Tag Archives: agt

A Conversation with Judith Pintar

Judith Pintar was responsible for what popular consensus holds to be the two best games ever created using AGT. She wrote 1991’s Cosmoserve herself, then organized the team of authors that created 1992’s Shades of Gray. Both works are inextricably bound up with the online life of their era. Cosmoserve is a simulation and gentle satire of daily life on CompuServe, the most popular of the pre-World Wide Web commercial online services, while Shades of Gray was created by people who had met one another only on CompuServe, who used a CompuServe chat room as their primary means of communication. Given that I’ve written so voluminously on the text adventures of Infocom and others over the years, and given I’ve spent most of the last two months chronicling the net before the Web, a conversation with Judith about text adventures on CompuServe seemed the perfect way to tie the two strands together.

As it happened, though, I got much more than I’d bargained for. Although Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray were written many years ago now, Judith’s interest in interactive fiction has never abated. For years she’s been using it as a tool for pedagogical purposes in the classes she teaches, and she’s recently started some fascinating projects in the realm of what we might call massively-multiauthored interactive fiction. I hope you enjoy this transcript of our wide-ranging conversation on such subjects as the pros and cons of AGT, the life and times of the CompuServe Gamers Forum, the fostering of empathy through interactivity, and the plight of verbally-oriented computer programmers in a STEM-heavy world.

Thank you for agreeing to do this so close to Christmas! It’s a great gift for me and my readers.

I’m so delighted that you got in touch with me. I’ve been a fan of your historical work.

It made a huge difference to me when I realized you had released your extended review and treatment of Cosmoserve in your IF history. It was at a really low point in my academic life, and I found it, and thought, “Oh, my God! This is who I am!” It was very nice.

Anyway, I like your writing style and your approach to the history of IF a lot. I teach from your work.

Thank you!

I played Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray for the first time… oh, must be fifteen years ago now. I had a job working in IT on the graveyard shift. We had twelve-hour shifts, from 7 PM to 7 AM, and a lot of the time there just wasn’t that much to do. I couldn’t play a conventional computer game, but I could play IF games because it would just look like I was working at a terminal, typing commands. So I went through the back-history of AGT, a lot of the games nobody ever plays anymore.

And that’s when I played Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray, which I think were probably just about the two best things that were ever done with AGT. It was a very limited system in some ways, but you certainly bent it to your will.

I was always a big cheerleader for AGT. It is true that I went into the Pascal source code for both CosmoServe and Shades of Gray, but most of the changes I made were to increase the available resources in order to accommodate the size of these games. I believed at the time that people’s complaints about AGT were not reasonable, that you could do pretty much whatever you wanted with the language if you were creative and diligent. I still believe this. Until Inform 7 came along, AGT was my IF teaching language of choice.

But obviously the technology improved with TADS and Inform. They’re more flexible languages; AGT had a fair number of assumptions about the world and so on built into it. TADS and Inform of course had some as well, but they could be modified much more easily.

And I do think one other thing that came in with what we think of as the modern IF community, with Curses and the first IF competition and so on in 1993 and 1994, was a strong ethic of quality, of testing games and taking the work very seriously. From my standpoint, that’s something that’s missing in a lot of the AGT work. There was more of a tendency for people to just write games and put them out there without seeking out much feedback or focusing on adding that final polish. So, it wasn’t strictly a matter of technology. There was a cultural shift as well.

I’m not sure that’s completely fair. Some different rules maybe came in with the IF Competition that took over from the AGT Competition, and it certainly broadened the number of people who were involved, but I think the situation is more complex.

I think it’s more accurate to say that there were multiple IF worlds. In CompuServe Gamers Forum, people were writing games and sharing them and critiquing them. Even the contest format really had its origins in the AGT Contest. There was no Internet around, so depending on what bulletin board or users group you were a member of, you could run in different circles. The people who wrote AGT games weren’t necessarily in the same circles as those who formed the modern community, and when AGT fell away, it was really…

Well, in my case, for example, I was not very motivated to learn TADS, because I was publicly identified with AGT. I felt protective of it, and of David Malmberg and what he had achieved with AGT, and what his contest did for popularizing the writing of IF in those early days.

I know it looks like I disappeared from the IF world. I had been a presence in the early 1990s, I was being interviewed, I was very active on CompuServe Gamers Forum, etc., etc. And then I just seemed to be gone. I wasn’t actually. I just went to graduate school. I was still writing IF and teaching AGT at a point when David announced he would no longer be maintaining it. That left me without a language. I could program in Pascal, but I wasn’t really able to take it over. When CompuServe was bought by AOL, that left me without my community too, though I was still part of the larger IF world. I never stopped writing and teaching IF.

Well, the “IF community” has always been very fragmented. You have this sort of central community associated with the IF Comp, which is the most academically respected today. But you also have a whole community of people working in a language called ADRIFT, which is easier to use than Inform or TADS. It’s not really a programming-oriented but a database-based system, where you can put a game together using a GUI. Then for a long time there an “adult” interactive-fiction community, who focused on textual pornography. I’m not really sure how active they still are.

Is it true that they continued to use AGT?

Yes, they stuck with AGT for a long, long time. To whatever extent AGT developed a bad reputation among the larger IF community, I think that may have contributed somewhat to it. Many of the AIF people were using AGT to churn out a lot of junk games meant only for the purpose of getting off. They stuck with AGT well past 2000. If they’re still around, I suspect many of them may still be using it.

My sense of AGT comes from the fact that I taught it to middle-school and high-school kids. I found it to be a really wonderful teaching language. Just a few years ago, I got an email from an old student who now runs a children’s game conference in Austin. He credits that to the fact that I taught him to write games in AGT in the early 1990s.

I actually ported Cosmoserve to Inform; that’s how I learned Inform 7. Going from AGT to Inform 7 was very interesting. There are things — and you must believe me here! — that AGT does better and makes easier than Inform 7, even though Inform 7 is clearly a wildly more powerful language.

It might be useful to look back here to the earliest days of home computers, when BASIC was around, with line numbers and single-letter variable names, GOTO statements everywhere — everything “real” programmers hate.  So, people came along to tell all these computer owners that they should be using Pascal or some other more proper programming language. One famous computer scientist said that anyone who learned BASIC would be “mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.”

But during that era ordinary people were actually programming computers. They were writing games, writing little tools for their own use. That was part of the ethos of owning a computer. The old computer magazines were all very programming-oriented.

Today our programming languages are very well-engineered, excellent tools for professional programmers making heavy-duty applications, but we really do lack any modern equivalent to what BASIC used to be: something not so pretty, not so formally or theoretically correct, but that ordinary people can just pick up and make something with. Maybe in the context of IF it was AGT that was filling that role, to be replaced by slicker languages like TADS and Inform that lacked the same approachability.

I do have a story about AGT that you might like. Earlier I wrote about a game that officially won the 2nd AGT Contest — but it was the first real Contest. That was A Dudley Dilemma by Lane Barrow. I looked him up and interviewed him for the blog, as I’m interviewing you now. We talked quite a lot about his game’s design and what he would do differently if he made it today. He got inspired to pick up the old AGT tools and make some changes, changing a few things that by modern standards were a bit borderline on the fairness scale. That new version’s on the IF Archive now. He said he was shocked at how quickly he was able to pick up AGT again after not using it for 25 or maybe close to 30 years.

So, that’s a story you might appreciate. I never created anything with AGT, so I can’t speak to it that much.

But maybe we could go back and lay some groundwork about the person you were when you created Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray. I’m always amazed by the huge range of backgrounds and experiences that people working in IF have. The thing that leaps out first from your biography is that you were a Celtic harpist throughout the 1980s. That’s certainly an unusual career choice. Would you care to talk a bit about it?

Sure. I’ll tell you the skeleton story.

My BA from the University of Wisconsin was in folklore. It was a degree I put together myself because in my junior year I realized I had no major. So, I made an interdisciplinary major from courses I had already taken: Old Norse, Old English, Greek Mythology. This was the age of Joseph Campbell, and we were all sort of questing.

One summer I hitchhiked through Britain trying to find a harp-maker. My idea about this was intensely romantic, completely based on wanting to be a storyteller — a storyteller needed a harp. I ended up finding a harp-maker in Wales. I had to go back to get it six months later.

To my complete surprise, I was able to play this instrument. I took to it. I learned to play by composing. So I was really quickly performing original music in Milwaukee and around the Midwest.

On the strength of my folklore degree, I applied for a job in the Milwaukee Public School System as a storyteller, even though I had never told a story out loud. I got the job, which was terrifying. I thought I would go in front of a class with my harp and go “pling, pling” and tell little stories, but they walked me into a gym with 500 students waiting for me. I tanked so bad that first time.

Somehow I did become a professional storyteller. I played the harp and told stories in the folk-music circuit, at Renaissance fairs, at Celtic music festivals. I had also landed a recording contract with Sona Gaia, an imprint of the Narada new-age music label. My albums included liner notes with stories that had originally been performed live.

In 1987, I needed to make my third album, so I moved to Colorado, up in the mountains, with two wolf-hybrid dogs and my harp and a little pickup truck. I needed a computer, so for $1000 I bought a used PCs Limited XT clone, 8 MHz in “turbo” mode. On this computer was GAGS by Mark Welch, the precursor to AGT. It was shareware, so I sent a check to Mark Welch. He wrote back to tell me that GAGS was now AGT, and Dave Malmberg was maintaining it. So I purchased AGT.

One fun thing in Cosmoserve is that GAGS is running there.

Yeah, there’s a little GAGS game in there. Is there some in-joke to that, associated with being in Wisconsin on a dairy farm? It was kind of a non sequitur for me as a player. I was thinking, okay, why am I here of all places?

That’s a joke on me! I’m from Milwaukee, I wrote that cow game.

That was your first game?

It was one of them. My first games were written in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado. How’s that for a romantic beginning?

Very nice!

When you first got this copy of GAGS, was that actually your first exposure to text adventures?

No, no, no. Infocom, man! Infocom!

Okay, so you were already a hardcore Infocom fan.

My mom was a high-school math teacher, and she in the 1970s was as tech-savvy as a math teacher could be. Our first personal computer was an Apple II. My first gaming experience was typing in little BASIC text adventures. So, going back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was already writing IF, as much as that was possible in BASIC. Then I started playing the Infocom games at home with family and friends. I think I may own them all. So, as an Infocom freak, it was very exciting to find GAGS. It was the first time I realize it would be possible to author a full-length game.

Do you have any favorites in the Infocom catalog that spring to mind?

Well, I loved Zork. How do you not love Zork? And what’s the one that has all the little robots?

That’s Suspended.

Okay. I would say that of all the Infocom games I was most influenced by Suspended.

Interesting. That’s in some ways the most unusual Infocom game. It’s more of a strategy game that’s played in text than a traditional text adventure. It was also, incidentally, the game that prompted Douglas Adams to decide he wanted to make The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into an Infocom game. Now that you mention it, I fancy I can see some of it in Cosmoserve.

Absolutely. I wanted to shift or jar the player out of reading text and fool them into being present. I believe I succeeded because I got many emails from people telling me that when they played Cosmoserve they referred to it as “going online.” It felt to them like they were going online when they played. Of course, it looked identical to CompuServe. The logon screen was identical in what it said, and also in how long it took to load. There was some metalepsis because there were limits to how far I could make AGT imitate it. But I did pretty well in some places. When the virus infects your own computer and you do “chkdsk” in DOS, and it starts to show that you have all these files that are replicating at this incredible speed and things are starting to get corrupted, people would quit the game, terrified I had infected their computer.

So, backing up just for a moment, how did you end up on CompuServe in the first place?

I moved at the end of 1988 to Santa Cruz, California, with my husband-to-be. There I became an artist-in-residence and started to teach IF. And it was at that point or possibly earlier that I joined CompuServe Gamers Forum. That was huge for me; that was my IF community. More than an IF community. We talked all kinds of games.

It was very pleasant, very civil. There wasn’t a lot of trolling that I recall. Maybe partly because you were paying to be there. And it was really well-moderated. There was always a sysop present in the scheduled public chats.

My handle was Teela Brown. She’s a character in Larry Niven’s Ringworld; she’s the luckiest woman in the world. That’s how I felt in that era of my life. It’s still my handle now with the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation.

I just have to say that I’m so excited about your work on CompuServe. I’m really so happy that you’ve written about CompuServe because I have a lot of sorrow about it as kind of a lost world. If Cosmoserve can help your project, that would be awesome.

Yeah. The problem is that in histories of these things the focus always goes to the early ARPANET, the invention of TCP/IP, etc. Which is important — incredibly important — but a huge part of contemporary online culture can’t actually be traced back to the ARPANET and early Internet. It was CompuServe that invented and/or popularized real-time chat, e-commerce, online travel reservations, online newspapers, online encyclopedias, much of online gaming, etc., etc. Few people seem to remember that. If you look at what you do on the Internet today, at least as much stems from the early commercial online services as from the early Internet. They should both be given their due.

One of the great tragedies for me as a historian is that all of this stuff that took place on CompuServe has apparently been lost forever. I can go back to look at Usenet discussions that took place 30 years ago; that stuff is still there. CompuServe unfortunately is a different story. That sad reality makes Cosmoserve hugely valuable as more than just an adventure game.

I actually just learned this year that CompuServe is a lost world, that there is no backup. It occurred to me then to be grateful that I had done this. I couldn’t now replicate the experience.

Yes. This to me is one of the fascinating things about text adventures. Unlike the vast majority of games, they’re very personal works, and they tend to be much more reflective of the lives of the people that made them. Of course, you have Cosmoserve, which shows what it was like to log onto this long-gone online service. But it goes even beyond that.

In the case of A Dudley Dilemma, Lane Barrow was a PhD student at Harvard, and he wrote a game about being a PhD student at Harvard. Son of Stagefright, which won the AGT Contest the year after A Dudley Dilemma, was written by a guy who was very active in community theater, so he set his game in the theater where he and his friends would put on plays. Or there’s a game called Save Princeton which was written by a young man who was a student at Princeton at the time, and he included all his friends in the game. That sort of thing is kind of frowned on in IF circles today because it’s not artistic or high-falutin’ enough, but at the same time, when I play that game now there’s actually something very poignant about it. I see all these bright kids who think they’ve got the world figured out, who are going to do this or do that after university. One of them has a Twin Peaks poster on his dorm-room wall; it’s a total time capsule. I wonder where these people are today.  Maybe it resonates more with me than it might with others because I was about their age at about the same time. But I do think that that personal, time-capsule quality is kind of overlooked when people talk about IF.

Yes, I agree. I haven’t read anything addressing that. It’s very interesting.

So, how would you describe the discussions on CompuServe? Was there a lot of talk about how games should be made, what is good and bad design, what is fair and unfair?

Absolutely. We talked about everything, and we absolutely had conversations about what made a good game. There were people in Gamers Forum who wrote games as well as played games. It was really easy to get beta testers.

Those were the people who beta-tested Cosmoserve, which I submitted to the AGT Contest and won. The next year I didn’t want to submit another game; I thought that wasn’t fair. So I decided to organize Shades of Gray instead.

The CompuServe Gamers Forum was a real place to me. It had a geography. There were rooms where you could enter and talk to people, and there was a library. It might seem strange that I would simulate CompuServe through IF, which is traditionally so map-based. But for me CompuServe was mapped too. Gamers Forum had an entirely different feel from other Forums. You traveled between them. They all felt like different geographic destinations in a work of IF. But there were other people there too. You could go into a Forum conference room at any time, day or night, and somebody might be there.

So I recreated that in Cosmoserve. You can just go to a conference and see if anybody is there. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. That part feels really real.

