Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

Tag: games Page 3 of 4

Game As Life, Life As Game

Something Dante loves is to find some little Flash game on JayIsGames and play it with me. At this point, he’s got a repertoire of them in his head, and he calls them out for me from time to time like requests at a piano bar. “I want to play Electric Box 2!” “I want to play Meeblings!” “I want to play FireBoy and WaterGirl!” “Let’s play Shape Switcher!”

Some of these games have level editors, which fascinate him. He delights in putting together nonsensical levels and watching them go. I can relate to this feeling, but when he asks me to make my own level, I always demur. I just have no interest in constructing a puzzle off the cuff, partly because I am terrible at it, and partly because I don’t get much pleasure from it. So one night last week, as usual, he said something to me like “Now you make a level!”, and I said, “No, that’s not the kind of game I like to make.”

“Well, what kind of game do you like to make?” he asked, quite sensibly.

You have: A lamp (providing illumination)

I’ve written before about GET LAMP, the text adventure documentary. Back in March, I got to watch an hour-long mix of it at PAX East. Now, the full film is available on DVD, so I get to write about it again. Let me get right to the point: if you love text games, or you want to know more about them, you should watch this movie. Stephen Granade called it “funny, affecting, and informative, which isn’t a bad trifecta to hit.” I can’t think of a better description, though of course that won’t stop me from spending the next few paragraphs trying.

True, it’s pricey ($40 plus $5 shipping domestically, $9 internationally.) Director Jason Scott released the movie under a Creative Commons license, so it’s not illegal to torrent it, but of course, buying it is the more right thing to do. There’s no studio backing Jason — he produced this movie as a labor of love, and both the labor and the love shine through luminously. More about that in a bit. In order to make the DVD package attractive, he’s packed it with all sorts of fun goodies: nifty art, tons of featurettes, a DVD-ROM full of text games, three different commentary tracks, and a gorgeous individually numbered collectible coin. It’s a remarkably well-wrought product, especially considering that, again, this is the output of one guy. Plus, I’m in it, so, y’know, what’s not to love? 🙂

GET LAMP is very clearly a loving tribute to text games. Because I am passionate about the form myself, and because of my personal involvement with the film, I cannot judge it objectively. In any case, I’ve already written about what makes the movie good according to me, and all that still holds true. In fact, it’s better than the movie I saw at PAX — not only is it fuller, but the pieces I didn’t like in the hour-long mix have either been excised or fixed.

So this isn’t a review, but rather an appreciation, a recommendation, and a gleeful celebration of this cool thing that now exists in the world. There are a lot of fun layers to the whole thing. For instance, in the spirit of the “Have you tried…?” section that often appears at the end of text game hint manuals, there’s a whole game to be played with the movie itself: almost every shot has a lamp in it; collect them all like trophies. Even cooler, the movie itself is interactive. After the initial 25 minutes or so, you are presented with a menu of options for what piece of the movie you want to view next. Fair warning, though: if your DVD player is sorta lame like mine, you may be better served by just watching the non-interactive version. In fact, even in that one I keep getting kicked out to the top menu, and have to make my way through the film via clever use of the chapter forward button on my DVD remote. Hey, it’s a movie that’s also a puzzle!

I’m surprised how little that glitch bothers me. I think I know the reason why: every time I see this movie, or any piece of it, I come away feeling energized and inspired. That’s a big payoff, well worth a little remote-fiddling. I love GET LAMP, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. In fact, Laura and I have a date to watch it this weekend, so she can learn more about this crazy text adventure thing that has taken so much of her husband’s time over the last 15 years. That alone is a wonderful gift. The obsessive viewing of each commentary track, though — that’s just for me.

PAX East Part 4: Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again

Compared to Friday, Saturday was pretty low-key. Then again, it’s not fair to compare anything to Friday. I let my exhausted self sleep in, then showered, packed up, etc. I met my friend Ruth Atherton for lunch, along with her partner Yigal and their adorable boy Natan. I’ve known Ruth since our freshman year of college at NYU — over 20 years ago now! — and it was wonderful to spend some time with her again.

