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The Neo-Classical Interactive Fiction of 1995

For all that it was a period with some significant sparks of heat and light, we might reasonably call the time between 1989 and 1994 the Dark Ages of Interactive Fiction. It was only in 1995 that the lights were well and truly turned on again and the Interactive Fiction Renaissance began in earnest. This was the point when a number of percolating trends — the evolving TADS and Inform programming languages, the new generation of Z-Machine interpreters, the serious discussions of design craft taking place on Usenet — bore a sudden and rather shockingly verdant fruit. It became, one might say, Year One of the interactive-fiction community as we know it today.

The year is destined always to be remembered most of all for the very first Interactive Fiction Competition, better known as simply the “IF Comp” to its friends. Its influence on the design direction of what used to be called text adventures would soon become as undeniable as it was unwelcome in the eyes of some ultra-traditionalists: its guidance that entries should be finishable in two hours or so led in the course of things to an interest in depth in place of breadth, in literary and formal experimentation in place of the “gamier” pleasures of point-scoring and map-making.

But the Comp’s influence would take time to make itself known. This first edition of it, organized by an early community pillar named G. Kevin Wilson, was a relatively modest affair, with just twelve entries, six in each of the two categories into which it was divided: one for TADS games, one for Inform games. (This division would fall by the wayside in future Comps.) The entries did prefigure some of the self-referential experimentation to come: Undo by Neil deMause placed you at the very end of a (deliberately) broken, corrupted game and expected you to muddle your way to victory; Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents Detective by C.E. Forman made somewhat mean-spirited, television-inspired fun of a really, really bad game released a few years earlier by a twelve-year-old author; The Magic Toyshop by Gareth Rees took place all in one room, thus becoming the perfect treat for mapping haters. Yet in my opinion none of these games join the ranks of the year’s very best works.

In retrospect, the lineup of games in that first Comp is perhaps most notable for becoming the venue for the first polished work of interactive fiction by Andrew Plotkin; his influence on the future direction of the community, in terms of both aesthetics and technology, would be comparable only to that of Mike Roberts and Graham Nelson among the figures we’ve already met in previous articles. But his A Change in the Weather, a punishingly difficult meta-puzzle of a game which one couldn’t hope to solve without many replays, stands as a fairly minor entry in his impressive oeuvre today, despite winning the Inform category of that first Comp.

So, I’d like to reserve any more discussion of this and subsequent IF Comps for future articles, and focus today on what I consider to be the real standout text adventures of 1995, of which there are a gratifying number. The games below evince no concern whatsoever about keeping their playing time down to a couple of hours. On the contrary: all of the games that follow are big enough that Infocom could conceivably have released them, while at least one or two of them are actually bigger than Infocom’s technology could possibly have allowed. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that works like these are my personal sweet spot for interactive fiction: big, puzzly works which are well-written but which aren’t afraid to be games — albeit games which incorporate the design lessons of those pioneers that came before them. Neo-classical interactive fiction, if you will. (Yes, I’m aware that we’ve jumped from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism with dizzying speed. Such is life when you’re making broad — overly broad? — historical metaphors.) If your preferences are anything like mine, the games that follow will be heaven for you.

In fact, let me close this introduction with something of a personal plea. I’ve noticed a reluctance on the part of many diehard Infocom fans to give what came afterward a fair shake. I do understand that nostalgia is a big part of the reason people read sites like this one and play the games that are featured here, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Although I do try very hard to keep nostalgia out of my own game criticism, I firmly believe that no reason to play a game is ever a wrong one, as long as you’re enjoying yourself. And yet I also believe, and with equal firmness, that the games you’ll find below aren’t just as good as those of Infocom: in a lot of ways, they’re superior. There’s nothing postmodern or pretentious or precious here (all of these being labels I’ve heard applied to other strands of post-Infocom interactive fiction as a reason for not engaging with it), just good clean old-school fun, generally absent the worst old-school annoyances. Please do consider giving one or more of these games a try, if you happen to be a fan of Infocom who hasn’t yet explored what came afterward. Nostalgia is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to make new memories.


Christminster

You haven't seen your brother Malcolm since he received his fellowship at Biblioll College - pressure of work was his excuse not to come down to London. So when you received that telegram from him you leapt at the excuse to come up to the university town of Christminster for the day and visit him.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Gareth Rees’s “interactive conspiracy” Christminster as a sort of Curses-lite. It shares with Graham Nelson’s epic a droll, very English prose style, an arch sense of humor, and a casual erudition manifested in a love of literary quotations and classical references. Indeed, the connections between the games go deeper still: Graham and Gareth were not only both Oxbridge academics but friends who helped one another out creatively and technically. If you spend enough time poking around in Christminster‘s library, you’ll discover that their games apparently belong to the same universe, when you uncover numerous references to the Meldrew family of Curses fame. But going too far with this line of description is doing Christminster a disservice. It may be smaller than Curses — to be fair, very few games aren’t — but it’s plenty rich in its own right, whilst being vastly more soluble by a reasonably motivated person in a reasonable amount of time.

