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

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IF-Review: Zombie Exodus

It’s been a long, long time since I reviewed a text game, so I’m embarking on a mini-project of reviewing all four games nominated for the 2011 Best Game XYZZY award. First up: Zombie Exodus. My review is up now at IF-Review. Thanks to Mark Musante for publishing it.

What is “the future”?

That post about the art of the trivia question is still brewing, but I got sidetracked this week by another event in the trivia world. You may have heard about it. Watson, an IBM supercomputer, played two games of Jeopardy! against that show’s most famous champions, and thoroughly trounced the both of them.

A number of friends who watched the match complained that it was boring. If what you were looking for was a tense, movie-like contest with the drama of close scores or a come-from-behind victory, I can certainly see why you’d be disappointed. It had all the drama of the 49ers annihilating the Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. On the other hand, if what you were looking for was a glimpse of the world to come, in the form of a breathtaking technical achievement, this match absolutely delivered the goods.

See, some people tend to think computers are smart, and that of course a computer could beat a human at Jeopardy!, given a sufficiently broad knowledge base for its answers. But really, that’s a case of misplaced signifiers. Many human brains find rapid mental arithmetic of large or complex numbers difficult, and therefore associate it with intelligence. Computers happen to be fantastic at this kind of thing. The chess club is full of smart kids, and therefore chess must be a smart person’s game. Knowing that a computer could defeat the chess world champion must mean that computers are smart, right?

Here’s the thing, though. Computers are great at one thing: computing. Arithmetic is computation. Chess, at a sufficient level of abstraction, is also computation. The further away from numbers you move, the dumber computers become, meaning that for the vast majority of tasks our brains do each day, computers are extremely stupid. “Natural language”, aka the way we humans talk to each other, is an enormous challenge for a computer to deal with, as anyone playing interactive fiction for the first time could tell you. (Though the idea that better parsing of natural language will automatically make for better IF is another case of misplaced signifiers — better understanding of language is great and everything, but the more important part of IF is its model world. Advancing the parser just means the model world’s seams show more quickly.) Because computers lack human experience, they are stunningly bad at dealing with linguistic context, and are therefore capable of spectacular misunderstandings when faced with any language outside the very limited domains for which they’re programmed.

Watson is no exception to this, but it has a few advantages that other machines lack. For one thing, there’s an enormous amount of processing power behind it: some 90 servers, over 21 terabytes of data, 15 terabytes of RAM, and 80 teraflops of throughput. More important, though, are a couple of its conceptual approaches to knowledge.

First, through a paradigm called machine learning, Watson learns by example, getting better and better at the game as he sees more and more Jeopardy [leaving the exclamation point off from here on out] clues and their correct answers. It would be ridiculously impractical to try to construct a set of rules that would allow a computer to recognize every possible Jeopardy question, so instead Watson’s creators gave it a framework for recognizing associations between question words, answer words, and source texts, then fed it tens of thousands of Jeopardy clues as examples. This technique enabled Watson to make a huge leap in its Jeopardy prowess.

The other key aspect of Watson is its embrace of uncertainty. Watson doesn’t deal in right answers and wrong answers. It deals in answers that are more likely to be right vs. less likely to be right. Thus, when faced with the clue, “The parents of this 52nd governor of New York immigrated to the United States from Salerno, Italy,” we see its top three answers thus:

Three answers, with "Mario Cuomo" listed first and a certainty of 98% indicated. "motorcycle club" and "Marine Corps" are below, listed at 8% certainty.

Watson was quite certain that “Mario Cuomo” was the correct answer, but hadn’t entirely ruled out the far crazier answers “motorcycle club” and “Marine Corps.” Indeed, if what you’re seeking is comedy, look no further than Watson’s runner-up answers.

Laughs aside, though, it’s this uncertainty which makes Watson so formidable. In a frequently-cited example, Watson can look at the name “Alice Cooper” and weigh the evidence that Alice is a woman’s name against the evidence that Alice Cooper is a man, give each pile of evidence a score, and come to its own conclusion. A strictly rule-bound computer would have to be given a specific exception to handle this case. Watson can generate its own exception, thereby improving its knowledge base. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, isn’t this a hallmark of intelligence? The capacity to allow for the possibility that we may not know everything or fully understand the world is an incredibly powerful tool in the search for truth.

