Discussions about interactive fiction

Archive for January, 2013

Community Announcement

I’ve been banned from intfiction.org for posting honest reviews. I will
re-post the reviews here shortly. For now, raif will be my Medina.

Note to people who sent personal messages to me recently: I wasn’t able to
read your personal messages because Plotkin and company also deleted my
account.

.
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Night of Pointless Anecdotes: Review of Cryptozookeper

Cryptozookeeper, Robb Sherwin’s latest punk noir, has that cheap feel of a
movie that’s been shot exclusively at night in non-descript locations using
the director’s friends and their hapless pets as unpaid actors. The
cheapness extends to the implementation.

>X COMPUTER

The system lacks a keyboard, but there are big, and rather friendly
pushbuttons placed on the front of the deck. Out of the corner of your
vision, the pushbuttons seem to have weird glyphs written on them, but when
directly viewed they clearly say POWER and MERGE. (The monitor has no
buttons, simply a knob for adjusting brightness.)

>GET POWER BUTTON

Taken.

>GET MERGE BUTTON

Taken.

>GET KNOB

Taken.

>I

You are wearing your vest, your lip ring, and your glasses.

You are also carrying a revolver, the cellular phone, some entrails, the
merge button, the power button, and the monitor’s brightness knob.

Not only can you walk away with the buttons, but you can also operate the
device from another room, a much welcome comic relief in a game that takes
bleakness to new levels. You play William Vest, a tedious underachiever
who’s never read anything other than a box score and whose memories seem to
be an endless array of pointless anecdotes which are, at best, mildly
amusing, but only in small doses. Vest works as a courier of illegal
biomaterial for Igor Cysterz, a mobster of vague ethnicity. On this
particular night your employer has accepted a substantial sum from
unspecified "Top Men" to kill you. His weapon of choice is a dog. Why not a
gun? Because this is The World According to Robb Sherwin and all the comedy
in it derives from everyone in it being submental, except the protagonist
who’s a smug mocker. Sounds a lot like The World According to Adam Cadre,
doesn’t it? The difference is that Cadre is occasionally funny.

You are standing in a cramped office. There is Igor, his dog, a cauldron
containing a bad oyster and a bottle of Worcester sauce. At some point Igor
will sic his dog on you and you’ll be ripped to pieces. The solution is not
so much an exercise in cognition as in empathy. Don’t think "How would an
intelligent person approach this?", think instead "What does Robb Sherwin
find amusing?" Robb finds vomit amusing. The solution is to pour the sauce
on the bad oyster, eat it and feed the dog your vomit, thus distracting it.

This is the first puzzle and it sets the tone for what is to come: obtuse,
arbitrary and of uncertain causation.

Feeding your vomit to the dog lands you in a cell. There is a corpse in the
cell and searching it you find a remote control. In the cell opposite yours
are two old acquaintances. You tinker with the remote control and a clunky
conversational system and after a while the emperor from Star Wars comes and
releases you from the cell. The causation is vague. Did my tinkering with
the remote somehow beckon the emperor or did I simply exhaust the
conversation topics?

This is all very Theatre of the Absurd, but unintentionally so because I
doubt Robb knows (much less cares) who Samuel Beckett was. This isn’t Robb
bemoaning the meaninglessness of life. This is Robb being unable to design a
single puzzle that makes sense. Despite all this, Cryptozookeeper is
Sherwin’s best game to date. Those of you familiar with his previous output
will know exactly how modest a compliment this is. Here’s another modest
compliment. Robb Sherwin is easily one of the top ten writers of interactive
fiction. One of the things I’ve learned from you people is that rock bottom
is not a level plane at all but has its own rich topography. Adam Cadre
wrote what is probably one of the worst novels ever published, and yet he is
Cervantes compared to Sherwin. Sherwin, in turn, is Shakespeare compared to
Plotkin who is Dante compared to Aaron Reed.

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Review of Galatea

No critic has ever admitted that Galatea is the primary problem, and Galatea
only secondary. Galatea the game is a wonderfully complex cuckoo clock whose
cuckoo never comes out at the right moment. Galatea the character is a
stolid, humourless woman whose conversation gives new meaning to the phrase
"stone brain." The reason why critics have overlooked the character and
focused on the game is partly because decision trees are much easier to
discuss and analyze than literary dialogue and partly because Galatea is
such a bland and harmless creature she will never rise to the level of
insulting your aesthetic sensibility. She may — if you make the mistake of
taking her seriously — insult your intelligence, but then people are by now
pretty much used to having their intelligence insulted by IF.

Galatea is based on the Pygmalion myth. Pygmalion was a sculptor of such
brilliance, one of his sculptures literally came to life. To base a work of
IF on this particular concept is an ambitious endeavor, to say the least.
Some might call it presumptuous. The woman who calls herself "Emily Short"
is emulating an artist capable of infusing dead matter with life, hoping to
achieve with decision tree and dialogue what he accomplished with chisel and
mallet. Now, those of you who know me, know that I rarely make fun of
people’s names. Since "Emily" has in the past made fun of my ethnic and
religious background (I’m a Jew) as well as speculated on my sexual mores, I
feel entitled to a pun. Short falls short of her ambition. She falls short
because the woman who gave us the following exchange

ASK GALATEA ABOUT GREECE

"Buy a map."

has no dramatic sense whatsoever. Galatea fails not because its decision
tree is flawed or because its algorithms are broken, but because Galatea has
nothing worthwhile to say. She is bland, evasive and brusque, and the
sentiments that issue from her mouth are full of platitudes puffed up with
stilted diction to appear universal and profound. Short’s Galatea is to the
mind what silicon is to a bimbo. Your head will feel positively inflated
with grandiloquent banalities.

