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.]
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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.

THEY WERE TURNING PEOPLE AWAY.

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

City Of Secrets by Emily Short [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2004.]

IFDB page: City Of Secrets

Life In The Big City

Here’s a quote from the ABOUT text of Emily Short’s City Of Secrets:

This game is meant to be playable even by someone who has never encountered interactive fiction before, and be a gentle introduction to the genre. It is not terribly difficult, nor is it possible to die until the very end. One playthrough is estimated to take about three hours.

After playing through the game once, I feel I can say with confidence: “Three hours? HA!” I will happily grant that Short has undertaken a considerable effort to make CoS newbie-friendly, but for someone who is at all interested in exploring the game’s world, three hours is a very conservative estimate indeed. It took me almost three hours just to reread the transcripts of my traversal through the story.

But that’s the thing with interactive fiction, isn’t it? I suppose it’s quite possible that an experienced player on a serious mission, who declines to examine the scenery, who asks only the most pointed questions of NPCs, and who treats the entire thing as a series of puzzles to be solved, could conceivably complete CoS in three hours, but such a player would be missing out on a great deal of the richness that this game has to offer. In fact, I’d make the case that the game’s openness to newcomers and (what for lack of a better word I’ll call) its size are of a piece — they both contribute to one of CoS‘s best qualities: its deep, robust interactivity.

Examples of player-friendliness are everywhere in this game, but here’s one of my favorites:

> attendant, show me the book please
[While your good manners are appreciated, it's unnecessary to append terms like "please" to your commands.]

To talk to a character: Type >GREET to begin a conversation. You will get a list of options of things to say. If you want to change the topic of conversation, type >T and (assuming that's a valid topic) you'll get a new menu of conversation choices.

Now that is just pure class, since 99% of IF games would have just spat out “I don’t know the word ‘please'” or (only slightly better) had the attendant give a blank look or some other “don’t know” response. CoS, on the other hand, anticipates a word that’s likely to confuse the parser, targets it, and responds to it (and to the inappropriate conversation syntax) with a set of instructions to help players communicate more effectively with the game. Besides little touches like this, CoS provides copious documentation, particularly an excellent sample transcript. I especially admired this transcript for using a clever technique that I don’t remember seeing before — it shows the events just leading up to the beginning of the game, and thus not only teaches the rhythm of IF but also serves as story prologue and provides further character depth to the PC.

Once I was through the prologue and wandering the streets of the game’s titular City, I was frankly astonished at the depth it offers. Yes, the vast majority of scenery objects are described, frequently down to second and third levels. This sort of thing is becoming more de rigueur in modern IF, though it’s rarely pulled off with the thoroughness that Short achieves here. In addition, room and object descriptions change to reflect the past experiences of the PC, demonstrating knowledge of other parts of the game once it’s been acquired. Beyond that, random scene-setting messages serve not only to make the City actually feel populated, but to play some of the subtle, sinister notes that hint at plot and theme.

Beyond these are the characters, of whom there are many and most of whom are able to act and converse on a very large variety of topics. I’ll discuss NPCs and conversation further below, but suffice it to say for now that CoS‘s 2003 XYZZY award for Best NPCs was very well-deserved. Beyond the NPCs, and perhaps most impressive of all, is the avalanche of ancillary material available in the game. My mouth was literally hanging open as I perused a bookstore and found volume after volume that I could actually read — pieces of fiction, historical background on the setting, gentle jokes set within the game’s milieu, and on and on and on. Now I don’t mean to suggest that entire novels or histories are actually embedded within the game — that kind of detail would move from dedication into insanity — but more effort went into the book objects in CoS than goes into the entirety of some other games.

Oh, and lest I give the impression that City Of Secrets merely overwhelms with quantity, let me hasten to point out that its quality also remains very high throughout. Short’s typically elliptical and evocative prose falls in layers that pile up to create vivid, intense images — this woman can get more mileage out of sentence fragments than any author I’ve ever read. She’s found a way to deploy them that seems perfectly suited to IF, especially object and room descriptions. The dialogue, too, was top-notch, and plot-advancing moments happened with satisfying smoothness. The milieu, also, was a great deal of fun — magic and science side-by-side, computers and spells combined. Of course, this idea isn’t exactly new, but it felt fresh in Short’s hands.