Ruth dropped me at the Hilton, and I stopped into the IF Suite, where the PAX SpeedIF efforts were well underway. I opted out, given that 1) I didn’t bring my laptop to the suite, 2) it’s been years since I actually wrote any IF code, and 3) I didn’t want to spend my PAX time heads-down coding anyway. So it was off to the convention center, where I undertook my next mission: a present for Dante! I checked out a Boston souvenir store in the Prudential Center and picked up a cute little Boston ball, to use as a backup if I couldn’t find anything in PAX itself. But I did — his own bag of dice. He’s often wanting to play with my dice, so now he’s got his own. (He was quite delighted with these gifts when I brought them home, and as he often does, he immediately turned it around on me. “Pretend that you are Dante and I am Daddy! Dante, I brought you some presents! A Boston ball, and your very own bag of dice!”)

After a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for some trail mix and water, I took the time to explore the rest of PAX, but between the incredible crowds and my own lack of motivation, I didn’t really hook into anything. I wasn’t up for boardgaming with strangers, nor did I fancy standing in line for a chance at console, PC, or handheld games. And of course the panels were out of the question — you had to arrive at least 30 minutes early to have a crack at getting into any panel, and none of the panels at that time were terribly interesting to me anyway.

So back to the IF suite I went. I hung out and chatted with various people, and even skipped dinner so that I could spend more time in the ambiance. (That’s where the trail mix comes in.) There were a few people I missed — I would have loved to hang out with Stephen and Rob a bit more, for instance — but I really enjoyed the various people I talked to. I think part of the connection-missing may have had to do with the fact that while I have a cell phone, it is a creaky 2005 pay-as-you-go model with no internet access and the clunkiest of texting capabilites. Normally, this does not bother me at all, but sometimes during PAX weekend I felt like an timebound mortal in a Kage Baker Company novel, looking on in blissful ignorance while all around me the immortals communicate telepathically. It probably also wouldn’t hurt to hang out on ifMUD more than once every two years.

All part of the thawing process, I suppose. While I wasn’t musing on that, I also kept an eye out for newbies and visitors. I hooked several people up with IF swag and talked to them about the medium and the community, which felt great. Extended social exertion like that is a bit out of my comfort zone — I’m an introvert by nature — but I liked helping with the IF outreach mission.

That mission was the subject of the informal panel at 7:00. That panel featured Andrew Plotkin, Jason McIntosh (aka jmac), Chris Dahlen (gaming journalist), and John Bardinelli (of JayIsGames). It was moderated, in an endearingly prolix style, by Harry Kaplan. (I should mention here that Harry was quite helpful in getting me connected with the pre-PAX discussion, and was particularly welcoming to me in the suite. Also, he’s apparently the cousin of Paul Fishkin, who founded Stevie Nicks’ record company! Remote brush with fame!) Harry would make a discursive, intentionally provocative statement, and ask the panel to respond, offering the lead to a different panelist for each question. The discussion often expanded beyond the panel and into the room, which was great, because the room was packed (seriously, packed) with very smart people.

I am terrible at reconstructing discussions, so I’m not going to try to do it here. Much. I will say that I was particularly struck by the way Emily framed the problem of IF’s learning curve. The parser, she said, makes a false promise, strongly implying by its openness that it is able to handle anything the player throws at it, which is simply not true. Lots of people would like to see IF respond by expanding the range of actions and phrasings that the parser can understand, but Emily disagrees. She could do a much better job than I of articulating this, and probably does so somewhere, but essentially she argues that expanding the parser is a blind alley, because it never eliminates the false promise issue, and creates a ridiculous implemenation headache. Even if the game could legitimately understand a much wider range of commands, coding meaningful responses to that radically expanded command set is a misuse of our energies. Instead, she suggests that we embrace IFese while finding ways to help games gently nudge players in the right direction when it seems that they’re struggling to speak IFese to the parser. She did some work toward this in City Of Secrets, and Aaron Reed apparently does even more in Blue Lacuna. She points to Façade as a cautionary example of what happens when you try to go the other direction.

After the panel, there was a bit more chatter, and then it was time to for SpeedIF contestants to turn in their games. I had no laptop, but Juhana Leinonen very kindly let me use his to play Sarah Morayati’s Queuelty, which I found quite enjoyable.

