A 2-For-1 Inspiration Day

Posted: December 17th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, interviews, production | 9 Comments »

Way back when I was in my early teens, I subscribed to a lot computer magazines and wrote out for a lot of promotional mail. Absolutely stacks of it, really, which I then kept in a huge box. I kept this box to the present day, more or less, and eventually I ended up storing this stack in a better fashion, utilizing plastic bins and file folders and bags.

Somewhere in the mass of mailings, I got a Compuserve catalog. Compuserve, if you never heard of it, was an online service which was available in the late 1970s-1980s, which had an hourly cost, and which provided many types of games, message bases and information. They also had a catalog of stuff you could buy, which came with their mailings and their magazine, which published monthly. I kept everything I had.

In one of the issues, was this ad:

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Colossal Cave adventure was a public domain product put out by Don Woods based on work by Will Crowther – it was never sold as a product by them, and they never saw a dime from such products like this one. So the t-shirts, the maps, the puzzle – none of it gave them any royalties or fees for doing so.

So, as a kid, I was floored not only by this amazing ad, but by that poster on the left that the guy in the gorilla suit is holding. Straining to look at it, I could make out details, and I was just completely blown away at how someone could take that game and end up being able to make a visualization of it like it was a real place. (Of course, some of it is based on a real place, but not all of it.) I just loved that thing, but I was a kid with no money and I guess just bad timing – I never bought one, and of course this product stopped being on sale after a while.

Every once in a while I’d think about this poster, and the artwork. I’d wonder where I could ever get it, who I could talk to. I drew a blank.

Here it is a little closer:


Obviously, this photo was never meant to be a scan and wasn’t meant to show you the poster with any sort of clarity. I couldn’t make out a name, but I could see this thing looked great. It was, however, one of those things you have to let go about and so I was happy I still had this ad but I’d long ago realized I was never going to have it.

Fast forward to 2006, when I interviewed Don Woods, who was one of the creators of the original Adventure. Don Woods looks like this:

He smiles a lot more than this picture lets on. Don was a very gracious interviewee; I’d had to cancel my initial visit to see him when I got very sick, and when I healed up and asked to stop by, he happily let me visit and answered my questions for hours.

Somewhere at the end, while I’m packing up, he asks me if I want to see something neat. Well heck, sure! He went into the next room and brought out this:

The poster!

On his own, Don had brought out one of the dreams of my childhood, a poster I had long forgotten about (I hadn’t even recalled it during this interview) and just laid it out in front of me in (somewhat) pristine form (it had a slight stain in the corner).

With this, I found out the artists’ name: Dennis Donovan. And I knew now that it was drawn in 1981. I don’t really have a hope of tracking him down, but in this photo, which I have in high-resolution, I at least can rest easy that I got to see the whole thing, in the flesh, and was able to bring that chapter to a close.

Don Woods was an inspiration for me when I played Adventure in 1981. This poster was an inspiration a couple years later. And I got to meet both, finally, on the same day.

Time-Lapse Interactive Fiction

Posted: December 14th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: interviews | 1 Comment »

Besides sitting for a number of interviews, Nick Montfort let me know about various events and news that might be of interest to me and the documentary. One of these was a reading of interactive fiction given at the school he was finishing up his Ph.D in, entitled “Autostart” (or AU7OSTART, if you read the posters he had made up). I didn’t record the event itself (we agreed it would be needlessly disrupting), but I did end up interviewing a number of people at that event, including Aaron Reed, who wrote Whom the Telling Changed.

Aaron is what we currently call a “Modern IF” author, meaning his work spans primarily the last decade or so, and like most modern IF authors his work wasn’t done for a company or under contract but because he wanted to express himself via this medium. Aaron recently put together this time-lapse film of himself working on one of his projects.

This fun little film is associated with his current project, Blue Lacuna, which he’s been working on for quite some time. (As of this writing, Blue Lacuna is in the final phases of testing.) While the short-form IF Competition games have gained a lot of traction in the current era, a few people like Aaron continue to do long-form Interactive Fiction that can represent months or years of work.
Aaron’s IFwiki entry is here.

Life with the Editor

Posted: December 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: production | 3 Comments »

Here’s the place I’ve been spending a lot of time, lately: my video editor.

I edit using a program now called Sony Vegas; I am not a fan of Sony and their practices in the areas of copy protection and manipulation of law, but the fact remains that for the moment, Vegas is still an excellent program, the product of a group called Madison Software who created a number of excellent programs for sound and video before being absorbed a few years back. Sony has unfortunately made the software progressively hostile to anyone not using Sony equipment but generally has allowed the program to be what it always was: shockingly easy to use, slick to be creative in, and best of all, fast.

I generally don’t encourage people to edit like I do, but it works for me. I’ve read a lot on how various filmmakers have done movies and the fact is that everyone does things slightly differently, but for me, I have built this methodical process that takes a lot of time on the front end but then allows me very fast freedom at the end.

With over 120 hours of recorded interviews, it is cost prohibitive for me to keep all the footage around on drives. (It would take, roughly, 29 terabytes of disk space to keep it all “live”). There’s some great trickery out there where you make a much smaller version of footage, edit with THAT, and then at the end attach drives as you go to pull in all the stuff you need; I find that hopelessly cumbersome. So, instead I do something else cumbersome: I watch all the footage, and re-render out lossless clips with names indicating what the file contains. This is what’s in the upper corner of the screenshot. (You can also make out that I add rough ratings to clips like KEEPER, ABSOLUTE KEEPER and so on, just as a little note to myself down the line.)

After months of effort, I end up with about 4,000 clips, probably totalling 40-50 hours, out of the original 120 (the rest is setting up, me asking questions, answers where the answers is essentially “I don’t know”, and so on). From this I split them down further into groupings of discussion – I know, for example, that very little about a specific product will end up in another section about historical items far predating that object.

Somewhere in here is an undefinable quality, where I remember someone said something relevant, even though there’s no other indication they did in the description or the subject. Other times, I bump a bunch of people together saying the same thing, and then choose the best example. And even more fun are sequences where I can get 2-3 people discussing the same subject from different distinct angles. Those are fun to find and to watch.

If this sounds long and tedious, you’re half-right. It’s definitely long, but it’s never tedious. I love going through footage, remembering the journey to get that shot, the questions I asked, the meals and sights I saw on that trip. And when it just clicks up against another clip shot months or years apart, I just love watching things flow.

Again, my approach isn’t for everyone. But it works for me.

PDP-11 Zork Manual: Save $2,348.31

Posted: November 30th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, Text Adventure History | 9 Comments »

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.

Zork PDP-11 Manual PDF (1.3mb)

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.

Spotlight: Nick Montfort

Posted: November 30th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, interviews, production | 5 Comments »

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.

PDP-11 Zork Auction

Posted: November 28th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | 2 Comments »

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.

What a bargain!

Artifact Collection at the Office

Posted: November 28th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | 4 Comments »

Office Photos, November 2008

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.

A few more books:

Office Photos, November 2008

Infocom Sales Figures

Posted: November 26th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, Text Adventure History | No Comments »

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: 1 2 3.

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.

Scanning Infocom

Posted: November 25th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, production, Text Adventure History | 7 Comments »

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!

Cleaning the Basement

Posted: November 24th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: production | 1 Comment »

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.