Andrew Plotkin

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 07 January 2011. Last updated on 07 January 2011.
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Andrew Plotkin
Andrew Plotkin (or "Zarf") is an interactive fiction author and the developer of Hadean Lands.

Hadean Lands

Hadean Lands is an interactive fiction (or text adventure) game currently in development by Andrew Plotkin. The game will tell an eerie tale of interplanetary shipwreck about a half-trained alchemist who tries to restore his starship to life, struggling against harrowing rituals, recalcitrant dragons, and other dangers.

For more information, visit Zarf's Interactive Fiction.

If there is ever an individual who qualifies to carry the mantle of modern interaction fiction (IF), then Andrew Plotkin will certainly be amongst the shortlist of qualified candidates. Better known by his handle or moniker "Zarf", Plotkin has been a leading voice in the amateur IF community for many years. He is an accomplished IF author—a past winner of both the XYZZY Awards and the IFComp. He is also an accomplished IF programmer—most notable for his creation of the Blorb package format, the Glk programming interface, and the Glulx interpreter for IF games.

In November 2010, Plotkin announced a public drive to secure seed funding to begin development of a new commercial IF game, tentatively titled Hadean Lands. Hadean Lands will be the first commercial IF game that Plotkin writes. In fact, with this project, Plotkin seeks to turn fulltime as an IF developer. His effort has received unprecedented media attention and has helped to push the IF genre back in the limelight of the gaming scene.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Andrew Plotkin. In the interview, Plotkin speaks about his obsession with IF, the inspirations behind his games, his decision to become a commercial IF developer, his opinion of the current state of IF, and what holds in the future for him and his game projects.

How did you get interested in IF? What was the first text adventure game you played?

My father showed me a text adventure on his office computer. Rather, *the* text adventure: Colossal Cave, the only one that existed at the time. I was eight years old, maybe. The company had a take-your-kid-to-work day. Happily for me, it was a government technology contractor which *had* computers in 1978-ish.

So my father dropped me in front of this mainframe terminal, and showed me how to type commands. That's what I did for the afternoon.

He was probably helping me, although I don't recall it; showing me his maps, telling me how to get through the forest. I'm pretty sure I remember being unable to get through the locked grate without help. I'm quite sure that I just wandered around underground, stunned by the scenery in my head.

It was just a few hours. But my father kept playing the game, and telling me what he'd found. Not too many days later, I solved a puzzle that he described. (How to get past the troll bridge.) I saw the elements, I saw how they could interact, and the answer was obvious. He tried it the next day, and it worked. That was it, for me. I knew this game was doing it right.

A couple of years later, we got our first computer -- an Apple ][+ -- along with Zork 1 and the first three Scott Adams games. I jumped straight into those, and continued playing text games about as fast as anybody would publish them.

(There was even a Colossal Cave port for the Apple, although it was branded as "Microsoft Adventure". I thought that was tacky even at the time. But I played it.)

In the IF scene, you are known by your handle or moniker "Zarf" (amongst others). For the curious mind, what is the etymology of this nickname you have chosen?

Oh, that was a thirteen-year-old's whim. I had read a novel, a fairly awful thriller as I recall, called _Apple Crunch_. Nothing to do with Apple computers; it was about computer hackers in New York City. One of the plot devices was a white-hat hacker group, code-named "Zarf". They would hack into supposedly secure computers and leave a message: "Zarf is with you again."

I thought that was just the most awesome idea in the world, of course, because I was thirteen. So I started using "Zarf" as a handle for the simple BASIC games I was writing, and for BBS accounts, too. I threw "Zarf is with you again" in wherever it would fit; I felt just a little more awesome. It was sympathetic magic.

Generally, by the time you're nominally an adult, you're faintly embarrassed by your teenage strut and you quietly pack it away. I'm not saying I'm *not* embarrassed by those years -- I did silly stuff, the same as everyone. But I also did work that I was proud of; and the name was a habit, by then. So I kept using "Zarf" for hackerly projects in college. After college, it was the handle I'd used in college. A few years later, it was the handle I'd used for most of my life. So I keep using it.

