Text To Speech: Andrew Plotkin Interview

By Quintin Smith on November 5th, 2010 at 12:15 pm.

It's been a good day for staring eyes. Gotta go for the hat trick...

If I had to compare RPS’s relationship with interactive fiction to something, it would be an ex-girlfriend upstairs that we drop in on when the weight of the world has got us down. IF is always there for us, waiting, pouting, fascinating, erudite, a bit sexy (but not very sexy).

Earlier this week we heard about IF author Andrew Plotkin’s plan to quit his job and write IF full time. He created a Kickstarter page with the aim of raising $8,000. That was five days ago. To date he’s received a total of $18,862, with two people pledging more than $1,000. I got in touch with him to ask about the project, his new game, and why he’s so hooked on IF. In return, he made me look up Higgs boson. I am no smart. If you’re at all curious about IF, this is a must-read.

RPS: Was there some spark that caused you to launch this initiative, after writing IF in your spare time for however many years?

Several things came together this year.

I’ve been getting together regularly with other Boston-area IF fans, writers, and academics. (See here for our club site.) That meetup group has been gradually drawing more and more interest. We started adding more events, like public IF-playing sessions and an IF writer’s workshop. I was spending more and more of my time on IF-related activity.

Get Lamp, Jason Scott’s IF documentary, premiered in March at PAX East. That brought together a whole lot of IF fans and authors — including many of the old Infocom people, who are a respected (if mostly retired) elder generation of writers. The PR-IF group decided to host our own mini-convention inside PAX, and that was a huge success. (We’ll be doing it again at PAX East 2011.) We all came out of that feeling energized.

E-books took off this year. I see people reading off Kindles and iPads on the subway every day. If text is popular, interactive text has to be possible.

I looked at the success of independent projects on Kickstarter — including one that Jason Scott ran to finish Get Lamp.

And finally, I looked at my own life, and all the IF-related projects that I wished I had time to finish. I hadn’t written a large game since 2004; I was way behind on the interpreter work that I’d been promising. I woke up every morning resenting the time I’d have to spend on my day job. That’s no good for the soul.

RPS: You mention in your blog post on this subject that IF is big this year. Are you taking that from traffic, downloads, community activity, what?

IF was — and is — simply becoming more noticeable in the gaming world. Some of that can be attributed to Get Lamp, but it’s broader than that. Emily Short has a regular GameSetWatch column. Big Bang Theory had a running IF gag in a recent episode. IF authors (including myself) are speaking on well-attended game-design panels at PAX and other conventions. More new authors and players are showing up on IF web forums.

The major IF game formats became playable as web apps. (Here are all my games!) Now, when anybody mentions an IF game in a discussion, they can link directly to it and folks can try it without any hassle. This makes IF tremendously more accessible to the general public, and it’s led to a lot more interest.

I can’t point at a scientific survey; it’s just in the air.

RPS: I’m sure a lot of RPS readers are curious about IF, and it’s been years since we did a feature on it. What would be your “starter package” of IF adventures for someone new to the scene?

I put such a package together for the PR-IF site, actually: http://pr-if.org/play/. That’s a list of eight games, in a wide range of styles. (They’re all playable in a web browser, as I said.) Two of them are mine, I admit, but that’s because I wanted to include both Shade (my most widely-discussed game) and The Dreamhold (which I wrote specifically as an IF tutorial).

RPS: How awesome is Hadean Lands going to be?

Six buckets of awesome with unicorn-flavored cherries and a Higgs boson on top.

RPS: Seriously though – spacefaring magical alchemists that power their items with a dragon? Can you just justify that set-up in 100 words or less?

Four dragons, actually.

It’s not that far-out for a fantasy setting. Melissa Scott wrote a trilogy, The Roads of Heaven, about alchemical starships. There’s Poul Anderson’s Operation Luna. Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.

The delightful thing about alchemy is that it’s *trying* to be science, but it’s all on the intuitive level rather than the complicated computational mess that makes up real chemistry and physics. So it’s perfect for a puzzle game with a rich, imaginative environment. If your experiment calls for more sun, you might be able to find sunlight — or perhaps daisies, sunflower seeds, or a coin stamped with the face of Phoebus Apollo.

(Sitting on a bookshelf in my living room are a flinder of lightning-struck elm, and a piece of copper cable melted off a telephone pole by a lightning bolt. Can you not imagine the spell that requires these things?)

Also, I love imagining what Renaissance space travellers would make of the Universe. What *is* a Hadean land? A planet that embodies the Land of the Dead, with all the supernal despair that implies. *We* might call it a lifeless, airless, boring rocky asteroid — but that’s not how the characters in the game see it.

(And apparently I can justify that setup in slightly over 200 words. Well, then.)