Christminster takes place in the fictional English university town of the same name, but is obviously drawn to a large extent from the author’s lived experience.[1]For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Dr. Jarboe,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a maths undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.” The time in which it occurs is kept deliberately vague; I vote for the 1950s, but one could almost equally opt for any point within a few decades to either side of that one. You play Christabel, a prim young lady who’s come up to Christminster to visit her brother Malcolm. But she soon discovers that he’s nowhere to be found, and that a shadowy occult enterprise seems to be afoot within his college’s ivy-covered walls. And so the hunt is on to find out what’s become of him and who is responsible.

None of this need be taken overly seriously. The game’s milieu of bumbling, slightly cracked old dons comes straight from the pages of Waugh, Amis, and Wodehouse, while its gloriously contrived central mystery would doubtless have pleased Agatha Christie. Thankfully, Christminster runs on plot time rather than clock time: the story evolves in response to your progress rather than placing you in thrall to some inexorable turn counter, in the way of the polarizing early Infocom mysteries. This leaves plenty of time to poke at every nook and cranny of the musty old campus and to enjoy some ingenious puzzles. In a few places, the design does show its age; the very first puzzle of the game is one of the very hardest, leaving you trapped outside of the college’s walls with nothing to do until you solve it — not exactly the most welcoming opening! But by all means do try to carry on, as the English like to say. If you do, you might just find Christminster to be one of the best cozy mysteries you’ll ever play.


John’s Fire Witch

It’s a cold weekend in December of 1990, and it’s been far too long since you have seen your friend John Baker! But you’ve finally managed to take some time out of your schedule to drive to Columbus and spend some “quality time” together. Quality time, of course, means that you and he are going to sample every bar that Ohio State University’s High Street has to offer.

John was to meet you at a favorite pizza and beer spot to start off the evening, but he hasn’t showed up. John’s always been rather spontaneous (read that as ‘erratic’), so you think he’ll show up eventually. But as the night wears on and you tire of downing beers by yourself, you decide to drive to his place and see if he’s left a note or something for you there.

You find his front door unlocked and John nowhere to be found. Pretty tired from your earlier drive, and also buzzing a bit from the beer you drank, you quickly doze off in the living room.

It is now morning. A terrible snow storm is raging outside, the worst you’ve ever seen. You can’t believe how much snow has piled up over the night. You still haven’t heard from John, and you seem to now be trapped in his apartment.

John’s Fire Witch by John Baker is an example of what we used to call “snack-sized interactive fiction” back in the day. Although the shortest game featured in this collection of reviews, it would be considered medium-sized today, with a typical play time in the range of two to five hours — i.e., not much if any shorter than, say, Infocom’s The Witness.

But no self-respecting member of the interactive-fiction literati would dare to release a game that opens like this one today. Waking up in your slovenly friend’s apartment is just one step removed from that ultimate in text-adventure clichés: the game that starts in your — or rather the author’s — bedroom. Make that half a step removed: note that the guy whose apartment you wake up in and the author of this game are the same person. “John, like many IF characters,” wrote David Welbourn in an online play-through of the game, “seems to live in a pigsty and eat nothing but snow.”

So, John’s Fire Witch is willfully unambitious; all it wants to do is entertain you for a few hours. Poking around your vanished friend’s apartment, you discover that he’s gotten himself caught up in a metaphysical struggle between an “ice wizard” and a “fire witch.” It’s up to you to rescue him by completing a number of unlikely tasks, such as collecting a handy grab bag of the seven deadly sins for a certain pitchfork-wielding character who dwells in the Down Below. (Luckily, good old John tends to partake in just about all of them on a regular basis, so his apartment makes a pretty good hunting ground.)

For two and a half decades now, critics like me have been intermittently trying to explain why John’s Fire Witch succeeds in being so appealing almost in spite of itself. Its prose treads that fine line between breezy and tossed-off, its thematic aspirations are non-existent, its puzzles are enjoyable but never breathtaking. In the end, maybe it just comes down to being good company. Its author’s personality comes through in droves, and you can’t help but like him. Beyond that… well, if it it never does anything all that amazingly great, it never does anything all that egregiously wrong either.

The real John Baker disappeared without a trace after making this modest little game — good luck Googling that name! — leaving it behind as his only interactive-fiction legacy. He tells us that he’d like his players to send him $6, for lunch: “My favorite lunch is a soup & sandwich combo at a restaurant on Sawmill Road.” I for one would be happy to pay. Just drop me a line, John.


Lethe Flow Phoenix

A cool wind whips across the peak you stand on, sending tiny dust-devils whirling about your feet. The stars above you seem especially bright tonight, their silver light reaching across generations to speak to you. It is midnight, the hour of magic. The moon is not in sight tonight. All is still. All is waiting.

