[Comp00] The Power of the In-joke (BAP/Shade)

16 views
Skip to first unread message

Emily Short

unread,
Nov 18, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/18/00
to
If you haven't played BAP and Shade, go home now: this is sheer raw
spoilage.


The two games this year that had the strongest effect on me viscerally --
reaching out of the screen and into my life -- were Being Andrew Plotkin and
Shade. The obvious twinship of these games reaches beyond their shared
zarf-affiliation and their September 2 nativity; they're both games that
reward familiarity with the IF community in general and ifMUD in particular.
[NB: if anyone thinks that these two games are a good reason to start
programming a comp game only a month before the deadline, I urge you to
reconsider. This is an exception. Do not emulate. Thank you.]

A lot has been said about in-jokes in the past. "Pass the Banana" meant
approximately nothing to me last year because I wasn't yet part of the
requisite community. If you'd asked me before this comp whether I thought
in-jokes added anything to a game, I would have said not much: >XYZZY
responses are one thing, because they're by definition only seen by the
target audience, but loads and loads of other things that would stick out as
mysterious... no. And the more in-jokes dominate the game, the more you
exclude non-members of the community. Why bother?

Here's why.

----

From: <me>
Date: Wed, Oct 4, 2000, 12:41 AM
To: <my father>
Subject: Something PoMo happened to me on the way to the forum.

The IF comp games are out. I haven't played with nearly all of them yet, of
course: there are 53 entries this year. Of the ones I've played, a couple
are really really good, many are serviceable, some are lame, and a few are
so dreadful I wanted to arrange some kind of torture for the author. This
is typical.

It's also not the point, because you have no real reason to care about that.
Instead, I want to tell you about Being Andrew Plotkin (author anonymous).

As you might guess from the title, it's a takeoff on Being John Malkovich.
The plot is quite ruthlessly cribbed: you start off as a runty worker filing
papers, you find a door in the wall, it takes you into the head of...

Well-known IF writer and MUD denizen Andrew Plotkin (aka Zarf).

So far so good. It's weird, it's funny, it's packed with in-jokes and
references to things about Zarf's games that we all know and love. Also,
references to the details of Zarf's life that are publically known: at one
point, from inside Zarf's head, we get to observe him making a dish he is
known actually to eat. That kind of thing. (Zarf has been known to share
the occasional recipe. There's nothing in there you couldn't get off his
homepage; it's harmless. But accurate.) Quite a bit of fun to play,
well-polished, sometimes getting Zarf's style so right that I almost
wondered if he'd perpetrated it himself. (Not his way to be so
self-promotional, though. I discarded that again. It also uses some
classic Adam Cadre-isms, programming-wise, but it has a less cynical kind of
humor: I was forced to conclude it wasn't Mr. Cadre's work either.)

So I'm playing along, particularly enjoying the twisty PC/player
relationship: at different points in the game you play Peter the filer or
Valerie his coworker or Melvin the weird boss (who also happens to be a
killer robot, but never mind that); or you can be Peter-in-Zarf's-head, or
Valerie-in-Zarf's-head, or Peter-AND-Valerie-in-Zarf's-head, sometimes in
control of Zarf from within, sometimes not. And of course at one point the
PC is Zarf himself. Now the game IS the magic portal: the player
manipulating Zarf isn't much different from Peter manipulating Zarf, right?)

There's a nifty puzzle when Zarf enters his own brain, based on recursion
problems; the command that resolves it is a valid line of Inform. (Hinted
at reasonably, of course.) So the narrative of the game and the program
that is the game are intermeshed, too.

With me so far? Hold onto your hat. While I'm in Zarf mode, the Zarf PC
logs onto ifMUD, where we see a screen of spot-on ifMUD dialogue -- in which
I (in my ifMUD persona) have a bit part as an NPC. Talk about being hit
hard upside the head with the reality stick. Calvino has nothing on THAT.
(Nor, I think, would a hypothetical work of static fiction that happened for
some reason to feature me as a bit character. The player involvement issue
is part of what makes this all so wonky.)

Anyway. I can't really recommend it outside the community, because it's an
in-joke game, and it wouldn't make much sense. But it took everything that
was fun and wacky about BJM, discarded the more creepy sexual matter and the
nonsensical ending, and gave it another hard, hard spin in the direction of
Serious Weird. With a meta-game of Guess-The-Author thrown in.

At the end it does say who wrote it, and it's not any of the people I
considered. The author went so far as to use Inform (he normally uses the
rival language TADS) in order to obfuscate matters. And that's dedication,
believe me: Inform has a nasty learning curve, especially to reach the
degree of competence evident in this piece.

The only thing I'm wondering now is what it was like for Zarf to play this
game.

----

The point is: if you know your audience personally, you can break the fourth
wall with a vengeance, and in a way that is more absorbing in interactive
fiction than it could possibly be in any other medium. I was reminded of a
scene in Ende's _Neverending Story_, but the resonance catches with hundreds
of other stories I read in childhood, and with a dream that is I think
universal to all escapist readers: that you can somehow get into the
fictional world, or at least that the lines can be blurred and the fantasy
grafted to the workaday universe in which you live.


