PAX East 2010: Zarf's story

This is the story of a five-day weekend, a parhelion, two mazes, mortal terror, a cheese sandwich, magnets, and joy.

Not in that order, though.

Other people have been writing PAX reports -- I'll throw in some links later. This leaves me free to write randomly about what I saw and did. Very randomly, because I wasn't taking notes and now it's a week ago. ("Now it's a week later"?) So I might well have confabulated the whole thing, in which case you get the pleasure of reading some PAX fanfic. I make no promises beyond that.

Day Zero: Thursday

Thursday was a lovely warm day. A couple of MUD friends got into town early, and suggested committing some IF tourism: a visit to 55 Wheeler Street, the home of Infocom from 1982 to 1984.

(That's Jon Blask, me, and Rob Wheeler. Photo by Rob Wheeler's camera.)

We chatted with a couple of people entering the building -- they knew the history, which was nice. Then Old Security Guard Maggot came to chase us out of the mushroom patch, so we fled towards lunch.

On the way over to the Hi-Rise Bakery, Rob pointed out an enormous glowing ring around the sun. Despite the upcoming week of retro-gaming fanaticism, I failed to make any jokes about Sundog, the early fight-trade-explore starship game. I did comment that it must be an incoming cold front -- a sundog is reflection from high-altitude ice crystals -- and indeed PAX's weather was to be chilly.

But I get ahead of myself, and of the cheese sandwich, which is what I ordered at the Hi-Rise. And a piece of gingerbread. I think Rob had a salad. Or was it... no, this is not the story you are here for. It was a really nice cheese sandwich.

I then headed home to pack up all the stuff for PAX. (I did not attempt to coerce Rob and Jon into helping me; I have PR-IF minions for that.)

What did I pack? Three laptops (two for IF demos, one for sound effects); sticky nametags; sticky badge ribbons; blank paper and pens; "How To Play IF" postcards; assorted power strips and extension cords; paper towels and garbage bags; the Blue Tape that Surpasseth All Understanding; and a whole lot of books. The books were mostly borrowed from Nick Montfort's office -- thanks Nick -- and since this is a ramblingly detail-obsessed post, I will now list them:

  • The Book of Adventure Games and The Book of Adventure Games 2, Kim Schuette
  • Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort
  • Racing the Beam, Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
  • Meanwhile, Jason Shiga
  • Knock Knock, Jason Shiga
  • Maze, Christopher Manson
  • Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning, Drew Davidson (ed.)
  • Space Time Play, von Borries, Walz, Bottger (ed.)
  • Videogame, Player, Text, Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska (ed.)
  • Cybertext, Espen Aarseth
  • Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, Matthew Kirschenbaum
  • Genesis II: Creation and Recreation with Computers, Dale Petersen
  • Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, Pat Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (ed.)
  • Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame "Adventure", Mary Ann Buckles (thesis)
  • The Gothic in Contemporary Interactive Fictions, Van Leavenworth (thesis)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Adam Thornton (Atari 2600 cart)
  • Dark Mage, Greg Troutman (Atari 2600 cart)

A few other people brought items, notably Aaron Reed's enormous printed volume of the source code to Blue Lacuna. That's enough Inform 7 to hurt if you dropped it on your foot.

(To jump ahead of the story, I spent some time reading the Gothic... book -- a doctoral thesis -- and it was a fascinating read. It takes as examples Nevermore, Anchorhead, Madam Spider's Web, and Slouching Towards Bedlam, and it examines them -- well, academically. It cites IFComp reviews that I and many other people wrote. In some places I felt I was getting a valuable outside view of my community's prejudices; in other places I wanted to shout sometimes a design screwup is just a design screwup! But it's not my PhD.)


Jmac, Doug, Mike and I loaded up the official-for-a-week PR-IF cargo van (Mike's car) and navigated the concrete mazes of downtown Boston to the Hilton. We hauled everything up to the 23rd floor. The room, we decided, would do. Then I went off to find a copy shop to print out a stack of fliers.

Later: dinner. Twenty-three IF authors walk into a tapas bar. One of them asks, "Where's the monkey?" Later, nobody remembers the punchline.

A bunch of us wound up back at the IF room, talking -- well, that's what it was for. At 1:30 AM everyone managed to stagger out, and I fell down.

Day One: Friday

People started wandering back to the room at 11:00 AM. (Because that's when I said to, that's why.) We engaged in a cheerful bustle of setup. Some people went to get lunch but I didn't. This is not the narrative you're here for either.

2:00 PM was the official opening bell for PAX itself. Remember PAX? This is an epic poem about PAX.

That's Jmac looking at me photographing forty gazillion people. Technically it couldn't have been more than 20,000, but they turn into gazillions when you try to walk through them. It was terrifying, except of course that everyone was jazzed up and happy.

In some Aristotelian sense, a line existed. If you looked at the PAX map, you'd see that Exhibition Hall A was "Registration"; Exhibition Hall B was "Queue". What this means is, twenty thousand people were lining up to see Wil Wheaton. I assume they were snaked through the entire hall -- both halls -- in a unicursal labyrinth. And then out the door and through the lobby area you see in the photo. But it was more of a pileup by then. Space madness, and I do mean in units of people per cubic meter.

I didn't even try. I would have liked to get to the vendor booths (Exhibition Halls C and D) but it was the same enormous line whether you were into Wil Wheaton or not. Don't get me wrong. I think he's great. Maybe I'll see him next time.

I grabbed a sandwich (hail, Food Court, full of grace; build for me an open-face) and stuck my head into the Rock Band Lounge. Some people were jamming out and singing "Code Monkey". I got teary. I mean it: everyone was just having a great time at a nerd-folk concert, except the concert was a videogame. Singing their hearts out. So much joy. We did this.

I eventually wormed my way into the vendor area at 5:00, with just enough time to dash past everything before getting to the First IF Panel.

Storytelling in the world of interactive fiction

Text adventures have been quietly experimenting with narrative gaming for thirty years. Five authors from the amateur interactive fiction community discuss the design ideas in their games -- reordered storylines, unreliable narrators, deeply responsive NPCs -- and how they apply to other kinds of games. (J. Robinson Wheeler (mod.), Robb Sherwin, Aaron Reed, Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin)

The first great shock was that people were lined up outside the door. The line went on forever. Lined up to hear about interactive fiction.

Now, don't misunderstand: every single PAX event, large and small, was like this. Lines, queues, and more lines. There were vastly more people than there was space to do anything. Events were spaced 30 minutes apart and you had to arrive at least 60 minutes in advance to have even a chance of getting in. But this was IF. And it was just as popular as any other panel discussion. People were turned away when the room filled up, and I am painfully sorry about that, but at the same time it was so great.

(At least you all had the chance to talk with us later! IF suite, open all weekend!)

But I got to generate a narrative moment for somebody. I walked up to the door. The enforcer said "Sorry, the panel is full." I said "Yes, but I'm on it." He let me in.

(Yes, I'm sure he watched to make sure I went up to the big table. He did his job, I did mine.)

Anyhow, the mortal terror comes in when I sat down and faced a giant room full of gamers. They were all looking at me. I had four other IF authors with me for moral support, but it still came down to "Ignore all consequence and possibility of screwing up. Concentrate on speaking in complete sentences."

All else is commentary.

Rob declared the panel begun (panic! ignore panic!) and tossed it over to Emily, who led off with a short manifesto. She's got it written up nicely on her blog, but the one-liner is: the gaming world has much to learn from IF; they want to learn from IF. They know we're doing crazy stuff but they don't know what it is. We need to communicate.

I got to go next, fumbled for something to say -- turns out part of the commentary is "plan ahead for your turn, idiot" -- and managed to get out something coherent about interactivity and analyzing games, and the fact that story-vs-agency is a false dichotomy. At least it sounded coherent from the inside.

At this point my memory of the panel goes completely to pieces. People talked about formal puzzles vs puzzles that are part of the game-story. I remember saying that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was an example of the player-protagonist distinction in the commercial game industry. (Nitpickers were probably saying "that's the protagonist-parser distinction, idiot." Smartasses.) You should just read Jenni Polodna's notes. Or Robb Sherwin's post.

I think we were interesting and amusing for an hour, but you know, mortal terror tends to distort my judgement.

We braked in time for questions. Don Woods (Don Woods) stood up and suggested an idea: using "THINK ABOUT TOPIC" not just to provide backstory, but to tell the game what the player is interested in. Guide the story that way. Huh, we all said, that's a damn good idea. We'll have to try that.

Don Woods: he's still into it.

(By the way, never stand up at a panel question session and say "I have two questions." The correct response from the panel is to politely ignore one of them.)

We all staggered out into the blinding sunlight -- lobbylight -- whatever they had out there -- and I went for another sandwich. And then, IF Event Number Two:

GET LAMP Screening and panel

GET LAMP, a documentary about text adventures, premieres at PAX East. Meet the director, Jason Scott, and a panel of interactive fiction authors, experts, and interviewees who appeared in the film. We'll discuss the film itself, text adventures, and interactive fiction, and what 30 years of adventure games have brought to the world. (Jason Scott, Don Woods, Steve Meretzky, Brian Moriarty, Dave Lebling, Andrew Plotkin, Nick Montfort)

Once again, the room was packed. They ran out of chairs before floorspace (and before the fire code kicked in) so a good third of the audience was sitting on the floor. They managed to pack in nearly everybody who was waiting; I believe there was a repeat showing afterwards for the few who didn't fit.

This was a 70-minute edit of GET LAMP. (With bonus M. C. Frontalot rap on the end.) The DVD version will be more than twice as long; Jason called this version "the world's longest trailer".

I had seen a few clips from this cut, including the parts I was in. I could praise it all to the skies, but hey -- you'll see it or you won't. I thought it was excellent. The audience was enraptured as far as I could see. A few moments will certainly be re-edited for the DVD cut, or so Jason says, but that's beta-testing for you.

The movie was divided into short segments, covering different topics. Jason's style is much in the manner of puzzle-gaming: he frequently drops you into a scene and lets you figure out what the context is. We watched several moments of gamers talking about their IF experiences before we realized: these people are blind. ("The game said 'It's dark, you need a light source' and I'm like 'What? No I don't.'")

The topics, let me see if I remember: Bedquilt Cave, Infocom history, blind IF gamers, modern attempts to resurrect commercial IF. I'm probably missing a couple.

I appeared in the "modern commercial IF" segment, which (inevitably) had a rather pensive tone. If I regret anything about this cut, it's that it didn't cover the modern amateur scene except by indirection. I know that won't be true of the full movie: I've previewed segments about the IFComp and so on.

Then, the panel.

Dave Lebling, Don Woods, Brian Moriarty, me, Nick Montfort, Steve Meretzky, Jason Scott. (Photo by Eric Havir, licensed BY-NC-CD)

Terror and exaltation, once again. When I got up there I reached over to shake Steve's hand. (And then Nick's, so as not to be a jerk, but sorry Nick -- the point was to shake Steve Meretzky's hand.) And then Brian's, Don's, and Dave's. No, it wasn't a "never wash this hand again" moment; it was recognition.

Jason started the panel by more or less grilling us about what we'd thought of his film. But I think he caught himself at it after a while, and switched over to audience questions.

Do I remember the questions? Not really. I attempted to repeat my triumph of not sounding like a blithering idiot. I also attempted not to hog the mike, since I was surrounded by older and more famous people, and since I had just been yammering away on a panel three hours earlier.

You can now watch the panel online, or listen to the audio.

Or, go read Paul O'Brian's notes on the movie and panel. Or Joline Desrosiers's post -- she got invited to the podium to invite us panelists up.

After the movie most of the core folks went up to the IF room -- and so, I believe, did Steve and Don. (I know they both hung around the IF room that weekend, I'm not just sure of what days.) And there was much discussion. Talk! The whole convention, our room was full of people talking intensely about IF and gaming of all kinds. You put awesome people together, critical mass happens.

I think some silence occurred around half-past-midnight and I chased everybody out.

Day Two: Saturday

Friday was the Day of PAX Events; Saturday was the Day of IF-Room Events.


This kicked off at 1:30. Speed-IF is a (notionally) two-hour game-jam-style event. Dave Cornelson gathered a rapid-fire list of game topics from the audience:

  • Spellcasting
  • Travel trains, plains, taxis, elevators
  • Gravity changes
  • Lobster
  • "GET LAMP"
  • Mangoes
  • Fetuccini
  • Actinic
  • Queue maze
  • Irish Potato Famine
  • Revolutionary War

For the rest of the day, people were crouched around laptops in every corner -- and also out in the hall, and over in the next room (fortuitously taken by more IFers).

Dispelling the Invisibility -- IF Outreach

What's working? What's not working? Why? What hasn't been tried? (Harry Kaplan, moderator; Andrew Plotkin, Jason McIntosh, Chris Dahlen, John Bardinelli)

This was great. Chris is the editor of Kill Screen, a new magazine about gaming and game design. (Note to self: read all of this. Submit articles.) John is one of the folks behind JayIsGames. I didn't even think of looking outside the IF community for IF events, but Harry Kaplan and Jim Munroe did, and it made the events work right.

(Er, if you got here through some funny link, Jason McIntosh owns this blog. And I'm the one writing this post. No introductions necessary, I hope.)

(Photo by Ben Collins-Sussman, licensed BY)

The topic, more or less, circled around "accessibility" -- meaning how new players can be attracted to IF, become familiar with it, and learn to enjoy it. We talked a lot about ways to teach the "standard" IF interface (such as my IF cards!), but also about possible alternate interfaces. Emily suggested recognizing commands more flexibly, like conversation topics are recognized in Alabaster. And then of course there's Blue Lacuna and its keywords.

We also spent some time on the idea of finding new audiences. Peter Nepstad made the energizing comment (in GET LAMP) that 1893 sold steadily in Chicago giftshops and museum shops. Dave Cornelson talked about school audiences and teachers; somebody mentioned librarian associations.

The room, I need not say, was full. (I'm not sure how many people "full" was, but I counted twenty at Sunday's panel.) And somewhere in back, Don Woods was poring interestedly over the Blue Lacuna source code. (Anybody get that photo? That was a brilliant image.)

After two hours Harry reined us all in and declared the panel over. The room immediately broke out into conversation all over -- no surprise there.

(Video and audio of the panel is forthcoming.)

I will now take another tangential break to pimp Meanwhile, a CYOA comic by Jason Shiga. Nick Montfort lent us his copy for the room -- an old black-and-white short-run edition. But it turns out the book has just been reprinted, in a lovely (and slightly expanded) color edition. And Jason Scott was selling it at the GET LAMP merch table. Copies were being played in the IF room pretty much nonstop, and every hour or so somebody would say "Wait, this is for sale downstairs? I'm going to buy a copy." I did it.

(You know what the world needs? A really fluid iPad edition of Meanwhile. With the interactivity done right. I'd do it, but I have about five years of stuff to do first.)

Anyhow, after a few more hours of enthusiastic IF chatter, it was time to unleash the SpeedIF games. I wasn't actually in the room for that, but you can check out the games, or read transcripts of a collective playthrough.

