How the Text Rewrote Me

You may have noticed that I haven’t added any entries to the Jmac on Games category since late August. It turns out that I have entered a period of intense obsession with interactive fiction, so deep and wholly involving that, for the time being, I have lacked the will to play any other sorts of games, much less write about them.

A snapshot of my world: I have neither powered on my Xbox nor launched Steam in weeks. Tim Schaefer is one of my favorite creative forces in videogames, but as I type this I have no clear idea what Costume Quest is or what platforms it runs on. I know neither the color nor shape of the box that Dominion: Prosperity uses. A new issue of Foggy Brume’s always-ingenious Puzzles & Answers is out, but I have no desire to fill in wordplay grids.

As a credit to its astoundingly sudden ubiquity, Minecraft has broken through, but only as a brief over-the-shoulder tour of a friend’s stone-and-glass fortress I enjoyed while visiting his real-life home. I felt duly impressed, but before long wanted to get back home to my own computer.

On that computer, I have Suspended (Michael Berlyn, 1983) open in one window, and I ponder recreating the board-game play aid that shipped with the game’s physical box. I have the experimental collaborative piece Alabaster (Emily Short et al, 2009) open in another, as well as a shifting sample of this year’s entries to the Interactive Fiction competition — which, alas, I cannot vote in, since I myself entered a work. Buried beneath these game windows are works in progress in both Inform and Final Cut, and these in turn point to both a cloud of Wikipedia browser tabs and a short stack of increasingly dogeared books on my desk. And behind all this, so many blogs and Twitter search-streams and MUD windows as I steep myself in what everyone else is saying about — and creating within — this medium, at once invisibly obscure and sparklingly vibrant.

Earlier this year, I squeezed into the amazingly crowded IF events at the first PAX East, assembled a video about modern IF, and wrote about the energizing developments in the medium since PAX. But the event that transformed me from evangelistic observer to suddenly ravenous platform-student was my crafting a work for the 2010 comp, and the subsequent feedback I began to receive. As a professional software developer, I found no surprise that finishing it in time for the October deadline soaked up my September in intense work, both on my own and alongside my beloved betatesters. But I did not expect to emerge from the experience significantly changed in my relationship to IF. Which is to say: hungry.

A true post-mortem about my experience will have to wait until next month, since the competition rules preclude me from writing in a public forum about any single entrant, mine or other, until the judging period is over. But I can attempt to entertain you with a brief catalog of how I’ve been feeding myself:

  • First and foremost, I have been making up for lost time by playing — sometimes to completion, sometimes just dabbling within — the many works of the ad-hoc IF canon that I’ve missed. Facilitating this has been the wonderful “Find More” button on Andrew Hunter’s Zoom interpreter, which I somehow didn’t know about before this month, though I’ve been using Zoom for years. Through this button — which makes it trivial to download and play titles from the IF Archive, by way of the IFDB — I have begun a habit of snap-downloading a copy of every noteworthy Z-code, TADS or Glulx game of the last 30 years, as I happen to run across mentions of them. My library grows large, quickly.

  • Zarf and I gave a demonstration of Inform to around 20 videogame professionals at the third Boston GameLoop conference. We made a little game where you had to wait for Jmac to shut up about Inform, and then walk north to the Cambridge Brewing Company, where you get to drink a beer for victory. The exercise was very well received, and I loved reading the many tweets about it afterward, all of which carried the general tenor of oh my god this is incredible. No game-creation technology is able to sell itself quite the way Inform can, that’s for sure.

  • I guest-spoke at a videogame history class at Mt. Ida College, taught by local industry maven Darius Kazemi. After talking about IF’s past and present for a couple of hours, we played Lost Pig and Galatea, and then group-coded a short game in Inform. The students — a small group, mostly freshmen — led the way in thinking of objects and situations to add. The most apt title for what resulted would probably be Pick up the Pokemon and Die. I’m told that at least one student went on to tinker further with Inform on their own time.

  • While preparing for that class, I finally read Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages, which had been waiting on my bookshelf since I picked it up at PAX East. I find it rewarding and delightful, lending some much needed historical and literary perspective to my current IF-consuming adventures (even as it serves as the source for yet more titles I feel obliged to download and play).

  • I have been working through Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, which is everything Zarf said it is. After learning Inform in an undirected, piecemeal way while assembling my competition entry, I find the book’s guided tour a refreshing contrast that keeps me engaged, even when it goes over things I already know. I’m learning all the basics that I missed on my own.

  • With Mr. Plotkin, I have been working on a little sumthin-sumthin, which you will learn more about in due time.

Finally and inevitably, I ruminate over the next game to make, but that is the least interesting of all these. Most everyone who plays games, IF or otherwise, teems with ideas for games of their own, all equally worthless — at least so long as they remain mere ideas. The difference between me today and me a few short months ago is that, somehow, I managed to squeeze one of my own worthless ideas until something real popped out, real enough that other people started playing it and discussing it. And this knocked me on my ass, and I’ve been dealing with the personal fallout ever since.

I look forward to being able to tell you about that. And beyond that, eventually I’ll regain an appetite for writing about the rest of the gaming world. Perhaps my pausing to note all this is the start of that. But for now, I remain surrendered to a drifting landscape of prose and prompts, and exploring the community of creativity and criticism that dwells there already.

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4 Responses to How the Text Rewrote Me

  1. So I take it this super-secret project is IF, then?

  2. Andrew Plotkin says:

    I did put the image up on Planet IF. Beyond that, who knows? :)

  3. Laroquod says:

    I notice that the image of the something something has changed, since the last time I looked...

  4. Ruber Eaglenest says:

    Oh man, I feel the same, about being rewritten... indie games rewrote me and I now never play Interactive Fiction, but the funny thing is that now, board games has rewritten me !again!, and now I have only dices, tokens and boards on my head. I simply can't explain what's happening 8-O

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