And it’s not a bug in Cosmoserve the way the number of people who are supposedly in the Forum always changes. It’s randomized in Cosmoserve as a joke because I never believed it was true on CompuServe.

In terms of the Gamers Forum members who were writing text adventures, were they all or mostly all working with AGT? TADS came out in 1990, but it wasn’t used anywhere near as much as AGT during the early 1990s.

I wouldn’t say we were an AGT community. People were experimenting with many game-making systems — not just IF but others sorts of games as well. We tried all of them, so there was a discussion about tools too, and comparisons. We were pretty eclectic. We didn’t have an identity like the newsgroups had, of being an IF community. We IF people were just in there, fairly integrated. There was no sense of shame, no sense that we were lesser than other kinds of games at all. It was just one of the kinds of games that were being played by everyone.

I assume you as well were playing other kinds of games — certainly by 1990 or so, with Infocom gone. Do you recall what other games you were playing?

Sure. We played all the Sierra Online games. We enjoyed them, despite people having an attitude about the writing, that the general quality of game writing had declined when games went graphic. But that didn’t stop us from playing them! We all loved Myst when it came out too, and there were barely any words there at all.

I was also a big NetHack addict. It’s one of my favorite games ever. I like to teach it.

Have you ever ascended?

I have!



I talk about that game because it shows that a good game can evoke emotion using an ASCII character. You cry when your pet dies. Your heart beats hard when the wizard is chasing you, even though it’s just a little letter going across the screen. So I always talk about that game in game-design classes. The power is in the design. You can have gorgeous graphics and interesting mechanics, and it can still be emotionally empty and touch you not at all. NetHack for me is very powerful.

So, as you’re working on Cosmoserve, it’s obviously a huge technical challenge to bend AGT in that direction. You’ve hinted that you were fairly friendly with David Malmberg. Did he help at all with the changes you had to make for Cosmoserve?

No, no. I hacked it. I did have to tell him that I had done it because I was concerned that I was cheating, but he wasn’t bothered. You can’t compile my game files with the regular compiler.

It started out as just a straight-up game, but as it went on it got bigger and there were things I wanted to do, especially how things printed to the screen. Because I was concerned about cheating in the contest, I did less than I might have. The rumors of my hacking are exaggerated! You didn’t need to change the program to do great things with AGT.

One thing about Compuserve that’s interesting is that you published it in 1991, but it’s set in 2001. You’re extrapolating what’s going to happen to computer technology in the future. You assume, as anyone might, that Intel would continue with the “x86” nomenclature instead of coming out with the Pentium line, so you have this “786” computer in there. And then it’s funny that you’re still using DOS ten years on.

It’s true that whenever you set a story in the future you have to live with what you imagined. I did imagine that there would be GUIs, but that R.J. Wright himself would still want to use DOS. This is also a self-reference. I miss DOS tremendously. I never liked GUIs. I’m verbally-oriented, not visually-oriented, and I was imagining that I would never give up DOS. On my desktop right now, my garbage can is called “Unnecessary Metaphor.” I used to be able to delete a file by typing “delete,” but now I have to imagine that the file is a little piece of paper and I have to physically pick it up and drag it to a little picture of a garbage can to get rid of it. I hated that from the first time that I saw it.

I thought of R.J. Wright too as the kind of person who into the 21st century would still be using DOS. But I was also imagining that there would be VR.

Yes, that’s a huge contrast. DOS and VR!

Right, I imagined more and less. I imagined VR would be more immersive and multiplayer than it is now, and I imagined that DOS would make it.

And there’s another thing: I never imagined the fall of Borland. The “Orfland” products that the player uses in Cosmoserve, and the quest to get Orfland customer service to provide a patch, are an affectionate send-up of Borland products — Turbo Pascal, Paradox, etc. — and the Borland Forum on CompuServe. When we lived in Santa Cruz my husband did some contract programming for Borland, so we were also in their corporate social circle.

A funny story from that era: while I was writing Cosmoserve, which was really a full time job for months and months, cash was tight. So I tried office temping, though I had no prior work experience. All I wrote on my application at the temp agency under skills, as I recall, was “Can Type Real Fast.” I got one job — I was sent to Borland CEO Philippe Khan’s office, to type all the info from his personal Rolodex into his very large, state of the art mobile phone. Now, this Rolodex was jaw-dropping. It had in it the personal addresses and home phone numbers of pretty much every important personage in computing: Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, everybody. It took two days to finish the job because as soon as Phillipe found out I was a musician we spent a lot of time hanging out and talking. I had heard his band, the Turbo Jazz Band, play at a big Borland employee gathering — he plays sax and flute. So we compared our experiences of composing and improvising and performing and recording and by the time I was finished, we were like friends, just fellow musicians, and we gifted each other with our latest CDs. I remember him as a charismatic man at the top of his game. I was going to write him into a sequel to Cosmoserve, but then Borland fell, and of course I never wrote that sequel. I did name my cat Philippe though.

One aspect of Cosmoserve which a modern player might not be too excited about is the time element. It’s a game which you really have to play several times. When I played it, I had to make a schedule for myself. First I’d go on these reconnaissance missions to see what was going on where and when. Then I could use my schedule to make a winning run. As I’m sure you know, there are a lot of modern players who absolutely hate that approach.

That actually got fixed in the 1997 release. I went to the IF Archive and asked them to switch out the old Cosmoserve version for the new version. And they said no, they wouldn’t delete it, because it didn’t belong to me anymore; it belonged to the public, but they’d be happy to add the new version. That was the moment I realized that there was a history of IF bigger than any individual game or designer. Now, being on the IFTF board, I love that caretaking our shared history is part of my job.

The new Inform 7 version of Cosmoserve is much more pleasant to play. I instituted a more comprehensive hint system in every part of the game so that the player can move through the game more smoothly.

I must not have played the 1997 version because I remember this fairly intense time pressure. But I’m an old-school player; I played the Infocom mysteries that were also constructed like this. So, if I know a game is constructed that way going in, it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Just as a design question, how did you approach removing the time pressure?

I just started the story earlier in the day. The player now has nearly 24 hours to get their Pascal program ready for the courier coming to pick it up the next morning. That seems to be enough time, though I will be looking for additional beta-testing feedback on that. I also removed the much-hated “you must eat pizza or you will die” mechanic. If someone really misses these old-style pressure puzzles they can still play the original version. But the Inform 7 version is more pleasant for the modern player.

Then I also added a hint system using Aunt Edna. Did the version you played have Aunt Edna?

I think I remember her coming by and complaining that I’ll never get a girlfriend or a boyfriend if I keep living like this.

In the new Inform 7 version, you can send her away if you don’t want her. But she’s basically giving you hints to get you through the first phase in your house, to get you online faster. Without breaking the mood, she’ll give you hints to get that first part solved.

And then I’m in the game as Teela Brown. I always was, in VR, but I really improved that so that the game is tracking what you’ve done and not done. Instead of a big laundry list of things you can ask me, which breaks the mood, if you ask me for a hint I’ll tell you, “You need to do this by this time of night” or “This happened at 7:00 and you missed it,” so you don’t go all the way to the end of the game and realize, oh, my, God, I needed to have done this thing. That’s horrible; everybody hates that.

So, let’s talk about Shades of Gray just a little. Which part of that was yours?

The Tarot card reader.

Okay. She’s kind of the jumping-off point to all of the different vignettes.

Yes. I wrote the code that links them all. I also took the individual pieces and made them narratively coherent.

Shades of Gray was unusual for its era in that there’s an overt message to the game; it’s trying to say something. Infocom had done a little bit of that with A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, but their options were always limited by being a commercial game company, by not wanting to offend anybody. Steve Meretzky at Infocom had a lot of ideas for other very political games, and his managers always said, no, you can’t do that.

Of course, later on in the IF community there would be a lot of people making very self-consciously “literary” games. But that was a little later than the AGT era. Do you recall how you decided you wanted to make a game that would not just be another adventure game, that would leave the player with a message?

We didn’t start with that. I started with a message asking who wanted to make a game for the next Competition. And a bunch of people said yes, they did. The team I wound up putting together included Mark Baker, Steve Bauman, Belisana, Hercules, Mike Laskey, and Cindy Yans in addition to myself.

There were a lot of logistics just getting to the nitty-gritty of game design. We didn’t have any clear idea what the game would be. And of course, trying to drive a carriage with twelve horses is really, really difficult. Everybody wanted to do their own thing.

We let people do that for a while while we continued to discuss themes, but pretty soon we came to the idea of moral ambiguity. Robin Hood is a scoundrel from the Sheriff’s point of view, for example. We wanted to show that life and politics are nuanced.

Belisana came up with the overarching narrative, and she wrote the ending.

Was she responsible for the Haiti historical material?


For an American in 1992, that’s a little bit of an esoteric choice of subject. Did she have some connection to Haiti? Do you know where that came from?

I don’t. She came up with the idea and we all loved it. Without giving away any spoilers here, it is fair to say that this is a story about American history, as much as it is about Haiti. And she executed it brilliantly, in her vignette, and in the game ending.

Yes, that was definitely the most powerful part of the game for me.

The making of Shades of Gray was a CompuServe story, a pretty profound one, about what the service made possible, collaboratively. We didn’t know anything about each other personally. We were fellow forum members who became a team.

It was expensive to go on CompuServe; you had to pay per minute. So you rationed the amount of time you spent online. You wrote all your messages offline, then logged on to send them.  In order to do Shades of Gray on CompuServe, I had to convince the Gamers Forum to give us the “free flag.”

And this meant you got to be online for free?

Yes. Anybody involved with the project would get a free flag while they were working on this game. Not only did we get this free flag, but we got a room of our own. I never met any of the other people who worked on the game. That’s really normal now, in the age of the Internet, but at that time it was really strange.

We talked and talked and talked about what Shades of Gray would be; everybody had their own ideas. We had this general theme of moral ambiguity. Everybody wrote their code separately, then I had the job of taking it all and merging it, which was insanely difficult. And we won the AGT Competition. They had to make a special “group project” category for us, to be fair to the shorter games.

Creating Shades of Gray was really fun, and I’d say that the game was more influential on my career path in IF than Cosmoserve was. It’s the inspiration for what I do now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where my students engage in massive, ongoing  collaborative IF.


I’ve just finished my third year teaching Inform 7 in an IF programming and design course at the U of I. Besides working on their own games, students collaborate on a game that is set on our campus — that is, if our campus had toilet stalls collapsing into underground tunnels with zombies gnawing on the bones of graduate students. Called The Quad Game, it’s an IF sandbox with hundreds of locations and fifty or so endings — so far. It is rough in patches and extravagantly incomplete, deliberately so.

On the first day of class I let the students play the game in groups, each group setting out in a different direction from the center of the campus. I ask them to write down everything that happens that is annoying or buggy or incomplete. I really encourage them to complain. Then I tell them to write at the top of the paper, “To Do.” By the end of the semester they will have to fix it all.

More ambitiously, I’m in the process of developing a public history/collaborative programming project called The Illinois Map. I usually explain it as something like Wikipedia-meets-Minecraft. The vision is to get the entire state of Illinois to become programming literate, by learning the Inform 7 language in order to write interactive, immersive games that simulate key moments in Illinois history.

The site will be like Wikipedia in that every project submitted will need to be referenced. Someone who wants to write a simulation on Abraham Lincoln’s career as a lawyer, for example, will have to provide historical background with primary sources and a justification for why their simulation is historically significant, using secondary sources. They also have to come up with a compelling little story, and then write the Inform 7 code to carry it out.

I’ve taught another IF class for the last two years in which students submit an Illinois Map proposal as their final project– I’ve got fifty of these ready to go as soon as the site is ready. They’re at various stages of narrative development and coding sophistication, but that’s the point. Like Wikipedia, multiple people will be able to collaborate on revising and improving the various parts of any project page.

I imagine that a High School Social Studies teacher will send their students to the Illinois Map. A student will search to see if anybody has done anything on their hometown, and lo and behold: there’s already a little game somebody has started. Maybe the research is good, but the story is lame and the code is pretty weak. They can give some feedback, suggests some edits, or offer code corrections. If their project veers too much, they can submit a new one.

They will gain status as they contribute to the Map, and will aspire to become proficient enough to take the best projects and incorporate them into a Master Game that will let players explore Illinois history from one end to  the other, from its prehistoric beginnings to its imagined future.

And do you hope to release this publicly at some point?

The Quad Game is already available to the public. I’ve got some grant-writing to do before the Illinois Map goes live.

Then the other thing I’m working on is to teach Inform 7 inside an Inform 7 game. I want to write a game where the object is to write code, and where the code the player is writing changes the game they’re playing. You can see my first pass at that. What you get at the end is code which you can cut and paste and drop into Inform to play it.

A couple of people have done something similar to that. A game called Informatory some years ago taught not Inform 7 but Inform 6. And then Andrew Plotkin, whom I’m sure you know, made a game called Lists and Lists to teach a dialect of LISP.

That was actually one of my first languages! I learned LISP, then Pascal, then C++.

I have found Inform 7 to be an ideal first programming language. It introduces the concepts students need to pass a Python class: objects, inheritance, recursion, variables, loops, lists, tables, but it teaches them through story.  I don’t know of a Python course that doesn’t make you learn these concept through algebra. But Inform 7 teaches data relationships and ontologies through metaphor, which everyone’s brain is wired to understand. Pedagogically I call this approach “narrative-based computational thinking.”

This approach is also academically practical. We have an informatics minor here for which students must complete a CS class. These students come from any number of programs across campus — business, arts, journalism — and some of them have a hard time passing a CS course. We had the idea that students taking my Inform 7 class would be able to get through a Python class afterwards, no problem. I think that’s true, but I don’t have the research — yet! We’re going to try to demonstrate it.

I would like to make Inform 7 as ubiquitous as PowerPoint. I think it could be a breakthrough in widespread programming literacy.

So, I think you and I agree with each other philosophically. Our sense of the significance of IF, of where it belongs in the world.

I’m a very strange case. I got my first computer when I was quite young. I grew up with computers, have always loved them. At the same time, though, in everything apart from computers I’m a very verbally-oriented person. When I’d take standardized tests, I’d always score fifteen or twenty points higher on the verbal versus the math component. 

In a way, I think I’ve always seen programming a little bit differently. When I write code, my algorithms aren’t necessarily that wonderful, but I load up the code with commentary. So, the Inform 7 natural-language approach feels very natural to me. In a sense, I was already describing what I was doing in natural language, then having to translate it down to C or whatever. With Inform 7, I don’t have to take the second step.

I know you’re very busy with these massively collaborative IF projects, but have you ever thought about doing another game on your own or as part of a smaller team?

I never stopped writing games. I just didn’t release them publicly. I had won the two competitions I entered, so I was done with competitions, but competitions were how games were still being released. So for a decade or more, I mostly shared my games with my students, as tutorials, sort of like Emily Short’s games in the Inform 7 Cookbook.

But now I do have an Inform 7 game of my own in beta. I wrote it just because it was fun, and for the technical challenge. It’s an IF poker game. You’re Alice, and you’re falling down the well as you play poker with the white rabbit. You’re going down as the rabbit is going up. The cards are scattered randomly through the well. He picks up cards and you pick up cards, and the game keeps track of your hands. But the cards are alive; they fight with each other. So, there’s a story, but you can only access it by having certain cards together in your hand. On the one hand you’re trying to win the poker game, but on the other you can’t really win unless you have in your hand the right characters who will reveal information to you to get the backstory. This was so much fun to write.

Then I have another massive project…

Instead of publishing my sociology dissertation as an academic book, I wrote a novel based on my field experiences in Croatia in the late 1990s. I spent much of that time in Dubrovnik, where Game of Thrones and Star Wars both have filmed. The story tells the 1500-year history of Dubrovnik as a series of failed love affairs. I never found an agent to represent this opus — no one liked the asynchronous relationship between the contemporary story and the vignettes. It finally occurred to me that the real problem was that I had written a novel with the narrative sensibility of an IF. It needs to be read in a non-linear way.

So, now I want to turn it into an actual IF. I’m thinking of making it a multi-platform work where I would use Twine for some aspects of the game along with some parser-based elements. Maybe I can weigh in on the battle between choice-based and parser-based IF by embracing them both. And it also fulfills my other idea, which is IF as historical simulation. I’m interested in broadening IF beyond both games and literature. All of that is packed into the project, which unfortunately I can’t afford to take the time to do. I will eventually get to it.

That’s very interesting direction which is under-explored. If you look at IF’s intrinsic qualities, probably the thing it does best of all — certainly the thing it does most easily — is setting. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for putting you in a place, whether it’s a fantastical place or an historical place. That’s actually something that comes more naturally to the form than narrative or plot, although ever since Infocom there’s been this huge focus on “waking up inside a story,” as they liked to put it.

Certainly IF as history hasn’t been done all that much. Trinity did it of course, and there’s a game called 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery that did it very well, but most IF tends to veer off toward science fiction or fantasy.

Yes. That’s what I’m investigating pedagogically: how to use IF in history classes, in social-science classes. An example of a student project from a class taught on American minority groups:

In Illinois in the early 1990s we had a controversy over a Native American burial mound which had become a museum called Dixon Mounds in Lewiston, Illinois. They had open graves; they’d been open since the 1930s, when an amateur anthropologist found this place and put up a museum around it. In the 1990s Native Americans started protesting Dixon Mounds. It was a really tangled couple of years between people who supported the museum and people coming into town to protest; one governor got involved, then another, etc.

So, my students studied this last year. Then they were divided up into six groups and they wrote an IF simulation of the same physical place from six different points in history: at the point when the people who made the burial mounds lived, then later when another Native group lived in the area, then when the bones were found, then when the museum was active, then the protests, and finally the present, when a new museum has covered the bones. The idea is to explore this geographic space through time, using real sources to make responsive NPCs. So a player going into the games could find out about the controversy by talking to people and experiencing it.

It’s not fun. A lot of the students in their reflections at the end of the semester said, “I wish you’d just let us write games.” To them I said, “Well, take my other class!” But the question on the table is whether a game can create empathy. Can we write a simulation that will cause players not to “have fun” — although it would be nice if they could enjoy themselves — and not even just to learn what happened, but to see another perspective.

I think you’re right that IF’s potential for this sort of thing has been under-explored. I really need to play Trinity again. I think I could use it to show my students what’s possible at the high end.

You know, games are or can be so good at fostering empathy. When you read a book or watch a movie, you’re always at a certain remove. But when you play a game, that’s you in the game.

And if you can put a player in the role of somebody else and say, “Okay, walk a mile in these shoes,” maybe you can do some good. What about a game that places you in the role of a Palestinian dealing with the situation in Jerusalem? Somebody who supports the recently announced move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, who believes the Israelis are entirely right and the Palestinians entirely wrong… well, we kind of come back to what your team did in Shades of Gray, right? Maybe if you put that player in the role of somebody from the other side, you can actually foster some empathy, make the player realize that there are two sides to this story.

Yes. I mentioned that I did role-playing with my students before they started to write code. It was based on an approach to classroom role-playing called “Reacting to the Past.” It’s a new thing in history education. You have these really complicated games which sometimes take a whole semester to play. The students immerse themselves in a character, become that character. They read historical documents and learn to act as that character. Some of these games are fairly brutal. You might to be a slave owner and have to make speeches arguing for slavery. It can be difficult for students to do this, but it gets inside history in a way that’s incredibly powerful.

In reviews of that approach, there are stories like what you’re describing, where somebody takes the role of somebody politically opposite to their own point of view. It’s not that they change their mind, but that they come away with a more nuanced view of the opposition — they understand where the others are coming from.

I’m trying to see whether I can use some of these techniques in computer games. Can I get students writing scenarios, writing characters, that will provide the same thing for players?

Last year a student wrote a game for The Illinois Map where you start out in a Holocaust museum. You’re just looking at objects in the museum, learning a little bit of history. Then you open a closet door and find yourself on the streets of Skokie, Illinois. There’s a big protest going on. You start to chat with people, and realize these are Holocaust survivors and others protesting the fact that the KKK wants to have a rally here. Of course, you’re on their side because you’ve just come out of the Holocaust museum. But then a guy from the ACLU is there, and starts to talk to you about free speech.

And that’s the whole scenario. It just takes you and drops you into that morally ambiguous moment. And that’s the end of the game. These are the kinds of things I’m encouraging my students to write — not huge games, just moments.

Some students are working on a simulation of the Springfield race riots of 1908. You start as a little African-American girl hiding in the attic of her house, peeking out the window watching the riot approach. Then you shift to being a white teenager on the ground, with the riot going past you. Your father is there, going to the riot. As the player, you can go or not go. Just the power of that juxtaposition is really effective.

What if our way of teaching history incorporated interactivity and immersion? I can’t say I’m succeeding. I’m just trying. I can’t suggest it to anybody else until I myself try it.

You’ve been involved with an amazing range of pursuits over your life. In addition to the things we’ve talked about today, you’ve worked as a sociologist, studied trauma in Croatia, written a history of hypnotism. Why so many eclectic choices?

I would say that the thing that connects my entire career is narrative and the power of storytelling — collective storytelling, collective memory, collaborative storytelling. I have an academic interest in that, and I have a creative interest as well. Let’s Tell a Story Together… the name of your IF history. There’s something fairly profound in that. It’s why IF really is different from other types of games and other types of literature.

I think that may be a good note to leave on. Thank you again for doing this!

Thank you! This has been so much fun!

The feeling is mutual. This has been great. Take care, Judith.

Do remember to check out Judith’s personal projects and her fascinating classroom experiments, both now and in the future. I know that I for one will be watching with interest to see how her work evolves.


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The Text Adventures of 1991

Coming exactly halfway between the shuttering of Infocom and the release of Graham Nelson’s landmark epic Curses, 1991 was the most exciting year of the little-remembered interstitial between interactive fiction’s commercial era and its supposed rebirth as an endeavor of dedicated hobbyists. The games of 1991 show what a misnomer the word “rebirth” really is in this case; the text adventure never actually went away at all. The tools available to amateur authors were certainly rougher than they would be in years to come, design standards as well less thought-through, but the fact remains that not a single year has gone by since Adventure first took the computing world by storm in 1977 when at least one or two worthy text adventures haven’t been written. In fact, hobbyists did considerably better than that in 1991. Amidst its blizzard of activity, that year yielded the four games I’ll be writing about today: two classics, one enjoyable journeyman, and one heart-breaker which came that close to being one of the finest text adventures ever written. Not bad for a dead form, eh?


It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

As a self-employed computer consultant, working at home was the logical decision: no more long commutes, no expensive office to lease, no boss. Unfortunately you also have no secretary, no janitor and no weekends. Your living room has become a glorified break room and your only human contact is by Electronic Mail.

Thank God for your computer.

It is 3:30pm on Friday the 7th of September, 2001. Everyone else in your time zone is finishing up work and looking forward to a relaxing evening. But you, R.J. Wright, overtired undernourished overeager programmer that you are, have promised to deliver a finished program to a client by 8:00 tomorrow morning.

Time to get to work....

I’ve always been entranced by the personal aspect of so many vintage text adventures of the amateur stripe. In this respect, they stand apart from almost all other games of their era, which preferred to emphasize the science-fictional, the fantastical, the epic. Even when those other games aren’t demanding that we leave the world we know for some strange new one, they almost always prefer the macro to the micro: wars and battles lost and won, the rise and fall of civilizations, the grand sweep of history. But text adventures, by contrast, can give us an intimate view of a single person’s life, whether said life be that of a PhD student at Harvard or a community-theater volunteer in a small California town. To state the case in literary terms, these are the quieter novels of ordinary people that, for some of us at least, become far more interesting than the latest swords-and-sorcery doorstops as we get older.

Cosmoserve, a game written in AGT by a Celtic harpist and sociologist-to-be named Judith Pintar, has the added advantage of providing a window into a world I’ve just spent the last two months on this blog doing my level best to capture: that of the commercial online services of the 1980s and early 1990s, which pioneered so much of what has since become daily life on the Internet. The game’s title is of course playing on that of CompuServe, the most popular of these services for well over a decade, and a service to which Pintar herself was an active subscriber for many years.

Cosmoserve is ostensibly set in 2001, but we can’t award Pintar too many points for her skill at prognostication. She manages to simultaneously underrate and overrate the pace of technological change to come. In her version of 2001, the wide-open World Wide Web never came along to bury the closed ghettos of the commercial online services, Windows never entirely replaced MS-DOS, and Intel never abandoned their old “x86” nomenclature for their microprocessors. And yet, at the same time that Pintar’s fictional universe was progressing more slowly than ours in all these respects, full-on online virtual realities — the sort of thing that’s just starting to become imaginable for us in 2017 — had already become a thing there by 2001.

But then, prognostication isn’t the point of Cosmoserve. Rather than an extrapolation about computing’s future, what you’re actually getting here is a gentle satire of the computing present which Pintar knew as she was writing the game. If you were already a computer freak in 1991, you’ll find yourself chuckling at things that are barely remembered today but were a major feature of the landscape of those times. For instance, do you remember the way that Intel, thanks no doubt to some marketing genius of an MBA inside the company, used to release crippled “SX” versions of their latest chips — versions that in some cases actually performed worse than the chips of the previous generation? I barely did myself, until Pintar reminded me:

This is the newly-released Orfland 786SX. Most of the advanced features of the revolutionary 786 chip were factory-disabled for the SX model: it hasn't got enough memory to run a graphical interface and it chugs along at about 12Mhz, but hey, its still a 786!

The plot of Cosmoserve is a classic shaggy-dog story in text-adventure form, the same approach that would be used to more famous effect by Curses two years later. Playing the role of a harried free-lance computer consultant, you need to get a patch for Turbo Pascal — another blast from computing’s past; the Borland product was by far the most popular development tool in the world in 1991 — in order to complete an assignment for an important client. You should be able to get the patch on Compu… err, Cosmoserve. It’s when you fire up your computer to go online and fetch it that the game, after having started out as a slice of life set in your own house, begins to show its real cards.

Most of Cosmoserve plays as a simulation of that whizz-bang Orfland 786SX computer of yours. First you’ll have to navigate the DOS prompt to get yourself online; in the some-things-never-change department, remembering your password will pose a particular problem on that front. Then, once you do manage to get online, the simulation extends yet one level deeper, allowing you to roam the Cosmoserve service, visiting forums, chat rooms, file libraries, email — all the things I’ve spent so many recent articles describing — along with a few futuristic touches, like the virtual-reality area, presented in recognition of the fact that we’re allegedly in 2001. It eventually emerges that getting the Turbo Pascal patch and finishing your assignment will first require you to stop a computer virus that threatens to take over the world. For those who aren’t aware: yes, viruses were already a problem in 1991. I really could go on forever about this game’s palimpsest of the familiar and the obscure, how it constantly signals all the ways things have changed in computing and all the way they’ve remained the same.

As a purely technical achievement, Cosmoserve is remarkable, especially considering that Pintar wasn’t an experienced programmer. AGT was by the standards of text-adventure authoring systems to come a very primitive tool indeed, riddled with assumptions about the sorts of games it would be used to create that can be almost impossible to completely override. And yet Cosmoserve manages to push AGT farther out of its comfort zone than any other game I’ve ever seen. If its simulations of DOS, of a terminal program, of CompuServe/Cosmoserve itself — even of a text adventure within this text adventure which you can play from the DOS prompt — aren’t always perfect, they’re far better than they have any right to be.

From the standpoint of the modern player especially, Cosmoserve does have some drawbacks. It’s never an unfair game according to its own old-school lights, but it is a demanding one. If you’ve never used MS-DOS, or have forgotten everything you once knew, you’ll likely have to consult a reference manual in order to get anywhere at all. And you’ll certainly have to pay careful attention and make some notes if you hope to solve this one.

More controversially, Cosmoserve plays on a clock. Timing is tight, you have a lot to do, events happen online at specific times… meaning, yes, this is one of those try-and-try-again games which require you to make a series of losing reconnaissance runs to get the lay of the land before you put everything together for your victory dash. This design approach is absolute anathema to some people; if you’re one of those people, nothing I can say will persuade you otherwise. The good news, though, is that in this case at least I don’t really have to.

Judith Pintar revisited Cosmoserve in 1997, adding some further polish to the experience and, most importantly, greatly easing the time pressure. Which version you choose to play must be a reflection of your own preferences as a player. Personally, having been raised on the Infocom mysteries, I don’t mind the try-and-try-again approach overmuch, if it’s done within reason and if I know what I’m getting into. I thus actually prefer the earlier Cosmoserve, which feels like a purer expression of its designer’s original intent to me. But of course those of you who aren’t as old-school — masochistic? — as me should feel free to go for the later version.

Either way, I think you’ll find the experience worthwhile. Whether considered as a pure gaming challenge or as a cultural artifact of its very specific time and (virtual) place, Cosmoserve has a lot to offer; taken on either terms or both, the wit, humor, and humanity of its author shine through. It was given co-winner status in the 1991 AGT Competition, alongside a more traditional text adventure called The Multi-Dimensional Thief. The latter game, a confusing  mashup of Guild of Thieves and The Wizard of Oz that delights in insulting its player when it isn’t dead-ending her, hasn’t aged very well. Cosmoserve, on the other hand, has only become more essential as the online life it chronicles has faded into oblivion and its time-capsule qualities have come to the fore.

Although either the original or the updated version of Cosmoserve can be played most easily on modern computers using the AGT interpreter AGiliTy, you’ll lose much of the atmosphere provided by occasional sound effects, not to mention MS-DOS’s familiar old green text on a black background. I therefore recommend playing it under the original AGT interpreter, in DOS, to get the full effect. To make that as easy as possible for you, I provide versions of Cosmoserve and Cosmoserve 97 — take your pick — ready to run in the DOSBox emulator. Whether you have a Windows, MacOS, or Linux machine, just install the version of DOSBox for your platform and follow the instructions included in the zip file to get the game going.

The Dungeon of Dunjin

You are in a dark, mysterious and confusing forest. Tall fir-trees form a dark wall around you. A cold wind is blowing from the mountains, and in the far distance you can hear wolves howling. Faint trails lead east and south. To the north the forest seems to continue forever, and to the west the vegetation is so dense that it would be impossible to go in that direction.

If you’re anything like me, you may prefer the idea to the reality of the sprawling text adventures that ran on the big institutional computers of the 1970s. Still some of the largest works ever created in the medium of text and parser, games such as the original Zork and Acheton offer immense worlds of hundreds of locations and almost as many puzzles — worlds to get lost inside for weeks or months. They seem absolutely amazing at first. When you start to play them a little more, though, you come to realize that you just can’t trust these games. Standards of good and bad design simply didn’t exist at the time they were being made, meaning that they tend to be riddled with as many terrible puzzles as brilliant ones.

