ParserComp: Amanda Walker (Of Their Shadows Deep)

Introducing Amanda Walker

When I first got my Commodore 64 computer—I think it was 1983—I would type a paragraph into its basic editor and pretend that it was part of a text adventure game. I think writing text games was a common fantasy for 80s children interested in language arts, even if they weren’t particularly curious about programming.

Amanda Walker—a fellow Gen X’er—has been an enthusiastic player of interactive fiction games for years but has only recently begun programming in Inform 7. Despite her newcomer status (her first games released in 2021), her first IF Comp title What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed came out, as the expression goes, swinging with a fourth-place finish. In the short time since, she has released three more well-received works: Fairest (Best in Show, Spring Thing 2022), The Lonely Troll (2nd place, Text Adventure Literacy Jam 2022), and Of Their Shadows Deep (2nd place, ParserComp 2022).

Walker has a recognizable style that is well-suited to its medium, and her games typically feature economical prose, deep rather than wide implementation, and are reflective of a player-centered design philosophy. Her works often engage with literature and evince literary concerns. I was recently able to interview Amanda Walker via messaging at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, where we enjoyed a lively exchange about craft writing, game development, and her own recent efforts.

[The following interview has been edited for clarity and readability, but in all cases preserving the content of the interviewee’s answers was my priority. DSC]

Drew Cook

While the focus of this discussion will be craft, I think we should start with introductions. What is your IF origin story? How did you discover it, what did you love about it, and how did you get involved with the contemporary interactive fiction community?

Amanda Walker

I was in no way, shape, or form a computer-interested kid. My Dad was a computer geek, and he brought home early PCs and tried very hard to get me into them to no avail, as I would much rather have been reading. When I was about 10, in ’81, he finally struck gold by bringing home Zork. I had never experienced anything as good a good book before that, and I was instantly hooked. Of course, I was a kid and had serious trouble with the puzzles (I remember actually crying over that maze), so it took me a long time to solve it. Dad was thrilled and got me other games during that period (I specifically remember Zork II, Sorcerer, The Wizard and the Princess, although there were more). Then I went to boarding school and college and didn’t have access to a computer, so I really didn’t play any IF at all from about 1986-1992. When I finally got my first PC and dial-up internet, I discovered Snacky Pete’s Text Adventure Archive, then IFDB, then Frotz, and I’ve never stopped. I often wished I knew how to code, as I was always playing out game ideas in my head, but I never tried to learn, as I was afraid of discovering that I was too dumb to do it.

And then the pandemic happened. My husband and I are visual artists– those people in the tents at art fairs– and there were no art fairs for 2 years. Right before it hit, we moved to a rural area from Austin, and we didn’t have a studio for a long while since building one took forever, and I was really bored. I was reading about Inform 7 and its “natural language,” and thought that maybe I would tinker with it, but that most likely I would get too frustrated, hit a learning wall, and end up dropping it. I had no idea how helpful the Intfiction community would be in teaching me, and so I surprised the hell out of myself and everyone else by actually finishing a game and putting it in IFComp. And now that I can give voice to them, all these long-repressed game ideas are just spilling out fast and furious.

Drew Cook

The fact that the pandemic played a role in your IF story is compelling. I think a lot of us were trying to find ways to stave off the isolation and idleness.

If you came back in the 90’s, you were probably there for what Jimmy Maher calls the “neo classical” period of interactive fiction. I anonymously dropped in and out a few times, playing Curses! and Christminster among others. Oh, and Anchorhead, too. I think I loved Anchorhead the best of those 90’s games. What games from that or any other period would you say have influenced you as an author?

Amanda Walker

Oh, absolutely Anchorhead most of all. It just blew me away. My first game had a Gothic horror vibe in deliberate homage to Anchorhead, and my first PC, Margaret, was really a child of William, the monster of Anchorhead. I loved Curses! less (it frustrated me terribly), but it was the first game to really show me what you could do with time and space, framed by a more mundane modern story, so it was a major influence. I mean, finding a map in the attic in a contemporary time and place? That does not sound like a promising game at all. And then it was pure genius. Maybe other people did stuff like this before Graham, but that was my first “outside the box” IF game, and it sticks with me. I spent a lot of time in that era playing games that I only remember because they were so bloody hard; my roommate and I spent over half a year in 1993 with Castle Ralf and of course never finished it (I don’t think anyone has).

A little later in the 90s, influential games were Varicella (for its dark humor), Photopia (no puzzles? But it’s still great? Wow.), and Spider and Web (incredibly hard, but so innovative with perspective). That seemed like the era when everyone was waking up to the fact that you don’t need a big map, or traditional puzzles, or the standard dungeon-wizard-magic plots, to have a fantastic game. That was definitely a time of writers pushing and pulling at the strictures of the art form and reinventing it.

[AW later sent the below-printed follow-up]

I do have something I want to add. In your question about influences, I thought you were only asking about the ’90s and missed the “games from that or any other period” part of the question. But I would be really remiss not to mention Emily Short’s influence on me.

Before Emily Short came around, I never saw any women in IF. I never found or played any games by female writers. I’m sure there were women doing great things in the community, but I didn’t see or know about them. IF seemed like a giant boy’s club. So when Emily came around and started writing these amazing games and dominating everything, it was a revelation. In the aughts, playing her games, it was the first time it really seemed possible that I could ever write a game. And then the gates seemed to open for women and trans and nonbinary writers and everything seemed more inclusive. That’s a lot to lay at Emily’s door and I’m sure she’s not solely responsible for busting that ceiling, but her arrival on the scene was certainly a paradigm shift for me. Plus, she wrote the single greatest IF game ever—Counterfeit Monkey, of course.

Drew Cook

I have to admit that I never finished Curses! Maybe someday after the Infocom stuff is over. I haven’t decided what I’ll do yet. You’ve summed up my feelings on the 90s and probably the early aughts, too: a time of formal exploration. Frontier days.

I’m glad you mentioned your first game, though: What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed. The title is taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. It leads me to ask about literary influences. Nods to canon literature recur in your games. What non-IF writing has influenced you?

Amanda Walker

Well, I admit that I cheated to finish Curses! And I do not feel bad about it.

I am a hopeless novel junkie. I will read anything. But novels don’t particularly inspire me in writing IF.

Poetry, though, is a different matter. I think poetry is the original interactive fiction– good poems invite you in and let you pick things up and examine them and interpret them and put them in your pocket. They have puzzles to be solved. I love being the “you” in IF. And I feel that same way reading great poems, so they just seem to offer up their stories as IF.

I think poetry is the original interactive fiction– good poems invite you in and let you pick things up and examine them and interpret them and put them in your pocket. They have puzzles to be solved.

I think you’re a poet? I wonder if you share this feeling at all.

The reason you see canon literature in my games is not just because I’m a sucker for it, but also because that’s what’s in the public domain. I read and am inspired by a lot of current poets, but because of copyright law, I can’t directly use those in games. Which is probably just as well, since it’s OK to be influenced without stealing. Although I really, really want to steal.

What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed was indeed built around Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” which always gave me shivers as a kid. The idea that there’s a ghost inside you, learning about age and death and the transitory nature of life before it fulfills that destiny… that’s a really tragic becoming-a-ghost story. So when I decided to do a ghost story, I just stole everything– title, setting, character, vibe– from that poem. I did a very short game based on four Emily Dickinson poems, and my most recent game took inspiration from some of my mother’s favorite poems. I stole the title (and sprinkled quotations throughout) from WB Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” although it was inspired by several other poems that I couldn’t use directly as they aren’t in the public domain. But if you read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” or Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror,” you should be able to see their heavy influence on Of Their Shadows Deep.

Drew Cook

I do have an MFA and some other stuff in poetry. “One Art” is the only villanelle that I can think of that doesn’t sound stilted and awkward with its refrain(s). I’m glad we are talking about poetry. I like where you’re going with that. I also think that both IF and poetry tend to be verb-centered.

Amanda Walker

I’d never really thought about this, but yeah, those things [economy and brevity. DSC] have been a factor. With WHHoGG, I didn’t want to have cluttered spaces, because it would have messed with the central mechanism terribly to have a lot of stuff– so I felt that brevity was important for the interactivity to work well. I also felt that it should be a spare, lonely story in which only a few objects, the ones with emotional significance, should matter. I have sections in that game where emotions are remembered, and I spent a lot more words on those, hoping they’d pop out from the spare background.

It’s hard for me to see Fairest (my second large-ish game) as economical or compact in any way. Was it? It felt pretty bloated, and I really worried about the length of many of its passages. I spent about as much time editing that as I did writing and coding it, so you should have seen it in its first form!

The images in this interview with Amanda Walker are decorative. Each is created by an AI when prompted with the terms "interactive fiction text keyboard." In this case, irregularly shaped keys have unrecognizable symbols on them. The keys are light gray on a black background.

[I realized after the interview was concluded that I had failed to ask about Fairest in any detail. I followed up and include that exchange here. DSC]

Drew Cook

Allowing for genre conventions plus the whole metafiction thing, I’d say that it is economic and brief. I also consider its mechanics (simplified conversation, simplified doors, the feather replaces complex exploration and mapmaking, picking endings from a menu) part of that overall picture.

It won a “Best in Show” ribbon at this year’s Spring Thing festival. How did Fairest come about? What were your early design goals for the game, and did those change over time?

