PAX East Part 3: Do You Like Movie? [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the fourth 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.]
In the afterglow of the panel, intentions were formed in the direction of dinner. Boston residents Dan Schmidt and Liza Daly kindly guided us to a fabulous sushi restaurant: Samurai. Delicious food, wonderful company, beer — what’s not to love? Only one thing, it turns out: the place was too small to accommodate the 12 of us at one table, so Emily, Rob, Dan, and Liza ended up at their own table beyond earshot of ours. And we got split up just as I was in mid-sentence with Emily: “I think some topics that didn’t get touched in the storytelling panel were–”

(For the record, the rest of the sentence was “integrating hints adaptively into the story in a way that feels seamless, and exploring PC emotion — how and whether to convey it.”)

After dinner, we paid the check (or rather, Stephen paid the check and we paid Stephen) and headed back towards the convention center to get in line for GET LAMP! Then, confusion ensued as we realized we’d inadvertently left behind Christopher Huang and Sam Kabo Ashwell. We went back, they weren’t there, we milled, we shivered, we went back to the convention center and found that they were in line ahead of us. It was like a French farce, only huge and freezing cold.

Anyway, we hung out in line for a while, then made our way into the “theater” — really just another convention center room with a projection screen set up. We got seats in the back, but the point is: we got seats. Others in the room ended up against the walls, on the floor, etc. There weren’t enough chairs, but everybody got into the room, which is a decidedly good thing. Jason was contemplating a second showing if they’d had to turn people away, but that showing would have started around midnight.

And now, a discursive aside about GET LAMP. About four years ago now (actually, now that I look at it, exactly four years ago today [“today” in this case being April 2, 2010, the day I originally posted this piece –2022 PO]), I got an email from somebody I’d never heard of, a guy named Jason Scott. He claimed to be a filmmaker, working on a documentary about IF. He wanted to know if he could interview me. I checked out the website, and he looked legit — for one thing, he’d already completed one such project, a huge multi-episode docu about BBSes. So I told him I’d be delighted to talk IF with him sometime.

Then, nothing until January of 2007, when I suddenly got notice that Jason would be in town in a few weeks, and did I still want to be interviewed? I sure did, so on a snowy Saturday night we met inside my deserted workplace (this was back before everybody at my job was working weekends) along with Robb Sherwin (who was apparently the guy who gave Jason my name — thanks Robb!) and his girlfriend Dayna. Jason set up his camera and asked questions. I blathered for 90 minutes, wondering if any of this was remotely usable. Then Jason took us out to dinner at an excellent French restaurant. All in all, not a bad night at the office.

Jason interviewed a bunch of other people throughout 2007, and then GET LAMP seemed to go dark for a while. Work continued sporadically, but it was hard to see what the endpoint would be. But last year it caught fire again. Jason lost his job and rather than look for another one, he ran a Kickstarter project to raise $25,000, and damned if he didn’t do it, and even go beyond. To me, that was a huge statement about the confidence and trust he’s built in the community of people around him. He used the money to pay living expenses while he finished GET LAMP, with the result that he was able to premiere it at PAX East. What he showed wasn’t the final cut of the movie, but rather a 70-minute “mix” tailored to the PAX audience. The whole shebang is going to be a 2-DVD set, with boatloads of bonuses, games (including my own), and even a branching path at one point in the movie. Heh. He’s sending me a copy, because I was an interviewee — a very classy move, according to me.

So that brings me back to PAX. What I can say about the movie I saw is this: I loved it. Yes, there were a few pieces that needed some technical polish, and a couple of spots that made me cringe a bit, but overall, WOW. It conveys what’s special about IF with such passion and cleverness, and it brings in some angles that feel fresh. It’s touching, it’s funny, it’s very effective at conveying information, and it’s quite entertaining. Also, it’s 70 minutes of very smart people discussing something about which I care deeply, so it’s pretty much made for me.

Top 5 terrific things about GET LAMP

1. Egoboo. Yes, okay? It was quite gratifying to see myself managing to speak somewhat coherently about IF in the clips that featured me, and I felt quite honored to be placed in a context alongside people whom I hold in very high esteem.

2. Insight. A lot of thoughtful people had a lot of thoughtful things to say. Some of them I’ve heard a thousand times already, but they’d feel fresh to somebody for whom this was a new subject. Others felt fresh to me too. One example that sticks out: Jason Shiga observing that when you’re a kid, you don’t get to make a lot of choices. You don’t decide where to live, where to go to school, how to spend much of your time. When you’re in that situation, having a game offer you control of the story you’re in can be a very satisfying feeling indeed.

3. The section on blind players. Jason very astutely taps into the subculture of blind IF players, for whom this is one of the only feasible genres of computer game available. One of his subjects, Michael Feir, was somebody I kept in contact with when I was editing SPAG. Michael was the longtime editor of Audyssey, a gaming zine for the blind. Anyway, this section of the film had some wonderful pieces to it. I loved the woman who observed that one of the skills IF helps you build is mental map-making, and suggested that playing IF has made her more confident when she’s exploring an unfamiliar place. And Austin Seraphin is great, cracking that when a game tells him, “It’s pitch dark. You can’t see a thing,” he just thinks: “So what does that matter?”