BAP proclaims itself from the title on to be a tour of in-jokery, the author
friendly and playful. Shade comes across deliberately as one of those games
we all try to avoid: the Newbie Implements His Apartment. In other words,
it positions itself as having been written by someone outside the community
who hasn't apparently gotten around to reading all the vitriolic reviews of
Aunt Nancy's House, etc. So I didn't get around to playing it until I'd
tried a lot of other things, precisely because the blurb made me roll my
eyes and groan. I was expecting something shoddily coded, plotless, and
devoid of imagination.

So I was trying all the Inform games and I'd run out of ones that I thought
would be good. I fired up Shade. Read the opening text. Was less repelled
than I expected. ("Hey, at least this person can write a decent
description, even if it is of his boring apartment.") Poked around. Found
things better implemented than I thought they would be. (The bathroom and
kitchen -- cleanly programmed, showing a familiarity with what Inform
containers can be made to do.) Found myself starting to get uneasy with the
PC's discomfort and nerviness. Was disturbed by the constant references to
making a phone call when there was no telephone in sight.

Found this:

"It is, of course, the Death Valley Om -- half arts festival, half cult, a
week in the deep desert where people show off, have sex, take drugs, and
maintain a twenty-four-hour constant OM."

and my neck started to prickle. It might just be a coincidence, but it
didn't seem likely: this was a clear reference to Burning Man, which gets
fairly regularly mentioned on ifMUD. An in-joke, maybe, but an in-joke
saying not, "Ha ha, am I not cute; I the author and you the player share
this cozy understanding"; nor yet, "Look how I can smash the fourth wall and
put you in the story"; but, "Take note. You thought the author was a
stranger, but he knows you. You thought he was incompetent, but he is a
master. Beware. Fear."

So layered into my progressing fear for my PC was uneasiness approaching
nausea on my own behalf. The author himself seemed sinister, and his
dislike aimed at me and mine. Greek myth is full of such moments, when a
god among mortals, disguised and mocked, suddenly turns with eyes shining.
Terror follows, and madness.

Somewhere in there, yes, the rational part of my brain did assert itself,
and did methodically consider the possibilities, and did come to the
conclusion that this might be a zarfian production, which was a thought I
found comforting. I don't know Zarf well, but he's never struck me as the
threatening type. And I was reassured to think that the genius of this
piece (flawed event triggers or not) came from a known source. [NB: this
does not mean that I'm against having brilliant new authors pop out of the
woodwork. I'm talking about visceral nervous reaction here, and about
having had my expectations turned on me.]

Sound odd? Very well. But let me point out that the author-player
relationship in IF is more strained than the static fiction author-reader
relationship, and requires, in a sense, more trust. I always know how to
read a book, assuming it's in English. The rules for playing a piece of IF
shift from game to game, and I need to be able to trust the author to
communicate to me, not only what special verbs there are, but how I should
approach the solution. (The use of genres is one of the standard ways -- I
played Masquerade very differently than I played Kaged, knowing one to be
Romance and the other Paranoia fiction.) Cross that with the fact that the
IF community is tiny and that so many of the members know each other, if not
through interaction then at least by reputation, and there's at least a
potential for much more engagement there. Taking one's audience into
account is *not* a bad thing. I would be sorry, of course, to see much IF
become inaccessible to newcomers to the community (though I hardly think
that Shade, at least, falls into that category anyway, since the in-jokes
are pretty much transparent to those not in the know).

But my sense of who the author is does play strongly into how I feel about a
game. I think I would have found the whole Shade experience less compelling
had I known from the outset whose it was. By the same token, I used the
name familiar to this community for my own entry precisely because I did
want to leave that context in place. In a small group, with a dedicated
audience, where so many members are players and authors and critics and
theorists at once and where one writes for feedback rather than for money,
reputation begins to give way to relationship. And the shape of that
relationship affects my experience. (If you've played a game written by a
good friend and you've found yourself laughing because you recognize the
cadence of their speech marching on your screen, you know what I mean.)


ES

J. Robinson Wheeler

unread,
Nov 21, 2000, 12:38:09 AM11/21/00
to
Emily Short wrote:

> If you haven't played BAP and Shade, go home now: this is sheer raw
> spoilage.
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
> The two games this year that had the strongest effect on me
> viscerally -- reaching out of the screen and into my life -- were
> Being Andrew Plotkin and Shade. The obvious twinship of these
> games reaches beyond their shared zarf-affiliation and their
> September 2 nativity; they're both games that reward familiarity
> with the IF community in general and ifMUD in particular. [NB: if
> anyone thinks that these two games are a good reason to start
> programming a comp game only a month before the deadline, I urge
> you to reconsider. This is an exception. Do not emulate. Thank
> you.]