More chatting, more hanging out, but eventually, sadly, it was time for me to go. There would be more events on Sunday, but my flight left early Sunday morning — I hadn’t wanted to take undue advantage of Laura’s generosity with the childcare, so I kept my trip to two days. I’m sorry to have missed Sunday, though. From what I read, it was great.

The rest is uninteresting travel details, except for this revelation, which traveled home with me: it has become painfully, unmistakably clear that working every night and weekend is ruining my life and blocking me from doing the things that actually make me happy. The truth is that nobody ever told me to do that (well, with some exceptions) — it’s just that I’m so overwhelmed all the time, so behind all the time, that I feel like I have to do that in order to have a remote chance of success at work. But keeping my head above water there has come at the cost of drowning the parts of myself I treasure more. So I’m going to stop doing that.

I’m going to try, anyway. It’s rather shockingly hard to draw firm boundaries around work when they’ve been obliterated for so long. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m on Day 6 now, and even in the last week I’ve been able to produce these blog entries, which would have seemed ridiculously out of reach a few weeks ago. That makes me happier than I’ve been in quite a while.

PAX East Part 3: Do You Like Movie?

In the afterglow of the panel, intentions were formed in the direction of dinner. Boston residents Dan Schmidt and Liza Daly kindly guided us to a fabulous sushi restaurant: Samurai. Delicious food, wonderful company, beer — what’s not to love? Only one thing, it turns out: the place was too small to accommodate the 12 of us at one table, so Emily, Rob, Dan, and Liza ended up at their own table beyond earshot of ours. And we got split up just as I was in mid-sentence with Emily: “I think some topics that didn’t get touched in the storytelling panel were–”

(For the record, the rest of the sentence was “integrating hints adaptively into the story in a way that feels seamless, and exploring PC emotion — how and whether to convey it.”)

After dinner, we paid the check (or rather, Stephen paid the check and we paid Stephen) and headed back towards the convention center to get in line for GET LAMP! Then, confusion ensued as we realized we’d inadvertently left behind Christopher Huang and Sam Kabo Ashwell. We went back, they weren’t there, we milled, we shivered, we went back to the convention center and found that they were in line ahead of us. It was like a French farce, only huge and freezing cold.

Anyway, we hung out in line for a while, then made our way into the “theater” — really just another convention center room with a projection screen set up. We got seats in the back, but the point is: we got seats. Others in the room ended up against the walls, on the floor, etc. There weren’t enough chairs, but everybody got into the room, which is a decidedly good thing. Jason was contemplating a second showing if they’d had to turn people away, but that showing would have started around midnight.

And now, a discursive aside about GET LAMP. About four years ago now (actually, now that I look at it, exactly four years ago today), I got an email from somebody I’d never heard of, a guy named Jason Scott. He claimed to be a filmmaker, working on a documentary about IF. He wanted to know if he could interview me. I checked out the website, and he looked legit — for one thing, he’d already completed one such project, a huge multi-episode docu about BBSes. So I told him I’d be delighted to talk IF with him sometime.

Then, nothing until January of 2007, when I suddenly got notice that Jason would be in town in a few weeks, and did I still want to be interviewed? I sure did, so on a snowy Saturday night we met inside my deserted workplace (this was back before everybody at my job was working weekends) along with Robb Sherwin (who was apparently the guy who gave Jason my name — thanks Robb!) and his girlfriend Dayna. Jason set up his camera and asked questions. I blathered for 90 minutes, wondering if any of this was remotely usable. Then Jason took us out to dinner at an excellent French restaurant. All in all, not a bad night at the office.

Jason interviewed a bunch of other people throughout 2007, and then GET LAMP seemed to go dark for a while. Work continued sporadically, but it was hard to see what the endpoint would be. But last year it caught fire again. Jason lost his job and rather than look for another one, he ran a Kickstarter project to raise $25,000, and damned if he didn’t do it, and even go beyond. To me, that was a huge statement about the confidence and trust he’s built in the community of people around him. He used the money to pay living expenses while he finished GET LAMP, with the result that he was able to premiere it at PAX East. What he showed wasn’t the final cut of the movie, but rather a 70-minute “mix” tailored to the PAX audience. The whole shebang is going to be a 2-DVD set, with boatloads of bonuses, games (including my own), and even a branching path at one point in the movie. Heh. He’s sending me a copy, because I was an interviewee — a very classy move, according to me.