4. Infocom. Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Stu Galley, Marc Blank, Brian Moriarty, Amy Briggs, et cetera. These names lit up my teen years so much they may as well have been rock stars. This movie had fantastic footage of each of them, telling great stories from the company’s heyday and offering perceptive opinions about the form in general. What a pleasure it was to see their faces, hear their voices, and get to know them a little better.

5. Explanatory power. I am very, very accustomed to getting befuddled stares when I talk about interactive fiction. I love that such a compelling visual text exists, that can introduce the subject to somebody new with both the intellectual clarity and the emotional weight it deserves. I’m very hopeful that it’ll bring a fresh wave of enthusiasm into the IF community itself, and that I can use it with my friends and family to shed some light on my ongoing fascination.

The best part of all, though, wasn’t so much the film itself as the moment it created. Jason sums it up: “this had, by dint of using my film as the stone in the stone soup, become the largest assembly of interactive fiction folks in history. Creators, players, and legends were going to assemble on PAX East, and make it something very, very special.” That’s exactly what happened, and nothing exemplified it more than the panel after the film:

* Dave Lebling (Zork, Enchanter, Spellbreaker, The Lurking Horror)
* Don Woods (Adventure, need I say more?)
* Brian Moriarty (Trinity, Beyond Zork, Wishbringer)
* Andrew Plotkin (So Far, Spider And Web, Shade)
* Nick Montfort (Twisty Little Passages, Ad Verbum, Book And Volume)
* Steve Meretzky (A Mind Forever Voyaging and so many other great games that just the thought of typing them out exhausts me.)

Again, Jason will release the footage at some point, so I’m not going to try to recap the panel. Suffice it to say that it was an unbelievable confluence of talent and history, a great discussion of IF, and oh by the way Meretzky is FREAKING HILARIOUS. Stephen later asserted that Steve Meretzky must be on every panel, everywhere, from now on. I quite agree.

After the film, I got to shake the hands of some legends and thank them for the huge positive impact on my life. We toddled on back to the suite, buzzing. The conversation there felt infused with joy; it glowed in the dark.

It’s hard to explain what this day meant to me. It was one of the best days I’ve had in years and years. Jason said to me later, “This weekend is like one big hug for you, isn’t it?” He’s not wrong. It was emotional, even more so than I expected, to be a part of this gathering — Rob called it the “IF Woodstock.” I tried to say so in the suite, though I’m not sure how articulate I was. I felt filled with love, for interactive fiction, for the IF community, and specifically for these people who shared this experience with me. It was vivid, elevating.

After the party broke up, I grabbed a taxi back to my hotel (the T had long since closed), and before I went to bed, posted this on Facebook:

Back when I was active in the interactive fiction community, and also going to conferences for work, I used to daydream about an IF conference where we’d have bunches of key people from the past and present, panels about various aspects of the form, face time with all these people I just knew as words on a screen, etc…. Today said: “I’ll see your dream, and raise you an IF movie!”

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

PAX East Part 1: The Suite Life of Zarf & Co. [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the second 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.]

There were further travel adventures after the plane arrived — I found my way to the subway without any trouble, and got off at the right stop, but it was dark and raining, and I was quite disoriented. Lucky for me, there appeared on the horizon a lovely Au Bon Pain with free wireless access. I ducked in and got my bearings over a delicious lemon danish & chocolate-dipped shortbread. Mmmmm… empty calories. Also, let’s hear it for the Internet — it was so great to 1) figure out the right path to my hotel via Google Maps, 2) write Laura to tell her I’d made the plane, and 3) look up sunrise tables to figure out when I’d have a little light on my side.

Armed with this information, I walked to my hotel as the sun rose, and asked them if there was any way I could pretty please get into a room early so I could grab a nap before proceeding with the rest of my day. Unfortunately, they’d been sold out the night before, so they didn’t have any rooms open that early. They took my phone number and suggested I grab a leisurely breakfast — they’d call me when something opened up. The rain had turned to snow at that point, so I opted to stay within the hotel. They had a cafe with a nice (albeit hotel-expensive) breakfast buffet, so I camped out up there for the next couple of hours until they finally called me with the good news.

Got a room, got into bed. Blessed sleep.

At 12:30 I arose, cleaned up, figured out my train path, and headed over to the IF hospitality suite. This was a room in the Hilton arranged by Andrew Plotkin (aka Zarf) on behalf of the People’s Republic Of Interactive Fiction (a Boston-based IF group) to be a welcoming space for PAXies interested in IF. They printed up friendly fliers and everything (click images for larger versions):

Photocopy - the front side of a flyer advertising "The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction" Hospitality Suite at PAX East 2010, listing various IF-related events at the con and in the room.

Photocopy - the back side of a flyer advertising the IF Hospitality Suite at PAX East 2010 - a faux IF transcript about finding the suite.

When I got there, I was pleased to find that it was pretty crowded! Not only that, it was full of people I’d known online for more than 15 years! Zarf was there, of course — we’d never met, although we’ve been in the same community since 1995. Also there was the estimable Stephen Granade, another guy I’ve known since the very beginning but never been face-to-face with. A few people I’d met at an IF gathering several years ago, so I wasn’t completely overwhelmed with face-to-name energy, but still, it was pretty amazing.

