Get Lamp
Jason Scott, 2010

When I got my first computer, naturally one of the first things I wanted to do was stock up on video games. My mother somehow got hold of a catalogue of games available for the IBM PC at the time, and we spent a few minutes browsing through it. It turned out that the pickings for those unfortunate souls with monochrome monitors were quite slim. My dreams of playing Spare Change and Castle Wolfenstein in the comfort of my own home, dashed! It looked like my best bet was this one game whose ratings were an order of magnitude better than any other game's and whose reviews were uniformly superlative. It was called Deadline. But no — I looked into it a bit more and discovered that Deadline had no graphics. That made it a non-starter.

You might think that the irony of this story is that a few years later I would end up writing games in the same format as Deadline — compiled to run on the same virtual machine, even. But as far as I'm concerned the real irony is this:

Deadline isn't a video game! The whole reason I didn't order it back when it was universally considered the best game available for my system was that it wasn't a video game! It was a text game, and the defining characteristic of text games was their lack of graphics, i.e., a video component. It might therefore seem a bit perverse to make a movie about text games — to create a work in a visual medium about a medium defined by its lack of visuals. And yet here it is: Jason Scott's documentary about interactive fiction, Get Lamp. And it's good!

As you might expect, with screenshots being fairly pointless, the movie is heavy on talking heads — but that's the case for the vast majority of documentaries, so hey. The main film is divided into four main parts: one about the advent of text adventures in the 1970s and their 1980s commercial heyday; one about the experience of actually playing one of these things; one about puzzles; and one about the second flowering of the medium in the 1990s, as hobbyists, free from commercial concerns, started turning out pieces that truly were better described as "interactive fiction" than as text adventures. You also get two backup features, one about Bedquilt Cave, on which the first text adventure was based, and the other about Infocom, the company that was basically synonymous with the medium back in the day. The Infocom feature was the most interesting part of the Get Lamp package to me — it's a fascinating, self-contained story about a group of MIT students who start a software company and pick a generic name because they don't actually know what kind of software they want to make; sort of randomly release a text adventure, Zork, which turns out to be a massive success; bring in a bunch of people who, to those of us who imprinted on the Infocom oeuvre, are now big celebrities; turn out more and more sophisticated interactive stories while enjoying a work environment that's a geek's dream come true; turn down a $28 million offer from Simon & Schuster; stake the company's future on the piece of business software that another division had been developing in parallel with the games; watch it flop; and get bought out for a pittance by Activision, which shuts Infocom down. It's sort of a smaller-scale, nerdier, much more esoteric version of the Beatles story: these people come together, pile up an impressive catalogue in a whirlwind of creativity, and then suddenly it's falling apart and the next moment it's over. As Steve Meretzky puts it: "We definitely didn't spend enough time thinking about how lucky we were at that time. We kind of assumed, oh, well, this is what it's always going to be like, this is going to go on forever — much like youth itself. There wasn't much reflection on, 'Oh, this is just a shooting star and in a year or in three years it'll all be gone.'"

All that is on the first disc. The second disc is a collection of little snippets of this and that. One of these snippets is about one of the IF competition entries from back in '98, Photopia, which I wrote. So, yeah, I guess I should probably mention that I'm actually in this thing — I think I'm only in the main movie for about five seconds, but my screen time on the second disk is probably upwards of a minute. Most of that is a string of "um"s and "y'know"s, though. I'm not a very good interview subject. Interviewers tend to ask questions that, for me at least, require way more reflection than a real-time exchange like an interview allows. Even on the rare occasions that I am able to come up with a semi-coherent reply right on the spot, I always find myself dwelling on the questions, and coming up with much better answers, long after the interview is over. Then I feel like an idiot for saying what I actually said. I've also found that interviewers — though I should hasten to add that Jason Scott didn't fall into this category — generally already have a take on things that they want to push and are mainly fishing for quotes to back it up. For instance, I just did an interview with BBC Radio 4 about Lyttle Lytton and, while the host seemed like a really nice guy, he kept trying to steer me towards the idea that good writing and bad writing are indistinguishable and that writers should therefore live in constant terror that they're churning out crap. This was not a notion I had really come prepared to grapple with. I tried to finesse my way back toward points that I thought might be related that I already had sound bites for: the fact that, yes, I do tend to like entries that seem like they should work and yet are subtly wrong somehow, or the way that, sure, I regularly find myself embarrassed by things I wrote a few years earlier, even though they seemed fine to me at the time. But he was pretty insistent on having me weigh in on his particular thesis, and hell, I dunno — give me a couple of weeks to sort through my thoughts and write an article about it and I'll have an answer.

Also, that answer will probably be as long as the article. Which brings me to another thing that makes me a terrible interview subject: I think very contextually. Like, when I'm drilling vocab with my GRE students, I don't like it when they rattle off phrases they've memorized — to show me you actually understand the nuances of the word, give me copia. Use the word in three different sentences. Do a little skit for me. And I tend to explain unto others as I would have them explain unto me. So when the guy asked me to explain what the Lyttle Lytton contest was, but to "focus on the real ones," I couldn't just go straight to talking about the Found division of the contest — it needed context! First I needed to explain who Edward Bulwer-Lytton was, then say a bit about the history of the contest named after him, and my criticisms of same, and my decision to start a spinoff of it, and then compare a sample Bulwer-Lytton winner to a Lyttle Lytton one, and then discuss how people started to submit real sentences in addition to made-up ones, and how the found ones showed just how hard it was to write unintentionally bad sentences intentionally, and before I got more than about 10% of the way into that he was like just answer the fuckin' question, dude! (Except the British version of that.)

By the way, the end of the Deadline story is that we ordered Asylum instead. I got nowhere.

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