A handle isn't quite the same as a name, mind you. I've always had a standoffish relationship with names. I don't go introducing myself to people as "Zarf". Some of my friends call me that, but some don't. I let people decide that for themselves. So to some extent the Zarf thing is self-perpetuating. I find that interesting.

What inspired you to become an IF author? Of all the subgenres of IF you had explored in your games, which was your most favorite? Why?

IF was the best kind of game, so I wanted to write IF. I didn't need any more rationale than that.

Some of those teenage BASIC projects were text adventures. At that age I was just writing silly parodies of the Infocom games. (Look at _Inhumane_ on my web site if you're curious what they were like.) But I suppose I've followed Infocom's lantern since then. Like them, I've now tried my hand at fantasy, science fiction, suspense, espionage, and horror.

I have a fondness -- some would say weakness -- for the surreal, the dreamlike landscape packed with emotional allusion. But that isn't quite a genre, because it doesn't exist on its own. Surrealism is always an aspect of a story. It can convey a story rooted in fantasy. It can lead to a science-fictional epiphany, or to horror.

I suppose horror is the most attractive destination, for me. I like to find the wordless sense of disruption, disturbance, in the center of the text.

Looking back at the history of IF, which were the most important watershed moments (for better or for worse) for the genre? Why?

The critical moment was the very first: Will Crowther's conception of the IF parser. When he built that first version of Colossal Cave (before Don Woods entered the picture), you could already WALK, TAKE things, EAT or DRINK, and many other actions. But the help text didn't offer these commands as a menu, or even as suggestions. You discovered them. The exploration of the game world was the exploration of the parser; it was guided by the game's narrative and the player's sense of what was possible.

That quality of design -- the hazy, suggested-but-never-certain range of possibility -- is the core of IF. It hasn't changed at all in thirty-five years. Modern IF parsers have evolved, not to accept English better, but to support that quality better.

The next leap after 1975 was IF as a story experience, rather than a treasure-hunting game. I can't say for sure that Infocom did it first; Scott Adams was playing with the same territory, as were other companies. But I experienced it first in _Deadline_ and _Starcross_, the formal detective story and the science-fiction thriller, both released in 1982.

That led to the golden age, and that led to the great collapse at the end of the 1980s. I remember asking, when Activision acquired Infocom, "What can they do with Infocom?" The answer was "Anything they want." Within a few years, they did.

After that... I wasn't aware of the reverse-engineering efforts that led to the modern, open-source Z-machine interpreters. That must have been in the early 1990s. The immediate impetus was fan-ports of Infocom's games to newer computers. But those free interpreters led directly to Graham Nelson's development of Inform, a free compiler for building games in the same format that Infocom had used. That was crucial. Inform wasn't the only IF development system -- there were, and are, dozens -- but it was the best freely-usable system of its generation.

Inform was tinder. The spark, in 1995, was Kevin Wilson's suggestion of an Inform game-writing contest. That became the first Interactive Fiction Competition. It lit the fire under me -- and several other authors, not limited to Inform users -- to get a game written; not as a vague long-term project, but right now.

Everything since then has been elaboration.

But I'll mention one more moment: the release of Parchment in 2008. This was the first pure-Javascript IF interpreter, capable of playing Z-machine games in a web browser. Hardcore IF players are willing to download specialized interpreters to play their games; but to attract interest from the wider audience, you need a playable web game. That's done more for IF outreach than any single game, no matter how well-written.

As an IF critic yourself, what criteria do you use to judge IF writing? How do these criteria differ from those used to judge other fiction writing?

All the traditional criteria *work*. Just as with a book, I want to know if the setup intrigues or bores me, if the plot has zip or goes plodding along from one place to another place... if the writing sparks or clunks.