All of these sterling qualities — the great writing, the remarkable implementation, the incredible depth — make me ache all the more when I think of the game’s actual history. City Of Secrets was originally commissioned by a San Francisco synth-pop outfit called Secret-Secret, who devised the story and some basic marks for the game to hit. At that time, it was intended to serve as a bonus feature for one of their upcoming CDs. Short has never revealed many details about how this deal fell apart, but fall apart it did. Thus ensued the next stage of the game’s life, in which the band agreed to let Short release CoS as freeware IF, and she decided to try ramping up the fun by creating feelies and offering them through feelies.org. As an additional incentive, the game would be available to feelies orderers a little earlier than to everyone else. Then Real Life and the game’s design complexity intervened, causing delays, which in turn engendered a host of vaguely hostile demands and complaints on the IF newsgroups, along with more of the particularly vicious trolling for which Short was already a target.

Finally, City Of Secrets was released publicly on May 1, 2003… and sank. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. Googling on the past year of Usenet discussion, I can see that the game has gotten a couple of reviews, some hint requests, has been used as an example in various discussions, and has even gotten a little recognition in mainstream press outlets like Maximum PC and Games magazines. Still, this is the most major work by one of the best and most important IF authors of the last decade, and a landmark game by many different measures — it seems to me that it is vastly underrated and under-discussed. This is the kind of thing that makes authors disillusioned, makes them feel that their hard work is without purpose, and prompts them to turn away from writing IF. The fact that Short has not done so is a true testament to her dedication to this medium. Of course, I’m one of the guilty parties here, writing this review more than a year after the game’s public release. I hope that if you’re reading this and you’ve never played City Of Secrets, you’ll be moved to check it out, and to post your reaction to SPAG, rec.games.int-fiction, or some other appropriate outlet.

Now that I’ve expended considerable fervor on building the game up, let me discuss a few of its flaws. One difficulty I occasionally encountered in the game is that the demands of its story or its implementation occasionally worked at cross purposes to the role playing I wanted to do as the PC. For me, the primary example of this dissonance occurred at the very beginning of the game, as I am whisked away from my ordinary journey to a friend’s wedding and into the City’s hotel. When this happens, a bellhop takes my suitcase, but fails to bring it to my room. Now, if this were to happen to me in real life, recovery of that suitcase would become my primary goal. The game, however, treats the disappearance as barely worth noticing, and insists that I go to sleep before allowing me to do any searching for my missing possessions. Even when I can question the concierge about my luggage’s whereabouts, the conversational menu options never allow me to be particularly assertive in my efforts to recover it. As a designer, I can understand perfectly why City Of Secrets wants to remove an item whose realistic implementation would add several layers of complexity to the game situation, but in this instance and a few others, the game could have done a better job at providing in-character reasons for such abstraction.

Speaking of conversational menu options, City Of Secrets further explores the conversation system that Short innovated for Pytho’s Mask and Best Of Three. As explained above, it requires GREETing an NPC and then setting a topic, which may or may not bring up a menu of conversation options. I like this system, but I can only imagine how much of a bear it must be to implement. Managing conversation topics to the extent that CoS does, especially with its abundance of characters, requires meticulous knowledge modeling in order to ensure that particular topics and phrasings are available to the player neither too early (before she’s had a chance to learn about them) nor too late (when she’d want to ask something appropriate but isn’t offered the option.) For the most part, CoS does a fine job of this modeling, but it does fall down on occasion, offering inexplicable conversation threads or failing to provide dialogue on an obvious topic. Moreover, the game makes a tactical error in requiring that a conversation be restarted before it evaluates whether or not any menu options are available for the chosen topic, leading to exchanges like this:

>ask bookseller about documents
You approach the bookseller's desk.

"Hello again," he says.

You can think of nothing to say about that.

Such responses give the impression of a mildly autistic PC, who routinely starts conversations, only to stand slack-jawed moments after they begin. Also, as some others have noted, it’s a bit annoying not to be able to return to certain unused options when they would still be valid.

