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

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The Avengers

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled IF reviews for this topical superhero discussion. That review of Mentula Macanus is coming soon– er, on its way.]

I’ve been reading a lot of 1960s Marvel comics lately, letter columns and all. I did this once before, with just Spider-Man comics, which was a lot of fun. This time I’m skipping around more from title to title, getting a feel for the way the universe gelled, and how the constant stream of feedback from readers contributed to that process. It’s really given me a sense for what Marvel did differently back in those early days. For a while there, they could almost do no wrong — “what they did differently” was more or less synonymous with “what they did right.”

Know what else I’ve been doing a lot lately? Seeing Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. Well, okay, just twice, but that counts as “a lot” in my movie-watching book. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. It was even more satisfying the second time around. Like those early Marvels, it makes the right call pretty much every time. Really: just like those early Marvels.

Continued stories
In 1961, when the Marvel Universe as we know it began, comic books were disposable, not collectible. There was no expectation that whoever bought issue #41 would necessarily have bought issue #40 or have any intention to buy issue #42. Consequently, each one was required to be self-contained, with one story, or even multiple stories, that began and ended within its covers. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the general expectation was that a comic book contained at least one complete story. Sure, there were motifs that continued from one issue to the next, but they were more or less in the form of an established status quo. Clark Kent always works at the Daily Planet. Lois Lane never gets any closer to figuring out his secret identity. Jimmy Olsen is always just as young and eager and boneheaded as he ever was or ever will be. Stories that deviated from this status quo always made sure to return to it before the issue was over.

Many early Marvels followed this pattern too, though their internal status quo was a fair bit more interesting. However, it quickly became apparent that the stories they wanted to tell were too complex to be contained within a single book. Not only that, they seemed to be attracting older, more sophisticated readers, who might be more reasonably expected to buy a title consistently. So, in many books, “continued stories” became the rule, and whoever read issue #41 might in fact need the previous one or the next one, or several iterations thereof, to get the full tale.

Oh, the complaints that readers sent in about this! The company was accused of greed, insensitivity, poor storytelling, and more. In fact, the hue and cry was so great that at one point Marvel actually abandoned continued stories and tried to keep all issues self-contained. The (predictable) result? Duller, more superficial stories. In fact, it may have almost been a calculated move on their part — by the time they did it, the Marvel Universe had already been established as an enormous tapestry of characters whose lives regularly interwove, collided, and separated again. To write the very kind of stories they had made obsolete may have been their way of saying, “Oh, this? Is this really what you want?” Needless to say, continued stories returned soon afterwards.

In 2012, the majority of movies are self-contained, but there are plenty of franchises in which each sequel moves the characters along a larger arc. However, what we hadn’t seen yet is a movie that ties together multiple franchises in the way that The Avengers does. There are four different lines of movies, each with its own sequel trajectory, that come together in this one. Four sets of stories feed in, and this story will resonate along at least three lines in the future. (I’m not sure if there are going to be any more Hulk movies, though no doubt the success of Avengers makes that outcome more likely. Heck, maybe even Black Widow and Hawkeye will get their own franchises.)

This is an immensely powerful position for a movie to occupy. In the comics, a shared universe gets you several great things:

  • If you’re following multiple lines that come together, you get to feel like an insider when the collisions happen. The more lines you follow, the more satisfying this can be.
  • The coherency of each strand is enhanced by its participation in a greater coherent whole. When Spider-Man bursts into Stark Industries, he may wonder why Iron Man isn’t showing up. Those of us reading Iron Man know that he’s trapped by a villain in another part of the factory, and knowing this lets us feel that both Spidey and Stark are a legitimate part of a larger, grander story.
  • When personalities do come together, especially if they clash, the drama of the encounter is greatly enhanced when each character is fully fleshed out with a detailed background and a story of his own.The Avengers movie inherits each of these advantages, along with the sheer pleasure of seeing a bunch of great actors thrown into an ensemble cast, and an enormous sense of payoff from the most elaborate setup ever.

These people do not get along
As I said, Marvel set up a fictional universe in which its superheroes were constantly running into each other. And when that would happen, inevitably, they would fight at least once. Fans loved seeing the good guys square off against each other, if only from the geeky desire to take the measure of each hero. And so Stan Lee would contrive some sort of misunderstanding or unusual circumstance that would force the heroes into conflict. Letter columns were always full of people eager to know who would win in a fight: Hulk vs. Thor? Thing vs. Iron Man? Spidey vs. Black Widow? Hero vs. hero conflict gave those fans a little satisfaction, though not always as much as they wanted, given that the story often took a left turn before either hero suffered a full defeat.

