Parsercomp: Brian Rushton (The Impossible Stairs)

Introducing Brian Rushton

The Interactive Fiction Database is, among other things, a repository of player-written game reviews. A new visitor to the site will soon deduce a) that there have been a lot of interactive fiction games and b) that there have been many, many reviews of said games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I first visited to read reviews of (all) the Infocom games. One day, I might write a critical survey of Infocom games (a survey of criticism, rather)—do people really rate Zork Zero more highly than Zork I? In particular, do people who join websites about interactive fiction rate Zork Zero more highly than Zork I?

I am getting off-track. One of the things I noticed while reading these reviews (and even after drifting into non-Infocom territory) was that one name seemed to appear in every list of reviews: mathbrush. “My goodness,” I thought, “this person has played bunches of interactive fiction.” I didn’t know the half of it. Mathbrush is the username of Brian Rushton, the IFDB’s most prolific reviewer (2,487 at press time!). What I have only recently realized is that Rushton is a prolific developer as well: his IFDB page lists 21 author credits.

His most recent game, The Impossible Stairs, is a ParserComp 2022 entry. I reviewed it and other ParserComp games in a thread at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum. For those readers who would rather not visit the thread: I enjoyed it quite a bit. The Impossible Stairs has interesting yet accessible mechanics and stands out as a highly polished, competition ready game. It has an understated emotional weight that never oversells or feels manipulative. I was happy to have a chance to talk to Rushton about his experiences with the IF community generally and his new game specifically.

A Possible Interview

[Note: This interview was conducted during the ParserComp judging period but held until after judging closed. Some text has been edited for clarity, but in all cases my editorial priority was preserving the content of Rushton’s comments in total. 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 (if that wasn’t your introduction, that is)?

Brian Rushton

I found it when I was already an adult. I had seen Zork and educational games as a kid but wasn’t really into them.

I got a tablet in 2010 and needed games to play on it. I remembered Zork existed, so I tried to find it, and instead found an interpreter called Frotz bundled with a bunch of games. I was hooked! I loved Curses!, which is still my favorite game, and Anchorhead.

But I got married and gave it up for mutual hobbies instead.

Five years later, I got back into it, replaying Anchorhead, and never left. I noticed that a ton of games on IFDB didn’t have any reviews, so I started trying to play every IFComp game and then Infocom games so I could review them all.

I thought the field was dead, so I was excited to find out IFComp was still going. I entered that year and met a lot of other authors that I still talk to today. I got hooked into entering competitions and reviewing games. I’m almost up to 2500 reviews!

Drew Cook

Your review count is pretty incredible. I think you’ve reviewed more games than most people will ever play. As an author of IF, which of those titles stand out to you as influential? What’s special about those games?

Brian Rushton

For influential games on the genre as a whole, I’d say:

Adventure. I’ve only played Inform ports, but it’s surprisingly complex and self-referential. It has clever puzzles and is poetic at times. There were a few text games before, but this is the genre-definer.

Zork: so much has been said about this I can’t really say more. Inspired by Adventure but had an even wider audience and a ton of innovations.

Curses!: my personal favorite. It showed that an amateur language could be as powerful as the Infocom language, and it ran on the same interpreters, which gave a huge boost to Inform’s adoption.

John’s Fire Witch: A 2-hour game at a time most games were epics. Specifically, it was the inspiration for IFComp, there are several direct quotes from the old forums about it.

A Change in the Weather: More than Photopia 3 years later, I think this game marked the sea change between zany adventures and “literary” interactive fiction becoming popular.

Howling Dogs: This game really made people stand up and pay attention to Twine as a serious contender for making IF games. There was another very good choice-based game in earlier years, The Play, but this one attracted many direct imitators.

There are other games that were great but no one successfully imitated (Galatea, Violet, Blue Lacuna, etc.), or are masterpieces of craft without a lot of innovation (Anchorhead, Wizard Sniffer), or are too recent to tell if they’ll have a lasting impact (Detectiveland, Impossible Bottle).

I probably missed some, but these are the first ones I thought of.

Drew Cook

When I began to lurk the IF community a couple of years ago, I noticed that your name kept popping up on IFDB review lists, but I didn’t realize you were an author, too. It sounds like you wrote a competition game (Ether, I think) soon after your return to IF in 2015?

How did that come together? Had you always been interested in writing a game? Did you have any background in programming?

Brian Rushton

I had a big goal to play and review all the great games I could find, but I also wanted to analyze them and find patterns.

