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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calliope by Jason McIntosh [Comp99]

IFDB page: Calliope
Final placement: 23rd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had a sinking feeling when I read the “info” text for Calliope. Some dreaded phrases were dropped: “My prime goal in writing Calliope was to get comfortable with the Inform language…”, “…autobiographical portrait of myself confusedly hacking away at a going-nowhere Inform program…” The whole thing sounded uncomfortably like it was describing a combination of my two least favorite competition entry genres, the “I wrote this game to learn Inform” game and the “this is an IF version of my house” game. Previous entries of this nature have, on the whole, not been stellar, so after I read the description of Calliope, my expectations were decidedly low. But I guess that’s the beauty of the Low Expectation Theory, isn’t it? Because once I expected Calliope to stink, I discovered that it’s not such a bad little game after all. Sure, it’s a trifle, but that’s OK. It’s done reasonably well, is not redolent with references only the author could understand, and its idea is (I can’t believe I’m saying this) actually pretty clever. Yes, despite the fact that you begin the game sitting at your desk, in your apartment, on your chair, staring at your computer and your proposed competition entry therein, Calliope turns out to be pretty fun rather than really boring. It seems that exhaustion is approaching for you, the prospective author, and that your previous efforts whacking away at that competition entry have been rather uninspired. But the Muse (the game’s title is a whopping hint) can strike at unexpected times…

One of the things that makes the game an unexpected pleasure to play is that unlike most of its learning Inform/house simulation brethren, it is relatively free of errors in both coding and writing. The prose is nothing special, but it did give me a vivid picture of the setting, through little details like your desk showing its age “by the camouflage patterns of divers dark beverage stains covering… its cheap white Formica surface…” “Divers” looked like a typo to me, but something in the dim recesses of my brain is suggesting that it may just be a culturally specific spelling of “diverse.” Actually, what it really looks like is a Renaissance spelling, but since my wife is a grad student in Renaissance lit., the boundaries tend to blur for me. The game’s one puzzle makes sense and is well-clued, and its multiple endings are enough fun that I went back and played through all of them. Many first games feel like prologue, and Calliope is no exception. Where it differs from the pack, though, is that the prologue it provides is promising and exciting. I’d be very interested in seeing a full-length game (or even a full-length competition entry) by the author based on the ideas presented in Calliope. Heck, I wouldn’t mind seeing three such games. Jason McIntosh shows enough promise in Calliope that his next release should be highly anticipated.

Of course, none of this means that the game is worth keeping long. You’ll probably spend a few minutes noodling around, a few more solving the puzzle, and the rest of your time will go to replaying through to see the various endings. Perhaps if you’re really dedicated, you’ll try out the author’s suggestions (provided in the walkthrough) for all the various ways to lose the game. The whole thing shouldn’t take much more than a half-hour, after which Calliope goes into the recycle bin. These “short-short” games are becoming a more and more prominent competition trend. They make sure to meet the “two-hour” rule by ducking far under it — so far, in fact, that you can exhaust most of their options in a quarter of that time. The first time I remember seeing a comp entry of this ilk was Jay Goemmer’s E-MAILBOX in 1997, which consisted of about four moves and no puzzles. The trend continued in ’98 with games like In the Spotlight and Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. Now it’s so prevalent that out of the six comp games I’ve played so far, three are of the “short-short” variety. Of course, this may just be the vagaries of Comp99’s randomizer, but I suspect it goes a little deeper than that. Tiny games like this allow an author to get exposure and experience without making a huge time investment. They create an evolving example which pushes the author’s developing knowledge in an IF language, both by providing a space to try out examples and by nudging research into the manual to implement that latest and greatest idea. Perhaps most important of all, tiny IF makes for one more line in that all-important “Things I’ve finished” list. Thankfully for its audience, Calliope does it right.

Rating: 6.8