Perhaps it was a mistake to come and camp out here on this night. Not something you could have predicted in advance, of course, but still ... perhaps it was a little foolish. All Hallows’ Eve is not the most auspicious of nights. Still, you packed your bags up, tossed them next to the one-man tent in your trunk, and drove out here to spend a few days and get your life sorted out.

You were awakened in the middle of the night by something. You weren’t quite sure what, but you could tell something was wrong when you woke up. The desert was too quiet, too dark ... too eager. Like a sleep walker, you stumbled to the cliff nearby. You stood for a minute, catching your breath, and looked around. Behind you, at the other end of the shaky dirt trail, your car and tent wait patiently for your return. In other directions, you have a wide-open view of the desert, and can see it stretches in all directions, until it touches the feet of the mountains. The missing moon, curiously, does not concern you, nor does the fact that you can see as well now as if it were there.

You absentmindedly take another step forwards. If possible, the night becomes even more quiet, and the stars even brighter. Another step, and then another. You stand silently at the very edge of the cliff, looking outwards.

Then the ground gives way. “I’ve gone too far,” you think, almost casually. Not even screaming, you fall from the edge of the cliff.

***


There is a sudden sense of a presence around you as you fall. When you are rescued in mid-air, the event seems almost natural – bluesilver wings surround you, feathers caress you, and merciful darkness embraces you.

***

You awaken, and find yourself in a grassy field. The sun is shining brightly overhead, and a brook babbles gently as it flows along. A small tree grows in the center of the field, its branches ripe with apples.

If John Fire’s Witch is the My Stupid Apartment sub-genre of interactive fiction elevated to a weirdly sublime pitch, then Dan Shiovitz’s Lethe Flow Phoenix does the same for another hackneyed perennial of the post-commercial era: the Deeply Meaningful Exploration of the Subconscious. One always seems to find one or two games of this stripe, generally the products of younger scribes whose earnestness is almost painfully palpable, sloshing about in the lower rungs of any given IF Comp. Alas, their attempts to reveal inner truths through surrealistic imagery tend to come off as more banal than profound — rather like reading the diary of that angst-ridden fifteen-year-old so many of us used to be.

Dan Shiovitz was himself a fairly young man when he wrote Lethe Flow Phoenix, a game whose labored Latinate title doesn’t appear to bode well. Yet it turns out to be far better than one would ever dare to hope. Shiovitz has a knack for devising and describing beautifully twisted landscapes, through which he then proceeds to thread a series of deviously satisfying puzzles. At times, this game almost plays like a textual version of Myst, with much the same atmosphere of stately desolation and the same style of otherworldly but oddly logical dilemmas to overcome.

And then, around the halfway point, Lethe Flow Phoenix turns into something else entirely. Shiovitz provides an explanation for his protagonist’s personal problems, and it’s not at all what you might expect. I hesitate to say too much more here, but will go so far as to reveal that aliens from outer space — as opposed to just alienated humans — suddenly come into the picture. Again, this development should be disastrous, but somehow it works. The game manages to maintain your interest right up to its happy ending.

Dan Shovitz went on to write several other text adventures after this one, perhaps most notably Bad Machine, an exploration of the frontiers of language sufficient to set any postmodern linguistic theorist’s heart aflutter. But even that experimental masterstroke shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow this early piece of work. Yes, the author of Lethe Flow Phoenix is clearly a young man, but this particular young man is also an observant, talented writer. His protagonist’s final redemption is genuinely moving, the journey to that point satisfying on several levels. Lethe Flow Phoenix pairs heart with craftsmanship, and the results are pretty great.


The Light: Shelby’s Addendum

A strangeness has fallen. You first became aware of it with the darkening of the skies: the majestic, threatening storm clouds that seemed on the verge of deluging the earth in a torrent, yet hung motionless, impatient, as though awaiting further instructions from some unseen and malignant higher power. Of course Holcroft had on many occasions disproved to you the existence of such higher beings with his charts and calculations, and you do not believe in such foolishness as ghosts, gods and goblins, but events such as those unfolding before you now are causing you to question all that you have learned.

First the clouds, then the sudden silence of the birdsong, and the people. Where were the people? The village was deserted as you passed through. Not a soul to be seen. You knew you had to alert Barclay and Holcroft that something was terribly wrong with the balance of things, but before you had reached even the main gate an impenetrable mist had rolled in from below the cliffs and obscured the path to the lighthouse.

You decided to wait in the drum shed until the mist had lifted, rather than risk life and limb on the cliff walk, but you were weary from your journey and fell into a deep sleep. When you awoke it was near nightfall. The mist had barely dissipated, but your task was too important, so you took your chances on the cliff walk regardless. It was so dark. Why hadn’t Barclay or Holcroft lit the beacon? In the two years since beginning your apprenticeship you had never known the Regulators to neglect their duties. On the contrary, you found them to be slavishly by the book. “Routine begets knowledge,” Barclay once told you. (He had obviously never cleaned the septic tank every month for two straight years).

