Remarks on recent threads

Skip to first unread message

David Baggett

Apr 2, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/2/96

The number and scope of topics here recently has overwhelmed me, so I've
taken some time out to write up carefully considered commentary on a number
of recent threads. As usual, I don't intend these as statements of fact;
they are only my opinions. Many of the comments are basic almost to the
point of silliness, but in my opinion need to be voiced in the interest of
finding common ground. Others are, in Magnus' words "provocative".


Criticism is essential to any serious work, whether it be artistic or
scientific. In the case of the arts, criticism serves audience members who
are unable to personally review every major work in detail. Because many
more people are writing IF now than ever before, IF criticism is all the
more important.

Though artists often complain about critics, they know that being
reviewed is itself a kind of validation and a form of flattery. If your
work is truly awful, you won't get reviewed at all. So in that sense
critics actually pay compliments even when they intend to rip a work apart.
(But it would be silly to assume, conversely, that if your work is not
reviewed it must not be good!)

Criticism can be especially gratifying to an artist when the critic's
comments show that the artist has effectively communicated with the critic
through the work; i.e., that the critic is "getting it". In my case,
people eventually came around to discussing the defining element of "The
Legend Lives!", which is that the main character --- who is a software
construct --- is a Christ figure. Though there was hardly universal
approval of this, it showed me that I'd managed to get this across, which
was gratifying, and helped me gauge the accessibility of the work.

When done well, criticism requires one to take a scholarly approach ---
to carefully consider one's thoughts about the work and genre, and to
compare the work, often point by point, to prior art. Good criticism
demands clarity of thought and fosters healthy debate about ideas that none
of us could fully explore alone in the same amount of time.

When reading a critical review, we must understand that we are reading
one interpretation of the work --- one that is surely distorted by the
critic's personal tastes. Furthermore, we have to look at whether
particular criticisms are even valid for the reviewed work; e.g., it is not
useful to evaluate _Heartbreak Hotel_ and Bach's _B Minor Mass_ against the
same criteria. This is *not* to say that every work is "good in its own
way," and hence that all works are equally good. These two scenarios are
the unproductive black-and-white ends of a useful spectrum.

Finally, we must view criticism of an author's work in the context of
that author's other works. Many music critics feel that Mozart's piano
sonatas do not represent him at his best --- that they are weak works by
his standards. This is not the same as saying they're weak works in an
absolute sense. Had an unknown composer written them, I imagine we'd
respect the composer on the basis of the piano sonatas alone.

I believe we've seen the problem of taking reviews out of the context of
an artist's work in the case of Graham Nelson's _Jigsaw_. Had a newcomer
to written that work, s/he'd have been immediately
lauded as a brilliant IF author with tremendous promise. But _Jigsaw_
follows _Curses_, a game that greatly impressed many IF fans and built
Graham's gigantic reputation here. It's no wonder, then, that criticism of
_Jigsaw_ is tough!

I do not generally criticize or review specific works, because (for
whatever reason) I just don't feel like it's my thing to do. That is why I
encourage those who like to review works to write extensively.

Finally, if you're going to write and submit your work for others'
approval in *any* forum, you'd better have a thick skin or you will either
develop one or run screaming from the room. No one likes being told that
their writing is (in someone's opinion) weak that their work's ending is
(in someone's opinion) rotten, or that the topics they've chosen strike
others as simple-minded. Yet none of these criticisms is a personal
attack, and for heaven's sake none of them should be construed as such. If
you think Gareth's reviews have been harsh, you simply haven't been
subjected to a really productive, honest session of criticism.

Art in general

We sometimes talk about IF as art here, so it's useful to take a step
back and think about what "art" really means. It seems to me that,
ultimately, art is what catches on, with reasons why it *did* catch on
often determined retroactively.

Other art forms have long histories. IF can look to fiction for
guidance, but is sufficiently different that it requires new techniques.
It also involves programming, and depends on artificial intelligence and
cognitive science.

Generally when people make provocative statements about what art is or
should be, there's an "IMHO" implied. Who really believes he knows exactly
what art is, when "art value" is determined by the entire audience, over
many generations?

Unequivocally "right" answers about art do not come often. That is why
debate is useful --- because debate exposes many different aspects of a
complex idea.

Talking passionately about art offends some people; they mistake passion
for arrogance, high standards and intense respect of past masterpieces for
snobbery, and criticism of contemporary popular works as blanket dismissal
of (or intention to eradicate) everything that is accessible to a wide

Art and enjoyment

A work does not have to be great art to be worthy of merit. Few (if any)
existing IF works will ever be considered great art, yet many are more than
praiseworthy. The fact that a work is not great art does not mean that it
is not enjoyable, or that anyone who enjoys it is incapable of
understanding or appreciating great art.