I realized that there were some mechanics that no one had really done effectively, and I felt I wanted to do those things “right”. For this game, I wanted to make a three-dimensional environment, as I found that most games either didn’t have vertical motion or handled it weirdly. (Later I found games written before mine that were great at this, like Threediopolis).

I was nervous writing a game, so I asked for help from beta testers, and I found some amazing ones, like Andrew Schultz and Sean Shore, who helped me and many others than and for years after. Having a lot of beta testers became a major thing for me after that.

So my game was meant to be about 3d movement. I had also made a “toy” IF game with one room before this about Abraham and Isaac that required players to search gravel to find some gloves. No one who tested them found them, so I resolved in this game to make everything obviously visible so no one missed anything.

That’s how I ended up making a game about a flying nautilus in a 5x5x5 grid where you have to catch and use various objects. I had fun making it, and years later commissioned new artwork for it.

I tried to reach for some emotional moments in the game, but Emily Short and several others pointed out that the game hadn’t properly set them up, and that really shook me, so much that I avoided emotional descriptions and overt feelings in games for years afterwards. Looking back now, I can completely see where they were coming from. All in all, I was really happy to place in the top 10.

…You have to listen to testers and be open to change. There’s no point in getting feedback if you won’t act on it.

Drew Cook

I would be, too. From my inexperienced POV, IF Comp is the most challenging of the annual competitions. I’m glad you mentioned beta testing. Testing came up in one of our previous emails, and I agree that it makes all the difference.

In a lot of fields, there’s a sort of auteur perspective that can overshadow the work of other contributors. Infocom’s testing department, for instance, was the gold standard at the time. They had brilliant marketing and editorial staff. Those people hardly ever come up on Infocom fan pages, though. It’s refreshing to see that type of work acknowledged in contemporary IF. Since you’ve given testing a lot of thought (as designer and as tester), could you speak a bit about beta testing? What does a good tester do? How does an author effectively collaborate with testers?

Brian Rushton

Different testers have different strengths. Andrew Schultz is one tester who helps tons of people all the time; his strength is trying out all of the standard actions and checking thoroughly for mechanical errors.

Another tester, Ade McTavish, author of games like Worldsmith and 15 Minutes, has been really good at providing overall feedback for tone, story, and puzzle design.

One thing all good testers do for parser games is keep a transcript with anything the author should notice commented on, usually with an asterisk * or some other symbol in front to draw attention to it. Seeing how the game played out is very useful, especially when text is generated dynamically and causes problems you couldn’t see before.

As for how to best collaborate, there is a lot of debate about that. There was a thread on intfiction.org recently about how many testers to have. Some said 4-5, because any more would mean there won’t be enough to play and review it. Most of them mentioned doing testing for a couple of weeks at the end.

But I like to start testing very early, as soon as the framework is in place. Early testers can see big problems, like whole sections that need fleshing out or removing. About 1/3 of the puzzles in my game Impossible Stairs were added because testers suggested making the game larger (this includes the recipe, crossword puzzle book, etc.) and the intro and ending scenes and almost all dialog in my game came from tester feedback.

Overall, I always shoot for 20 testers but have always ended up with at most 14. When people stop finding things to fix, the game is done. I usually shoot for 4-5 months of testing interspersed with fixing; the longer the game is, the more time it spends in testing.

The last thing I’d say is that you have to listen to testers and be open to change. There’s no point in getting feedback if you won’t act on it. I had one very late tester who had great suggestions that I couldn’t implement because there was only a week left and it would involve a lot of interconnected systems. I should have given myself more time so I could properly act on his ideas!

Drew Cook

While most of your games seem to be written in Inform 7, I noticed some Twine games, a ChoiceScript game, and now, with your latest effort, Dialog. What have you learned from these different platforms? I imagine that each has advantages.

Brian Rushton

Part of [the appeal of] writing games for me has been the challenge, which is true for a lot of people. So I enjoy exploring some of the other tools.

I learned Twine partly to teach it to others. I ran a Twine camp at my school, and taught my son Twine at 5, which he used to make a bunch of fun games.

I learned Choicescript purely for financial motives. Choicescript games are financially viable, with contracts running into thousands of dollars. I had gotten into debt for vet bills and needed to get my (now ex-)wife a wheelchair van, so I submitted an application and got a contract. I also got a contract with a big publisher who had a secret new app coming out, and wrote a Twine game, but the company shut down the division.

