Looking back and forward.
A Restatement of Purpose
Infocom’s earliest games–Deadline, Starcross, and the Zork trilogy–are all in the rearview mirror now. I think it is fair to call this portion of the canon Infocom’s classical period, a time in which genre conventions, while not yet fully baked, take form.
I’d like to restate the primary guiding principles of this project. The first, treating game and packaging alike as part of a unified, single text, hopefully makes good sense–this is the way 1980s players would experience the game. The second, focusing on readers and text as opposed to historical or authorial information, may require more of a leap.
About Authorial Intent
When I first played Zork in the 1980s, I didn’t know anything about MIT, the Blank/Berez Z-Machine, or, for that matter, Crowther and Woods. I knew that it started in front of a white house. That was the sum of my knowledge. When I later played The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I knew the Douglas Adams novel. I didn’t have access to Meretzky’s Infocom Cabinet over at the Internet Archive, nor had I read Jimmy Maher’s stories of Adams’s infamous procrastinations. Hundreds of thousands of players, I am sure, can say similar things about any given Infocom game.
Would you say that our experiences with these games were valid? Do we have an equal right to interpret these games?
My emphatic answer to such questions, is, of course, yes. I’ve read everything about Infocom that I can get my hands on over the years, but I don’t think that grants me access to a singular, master interpretation. These resources give me a satisfying way to think about Infocom games, but they do not afford the only way.
Readers change over the years, but texts don’t. There are likely many reasons this is true, but I think the most easily observed reason is that the originating culture of the text remains static. In Zork‘s case, we could point to the time (late 70s or early 80s), the country (USA), region (New England), an institution (MIT), field of study (computer technology), gender (male), or even future financial prospects (quite promising) as contributors to the culture surrounding the birth of Zork. Culture is not authorial intent; it is a prism through which intent is refracted.
Player-readers of Zork may detect colonial themes. That doesn’t mean that, say, Marc Blank is sentimental for the “good old days” of colonial conquest. That would be a rather ridiculous conclusion to reach upon completing Zork. All it means is that the culture that birthed Zork is itself colonial. Zork, like everything else, has a context. Readers, too, have a context that shapes their experiences. It is an overstuffed desk drawer of personal history, cultural background, previously experienced games, and so forth.
Detecting colonialism or anthropocentrism in a text doesn’t mean the text is bad, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the author is bad. It simply means that a transaction has occurred between text and audience. That’s what interests me: drawing connections within an infinitely complex system of culture and history, connections between reader and text.
The Gold Machine will be taking on two new projects. The first, a podcast, will be co-hosted by Drew Cook and Callie Smith. Callie is an English PhD candidate. Her specialty is creative writing, and Callie’s non-literary interests include the visual arts, ecology, and animal studies. The podcast is intended as a lighter and less formal conversation between two literary types with very different histories with interactive fiction (and technology generally). The primary challenge, as I see it, is to avoid becoming a shameless rip-off of Eaten by a Grue. To head off the tedium of retreading recently covered games, the podcast will tackle the canon in random order. Wishbringer will be featured in the debut episode of Gold Microphone: A Gold Machine Podcast. As in all cases, the best way to be notified of new episodes and posts is to keep an eye on our Twitter account.
Feelies for Screen Readers
In a recent Starcross post, a reader pointed out that there were no usable feelies for getting past the copy protection puzzle at the beginning of the game. This led me to wonder: what resources are available to Infocom fans without sight? I asked around, and Andrew Plotkin–there must be something he doesn’t know–directed me to the Infocom Documentation Project. There, I found some feelies in text format, but more could be added. Having communicated with the webmaster, it is settled that any new text files that I create can be posted there. After researching formats and conventions, I will hopefully be posting some screen reader-friendly manuals and feelies. Naturally, the first will be Starcross. I’ll announce new postings on Twitter and at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum.
I doubt I will be able to start work on The Witness before December 25. While I won’t be celebrating, well, anything, for ten days straight, I do have quite a bit of travelling to do. If you’d like to be made aware of new posts, but you don’t want to sign up for email updates (and who does, really), I will always announce content on Twitter.
As always, comments, questions, praise, and polite disagreement are welcome.