Wednesday, February 6, 2013

F**k that noise

I’m not entirely satisfied with the state of IF these days. It bothers me that some herald Inform as the only reasonable choice for IF authors, as enough Inform has enough elements that rub me the wrong way that it basically says authors like myself really have no choice.

Most IF “historians” will admit that the golden age of the IF
renaissance was something like 1998-2002. Lots of great games were released by dozens of talented authors. IF seemed to have unlimited potential, and the community, while often disagreeing, got along.

Somewhere along the way, though, we lost a lot of our fire. The IF newsgroups lost the lively discussion that made it worthwhile to put up with the ever-increasing spam. People drifted away.

It’s a relatively useless exercise, but I sometimes wonder where we went wrong. This post
will cover my thoughts on this issue.

  1. The Political Landscape Changed
    In 1999, George Bush was elected President, and in 2001, there was the September 11th attack. For a lot of us liberal-leaning creative types, the world became a much less fun place, as we wondered just how bad Bush was going to screw things up. It took a lot out of our creative sails.
    Likelihood: Hard to say
  2. Life Just Went OnThe Golden Age caught a lot of people at the same time in their lives. Many were still students; some were making early strides in their respective fields. The thing is, time goes on. People graduate, people have babies, work becomes more encompassing. The Golden Age was just very lucky timing.

    Likelihood: Admittedly, this one will be the most likely of all the things I mention today.
  3. The Internet Became More Interesting/DistractingThere was a time when almost every person I knew through IF had moved on to escape-the-room Flash game type sites like Maybe all it took was a shiny bauble like that to steal momentum away. Then, some years later, you had things like Youtube and social media sites adding even more distraction to the net, diluting the hobbyist attention.

    Likelihood: Probably? Maybe?
  4. Too Self Aware?Adam Cadre's Endless, Nameless makes some nice implications that the IF community was overrun by critics. Maybe too much effort was spent on disparaging design flaws instead of encouraging the craft. Alternatively, maybe too much emphasis was put on acknowledging successes so that the absence of such was too deafening.
    Likelihood: Who knows?
  5. IF Competition Promoted One Type of Game At Detriment To Other Types
    The IF Comp is a great thing, but it's true that its games get way more attention than games released outside-of-comp. That means that longer, more-involved games just don't get the same attention.

    Likelihood: Well, actually, I don't think this one is so likely. I mean, the over-importance of competition games was already a concern back then, but a lot of the best games from the Golden Age were competition games. Still, I think this contributed to people who enjoy old-school sensibilities feeling more excluded as the comp skewered more new-school.
  6.  IF Tools Didn't Keep Pace With Technological AdvancesInform 7 and TADS may have cool GUIs these days, but IF languages, in general, are slow to add multimedia capabilities as new formats become available. Of course, the most frustrating part of this problem is that most of us are at the mercy of the tool-creators.

    Likelihood: While it'd always be nice if this or that were easier/more powerful, the first step of being an artist is not waiting around for the perfect tools but using what you have at hand. While, in general, I'm disappointed with how IF technology has progressed, it's dumb to blame the tools for lulls in progress.
  7. The Application Landscape ChangedIF went from something you played in a full-screen (or most of it) to something that plays in a smaller and smaller window as displays got larger and hip interpreters like Gargoyle defaulted to insanely small window sizes. Maybe there's an argument to be made that there's a psychological effect for how much screen real estate you give to something? Plus, what demanded your sole attention before now is shared with several other windows. Maybe we have diminished our own hobby.

    There's also the browser issue. It seems that a lot of people play their IF in browsers these days. I can't even keep straight which online terps allow saving, but I know at least one of them only allows one save spot. Of course, this is going to have a limiting effect on how one can design his game. Personally, I think the browser-players are wrong, but that's just me.

    Likelihood: Personally, I think that in rebelling against '90s sensibilities and trying to make everything look hip and awesome, we have forgotten that the old ugly way was good in its own way for getting shit done. Maybe that's just me.
  8. The New-School Ideals Sunk UsPhotopia was definitely a game-changer. A lot of people interpreted it as tacit permission to release games with no puzzles, something which other people have vocally supported. That's all good and fine, but I feel that it also left the door open for the crazies. We had trolls like Jacek P. who supposedly saw the potential of IF-as-literature but would bother us for years since no game was ever good enough (ironically, he reserved his most pointed hatred for games like Photopia that were closest to the ideal).

    Also, writing a new-school game is a lot more work than an old-school game. You are expected to have a fitting response to nearly everything, so besides the never-satisfied narrative critics, you have to please the simulationists.

    Maybe the old-school was bane to the worst of the trolls (of course, somebody might use Panks as an counter-argument, but he wasn't really a troll). Maybe the new-school made IF too much like a creative writing class, where it's just hard, in general, to have enthusiasm for other people's writing.

    Likelihood: This point is probably too intangible to be of any use. No matter how you approach it, writing IF is hard.
  9. We Have Traded Cool Features For ConvenienceThe IF landscape today is very much the result of certain visions- much of them by Andrew Plotkin. There's glk which popular interpreters like Gargoyle uses, and the blorb package which fits Inform great but is slightly uncomfortable for everyone else. It feels like we spent more time in the naughts figuring out ways to strip color, font effects, and multimedia out of games instead of figuring out ways to put them in.

    Sure, tools like Vorpel allow Inform users to inject multimedia into their games, but it requires enough Javascript knowledge that I'm guessing that the people who will be able to use it are the same people who could practically write their own games in Javascript anyway.

    Of course, part of the problem is that many of the dissenters to zarf's vision gave up when he didn't incorporate their ideas. The IF community probably could have used more branches and more options, even if people who have done so have historically caught very little attention.

    I mean, even Inform 6 wasn't so readable that I don't see why someone else didn't write a language that compiles to the z-machine. It's a lot of work, sure, but we had a lot of motivated crazies back then to do such a thing.

    My point is, maybe the streamlining of design made us lose some of the elements of IF that made it "pop."

    Likelihood: I dunno. This is another intangible thing, I guess. Anyhow, I feel like we could be further along on this issue, but I should probably take a look at other freeware game (graphic adventure, rpgs, whatever) creation systems to see if they have made the strides in useability and capabilities that I'm expecting from IF. Maybe it's just not out there.

Last Thoughts

So, if any of these things are true, what does it matter and what can be done? My main point is, I think IF is an ever-evolving beast, and it frustrates me to see people (especially non-authors who consider cheerleading Inform as a form of being invested in IF) disparage other IF languages, as none of them are perfect yet. While not-writing-your-own-IF-language is mostly good advice, it also can't be said that there's absolutely no merit to reinventing the wheel. IF could probably still use some fresh perspectives. People thought the ADRIFT and Quest guys were crazy for starting new systems, but other than Inform, they have among the greatest new-user rates.

To this day, there are Inform games that are released with ugly-ass menus and status bars. I'm doing what I can to make Hugo better, even knowing that a lot of people won't give my games the time of day just because they can't be played in a browser.

It's frustrating because people will dismiss my work (and the work of others) because they perceive conventional wisdom as against us. I think those people use popularity to reinforce their own preconceived notions, and hey, that's okay. The world is not going to be changed by those people.

I'm not saying I'll change the world or that IF is even world-changing, but believing in something is always more interesting than the alternative. I also know the only way I can champion my perspective is by just putting my stuff out there. The act of creation is the purest way to make an argument against those people, even if my ideal audience is not them but those with unformed opinions. It's likely that I won't change the mind of the majority of those people, either, but almost definitely, there will be some small percentage of people who play my games who enjoy the same things I do, and when they come across those dismissive, over-generalized comments, they'll also think, "Fuck that noise."

And the world will be better for it.


  1. I missed the the IF renaissance by a year or two, but I was originally introduced to IF from the height of the renaissance. It did seem more exciting back then, and I was eager to play all the text adventures that I could get my hands on.

    Recently, I was thinking about whether or not I still like IF enough to be involved with it in any significant way. I came to the realization that I do still like it. The very concept of becoming the character from a story still fills me with excitement. But nowadays, I'm overwhelmed. There's far too much IF out there, and I've fallen too far behind on playing even the highly discussed games.

