>n
You can't go that way.

>enter window
That's not something you can enter.

>go out the window
You can't see any such thing.

So you tell me there’s a window, and that I can open it. You tell me there’s a ledge outside the window. Then you let me open the window… but don’t implement actually going out the window? What was the point of describing the ledge and making the window openable in the first place? Even worse, just typing OUT puts me back out in the hallway, where once again I have to go through that exasperating rigmarole with the key. Whether or not that was the intended implementation, I call it a big fat bug.

The game credits testers, but I can’t tell whether any of them are members of the IF community. If not, that may be part of the problem — it’s important to have at least one person in your pool of testers who is conversant with the basic standards of modern IF. They’ll notice things that novice testers will miss. To sum up in one word what this game lacks: polish. It just needs to be tightened up — formatting errors fixed, typos eliminated, underimplemented areas enhanced. Once that happens, the peculiar charm of Hagerston and Todd will be able to shine through unimpeded.

Rating: 6.7

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.

About my 2003 IF Competition Reviews

For me as an author, 2003 was a frustrating year. I had entered part 1 of a trilogy into the 2001 competition, and (amazingly) won the 2002 competition with part 2. I had every intention of completing the set with a 2003 entry, and in fact even publicly announced that I would do so. By June, though, it was very clear that I wouldn’t make it. There were a few different reasons for this, from accelerated real-life demands to a ballooning project scope caused by more ambitious design goals, but nevertheless it was a very disappointing outcome to me. I had really wanted that unbroken run.

For me as a critic, 2003 had different frustrations. The IF Competition had become a massive center of gravity in the community, which meant that it sucked up all the energy and feedback, certainly for the few months it took place, and pretty much overall for the year as well. The perfect emblem of this dysfunction, to my mind, is the 2003 comp entry Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne.

RR is a fantastic game — sumptuously implemented, brilliantly designed, beautifully written. It is also a full-length game. There’s no way anybody finishes it in 2 hours, at least not outside of just charging through the walkthrough. So I played it, and loved what I saw of it, but did so in the context of six weeks where I’m trying to play and review 29 games, and cut each one off after two hours. As it became clear that RR was much bigger, I turned to hints so that I could see more of the game. I would have enjoyed it more without doing so, but it was a choice between more enjoyment or more exposure, and I wanted to be able to review the game with as broad a perspective as possible. So I sacrificed enjoying a work that its author had surely labored over creating.

I hate being placed in this position, so in my review I let the game have it with both barrels, estimating that I’d seen a third of it, so only giving it a third of the score it deserved. As it turned out, RR placed second, and in my capacity as SPAG editor I routinely interviewed the top three placing authors from the comp. I was a little abashed at doing so with Michael, having lambasted his game for its length, so I went straight at the topic in my interview:

SPAG: Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest complainers on that point, it’s only fair you should get to air your side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I’m not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn’t seem reasonable.

So there you have it. The competition pulls in games that don’t belong in it, because if you release those games outside the competition, even a month or two beforehand, you may as well not release them at all. I found this a deeply discouraging place to be. I tried to do my part in counteracting it — encouraging SPAG reviews of non-comp games, and even releasing a full-length non-comp game myself — but the immensity of the comp had gathered a momentum all its own. My banging against it affected me more than it affected the situation, I suspect.

However, while the downside of the comp’s centrality was that it gathered everything to it, the upside was that it gathered so many good things to it. The 2003 games had some fantastic experiences among them, even besides Risorgimento Represso. The winning game, Slouching Towards Bedlam, was stupendous, and made me a little bit relieved I hadn’t managed to finish part 3 of Earth and Sky for that year’s comp. Other highlights included The Recruit, Scavenger, and Episode In The Life of an Artist.

I also benefited from my history with the comp, as I got to enjoy the return of many a previous entrant. Mikko Vuorinen was back with another goofily incongruous exercise in icon-subversion, Mike Sousa brought a bunch of veteran authors into a group-writing exercise, and Stefan Blixt and John Evans returned with more half-baked entries in the line of their previous ones. Well, those last two weren’t so much fun, but best of all was the reappearance of Daniel Ravipinto, whose last game was in 1996 and who excelled once again. He brought with him a wonderful co-author named Star Foster, whose horribly untimely death in 2006 is one of the saddest stories in amateur IF.

