PAX East Part 4: Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the fifth 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.]
Compared to Friday, Saturday was pretty low-key. Then again, it’s not fair to compare anything to Friday. I let my exhausted self sleep in, then showered, packed up, etc. I met my friend Ruth Atherton for lunch, along with her partner Yigal and their adorable boy Natan. I’ve known Ruth since our freshman year of college at NYU — over 20 years ago now! — and it was wonderful to spend some time with her again.

Ruth dropped me at the Hilton, and I stopped into the IF Suite, where the PAX SpeedIF efforts were well underway. I opted out, given that 1) I didn’t bring my laptop to the suite, 2) it’s been years since I actually wrote any IF code, and 3) I didn’t want to spend my PAX time heads-down coding anyway. So it was off to the convention center, where I undertook my next mission: a present for Dante! I checked out a Boston souvenir store in the Prudential Center and picked up a cute little Boston ball, to use as a backup if I couldn’t find anything in PAX itself. But I did — his own bag of dice. He’s often wanting to play with my dice, so now he’s got his own. (He was quite delighted with these gifts when I brought them home, and as he often does, he immediately turned it around on me. “Pretend that you are Dante and I am Daddy! Dante, I brought you some presents! A Boston ball, and your very own bag of dice!”)

After a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for some trail mix and water, I took the time to explore the rest of PAX, but between the incredible crowds and my own lack of motivation, I didn’t really hook into anything. I wasn’t up for boardgaming with strangers, nor did I fancy standing in line for a chance at console, PC, or handheld games. And of course the panels were out of the question — you had to arrive at least 30 minutes early to have a crack at getting into any panel, and none of the panels at that time were terribly interesting to me anyway.

So back to the IF suite I went. I hung out and chatted with various people, and even skipped dinner so that I could spend more time in the ambiance. (That’s where the trail mix comes in.) There were a few people I missed — I would have loved to hang out with Stephen and Rob a bit more, for instance — but I really enjoyed the various people I talked to. I think part of the connection-missing may have had to do with the fact that while I have a cell phone, it is a creaky 2005 pay-as-you-go model with no internet access and the clunkiest of texting capabilities. Normally, this does not bother me at all, but sometimes during PAX weekend I felt like an timebound mortal in a Kage Baker Company novel, looking on in blissful ignorance while all around me the immortals communicate telepathically. It probably also wouldn’t hurt to hang out on ifMUD more than once every two years.

All part of the thawing process, I suppose. While I wasn’t musing on that, I also kept an eye out for newbies and visitors. I hooked several people up with IF swag and talked to them about the medium and the community, which felt great. Extended social exertion like that is a bit out of my comfort zone — I’m an introvert by nature — but I liked helping with the IF outreach mission.

That mission was the subject of the informal panel at 7:00. That panel featured Andrew Plotkin, Jason McIntosh (aka jmac), Chris Dahlen (gaming journalist), and John Bardinelli (of JayIsGames). It was moderated, in an endearingly prolix style, by Harry Kaplan. (I should mention here that Harry was quite helpful in getting me connected with the pre-PAX discussion, and was particularly welcoming to me in the suite. Also, he’s apparently the cousin of Paul Fishkin, who founded Stevie Nicks’ record company! Remote brush with fame!) Harry would make a discursive, intentionally provocative statement, and ask the panel to respond, offering the lead to a different panelist for each question. The discussion often expanded beyond the panel and into the room, which was great, because the room was packed (seriously, packed) with very smart people.

I am terrible at reconstructing discussions, so I’m not going to try to do it here. Much. I will say that I was particularly struck by the way Emily framed the problem of IF’s learning curve. The parser, she said, makes a false promise, strongly implying by its openness that it is able to handle anything the player throws at it, which is simply not true. Lots of people would like to see IF respond by expanding the range of actions and phrasings that the parser can understand, but Emily disagrees. She could do a much better job than I of articulating this, and probably does so somewhere, but essentially she argues that expanding the parser is a blind alley, because it never eliminates the false promise issue, and creates a ridiculous implementation headache. Even if the game could legitimately understand a much wider range of commands, coding meaningful responses to that radically expanded command set is a misuse of our energies. Instead, she suggests that we embrace IFese while finding ways to help games gently nudge players in the right direction when it seems that they’re struggling to speak IFese to the parser. She did some work toward this in City Of Secrets, and Aaron Reed apparently does even more in Blue Lacuna. She points to Fa├žade as a cautionary example of what happens when you try to go the other direction.

After the panel, there was a bit more chatter, and then it was time to for SpeedIF contestants to turn in their games. I had no laptop, but Juhana Leinonen very kindly let me use his to play Sarah Morayati’s Queuelty, which I found quite enjoyable.

