get lamp

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.

23 thoughts on “get lamp”

  1. <3 Chris Crawford

    I had a chance to talk to him briefly in college. Basically my entire games industry experience has been me slowly learning how much this dude knew(knows) what he was talking about.

    Not that you could tell from looking at the games I make :/

  2. The man’s pretty much definitely a historian of the digital age. He’s not really one to look forwards, I mean, look at his kickstarter: docos about the 6502, magnetic tape, and arcades. If you want anything besides nostalgia he’s not really the man to look to from all I know about him.

  3. (And, well, my inner eight-year-old boy, who collected all his issues of the New Zork Times/Status Line in a binder, would eat this Infocom worship documentary right up.)

  4. Damn, I had been intending to using the movie as a springboard to exploring some of the more recent interactive fiction. My method up to now has been randomly selecting highly placed entries in the annual competitions, which has been largely positive, but doesn’t really give you a wider sense of the format. Disappointing.

  5. Pauxknee — how recent do you want? I’m still exploring the IF canon myself, but the things Anna links are not bad places to start (I haven’t played Rybread’s games or any real AIF, though), and if you’re interested in more things to look at, you might want to check out people’s lists of favorite/best IF games at the forum. (Which sometimes has a bias toward old stuff, as canons often do, but is still worth looking at.) You could also do some searches at IFDB; this list of games that have been rated more than 50 times might get you pretty close to the Most Important Games.

    Or if there’s something in particular you’re looking for, you could ask me (or register at intfiction and ask the locals).

  6. The only piece of IF history I know is from reading [url=]this[/url] excellent article on text adventure games in 1980s Czechoslovlakia and how the mixture of local scene-specific trends and national politics eventually resulted in a game where Indiana Jones executes cops with an ax. Based on this I have no doubt that a history of interactive fiction as a whole could lead down some extremely interesting avenues for discussion. I should play more of these games.

  7. When you say that Pacian’s games reject puzzles, do you mean that they’re structured more like Choose Your Own Adventure Books are? That is, one can’t get stuck due to not knowing what series of commands to enter, but can still “lose” (that is, get a bad ending) if they make bad choices?

  8. they’re not about getting stuck because the game tries to generally tries to respond to all your actions by trying to move the story forward. for example, in one of his recent games i was attacked by a dangerous squid-man. i typed PUNCH SQUID. in any other game i would have gotten a “VIOLENCE ISN’T THE ANSWER TO THIS ONE” response or something – something to indicate that the game expected me to be holding the right item or have to rig up some elaborate mechanism for disabling the squid. not this game. i knocked that squid flat.

    he’s experimented with a more keyword-based approach, where clicking on hilighted words advances the story – which i liked because the reason so many players get stuck in text adventures is because the range of action often isn’t clear. but i think pacian’s strategy has become to write in such a way that the player’s first instict will usually be correct.

    i can’t remember losing in a recent game of his, though his earlier game GUNMUTE combines real YOU CAN LOSE type puzzles with a transparent vocabulary (most commands will be SHOOT X or DODGE or HIDE BEHIND X).

  9. The game you’re talking about (“Rogue of the Multiverse,” non?) is losable, though the only way I know of involves doing something obviously stupid. (If you attack some fellow prisoners at the beginning instead of waiting for a guard to protect them from you, you get tossed in “The Hole” and eaten.) But yeah, the idea of Rogue seemed to be to make the obvious command the one that moved things along (except maybe in some of the exploration sequences, but you could figure those out pretty quickly). I did get stuck for a while at a couple of points in the keyword-based game, Walker and Silhouette, though in one case I think it doesn’t matter if you fail to solve the puzzle.

    I think the rejection of puzzles for story is a significant movement in modern IF, and it goes back at least to Adam Cadre’s Photopia (1998), which is well-known for pushing the player along. And I approve of this movement.

  10. jason scott’s getlamp was pretty bad.
    nothing but a bunch of neckbeards.

    it was entirely unremarkable and i hope he stops making documentaries but i guess he’s a professional beggar [kickstart] now and is enjoying the money.

    bbs documentary was OKAY, but it jumps around too much. there is too much facetime of jason’s friends and not enough of the people he traveled to interview.

    i’d say only 1-2 minutes of a real interview was used per person in the bbs documentary, disregarding the SEA episode.

    hopefully jason’s ego will deflate but as long as people are sending him 10’s of thousands on kickstart and paying for him to show up and talk with his ugly bowling shirts and mutton chops.. we havent seen the end of sketchcow.

  11. ^ gotta love it when the intellectual ciphers deign to dispense their wisdom.

    when it comes to bbs / interactive fiction films, one wouldn’t expect the target audience to overlap much with the crowd that’s usually prone to sandy vags over things like “neckbeards”, “bowling shirts” or “mutton chops”, but evidently they’re having screenings at hipster kindergarten now.

  12. Just for some context, I’ve entered some of the [internet-]big IF competitions in the last few years, and I hang out at and read most of the planetif blogs. I was pretty excited way back when Get Lamp was first announced. But as time went by, it became pretty obvious by the interview page exactly whose story the movie was going to tell. Some of them are young-ish and a handful are female, but, damn, that’s a lot of old white guys. And yes, 99% of the discourse on IF outside of our own blogs is “remember the good old days…” and “IF is not all about struggling with the parser anymore!” (which is pretty much the “Bang! Pow! Zap! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” of the IF world), so it was frustrating to me to see the same old story in movie form. I guess the target audience for Get Lamp was people who played Infocom games back in the day and have completely forgotten about the medium since then — in other words, not me.

  13. The very fact that you praise IF without puzzles, and insult people that are “hung up” on TRUE IF (it’s not a facet!), shows you no nothing about the genre. This modern crap fru fru crap that being written today is NOT IF. You and your ilk can stick up your at INFOCOM, etc. It just shows your ignorance.

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