AN: Please give us a brief background on yourself and your interest in IF.
JM: My background is really quite typical for an IFer, almost depressingly so. I am a child of the eighties who grew up playing Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, Telarium, etc., games on my Commodore 64 and Amiga computers. My first IF ever was Hitchhiker’s, which I received from my wonderful parents on Christmas Day, 1984, right at the peak of Infocom’s (and, arguably, IF’s) commercial fortunes. Just as many others in the community probably do, I still feel a palpable rush of nostalgia every time I see one of those old Infocom gray boxes. For a child like me, the experience that Infocom promised, to become an active participant in the sort of fantasy and science fiction stories I loved, was appealing to a degree I don’t even know how to express. There is a saying that the golden age of science fiction is twelve. In my case, the same applies to IF. I feel that old sense of wonder every time I fire up a new game to see what sort of adventure it will offer me. Perhaps IF will keep me young.
Infocom’s demise coincided, more coincidentally then synergistically, with certain changes in my own life that left me spending somewhat less time in front of the computer and much less time playing games there. In short, I got older, came out of my nerdly shell a bit, and found there was a life worth exploring on my side of the computer monitor. I retained fond memories of Infocom and the other companies whose games I loved, but probably didn’t pick up a single game, old or new, for a good six or seven years. Then, around 2000, prompted by nostalgia or just an idle whim, I did a search for Infocom on the Internet and started to explore the results. I of course almost immediately learned that a dynamic if small group of people had not only gone to great lengths to preserve Infocom’s legacy, but were actively furthering it with new work of their own. It really did feel like coming home.
For the first few years I was the veritable definition of the passive lurker. I consumed the Infocom catalog all over again, then moved on to other companies of the commercial era and the best of the modern community’s work. When I finally felt reasonably caught up, I began to ease myself into a more active role, posting my thoughts occasionally and writing a review here and there. This felt good. (To all you lurkers out there: Don’t wait as long as I did. It doesn’t take much to contribute, and it will make you feel so good about yourself. This magazine needs reviews, SPAG needs reviews, etc. You don’t have to be a programmer or a literary genius to make a real contribution to the form we all love and to encourage its survival and growth. With no commercial distribution model, we are literally all in this together.) I also began to work on a Z-Machine interpreter of my own, partly because I found none of the existing Windows interpreters entirely to my taste and partly because it seemed like such a perfect project, big and ambitious enough to be challenging, but modest enough to not overwhelm.
AN: How did you come to be editor of SPAG?
JM: I was as surprised as anyone, actually. I had written a few reviews for SPAG, posted a bit in the newsgroups, and finally gotten around to publicly releasing Filfre, my interpreter, but was hardly a prominent community member when Paul O’Brian asked if I was interested in the job. He had a baby on the way and felt that after some six years as editor it was time to pass the reins to someone else, and he obviously saw something in my work that he thought would make me a good choice for the job. I was first shocked, then honored, then a bit daunted, but accepted in the end. I’m glad I did.
AN: What do you see is your mission as editor?
JM: First of all, I don’t want to screw up. For the first two or three issues, this was probably my guiding mantra, actually. SPAG has been around a long, long time in Internet terms. It pre-dates even the first IF Competition that many would point to as the real birth of the community we know and (hopefully) love today. I was and am acutely aware of the place SPAG has always held in the community, and want to continue its tradition of providing balanced, informative feedback to authors and players alike.
Now that I am more comfortable in the position, I can look at other things. I feel like a bit of an IF evangelist at times. I fervently reject the retro-gaming label, and feel that this stuff would be of interest to a larger public. I would love it if others in literary as well as gaming circles could engage with IF through SPAG. I have, however, by no means figured out how to accomplish that.
AN: What tangible changes have you tried to implement there?
JM: Well, the site that existed when I took the magazine over was probably cutting edge in 1994, but was an ugly, awkward mess in 2005. It perhaps had value as a time capsule of the early days of the World Wide Web, but that is hardly the image I want to promote for IF today. So I immediately started thinking about a new design, but my life is hectic, and so thoughts were all I generated for quite a long time. Early this year, though, a very talented gentleman named Felix Plesoianu stepped forward to help. Felix over the course of several months conceptualized and then implemented the site as it exists now. My role was largely confined to saying yes or no to Felix’s ideas, and to throwing out the occasional "wouldn’t it be cool if you could…" We finally rolled the new site out last summer, to generally very favorable reaction. There is much more I would like to do with it, but it is certainly a vast improvement over the old site even now.
AN: Do you feel you’ve been successful?
