Interviews: Andrew Plotkin, the Wizard of IF - Part 2 of 2
A Textual Journey Through Adventure's Past, Present and Maybe Even Its Future
JA: May we perhaps one day soon, if this iPhone thing works out, witness Infocom rising from the ashes?
AP: The old Infocom folks haven't been hiding in a cellar waiting for the world to change. They've gotten on with their careers -- [Brian] Moriarty is teaching at WPI, [Steve] Meretzky is working on social games, and so on. I don't think any of them have been agitating to get the band back together, as it were.
(The Infocom games are still owned by Activision, who seem uninclined to do anything with them beyond the occasional easter egg. But you can't do much with the games except re-release them, and that wouldn't be much of a revival -- they're easy enough to find, even today. And the Infocom trademark lapsed years ago and got snapped up by somebody or other.)
JA: Tell us, if you would, about the thriving Boston interactive fiction scene and culture. You take part in a number of organizations and expos up there, and of course M.I.T. is where Infocom got its start and Cambridge was its headquarters.
AP: Well, to be reductive, every month about a dozen of us meet up at Nick Montfort's office at MIT. We talk about what we've done recently in the IF scene, look at any new games or competitions of note, and then go out for beers. (Our web site:http://pr-if.org/)
This has turned into several joint projects (the Apollo 18+20 tribute album, for example); events (IF play sessions and writing workshops); and IF gatherings at local events (PAX East, NoShowConf). It's not unique to Boston. There are active IF meetup groups in Seattle, San Francisco, and so on. It's invigorating being at a wellspring of IF culture, but really, Boston's big advantage is just that it's a gigantic geek vortex. We have lots of game designers, computer history, academic game studies, conferences, and so on -- it's easy to keep up contacts with all of those circles, so we have many oars in the water, and every once in a while one of them catches a crab. So to speak.
JA: Do puzzles get in the way of storytelling, and does storytelling get in the way of the puzzles? In recent IF, storytelling seems to have gotten the greater emphasis.
AP: That trend is "recent" since 1982, I believe. But, okay, it's been progressing steadily (not universally across IF, but as an average) since then. Usually I see this question in terms of "gameplay versus story." It's rather refreshing to see it bluntly as "puzzles!" But this gives us a good path into the tangle.
Let's see. The idea that IF is primarily about "puzzles" went by the wayside long ago; we've had a notion of "puzzle-free IF" since the mid-90s. But these games still (usually) have places where you have to stop and think. Perhaps you have a choice at a story branch; perhaps you just have to consider a story obstacle and decide how to get past it. If there's no place where you stop and think about the game situation, it's not an interactive story.
Put those situations on a continuum with the old-style logic twisters. What do they have in common? They're devices for focussing the player's attention on something in the game world; they make a scene, obstacle, or challenge significant. Puzzles are pacing.
Well, pacing doesn't get in the way of storytelling, does it? Pacing is a tool for storytelling. Focusing the player's attention is what storytelling is all about.
Of course this can be done badly. If a "puzzle" pulls the player's attention out of the storyline and onto a meaningless arrangement of sliding blocks, you've blown an opportunity. Just like when a "cut scene" pulls the player's attention out of the gameplay and into a game-irrelevant video segment.
JA: The last I checked your Kickstarter blog, "Hadean Lands" was progressing but with no end yet in sight. Can you give us an up-to-date prognosis? And, perhaps, a sneak peak [sic] of the overall story?
AP: The peak of the story is a catwalk over the observatory, I believe.
I can talk about the progress of specific parts of HL, as I tackle them. (And I have been talking about it on my blog.) The code implementing ritual magic is about half done, for example; and since that represents a month of work, I expect to have it finished in another month.
As for the whole, I am still wary of making predictions -- I hope you understand. Naming a date and
missing it wouldn't make anybody happy.
JA: Please tell us a bit about the other projects you're working on, and when you might possibly be releasing them.
AP: Secret projects are no fun if everybody knows about them.
