Andrew Plotkin, the Wizard of IF

Andrew Plotkin, the Wizard of IF

A Textual Journey Through Adventure's Past, Present and Maybe Even Its Future

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When Infocom, the company that pioneered the commercial text adventure, went dark in the late 80's, it appeared that the Grues had won. But the devastated Zork fanatics were not like you and me. They could code. A few years later, some ingenious fans managed to reverse engineer the Infocom Zmachine game engine. This allowed them to build new open-source "interpreters" that could play the old games on modern operating systems and even begin writing new text adventures to be distributed, along with the games, on the brand new worldwide web. The freeware text adventure and the IF (interactive fiction) archive were alive and kicking. No one was making a dime, but it was a heck of a ride.

Many important figures deserve credit for all this but no one in the past two decades has done more to nurture the text adventure than Andrew Plotkin. He is a remarkable triple threat, writer, coder and critic. He has written not only award-winning text adventures of varying lengths but has written applications that the gaming community relies upon. On his own websites and others, he has also critiqued and chronicled the computer gaming world in his own distinctive voice.

A year and a half ago, the man known to many as Zarf (a youthful alias that persisted) became the first IF author to strike it rich with a Kickstarter launch, for a new sci-fi-ish text adventure called "Hadean Lands." He left his regular job as a programmer to devote himself full-time to producing "Hadean Lands" for the iPhone and iPad as well as to create other software. He's become the hero of his own real life text adventure, embarking on a quest, eyes set on his goal, but with Grues lurking no doubt in every shadow.

JA: You chucked your day job a year and a half ago to write Interactive Fiction and work on your own software projects full time. So how goes it?
 
AP: I'm having a great time. Of course, if you're only interested in "Hadean Lands," you probably don't want me to be having a great time. I sympathize -- but I'm still dividing my time between HL, other IF infrastructure work, and other iOS projects.

(Looked at separately, each of those areas deserves more of my time. It's frustrating three ways! But neglecting any of them would be a worse mistake, so I just get on with it.)

In the past eighteen months, I have shipped an interactive comic, several upgrades to my IF display libraries, a generative text toy, an app framework for releasing iOS IF apps, an iOS board game, couple of Javascript poems, two small IF games, a whole lot of book reviews, and a lot of cookies, muffins, and biscuits. The baked goods are sadly not available to you Internet followers, but everything else is. It looks like a pretty good pile, now that I look back on it.

JA: "Hadean Lands," the game (as opposed to the Kickstarter project), is slated to be iOS-only at first. Steve Jobs miraculously got web-users accustomed to paying for music. How confident are you that the Apple App Store can work the same sorcery for Interactive Fiction games?

AP: At this point it's unclear. Coming out of the Kickstarter period, I had 700-odd backers, but I didn't really know whether that represented the most enthusiastic fraction of my audience -- or my entire audience.

I have now released a free iOS IF game, "The Dreamhold." It's gotten about 4500 downloads in a month, which I suspect is low for a free game. Then I release an update, and I see about 900 downloads of that -- which means that 80 percent of the players looked at it briefly and then deleted the app.


Jason McIntosh has released one of his IF games, "The Warbler's Nest," as a one-dollar iOS app. I understand that it is not a smash hit either.

What does this mean? I'm not sure. Both of these games were already available for free on the web, and also on iOS (by way of iPhone Frotz). Maybe they're not good test cases for predicting the outcome of a brand-new, higher-end, iOS-only game. But then, maybe they are.

Right now it makes sense for me to treat the Kickstarter money as a flat payment for "Hadean Lands." I got the money and I'm going to release the game. Any further revenue that shows up is gravy. I'm probably going to be releasing some of my other old IF works for iOS as well, at the $1 or $3
levels. I have the app framework, and it's easy to release games, so I should take the opportunity to build up more momentum. That will give me more of a clue how HL will do, but again, I don't need to know how it will do.

By the way, the iOS app framework is open source; anybody can use it to release iOS IF apps. That's what Jason did for "The Warbler's Nest." Check out my web site for details:
https://github.com/erkyrath/iosfizmo/wiki/ (linked from http://zarfhome.com/dreamhold/)

JA: Is "Hadean Lands" going to be Siri-enabled? That is, will players be able to talk and listen as well
as type and read?

AP: It will support voice dictation and voice output, yes. ("Siri" is just one part of Apple's voicecommand system. Siri itself is not yet usable by third-party apps. But any app can accept text input by voice dictation, on the newer device models, so HL will do that.)


You can try this out with "The Dreamhold" and "The Warbler's Nest," in fact. They use (almost) the same interface as HL will. Tap the microphone icon in the keyboard for voice input. Turn on VoiceOver in the Accessibility settings for voice output.

JA: Now that iOS is crushing the Evil Empire at long last, are you, personally, feeling vindicated?

AP: Which Evil Empire? Google is the Empire now. Or Facebook; but iOS isn't doing much crushing in Facebook's direction.

Honestly, Windows 8 has wound up as the spunky underdog of the mobile world, and I'm kind of rooting for it. Rooting for it to beat Android, anyhow . . .

(Also: while I use lots of Apple stuff, I don't mistake Apple for the Benevolent Empire. They're not my friend; they're a giant tech company that makes products.)