So that brings me back to PAX. What I can say about the movie I saw is this: I loved it. Yes, there were a few pieces that needed some technical polish, and a couple of spots that made me cringe a bit, but overall, WOW. It conveys what’s special about IF with such passion and cleverness, and it brings in some angles that feel fresh. It’s touching, it’s funny, it’s very effective at conveying information, and it’s quite entertaining. Also, it’s 70 minutes of very smart people discussing something about which I care deeply, so it’s pretty much made for me.

Top 5 terrific things about GET LAMP

1. Egoboo. Yes, okay? It was quite gratifying to see myself managing to speak somewhat coherently about IF in the clips that featured me, and I felt quite honored to be placed in a context alongside people whom I hold in very high esteem.

2. Insight. A lot of thoughtful people had a lot of thoughtful things to say. Some of them I’ve heard a thousand times already, but they’d feel fresh to somebody for whom this was a new subject. Others felt fresh to me too. One example that sticks out: Jason Shiga observing that when you’re a kid, you don’t get to make a lot of choices. You don’t decide where to live, where to go to school, how to spend much of your time. When you’re in that situation, having a game offer you control of the story you’re in can be a very satisfying feeling indeed.

3. The section on blind players. Jason very astutely taps into the subculture of blind IF players, for whom this is one of the only feasible genres of computer game available. One of his subjects, Michael Feir, was somebody I kept in contact with when I was editing SPAG. Michael was the longtime editor of Audyssey, a gaming zine for the blind. Anyway, this section of the film had some wonderful pieces to it. I loved the woman who observed that one of the skills IF helps you build is mental map-making, and suggested that playing IF has made her more confident when she’s exploring an unfamiliar place. And Austin Seraphin is great, cracking that when a game tells him, “It’s pitch dark. You can’t see a thing,” he just thinks: “So what does that matter?”

4. Infocom. Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Stu Galley, Mark Blank, Brian Moriarty, Amy Briggs, et cetera. These names lit up my teen years so much they may as well have been rock stars. This movie had fantastic footage of each of them, telling great stories from the company’s heyday and offering perceptive opinions about the form in general. What a pleasure it was to see their faces, hear their voices, and get to know them a little better.

5. Explanatory power. I am very, very accustomed to getting befuddled stares when I talk about interactive fiction. I love that such a compelling visual text exists, that can introduce the subject to somebody new with both the intellectual clarity and the emotional weight it deserves. I’m very hopeful that it’ll bring a fresh wave of enthusiasm into the IF community itself, and that I can use it with my friends and family to shed some light on my ongoing fascination.

The best part of all, though, wasn’t so much the film itself as the moment it created. Jason sums it up: “this had, by dint of using my film as the stone in the stone soup, become the largest assembly of interactive fiction folks in history. Creators, players, and legends were going to assemble on PAX East, and make it something very, very special.” That’s exactly what happened, and nothing exemplified it more than the panel after the film:

* Dave Lebling (Zork, Enchanter, Spellbreaker, The Lurking Horror)
* Don Woods (Adventure, need I say more?)
* Brian Moriarty (Trinity, Beyond Zork, Wishbringer)
* Andrew Plotkin (So Far, Spider And Web, Shade)
* Nick Montfort (Twisty Little Passages, Ad Verbum, Book And Volume)
* Steve Meretzky (A Mind Forever Voyaging and so many other great games that just the thought of typing them out exhausts me.)

Again, Jason will release the footage at some point, so I’m not going to try to recap the panel. Suffice it to say that it was an unbelievable confluence of talent and history, a great discussion of IF, and oh by the way Meretzky is FREAKING HILARIOUS. Stephen later asserted that Steve Meretzky must be on every panel, everywhere, from now on. I quite agree.

After the film, I got to shake the hands of some legends and thank them for the huge positive impact on my life. We toddled on back to the suite, buzzing. The conversation there felt infused with joy; it glowed in the dark.