I mentioned a possible System's Twilight game. (Not a sequel, but a puzzle game in that style.) I'm also thinking about a non-textual story game for the iPad, which would have stealth elements. Then there's a recreation of an unjustly neglected 80's game -- I don't want to say much about that, because it's just a prototype right now and I would have to talk more with the original designers. And I have an idea for an architectural puzzle game; I need to play around with Unity3D and see if it's workable.
None of those is in serious development right now. Most of them will stay on the shelf until after HL is out.
(I find that I work best with this three-path system -- HL, other IF work, non-IF work -- so that when I've burned a few hours on one project, I can switch to a different one rather than collapsing into a web-browsing funk for the rest of the day. So I might release one major game project before HL is done. Or not.)
The third-path project for July has been a secret audio project. That's just about ready for beta-testing, so you'll probably see it by the end of August. I haven't decided what will replace it in my time-splitting plan.
Oh, and I'll probably do "Shade" and maybe "Heliopause" as iOS IF apps, over the next few months. Those are low-effort now that I have the app framework set up.
JA: Here we are in 2012. It seems to me the commercial graphic adventure game is at long last finally grinding to a halt, or perhaps devolving into some sort of feathery "casual" game. At the same time, thanks to entities like Kickstarter and the AppStore, a lot of the old classics are rushing back into the commercial fray.
AP: The commercial adventure game has been declared dead so many times that I've stopped collecting memorial coffee mugs.
Also, see my previous comment about "hardcore" being a niche. "Casual" is also a niche -- but if you use it as a dismissive catch-all for "games that a lot of people actually play," you're defining yourself into failure, aren't you?
JA: Can you see where the adventure game, graphic and non-graphic, is headed?
Okay, okay, fine. What I expect is a lot more experimentation in interface and design. The mobile wave knocked loose a lot of mired-down thinking; people had been stuck on the mouse-window desktop for so long that the mindset got petrified. There are more ways to do the adventure game, and I'm hoping to dig into that in the coming year.
If you would like to read more of Zarf on gaming, you are in luck. His vast, if somewhat minimalist, own website, eblong.com/zarf, contains many, many links to other games, to other projects, and also to his excellent reviews (full or thumbnail) of adventure games. The page covering classic graphic adventures of the past fifteen or so years, http://eblong.com/zarf/gamerev/index.html, is a particularly good place for the regular JA reader to start.
Zarf has also been compiling a near book-length developer's blog on his "Hadean Lands" project (and other activities), which you can follow at the game's Kickstarter page or at his Gameshelf page, gameshelf.jmac.org/essays/zarf-on-games/
For those who have not yet played an Andrew Plotkin text adventure and are despairing because you don't have an iPhone, iPad or iPod, never fear. At eblong.com/zarf/if.html, most and perhaps all (including a "Hadean Lands" teaser) of his text adventure games are not only downloadable for any of a rather dizzying number of IF interpreter applications (my recommendation is Frotz or Filfre for Windows simply because they're what I use) but playable right there thanks to links to the web-page IF application Parchment. It'll even save your progress.
As for which game of the many available to choose to play, Plotkin handily provides a brief explanation of each, including difficulty level. I can personally recommend his "tutorial" game, the same he recently released to the Apple App Store, "The Dreamhold." (Although I turned off the tutorial, because I am not a fan of in-game help regardless of how elegant.) If you've only been playing graphic adventures and are entirely new to text adventures, you might want to start with one of the shorter
games, such as "Delightful Wallpaper" or "Dual Transform."
And if you're fortunate enough to still own or have access to a functioning older Mac, you can download and play his one wonderful, albeit mind-crunching, graphic puzzle game, "System's Twilight." (Go to eblong.com/zarf/twilight.html to read about downloading and running it. If you're really adventurous, there's even a step-by-step guide to running it in Executor in Windows.)
Andrew Plotkin's IF games:
All about "System's Twilight":
The Kickstarter page that kicked it all off:
The Kickstarter developer's blog:
His Gameshelf games blog:
Interactive Fiction Archive home:
People's Republic of Interactive Fiction game page:
Plotkin's App Store games:
"The Dreamhold" for iOS page:
How to Turn Your Inform Game Into an iOS App: