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No Show Conf and IF stuff (with bonus movie)

Ns logo smallThe very first No Show Conference is happening this coming weekend on the MIT campus. Organzied by local videogame producer Courtney Stanton, it’s angled at game-making professionals working in any medium. As I write this, there’s only a couple of dozen tickets left, so if you’ve access to Boston and this is your sort of thing, you may wish to get on that.

While it’s not on its official schedule, No Show shall play host to this year’s Interactive Fiction Summit, late of PAX East. The People’s Republic decided to give PAX a pass this year, in favor of a smaller and more developer-focused conference, and lo, one has appeared. As suggested by the fact that I write this post just a few days before the event, the Summit doesn’t quite have the definition it enjoyed during the PAX years; really, it’s just a call for IF authors and fans to come on by and find one another.

That said, No Show does itself take a IF-philic stance — the structure of the conference’s demo hall is inspired by the IF Demo Fair that Emily Short organized during last year’s PAX East. Furthermore, No Show speakers include IF authors Clara Fernández-Vara, Dierdra Kiai, and Jim Munroe, presenting on a variety of topics around games and culture. (I suspect that Dierdra’s alt-universe satirical examination of “Men in Games” will end up an especially popular talk.)

As a special treat, Jim Munroe will screen his new film Ghosts with Shit Jobs on Saturday evening, bracketing it with a panel discussion featuring our own Andrew Plotkin and local webcomic superstar Randal Munroe. That screening is part of MIT’s summer film series, not No Show, so it’s free and open to the public.

So, yes, that’s where I’ll be all weekend.

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Jmac will be at Origins 2011

Let this serve as my public announcement that I plan to attend the 2011 Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio from June 22nd through the 26th. I’ll be acting a little bit as a blogger, a little as an indie game producer, and a little as a courier (helping to lug a publisher friend’s sellable goods cross-country). But mostly I plan to arrive as player and lover of games. This will be my fourth Origins, but the first where that’s my primary role.

I last attended in 2006 along with the rest of the Volity team, and we were so full of agenda, weighed down with hurriedly-printed flyers and a will to introduce ourselves to every single company on the show floor — never mind that we only vaguely knew what we were selling.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t sell anything, but we did surprise ourselves with how easy it is to network, saying hello to strangers in a self-selecting setting, and quickly exploring common business interests in friendly conversation. It felt immediately fun and rewarding, even if we didn’t earn a dime right then. Learning to push back against our shy-nerd instincts like this proved an important step for both Zarf and myself and our subsequent, individual indie-game pursuits.

Didn’t leave a whole lot of room for actually playing any games, though, so we went home educated but also exhausted and impoverished, with the company wobbling to an effective stop a few months later. Thus it may have taken me a few years to reconnect Origins with, you know, having any fun.

In 2002 and 2004, I attended Origins less as a game-player than as a fan. At the turn of the millenium, Looney Labs declared Origins to be the home of its annual Big Experiment, its very own con-within-a-con. Every year the Looneys reserve a large room across from the main expo hall, turning it into a weekend-long event in its own right, with its own schedule full of panels, tutorials, and tournaments.

(The Big Experiment provided a model for the annual World IF Summit that has operated within PAX East since last year. So if you were wondering why the IF Suite gives away Origins-style ribbons, even though they don’t quite fit the portrait-orientation PAX badges, there you have it.)

A decade ago I was very much a rabid Mad Lab Rabbit, as Looney Labs called its club of trufans at the time, and came to Origins with a gaggle of fellow fans from Boston expressly because of the Big Experiment. And thus did I spend the greater part of Origins hard at work in the “lab,” dedicated to spreading the Looney gospel to visitors, mainly in the form of game demonstrations. Visiting the rest of the show and playing “off-brand” games was dessert, something to do after-hours.

I look forward to seeing the Looneys and my old friends from that fandom again, and there’s a nonzero chance I’ll don a coat for old times’ sake and play a round or two of Fluxx with a curious visitor, but I don’t plan to spend six hours intensely touring passers-by through the Looney canon. My trufan days are behind me; I’m far more interested today in exploring as much as I can of what other people are doing in the world of tabletop games.

If you plan on joining me in this exploration, do track me down at the show and say hi! This is going to be fun.

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Nick Montfort on Curveship (PAX East 2011)

Nick Montfort presents Curveship, the experimental narration-centric IF development system that he released last month. (Yes, he’s using an upturned hotel bed as a projection screen. I mentioned that the IF suite was crowded, right?)

Unfortunately, it seems I spoke too soon about no cut-short PAX videos this year; I was surprised to discover that this one ends abruptly after around 22 minutes. However, this accidentally abridged talk still summarizes Curveship’s purpose, form and strengths quite well. If it whets your appetite to learn more, visit Curveship’s website.

Click here to watch this on Vimeo.

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Setting as Character in Narrative Games (PAX East 2011)

Part of Saturday’s proceedings at the 2011 IF Summit that conveniently adjoined this year’s PAX East.

In adventures and other explorational games, the setting is often the most eloquent and memorable character: an island, a castle, a starship. How do these locales tell stories, and how does the player character fit into those stories?

This panel discussion features independent IF creators Andrew Plotkin, Stephen Granade, and Rob Wheeler, and Dean Tate of Harmonix (formerly of Irrational Games).

Click here to watch this on Vimeo.

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Non-Gamers Gaming (PAX East 2011)

Here’s the first of three 2011 IF Summit event videos that The Gameshelf shot at PAX East. Unlike last year’s videos, I actually prepared a little for these, so there’s no sudden cut-offs due to battery death. I’ll also try to improve these videos’ visibility over last year’s by putting each into a separate blog post.

This one is the Non-gamers Gaming panel, featuring Heather Albano (Choice Of Games), Tim Crosby (Disruptor Beam), Caleb Garner (Part 12 Studios), Sarah Morayati (independent creator), and Andrew Plotkin (Zarf). Rob Wheeler manned the camera.

How do you design challenges for gamers who haven’t played the last thirty famous entries in the genre? What about readers and writers who do not identify as gamers?

Click here to watch this on Vimeo.

I must still apologize for the murky video quality, but it’s the best we could squeeze from my little Flip Video in the cramped and crowded hotel room that Friday’s IF events took place in. (Saturday found us instead enjoying a large and well-lit conference room, and the next video will reflect that.)

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PAX East 2011: Zarf's anecdotes

I wrote a whole lot about last year's PAX IF events, because that was my first PAX and everything was exciting and new. Now it's my third (two in Boston, one in Seattle) and... everything is ho-hum and tired? No. It was an exciting weekend. But I may gush less about it this year.

Day -1

I spent Wednesday running around collecting the inventory. That includes the projector screen we used (thanks to Rick Kovalcik for letting us borrow it), and also a whole pile of books for the IF Suite. And I'll get that list out of the way right now...

