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!)


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.


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.


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.


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,, 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…

Splashdown by Paul J. Furio [Comp04]

IFDB page: Splashdown
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Apparently, malfunctioning slower-than-light starships with passengers in cryogenic sleep have replaced isolated scientific complexes as the go-to comp game setting this year. Of course, in fairness, we did have a scientific complex in All Things Devours, though it wasn’t underground or in Antarctica or anything. Oh, and I guess my own entry could be considered an “isolated scientific complex” game, sort of. Still, the malfunctioning starships are making a strong showing this year. Happily, Splashdown is leagues ahead of its competitor, Getting Back To Sleep, though they both feel rather too much like Planetfall knockoffs.

One refreshing difference is that at least Splashdown acknowledges its debt to Steve Meretzky, not to mention the fact that its implementation is (pardon the pun) light-years ahead of GBTS‘s creaky homebrew. The game even provides a nifty PDF feelie that rivals Infocom in quality. Nevertheless, there are times when Splashdown feels just too derivative, especially when it introduces a cute little robot companion who follows the PC around, spouting random funny dialogue and helping out with the occasional puzzle. Sound familiar?

Besides that, there’s the fact that the crux of the story really doesn’t make much sense. Apparently, the ship is heading off to colonize a distant planet, but something goes wrong, so its computer picks a random colonist to reanimate, in hopes that this person can address the problem. This random colonist is the PC, natch, and if it were me, the colonists would be doomed, because I certainly didn’t win the game my first time through. Isn’t this an unbelievably dumb disaster plan? Why in the world wouldn’t there be a designated person to reanimate in situations like this? Putting the fate of 500 (or maybe 300, depending on whether you believe the game or the hint files) people in the hands of some randomly selected dude isn’t a strategy I can see even the most dunderheaded government or corporation assaying.

That complaint aside, Splashdown presents an entertaining story and a believable setting. I particularly enjoyed figuring out the reason why the ship malfunctioned, a comic situation worthy of Meretzky. There are a nice variety of puzzles, and they’re blended pretty seamlessly into the story, which I greatly appreciate. Somehow, though, many of these puzzles felt rather counterintuitive to me. Looking back at my transcripts, I see a few different root causes for this problem. One issue is that the game’s description of certain objects doesn’t really jibe with my understanding of how those objects ought to work in real life. In particular, I don’t expect a spigot to do anything useful unless I turn a faucet or turn on a pump or something, and if I do so, I expect that spigot to start spouting whether or not it has anything attached to it. These assumptions played me false as I was flailing around Splashdown‘s ship, trying to figure out anything to do that would make any sense at all.

Another issue is that I had the sense that I was missing just a little bit of documentation. In one or two of the final puzzles, I only knew what I needed to do because the hints told me so, not because of anything in the game that gave me the clue. This may be down to a case of me being slow on the uptake, or it may be that the game makes a few too many assumptions about how familiar players are likely to be with its setting. Finally, in some situations, too few verb forms are implemented. Particularly on one of the initial puzzles, I grasped the concept of what needed to be done, and tried a few different ways of expressing it, only to be rebuffed each time. Consequently, when I saw the solution in the hints, I felt annoyed rather than relieved.

Actually, the lack of synonyms and alternate verbs plagued me outside of the puzzles as well. For instance, there are cryotubes in the game that can’t be called “tubes.” There is no good reason not to provide those sorts of synonyms. In addition, one section of the game requires a lot of talking to the computer, using syntax along the lines of COMPUTER, DISPLAY HELP SCREEN. You can’t call the computer COMP or anything like that, and you can’t just say, for example, DISPLAY HELP, or better yet, HELP. Given the number of times I had to type out commands like this, I was mighty annoyed at the lack of abbreviations after a while.

On the other hand, the implementation is almost comically rich in a couple of areas, particularly the cryotubes themselves. There are 125 of these implemented, each with its own personalized nameplate. I was so gobsmacked at this that I had to examine each one, and was rewarded with occasional jokes and geeky insider references. And so the ship’s systems gradually failed as I went around autistically reading nameplates, but I loved it. Despite the occasional moment of breathtaking implementation, though, Splashdown feels like it’s not quite out of beta yet. There are a considerable number of typos, and sloppy formatting is rampant, especially when it comes to the robot companion’s random dialogue. In addition, I encountered a few minor bugs and glitches here and there. I hope very much that the author takes reviews and feedback to heart and releases a post-comp edition of this game. With some polish, I think it could be a really fun Infocom-style ride.

Rating: 8.0

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 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.