Amanda Walker

Fairest was inspired by Emily Short’s “Fractured Fairy Tale” games. I thought it would be fun to fracture as many Grimm’s fairy tales as possible and smoosh them all together– I got 22 of them in, I think. My early goals were to Make a Point about the commodification and depersonalization of women and girls—especially brides. Since the Grimm tales annoyingly still hold a lot of influence in our culture through Disney, I wanted to stab that beast in the heart. The problem with doing that in a game, and having the PC be such a dimwitted jerky stand-in for all the patriarchal Grimm crap, is that the player probably doesn’t need the Point made to them and might feel insulted and condescended to. After all, I am forcing the player playing as the PC into a series of actions they probably find awful.

I had another mechanism idea, one in which I directly addressed the player as they existed playing the game, but I never had found a story to hook that mechanism to. After the first round of testing, when it became clear that testers indeed didn’t like being forced to identify with such an awful PC being punished so badly, I realized I could hook the fourth-wall-breaking mechanism into Fairest, and in doing so create a literal separation between the player and the PC. This also allowed me to make the player a partner in punishing the PC, instead of suffering his fate along with him. I wish I’d had the idea from the start instead of coming to it with a nearly completed game.

Drew Cook

Making a Point is a risky move! It’s so easy to get the mix wrong and just annoy people.

Splitting the player and protagonist seems like a smart solution. Mechanically, you did this in a couple of ways. First, the narrator would occasionally “swivel the camera” away from the action and address a “you” (the player, not the protagonist). I think the mirror also functioned as a thing outside the story, didn’t it? Tell us about the mirror.

Amanda Walker

It did. The mirror of course came from Snow White, and dovetailed nicely with The Point, since the mirror reflects the fairest. I gave that poor mirror a better role in the story, one which could see past physical beauty and into the loves and hates and lies and trauma– all the good and bad– of the female characters. I wanted to give it to the player and give them the power of seeing things about these women that the PC couldn’t, but it felt stupid to make the player pretend I had given them a mirror. So I just made it travel out the screen and into the player’s mind. After all, we all have that mirror in our minds anyway, the one that judges not just physical beauty, but the morality and actions of other people, and can reflect that on our own psyches, or in sympathy or judgement of those around us.

It was a really big gamble, and I thought it might turn out to be terrible idea. And some people really didn’t like it. But Spring Thing is a friendly place for experimental works, so I girded my loins and did it. It certainly paid off.

I do want to acknowledge here that there were 2 “Best in Show” ribbons for this year’s Spring Thing, and Agnieszka Trzaska quite deservedly won the other one with “The Bones of Rosalinda.” Everyone should play that one.

Drew Cook

That’s all optional, right? I was surprised to hear people skipped it because I found it so enjoyable. Speaking of optional things:

How about those endings? It was a great idea to have so many be so easily accessible! I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. Explain the concept and how it came about. Have you gotten a lot of feedback about the feature?

I read them all, personally. I see it as a very generous game.

Amanda Walker

Yes, the mirror was all optional. I did hope people would want to use it, but you can zip faster through the game without it, and to each her own.

It was always my intention to have multiple endings. I got complaints about my first game having only one ending that it kind of railroaded you into, so I thought I’d go over-the-top with endings in the next one. The clear choice was to have a marriage ending for every woman you encountered in the game. Writing those endings was hella fun—the best part of making the game.

The feedback I’ve gotten is that people mostly thought they ended the game well, and that’s great, because endings can be tough to do well.

I’m tickled to hear you read them all!

Drew Cook

The game made it very easy to do! Selecting endings from a menu was a new approach for me. Have you seen that technique before, or did you invent it? It definitely encourages players to experiment.

Amanda Walker

I absolutely hate having to replay big chunks of a game, or a whole game, to see alternate endings. I don’t ever do it. So I needed a way to keep track of what endings the player had seen, and to rewind them to the decision-making point without making them replay anything. The numbered choices felt a little awkward to me, but it was the best thing I could come up with, based off of conversation menus. I’d like to say I invented it, but I probably did see it somewhere and stole it. Brian Rushton would know.

The images in this interview with Amanda Walker are decorative. Each is created by an AI when prompted with the terms "interactive fiction text keyboard." This image is a closeup of a single key. It is yellow with an unknown black symbol on it.

Drew Cook

Returning to poetry: I was thinking of it when I said in my review of your ParserComp game Of Their Shadows Deep that your games tend toward economy and brevity. Compact, purposeful language is poetic. Since this is a shared stylistic feature of your games, I wonder: did you start writing interactive fiction with a clear idea about language, interactivity, and pacing? Could you talk a little about the way in which you approach these features?