JM: Everything tends to take longer than I would like because I have so many other commitments on my time and probably more passions than is good for me. But overall, I think I have made a good start, and hope to continue from here at a steady, if hardly lightning, pace. The tortoise and the hare and all that.
AN: In AIF, non-player character interactions are the primary interest for players and authors. That’s often the case in IF as well. What attributes, in your experience, do you think makes for strong NPC’s?
JM: I don’t know that we’ve ever really seen a strong IF NPC, and there’s the rub. We’ve seen some pretty well drawn characters in their way, but mostly they succeed as characters because their authors find some way to limit the opportunities players really have to explore their (lack of) interactivity. (See next question.)
The thing is about character interaction is, it’s hard. It is perhaps an obvious point, but it’s one I can’t emphasize enough. We’ve been pretty good at simulating all of the inanimate aspects of the universe in IF for quite a long time now. Adventure had the basics down, and Infocom had refined it pretty well by the time they brought Zork to home computers. Adventure and Zork have the perfect structure for IF from a technician’s point of view. A solitary adventurer solving a series of physical puzzles and collecting treasures plays to the form’s technical strengths perfectly. There is a reason why so many games since have chosen this same rather hackneyed premise… or why it seems that about half of the graphical adventures ever released follow the Myst model, for that matter.
Infocom’s first non-Zork effort was the mystery Deadline. Deadline raised the bar enormously over Zork, not only in its literary objectives but in the technical challenge involved in achieving those objectives. A fairly lengthy discussion of Deadline can be found in Chapter 5 of Let’s Tell a Story Together, so I won’t go into that game’s strengths and weaknesses here, other than to say that its ambition still makes it a fascinating play today, even as its many failings continue to frustrate. Deadline has quite a number of well-characterized NPCS, but they are coded as nothing more than more sophisticated objects in the gameworld. This makes them feel to the player like exactly what they are: automatons. Robots, inexorably following their programming. In the years since, we have created even more sophisticated behaviors for our robots, and added the ability to "ask" and "tell" about more stuff. I really like the conversation model of TADS 3, and feel that as implemented in "Return to Ditch Day" and Eric Eve’s two recent efforts in that language it comes the closest I have yet seen to being truly satisfying. But let’s face it, we are still not fooling anyone for long. I don’t mean to trivialize the work the modern community has done to refine Infocom’s model. It is significant, but in the end evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
So, a lot of people much smarter than me have wrestled with this problem and come up with (at best) only partial solutions. This is frustrating. David Lebling once said in an interview that his sorrow at Infocom’s demise was mixed with frustration at never being able to solve this particular problem. Still today, the best we can do is try to mask our shortcomings through various clever stratagems.
It’s a problem that seems well-nigh insolvable, yet it is one that I think we must solve if IF is ever to really bloom as literature. Characters are after all the very heart of most great fiction. I don’t know what the solution is, obviously, or I would be acting on this knowledge. I don’t even know if a solution does exist. I do think, though, that we have pretty conclusively proven that our current method of creating NPCs as essentially "super-objects" is not going to get us there. Perhaps it is time for (to use an overworked phrase) a paradigm shift, time to approach the problem in a brand new way. I would encourage everyone interested in this issue to take a look at Chris Crawford’s approach to interactive storytelling. Crawford’s self-aggrandizement can get a bit tedious, and there are many problems with the model he has so far articulated, as Emily Short pointed out in her response to Crawford’s recent book. Still, some of Crawford’s ideas may just provide a way forward, or at least the opportunity to fail in an interesting, novel way, which is the next best thing to success... and a possible stepping stone thereto.
AN: In what way do powerful IF NPC’s differ from, say, great characters in a novel?
JM: Not to be facetious, but the answer is obviously that they are interactive. So, they must be memorable, original, believable, and all those other hallmarks of good literary characters, but also believably interactive. A fair number of very good writers have worked in IF, and have achieved the former on a fairly regular basis. When interactivity begins, though, the illusion breaks down.
AN: In your paper on the history of IF, you addressed all of AIF in one paragraph. You wrote, "Most [AIF] are of frankly horrid quality in both their prose and their technical merits, often still being written in the hopelessly outdated AGT." and that "The AIF community is evidently happy with its status quo, though, for it has so far shown little motivation to improve its work."
I’d be considered remiss by my readers if I didn’t take you to task for this. The mission of this newsletter is to dispel those stereotypes and also to make those stereotypes less true by improving AIF quality (and I’m in agreement that there is some horrid AIF out there, but there’s also some horrid IF).