We are the cognitive ceilings of our creations. We can never create a
character more intelligent, or more witty, or more eloquent than ourselves.
This trivial fact has never been more sadly exemplified than by the infamous
"food ending" of _Galatea_. If you ask her about food in the exact right
sequence, she will step down from her pedestal (presumably giving up her
immortality) and start munching at the buffe. Here we can see the reason for
Galatea’s aesthetic failure as well as the source of Galatea’s pig-like
intelligence: the limits of a character’s cognizance will always reflect the
limits of its creator’s imagination.

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Delusions of Eloquence: Review of Blue Lacuna

Quote:

Dreams move beneath you, blind colossi revolving through unknowable
patterns, but they do not break the surface, not yet or any more. You float
in void outside them, cold, memoryless.

End Quote

Mr Reed is an intransitive writer. His prose has no object. The reason why I
use the honorific is because I know several Aarons and Mr Reed could never
force his way into their company. It’s not just that his prose is immature
and purple, that his narrative voice is that of a droning dullard or that
his "insights" verge on idiocy — what is of far more concern is that his
writing is empty of substance. Mr Reed’s sentences can be rapidly written
and once one learns how banal they are, their reading need not be hampered
with comprehension. It’s like watching a bricklayer lay bricks. You might as
well take a nap or watch the news while the author diligently drones on,
laying words on top of words. And is Mr Reed a diligent bricklayer! Oh boy!
According to one player, Blue Lacuna is roughly the equivalent of a 1000
page novel.

Quote:

>X RUME

[53 words snipped] her nordic

cheekbones, bleached hair, and ruddy cheeks hint at coldness, but the warmth

of her touch, her laugh, her soul, dominates. There is fire in her sea-blue

eyes, washed with blue, and from the moment you met her it burned in yours

too. [182 words snipped]

End Quote

Never mind the Aryan Girl fetish or the trite metaphors. What is truly nutty
about this passage is that Mr Reed apparently fancies himself a wisdom
writer. The wisdom he offers is this. Blonds have "cold" souls, and should
you run into one whose soul is "warm," consider yourself lucky.

Quote:

Beside you, Rume shifts again, edging closer, blood pulsing faster in her
veins, and you must choose. Do you make art, or make love?

>make love

(to yourself)

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

>make love to rume

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

>have sex with rume

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

>fuck rume

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

>boink rume

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

>have intercourse with rume

You don’t always need to specify what you’re doing something with.

(retrying as if you’d typed "have intercourse .")

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

>kiss rume

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

Tutorial: If you don’t see any new keywords on screen, you can type LOOK or
press enter.

>look

Before anything, you must remember: make love or make art?

>love

The physical presence of the woman beside you, her tangible power, dissolves
away all other desires. You pull her close.

Waves. The remnants of dream fuse into this new reality without a seam. You
roll together, riding peaks and troughs of infinite blue, gasps and vague
portents and hot insights suffused in the power of the moment, in the hot
breath in your ear, in the dandelion touches on delicate nerves. Worlds
you’ve explored, loves you’ve known, lives beyond or behind this moment are
all forgotten in the freedom of this now, this dim and burning now…

Afterwards. Breaths out of sync, pools of cool sweat beneath each fingertip.
And something gradual begins to intrude on your cooling bliss, some delicate
itch. And an odd feeling creeps upon you that things are about to change, a
sense of waves receding, perhaps forever, something calling them home.

End Quote

The single most amazing thing about Blue Lacuna is that it uses the Inform
parser and yet feels like something written in Adrift. The troglodytic
parser and the hilariously unhelpful tutorial are unfortunately the game’s
only comedic relief. The writing is a monotone of humourless, pompous kitsch
that is quite refreshing in its sameness. Normally writers have their ups
and downs, especially if the project takes several years to complete, as was
apparently the case here. Mr Reed has somehow managed to consistently scrape
bottom, never lifting above "dandelion touches on delicate nerves."

Quote:

Arranged gracefully across the slanted ceiling, the pine boughs infuse the
room with the scent of the forest outside, while somehow making this mostly
empty space seem whole. Rume’s work again: undeniably right, but you’d have
never thought to do it.

End Quote

The secret of Mr Reed’s prose? Slip in an archaic term (‘bough’ is so much
better than ‘branch’), latinate your diction a smidge (‘infuse’ is after all
much more classy than ‘fill’), always tell and never show (why bother
describing a graceful arrangement of pine branches when you can simply call
them graceful), never shirk from the painfully obvious (make clear that the
forest is outside), avoid wit at all cost (which should be easy for Mr Reed)
and hope that your tongue swimming in its sea of spit becomes a poet’s
quill.