Top 5 awesome things about the IF suite

1) The swag! Robb Sherwin put together a great IF promotional CD (this, but updated with newer stuff) to give out to visitors. There was also a nifty postcard, with art on the front and a handy how-to on the back. Plus: badge ribbons, stickers, buttons, and nametags!

2) The food! Zarf & co. were kind enough to provide lots and lots of chips, M&Ms, and soda, and others brought delicious treats as well. Across the hall, Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch even provided beer! Woo hoo!

3) The energy! At any given moment, there were usually two or three conversations going — newbies connecting with veterans, different subsections of the community interconnecting, people getting acquainted who had never really met before. People talked about IF, and also about their lives, what was happening at the conference, and what was for dinner that night.

4) The special guest stars! Don Woods, co-creator of the original Adventure, came to an IF panel and chatted with folks. I got to hang at the edge of a conversation between Emily Short and Steve Meretzky, so I got to thank the latter for his work, which has meant a lot to me over the years. Especially A Mind Forever Voyaging. Wow. Jason Scott hung out for a while doing his larger-than-life, bursting-with-anecdotes thing. It was a bit like a bunch of indie bands hanging out together, and then occasionally Paul McCartney or Robert Plant might drop by.

5) The people! I suppose this is a superset of the previous one, but holy cow, this room was PACKED the entire weekend! There was something really special about this locus of passion and force about IF. I loved talking to people who were new to the scene. I loved talking to people who had become community celebrities in the time I’ve been out of the loop. I loved talking to people I’ve known for years from the other side of a screen. I loved being in that room.

Dungeon by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2001.]

IFDB page: Zork


Zork I was the first text adventure game I ever played, and I played it a lot. That game occupied many, many hours of my time and, to this day, it remains one of only a few Infocom games I was ever able to solve without hints, due solely to my stubborn and relentless attention to it. Between those marathon childhood sessions and the occasions on which I’ve replayed it since, I have walked those underground caverns many times, and their geography is so fixed in my mind that I think if I should ever find myself transported there, I could navigate with ease. Or, at least, that’s how I used to feel, before I started playing Dungeon and got my internal map thoroughly whacked.

Dungeon is the predecessor to the Zork games; it was MIT’s answer to Crowther and Woods’ Adventure and, much like that game, it lived on a mainframe, since its prodigious size was too great for the personal computers of its day. When the authors decided to make a commercial go of the text adventure business, they chopped Dungeon into three sections, rearranging the geography and adding some new elements to each chapter, especially the second and third. I’ve played the Zork games many times, but I had always wanted to play the mainframe version in order to better understand just what was added and what subtracted. So when I opened the WinGlk version of Andrew Plotkin’s C translation of the game, I was prepared for some shifts in layout compared to my deeply-graven memories of Zork I.

What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the way in which Dungeon gleefully confounds any sense of actual geography in exchange for making the game map another obstacle to be overcome. In Dungeon, connections that line up properly (for example, leaving one room to the south and entering the adjoining room from the north) are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, you may go west and find that to get back to where you came from, you have to go west again. In a recent article about crafting a good setting for fantasy IF [1], Emily Short addressed this tendency:

[In] the ideal IF setting, the parts of the setting relate to each other in comprehensible ways. Things are located sensibly. I dislike mazes not only because you do have to map them but also because they interfere with and scramble up the intuitive sense of place that I otherwise build up as I play.

In this sense, almost the entirety of Dungeon functions as a maze, and any coherent sense of place that might emerge is bound to get smacked down as soon as the next exit is explored. I have a pretty good knack for mapping in my head, and thus don’t tend to make a map while playing IF but, with this game, there was no way I could pursue that strategy. Thus, grumbling, I hauled out my copy of GUEmap and tried diligently to record the tortured web of interconnections that make up the Dungeon landscape. When I finally finished, I uploaded the results to GMD so that other players like myself won’t have to struggle through the game’s mazes on their own.

And oh, the mazes — in addition to the general illogic of its structure, Dungeon also sports several mazes, all of which carry the “warped connections” tendency to its furthest extreme. Of course, when seen from the historical perspective, these mazes make sense: Adventure had mazes, and since mazes are one of the easiest kinds of puzzles to create, it follows that the game attempting to top Adventure would have mazes of its own. What Dungeon does, though, is to twist the knife: not only does it present the player with mazes, it confounds the typical “drop item and map” strategy by having an NPC come along and remove or rearrange those items, taunting the player with comments like “My, I wonder who left this fine hot pepper sandwich here?”

When viewed with a modern eye, obstacles like this make clear how different is the stance of modern IF from its ancestors. Dungeon set itself up unambiguously as the player’s antagonist, and it wasn’t particularly concerned with telling a story, nor even with describing a world. Plot is nonexistent, and fabulous treasures are described with perfunctory lines like “You see nothing special about the sapphire bracelet.” Instead, Dungeon puts its energies into confusing and confounding the player, and wacky map connections are but the tip of the iceberg. Along with the aforementioned mazes, there’s the light source, which always runs out at the worst possible times. There’s the Round Room, guaranteed to tangle any map. There are the “secret word” puzzles, some of which still perplex me to this day, even though I know how they operate. And of course, there’s the thief, whose annoyances are both numerous and legendary. Dungeon wants nothing more than to see you fail, and it’s not overly concerned with how much fun you might be having. As Robb Sherwin asserted on recently [2], “Zork hates its player.”

