Monday, September 20, 2010

Get Lamp

Reader Zachary Grant recently reminded me of the documentary film, Get Lamp. Created by Jason Scott, who is the webmaster of textfiles.com, an archive of online materials from the mid-80s, Get Lamp is about the history and development of text adventures, a once-important genre of computer games that have long since been forgotten. I played a lot of those games when I was younger and consider them an adjunct to old school roleplaying games, since they share many of the same design and esthetic principles. Indeed, there are worse ways to wrap your head around the old school mindset than to fire up a copy of the original Zork.

I haven't seen Get Lamp and, given the expense of the DVD, I'm not likely to do so in the near future. Still, I can't deny that it looks very intriguing. Text adventures grew up side by side with table roleplaying. Understanding them and their history is, I think, every bit as important to understanding the hobby as understanding miniatures wargaming, perhaps even moreso, given the continued influence computer and video games have on tabletop gaming.

31 comments:

  1. "Have since been forgotten"? That statement will surprise the small but passionate interactive fiction community. I wrote about them in 2005, and they're still going strong: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_7/46-READ-GAME

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  2. A friend and I used to make a text adventure back in high school. "Kill Justin", a very bizarre and violent exercise inspired by my friend's annoying young stepbrother.

    Remarkably, it's still floating around the internet to this day.

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  3. Don't forget EAMON, Don Brown's creation for the Apple. I am as proud of my work on EAMON (the computer game) as I was about my contributions to D&D and AD&D. Great times and great memories of creativity

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  4. Ha! Somebody even wrote a review. Crazy.

    http://www.joltcountry.com/trottingkrips/killjustin.html

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  5. I loved Zork so much. Classic adventure video games are a HUGE influence on my gaming even today.

    If you haven't seen this Infocom-themed video by "nerdcore" rapper MC Frontalot, you may get a kick out of it:

    http://tinyurl.com/yw68pm

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  7. Looks neat. Looking at the trailer makes me wonder about the documentary Dave Arneson was working on about the history of the Hobby.

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  8. Inform 7 is a really nice development environment for writing these games. It uses a language that is close to English.

    For example, to create some rooms you write:

    "The Dark Cellar is a room. East of the Dark Cellar is the Earthen Tunnel. Up from the Dark Cellar is the Squalid Shack. North of the Eathen Tunnel is the Violated Crypt."

    To put a coffin in the Violated Crypt you could write: "The silk-lined coffin is an open, enterable container in the Violated Crypt."

    Hit the 'Go' button in the IDE, and this will be compiled into an Infocom-style game with the four rooms, that you can travel between.

    Compiling the game also generates a map of the rooms, an index of all the rooms and items, and other meta-information that you can use to keep track of what you've written.

    It's really very well done. It's free and available for Mac, Windows, and Gnome.

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  9. Good times. Text adventures and BBSes took up a vast chunk of my waking hours during the '80s. Probably more than AD&D. I almost (no, I do) wish that things were still that simple. My wife still looks at me like I've been smoking something when I talk about sending e-mail over FidoNet in high school :).

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  10. Looks like the quickest way to be sure no one sees your independent film is to charge $45+ per DVD. Yikes.

    And no Netflix either.

    /too bad

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  11. Text adventure is a direct intellectual descendant of D&D, although oddly D&D is never mentioned in this film. The developer of Adventure! had started playing D&D in 1974 with a character called Willie the Thief.

    History of Adventure!

    My recent comments on D&D and Adventure!

    Note also, GET LAMP is available for free under Creative Commons license.

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  12. Jess, you have link you can share for the CC version?

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  13. I remember going to a computer camp back in 1982, where we learned how to program in the basic language. I wasted a lot of time creating text-based adventures that summer.

    The first computer game I ever played was a text game where you were a artillerist, and had to enter the pitch of your cannon and the amount of gunpowder, to hit a distant target. It would print out a diagram (either on screen or on a line-printer) of the cannon-ball flight, and show whether your shot was successful.

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  14. That statement will surprise the small but passionate interactive fiction community.

    No doubt, but I think it's fair to say that, in the larger computer gaming hobby, text adventures are generally considered a relic of the past -- just as old school roleplaying is by mainstream tabletop hobby.

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  15. Looking at the trailer makes me wonder about the documentary Dave Arneson was working on about the history if the Hobby.

    "Dragons in the Basement," I think it was called? So far as I know, that project is long defunct, which is a pity, because, as I understand it, Dave was provided many hours of interviews to be used in it.