The Dungeon of Dunjin, written by a Swede named Magnus Olsson over the course of about five years, answers the question of what Zork might have been like if it hadn’t, as Robb Sherwin once so memorably put it, hated its player. The setup is as old-school as it gets: you, the nameless faceless adventurer, have arrived near the entrance to the titular dungeon with treasure on your mind. As you play, another plot line does begin to emerge, but it never feels all that compelling. At bottom, The Dungeon of Dunjin is best accepted as a game about looting a landscape and dropping your spoils in a repository for points — a concept that was beginning to feel a little retro already by the time Infocom left Zork behind in 1983. Olsson’s 1991 backward glance comes complete with a sprawling geography of some 180 rooms, filled with locations that in typically old-school fashion often fail to connect with one another in the expected ways; going south and then going north, in other words, isn’t guaranteed to return you to your starting position. (In light of this, you’ll wind up happy that the game engine doesn’t recognize secondary compass directions like northeast.) Needless to say, light sources, trolls, and dragons figure prominently in the puzzles and plot.

But the thing that separates The Dungeon of Dunjin from its legendary forebears is that all the really annoying old-school nonsense is blessedly missing. Olsson has clearly made a conscious, thoroughgoing effort to design a game that the motivated player can actually win, and without being bored to death by petty logistical problems in the process.

The game engine is home-grown, written in Turbo Pascal. (I did tell you it was everywhere in the early 1990s…) It’s nowhere close to the level of even the PDP-10 Zork, possessing only an extremely basic world model and a parser that’s for the most part limited to two-word verb-noun constructions. Many a designer forced to work with such an engine has wound up stretching it past the breaking point, stumbling into the territory of guess-the-verb puzzles and sheer logical incoherence in an attempt to make a more difficult game than the engine can really support. (I would argue that the entire Scott Adams catalog after the fifth or sixth game can be seen as extended proof of this thesis.) But Olsson is too smart to be caught in that trap: he knows how to work within his tools, avoiding puzzles — like those involving intricate mechanical manipulations — which his game engine just can’t handle. There’s enough that it can do, he realizes, to make a perfectly satisfying old-school adventure game.

The most unfortunate aspect of the writing actually comes right up front, in the horrid title. The Dungeon of Dunjin is no literary masterpiece — that’s hardly the point of a game like this one, is it? — but the writing acquits it surprisingly well for that of a non-native English speaker. (Olsson does poke a little fun at the thing many people still think of first when they think of Sweden by making one puzzle revolve around an Abba record.) Like Adventure and Zork before it, the game never takes itself too seriously, freely mixing contemporary culture with high fantasy, placing computer labs practically next door to slavering dragons. Sometimes a sly Zorkian wit peeks through, as when you find a human skull in the dungeon that’s made of plastic and has “Made in Taiwan” printed on the side. The dungeon itself, meanwhile, proves in the end to be a closed-down tourist attraction; shades of the bizarre postmodern endgame of Adventure.

Filled with little homages to its predecessors like these, but perfectly playable if you don’t know a rusty rod with a star on the end from a lonely white house, The Dungeon of Dunjin is one of the better old-school puzzlefests I’ve played in my time, consistently surprising and amusing, consistently challenging — not least as a result of the combinatorial explosion that stems from its considerable size — and yet never insurmountable and only very rarely actively annoying. I enjoyed playing it immensely, and fancy that any of you who are up for a big adventure that will absorb quite some hours of your time and who don’t mind making a map and checking it twice — thankfully, we have Trizbort these days! — may just do so as well. Being a native citizen of MS-DOS, it can only be played through an emulator on modern computers. I’ve therefore prepared a version for you that will make that as easy as possible. Just add DOSBox.

Save Princeton

According to the brochure that the admissions department gave you, Princeton University is one of the last bastions of intellectual pursuit, where students can engage in the quest for learning unencumbered by worldly cares. As far as you can tell, though, the place looks like any one of a thousand clones of Cambridge University that clutter the American academic landscape. Still, you figure there must be something at least vaguely interesting about it, considering the reputation that the place has managed to accumulate over the past 250 or so years.

You decide, therefore, to take an Orange Key Tour. Minutes into it, though, you realize that you have no interest in being shown buildings with cannonball scars from the Revolutionary War. So, as the guide leads you through yet another archway, you break off from the group and wander through a nearby door. You find yourself in an entryway, standing in front of a door labeled with the number 21. When you turn the handle, the door swings open, and you enter, hoping no one will catch you being a voyeur.

As you poke around, the sound of gunfire coming from outside in the courtyard startles you. You dive for cover beneath a desk and remain there, shaking, until the tumult dies down. When you come out, you can sense a tension in the atmosphere. Clearly, something strange has happened.

Written by a Princeton University student named Jacob Weinstein with some assistance from his fellow student Karine Schaefer — “she just helped plot it, and left the geeky stuff to Jacob” — Save Princeton is another entry in a weirdly overstuffed sub-genre of interactive fiction: the collegiate text adventure, a category that includes such earlier classics as The Lurking Horror and A Dudley Dilemma. This game isn’t on the same level as either of those, but it has its charms.

As soon as you start Save Princeton, you’re smacked in the face with how much some things have changed since 1991; a plot involving terrorists taking over a major university would never be treated so flippantly in these times of ours. Here, though, it’s just a mechanism for pushing you to explore the campus and lap up — or, more likely, scratch your head at — the endless in-jokes. While nothing really stands out about the game’s puzzles or construction, there’s nothing notably objectionable either; this is all pretty standard fare, albeit delivered in a pretty user-friendly way, without the inscrutable puzzles, mazes — well, there is a fake maze — or parsing issues that were still typical of most amateur text adventures of this era. Doubtless helping the game’s cause is the fact that it’s written in TADS, a much more powerful and polished system for programming text adventures than AGT, if also a much less popular one in 1991. The writing is actually more ramshackle than the technology or the puzzle design, with the tossed-off feel that was also so typical of early amateur text adventures.

But it isn’t Save Princeton‘s merits as a piece of timeless game design, much less as a piece of writing, that makes me want to cautiously recommend it. It rather comes down once again to that personal quality of so much amateur interactive fiction.

Weinstein fills his slice of life not just with the architecture of Princeton, nor just with the pop-culture detritus of 1991 — “there are posters of such charming items as Laura Palmer’s corpse” — but with himself, along with the friends he has at university. Go to the “Girls’ Common Room” and there’s Lisa, “working on the New York Times crossword puzzle”; there’s Melisande, “buried in an Orson Scott Card novel.” Go to the boys’ room and there’s Eric, “humming the violin part of The Rite of Spring“; there’s Otis, the “fairly accomplished computer programmer” who “won the Mr. Princeton bodybuilding contest his freshman year.” Eventually you’ll also meet Karine — yes, Weinstein’s alleged coauthor — sitting in the romantic glow of a lava lamp, dreaming of Anthony Hopkins of all potential heartthrobs, “making an acidic comment regarding the cultural inferiority of every city in the world except for New York.” Somehow I suspect that Jacob was crushing hard on Karine, to the point of giving her a dubious authoring credit on his game, only to be stuck permanently in the Friend Zone.

Of course, I don’t really know what was going on with any of these young people. Nor have I ever even been on the Princeton campus, meaning that every in-joke is utterly lost on me. And yet — and you can chalk this up to my going all American Graffiti in my middle age if you like — there’s something about this unassuming little game that I find almost unbearably poignant. It so happens that I’m almost the exact same age as the kids we meet in it, and I can’t help but feel a connection with all these entitled little dreamers, so full of grand plans for the future, so convinced that the meaning of life can be revealed to them by the right song, book, or film. Where have their lives taken them? If they were given this game to play today, would they be surprised to meet the people they used to be?

Call me a sentimental fool, but Save Princeton, patently envisioned by its author as just a light-hearted adventure game, kind of puts a lump in my throat. Your own mileage may of course vary, but it’s certainly not a bad little game even if it doesn’t prompt in you the same ruminations about the cycle of life. You can download it from the IF Archive and play it using any of the many freely available TADs interpreters.


You awake from uneasy dreams. Since you're no longer on easy street, maybe that's the way your dreams are going to be from now on. Exactly where you are becomes clear as you sort out the sounds of the river to the east, the rustlings of birds to the north and west, and the sweet scent of sleep-inducing poppies wafting down from the northwest. Apparently, after a day of determined walking about, you burrowed down next to the river and let consciousness drift.

What exactly induced this bout of walking? Well, two nights ago, Count Zero handed you your walking papers and extracted your latchkey to the museum in exchange (little does he know that you keep a spare hidden in the topiary). It's just as well that you were dismissed from the museum--your duties as combination custodian and librarian involved either re-shelving books and dusting off clocks or rewinding timepieces and dusting off books. However, you were onto something. Exactly what is unclear since the pieces of the puzzle seem to disconnect with sleep. You resolve not to sleep until you've recollected and reconnected their jagged edges. You can be just as calculating as the Count. You can even reach beyond the Zero . . .

I had one of the most magical gaming experiences of my life with T-Zero.

About fifteen years ago, I was working the graveyard shift at a computer-services firm in Dallas. From 7 PM to 7 AM, three or four nights per week, I’d sit in a nearly deserted data center babysitting the servers and mainframes, just in case anything should happen. Most of the time, it didn’t, meaning I had a lot of free time on my hands. Boredom was a big problem. There were enough curious eyes wandering about the place doing their system modifications and whatnot that playing anything that looked like a game would have been a really bad idea. Text adventures, however, were a different story. I could sit typing away into a window filled with text, looking for all the world like I was hard at work on something vital. Thus I played a lot of text adventures during this period, delving back into a lot of forgotten games — often justifiably forgotten! — from the early issues of SPAG magazine. One of the games I played was T-Zero.

I was playing it one night when a message popped up out of nowhere, apropos of nothing I was actually doing in the game at the time. “It’s a full moon tonight,” it read. “Go outside and take a look.” So, curious whether this already very old game knew what it was talking about, I did.

Well, the game did know what it was talking about. Outside a huge harvest moon hovered low over the warm night. I’d always loved the silence of the predawn hours, when the only sounds you could hear were the omnipresent Texas crickets. Now the peaceful scene, blanketed in the moon’s silvery sheen, seemed to fuse with the peculiar beauty of the game I’d just been playing. I stood there in front of my employer’s antiseptic corporate building for quite some minutes, marveling at the beauty that can visit us at the most banal times. As I turned to go back inside, I knew that I’d never forget this night. And, as this little reminiscence demonstrates, I was right.

T-Zero truly is a magical game in some ways; at its best, it almost attains the same heights as Trinity, my all-time favorite work of interactive fiction. Indeed, comparisons between the two works strike me as unavoidable. T-Zero at the time of its release had the most subtly textured writing that had been seen in a text adventure since Trinity. More than that, though, it resembles and even pays homage to Infocom’s finest hour in many respects: a sundial and a gnomon, to name an obvious if superficial example, figure prominently in T-Zero as well as in Trinity. Less superficially, both games share an abiding obsession with the mystery of time, and both have a smile-through-tears quality, a gentle whimsy laced with melancholia.

T-Zero was written by one Dennis Cunningham, a person about whom I know nothing beyond his description of himself as “a programmer with literary leanings.” He is or was obviously very talented in both fields. For someone like me who loves words, T-Zero is a source of constant delight. As an example of its love of clever wordplay, consider that you begin it by waking up in the location known as “River Bed” — or consider the “buxom bell” you’ll soon be ringing. Unlike so many self-consciously “literary” interactive works, which tend to get buried under the weight of their own aspirations, T-Zero‘s writing dazzles without ever seeming to try to do so; Cunningham’s writerly touch is light where the others are heavy. I can perhaps best convey his game’s atmosphere by borrowing a line from one of his room descriptions: “Either your vision is becoming near-sighted or this scene has all the pointillist charm of a Monet painting.” Like an Impressionist painter, Cunningham is more interested in the interplay of light and shadow than he is with concrete forms. Maybe that explains why the moonlight affected me so on that one magical night.

I hesitate to trample over the delicate poetry of T-Zero too much more with my leaden reviewer’s prose, but will note that it takes place in the slightly surreal landscape which surrounds a strange museum where you until recently worked as a low-grade custodian and librarian. You will eventually learn that the time is out of joint, and you will have to learn to travel through time to visit the same locations in other millennia, learning of the other inhabitants who dwelt and will dwell here. These inhabitants are not human; nor is it ever entirely clear whether you yourself are. Again, T-Zero isn’t concerned with the concrete. It’s a dream and a meditation, and it’s all the better for it.

T-Zero has a spirit of unabashed intellectualism to it — a complete disinterest in talking down to its player — which looks forward to Graham Nelson’s Curses. Cunningham peppers his game with allusions: to Miguel de Cervantes and his deluded knight, to Edgar Allan Poe and his bells ringing in the night, to Douglas Hofstadter and his Eternal Golden Braid, to the Beatles and their Walrus. This sort of thing can veer into rank pretension in a hurry. But, again like Nelson, Cunningham’s erudition reads as intriguing rather than off-putting, sending you scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn more about the references you don’t entirely get.

With so much going on at the literary level, it may seem almost belittling to focus on the technology that underpins the game, but I’d actually be doing its author a disservice not to mention it. Like Magnus Olsson, Dennis Cunningham chose to write his game from scratch rather than use a text-adventure authoring system like AGT or TADS. And here I have to break out the superlatives yet again: the engine he created is quite simply the best bespoke text-adventure engine I’ve seen. Ever.

Cunningham doesn’t just meet the Infocom standard that was still the aspirational ideal among amateur text-adventure makers in 1991, he actually exceeds it in a number of respects. The parser handles even the most complicated constructions with aplomb, and the game is rife with little conveniences seldom seen during its era: things like undo, like a generous command-history buffer, like a menu-based restore command that doesn’t expect you to remember the name of every save file you create. The world model is complex and coherent, and the addition of carefully chosen shades of color, rather than just looking gaudy as color so often tends to do in an all-text game, adds to the rich atmosphere.

Just look at this! T-Zero offers a menu for disambiguation as one of the conveniences it’s absolutely rife with.

But now, having praised T-Zero to the skies, I have to tell you about its one tremendous flaw: this game is just way, way too hard. A goodly chunk of the puzzles involve wordplay of the Nord and Bert variety, the sort of thing that delights some players and drives others — especially players who don’t have English as a first language — absolutely crazy. This in itself may thus be enough reason for some of you to reject a game, but we’re just getting started with the litany of barriers to solving it. T-Zero muddies the waters further than Nord and Bert did in that it doesn’t have discrete sections devoted to discrete kinds of wordplay; you never know, in other words, whether it’s looking for an idiom or an anagram or an allusion. Or, for that matter, whether it’s looking for something else entirely: there are also plenty of traditional puzzles here, grounded in real-world — or at least text-adventure — physics. And then we have to throw onto the pile the fact that this is a big game with a lot of locations to explore, and over several time periods at that. Because the descriptions of these intricate landscapes are drawn in such loving detail, it’s really, really hard to know for sure which locations contain puzzles waiting to be solved and which just exist for you to drink in on their own terms.

Not helping the situation is a tendency for the parser, so flexible in most ordinary tasks, to suddenly become needlessly persnickety in some specific situations, with failure messages that can be not just unhelpful but actively misleading. For instance, at one point you need to tear the flyleaf out of a book. You need to type it exactly like that: “tear flyleaf out of book.” If you try to “pull flyleaf out of book,” you’re told that “your pull is next to nothing when it comes to the flyleaf.” Far worse, if you just type, “tear flyleaf,” you’re told that there’s “no reason to play the vandal”; if you’re foolish enough to take the game at its word here, you’ll never solve it. There aren’t heaps of situations like this one, but there are more than enough to ruin an otherwise brilliant game for its player even absent the other questionable design choices.