The Avengers takes this cue and runs with it. And, uh, now it’s probably time for the SPOILERS ASSEMBLE! warning.

The movie gives us so many awesome hero vs. hero matchups:

  • Black Widow vs. Hulk, twice. She dominates him strategically as Banner, he dominates her physically (of course) as Hulk
  • Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America
  • Hawkeye vs. everybody, which was a great way of establishing Hawkeye’s badass credentials. (Casting Jeremy Renner didn’t hurt either.)
  • Stark, Banner, and Cap piercing Fury’s subterfuge, leading to a great 6-way argument and a lovely Whedonesque camera move, inverting the heroes and placing the Staff Of Bad Influence in the foreground
  • Thor vs. Hulk
  • Black Widow vs. Hawkeye

And that’s all before they team up to fight the Big Bad! No wonder this movie had to be 143 minutes long. These matchups do several things for the movie, besides their obvious Big Action Thrill value. I mentioned how turning Hawkeye against everyone, and having him nearly take down the whole shebang, was a great way of establishing him as a powerhouse to be reckoned with, despite his lack of superpowers. Really, that’s true for all the inter-hero fights. In order for us to believe in the enormous victory the Avengers pull off in the movie’s climax, we have to believe in their powers and abilities. Having them establish these against each other is both efficient and effective. This way, we see more heroes in action more of the time, and our belief in one reinforces our belief in the others.

Moreover, the physical conflicts help the movie express the characters’ underlying philosophical conflicts. Superhero stories, at least when they’re done well, are metaphors writ large. So when Thor fights Iron Man, it isn’t just Thor fighting Iron Man — it’s the Mythical/Ancient/Pastoral at war with the Modern/Scientific/Technological, and it’s not accidental that the image of Idealized Patriotism and Selfless Heroism is defeated by neither and brings both together.

Finally, the conflicts move the plot along, which is far from a given in modern action movies. Heroes fighting each other does everything from achieving key turning points (such as when the Widow administers a “cognitive recalibration” to Hawkeye, switching him back to the side of the angels) to subtly filling in explanatory details (such as when Banner finds himself holding the Stick of Psychic Malevolence as he’s getting angry.)

How do you solve a problem like The Hulk?
In fact, this last one helped me understand something about the movie that puzzled me the first time around. I’ve mentioned before that although the Hulk exists in a world of superheroes, he’s not a superhero himself — he’s a monster. Unlike everybody else on the team, he’s not necessarily here to help. This is a hard problem to solve for any story that includes him as a protagonist, and the first time I saw The Avengers, I thought the film hadn’t quite solved it. Why is he all “SMASH BLACK WIDOW!” the first time he appears and then all “SMASH ONLY BAD GUYS AND CATCH IRON MAN AND GENERALLY HELP OUT!” the second time?

Then my friend Tashi suggested this interpretation to me: Banner’s revelation during the climactic battle (“I’m always angry”) indicates that he has figured out that suppressing his anger is the wrong way to go. So instead, he lives with it all the time so that it doesn’t blossom into rage, and tries to atone for his past damage by helping the helpless. (Boy, sounds Whedonishly familiar, doesn’t it?) He believes that he might be able to control “the other guy” now that he’s learned to live with his anger, but he’d rather not take the chance if he doesn’t have to.

Then he gets tangled up with the whole SHIELD thing. He finds himself aboard a massive airship — as he comments when it takes off, that’s a worse place for him to be than even a submarine. Loki’s whole plan is to get the Hulk to wreck everything once he’s aboard the Helicarrier. Well, that and also get Hawkeye to wreck everything from outside the Helicarrier. So, using the remote magic of the Nasty Pointy Spear Of Malefic Intent, he manipulates Banner’s mind (as indicated by the “put down the scepter” scene), weakening his mental control so that when Hawkeye strikes, the Hulk is in rampage mode rather than “I’m at peace with my anger” mode. Then, later, when Banner motors up for the final battle, he’s himself again, and can drive the beast enough to be a hero.

I love this explanation, and I think it’s supported by the film. It’s certainly better than anything Stan Lee figured out in the 60’s. His Hulk was constantly hunted, and his Banner was far from reconciled with his anger. (That is, once it was established that anger is what triggers the change. At first it was actually nightfall that did it, like a werewolf. The anger/stress thing set in pretty early, though.) He tried pills, and he tried locking himself away. He tried staying out of stressful situations. You can imagine how well all that worked out. The comics Hulk was often well-intentioned, but always misunderstood.

There wasn’t a trace in this movie of Thunderbolt Ross-esque anti-Hulkism — on the contrary, the government is looking for Banner to enlist his help, despite knowing he could potentially Hulk out. You don’t get much of that in the early comics, though they repeatedly attempted to cast the monster as a hero. In fact, he was even a charter member of the original Avengers… but he was out of there by the third issue. He’s really not much of a team player.