People distinguish between great art and enjoyable, popular works that
aren't great art because there is a special beauty to a work that is not
only enjoyable, but also communicates something complex, important,
fundamental, brilliant, or visionary. The distinction between the two is
not binary, and it varies from person to person. That doesn't mean you
can't have a reasonable discussion about art, though!

Some works are so wonderful that to *fail* to place them in a special
category denies a basic human response, and can only mislead.

Rigidity of forms

Every work of art has some form. Some forms are rigid, and disallow
examples that fail to conform to particular rules closely enough.

Rigid forms can encourage creativity and artistic productivity, because
they provide the artist with a useful starting point, instead of a blank
page with infinite possibility and potential complexity.

Adhering to a rigid form gives the artist the opportunity to at times
break the rules, thereby adding interest or creating surprise. People
often cite Haydn's late symphonies as examples of this; one of the London
symphonies is even named "Surprise" for it. There is no denying that there
is a certain beauty in producing a marvelous work that conforms to
stringent rules. Fugues and sonnets are obvious examples.

However, throughout history, and in all major art forms, artists have at
various times introduced new forms or relaxed old ones. Over the years
composers relaxed the constraint imposed by Western forms that the music be
tonal (i.e., that it be in major or minor keys), to the point where they
entirely removed tonality as a requirement. In painting, a historical
constraint is that the painting be *of* something (i.e., of something
real). Again, this requirement was ultimately dropped entirely in the 20th

This leads one to ask why artists constantly relax forms, when there
seems to be nothing *wrong* with the forms. Is it because they have lost
all respect for past masterpieces? I don't think so. I think it's often
because they feel that current forms have been mastered --- that in the
face of some particular example work there is little more that one could do
that would be very interesting. And having mastered the existing forms,
the artists are eager for greater challenges --- to tackle forms that are
more difficult because they are new and untested.

Another reason can be, of course, that the artists have no ideas left for
a particular form, or that they feel terribly constrained by the rules of
the existing forms --- perhaps that they envision ideas that the existing
forms somehow won't support. And that they feel competent to control the
greater power that comes with a larger palette (so to speak).

The downside of new forms is that they often don't work very well. With
greater power comes greater ability to screw up. Many people look at
Jackson Pollack's paintings, or listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen's music,
and feel as though the whole medium has exploded into utter chaos, and has
lost all its power to communicate anything meaningful.

To relate this to IF, I believe that our existing, fairly rigid "text
adventure" form is a fine one for IF. I think it's likely to be
extraordinarily difficult to get certain responses from it, though, and I
have less interest in writing a traditional text adventure than I did 5
years ago. Does this mean I think I'm a great artist? Not at all ---
odds-wise that is not very likely and in any case it's again not a binary
distinction. Does it mean I have no ideas left? Of course not. I have
far more ideas than I have time, which is frustrating. Does it mean I
should find a new genre? Perhaps. But I'm certainly not convinced that
we've seen all IF has to offer in terms of form.

"Puzzless IF" and the IF Standards Board

One direction I would like to take is to explore IF without what we'd
generally call puzzles. I do not advocate the elimination of all other
forms. in fact, I encourage and look forward to exploration of existing
forms *and* of new forms.

There is no Ruling Board for IF, but there's no denying a strong inertia.
This is to be expected and is not a terrible thing.

For the record, I have never said that I felt unable to release a work of
IF for fear of the masses drawing and quartering me. I have disagreed with
the sentiment that non-traditional IF is just as welcome as the
alternatives, but personally I couldn't care less if people ignore or
discount my work because it's weird. I can't force people to like my work,
and I'm certainly not trying to make a living writing IF. I write IF
because doing so is fun.

Logical puzzles and practical unsolvability

Russ Bryan recently reminded us all of a discussion we had about logical
puzzles. Though it was really much ado about very little (and was
hopelessly mired in disagreement over the meaning of the term "logical"), I
became quite interested in it because there's a deep truth at the heart of
it, which is that the set of problems that a person can practically solve
is far smaller than the set of all problems we can conceive.

If this sounds very formal, it's perhaps because my thoughts on the
matter stem from theoretical computer science, where a very basic result is
that there are problems that are simply unsolvable given *any* computer we
could imagine building. In other words, the existence of an indisputably
correct answer to a well-stated question does *not* imply that it is
possible to *find* the answer. To put it even more simply: there are
perfectly reasonable questions that we simply cannot answer, ever.