When, at last, you reached the courtyard entrance, something even stranger happened. You began to feel suddenly and inexplicably weak, as though the very life were being drawn from your bones. You had eaten well on the train journey from the Commission’s headquarters in the capital city, and passed your last physical with glowing colors, yet you felt as though you were at death’s door.

You had to see Holcroft. He, perhaps, could explain....

Colm McCarthy’s The Light: Shelby’s Addendum is another game that’s better than its ambiguously pretentious name. You play the eponymous Shelby, a junior — very junior — apprentice in a lonely lighthouse that provides more than just illumination: its beam maintains a delicate balance between our reality and other, alternate planes of existence. The hows and wherefores of its functioning are never explained all that well; ditto just when and where this story is supposed to be taking place. (We’re definitely on the Earth, probably in the near future, but is this our Earth or an alternate Earth?) In the end, the vagueness matters not a whit. A more thorough explanation would only interfere with the game’s atmosphere of mysterious Lovecraftian dread. You can almost smell the fetid seaside air as you play.

As the game opens, you’re returning to your post from a much-deserved holiday, only to find the lighthouse and even the village near it devoid of their usual inhabitants. Worse, the beacon itself has gone haywire, and the multiverse is slipping out of harmony as a result, producing unsettling effects all around you. Exploring the environs, you turn up evidence of the all-too-human disputes that gave rise to this slow-moving cosmic disaster. It looks like you are the only one who can correct the fault in our stars.

A big, lavish game, carefully written and implemented in most ways, The Light does from time to time trade in its polished personality for a more ramshackle old-school feel. If you don’t solve a pivotal puzzle within the first 100 turns — and you almost certainly won’t the first time through — it’s game over, thanks for playing. And there’s a mid-game submarine ride where the atmosphere suddenly changes from Lovecraftian dread to a scene straight out of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Like most reviewers, I can only shake my head at this bit’s existence and wonder what the heck McCarthy was thinking.

Still, such breakdowns are very much the exception to the rule here. I’m nonplussed by some reviewers’ struggles with the puzzles; I solved the entire game without a hint, a feat which I’m happy to consider a testament to good design rather than any genius on my part. I’m kind of bummed that the sequel Colm McCarthy promises us in his denouement has never materialized. I’d love to know whether poor Shelby finally got a promotion after saving the multiverse and all.


Theatre

Another day, another dollar! Life is good at the moment, the property market is booming. Still, it does have its down side; when showing those Mulluer Corporation executives around that old theatre dump, err, opportunity you must have left your pager down in the basement. Better hurry, you have to meet the others at the opera in an hour, and be careful. It wouldn’t do to show up with your clothes all dirty.

Brendon Wyber’s “interactive night of horror” Theatre does us the favor of including its inspiration right in the game itself. As Wyber writes in his introduction, he made Theatre after reading an allegedly true haunted-house story by Joel Furr, one of the early Internet’s more prominent online characters, whose claims to fame include popularizing the term “spam.” Furr’s story, which is readable in its entirety via an in-game menu, is riveting whether you choose to go on to play said game itself or not. It involves the Lyric Theatre of Blacksburg, Virginia, a rambling old place stemming from 1930 that has been restored and is enjoying a new lease on life today, but was at its lowest ebb when Furr made its acquaintance in the early 1990s. As a Kiwi, Wyber had never been to the Lyric, yet that didn’t stop him from using Furr’s description of it as the basis for the setting if not the plot of his game.

You play a yuppie real-estate agent who rushes back inside the old theater he’s trying to unload to retrieve his forgotten pager — this is the 1990s, after all! — only to emerge again to find his car stolen. Rather than venturing out into the seedy neighborhood around the theater on foot, you opt to spend the night inside. Let the haunting begin…

Our frustrations with the medium understandably cause us to spend a lot of time talking about the things that textual interactive fiction, and adventure games in general for that matter, struggle to do well. For better or for worse, we tend to spend less time on the medium’s natural strengths. I’ll just note here, then, that setting must top any list of same. All of the games I’ve featured in this piece make this point, but none do it better than this one. Its name is no misnomer: the theater truly is this game’s main attraction. Its geography expands slowly and organically as you solve puzzles to open up new areas; there’s always some new cranny or crawlspace to uncover in the building, always some new aspect of its sinister history to bring to light. And it’s a fresh spine-shivering delight every time you do.

Before you become a full-fledged participant in the proceedings, you learn about the horror story at the center of it all through the journal pages you discover as you worm your way deeper and deeper into the theater’s bowels, deeper and deeper into its past. I must say that I like the first two-thirds of the game best, when it has a Gothic flavor in complete harmony with Joel Furr’s story. In time, however, it goes full Lovecraft, and not even in the relatively understated way of The Light. Still, one can’t accuse Wyber of pulling any punches; the big climax is as exciting as you could ask for.