Today’s IF, by contrast, works a bit harder to collaborate with the player, with the aim of creating a shared experience, both in setting and plot. Even the Zork games moved in this direction, at least in comparison to Dungeon, mitigating some of the latter game’s greatest excesses by straightening out many map connections, allowing more flexibility with the permanent light source, and providing a bit more description from time to time. The ways in which Infocom itself engineered the shift from “text-based puzzle games” to actual interactive fiction is a subject for another article, but what’s become clear is that where the emphasis was once on opposition, it has shifted steadily to cooperation.

To my mind, this shift is both appropriate and necessary, and what playing Dungeon illuminated for me is that this movement towards collaborative IF is not the same thing as the concurrent movement towards “literary IF”, though they are often confused for one another. I can envision a game that, like Dungeon, has no particular literary pretensions, but unlike Dungeon, isn’t trying to undermine its player through the use of arbitrary techniques like twisty map connections and unreliable light sources. I would assert that collaborative IF doesn’t need to tell a story, and it certainly doesn’t need to aspire to literary greatness, but it does need to work with the player to create a rich, interactive world, and it does need to be concerned with giving the player a positive, fun experience. Of course collaborative IF can be puzzleless, but it needn’t be — puzzles can be part of the fun, as long as they aren’t geared towards forcing restarts after 800 moves, or making the player do tedious, menial work.

The move away from antagonistic IF is the reason why things like mazes, limited light sources, and starvation puzzles are met with a chorus of jeers these days, but the elimination of these elements doesn’t necessarily dictate anything in particular about how literary or puzzleless a game might be. Instead, the change makes the whole experience of IF more about fun than bloody-minded perseverance; playing Dungeon makes it clear how necessary this change was, and how far we’ve come since those mainframe days.


[1] Short, Emily. “Developing A Setting For Fantastical Interactive Fiction”, 2001.

[2] Sherwin, Robb. “Re: nevermind”., 2001/06/05

Caffeination by Michael Loegering [Comp03]

IFDB page: Caffeination
Final placement: 14th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Caffeination (it can’t seem to decide whether it wants the middle “n” capitalized, so I’m going to forego it) starts out like a more intelligent version of last year’s Coffee Quest II. The setup is nearly identical: you’re a depressed, sleepy office worker in an oppressive, cubicle-filled corporate environment, and your object in life is to get a really good cup of coffee. Happily, the literacy level of Caffeination is several steps above that of CQ2, and at first the game seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Alas, it quickly sinks into a bog of misguided design, buggy code, and error-laden prose.

In addition, rather than presenting any kind of sharp or thoughtful satire of office culture, the game instead tends towards the hackneyed and the juvenile. For instance, the boss’ name is “Mr. Norom.” Ooh, “moron” spelled backwards! There’s wit for you. Norom is a walking (well, sitting) “evil boss” stereotype, and the clichés continue from there: the bimbo coworker hired strictly for the boss to leer at, the depressing and decrepit building fixtures, even the sleepy, slackerish PC himself. Instead of giving us a fresh, fully-imagined setting, Caffeination just shows us the same dull office we’ve seen a hundred times before. What’s fun about that?

This game also suffers from the same syndrome that seems to plague many entries in this year’s comp: a lack of sufficient feedback and cueing. I struggled against the constraints of the first major puzzle for quite some time before turning to the hints, but these were much less helpful than I thought they’d be. The game has a hint system with great potential — you find a notepad left by a former co-worker who had allegedly amassed all sorts of interesting tidbits about the office. Unfortunately, CONSULTing the notebook about nearly every topic gives you either no information at all (“Bill left some detailed notes, but you cannot find any info on that.”) or no more information than is present in simple object and location descriptions. A hint system in a consultable object is a great idea for integrating metagame activity into ingame mechanics, but to succeed, it must be much more deeply implemented than this.

So finally, I turned to the walkthrough and was astonished to discover that there are no fewer than three different solutions to it. The problem is that all three solutions rely on extremely improbable actions, ones I’d certainly never have thought would work, given the fairly limited implementation of most game objects. For instance, one path involves finding out about a particular bit of office intrigue through dialogue, but even very direct questions about this exact topic elicit no response whatsoever from the NPCs. In fact, most questions to the NPCs elicit the default response, which leads one to stop asking questions in fairly short order. Another path requires discovering an object hidden in a cubicle. However, an object mentioned in the room description that should be in roughly the same spot as the hidden object not only doesn’t lead the player to discovery, it isn’t even implemented, which certainly leads one to believe that searching that area of the cubicle won’t be fruitful. It’s all well and good to provide interesting and unusual solutions, but you can’t expect players to read your mind to get to them. You have to provide cues, feedback, and evidence that will lead the player in the right direction.

In a similar vein, if a game’s coding is focused on its solution path(s) rather than on making a fully interactive environment, it will almost certainly be extremely buggy to anybody who isn’t strictly following the walkthrough. I associate this problem most strongly with Robb Sherwin‘s earlier comp games — if the game was a story, it’d go pretty well, but IF isn’t a story so much as a place, and when an incomplete place tries to be a story, problems ensue — even though Caffeination provides multiple solutions to each of its puzzles, they’re all pretty hard to guess, and exploratory moves towards them founder in a morass of bugs.

