The Professor

Posted: July 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction | No Comments »

4947_96468092932_605482932_1975747_7861389_nWhen he was working at Infocom, Brian Moriarty‘s nickname was “Professor”, as in “Professor Moriarty“, the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes.

As the creator of such games as Trinity, Wishbringer at Infocom and later works such as Loom and The Dig, he was hardly nefarious and evil, merely brilliant.  But I have a number of documents referring to him as Professor, and that nickname still sticks around in some quarters.

But this year, he has finally earned that moniker, as Brian Moriarty is now a Professor of Practice in the Interactive Media and Game Development Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Additionally, Loom and The Dig have been announced as being available on the game distribution service Steam.

Brian has been very generous with interviews, both for myself and many other historical projects. It’s great to hear of his new career in academia and that a new generation of folks will have the opportunity to play some of his games.


June 2009 Update!

Posted: June 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, production, Text Adventure History | 12 Comments »

Time passes…

There’s not been an update here for months, and I am sure for some people it’s been a little weird. I had promised there wouldn’t be gaps like this, but then this gap happened. So, I figure let’s just put it all out here and let people know what’s up, instead of leaving things open to speculation and concern.

First of all, let’s be clear: this project is alive, and is continuing, and will be finished. If you had any worries along those lines, please don’t have them.

The reason things have been delayed is one of simple reality: my day job, which funds my existence and the production, went from being somewhere in the realm of what a work week should be to something that we’ll diplomatically call “demanding”. It became harder to be able to put this work aside at night and work on editing the movie, which asks for a certain frame of mind. I was able to do repetitive or low-mental-level tasks, like scanning and sorting, but going through footage and finding links to compare side by side, and planning the arrangement of sequences was something I was only able to work on every few days or once a in a couple of weeks. It slowed things down dramatically.

I have recently recalibrated my life so that I can work harder on the editing of the film and the rest of the production and move forward more quickly.

editbench

There’s a great movie here! I’m enjoying editing it again, and watching all these recorded interviews, split as they were across years, connect and form ideas, is always a thrill.  Now I just need to finish it.

As a parting gift, let me share an artifact that is both old and new. As part of the promotion for the Infocom game Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a PR photograph was taken of the two primary authors, Steve Meretzky and SF author Douglas Adams. This photo showed up in a variety of computer magazines and publications and for people who know the game from the time it came out, they probably ran up against this photo in one form or another.

I have had the opportunity to scan an original slide of this photograph, and do so at a ludicrous DPI setting, and so I present you this photo at the largest resolution and quality it ever has before.

Meretzky and Adams PR Photo

The Macintosh is simply placed in the photo to give a “computer” look to the shot (Douglas Adams was a big fan of the Mac, which had very recently come out). The real development work would have been done on the Digital VT terminal behind Meretzky’s left shoulder, which would be hooked up to the mainframe that held the ZIL environment that Infocom games would be written in. This is Steve Meretzky’s office at Infocom at the time – family photos are on the bulletin board. Not as obvious is that these are two very tall men: Douglas Adams was 6’5″ and Meretzky is comparable.

Thanks again for your patience, and I hope to have more frequent updates in the future.


Suspended in Hot Mustard

Posted: February 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction | No Comments »

Obviously, many of the people I interviewed have gone on to do other projects, other jobs, and other realms of creativity. When I can, I’ll link to some of these new projects. 

Mike Berlyn, who created Suspended, Infidel and other works for Infocom, and also went on to co-design Tass Times in Tonetown, recently completed an album of smooth jazz! From the mailing he sent out about it:

Dear Family and Friends,

[Here is a] link to an album of light jazz of mine.  I’ve written, performed and recorded this album under the band name “Hot Mustard.” The album is called “All Spiced Up.” As some of you may know, I composed symphonic, contemporary music for several years and managed to complete two symphonies.  I decided to try my hand at a more popular, accessible form, and so I created Hot Mustard. I enjoyed the entire process so much, I am working on a second Hot Mustard album, which is not yet finished.

