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Text To Speech: Andrew Plotkin Interview

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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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