I second the motion. I think you really have to know what you're
doing to pull it off, and then it's still going against the odds.
For one thing, it doesn't mean that you have a month to write your
game, it means you have *two weeks* to write it, and two weeks to
test and refine it.

When I say you have to know what you're doing, I mean that you
need to have to be maximally efficient on several levels. You have
to choose carefully, and you need a knowledge of what you can get
away with. You need to know your own rhythms and endurance so that
you can pace yourself. You need to know your priorities; you need a
list in your head of what you must definitely do (and do solidly),
what you'd like to do, and what is impossible for you to do.

Finally, you still need to spell everything correctly and use
proper formatting.


> A lot has been said about in-jokes in the past. If you'd asked me


> before this comp whether I thought in-jokes added anything to a

> game, I would have said not much. And the more in-jokes dominate


> the game, the more you exclude non-members of the community. Why
> bother?
>
> Here's why.
>

> I want to tell you about Being Andrew Plotkin (author anonymous).
> As you might guess from the title, it's a takeoff on Being John
> Malkovich. The plot is quite ruthlessly cribbed: you start off as a
> runty worker filing papers, you find a door in the wall, it takes
> you into the head of... Well-known IF writer and MUD denizen Andrew
> Plotkin (aka Zarf).

It's not just any runty worker, though. It's a runty worker who
adores IF and has entered the Comp twice, with mediocre results.
I suppose the main reason for that was so that I could reference
the joke in "Being John Malkovich": "So, what do you do?" "I'm a
puppeteer." "Check, please." Swapping "IF author" for "puppeteer"
made me laugh.

The recursive joke in BAP, which you noted, isn't that this is an
IF game about IF, it's more an IF game about the IF community,
because I just adore being a part of it. I wanted to celebrate what
makes it special and what we share by being part of it, from the
familiarity of the thief from Zork to a slice of the daily wit of
ifMUD.

I have to note here that there's nothing in the game that
qualifies as an ifMUD in-joke. I had several reasons to put that
ifMUD scene in the game, but none of them were to say "Ha ha,
here's one for the gang." The biggest reason was just to share a
little bit of what's great about being on ifMUD, that everyone
is lively and funny, trampling over each other to make jokes
when someone delivers a perfect straight line.


> Quite a bit of fun to play, well-polished, sometimes getting Zarf's
> style so right that I almost wondered if he'd perpetrated it
> himself. (Not his way to be so self-promotional, though. I
> discarded that again. It also uses some classic Adam Cadre-isms,
> programming-wise, but it has a less cynical kind of humor: I was
> forced to conclude it wasn't Mr. Cadre's work either.)

These are gratifying comments. It was my deliberate intention to
make at least one person (you, apparently) wonder both if Zarf had
written it and if Adam Cadre had written it.

I mentioned in my Comp reviews that I've been meaning to write an
essay comparing the writing styles of Plotkin and Cadre. In a
certain way, BAP was a test-drive of some of my mental notes for
that essay. The basic premise: here are the twin giants of IF's
(so-called) Golden Age. Both have reaped a similar amount of
acclaim, and are often seen at the Xyzzy Awards going head to head.
"Photopia" vs. "Spider and Web" was a big one. Both are extremely
good writers, both have a strong aptitude for writing and
programming IF, both are eager and curious about what IF can really
do if you push at its boundaries. They respect each other's work.

And yet, they are very different authors. Even if they poke at
the same kind of material or theme (actually, there is little
crossover), they approach from very different directions and pull
off very different kinds of inspiring feats of design and writing.
Each has won the IF Comp once, and oh my, compare their two
entries.

Despite their differences, I see a really neat compatibility
between the two authors and their styles. How much richer we are
for having both of them, rather than just one or the other (or
neither, we should remind ourselves in awe). In BAP, I managed to
put both of their styles together in the same game, and you know
what? It worked. I suppose since there is a general pastiche
patchwork going on, I could have thrown in dancing elephants and
monkeys while I was at it; but leaving that aside, I thought it was
very interesting that there wasn't really a clash, that they could
coexist. For one thing, there's a big gap in Zarf's IF that plays
to Adam's major strength. Zarf pretty much never writes NPCs (okay,
I can think of four or five exceptions off the top of my head, but
I think the observation still stands). Adam writes brilliant
characters. So, I put some characters with a lot of attitude into a
(sometimes) Zarf-like world.

I really couldn't sustain the Cadre cynicism that I tried to
inject into the characters and conversations early on in the game.
I ended up having to just go my own way and write in my own style.
This has long been what I've recognized to be *my* thing: combining
a bunch of different source materials into a surprising new mixture
that, improbably, works and works well, making connections and
combinations that just wouldn't occur to other people to make.

I mean, what do we have here? A mix of Plotkin, Cadre, "Being
John Malkovich," "The Terminator," cartoon sci-fi, classic Infocom,
and ifMUD. I daresay that if we had held a contest to make an IF
game out of the title, "Being Andrew Plotkin," nobody else would
have made the choices I did.