So the parser has been deliberately broken and the prose is execrable, but
what about the design? At the very opening the game forces the player to
make a series of explicit choices: the PC’s gender, the Significant Other’s
gender and love xor art. This is never a good idea. Leather Goddesses of
Phobos did a similar thing, only there the choice was made implicitly and
rather unexpectedly and was in fact quite witty. Here it is not only
painfully explicit and inelegant but also utterly useless. No matter what
gender configuration you choose, the sex that follows is the same, the only
difference being the pronouns.

Quote:

>sing

You sing quietly, an old song you learned as a child, forgotten for years
until surfacing now.

>sing

You sing quietly, an old song you learned as a child, forgotten for years
until surfacing now.

End Quote

Considering that Blue Lacuna has had no fewer than eighteen testers, the
sheer sloppiness of its implemenation is astounding. Perhaps they were
hypnotised by the monotonous drone of Mr Reed’s prose. Or maybe they learned
that the secret of reading a mammoth of an infodump, written by a guy who
thinks having sex is like touching oneself with dandelions, is skimming the
words while thinking about something else.

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Review of Stiffy Makane: Apocolocyntosis

Writing is about making choices and what cripples Adam Thornton’s Stiffy
Makane: Apocolocyntosis is their absence. This is a game so huge, so long in
its making, one of its testers was diagnosed with cancer and died during
development. The author’s dog died too. Both man and beast are lovingly
remembered. There is a geological quality to Stiffy, that of accruing layers
of sediment wherein living creatures are trapped and fossilised. Much of
this horny, sprawling behemoth is a pastiche of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land,
and the rest is an eclectic collage, which is what polite people call a
bloody mess. Why is there a Gostak chief here? Why is Dolly Parton making an
appearance? Who exactly is Magnus Prickus? The Golden Banana? Obscure
references to Nabokov’s Lolita? There are answers to these questions but
they are private, in-jokey and comprehensible to only a handful of people,
of which I happen to be one, and not even I find Adam’s eclecticism amusing.
As a tester and a friend I brought these issues to Adam’s attention. His
response was that Stiffy was a "broad-brush satire," implying that satires
require no choices. And why indeed should Adam make any choices? It’s not
like he has to pitch his game to a publisher or work with an editor or worry
about making money from his writing. In interactive fiction anything goes
and nothing matters.

Quote:

FUCK DUCK

(Anas)

You, sir, are no Henry Miller [footnote 24].

>NOTE 24

[Footnote 24]: Hey, you know, it’s kind of odd that "Anas" is so close to
"Ana s", isn’t it? D’ya think?….nah, couldn’t be.

Anas is Latin for duck and Henry Miller fucked a woman named Ana s. One
reviewer found this witty. I find it shockingly dreary. It’s shocking
because Adam is not a crude man nor is he a stupid one. He’s one of three
people in this community who have read and loved Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and
yet this is his idea of a literary riddle. It’s as if Stiffy contained the
totality of Adam’s cognizance, and every single thought he’s ever had —  

however frivolous — had been squeezed into it. The impression is one of
sterile erudition, of senseless, semi-random name-dropping. The sense of
sterility is reinforced by the fact that almost nothing here is of Adam’s
own making. Even the narrative skeleton of the work, the character of Stiffy
Makane, is borrowed from a game written by a fourteen-year-old. I’m reminded
of Tristram Shandy. It too is a largely derivative work, and yet Tristram
has unforgettable characters of Sterne’s own making and a homunculus
narrator narrating from his mother’s womb. The only flights of fancy in
Stiffy are a Jonah-type whale used as a means of public transport and a
polytheistic hint system where the right deity must be petitioned for the
right clue to be obtained. Had the game centred on these two charming
devices, it could have been a magnificent romp with a hero travelling the
Mediterranean inside a fish (technically a mammal), solving mysteries,
cajoling the gods and expanding the horizons of bumbuggery. It could have
been the first work of interactive fiction of literary significance. Instead
we are left with an exercise in humbuggery where every single character in
The Waste Land gets a cameo and nothing really matters.

Quote:

>BLOW ME

If you could do that, you’d never leave your house.

>CREATE AN UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER

If you could do that, you would never have bothered with interactive fiction
in the first place.

Stiffy is a game within the picaresque tradition. While this tradition has
given rise to canonical fiction (Tom Jones, Kim, Huck Finn, etc.) it doesn’t
seem to be well-suited to interactive fiction. The problem is that when your
protagonist must travel a lot, the scenery must change a lot, hence the
"sparse and brittle" storyworld one reviewer complains about. There doesn’t
seem to be any straightforward solution to this. If I remember correctly,
the entire city of Alexandria in Curses consists of six objects. If you look
at the examples I provided, you’ll notice they are all named after their
protagonists. The key to success in the picaresque is a fleshed-out hero
complex enough to be subject to moral suffering, and it is just such a hero
that Adam has failed to create. Adam’s answer to Tom Jones, Kim and Huck is
a hero defined solely by his erection and his creator’s rambling erudition.
Imagine Encyclopedia Britannica with a penis and you’ll get the idea. I’ve
known tomcats with richer personalities than Stiffy.