Still, when the conversation engine works, it works well, and that’s the case for most of this game. There are a great many NPCs, quite a few of whom are implemented with responses on a dizzying array of topics. The game’s characters not only respond to questions, but start conversations of their own, introducing new topics with their own associated option menus. Moreover, they define themselves not only through dialogue, but through action — the spice seller who twists his ring nervously, or the City nurse who looks at you sharply enough to stop you from blurting out something stupid. Some NPCs will even accompany you for parts of your journey, then wander off to pursue their own agendas. With Galatea, Short established herself as someone with a particular flair for deeply implemented NPCs, and her work in City Of Secrets reinforces and enriches that reputation.

A more unexpected achievement is the game’s storytelling ability. Many of Short’s games have had sketchy or absent plots, but City Of Secrets unfolds a layered story, replete with intrigue and thematic unity. As the game progresses, new bits of information reveal more about who can and cannot be trusted, and several fun reversals and surprises lay in wait throughout. The pieces drop satisfyingly into place as the end approaches, just as they should in a good mystery story. Moreover, a replay or reread of the game illuminates lots of juicy foreshadowing and judicious ties that thread through its beginning, middle, and end. True to form, Short’s design provides several paths through the story, and multiple solutions to many important problems. I haven’t yet replayed the game as a more self-interested or evil PC, but I could see that such opportunities were available. I’d love to see a more thorough description of which parts of the story were provided by Secret-Secret and which ones came from Short herself, because the unified whole works very well indeed. There were apparently such making-of notes on the original game CD, so perhaps Short or someone else could be persuaded to upload a scan of these to the IF Archive.

I think my favorite thing about City Of Secrets is that it gave me several pieces of writing to treasure, things that I wanted to enshrine and remember. A quote from the denouement now appears in my collection of randomly rotating email signatures. Queen Rine’s Meditation Upon Passion now hangs on my office wall. More than any other IF game I can think of, City Of Secrets offered me ideas that feel like they apply directly to my life — that’s the mark not just of a great game, but of a great work of art.

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…

IF Haikus [misc]

[Inspired by a haiku movie reviews site, I posted some IF haikus to the newsgroup, which started a fun thread. These could be construed as a bit spoilery, in a certain light.]

Zork I

I’m in a dark place
Without a lantern. I hear
the footsteps of grues.

Zork II

All my things are here
But I’m floating above them,
helpless. Damn wizard!

Curses

I can’t find the map.
I never knew my house was
so complicated!

Spider and Web

Yes. No. Yes. Oh, I
thought you were telling the truth.
Let’s try it again.

Photopia

Oh, I’m starting to
understand it all now. That
means I — stop. Stop. Stop!!

Sardoria by Anssi Raisanen [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sardoria
Final placement: 13th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, I know it’s bad form to start out a game review with a screed about the system it’s written in, but Alan is on my last nerve. First of all, I think I’ve mentioned before that I really dislike its lack of scripting capability. I keep having to remember to call up the scrollback and copy my latest moves into a text editor, and this is irritating in two big ways. First, having to constantly keep an eye on this really breaks immersion for me — I can’t get fully into the game when I’m having to manually monitor this administrative task. Second, if I do happen to become immersed, then I invariably end up forgetting to bring up the scrollback until too late, when the buffer only has half the moves I’ve made since my last copy-paste operation. Bad enough to have to copy from the buffer at all, but the fact that it only seems to hold a minimal amount of the scrollback makes the whole thing extremely aggravating.

The other problem that I just discovered with Alan is the apparent lack of portability in its save files. The way I play comp games often involves a lot of switching machines — laptop on the bus in the morning, work machine at lunch hour, home machine at night. Usually, this is no problem; I just drop my saved game onto a floppy and start up from it at the next machine. However, I discovered that whenever I try to restore a saved Alan game from another machine I get this infuriating message: “Sorry, the save file did not contain a save for this adventure.” It’s very, very annoying to restore “sardoria.sav” and be told that it’s not a save for Sardoria. I don’t know whether these flaws are in the language or the interpreter, but they just drove me crazy with this game, maybe because it’s a little larger or more ambitious than most other Alan games. (Certainly more so than The Adventures Of The President Of The United States, the other Alan game in Comp03.)

