L. Ross Raszewski, 2001
It's been the better part of a month since I last posted a Calendar article, and the main reason is that I've been busy working up the next batch of Radio K episodes. The idea behind Radio K is that I stopped playing interactive fiction at the end of 2001, so I have gone back and begun playing the most well-regarded games of the intervening years, in roughly chronological order, and then discussing them with an assortment of guests. Recently I recorded the segment for a game by Quintin Stone called Scavenger, and its post-apocalyptic setting made it very tempting to spend the whole time talking about another nuclear war story, L. Ross Raszewski's Moments Out of Time, which is the last text game I played before my long hiatus and may just be my favorite piece of interactive fiction of all time. But that would have been unfair, so while I did record a bunch of my thoughts about Moments, I decided to cut all that material out of the segment and turn it into a Calendar article, which I am now doing, and will presumably already have done by the time you read this, unless I die unexpectedly and you find this unfinished document on my computer.
This train of thought may be morbid, but it's also thematically appropriate. In Moments Out of Time, you play an anthropologist from centuries in the future, and you've been sent back in time to the opening stages of the nuclear war of the mid-21st century. You have twelve hours to scour a family home in an evacuated town outside Washington, D.C., to gather as much information as you can about what life was like in America just before the bombs dropped. One reason that Moments immediately sprang to mind when I played Scavenger is that both games start with you examining a varied selection of gear and then picking a few items to take with you on your mission, not yet knowing what exactly you'll find and therefore not entirely sure what might or might not be useful. In neither game is there really a "right" answer. In Scavenger, your choice basically gives you a free puzzle solution; e.g., if you buy the radiation pills, you don't need to worry about obtaining the radiation suit later on. In Moments Out of Time, it profoundly changes the way you'll experience the story. If you take the stream visualizer, for instance, then when you enter a new room you'll be able to push a button and see a holographic movie of a scene that happened there. The problem is that you won't actually be able to get into all that many rooms, as most of the doors in the house are locked, and you'll spend much of your time hunting for keys. You therefore might be inclined to take the autokey instead, which allows you easy access to nearly every room — but without the stream visualizer, the only way you can get an idea of what might have gone on in those rooms is to piece it together from documents. So you'll end up spending a big chunk of your time looking for those. Take the library chip, and you can read encyclopedia entries on the technology you'll find, but you may not be able to actually use it. Take the interface chip instead, and you can pull files right off the computers you run into, but without access to the historical database provided by the library chip, you might not understand what those files are talking about. Of course, the idea is that you'll replay the game with different sets of equipment, having a different sort of experience and making new discoveries each time, and by seeing the world of the story from a bunch of different angles, you'll end up with a more complete picture of it than you could ever get from something like a novel or a movie. It's an interesting experiment, but I'm not sure that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Imagine that you visit a great world city for the first time, but you have no transportation and can only check out stuff that's within a short walk of your hotel. Then later you come back, and this time you have a car and can go anywhere… but you're not allowed to get out of the car. And then you return for a third visit, and this time you can travel wherever you like and stop for a closer look — except this time you're blindfolded, and while a tour guide will tell you the history behind any of the sights before you, you can't see them for yourself. After taking all those trips, you might well have a deep understanding of the city, but those individual visits might be frustrating enough to make you wonder whether it was worth it.
So why do I say that this may be my favorite piece of IF given that the above is not the most enthusiastic endorsement ever written? The answer is the content. The stories that interest me above all others are those that focus on how the lives of individual people are shaped by broader historical forces, and that's precisely what we have here: Moments Out of Time is about nuclear war, but our view of the war is filtered through the diaries and emails of the teenagers whose sibling rivalries and amorous fumblings are increasingly distorted by the imminence of the end of the world. And while normally the characters in stories like these are pretty bland, as they're intended to represent typical citizens of Anytown, U.S.A., the vignettes in Moments are very specific and very honest. Yes, there are occasions when the author gets a little sensationalistic, or throws in a joke that betrays that he wrote this in his early 20s. But on the whole, I found that the prose in this game served the same purpose that good art does in a comic book: yes, I wanted to reach new locations to see what they would add to the narrative, but I also just wanted to look at them — to see how they, and the events that took place in them, would be rendered in Raszewski's style. And the other thing about the content? There's a lot of it. One of the things I was told when I started working as a screenwriter was that movies don't offer enough room for much actual content, but you can still build vast worlds by suggesting a lot of content through brief references to other times and places. Raszewski seems to have asked, why not both? There is enough material in this game that it could easily have qualified as a major Infocom release — and there's enough supplemental information to suggest any number of potential sequels set in the same universe. This is interactive fiction, so you won't see a lot of this content unless you go looking for it, but… if you want to learn about the physics behind the time travel system in the game, you can find that information. Want to learn about various alien species in the far-future world of the framing story? The game includes dossiers. Curious about the odd system for rendering calendar dates? You can look that up too. Moments Out of Time was an entry in the seventh edition of the annual interactive fiction competition, and there's more invention here than in half the other comp games put together.
And that's true on the technical front as well. When the comp games were released back in 2001, one of the first things that made Moments Out of Time stand out from the pack was its filename: moments.z6. Z6? In the hobbyist world, Z5 meant short games and Z8 meant long games — what was zee six? It turned out that Z6 was Infocom's multimedia format, and while it wasn't until I played the game again in 2015 that I was actually able to hear them, Moments does feature some sound effects and music. This may not seem hugely impressive, but for the interactive fiction of the time, it was unusual. The same is true for a lot of the other features. Moments has a built-in manual. There are ways to turn the status line on and off, and to change the color of the emphasis text. There are footnotes (as in Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide). There's an automatically updated map, if you choose to take the map chip on your mission. None of this likely carries a great "wow!" factor, but it's still noteworthy in that it was extremely rare for IF to offer any of this, let alone all of it. There are various other elements of the game that seem to be instances of Raszewski taking on longstanding IF problems, such as how to determine what the player has gathered from the clues woven into the story. But the important thing is that there is a story worth adding all these bells and whistles to. One of the things that struck me about the hobbyist IF community back in the '90s was that so many of the people in it seemed to have been double majors: physics and classics, physics and anthropology, computer science and English, computer science and music. And that made a lot of sense, since interactive fiction is a form for people who are right-brained enough to be interested in storytelling but left-brained enough to want computers to mediate the process. Moments Out of Time is left-brained enough to be packed to the gills with technical innovations, but right-brained enough to use them to showcase Julia's diary.