Commercial writing was excruciating and honestly traumatizing. I like Inform’s system-based design and like fleshing out a skeleton game, while Choicescript and the commercial publishers are centered around linear writing, one chapter at a time. I struggled to finish the game, and it is now the worst-selling game in Choicescript history!

Learning Dialog was, to me, part of the prize to Linus [the author of The Impossible Bottle]. Not a lot of people have written Dialog games, and he won the IFComp prize I submitted where I’d write a game in his world. He said I didn’t have to use Dialog, but I thought I’d honor him. It’s a great system, best suited for people who want a traditional programming language rather than Inform’s natural language. I’m going to go back to Inform, but I’d much rather use Dialog than ADRIFT, Quest, or Adventuron, all of which I’ve poked around with a bit. All of those focus on single interactions (eating an apple, or swimming in a lake), while Dialog and Inform are system-based (rules for eating in general or for all apples).

Drew Cook

I’m glad you’ve mentioned Linus Åkesson. For readers who don’t follow the contemporary IF scene closely, Åkesson’s game The Impossible Bottle was a massive critical success. It tied for first place in the 2020 IF Competition, and additionally received a handful of nominations (and wins) at the 2020 XYZZY Awards (a sort of ‘Oscars’ for interactive fiction). It’s proven quite popular at the IFDB, with high ratings and many user reviews.

Meanwhile, you had pledged to write an in-universe game as a prize for IFComp. When Åkesson won first prize in IFComp, you were committed to writing a game in the same world as his game, The Impossible Bottle. Do I have this right?

How did it feel, knowing you would write a follow-up game to such a blockbuster hit?

Brian Rushton

You have the situation right.

I felt excited to make a sequel. I’ve done it twice before, and it’s a real win-win-win. IF is a small field, and no IF author is going to get stopped by people on the street asking for autographs. It’s hard to feel validation for being great.

So offering this prize to IFComp winners provides a concrete way to validate their work. I spent many hours on the games; I spend a long time studying their old games; so it helps the authors feel seen.

I benefit from using pre-existing characters and settings that have a fan base.

And players benefit from having more games in a series they already enjoyed.

So I didn’t really feel intimidated, since all of these benefits could still happen if I made a bad sequel. That actually happened with my first sequel, The Origin of Madame Time. I was trying to write it while working on both my commercial contracts and finishing a giant Introcomp Sherlock Holmes game, and the quality really suffered.

But I think Impossible Stairs turned out okay. Linus liked it, and the prize was for him!

Drew Cook

That’s a great way to look at it. I know that if someone spent that kind of time on my poetry, I would be quite flattered no matter what came of it!

Since making sequels to other peoples’ games is an experience a lot of us will never have, what’s your initial approach? What things do you believe make a good sequel?

Brian Rushton

For sequels I try to target people who liked the first game and wanted to play more of it.

I try to identify what worked in the first game and emulate it. That usually means similar tone and mechanics.

My first sequel was to a superhero game, so I included a bunch of superheroes with weird powers. The second game I wrote a sequel to, Alias the Magpie, had a very dynamic main character and was centered on heists, so I centered the game around that character and theft.

But Impossible Bottle had characters that were very archetypal (Dad, Mom, etc.), which was hard to directly emulate. So instead, I tried focusing on the mechanic. Impossible Bottle had a consistent mechanic (don’t want to spoil it) involving space that didn’t require any special actions from the player outside of the usual take, drop, go, etc.

So for my sequel I wanted a time-based mechanic (to contrast with space) that also didn’t require any special commands. That was my starting point.

Drew Cook

The primary mechanic works really well in that regard. It not only works without special commands, but it also makes intuitive sense. I don’t recall needing an explanation or instructions, either. It’s almost a magical realism-type experience in that both characters and narrator talk about the time mechanic is a very matter of fact, nonplussed way. Did this mechanic evolve over time? Or did you get it right the first time?

Brian Rushton

It evolved only in the design notes. I like to sketch out things on paper ahead of time or play around with ideas in my head for a while. I was thinking about this game on and off for about a year and a half before I really started it, because I was busy completing my last game.

I originally wanted a calendar you’d flip, or something like a clock, but both of those would require fiddly interactions and players would most likely try all sorts of commands (like FLIP PAGE or WIND CLOCK). I eventually settled on stairs because of the Klein bottle in Impossible Bottle, which reminded me of the Klein bottle in Trinity, which has a similar mechanic to what ended up in my game.