Whew, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. On to Sardoria. Well, I’m sorry to say that Sardoria also drove me crazy in its own ways, beginning with the very first room. It’s one of those games that starts with the PC imprisoned — thrown into a locked cellar, in this case — so the first puzzle is getting free. I must have spent 20 minutes trying out different commands in that room, none of which seemed to do anything for me. Finally, I turned to the hints and was told that I “need to find another object hidden in the cellar.” Well thanks, but that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 20 minutes, without success. Any more hints? Nope, “[t]here are no more hints for this location.”

Finally, I turned to the walkthrough, and found that the command the game was looking for was something that I would never have thought of doing, because it doesn’t really make much sense. The result is that as I’m doing the nonsensical action, I happen across the hidden item. “No fair!” I cry. It was especially galling because I had specifically checked the area where the item was hidden, and was told in clear terms that there wasn’t anything there. This sort of frustration happened to me over and over in the game; I tried on all of them, but I think I ended up looking at the walkthrough for every puzzle but one or two. Often I’d come close to the solution but failed to find the exact route desired by the game (shades of Gourmet), and sometimes the solutions just flat-out made no sense to me. There were also occasions when the actions required made a sort of sense, but were far too vague or arbitrary.

Many of these problems could have been overcome, or at least alleviated, if Sardoria had provided better feedback. More and more, I’m convinced that this is a crucial element of successful interactive fiction, at least IF with puzzles in it. When a player gets close to the solution, the game should indicate that rather than giving a flat “nothing happens” sort of response until it gets the exact right set of commands. Moreover, if players think of an alternative solution, the game should be able to either let them utilize that solution or provide a convincing reason why they can’t. How can an author provide this level of feedback? It’s all about the testing. Get at least three testers for your game, with a sufficient variety of approaches between them. Then, watch for the things they try. If they get close to the answer, your game should provide some appropriately encouraging feedback.

This is especially important in a game like Sardoria, where many of the puzzles are one kind of combination lock or another, most of whose combinations verge on the totally arbitrary. This is a subject that deserves a more detailed treatment, but I’m unable to do that in a spoiler-free review, so all I can say is that designers must anticipate the majority of player responses and handle them appropriately. It’s a lot of work, yeah, but it can be the difference between exciting and exasperating for puzzly IF.

Rating: 5.3

[Postscript from 2021: In a subsequent discussion on rec.games.int-fiction, someone pointed out that in fact, it is possible to create a game transcript in Alan if you start the interpreter with a “-L” switch at the command prompt. Fair enough, but I stand by my response from that discussion:

“You know, somebody probably told me that last year, too. Unfortunately, I immediately forgot because this is such an amazingly clunky and unintuitive way to provide a game transcript. I want to type SCRIPT and have the game start logging a transcript to a file. I do not want to have to open up a DOS window and start the game with a special switch from the command prompt, especially since I will almost inevitably have the interpreter and the gamefile in different directories (something the Arun interpreter barely knows how to handle as it is) and will thus be forced to type out an entire path for one or the other of them.

Anyway, I amend my complaint from ‘Alan provides no scripting capability’ to ‘Alan’s scripting capability is far too hidden and inconvenient.'”]

About my 1998 IF Competition reviews

When the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition came around, the indie IF scene in rec.*.int-fiction was well-established, and me in it. By that time, I’d written a game, written lots of reviews, and become a regular in newsgroup conversations. The groups themselves had established clear dynamics, with authorities, troublemakers, helpers, jesters, you name it. The community even pulled together a massive April Fool’s joke called Textfire, a fake IF sampler from a fake IF company. Comp98, though, brought us all up to a new level.

It kind of blows my mind to reread my reviews from that year, knowing the future as I do now. I’d love to tell my 1998 self that decades on, I’d hike in the Grand Canyon with one of the authors, see the sights of Austin with another, collaborate on a game with a third (for a company created by a fourth), and so on. I have relationships with some of these folks going way back to those formative days, thanks especially to the IFMud, founded the year prior. One Comp98 author even became a professional game designer, scooping up a bunch of BAFTA awards a few years ago.

