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.

Interview from InsideADRIFT [Misc]

[I was interviewed by Ken Franklin for the May/June 2004 issue of InsideADRIFT, a fanzine for users of the ADRIFT IF development system. I’ve cleaned up the text and added links as appropriate.]

Interview: Paul O’Brian questioned by KF

This issue’s interviewee is the editor of that vital organ of the IF community, SPAG, a newsletter that packs in loads of news and game reviews. Having started on 15 May 1994, today represents the tenth anniversary of that first issue. That first issue was mostly packed with reviews of some of the games included in the Lost Treasures of Infocom package, with many of the reviews from Stephen Granade. Paul O’Brian has been editor since issue 18.

Paul, thank you very much for agreeing to answer a few questions for InsideADRIFT.

My pleasure — thanks for inviting me!

Q1. I always tend to start with this one. What brought you into the world of interactive fiction (and keeps you here)?

Probably the best and most complete answer to this question is the first editorial I wrote for SPAG, in issue #18. The short version is that after my dad introduced me to Zork in the early Eighties, Infocom became one of my teenage obsessions. Then, in the early Nineties, my interest in IF was reawakened by Activision’s release of the Lost Treasures of Infocom collections. I was discovering the Internet right about the same time, so one of the first searches I did was on “interactive fiction”; that led me to the newsgroups and to the discovery that IF is still alive and thriving, with a whole range of tools allowing people to write works just as good as or better than anything Infocom ever produced. Playing and writing new IF games was a dream come true for me.

As for what keeps me around, I think it’s a combination of things. Certainly, I’m still fascinated with the medium of IF, and I love seeing it continue to grow and evolve. In addition, editing SPAG and writing the Earth And Sky series have proved to be rather tangible commitments to participation in the IF community — even at times when I’ve felt like drifting away, I’ve found myself unwilling to leave SPAG rudderless and my game series incomplete. Finally, the IF community contains some of the most interesting people I’ve encountered in any social sphere. Being around such bright and creative people can feel a little intimidating at times, but it’s so rewarding.

Q2. The SPAG newsletter is a valuable resource for finding a wide range of reviews for the whole community. Does it currently meet the targets that you have for it and do you have more aims for the future?

Heh. “Targets.” I’ve never been inclined to set goals for SPAG, because it would drive me crazy to have specific aims for something that is largely out of my control. My only real goal is to hustle up enough reviews every three months to produce a viable issue of the zine.

Thanks to SPAG’s legions of volunteer contributors, I’ve always been able to reach that goal, though sometimes it’s meant stretching the definition of “viable” a little further than I’m comfortable with.

Remarkably, SPAG has survived for 10 years (as of May 15th, 2004), and that’s only because people continue to be interested enough in its project that they still want to submit and read IF reviews. I’m really not sure what the next ten years will hold for it. I’ll probably hand off the mantle of editorship at some point, though I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, I don’t plan any major changes to SPAG — I think it’s working pretty well in its current format, so aside from some possible improvements to the web site or any spiffy new features that occur to me, I’m planning to stay the course.

Q3. Editing a publication that survives on input from others can be stressful. Do you find that people are keen to write or do you have to twist arms regularly to get sufficient content?

You know, I think both are true. I believe that people are quite keen to write in theory. That is, the idea of writing a SPAG review appeals to a lot of people, and that’s why I receive work from such a variety of contributors. However, what’s also true is that people approach IF as a hobby, maybe one of many hobbies occupying their free time. So IF already exists as just a little slice of most people’s time, and when writing a review is a little slice of that IF time, it’s very easily delayed or abandoned. This is perfectly understandable, of course, but what it means is that most people need a little nudge to reignite their interest in writing a review for SPAG. I post these nudges a few weeks before each issue comes out, and I try to make them varied and somewhat entertaining, but ultimately, their purpose in life is just to serve as a little reminder and motivator for anybody with the intention of reviewing a game for SPAG. I think I’d get a lot fewer submissions without those little reminders, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t keen on the idea of writing reviews.

Q4. The interactive fiction community is an odd group, so often supportive yet also often aggressive in their arguments. Do you believe that this is all part of the healthy debate of a lively group or unnecessary conflict that detracts from its aim of producing games?

Neither. Both. I’m not sure I accept the premise of the question, actually. Certainly I’ve seen aggressive arguments on the newsgroups, but I’m not sure I’d call that a trait of the interactive fiction community per se. In part, I think it’s a trait of Internet conversations everywhere, though of course the degree of vitriol can and does vary depending on the forum and the topic. I’ve seen my share of people who I think of as IF community members aggressively pursuing a point — sometimes I don’t like it, and sometimes I take some pleasure in it, depending on how much I agree with the point and how much I think the target deserves the aggression. I’ve been guilty of it myself from time to time.