It’s hard to explain what this day meant to me. It was one of the best days I’ve had in years and years. Jason said to me later, “This weekend is like one big hug for you, isn’t it?” He’s not wrong. It was emotional, even more so than I expected, to be a part of this gathering — Rob called it the “IF Woodstock.” I tried to say so in the suite, though I’m not sure how articulate I was. I felt filled with love, for interactive fiction, for the IF community, and specifically for these people who shared this experience with me. It was vivid, elevating.

After the party broke up, I grabbed a taxi back to my hotel (the T had long since closed), and before I went to bed, posted this on Facebook:

Back when I was active in the interactive fiction community, and also going to conferences for work, I used to daydream about an IF conference where we’d have bunches of key people from the past and present, panels about various aspects of the form, face time with all these people I just knew as words on a screen, etc…. Today said: “I’ll see your dream, and raise you an IF movie!”

PAX East Part 2: There’s More At The Door

After some suite chat, 2:00 rolled around, which was the time PAX was officially supposed to open. So a large contingent, myself included, headed con-wards. My first and most lasting impression of PAX is: PEOPLE. People, people, and also, more people. Behind them are other people, who block your view of the people already inside, and if you turn around, you can see a long line of people, stretching back farther than you can see. I feel like if I’d missed my plane, I could probably have walked a couple of blocks from my house in Colorado and gotten in line for the PAX keynote with Wil Wheaton. Good lord, there were a lot of people.

Serious luck was on my side, as I had Rob Wheeler along to act as my Virgil through the utterly overwhelming and confusing human ocean that was the PAX entrance. He’d attended the Seattle PAX the previous Fall, and had also scoped out the scene beforehand to pick up his Speaker badge. (More about that later.) He helped me navigate my way into a long entrance queue, along with Sarah Morayati, a very friendly (and talented, I later discovered) woman who came on the scene in the last few years.

Meeting Sarah was my first taste of a feeling that was to get very familiar over the next couple of days. I am, I discovered, Unfrozen Caveman IF Guy. It’s as if I’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years, and I thawed out at PAX, like Captain America looking up at the Avengers and thinking, “Who are you guys?” When Dante was born in 2005 (and really, a little before, as we were preparing for his arrival), I withdrew pretty thoroughly from the IF scene. I handed SPAG over to Jimmy Maher, I pretty much stopped writing reviews, I stopped reading the newsgroups, and I stopped visiting ifMUD. There have been exceptions here and there — my review of 1893, for instance, or my work with Textfyre — but for the most part, I have been absent. It turns out that a lot can happen in five years! I’m excited but a bit overwhelmed at how much there is to catch up on.

Speaking of overwhelming, when the line finally moved into the convention proper, we quickly heard that we wouldn’t make it into the keynote. We connected up with Stephen, and headed into the expo hall. This is about the point when sensory overload started attacking my brain cells, making it impossible for me now to retrieve my memories of who was where when. I know there was a group of us, and we met up with another group, and Mark Musante was there, and Jacqueline Ashwell was there, and Iain Merrick was there, and Dan Shiovitz was there, other people I don’t know very well were there, and probably lots of others I do but everything is blurring together because have I mentioned that good god there were a lot of people?

In the expo hall, there was also a lot of noise and sound. Wait, make that A WHOLE GODDAMNED LOT OF NOISE AND SOUND!!! And people. Of course. We watched Rob play Dante’s Inferno, which apparently involves Dante kicking lots of ass and not, as someone pointed out, fainting a lot, the way he does in the book. We watched Stephen play some game that involves falling and is impossible to Google because its name is something like “AaaaaAAaaaAAAAaaAAAAAa!!!!” We saw lots of booths and bright colors and LOUD SOUNDS and so forth. You get the idea.

After some time, I went with a subgroup of people to attend a 4:00 panel called “Design an RPG in an Hour.” It was crowded! I ended up leaning against the back wall. The panel was more or less like improv comedy, except take out the comedy and put in its place boilerplate RPG elements. What will our setting be? What is the conflict? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What are their special traits? (i.e. What will their stat categories be?) It was pretty well-done, albeit dominated by what Stephen accurately termed “goofy high-concept stuff” from the audience. For instance, the guy shouting out “talking dinosaurs!” got a round of applause. I was happy to be there in any case, because there was a 5:30 panel on IF that would be in the same room, so I figured we’d stake out the good seats.