The competition itself had by this time evolved its own set of tropes. Rybread Celsius was one of these, a surprisingly beloved figure with a cult following I never quite grasped. Another was the prevalence of Inform, followed closely by TADS, alongside the “first attempt” and homebrew games that appeared in every comp. The competition itself had become an institution by this point, inspiring lots of mini-comps throughout the year — Chicken-comp, the IF Fan Fest, etc — and these in turn fed into the main competition.

My own reviewing style reached maturity this year, settling into the format I kept for the rest of my comp reviews: basically three paragraphs and a score. Sometimes more, if the mood struck, but my comp reviews had evolved from basically filling out a form to writing a little mini-essay about each game. I more or less took my Comp97 review format, got rid of all the bold headings, and massaged those categories (plot, puzzles, prose, technical writing/coding) into the rest of the review. The artificiality of the headings still sticks around to some extent — sometimes I can see myself going out of my way to cover each base — but my voice was getting more natural the more I wrote.

I also evolved in my approach to spoilers. Where tons of my Comp97 reviews had spoilers in them, always flagged with big capital letters, I managed to mostly avoid them in the Comp98 reviews. There are a couple of exceptions, where a point I was making really demanded a concrete and accurate example, but more often I’d file the serial numbers off the game’s specifics so that I could provide an example that fulfilled the spirit of my point without giving away any of the goods.

Finally, I worked to keep in the front of my consciousness the fact that this is an all-volunteer endeavor, done by enthusiasts who should be rewarded for their enthusiasm wherever possible. I tried to find something to appreciate even in games I really hated, or at least offer some constructive criticism for how the next one could be better. It didn’t stop the occasional flame, but that was reserved for when I felt like a game really should have known better.

I originally posted my reviews for the 1998 IF Competition games on November 16, 1998.

Sins Against Mimesis by Adam Thornton as “One of the Bruces” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sins Against Mimesis
Final placement: 9th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Few things are more unfunny than an in-joke that you’re not in on. On the other hand, an in-joke that you are in on can be hysterical, as it provides not just the pleasure of humor but also the feeling of community that comes from shared experience. Sins Against Mimesis is definitely a very in-jokey game, and consequently not for everyone. However, having been a longtime (since 1994) lurker and sometime participant in the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups, I was part of the audience at which the game was aimed, and I have to admit that I found a lot of the in-jokes really funny. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the game was to play name-that-reference — kind of the IF equivalent of listening to a World Party album or a Dennis Miller routine. Of course, the nature of the game (and the fact that it was written pseudonymously) also invites us to play guess-the-author. I’m casting my vote for Russ Bryan. I’m not sure why — something about the style just struck me as a little familiar and rang that particular bell in my head. Or maybe it’s just a masochistic desire to humiliate myself publicly by venturing an incorrect guess. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.

If you haven’t played much IF, and in fact even if you haven’t spent much time on the IF newsgroups, most of this game is going to mean very little to you. Even its title is an allusion: to Crimes Against Mimesis, a well-crafted series of articles posted to the newsgroups by Roger Giner-Sorolla (whatever happened to him, anyway?) a year or so ago. The rest of the game continues in that vein. The opening paragraph alludes to Jigsaw. The score of the initial part of the game is kept in IF disks which magically pop into the player’s inventory every time a correct move is made. In some ways, this familiar, almost conspiratorial approach is a weakness. Certainly in the context of the competition it won’t endear Sins to any judge who stands on the outside of the privileged circle at which the game aims itself. Even for an insider, the constant barrage of “if you’re one of us, you’ll know what I mean” references can start to feel a little cloying. However, the game is cleanly coded and competently written, and on the first time through I found it quite entertaining.

There aren’t many games which I would highly recommend to one group of people and discourage others from playing, but Sins is one of them. If you’re an raif and rgif regular, I think you’ll find Sins quite funny and entertaining. If not, forget it. It’s bound to be more baffling and irritating than anything else.

Prose: The prose is generally somewhere between functionally good and rather well done, with occasional moments of brilliant hilarity. The best one has to be when the game is in “lewd” mode and the player amorously approaches the plant: “Your embrace becomes hot and heavy and you surrender to the delights of floral sex.” An LGOP reference and an extremely bad pun at once! Can it get any better?

Plot: The plot is based around several clever tricks which are quite funny at the time, but aren’t worth repeating. If you’ve already played, you know what they are, and if you haven’t played yet I won’t give away the jokes. Like the rest of Sins, the plot is funny the first time through but won’t wear well.