> So I'm playing along, particularly enjoying the twisty PC/player
> relationship: at different points in the game you play Peter the
> filer or Valerie his coworker or Melvin the weird boss (who also
> happens to be a killer robot, but never mind that); or you can be
> Peter-in-Zarf's-head, or Valerie-in-Zarf's-head, or
> Peter-AND-Valerie-in-Zarf's-head, sometimes in control of Zarf from
> within, sometimes not. And of course at one point the PC is Zarf
> himself. Now the game IS the magic portal: the player manipulating
> Zarf isn't much different from Peter manipulating Zarf, right?)

It wasn't until I'd coded the game up to Peter's first fall into
the hedge that I hit upon the change-the-player idea. Amazing
worlds were opened up once I started on that path. It was an
amazingly fertile area to explore. The question was always: What
variation on this haven't I done yet? There was also the fun of
rewriting the room, NPC, PC, and object descriptions every time you
were playing a different character.

A number of people wrote to tell me how much they enjoyed the
change in descriptions when the PC was Zarf. I must admit that I
was playing into the whole Zarf mythos here, and I don't really
think Zarf goes around eyeballing things and estimating the exact
dimensions and measurements of windows. However, as a breed,
writers (good writers) do tend to be good observers, attuned to
details that others miss. Peter, a wannabe writer, is simply not
very observant. He never notices that there's a crooked ceiling
tile in the file room, for example, or that the copier isn't
plugged into anything. Valerie, not a writer, has about the same
powers of observation as Peter, but a different attitude, and she
notices a different set of details, like whether things are tidy or
not.

One description I wrote, and was particularly fond of, was what
Melvin looks when the PC is Zarf. It's obvious at first glance to
Zarf that Melvin is not a human being, but some sort of odd
construct clothed in ersatz skin. Unfortunately, d'oh, there is
never an opportunity in the game for you to X MELVIN when you're
Zarf. Get out your TXD's, people, I guess.


> There's a nifty puzzle when Zarf enters his own brain, based on
> recursion problems; the command that resolves it is a valid line of
> Inform. (Hinted at reasonably, of course.) So the narrative of
> the game and the program that is the game are intermeshed, too.

The high point of "Being John Malkovich" for me was when
Malkovich goes inside his own head. Recursion is such a neat idea,
and I was floored that the screenwriter had thought of it. The
particular way it's handled in the movie just wasn't going to work
very well translated into IF. I mean, I could have had a roomful of
Zarfs all saying "Zarf, Zarf, Zarf," but blah. I don't actually
recall when I thought of the recursion puzzle, but it did seem to
be just the thing.

I note that you can type RETURN <integer>, RETURN TRUE/FALSE,
RTRUE, and RFALSE. I also note that the first recursion-room
description you get is worded just slightly differently, and
doesn't clue you specifically what to do. I wanted the recursion to
ratchet forward at least once before the player hit on the
solution.

Some adventurous players may have hit Z. Z. Z. Z. just to see if
the recursion would ever hit some end point and crash. It does.
Actually, I was playtesting with a transcript on, and the Inform
run-time really did go super-wacky, print a scary bunch of text
with some snips of the source code in it, some error messages, and
then blue-screen on me. I was tempted to leave it that way, but no,
actually crashing the game didn't seem like a very sensible thing
to do to players. Besides, it wouldn't do it the same way on all
interpreters. I was really happy to find out that the transcript
saved all of the crazy crashing text, so I just cut it out of the
transcript and pasted it into the game, giving a pretty convincing
illusion of a real stack-exploding crash.


> With me so far? Hold onto your hat. While I'm in Zarf mode, the
> Zarf PC logs onto ifMUD, where we see a screen of spot-on ifMUD
> dialogue -- in which I (in my ifMUD persona) have a bit part as an
> NPC. Talk about being hit hard upside the head with the reality
> stick. Calvino has nothing on THAT. (Nor, I think, would a
> hypothetical work of static fiction that happened for some reason
> to feature me as a bit character. The player involvement issue is
> part of what makes this all so wonky.)

Well, I'm glad I made the decision to put you into the ifMUD
dialogue at the last second. It had been a pet idea of mine for a
while to write some sort of game where you see ifMUD in action, and
finally I had a good opportunity to use it.

Odd side note. I fussed with myself for including inky in the
ifMUD dialogue, because he lives on the opposite coast from Zarf
and would have still been in bed asleep at the time of day this
imagined dialogue takes place. It was easy enough to see that
nobody was going to call me on it, however.


> Anyway. I can't really recommend it outside the community, because
> it's an in-joke game, and it wouldn't make much sense. But it took
> everything that was fun and wacky about BJM, discarded the more
> creepy sexual matter and the nonsensical ending, and gave it
> another hard, hard spin in the direction of Serious Weird. With a
> meta-game of Guess-The-Author thrown in.

I've always been better at taking an idea handed to me and
riffing like a madman on it, than at coming up with an idea of my
own and making the best of it. I suppose it has to do with feeling
unconstrained.

