First posted on 15 April 2003. Last updated on 26 July 2010.
Howard Sherman wears many hats. His current jobs include chairman, chief executive officer, programmer, webmaster, and even bottle washer. By day, he is the president and chief operating officer of a nationwide internet and telecommunications carriers. By night, he is an interactive fiction enthusiast and an Implementor (as he describes himself) furiously at work on Malinche Entertainment's next text adventure game.
We are pleased to have an opportunity to interview Sherman. In the interview, Sherman speaks of his gaming philosophy in text adventures, the inspirations behind his works, and about the company Malinche Entertainment in which he is the founder.
- For our readers who may be unfamiliar with interactive fiction, how you do define interactive fiction?
- As I see it, Interactive Fiction is a compelling story of any subject (mystery, fantasy, science fiction, etc.) involving the reader in the story by virtue of the fact that the reader becomes a player who must decide what to do and when to do it when confronted with any given situation. By contrast, your standard novel or other work of fiction is rather passive; you read the story and turn the pages. Your mind's at work guessing at what's going to come next as well as understanding what's going on now, but the reader has no say in how events unfold. Interactive Fiction is quite the opposite.
- Majority of the adventure games commercially now available are graphic adventure titles, why do you believe text adventure is still viable a gaming medium for the adventure genre?
- Because so many people still want them, like them and talk about them! A nice older lady from California saw a discussion for PFL on gameboomers.com which led her to my site and purchase my software via our toll-free number. Talking to her for a few minutes convinced me that launching PFL was the right decision; she was thrilled to see a new commercial text adventure game and purchased it without hesitation. I know there are many, many other people out there that feel the same way. The fact that copies of PFL are selling each and every day are proof of that.
- Some gamers may argue that graphic provides a more immersive experience than text in adventure games. How do you respond to such criticism?
- All the best books don't have pictures yet a good many of them sell millions of copies. I'm a believer in one of Infocom's cornerstones; no graphical technology can ever compete with the power of one's own imagination. Graphical games are fun and I enjoy a few of them myself. They certainly have their place in their world but they cannot be compared to Interactive Fiction; they're two very different mediums.
- The text parser has become the emblematic device for interactive fiction games. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a text parser?
- The text parser is wonderful in how flexible it is in taking a player's input and making sense out of it with the verb-noun combination and multiple combinations thereof. By default, the parser I use is the modern-day equivalent of the Z-Machine, and it's quite flexible and capable of recognizing all the most likely actions a player is prone to try. As the Implementor, I have the responsibility to anticipate the actions of a player in a given situation, a puzzle for example, and code the game as thoroughly as I can to allow for the actions of the player. In this way, the parser can be programmed to recognize new verbs and nouns (new actions and items) with no reasonable limit. The drawbacks to this are the flipside of the coin; I can't guess what every player is going to try and, as such, the parser may not respond gracefully or even helpfully if it can't figure out what the player meant. It's good, but it's not artificial intelligence.
- Who or what inspired you to pursue developing text adventure games?
- The fans provided all my inspiration to enter the text adventure game market. The Zork trilogy, the Enchanter series, and indeed all of the works of Infocom are much loved to this day. The same can be said for Magnetic Scrolls, Scott Adams' adventures and others. Many fans maintain sites devoted to a particular genre of adventure game or adventure games altogether. The Zork Library, for example, has message boards and a Zork petition directed at Activision to start work on a new Zork game. Seeing that nobody was addressing this market demand is what inspired me to launch Malinche. It's the oldest trick in the book to business success; find a need and fill it. That's what I'm doing.
- Infocom is best known for its interaction fiction. Which were your most and least favorite titles? Why?
- My most favorite titles were the Zork series inclusive of Zork 1 to Speallbreaker, plus Beyond Zork and Return to Zork. The Great Underground Empire created by Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Steve Meretzky, etc. was truly a labor of love. The fun, the feelings and the challenges stirred up in the player were powerful indeed. In fact, Zork 1 is not only the very first adventure game I ever played back in 1983 it was also one of my very first computer experiences ever. As for least favorite...that's a tough one. The best answer I could give is Plundered Hearts or maybe Moonmist. Those titles never really 'grabbed' me.
- We had the privilege to interview some of the giants in interactive fiction, including Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, and. Bob Bates. Who was your idol in interactive fiction? Why?
- I don't think I have just one, much like Infocom titles themselves. Marc Blank would certainly be on the list as would Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky. I really hate to exclude anybody but those three really do it for me. I don't think I could narrow it down to just ONE name but if I had to, at gunpoint, I would have to say Marc Blank would be my choice. He was, perhaps, the single most instrumental person to launch IF though, of course, he didn't do it alone.
- What are the differences in design philosophy between text and graphic adventure games?
- Like any discipline of philosophy itself that's all subject to interpretation. I think some parallels can be drawn such as the need for a game to be non-linear as well as contain enough side-activities to keep the player interested in not only the major goal of the game but also all the little things a player can do along the way to enhance the gaming experience.
- What tools or skills do you think are most important when writing interactive fiction?
- My toolbox contains graph paper, an excellent dictionary, an equally excellent thesaurus and lots of imaginative bursts of creativity that can create a puzzle or an NPC at the strangest and most unexpected times.
- What are the current projects at Malinche Entertainment?
- With PFL launched I'm working on Greystone. Where PFL is of the fantasy/adventure genre Greystone is a sojourn into mystery and horror. It's going to be an unsettling game where you, as the protaganist, need to solve a string of grisly murders at a mental institution. The trick is, everybody's a suspect so to fish out the murderer you enter the facility undercover as a mental patient. I'm having a lot of fun with the coding and players are really going to be taken to task to finish it.
- Congratulations on the recent release of Pentari: First Light. What were the challenges you faced during the development of this game?
- Thanks! The size of the game was most daunting. Debugging a game with so many different moving parts was quite challenging. The many intricacies of the active NPCs, the string of events that must happen (in many different orders, extremely non-linear!) and the number of items to manipulate really put me to the test. Then there was the research. I didn't want to just read a book about a castle with some pictures in it and then go design a castle. I wanted to be IN a castle and then convey my feelings and impressions of where I was to the player. I did that by visiting Castle Windsor and the Tower of London in England as well as the Palace of Versailles in France. Tunnels and caves were also explored. The single biggest hallmark of my work is to truly immerse the player. Even in BOFH, I spent a lot of time at the Venetian hotel and quite literally brought the player to Las Vegas to walk around in that magnificent casino resort. Even the floor plan matches. That's the challenge in all my work; to take the player there.
- What advice can you give to our readers who want to write interactive fiction and market their games?
- First there's market research. Write what sells. What do people usually enjoy? What are the staples of the fiction market? Then bring those staples to Interactive Fiction. As for marketing, have a good deal of money to spend on advertising as well as an excellent reserve of patience and perseverance to see it through. And never, ever quit.
- Is there any sequel in plan for Pentari: First Light or other titles from Malinche Entertainment?
- I've got some interesting possibilities in store but I want to gauge the reaction to PFL first before committing resources to such a project. Right now Greystone is my focus.
- What do you see yourself do in five years from now?
- I have absolutely no idea. If I had a magic eight ball and shook it vigorously a clear-cut answer would not appear. It would be a bright picture but still an unclear one.
- What are the future plans for Malinche Entertainment?
- Produce more titles, sell more titles, and enchant as many people as possible in that process.
- Thank you for the opportunity to interview you. We look forward to playing more text adventures from Malinche Entertainment.