Somewhere Nearby is a Colossal Cave Paper

Posted: September 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: production, Text Adventure History | 2 Comments »

Finishing off a first version of the Adventure portion of GET LAMP, I am reminded of some of the shortcomings of the documentary form – when there’s a ton of information, an absolute pile of detail or aspects about a subject, you will be given a tantalizing amount of insight into a subject but crave more.

Or maybe you won’t crave more. For some, the subject covered over a few minutes will be sufficient. But for some of us, a certain few, you want to find out every last thing. And not just find it out… find it out definitively, where observation and verification rule the day, and not best-guesses and what-is-saids polluting the landscape.

To that end, as regards the game Adventure and its roots in real caving, as well as exactly what parts the two authors played in the project, you will simply not do any better than Dennis G. Jerz’ Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original “Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky. It is, very simply, the last word on the subject – I can’t imagine anyone going further than this into the history and aspects of Adventure any of us might want an answer to.

Jerz was and is critical to GET LAMP – his project proved to me that it was possible, very possible, to gain access to the cave that Adventure was based on. I had been told this was simply not within the realm of something I’d achieve, and here, he had done it. It drove me through a lot of barriers, intended or unintended, as I got there.

Several people photographed and mentioned in this paper appear in the film, including Roger Brucker, Nick Montfort, Noah Wardruip-Fruin, Don Woods, Andrew Plotkin, Warren Robinett, Jerz himself, and Dave West. Again, this is based on Jerz’ efforts and his highlighting the cast of characters I might meet.

For example:


Dennis Jerz, in the cave, pointing to the rusty rod (without the star on the end). (Photo by Lynn Brucker)


Jason Scott, next to the same rusty rod, a year or two later. (Photo by Peter Bosted).

Believe me, these are footsteps I have no misgivings of walking in, shoulders I have no issue whatever standing on.

Seriously, this paper is as good as it gets. If you’ve already known about it, great. If you haven’t… you’re welcome.


Posted: September 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: production | 19 Comments »

I’m pursuing a bunch of ideas for the distribution of GET LAMP. I thought I’d take a moment to ask people to write in with their own opinions. I’ve created a survey below. Feel free to answer, but don’t feel you’re committing to buy it. Thanks for your time.

More entries will be coming very soon, by the way.

UPDATE: The survey was closed on September 20th. Thanks, everyone.

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.


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.

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.

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 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.