Hard, hard spin in the direction of Serious Weird. Heh, I like
that. I tried my best. Mainly, it was a concern that anything less
wouldn't live up to the title, which was the first impression
people would have. "Being Andrew Plotkin, eh? This *better* be
good." I suppose I did approach the task of being oddball and
hilarious with determined seriousness. It reminds me of something
Buster Keaton, a guy who was very serious about being as funny as
possible, said about his slapstick short films: First you let the
audience feel like they're a step ahead of you, then you
double-cross them. You can get a laugh just by the shock of
defeated expectations, by the utter surprise of the sudden
reversal. Melvin's point-of-view would be a good example of this, I
suppose. It's really pretty cheesy and hastily-composed, but it got
a gut laugh from a number of people out there.

I was indeed writing this meta-game of Guess-The-Author into the
texture of BAP. The ifMUD dialogue was part of it: here was a list
of the likely suspects, including myself. I figured anyone paying
attention and trying to guess would think, Okay, it's probably
*someone* in this ifMUD dialogue. It would almost have to be,
right?


> At the end it does say who wrote it, and it's not any of the people
> I considered. The author went so far as to use Inform (he normally
> uses the rival language TADS) in order to obfuscate matters. And
> that's dedication, believe me: Inform has a nasty learning curve,
> especially to reach the degree of competence evident in this piece.

Thanks. It was pretty rough-and-ready internally. I had to stick
to what I knew how to do, since there was no time to mess around
learning new things about Inform internal workings. There was also
no leeway for creating bugs that I wouldn't know how to track down
and fix, although a couple of bugs like that blindsided me midway
through. There was one that caused the game to crash without
warning, almost at random. It scared the living holy heck out of
me, because *any* crash for any player would be a game-killer. "Too
bad, it seemed like it was going to be fun. Guess I'll give it a 1
and move on."

There were several good reasons to make the effort. Inform is the
language that Zarf uses (and that Adam uses). If I wanted to, say,
ape the "--Glaring Light..." line, I could reproduce it exactly.
Using the Z-machine also made for a natural use of the Infocom
bits. It absolutely was dictated by the material, but it also
served the obfuscatory purpose.

It eventually seemed silly how concentrated I was on concealing
my identity, considering that I'm not a well-known IF author. My
main concern, I guess, was that my friends on ifMUD would play BAP
thinking, "Oh, here's Rob's game." In retrospect, I'm not sure why
I felt the need to avoid this. I was even going to go so far as to
enter a second game in the Comp, written in TADS, and released
under my name. The main problem I had was that I couldn't ask for
any Inform help, because I didn't want people to know that the Comp
game I was working on was being written in Inform. Silly. However,
it seems that one person did notice this meta- game of
Guess-The-Author and gave it some thought while playing, and that
this meta-game actually added to her experience of BAP. Makes it
all seem worth it, somehow.


> BAP proclaims itself from the title on to be a tour of in-jokery,
> the author friendly and playful. Shade comes across deliberately
> as one of those games we all try to avoid: the Newbie Implements
> His Apartment.

So I didn't get around to playing it until I'd tried a lot of other


things, precisely because the blurb made me roll my eyes and groan.
I was expecting something shoddily coded, plotless, and devoid of
imagination.

And with Zarf, you have to assume that this was deliberate.
Wickedly so, and strangely gutsy. He was deliberately sacrificing
some points, on top of the points he was already shunting by not
releasing an entry in his own name. At this point, using his own
name is an automatic gain. He already knows this, having been
through it with "Hunter, In Darkness." He took a handicap, for the
second year in a row. Let us not be confused, though; when he
enters the Comp, he's making his best shot at winning.

And yet, the opening. Thematically, it's exactly where Shade has
to start. It has to start like this, and then slowly crumble away.
How do you hang onto the audience long enough for the game to
really kick into gear?

BAP gave me the exact same problem. There were reasons why it had
to start out in an extremely dull file room. I was extremely
concerned about how lame the beginning was. I knew that once people
got as far as going into Zarf's head for the first time, I had
them. The thing would crank along all the way to the end, like a
Disneyland ride, once people got to that point. I did what I could,
but mostly I relied on the title to keep people curious enough to
hang in there for a few turns. It was a risk.


> I fired up Shade. Read the opening text. Poked around. Found


> things better implemented than I thought they would be. (The
> bathroom and kitchen -- cleanly programmed, showing a familiarity
> with what Inform containers can be made to do.) Found myself
> starting to get uneasy with the PC's discomfort and nerviness. Was
> disturbed by the constant references to making a phone call when
> there was no telephone in sight.

And there you have Zarf's solution, pretty much. What he's doing
is demonstrating a masterful knowledge of the way players find
their own amusements when they have no clue what else to be doing.
I'm tempted to compare what Zarf's doing in Shade to Alfred
Hitchcock, who had a like mastery of audience manipulation. Let's
also mention the slow- burning suspense intrinsic to Shade. The
first appearance of sand is odd, but doesn't mean much. It could
mean anything. It turns out to mean everything.

