Earlier this month I did an interview with Cara Ellison for a web site called Rock Paper Shotgun. That interview is now up, but it's in an unusual format that requires a little bit of extra attention to navigate, so with Cara's permission, I thought I'd post the Q & A in a more traditional format here.

CE What was your first text adventure?

AC Do you mean the first one I wrote, bought, played, or saw?

CE The first one you played.

AC I think that would be Adventure, which was available on the Dow Jones online service for a mere $144/hour (in 1984 dollars). Fortunately for my father's bank account, I only got a few turns into it.

CE How about the first one that made you think, ugh, I could do better?

AC It never even occurred to me to try writing them until I saw the 1995 comp entries on the Masterpieces of Infocom CD. And I was never motivated by the idea of writing something "better" than the ones I'd played — I don't think I ever played a piece of interactive fiction that was clearly of unprofessional quality until I had already started writing the things myself.

CE What are you currently working on?

AC I recently packed Endless, Nameless off to the IF archive, so I'm now turning my attention to finishing up my next book.

CE Oooh, tell us more about Endless, Nameless!

AC When I was twelve years old I entered a computer science magnet program which was full of kids who hung out on various Orange County BBSes. Most of these were WWIV boards written in Pascal. Borland's Turbo Pascal let you swap in external modules called "door games," some of which were text adventures. Endless, Nameless begins by throwing you into one of these:



What happens after that may not be entirely what you expect.

CE Your most renowned piece is Photopia. Do you consider it your most interesting work?

AC No, I think my most interesting work is the book I'm trying to finish.

CE Does that mean you are pretty tired of people asking you about Photopia?

AC No, but I find that I often don't have much to say in response to the usual questions. I'm happy to talk about stuff like process, when I can remember it — e.g., I recently gave a talk at UC Santa Cruz about some of the process behind Endless, Nameless, such as how I developed the magic system in the game. But often people ask what something I've written "means to me" or what have you, and those questions are tough to answer. I mean, everything I write is about a set of themes, and either everything I have to say about those themes is already in the work — i.e., you're not going to get any more out of me than what's already there — or else I do have more to say, but I plan to say it in future work, and in fact it is in doing that future work that I will sort out what it is I have to say.

CE Tell us more about your new book!

AC I don't want to say too much until the thing is finished. But I guess it wouldn't be going too far to say that people who like Photopia in particular out of the various things I've done might want to check it out.

CE Is it easier to write straight fiction rather than IF?

AC No, it's much more difficult. For me at least, writing IF is like building a bridge while writing regular fiction is like walking a tightrope.

CE Can you make money from writing Interactive Fiction?

AC Indirectly, yes — my IF work got me some writing jobs that have furnished me a comfortable income over the past couple of years. Directly, I'm not sure. I know that Zarf raised a bit over $30,000 on Kickstarter, and there are those who have suggested that I do the same and try to make a paying career out of writing IF. However, I suspect that many of Zarf's contributors considered it a one-time donation to interactive fiction in general, and wouldn't support other authors in the same way on a regular basis. For one thing, the money Zarf made wasn't just for the game he put in the headline, but also for the various tools he said he'd create — and, really, for the tools he'd already created. I considered my own donation pretty much a payment for Glulx, which I used for a couple of my projects back in the early '00s.

Finally, while Zarf got headlines for raising $30,000… that's only a year's expenses for me, and I don't live an extravagant lifestyle at all. I would have to have that kind of fundraising success year after year just to tread water. So it does seem, based both on my own experience and on that of some other IF authors I know, that the better bet is to use IF as a calling card to get freelance work. (And if anyone out there is looking for a freelancer with my skill set, I'm available.)

CE What would you ask Andrew if you had the chance to grill him?

AC Well, that's not really a hypothetical insofar as I run into him every now and again — I had dinner with him (and a bunch of other IF people) last March, for instance. Our conversations have been cordial but we end up talking past each other to a great extent because we're coming from such different mental spaces.

CE How is interactive fiction treated by the mainstream games press?

AC I don't have the slightest idea. I didn't even know there was a mainstream games press. I haven't really been up to date with what was going on in the world of computer games since the mid-1980s.

CE Is the IF community still thriving, and producing exciting ideas?

AC Again, I'm not really the one to ask. I got into the IF community in the late '90s and had checked out by the early '00s. Now that I think about it, I think the last time I sat down and played a new piece of interactive fiction to completion was during the 2001 IF competition.

As you'll see in my interviews in the early '00s, I fully expected that IF would have vanished by now - it seemed that most people in the IF community in the 1990s had gotten into it primarily for nostalgic reasons ("Wow, there's a programming language that lets you create Infocom games! Same format and everything! I've got to try that!") and it appeared that most of them had gotten it out of their systems after writing one or two games. People were getting married, having kids, graduating from grad school and getting jobs, etc. Few of the ifMUD regulars from the early days were spending much time there anymore.

What I hadn't counted on, and what is still surprising to me, is that people who hadn't even been born when Infocom gave up the ghost would get interested in interactive fiction, considering it part of the "new media" or what have you. Some of my old ifMUD pals apparently put together an IF panel at one of those gaming conventions and attracted a standing-room-only crowd. That suggested that the audience for IF had not only failed to dwindle as I had predicted, but had grown. This is part of what Endless, Nameless is about, in fact.