    For me, personally, what you list as no. 3 is the biggest factor. The Internet was more fun when it came through a dial-up modem, and I had to beg and whine and grovel at my parents' feet to be allowed to use it for downloading IF games or playing MUDs. (There was little use trying to sneak my way online due to the noise the modem made on connecting.) Nowadays, I'm always distracted by half a dozen different things that I've been meaning to read or play or write online whenever I use a computer. IF has never been my only interest, and the effort required to play IF in comparison with other things makes the task seem daunting, even though it is still as rewarding as when I first played a text adventure in the shadow of the renaissance.

    In the interest of being bold and throwing a perspective out there, I'll go ahead and say that I sort of resent the implication in no. 1 that creativity = liberalism. However, I agree that creation is far more effective than argument, and I don't want to start one here.

    1. Thanks for your perspective. By the way, the numerological order of things had no significance, and I think you read more into #1 than was there. I was not saying creativity = liberalism. I was saying, in general, artistic people skew liberal. That isn't to say that there aren't plenty of creative conservatives, though.

    2. Okay. At any rate, the point may be valid, if most IF authors during the IF renaissance really were emotionally invested in political liberalism. I have seen disillusionment caused by the results of elections and the way the media happens to be portraying the contemporary political momentum. Maybe conservatives are feeling the same way now that liberals were in the late 90's and early 00's, with even a parallel recent tragedy fuelling the opposition.

  2. Roody, I saw this not long after you posted it but I wanted some time to think about my response. This is, honestly, one of the most interesting articles concerning IF that I've read in a long time. Far from being a useless exercise, this helps me connect the dots from when I left(around 2002) to now. Specifically, it gives me a much better understanding of how the vibrant IF community that I remembered became the somewhat dull IF community of today. I'll address each point:

    1. This is an interesting idea but I wonder if 9/11 wasn't a bigger factor than the shifting political landscape? I admit that in 2000 my political opinions weren't sophisticated enough to be affected one way or the other. I was seriously affected, however, by September 11th and the subsequent war. That debacle destroyed a lot of people's innocent optimism about the future of our country and the world. Is it a coincidence that these events correspond with the end of IF's golden age?

    2. This may be the most likely candidate. One reason I left the IF scene was that I started working full time. Like a lot of people, my first years out of college were a struggle. It's hard to spend time on IF when you can barely pay the bills.

    3. A couple of months ago someone on the JC forum was talking about a game and mentioned getting it on Steam. I wasn't familiar with Steam, so looked it up and was confronted by a hoard of inexpensive games with high production value. The experience broke me for a little while. I mean, being an amateur game designer, I would like someone to actually play the games I make. From the looks of it, even professional game makers have difficulty moving their product. It's hard not to believe that we're fighting a loosing battle.

    4. This is another big one. Overly dismissive comments about a work of IF can crush a person. I haven't had a chance to play "Endless, Nameless" yet, but I recently looked up the IFDB reviews of his other games. Some of the dismissive reviews I read for "Lock and Key" and "Textfire Golf" made me sick. Understand, I have an extremely high opinion of Adam Cadre's work. I believe he's the most brilliant IF author ever. I very dearly want to make games similar to "Lock and Key" and Textfire Golf". Given his lofty status in the IF world, if someone can play two minutes of one of his games and dismiss it as "unplayable", what chance do we have of not receiving similar treatment? I think that the only way to deal with such people is to heed your advice at the end of this post. Screw those people...screw them. Their opinion doesn't matter anyway.

    to be continued...

    1. Nice thoughts! Some responses:

      1. Well, for me, I saw 9/11 as a sign that a questionable administration would go forth unquestioned, but you make a good point that it has special significance for people who weren’t particularly invested in politics.

      2. I spent a lot of the mid-naughts concentrating on my job and, um, "life experiences" (going to bars, going to shows, and so forth). By the end of it, I was very unhappy and just basically missed *caring* about something, which was part of what brought me back to IF.