So Zarf seals you, the player, in a container barely big enough
to walk around in, with only a limited number of objects to
interact with. Sooner or later, you're going to trigger the next
bit, and the next. The placement of these triggers is quite canny,
and they're not always the same for every player, every time. And
yet, the pacing is the same. (There is a bit of a hiccup in the
pacing at one point, which Zarf has since noted and intends to fix,
or so I hear.)


> Found this:
>
> "It is, of course, the Death Valley Om -- half arts festival, half
> cult, a week in the deep desert where people show off, have sex,
> take drugs, and maintain a twenty-four-hour constant OM."
>

> and my neck started to prickle. "Take note. You thought the


> author was a stranger, but he knows you. You thought he was
> incompetent, but he is a master. Beware. Fear."

Wow. That wasn't my reaction at this point, but now I wish it had
been.


> So layered into my progressing fear for my PC was uneasiness
> approaching nausea on my own behalf. The author himself seemed
> sinister, and his dislike aimed at me and mine. Greek myth is full
> of such moments, when a god among mortals, disguised and mocked,
> suddenly turns with eyes shining. Terror follows, and madness.

Wow again. Something is definitely sinister, here. There's going
to be a betrayal, and a death. The betrayal may already have
happened before the game even begins, however. It's like a slow
poison in the veins, and you don't even feel it. By the time you
start showing symptoms, it's already too late. Brrr.

The god among mortals notion is vivid and fascinating, although I
guess I did my bit to immortalize Zarf while at the same time
showing him at his most mundane moments. However, what's going on
for me here is a near kind of awe. I mean, I'd just poked at Zarf's
oeuvre, snipped and cut and pasted it, as if I could boil it down
and reproduce its essence, and say, "Hey, look, here's what Zarf's
work is all about." Beware, though, when you go head to head with
the real thing. I hate to keep using the word "mastery," but
"Shade" puts so much of it on display I feel compelled to bow my
head in respect. I mean, the one- room game is a loser genre, and
look what Zarf manages to do with it.

The other odd thing about the loser one-room game genre is that
it's the domain of frustrated authors (I tend to see it as a
subconscious metaphor for the author's frustration, of having no
ideas. I used to openly deride the film school equivalent of this,
which was "a guy is lost in the desert." Hey, wait a minute...!),
authors like the *protagonist* in "Shade." The character's "notes
for Comp game," buried in the stack of worthless ideas, slated for
flushing down the toilet, are probably for some lackluster one-room
game.

Excuse me while my head spins.


> Sound odd? Very well. But let me point out that the author-player
> relationship in IF is more strained than the static fiction
> author-reader relationship, and requires, in a sense, more trust.

I'm thinking again about the author-is-vaguely-sinister
observation. It almost seems like there's a low whisper going on
throughout, which says, "Do you trust me? You shouldn't."

It also says, "You are not going to win this one. This is not a
game you're going to survive." On the other hand, despite
broadcasting this particular message (sometimes overtly, depending
if you poke at the right object at the right time), the very end of
the game does a reversal. We do win. Sort of. Why? Because it says
we do. But. Not. Like. We. Wanted.


> But my sense of who the author is does play strongly into how I
> feel about a game. I think I would have found the whole Shade
> experience less compelling had I known from the outset whose it
> was.

You might be right about that. I knew whose it was, and that made
me trust what was going on. I knew I was in good hands. (Being in
good hands comes up at the end of the game, too. Well, not
necessarily good hands. Hands that are a boiling cauldron aren't
necessarily good, one might suggest.) All the same, I never knew
from turn to turn what to expect. Just when I thought I knew where
it was going, it pulled a double-cross. Not to comedic effect,
though. Definitely not to comedic effect.


> In a small group, with a dedicated audience, where so many members
> are players and authors and critics and theorists at once and where
> one writes for feedback rather than for money, reputation begins to
> give way to relationship. And the shape of that relationship
> affects my experience. (If you've played a game written by a good
> friend and you've found yourself laughing because you recognize the
> cadence of their speech marching on your screen, you know what I
> mean.)

Maybe that was what I was trying to avoid. It's also what I was
trying to use to my advantage, by using the familiar cadences of
other authors.


> The point is: if you know your audience personally, you can break
> the fourth wall with a vengeance, and in a way that is more
> absorbing in interactive fiction than it could possibly be in any
> other medium. I was reminded of a scene in Ende's _Neverending
> Story_, but the resonance catches with hundreds of other stories I
> read in childhood, and with a dream that is I think universal to
> all escapist readers: that you can somehow get into the fictional
> world, or at least that the lines can be blurred and the fantasy
> grafted to the workaday universe in which you live.

When I wrote BAP, I had a general audience in mind, and then a
specific audience in mind, and then subsets of that audience, on
down the line to specific *people* whose fun buttons I was trying
to push. It was all very deliberate, and though the game didn't
please everybody (surprise), I've received enough feedback to know
that I hit every target I was aiming for. There were a lot of
bullseyes.