This may be a problem that deserves its own category: the “walkthrough-driven game”. These games end up making me feel like one of the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” terrified to step off the path lest everything around me be screwed up forever. That’s certainly what happens with Caffeination. Especially after the first puzzle, I found myself confronted with one bug after another when I tried things that the game didn’t expect.

Now, like the bugs in Sophie’s Adventure, many of this game’s bugs were beneficial to me, including one that allowed me to win without solving any of the coffee shop puzzles at all. I’ve been surprised by the games in this comp that go to great lengths to explain the obstacles to you, but then don’t bother to actually use those obstacles to prevent winning actions. Still, winning lacks its usual pleasure when it’s done by exploiting a bug. I was happy enough to have the game overwith, but I wish it could have been different.

Rating: 5.5

The Recruit by Mike Sousa [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Recruit
Final placement: 7th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Some games just feel like they come from deep inside the IF community. Take The Recruit, for instance: how many comp games not only include words of mine, but also go out of their way to compliment my work? Not many, I can tell you from sad experience, but not only does Recruit include pretty much the entire transcript from the 2002 XYZZY Awards ceremony, but when Another Earth, Another Sky is mentioned, this NPC message appears:

“I love that game,” says Fred. “I can’t wait for the third installment!”

Thanks, Mike! Er… Fred! I’m working on it! Anyway, I suppose that to avoid the illusion that sucking up to the judge gets you a good review and score, I should say here that I thought Recruit stank, but I just can’t do that. It was a fun game, if slight, whose puzzles are the star attraction. In fact, more than anything, it feels like a love letter to IF.

The premise, such as it is, is that you’ve been recruited (with the offer of a $50 reward) as a tester for “Real Life Interactive Gaming Simulacra” — in other words, IF puzzles constructed and brought to life. That puts Recruit in the unique position of being an IF game pretending to be reality pretending to be an IF game. In any case, the whole thing is more or less a hook on which to hang a series of puzzles, each of which has its theme: light source, NPC, attention to detail, and so forth.

The game is much more imaginative than this thumbnail description makes it sound. Each of the puzzles felt fresh to me, and the fact that they were explicitly molded around familiar IF concepts made their uniqueness stand out all the more. They also felt pitched at just the right level of difficulty — enough to make me think creatively, but not so hard as to send me running in circles and finally running to the hints, at least not for long. More importantly, each of the puzzles has fun with the concept it embodies, which makes the game a particular pleasure for those of us who have endured many far drearier versions of the same things. I’m not sure how well the game would work for somebody who was new to IF — it might make a fine learning tool, but I have a feeling it would feel more frustrating than educational to somebody who didn’t share its frame of reference — but for me it was a kick.

A great deal of the fun comes from the game’s writing, and I noted with admiration as I played through the game just how much Sousa’s writing has improved since his debut game Above And Beyond. [I’m about to spoil something, though I have no idea why it’s a secret to begin with.] Then I found out in the afterword that in fact, much of the writing wasn’t his, but was in fact done by collaborators like Robb Sherwin, Jon Ingold, and J.D. Berry. Why Sousa doesn’t simply acknowledge these co-authors upfront is a bit of a mystery to me — maybe he just doesn’t want players distracted by going through the game trying to figure out who wrote what.

Anyway, like every Sousa game, Recruit is coded very well, though not as exquisitely deeply as some of his past works have been. It was certainly bug-free, in any case, and quite responsive to most of the things I wanted to try. It also provides a fun list of AMUSING things to try after you’ve finished the game, which is a touch I always appreciate. After finishing The Recruit, I found myself just smiling, and thinking, “Cool!” Like several of the other games in this comp, it was IF about IF, but this time about just how much fun IF can be. It doesn’t provide much in the way of atmosphere or emotion, but it does pack the pleasures of good writing and interesting, interconnected puzzles, and that’s enough for me.

Rating: 9.3

No Time To Squeal by Mike Sousa and Robb Sherwin [Comp01]

IFDB page: No Time To Squeal
Final placement: 4th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes two heads really are better than one. Take Robb Sherwin, an author with writing ability and panache to spare, but whose comp games have traditionally been major-league bugfests. Combine with Mike Sousa, whose Comp2000 entry At Wit’s End proved that he was capable of thorough, polished implementation and taut pacing, though his prose didn’t particularly draw attention to itself (for good or bad.)

The result is a game that uses each author’s strengths to its best advantage. NTTS had me on the edge of my seat almost immediately, invested in the characters and sweating through the rapidly mounting tension. That sick, scared, hollow-stomached feeling isn’t one I tend to enjoy, even when it’s produced by fiction — that’s why serial killer horror is a genre I usually avoid — but I have to admit, this game did an excellent job at producing it. Very short scenes, whose interactions are limited to a few, very obvious moves, pile rapidly atop one another, screaming towards a conclusion that left me breathless, saddened, and a little confused.