This is all my fault. I should have been more than just a tester. I should
have been the Ezra Pound to Adam’s T.S. Eliot. I have betrayed a friend and
I have betrayed the Gods of Fiction. May they punish me.

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Not-Quite-a-Review: The Baron

Editorial note: This not-quite-review may appear somewhat chaotic as it is
composed of several posts and was written under some agitation. It’s more a
lamentation of the sorry state of affairs in interactive fiction than a
proper, cool-headed appraisal.

The Baron is the Id, the Castle is the Psychic Apparatus, the Lumberjack is
the Superego and the axe is a defense mechanism. This is not a subtle game,
nor is this a proper review. That something as crude and stupid as The Baron
could win the Spring Thing is a testimony to the crudity and stupidity of
the IF crowd. That it was nominated for best writing, I can only hope was
some kind of cruel joke at the author’s expense.

Examples of award-winning IF prose:

"When you open your eyes, you see the head of the dragon approaching you,
its mouth wide open–once again it breaths its deadly fire at you, and after
a short scream you can no longer hear yourself the darkness falls over you
like a cool blanket."

There is one grammatical error, one missing comma and one redundancy in the
above sentence. Can you spot them?

"The weak light of the moon, which enters the room through the window,
envelops the furniture of the bedroom in a cloak of unworldly beauty."

Does the "light of the moon" (why not simply "moonlight"?) also put proper
postage on the furniture it envelops?

"The landing is enveloped by uneven darkness."

The author really likes postal metaphors.

"It is half a year later, in the icy months of winter. You have gone
sledging with Maartje

over the thick layer of snow that has deposited itself on the village during
the past few days."

Yes, indeed, winter months tend to be icy. The snow depositing itself is the
third postal metaphor so far.

"Next to the stairs down stands an elegant cupboard"

Does this parse?

"From his unreachable heights the moon looks reproachfully down on you."

The game tells me the moon is not important to the story, so I assume this
is what they call atmosphere.

"The top of the church tower just peeks above the houses on the other side
of the street, like a black finger against the star-filled sky."

The church is giving God the finger? How… Updikean, I guess.

"In elegant handwriting, a message has been written on the parchment"

Lumberjacks wear jeans and people write letters on parchment. What epoch is
this exactly? Oh, right! It’s a Freudian parable, a timeless piece.

"A sheet of paper, crumpled and torn, on which sentences written in black
ink–the careful handwriting of a girl–tell their sorrowful story."

I take it that the sorrowful story of the sentences is their stilted
diction.

>SWING AXE

"There’s nothing sensible to swing here."

The PC being a lumberjack, you’d think he’d know how to swing an axe.

"You can see a dead young wolf and a dead she-wolf here."

>X YOUNG

"Like its mother, the young wolf has a dark grey pelt, turned dirty and
lustreless through hardships.

He is so lean that you can count all his ribs. If his mother doesn’t find a
prey soon, he will not survive the winter."

Never mind the inconsistency. A far bigger problem for this childish
morality tale is the euphemism "find a prey."

Replace it with "kill a cute little rabbit" and you’ve seen through its
silly hypocrisy.

"A wooden torch of about half a meter ends in a lustily burning flame."

This would have been much funnier in an Adam Thornton game.

"In the bleak light that comes through the trapdoor, you can just see descry
that this has been a dungeon."

Descry?

What about the implementation? As I already pointed out, The Baron is a game
about a lumberjack who doesn’t know how to swing an axe. Unfortunately, the
unintentional comedy doesn’t end here. The bedroom contains a wife object,
which leads to the following odd interchange.

>FUCK WIFE

You curse the evil baron for all he has done to you.

If you know nothing about IF design, you might think something profoundly
Freudian is going on here. But what is going on here is Inform grammar
treating FUCK as a synonym of DAMN. It’s the author’s job to extend FUCK to
its transitive meaning, a pretty obvious thing to do considering the nature
of this game.

And then there’s the "dungeon." This is where the The Baron lifts from being
just another turgid morality tale and becomes a parody of itself. The
symbolic vocabulary Victor employs in this section is so crude and
infantile, I can’t shake off the impression that I’m playing a game written
by a twelve-year-old.

And then there’s the issue of Victor’s appalling lack of literary culture.
Before you write a game about rebellious robots, it’s a good idea to have
read your Clarke and Asimov. Before you write anything about adults having
sexual relationships with children/adolescents, it’s a good idea to have
read Nabokov, Hardy and Petronius. I can see you people scratching your
plebeian heads and going: "Who the fuck is Petronius? Who the hell is
Hardy?" That’s a BIG part of the problem. You ALWAYS write within a
tradition. When you don’t know the tradition you’re writing in, you end up
writing The Baron.

The reason why The Baron is bad fiction, apart from the prose? Well, since
there’s not much else to look at, let’s look at the use of symbols. The
broken mirror as a symbol of split personality is so tired, even Hollywood
has stopped using it. The dolls in the "dungeon" are laughable, and so is
the "dungeon." The wolf and the cub as a Moral Dilemma is transparent in its
silly hypocrisy. The gargoyle with its multiple choice questions is tedious
in the extreme. The decision to have a "simple" lumberjack as a stand-in for
the Good Guy and a "sophisticated" baron for the "Evil" gynophile completely
misses the psychological mark. There is nothing sophisticated about people
who molest children. For the most part they are emotionally retarded men who
are afraid of women. The coup de gr�ce of the piece, the "unexpected" twist
where the Good Guy and the Bad Guy are revealed to be the same person has
been done to death, not least by Hollywood. Check out Angel Heart for a
decent treatment of this particular clich�.