That said, it must also be admitted that there is a partial solution to all these problems built right into the game. Among its other technical wonders, T-Zero includes a full-fledged adaptive hint system that keeps track of your progress and doles out context-specific hints for each location — the first such system I’m aware of in the history of interactive fiction. It breaks my heart, but I have to recommend to any of you who choose to play this game that you use it liberally, typing “hint” as a matter of course in each location you visit. Sometimes doing so gives away the full answer to the puzzle; sometimes it at least leaves a little for you to work out on your own. The former in particular is far from ideal, but what else can you do if you’d prefer not to beat your head for hours and hours against this brick wall of a game? The shame, of course, is that there are some very good puzzles here which you won’t be able to enjoy thanks to the bad ones. Ah, well… at least T-Zero‘s wonderful version of the maze-that-isn’t-really-a-standard-maze, almost as venerable a text-adventure tradition by this point as mazes of the old drop-and-plot variety, isn’t entirely spoiled by the hint system.

Having to recommend that you play T-Zero in this way really does pain me, not least in that it destroys all the critical goodwill I have toward every other aspect of the game. As you regular readers know, I’m deeply skeptical of the idea of the “great, as long as you have a walkthrough” species of adventure game. Adventure games are interactive works, and when their interactivity fails them it’s hard for me to see why one should bother with them. As I once put it, “an adventure game that cannot be solved unaided, or for that matter that can be solved only through sheer doggedness and refusal to give in to tedium, is a bad game.”

But I will say now that this particular bad game comes closer than any other to making me recommend that you go ahead and play it anyway using the hints, just to experience the prose and the beautiful environment it evokes. In the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether this failure that by all rights should have been numbered among the all-time greats is worth your time. Once again, you can download an almost-ready-to-play version from this site. The only other thing you need is DOSBox.


Posted by on December 29, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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A Conversation with Lane Barrow

Although I seem to find myself talking to more and more people in researching this history I’m in the middle of, I don’t often publish the results as straight-up interviews. In fact, I’ve published just one interview in the entire history of this blog, and a very short one at that, done during the early days when I was still finding my way to some extent. I have a number of reasons for avoiding interviews, starting with the fallibility of all human memory and ending with the fact that I consider myself a writer, not a transcriber.

Still, almost any policy ought to have its reasoned exceptions, and this anti-interview policy of mine is itself no exception to that rule. Having just introduced you to AGT and the era of more personal text adventures it ushered in in my last article, it seems appropriate today to let one AGT author tell his own very personal story. So, I’d like to introduce you to Lane Barrow, author of A Dudley Dilemma, the winner of the first of David Malmberg’s eventual six annual AGT competitions. Unique (and uniquely interesting) though it is in so many ways, I trust that some of the more generalized overtones of Lane’s story apply to many of the others who found through AGT a way to make the switch from being text-adventure consumers to text-adventure creators.

If what follows should tempt you to give A Dudley Dilemma a play — something I highly recommend! — do be sure to go with the “remastered” version Lane has provided, which cleans up the design here and there and works properly with modern interpreters like AGiliTy and Gargoyle. You can download this definitive version from this very site or from the Interactive Fiction Archive.

Lane Barrow, 1988

Lane Barrow, 1988

Thank you so much for talking with me today! Maybe we could start with a bit of your personal background. I believe I read somewhere that you spent some time in the Air Force?

Yes, I was in the Air Force from 1966 to 1970 – two tours in Vietnam. When I rejoined civilian life, I lived in California for all of the 70’s, which was a perfect time to be there (a decade of great music and horrible clothing). I even had a brief encounter with members of the Manson family. Interesting story, but probably not relevant to what you’re looking for.

Sorry, but I can’t just let that one fly by. Please, tell!

It’s not as sinister as it sounds. When I first moved to LA after the Air Force, I hung out with a nascent rock band. We liked to party a lot, and one of the places we frequented belonged to a guy named T.J. and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jo. I got along really well with T.J. For one thing, he was also a Vietnam vet turned hippy, plus he was creative and outgoing. Turns out he was also an ex-Manson family member. In fact, he was with Manson when Charlie shot some North Hollywood drug dealer. This didn’t sit well with T.J. so he basically left the family soon after.

Anyway, we went over to T.J.’s one night (this was sometime in the summer of 1970) and there were these four girls sitting around the living room with shaved heads and “X”s cut into their foreheads. Apparently these girls were still faithful to Manson and kept a vigil outside the county courthouse while his trial was in session . They had come to see if T.J. could put them up for the night. After a few minutes, T.J. whisked us into the kitchen and suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to party that night, so we left. I still remember the cold stares those girls gave us the whole time we were there. And they never said a single word. So that was my Manson family experience. As I said, living in LA in those days was never boring.

Okay, thanks! So, how did you go from being a Southern California hippie to a Harvard PhD candidate?

I knocked around LA for several years, and then settled in Santa Barbara, where I worked as a baker at Sunrise Bakery (a small co-op enterprise). At the same time, I attended Santa Barbara City College and then UCSB on the GI Bill. I majored in English Lit, and did well enough to get accepted to graduate school at Harvard, also in English.

I was 33 years old when I entered Harvard, so I was a little older than most of my classmates, although there were several other Vietnam vets in the English Dept at the time. I was single then, but I met my future wife there (we’re still together by the way), and her long luxurious hair was the reason I included the sentient hairball in the first part of A Dudley Dilemma.

Bear in mind that my life as a grad student was pretty uneventful compared to Vietnam and California, but that was OK with me. Of course, uneventful isn’t the same thing as stress-free. Grad school can be pretty intense. I actually had more anxiety dreams about the classroom than I ever did about combat. Go figure. Working on the Dudley game was a real stress-reliever for me. It introduced me to programming, which I still enjoy, mostly in Excel these days.

Long before you started to write A Dudley Dilemma, I understand that you discovered text adventures at Harvard?

Yes. In the early ’80s I discovered a couple of fun games on the mainframe while I was learning how to work with computers. These were, of course, Colossal Cave and Zork. If I remember correctly, Zork had just been released commercially, but I didn’t get my first PC until Leading Edge came on the scene in 1985, so the mainframe was my only access. At first, I played both games pretty much equally but Zork slowly took over as my favorite, largely because of its sense of humor.

Why did you come to buy that first PC? Were you intending to use it to play more games like Zork from the beginning?

I’m afraid I had a fairly utilitarian motive for buying my first PC. I was beginning my dissertation at the time, and using the mainframe was a nightmare. If you’ve ever worked with printer “dot commands”, you understand. So I bought a Leading Edge Model D for purely academic work. The computer games were just icing on the cake.

Since I never finished Zork on the mainframe, that was the first game I purchased. I still have the receipt for Zork I tucked into the box ($29.95 purchased on March 31, 1986). Zork II and Zork III were next.

After that, I went on an Infocom binge. I think I bought every title they had at the time, and would wait expectantly for their new releases. I still have many of those boxed sets, complete with tchotchkes. Needless to say, this slowed down my progress on my dissertation…

Did you have any particular favorites among the Infocom catalog?

I liked them all. I gravitated toward the sci-fi / fantasy titles, but I got a big kick out of Bureaucracy also.

Did you play any games from other publishers — whether text adventures or games in other genres — or were you strictly an Infocom guy?

Infocom was pretty much my only focus at first, but eventually I tried other games. However, I don’t remember any specific titles, so obviously they didn’t have the same impact on me as the Infocom offerings. For me, the biggest attraction of the AGT toolkit was its ability to create an Infocom-type game. I had plans to write a second AGT game, but never got around to it. By that time, I was wrapping up grad school and engaged in job-hunting.

I continue to enjoy computer games, post-Infocom, and prefer adventure games, with an emphasis on puzzle-solving. I don’t care much for platform games, or timed puzzles. As you know, that somewhat limits my choices these days, although the Portal games are fun.

How exactly did you become an early AGT adopter? Do you recall how you first learned about the system?

I don’t remember how I learned about AGT, but I was pretty active in various bulletin board chat rooms in those days, so it was probably via one of those. At any rate, I decided to try my hand at creating an Infocom-type game for Dudley House, where I was a resident tutor. I wanted to cram in as many recognizable people, events, places as possible, since the game was going to be on the computer in Dudley House Library. So, I ordered the AGT toolkit, and got to it. I found the language pretty easy to pick up, since it’s very logical. Plus, whenever I had a problem or question, I would email Dave Malmberg, and he would get back to me quickly. I believe I even spoke with him on the phone once or twice, but I might be mis-remembering that (growing old has its advantages, but memory isn’t one of them).

It took me several months to finish the original Dudley Dilemma, and when I put it on the library computer, it caused a bit of a conflict between students who wanted to play the game, and students who wanted to use the on-line card catalog. We even had a competition to see who could finish the game the fastest. I don’t recall the winner’s name, but she was a Junior English major.

I had a ball writing the game, and tried to capture the quirky feel that Infocom was so good at. I ripped off their ideas shamelessly. As you probably noticed, the WHISTLE-CLAP hedge maze sequence is straight out of Leather Goddesses of Phobos (Clap-Hop-Kweepa).

To what extent did you feel yourself to be a part of an AGT community?

If there was an AGT community in those days, I wasn’t aware of it. I did play a couple of other AGT games from time to time (I remember one that had a carnival setting) . If I recall, they were in the overall package that came with the toolkit, or maybe they came later, when Dave mailed out a compilation of AGT contest winners. I don’t remember the chronology all that distinctly.

So, we might even say that you felt yourself to be developing your game largely in a vacuum?

Yes. I really developed Dudley by the seat of my pants, through trial and error. There were times when I was trying to work out a tricky bit of coding that I found myself dreaming about flags and variables. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to incorporate a lot of actual detail that Dudley students would recognize, so I would jot down notes on a particular incident or individual and then figure out how to code that into the game. Of course I added an exaggerated quality to everything to give it a more whimsical feel, but the vast majority of A Dudley Dilemma is based on reality.

Going back over those days has helped me remember how much fun I had creating the game in the first place. Or maybe nostalgia is a selective process that filters out the “bad.” I’m sure there were probably times when I wondered why I had gotten myself into this project, but obviously I stuck with it.

In general, Dudley is a quite fair game for its day, with few instances of guess-the-verb or read-the-author’s-mind puzzles. There are adventure games that seem designed to frustrate and defeat the player and those that prioritize fun, fair play, and solubility. A Dudley Dilemma is, within the limitations of its era and its technology, very much in the latter category for me. Do you have any comments to make on your general design approach or methodology?

I’m not sure I had a coherent design methodology beyond what I’ve already mentioned: making it accessible to the students of Dudley House. Pretty much all the people and places in the game have their counterparts in the Harvard of the day, and these would have been evident to my core audience. Of course, this dates the game in that respect, but I also tried to make the situations broad enough to have some shelf life, and to be enjoyable even if you didn’t get the “in jokes.” Beyond that, there was a certain random quality to my choices. One thing seemed to flow out of another, maybe just by association of ideas.

You refer to adventure games that frustrate or defeat the player. In the years since I wrote Dudley, I’ve encountered a few of those, and I felt like a bit of the enjoyment was leached out. For example, some of the puzzles in Schizm or The Witness (the recent Jonathan Blow game, not the Infocom title) would challenge Einstein. Infocom games never took that road, which is one of the reasons I like them to this day. They are infused with a focus on fun and entertainment, and that’s what I tried to do in Dudley. However, there IS one overall design element that I’d change if I were re-writing the game today: I would make it impossible to render the game un-winnable.

A few puzzles that might raise some eyebrows today are those relying on outside knowledge. I’m thinking particularly here of the Arabian Nights, Waste Land, and Kingston Trio puzzles. These sorts of “outside research” puzzles were not commonly found in Infocom games (other than puzzles that required information included in the feelies, of course). Any comments on these?

I think I must have been a little ambivalent about those even when I included them. In one of the Dudley re-writes, I added a couple of books in the opening room that, if read, gave the solutions to the Arabian Nights puzzle and to the Waste Land puzzle. I also gave a more detailed hint about the Kingston Trio puzzle, but I don’t recall where that is in the game. Maybe when you first encounter the Kingston Trio album in the giant cockroach maze.

Just a side note: Obviously, the MBTA references have a Boston connection, and since Dudley House was the administrative center for commuting students, a lot of them rode the “T” on a daily basis, so that’s why I added that component. As for the Waste Land bit, this is more obscure. The game opens in Apley Court, which is where T.S. Eliot lived when he was a graduate student at Harvard. Some scholars believe that he began early drafts of The Waste Land at that time, so I couldn’t resist slipping that in.

What audience did you envision playing the game? You said that it was often played on a computer in a library at Harvard. Were you therefore writing primarily for fellow Harvard students? In short, what did you envision doing with the game, as far as distribution, after it was completed, given that you didn’t really feel yourself to be a member of any broader AGT community?

My main audience for the game was always the students of Dudley House, which helped me keep a certain focus to the action. I wanted them to undergo the “shock of recognition” while playing. I didn’t really envision a wider audience, and entering the AGT contest was an afterthought. I was thrilled to win it, which inspired me to “improve” the game over several versions, with pictures, sounds, etc. In retrospect, the original plain vanilla version is still my favorite.

I believe I even thought about applying for a job at Infocom, which was just down the road in Cambridge. That fantasy lasted for about 5 minutes. My only excursions into game design since Dudley are creating some Community Test Chambers in Portal 2. Also fun, but a whole different experience than AGT.

I thought it might be fun — for me and hopefully for you as well as for our readers (especially those who have begun to play the game) — if we could really dig into some of those aspects of daily life at Harvard that inspired so much of Dudley. This is the sort of thing that can make interactive fiction so uniquely personal in contrast to other sorts of games, and that can make amateur efforts like many of the AGT games more interesting in some ways than the slicker, more impersonal games of Infocom. So, I thought we could perhaps play a little game of free association. I’m going to try to jog your memory with various elements of Dudley, and maybe you could respond with their real-life antecedents (if any). Perhaps together we can create a sort of Annotated Dudley Dilemma to go with the Annotated Lurking Horror — the latter was an unusually personal game by Infocom standards — that Janice Eisen and I created earlier. Indeed, it feels particularly appropriate given that The Lurking Horror took place at (a thinly fictionalized) MIT, while A Dudley Dilemma plays out at MIT’s cross-town counterpart Harvard. So…

The scruffy pigeon?

Every adventurer needs a sidekick, right? Of course if I were entirely faithful to that idea, I would have kept the bird nearby for the entire game. Actually, in a later rewrite, I had the pigeon come to the rescue when you face the punk in the mean streets of Cambridge.

The genesis of this character involves an incident in the English Department around Christmas of 1987. One of the senior professors, Barbara Lewalski, was in her office with an advisee, when a soot-covered bird fell into the (unlit) fireplace and started fluttering around the room. Professor Lewalski opened a window and tried to shoo it out to no avail. After a few minutes, the bird fluttered back up the chimney. To make sure the bird was gone, the professor (who was an ample woman) got down on hands and knees to look up the chimney. Right then another senior professor, William Alfred, walked by the office door and did a double-take. According to the advisee, he leaned into the office and said “I don’t believe Santa is due for another week”, and strolled off chuckling. Trust me, Mr. Alfred was one of the only people I ever met who actually chuckled. Obviously this story made the rounds pretty quickly. The original bird wasn’t a pigeon, but since pigeons flock all over Harvard Square and Yard, I had to go with what works. All the rooms in Apley court have fireplaces, which I had already planned to use for roof access. I wanted the player to see early on that the fireplace was also an exit point, so I hoped that the pigeon would help establish that. Once the bird was in the room, I couldn’t resist expanding its role a bit.

The silverfish?