Homage and better
Having the Hulk be present for the founding of the movie Avengers is just one of the many lovely ways this film pays respect to its source material. Just as in the comics, Loki is intimately involved with the Avengers’ formation. Just as in the comics, the early Hawkeye and Black Widow are a couple, albeit one frequently beset by misfortune. Just as in the comics, the Avengers bicker and argue and crack wise, although the players and personalities are a bit different in the film from how they work in the original stories.

The movie is far from a literal recreation of those early Avengers issues. Instead, like the first Iron Man movie, it faithfully absorbs the spirit of the comics, but compresses, abridges, and enhances to make a coherent story that fits together like an exquisite puzzle. Thank you Joss, for mining the gold from an enormous vein, then shaping and polishing it so beautifully for us. And by the way, that really long sequence shot that went from hero to hero during the third act was JUST AWESOME. Mmmm, I think it’s time to see this movie again.

IF-Review: Cryptozookeeper

Here’s another entry in the series of 2012 XYZZY nominees game reviews: Robb Sherwin’s Cryptozookeeper. It’s the most Sherwin-esque Sherwin game I’ve yet seen. It’s gonzo, it’s funny, it’s extreme, and it’s shambolic, and it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen Robb accomplish, which means it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen anyone accomplish.

IF-Review: Six

IF-Review has published the second in my series reviewing all the Best Game XYZZY nominees of 2012. The game this time is Wade Clarke’s Six. I don’t think I’ve ever been so charmed by an IF game.

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.

Love in Las Vegas

Last year, I wrote about the Beatles album Love, an astonishingly brilliant mash-up of Beatles songs crafted by George and Giles Martin. That album is the soundtrack to a Cirque Du Soleil show of the same name, which appears in only one place in the world: the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Well, when I knew I would be going to Vegas, exactly a year after writing about Love for the first time, I seized the opportunity to see the show.

I’m finding the experience of the show very difficult to put into words. Here are the words I gave it in an email I sent that night:

Oh my god, I think it may have been the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t stop crying. Seriously, I must have cried through like 70% of it. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

Why? Well, a big part of it had to do with sound. I’ve never heard anything like the sound in that theater. They built the theater at the Mirage especially for this show. There are something like 6,000 speakers in it. Every seat has speakers embedded invisibly, including a speaker that faces the seat behind it. Hearing the incredible sound collage of Love in that theater… it feels like being inside the music. No, that’s not it. It felt like the music was inside me. I’ve been to plenty of concerts, including some where I was seated in the front row, directly in front of the band, hearing them play. This was different. The music was everywhere, not just in front of me, with pieces separated out — some close, some far, but all incredibly crisp and clear. It was perfect. It sounded perfect — like a sonic diamond. It would have been a moving experience just to sit in that theater and listen to the album, with no show at all.

But of course, there was a show. This was my first (and only) Cirque show, and it had what Cirque is known for: acrobatics, feats of daring, movements so graceful and gorgeous you can hardly believe they’re possible. “Humans in the service of beauty” should be their motto. And all of that was wonderful, and thrilling, but it wasn’t what was causing the tsunamis of emotion in me, or at least not in itself.

There was something remarkable, though, about seeing those movements synchronized with music that I love. Sometimes, the bodies on stage gave physical expression to the soaring, giddy feeling that was in me, inspired by a particular sound or lyric. Or a hopeful feeling, or a loving feeling, or sorrowful, or whatever. In a DVD extra to All Together Now, a documentary about the show, Yoko says, “Beatles were like acrobatics of the mind, and Cirque Du Soleil is the acrobatics of the body. When it comes together, it makes a kind of… something that’s whole.” She’s absolutely right. The other crucial quote from the film is from Dominic Champagne, director of the show: “You know, bodies go. George Harrison is dead, but we can really say that his spirit is with us, and we gave a body to that spirit. All together.”

It seems ridiculous to even try describing the various pieces of the show in any detail. It’s even worse than the old “dancing about architecture” bit, because the show is already dance, and theater, and art, about music. Not to mention, my powerful emotional reaction to it all makes me keep reaching for superlatives in a way that feels authentic to write, but I suspect is rather tedious to read.