(That said, the fact that Endless, Nameless has been out for a few months now and has attracted little response suggests that maybe the IF scene hasn't revived as much as I'd heard.)

CE Which pieces of interactive fiction are most important to you?

AC Important in what sense? I can talk about the ones that influenced my own IF writing, but if you mean "emotionally important" or something along those lines, I don't think there are any. Much as I do like writing IF, I've never actually enjoyed playing it — I don't really have the patience or talent for it.

CE Let's talk influences.

AC My reflex is to say that the piece that most influenced me was A Mind Forever Voyaging, the bulk of which was concerned with wandering around and looking at things and seeing how they change. The middlegame of AMFV was the ur-work of puzzleless IF, and I have been credited with helping to launch puzzleless IF in the modern day, so it seems like a natural name to drop. But now that I really think about it, no — that is the sort of thing that I am most interested in playing, but it hasn't really been the sort of thing I've written, nor even the sort of thing I'm planning to write in the foreseeable future.

You can make a case that my standard trick is taking a piece of IF that didn't work for me and grafting on influences from other media and my own life. Endless, Nameless is in part an exercise in taking some of my personal angst from 2005 and injecting it into, of all things, Westfront PC. Shrapnel is Southern Gothic and William Sleator injected into Zork I. Even Narcolepsy is basically an attempt to revisit the slapdash Interstate Zero (the setting, the branching structure) and turn it into something worthwhile by applying a big jolt of The Big Lebowski.

CE Let's talk about why IF might not be enjoyable to play.

AC It's hard to put into words. I guess I'd say that as appealing as the back-and-forth between author and player might sound, in practice I find it… I guess the word might be "exhausting"? A lot of the time I just find myself reading the opening bit and thinking, "Okay, so… to make this keep going I have to type something? All right, fine… how about this? No? Then… this? Still no? Man, I don't have the energy for this. >QUIT" Again, I really do like writing the things so I'm glad not everyone's like me.

CE IF is a great storytelling form. Are there any major disadvantages to the IF form?

AC This is a gigantic question. If you want to get philosophical, you could say that IF has no disadvantages that standard prose fiction doesn't, insofar as IF is a superset of prose fiction: you can turn War and Peace into an Inform program just by placing the text of it into the Initialise() routine. (Though you'd need to compile to Glulx to avoid the memory limits.) Thus, you can say that the usual complaints leveled at IF (e.g., the fact that it's difficult to implement characters in a robust way) are not disadvantages so much as advantages that have failed to fully materialize. (Say you think that Jay Gatsby is a great character. I can transfer Fitzgerald's text to an IF program and the character will be exactly as great. It's only when you try to add extra abilities, like allowing the reader to ask Gatsby questions of her own devising, that you start running into trouble.)

But that answer may be too cutesy, so if you have a follow-up that's less broad, fire away.

CE Do you think IF very much depends on the determination of the reader to explore? For example, a reader who only plays through once might not get the most from a piece of IF?

AC Well, let's consider Endless, Nameless in relation to this question, as it's the piece that is freshest in my mind.

I wrote the beginning of Endless, Nameless in 2006, then set it aside. When I picked it back up at the end of 2011, I had a pretty good idea of the shape of the middlegame, but still had many details left to work out; I also had only the vaguest idea of what might constitute a good ending. Nevertheless, I plunged right into coding the parts I was clear on and figured that I would figure out the rest as I went along. Even as I solidified the middlegame, the ending remained nebulous, and eventually I reached the point that I had the first and second acts almost completely finished and still didn't know what the third act should look like.

Normally I'm not a big fan of abstraction, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I guess I'll resort to it. So I looked back at what I'd written, and saw that I had all these moments with some thematic weight to them: call them A, B, C, D, etc. There didn't seem to be a good way to resolve all of them with a single ending, and furthermore, it seemed like it would be a missed opportunity to be working in an interactive medium and route the player toward a single ending when I didn't have a clear idea of what that ending ought to be. (Obviously if a single ending had been a key element of the work from the outset the situation would be different.) So the solution I eventually hit upon was this: I would write several endings. One would pick up, say, moments A, D, G, J, etc., that were all related to theme X, and resolve those — ideally, the player would finish and think, "Ah, that was a satisfying story about X." And another ending would pick up moments B, E, H, K, etc., and resolve those, and again, I hoped the player would think, "Ah, that was a satisfying story about Y." Now, if you only play once, you'll still get a satisfying story if I've done my job correctly. But if you play the endgame a number of times and reach different outcomes, you should come away having experienced a palimpsest of satisfying stories that have resolved multiple thematic threads, which would make for a much richer experience. (There are thirteen endings in the finished work, about seven or eight of which are pretty substantial.)

CE You're currently writing a book — is that IF's fault? Or is it just a natural progression?

AC Well, I work in a number of media, and ideally I will always have projects cooking in all of them. If you look back at what I've worked on over the past decade or so, you can see that I jump around a lot:

2003: IF (Narcolepsy)
2004: comics (Evil Creatures)
2005: N/A (didn't work on much due to factors in my personal life)
2006: novel (an odd project that I want to return to someday)
2007-8: film work (can't really talk about this due to NDAs)
2009: novel (the first half of the one I'm trying to finish now)
2010-1: more film work (see above)
2012: IF (Endless, Nameless) and now back to the novel

I do plan to return to IF at some point. When I do, my current plan is to finish up Zeta Space, which I started back in 1999… but plans can always change.

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