The winner of the the Zork PDP-11 Manual auction I mentioned a couple entries ago has been kind (and astoundingly generous) and has donated a PDF of a scanned version of the manual they bought. They paid $2,348.31, and you pay zero.
To recap, this is a manual for the PDP-11 version of Zork. It came on a diskette (a rather large diskette) and was actually sold. This version predates the TRS-80 version sold by Personal Software, and the general tale is that less than 100 copies were sold.
This version is autographed by Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, and Joel Berez.
The manual, even without the magnetic media, holds a whole host of interesting points within it. It had to explain, to a commercial audience, both the process of installing the software and the pointers for interacting with a text adventure, which at the time was a pretty new idea. Reading it, you’ll either get perspective or nostalgia about that time.
Infocom at this point was a PO Box and some big plans, but had no office space, hence the address.
The donor wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you, donor.
I’ll be covering some people I worked on this documentary with in various entries. Today’s is about Dr. Nick Montfort.
When I was first working on research for the documentary, I stumbled into an announcement of a book about interactive fiction/text adventures called Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. The book was not quite out yet but was coming soon, and so I looked up a little on the author, and found him a pretty fascinating guy.
Nick has been at work for years and years on all sorts of academic study of subjects close to my heart, and maybe to yours; text adventures, video games, home consoles, gaming, and the friction that reveals the deeper meaning of storytelling and myth when we recalibrate our narrative apparatus.
When Twisty Little Passages came out in book form, it arrived and I devoured it pretty quickly. The first chapter, which I read in my dentist’s office, is tough going for a person of my mindset (light-hearted, skeptical, scatterbrained), but by the second chapter this book beautifully discusses the nature of interactive fiction, primarily within the context of Infocom’s history. It really is a great book and I suggest its purchase.
Nick and I have become buddies in the years hence, and he sat down for interviews on no less than 3 separate occasions, in three different places, across a couple years. He functions, in some ways, as the narrator of the film, although a couple others share that duty. What is more important and yet not quite as obvious is how invaluable he was in introducing me to a whole range of people who ended up being interviewed. By my estimation at least a dozen people are in here directly because of his influence and suggestions.
Nick co-runs an excellent weblog, Grand Text Auto, which covers subjects from text adventures to electronic literature in general. On this weblog, you can also read his disseration. Yes, he has a doctorate in interactive fiction! (One of three such people I interview in the film.)
Nick is now an assistant professor at MIT. His information page is here. I think you’ll find him as fascinating as I have.
An interesting auction occurred this past week: someone put up a signed and verified copy of PDP-11 Zork, which is a very rare edition that predates even the Personal Software edition of Zork. If it looks like some photocopied pages on yellow paper, you’d be quite correct. It also includes the original PO box of the company before it moved into actual office space at 55 Wheeler Street in Cambridge, MA.
I bid on this, putting in what I thought was a ludicrous amount of money. My excuse was that I was likely to award it as some sort of prize during the sale of GET LAMP. Or maybe I was going to keep it for myself. Who knows.
My bid was in the hundreds of dollars. I thought I was being silly.
It went for $2,348.
Here’s the original link to the auction on E-bay. I have no insider information on the reason it went for sale, now, as it did. I was told about the auction by a friend in the context of “oh, this might be of interest to you”. I do know of cases of one-time Infocom employees selling off artifacts over time.
By the way, this came with no magnetic media; it was just the set of papers and a letter of authenticity. Not that having the original magnetic media would have been that informative, but just so you know what went on the block.
As part of working for the past few years on this documentary, I’ve been collecting artifacts related to text adventures. This ranges from things like the stack of adventure-related books above to software, printouts, advertisements, and videotape. A lot will get into the movie one way or another.
The books are interesting. Some are just walkthroughs, where an author solves a game as best they can and then tell you the specific steps to solve the games. Others try and give you subtle hints about the way to go so you can discover the final bits yourself. But most interesting to me personally are a couple books specifically geared towards the creation of adventure games. One of these, Writing Basic Adventure Programs for the TRS-80 by Frank Dacosta, is hardbound and far outstrips any reasonable treatment of the subject, including page after page of underlying programming theory to ensure your program would be the most well-constructed game for the TRS-80, ever. Published in 1982, it only had a couple years of possible usefulness for what it was written for, but the general themes and lessons in the book would probably work up to the present day.