Amanda Walker

OTSD was the first time that I really thought very carefully about every word (It’s short, so that was possible). The game features poetry heavily, and I definitely wrote that with a clear intention that the language of the game should be in line with its poetic sensibility. The specific grief the game describes is the loss of language in a person for whom words and poetry were life itself. So it was important to convey that grief in a way that honored what was lost as much as it mourned for it. I did also hope that this would slow the pace a bit and get players to linger and really see the places the game was taking them. The locations in it– which are real– are amazingly beautiful, and I wanted to do justice to the spare, quiet beauty of the woods in winter.

Drew Cook

I’m glad we are back to OTSD. We’ve talked a lot already, and I don’t want to shortchange it. [Note: this interview was conducted before the results of the competition were announced]. It’s garnered a lot of positive reactions. One of the things reviewers have noted is that everything seems to fit together so well. The puzzles are light riddles, which complement the central themes of language’s ability to connect us, to order our world, and to gift us with the transcendence that art sometimes allows. More solemnly, Of Their Shadows Deep dramatizes the loss of these things. That sense of loss seems to seep into the prose itself. The descriptive language reflects specificity and care. At a high level, what was your process for designing OTSD? Several things had to come together for it to work as it does.

Amanda Walker

For many years, way before I could program a game, I thought that using ASCII concrete poetry in a game would be a cool thing, since IF should showcase its medium—text—in unique ways. That’s our opportunity for special effects (I stole this line from an email from Zed Lopez, a world-class tester whom every IF writer should court). But I could never see how that would work, so it was an isolated idea floating around in the flotsam of my mind. When I decided to write about my mother’s disease, that idea raised its hand and yelled, “ooh, ooh, pick me!”

And making all that ASCII poetry work was HARD. But the making of it allowed a lot of time to think about how all the threads of words and poetry– all the metaphors and influences– should connect. There’s nothing like fooling with the particulars of a difficult mechanism to slow you down and create a lot of time to ruminate about the big picture of the work you’re doing.

Because the game is about the ability (and loss of the ability) to name things, marrying the ASCII poetry to the simple “What am I?” riddle was a logical way to go about implementing the mechanism. After the first round of testing, my best friend Eva would not quit yapping at me about the game needing a central puzzle. So to shut her up, I went back and implemented another old “text special effect” idea– using fonts that echoed a word’s meaning. Eva deserves a lot of credit here, because it was her idea that you would collect all these words over the course of the game and build something with them in the denouement. That also gave me the opportunity to resolve the game with something a little better than “And there’s nothing you can do about this terrible disease; that sucks; the end.”

All this was, as I find most writing to be, a series of decisions and suggestions by others that all coalesced gradually. I looked back at it and realized that there were influences I didn’t recognize at the time. Several months ago, I read a fantastic essay by Suzanne Finnamore about dementia in which she envisions dementia as a place– Dementia Land– where she had to visit to spend time with her mother. After I submitted OTSD, I realized that this idea had affected me so deeply that I had created Dementia Land, that place of magical realism and strange rules, in my game. It’s much like Wonderland, which had been the overt metaphor (I even threw a “fall” and an appearance by a rabbit in at the beginning to highlight this), but really, it was Finnamore’s essay that had spurred the creation of a real landscape with tentative ties to sanity. I need to go back and include Finnamore in my credits in a post-comp version.

Drew Cook

I like what you’re saying about the formal challenges of ASCII leading you to slow down and consider all of the connecting threads. I think that’s a benefit of formal poetry, too: being intentional and taking the time to problem solve.

I’m glad you added the puzzle. Even if it doesn’t change the situation, it makes room for artistic transcendence or grace.

As a last question on Of Their Shadows Deep: what was it like to incorporate overtly autobiographical elements in a game? Is this something you want to explore further?

Amanda Walker

It was scary, because if the game turned out to be bad, then I would have added another unpleasant dimension to an already terrible personal situation (I’d like to point out that OTSD also stands for “Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder,” which is what you have when you deal with dementia on a daily basis). But I had watched IF writers I greatly admire (Mike Russo and N. Cormier) do this very thing last year in their games (Sting and This Person Is Not My Father, respectively), and what they created to process their pain and loss resonated deeply with me. So their work helped me be brave enough to do it. Would I do it again? Probably not. I dearly hope to have the rest of my life be so boring and normal that there’s nothing there worth writing about.

Thanks a million for having this conversation with me. When your game comes out, perhaps I’ll turn the tables on you!

Drew Cook

Thanks for taking the time! I know readers will enjoy it.

Next

It’s been a long time coming: the release of Cornerstone, a creative and financial Rubicon neatly dividing Infocom’s history in two, is the next release in Gold Machine’s chronology of games authored and published by Infocom. With a wealth of quality research already published on the subject, is there anything new or interesting to say? Find out this coming Monday!

[all images retrieved from Craiyon]

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One thought on “ParserComp: Amanda Walker (Of Their Shadows Deep)

  1. This article has been though provoking by both sides (even if you don’t believe so). Thanks, I hope to refer to it in the future and continue the conversation 😉

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