However, I wouldn’t say there’s some monolithic IF community that can be characterized as “aggressive” — what we call the “IF community” is really a very loose agglomeration of people collected around a bunch of different loci, containing personalities that range from enthusiastically friendly to dismissively sarcastic. There are also a couple of downright vicious people who haunt the newsgroups, but I don’t really think of them as members of our community so much as forces interested in wrecking whatever positive energy exists in it.

In any case, I tend to be annoyed or dismayed by most of the aggressive arguments that appear in IF fora, whether they be from established community members or from other people charging in and tossing around accusations of elitism, intellectual stagnation, provincialism, or what have you. However, my experience is that those little flamewars tend to be a rather small fraction of the mainstream of IF discussion, most of which is polite, friendly, and often thought-provoking.

Q5. The ADRIFT community can tend to feel that we are often on the margins, getting a few scraps from the wider group. I suspect this can partly be attributed to the fact that when working with the mainstream languages RAIF is the place you go for discussion, in contrast the ADRIFT forum provides us with a dedicated support group. Do you think this gives an appearance outside ADRIFT of us being different and standoffish?

Hmm. I’m not sure I have an answer for this. Just as I don’t believe there’s one dominant definition of the “IF community”, I’m not sure there’s a dominant perception of ADRIFT forum users. Even if there were, I don’t think that I’d know what it is. For my part, I think of the ADRIFT forum as one of the loci I mentioned above when I was calling the IF community a “loose agglomeration.” Others include raif, rgif, ifMUD,, and the SPAG subscriber list.

Because I tend to follow the int-fiction newsgroups and (to a lesser extent) ifMUD, I’m not terribly aware of what goes on at the ADRIFT forum, but I’ve never thought of that as ADRIFT users’ fault — it’s just divergent interests. I suppose it would be nice if everybody had a common gathering place, but as long as there’s some cross-pollination, I’m not bothered, and certainly it’s never occurred to me to take offense at the ADRIFT forum’s existence separate from the int-fiction newsgroups. After all, what’s on the margins depends solely on what you define as the center.

Q6. I was just looking at the list of back issues, it is an impressive list and makes our 16 issues seem very small. Does it become easier the longer things go on for? (KF asked hopefully)

Easier. Well, the inescapable fact is that coming up with good original content takes work, both for you and for your contributors. That truth never really goes away. However, I do think that the more good issues you produce, the more you gain a reputation as something worth contributing to. So maybe it does get a little easier to elicit submissions as time goes on. I sure hope so, anyway.

Q7. As usual, I will end the interview by asking you what you are currently working on, and what you are looking for in the future for yourself and interactive fiction?

I’m working furiously on Earth And Sky 3 in hopes of having it ready by the fall. Speaking of which, it’s been a lot of fun to spout off and I appreciate the opportunity, but I think I’d better get back to coding now…

Cracking The Code by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp00]

IFDB page: Breaking The Code
Final placement: 53rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Thank god for Stephen Granade. Without him, not only would I think that Cracking the Code is completely pointless, I’d also be totally confused as to what it’s even about. However, thanks to a handy post he wrote on his IF site, I’ve been educated on the controversy surrounding the DeCSS code for decrypting DVD output.

For those of you not in the know, apparently eight big movie studios won a lawsuit against a hacker newsletter for posting code known as DeCSS, code that allows you to decrypt the data on a DVD. This code allows you to write your own DVD player without paying royalties, and to copy the information on a DVD. The law that supported the suit is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which forbids dissemination of information about how to bypass copyright security. According to the judge, you can’t post the code or even link to the code.

Lots of people are up in arms about this perceived restriction of free speech. Somebody even wrote a very funny song about it, with the code in the lyrics — the argument goes like this: if the US First Amendment protects freedom of expression, doesn’t that take precedence over the courts’ suggestion that the code is illegal under the DMCA? And if so, isn’t it legal to spread the decryption code via a legally protected form, such as songwriting?

I suppose the argument goes the same way for this “game”. Really, though, this piece of work does virtually nothing to wrap any kind of creative content around the DeCSS code. It’s more or less an unadorned room with a stub description, containing two pieces of paper that have the code written on them. That’s it. Other than what I just mentioned, it’s an Inform shell game. Minimalist, yes. Entertaining, no.

It’s hard to even call CTC subversive, as it is so clearly uninterested in IF and therefore fails to subvert IF in any interesting way. In my opinion, it also doesn’t do much for making the First Amendment case. I mean, at least the song had a tune, and some lyrics outside the code, and whatnot. CTC, on the other hand, offers nothing at all in the way of IF. It’ll come in handy, though, when I decide to write my own DVD player. That’s on my list right behind sewing my own clothes and authoring an IF game with a homebrew parser.