When you release a literary text — and I believe IF games are literary
texts — you are inviting people to visit your planet. Planet Thornton has a
department of classical studies, a gay bar frequented by Caesar, a seedy
strip club full of T.S. Eliot-quoting drunks, a statue of Pynchon, a cheeky
Space Moose and a bunch of other stuff. Planet Gijsbers is dimly lit. It’s
hard to see much, and the little you do see is symbolic, never literal,
always referring to something beyond itself. As you explore Planet Gijsbers
and realise that the axe isn’t really an axe, that it can’t be swung, and
that the wife object isn’t even a proper object but a dumb noun with an
EXAMINE routine attached to it, you come to the conclusion that you’ve been
invited to the planet of a young man who is a bore to his friends and a nag
to his family and whose imagination couldn’t fill a thimble, much less a
planet.

I suppose I could have started this not-quite-review with an attempt at
charity, something along the lines of "Victor Gijsbers is many things but a
clinical idiot he is not" or "Victor Gijsbers is a decent man but a weak
writer." While these statements are trivially true, they are beside the
point and, what is even worse, disingenuous. Setting Victor up just to knock
him down would be disrespectful. Telling him the truth and explaining why
The Baron is unredeemingly bad was the only honest thing to do.

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Self Interview

A WARNING: I think fast and I think deep. Because I do not want to waste
your time, I suggest that all but the most intelligent readers ignore this
post. If you do go on from here, please have the courtesy to concentrate.
The art of deep thinking is disappearing, much thanks to the mental laziness
of such audiences as the present one. Thinking is after all one of the two
main pleasures of an intelligent human being, the other being fucking, known
in polite society as "the pursuit of happiness." If you find the thinking in
this post too fast and too intricate, I suggest you pursue your happiness
elsewhere.

This is the first in a series of interviews with pre-eminent members of the
IF community. My first interviewee is none other than the (in)famous founder
and CEO of Pudlo Industries, Jacek Pudlo.

Jacek: Why do you write interactive fiction, Jacek?

Jacek: So that I can reach out to millions and change the course of history.

Jacek: Okay, let me rephrase that. What do you *seek* specifically in
interactive fiction that you cannot find in other media?

Jacek: I seek to discover in it the mode of art whereby my genius could
express itself in unfettered freedom.

Jacek: What do you see as the most important quality in an IF writer?

Jacek: Sincerity. Once you learn to fake it, you’ve got it made.

Jacek: You’re flippant. Do you feel threatened by my questions?

Jacek: To be honest, yes. The long, sincere, non-flippant response to your
question is that the most important quality in any writer is to always be
more of a crackpot than a nudnik. A man on the street wears his shoes
hanging from his ears. The nudnik asks the man why his shoes are hanging
from his ears. The crackpot asks why they are untied. The problem is that
the very act of painstakingly explaining the difference between a nudnik and
a crackpot has made me into a nudnik. Wisdom is cheap and talent is precious
and a writer should always aim for the latter. This is why interviews pose a
threat to writers, because they tap a writer’s wisdom, not his talent. There
I go again, being a nudnik.

Jacek: Do you have any religious ambitions?

Jacek: You can’t grow up in an orthodox Jewish family without thinking once
in a while of becoming Messiah. But ever since my last attempt to walk on
water ended in embarrassment, I try not to think about it too much.

Jacek: Are you a narcissist?

Jacek: Drowning while kissing your own reflection is such a wussy way to go.
The character in Greek mythology I identify most readily with is Zeus. I
guess that makes me a Zeusist.

Jacek: Do you think psychiatry will ever solve the problems that beset you?

Jacek: No doubt it will, and by doing so create new ones.

Jacek: How do you feel about money?

Jacek: Money is the one thing that gives a sense of dignity to people who
otherwise don’t have it, which is why so many people humiliate and dishonour
themselves to get it.

Jacek: You don’t think money is freedom?

Jacek: Not if your only way of getting it is becoming a wage slave.

Jacek: Do you believe the government was behind the 9/11 attacks?

Jacek: No, but I think it’s a healthy lie.

Jacek: Why?

Jacek: Because it creates the illusion of a government that is potent and
competent enough to perpetrate a complex plot, and therefore dangerous and
therefore worthy of our grudging respect. If people knew just how impotent
and inept a democracy truly is, they would opt for National Socialism, as
the Germans did when they realised just how inept the Weimar republic was.

Jacek: Do you believe in alien abductions?

Jacek: No, but my answer is based solely on cognitive empathy.

Jacek: Eh?