To everyone who gave me a 9 or a 10, I'd like to say that, truly,
I was aiming right at you. Anyone who gave me a 7 or and 8 is
someone at whom I fired one or two special zingers but generally
didn't try to mess with. People who gave me a 5 or a 6 are the ones
on the receiving end of the general, solid design of the game and
some touches here and there. Everyone else is someone whose tastes
I didn't really pay attention to.

There was a certain type of person I wasn't sure I would find out
there, but it turned out to be Emily Short in particular. This was
an audience member who would somehow look beneath the silly surface
and notice that there were some daring ideas hiding, shyly, in the
deep. At the same time that I was writing a game about indentity
and the swapping of it, and the hijacking of it, and the twisting
of it, and the changing face of it, and seeing the world through
someone else's eyes, I was busy hiding my own identity, obfuscating
it, trying very hard to pretend to be other authors, anyone but
myself. And yet, the total package comes out being the most
true-to-myself writing I've done in ten years. The authorial voice
is authentically mine, despite the game's being a pastiche.

Or the game's being Andrew Plotkin, if you prefer. (Sorry, sorry.)


--
J. Robinson Wheeler http://thekroneexperiment.com
whe...@jump.net


Andrew Plotkin

unread,
Nov 21, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/21/00
to
J. Robinson Wheeler <whe...@jump.net> wrote:
> Emily Short wrote:

>> If you haven't played BAP and Shade, go home now: this is sheer raw
>> spoilage.
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>

>> [NB: if
>> anyone thinks that these two games are a good reason to start
>> programming a comp game only a month before the deadline, I urge
>> you to reconsider. This is an exception. Do not emulate. Thank
>> you.]

> I second the motion. I think you really have to know what you're
> doing to pull it off, and then it's still going against the odds.
> For one thing, it doesn't mean that you have a month to write your
> game, it means you have *two weeks* to write it, and two weeks to
> test and refine it.

You also have to be an insane freak. I mean that. Just so you all
know.

(Near-terrifyingly worshipful essay snipped :-)

> A number of people wrote to tell me how much they enjoyed the
> change in descriptions when the PC was Zarf. I must admit that I
> was playing into the whole Zarf mythos here, and I don't really
> think Zarf goes around eyeballing things and estimating the exact
> dimensions and measurements of windows.

To repeat some of what I said yesterday to Emily in e-mail... It's
like the thing where you hear your voice on a tape recorder and don't
recognize it. In fact, it's like hearing someone else do an
*impression* of recording of your voice on a tape recorder. The
character Zarf -- an interpretation of my public persona -- really
doesn't feel much like me at all, to me. Surprise! :)

(*That* goal -- making a game that really *was* like being me -- would
have been both impossible and totally unsuited to a competition
entry. Which the honored author knew of course.)

I would also like to thank the honored author for one more thing:

For at least the next year, I am guaranteed to get a laugh whenever I
tell people about IFComp. "Yeah, there was this game 'Being Andrew
Plotkin'. It was pretty good. Came in third. Of course, my entry came
in tenth..."

--Z

"And Aholibamah bare Jeush, and Jaalam, and Korah: these were the
borogoves..."

Joe Mason

unread,
Nov 21, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/21/00
to
In article <B63F746F.3C96%whe...@jump.net>, J. Robinson Wheeler wrote:
>Emily Short wrote:
>
>> If you haven't played BAP and Shade, go home now: this is sheer raw
>> spoilage.
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>One description I wrote, and was particularly fond of, was what
>Melvin looks when the PC is Zarf. It's obvious at first glance to
>Zarf that Melvin is not a human being, but some sort of odd
>construct clothed in ersatz skin. Unfortunately, d'oh, there is
>never an opportunity in the game for you to X MELVIN when you're
>Zarf. Get out your TXD's, people, I guess.

Er, I managed it somehow. I think it might have involved UNDO, though.
(I liked it, BTW. Made Zarf seemed even more superhuman.)

Joe

Vincent Lynch

unread,
Nov 26, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/26/00
to
Joe Mason <jcm...@uwaterloo.ca> wrote:
> In article <B63F746F.3C96%whe...@jump.net>, J. Robinson Wheeler wrote:
>>Emily Short wrote:
>>> If you haven't played BAP and Shade, go home now: this is sheer raw
>>> spoilage.
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>One description I wrote, and was particularly fond of, was what
>>Melvin looks when the PC is Zarf. It's obvious at first glance to
>>Zarf that Melvin is not a human being, but some sort of odd
>>construct clothed in ersatz skin. Unfortunately, d'oh, there is
>>never an opportunity in the game for you to X MELVIN when you're
>>Zarf. Get out your TXD's, people, I guess.
>
> Er, I managed it somehow. I think it might have involved UNDO, though.
> (I liked it, BTW. Made Zarf seemed even more superhuman.)

I think it simply involves choosing not to say anything at some point.

-Vincent

Matthew W. Miller

unread,
Dec 4, 2000, 12:22:35 AM12/4/00
to
SPOILERS
on Being Andrew Plotkin...