In order to get from the opening site (Apley Court) to the next location (Lehman Hall), you enter the silverfish maze. The maze is actually based on a system of steam tunnels that connect a number of Harvard buildings. Historical note: back in 1968, Harvard security used the steam tunnels to whisk Alabama Governor George Wallace out of Sanders Theater past a large crowd of protesters. That incident was still pretty infamous when I wrote Dudley, so I had to use the steam tunnels somehow. The silverfish guardian evolved out of the large number of those disgusting insects that swarmed around the basement storage area of Apley Court. I just converted the thousands of little ones into one huge one.

The nude tutors on the roof?

Apley Court was originally a residence hall for students (remember T.S. Eliot), but by the time I was there, it only housed the resident tutors for Dudley House. It had a flat roof that was perfect for sunbathing, so we would occasionally sneak up there for that purpose. I say sneak, because technically the roof was off-limits for safety’s sake. To my knowledge, no nude sunbathing ever took place up there, since the building across the street was much taller and afforded an unobstructed view, but I took some poetic license just for comic effect.

The statue in the dining hall?

Ah, Delmar Leighton. He was the first Master of Dudley House and around the time I was writing the game, a large wooden statue of the man was placed in one corner of the dining hall, where it gazed out on the students. I don’t know if the statue was moved from some other location or whether it was commissioned at that time, but it was quite a presence when you were trying to eat. Here’s a picture so you can see what I mean. I concocted the “touch and be touched by all” quote as a gameplay hint, since there’s no such thing on the original.

Delmar Leighton

Mike the guard?

Mike was a real security guard, and I’m really pissed at myself for forgetting his last name. It was something like Moretti or Frascetti. Sigh. Anyway, the real Mike was, if anything, even more diligent and proprietary about his building than my depiction of him. He was the mother hen of Lehman Hall, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. He was chatty and helpful and ever-vigilant. When I was designing the Lehman Hall section, it would have been sacrilege to omit Mike. It took me a while to figure out how to code in Mike’s eventual acceptance of you as a legit student, but using two different ID cards did the trick.

The crazy woman in Harvard Yard?

We called her “The Flapper.” She was rail-thin, about 60 years old or so, and dressed all in black head-to-toe (even in the summer). She mostly wandered around Harvard Square and just inside the gate beside Lehman Hall. She usually had a bag full of scavenged cans and other cast-off stuff, and she was always armed with a little square of folded newspaper that she would “flap” at you if you came too close. I don’t recall if she actually cursed at anyone, so obviously I took some liberties with that. This sequence was my first attempt at creating a random response to player interaction, so I had fun coming up with various curses. As for getting rid of her, I was concerned that the solution might be a bit obscure, (spoilers: highlight to read) but then I reasoned that most of us ignore strange street people anyway, so that part of the game really wrote itself.

Brother Blue in Harvard Yard?

Another real person. He was actually Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill, but his street moniker was Brother Blue, and he was a Boston institution (you can look him up in Wikipedia if you want more detail on his amazing life). When I was there, he would cruise around Harvard Square on roller skates and gather a crowd together so he could tell stories. He referred to himself as a “griot,” a kind of African poet and storyteller. His stories always had an inspirational point to them, but I didn’t think I could do justice to that aspect of his persona, so I made up my own little snippets. I wanted to create the impression of a complete story just by giving the ending. This is another random interaction, so the stories vary depending on the probabilities. I think there are maybe three or four different endings.

The hordes of lawyers?

Not much to say about this. I was looking for a way to “trap” the player with no obvious way out, so I could have done that in any number of ways. Since personal-injury lawyers are always a convenient target, I went for the obvious over-the-top joke. Harvard Law School is just down the walkway from the Science Center, so the internal geography worked out as well.

The professor explaining Hellenic warrior culture to a “class of large young men with no necks?”

Every university, even Harvard (gasp!) has its Easy A or “gut” classes. The class I’m referring to here was officially called Literature & Arts C-14: “The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization,” but was universally referred to as “Heroes for Zeros” because of the above-average concentration of jocks. It was taught by Professor Gregory Nagy, who is actually a world-renowned classical scholar. I think it must have come as a shock to many of the students that the class wasn’t as easy as reputation had it. But again, I was going for humor, and I needed a way to introduce a “zero” for later use in the game.

The GreenHouse Grill?

In reality, the Greenhouse Cafe in the Science Center. The Science Center is a massive building with computer rooms (in the 80’s anyway), offices, and classrooms, so having an in-house cafe was a real luxury. It gets the name from a glassed-in atrium section, and it’s a real resting-place, hang-out, meeting spot for students. I don’t recall that it plays a significant role in the game, so I probably included it just for local color and because I used to frequent it myself.

The aging, irate alumnus in the food line?

Well, I think I was channeling my future self when I came up with this guy. Scary! Anyway, the cafe in Dudley House was a tiny little area that served a lot of people every day. It was open to the public, so the students were only a part of the customer base. On any given day, the line at the cash register was clogged at lunch time and tempers would occasionally get frayed. The aging alum was based on a Dudley student’s parents who were visiting him. Things weren’t moving efficiently enough for the father, and he kept muttering about how much better it was when he was a student there. I was behind him in line, so I had to listen to him for many long minutes. That memory stuck with me, so I used it in the game. Trust me, I made the fictional alum a lot more pleasant than the real thing. Helen the cashier is also a real person, and dealt very patiently with the daily chaos.

Paul and Cynthia Hanson?

They were the Co-Masters of Dudley House. Maybe a little explanation is needed here. After their freshman year, the vast majority of Harvard students move into a residential “House” that creates a smaller space within the larger university. These houses have distinct characters, and students tend to form long-lasting loyalties to them. At the time of the game, Dudley House was the center for non-residential or commuter students. Like the residential houses, Dudley had a tutorial staff, dining facilities, lounges, a game room, a library, etc. The houses are overseen by Harvard faculty, often a married couple, called Masters who act “in loco parentis” for the students. House Masters are kind of omnipresent, so I coded them in a way similar to Mike. In other words, they pop up all the time until you figure out how to get rid of them. Talking to them provides a major hint which should be evident after you discover the conundrum dispenser. This machine is obviously based on a different kind of dispenser commonly found in men’s bathrooms of the day. Couldn’t resist the pun!

The Center for High-Energy Metaphysics and their potluck dinner?

Okay, I know I said that Dudley was a non-residential house, but there were a couple of exceptions. About a half-mile or so off campus, near Porter Square, were two old Cambridge Victorians that housed about 15-20 Dudley students between them. These were begun back in the 60’s as commune-type alternatives for students who weren’t attracted to the typical Harvard House experience. One of these houses had a sign at the entrance proclaiming that you were about to enter “The Center for High-Energy Metaphysics,” an obvious pun on experimental physics labs. As a Dudley tutor, I would visit from time to time for potluck dinners, which were largely vegetarian. Seems that the character of those houses hadn’t changed much from the 60’s. Of course, I added the “militant vegetarian” quality just for laughs.

An interesting bit of film trivia here: the Joe Pesci character in the 1994 film With Honors was based on a homeless man who crashed off and on for years at the High-Energy Center. One of the students who lived there at the time wrote the basis of the screenplay. But of course by the time it made it to theaters, the true story was completely unrecognizable.

The party animal?

This character was based on one of my fellow tutors, a mathematician named Yang Wang. Actually, there’s almost no resemblance between them except for the nickname. We used to call Yang a party animal because he so clearly wasn’t. But the location is correct, Yang’s apartment in Peabody Terrace near the Charles River.

The History of Boston Harbor by George Bush?

In the 1988 presidential election between George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis, the Bush team hammered Dukakis on how Boston Harbor had turned into a toxic sewage dump under his watch. Since another part of the game involves how polluted the Charles River had become, I threw this in both as a contemporary reference and as an echo of another part of the game. Bostonians used to revel in the bad reputation of the Charles. Maybe you remember the Standell’s song “Love That Dirty Water.” It was a staple between innings at Fenway Park.

The two secretaries, Mrs. J and Mrs. Handy?

These were two of the sweetest people on earth – Louise Janowicz and Margaret Handy. They ran Dudley House on a day-to-day basis and were truly loved by generations of students. Various Masters came and went, but Mrs. J and Mrs Handy kept the place from falling apart. They were the institutional memory and the beating heart of Dudley. There’s no way I could have written the game without including them. The bit of business involving the key to the bathroom is fact-based. Since Dudley House (Lehman Hall) abutted Harvard Square, there were occasions when our men’s room attracted a less than savory element. So in order to gain access, you had to get the key from a hook beside Mrs. J’s desk. And woe is you if you forgot to return it! As I once did.

The queer old dean?

That’s a reference to William Archibald Spooner, Dean of New College, Oxford, and famous for his unintentionally humorous mangling of the English language. As you probably know, the term “spoonerism” refers to him, and “queer old dean” was apparently a reference he once made about “dear old Queen” Victoria. I’ve been a closet fan of puns and spoonerism my whole life, so I had to figure out a way to include him in Dudley. It seemed to me that having his little problem extend beyond the verbal and into the “real” world would be a great way to play around with morphing some of the objects in the game. I confess that I was influenced by Infocom again here (Nord and Bert is full of spoonerisms).

John Marquand?

John Marquand was Senior Tutor at Dudley House during my time there. He was an institution at Dudley and really was a kind of Father Confessor to the undergrads. He was also a bottomless reservoir of knowledge about food and wine, so if you needed advice on a great restaurant, he was your guy. In the game, I actually have him give you a tip about Bartley’s Burgers (another Harvard institution). He is NOT John P. Marquand, the creator of the Mr. Moto detective novels, but they were related. I originally planned to work the Mr. Moto connection in somehow, but that one slipped through the cracks.

Thanks for all that! It really deepens and enriches the game’s “time capsule” quality all these years later.

It was mentioned at the time that A Dudley Dilemma won the competition that you planned to make another game, this one to be based on Charles Dickens, the subject of your dissertation. Whatever became of that idea?

It never really made it out of the concept stage, but my hope was to mingle characters from various novels together in a sort of “through the looking glass” romp. It seemed to me that having, for example, David Copperfield knock some sense into Pip would be satisfying. Or having Scrooge hire Uriah Heep instead of Bob Cratchet would act as a form of karmic justice. I made some notes at the time, but I have no idea where they are today.

Interesting. I’ve often toyed with an idea similar to this one. There’s a long tradition of time-travel text adventures that have you visiting different time periods, using things collected in one time in another to solve puzzles, etc. I’ve often thought to do something similar, but to have you visiting worlds out of literature — an idea partly inspired by Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. Like you, though, I’ve never gotten around to it. The blog sucks up too much time and energy, I’m afraid.

I haven’t read the Fforde books, but I’ll check them out. By the way, if you’re not already familiar with them, you might look for a couple of stories from the 40’s by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, called The Incomplete Enchanter. These have been in and out of print for years, so I expect they’re available somewhere. The protagonist, Harold Shea, is able to enter parallel worlds based on literary works: Norse Edda in one story and Spenser’s Faerie Queene in another. Side note here: when I was studying for my PhD orals, I had to read The Faerie Queene, and I kept looking around the corners of that text for Harold. Sadly, he was nowhere to be found.

Ah, The Faerie Queene… “A gentle knight was pricking on the plain…”

I have a beautiful old Victorian edition that I love to take out and look at. I must confess that I’ve never gotten through the whole thing, though. There’s only so much allegory one man can take I reckon.

I didn’t mind Spenser, but Pilgrim’s Progress did me in. What is it Mrs. Malaprop says – “As headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”

Before we wrap up, maybe you could tell just briefly where life took you after the days of Harvard and A Dudley Dilemma.

After I completed Dudley, I dove back into teaching and working on my dissertation, which I never did complete (can’t blame Dudley for this, however). A year or so later, I moved to Connecticut and took a job in the UConn School of Business. My wife was in the English Department at UConn, so this actually allowed us to live under the same roof. In the world of academic marriages, having jobs at the same institution is pretty rare, so we jumped at the chance. I also reasoned that having one English professor in the family was enough, so the transition to business was fairly smooth. Besides, I used to sneak across the Charles to the cafe at the Harvard B-School (the food was really good there), so I must have had a premonition.

My work at the UConn B-School involved corporate consulting and teaching business writing to undergrads and MBA students. Just so we’re clear on this, I taught my students how to write clean English prose, without business jargon. Eventually, I served as MBA Director for 10 years. And yes, there was a certain Dickensian quality to the business school. I’ll leave the interpretation of that remark up to you! I retired from my full-time job in 2012, but I currently work part-time with a UConn program called the EBV (Entrepreneurial Bootcamp for Disabled Veterans). We hold workshops for vets who want to start their own businesses. My contribution is helping them create a business plan.

Thank you! And congratulations on making it to retirement after such an interesting and varied working life. I hope that this article and the “remastered” version of A Dudley Dilemma which we released last week will lead more people to play this very clever game and inadvertent time capsule of life at Harvard in the late 1980s.

Thanks, Jimmy. For my part, this entire exchange has been a real pleasure and has allowed me to relive an enjoyable past experience. Thanks again for putting the final version of the game out there. I thought about doing that myself over the years, but didn’t think there’d be an audience for it.

I continue to read and enjoy your blog, and I’ll probably go back and do it in chronological order to see how it develops over time. I’m sure you’ll be expanding it for many years to come. I hope we can keep in touch, and if I ever decide to follow up with the Dickens game (unlikely), I’ll let you know.

I hope so too! Take care!

Lane Barrow, 2016. He's a man who likes to sleep with his hat on, which I suppose is better than dying with his boots on.

Lane Barrow, 2016. He’s a man who likes to sleep with his hat on, which I suppose is better than dying with his boots on.


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What with our love of specialization and our tendency to place societal value only on those activities that earn their doers money, the modern world is not terribly kind to the idea of amateurism. See, for example, the popular adjective “amateurish,” which has doubtless crept into a few of my own reviews of one misbegotten game or another over the years. Yet there was a time when amateurism had a more positive connotation, connected to its root in the Latin “amatorem”: “lover.” This view of amateurism celebrates the amateur as someone who does something not for material gain or social prestige, but purely for the love of it. It’s this view which lies behind the requirement that persisted for so many decades that only amateurs — pure of mind, intent, and spirit — could take part in the Olympic Games, a requirement so out of keeping with the currents of modern thought that we now find it difficult to even parse.

But really, truly, sometimes amateurism can bring out the best in us. Leaving to the sports bloggers the question of whether the Olympics lost something when they gave up on amateurism, I’ll say here today that the rise of the amateurs may just have been the best thing ever to happen to the text adventure. Interactive fiction had come just about as far as it could as a slave to the commercial marketplace by the time Infocom died in 1989. Free from the need to shoehorn in graphics, to artificially extend the length of the game, to avoid controversial topics and interesting formal experiments, the amateurs were now primed to take over. With this article, we’ll begin the deeply amateurish story of how that came to be — a story every bit as fascinating and inspiring as the history of Infocom that has consumed so much of my attention over the last four and a half years of blogging.

I mentioned already in my last article my fondness for Jeremy Douglass’s alternative take on interactive-fiction history, which replaces the tragic narrative of a lost commercial golden age with a more even-keeled thoroughgoing narrative of inspired amateurism, leaving the commercial era as an anomalous interstitial period within a longstanding non-commercial “literary salon culture.” Yet I’m not sure that even the anomalous commercial era was quite so anomalous as Douglass might lead us to believe, for the vast majority of people writing text adventures even during the 1980s weren’t trying to make a living at it. Right from the moment that Adventure inspired teams of institutional hackers in various places around the country and the world to try to make a better version of their own, the text adventure has been almost unique in the way it has inspired so many consumers to become producers of their favorite ludic genre. Indeed, that might just be the text adventure’s most inspiring aspect of all. And, far from being strictly a post-1980s phenomenon, it was as true during the alleged commercial era as it remains today.