Right about then, the game did something that really pissed me off. Of course, I didn’t know at the time to be pissed off about it — I only found out later, after spinning in frustrated circles, trying to make progress. And even though this move is one of the major surprises in NTTS, I’m going to spoil it now, because to my mind, it’s a terribly unfair trap lying in wait for people who approach IF like I do. You’ve been warned.

What happens is that NTTS appears to end tragically. It then offers the standard “Please enter RESTORE, RESTART or QUIT” prompt, and indeed, you can restore or quit from this prompt, and those functions will work as advertised. RESTART, however, doesn’t really restart the game but instead moves it to its next section. Now, it’s true that this is not a new idea. At least one other game pulls a similar trick, but in that game, no matter what you type at the question’s prompt, the letters RESTART appear. NTTS, however, offers a system prompt at which some responses will generate system actions and other responses will generate game actions.

This is a very, very bad idea. You know why? Because I chose RESTORE, that’s why. I restored my game, trying to “win” that first section, and failed, not knowing that failure was the only option. I was about to restore again, but I just couldn’t think of anything new to try, so I checked the walkthrough, and found out that the way to solve this “puzzle” was to type RESTART at a system prompt that really wasn’t. This is dirty pool. If you’re going to sneakily integrate system prompts with the game, at least have the courtesy not to make the feature into a puzzle, because solving a cheating puzzle isn’t any fun.

I approached the rest of the game with wariness and caution, unwilling to get too drawn in, which is too bad because NTTS apes Photopia‘s viewpoint-fragmentation (though not so much its time-fragmentation) to great effect, in the service of telling an interesting, multi-layered story. Of course, it was a story that still left a few major plot danglers swinging even when it reached its real conclusion, not to mention threw in cultural references from Jack The Ripper to Lewis Carroll without much to support them. Still, it was engaging stuff, and was peppered with one or two really clever puzzles. The overall design was solid, save for the one flaw, but that flaw was so glaring, I really can’t ignore it. No Time To Squeal demonstrates that great things can happen when two IF authors combine their strengths, but unfortunately, it also shows that even teams still have their weaknesses.

Rating: 7.4

1-2-3… by Chris Mudd [Comp00]

IFDB page: 1-2-3…
Final placement: 42nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past few years, each competition has had one game that I found unremittingly unpleasant, a horrible experience from start to finish. Last year, it was Chicks Dig Jerks, with its pounding misogyny and seething nests of bugs. The year before that, it was Cattus Atrox, whose relentless but shallow horror and totally logic-free plot I found impossible to stomach. I was beginning to think that I’d make it through 2000 without such an experience, but no such luck: 1-2-3… wins the prize for Most Repellent Comp Game, hands down.

It doesn’t suffer from bugs, though — it doesn’t really get the chance, because it is as linear as a short story. Basically, the game is one long string of guess-the-noun or guess-the-verb puzzles. In fact, for most of the game, each move is in itself one of these types of puzzles, since the game will allow no other action than the one it’s waiting for you to guess. The most freedom it ever allows you is when it spreads seven or eight guess-the-noun puzzles in front of you, which you can do in any order, but all of which must be done before the story can proceed.

Actually, I use the word “puzzle” but that’s being rather generous. Really, the situation I mention above is that you have a couple of NPCs, both of whom must be ASKed ABOUT three magic topics each before the game will continue. These NPCs are so minimally implemented (as is pretty much everything in the game) that they only answer to those three topics — all others will provoke one of three random default responses. As if this extremely minimalist implementation didn’t make guessing the noun difficult enough, the topics you’re expected to type in sometimes verge on the ridiculous. If a character doesn’t respond to ASK HIM ABOUT ADVICE, why would I expect him to respond to ASK HIM ABOUT WHAT HE WOULD DO?

Of course, the game gives me an unsubtle shove in the right direction by having the character say, “Do you want to know what I would do?” But this is a pretty desultory form of interactivity. The game may as well just tell you what your next command should be, since it has no plans to respond to anything else anyway. If you think that’s interactivity, you probably also think ventriloquists’ dummies come up with their own punch lines.

Non-interactivity is annoying enough, but consider the context: 1-2-3… is about a serial killer. It puts you in the role of this serial killer. It won’t let the game continue until a murder is committed, then another, then another, and these murders can be triggered by rather innocuous (if unintuitive) commands. Now how much does it suck to have no choices?

The killings are horrific, misogynist gorefests, with nauseating specifics lovingly enshrined in detailed descriptions, capped by attempts at psychological pathos that would be laughable if they didn’t follow such revolting excesses. The first murder scene made me feel literally sick to my stomach, and I seriously considered quitting the game there and then, abstaining from rating and reviewing it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t do that — perhaps some overactive sense of fair play among the comp entries, perhaps a misplaced hope that the game would produce some artistic justification for its ultraviolence. In the end, I had such a horrible experience playing 1-2-3… that I almost wish I hadn’t played it, but since I did, I want at least to give others the warning I didn’t get.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t keep you in the serial killer’s role throughout. You are privy to a couple of other viewpoints, most prominently the police detective whose mission is to find and apprehend the killer. Unfortunately, the scenes from the detective’s POV are no more interactive than those from the killer’s. You must follow, more or less lockstep, exactly what the game has in mind for you, if you want to finish the story.