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

On 26 Nov 2000 13:25:37 GMT, Vincent Lynch


<ma...@mimosa.csv.warwick.ac.uk> wrote:
>Joe Mason <jcm...@uwaterloo.ca> wrote:
>>In article <B63F746F.3C96%whe...@jump.net>, J. Robinson Wheeler wrote:

>>>One description I wrote, and was particularly fond of, was what Melvin
>>>looks when the PC is Zarf. It's obvious at first glance to Zarf that
>>>Melvin is not a human being, but some sort of odd construct clothed in
>>>ersatz skin. Unfortunately, d'oh, there is never an opportunity in the
>>>game for you to X MELVIN when you're Zarf. Get out your TXD's, people,
>>>I guess.

>> Er, I managed it somehow. I think it might have involved UNDO,
>> though. (I liked it, BTW. Made Zarf seemed even more superhuman.)
>I think it simply involves choosing not to say anything at some point.

Does it? The only times I recall playing as Zarf are in the recursion
room and later in the file room. When Melvin shows up, by the time I can
do anything I'm back to being Peter again.
--
Matthew W. Miller -- mwmi...@columbus.rr.com

Vincent Lynch

unread,
Dec 4, 2000, 3:00:00 AM12/4/00
to

Sorry, I was thinking of something else entirely.

However, Melvin is described by Zarf in one of the cut scenes (in a similar
way to above), so this is presumably what Joe remembers.

-Vincent

--
Right. Shall we have an argument?

J. Robinson Wheeler

unread,
Dec 4, 2000, 3:00:00 AM12/4/00
to
Matthew W. Miller wrote:

> SPOILERS
> on Being Andrew Plotkin...
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>
> .
>

> Vincent Lynch wrote:


>> Joe Mason wrote:
>>> J. Robinson Wheeler wrote:
>>>> One description I wrote, and was particularly fond of, was what Melvin
>>>> looks when the PC is Zarf. It's obvious at first glance to Zarf that
>>>> Melvin is not a human being, but some sort of odd construct clothed in
>>>> ersatz skin. Unfortunately, d'oh, there is never an opportunity in the
>>>> game for you to X MELVIN when you're Zarf. Get out your TXD's, people,
>>>> I guess.
>>> Er, I managed it somehow. I think it might have involved UNDO,
>>> though. (I liked it, BTW. Made Zarf seemed even more superhuman.)
>> I think it simply involves choosing not to say anything at some point.
>
> Does it? The only times I recall playing as Zarf are in the recursion
> room and later in the file room. When Melvin shows up, by the time I can
> do anything I'm back to being Peter again.

I was just looking at the source code again, and it appears that on one of
my last passes through the game, I recoginzed that the player would have no
turn in which to X MELVIN, so I made the game simply print this text out
when you, as Zarf, go through the secret door into the tunnel. There was
already a little cut-scene at that point, so I just put the description
there.

I then forgot I'd done this. Oh well. So that's why people seemed to
remember seeing it. The fact that it comes as part of a big blob of text
explains why other people might have skimmed past it and/or not remembered
exactly where they saw it.

Joe Mason

unread,
Dec 4, 2000, 3:00:00 AM12/4/00
to
In article <slrn92mapb....@treehouse.columbus.rr.com>, Matthew W.
Miller wrote:
>SPOILERS
>on Being Andrew Plotkin...
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>
>.
>

[On getting the description of Melvin when you're Zarf]

>Does it? The only times I recall playing as Zarf are in the recursion
>room and later in the file room. When Melvin shows up, by the time I can
>do anything I'm back to being Peter again.

IIRC, you've got that backwards. You play Zarf in the file room, then go
through the door to get to the recursion room.

When Melvin comes in, you have one action, which is supposed to be 'enter
door'. If you look at Melvin instead, you get the description, but then you
die. So the first time I did it (since I wantod to see if I could avoid the
door completely - I figured if I were Zarf, there's no WAY I'd want to risk
entering my own head and exploding the Universe or something) I looked at
Melvin, died, and then typed UNDO.

I really should replay the game to be sure I'm remembering this right.

Joe

Joe Mason

unread,
Dec 4, 2000, 3:00:00 AM12/4/00
to
In article <B6512B9A.407F%whe...@jump.net>, J. Robinson Wheeler wrote:

>Matthew W. Miller wrote:
>
>> SPOILERS
>> on Being Andrew Plotkin...
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>> .
>>
>I was just looking at the source code again, and it appears that on one of
>my last passes through the game, I recoginzed that the player would have no
>turn in which to X MELVIN, so I made the game simply print this text out
>when you, as Zarf, go through the secret door into the tunnel. There was
>already a little cut-scene at that point, so I just put the description
>there.

Oh. I knew I should've played it again before I posted.

That must be what I'm remembering. I *did* try not to go through the door the
first time I played, which is what confused me.

Joe

Reply all
Reply to author
Forward
0 new messages