Here is a link to the Amazon page, which has preview tracks.


Another Map of Adventure

Posted: February 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | No Comments »

When the original Crowther and Woods adventure ended up on Compuserve back in the early 1980s, the players would go through the same puzzles, traps and effort that many before them (and countless after them) had to. But when they were done, they were done; the replay value wasn’t all that great. So Compuserve, being a money-making entity, did what a number of people did: they extended the dungeon.

The original adventure was 350 points, which you gained by performing different actions or acquiring treasures. The New Expanded adventure added more puzzles, and more points, inviting people back in again (for additional hourly fees).

It was pointed out to me by James L. Dean that this weblog entry has another pen and ink drawing like the one I previously mentioned, but for this expanded adventure:

collossal_cave_lfull

Now, granted that this is not what you would exactly call “Like New” condition, but you can see the difference from the previous map that I referenced, and especially how they had to struggle, again, to get all the crazy pieces in.

Something about these artistic portrayals of (mostly) made up spaces seems to set something off in me internally, in a good way. I like the idea of an artist having to both know the game, and the descriptions, and somehow reconcile it all into a functional space.


“Computer Games Have No Respect for you”

Posted: February 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, Text Adventure History | 7 Comments »

I love this article. While scanning in a bunch of artifacts, I found this newspaper column written in January of 1985. It was acquired by a clipping service for Infocom during the cycle of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (hence the paragraph that is outlined in yellow) and is nearly 25 years old.

Called “Computer Games, and Players, have no respect for you”, this article tells the travails of playing Interactive Fiction in 1985. Specifically, playing Infocom games, because the author mentions Zork, Suspect, and Hitchhiker’s Guide as the games she tried to play. In all cases, she hates the format and hates the tone of the games. It’s an enjoyable counterpoint to the rah-rah approach most articles (and, really, a lot of the documentary) find themselves promoting. People who normally didn’t engage with computers as game machines found themselves doing so for Infocom games and adventure games, and the process wasn’t always for their enlightenment or enjoyment.

Computer Games Have No Respect

You can see the full-size scan here. I went and tracked down the author, Gayle Gertler, and she’s still living in Providence, selling Southwestern-themed items (which she was interviewed about in the paper). It looks like she was an editor when she left in the 2000s, meaning she had a nice long run in the newspaper business. Maybe I should ask her what she thinks of these games now…


An Adventure Tournament

Posted: January 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, Text Adventure History | 4 Comments »

compuserve_bird_babe_dude_troll_snake

As mentioned in a previous entry, the original adventure game, “Adventure” (or “Colossal Cave” depending on who transferred the game to what system) was a feature on the old (now-gone) time-sharing and information service Compuserve.  Like a bunch of the games at Compuserve, really wonderful illustrations and posters were created to promote them, even though they had no actual graphics. Such as it was for the advertisement I got from a posted item at a site called Daily WTF, the main admin of which I interviewed for GET LAMP.  (He’d done some unrelated-to-the-site work in interactive fiction.) The actual article this came from on there was not up to standards, mostly showing the ads for this and other adventure games, and then making fun of them.

Concentrating on this advertisement alone, there’s a lot being said here that’s really interesting to me.

First of all, this is in the 1982-1984 era, considering several factors of promotion and how they chose to spend their advertising dollars. (I might be off by a year, but 1982-1984 had some amazing ads made.) The poster on the left is by a man named Gray Morrow, who was a legendary illustrator whose work spanned decades and covered everything from comic books to science fiction covers, pin-up art and all manner of stylish graphic work.  Notably, he’s tried to incorporate aspects of the game Adventure into the painting, including the dragon, the dwarf with axe, the jeweled trident, and even the bird in a cage. Not bad.