Rating: 1.2

Futz Mutz by Tim Simmons [Comp00]

IFDB page: Futz Mutz
Final placement: 25th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

For my first 45 minutes of playing Futz Mutz, I thought it was delightful. It’s got a whimsical premise (you’re a 9-year-old who has been inexplicably transformed into a puppy and trapped in a pet store). It’s got lots of fun multimedia stuff, like appropriate dog sounds, a little biscuit up by the score on the status line, jazzy background music, a cool title sequence, that kind of thing. The code and the writing, while a bit error-riddled, mostly did their jobs well. It was well on its way to a high rating.

Then something happened that was a bit like a splash of cold water in the face. I looked at a TV in the game and got this description:

A commercial for some new movie is now showing on the TV.

"Don't miss 'Curses of the Skcus Mrofni' - starring G. Nelson. Tonight at 9 on HDO!"

Oh, ha ha. “Inform Sucks” spelled backwards. Gee, how clever. I though this game was supposed to be about a 9-year-old, not written by one. I was a little disappointed by this, but I shrugged and went on. After all, there had been a few IF references before this, a friendly nod to Mike Roberts and a more-or-less genial poke at Stephen Granade. Then, about five minutes later, something else happened. This was less like a splash of cold water and more like a kick in the teeth.

I won’t reprint it here — it was a personal insult to Suzanne Britton, basically calling her a whore in a couple of different ways. Now look, Suzanne is a friend of mine, so I got very, very angry when I saw this. But even if she wasn’t a friend, I’d think that this is way, way out of line. I do not understand the point of lashing out at specific members of the IF community like this. To work within the dog metaphor, it seems like biting the hand that feeds you.

I tried to continue playing, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. So I turned to the walkthrough and finished the game. Then it was rating time. I sat there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. Should I ignore the insults and try to rate FM as a game notwithstanding its snide jabs? I ruled that one out pretty quickly. Should I abstain from rating it at all on the grounds that because I had such a strong emotional response to it, I’m not fit to judge it? Hell no, I decided. I’m going to rate it exactly the same way as I have all the other comp games: based on how much I enjoyed the overall experience. Then I’ll write a review telling just what I thought of it, exactly as I have for the other comp games. And that’s what I did.

Rating: 2.0

The Arrival by Stephen Granade as Samantha Clark [Comp98]

IFDB page: Arrival, or Attack of the B-Movie Clichés
Final placement: 4th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Arrival is the first HTML-TADS game I’ve ever played, certainly the first competition game ever to include pictures and sound. I was quite curious as to how these elements would be handled, and maybe even a little apprehensive. I wasn’t sure that a lone hobbyist could create visual and musical elements that wouldn’t detract from a game more than they added to it. But Arrival dispelled those fears, handling both pictures and sound brilliantly. The game’s ingenious strategy is to cast an 8-year-old as its main character, which makes the fact that most of the graphics are really just crayon drawings not only acceptable, but completely appropriate. Just for good measure, the game chooses “Attack of the B-Movie Clichés” as its theme and subtitle, thereby making the cheese factor of the special effects (which is pretty high) actually enhance the game rather than embarrass it. The pictures are delightful — the crayon drawings evoke a great sense of childhood and wonder while continuing the humorous feel of the whole game. The spaceship (two pie plates taped together) and the aliens (in the author’s words “the finest crayons and modelling clay $2.83 could buy”) are a scream — I laughed out loud every time I saw them. The game also includes a couple of very well-done non-crayon graphics, one an excellent faux movie poster and the other a dead-on parody of a web page, both of which I found very funny. The sounds, though sparse, are equally good — the sound of the alien spaceship crash-landing startled the heck out of me. I’m not used to my text adventures making noise! But a moment later I was laughing, because the noise was just so fittingly silly.

However, all the funny pictures and sounds in the world couldn’t make Arrival a good game if it wasn’t, at its core, a well-written text adventure. Luckily for us, it is. The game is full of cleverly written, funny moments, and has layers of detail I didn’t even recognize until I read the postscript of amusing things to do. The aliens, who bicker like a couple of married retirees touring the U.S. in their motor home, are great characters. Each is given a distinct personality, and in fact a distinct typeface, the green alien speaking in green text while the purple alien has text to match as well. If you hang around the aliens you will hear quite a bit of funny dialogue, and if you manage to switch their universal translator from archaic into modern mode, you can hear all the same dialogue, just as funny, rewritten into valley-speak. The game has lots of detail which doesn’t figure in the main plot but creates a wonderfully silly atmosphere and provides lots of jokes. For example, on board the ship is an examination room, where by flipping switches, pulling levers, or turning knobs you can cause all sorts of machinery to pop from the walls and perform its function on the gleaming metal table, everything from laser beams to buzz saws to Saran Wrap. In addition, Arrival is one of the better games I’ve seen this year at unexpectedly understanding input and giving snarky responses to strange commands, which has been one of my favorite things about text adventures ever since I first played Zork. Even if you can’t (or don’t want to) run the HTML part of HTML TADS, it would still be well worth your time to seek out The Arrival.