So as a computer, Watson rocks. But Jeopardy is an entertainment program, not a science program. Is it fun to watch Watson play Jeopardy? George Doro, my teammate in the Anti-Social Network, called it “more fascinating than exciting,” and that’s right on target. IBM branded the hell out of this show, and it would have been a black eye for them had Watson lost. Consequently, a few gameplay decisions were made which helped Watson win, but made the show a little less fun.

First off, Watson was allowed to be lightning-fast on the buzzer. People think of Jeopardy as a purely mental game, but unlike chess, there’s a physical component of Jeopardy. People (and computers) with faster reflexes do far better on the show — it doesn’t matter if you know 100% of the answers when you’re getting outbuzzed 80% of the time. Trying to play buzzer-beaters against a computer is like running a 500-yard dash against a car. Watson didn’t have to be this quick — just subtract a little of that processing power until the computer’s average buzz-in time equals the average human’s buzz-in time (or even Ken Jennings’ average) and you’ve got a fairer battle, but instead, when Watson was certain enough of its answer, no human thumb could possibly outrace its mechanical plunger. (There were a few exceptions, but overall it was clear that Watson’s buzzing speed was what allowed it to dominate the match.)

Secondly, there’s the fact that each human had not only Watson to contend with, but also another top-notch Jeopardy player! Consequently, anytime Watson doesn’t pick up a clue in time, the two humans tended to split the points between them. I know Jeopardy is traditionally played by three contestants, but there was plenty about this match that was non-traditional. I would be very interested to see how Jennings would do against Watson by himself, especially if the buzzer advantage were corrected. As he put it in an NPR interview: “It’s the worst of both worlds, you know? The ideal scenario would be to have a human versus a computer, or maybe a computer versus a very good human and a lousy ‘Jeopardy!’ player. I don’t know if you saw Wolf Blitzer on the show, but I’d like to have Wolf back.”

That’s not to say that Watson was flawless. One of its major weaknesses was its inability to see or hear. Instead of listening to Alex Trebek read the clue, Watson was fed the clue via (essentially) a text message, so it saw and started processing the clue at the same time as Ken and Brad saw it. The show neutralized the most obvious disadvantage of this blindness and deafness by eliminating the audio or visual clues it often features. Jeopardy has made this sort of accommodation before, to serve disabled human players, and while it’s certainly true that Ken and Brad could have whomped the computer on those clues, that’s really not what Watson was built to do, so it would rather miss the point. A more pertinent disadvantage was that it could not hear what the other contestants were answering. It was told whether its own answer was correct, and told the correct answers provided by humans, but was not told of wrong answers, leading to this exchange:

Ken: “‘Name That Decade’ for a thousand.”
Alex: “The first modern crossword puzzle is published & Oreo cookies are introduced.” [Ken buzzes in] “Ken?”
Ken: “What are the ’20s?”
Alex: “No.” [Watson buzzes in] “Watson?”
Watson: “What is 1920s?”
Alex: “No. Ken said that.”

[The correct answer was “The 1910s.”] Trebek’s schoolmarmish correction of a machine that had just that moment proven it can’t hear him was amusing, and perhaps reflexive. Watson’s error was the kind of mistake that humans rarely make, though it’s not unheard of. When a human does it, though, it’s a sign of frazzled nerves. With Watson, it’s an Achilles heel. Well, maybe an Achilles toenail.

Another major weakness Watson displayed was its difficulty leveraging the category title to come up with the answer. Humans completely dominated that “Name The Decade” category — Watson was having trouble processing quickly enough to outbuzz them, and at one point its top guess for one of the clues was “2002,” even though it did come up with decades for the others. Most famously, in the Final Jeopardy round of the first game, it encountered the category “U.S. Cities,” and the clue, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” which it answered thus:

Watson answering "What is Toronto?????"

(This inspired the funniest Watson joke I’ve yet seen: “Me: Hey Doc, I’ve got this pain in my left arm and an awful headache. Doc: What is Toronto?????”) The answer was in fact “Chicago,” but even if a human didn’t know the answer, he very likely would have guessed an actual U.S. city based on the category, rather than a Canadian city.

As some of the IBM guys pointed out, Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy are a tough area for Watson, because it has to guess something, and therefore risk looking stupid. When it’s not sure about its answers on a regular clue, it can just refrain from buzzing in. Watching the show, I thought perhaps that Watson’s creators forced it to simply focus on the question, more or less ignoring the category. Turns out this isn’t quite true. In fact, it considers the category in its approach, but it’s learned from its thousands of Jeopardy clues that category is often only weakly tied to the answer. For instance, that Chicago question could have been reworded, “Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named after a World War II hero; this airport, its second largest, was named after a World War II battle.” The question still would have fit the category, but the answer would have been an airport, not a city. Watson has seen that scenario play out many times, and is thus wary of assuming that the answer in a “U.S. Cities” category will always be a U.S. city.