Jacek: Picture a family of space aliens living somewhere in the Andromeda
galaxy. It’s Labour Day in Andromeda and Daddy asks Mom & Kids where they’d
rather spend the holiday: on Planet Zyglot, which is just around the corner
and has a new amusement park, or on Planet Earth, which is millions of light
years away and where the only amusement is abducting humans and probing
their anuses. Unless this family is *seriously* into rectal photography,
they should opt for Zyglot. Assuming they’ve mastered inter-galactic travel,
the cognitive gap between them and us is like the gap between us and dogs.
When was the last time you spent Labour Day abducting dogs and probing their
anuses?

Jacek: What is the meaning of life?

Jacek: (Here Jacek’s answer was lost to static in the tape.)

Jacek: That is really something. I’ve never heard anyone define the meaning
of life so eloquently and succinctly. This will be a life-changing insight
to so many people!

Jacek: Thank you.

Jacek: You have famously likened the IF community to "a cottage industry of
isolated cranks who write computer games no one wants to buy and few want to
play." What kind of shape do you see interactive fiction in today?

Jacek: To see it really well I’d have to play more of it than I currently
do. I belong to the fin-de-millennium generation, which means that by 2001
my tastes had congealed into a fairly stable jelly. Emily Short’s _Savoir
Faire_, Mike Gentry’s _Anchorhead_, Adam Cadre’s _Varicella_ and Jon
Ingold’s _All Roads_ are the games that define IF for me. Games written
since that could equal these are few and far in between. _Slouching Towards
Bedlam_ has an interesting concept but sloppy execution while Emily Short’s
more recent (over)production has yet to yield anything even remotely
comparable to _Savoir Faire_. Cadre’s _Nercolepsy_ was unplayable and Gentry
is sadly as unproductive as Short is �berprolific.

Jacek: These four are your idea of the IF Canon?

Jacek: Not in the Must-Play-Before-You-Die sense. More in the sense that
when you can’t get what you like, you learn to like what you can get.
Playing IF today is very much a process of learning to like stuff you would
normally wrinkle your nose at, like the pseudo-profundities of
_Metamorphoses_ or the god-awful Lovecraftian prose of _Anchorhead_ or the
sophomorisms of _Photopia_ or the obscurantism of _All Roads_.

Jacek: What about commercial old school games?

Jacek: Like _Zork_?

Jacek: Yes.

Jacek: I never understood the attraction. To me _Zork_ has always been a
trivial exercise in arbitrary puzzles with no sense of language, little
sense of detail and a sense of humour that is uniquely dreary. It’s
something you pay lip service to simply because it’s been around for a long
time. Like a senile aunt or YAHWEH or Andrew Plotkin. But _Zork_ is also
inescapable. No other game is so widely and lovingly parodied. Like all
crap, it improves greatly when seen through the lens of nostalgia. It’s one
of those games that are more fun to reminisce than to play. A lot of noise
has been made about how post-commercial IF has raised the standards compared
to Infocom’s games. I suppose that’s true. The games mentioned earlier are
hopelessly minor league, but unlike _Zork_ they are not autistic.

Jacek: I couldn’t help noticing you didn’t include Plotkin in your IF Canon.
I’m sure Andy’s mom and dad would beg to differ. And they are just two of
the several people around the globe whose imaginations have been touched by
the magic of Andy’s games. I didn’t want to upset you then, but now that
you’ve brought him up yourself, perhaps you could calmly explain the
exclusion?

Jacek: I come to IF not as a player would but as a thief. When I come across
something witty in a Thornton game, I don’t write the author an email
offering him goats and sweet incense in gratitude, as an ordinary player
might, but instead ask myself this. How can I appropriate Adam’s wit in my
own work without committing blatant plagiarism? This never happens when I
play a Plotkin game. Wit, or indeed intelligence of any kind, is a rare
occurrence in his work, and considering the paucity of his mind I can see
why he is reluctant to insert it gratuitously.

Jacek: What about your own IF? Why the prolonged silence? Why haven’t you
released anything since 2004?

Jacek: I can write only after at least one day of celibacy. I have not been
blessed with such a prolonged hiatus of sexual activity since I was awarded
the Golden Banana of Discord. The constant orgies (where the Banana figures
prominently among other stuffed fruits and vegetables) have drained my
creative powers. I need the energy of sexual frustration to sustain the
anger that is the source of my creativity. It’s really a question of
spermatic economy. The more jizz I spend on sex the less I can afford to
ejaculate into my art.

Jacek: So what you’re saying is that your orgiastic lifestyle has castrated
your art?

Jacek: Let it suffice to say that it’s not inkwells I’ve been dipping my
quill into lately.

Jacek: This would be an incredibly tasteless reference to Oksana in
_Gamlet_?

Jacek: (Jacek nods.)

Jacek: I suppose the question on everyone’s lips is how real is Oksana? Is
she a mere foetus of your oversexed imagination or is she based on a real
woman?

Jacek: She is neither. Oksana is a composite of sixteen women whose houses I
had broken into to ejaculate in their hair as they slept. But Oksana is more
than just a boyish prank. She is also a dozen or so publishing houses whose
employees I viciously harassed for several months. Like all great artists I
had sublimated my sex drive into art and written a bulky volume of poetry
that absolutely no one on this planet wanted to publish.

