Tag Archives: dudley dilemma

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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