In the end, Watson defeated the humans soundly, with a score of $77,147 to Jennings’ $24,000 and Rutter’s $21,600. A lot of the press coverage has focused on the “man vs. machine” angle, and of course the match was set up to emphasize that. In fact, it was rather poignant to see Watson beat one of its human practice match opponents on the clue, “This African-American folklore laborer: ‘Before I let that steam drill beat me down I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.'” I guess there’s this sort of pastoral vs. industrial thing that gets set up when machines attempt a traditionally human activity, even though people holding buzzers and answering trivia questions doesn’t exactly fit neatly into the pastoral mold.

I don’t feel much solidarity with the OMG SKYNET IS HERE!!!!! response. As somebody who works in IT, I’m fascinated by the achievement. I think about how satisfying it must have been to have worked on the team that created this. Those people just finished a massive four-year project, and the result was an incredible leap forward in information processing, with a world-famous, historic, televised, wildly successful debut. I just finished my time as a team member on a three-year project, and the result is a shakily implemented student system whose portal is currently driving everyone crazy with how incomplete and slow it is. I’m sure there is mental, emotional, and physical damage associated with both project teams, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been on the one whose final product worked so well?

In his Final Jeopardy answer, Ken Jennings wrote, “(I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.)” It’s a reference to a hilarious moment on The Simpsons. And interestingly, it may not have been one Jennings thought of himself. Here’s an excerpt from his NPR interview with Neal Conan:

Mr. JENNINGS: Maybe it’s just my own ego, but yeah, I feel like I’ve somehow, through some weird coincidence, been elected as the champion of carbon-based life on Earth against, you know, our new future oppressor.
CONAN: Silicon, yeah.
Mr. JENNINGS: And I would like to strike a blow while I have the chance.
CONAN: I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.
Mr. JENNINGS: You may have no choice, Neal.

Then again, it’s quite possible that this interview was taped after the Jeopardy round was taped, so who knows? But whether Jennings was lifting a joke or simply making a reference, isn’t this the skill for which we celebrate him? He gathers knowledge from various sources, and retrieves it quickly, using it when it can make the most impact. His graciousness and humor in that final moment certainly set him apart from his predecessor in IBM challenge history, Garry Kasparov, who famously stalked away in an enormous huff after being beaten by Deep Blue. But in that graciousness and humor, he also subtly made the point that for all Watson’s skill and speed at information retrieval, humans can still wield that information with a precision and effect that Watson could never hope to achieve.

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.

Domestic Adventure: Behind The Silver Door

Ah, the storage unit. A cozy, indoor, air-conditioned home for all the things you can’t fit into your actual home anymore. Now that you’re in the process of packing for a move, you’ve been making regular trips out here. You’ve learned the routine. You’re a pro. Pull up to the building doors, grab a handtruck, fill it up with boxes, wheel it inside… and so on.

BEHIND THE SILVER DOOR
A non-interactive Domestic Adventure by Paul O’Brian

Storage Building Foyer
Everything here gleams in sterile silver and white, colors chosen to assure you that this place is clean, secure, and well-kept. The east wall features a locked door as well as two different elevators — call them Left Elevator and Right Elevator. Or don’t bother, because Right Elevator is the one that always opens. A call button adorns the wall between the two elevators. Mounted on the wall to the right of Right Elevator is a security keypad. Automatic doors provide an exit to the west.

Your handtruck is here, loaded with boxes and waiting paitently in front of Right Elevator.

> EXAMINE HANDTRUCK
[You can abbreviate EXAMINE to X, if you like.]
It’s a large, wheeled platform, with a handle at one end. The storage place is nice enough to keep a supply of these in the foyer. It’s a quality piece of equipment, albeit a bit slow and cumbersome when laden with boxes like it is now.

> X BOXES
Oh, you know. Books. Decorations. Photo Albums. Books. Journals. Random electronics components. Also, books.

> X ELEVATOR
Which do you mean, Left Elevator or Right… well, actually, it doesn’t matter. They’re identical. Silver elevator doors, closed.