Is 1-2-3… a psych experiment of its own, a kind of test to see how much gag-inducing content a player can take before switching off the computer and (to steal a line from Robb Sherwin) switching her hobby to “Scattergories”? Is it the IF version of Lisa Simpson testing to see how many times Bart will grab for the electrified cupcake? Maybe it is, and if so I certainly seem to have failed the test, because I played through to the end. But my emotional engagement with the game had ended long before that, having suffered multiple stab wounds from the vicious, senseless violence that permeates the game. I was taking every one of the game’s cues, typing in what it told me to and letting the text scroll by in the vain hopes of some Rameses-like epiphany. None was forthcoming. Now excuse me — I have to go take a shower.

Rating: 2.5

A Crimson Spring by Robb Sherwin [Comp00]

IFDB page: A Crimson Spring
Final placement: 23rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

One thing that can fairly be said about A Crimson Spring is that it is one dark piece of work. It starts out with a funeral, and in the course of its plot will describe twisted psychotics, brutal beatings, murder, and rape, along with a generous helping of menacing, intimidation, and vile ideas. It’s about superheroes, but not your Saturday morning SuperFriends kind of superheroes, nor even your angsty Stan Lee/Chris Claremont kind of superheroes.

No, these are superheroes in more of a Frank Miller vein, tortured vigilantes who stalk through horrific corridors of urban decay, beating the living crap out of evildoers and anybody who looks at them funny. Though Miller is clearly their main predecessor, they’re also a bit reminiscent of the out-of-control metahumans in Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, with elements of the anger and psychoses that bubble under Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

They even bear a passing resemblance to the characters from Sherwin’s own Chicks Dig Jerks, at least in the way that they tend to investigate crimes by cruising bars looking for trouble. In addition, they’re also likely to have somewhat more disturbing powers, especially the villains, such as AIDS Archer, who shoots disease-tipped arrows at the good guys, and Mucous Man, who suffocates his victims under lots and lots of snot.

As I’ve said in the past, I love superheroes, but this particular subgenre of them is not my favorite. The whole grim-and-gritty trend in superhero comics, which probably reached its peak towards the end of the Reagan years, was always rather unappealing to me. I found its insistence on the world’s rottenness to be just as monotonous and unrealistic as the post-Code, whitewashed Batman and Robin’s world of silly villains and cardboard heroes. Miller’s Daredevil and Punisher, and Claremont/Goodwin’s Wolverine were fine when they were the darker exceptions to the nobler rule of costumed crusaders, but when nearly every superhero suddenly became a clench-jawed desperado struggling against a poisoned culture by any means necessary, the whole thing started to seem more and more silly. [Pssst! Paul! Stop lecturing about comics and get back to the game! (The what? Oh yes, that.)]

Ahem. As I was saying, A Crimson Spring is one dark piece of work. It even displays its text as faded letters on a pitch black background. In addition, even besides the fact that its particular flavor of superherodom is not to my taste, it misses some pretty important opportunities. For instance, although the PC wears a mask and has a code name (Holy Avenger), he doesn’t have any superpowers. What does he have? A lead pipe. He’s surrounded by people who can fly, or are super-strong, or have unbreakable skin, or can morph themselves into other stuff, but his main skills are talking smack and whacking people with a big metal club. Oh, he’s got a perfect immune system, too, which doesn’t seem to me like a great superpower (“I’m Never-Get-Sick Man!”), though I have to admit it does come in handy against guys like AIDS Archer. I found myself wishing that I could play one of the real superheroes instead of this smart-aleck “detective” with the pipe in his hand. Hell, even Batman had a utility belt.

On the other hand, perhaps playing a character I liked more would have made it even more frustrating when I encountered one of the game’s many bugs. The bugs in ACS come in two varieties. One of these is the “huh?” bug, which happens when the game makes a reference to somebody or something you’ve never heard of before, and acts as if you of course know what it’s talking about. For instance, at one point the PC is asked (in reference to a villain), “Have you seen him since the incident on the bridge?” I read this and thought, “incident on the bridge?” The game had described no such incident.

Perhaps things like this were its way of building character by mentioning past “offstage” events (though some of the “huh?” references seemed clearly oriented towards things that were supposed to have happened in the plot, but didn’t, at least not to me), but even if this is the case, the game should throw in a sentence or two explaining the reference. I suspect that this kind of bug emerges when a game is written around a walkthrough and fails to account for the many paths that can be taken through the plot. Granted, this is one of the more difficult challenges in writing IF, but it is a challenge that must be met, or else the story deflates very rapidly.

The other type of bug is of the more traditional variety, the inability to refer to an important object or the nonsensical response to a reasonable command. Both types of bugs appear with depressing regularity in ACS, and they utterly defeat any sense of immersion that the game’s other nifty features strive to create. Among these features were a cool soundtrack of gritty indie rock and hand-drawn illustrations of various scenes and characters. The latter, while not exactly George Pérez, were obviously the product of quite a bit of labor, and managed to give a nice visual sense to the colorful characters. I wish, though, that the time had instead gone into debugging — I would have enjoyed the game lots more had it been bug-free, even without its illustrations. A Crimson Spring puts you behind the mask of a dark superhero on a mission of justice, but in the end, it only defeats itself.

