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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!

Congratulations!

Thanks!

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 Cosmoserve 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?

Yes.

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.

Wow!

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?


Cosmoserve

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.


T-Zero

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.

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

 

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