The event itself is rather interesting; a nationwide “Adventure Tournament”. I have not the slightest idea how this would be conducted. (New rooms added to the games? There were expanded versions of Adventure available on Compuserve and perhaps this was one of the opening days for a new version.) What I do know is that compuserve was expensive, costing you upwards of $10 an hour to be on. Assuming this tournament cost you regular fees, then you were spending $10/hr or thereabouts to have the chance of winning a poster and two free hours. Pretty bogue. As an additional bit, you would even be charged for postage and handling of the poster being offered for “free”!

This whole event smacks of the sort of experimentation happening at Compuserve at the time.  Trying new events, making people revisit the games, or other properties, and always that huge hurdle of explaining these games and the experience of being online. It’s quite a piece.

If someone played in this tournament, I wouldn’t mind chatting with you, just to have the history of it. 


The Legends of Zork

Posted: January 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction | 3 Comments »

It’s natural that someone who knows I’m working on this documentary would want me to know the latest of any sort of news related to text adventures or Infocom or Adventure International and so on. As a result, probably a dozen people have brought to my attention that there’s an announcement for a Massively-Multiplayer-Online version of Zork out there.

I don’t have any insider knowledge on this, or how it will go. I don’t even have any opinion of it, positive or negative. I know that if you want to play the original Zork online, you can do so.  And the current gold standard for browser-based MMOs (which this new Zork is intended to be) is Kingdom of Loathing, which comes highly recommended by many people (I haven’t played it myself).

If there’s anything I can be non-neutral about, it’s two different things:

  • I am very happy to hear that Activision, whose relationship to Zork and the Infocom properties has ranged from silly to cruel, is allowing someone to develop the property further in some way. While it may or may not be all that accurate to the original works, it will certainly be interesting to see how the Zork name resonates with folks or gathers new ones.
  • And speaking of accuracy, the character portrayed on the splash screen walks around with a torch. Someone should really have made it a battery powered brass lantern, because that’s what’s in the original. But this sort of nit-pickery is offputting, so good luck to those guys.

Another weird side-effect is that it has caused a rash of links and views to the music video shot with MC Frontalot in relation to GET LAMP, which has gotten released a good amount of time before the documentary will.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go ahead and check it out; I’ll talk more about it in the future.


DVDs for the Blind

Posted: December 23rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: production | 5 Comments »

It almost sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? DVDs for the blind. What are the blind watching DVDs for? There’s nothing to watch, really. Go listen to an audiobook or something, blind people.

Well, you might be surprised to hear that the blind do buy DVDs, and play them, and enjoy the movies. Not all of them, but not everybody watches DVDs at all, so this isn’t surprising. In another useful bit of evidence on the side of the anti Digital Rights Management crowd, the blind sometimes end up having to rip the DVDs and extract the various titles/parts out of the DVD so they can play stuff without being hung up on menus and special features and easter eggs and the rest. They turn a DVD into a series of audio tracks in a playlist and go through those, basically.

A number of the interviewees of GET LAMP are blind. The BBS Documentary had an interviewee who was deaf and that was the first time I’d ever interviewed someone who couldn’t directly hear me. GET LAMP caused me to spend time with blind people for extended periods, in real conversation. One thing I learned was that blind is relative; a number of my blind interviewees can see, just not very well at all; one was born with no lenses on her eye. One is aware of some aspect of light, but it’s absolutely an abstract hue. And so on.

It’s amazing how flexible the human mind is; it will try to place items in context even though one might think it wouldn’t have any context at all. “Flame” means one thing, “mountain range” another, and interviewees mentioned how much text adventures expanded their knowledge of the world because you could “walk” among places with no guidance and all the salient features explained to you, right there. One mentioned how he didn’t understand how big an ocean liner was until he played a game that took place on one, and so on. Another was very sad for sighted people because of all the years we’ve watched television at 720×540 resolution. That’s so sad! His resolution is infinite.

As I interviewed someone who was deaf for my previous film and resolved then and there they should enjoy it like everyone else, so too does the interviewing of several blind subjects mean that I want them to enjoy the DVD as well. Hence, a blind-accessible DVD.

As opposed to my militancy regarding subtitles, I realize that I’m much further out on the edge with wanting to make a DVD blind or visually-impaired accessible. There’s just not a metric ton of these things.