Rating: 6.1

Chicks Dig Jerks by Robb Sherwin [Comp99]

IFDB page: Chicks Dig Jerks
Final placement: 31st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

[NOTE: There are some obscenities in this review.]

Yecch. After an hour of playing Chicks Dig Jerks, I feel like I’ve been swimming in sewage. The PC and his friends are some of the most repulsive human beings I’ve ever seen described, and spending time looking through their eyes was pretty sickening. Now, it’s clear that the author is aware of this fact. The game begins with a big banner reading, in part, “There are absolutely no role models in this game.” Fine. But if it was intended to be some sort of satire, it didn’t work, at least not for me. Perhaps some reader smarter than I am will explain how in fact the whole game brilliantly skewers the emptiness and horror of its protagonist’s life, but for me, that didn’t come across. Instead, it just felt like living some stereotyped nightmare for no particular reason. Remember those fratboys at the beginning of Photopia? This is basically an entire game from their viewpoint, with some off-the-wall supernatural stuff thrown in for no readily apparent reason. The fact that the game was loaded with bugs and writing errors didn’t give me much confidence that it had some sharp, intelligent viewpoint behind its ugly veneer, but I don’t think that’s the main reason why I found Chicks Dig Jerks so unpleasant. That reason can be summed up in one word: misogyny. The game’s fear and hatred of women starts at the title and just snowballs from there.

The game’s basic notion is that women come in two varieties. There’s the Dumb Chick, who is prey to the PC’s predator. She has no illusions about her status, and apparently likes it, because she’s attracted to men who will treat her like dirt. Then there’s the Evil Bitch, who hates all men and is out to kill them and/or drain them of their vitality, at least until she can find one strong enough to dominate her and turn her back into a Dumb Chick. The male characters wandering through this world have two basic goals: score with (i.e. fuck) the Dumb Chicks and avoid or kill the Evil Bitches. We see the former in the game’s first sequence, in which the goal is to get two phone numbers from a group of women at a bar. The PC does this by approaching them with the dumbest lines imaginable, and guess what? Because they’re even dumber then the lines, they think he’s cool and give him their numbers. Here’s what the PC has to say after accomplishing this goal: “Word up.”

Then one of the Dumb Chicks takes the PC home and they have “animal sex for the better part of the night.” Then the PC bolts, leaving “a little note” and his number. What a guy. Thus ends the Dumb Chicks portion of our show. Moving on, the PC then invades a graveyard (did I mention he makes his living as a grave robber?) where an Evil Bitch tries to kill him. He ends up killing her, which is too bad, because I was really rooting for her. Then he gets real sentimental because his best friend (male, of course) was killed in the battle. Damn those Evil Bitches and their short male accomplices! (The game also seems to have a problem with short men.) Damn them to hell!

There are two dreams described in the narrative which illustrate this dichotomy perfectly. In the first, the PC is lured into an unoccupied room by a seductive woman, and in the room he sees the dried, dead husks of all his male friends. Then the succubus drains him too, and sticks his skin to the wall with thumbtacks. You can probably guess which side of the coin she represents. Then, in the second dream, the PC is having a fight with his old girlfriend, who apparently was the one person with whom he didn’t act like total scum. She breaks up with him, and in remembering the breakup, he wishes he had given into his impulse to “rock the bitch’s world and leave her reeling and bleeding.” He also regrets all the time he didn’t spend “being an exciting, unavailable, uncontrollable asshole.” Hey Avandre, here’s a hint: if your girlfriend left you because you weren’t enough of a jerk, the answer isn’t to be more of a jerk. The answer is to FIND A SMARTER GIRLFRIEND! But that might be too much to ask of this character — a woman who he sees as a human and who is as smart as or smarter than him would just be way, way too scary.

Speaking of scary, let’s talk about this game’s code. At one point a character playing a video game exclaims in frustration, “This fucking thing has more bugs than a tropical swamp!” I had to smile at this, since the sentence (with the exception of the expletive) is lifted almost verbatim from a SPAG review of the author’s last game, Saied. The description is also apt for Chicks Dig Jerks. Unless you go through the game exactly as described in the walkthrough, you will find bugs. At one point, I was talking to a character, and one of my conversation options actually put me back in a previous scene. That scene went differently, and then I had to sit through the whole “animal sex” thing again. At another point, two characters are described as being disintegrated, then proceed to take some actions in the following paragraphs, then get re-disintegrated. There’s an item you can pick up, and no matter where in the game you pick it up, the description always indicates that you find something else under it, even if the thing you supposedly find is already in your inventory. You get the idea — examples abound. Chicks Dig Jerks is the Cattus Atrox of the 99 competition — I had a strong reaction to it, and that reaction was: I never want to see this game again.

Rating: 1.9

[Postscript from 2020: Adam Cadre wrote a contrarian review of this game in which he asserted it has “the best writing of any game in the comp.” Since then, Sherwin has proved to be one of the stalwarts of modern IF, releasing several full-sized games and even packaging them commercially. I wrote a long, appreciative review of his game Cryptozookeeper, which no doubt I’ll post here at some point. In it, I described the friendship Robb and I have developed: “Belying the outrageousness of his writing, the man himself is a gentle, witty, soft-spoken presence, a real mensch who’s done me many a good turn over the years.” Funny old thing, life.]