Day Three: Sunday

By this point I had the "wake up at 11:30, find pants, open room" thing down to a science. Or at least a practical discipline of natural philosophy. This means I missed...

Action Castle!

Now you can "GO EAST" and "LIGHT LAMP" with the best of them. Canst thou master Action Castle before death claims thee? Parsely games are inspired by Ye Olde Text Parsers from days of yore, but substituting a live human for the computer parser. This was the secret event at PAX Prime for two years running, coming finally to the light of day with PAX East. Audience participation required!

The idea is, one guy pretends to be a (crude, two-word) IF parser, and GMs a short adventure as an audience of people yell commands at him. Apparently it's funny. I would find it funny if it were done by IF fans, but it rubs me the wrong way when people only remember IF as a failure. Well, it wasn't my event and I was asleep anyhow. The people who went enjoyed it. See Sam Kabo Ashwell's report.

Then one more IF room event:

No Hints Please -- Adaptive Difficulty Strategies

Jim Munroe, Aaron Reed, Dave Gilbert.

(Sorry, I never got around to writing a description of this beyond the title.) Jim Munroe is a multitalented novellist, filmmaker, and IF author. Dave Gilbert is a designer of third-person graphical adventures, including recent hit Emerald City Confidential. Aaron Reed wrote Blue Lacuna.

A lot of this panel turned into more of Saturday's "IF outreach". I figure they're both addressing the same problem: IF is hard on newcomers. How do we make games that are fun for them, while still being fun for experienced IFers? The answer is probably adaptive somehow. But maybe not in the traditional sense of "gets invisibly easier or harder to match your play style".

We also got some great war stories from Dave Gilbert, who started out as an amateur adventure creator (using AGS) and then hooked up with casual game publisher PlayFirst. It took some adjustment. Apparently casual game audiences are really, really unused to adventure-game conventions. He had testers failing to notice, much less use, conversation menus. He had testers failing to pick up and use a crowbar. ("If you were playing Monkey Island and you found a crowbar in the first room, you'd be ecstatic!") He had to put in giant flashing "Do this task next!" quest log messages, and then make them gianter and flashier.

Now, I know that doesn't apply to all casual gamers. JayIsGames gets a steady stream of room-escapes and some of them are seriously ornate. But then, we know there's such a thing as hardcore casual gamers. So to some extent it's a problem of finding your audience. As someone said at some point in the weekend: "People who don't read aren't ever going to be IF fans."

(For further comments, see Sarah Morayati's post.)

And with that, PAX careened towards shutdown. I didn't try to get to the closing ceremonies; I hadn't tried to get to any PAX events that I wasn't in. Waiting in line was not my goal for the weekend, and it seemed to be the doom of most PAX attendees. (Next year: larger venue, more program tracks. We hope.)

I did get to make a slower pass through the exhibit halls and gaming rooms. Yay for the GAMBIT booth, the Miegakure demo, All Heroes Die, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and all the other Boston indie and experimental stuff. I also spent some time watching people play Pixeljunk Eden and Dragon's Lair. (In both cases, better than I could have.)

Thanks also to this person who wore a terrific Raziel costume. It's good to see people appreciating the classics.

Thanks to the several people who came up to me to tell me they loved my work. Yes, I said "Thank you" to them directly, but I can say it some more.

But wait! That's not how it ended! A bunch of us went out for dinner at the Other Side Cafe. ("It's off Mass Ave." "At what cross street?" "I-90.") And then we wound up at Nick's apartment for even more late-night chatter. And Werewolf.

But that's not how it ended either!

Day Three Plus One: Monday

I met up with many IF folks to eat lunch and show off the MIT Museum -- particularly the permanent installation of Art Ganson. I love that stuff. And, for a surprise, Art Ganson showed up at the museum! But he seemed too harried to really talk to anybody for more than a moment.

I also like the hologram room, and the crazy Einstein is everybody illusion. And I bought a set of magnet beads which are turning out to be the best fidget toy since that snake-chain thing which I can't remember the name of.