You have to think about the interactivity, too, of course. If the game has puzzles, are they fun? (Fair? Challenging? Those are optional, but fun is not.) Does the game focus your attention on important objects (actions, capabilities, clues) or on irrelevancies? Are you led to correctly judge the nature of the choices in front of you? Is there balance between the levels of design that offer you freedom, and the levels that restrict your choices?

It comes down to "Do I spend another hour on this?" in the end.

The Hadean Lands funding project, which you launched in November 2010, had received unprecedented attention from the mainstream gaming media. What sparked this initiative?

Many factors came together this year. _Get Lamp_ premiered at PAX East, in March; we were all surprised at how big a crowd it drew. Lots of IF people gathered for that event, both modern authors and original Infocom stars. We organized a bunch of other IF-related events at PAX, too. Everybody came out of that weekend excited about the possibilities of renewed attention and energy in the IF world. Then Jason Scott took _Get Lamp_ on tour, which kept that energy flowing.

At the same time, I was getting frustrated with my job. It had nothing to do with the company or my coworkers; I simply felt that the day job was a distraction in my life. The conflict between my work and my employment was eating at me. Wanting to quit is different from *being able* to quit, naturally, but I was looking hard for alternatives.

Another factor: Apple changed their App Store rules in September to make clear that packaged game interpreters were acceptable. (iPhone Frotz had been accepted under that policy, but it wasn't explicit or guaranteed prior to September.) That opened up a couple of iPhone projects I'd been considering -- not all IF. I decided that if I worked on *all* of them, I'd have a good chance of hitting at least one success -- and if not, I'd have enough iPhone experience (and credibility) to do something else fun.

Plus, I have some money in the bank in case something goes wrong. That never hurts.

What surprised you most amongst the reaction from the IF community?

I knew my friends and acquaintances in the community would support my plan. I was stunned at how much hard cash they were willing to lay down, though.

The plan was never to batten solely off my friends. That would be both unfair and counterproductive. (I want *all* of us IF authors to have this chance, and that means the community can't be its own sole funding source!) I knew I'd have to reach the wider gaming world, and of course I succeeded at that -- for whatever reason. But knowing that the IF community was willing to lift *me* up, in particular -- out of all the other IF authors whom we all know are deserving -- I am very thankful for that vote of confidence.

With the funds being raised for the development of Hadean Lands, you plan to quit your "day job" to become a fulltime game developer. What is your current "day job" (without being too specific)? Why do you decide to take on such a risky career change now?

I'm a programmer for a major Internet company. The team I'm on supports some internal tools -- important but not flashy stuff.

As I said, I have no objection to the company or the job. If I were excited about it, it would be a terrific place for me. But right now, I have to be excited about my own work.

As for risk... the worst risk was that the Kickstarter project wouldn't pay out. In that case, I'd have had to switch to some kind of contract work right away -- probably iPhone -- and balance that against the IF projects. It would be less fun, but it would be possible, and at least I'd be independent; I wouldn't be thrashing against an eight-hours-per-day schedule. So in that sense, there was no downside. Heads I win, tails I draw.

Then the Kickstarter took off, and the options only improved.

What is the inspiration behind Hadean Lands? What is the back story for the game?

Ideas fall out of all sorts of science fiction and fantasy books, and I let the pieces come together in my head. That's true of any writer.

The first notions for *this* game came to me during a lecture that Jeff Howard gave at MIT's game design lab. Jeff was visiting from Dakota State University, where he teaches, and he was talking about the use of magic in videogames. He's trying to build an immersive game interface that encompasses many modalities of ritual magic: colors, sounds, gesture, tarot symbolism, and so on.

That idea merged in my mind with a quote from _Taltos_, a fantasy novel by Steven Brust:

"If a witch could teleport (a thing that seems impossible, but I could be wrong), it would involve hours of preparation, rituals, chanting, and filling all the senses with the desired result until the spell would work in a blinding explosion of emotional fulfillment."