One of the neater things I scanned in from Steve Meretzky’s collection were these two pages of sales figures of Infocom products.
First, a caveat. When I say someone from Infocom was amazing, I don’t want to make it sound like a lot of other people at infocom weren’t amazing, because they were. I’m just focusing on one or two amazing people at any given time in describing them to you. As an additional note, when I say that Infocom was amazing, I don’t want to give the impression that companies outside Infocom weren’t amazing as well. They were.
So, anyway: Mike Dornbrook at Infocom was amazing.
His interview was great, but beyond that, the pure mass of things he did and how he did them was pervasive in a bunch of other interviews as well. He invented Invisiclues, got the Zork User’s Group going (which eventually wrapped back into Infocom) and a lot of good ideas about marketing and interacting with the users came from him.
He also was a marketer, and so his interest in the hard numbers was legion. He’d keep a list of sales numbers on a chalkboard in his office, and he was always on top of what was working or not working. When he clashed with the creative side on things, it was generally to make things better, not necessarily cheaper or easier. It was Mike, for example, who had to go track down how exactly one would go about making Zorkmids.
The scans I post above were picked up by Simon Carless a few months ago, and he caused a small amount of press about them. Here’s some links to various discussions: 123.
The pages were in the folder without much context, but judging by the date, I am going to assume these were tracked for handing over to Activision, to answer questions and set expectations.
I don’t want to spend too much type analyzing them; others have done so with the same amount of first-hand knowledge I do (none) so no sense adding to anything there. What’s obvious, though, is that the games industry was a little smaller than people might think, back in the 1980s. Remember, Infocom was one of the top sellers of software, not just game software, in the home computer market.
There are worse places to be than Steve Meretzky’s basement.
As part of the GET LAMP project, I’ve been collecting artifacts and images throughout the commercial heydays of text adventures, and nobody got bigger than Infocom in the early 1980s. And Steve was one of the big designers at Infocom, creating or co-creating some of the most lasting games in the genre: Planetfall, Sorcerer, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Stationfall… and then went on after Infocom to make many other classics as well. He is a towering figure in the games industry, recognized as one of the greats, among other designers who have produced one-tenth his output.
But beyond his place in the history of text adventures, he’s also acutely aware of the history of text adventures, and the process, and the trends of a gaming industry. Unlike a lot (and I do mean the vast majority) of commercial text adventure authors, he’s still in the game-making business; a lot moved into other programming jobs, or contract work, or basically stepping upwards into management of other programmers. (A few walked away from computers as a livelihood, too.)
But even beyond that, beyond the fact that he was this great designer and also associated with this great company and has been a willing participant in recounting the history of this genre, is the fact that he’s been a tireless archivist of all the history he’s walked through or been a part of.
This can’t be trumpeted enough: Steve saved everything.
He’s let me go through a lot of what he saved, to scan parts of it for use in my movie. And there was a lot to go through.
He followed one of the core tenets of archiving: save everything you can, because you never know what will end up being the most important items in the regard of history. He saved memos, handwritten notes, ad copy, correspondence with printers and PR folk. He saved invitations to parties, softball game announcements, photos and sketches.
This is also critical: it’s sorted. He didn’t sort it to the level of fanaticism that would require someone to only keep a subset of stuff, but he has it in arrangements that made my life a lot easier: memos by years, folders for sales, folders for drawings, and game design binders. Did I mention the game design binders? Every scrap of paper related to the design of his games, thousands of pages of revision, discussion, improvements, dead ends and so on.
He also had a really nice copy of Cornerstone, the ultimately-failed Infocom business product:
I can’t imagine there are that many pristine copies of this product left; that one of them would be in the collection of someone whose company partially failed because of this product shows his stellar attitude to saving the artifacts.
I wish more people who worked in firms of great fame or whose company has or had great influence in the minds of the world would be like this. While for many it might not be informative to browse over the castoffs of a commercial enterprise, for others it’s a perfect insight into what came before. Infocom had to pioneer many now-common ideas in marketing, production and programming approach; the academics that started the company threw a lot of very interesting incubated ideas into the mix and I personally believe that’s what led to its initial success. Beyond that, though, you can’t discount the work of their creative teams to turn very good game ideas into must-have classics.
I must state clearly that not every step of Infocom was a sure-footed midas touch, and not every choice made came back a hundred-fold in riches. Contained in these documents are silly demands, poorly-considered options, badly-handled maneuvers, and the failings of people all too human.
These are not items saved to trot out at every gathering of folks to self-aggrandize. They aren’t trumpeted in every piece of post-1990 correspondence to win arguments by fiat. This is a collection of influential writings and behind the scenes artifacts that a serious student of games and self-proposed archive of gaming materials would have to acknowledge as a world-class library. We are all very lucky that Steve had the forward-thinking approach to his work to keep such a tight record of the last few decades of his productive life. We will all be better for it.
How lucky I was to have contact with Steve Meretzky. How lucky we all are!
This is a new weblogging software package for me, and I’m still learning the features. Here’s some photos of my basement.
Granted, my basement is probably not like most peoples’ basements; I have a ton of computer history down there. I am in the process of cleaning it and sorting stuff not relevant to the documentary to other parts of the house. (People who know me know how nigh-impossible it is to get me to throw away anything, so have no worries.)
There are a range of secondary shots for GET LAMP that are being done down here, where it is functioning as a “set” that will give informational slides, shots and footage about the subjects being discussed. The movie will be, I hope, both light and dense depending on how you want to view it, so I need bridging shots and information, all of it taking advantage of the high definition format. So cleaning must be done, and as you can see, it’s quite a bit to clean.
See if you can name some of the stuff in the photos.
As time has gone on, more and more people who were aware when the project began have written me for status updates. That’s part of the reason for this weblog, of course, to put it all in one place. But their question is valid. Let me talk a little about what’s going on and what point I’m at.
GETLAMP.COM was actually registered in 2002; while working on my previous documentary I considered the idea of doing a documentary about text adventures and grabbed the name in case it disappeared or something. (I also registered TAKELAMP.COM later for this same reason.) But production of any meaningful amount didn’t begin until October of 2005. And that was mostly research, pulling in names and shaking trees, until February of 2006 when I actually began filming.
The previous film, I must confess, made me not much of a person to be around if you weren’t interested in hearing about the film I was making; I did almost nothing else for about four years. Coming into a project when you’re 31 and leaving it/entering a new phase of it when you’re 35 is a litter sobering. So this time I was sure to get other things done at the same time as this film. Still, you probably should have expected me to talk about this film as much as anything else if you struck up a conversation.
Primary filming went from February of 2006 to February of 2008. After that, I had about 110 hours of footage, spanning about 80 interviews. From there, I have spent months on end clipping it down into about 20-30 hours of footage of phrases, comments and paragraph by people. Each of these represents a complete idea by an interviewee. When all was said and done, I had about 5,000 clips. Now, I am assembling those clips. This is taking some time as well. I’ll discuss more of this process in the future. Editing is fun.
That’s where we are now. I had hoped to have this done on a schedule that has slid and slid, due to forces both inside and outside the project. None of them have been bad and the project is benefiting from the time. But I know people who want to see this have been waiting, and it must be annoying; hence the weblog.
Welcome to Taking Inventory, the weblog related to the documentary GET LAMP.
Created in November of 2008, this weblog covers a production that has been going on since 2006, that of creating a documentary about interactive fiction, text adventures, non-linear storytelling, and a host of other related subjects. The director is myself, Jason Scott, a historian and archivist who previously worked on a documentary about Bulletin Board Systems called BBS: The Documentary.
This weblog will cover both the end of production of the documentary and post-release events and issues. I’ll also be talking about interactive fiction in general, pointing to other locations for more information on this fascinating subject, and answering questions as they come up.
The most common questions are the estimated time of the finished documentary and what’s in the final collection, and I’ll be answering those as I go in later entries. Until then, please check back or subscribe to this news feed and I’ll be sure to keep you updated with production information, behind the scenes photos, and the vast amount of stories I’ve picked up in the past few years. Thanks!