Now when you talk about the set of problems a *person* can solve, you're
severely limiting the computational resources you're allowing. This can
only narrow the set of questions that can be answered. Puzzles are similar
to questions (in fact, you could look at a puzzle as the question "how do
you pass obstacle X?"). So given a suitably broad definition of "puzzle",
I think it just follows that there exist puzzles no one could solve.

Getting back to the specific debate, Carl de Marcken and I set out to
provide some practical (rather than theoretical) evidence to support this
claim. So we designed a puzzle that we felt was logical --- in the sense
that the outcome was governed by easily stated, unambiguous rules --- and
we wrote up a quick TADS implementation. This "game" is called +=3, and
you can find it on (One star from Baf --- my lowest rating

Some people cried foul; they said the puzzle wasn't really logical at
all. This basically comes down to your definition of logical. Russ seems
to have interpreted our claim that no one could solve our little puzzle as
an assertion that you were all idiots, and that we were smart and superior.
I'm speaking for Carl as well here, but knowing him I can tell you that
neither one of us intended this; it's not the way we feel about the readers
of this group or about logical puzzles or IF in general.

The state of the newsgroup

Several people have expressed concern at the state of the newsgroup, and
of IF in general. Looking back to 1990, when I started reading this group,
I recall that there were very few posts --- maybe 5 or so a week.
Discussions generally centered around Infocom, how cool they were, and how
no subsequent IF would ever compare.

Between 1992 and 1994, several authors released full-length works. The
quality of this new wave of amateur IF often matched Infocom's early games,
and was sufficient to interest more people in IF and in the newsgroup.
During this period people argued a lot about what made a good puzzle, and
what made a good game. Graham Nelson (in the words of another r.a.i-f
member) "listened and took notes" and formalized them into his _Player's
Bill of Rights_. To give you an idea of what it was like: during this
time, arguments about whether or not mazes were good things to have were
still fairly common.

Now there are many people working on games, and debates deal with broader
issues but still touch on early topics. You can see anything from "is
this puzzle really fair?" to "but is it art?" here now. We have lost
nothing, but gained breadth.

Feeling intimidated

A number of people have said that they feel intimidated by recent IF
criticism and critics. They express exasperation at the implied
requirement that they measure up to others who have written works they ---
or the critics, at least --- admire.

I have to ask these people: if you were writing novels, would you expect
to get your first one published? Would you expect it to be as good as
Steinbeck's best, or Faulkner's best? As good as Bradbury or Borges? As
trend-setting as Tolkien? Of course not. These people devoted their lives
to writing. To think that you could step in and compete with the masters
after a few years at it is absurd. But that's the key: there is no
competition. Write what you want to write, because you want to write it.
Put it out there. If the critics slam it because it's "just traditional
IF", write a rebuttal detailing what you think the merits of your work are.
If you can't think of any special merits, why should you think it at all
odd that the critics aren't lauding the work?

IF is hard. No one knows what it really is, and certainly not what it
could or ought to be. Don't mistake passion for closed-mindedness or
confidence for belligerence. Write. You are worthy of respect just for
creating something that other people will enjoy.

Intentionally intimidating others

It is important not to relax our standards because we're a small
community. That few people write IF does not mean that we shouldn't
criticize works that are flawed, particularly if the flaws are mistakes
many of us have already made and learned from.

On the other hand, most of us read and write IF for fun. There's nothing
productive or useful about personal attacks, and they certainly make the
group a less fun place to be. For my part, I've always been careful to
leave personal comments out of postings, even when I'm feeling hostile.
(Well, except when arguing with Leary. But he knows I'm full of it.)

And keep in mind that this group is archived! Remember that what you say
may get read years from now. Few Usenet groups are worth their bytes, but
I think most r.a.i-f posters have tried since the beginning to keep it
productive, upbeat, and friendly. Please; let's keep it that way.

I hope no one misinterprets my own intense interest in IF as hostility or
disrespect. With a very few exceptions, I deeply respect *all* of you who
frequent this group. If I didn't, I wouldn't waste my time arguing (and,
yes, at times agreeing) with you. We have a tremendous group here, full of
people with widely varying backgrounds and talents.


Again, I look back to 1990, and I am truly amazed at what we have all
accomplished in only a few years. We now understand the classic text
adventure game form to the extent that we can generally agree on basics
which were sources of contention before. We can impart this to each other
through the newsgroup to the degree that dozens of people can write works
within the form that are of good to excellent quality. We have
well-documented, powerful systems for creating these kinds of works, and a
legion of experts to help one another with the intricacies of these tools.
*None* of these things was true five years ago.