From Nick Montfort's collection:

  • CYOA 1: The Cave of Time, Edward Packard
  • CYOA 12: Inside UFO 54-40, Edward Packard
  • Neither Either Nor Or, Joey Dubuc
  • You Are A Miserable Excuse For A Hero, Bob Powers
  • Eunoia, Christian Bök
  • Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau
  • IF Theory Reader, Kevin Jackson-Mead, Rob Wheeler, ed.
  • Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost
  • Genesis II, Dale Petersen, ed. (contains a rare interview with Will Crowther)
  • Heart Suit, Robert Coover (a story on shufflable cards)
  • Knock Knock, Jason Shiga

From my collection:

  • Creating IF With Inform 7, Aaron Reed
  • The Inform Designer's Manual, Graham Nelson
  • The Knot-Shop Man, David Whiteland
  • Riddle & Bind, Nick Montfort
  • A Telling of the Tales, William J. Brooke
  • Engines of Ingenuity, Kit Williams
  • The Book of the War, Lawrence Miles
  • Meanwhile, Jason Shiga
  • 3-Dimensional Maze Art, Larry Evans
  • The Hole Maze Book, Greg Bright
  • The Book of Signs, Rudolf Koch
  • The Book of Adventure Games 1 and II, Kim Schuette
  • Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal

Last year we brought a lot of narrative-theory and game-studies books. This year I wanted the theme to be "playful books", because, after all, these are things that visitors might read for a bit while relaxing in the Suite. So I brought maze books, fairy tales, and CYOA books and parodies. Some of the fairy tales were about narrative theory and mazes, but that's because such things amuse me.

Day 0

Thursday some of us met up for brunch (the Friendly Toast, your home for ridiculously fancified breakfast food). Then, oh yes, Mike and Jmac and I dragged The Inventory over to the hotel and got the room set up. (We also got screwed at this point on the hotel room rate, but we wouldn't realize this until Monday.)

Dinner was at the Tavern in the Square. (Thanks to Mike for getting us a private room where we could carouse all night. In the matter of geeks getting together. Which is to say, drinking heavily and talking about software.)

Day 1

I scrambled to make flyers announcing the IF Suite, and barely got to the convention center in time for my first panel:

How to fund your game development project with Kickstarter -- Cindy Au, Andrew Plotkin, Joshua Newman, Evan Balster, Max Temkin

This wasn't packed, probably because it was early on Friday. I think about two-thirds of the room was filled. (I'm pretty sure that it was the last event at PAX that didn't completely fill up.)

I've blogged about my Kickstarter success before, so my contribution to this panel will not be news to you. I was joined by the creators of three other projects:

  • Infinite Blank, a multi-player, casual, very lightweight world-making videogame (or toy)
  • Cards Against Humanity, a card game in the style of Apples to Apples for cynical people
  • Human Contact, an RPG patterned after the stories of Iain M. Banks, Vernor Vinge, and Ursula K. Le Guin

Cindy Au is the community-manager person at Kickstarter; she set this up. We all talked about our projects and then answered questions. I completely failed to plug the IF events at PAX.

Interactive Drama: Dialogue as Gameplay -- Jonathon Myers, Daniel Erickson, Jeff Orkin, Aaron Reed, Dan Tanguay, Martin Van Velsen

I didn't make it into this panel; I saw the line and decided I wasn't up for waiting.

This was supposed to be a panel discussion between Jonathon Myers, Stephen Dinehart, Evan Skolnick, Emily Short, and John Gonzalez. As I understand it, four of the five panelists bailed. Emily was at PAX but completely hammered by the cold she brought back from GDC. I don't know the other stories.

However, the panel wound up with a fine list of substitutes. Aaron Reed, the author of Blue Lacuna and Creating IF with Inform 7, represented the text-IF side of the universe. Better yet, he didn't fail to plug the IF Suite, using the flyers that I smuggled into the room.

I ran around the expo floor for a little bit, and then it was time for:

Non-gamers gaming -- Caleb Garner, Tim Crosby, Heather Albano, Sarah Morayati, Andrew Plotkin

This was the first of our IF Suite events, and it was packed as expected. Of course packing the IF Suite is not exactly the same as packing a PAX function room, but we were still pretty pleased.

I'm not going to try to recap the discussion -- we'll post video eventually -- but we got around a variety of angles on the topic. My stumper question, or at least the question that made everybody pause and look thoughtful, was: "Are we talking about writing games for non-gamers, or writing games that teach non-gamers to be gamers?"

I got one of the convention center's patented Extremely Boring Sandwiches for dinner. (They must have been patented. Highly trained food chemists must have worked for years to develop a sandwich that boring. However, it was food.) We then gathered for:

Meet the IF community

...which means, we all hang out in the IF Suite. Just like the rest of the weekend, but we wanted to name a time for newcomers who might be hesitant about it.

And people showed up! It was exciting.

MIT Tunnel Tour

This was an impromptu expedition to visit the MIT steam tunnels (or at least the more interesting MIT basements). I didn't go along with this, because I wanted to stay with the room and continue to greet my loyal fans. Or stay with the room, anyway.

Marius Müller took some video: Video 1, 2, 3, 4 (on Youtube).

Day 2

Saturday was our big day, for circumstantial reasons: Dave Cornelson arranged for us to rent a full-sized hotel function room all day. (That's full-sized for a hotel. Still smaller than the monster PAX event rooms.) So we crammed all the events we thought would draw crowds into Saturday.

Oh, you want photos? Start with Mark Musante's PAX photo collection. Marius Müller and Jesse McGrew also took some, but those are on Facebook, so, you know, wear galoshes.

Our first event...

PAX Speed-IF

The topic list, shouted out from the audience: (And apologies to those of you who tried to shout and got overshouted -- it was disorganized in there.)

  • A character whose name starts with the letter "M"
  • Sending Jim and Kevin on a mission to locate something
  • The Tomb of the Unknown Tool
  • A 100 year old typewriter
  • Pluto
  • Braintree or Alewife
  • One of the titles on Juhana's poster of imaginary IF titles
  • Chicken fingers
  • Explosions
  • Vacuum

We had the traditional (two PAXes in a row is tradition, right?) crowd of people intently hacking away outside the IF room all afternoon. Looks like nine entries were turned in that day; you can download them from the Textfyre SpeedIF page.

Setting as character in narrative games -- Andrew Plotkin, Rob Wheeler, Stephen Granade, Dean Tate

The joke here is that I submitted this as an official PAX event. They didn't take it, because Irrational Games had submitted a panel that was essentially "Setting as character in Bioshock Infinite", and that was deemed to have more appeal to the PAX crowd. Fair enough. So we talked about settings in every game except Bioshock Infinite.

(We cheated a little, because while Dean Tate is with Harmonix Studios, he was with Irrational when Bioshock and Bioshock 2 were being designed. So he had some insights from that story-universe.)

This was fun; we basically gabbed about our favorite game settings for an hour. My panel-ending stumper was "What non-game setting would you love to see in a game?" but this turned out to be the kind of stumper where nobody has a great answer. Oh well.

Everybody Dies

We fired up the projector and played Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe. The run-through took about an hour, and then Jim answered a few questions from the audience.

The transcript will be up soon.

A lightning introduction to Inform 7 -- Jason McIntosh, Andrew Plotkin

Unfortunately we didn't get video of this; I was late getting back from dinner and so we didn't get as many laptops set up as we wanted. However, Jason recommends Aaron Reed's I7 screencast; it's the same sort of presentation.

IF Demo Fair

This was the IF event at PAX, and kudos to Emily Short for inventing the idea and making it all happen in just six weeks.

We packed the room with laptops -- and other hardware -- and packed those with sample games. In some cases, with full games. People circulated for two hours, trying everything and discussing it. It was a tremendously exciting place to be. If you found PAX's show floor to be a disappointment, you were missing the ferment of game-design discussion going on next door.

Emily covers a few of the Demo Fair entries on her blog. More detailed discussions will appear in the next issue of SPAG.

The one that I've been thinking about ever since PAX was Juhana Leinonen's Vorple, a Javascript library for animation tricks in an IF interface. This is not as frivolous as you might think. Web-based text can be very polished -- look at the CYOA engine Undum for examples -- and there's no reason IF shouldn't benefit from this.