However, don’t be afraid to rely on hints. I had played for an hour and hadn’t scored a single point when I took my first look at them. Now, once I got some hints I determined that the puzzles did in fact make perfect sense — they weren’t of the “read the author’s mind” variety and I would probably have come to solve them on my own. Perhaps the presence of pictures, sound, and hyperlinks threw me out of my IF mindset enough that I was struggling more than I should have with the puzzles. That’s probably a part of it, but I think another factor was that all the details in the game ended up becoming a big pile of red herrings for me. There are quite a few items and places which have no real use beyond being jokes, and I found it quite easy to get sidetracked into trying to solve puzzles that didn’t exist. It’s not that I don’t think those pieces should be in the game; I actually find it refreshing to play a game where not every item is part of a key or a lock, and even as it caused me to spin my wheels in terms of game progress, it helped me ferret out a lot of the little jokes hidden under the surface of various game items. However, if you’re the kind of player who gets easily frustrated when your score doesn’t steadily increase, don’t be afraid to rely on a hint here and there. Just remember to replay the game after you’re done so that you can see what you missed. Besides, that pie-plate spaceship is worth a second look.

Rating: 9.6

Four In One by J. Robinson Wheeler [Comp98]

IFDB page: Four In One
Final placement: 16th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Four In One, I was in an unusual, unprecedented (for me) situation: I was playing a game of which I had already read a complete, winning transcript. Not a walkthrough, but a transcript of commands and game responses. It seems that the author submitted this transcript to Stephen Granade’s IF Fan Fest, an informal quasi-competition held at Granade’s Mining Company web page. If I had known this transcript was also going to be a competition game, I wouldn’t have read it, because I hate spoilers. But I didn’t know that, so I read it, and it made playing the game a very strange experience — the whole thing gave me a very strong sense of déjà vu. Now, granted, the transcript isn’t an exact one. You can’t follow that transcript and hope to win the game, because the commands are not all perfectly duplicated, and there are some other differences between the two as well. However, they have a lot in common. Now, the funny thing about this is that when I initially read the Four In One transcript, my thought was “It’s a funny idea, but it would be far too difficult to actually turn into a game.” Well, I have been proved wrong.

The idea behind the game is that you’re a film director in the heyday of the Marx Brothers, and you’re directing them in their first picture for MGM. Or at least, you’re trying to direct them. Apparently, keeping all the Marxes in one room, getting along, and working productively is somewhat akin to herding cats. Consequently, you’re forced into the position of chasing after them, collecting them one by one, and forcing them to follow you around to their (and your) considerable annoyance. Even once you’ve got them all on the set and rehearsed, there’s no guarantee that one or more of them won’t go bolting off to make a phone call, hang out at the catering table, or read a book. What’s worse, you have only two hours to get a good take on a crucial scene, or you and the picture will both be canned. The transcript makes this into a hilarious situation, showing the Marx Brothers at their zaniest even when the cameras aren’t rolling. In fact, all the comedy takes place when the cameras aren’t rolling. This is the kind of thing that I didn’t think an IF game would be able to pull off, but Four In One is the living proof. It’s not as funny as the transcript, but it works, especially in places like Chico’s dressing room, where more and more people keep entering, pushing you inexorably to the back wall like the first entrant in a phone-booth-stuffing competition. Scenes like this can be irritating as well, and the game sometimes steps across the fine line between funny aggravation and just plain aggravating aggravation. However, with the exception of one internal TADS error that I found, the technical details of the writing and coding are executed superbly, and this goes a long way towards smoothing out any annoyances.

The place where the game’s technical proficiency shines the most is in its characters. Four In One is a the most character-intensive piece of IF I’ve ever played. Almost every location has one or more characters in it at all times, and these characters are as fully implemented as they need to be. The gaffer, for example, is not terribly talkative — ask him about the movie and he’ll say “A job’s a job,” but ask him about the lights and he has an opinion, as he should. Every character has responses about the things they should know about, though if you spend much time in conversations with them you will run afoul of the game’s time limit. The Marx Brothers can tell you about each other, the movie, MGM (Groucho says, “MGM stands for ‘more godless movies.'”), and anything else they ought to know about. Four In One does an outstanding job juggling all these characters, giving them just the appropriate depth of implementation so that the game really rewards replay. After I had solved the game, I went back and just chatted with the various characters, and was delighted with the extent to which they are implemented. The author’s research is quite apparent in these moments, and it makes a big difference. Four In One taught me things about the Marx Brothers that I had never known before, and made me want to go out and rent A Night at the Opera again. That’s entertainment.

Rating: 8.7

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.