Dave Baggett
"Mr. Price: Please don't try to make things nice! The wrong notes are *right*."
--- Charles Ives (note to copyist on the autograph score of The Fourth of July)

Christopher E. Forman

Apr 2, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/2/96
Words of wisdom, David, and very well-written. I can't think of a single
thing to add to what you've written here.

C.E. Forman
Read the I-F e-zine XYZZYnews, at,
or on the Web at

David Librik

Apr 3, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/3/96
to (David Baggett) writes:

>The state of the newsgroup

> Several people have expressed concern at the state of the newsgroup, and
>of IF in general. Looking back to 1990, when I started reading this group,
>I recall that there were very few posts --- maybe 5 or so a week.
>Discussions generally centered around Infocom, how cool they were, and how
>no subsequent IF would ever compare.

It's too bad you weren't around when this group started up. I remember
reading it for a long time when it seemed to be the haunt of the OZ Project,
some postmodern art-language writers, and Jorn Barger. A lot of visionaries
but nobody who was talking about Adventures.

I worked on an adventure system -- a Scott-Adams-type interpreter -- back
in my TRS-80 days, and I was interested in discussions of how you create
adventure games. (Not so much the plotting and writing, but the data-encoding,
world-modelling, and parser-writing.) There wasn't much talk about that here,
and there still isn't, since the appearance of TADS and those great TADS
games finessed the system design issue.

When TADS appeared, along with some other systems I don't remember anymore
(I think one was called AGT or ADL), there was a shift in the sense of
*what this newsgroup is about*. Interactive fiction came to mean Adventure
Games, and released lots of people's latent interest in writing Infocommish
games. Jorn and his literary approach to AI, the OZ people and their
Story Generation issues, and the other former residents vanished -- much
to my approval, since I was basically interested in how I could write
Infocom-style adventure games! (Remember, Scott-Adams-level stuff was
pretty easy to clone, and lots of late-70's-early-80's two-word adventure
games existed. At one time, Softside magazine had an Adventure Of The
Month Club -- each month, a new adventure game. Everyone had figured out
how to write one and they were churning them out! But Infocom laid that all
to waste -- nobody could figure out how they did it, and fell short when
they tried, including Scott Adams' aborted Odyssey project.)

But the literary issues have never gone away, and always burble up in
heated discussions of what makes a good Adventure Game. And now, as
Magnus Olsson points out, we have enough games out there that the "how,"
or even the "what," is no longer an issue. We're back to the old, old question of "what can be done with computer-mediated
storytelling?" Anybody know where the old visionaries went?

- David Librik

John Wood

Apr 8, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/8/96
Dave Baggett wrote a timely and thought-provoking summary of recent
discussion on r.a.i-f. Dave, many thanks - not least because it forced
me (finally) to write. Everything here is once again IMHO, and be
warned that it is fairly disjointed.

The state of the newsgroup

Recently I lost my newsfeed for a couple of weeks. While catching up, I
spotted someone mentioning how Interactive Fiction could keep us up
until all hours of the morning - it was 1.30 AM midweek when I read the

No other newsgroup has gripped me this way. There is a definite feeling
of community to r.a.i-f - and like any community, there are squabbles
and splits as well as the golden moments when a "local boy does good".
I am a newcomer here, and I've tended to keep my head down. This is
what I do in real life, too.

When I saw how many posts there were for this newsgroup I feared we had
suffered a spam attack (as suffers so frequently), but so far
we seem to have avoided it - perhaps because we're not part of the hierarchy. Whatever the reason, the excellent signal-to-noise
ratio helps a lot to maintain the pleasant atmosphere.

Another good thing is that the newsgroup is only part of it. I'd like
to echo others in offering my thanks to Volker for his efforts at GMD,
to Gerry Wilson and Eileen Mullin for SPAG and XYZZYnews, and to those
people like Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts and Kent Tessman, without whom
we probably wouldn't *be* here. Gerry and his vict^H^H^H^H volunteers
also deserve thanks for organising the competion. Anyway, enough kudos -
I'm starting to sound like I'm accepting an oscar...

bonni - take heart! You are not alone...

Gareth - your reviews are clear, insightful, and brutally blunt. As
another IF author-in-training, you scare me too! I look forward to
having a game of mine dissected by you in a few years time 8-)

Jacob - your observations on the critical process allow me to consider
the prospect of being reviewed by Gareth with at least a modicum of

As I see it, reviews serve different purposes depending on your point of
view. For artists a review is an opportunity to find out (at least one
person's opinion of) their strengths and weaknesses. For readers - in
this case, players of IF - it is a device to save them some wasted time
playing a game in which they have no interest. For critics it is an
opportunity to hone their writing skills and to test their understanding
of the game they have been playing.