JA: After a couple of decades of wild expansion in the speed, power and graphics capabilities of desktop computers, it turns out most people are happiest surfing the web on a four-inch touch screen in the laundromat. Does portability trump all else?

AP: Come on. Games like "Halo For Duty XVI: Black Squad," and the brick-thick graphics cards they were optimized for, have always been a niche market. They may have wagged the tail of game journalism for a few years, but a bazillion Farmville players came along and failed to give a flying
foop. (And Bejeweled players before that, and so on.)


Mobile is giving us a retro renaissance of all sorts of games that were popular on 90s and early-00s computers. As mobile hardware moves on, that re-release era will move forward as well. The difference is that this time, everybodywill have the hardware. So -- I hope -- older niches (like adventure games) will be large enough to support themselves.

JA: Adventure games began with the text adventure in the mid '70s. Then came graphical interactive fiction (pictures and text), then Lucas Arts came up with SCUMM, which dispensed with the text parser, and finally Myst and the rest of the purely graphical adventure games. Is there room on the smart phone for all of them, or is there some special advantage that the pure text adventure has to offer?

AP: They're all arriving on the smart phone, so whether there's room is moot.


Phones are particularly good at displaying text. There's no question of updating pixelly graphics, or trying to work around the lack of a mouse cursor, which can be issues for old graphical games. Text is text and it will look great on mobile platforms.

On the other hand, typing text is a perennial nuisance for mobile apps. It's clearly not an impenetrable barrier for short text inputs; SMS and Twitter can attest to that. And voice dictation may turn out to be a hit. But it's equally possible that parser-based IF will get pushed out of the limelight once again.

JA: Aside from a few recent experiments with graphics in your games, the only game with graphics you produced was the Mac-only "System's Twilight." Why did you not go on to make other graphic puzzle games?

AP: I started to design a "System's Twilight" sequel, but IF sidetracked me in 1995, and I never got back to it.

I'm not a visual artist. Well, I didn't think of myself as a writer, either, at first -- but I could produce compelling text. And a full game's worth of text is way less work than a full game's worth of graphics. That's why I stayed on that path for so long.

Now that I'm doing mobile development, I've needed to get more comfortable with graphical UI. My "Secret Hideout" toy (though not a game) was one step; "Meanwhile" (collaborating with an artist) was another. I am now considering various iOS projects beyond the text realm. If HL doesn't turn out to be a smash hit, I'll have plenty of options.

(One possible future project is set in the "System's Twilight" universe.)

JA: You've been doing a lot of work in recent years on writing new IF interpreters, such as Glulx, which also include the capability of offering graphics and sound. To what extent do you expect "Hadean Lands" and any other new IF games of yours (and others') to make use of this new capability?
And do you think casual players of IF on smart phones will expect something beyond text only?

AP: "The Dreamhold" has a built-in map -- I thought that was necessary for a mobile player, who wouldn't necessarily have a ream of paper at hand for the traditional IF map-drawing. I've seen players tap on that map, hoping it was a shortcut for moving around. So I'll add that capability to HL.
Beyond that, I think each game will have to define its own interface quirks. As always. If the game provides a complete and usable interface on its own terms, players will accept it.

JA: When the first golden age of Interactive Fiction was dying in the early 90's, Infocom was experimenting with graphics and even graphic minigames ("Zork Zero"). Elsewhere, Virgin had its Magnetic Scrolls series with all those openable windows (inventory, map, scene, etc.) and Legend offered that jet-cockpit-like interface with the directional rosette and the commands, etc. Was that innovation or desperation?

AP: I'm going to call it desperation. All of those interface extensions were optional -- they all gave the player the choice between the fancy UI screen and the "traditional" parser interface. I think it should have been obvious right then that the designers didn't have the courage of their convictions.

And, in retrospect, none of it stuck.

The graphical adventure genre started to work right when it was polished down to one verb ("do," as in Myst) or perhaps two or three ("examine"/"use"/"use with," as in the recent Telltale games). We've also seen CYOA-style [Create Your Own Adventure] games take off recently; they're mostly not my thing, but at least they're a clean design.

Basically, you don't improve the IF parser by putting bells and flutes on, around, or instead of it. You invent new game mechanic, make it work on its own terms, and design a game to go with it.

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 challengesignificant. 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?

AP: No.

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.

Further Reading:
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/

Further Gaming:
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.)

Links:
Andrew Plotkin's IF games:
eblong.com/zarf/if.html

All about "System's Twilight":
eblong.com/zarf/twilight.htm

The Kickstarter page that kicked it all off:
www.kickstarter.com/projects/zarf/hadean-lands-interactive-fiction-for-the-iphone

The Kickstarter developer's blog:
www.kickstarter.com/projects/zarf/hadean-lands-interactive-fiction-for-the-iphone/posts

His Gameshelf games blog:
gameshelf.jmac.org/essays/zarf-on-games/

Interactive Fiction Archive home:
www.ifarchive.org/

Parchment Javascript Interactive Fiction home:
parchment.toolness.com/

People's Republic of Interactive Fiction game page:
pr-if.org/play/

Plotkin's App Store games:
zarfhome.com/

"The Dreamhold" for iOS page:
zarfhome.com/dreamhold/

How to Turn Your Inform Game Into an iOS App:
github.com/erkyrath/iosfizmo/wiki/

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