Through it all, the real star remains the theater itself, whose faded elegance and delicious decay will remain with you long after you’ve exorcised the malevolent spirits that roam its spaces. You might want to save this one for Halloween.


Jigsaw

New Year's Eve, 1999, a quarter to midnight and where else to be but Century Park! Fireworks cascade across the sky, your stomach rumbles uneasily, music and lasers howl across the parkland... Not exactly your ideal party (especially as that rather attractive stranger in black has slipped back into the crowds) - but cheer up, you won't live to see the next.

As the follow-up to his two-year-old Curses, Graham Nelson’s “interactive history” Jigsaw was the most hotly anticipated text adventure of 1995. This game is even bigger than Curses — so big that Nelson had to employ a new, post-Infocom incarnation of the Z-Machine, a version 8 standard with the ability to handle story files of up to 512 K in size, in order to run the full version.[2]Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file. Although it will never be able to compete with its predecessor in terms of its importance to the history of its medium, in this critic’s opinion Jigsaw is the more accessible and enjoyable of the two games to play today.

It definitely doesn’t lack for ambition. Written just as millennial jitters were beginning to find a home in the minds of many of us, it’s a time-travel caper focusing on the horrible, magnificent century that was about to pass away, ranging in time and space from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the day of the Wright brothers’ first flight to Berlin on the day the Wall came down. The principal antagonist and possible love interest — a timeline-wrecking “rather attractive stranger” of indeterminate gender, whom the game refers to only as “Black” after his or her choice of wardrobe — is misguided rather than evil, attempting to alleviate some of the century’s many injustices rather than bring on any apocalypse. But such retroactive changes are out of our mortal purview, of course, and can only lead to worse tragedies. “The time is out of joint,” as Hamlet said. Now, it’s up to you to set it right.

The amount of research required for the game’s fourteen historical vignettes was considerable to say the least — and that before a universe of information was only a visit to Wikipedia away, when one still had to go to brick-and-mortar libraries with printed encyclopedias on their shelves. Nelson doesn’t always get every detail correct: I could nitpick that the Titanic was actually not the first ship in history to send an SOS distress signal, for example, or note that his depiction of the Beatles of 1967 (“lurching wildly from one project to the next, hardly collaborating, always arguing”) seems displaced in time by at least a year.[3]Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on… Likewise, he’s sometimes a bit too eager to place ironic twists on the things we learned in our grade-school history classes. In light of what Nelson took on here, though, we can forgive him for all of this. He does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of each historical event. I also appreciate that his choices of historical linchpins aren’t always the obvious ones. For every voyage aboard a Titanic, there’s a visit to the cork-lined Parisian flat of Marcel Proust; for every trip to the Moon, there’s a sojourn in the filthy and disorganized laboratory of Alexander Fleming, the luckiest microbiologist who ever lived.

The episodic structure keeps Jigsaw manageable despite its overall sprawl, in marked contrast to Curses. Nelson, who had been thinking and writing seriously about design since his first game, went so far as to include a helpful little gadget which can alert you as to whether you’re leaving behind anything vital in each time period. Meanwhile the puzzles themselves are never less than solid, and are often inspired. One of them, in which you must decode a secret message using an only slightly simplified example of the German Enigma machines from the Second World War, has justly gone down in interactive-fiction lore as one of the best ever. Like so much of Jigsaw, it teaches even as it intrigues and entertains. I missed an important clue when I played through the game recently, which made this particular puzzle much harder than it was supposed to be. No worries — I enjoyed my two or three hours as a member of Alan Turing’s legendary team immensely, and positively jumped for joy when I finally produced a clear, cogent message from a meaningless scramble of letters.

My one real design complaint is the endgame, which takes place in a surreal fantasy landscape of the sort we’ve seen in too many other adventure games already. It feels both extraneous and thoroughly out of keeping with what has come before — and too darn hard to boot. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: by the time an adventurer reaches the endgame, especially of a work of this size, she just wants to be made to feel smart once or twice more and then to win. The designer’s job is to oblige her rather than to try to make himself feel smart. I must confess that I broke down and used hints for the endgame of Jigsaw, after solving the entirety of the rest of the game all by myself.

But the frustration of the endgame pales before the other delights on offer here. Nelson would never attempt a game of this size and scope again, making Jigsaw only that much more worth cherishing. Curses may be his most important game, but by my lights Jigsaw is his masterpiece.

Bonus:

Graham Nelson on Jigsaw


Curses had been written under the spell of the great cave games – Colossal Cave, Zork, Acheton. Games delving into a miscellany of doors, light puzzles, collection puzzles, and the like. Games written incrementally which ended up with epic, sprawling maps, but which started out only as entertainments written for friends. Each of those things is true about Curses as well.

But not Jigsaw. Once again Gareth Rees and Richard Tucker were the playtesters and de-facto editors, and the two games were recognisably from the same stable. There are many similarities, even down to having a one-word title, which I liked because it meant that the filename on an FTP server would likely be the whole title. It was always going to be a Z-machine story file once again, written with Inform. And it was playable under the same .z5 format as Curses, though I also offered a sort of director’s cut version with some extra annotation using the new .z8 format. (This was a sneaky way to try to persuade interpreter-writers to adopt .z8, which I worried people might think bogus and non-canonical, and so would not implement.)

Unlike Curses, though, Jigsaw was conceived holistically, had a rigorous plan, and was meant for the public rather than for friends. I set out to make the sort of rounded cultural artefact which middle-period Infocom might have offered — Dave Lebling’s Spellbreaker and Brian Moriarty’s Trinity are the obvious antecedents, but not the only ones. (Let me also praise Mike Dornbrook here, who was instrumental in making those games into clearly delineated works.) Those mature works of Infocom were satisfying to start, and satisfying to finish, and distinctive from each other. Infocom wasn’t big on historical settings (a shame that Stu Galley never completed his draft about the Boston of 1776), but in presentation, Jigsaw wouldn’t look out of place in their catalogue. In that sense, it’s rather derivative, even imitative, but this wasn’t seen as an eccentric or retro choice at the time; more of a mark of quality. But in any case, Jigsaw had other ambitions as well, and it’s on those other ambitions that it stands or falls.

Jigsaw strains to be a work of art, and though the strain shows from time to time, I think it mostly gets there. There are little embedded prose poems, generally at hinges in the story. Certain images – the nightjar, for example – are suggestive rather than explicated. There is also something a little poetic — and here I’m perhaps thinking more of the modernism of Ezra Pound’s cantos than of his more famous friend Eliot — about the interleaving of old formulations, old turns of speech. Jigsaw plays on the tantalising way that past times were so confident at being themselves. Nobody using an Apollo Guidance Computer thought of it as twee or retro. And you could say the same about a tram-ticket or a gas lamp, things that people used without a second thought. We have absolute confidence only about our own present moment, while the past seems hazy and uncertain. But the people who lived in that past felt exactly the same about their own present moments. For historical fiction to work, it has to side with them, not with us.

And on the other hand, while it is a modernist impulse to clash the old and the new, it’s a Romantic one to re-enact the old, to imaginatively take part in it. I’ve always liked the biographer Richard Holmes’s observation that to write a biography is an inherently Romantic act.

As I wrote Jigsaw in 1995, the twentieth century was coming to a relatively placid end — I hope anyone caught up in the Yugoslav civil wars will forgive me writing that. It was zeitgeisty to see the story of the age as being mostly done, even with a few years still to go. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992) was less sceptically received at the time than its later reputation might suggest. People were already gathering and tidying up the twentieth century. So I wasn’t the only one to jump the gun in writing about it.

Jigsaw has a classical IF structure, with a prologue, a middle game, and an end game. Less conventionally, a form of the end game – an area called “The Land” – is seen in a ghostly way throughout, while the middle game is divided into a grid of what amount to mini-games. Notably, these have named chapter headings.

The prologue takes place on the final night of 1999, on the margins of a public festival. I anticipated an event at a London park, and that was indeed the English response, though it turned out to be the ultra-modern Millennium Dome at Greenwich (begun in 1997) and not my more Victorian-sounding “Century Park”. The setting has something of the flavour of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but in fact I semi-lifted it from an episode of Charles Chilton’s iconic BBC radio serial Journey into Space. That involved an enigmatic character named Whittaker who had been taken out of normally-running time in 1924 from a London park celebration (“There are special trains from Baker Street”). Other than scene-setting, the prologue’s goal is to make the complex jigsaw mechanism comprehensible. It’s a familiar IF travel-around-the-map mechanism, with the puzzle pieces serving as objects of desire which unlock further play. But at the same time, it is also the game’s organising metaphor. So these mechanics have to seem natural and fun to players. Getting the textual display and command verbs right was a major concern in early play-testing.

With prologue out of the way, we enter the past. Jigsaw claims in its banner to be “an interactive history”, which is awfully bold of it. As we’ve already established, it’s a work of fantasy. But perhaps the claim to be “a history” can just about be made. Attempts to define what that even means — cf. E. H. Carr, “What Is History?”; Richard Evans, “In Defence of History” — end up devoting much of their space just to enumerating lines of approach, after all. Mine is odder than most, but less odd than some. At its crudest, the historian’s choice is between asking “who took what decisions?” and asking “what was life like?”. Is 19th-century Europe the story of Napoleon and Bismarck and Garibaldi, who started wars and redrew maps, or is all of that froth compared to railways, manufacturing, anesthetics, and newspapers? Jigsaw goes the second way, with Lenin being I think the only world leader seen close up.

