PAX East Part 2: There’s More At The Door [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the third in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
After some suite chat, 2:00 rolled around, which was the time PAX was officially supposed to open. So a large contingent, myself included, headed con-wards. My first and most lasting impression of PAX is: PEOPLE. People, people, and also, more people. Behind them are other people, who block your view of the people already inside, and if you turn around, you can see a long line of people, stretching back farther than you can see. I feel like if I’d missed my plane, I could probably have walked a couple of blocks from my house in Colorado and gotten in line for the PAX keynote with Wil Wheaton. Good lord, there were a lot of people.

Serious luck was on my side, as I had Rob Wheeler along to act as my Virgil through the utterly overwhelming and confusing human ocean that was the PAX entrance. He’d attended the Seattle PAX the previous Fall, and had also scoped out the scene beforehand to pick up his Speaker badge. (More about that later.) He helped me navigate my way into a long entrance queue, along with Sarah Morayati, a very friendly (and talented, I later discovered) woman who came on the scene in the last few years.

Meeting Sarah was my first taste of a feeling that was to get very familiar over the next couple of days. I am, I discovered, Unfrozen Caveman IF Guy. It’s as if I’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years, and I thawed out at PAX, like Captain America looking up at the Avengers and thinking, “Who are you guys?” When Dante was born in 2005 (and really, a little before, as we were preparing for his arrival), I withdrew pretty thoroughly from the IF scene. I handed SPAG over to Jimmy Maher, I pretty much stopped writing reviews, I stopped reading the newsgroups, and I stopped visiting ifMUD. There have been exceptions here and there — my review of 1893, for instance, or my work with Textfyre — but for the most part, I have been absent. It turns out that a lot can happen in five years! I’m excited but a bit overwhelmed at how much there is to catch up on.

Speaking of overwhelming, when the line finally moved into the convention proper, we quickly heard that we wouldn’t make it into the keynote. We connected up with Stephen, and headed into the expo hall. This is about the point when sensory overload started attacking my brain cells, making it impossible for me now to retrieve my memories of who was where when. I know there was a group of us, and we met up with another group, and Mark Musante was there, and Jacqueline Ashwell was there, and Iain Merrick was there, and Dan Shiovitz was there, other people I don’t know very well were there, and probably lots of others I do but everything is blurring together because have I mentioned that good god there were a lot of people?

In the expo hall, there was also a lot of noise and sound. Wait, make that A WHOLE GODDAMNED LOT OF NOISE AND SOUND!!! And people. Of course. We watched Rob play Dante’s Inferno, which apparently involves Dante kicking lots of ass and not, as someone pointed out, fainting a lot, the way he does in the book. We watched Stephen play some game that involves falling and is impossible to Google because its name is something like “AaaaaAAaaaAAAAaaAAAAAa!!!!” We saw lots of booths and bright colors and LOUD SOUNDS and so forth. You get the idea.

After some time, I went with a subgroup of people to attend a 4:00 panel called “Design an RPG in an Hour.” It was crowded! I ended up leaning against the back wall. The panel was more or less like improv comedy, except take out the comedy and put in its place boilerplate RPG elements. What will our setting be? What is the conflict? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What are their special traits? (i.e. What will their stat categories be?) It was pretty well-done, albeit dominated by what Stephen accurately termed “goofy high-concept stuff” from the audience. For instance, the guy shouting out “talking dinosaurs!” got a round of applause. I was happy to be there in any case, because there was a 5:30 panel on IF that would be in the same room, so I figured we’d stake out the good seats.

Now, this is a very cool thing. Some IF community folks pitched the idea of a PAX panel called “Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction,” and to our general delight, the PAX organizers made it part of the official con schedule! Going to this panel was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Boston. So when it became apparent that PAX enforcers would be doing a full room sweep to prevent the very camping behavior I was counting on, it was time to make a new plan — and apparently, there was quite a line forming. So we snuck out before the panel ended to get in line.

And my goodness, it’s a lucky thing we did. When I first saw the room, I couldn’t imagine how we’d fill it with people wanting to hear about IF. But after we took our seats (which were quite good), people started to flow in. And then more came. And then more. The chairs: filled. The walls: filled. The aisles: filled.


I get chills again as I write it. I mean, I’m very sorry for the people who got turned away. I met several of them over the course of the weekend, and they were quite disappointed. But holy shit, what hath PAX wrought when we can cram a huge room with people interested in our medium, with tons more hoping to get in? It was stunning, absolutely stunning.