> X AUTOMATIC DOORS
They’re the doors you’ll walk out of once you’ve deposited all your stuff in the storage locker.

> X CALL BUTTON
Its upward-pointing arrow is currently unlit.

> X KEYPAD
Yeah, the keypad is part of the rather high-tech setup here at this storage building. You’ve got to enter your code at a different keypad just to get admitted to the storage complex at all, but once you get to this foyer, you must enter it again here to activate the elevators. Frequent trips here have taught you not to dawdle — there’s a pretty short timeout window from the time you enter your code, and if you don’t call an elevator, get into it, and hit the key for your floor before that timeout occurs, you’ve got to start all over.

> ENTER CODE ON KEYPAD
With practiced skill, you type the magic number on the keypad.

> PRESS CALL BUTTON
The up arrow begins to glow.

The Left Elevator doors open. This is the first time in your many trips here that you have ever seen the Left Elevator doors open.

> ENTER LEFT ELEVATOR
What, without your stuff?

> PUSH HANDTRUCK INTO LEFT ELEVATOR
You get behind the handtruck and heave. It’s a slow beast to turn around, especially in the somewhat cramped conditions of the foyer. Precious seconds tick by as you wrestle the handtruck out of its position in front of Right Elevator, wrench it around, and get it into…

Left Elevator
More sterile silver walls greet you from the inside of the elevator. As elevators go, it’s a pretty roomy one — no surprise, really, given some of the things people probably have to haul into it. There’s a panel of buttons on the wall next to the door leading west.

> X PANEL
One, Two, Three, Open Doors, Close Doors. Emergency Stop. Solemn weight limit warning. Earnest maintenance chart. Nothing you haven’t seen many times before. Your floor is Three.

> PRESS THREE
You press the button, which lights up, then goes dim again as soon as you release it. Damn. The security timeout expired. Now you’ve got to go back and enter your code again.

> OUT
You step out of the silver elevator.

Storage Building Foyer
Everything here gleams in sterile silver and white, colors chosen to assure you that this place is clean, secure, and well-kept. The east wall features a locked door as well as two different elevators — call them Left Elevator and Right Elevator, a distinction apparently far more important than you realized. A call button adorns the wall between the two elevators. Mounted on the wall to the right of Right Elevator is a security keypad. Automatic doors provide an exit to the west.

The Right Elevator doors open. A guy walks out of them and continues through the automatic doors, into the sunshine beyond. He smiles at you as he leaves.

> ENTER CODE ON KEYPAD
With practiced skill, you type the magic number on the keypad.

The Right Elevator doors close. The Left Elevator doors close.

> PRESS CALL BUTTON
The up arrow begins to glow.

The Right Elevator doors open. Which is great and everything, except for the fact that the handtruck full of your stuff is in the Left Elevator. Apparently Left gets pressed into service whenever Right is busy, which is almost never. Today you just happened to land in that shadowy space between “almost never” and “actually never.”

> WAIT
[You can abbreviate WAIT to Z, if you like.]
Time passes.

The Right Elevator doors close.

> ENTER CODE ON KEYPAD
With practiced skill, you type the magic number on the keypad.

> PRESS CALL BUTTON
The up arrow begins to glow.

The Right Elevator doors open. Your stuff remains trapped in the Left Elevator.

> THINK
What a good idea.

The Right Elevator Doors close.

> Z.Z.Z.

Time passes.

Time passes.

Time passes. Nobody’s going to happen to come along and solve this problem for you, if that’s what you were hoping for.

> ENTER CODE ON KEYPAD
With practiced skill, you type the magic number on the keypad.

> PRESS CALL BUTTON
The up arrow begins to glow.

The Right Elevator doors open. Your stuff remains trapped in the Left Elevator.

> ENTER RIGHT ELEVATOR
Right Elevator
It’s absolutely identical to the Left Elevator. Same stainless walls, same panel of buttons.

> PRESS THREE
The Three button glows steadily.

> OUT
You step out of the silver elevator.

Storage Building Foyer
Everything here gleams in sterile silver and white, colors chosen to assure you that this place is clean, secure, and well-kept. The east wall features a locked door as well as two different elevators — call them Left Elevator and Right Elevator, a distinction apparently far more important than you realized. A call button adorns the wall between the two elevators. Mounted on the wall to the right of Right Elevator is a security keypad. Automatic doors provide an exit to the west.

The Right Elevator doors close, and you can hear it begin its empty journey to the third floor.