I posted my reviews of the 2003 IF Competition games on November 16, 2003.

The PK Girl by Robert Goodwin [Comp02]

IFDB page: The PK Girl
Final placement: 6th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I like comics, and I like animation, but I’ve never really read much manga or watched much anime. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding these forms, but rather that I haven’t happened to explore them yet. I’m a little bit familiar with the concept of hentai, because of the subculture of hentai IF that seems to be out there, which was brought to the attention of the newsgroups a few years ago, primarily by the efforts of a reviewer named Craxton.

Because of my unfamiliarity with Japanese comics and animation, I think I lack some context for evaluating The PK Girl, a text adventure with a deep manga influence. First and foremost, I’m not sure what to make of the game’s extreme, almost comical insistence on rigid and stereotyped gender roles. Whether this is a convention of manga, something particular to this game, or even just a quirk of the PC I don’t know, but while I found it at first just distracting and silly, it quickly graduated to annoying and even offensive. The game puts you in the role of a male PC, and quickly demonstrates that you have some pretty sweeping assumptions about femininity, and a fair amount of anxiety about maintaining the image of your own masculinity. The former becomes apparent in the description of the first female NPC you encounter:

The girl is clothed in a silky blue dress. Long vibrant hair cascades
over her shoulders and down her back. Her countenance seems to
reflect all feminine virtue, inclusive of kindness, submissiveness,
empathy, and consciousness of time and place.

So “submissiveness” is a feminine trait, in fact a feminine virtue? And kindness and empathy are outside the male domain? Certainly the female characters don’t have a lock on self-consciousness, as evidenced by the PC’s reaction to entering a women’s clothing store:

Why did you come in here? There is nothing terribly exciting here by
any male’s estimations. To a female, this could well be a lesser
incarnation of paradise. A wealth of clothing is available on
circular racks situated in aisles throughout the store, for trying on
and for purchase. The exit is west.

Yes, we know that all women love clothes-shopping. And men have no interest whatsoever in women’s fashion, which is why all fashion designers are women. Oh, wait. At its worst moments, the game spits out statements that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Victorian behavior manual:

GET PLATE
You don't need to take the plate; There are females here to clean up
after you.

Give me a break! If this is a manga thing, I don’t think I’ll be reading manga anytime soon.

On the technical (and more positive) side, The PK Girl is the long-awaited game that rises above ADRIFT‘s initial limitations to take a place among games created by the top-tier development systems. An unbelievable amount of care has gone into crafting this game. First of all, it addresses all the flaws in the ADRIFT parser that I’ve railed about in previous reviews. The game handles conversation very smoothly indeed, blending the ASK ABOUT approach with a menu-based approach in a somewhat similar fashion to my Earth And Sky games. On the rare occasions when the parser asks a question, it’s almost always prepared to handle the answer. SEARCH works, and in fact it works better than in most games, because the game explicitly assumes that it includes looking under and looking behind an object, and says so. Best of all, I never encountered the generic “Nothing special” message for an unrecognized noun, partly because the game changed the default message to be more Inform-like, but mostly because nouns are implemented in exquisite depth.

For that matter, not only are almost all nouns described, but a prodigious number are included in the first place. I didn’t come close to finishing this game in the two hours allotted, but I must confess that may be my own fault, because I frequently deserted the plot in order to wander around the game and marvel at the level of detail included. For this virtue alone, The PK Girl is one of the most immersive games in this year’s comp. In addition to its significant improvement on the standard ADRIFT parser, the game also includes professional-looking illustrations and an enjoyable MIDI soundtrack. This latter can get a little grating after a while, and I sometimes wished that a piece of music would play once and stop rather than continuously looping (or that I at least had the option of making the game behave that way), but it did enhance the scenes’ mood quite effectively.