The panel itself was great. It consisted of some of our best: Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Robb Sherwin, Aaron A. Reed, and Rob Wheeler moderating. I won’t try and recap the panel, except to say that it was wonderful to hear sustained, intelligent, live discussion of IF. The charming Jenni Polodna, another arrival during my years on ice, wrote some very thorough notes about it, and Jason Scott filmed it, so you’ll probably be able to see it yourself sometime. Which, if you were one of those turned away, might help a bit.

All I know is that at the end, I felt like I had a whole lot of games I needed to play.

Top 10 IF games to play if you’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years

1. Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed

2. Violet by Jeremy Freese

3. The games of the JayIsGames IF Comp

4. Lost Pig by Admiral Jota

5. Make It Good by Jon Ingold

6. De Baron by Victor Gijsbers

7. Alabaster by a Emily Short and also a whole boatload of people.

8. The Shadow In The Cathedral by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold. [Hey, one I’ve played! I was even a tester for it!]

9. Floatpoint by Emily Short

10. Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe

Punk Points by Jim Munroe [Comp00]

IFDB page: Punk Points
Final placement: 22nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: this review has a bit of profanity here and there.

Here’s a thesis: the method for making a great punk rock song is antithetical to the method for making a great IF game. See, when you’re making punk rock, the main thing is emotion. It doesn’t matter if you play the wrong chord, or sing the wrong note, or say the wrong words — those are details, and they aren’t important. The point is that you get the spirit across, that you communicate that great fucking barbaric yawp, as Walt Whitman might have said were he a punk rocker. But great IF doesn’t get made like this. The best IF authors are less like Sid Vicious or Jello Biafra and more like Todd Rundgren or (to take a really non-punk example) Mick Jones of Foreigner. That is to say, they are studio wizards who put endless attention into the details.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t communicate emotion, too, but it works differently, because we receive IF differently from the way we experience punk rock. Listening to punk rock is a passive experience, not because you don’t get involved emotionally — you certainly do, or at least I do — but because the band throws the song at you, and you have to catch it, and you’re not doing anything to influence them, at least not anything direct (and if you’re listening to a recording rather than a live performance, not anything at all.) Playing IF, on the other hand, is all about shaping the work. In addition, we receive IF one piece at a time, whereas music is more of a gestalt experience. Consequently, IF players spend a ton of time poking into the details, and they can be counted on to stray from the path of the plot. If some studio wizard hasn’t made sure that most of those odd steps are accounted for, and removed all the bugs that might trip an unwary player, the game is unlikely to get its yawp across.

By now you probably know where I’m going with this analogy. Punk Points is put together like a great punk rock song, which unfortunately makes it pretty much middling poor IF. The writing is spot-on, doing an excellent job of capturing a Catholic boys’ high school in 1985, crystallizing a portrait of the PC as 13-year-old malcontent rebelling against the school’s repressive system, and offering convincing characters with great dialogue. The coding, on the other hand, falls down rather badly, which takes pretty much all of the punch away from the writing.

See, in IF it’s not enough just to have a great song — you have to play all the notes right, sing on pitch, and remember all the words, too. Otherwise, you end up with players like me wandering around carrying an object that wasn’t supposed to be takeable, and banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to do next, unable to do so because the answer involves a logical impossibility once I’m carrying the object. (Problems like this were intensified by the lack of hints, which the game asserts “are for fucking posers.”) The game has tons of errors like this — most not quite so game-killing, and some quite humorous (try putting your middle finger on something and walking away), but all of which take you right out of the immersive world that the writing has worked so hard to create. There are a ton of cool ideas in Punk Points, but after spending most of my time beating my brains out against its bugs and sparse implementation, I didn’t come out remembering any of the cool stuff — just the frustration.

The other big example of this problem is in the game’s characters. In the cut-scenes, these characters positively sparkle with reality. The dialogue in those scenes is crisp and believable, and their actions fit in well with their words. Once we get to the interactive scenes, however, it’s another story. These NPCs are just barely implemented. Nobody moves, nobody does too much except two or three random pieces of business, and worst of all, nobody has much of a response to anything, except the one crucial thing you’re supposed to ask them about. But see, when 9 out of 10 things get a default response, or no response at all, I’m not likely to get to that 10th question. I just figure that the NPC isn’t important, because obviously not much work was put into implementing it.

This reasonable but incorrect assumption tripped me up on a number of the game’s puzzles, especially those in the second act, several of which hinge on guessing the right noun in “ASK ABOUT”. When they don’t answer to pretty much anything else, why should I keep asking them about things? Stuff like that may be details, but lack of attention to the details just kills an IF game. Maybe that kind of meticulousness would make Punk Points less punk, but it sure as hell would make it a better game.

Rating: 5.8