We’ve seen already how enabling others to roll their own text adventures became something of a cottage industry of its own almost as soon as Scott Adams’s Adventureland, the first microcomputer-based game of its type, arrived on the TRS-80 in late 1978. In the May 1979 issue of SoftSide magazine, Lance Micklus published the BASIC code to his Dog Star Adventure, which would go on to become the sturdy framework for tens of thousands of similar games created in bedrooms, high-school computer labs, and home offices, most of which never traveled much further than the computer used to create them. There followed heaps more magazine listings of BASIC-based text adventures, many of them based on Micklus’s original, along with enough books on the crafting of them to fill a long library shelf.

At the same time, other more specialized text-adventure-creation systems also began to emerge. Only shortly after Dog Star Adventure appeared, Donald Brown began to distribute Eamon, a construction set for “adventure scenarios” that combined elements of text adventures and CRPGs in a way that strikes us as stranger today than it did players back in 1979, when genres were still in flux and the lines between the largely deterministic adventure game and the largely emergent CRPG had not yet been clearly demarcated. In 1982, Allan Moluf and Bruce Hanson released The Adventure System, an authoring system for new games that used the now well-documented Scott Adams format. (Such clever retro-fitting of new technologies onto old would become another thoroughgoing theme of interactive-fiction history, with perhaps the most notable example becoming Graham Nelson’s decision to make his new Inform compiler target the old Infocom Z-Machine in the early 1990s.) But the really big winner among the early text-adventure construction kits was an entry from across the pond: Graeme Yaendle’s The Quill, which almost from the instant of its late 1983 release became the basis for more than one out of every two text adventures released in Britain, thus helping the adventuring culture of Britain and the wider Europe become even more a culture of inspired amateurism than was that of the United States. (The Quill was briefly sold in the United States under the name AdventureWriter, but, being poorly marketed and distributed, never caught on.)

With Infocom being universally regarded as the gold standard in text adventures by 1983 even in Europe (where their games would remain pricey, disk-drive-requiring pieces of foreign exotica for some years yet), the ultimate dream for makers and users of systems like The Quill was a construction kit capable of making Infocom-quality games. That dream would, alas, go unrealized for quite some time. Even the Professional Adventure Writing System (PAWS), Yeandle’s 1986 follow-up to The Quill, had a long way to go to meet that standard. The first popular construction kit capable of fooling a player even momentarily into believing she was playing an Infocom game would rather be an American system called the Adventure Game Toolkit, or AGT, the first system of its kind to be widely used in the United States since Eamon. But before AGT there was the less auspiciously named Generic Adventure Game System, or GAGS, which never became all that popular and was capable of fooling absolutely no one. Nevertheless, any history of AGT must begin with GAGS.

The man behind GAGS was one Mark J. Welch, a go-getter who had started working as a freelance technology journalist just a year out of high school in 1976. By the mid-1980s, he was an editor and product reviewer for Byte, the most influential periodical in the computer industry. In his spare time, he tinkered with text adventures, first in BASIC, then in a Pascal-like language called Ada, finally in a new programming environment that was taking the industry by storm, Borland’s Turbo Pascal. He eventually made the leap that Scott Adams and so many professional adventure developers after him had already made, from writing each new game as a custom program on an ad hoc basis to developing a database-driven engine capable of playing many games. That engine became GAGS, which Welch first released in 1985 under the new software-distribution model of shareware; the system was free to copy or download, but happy users were encouraged to register their copy for $15. Welch would also sell the Turbo Pascal source code to those looking to hack the system a bit for themselves for $25, on the condition that they not distribute it further.

Working on business-focused MS-DOS machines with disk drives, relatively fast processors, 80 columns of text, and 256 K or more of memory, Welch was far less constrained than the likes of Graeme Yeandle had been in writing The Quill on a little Sinclair Spectrum. Yet, far from actively chasing the Holy Grail of an Infocom-like game, he kept his goals for GAGS deliberately modest. In a passage as commendable for its honesty as it is questionable in terms of marketing, Welch wrote bluntly in his manual’s introduction that GAGS “cannot be used to write an adventure game with as many complex features as Infocom’s. To do so would require developing a complete adventure-game programming language, as Infocom has done, and would require adventure-game writers to learn a very complex set of rules.” With Welch having thus explicitly rejected the idea of a true programming language for creating text adventures, working with GAGS, like working with The Quill, felt more like an exercise in data entry than it did an exercise in programming. Let’s briefly see how it worked.

A GAGS game is made up of three elements: “rooms,” “nouns,” and “creatures.” All are defined in a single text file, which is then passed to the compiler for transformation into an Infocom-style story file, playable via the GAGS interpreter. The examples that follow are taken from the most popular game ever made with GAGS, a Lewis Carroll pastiche with the appropriately Victorian long-winded title of The Adventures of Alice Who Went through the Looking Glass and Came Back Not Much Changed.1 Let’s first look at a room definition.

  Denser Forest
  East      35 - Dense Forest
  Points 12

ROOM_DESCR 9 -- Denser Forest
The forest is even denser here.  You think perhaps you should turn around and
go back to the garden.  Suddenly you realize the solution to a mathematics
problem that has been eluding you for days.

I trust that none of what you see here is terribly hard to divine. Room 9 is called “Denser Forest,” and is a dead end lying to the west of “Dense Forest.” The player receives 12 points upon entering this room for the first time. And after these details we have the text of the room’s description.

Just a couple of other optional details beyond what you see here can be provided in a room definition, defining potentially locked doors blocking departure and the keys that unlock them as well as whether the room is lit or unlit (it’s lit by default). GAGS also lets us end the game, in either victory or death, as soon as the player enters a given room; in fact, this is the only way to declare victory.

“Nouns,” meaning inanimate objects really, are a bit more complicated. Here we have an umbrella.

NOUN 204
  There is an old umbrella here.
  Weight    1
  Size    1
  Location  5 - Drawing Room
  Points    0
  Key       0
  ** Can't shoot
  Num_Shots 0
  ** Not_a_light

The umbrella has obviously seen better days.  It is frayed around the edges,
the handle is warped, and it bulges unnaturally in several places.

You spin the umbrella around a few times. Wasn't that fun?

I should first of all note that nouns are numbered from 201, so this is actually only the fourth object defined in the game. We see here that “umbrella,” the one-word name of the noun, can be prefaced by the adjective “old,” which could potentially be very useful for parser disambiguation if there happen to be two umbrellas in the game. “There is an old umbrella here” is the message which will be appended to the description of a room that happens to contain the umbrella. It has a weight and a size of 1 for purposes of inventory juggling, and it begins the game in room 5, the “Drawing Room.” The umbrella awards the player no points for picking it up for the first time.

The parameters that come next neatly summarize virtually every possibility for object interaction in a GAGS game. A noun can be a key unlocking a certain door or another noun; this one is not. A noun can be shootable, possibly with limited ammunition. A noun can be pushable, readable, turnable, playable, or pullable, each verb leading to a simple textual description of the result; in this case, turning the umbrella yields, “You spin the umbrella around a few times. Wasn’t that fun?” A noun can be turned off or on, can be closable and if so either closed or open, can be lockable and if so either locked or unlocked, can be drinkable or edible and if one or the other can be poisonous. A noun can be moveable or unmoveable; in this case, somewhat oddly, the player can’t actually pick the umbrella up, which renders the weight and size parameters moot. Finally, a noun can be a light source.

Let’s look at one more noun.

NOUN 205
  There is a small dagger here.
  Weight    1
  Size    1
  Location  204 - UMBRELLA
  Key       0
  Points    5
  ** Can't shoot
  Num_Shots 0
  ** Not_a_light

The dagger is small but very sharp.

So, the dagger is a moveable object found inside the closed umbrella. This is the sort of thing that often passes for a puzzle in a GAGS game; note that the player is awarded 5 points just for picking the dagger up for the first time.

Let’s now have a look at a creature.

  There is a Froobious Bandersnatch here.
  Location 9
  Weapon   205
  Threshhold 5
  Time_Thresh 5

The Bandersnatch is snorting and drooling.  It seem to harbor no very
honorable intentions towards you.

Creatures are numbered from 301, so our froobious bandersnatch is actually the first creature to be described. He lives in room 9, our aforedescribed Denser Forest. The parameters that follow “Location” serve to drive home the real main interest of the GAGS system: combat. In that respect, GAGS would seem to owe more philosophically to Eamon than it does to Infocom. Yet its combat is implemented in a rather peculiarly  unsatisfying way even in comparison to that less than ideal older system. Each hostile creature has a single noun — a key to a different sort of lock, one might say — that is capable of killing it instantly. All others are useless against it. In the case of the bandersnatch, then, said noun is the dagger. The “Threshold” parameter tells us that the player can make up to 5 unsuccessful attacks — presumably, using various objects to poke at it, hoping to find the right one — before the bandersnatch gets aggravated enough to kill her. The “Time_Thresh” of 5 tells us that the bandersnatch will kill the player anyway if she remains in his presence for 5 turns; in other words, no matter what the player does, if she doesn’t attack the bandersnatch with the dagger within 5 turns of arriving in the Denser Forest, she’s a goner. And “Hostile” of course tells us that the bandersnatch is, well, hostile; if he was “Friendly” instead, the “Threshold” and “Time_Thresh” would be meaningless.

With all possible verbs and interactions hard-coded into the engine, authors working with GAGS were largely restricted to the hoariest of hoary text-adventure chestnuts: locks and keys, light and darkness, the inevitable mazes. But most of all, games tended to develop (devolve?) into an exercise in finding the right thing to use to bash each monster in the player’s way. That’s certainly the case in the game we’ve just been looking at, which sees Alice cutting a bloody swathe through Wonderland, taking out jabberwocks and knaves with a violent aplomb that would make even the makers of the recent girl-powery films blush. Even a croquet ball gets coded up as a monster to be bashed with an “umbrolly” — a different umbrella from the inexplicably unmovable one we saw earlier — in a clumsy attempt to work around the limitations of GAGS.

Unsatisfactory though it was in so many ways as a piece of hard technology, GAGS did have a number of softer qualities going for it. Young though he still was, Mark Welch had been working for almost a decade already as a technical writer by the time he released GAGS. He knew how to describe how his system worked clearly and completely, and how to put his best foot forward generally when it came to every aspect of GAGS’s presentation. One might even say that his extensive documentation of GAGS marks the beginning of the tradition of literate, thoughtful writing about the art and technology of interactive fiction that remains a welcome aspect of the amateur community to this day.

Another move by Welch would prove if anything even more influential. Looking to encourage people to use his system, he decided to sponsor a contest for GAGS games, with a submission deadline of September 30, 1986. His justification for doing so rings in concert with the justifications for the hundreds of interactive-fiction contests that have been held since, not least the big one that began in 1995: to get people to actually finish and publish their games. “The main purpose of the contest was to encourage people to share the games they’d written using GAGS,” he says. “A lot of people had started games, spending quite a few hours on them, but stopped before they’d really finished them, or before they’d really made them playable.” Entrants were mailed on disk to Welch, who judged them personally, selecting Alice as the winner. (There is unfortunately no historical record of how many and which other games were submitted for judging.) The author of Alice, one Douglas Asherman, received $100 for his efforts and got to see his game distributed with GAGS from then on. Alice received a further boost when some enterprising hackers worked out how to make the GAGS interpreter output and input text over a modem connection. The game became a fixture among so-called “door games” — simple, text-based games hosted by computer bulletin-board services — for several years thereafter, thereby becoming available for play by many owners of the non-MS-DOS computers that still made up the vast majority of the home market going into the second half of the 1980s.

David M. Malmberg

David Malmberg

It was shortly after Welch’s first and only GAGS contest that David Malmberg, the real hero of our story today, entered the scene. A business analyst by day at the San Francisco headquarters of Foremost-McKesson — a $4 billion corporation with fingers in such diverse pies as chemicals, liquor, food, and pharmaceuticals — Malmberg had long since become a microcomputer convert by night, having purchased his first Commodore PET well before the 1970s were history. He contributed regularly to the magazines, beginning with the very first issue of Compute!, the magazine destined to become home computing’s biggest, in the fall of 1979. With two small children at home, he developed a special interest in computers as teaching tools, particularly as tools for teaching programming. In 1982, he wrote and published through Human Engineered Software— a company he had been instrumental in funding as part of his day job — an application/toy for the Commodore VIC-20 called Turtle Graphics, a simple language for graphics programming aimed at children. Eventually ported to the Commodore 64 as well, Turtle Graphics wound up selling 80,000 copies in the heyday of the first home-computer boom. Meanwhile Malmberg also nurtured a strong interest in text adventures, publishing a few of his experiments in that direction as BASIC and PILOT type-in listings in the magazines.

Given his interest in text adventures and programming systems suitable for the non-expert, Malmberg was the perfect candidate to embrace and extend GAGS. As soon as he encountered Mark Welch’s simple adventure system, he mailed off for the source code and started studying it on his daily one-hour rail commute to and from work, teaching himself Turbo Pascal as he did so. He soon contacted Welch to inform him of the enhancements he had already begun to implement, looking to see if a partnership might be a possibility. But when he met Welch for lunch he found the latter interested not so much in partnering as in washing his hands of the whole endeavor. Welch, who had recently scaled back his work as a tech journalist to begin attending law school at Berkeley, was simply burnt-out on a system that, despite the contest and the relative popularity of Alice among BBS sysops and public-domain software traders, had never quite taken off as he had hoped. Malmberg promptly made him a very generous offer indeed: he would take the entire operation off his hands, assuming all responsibility for enhancing and supporting the system, but continue to pay Welch 50 percent of all the profits it generated. Welch, unsurprisingly, jumped at it. The sharply limited GAGS was about to become the much more useful AGT.

The core of Malmberg’s enhancements is a system of something he called “meta-commands,” which allow the author to make things happen that aren’t hard-coded into the system’s preconceptions. An AGT game which uses meta-commands has a new “command file” and a “message file” to go with the standard GAGS database definitions. The command file consists of a long string of entries to be checked against the player’s typed command. When matches are found, customized things of the author’s choosing can happen, possibly outputting custom text from the message file.

The examples that follow are drawn from the source code to A Dudley Dilemma, an early AGT game for which I’ll be providing more context soon. We’ll look at some of the code which implements Dudley‘s light source, a flashlight, in a much more sophisticated way than would have been possible in GAGS. Since A Dudley Dilemma is still very old-school in spirit, the implementation will include a dwindling battery, a complication that wouldn’t have been possible in GAGS.

In the standard database-definition file, we have two versions of the flashlight, representing it in its unlit and lit states. (While you read over the definitions that follow, do note the new ability to provide additional synonyms for nouns beyond a simple name and adjective — one of Malmberg’s various other modest but welcome enhancements to the core of the old GAGS system.)

NOUN 201
  There is a rechargeable flashlight here.
  SIZE 9

The flashlight is one of the rechargeable kind that never seems to work when
you need it.  It is off at the moment.

NOUN 202
  There is a rechargeable flashlight here.
  SIZE 9

The flashlight is one of the rechargeable kind that never seems to work when
you need it.  It is presently on.

Now, let’s turn to the command file.