Vorple showed in-line dynamic images, pop-up help, and smoothly-positioned overlay elements. It's not directly integrated with an IF system yet, but it clearly can be.

My job for the next two weeks is to integrate my old ideas about CSS for Glulx and Vorple's approach to dynamic content, and design a framework that will (a) fit into Quixe, (b) be practical in native (non-Javascript) interpreters, (c) be effective in native interpreters that choose to use HTML display (WebKit or whatever), and (d) be easily usable from Inform 7. Extra fun! But it's the next stage in my VM/API work, and it's time to start it.

Anyhow -- I don't want to make the Demo Fair all about me. There were a pile of other projects and games, including the promised Automatypewriter, so check out Emily's post and future discussion.

Speed-IF wrap-up

Everybody was worn out by the end of the Demo Fair, so we packed up the function room and retired to the IF Suite to look over the absurdly-named creations of the day.

Day 3

Sunday was deliberately light, but we did have time for:

Curveship -- Nick Montfort

Curveship was part of the Demo Fair, but Nick wanted to give a more in-depth presentation for IF cognoscenti. (Sorry about stuffing it into the smaller IF Suite, but it was mildly apropos to see his slides projected onto the unflat surface of an upturned mattress.)

Curveship is an experimental IF system (written in Python) which explores different ways of narrating stories. I keep writing one-line intros in that vein, and it doesn't seem to deconfuse people about what Curveship is. Basically, Curveship has two unusual qualities. First: its world model includes not just facts about the current world state, but a history of past world state, the actions that got from there to here, and (for NPCs) their knowledge of the world -- the subsets of the current and past states that they're actually aware of. Second: its text output system can easily switch point-of-view, tense (past or future), level of detail, and other narrative variables.

The result is not a fully mature IF system. The parser is simplistic, and the generated text is too -- the degree to which you hand-craft the output is somewhat (not completely) at odds with the templating that Curveship uses to vary the text. But the point is to explore these capabilities. Once we know what they're good for, then either Curveship can be improved or the features can be adapted to existing IF systems.

That leaves the question of what the features are good for, and that's an ongoing discussion in the community. I don't have a good handle on an answer. I certainly use point-of-view tricks in crafting IF; I vary descriptions based on the player's knowledge, distance, and state of mind. Do I need these features to be first-level constructs that underlie every object and description? I'm not used to working that way, but maybe if I were I'd be writing different games.

And then we packed up the room and went out to a fancy Mexican place for dinner. Followed by random card games in the hotel lobby until everybody was too tired to think.

Day 4

Brunch at the Friendly Toast again, followed by a quick expedition to the MIT Museum to see Art Ganson's work. Once again, two PAXes makes a tradition.

What have we learned?

We really need a bigger IF Suite next year. Holding a hotel function room for three days straight is certainly a possibility, but we can't serve snacks there, and it's not great for sitting and relaxing. This will be discussed further.

PAX itself was almost completely uninteresting to me this year. I think this is just a phase of the game industry. My first console love is plot-heavy exploration-puzzle-environment games, and they're out of style right now. It's not like I ever went to a PAX and saw lots of big-name games I wanted to buy; it's usually one or two a year. This year it was Child of Eden, I guess. (I'm discounting Portal 2, since there was never a chance I wouldn't buy it.) Smaller games I ogled: Warp, Fez, Blinding Silence.

Not really related to the above, except thematically: I spent the weekend wondering whether PAX was the best place for an annual IF Summit and Hangout. The fact is, we are lost in the crowd; we'll never regain the in-PAX visibility that we had when Get Lamp hit. We've had a solid game-design panel at each of the last three PAXes, and that's good, but it's not necessarily a reason to do all this other stuff at PAX. And indeed, quite a few people in our rooms didn't bother to get PAX badges.

The camelly straw for me was when I went to the PAX info desk and said "Can I put these flyers here?" (For the IF Suite and events.) I did this at PAX East and PAX Prime last year, and they said "Sure." There was a place for independent but related events on the table. This year they said, "Sorry, not permitted." That's for the big sponsors, not for the likes of me.

I feel like I want to be part of a game-design convention, not a game-consumer exposition. Of course I spent last week saying "must attend GDC in 2012", which I will, but that's crazy expensive -- not worthwhile for most IF fans. At the other end of the scale is Boston Gameloop, which I also attend, but which is probably too small to organize around. Where's the full-weekend Boston game-design conference with interesting out-of-town guest speakers and multiple tracks interesting to both indie developers and game studios?

I know, I know, the answer is "run it." Funny story: I went up to a local Boston indie game person -- I won't incriminate by name -- and said "We should run a conference." The individual in question looked at me, nodded wisely, leaned forward, and said "Fuck you."

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Thumbdrive Riddler is never gonna give you up

RiddlerLast year at PAX East, an anonymous riddler dropped a stack of mysterious USB thumbdrives in the People’s Republic’s hospitality suite. The Wingding characters emblazoned upon them, it turned out, were the first key to cracking the code-based puzzles found in the drives’ data. The rewards were a series of playable Infocom spoofs, starting with a mutation of Zork where the thief appears to have been replaced with Rick Astley. (He sings exactly what you’d expect.)

At PAX east 2011, they struck again, silently insinuating one more thumbdrive into the suite’s washroom. I discovered it while helping to lock the place up on Sunday, pocketed it… and immediately forgot about it. But then, just last night, a twitter account connected with last year’s riddles cleared its throat at us, and I remembered again! Much frenzied solving on IFMud followed.

Solvers were curious at the payload’s size, which at more than 60 MB is far larger than any of last year’s puzzle-packets. “It might be just a giant rickroll,” I suggested, and… well, you can read the results yourself.

As I write this, the solvers on the Mud are still scratching their heads over what appears to be an audio-steganography puzzle. If you’d like to lend a hand, you can grab your own copy of the thumbdrive’s contents and then join us on IFMud, where we’re using the chat-channel #PAX-USB-drive.

Update: Wow, looks like the team on the Mud cracked it literally within minutes of my posting this. Nice job! (The transcript linked above now reflects this.)

I’d like to offer my appreciation to the merry pranksters who are keeping this little game going. We’re all having fun with it, and even if it sometimes takes us adventure-game fanatics a little while to figure out where the puzzles are, at least we’re in-character enough to pick up and carry around everything that looks remotely interesting.

Image credit: Photograph by David Marriott Jr. (CC BY-NC-ND)

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A little Saturday-night Inform thunderstorm

Zarf’s already posted the schedule of IF-related events at PAX East 2011 (this coming weekend!), but as an egomaniac I just wanted to highlight the one event I’m directly involved with: Zarf and I are going to reprise the lightning-talk introduction to Inform that we first presented at GameLoop last summer. We’re going to build a very small game that shows off some of Inform’s major features, especially its natural-language syntax.

I love presenting Inform like this, because the language essentially sells itself. To my knowledge there is simply no other practical-use programming language on the planet, in any domain, whose source code reads like Inform’s. If you’ve never seen the language before, I could stand up there and implement the phone book at you, and it’d knock your socks off. So banging out a whole game in 45 minutes, with NPCs and puzzles and all that good stuff, should really bowl you over…

The talk will happen at 7 PM on Saturday, March 12, in the Alcott room in the Westin Waterfront hotel. Like the rest of the events happening there and in the suite, the talk is free and open to the public — you don’t need a PAX badge to come join us. Hope to see you there!

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Zarf appearances this spring

I am not at GDC right now (although Emily Short is, and many other game designers I know or know of). Drat.

But if you're the sort of person who wants to meet me in person, you can visit the IF events at PAX East, March 11-13. I've already posted about that, so there you go.

Moving on beyond PAX (hard as it is for me to think about that): I am speaking at Swarthmore College on Saturday, March 26th. (In the afternoon sometime -- not yet determined.) I will be talking about IF for writers, and also doing a very fast introduction to Inform 7. Then in the evening we'll have a group IF play event. Thanks to Swarthmore Psi Phi for inviting me.

And finally -- well, finally for this update -- I will be attending Balticon, May 27-30. I haven't seen the final schedule, but I believe I'm doing the IF-for-writers talk again, moderating an IF panel, and hosting a group play of Heliopause.

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IF at PAX East 2011 -- compleat schedule

Everything IF-related going on at PAX East 2011!

Some of these are official PAX events, on the PAX schedule. Some will be hosted in our capacious Interactive Fiction Event Room, which will be the Alcott room in the Westin Waterfront hotel. (Right next to the PAX convention center.) And yet more will be in the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction Hospitality Suite (the Westin, upstairs, room number 846).

The IF Event Room and the IF Hospitality Suite are open to the public; you will not need a PAX badge to attend our events. So if you're in Boston at all, feel free to drop by.

  • The Hospitality Suite will be open noon-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, and noon-3pm Sunday. We'll have books, conversation, IF to play, and snacks to snack through the whole PAX weekend.

  • The IF Event Room (Alcott room in the Westin) will be open noon-midnight Saturday only. We'll be running IF events all day; see the "Saturday" events listed below. You'll also be able to marvel at the Automatypewriter.

How to fund your game development project with Kickstarter

(Friday, March 11th, 12:30pm-1:30pm, Cat Theatre -- PAX badge required)

Not IF-specific, but includes someone who raised a pile of money for an IF project. (Panel discussion: Cindy Au, Andrew Plotkin, Joshua A. C. Newman, Evan Balster, Max Temkin)

Interactive Drama: Dialogue as Gameplay

(Friday, March 11th, 2:00pm-3:00pm, Cat Theatre -- PAX badge required)

Not IF-specific, but includes Emily Short, whose dialogue-based IF games are widely known. (Panel discussion: Jonathon Myers, Stephen Dinehart, Evan Skolnick, Emily Short, John Gonzalez)

Parsely Games

(Friday, March 11th, 3:30pm-4:30pm, Merman Theatre -- PAX badge required)

Live-action IF-style roleplaying, from the creator of Action Castle! (Hosted by Jared Sorensen)

Non-gamers gaming

(Friday, March 11th, 4:30pm-5:30pm, IF Suite)

How do you design challenges for gamers who haven't played the last thirty famous entries in the genre? What about readers and writers who do not identify as gamers? (Panel discussion: Caleb Garner, Tim Crosby, Heather Albano, Sarah Morayati, Andrew Plotkin)

Meet the IF community!

(Friday, March 11th, 7:30pm-9:00pm, IF Suite)

If you want to drop by and chat with us, but you don't know when to try it, this is when. People will be in and out of the suite all weekend, of course, but this is when we'll all be in.

PAX Speed-IF

(Saturday, March 12th, 1:00pm-1:45pm, Alcott room in the Westin)

Write a short IF game in two hours! Actually, we'll give you until 10:30pm, so you can attend the rest of the convention too. Work alone or in groups. The game theme will be a surprise. (Hosted by David Cornelson.)

Setting as character in narrative games

(Saturday, March 12th, 2:00pm-3:00pm, Alcott room in the Westin)

In adventures and other explorational games, the setting is often the most eloquent and memorable character: an island, a castle, a starship. How do these locales tell stories, and how does the player character fit into those stories? (Panel discussion: Andrew Plotkin, Rob Wheeler, Stephen Granade, Dean Tate)

Collaborative IF: Everybody Dies

(Saturday, March 12th, 4:00pm-6:00pm, Alcott room in the Westin)

(That's the title, not the outcome!) We play Jim Munroe's Everybody Dies as a group. The game will be projected up on the big screen; people take turns reading and typing; anybody can shout command suggestions from the audience.

A lightning introduction to Inform 7

(Saturday, March 12th, 7:00pm-7:45pm, Alcott room in the Westin)

Inform 7 is an unusual IF design language; it doesn't look like any programming language you've used before. We'll give a super-speedy first lesson for IF newcomers (and even for people who have never programmed before). (Jason McIntosh, Andrew Plotkin)

IF Demo Fair

(Saturday, March 12th, 8:00pm-10:00pm, Alcott room in the Westin)

A showcase of new and interesting demonstrations in the IF world. (New types of NPC interaction, new user interfaces, and so on.) We'll set up the projects around the room and let viewers explore the exhibits they want to see. (Hosted by Emily Short; see announcement.)

PAX Speed-IF

(Saturday, March 12th, 10:30pm-11:30pm, Alcott room in the Westin)

Show off what you wrote today.


(Sunday, March 13th, 1:30pm-2:30pm, IF Suite)

Nick Montfort presents his experimental narration-centric IF development system.

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PAX East 2011!

Last March, we at the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction busted our brogmoids to run a series of IF events at PAX East. We ran an IF Hospitality Suite throughout the weekend; it turned into a sort of IF mini-convention within PAX. (See this post from last year.)

Following that success (and a similar event at PAX Prime in September), we are once again making plans for PAX East 2011.

We're still setting things up. But it looks like we're going to have two rooms this year, in the Westin Waterfront hotel. (That's adjacent to PAX's new convention center.) We'll have the now-standard IF Hospitality Suite, open noon-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, and noon-3pm Sunday.

We'll also have a function room in the Westin -- not as large as the PAX function rooms, but big enough for a decent crowd. (Thanks to Dave Cornelson for arranging this.)

So what's planned?

Two events with IF people are confirmed on the PAX schedule. (These will require PAX badges to attend.) These are not specifically about IF, but we'll certainly talk about IF in some way:

How to fund your game development project with Kickstarter

  • (Friday, March 11th, 12:30pm-1:30pm, Cat Theatre)

Whether you're a seasoned game designer or just starting out in the field, independently producing and publishing a game can be a huge undertaking! More and more, game developers are turning to as a place to not only raise funding for their projects, but as a unique way to build fan support and reach out to new communities. Founded in 2009, Kickstarter has grown into the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world. (Cindy Au, Andrew Plotkin, Joshua Newman, Evan Balster)

Interactive Drama: Dialogue as Gameplay

  • (I don't have the time yet)

(Jonathon Myers (mod.), Stephen Dinehart, Evan Skolnick, Emily Short, John Gonzalez)

We're still working out the events that we're running, in the two IF rooms. (These will not require a PAX badge.) We will certainly have:

  • A Speed-IF (gamejam-style, write an IF game in one afternoon)

  • Collaborative play of an IF game (yet to be chosen)

Still in planning:

  • "Setting as character in narrative games" (panel discussion)

  • An IF writer's workshop

  • "Reading stories from the crossword" (panel discussion on narrative through puzzle)

  • Superfast introduction to Inform 7?

For more information, check out the IFWiki page which we're using as a planning board. Feel free to suggest panel ideas there. And if you're interested in participating in any of these events, please comment here, or on the wiki, or send me email (

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IF News & Dungeon Report

It's been a crazy couple of weeks in IF, and we're expecting several more months of crazy on the horizon.