Jacek: Despite the universal acclaim of _Gamlet_, you don’t seem to have
many friends among your fellow interactive fictioneers. Most see you as a
contradictious and divisive figure while some have not shied away from
excoriating your good name with odious innuendos. What gives you the
strength and conviction to persevere in your one-man crusade?

Jacek: Interactive fiction is facing big, complex problems. If Jesus Christ
and Steven Segal have taught me anything, it is that big, complex problems
are best tackled by a lonely guy with a god complex who’s crazy enough to
take on the whole world.

Jacek: You do understand, though, why people react to you the way they do?

Jacek: I’m too honest, too intense, too fucking REAL. I suppose that makes
people afraid and people who are afraid are often hostile.

Jacek: Do you think they are afraid of you because they understand you or
because they don’t?

Jacek: That’s a good question, Jacek. I think they are initially mildly
annoyed and begin to understand me as they grow furious.

Jacek: Adam Cadre has dubbed you a "sociopathic asshole" and compared you to
the perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib scandal simply because you disliked his
novel. How do you feel about that?

Jacek: A billionaire friend of mine invites me sporadically to his London
townhouse where we get drunk and have merciless philosophical disputes where
no feelings are spared. One time I won the dispute and awoke the following
day with a hangover and the dread of having gone too far and lost a friend.
The servants informed me he had left. On the kitchen table I found the keys
to his Jaguar and a note. "I’m off to Baghdad to close a deal. Help yourself
to the booze and the Jaguar, not necessarily in that order." It’s hard to
wound a man of action. It’s hard to nurture a grudge when you’re off to
Baghdad the next day to be received as a personal guest by the Iraqi prime
minister. Adam Cadre is a wonderful IF writer and a god-awful novelist. He’s
also an idle man with enough leisure to nurture a silly grudge.

Jacek: How do you feel about I7?

Jacek: Before I answer that question, I’d like to expand on the Cadre
debacle.

Jacek: Please do.

Jacek: Adam Cadre likes to quote Rilke and drop Heidegger’s name here and
there, but he’s much more at home with The Fantastic Four than serious poets
and thinkers. He has a comic book mind, which is fine when you’re writing
light-hearted IF like _Varicella_ or _I-0_, but a disaster when you’re
writing a novel. _Ready, OK!_ is one gimmick plus some silly anecdotes
diluted to fill 360 pages. Reading it is a bonanza of vicarious shame. It’s
an embarrassment of such proportions, the very fact that Adam is still among
us is a testimony to the strength and perseverance of his personality. A
lesser man would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. As to I7, I am
certain it’s an MI6 conspiracy to take over our computers.

Jacek: But seriously.

Jacek: Seriously I think I7 is as useful as a fountain in the rain. A lot of
this is going to get cut out, right? The Establishment will surely not allow
this.

Jacek: Perhaps, but I’ll make the decision what will, not the Establishment.

Jacek: There is something heroic about Graham Nelson writing _Curses_ while
creating I6. I am reminded of Whitman personally typesetting _Leaves of
Grass_. Nelson not only wrote a seminal game, but created one of the most
useful and prolific tools of IF design. He is thus both the Gutenberg and
Goethe of IF. I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about his work on I7.

Jacek: In a recent interview E. L. Doctorow describes the novel as a "large
canvas capable of holding the most substantial themes." Do you think this
description applies to IF?

Jacek: Is this what they call a subtle bridge? It’s funny you should mention
that interview, by the way, because I’d just finished reading it and had
asked myself the very same question.

Jacek: And?

Jacek: Is IF a large canvas? No. There’s some genre fiction, mostly sci-fi
and fantasy, and there are some noteworthy murder mysteries and horror
stories but nothing that approaches in seriousness the kind of work you
might expect from, say, E. L. Doctorow.

Jacek: Why is that do you think?

Jacek: The narrative vehicle of a novel is the interaction between its
characters. The narrative vehicle of IF is the manipulation of objects
through the intermediary of a playing character who is usually a sociopathic
kleptomaniac whose only aim in his interactive little life is to stuff his
incredibly spacious inventory with everything that hasn’t been nailed down.
It’s difficult enough to address "the most substantial themes" through the
proxy of object manipulation. When you add a single-minded maniac to the
equation, the problems become almost insurmountable. On top of everything
there’s the crazy economic logic of IF.

Jacek: Crazy economic logic?

Jacek: The way the Incredible Underground Empire contains incredible riches
but only one screwdriver and one pair of ear muffs and you know the
screwdriver and the ear muffs are much more valuable than the riches because
their singularity implies they are part of some future puzzle. You’d think
that the people who built the Incredible Underground Empire and filled it
with incredible riches could afford one more pair of ear muffs. On top of
this there’s a tradition of IF puzzle design going way back to _Zork_ that
presupposes a barter economy. _Stiffy Makane_, _Mentula Macanus_ and many
other games have puzzle schemes where item A must be given to character X so
that X may release item B to the PC which is then given to character Y
releasing item C, etc. This is barter at its crudest. It’s basically Stone
Age economics. There’s no way you could make this work within a realist
mimetic tradition, unless your game is set in a Neanderthal community or
among wizards and "moon ministers," which amounts to the same thing. The
problem is that IF depends on a verbal interface that works smoothly only
when handling objects with unique names. This is why you don’t see many
representations of monetary economy in IF.

