i was excited for a long time about jason scott’s documentary on interactive fiction, get lamp. interactive fiction here refers to digital storytelling experiences that are usually (but not always) mediated through text, like the “text adventures” of back in the day. i was excited because this is a form that’s gone in so many different interesting directions: i was looking forward to people talking about weird shit like rybread celsius’s games, experiments in form like aisle, stories like galatea that eschew the traditional focus on object interaction in favor of social interaction, works that bravely address intense social subjects, like de baron, the strain of authors that’s producing erotic interactive fiction, or even all of those stupid but personal games in which college students modelled their universities and populated them with in-jokes. of course, the movie i watched mentioned none of these things. it mentioned, frequently and in revered tones, infocom.
infocom is a company that wrote and published text adventures in the eighties, most famously a game called “zork,” and was ultimately bought and cannibalized and eventually discarded by activision – you know how it works in the videogame industry. that certainly makes it the most mainstream-visible facet of interactive fiction (and at the same time the one that was most well-documented and the recipient of the most media and press before jason scott even started filming). most of the movie focuses on this brief episode in mainstream videogame history; a little while is spent on adventure, written by will crowther in 1973 and later tolkeinized by don woods, because of course that’s the game zork is based on (it’s from an action the player performs in these two games that the title is taken), and it wraps up with a kind of “where are they now” of former infocom authors, a few of whom actually appear in the movie. but even despite the dvd’s “choose your own adventure” structure, the focus of the movie never wanders too far from the history of infocom.
scott’s cast, and there are many, gaze into the distance as they wistfully recount infocom anecdotes. i was taken aback by how little dissenting opinion there is in the movie – the only example i can actually recall is when chris crawford popped his head out of his cave to rant about how difficult puzzles are at odds with storytelling – how few disagreements there are, how few conflicting perspectives. that’s the problem with this film: that there’s really only one perspective. a monolithic history isn’t something i’d wish on any format or community. there are many different histories in interactive fiction, many varied and neat communities and tangents, and jason scott picked the one that i frankly think is the least interesting (and most-chronicled already) to make his movie about. a documentary is thus transformed into a nostalgia piece.
c.e.j. pacian is making text adventures that reject puzzles outright in favor of story-telling, emily short is organizing collaborative conversation-based interactive fiction, graham nelson and chris klimas and others are designing tools to allow anyone to write their own interactive stories as easily as one would write a static story, and there are fucking choose your own adventure games for sale on the ipod. get lamp, and unfortunately a bunch of people within the self-identified “interactive fiction community”, are so hung up on a particular facet of the format’s history – on a small, specific canon – that many interesting projects and stories, ones that are happening right now and worthy of attention and coverage, may as well be invisible. an interactive fiction documentary that sticks so close to the canon seems like a cop-out, or at the very least, a wasted opportunity.