The Titanic sequence, the first one I wrote, is the one I would now leave out. Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their places, and history wasn’t much dented. Perhaps it left a greater sense of possible catastrophe in the popular imagination, but the Sarajevo 1914 sequence makes that point better anyway. Besides, having an accidental time traveller arrive on the Titanic is a very hackneyed plot device. (I’ve just been dismayed to find from Wikipedia that it’s even the pilot episode plot of Irwin Allen’s spangly TV show The Time Tunnel.) Still, the ocean liner was fun to recreate as a period piece. The bit where a passenger says, “Never mind, worse things happen at sea,” is my favourite joke in the whole game. And researching this did lead to one happy accident. Going through a heap of books and pamphlets in the Bodleian Library, I chanced on something I remembered from somewhere else, and this led to a short paper in the literary-discoveries journal Notes & Queries. That squib of a paper is still occasionally cited, and I was amused to see “Nelson, Graham” back to back with “Nietzsche, Friedrich” in the bibliography of a monograph as a result.

A better choice was the Apollo programme. The lunar module was controlled using VERB and NOUN commands, which made it pleasingly IF-sounding: why not send the player to the moon? I also wanted to have something about the mid-century zenith of big-state action — a world in which Kennedy could just decide that the United States would do something immense, and it would happen. (The Manhattan Project is another example, but Trinity had already done that.) Another take on Apollo would be that it changed our sensibility, forcing us to see ourselves from the outside. The cover art for Jigsaw is the Apollo 8 shot of the earth rising from lunar orbit, maybe the most reproduced photo of the century. But I also tried to evoke Apollo’s troubling sense of abandonment. First steps were last steps. The century’s most powerful civilisation did something astonishing and then just lost interest. To me, the question about the Pyramids is not why the pharaohs built them, but why they stopped.

In fact, even as I wrote, Apollo’s posthumous reputation was beginning a slow comeback. A new generation of geeks devoured Andrew Chaikin’s landmark book A Man on the Moon (1994). Also, the Internet had arrived. In 1995, Eric Jones’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal became an extremely useful website. I corresponded a little with Eric at the time; he was, tellingly, having trouble finding a publisher. But thanks to his work, the Apollo sequence of Jigsaw — whatever its fantastical additions — is quite true to the actual Taurus-Littrow valley of the moon, and not a grey abstraction.

Fourteen historical vignettes is too many. It was hard to do much in so few rooms and items each, especially as they had to be playable in multiple orders. A fundamentally un-cave-like quality of Jigsaw is that you can’t wander about from era to era, and it is only rarely that something in one era is helpful in another. (Even then, alternative solutions are sometimes provided.) But I worried that the lack of space made these mini-games too easy, and over-compensated with highly convoluted device-based puzzles. Fly your very own B-52! I truly repent of how difficult that sequence is to play.

A happier example was the Enigma machine. I’ve used one in real life, encoding a very short message on a surviving Enigma which belongs to the science writer Simon Singh. Still, this section was really based on the oral histories of Bletchley Park edited by Hinsley and Stripp in 1993; accounts which, a bit madly, had only just been declassified. I imbibed some of the recherché jargon of the codebreakers, who lived in a strangely appealing world of their own. I was very taken with the vulnerability of Enigma, caused by the frequent presence of double letters in German words. One of the myths of Bletchley was that the invention of the computer flat-out defeated Enigma, as if you just had to press a button. It would be fairer to say that the computer made breaking the code just on the edge of what was possible. A certain cunning was still needed, and luck as well. They found ways to make their own luck, but there were also terrible periods when they failed, and when many sailors went to the bottom of the Atlantic as a result. My grandfather served on two Royal Navy convoys to Murmansk, and he was fortunate that those coincided with a good run at Bletchley, though he never knew it. That, and the thought that I might have been there myself if I had been an Oxford maths post-doc in 1942 rather than 1995, made this vignette more personal to me.

Fourteen vignettes is also too few. I chose Marcel Proust and the Beatles as my artists of the century, for example, and with them I had used up the entire space available for cultural history. My fourteen moments have to spread themselves very thinly over a lot of ground, and there is clearly no single or perfect solution to this. Still, Jigsaw has a clear Western bias. I probably should have chosen the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Africa appears only tangentially, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, which has to stand for the whole of postcolonialism. Even then, my main inspiration was Christopher Hampton’s autobiographical play White Chameleon, and Hampton is British. China does not appear at all, which from a 21st-century viewpoint seems very jarring. From the vantage point of 2021, civil rights also look pretty salient, but in 1995 it did not seem that way: the movement for women’s suffrage is all you get. Why no M.L.K.? That now seems very odd, except that I had plenty of the 1960s already. Some potential topics were also dropped just for lack of puzzles about them, or because they didn’t really fit anywhere. Though I don’t know to what extent players were ever aware of it, the connection points on the jigsaw pieces tried to suggest thematic links. The Wright brothers to Apollo, and so on.

Another consideration was, for want of a better word, taste. Fascism seemed mostly done in 1995, but it had clearly been a big part of the story. It isn’t a big part of Jigsaw because, in the end, is there any ethical way to recreate the experience of being massacred for no reason? The Holocaust does have a presence in Jigsaw, but very indirectly. Buried somewhere is a little anecdote about a young Jewish boy in Berlin in the 1930s, who had picked up a shiny badge in the street with no understanding that it was Nazi regalia which he could be killed just for touching – one of the few moments in Jigsaw told to me by an eye-witness, the boy himself, who survived to be a retired professor. What I really did not want to do was to recreate a version of Auschwitz which came with an escape hatch. And then of course Vietnam, Cambodia, the genocide of the Armenian Turks, Kosovo, Rwanda, you name it. Quite the charnal house we made for ourselves, you have to say. In a room of the end game which, if memory serves, was called the Toll Gate, there is a cumulative graph of humans deliberately killed, plotted against time. This graph surges at the World Wars but it certainly isn’t flat in between them.

There are a few other grim moments like that in the endgame, too. The endgame is the strangest part of Jigsaw and probably the least successful. But here’s what I think I was trying for. The Land does partly bring in concerns not tied to specific moments – pollution, for example, though not global warming, which we were all cheerfully ignoring in 1995. (But not now, right? Right?) At the same time, I didn’t want bleakness to dominate, and I wanted to end on brighter, more fantastical colours. There is supposed to be a sort of Eden-like rebirth as another century is coming, with this endgame area as the Garden of that Eden. Underlying all of history, but often invisible from it, there is always the goodness of the world, our one place of happiness. The chapter title for the endgame is “The Living Land”, and it’s about life in opposition to death.

But it is also too fiddly and is not the enjoyable romp I intended it to be. I don’t like the self-indulgent references to past IF games: what are they even for? The extent of the Land was a more understandable mistake — it’s because of the structural obsession of Jigsaw with its key mechanic. Rooms in The Land correspond to the original pieces, but that meant having quite a lot of them, which in turn meant padding out this space with puzzles. In fact, the endgame is so long that it has a little endgame of its own, taking us back to Century Park. But that was absolutely the right way to end. When you are composing a set of variations, finish on a da capo repetition of the original theme.

Finally, whereas Curses has no significant characters other than the protagonist, in Jigsaw the player has a significant other, called Black. In timecop sci-fi novels, the hero generally does battle with a rival time traveller. One tries to rewrite history, the other to keep it on track. Well, that is basically the situation here. Emphasising this, Black is a symbolic and non-human sort of name: White’s opponent in a game. (The Apollo lunar lander shared with Black has the call-sign “Othello”, and this is a reference to the strategy game, not the Shakespeare play.) The neutral name Black also worked better for blurring gender than having to use contrived unisex forenames like Hilary, Pat, or Stevie.

In retrospect, this genderless romance is the main thing people remember about Jigsaw. I wouldn’t make much claim for the depth or solidity of that romantic subplot: but at least it was there, and was something you wouldn’t find in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys sort of milieu of most earlier IF. There is even, however glancingly, a presence of sex. That much was deliberate. But when I was writing, the absence of genders seemed just another narrative choice. I wanted a certain universalism, a sort of every-person quality to the player. And I didn’t want some sort of performative nonsense like the barroom scene at the start of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, where you demonstrate your gender by picking a bathroom, but have no way to demonstrate your orientation.

Anyway, this seemed like a statement only after publication, when I began to get rather touching emails from players. I think Jigsaw may have been quite widely played, and this was easily the aspect most responded to. Happy emails were often from women. I did also get a smaller amount of homophobic mail, and that was invariably from men, who reacted as if they’d been catfished.

We easily forget now that in 1995 gay relationships were socially invisible. There were no openly gay characters in The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or Star Trek: The Next Generation. A handful of New York sitcoms were just starting to go there, but for the most part, in popular culture, gay people existed as people with problems. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia in 1993, but it’s a movie about a closeted man with AIDS. Sleepless in Seattle, the same year, could easily have played some non-binary games with its two lovers, since they don’t meet until the very end. But it doesn’t. In the 1990s, romance in popular culture was almost exclusively straight. Nobody thought that odd at the time, and nor did I. I didn’t write a gay romance at all, I simply wrote a romance which was whatever you wanted to imagine it was. I would like to say that the gender games in Jigsaw were a nod to the gradual emancipation of love in the twentieth century. But that was the one thing about Jigsaw which was completely unplanned.

One of those emails I received was from the young Emily Short, though we did not meet for many years, and it was in another century that we married. History is full of surprises.


(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and are playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Dr. Jarboe,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a maths undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.”
2 Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file.
3 Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on…
 
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Posted by on September 3, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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