These purposes are often at odds. Which should have priority? I do not
know. My first reaction is to say the reviewers', since if they feel
unhappy with what they are writing they will probably not produce any
more reviews. However, players who feel that the reviewer is merely
trying to show off will more than likely ignore the review completely,
as will authors who feel that they have been used as "straw man" targets
for witticisms. I don't feel that Gareth falls into this trap, btw, and
the best reviewers would count such reactions as failures, so I would
probably still support this viewpoint - but see below.

I've played all three roles (in fields other than IF), though my
experience as a critic is the most limited. I suspect that in a field
as small as ours, it would be productive to concentrate more on the
authors' priorities than would be the case in an established artform.
Every IF author lost to us due to becoming discouraged, every game that
isn't as good as it could be had someone only pointed out the flaws in
an author's previous work, is a loss we cannot afford.

I believe wholly negative criticism cannot be constructive. It is only
human nature to "switch off" when faced with too much negativity -
whether the reaction is to ignore the critic, to give up or to strike
back, whatever specific points the critic raised will not be considered
in a rational light. Is this an argument for the kindergarten "praise
for effort" approach? In general, no, but in one specific sense, yes it
is! Nobody can keep going forever without encouragement - I found this
out at work. I became depressed, ill and completely lacking in self-
confidence before changing jobs a couple of years ago, even though I was
doing something I enjoyed, because I got no encouragement.

I will go so far as to say that if you can find nothing good to write
about a work of IF, don't bother with a review.

One case which has not yet been cited as a possible source of
intimidation is the Zork Nemesis thread. Well done Cecilia Barajas for
having the courage to jump into the middle of what had rapidly become a
violently anti-Activision thread to defend your game, showing a
knowledge of and sympathy with IF in the process. That thread was the
closest to a flame I've seen here in a while.

Art in general
I'm getting tired, so rather than delay posting this even longer I'll
save it for another time. Suffice to say I *can* appreciate new forms
of an art, but for me to enjoy it the "avant-garde" needs to be of
higher quality than does a traditional form. Familiarity helps to set
the mood.

Whew! I mentioned a lot of people by name. If anyone is feeling left
out, it's just that I didn't have anything specific to say about your
recent contributions, not that I don't value what you have to say. If
anyone would *rather* have been left out, send me a cheque and I'll make
sure you're not mentioned next time around...

- John

And finally, here's *my* attempt at self-directed psychology:

Coming to the 1997 IF competition: an (as-yet unnamed) evening's
Interactive Entertainment (with puzzles) by John Wood! Book your places
now - hopefully we can pursuade Gareth to carve 8-)

Gareth Rees

Apr 9, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/9/96
David Librik <> wrote:
> When TADS appeared [...] Jorn [Barger] and his literary approach to

> AI, the OZ people and their Story Generation issues, and the other
> former residents vanished

I think this is a shame. The adventure game community shouldn't lose
touch with people working on similar problems; there could be a lot of
scope for Oz Project-style work to feed back into traditional adventure

Gareth Rees

Jorn Barger

Apr 9, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/9/96
In article <>,

It seemed a shame to me at the time, though I was glad that an
enthusiastic community crystallized here. Now that there's, there seems to me no problem at all.

The way I remember the olden days was that David Graves did most of
the posting, and I gathered a bunch of his messages into a proto-faq,
which he took over. TADS was already in existence at that time, but
there wasn't any community of users yet...

In general, IF needs more AI, and it doesn't really matter if we have
the same old arguments over and over-- it's better to run in place
than to fall completely silent!


. hypertext theory : artificial intelligence : robot wisdom . _+m"m+_"+_
lynx ! Jp Jp qh qh
best-of ! O O O O Yb Yb dY dY you ever feel as if your mind has started to erode? "Y_ "Y5m2Y" " no.

William Scott Neal Reilly

Apr 10, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/10/96
In article <>, Gareth Rees writes:
|> David Librik <> wrote:
|> > When TADS appeared [...] Jorn [Barger] and his literary approach to
|> > AI, the OZ people and their Story Generation issues, and the other
|> > former residents vanished
|> I think this is a shame. The adventure game community shouldn't lose
|> touch with people working on similar problems; there could be a lot of
|> scope for Oz Project-style work to feed back into traditional adventure
|> games.

At least one of us Oz people is still lurking. Many of us are
writing theses right now, which is why we don't have a lot of
time to post.


Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages