Open Sorcery & the power of text

May 1st, 2017 1:00 PM
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In the course of producing my IndieSider podcast, I discover a variety of surprising, fascinating indie games. Wading through tons of clones and me-toos is worth it when I find a game that refines an old concept or executes something new — or both.

Such is the case with Open Sorcery, a Twine-based interactive fiction Steam game that replaces text adventures' traditional parser with hypertext and links. I saw Open Sorcery at two different game conventions before I finally got some one-on-one time with it at home. I ended up playing far longer than I do more visually complex games, growing attached to the characters and replaying it to get a "better" ending.

I was surprised — not that text can be so engaging, but that I'd ever forgotten it could be. I grew up on the Apple II playing text adventures and MUDs, from Eamon to British Legends, exploring worlds of fantasy and science fiction and getting lost in their puzzles and decisions. When away from the computer, I filled my time with Choose Your Own Adventure and Endless Quest. With text leaving so many gaps for my imagination to fill, it was easy to inject myself into those adventures.

It was wonderful to rediscover the power of text, as described by Richard Bartle in this excerpt from Jason Scott's documentary, GET LAMP:

Modern-day shooters may strive for adjectives such as "gripping" and "compelling"; the best words I can use to describe Open Sorcery are "thoughtful" and "delightful". I highly recommend it.

Cliff Spohn's Art of Apple

April 3rd, 2017 9:47 AM
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Like many of my generation, I got my start in gaming on an Atari console. The Atari 2600 was home to countless classic games, from Adventure to Indiana Jones to the notorious E.T. Whereas my Apple II had games that came on unremarkably labeled floppy disks, Atari's games sported works of art on their boxes and labels, evoking worlds of excitement and intrigue far beyond the console's ability to render.

The history, process, and impact of this art is detailed in a new book, The Art of Atari, released in October 2016. This hardcover coffee-table book features gorgeous blow-ups of published Atari creations, as well as concept art and early drafts. Many of the original artists were interviewed about their inspirations and workflows.

One such artist is Cliff Spohn, who gets a two-page profile on pages 70–71. Accompanying this spread is a piece of art that is decidedly un-Atari. Its caption: "Spohn's illustration for an early Apple Computer manual. His artwork was personally commissioned by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs."

I'm unsure where this art would've originally been published; the only references to it that I can find on Google refer back to this very book. According to Spohn's website, he "also did Apple's first one or two instruction booklet covers", but I don't recall having seen this artwork before, either.

UPDATE: Will Scullin cites this art as appearing on Jef Raskin's Apple II BASIC Programming Manual, and Sean McNamara has proof:

Nonetheless, Spohn's legacy could be felt even in recent years of Apple media. Spohn writes that "demand for my kind of illustration was and is slowly disappearing". But Apple II enthusiasts may remember that the style of Spohn and his contemporaries inspired the art for the Jason Scott documentary GET LAMP, as illustrated by Lukas Ketner.

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

GET LAMP art by Lukas Ketner

Atari was the proving ground for many early computer pioneers, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Let's remember the geniuses like Cliff Spohn that made them look good, too.

(Hat tip to Susan Arendt)

The music of interactive fiction

July 29th, 2013 10:40 AM
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Juiced.GS has just shipped a PDF on the subject of interactive fiction. At 14 pages long, it's a digestible yet diverse tour of the various aspects of modern IF. Once you've loaded the file onto your e-reader of choice and settled into your study's reading chair, the only component missing is some background music to set the mood.

Enter Tony Longworth. The musician whose work has previously appeared in such documentaries as Get Lamp and Going Cardboard has released a new album, Memories of Infocom. "These pieces of music will transport you from ancient empires, to crime scenes, to outer space and beyond", the album's description states. "This album captures the magic of those heady days of Interactive Fiction, so sit back and let yourself be transported to the 80s when text was king." The dozen tracks can be purchased for a dollar each or $9.99 for the lot, which clocks in at 57:55.

Memories of Infocom

Despite having often written about text adventures for Juiced.GS and this blog, I am not personally acquainted with many Infocom games, sadly. So although the songs have titled such as "Enchanter" and "Planetfall", I can't say how those games may have inspired these tunes, or how pairing them might prove a complementary experience. But if you like ambient/background/electronic music and want to support a fellow retrogaming enthusiast, then check out these tunes.

(Hat tip to Lorien Green)

Spelunking the history of Adventure

May 26th, 2011 10:25 AM
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Get Lamp, Jason Scott's documentary on the history of text adventures is interactive fiction, is comprehensive, spanning two DVDs and multiple episodes.

But it doesn't cover everything, nor should it: any published work has to retain its focus or else spiral out of control, losing everyone's interest along the way. Fortunately, as with everything else in life, for that which we want to know more about, there's the Internet.

Most impressive is Julian Dibbell's 5,000+ words dissertation on the life and times of Stephen Bishop, a slave in pre-Civil War Kentucky. That doesn't sound like a text adventure tale, but it is in fact the origin of Colossal Cave. Bishop was assigned the role of tour guide of Mammoth Cave, the cavern that served as the basis for the original text adventure. Bishop wasn't merely a spelunker, though, but an imaginative and empathetic storyteller who brought the cave to life with the creative names and yarns he spun for his tourists. Consider this example:

Bishop made the most of this ability to size people up, making sure all comers got the spectacle they felt they'd paid for. Most were easily satisfied; others came hungry to explore uncharted cave. Bishop catered to them all, at times bringing the more adventurous along with him on his discoveries — at others, apparently, letting them think they were discovering territory he had in fact already surveyed. As expert as he was in exploring, in other words, he was expert, too, in delivering what was then a novel sort of product but is now known familiarly (to students of latemodern marketing culture, anyway) as the commodified experience.

A map of the entire Colossal Cave, courtesy Mari Michaelis.Those qualities could be just as easily ascribed to Will Crowther, who, almost 150 years later, also brought people to Colossal Cave, except in digital form. Having previously been married to the woman with whom he'd explored Mammoth Cave, the place naturally held memories that made it difficult to revisit after the divorce. With his introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, Crowther thought he might meld his two pastimes into a new game he could play with his children. Thus was born Colossal Cave.

Dibbell's work is a brilliant and sweeping narrative, reminding us of the recurring themes of exploration and imagination throughout humanity's history, how unrelated threads can weave together, and how much older are stories are than we often realize. It's well worth the time of any gamer or historian — or just anyone who can appreciate an engrossing story.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Beyond GET LAMP

August 19th, 2010 12:55 PM
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If there was ever a year to attend KansasFest, 2010 was it. Besides a fantastic keynote by former Beagle Bros president Mark Simonsen and the triumphant return of Bite the Bag, every attendee received a free copy of Jason Scott's two-DVD text adventure documentary, GET LAMP. How cool is that?

Scott's work has made interactive fiction into a hot topic, with plenty of buzz around the net. Episode #8 of the video podcast Gameshelf (iTunes) looks briefly at modern incarnations of the genre, including where to play it online for free without needing an emulator or interpreter, with recommendations of specific beginner games, such as Dreamhold. In the Gameshelf episode, you can see an Apple II at 1:33, just after watching an awkward gameplay session of Action Castle, the live-action text adventure that was played at KansasFest 2010's Friday night banquet.

A melding of Scott's two interests, text adventures and dial-up BBSs, can be found in the game Digital: A Love Story, available for free on Mac, Windows, and Linux. The game tells a narrative in the form of a dial-up bulletin board, which was largely a lost medium in the life of the game's young creator, Christine Love. Scott interviewed her this summer about her work researching and creating the game.

There's more that can be said about text adventures than can fit in any one blog post or even one documentary, so expect this topic to be revisited time and again here and elsewhere. And if you still haven't seen GET LAMP, it may be coming to a city near you.

(Hat tip to Taking Inventory)

Grilling Jason Scott

July 26th, 2010 12:07 PM
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I heard of BBS: The Documentary before I knew of Jason Scott. I reviewed the film for my first issue as editor of Apple II publication Juiced.GS and thought a good follow-up would be to interview its creator. My first interview with Jason ran in December 2006, though it wasn't until the inaugural ROFLCon in April 2008 that I got to meet the man himself. I found him colorful, knowledgeable, opinionated — and, most of all, passionate. He's somebody I found worth keeping tabs on, which is why Computerworld publishes my second interview with him today, the week that his second film, GET LAMP, debuts. Less than half of what Jason and I discussed fit into Computerworld's print edition, just like the "PAX cut" of his film shown at KansasFest was only an excerpt of his larger work. Fortunately in the latter case, the final product will be shipped free to all KansasFest 2010 attendees by the end of next month. I can't wait to review Jason's latest accomplishment for Juiced.GS.

Jason Scott at KansasFest 2009

It is actually not typical for this keynote speaker to put his audience to sleep.

I have not sought to complete my familiarity with Jason's non-cinematic productions, so it was by happenstance that I recently stumbled across an MP3 recording of "Apple II Pirate Lore", a presentation he gave in 2003:

[This is an] overview of the Apple II Piracy Community of the early to mid 1980's, presented at the 5th Rubi-Con Conference in Detroit Michigan. Subjects covered include the unique aspects of the Apple II microcomputer architecture and culture, the methods of removing copy protection from software packages of the Apple II, and a very large helping of trivia. To illustrate some aspects of the "crack screens" and other Apple II graphics, an Apple II clone and several programs were provided. Speech delivered on March 29, 2003.

The file is almost exactly 46 minutes in length and discusses the stratification and traditions of early computer users and hackers. What generalizations can we make about Apple II users, and what motivated some of its users to become hackers? What language and practices existed within that subset of users? Jason delivers his speech eloquently while using but not relying on visuals, making his presentation surprisingly effective as an audio-only recording.

Most important to me, this presentation clarifies why Jason made a great keynote speaker at KansasFest 2009. Sure, Apple II users are part of a broader retrocomputing community of which Jason is a member — but his experience with the Apple II is personal and memorable. This small bit of knowledge quickly transformed my perception of him from that of an outsider to that of a peer.

When interviewing Jason about GET LAMP for Computerworld, he told me, "A lot of my stuff was slow-simmering and is now coming to a boil." I'm glad to see the fruition of more of his work, because I know the Apple II community to which be belongs will benefit.