RPS: You’ve already doubled your $8,000 goal. What does that mean for this project?

More resources, more safety margin, more time (if necessary) to make the interface perfect.

$8000 was always a conservative estimate. I expected to dip into my savings by the time the game shipped, and I just hoped I wouldn’t have to dip too far. Now it looks like that won’t be a problem.

It’s also a vote of confidence in the marketability of the game. Of course it’s the most enthusiastic fans who pre-order and donate extra money. But every Kickstart contributor must represent a long line of people who will give the game a try one day.

RPS: Why have you chosen to dedicate your life to IF?

Have I chosen? I don’t remember choosing.

No, that’s the silly answer. The real answer isn’t surprising: I loved Infocom as a kid, and I wanted to recreate that experience. I came up with some good ideas. People liked them. I liked creating games people liked, so I kept trying to come up with more good ideas. It’s the usual cycle of interest, practice, and skill.

Now I’m in a place where I can make unique contributions to the field. That sounds like either sloppy usage or megalomania when I say it, but I mean it. I’ve built compiler and interpreter technology for IF that was needed, and nobody else was doing it. I can write games that nobody else can write. (Admittedly, that’s true of *every* author.) But there’s more I need to do — both game design and technology — and it wasn’t getting done while I struggled with the day job. Now it can get done. That’s a terrific feeling. Also terrifying, of course.

Why would you dedicate your life to any other kind of work?

RPS: Thanks for your time.

You can pre-order Hadean Lands Limited Edition for PC by donating $25 on Andrew’s Kickstarter page.

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41 Comments »

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  1. Eslut says:

    How many achievements will it have?

  2. Eclipse says:

    So he’s not going to release the game on PC unless you “pre-order” it months (a year?) before at $25?
    Mmmmh… No, thanks.

    • Mirqy says:

      $25 dollars as a grant to help develop one of the most fun and least served regions of gamedom? Plus I get a game out of it at some point? Bargain.

    • Crane says:

      Good GOD! You might think it takes time and money to make a game!

      What fools! Everyone knows you can just pull a finished game out of your ass without investing a large quantity of time (and perforce money) in developing it.

      Surely he shouldn’t need any funds to make it or release it!

    • Gnarl says:

      @Eclipse
      I’ve got to agree. I’d like to play it, don’t have a PC, and $25 is a bit steep for a pre-order (essentially). Hope the nice gentleman changes his mind on this being the only way to play on non-iThings.

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      Gnarl says:

      That should be ‘only have a PC’. To make sense.

    • jmac says:

      The only way you can play the game on a PC (or any other major non-iOS device) on release day will be via Kickstarter pre-order, yes.

      However, if the game is enough of a hit on iOS to justify releasing it on more platforms (PC included), Andy’s likely to start making that happen. He posted an update about this on the project’s Kickstarter page.

      In short, he’s decided to focus on one platform at a time, starting with iOS.

    • Gnarl says:

      @jmac
      Yay! Thanks for that, I didn’t see the update bit at the top. I hope enough people with Applespawn buy it then.

  3. Mirqy says:

    Higg’s boson – knowledge we are not meant to hold: http://xkcd.com/812/

  4. Nallen says:

    I tried 9:05 and I guess I missed the point or something…first time I failed, next time I ‘won’. I think. Is IF more about exploring than reaching the end, or do they have many ends, is there not really a concept of winning and losing, just reaching a outcome?

    Anyway, trying The Dreamhold now.

    • Butterbumps says:

      Yeah, I think (with most IF, anyway) if you’re going in looking for something that you can ‘win’, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s definitely more about the experience.

      Not that there isn’t a lot of satisfaction in solving a particularly good puzzle, but for me at least it’s mostly about the story, or the characters, or exploring a place or an idea.

    • Sargon says:

      There’s a variety – most of the stuff you’ll find has more of a distinct “winning” condition, or at least a traditional multiple endings setup. 9:05 is a minority case – It’s less a game and more an attempt to pull one over on the player.

    • Nallen says:

      Well it pulled one over on me alright, but then it explained everything. I was a bit ‘wtf’ when I read it, but I never felt like I’d missed something or not been reasonable with my actions. It was a bit like showing me a picture of an orange, asking what it was to which I say an orange, then the camera pans back to say no! it’s actully a picture of an elephant, with an orange in the foreground!

    • Shih Tzu says:

      Nallen: 9:05 is totally not at all the best place to start, since it’s less of a game and more of a quick demonstration of a philosophical issue in game design (exploring the assumptions players make upon taking the role of a character). It’s the IF equivalent of something like that “Tedium” Half-Life mod from earlier this week, where half the audience says, “Oh I see, that is an interesting idea,” and the other half goes, “Is that all? I hate these non-games.”