Now, this is a very cool thing. Some IF community folks pitched the idea of a PAX panel called “Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction,” and to our general delight, the PAX organizers made it part of the official con schedule! Going to this panel was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Boston. So when it became apparent that PAX enforcers would be doing a full room sweep to prevent the very camping behavior I was counting on, it was time to make a new plan — and apparently, there was quite a line forming. So we snuck out before the panel ended to get in line.

And my goodness, it’s a lucky thing we did. When I first saw the room, I couldn’t imagine how we’d fill it with people wanting to hear about IF. But after we took our seats (which were quite good), people started to flow in. And then more came. And then more. The chairs: filled. The walls: filled. The aisles: filled.

THEY WERE TURNING PEOPLE AWAY.

I get chills again as I write it. I mean, I’m very sorry for the people who got turned away. I met several of them over the course of the weekend, and they were quite disappointed. But holy shit, what hath PAX wrought when we can cram a huge room with people interested in our medium, with tons more hoping to get in? It was stunning, absolutely stunning.

The panel itself was great. It consisted of some of our best: Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Robb Sherwin, Aaron A. Reed, and Rob Wheeler moderating. I won’t try and recap the panel, except to say that it was wonderful to hear sustained, intelligent, live discussion of IF. The charming Jenni Polodna, another arrival during my years on ice, wrote some very thorough notes about it, and Jason Scott filmed it, so you’ll probably be able to see it yourself sometime. Which, if you were one of those turned away, might help a bit.

All I know is that at the end, I felt like I had a whole lot of games I needed to play.

Top 10 IF games to play if you’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years

1. Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed

2. Violet by Jeremy Freese

3. The games of the JayIsGames IF Comp

4. Lost Pig by Admiral Jota

5. Make It Good by Jon Ingold

6. De Baron by Victor Gijsbers

7. Alabaster by a Emily Short and also a whole boatload of people.

8. The Shadow In The Cathedral by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold. [Hey, one I’ve played! I was even a tester for it!]

9. Floatpoint by Emily Short

10. Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe

PAX East Part 1: The Suite Life of Zarf & Co.

There were further travel adventures after the plane arrived — I found my way to the subway without any trouble, and got off at the right stop, but it was dark and raining, and I was quite disoriented. Lucky for me, there appeared on the horizon a lovely Au Bon Pain with free wireless access. I ducked in and got my bearings over a delicious lemon danish & chocolate-dipped shortbread. Mmmmm… empty calories. Also, let’s hear it for the Internet — it was so great to 1) figure out the right path to my hotel via Google Maps, 2) write Laura to tell her I’d made the plane, and 3) look up sunrise tables to figure out when I’d have a little light on my side.

Armed with this information, I walked to my hotel as the sun rose, and asked them if there was any way I could pretty please get into a room early so I could grab a nap before proceeding with the rest of my day. Unfortunately, they’d been sold out the night before, so they didn’t have any rooms open that early. They took my phone number and suggested I grab a leisurely breakfast — they’d call me when something opened up. The rain had turned to snow at that point, so I opted to stay within the hotel. They had a cafe with a nice (albeit hotel-expensive) breakfast buffet, so I camped out up there for the next couple of hours until they finally called me with the good news.

Got a room, got into bed. Blessed sleep.

At 12:30 I arose, cleaned up, figured out my train path, and headed over to the IF hospitality suite. This was a room in the Hilton arranged by Andrew Plotkin (aka Zarf) on behalf of the People’s Republic Of Interactive Fiction (a Boston-based IF group) to be a welcoming space for PAXies interested in IF. They printed up friendly fliers and everything (click images for larger versions):

When I got there, I was pleased to find that it was pretty crowded! Not only that, it was full of people I’d known online for more than 15 years! Zarf was there, of course — we’d never met, although we’ve been in the same community since 1995. Also there was the estimable Stephen Granade, another guy I’ve known since the very beginning but never been face-to-face with. A few people I’d met at an IF gathering several years ago, so I wasn’t completely overwhelmed with face-to-name energy, but still, it was pretty amazing.