There was a "write down your brilliant robot/computer idea" wall of ideas. I wrote down a postcard sketch of my rule-based programming idea. Maybe some MIT genius will come along, see what I wrote, and finish it for me. That would be nice.

After some neat conversation with an editor from the real original Choose Your Own Adventure company, we headed over to Nick's office.

Purple Blurb: Jeremy Freese and Emily Short

Purple Blurb is Nick Montfort's digital literature presentation series. It covers all sorts of topics, including "Zarf rambles about collaborative fiction" (once upon a time), but this month it was interactive fiction.

The setup was the IF author standing up front, and a volunteer game-driver running the keyboard. The driver would type, and the game author would read the resulting text. Jeremy started out with Violet (played by Jenni Polodna), and then Emily did Alabaster (played by Kevin Jackson-Mead).

The format worked better for Alabaster than for Violet. In both cases, the interactor knew the game and where he or she was going with it. But in Violet, that meant solving the puzzles quickly, without much of the exploration and experimentation that a real first-time player would have done. So it wasn't a really faithful demonstration of the game experience.

Playing Alabaster is essentially a self-guided walk through conversation topics, and while the driver had specific endings in mind, that didn't change the texture of the game for the audience. Also, it's short enough that we got through two runs and two endings, which was a good contrast. Whereas Violet didn't reach its ending.

(Also, of course, Alabaster's dark-fairy-tale tone is easy to read well, as long as you take it seriously. Whereas Jeremy Freese's voice sounds nothing like a cute pushy Australian girl.)

(We look forward to the Gameshelf episode with dramatic readings of Violet and Lost Pig. Coming soonish.)

And then we went over to CBC for one last uproarious meal of IF discussion and other geekery, I ate too much pizza, and that was it for PAX East.

What do we conclude?

One: IF people are fantastic. I got to hang out with several people I hadn't seen for years, and meet a few old MUD friends that I'd never seen at all. I got to chat briefly with Steve Meretzky and at greater length with Don Woods. I got to talk with total strangers and I didn't freak out once.

Two: If you want to get people playing a rabbit-hole puzzle, you need a better hook than dropping a mysterious USB drive into a room full of IF fans. Yes, that should get them investigating. I agree. It ought to have worked. I would have done it that way myself. But, in fact, everybody (including me) said "Huh? Somebody must have lost this" and ignored it for the entire weekend.

Three: Emily is right. People want to know about IF. People who don't know about IF want to play IF. Okay, it will never be a mega-hit genre again. It may or may not be a commercially successful genre again, on any scale. Forget that. It is important. We have to be out there talking.

Four: The diet soda runs out first.

Five: I have a lot of work left to do. But I've finished this post.

(Other PAX-IF writeups and photo sets are linked from the IFWiki page.)

EDIT-ADD: Jmac has posted videos of the two IF-suite panels, plus Purple Blurb.

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4 Responses to PAX East 2010: Zarf's story

  1. You tease! This was in no way an epic poem about PAX!

    Thanks for putting these links all in one place, though; it will take me an enjoyable while to get through them all.

  2. Flit says:

    Pardon my plebe, but what's do you mean by "story-vs-agency"?

    Nice writeup and swanky cards. (Jason Shiga is the man, isn't he?)

  3. Andrew Plotkin says:

    Thanks, and yes he is.

    There's an argument that comes out whenever people talk about narrative games, which is that if the player can make real choices (if he has real agency in the game), then you can't have a real story. And if you want a consistent story, you have to take away all of the player's choices (or make them illusionary).

    (This argument shows up in Dave Lebling's remarks at the end of the GET LAMP panel, for example. See video/audio links in my post.)

    It is my contention that this argument is bunk, and stems from an inability to see the game as happening on *lots* of choice levels. (Not just "the story" and "the player's actions".)

  4. george says:

    great write-up, thanks!

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