Puzzles: Actually, this was the weakest part of the game. Many of the puzzles can be solved by performing extremely basic actions, which of course hardly makes them puzzles at all. Others, however, depend either on extremely specific (and not well-clued) actions or on deducing something about the surroundings which is not included in object or room descriptions. For a game so adamantly self-aware, it’s ironic that Sins falls into some of the most basic blunders of puzzle design.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Sins‘ writing.

Technical (coding): I found no bugs either.

OVERALL: An 8.3

Introducing >INVENTORY

I started writing reviews of interactive fiction games in 1996. I think it’s only old people who start stories with, “In those days…”, but apparently the shoe fits, so in those days, the IF community was small, cohesive, and centered in a couple of Usenet newsgroups: rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction. For those who weren’t there, newsgroups were essentially discussion forums, consisting wholly of text — posts and threads. “Arts” was about creating IF, and “games” was about playing it. (“Rec” meant “recreation” — there were various top-level hierarchies that… you know what, it doesn’t matter.)

The text-only medium of newsgroups was perfect for text adventure aficionados, and while they thrived, those groups were the fertile soil from which sprung many of the pillars that support even today’s IF scene: Inform, TADS, the IF Archive, and most importantly for my purposes, the Interactive Fiction Competition.

The comp, as it was affectionately known, started in 1995 as a way to spur the creation of more short IF — see in those days most authors were trying to ape Infocom by writing long, puzzly games that would have fit nicely onto store shelves in 1985. The comp changed that, dramatically. Kevin Wilson, founder of the comp, gave it just one rule: every game had to be winnable in under two hours. The first year saw 12 games entered. The next year: 26. And it took off from there.

Opening screen of Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather
A Change In The Weather, winner of the first IFComp, Inform division

I was on fire for IF in those days. I couldn’t get enough of the newsgroups, the games, the languages. I spent my nights immersed in learning Inform, creating little worlds and gleefully walking around in them. The competition was the perfect opportunity for me to actually finish one of these virtual puzzleboxes and send it out into the world in hopes of feedback. That first attempt was called Wearing The Claw, and while I find it rather cringey to look back on now, it did at least land in the upper half of the 1996 comp — 8th place. And boy did I get a lot of feedback on it!

In those days, you see, there was a strong culture of feedback in place, and the comp helped that culture grow explosively. Tons of people would review the comp games, and as an author, you could get a cornucopia of input that would help you understand where you went right this time and how to do better next time. It was invaluable, and I wanted to be part of it, so I reviewed every 1996 comp game.

Then I reviewed every comp game (with a few exceptions) every year all the way up through 2004, which not coincidentally was the year before my son was born. I also wrote reviews of various other IF and IF-adjacent games, and spent several years editing a text adventure webzine called SPAG.

For a couple of decades now, those reviews and writings have been housed on the personal web site I created back in the 90s with my trusty copy of HTML For Dummies. However, my crystal ball tells me that this web site’s days may be numbered. It lives on a legacy server at the University of Colorado (where I still work), and nobody is super excited about hosting old student websites from the 20th century anymore. Plus, those old reviews are absolutely festooned with dead links and ugly typography.

Enter >INVENTORY. This blog will eventually house all my writing about IF, including every comp review, every IF-Review entry, every XYZZY Awards solicited review, and everything else I can think of. >SUPERVERBOSE will remain my primary blog, and new writing about IF will go there as well as here, but >INVENTORY, as its name suggests, will house the exhaustive trove that currently lives on my old web site.

As time permits, I’ll be transferring comp reviews into this blog, where they can be searched, indexed, googled, and so forth. Once that project is done, I’ll start on all the other IFfy stuff I’ve written over the years. It’s quite possible I’ll append some of it with reflections or current thoughts as the mood strikes me.

In my first innocent post to rec.games.int-fiction, I called myself “a major devotee of IF.” While many other passions have laid their claims upon my time, that fire still smolders inside me, and I look forward eagerly to revisiting the many happy hours I spent with IF games and IF arts. As with everything I write, I hope it proves enjoyable and/or useful to somebody else out there too.