As for the story itself, I found it pretty entertaining. After a fairly tranquil opening, the plot kicks into high gear with a dramatic incident, and events follow sensibly upon each other from there on. NPCs help propel the story forward by sometimes continuing about their business without waiting for the PC, thus forcing the player to keep up or lose the plot entirely. As I said, I didn’t get all the way through the story, but the portion I saw delivered excitement and fun, even if the writing sometimes had an oddly elevated tone which worked counter to the brisk pace. There were some problem spots in the writing, phrases that didn’t make much sense or that suggested with their awkwardness a few lapses in English skill. Still, for the most part they didn’t get in the way of the game’s ability to tell a good story.

Because its story is fun and quite chaste, The PK Girl might make a nice IF selection for kids, though perhaps it ought to be counterpointed by something rather less sexist. In fact, although I’m clueless about anime, the game reminded me distinctly of another branch of animation, the Disney feature film: technically impressive and proficient while remaining on the political level utterly, utterly reactionary.

Rating: 8.4

Colours by J. Robinson Wheeler as Anonymous [Comp01]

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

Colours comes out of an IF impulse I’m starting to recognize. The game has no interest whatsoever in story or characters, and instead uses the tools of IF to build a large, complicated, inhabitable puzzle. If Games Magazine had an interactive edition, this game might be included. I think it shares a kinship with games like Ad Verbum, or the less satisfying Schroedinger’s Cat, but I’m not sure what to call games like these — perhaps “plotless IF”, since they’re so unconcerned with telling a story.

I don’t think that quite covers it, though. Even the venerable Zork series could be considered plotless IF, given that its PC is a complete cipher, and that the game’s skeleton mainly exists to support a variety of clever puzzles, but I don’t think it’s in quite the same species as something like Colours. For one thing, one of the pleasures of Zork (and its imitators) is the wonderful landscape descriptions provided throughout. That’s in stark contrast to this game, where most of the rooms (at one point or another), are described along these lines:

Clear Room
The walls of this room are made of a sheer, shiny substance that is
neither wood nor metal nor plaster nor plastic. They have become
completely transparent. Exits lead north, east, south and west.

There’s a kind of purity to this aesthetic that Zork doesn’t even approach. It’s as if the game wants to provide the barest possible structure on which to hang its puzzles, and the puzzles themselves tend to be rather abstract exercises in pattern-matching. There’s another difference too: Colours (and games of its ilk) offers a cohesiveness that’s absent from more freewheeling games like Zork. The entire gameworld hews to a unified set of rules, and the puzzles tend to be variations on a theme — in the case of this game, that theme is (you guessed it) colors. (Well, there’s also a word theme, but that’s subservient.) This is the sort of genre to which Colours belongs, but I really need to come up with a name for it so that I don’t have to spend a paragraph each time I find one. Suggestions welcome.

Because I come to IF looking to be immersed in a story and a setting, These Sorts Of Games aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I can still enjoy them when they’re done well. Once I recognize that the crossword has utterly defeated the narrative (in Graham Nelson’s terms) and adjust my expectations accordingly, I’m ready to indulge in the pleasure of pure puzzle-solving. Of course, what that means is that an entirely different set of expectations falls into place. Games whose sole purpose is their puzzles had better provide interesting challenges, problem-free implementation, and clear solutions in case I get badly stuck.

On many counts, Colours doesn’t disappoint. I found its puzzles entertaining for the most part, and found no errors in its prose. On the other hand, I also encountered one serious flaw that drastically reduced my enjoyment of the game. Without giving too much away, the problem is that there are some game states where crucial items appear to have vanished, when in fact they are present but totally undescribed. This sort of environment manipulation is a big no-no in IF — I’m relying on the text to present an accurate picture of the world, especially in pure puzzle games (hmmm, “pure puzzle games”… might work.) When it doesn’t, an element critical to pleasure in puzzling has disappeared.

I went through Colours twice, because due to the apparent absence of vital items, I thought the game had closed itself off without warning. When I encountered the same problem a second time, I trundled desperately over to ifMUD, where someone kindly told me that the items really are there, contrary to what the descriptions might have me believe. As a result of these travails, my experience in playing the game went from being a fun cerebral exercise to being an exercise in frustration.