Jacek: Are you saying that IF’s problems are endemic to the medium?

Jacek: Not so much to the medium as the tradition within which most IF
writers have chosen to work. You can’t really play Chopin on an accordion.
There are instruments and puzzle schemes that severely limit your
repertoire. To widen our repertoire, we need to abandon the Zorkian
tradition of puzzle design. If you’re wondering how a post-Zorkian puzzle
scheme might look like, have a look at _Savoir Faire_. _Savoir Faire_ is a
good example of a game that spurns the Zorkian puzzle design tradition while
retaining IF’s preference for uniquely named, singular objects. But these
are fairly minor issues compared to the major hurdle, which is the IF
community.

Jacek: Care to elaborate?

Jacek: The IF community is too geographically and culturally dispersed to
engender any sense of commonality. It’s true that all great literature is
universal in this sense, but there’s an oxymoron lurking in this statement,
because while being universal great literature is also local and specific.
Few novelists are as universal as Dostoyevsky, and yet his global appeal is
possible only by dint of his distinct Russianness. The paradox of literary
universality is that it feeds off specificity. There is an acute sense in
Dostoyevsky’s novels of addressing not only a Russian-language audience, but
more importantly a Russian *nation*, a people with a common destiny, and
thereby shaping and defining that destiny. Please note that I am not using
"nation" in a purely ethnic sense. Americans are not a cohesive ethnic
entity, but they are nonetheless a nation, a people with a common destiny,
and that destiny has been shaped by Whitman, Twain and Hemingway. There is
no such thing as an IF nation, nor is there any sense of a common destiny
among the people who play IF, which is why fantasy and sci-fi are the
predominant genres of IF. Neither is exactly renowned for being capable of
"holding the most substantial themes."

Jacek: You’re not a big fan of _Solaris_, then?

Jacek: As a matter of fact, I am. I can see where you’re heading with this.

Jacek: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be combative.

Jacek: That’s okay. _Solaris_ is an extreme rarity. It’s a speculative novel
that has successfully broken into the Canon. I can think of only two other
such novels, _Brave New World_ and _The Left Hand of Darkness_. It’s vital
not to confuse speculative fiction with science fiction. These novels are
not brainy episodes of _Star Trek_. They are conceptual experiments
presenting us with contra-factual scenarios that extrapolate real social and
technological trends into the future, thus helping us to question things we
usually take for granted. The vast majority of Canonical novels are not
contra-factual in this sense but highly specific works, set in a factual
space and a factual time and informed by the author’s own experience. This
specificity and factuality and authorial honesty is missing from IF today.
_The Dreamhold_ was written by an American man living in New York, but it
might as well have been written by a mildly retarded Chinese woman living in
Beijing.

Jacek: Are you suggesting that we write more non-English-language IF?

Jacek: Not at all. I don’t think there’s much future in Greek-language IF,
but I do think Greek IF has a future.

Jacek: Now I’m confused.

Jacek: Don’t be. It’s really quite simple. _Ulysses_ is a uniquely Irish
novel despite having been written in English. What I’m suggesting is that
Greeks write in English about their Greek experience, instead of wasting
theirs and my time with flying unicorns and vapid surrealism. If you live in
New York, don’t set your game in some insipid "memory palace," but use the
city you live in as a backdrop for your story. After all, that’s what
writers do all the time – use their lives as material for their fiction.
Reading a novel like _Ulysses_ today is the closest you’ll ever get to time
travel. Playing _Metamorphoses_ fifty years from now will be like going to
Moscow only to find they have the very same McDonalds there that they have
everywhere else. The problem with inanity is that it’s the same no matter
whether it’s made in Europe, China or America. What has stronger resonance
for an educated adult: a story about a non-descript wizard haplessly roaming
his "memory palace," or a novel by Paul Auster?

Jacek: So why don’t you kindly fuck off and go read your Auster novel? What
makes you think a tourist blithely strolling into the ghetto can presume to
lecture its inhabitants about a place they’ve lived in for decades?

Jacek: Because I don’t think you necessarily must live in a ghetto.

Jacek: Point taken. Do you hope to achieve immortality through your IF?

Jacek: I’d much rather achieve immortality by never dying.

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choice vs parser

I’ve been re-reading Emily Short’s blogpost on how players communicate with IF:

http://emshort.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/so-do-we-need-this-parser-thi…

And it made me think about the nature of decision making. Interactive Fiction, in it’s purest form, allows for hundreds if not thousands of choices, giving the illusion of complete freedom within the game.

Oftentimes, the limitations come not from the authoring kits (which are excellent), but from the spare time I have to write a story. I literally can’t implement every different possible choice a player can make from a parser.

But the truth is, we are really limited by the choices available in real life. I only have so many (reasonable) options on a giving day: choose to go to work, choose to go home or stop for a burger, choose to go to bed earlier or later Consequences play in each of these choices.

So why must authors implement what happens in a game when the player types REMOVE PANTS, or EAT LAMPSHADE? Isn’t there a way we can reduce the workload of the author by somewhere making a compromise between CYOA and the complete freedom to just type anything in a parser?

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