      Definitely look at Plotkin’s starter package linked in the interview, where you’ll find works that are much more engaging. IF can be anything from a traditional adventure romp where you solve puzzles using objects and reach a decisive ending to narrative- and character-based works (like Photopia and Galatea) where the story takes prominence over any puzzle elements. One of my favorite IF games of all time doesn’t even have any puzzles; you can just “WAIT” 50 times and reach the exact same end of the story as you would if you engaged with your environment. (This is actually the entire theme of the story, and luckily the writing is strong enough to carry it.)

      Some games have multiple endings. Some games have fake endings. Some games have unreliable narrators. Some games feature the narrator as a character in her own right. (See “Violet” in the starter package.) There’s an entire microgenre of IF (well, two games that I know of) dedicated to seeing how much mileage you can get out of a game that ends after one turn. (As in, you have one chance to enter input before the game ends and you need to restart.) Maybe it’s the fact that the medium is so narrative-centric and so uncommercial, but IF is one of the most joyously experimental fields of game design I’ve ever seen.

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    stahlwerk says:

    You just took the picture for the tag, didntcha?

  6. Hippo says:

    I don’t like that “pre order” thing. It’s essentially $25 for a $5 game.

    Besides, he’s gotten more than enough money now, the point of Kickstarter is to make it easier for him to see if his business idea is good or not, not to be the business idea in itself (i.e. now let’s see if he can make a living selling the actual game to the actual target audience on the iCrap devices it’s meant for).

    • RQH says:

      @Hippo:

      Value is relative.

      I draw a parallel between the time my friend’s band ran a kickstarter to press their latest album to vinyl. People gave far more than a vinyl would cost them as consumers /because they wanted to support something they believed in./ Those who felt it wasn’t worth it, didn’t pay, and no one villainizes them for it, but they also strangely didn’t feel the need say “Why don’t you just release on MP3s. This is worth $10 at the most. I don’t even own a record player.” This guy’s raising the money he needs to make the game, for the formats he’s chosen to make it in. Like many kickstarter projects, he’s providing some incentives at various tiers of giving. If you don’t want to pay, there’s nothing wrong with that, but try not to sound so angry about it.

    • Hippo says:

      RQH: Well, the difference between what’s happening here and what’s happening in your example is that here, he’s selling two versions of the game. One for the iWhatever, and one for the PC. The iWhatever-version will cost $5. The PC-version is only available if you pre-order for $25.

      I’d like to buy the PC-version, sure. But it bothers me that the only way to get it is to get it through Kickstarter. Because that’s abusing the system IMO, as it’s turning Kickstarter itself into the business idea (making money by selling pre-orders for the PC-version which is not actually part of his “actual” business plan), and it’s taking advantage of people who just wants to play the game on their PCs by forcing them to pay five times more than the iWhatever crowd will have to once the finished product is out if they want to do that.

      I’m not angry, I just think it’s a pretty shoddy way to do business.

      On-topic: I’ve never been a huge fan of his games. Shade was excellent, but his larger games never quite grabbed me. Definitely a very talented guy, though.

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      Eric says:

      @Hippo: I initially agreed, but after reading the blog post that jmac pointed to above I understand what he’s saying. There is not currently a plan for there to be a nicely packaged PC version, which is what he would want to sell if he were going to sell one at all. He doesn’t know how to package up nice PC apps and doesn’t know if he’ll put in that time. But for the people willing to fund $25, he’s willing to give them a raw copy that will run on a freeware interpreter so they can play it on their PC if they want. He figures, the only people who are “in” at this point are the ones comfortable running IF interpreters already, for whom that might be a neat bonus. But the only “product” he’s currently delivering is the iPhone game.

    • cata says:

      You might consider it a $5 game, but I would happily pay $100 per game for games on par with the quality of Plotkin’s earlier large IF (e.g. So Far, Spider and Web.) And I got this one for only $75! Given the response on Kickstarter, I think that there are some other people who agree with me.

  7. Foxfoxfox says:

    I honestly feel like you do the man no favours with this picture.

    On another note – I tried Spider and Web last night, interesting for sure but incredibly frustrating also. Definitely better parsing software needed, probably 4/10 commands i gave were not recognised.

    • thurzday says:

      Did you get to That Puzzle? I agree about the parsing and frustration, but forgave it all afterwards.

    • Doug Orleans says:

      You can try the teaser game and see if it’s better at recognizing your commands.

    • Karthik says:

      Parsing: It’s like learning a programming language, really. With shortcuts (z for wait, g for again), some basic understanding of the structure (VERB NOUN [with] NOUN) and a little practice, I rarely have trouble with the parser these days.

      Yes, it’s not optimal that the parser pretends to understand natural language while having a very constrained input structure. It doesn’t bother me the same way not being able to see yourself in FPSes doesn’t bother me.