  Present 201
  TurnFlagON 2
  SwapLocations 201 202
  PrintMessage 14

Every turn, the game checks to see whether the player’s command matches “light flashlight,” or appropriate synonyms thereof, as it works its way down through the list of meta-commands. If so, a script written in a custom programming language of about 170 possible commands is run — exactly the “complete adventure-game programming language” that Welch had so explicitly disavowed in his original GAGS documentation. If we have a match, we first check to see if noun 201, the unlit flashlight, is “Present,” meaning it is in the current room or being carried or worn by the player. If it isn’t, the script is terminated right here, and the game proceeds on to test the player’s command against the remaining commands in the file. If it is, we continue with the script by turning flag 2 on. The flags, another of Malmberg’s additions, are 255 on/off switches that the author can use to keep track of whatever she wishes. In this case, flag 2 tracks the state of the flashlight.

The next command, “SwapLocation,” swaps the locations of the unlit flashlight, which is being carried by the player or at least in the room with her, with the lit flashlight, which is presumably in room 0, an inaccessible holding area for nouns and creatures not currently in play. Next we print message 14 from the custom-message file. It looks like this:

You turn the $NOUN$ on.

“$NOUN$” here is, as you may have gathered, a stand-in for the object of the player’s command, in this case the flashlight.

The final line of the script, “DoneWithTurn,” informs the game that we’ve successfully carried out the player’s command and that it should not continue working its way through the command file checking for further matches, as it would have done had we bailed on the first line of the script. Thus we can effectively prioritize certain reactions over others by placing them earlier in the command file.

So, we now have a flashlight that we can turn off and on, but we still need to figure out how to make its battery run down. In addition to the 255 flags at our disposal, we have 25 variables, each capable of storing an integer. We use variable 1 to represent the current charge of the flashlight; it starts at 100 and should decrement by 1 each turn that the flashlight is lit. Thus very early in the command file, we have this:

  FlagON 2
  SubtractFromVariable 1 1

“COMMAND ANY” means that this script will fire every single turn, regardless of what command the player has entered. In the script that follows, we first check to see if flag 2, representing the state of the flashlight, is set. If it isn’t, meaning the flashlight is turned off, we bail, continuing with the later command entries. If it is, meaning the flashlight is turned on, we proceed to subtract 1 from variable 1. Note that there is no “DoneWithTurn” entry in this script, meaning processing of the command file will always continue whether we’ve actually done anything here or not.

The command definitions that immediately follow the one above give warnings to the player as the battery runs lower and the flashlight dims. I’ll leave decoding them as an exercise for you.

  FlagON 2
  Present 202
  VariableEquals 1 50
  PrintMessage 10

** The flashlight seems to be getting dimmer! **

  FlagON 2
  Present 202
  VariableEquals 1 20
  PrintMessage 11

** The flashlight is definitely much dimmer now. **

  FlagON 2
  Present 202
  VariableEquals 1 5
  PrintMessage 12

** The flashlight fades to a dull orange. **

Finally, the flashlight may expire entirely:

FlagON 2
VariableEquals 1 0
TurnFlagOFF 2
SwapLocations 202 233
Present 233
PrintMessage 13

** The flashlight sputters and goes out! **

Note that in this case we swap out the lit flashlight for yet another noun representing the same object, this time a dead version of the flashlight.

NOUN 233
  There is a dead flashlight here.
  SIZE 9

I’d like to look at just one more aspect of Dudley‘s handling of light and darkness, one that illuminates (sorry!) yet one more of Malmberg’s critical additions to the GAGS template. For the first time with AGT, it became possible for the author to define her own new verbs to augment the modest suite of text-adventure staples that are built into the system. Malmberg gave custom verbs the counter-intuitive name of “dummy verbs,” presumably because they do nothing if the author doesn’t explicitly handle them in her game’s command file. A Dudley Dilemma uses 30 dummy verbs, of which we’ll look at just one: “charge,” also known as “recharge,” “plug,” and “insert.” For A Dudley Dilemma, being old-school but not completely heartless, does give the player a way to recharge her flashlight.


In the original version of A Dudley Dilemma, the flashlight can be recharged from only one location, one which happens to be equipped with a handy electrical outlet.

  Round Room
  NORTH 24
  SOUTH 47
  EAST 50
  WEST 49

This is a roughly circular room with exits to the north, south, east and west.
There are several old steam pipes and cracked conduits running through here,
and the fumes from one of them make you slightly dizzy.
There is an electrical outlet here.

I won’t belabor the implementation of charging unnecessarily, as the code is quite readable on its own. When the player types something like “recharge flashlight,” we first step through a series of possible failure states and their resulting messages, arriving eventually if none of them apply at actually topping off the flashlight and sending her on her way. Once again, I encourage you to take a few minutes to work your way through it if you’re at all interested in getting a feel for how AGT really worked in practice. And besides, if you’re like me you might just find this sort of thing fun.

  IsCarrying 201
  PrintMessage 81

The flashlight must be ON to be recharged.

  IsCarrying 202
  VariableGT 1 20
  PrintMessage 67

The flashlight doesn't need to be recharged (yet).

  NOT AtLocation 48
  IsCarrying 233
  IsCarrying 202
  VariableLT 1 20
  PrintMessage 68

Guess you'd better find someplace to plug it in!

  AtLocation 48
  IsCarrying 202
  VariableLT 1 20
  SetVariableTo 1 100
  PrintMessage 66

You plug the flashlight in and recharge it.

  AtLocation 48
  IsCarrying 233
  SwapLocations 233 202
  TurnFlagON 2
  SetVariableTo 1 100
  PrintMessage 66

I hope these examples may begin to convey how ingenious Malmberg’s extensions to GAGS really were; they turned a system useful only for making the most simplistic of games into one of the most powerful systems for making amateur text adventures that had yet been seen.

But AGT had still more going for it beyond its technical affordances. Perhaps even more so than Mark Welch, David Malmberg had the skills to present his brainchild in the best possible light. He registered a little company, which he dubbed Softworks, to handle the system, and expanded Welch’s original documentation to fully explain all of his own new additions, replete with examples. Asked in an interview years after AGT’s heyday what aspects of the system he was proudest of, he placed “the quality of the documentation” on the same level as the meta-commands. Justifiably so: the instruction manual ballooned to 223 printed pages of friendly, readable prose, dwarfing in both quality and quantity the manuals included with most boxed commercial software. In fact, AGT became in a sense a physical product. Those who paid the $35 registration fee were shipped not only three disks full of the latest version of the compiler along with heaps of sample code and sample games but also the manual in spiral-bound hardcopy. All the effort spent in looking serious paid off in others choosing to take AGT seriously. In what can only be described as a major coup for Malmberg, AGT was given a full-fledged and generally very positive review in the February 1989 issue of the glossy newsstand magazine Computer Gaming World, an achievement of which very few other shareware products could boast.

Despite such welcome exposure, Malmberg quickly learned, as would many text-adventure fans who attempted to turn their loves into business propositions after him, that there just wasn’t a lot of money to be made in text-only adventure games. Able to encourage his users to register only by offering them the hardcopy documentation, telephone support, and, as he put it, “a warm glow from having supported at least one of the many shareware products you probably use” along with his own “eternal gratitude,” he would over the lifetime of AGT average only 100 or so copies “sold” per year — and even that income he of course had to split equally with his silent partner Mark Welch. At least an order of magnitude more people used unregistered copies to experiment with game design, and often to make and release complete games without ever bothering to pay the registration fee. Superficially professional though Malmberg’s presentation managed to be, AGT was always at heart a labor of love; it certainly never gave him cause to think of quitting his day job in favor of becoming a text-adventure mogul.

The people who made games with AGT, especially in the earliest years, were a far-flung, disconnected group by any standard, and doubly so in comparison to the close-knit Internet-based community that would follow them. I spoke to two former AGT authors in preparing this article and the next, and was surprised to learn that neither felt himself to be a part of any community at all really. With modems still fairly scarce and online services still fairly expensive in the late 1980s, Malmberg himself became the principal conduit binding many AGT users together, to whatever extent they were bound together at all. In 1988, shortly after releasing the first version of AGT, he made the hugely important decision to reconstitute Mark Welch’s one-off 1986 GAGS contest as an annual event. The rules were simple: all entrants had to have been made using AGT, had to have been first publicly released during the calendar year of the contest in question, and had to be posted to Softworks by December 31 of said year. Malmberg personally would, as he put it, “consider each game’s originality, cleverness, fiendishness, humor, raw cunning, and professionalism” to arrive at a winner.

The institution of the AGT contest as an ongoing annual tradition was a landmark event. Since 1989, the year when the 1988 batch of AGT games was judged, not a year has passed without a major annual contest dominating the interactive-fiction calendar. Until 1994, that contest would be Malmberg’s AGT competition, which would be held six times in all. Picking up neatly thereafter in 1995, it would be the Interactive Fiction Competition, which is closing in on its 22nd iteration as of this writing.

In due course, amateur interactive-fiction authors would begin to probe relentlessly at the boundaries of the medium, experimenting wildly and discovering many worthy (and a fair number of unworthy) new approaches to the art of the humble text adventure. In these early days, however, with Infocom dying, the text-adventure corpus was more in need of triage than surgery. Accordingly, early AGT authors didn’t concern themselves overmuch with new frontiers. They rather applied themselves diligently to simply, as a later interactive-fiction publication would put it, “helping to keep text adventures alive.”

In short, if the only way for them to have new text adventures was to make them themselves, then that’s exactly what they’d do. The AGT user base was overwhelmingly made up of diehard Infocom fans, drawn from that hardcore of a few tens of thousands who never abandoned the company as graphics got better and other, flashier genres stole the hearts of the vast majority of the computer-gaming public. Their numbers may not have been large enough to support a company like Infocom anymore, but there were more than enough of them to keep the flame burning via amateur creations in the Infocom tradition.

Given the circumstances of their creation, it’s not surprising to find that most early AGT games can be described to one degree or another as Infocom homages. Indeed, some of them are perhaps better described as Infocom pastiches, absolutely crammed full of echoes of the puzzles and environments their makers fairly worshiped. But this hardly invalidates them as experiences. Personally, having spent the last four and a half years intermittently immersed in the lore of Infocom in writing this blog, I feel myself all too much in tune with the mindset that led to the early AGT games.

And there is I think a unique quality to even many of the most slavish of the AGT Infocom homages that’s worth mentioning. To a much greater degree than the games of Infocom and other commercial publishers, AGT games feel like personal expressions of their creators. In later years, jokes and no small amount of scoffing would be attached to Everyone’s First Game, which inevitably begins in said everyperson’s bedroom and proceeds to play out in an environment interesting and meaningful to absolutely no one beyond the author’s friends and family. Yet the same tendency that spawns that phenomenon constitutes I think an important part of the text adventure’s ongoing fascination. In a ludic world obsessed with high-concept, world-saving, galaxy-spanning plots, text adventures can provide a window into the more modest but — for me, anyway — far more interesting lives of real people. If we agree with the folks who say that one of the most important functions of art is to provide a glimpse at how the proverbial other half lives, then that’s a noble quality indeed. When we look back today to the AGT games of decades ago, they take on an additional layer of interest as historical documents in their own right of the times and places that spawned them.

These are qualities that both of the early AGT games I’d like to introduce and recommend to you today evince in spades. Both are old-school puzzlefests in the Infocom tradition, but both were created by clever, interesting people who give us a chance to walk in the shoes they were wearing in the vanished United States of almost three decades ago.

The first game I’ll heartily recommend is the one we’ve been using as an example of AGT programming: A Dudley Dilemma, winner of the 1988 AGT Competition. Written by Lane Barrow, at the time a PhD candidate in literature at Harvard, it takes place in and around the very same university; the name of the game is a play on Harvard’s Dudley House for nonresident undergraduates. A Dudley Dilemma is a fine addition to the longstanding tradition of collegiate interactive fiction, its depiction of life at Harvard as loving and entertaining in its own way as were The Lurking Horror‘s homages to Harvard’s cross-town counterpart MIT — a university which, incidentally, also makes a cameo appearance in A Dudley Dilemma; it is, after all, just a short subway ride away.

The second game is Son of Stagefright, the winner of the 1989 AGT Competition (Malmberg was, in addition to his other qualities, a very good judge). It was written by Mike McCauley, an avid participant in another inspiring form of amateur creativity: community theater. The theater in which Son of Stagefright is set isn’t based directly on any one real place, being rather a conglomeration of various playhouses McCauley had known. But it’s a fascinating place to explore nevertheless, dripping with McCauley’s love for thespianism and his great good humor in all its many nooks and crannies.

Both of these games will seem a little rough around the edges in comparison to a more polished modern work created with a more polished modern programming language, but I do urge you to give them a fair chance. Being written in the tradition of Infocom means among other things that they are interested in challenging you but not in stymieing you entirely. Their puzzles are almost entirely fair and reasonable, and occasionally inspired. Son of Stagefright even offers a very clever embodied hint system that dribbles out nudges via a magic book you discover.

Both games will run in AGiliTy, a modern interpreter for AGT story files, or the one-size-fits-all interpreter Gargoyle; the latter would be my first recommendation. In either case, the file ending in “.D$$” is the one you want to open with the interpreter. There is, however, an important caveat in the case of A Dudley Dilemma: the original Competition-winning version of the game doesn’t play quite correctly in AGiliTy or Gargoyle, rendering it unwinnable. But never fear: I’ve been in touch with Lane Barrow, and he’s provided a newer version which we’ve tested and found to work perfectly in the modern interpreters. Along the way, he’s also cleaned up a few of the original game’s less felicitous old-school puzzles, and packaged the whole together with DOSBox to make it a one-click play for those running Windows who’d prefer to play it through the original AGT interpreter rather than AGiliTy or Gargoyle. If you do choose to play through DOSBox, you’ll get to enjoy some pictures of the scenes described; these aren’t essential by any means, but they do add a little something to the experience. Regardless of how you play, just please make sure to use this new “remastered” version if you wish to play A Dudley Dilemma for reasons of fun (as opposed to historical investigation) today. (I’ll be uploading this version to the IF Archive as well to assure that it’s preserved in perpetuity.)

I have something special planned for my next article which I hope will deepen still further your enjoyment of A Dudley Dilemma. But there’s no need to wait for that to get started. Just go ahead and play these games — either or both of them. They’re both worth it, fine testaments to the new era of creative empowerment spawned by AGT. In later years, when still better systems became available, many proponents of those newer systems would come to scoff at AGT for the many limitations that Malmberg couldn’t quite manage to overcome, and even at those authors who continued to stick with the system well beyond its real or perceived sell-by date. In its day, however, AGT represented a wonderful advance that empowered text-adventure fans to take the medium into their own keeping just in the nick of time, just as Infocom collapsed. Had AGT (or something equivalent to it) not come along when it did, the post-Infocom history of adventures in text would read very, very differently. AGT laid the groundwork for the decades of proud amateurism — amateurism in the very best sense — that were still to come. I look forward to continuing to explore its legacy in future articles.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of February 1989 and May 1989; Commodore Power/Play of Fall 1982, Summer 1983, Fall 1983, Winter 1983, Spring 1984, June/July 1984, August/September 1984, and April/May 1985; Compute! of Fall 1979, March 1981, July 1981, and April 1982; Micro of April 1981, October 1981, September 1982, November 1982, and September 1983; Personal Computing of September 1982; The Games Machine of September 1982; Byte of February 1985; New York Times of March 18 1981 and January 10 1982; the various documentation included with the various versions of GAGS and AGT; Stephen Granade’s interview with David Malmberg; Mark Welch’s blog post about GAGS and AGT. Most of all, my thanks to Lane Barrow and Mike McCauley for corresponding with me about their fondly remembered time as AGT authors.)

  1. I have tinkered here and there with this example game and the next to better illustrate my points. 


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