I found a DVD that claims to be the first blind accessible DVD, with menus and the rest. That’s true, as long as you know what submenu to magically navigate to to turn it on. (I bought a copy to see.)

What is likely to happen with my DVDs is that when you put them in, it acts like any other DVD, but the first selection is an introduction to the disc, which says, out loud, what to hit to start audio menus. From there, we can have a bunch of other features, but then both “types” (blind and not blind) are happy. I hope. It’s the wheelchair ramp problem; functionality vs. aesthetics. I’ve seen it done right and wrong.

This means the episodes or films on this set will have descriptive video. Experiments are underway for that. It also means that everything gets descriptive video. This delays the project, or more accurately, the project takes the right amount of time to do this properly.

If you’re feeling cynical, you can also tell me how brilliant I am to market to the blind; the blind, after all, often were big customers of text adventures because these were games that were basically complete and total when read to you. You could play them in audio and get the same experience as others. And they were easy to hack into screen readers, since they always wrote to text rendering instead of doing graphics or whatever else your system used. So these were very popular so hooray, more potential customers. If it’s not obvious, this isn’t my main motivating factor, otherwise I’d “spice up” the whole movie with stuff that might, somewhere, appeal to a general audience even if it didn’t have anything to do with text adventures.

As I work this point, it also means I look at my editing in a different way; when you know your work has to be portrayed as much as it’s shown, you really want to smooth the thing out to the best quality. If I’m going to spend an extra week recording descriptive video, then it should be something worth describing.

We live in this great modern age, where machines can do an awful lot for everyone to enjoy content like never before. I hope this DVD set will be a favorite for blind viewers for a long time to come.


Adventure International

Posted: December 21st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | 5 Comments »

Scott Adams When people think “text adventure company”, a lot of people think Infocom, but others also think of Adventure International, which was not only the first company to sell text adventures, but one of the first companies to sell computer gaming software at all. Based out of Florida and run by the husband and wife team of Scott and Alexis Adams, this company lived a relatively short but fascinating life from the late 1970s through to the early 1980s. I have interviewed both Adams’ and one of their employees, Dan Horn, but the reach of this company extends far beyond that. One of the co-founders of Broderbund Software, Doug Carlson, got his start with Adventure International, and with dozens of contracted programmers and artists, a lot of people moved through the company in one way or another.

There were almost no exceptions to the rule that a software company did not survive the early 1980s without getting bought out or invested from the outside. Adventure International didn’t seek investment or money in that fashion and collapsed within itself. All parties I talked to seem to have bounced back from this experience.

As part of my research and archiving with the history of this company, I scanned in a catalog that I’d received when I was 13. It was one of the last catalogs they put out and show the company at the top of its game, at least in terms of the breadth of software and the face they put on to the world.

When the word “Adventure” is in the name of the company, you expect a lot of adventures, and AI didn’t disappoint. Scott created a bunch (the Scott Adams Grand Adventures) and they created additional games all the way up to the end. I thought the layout of the SAGA part of the catalog was particularly well done:

If you browse the pages, you can see the variety of software available – besides the expected adventure games, there was financial software, utility software, and even mailing list maintenance.

As a side note, when I was 12, I bought my first ever piece of computer software, and it was made by Adventure International: It was called Preppie! and was in some ways an obvious frogger clone (although the rules were slightly different). It was what felt like arcade quality at the time, and I bought it on cassette, meaning it was a 20 minute wait to play. And it was always worth it. Here’s what the game was like. (Youtube Video)

One of the great things about this documentary has been meeting a bunch of people whose names I only ever knew from brightly colored boxes.