So I’m not even going to try anything like a systematic recounting of the show, but instead just mention a few things that resonated intensely with me, and that remain strong memories of the show:

  • The kids: For whatever reason, I just did not expect there to be kids in this show. The way they were used just blew me away. Since becoming a parent, I’ve gotten rather softhearted about children as symbols. Consequently, seeing them sit in happy meditative poses in front of a huge ball of candles for “Here Comes The Sun”, or rocket towards the sky on a bed whose billowing sheet envelops the audience in dreamy atmospherics, or scramble through the rubble of the Blitz, was quite moving for me.
  • The imagery: Champagne calls the show “a rock and roll poem”, which aptly captures its astute use of imagery. Rather than just a greatest hits dance performance, or a musical homage, or, as I had originally imagined it, “a bunch of guys in tights, swinging from trapezes, forming human pyramids, and so forth”, the show is actually an evocation of some of the most important emotions woven into Beatles music. It does this with a deft use of images. Liverpool just after World War II — crumbling or destroyed brick edifices, exploded further by youthful energy. Groupies and Beatlemania — a girl with a dozen legs, frenetic in her movements. Longing and disappointment “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” — letters raining from the sky onto a solitary dancer. Lucy in the sky with diamonds — twinkling LED stars hang down everywhere, illuminating the swings and arcs of a trapeze artist.
  • The voices: I don’t just mean the singing, though that was breathtaking, especially the a capella voices of “Because.” But beyond that, at several points in the show, Beatle shadows are projected onto screens or hanging muslin, and they move in sync with recordings of the Beatles talking, from studio sessions or casual chatter. Combined with the amazing sound quality, this produced an amazing feeling of intimacy, like you were right there with them. It was an especially wonderful surprise because those sounds are not included on the album.

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that if The Beatles hold a special and sacred place in your heart, as they do for me, Las Vegas has just become your Mecca. You must go there and experience Love in that theater, at least once in your life. I don’t know that everyone else will feel what I felt, though if you love the Beatles I suspect you will. For me, it was elevation, suffused with spiritual transcendence and love. If there’s such a thing as heaven, I hope it feels like that.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the net

On the very occasional occasions when I write some stuff on other sites, I try to mention it here. So…

I’ve just written a couple of Amazon reviews: one for the new Melissa Etheridge album, and one for an out-of-print book of quotations. Writing a review of an out-of-print book may be the very definition of pointless.

Also, while I’m much more of a Facebooker than a Tweeter, there was a meme on Twitter recently I just couldn’t resist. The game was called “#rockretractions” — basically, the voice of a song revising what it originally said. I tried my hand.

My favorite one that I wish I’d written was, “On the other hand, I may be right and you may be crazy.” Also, while I’m quoting things that made me laugh, another recent meme on Twitter was, for some reason, “#namesfortinywhales.” Perhaps it was just localized to a few people I follow. Anyway, my friend Iain wrote “wee frilly”, and it’s been periodically cracking me up ever since.

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.

The Beatles — Love


I have to confess, the whole Love thing completely passed me by. I vaguely heard, four years ago or so, that Cirque du Soleil was doing some Beatles tribute show. Because I’ve never seen a Cirque show, and because my imagination has been stunted by television and video games, all I can picture is a bunch of guys in tights, swinging from trapezes, forming human pyramids, and so forth. To Beatles music. I yawn, and move on.

Then my friend Trrish made a special trip to Las Vegas to see the show, and told me a bit more about the way the music worked, and I was intrigued enough to pick up the album. And now that I’ve listened to it ten times in a row and had my mind completely BLOWN, I have to write about it, and I have to evangelize it to everybody I know who loves the Beatles. So I will gladly acknowledge the gooniness of gushing over an album 4 years after it comes out, just because it happened to take me that long to get around to it. It’s like writing a bunch of breathless blog posts about Buffy The Vampire Slayer in 2006, 3 years after it was cancelled. Which, y’know, I also did. So I guess this sort of thing is really my stock in trade nowadays.

If you’re way out of the loop like me, let me tell you a little about this album. It’s the soundtrack to the Cirque show, yes. But more importantly, it’s an exquisite, loving collage of Beatles sounds, made by people who have the music in their DNA: George Martin and his son Giles. They take the songs and pull apart their elements, mixing them together ingeniously, so that a solo from one song might float through the intro of another, fading smoothly into a third. Every sound on the record (with one exception, which I’ll discuss later) is from a Beatles recording. Sometimes the songs stand on their own for a while, sometimes the mixtures are subtle, and sometimes they jump out and grab you by the throat.

The sound is uniformly fantastic. I’ve never heard the songs sound better, even (or, perhaps, especially) when they’re not mixed up. Listening to this CD is an enormously thrilling experience if you have the music deeply engraved in your brain like I do. Seriously, if you love the Beatles, and you haven’t heard this album, stop reading right now, buy it, listen to it, and then come back. I’ll be here. You probably want to experience it fresh. I recommend headphones.

And just so you know, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing in an album review:

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 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!”

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