  • Aaron Reed's book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 has gone to the printer. You can pre-order it through Amazon. This is an I7 tutorial which concentrates on -- well, as the title says, on creating interactive stories. It's not a programming reference manual, and it assumes no knowledge of programming. I haven't seen this yet but by all reports it is fantastic.

  • Jason Scott's movie GET LAMP has gone to the printer and come back. You can order on the web site. He says that they'll start shipping out next week.

  • The Gameshelf's own Jason McIntosh posted his own IF video... oh, wait. You already saw that.

  • We invited people to get together at MIT and play Zork (the original MIT mainframe version). A whole lot of people did! It was a bunch of fun and we will be continuing the IF-playing series.

  • Some guy named James Mastros implemented GlkNew, a web-based version of my Glk IF-playing interface. I literally had no idea this was going on. This is a play-in-a-web-browser system, but unlike Parchment and Quixe, the game engine runs on a back-end web server. It's a different set of tradeoffs. I haven't played with it much, but I'm happy to see this.

  • IF plans for PAX Prime are coming together. There's one IF panel on the PAX schedule, I believe there will be a GET LAMP reprise, and we'll see the usual list of smaller IF-related events organized by the community. Also as usual, the convention is sold out. If you can't make it, maybe next year in Boston.

IF game release timeline, extracted from IFDB by James Lawton

  • Finally, we have this little graph, courtesy of James Lawton. (Click for full resolution.) James went through all the game data in IFDB, and graphed them by year of release. (All the games that had that information, anyhow -- 3491 of them, as of July 24th.) The circles indicate the number of games released in the IFComp, starting in 1995.

The overall shape is clear; you can see the early years, the mid-80s boom. The tail-off of the commercial companies crosses the rise of the early-90s amateur and shareware community. And then, the modern IF boom of 2000, when the IFComp was really taking off.

You could read the past several years as a discouraging slump. I demur. We discussed this a little on IFMud, and noted some probable causes. Some sources of very small, lightweight IF games -- SpeedIF, ADRIFT mini-games -- have become less popular. More full-length games are appearing. And, we think, IF is spreading into many corners of the online world -- it's no longer concentrated in two newsgroups and an FTP site. So not all new games are appearing on IFDB.

However, these are off-the-cuff guesses. I can't back them up with data. Interested in doing some more IFDB research? Game size, platform, category, new authors vs established names... lots of room for study.

At any rate, 2010 is on track to at least equal 2009. I'm betting it will exceed it once IFComp season hits. Onward.

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For IF, the PAX East aftershocks continue

Screen shot 2010-07-02 at 12.54.32 PM.pngAs we enter midsummer, the interactive fiction landscape continues its long thaw out of a decades-long winter of deep obscurity. This is an exciting time to be a fan of the medium one could call indie games’ indie games, and I feel privileged to live in one of its geographic activity centers.

To my eye, much of this motion comes from the continuing fallout from PAX East and the unexpectedly potent meeting of the minds that happened that weekend — not just among established IF authors and critics, but with lots of interested newcomers as well, many of whom help sustain the medium-transforming conversations begun in March.

The last few weeks alone have seen a rich mix of IF-related activity and discussion, which I shall now attempt to summarize:

The most recent SPAG leads with Harry Kaplan’s “How Suite it Was”, a lengthy retrospective of the goings-down at PAX East’s IF Hospitality Suite last March. Beyond Harry’s reporting, the piece collects and recounts various attendees’ memories of the event, and the impressions it left upon them.

The story also served to remind me of my own excitement about the possibilities of writing and publishing serialized interactive fiction, an idea I floated during the IF Outreach panel’s lengthy digression into the thorny topic of the medium’s commercial potential. Just a spitballed notion at the time, the idea grew on me quickly, and I filled several notebook pages with thrilled scribbles on the topic before PAX ended and therefore wiped the whole thing from my brain-cache. Rediscovering it months later, I find it just as thrilling of an unexplored area. Look for a column-length bloviation on the subject later.

Emily Short and Nick Montfort led an interesting exchange about IF interfaces on their respective blogs last month. Emily — one of the lead developers of Inform 7, which I will risk calling modern IF’s most popular language — wondered out loud if the bare-naked command-line prompt, while iconic to IF’s form, might have outlived its usefulness. Working from her notion of the command prompt as false promise (one of my own favorite takeaway notions from PAX), she explores many experimental player-input routes that other text-based games have investigated over the years, and proposes some new directions to try.

On his own blog, Nick — a champion of interactive text by profession — provides some pushback, defending pure-text input as being a natural pairing for pure-text output, and offering skepticism that any other system would ultimately prove easier for a new player to learn. The discussion bled out onto various other blogs and fora from there, and remains ongoing — see, for example, Horace Torys’ alternate interface mockups, and Sarah Morayati’s critique of IF’s library responses, the (in)famous I don’t see that here-type messages that are also, unfortunately, iconic to IF.

After a year of holding monthly meetups, the People’s Republic launched Grue Street, a monthly workshop for interactive fiction writing. Nick Montfort organized its initial meeting in May at a local coffee shop, and Clara Fernandez hosted its June meeting in an MIT classroom, with attendees taking turns casting their works-in-progress onto a projector for a group-play session.

Grue Street carries one strict attendance rule: participants must bring an original work in progress, one meaty enough for the other attendees to bite into and critique. A draft of a single in-game situation, with enough room carved out to let the player explore and interact, represents the minimum offering.

I attended Grue Street’s second meeting, and found it quite rewarding. Not only did I get to see and play a number of works from various local talents, but the event successfully pressed me into starting a new IF game of my own, something I’ve been striving to accomplish for more than a decade. Since writing the somewhat ridiculous Calliope in 1999, I’ve had many ideas for my first “real” game. Invariably they would call for sweeping, novel-length works, and naturally I failed to write a single line of code for any of them.

Under the pressure to get something encoded in time for the next Grue Street, however, I found inspiration in a different angle. My new work in progress is very small, a sour little amuse bouche rather than the sumptuous feasts I once dreamt of. And it will ship, by damn. Barring unforeseen disaster, this work will be complete by the 2010 IFComp’s starting gun this fall, and I have Grue Street to thank for finally lighting that kindling.

The latest version of the Inform 7 programming language and IDE has been released, a year after its previous major update. The most recent page of its excellently off-kilter, Harpers-list-style changelog reveals all.

For me, one feature stands dominant over all others: the IDE’s new ability to release one’s work as a website, with the game running tidily and attractively in-browser, thanks to Atul Varma’s marvelous Parchment system. New sections of the documentation detail ways to customize outputted websites through CSS.

That’s its pretty new Mac OS X icon at the top of this article, by the way, designed by Inform’s creator, Graham Nelson. He also wrote an essay about how that icon came to be.

Speaking of both Grue Street and playing IF in a web browser, a more notable piece of that workshop’s output is Andrew Plotkin’s Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, a short game with a hard-SF setting but a lighthearted storytelling style — a tall tale of the high seas from a dizzyingly distant future. And, lo, you can play it online.

Emily Short wrote a review of Heliopause over on Play This Thing.

I’ll be forthright with you: I meant to release a Gameshelf video episode about the state of interactive fiction earlier this year, but that definition has been, from my perspective, transforming with alarming rapidity since PAX East. On the one hand I’m glad I waited (ha ha, “waited”, he says), and on the other I have the sense that when I finally do ship this video, it might unavoidably start looking obsolete pretty quickly — especially if the IF community keeps its current transformative pace up.

This is not a complaint. All this stuff happened just over the last five weeks, and I haven’t even told you about the cool games I played. (Like, I finally got around to playing Sarah Morayati’s hilarious and cruel Broken Legs, as well as Jimmy Maher’s Lovecraftian RPG adaptation The King of Shreds and Patches.) Yes, it’s an exciting time be a text-game fan, all right.

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Interactive Fiction Bits

Two recent bits:

  • Following the success of the IF summit at PAX East, the Seattle IF group is organizing some IF content at PAX Prime in Seattle this September.
  • IF newcomer Neophyte has teamed up with IF veteran Juhana to build a game that will act as an IF trainer, teaching people what they need to know to play other IF games. They're collaborating on a wiki for everyone to see. Right now they have some of the initial concept done, and they're hoping to have the game done by September 1 (just in time for PAX Prime, although I think their timing has more to do with the annual comp than PAX).

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What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 2

9780810984233.jpgThis week I complete my writeup of the stuff I hoovered off the merch tables outside the very first PAX East expo hall last month. As I mentioned last time, almost everything I bought at this game expo was some kind of printed matter.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga

I don't understand how I haven't run into Jason Shiga's work before last month[1], where two of his self-published books lay among the Printed Works of Interest on display at the PAX IF Suite. One of them, a black-and-white, intriguingly dogeared comic book called Meanwhile, caught my attention immediately, and I was delighted to discover that a brand-new full-color hardcover edition had not only just been printed but was for sale at the expo. For my money, it is a best-case scenario of print-based interactive fiction.

First of all, it's great comics, mixing Shiga's delightfully chunky, cartoony art with a loopily recursive SF story, delivered through dialogue that's a charmingly correct mix of goofy and poignant. But what really defines the book is its game element: the panels are read not sequentially, but rather by following colored pipes that connect them. These pipes snake in all directions, often abruptly directing the reader onto a new page entirely. Crucially, panels often have more than one "outflow" pipe, and sometimes the pipes themselves branch; these represent decision points faced by the main character, leaving it up to the reader to decide which action he takes. (The story's first page serves as a friendly tutorial, setting the protagonist in an ice cream shop and having the reader decide his fate in the form of which flavor he chooses. Things rapidly get more interesting after that.)

So far, it sounds like an indie-comics homage to Choose Your Own Adventure books. And while Meanwhile most certainly is such an homage -- Shiga is on-record as a tremendous fan of that book series, and two of the hardcover's back-cover blurbs are from classic CYOA authors -- it transcends mere adaptation of form through a subtle twist of its own. The book's front matter contains, in small print, a brief developers' note from the author, which reads in part:

Once the outline of the story was structured, a computer algorithm was written to determine the most efficient method to transfer it to book form. However, the problem proved to be NP-complete. With the use of a V-opt heuristic algorithm running for 12 hours on an SGI machine, the solution was finally cracked in spring of 2000. It was another six months before layouts were finished, again with the aid of homebrew computer algorithms.

The author (who, helpfully, holds a degree in mathematics) is too humble here. Mechanical algorithms may have generated the book's complex graph of panels and pipes, but the final physical layout is clearly the result of painstaking creative work. As you play through the book, you start to realize that the various other panels on the pages you travel through, most inaccessible from your current path, don't share the page merely for efficiency's sake; they are meant to be seen, and read. You will see unusual symmetries on apparently unrelated pages that defy coincidence and demand explanation. Appropriate to the story's theme, these glimpsed path-fragments suggesting alternate pasts and possible futures start to feel like echoes of parallel timelines spookily flitting by, totally unreachable -- or are they?

I must also note that the book contains its own version of a text adventure game's "AMUSING" post-play segment. Once you reach the most complete ending (it's not explicitly marked as such, but the story is sufficiently well written that it you'll still know when you get there), there's not much left to do but start deconstructing the book yourself, flipping around freely and seeing what happens. Wonderfully, the book anticipates this, and responds appropriately. To say more would spoil it. All thinking playful persons should experience this book.

Incidentally, the other Jason Shiga book in the IF suite, Knock Knock, was a related but entirely different example of mad genius that I would also very much love to own. In this story, the player-character has three moves to deal with an unwelcome visitor to his tiny home. To make a move, the reader choses which of the many objects in the one-room apartment that the character should interact with. Every object is "useable", in the IF sense, at the end of every turn. The comic contains every possible four-page story that can results (all but one of which come to a disastrous end), and thus the whole work is the size of a phone book. Sadly, I am told that it is out of print. I strongly encourage this situation to amend itself.

Calvin & Hellen's Bogus Journey, by Calvin Wong and Hellen Jo

This minicomic by titular cartoonists Wong and Jo is the alleged instruction manual to a real but very silly downloadable Windows game. Standing alone, the book is a giggly parody in both format and content of the very earliest Nintendo game instruction booklets, such as the one that accompanied the original Super Mario Bros. (and therefore most every NES sold, at least in the US). It nails everything from the unsettling safety warnings at the start through the disconnectedly worded background story, arriving inevitably at the pages and pages of enemy-character depictions and understated micro-biographies that always constituted the bulk of the old manuals.

The downloadable game is by Derek Yu, who with both Spelunky and TIGSource under his belt is one of the world's most prolific and respected indie-game auteurs. So my discovery of this project feels like, I dunno, coming across an obscure pamphlet linking to a short-film adaptation of itself that Quentin Tarantino burped out on a lark and stuck on the web without further commentary. I love the world of indie games.

Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort

I have not yet read Montfort's 2003 treatise on the history and form of interactive fiction. Nor did I have the author autograph it at PAX, even though I bought it amidst a running gag of Jason Scott, selling the book at his table, repeatedly calling Nick over to sign other people's copies every time he tried to enter the nearby expo floor. But I couldn't just let it sit there unpurchased, especially since I did manage to last year read and enjoy Racing the Beam, the excellent examination of the Atari VCS's technology and societal impact co-authored by Montfort and follow game-studies scholar Ian Bogost.

Digression: It is a good time to be an independent ludologist in Boston. In the typical mold of a Cantabridgian techno-slacker of no particularly noteworthy academic pedigree, I frequently find myself knocking about the MIT campus for one thing or another, which increasingly involves interesting events in the vein of game studies. I run into Nick fairly often in that context, hence my not vying for an autograph. A one-man agitator of everything that has to do with creative new applications of digital writing, Nick hosts the Boston IF meetups in his office there, and he also organizes the Purple Blurb seminar series. He's also kindly sat twice for filmed interviews with me, though I've yet to actually apply any of this footage to a finished project. So, on that note, I'll wrap this column up and slink back to my Final Cut workstation.

[1] Not entirely literally true. I did run into a brief reference to Shiga in Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics, which I re-read last month as research for another column. McCloud pegged Shiga as an emerging talent when he wrote the book in 2000 - which, alas, was about the last time I myself paid deep and regular attention to the world of comics.

I empathized with Paul O'Brian's lament, in his own PAX writeup, of feeling like he'd been in suspended animation for years as far as interactive fiction went. That's quite similar to how I felt paging through Reinventing Comics for the first time in a decade, albeit from the other direction: this material was ten years old, yet still felt novel to me.

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PAX East 2010: The IF videos (mostly)

Here is the video my Flip camcorder shot of three of the IF-related PAX East-ish events. I apologize for the wobbly quality; I didn't arrive at PAX with plans to record anything, but found myself deputized into a videographer role after I was noticed fooling around with my brand-new camera-toy. As such, I (and other individuals I roped in to help me) struggled to figure out how to best use the device even while shooting these videos.

Two of these videos cut out prematurely, because it turns out that the Flip doesn't offer much in the way of a battery-life indicator. On the plus side, the audio is as good as you can hope to get from a little box located yards away from the subject. So: not very good at all, actually, but at least it's audible. Next time I do something like this, I'll plan ahead and bring both a real camera and mic setup, and more of a clue as to their use. (Taking, perhaps, a page from Ben Collins-Sussman, who took some great photos of PAX's IF activity.)

Nonetheless, these videos are filled with smart people saying interesting things about interactive text games, so please do enjoy them! If you're well-behaved I'll end this post with related videos shot on better equipment by someone more skilled.

Dispelling the Invisibility: IF Outreach

IF Outreach panel - PAX East 2010 from Jason McIntosh on Vimeo.

This took place in the IF Hospitality Suite (a.k.a. Zarf's room in the Hilton) on Saturday evening.

Panelists, from left to right, include Andrew Plotkin (author), Chris Dahlen (journalist), John Bardinelli (critic), and Jason McIntosh (me). The moderator, seated in the middle, is Harry Kaplan. Fellow PR-IF member Jake Eakle operated the camera. The video ends abruptly when the camcorder runs out of storage (it's a long discussion), but the panel wound down soon after.

My bite-sized followup: It's only natural that the topic slid from "How do we increase IF's audience" to "how can we make money from IF", but in retrospect I regret not pushing back against this reframing more than I did. Making IF lucrative is an interesting subject, but it's an entirely separate one from the one in the panel's title.

My standing answer to the money question since PAX weekend is: Who cares? Those two words unpack into many more, but that's not what you're here to see. Maybe I'll get into it more in a future post.

No Hints, Please: Adaptive Difficultly Strategies

IF Hints panel - PAX East 2010 from Jason McIntosh on Vimeo.

Another IF Suite panel, this one on Sunday afternoon. From left to right: IF authors Jim Munroe, Dave Gilbert, and Aaron Reed.

Sadly, this video cuts out after 20 minutes because it suffered the most from my hard-way learning about the Flip's battery limitations. But, you can still see what Zarf was describing in his writeup about how the topic inexorably morphed into an extension of the previous day's panel's conversation on the balance between evangelizing IF as an art form, and profiting from it by way of game sales.

Purple Blurb: Interactive Fiction

Purple Blurb - Interactive Fiction readings from Jason McIntosh on Vimeo.

Hosted by MIT's Nick Montfort, part of his regular series of guest presentations on digital writing. On Monday evening, IF authors Jeremy Freese and Emily Short read from their works (Violet and Alabaster[1], respectively). The "interactors" providing the text input are Jenni Polodna and Kevin Jackson-Mead, and all four sit down for some Q&A after the readings. (Not long after, alas, it once again cuts out suddenly due to the camcorder batteries giving way.)

The on-screen text is a little hard to follow at first, as I try to get both it and Jeremy in-frame, with the result of making Jenni's input invisible. I give up and focus on the screen after a few minutes, and it becomes easier to follow thereafter.

GET LAMP post-premiere panel

Finally, a little bonus content: Jason Scott has posted the following footage from the panel he held after screening GET LAMP, his IF documentary, on Friday evening (one of the two IF-related events on the official PAX schedule that weekend). Panelists, left to right: Dave Lebling, Don Woods, Brian Moriarty, Andrew Plotkin, Nick Montfort, and Steve Meretzky, all of whom appeared in the film. (Lebling, Moriarty, and Meretzky are all IF authors from the medium's golden era, and Woods is co-author of Colossal Cave Adventure, the game from the 1970s that started it all.)

GET LAMP Pax Panel: Part 1 (Rough Cut) from Jason Scott on Vimeo.

GET LAMP Pax Panel: Part 2 (Rough Cut) from Jason Scott on Vimeo.

I am not aware of any online footage from Friday evening's "Storytelling in the world of interactive fiction" panel (the other official-PAX one). If it's out there somewhere, let me know, and I'll gladly add it to this post.

[1] While Emily led and managed Alabaster's development, the final work was additionally co-authored by John Cater, Rob Dubbin, Eric Eve, Elizabeth Heller, Jayzee, Kazuki Mishima, Sarah Morayati, Mark Musante, Adam Thornton, and Ziv Wities.

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What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 1

30887208_16f5396a71.jpgHere is one of my two funny PAX East 2010 stories: Near the start of the Friday-afternoon festivities, around the time that Zarf took the pensive-looking photo of me seen in his own PAX post, I bumped into Darius Kazemi, celebrated one-man social nexus of the Boston game-making community. We caught each other up on our respective projects, and after hearing about how I've been experimenting with writing longer, more-or-less regularly paced columns for The Gameshelf, he gave me a quest. I was to seek out a brand-new and ambitious print magazine called Kill Screen, the editors of which I could find in attendance that weekend.

The rest of Friday was then completely consumed by IF events, as others have already ably recorded. (Again, see Zarf's post for links aplenty.) When Saturday came, and after I'd succeeded in meeting my visiting Xbox Live pals for lunch, I pulled out my phone for some google-sleuthing, hoping to find where within the overcrowded PAX these magazine folks hid. A search for "kill screen" "pax east" brought me easily to this blog post by the magazine's managing editor, Chris Dahlen, where he noted that he'd be speaking on a panel in the IF hospitality suite at 7 PM. As it happened, I would be speaking on the same panel. Quest complete.

I am in possession of both video and commentary regarding that panel, but alas, my poor, broken, coffee-stained MacBook lacks the wherewithal to make the video postworthy. I expect FedEx to deliver its shiny white replacement presently, at which point I'll attempt to push my own thoughts on that panel and the whole "IF Outreach" topic into presentable shape.

Until then, allow me to review my PAX East 2010 Haul. With one exception[1], everything I purchased took the form of printed matter, and all of it came from either the Attract Mode folks or Jason Scott, both of whom had set up tables in "Band Land" amid all the musicians' merch. I took delighted surprise in finding myself coming home from a video game expo with only an armload of books and magazines, and hope you'll enjoy hearing about it.

In the interest of brevity (ha ha), I'll split this review across two posts, covering the magazines now and the books and other stuff later.

Kill Screen, edited by Jamin Brophy-Warren and Chris Dahlen

Square-bound, thick-leaved, and an all-around beautiful thing to see, hold, and flip though, Kill Screen succeeds for me because it brings to mind the forgotten video game magazines of my childhood that affected me so profoundly. More than a mere collection of articles, the editors of this work clearly know a good magazine works, the way that its mood changes as you advance through the pages, ordering the articles and other pieces to make its flow most varied, interesting to the person exploring it. The magazine's art style is outstanding and arresting, with emphasis on photography and spot art that complements the text, rather than literally illustrating it; there is surprisingly sparing use of game screenshots.

The stories within this premiere issue (labeled "Issue 0" on the spine) approach video games in a variety of ways, not a single one of which is that of a game review. There are, for example, personal stories: A Gen-Xer recounts his mental state while playing Resident Evil for the first time on a then-new original PlayStation, placing it against the backdrop of a lifetime of video gaming that began with the Atari VCS. Another writer describes the role that video games played -- and continue to play -- in his relationship with his younger brother.

Perhaps my favorite article is a feature story found dead center in the issue, on the unreleased game Air Traffic Manager, an ATC simulation that a lone developer has been toiling over for nearly a decade. The article's author artfully mixes in exposition on the state of AI programming in video games, based on interviews with other, more well known game developers and game-studies academics. In the end, he synthesizes this broad view with the specific challenges that the developer faces with his own game.

In the big picture, this article isn't that extraordinary; it's simply a piece of good, solid journalism, up to par with what appears in better newspapers every Sunday. But I couldn't tell you when I last read an article of this quality about digital games before, at least not one that was aimed to so wide an audience that it diluted itself while explaining its own vocabulary. I want to read more like it, please.

The whole magazine's package is broken up by humor pieces and cartoons, both nicely understated in their presentation. It wraps up with a funny and contemplative work of fiction masquerading as a walkthrough of an obscure game: a light-hearted sign-off appropriate after much deep thought on the topic of games, and again exactly the sort of thing I remember reading in the game magazines of yore.

The unavoidable downside is that Kill Screen is rather pricey. Twenty bucks for a single issue, or $75 for four, puts it out of reach of the casual reader -- including most kids, which therefore makes its story diverge from my narrative of buying the latest Electronic Games at the newsstand during my formative years. But I understand why it's priced the way it is; launching a print magazine in 2010 is a little crazy. (Managing Editor Chris Dahlen, in fact, participated in panel titled "The Death of Print" hours before I met him.)

But, you know what? If a team of creative people who care about improving games journalism must so thoroughly emulate the format and sensibilities of pre-21st-century magazines that they end up actually and literally printing a magazine on paper, then so be it. There is value just in making something like this happen, even if the circulation must remain relatively low, at least at first. It's still bringing work into the world that wouldn't have been there otherwise, and it a format that's at least a little less ephemeral than what's usual, these days. I plan on springing for a four-issue subscription, and hope that Kill Screen will persevere to fulfill it and then some.

The other stuff I bought took the form of more traditional zines: Black-and-white, hand-collated works that sell for a few dollars each. And here they are:

exp., by Mathew Kumar

Boy, did I like this. According to its preface, this zine represents the outcome of a challenge that the author gave himself: write something interesting about all the digital games that he happened to play over a five-week period. The outcome is a collection not of game reviews, or even of essays per se, but of a patchwork where each story adopts a form inspired by the game at hand.

So, Shadow Complex gets an overblown screenplay treatment, featuring dialog by two bemused gamers on the game's nonsensical plotting while evil cackling overlords listen in. Metal Gear Acid gets adapted into rules for a solitaire board game, including a sheet of playing pieces for cutting out and mounting onto cardboard, if the reader is so inclined.

Super Metroid receives representation in the zine as well, by way of a two-page treatise, mostly in illustration, on how the game's original SNES controller mapping could have been better. I infer from this that Kumar has a storied and comfortable history with this elder title, about which he's already said a lot; either way, this was a clever way to say something new about it.

These and several other short pieces all come together into a nice little meal of intelligent and clever game critique, bound together by the background narrative of one person experiencing and reacting to all these games in a short span of time. Love love love exp., and really hope to see more.

FORT90ZINE, edited (and largely written) by Matthew Hawkins

This one, I must admit, doesn't really play to my own tastes. A fanzine in the classic sense, it bursts with enthusiasm, less interested in critique than in showing you all this really cool stuff. But there are so few literal fanzines any more. An enthusiast who puts the effort into organizing, editing, and laying out their thoughts the way that Hawkins does automatically stands out as something remarkable against a background of noisy keyboard-bashing webchimps.

And for all my snooty snuffling: well, there actually is some really cool stuff in here. The first of the two extant issues, for example, contains a long interview with Rodney Greenblat as its centerpiece. In the second issue, Hawkins spends half the zine's pages touring us through his favorite neighborhoods in Manhattan, telling how video game culture differently infuses each of them. The latter lengthy piece could benefit from some tightening up, but it still tells me stories I hadn't heard before.

According to the Attract Mode website, a third issue of FORT90ZINE will be with us soon. The thing about enthusiasm-driven projects is that where there's some, there's more. And I am happy to see this particular project continue.

Update: Part 2 of this writeup is now online.

Image credit: Photgraph of a printing press by Miren Berasategi. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

[1] I also impulse-bought a set of Attract Mode's Calamity Annie buttons, since they were right there.

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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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Three upcoming documentaries on games

We seem to be entering a nexus of documentaries about games. Far be it from me to do anything but encourage further flowering in this field! Witness:

Lorien Green has released a clip of Gone Cardboard, a film about board games -- particularly Eurogames, by the looks of it -- and the people who play them. She expects to release the final cut in early 2011. (Link via Kevin Jackson-Mead.)

The enigmatically named Spinach hopes to produce a doc about people who create digital games, called You Meet the Nicest People Making Videogames. That link leads to the project's Kickstarter fundraising page, which includes a teaser he filmed at GDC. Mr. Spinach approaches this endeavor from scratch, and needs help covering both equipment and travel costs, a position I can certainly appreciate. He's a quarter of the way to his goal, so far... (Link via Anna Anthropy.)

And of course, just 49 hours and 15 minutes after I type these words, I plan on attending the world premiere of Jason Scott's Get Lamp at PAX East. It is part of the interactive fiction track which is of course the real reason to attend the show, ho ho. Jason's been working on this film for years, and I was privileged to see a clip a few months ago at a Boston IF meetup. It's gonna be a goodie.

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IF at PAX-East -- compleat schedule

Everything IF-related going on at PAX!

Some of these are official PAX events, on the PAX schedule. The rest will be in the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction Hospitality Suite, open noon-midnight in the Back Bay Hilton. (Across the street from the Sheraton.) Come by any time and say hi to IF people!

Storytelling in the world of interactive fiction

(Friday, March 26th, 5:30pm-6:30pm, Wyvern Theatre (312))

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. (Rob Wheeler (mod.), Robb Sherwin, Aaron Reed, Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin)

GET LAMP Panel/Screening

(Friday, March 26th, 9:30pm, Naga Theatre (210))

The premiere of Jason Scott's documentary on IF history and culture. Approximately 90 minutes of film, followed by a panel discussion. (Jason Scott (mod.), Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, Brian Moriarty, Nick Montfort, Andrew Plotkin, Don Woods)

PAX Speed-IF

(Saturday, March 27th, 1:30pm-2:30 pm, IF Suite)

Write a short IF game in two hours! Actually, we'll give you until 10pm, so you can attend the rest of the convention too. Work alone or in groups. The game theme will be a surprise; I7 and TADS 3 templates will be provided. (Hosted by David Cornelson)

Dispelling the Invisibility -- IF Outreach

(Saturday, March 27th, 7:00pm-8:00pm, IF Suite)

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

PAX Speed-IF wrap-up

(Saturday, March 27th, 10:00pm-11:00 pm, IF Suite)

Everybody shows off the games they wrote.

Action Castle!

(Sunday, March 28th, 10:30am-11:30am, Wyvern Theatre (312))

"Action Castle" is a goofy role-playing game where the GM pretends to be an IF parser, and the players must speak in IF-ese.

No Hints Please -- Adaptive Difficulty Strategies

(Sunday, March 28th, 1:30pm-2:30pm, IF Suite)

Jim Munroe, Aaron Reed, Dave Gilbert.

Purple Blurb

(Monday, March 29th, 5:30pm-7:00pm, MIT 14E-310)

This is not a PAX event, but it's happening in town the day after PAX. Emily Short and Jeremy Freese speak at MIT on the subject of interactive fiction and electronic literature. Hosted by Nick Montfort for his Purple Blurb lecture series.

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