The other area in which Colours didn’t quite come up to snuff was in the solutions it provided. Two bits of help accompanied the game: some vague hints appear when the player types HELP, and then a complete walkthrough exists as a separate text file. The problem is that the HELP text gives suggestions that are just flat wrong. In fact, for those who haven’t yet played the game, here’s my advice: ignore what the help text tells you to start with. You don’t yet have to tools to deal with that. Instead, start with exploration, and with a close look at the text on the game’s accompanying jpg image.

Then there’s the walkthrough, which is very helpful on some points, and not at all helpful on others. The walkthrough’s approach is to explicate the concepts behind the game, and to tell how to accomplish the puzzle goals, but not to provide a step- by-step solution. Consequently, due to the “hidden items” problem described above, I found myself staring at the walkthrough and thinking, “but how am I supposed to do that?” I certainly understand the impulse not to just lay everything flat in the walkthrough — I didn’t even provide a walkthrough with my own comp entry, a decision I’m beginning to fret about now — but the danger in not laying out a stepwise answer is that if there are problems in the game itself, the walkthrough becomes pretty useless. Luckily, this problem probably won’t be very hard to fix, and if Colours sees a post-comp release, it will probably end up as an enjoyable puzzle-box for those who like that kind of thing. In its present incarnation, however, I found that its charm faded quickly into confusion.

Rating: 6.5

You Are Here by Roy Fisher [Comp01]

IFDB page: You Are Here
Final placement: 25th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m looking over the lists of comp games from past years, and I think I can say that You Are Here is the first comp game I’ve seen whose main purpose is to serve as advertisement. Sure, the “IF as ad” idea isn’t new. We’ve seen jokey endorsements like the wonderful Coke Is It!. We’ve seen bonus releases advertising new commercial games, as Zork: Undiscovered Underground did for Activision’s Zork: Grand Inquisitor. In the comp, we’ve even seen games that supposedly served as demos for their fuller, more epic, and (natch) as yet unreleased versions (e.g. And The Waves Choke The Wind or, in a somewhat different sense, Earth And Sky.)

You Are Here, though, is of a different breed. It’s a real promotion, and it’s not advertising a game, but rather a play — Trina Davies“Multi User Dungeon”. Of course, given that the play is taking place (or rather, “took place”, since I’m writing this review in October but won’t release it until the show has ended its run) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in early November makes it highly unlikely that I will be attending it. Hey, if it were showing in Denver, I’d probably buy a ticket. But an international flight for the sole purpose of playgoing isn’t exactly within my means, and I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of comp judges. Consequently, it could be argued that as an advertisement, You Are Here can hardly be anything but a staggering failure, so supremely mis-targeted it is. Thus, I can’t think it was entered in the comp with any particular hope of pumping up the house receipts for “Multi User Dungeon” — it must want to be evaluated on its merits as a game. Fair enough.

So what about it? Well, results are mixed. On the plus side, this game was obviously not just thrown together for the sake of media saturation. It’s a substantial piece of work, just about the exact right size for the comp. It uses a heretofore-unseen setting, simulating the environment of a MUD right down to emotes and the “who” command, and does a darn good job of it. Unlike our beloved ifMUD, this MUD is more in the hack-n-slash mode, a standard cliché-medieval environment in which you select your gender by choosing between wearing a “Barbarian loincloth” and a “Valkyrie breastplate.” It contains several entertaining moments, such as the couple whose hookup is spilling over from their MUD personas into their real lives, or the woman making a vain attempt to become one of the “Wizards” (i.e. coders) of the MUD before having spent a substantial amount of time there. Best of all, there’s an NPC companion who is a thoroughly entertaining replica of a typical MUDizen. I particularly enjoyed the things he’d shout out (like “Whodaman? Whodaman?”) when we’d win a battle. There was also one puzzle I really enjoyed solving — it involved a mix of experimentation, lateral thinking, and object combination that worked for me.

So much for the positives. The game is also burdened by a number of problems. There are typos and grammar errors sprinkled lightly throughout. There are bugs, including a Vile Zero Error From Hell that spits out a screenful of “Programming Error:” messages. Far worse than these is the game’s greatest sin, a sin of two parts. Part the first: the game closes off without warning — performing a completely standard action causes one of the puzzles, one most people won’t encounter until much later, to become unsolvable. This is bad enough, but it’s grievously exacerbated by part the second: You Are Here‘s “about” text claims that “it is impossible to get yourself into a situation where you cannot solve the game.”

Okay, bad enough to actually design a game this way, but to design it that way and claim that it isn’t designed that way? No, no, no — don’t do that! Granted, it’s possible that the problem is with the programming and not the design, but either way, I ended up floundering around for quite a while, sure that the game wasn’t in an unwinnable state because, after all, the game told me it wouldn’t be! Actually, it’s occurring to me at the moment that it’s also possible I just wasn’t clever enough to find out the alternate solution. If that’s the case, all complaints are retracted. But until I find out otherwise (and given that the game provided no walkthrough, it may be a while), my verdict stands: a clever, interesting game (especially for a promotional work), flawed by some minor errors, a serious design weakness, and a false claim.

Rating: 7.2

About my 2001 IF Competition Reviews

In 2001, I entered the IF Competition for the first time since 1996. My entry, Earth And Sky, was inspired by the Marvel comics I’ve loved since age six, and was entered under the Marvelicious pseudonym “Lee Kirby”. The previous year, I’d written a long and very heavy non-competition game called LASH: Local Asynchronous Satellite Hookup, which was partly about the antebellum South of the U.S., and had me reading many a slave narrative for research. After that, I wanted to write something lighter and more fun, and I’d never yet played superhero IF that I found really satisfying, so I wanted to make some.

Earth And Sky was also intended as the first episode in a series of games, and I would end up entering the other two episodes into the Comp as well, but that’s a topic for a later time. The game took 8th place — oddly, the same exact ranking as my 1996 entry, Wearing The Claw. Of course, while I was writing these reviews, I didn’t know that, so as I had in 1996, I played the games partly with an eye toward checking out my competition as well as the competition.

Weirdly, this was also the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner, because I’d been a beta tester for it. Jon Ingold‘s excellent All Roads took the top prize that year, and I was happy to have contributed a little to it. It’s strange collecting the reviews now though, and knowing that this site won’t contain a review of the 2001 winner. (Well, not anytime soon anyway. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back around to reviewing it?) The other game I skipped was called Begegnung am Fluss, which I couldn’t play due to my total inability to read German.

I do have the ability to read English, much to the disadvantage of many 2001 games. My patience for terrible writing decreased steadily throughout the competition, and I didn’t really start with that much. At one point, I started fantasizing about getting points every time I spotted an error, which I imagined would award me a score of “524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.” The Gibbering Grammarian found himself giving lessons on things like the use of definite vs. indefinite articles, and creating a special label for what I called “NASTY FOUL IT’S/ITS ERRORS”. I was inspired by the Vile Zero Error From Hell, a particularly nasty way of crashing the Z-machine, since NFIEs tended to have the same effect on my brain and mood.

Similarly, I really turned into Mr. Cranky around implementation issues, and in particular non-standard development systems. Just as bad were the games that applied outmoded ideas to modern systems, as I’d really had it with mazes, inventory limits, and so forth. But despite my grumpiness and anxiety about my own game, I still found much to delight me in this year’s competition, and just as much to intrigue me and push my thoughts forward about the medium itself. As in 1996, I hardly minded losing to such stellar work.

One more thing: in the fall of 2001, the shadow of 9/11 loomed large. It was a bizarre time to be an American. One unfortunate game ran afoul of this circumstance by presenting a sympathetic portrayal of terrorists. Another year, I might have had a different reaction, but in October of 2001, it just didn’t work for me.

I posted my reviews for the 2001 IF Competition games on November 16, 2001.