      3. The sheer number of games out there is disheartening, sure, but it’s also an opportunity. There are a number of sites that try to offer a service similar to Steam but emphasize indie games. Robb Sherwin’s Cryptozookeeper is available on one of them, a site called Now, unfortunately, their installer does something weird to the interpreter so Hugor has trouble finding the game file, but just the same, I get the feeling that if I knew just a little more about coding, it’d be possible to code cool frontends for places like these. Robb was also thinking recently that we- Hugo enthusiasts particularly- might be able to gain some more eyes if we cater to various retro scenes individually. He’s thinking of putting together an Amiga bundle; I’m thinking the BeOS/Haiku scene could use some gamepack updates. There might be others worth checking out.

  3. Part 2:

    5. I'm not sure about this one. I see how non-comp games get ignored, but I don't know if the same feedback that goes into comp games would get translated into reviewing other games. Honestly, I thing the IF comp helped foster the golden age. I think it was "John's Fire Witch"(but I may be wrong here) that started the whole small game trend. I even remember Adam Cadre giving terse encouragement for small games on raif, saying something like "do this", because, you know, it was an exciting idea. Now, of course, small works are the norm and there is little motivation to make larger games, since they're not likely to receive more attention that the small ones. It's too bad but I think it was inevitable. I honestly think the excitement generated by the annual comp precipitated the golden age in the first place. It could be that after so many years the comp has become stale and needs to be reworked.

    6. A couple of months ago I read "Twisty Little Passages" by Nick Montfort and was surprised when it mentioned that Infocom's parser was relatively crude compared to some others of the time. Those more advanced parsers weren't for adventure games but they were good a modeling a world(I'm thinking specifically of SHRDLU here, I can't remember if there were more). The point is that they made some great games using not even the most advanced thing available at the time. It is a legitimate point, though, that more advanced tools probably should be available by now. I'm just just glad that the tools exist at all and I honestly don't think we're overly limited by them. Especially since there's so much technical support out there, even for us poor suckers using Hugo :)

    8. I think the IF-as-literature thing created a schism in the IF community. There appear to be a fair number of players that will only play puzzless IF that follows a strict narrative. You get the impression that they just want to press "z" and be given a new screen of text every time. That may be a bit of an overstatement but I always thought that to make a good IF game it needed to either be fun, well written or both. If someone decides your game isn't for them, no matter how well written or fun, because there's something that looks like a puzzle in it, well, that's hard to stomach.

    9. I was very disappointed when I learned that a fair number of people will only play IF with Gargoyle or a similar glk interpreter. It's hard enough to write a game that looks fairly decent. To have the added burden of accounting for several different interpreter types as well is almost too much. Why spend extra time on multimedia effects that either can't be recognized by the interpreter or, if recognized, turned off by the player? I'm not saying that I wont include multimedia in my own future efforts, but the fact that a lot of players wont experience them will affect my decision whether to spend the time to do it.

    With so many factors involved, it's obvious that no one in particular is responsible for the current state of IF(other than those awful trolls that killed r*if). And I think that, despite its flaws, a lot of good IF is still being written and I'm glad for that. The overly negative element will always be present but I love the idea of art as protest. I'm going to contribute to that as long as I can!

    1. 6. I’m not really familiar with non-IF parsers, but I think many of the IF companies that billed their parsers as better than Infocom were wrong, at least in the games I’ve seen. They just seem to add some keyword functionality, so it comes down to whether or not you think Eliza is an improvement on a regular parser.

      8. I was just reading this guy’s blog post recently where he talked about how sick he is of new school games because they never let you do anything. On one hand, I kind of want to rebel against IF negativity, but on the other hand, it presents an interesting idea about choosing the right medium for your game idea. Maybe a lot of new school games *should* be CYOA (or some such). Maybe the sense that you-can-accidentally-die-at-any-moment in old school games is an important means to keep players invested. Who knows? Whatever the case, especially after having just written an arty, can't-do-anything game, it makes me place a larger emphasis on trying to write the opposite in the future.

      9. Yeah, it’s funny. Having spent a fair amount of time and effort in figuring out exactly what can and can’t be done in Gargoyle (and being better prepared to write for it), I am even more comfortable going forth with game ideas that exclude it. Some projects are just best served by doing one thing really well, instead of catering to everybody.