More chatting, more hanging out, but eventually, sadly, it was time for me to go. There would be more events on Sunday, but my flight left early Sunday morning — I hadn’t wanted to take undue advantage of Laura’s generosity with the childcare, so I kept my trip to two days. I’m sorry to have missed Sunday, though. From what I read [in a livejournal that has since been deleted and purged, even from the Wayback Machine — 2022 PO], it was great.

The rest is uninteresting travel details, except for this revelation, which traveled home with me: it has become painfully, unmistakably clear that working every night and weekend is ruining my life and blocking me from doing the things that actually make me happy. The truth is that nobody ever told me to do that (well, with some exceptions) — it’s just that I’m so overwhelmed all the time, so behind all the time, that I feel like I have to do that in order to have a remote chance of success at work. But keeping my head above water there has come at the cost of drowning the parts of myself I treasure more. So I’m going to stop doing that.

I’m going to try, anyway. It’s rather shockingly hard to draw firm boundaries around work when they’ve been obliterated for so long. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m on Day 6 now, and even in the last week I’ve been able to produce these blog entries, which would have seemed ridiculously out of reach a few weeks ago. That makes me happier than I’ve been in quite a while.

Shadows On The Mirror by Chrysoula Tzavelas [Comp03]

IFDB page: shadows on the mirror
Final placement: 6th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Every story is a slice of a larger story. That is to say: to some degree, beginnings and endings are just the arbitrary points that the storyteller has decided feel right as the story’s boundaries — stuff has happened before the beginning, and more stuff will happen after the ending. The idea, I think, is to provide a large enough slice that the story doesn’t crumble from its thinness, but not so large that it bores or overwhelms the reader (especially in a comp game, where the reader is working under a time limit.)

For me, Shadows On The Mirror sliced things a little too thin. I could sense that the game was the product of some thought. I glimpsed quite a bit of backstory through oblique references and offhand comments, and certainly the main event of the plot, such as it was, implied that a great deal had already happened offstage. There were also hints of some stuff that seemed pretty interesting and that I wanted to see more of — occult overtones, mysterious forces, an oddly powerful object or two, and some apparent PC superpowers. I didn’t get to see more of it, though. All I got were a few references, and after just a little bit of action, the game ended. Even after having seen a few endings, I felt frustrated, finished before I’d really begun.

As for what the game does provide, I think it’s pretty good overall. Shadows (sorry, for a Stevie Nicks fan like me, SOTM always means “Sisters Of The Moon”) is more or less a one-room game, but unlike most one-room games, the focus here is on character and conversation. The game uses an abridged version of a conversation approach pioneered by Emily Short: ASK and TELL abbreviated to “a” and “t”, with a special “topics” command that can provide a nudge to players who’ve run out of things to talk about. However, it makes what I consider to be a tactical error, in that it keeps many topics locked until a leading topic has been broached, or perhaps until a particular item has been examined.

There are a few problems I can think of with this strategy. First, when I attempt a topic and get one of the game’s default “no answer” messages, I take that response as a signal that the topic has not been implemented. I don’t expect it to be successful later on, so I probably won’t try it. Second, closing off some topics is particularly misguided in an extremely small game like this one. When I’m restarting often, I’m not really keeping track of which session has revealed which tidbits, and more than once I was flummoxed by getting a default response to a topic I knew I’d seen implemented. Finally, even if this were a larger game and even if I were able to constantly keep in mind that failure didn’t necessarily mean non-implementation, the “explicit branching” model used in Shadows forecloses the player’s ability to make intuitive connections.

To use an analogous example not from the game, say the NPC has a picture of apples on his wall, I ask him about apples, and he says, “Apples remind me of home.” My next thought might be to ask him about an orchard, but in this game’s model, he would just look away, not answer, or shrug. That doesn’t mean he can’t talk about orchards, but rather that the game wants me first to ask him about home, to which he’ll reply, “I spent lots of happy times climbing the trees in my Dad’s orchard,” and then it’ll let me ask about orchards. That’s wrong — give me the chance to make the leap myself.

I see I just said the game was pretty good, then went on a long discourse about one of its flaws, so let me turn now and praise Shadows for a moment. The game’s writing really worked for me — it described the scene vividly and with judicious use of metaphors. The NPC’s diction felt appropriately mysterious and foreboding, and I thought that many of the details were well-chosen to paint a picture of a PC whose life combines the ordinary and the extraordinary in a plausible way.

The implementation was reasonably deep, though it could have been deeper for such a small environment. The same goes for the NPC; he seemed to have some very basic emotional modeling, but the game didn’t provide verbs like THANK or APOLOGIZE to let me interact enough with that emotional state. Still, he was able to answer a generous set of topics, and I felt intrigued and tantalized by the answers he gave. At the end, though, I felt like I still hadn’t really gotten the point, which I suppose is another way of reiterating that the game just didn’t provide enough to feel satisfying. I guess the fact that I wanted a lot more of Shadows proves that what was there was a very good start.

Rating: 8.0