I can’t fault you for not playing AIF - it certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste - but you may have talked to some of us before writing something so dismissive, and, to be direct, untrue. For example, there hasn’t been an AIF game written in AGT since 2002, and even that game was an aberration, since it had been three years since the previous AGT game was released.
JM: Okay. You have some fair points, so let me respond to them before addressing your specific questions. When I put the Let’s Tell a Story Together online, I knew that it must inevitably contain many sins of both omission and commission. That is why I asked for feedback and corrections from everyone inclined to provide them. A fairly gratifying number of people have done just that, and I have already updated the work a couple of times to reflect this. You, who are certainly in a position to know, have just corrected my statement about AGT and AIF, and I thank you for that. I will update the work accordingly in due time, and apologize for the inaccuracy. And yes, my research into your community did perhaps leave much to be desired. So, I say to you and all your readers, help me out, and tell me what the world at large should know about your community. Better yet, point me to some sources. I only ask that you keep in mind that AIF will remain essentially an anecdote within my main history. It is indeed, I am afraid, not really to my taste, at least as I understand its current state, and life is too short to spend large amounts of time on things that don’t really interest us. A detailed history and critical overview of AIF may be a very valid and worthwhile project. It just isn’t something I, personally, am inclined to take up.
Now, as far as my "dismissive" attitude toward the general quality of AIF… I can’t just take your word on a subjective judgment like this in the way I can with statements of simple fact. I will, however, make you an offer. Name three works of AIF, chosen by yourself or your readers, that you feel to be of quality. I will play them and give them a fair hearing in a future issue of SPAG, perhaps the very next issue if you can respond fast enough. It actually will make for quite an interesting article that will benefit both communities. And, if my judgment is swayed by my first-hand experience with AIF, I will of course update Let’s Tell a Story Together accordingly.
AN: So, having heard my rant, can you suggest any strategies the AIF community could follow that would help dispel some of the negative stereotypes? For instance, do you feel it would be useful to cross-load the AIF library to the IF Archive?
JM: Well, to be honest, I think you are fighting a bit of an uphill battle here. I guess the first thing to ask yourself is just what you really want AIF to be. Traditionally, the term has referred to textual pornography (or erotica, if you prefer that term). If your goal is to continue in this vein, but just making better pornography, that is fine… but I don’t see you ever getting much acceptance within the mainstream community. I will throw out a couple of seemingly random facts to chew on. 1) The Netflix online DVD rental service offers virtually every DVD in print to its customers. Only one type of movie is excluded: pornography. 2) In your local bookstore, you will probably find that erotica is given in its own section away from all other fiction. What I’m getting to here is that society at large has clearly decided that pornography is unique from other genres, and has segregated it away accordingly. Why should we who enjoy IF be any different?
I think the best definition of pornography is as works whose primary purpose is titillation. Since this is an AIF newsletter and we are presumably free and open here, I can be more blunt, and say that if most of the consumers of a product are using it (at least on occasion) as a masturbation aid or to enhance sex with their partner(s), it is probably pornography. Pornography thus has an obvious problem when considered as art. When the primary purpose of a work is titillation, everything else – plot, character, setting, even all too often technical polish – tends to get shorter shrift. Chances are, a movie that is great pornography is not a great film, for instance.
But maybe pornography is not what you want AIF to be? Maybe you want to tell compelling interactive stories that happen to contain sexual content, or that are even mostly about sex? If that is the case, come join us in the mainstream community. I am not a prude, and I don’t think most of us are. We don’t write about sex much because it drives us headlong into the whole NPC question that we still haven’t solved. (The old cliché about the really important sexual organ being the brain definitely applies here.) If you can rise to the challenge and create a truly believable sexual relationship, though, more power to you. If you can make it erotic in the process, bravo.
In short, if AIF is porn it will always remain somewhat marginalized and disreputable, just like all other forms of pornography. You may consider this an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but that’s the way human society is in 2006, and I don’t think it will change anytime soon. If AIF is not pornography, on the other hand, there is no need for a separate community to even exist. We’re happy to take you in.
AN: You also wrote to me that you feel that AIF has mostly "…static NPCs with lots of fully functioning sexual bits attached…." The ‘functioning sexual bits attached’ part seems almost a base requirement because IF languages (aside from ADRIFT) are object-oriented. Perhaps rule-based Inform 7 will change that. In any case, do you see any strategies for authors to reduce that ‘collection of parts’ impression that comes across?
JM: The first question to ask is whether you want to change the "collection of parts" aspect of AIF. After all, video pornography and even most literary erotica are essentially about body parts in contact with other body parts. If a textual simulation of a porno movie is your goal, you might very well be on the right track already. I’m not certain I have enough experience with or interest in either form of pornography to really judge.