Top 5 awesome things about the IF suite

1) The swag! Robb Sherwin put together a great IF promotional CD (this, but updated with newer stuff) to give out to visitors. There was also a nifty postcard, with art on the front and a handy how-to on the back. Plus: badge ribbons, stickers, buttons, and nametags!

2) The food! Zarf & co. were kind enough to provide lots and lots of chips, M&Ms, and soda, and others brought delicious treats as well. Across the hall, Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch even provided beer! Woo hoo!

3) The energy! At any given moment, there were usually two or three conversations going — newbies connecting with veterans, different subsections of the community interconnecting, people getting acquainted who had never really met before. People talked about IF, and also about their lives, what was happening at the conference, and what was for dinner that night.

4) The special guest stars! Don Woods, co-creator of the original Adventure, came to an IF panel and chatted with folks. I got to hang at the edge of a conversation between Emily Short and Steve Meretzky, so I got to thank the latter for his work, which has meant a lot to me over the years. Especially A Mind Forever Voyaging. Wow. Jason Scott hung out for a while doing his larger-than-life, bursting-with-anecdotes thing. It was a bit like a bunch of indie bands hanging out together, and then occasionally Paul McCartney or Robert Plant might drop by.

5) The people! I suppose this is a superset of the previous one, but holy cow, this room was PACKED the entire weekend! There was something really special about this locus of passion and force about IF. I loved talking to people who were new to the scene. I loved talking to people who had become community celebrities in the time I’ve been out of the loop. I loved talking to people I’ve known for years from the other side of a screen. I loved being in that room.

Prelude to PAX: Drive Like The Wind

Thursday, January 25

You’ve been looking forward to it for months: a unique gathering of interactive fiction authors, organized around the huge gaming convention PAX East and the new IF documentary GET LAMP. As is your habit, you’ve arrived at the airport plenty early — you pull into the the shuttle parking lot at 9:15pm for an 11:25pm flight. You open the trunk to see your suitcase and… wait. What about your laptop case? What about your little travel bag? Good lord, what about your TICKET?

Oh no.

DRIVE LIKE THE WIND
A non-interactive recounting by Paul O’Brian

Shuttle Parking Lot
It’s dark, and the lot is full. The bus waits to take you to the airport. Of course, the airport is for people who have plane tickets, unlike yourself.

Your car is here, with the trunk open.

> LOOK IN TRUNK
No matter how many times you look, your other bags do not appear in the trunk.

> SWEAR
That doesn’t help. Well, maybe it helps a little.

PAX Bostonia

Looks like I am going to PAX East, specifically the IF activities. WOO HOO!

Let’s have a round of applause for Laura Wilson, spouse extraordinaire, who very graciously offered to take on childcare for the weekend.

Words I Learned From Role-Playing Games

I went through a long period of loving Dungeons And Dragons and other such RPGs, though I could never quite find the ideal like-minded, theatrical, story-and-character-loving group of peers for it, or so I imagined anyway. Maybe every group stays permanently out of character and treats the whole thing as a gold-grubbing exercise. (Darths And Droids is somewhat persuasive on this point.) Thank you, single-player CRPGs!

Anyway, I kept hearing that these games were going to make me lose the boundary between fantasy and reality, and send me wandering through underground steam tunnels, but instead I just learned some awesome new words.

  • basilisk: A mythical lizard whose gaze can turn people to stone or kill them. Also sometimes known as a cockatrice.
    [Ahhh, the Monster Manual. This was a guide to many of the creatures a D&D character might encounter, complete with their various stats and special abilities. Because the game borrowed liberally from various literary and mythological traditions, it introduced me to many fabulous beasties from those traditions, including this one.]
  • cant: A secret language.
    [If you chose to play a thief in D&D, you could learn “Thieves’ Cant”, a secret method of communication that would let you talk to other thieves without being understood by anyone else. The concept is based in historical fact, and its RPG equivalent has been rather exhaustively catalogued.]
  • chutzpah: Unshakable self-confidence; audacity.
    [In the RPG Toon, chutzpah was one of the character stats. Characters with a high chutzpah score could pull off ridiculous schemes and convince others to believe patently false things. Bugs Bunny would have a maxed-out chutzpah stat.]
  • dexterity: Physical skill and grace.
    [Speaking of character stats, this is one from the original D&D rules — characters with a high dexterity could dodge attacks better, and perform difficult feats such as pickpocketing. It’s a “common knowledge” word my world now, but it wasn’t when I was in 5th grade.]
  • flail: A medieval weapon consisting of one or more weights swinging freely from a handle via chains.
    [Just as the Monster Manual taught me about all manner of creatures, the Player’s Handbook introduced me to a dizzying variety of weapons and armor. It would be overwhelming to try to include them all here, so I’m just choosing this one as a representative sample. Others include glaive, greaves, halberd, scimitar, shillelagh, and voulge.]
  • garrote: A strangling weapon consisting of two handles with a wire, chain, or rope between them.
    [Different genres had their different weapons. Thus, while D&D was teaching me about medieval arsenals, I learned about this nasty piece of work from the espionage game Top Secret.]
  • gelatinous: Dense; viscous.
    [One of the wackier monsters in the Monster Manual was the Gelatinous Cube, which is just exactly what it sounds like — a huge cube of goo which would eat anything organic and spit out anything inorganic.]
  • golem: An animated creature created from inanimate material such as stone, wood, or metal.
    [This was not only another monster, but also something that magic-user characters could create, given sufficient skill. Its real-world origin is in Jewish folklore.]
  • lycanthropy: The condition of being a werewolf, or some other kind of were-creature.
    [Oh, there are so many crazy things that can befall a hapless D&D character, and this is one of them. If you get bitten by a werewolf (or were-rat, or were-bear, or were-whatever), you become lycanthropic yourself. (Unless, of course, you can avail yourself of a Cure Disease spell cast by a 12th-level or higher character, or you eat some belladonna within an hour, which has a 25% chance of curing the condition but will incapacitate you for 1d4 days and has a 1% chance of killing you. If you love yourself some intricate sets of rules with lots of randomness involved, D&D is the game for you.)]
  • myrmidon: A loyal warrior, based on legends of Achilles’ armies against Troy.
    [Another fun feature of the Player’s Handbook was all the tables of information it contained. Among these were the level tables for each character class, in which each level was given its own title. Thus, “myrmidon” was a level 6 fighter.]
  • paladin: A noble warrior; paragon of chivalry; heroic champion.
    [In Advanced D&D, the Paladin was a specialized sort of fighter, which obtained some special abilities due to its unwavering devotion to the cause of law and justice.]
  • précis: A summary presentation of information.
    [This is another one from Top Secret, in which mission dossiers often included a précis about, for instance, suspected criminal masterminds.]
  • prestidigitator: One who performs magic tricks involving sleight of hand or other manual feats.
    [This one comes from the Player’s Handbook table of magic-user levels — a level 1 magic-user is a prestidigitator. There’s one more of these coming up below.]
  • succubus: A demon who takes the form of a beautiful woman in order to seduce and consume its victim.
    [It’s another evil beastie from the Monster Manual, this time particularly memorable because, well, let’s face it, it was a rather compelling concept (and illustration!) for a young boy.]
  • thaumaturge: A practitioner of magic.
    [The magic-user table actually lists a level 5 character as a “Thaumaturgist,” but for some reason, this was the formulation that stuck in my mind. Other noteworthy words from these tables are acolyte, chevalier, curate, druid, filcher, justiciar, magsman, and theurgist.]
  • will-o’-the-wisp: A ghostly, flickering light, which leads the curious into peril.
    [One final entity from the Monster Manual, similar to the gelatinous cube in its lack of animal characteristics. I always found this a captivating idea. Other outre words from the creature compendium: bugbear, doppleganger, harpy, hippogriff, homonculous, kobold, manticore, roc, wight, and wyvern.]

Words I Learned From Infocom, Deluxe Edition

As revealed in the comments section of my original Words Infocom Taught Me post, we learn words from lots of unexpected places. Reading Eugene Ehrlich’s Highly Selective Thesaurus has reminded me of many of them. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve decided to write a short series of blog posts, detailing words I’ve learned from various geeky sources. First in line is a fuller list of words from Infocom games, this time complete with definitions and comments explaining the context of each word, for those who don’t know the Infocom canon by heart:

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