> ENTER CODE ON KEYPAD
With practiced skill, you type the magic number on the keypad.

> PRESS CALL BUTTON
The up arrow begins to glow.

The Left Elevator doors open, revealing your handtruck and boxes!

> ENTER LEFT ELEVATOR
You happily rejoin your abandoned possessions.

Left Elevator
More sterile silver walls greet you from the inside of the elevator. As elevators go, it’s a pretty roomy one — no surprise, really, given some of the things people probably have to haul into it. There’s a panel of buttons on the wall next to the door leading west.

> PRESS THREE
The button glows steadily, and the elevator hums.

> Z
The silver doors close, and the familiar lurch sends you gliding upward, your errand back on track at last. Whew!

*** You have won ***

Your score is 100 out of 100, giving you the rank of Elevator Evader.

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.

Sword Of My Mouth

One of the people I met at PAX was Jim Munroe, an interactive fiction author who’s also a novelist, filmmaker, and comic book writer. (Other reviewers might switch the order of those accomplishments.) Jim’s IF works include Punk Points, which I’ve played, and Everybody Dies and Roofed, which I haven’t, since they came out while I was frozen.

Turns out that one of Jim’s current projects is Sword Of My Mouth, a graphic novel about life in Detroit after The Rapture, written by Munroe and illustrated by Shannon Gerard. The book is itself apparently a spinoff from Munroe’s earlier post-Rapture story with Salgood Sam, Therefore Repent!. Now, the first thing I think of when I hear “Post-Rapture story” is Left Behind, a series of 167 or so novels, products, and novel-like products. Although I have not read or viewed any of them them, I get the impression that they want me to get on board with being some specific kind of Christian, and think that if I don’t, I’m in for a scary time sometime soon here.

This does not seem to be Sword Of My Mouth‘s agenda. Instead, it treats the Rapture as a straight-up fantasy premise. In fact, several of the characters suspect that what’s happened to the world has nothing to do with God, and is instead a pretext for some kind of extradimensional invasion. Given that angels are slaughtering people in Chicago and have put New York under martial law, not to mention the fact that suddenly magic works, causing all kinds of unpredictable mutations and freaky phenomena, I think it’s a pretty convincing theory.

The book centers on Ella, a newly-single mother of a baby born after the Rapture, a completely normal infant except for his full set of adult teeth. She’s newly single because her ex, Andre, went to Chicago to join the anti-angel resistance movement. She’s adrift in a Detroit even more abandoned than it is now, and after some unfortunate events she finds herself part of a post-apocalyptic urban farmstead commune. It’s as idyllic a setting as there is to be had in this world, but it’s surrounded by roiling trouble: not just the angels and volatile magic, but cultists known as The Risen, and the unsettling appearance of Famine, a physical incarnation of one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The story’s world is imaginative and engrossing, with plenty of embedded bits that feel like they could launch books of their own. The supporting characters felt convincing and real to me, even the ones with fish scales, missing eyes, or big scary fangs. In fact, part of the way the book effectively leverages its format is by setting prosaic dialogue in the mouths of otherworldly-looking characters. The dialogue doesn’t have to make a big deal of the character’s appearance — the art does that — and consequently the people feel more down-to-earth and knowable than they would if they used more elevated diction.

The art itself eschews the typical comic panel format — there’s not a gutter to be seen. Instead, Gerard conveys action by drawing the same figure in several poses on the page, poses which usually read left-to-right and top-to-bottom to depict sequential events. The style takes a little getting used to, but I was surprised at how natural it soon felt. Drawings overlapping and flowing into each other evocatively echo the erosion of boundaries in the story’s milieu — now that magic works, you never know when something you say or think will have a physical effect in the world.

The lettering, on the other hand, was a distraction and a detraction from the story. I think it’s Gerard’s own lettering, having seen some of her other work, but it kept reminding me of Delirium from Sandman. The story would have been better served by using either digital fonts or just a less trippy handwritten style. As it was, all the characters sounded half-drunk in my head. Really, though, a comic is pretty good when my main complaint is about the lettering.

Well, actually I do have one more complaint: I thought the ending was too abrupt. That may have been a product of the fragmented way I ended up reading the story, but what it comes down to is that I thought the book ended too soon. The fact that I wanted to spend more time in Munroe and Gerard’s world tells you what you need to know about my response to this book.

(Full disclosure: Jim sent me an advance digital copy of the book when I expressed interest in writing about it.)

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.

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