If you want to achieve something more than, or at least (lest I sound too prejudicial) different from, that, you have chosen a much more difficult task for yourself. See some of my other responses to understand what daunting problems I think you have let yourself in for.
AN: You are the author of Let's Tell a Story Together (A History of Interactive Fiction) How did you come to write it?
JM: A long, long time after I finished high school, I finally enrolled in university in the summer of 2000. I continued to work full-time, so progress was slow, but at the end of last year I was finally facing my last semester before graduating with a BA in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. My GPA was good enough that I could graduate magna cum laude if I did a project. I knew that I wanted to write about IF, as I was getting more and more interested in pursuing new media studies at the graduate level. In addition to being a personal passion of mine, IF seemed an understudied form and an excellent way to begin to make a name for myself in academia. I was able to convince one Dr. John Barber to become my thesis advisor. I proceeded to churn out one chapter per week through the spring of 2006, by far the most exhausting writing pace I have ever managed. John turned out to be not just an excellent advisor but also an excellent friend, carefully reading and critiquing each chapter as it was created and offering invaluable advice about my possible future in academia. When the thing was finally finished, John and his wife Dene Gregar even invited me to give a brief talk on IF at that spring’s Computers and Writing Conference at Texas Tech University. Now I am a graduate student in the Arts and Technology program at UTD, where I hope to continue to make IF a central part of my research portfolio.
AN: What primary sources did you use?
JM: I don’t want to diminish my reputation as an IF historian, but I have to admit that there is little or nothing really new in the essay. What I really hoped to do was synthesize the large amount of raw data floating around on the Internet into a coherent, readable narrative of IF’s evolution from primitive, formative works to the present state of the art. I hope I succeeded in this.
One of the most gratifying aspects of the thesis was receiving unsolicited emails from ex-Infocommies Steve Meretzky, Bob Bates, and Tim Anderson expressing approval of my work. All suggested corrections, which I of course quickly acted upon, but I was very happy to find that all felt that I had gotten the essential history of Infocom right. Quite a few others also offered their help. I am particularly grateful to Graham Nelson for his chapter by chapter comments and suggestions, prepared even as he was in the midst of the madness of Inform 7’s initial release.
AN: Did you attempt to find a print publisher to pick it up? If so, what kind of reaction did you get?
JM: I did think about it, but in the end decided to put it online instead. The only publishers likely to be interested in an esoteric pursuit like IF would probably be academic presses, and (oddly enough for a senior honors thesis) I’m not sure that Let’s Tell a Story Together is quite "academic" enough in tone to meet their expectations. This was by intention, as Nick Monfort has already covered the academic angle quite well with Twisty Little Passages, but it did limit my traditional publishing options somewhat.
I still think putting it online was the right decision. It has made the work available to many who would never find it in some obscure university library, and has allowed me to update it quickly when I find I have screwed something up. It will also allow me to continue to add to it as events happen in the present and as I learn new facts about the past. I am serious about making Let’s Tell a Story Together a living document, an ongoing chronicle of IF.
AN: Aside from your ongoing work at SPAG, what IF-related projects can we expect from you?
JM: Lately I have been working quite a lot on my Windows Z-Machine interpreter, Filfre. I decided I wanted to add support for the Glulx virtual machine, which sort of opened up a can of worms. I found that the only practical way to support Glulx was to rewrite everything. I had made too many Z-Machine-centric decisions, you see. But the source was a horrible mess anyway, as this had very much been a "learn as I go" project, so I actually kind of welcomed the opportunity to clean it up. So now I almost have a complete Z-Machine interpreter again, at which point I can start working on Glulx support. Progress is sometimes slowed by the fact that I am not an experienced Windows programmer and am often stymied by things that someone like, say, David Kinder would hardly have to even think about. But it is fun, and it keeps me out of trouble, and having begun the project I want to complete it. There is nothing like the satisfaction of finishing what you start, after all.
I am considering some possible IF applications within my university studies, but nothing I am really prepared to speak publicly about yet. And I really want to write a game, and have what I think is a pretty good idea for one. Maybe next year. And then I have other demands on my time, like a job, and my aforementioned studies, and a wonderful girlfriend who means more to me than everything else combined. Life is full, but that is as it should be.
AN: Thanks for participating. Your candor is greatly appreciated.
JM: Thank you for some great, challenging questions. It’s been fun.
You can find Jimmy Maher’s work at the following web sites: SPAG (http://sparkynet.com/spag/) and the Jimmy Maher Home Page (http://home.grandecom.net/~maher/).