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  16. "No doubt, but I think it's fair to say that, in the larger computer gaming hobby, text adventures are generally considered a relic of the past -- just as old school roleplaying is by mainstream tabletop hobby."

    Probably. But the interactive fiction panel at PAX East was standing room only with a line of people outside who didn't get in.

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  17. But the interactive fiction panel at PAX East was standing room only with a line of people outside who didn't get in.

    That's great to hear! Honestly, I had no idea that there was still much interest in this form of entertainment. I'm pleased to be mistaken.

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  18. And at Tufts University near Boston, October is "Interactive fiction month", though I don't know exactly what that means, other than a showing of Get Lamp.

    Oh, and a book recently came out about writing text adventures with Inform 7.

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  19. The communities doing old school roleplaying and text adventures are not exactly disjoint.

    Inform is a handy prototyping system for dungeons/modules, just as it's a handy system for prototyping other sorts of video games. I find it useful in building an idea of a space's flow.

    Plus writing text adventures is a lot of fun.

    Adam

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  20. @johnhendry2

    I would be remiss if I did not point out that Inform 7 is also available in a CLI version for Linux on the i386, x86_64, ppc, armv5tel, s390, and s390x architectures.

    I can hook you up with FreeBSD i386 or amd64, too, if you want.

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  21. Get Lamp is free to share and remix (as is his previous documentary, BBS).
    http://inventory.getlamp.com/2010/08/08/creative-commons/
    You have to find torrents of them (easy), or ask a friend to make a copy of his DVDs.

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  22. Text adventures seem to have had a similar fate to black-and-white film: once they stopped being mainstream they started being arty.

    I wonder if 'storygames' are a similar phenomenon in the world of pen-and-paper games?

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  23. @KenR: I looked for a torrent and came up empty. I second the call for a link.

    I wish they'd put it on archive.org the way they did with The BBS Documentary.

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  24. @Restless

    Get Lamp has only been available for six weeks. And people like me have been waiting for it for roughly three years. I'd say that it'll get on archive.org sooner or later. He's put a lot of effort into this and I'm happy to see him make his $50 for each DVD set contrary to what somebody was complaining about. I have a copy. I'm quite pleased with it. And it comes with a snazzy commemorative coin with copy number on it. Mine is #1747. It's really nice. And if people can't wait, I recommend the book that I understand inspired the movie: "Twisty Little Passages" from MIT Press (2003) by Nick Montfort, who is interviewed in the movie. It's likely available at university library.

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  25. Text adventures seem to have had a similar fate to black-and-white film: once they stopped being mainstream they started being arty.

    That's a common fate for cast-off technologies.

    I wonder if 'storygames' are a similar phenomenon in the world of pen-and-paper games?

    Not just storygames. I suspect a great many RPGs published over the last 20 years have fallen victim to a similar fate.

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  26. "That's a common fate for cast-off technologies. "

    On the other hand, consider that text adventures are pretty much the only way for a single person to create a computer game that uses epic imagery in the telling of its story.

    A single sentence of descriptive text might require weeks of effort by a team of artists if it were depicted in a modern graphical game.

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  27. "And if people can't wait, I recommend the book that I understand inspired the movie: "Twisty Little Passages" from MIT Press (2003) by Nick Montfort, who is interviewed in the movie. "

    Another option would be to read The Craft Of Adventure (free PDF) by Graham Nelson, creator of Inform. It includes a brief history of IF, and some thoughts on adventure game design.

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  28. There's another edition of the Craft of Adventure article, (free PDF) which is somewhat different. The version in my prior comment is a chapter from the Inform Designer's Manual. This version is a stand-alone document.

    The stand-alone version is a bit shorter, includes a 'Bill of Players' Rights'. And might be of interest if only for a brief mention of 'Tunnels and Trolls', where two T&T spells are used as examples, one that would be good for a text adventure, and one that would not be well-suited for such a game.

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  29. Yep, those old (and newer!) games inspired me to pen this series of posts on puzzles, settings, and the text-to-RPG connection. I'll definitely have to check out the documentary, there is some fascinating interface with real spelunking in those early games.

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  30. RPGs and text adventures translate better than you might expect. See "The King of Shreds and Patches," originally published in Chaosium's "Strange Aeons," a scenario book for Call of Cthulhu (http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=801&it=1), and later released as a text adventure (http://maher.filfre.net/King/).

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  31. text adventures are generally considered a relic of the past -- just as old school roleplaying is by mainstream tabletop hobby.

    ...not so much by computer game designers, or at least that was my experience 10 years ago. Maybe the new kids know nothing of these early efforts.

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