Invisiclues and a Call For Assistance

Posted: December 19th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: production | 7 Comments »

Back in the beginnings of Infocom, part of the issues with having games based on puzzles were that some people would run into difficulties with those puzzles. As a result, they’d mail questions to Infocom for help. Hints, if you wish, that would help them move on to the next puzzles. Lacking anything like an easily-accessible website to get information, people would rely on these questions and answers via mail. And there were a lot of them. Mike Dornbrook at Infocom was tasked with answering a lot of these questions in the beginning of the company’s history (others helped as well) and eventually decided it would be a much smarter idea to create a pre-packaged collection of questions and answers for the games, which could then be sold as products, along with maps and t-shirts and anything else Infocom/Zork related.

A problem presented itself, though: people would only want a slight hint, a nudge in the right direction.  They didn’t want to be handed the whole answer and they certainly didn’t want a pre-printed list of all the answers right there either tempting or distracting them. Some research and thought went into this problem.

The solution that Infocom came up with were Invisiclues, which were booklets printed in invisible ink. You could see questions but you couldn’t see the answers. To see the answers, there was a special pen that came with the booklet, and as you needed help, you would rub the pen in a box and a hint would appear. There were a few boxes under each question, and from that you could slowly work up from a slight nudge to being handed the answer outright.

From the excellent infocom.elsewhere.org site, here’s an example of how this looked. (Don’t worry, it’s a page that has a meaningless example and no actual hints):

If you’re wondering about what would happen if you read all the questions and got ideas from them, Infocom thought that through too – a portion of the questions would be answers to problems not in the game, and would ridicule you for trying to cheat.  There was always, throughout the construction of these, an attempt to balance the need to know with the desire to come up with the final solution on your own, which was (after all) the whole point of playing these games.

The process of these Invisiclues is interesting. At the time this was utilized (the early 1980s) the term for them was “latent image printing”, and referred to images that were printed but required additional chemicals or processes to be found. In this case, the chemicals in the pen (which had a yellowish tint) would activate the chemicals in the printed text and cause that text to become visible. It is all explained not-very-clearly in this patent, in case you want to whip up a batch for yourself.

Speaking of which….

One of the concerns with my documentary is that it reveals the solutions to games in the course of interviews. I definitely don’t want people watching this film to be exposed to solutions of games they’ve just gotten excited about while watching my documentary. How lame would that be? So I’ve been considering ways to get around this problem.

One possibility, which I may do, is a selection from the menu on a DVD so there’s a spoiler and non-spoiler version of the movie. But the other… is invisiclues!

Besides allowing people the fun of what Invisiclues used to be like, they would serve a purpose, allowing people to unearth some hints about what people were talking about without dropping the total answer.. unless they wanted to hear it. It just strikes me as a fun idea.

The problem, though, is I have had an enormously hard time finding anyone who does it. If you have any idea, please write to me or comment below. Bear in mind, I spent a lot of time on this a while back, so here is what I know:

  • The place that probably makes the most of these types of book/pen combinations is Lee Publications. They have a wide range of books and even license very up to date properties to make books out of them. I can find absolutely no evidence that they would do an outside contract for someone to print, say, 5000 of these booklets. Maybe you can find a way?
  • With access to internal Infocom documents, I believe I have found the name of the company that did the original printing back in the 1980s. It seems to have been A.B. Dick company that made the “A.B. Dick Latent Image Pens”. Communication happens between them and American Printers and Lithographers over whether the pens are poisionous (they weren’t). American might have made the actual books themselves using A.B. Dick products. Both these companies were in Chicago. It’s been a bunch of years since then and I can find no evidence that either of these companies do this anymore.
  • It appears that several governments (NY and Federal) have tried to acquire these pens and paper for testing. Here’s a particularly dull example of that request. I find no indication they ever got them.
  • Possibly, just possibly, what used to be “latent image” printing is now under the header of “security printing”.

So I am not so much at a dead end but in a situation where I haven’t had time to track stuff down further. My suspicion is a lot of the really complicated jobs have moved to China, but that in fact may mean I just have to find the right US company that deals with China. Would you like to help?

Find out how I can do this, and you’ll get a credit in the movie.

Update: Dennis Jerz has put me in contact with Lee Publications and things looks like a deal might be worked out. Thanks a ton, Dennis!