That's exactly right. The magic that I present shouldn't feel like pushing a button or walking through a door. I work in text, so I don't *literally* have colors or Tarot images on the screen, but I should be able to use the text interface to conjure -- as it were -- the same effect.

On which platforms will the game be released?

The first release of _Hadean Lands_ will be for iOS -- iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. I'm hoping it will work all the way back to the first-generation iPhone (which is what I use); and if Apple comes out with a brand-new iOS device in 2011, I'll support that too.

Once the iOS game is done, and I've had a chance to see how it goes over, I'll decide what to do next. I'd like to reach other mobile platforms -- Android and Kindle at least -- as well as Mac and Windows desktops. But it depends on how well the game sells. I don't even know *for sure* that the iPhone version will sell, beyond the 700-ish supporters who pre-ordered. To be sure, the Kickstarter money covers my development costs -- if I never sell another copy, then the project will still be a success. But a *bigger* success means I should push beyond the iPhone.

You also plan to develop an open source IF interpreter for the iPhone. How will this interpreter differ from existing interpreters that are already released (such as Frotz) or rumored to be released soon on the platform?

Frotz is a Z-machine interpreter. My app will be a Glulx interpreter. The difference between those two funny-sounding terms is boring to most people. (Read my technical blog posts if you really want to know.)

The important difference is, Frotz is a free tool designed to let you play a bunch of pre-packaged games. It's like an e-book reader for free games. Any serious IF player will want it (particularly because it includes many of *my* free games) -- but it's not a saleable product. It doesn't try to complete with the thousands of iPhone games that want your money.

My application will be presented as a game, not a tool. The player won't have to go through a game-selection menu. The app will include "feelies", or their virtual equivalent -- maps, documents, and other stage-setting material -- and these will be integrated into the game-playing experience. I expect to have a dynamic map and a dynamic hint interface, for example.

My tenet is that games don't have to be open-source, but tools should be. So I'll release the application framework as open source. That means that any author of a Glulx game will be able to put together an iPhone app. (I hope to include Z-machine support as well.) They'll have to design their own feelies, of course, but it should be an equally polished experience.

It will also be possible to adapt this source code into a Glulx-playing *tool*, supporting many free games, just like Frotz. I hope that happens, but someone else will have to take that project -- I have enough on my plate.

What do you foresee in the development of IF language systems (particularly natural language systems) and IF interpreters in the near future?

I intend to improve Glulx interpreters in the coming year -- on all platforms, not just iOS. I'm talking about graphical improvements, better text style and layout options, maybe even network features for multi-player games. However, whether these will be superficial improvements or game-changers (in any sense) is really up to the authors who make use of the features, not me. Building games is always the hard part. Certainly there are many authors who don't think the text UI needs to be enhanced. (For many of my games, I agree with them.)

Natural language is an awfully broad question. I'm not really concerned with making the IF *parser* accept something like natural language. Even if someone gave me a magical perfect parser, I wouldn't know how to write a game that can handle it. The range of possible action would be too large.

On the other hand, I use Inform 7, an IF *programming language* which has a natural-language-style syntax. I like it, and I hope it improves. But it's not my project. If it didn't exist, I'd be writing the same game in a more traditional programming language.

How can commercial IF be expected to compete against the vast community of amateur IF that exists today?

The same way commercial games compete against the vast world of free web games. The same way commercial fiction competes against an infinite amount of writing which is freely accessible on the Internet. I'll do something nobody else can do; I'll make it easy to try and easy to buy; and I'll make people feel like it's worth the price.

Even calling it a "competition" is missing the point, really. If free writing were the enemy of commercial writing, then writers wouldn't blog.

People -- both writers and readers -- will always live on both sides of the line.

What can we look forward from you over the next 5 years?

I barely know what I'll be doing five weeks from now!

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