  8. Brumisator says:

    Who said particle physics and PC gaming blogs don’t mix?

    what’s that? Nobody? …damn.

  9. zarf says:

    Hi all —

    Yes, I’ve gotten some questions about the $25 thing. My long response is on the KS blog page: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/zarf/hadean-lands-interactive-fiction-for-the-iphone/posts/36957

    But in short, this project is to fund the development of a $5 iOS game. That’s what I’m selling. The pre-order deal is $3.

    The $25 CD version is not a product; it’s a reward for people who want to help extra. (With the game *or* with my open-source projects.) It doesn’t make sense as a product — it will be a game file dumped on disk, not a polished game release with a nice interface. I figure the people who are interested in helping extra are IF fans, so they’re happy to fiddle with interpreters and things.

    (Now, if the iPhone version becomes a hit, then I’ll see what’s necessary to make a real PC version that would sell in the PC game market. But that’s a long way off, so I can’t promise it.)

    Happier questions! Yes, there *will* be achievements, actually. (The iPhone version will tie into Apple’s GameCenter.)

    No, that picture wasn’t taken just for the article. It’s from the promo video that Jason McIntosh and I made. We were having fun with it. It’s even in the script I wrote: “Cut to Zarf, mad close-up…”

    Yes, the IF parser is limited. I don’t have a brilliant plan for making it ten times smarter. _Hadean Lands_ will operate on the level of _The Dreamhold_, giving help to newcomers (though not as intrusively) and trying to recognize as much as possible. But you do have to learn how to play.

  10. zarf says:

    …and thanks to you all for your interest, and to Quintin for offering the interview.

  11. HeavyStorm says:

    I was going to beg for a article about Photopia. In fact, I was ready to do unimaginable things so that RPS wrote a feature on it. But, who would know? They already did.

  12. Jon says:

    Any advice for someone who wants to get into writing IF?

    • Karthik says:

      I would like to know too. I have a half-finished Inform7 project tucked away on my hard disk for ages now; I never managed to finis

    • Doug Orleans says:

      Try the new book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 by Aaron Reed (author of Blue Lacuna).

    • jmac says:

      Download Inform 7, and mess around with it. Its documentation includes plenty of examples.

      • Obtain a copy of Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7. I am working through it myself, at around the halfway point now, and am learning a lot (even though I’ve already published one game in this language). And here’s a review of this book by the man of the hour himself.

    • Jon says:

      Have bought it and it should be arriving some time soon. I’ve got Inform 7 from the last time I wanted to have a go at writing some IF, quickly fizzled out though as I was suddent swamped by all of the information.

      And it probably didn’t help that I picked a faily difficult idea – that of a murder mystery where the killer was randomly decided each time you played.

    • Kevin Jackson-Mead says:

      In addition to what’s been said, I would suggest starting with something small. You can still do something cool that is small. And then once you’ve pounded on it for a while yourself, get people to test it for you. And ask questions if you get stuck. The intfiction forums can be a great place for both. You might also check out the blog of the Interactive Fiction Writing Month (see first post here and check the archives on the left), which happened in Feb/March of 2009. And if you happen to live near Boston, Chicago, Seattle, or San Francisco, then there are groups of people who meet at least semi-regularly to discuss interactive fiction.

    • malkav11 says:

      The murder mystery with random killer has been done, actually. It’s called “An Act of Murder”, and took second place in the 13th Annual IF Competition. Not that this should necessarily discourage anyone from taking their own stab at the idea.

  13. Karthik says:

    …And I just pledged $25. If it’s anywhere as thrilling as Spider And Web, it’s money well spent.

  14. Alistair says:

    Yay. $25 from me then :)

  15. Igor Hardy says:

    Great interview and I’m really happy about IF’s return to (relative) prominence thanks to the care of a dedicated community and everything that was going on lately.

  16. datom says:

    Good timing. Just finally got a Z-code emulator to work on my Blackberry, and spent a happy hour on the way home from work in A Dreamhold.

  17. AdrianWerner says:

    I liked his previous games a lot. Hope he succeeds with making a living out of them.
    That said I don’t own any iOS device and don’t really plan to buy on in the future, so I hope he will release a real PC version sometime in the future. if he does I will be sure to buy it.

  18. Jon says:

    Intfiction forum doesn’t seem to want to let me register, I tried over the weekend and I’m still awaiting a confirmation email.

    If anyone would like to have a go at my [very short] game, you can at http://parchment.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/parchment.html?story=http%3A//dl.dropbox.com/u/4412083/Clueless%2520v1.03.zblorb

    I’m approaching it with no coding experience at all which is why I’m already on version 1.02, so far it’s been a mixture of frustration and elation when I finally make something work.