Drew Cook

You mentioned earlier that some reviews criticized Ether for its attempts at emotional moments in the game. How do you feeling about emotions and games you’ve written recently? I’m not the only reviewer that picked up on an undercurrent in The Impossible Stairs where we are reminded of the way loss and time seem to be inseparable. I found this to be moving without being cheap or manipulative (a common pitfall in my opinion). I also know that testing influenced this feature of the game.

What are your thoughts on this part of the experience of playing your game? I think it will resonate with many players. What are your thoughts generally on emotionally potent games? In my old writing days, I would have said that such games have something at stake, or that a writer has risked something. It’s risky because people tend to react strongly when it isn’t done well. My favorite post-Infocom games tend to risk something emotionally.

Brian Rushton

Well, I changed recently on emotional things. I’m a math teacher at a high school, but I also teach a creative writing elective. Some of the students are very smart, and we workshopped all of our projects together. One of the students suggested my static fiction focuses a ton on descriptions and almost none on emotions, probably due to my IF background.

So I looked up some writing tips and decided to include some more specific emotional descriptions.

For this game, though, I still wanted to hold back. I decided to present just plain facts that people could draw conclusions from. I had both of my closest grandparents die two years ago, and I felt their loss a lot. I thought that just having family in the game that clearly pass away as they age (indicated through graves or, later, a memory wall) would be enough for people to project their own feelings.

Then, like you said, testers wanted more than just the wall, and that’s where more characterization and conversation came from.

And I think that’s a good path and another argument for extended beta testing. Keeping things mild at first and only adding on when people want more helps keep from being maudlin.

I agree about games that take risks! One of my favorite games, Creatures Such as We, is a very bold risk for a game, self-referential and with very little state tracking. Even when such games strongly resonate with one person, they don’t reach everyone. Some games like that. They mean a lot to me when I play them, and I try to review them kindly. I’ve never written a game like that; I always coldly calculate what I think will please, and don’t really make games from the heart.

Drew Cook

As a final question, you made what I considered an insightful twitter thread about the ofttimes awkward pairing of new IF technologies and competition games a few weeks before ParserComp. In retrospect, it seemed prophetic. ParserComp featured a number of homebrew engines in various stages of completion. There were also some lively conversations about what might be and might not be a parser game.

As someone who’s played a ton of IF, closely watched many competitions, and authored many games: what do you think the prospects are for innovations in the IF technology space? And would anyone notice? When playing competition entries, I expect games to run as well as a solidly made Inform or Twine game. It’s not a good forum for introducing shaky but promising tech—not to me, anyway.

Looking forward: can you think of any features that would constitute a breakthrough in the IF tech space? Do you think they’ll come? Any other thoughts on the future of IF?

Brian Rushton

I think most growth in interactive fiction is lateral rather than linear. It doesn’t get better and better; it branches out into new directions and ideas of equal worth to the old ones.

Parser IF is limited in two ways. One is that any innovation still has to be compelling as a game; if you have a brilliant technical idea but don’t have a solid storyline or puzzle mechanic, it will fail. Conversely any game with at least one of those two things can thrive no matter the platform.

It’s also limited because it’s a rear-facing, retro community focused on obsolete technology. IF already evolved into point-and-click Adventure games, Roguelikes, Mystlikes, and Eye of the Beholder-type games. The future of IF happened 35 years ago.

Looking back over IF history, it seems like most IF innovations were trends more than advances. Puzzleless games first became popular a few years before and after 2000. The influx of Twine from 2012-2014 and ongoing brought a lot of imitation in parsers through the use of menus (like in Brain Guzzlers from Beyond) or limited parser vocabulary (like Arthur DiBianca’s games).

I expect in the next few years to see continued parser-choice hybrids, more attempts at voice-based IF (I think a game like Toby’s Nose or Weird City Interloper would be a great fit for that medium, since repeated movement commands are annoying out loud), and a few more AI experiments. I think the fundamentals of strong stories and strong puzzles will continue to be the main criteria for success.

Drew Cook

This has been great. Thanks for answering my questions in such detail! I’m sure readers will appreciate it.

Brian Rushton

Thanks, it’s been a lot of fun!

Coming Soon

Gold Machine’s final ParserComp interview will be published next Monday. Join us for a lively conversation about craft, poetry, and the relatively unexplored field of aesthetics in IF.

As always, you can track me down here, on Twitter, or over at the Interactive Fiction forum.

[All images generated by Craiyon]

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