Monday, October 6, 2008

An Open Field West of a White House

When I try to remember how I developed such an affinity for Interactive Fiction, I find myself at a loss. Its hey-day was much before my time, the genre all but wiped out with the advent of new-fangled VGA graphics. I guess it happened a bit by circumstance. I spent much of my internet-browsing time scouring the internet for "game makers." After all, what could be cooler than making video games to a 13 year-old? These searches led me to various text adventure makers, and I guess that was really the start of it. The classics of the genre, Adventure and Zork, were readily available as examples of what these engines could do. I was hooked.

If you’ve ever played games like King’s Quest or Monkey Island, you have encountered the graphical children of this genre. They usually amount to navigating the game’s finite world in search of items you can stuff in your bottomless pockets; the sole purpose of their existance being to be used with other items to solve an endless tirade of puzzles.

But how text adventures differ is the sheer illusion of freedom. The world exists, every part of it. While graphical adventures would only allow you to click certain collections of pixels or take notice of certain objects, a text adventure allows you to examine details of the environment, smell the flowers, and run through the streets naked, if you so desired. Of course, this largely depended on the game. Earlier examples (like the previously mentioned Adventure and Zork) had comparatively limited vocabularies, but later adventures were exhaustive in their handling of the possibilities of creative players. I dug up one of the last examples of commericial text adventures, Eric the Unready, and had a ball putting the text parser to its limits.

Since the decline of the commercial viability of text adventures, fans have remained dedicated to this unique genre and bred new life into it with their own tales. The community collectively called their hobby Interactive Fiction. I never really understood the aversion to the term “text adventure” but as I explore more of the fan-made games available, I’ve come to understand why. While plenty follow the familiar “Go north. Pick up the item.” gameplay, others bear more in common with short fiction. Tightly woven stories hinging on a specific twist or unusual ideas. Experiments that push the envelope of what a text adventure should be are common. It's this sort of well-written ideas that explores some of the real strength of this genre. It delves into the imagination in much the same way books do.

But one stuck with me in particular. Galatea, the debut work of popular IF author Emily Short, contains none of the usual trappings. There is no exploring, the world consisting of one lone room in a museum. There are no puzzles in the traditional sense, either, and no bottomless bag to fill with items to solve them. You are alone with a modern-day version of the living statue of myth. The game consists of nothing but interacting with her.

It’s a unique experience. You learn about her as you would in real life, through conversation. Questions start out basic. Do you breathe? Do you eat? Her responses to these give clues to other topics. She may mention awakening for the first time, and you press her about that. Or you may spontaneously ask what it was like to be carved. Such inquiries invariable lead to questions of her creator, the Greek gods he believed in, and on and on in countless directions.

At times, it becomes a frustrating game of "guess the word," which I suppose counts as this game's version of puzzles. But when conversations flow, they are magical. When Galatea casually mentions her creator tipping a glass of wine to the Gods, it prompted me to ask her if she drank. The game already remembered I had asked her about eating, and neatly tied it into the prose, in a way that was subtly involving. Topics of conversation lead to others in a way that is delightfully mercurial, an organic an erratic flow of through that feels legitimate and unforced.

But the interaction is not limited to conversation alone. She starts the game facing away from you, but as you delve into her secrets and personality, she slowly gives in and turns towards you. You may catch a glimpse of her neck, or the hair by her ear. Despite myself, I couldn't help but try touching the hair. It's deeply engrossing, and even at times a little unsettling. You feel a bit of a dilemma, whether to treat her like a piece of art or as a person. For all its limitations, it's a truly affecting game that pushes of what this genre can do.

As time goes by, I can only imagine the number of fans who chance upon the genre will be greatly outnumbered by those who have forgotten it entirely. That is truly unfortunate. Interactive Fiction is a piece of the history of gaming, and more, a unique exploration of the written word that would be a shame to be left behind.

Monday, December 31, 2007

A Taste of Mortality

The good old tale of the "Christmas Miracle" is a trite old thing that tends to be hashed and rehashed every season, reflected in our eyes in the form of heart-warming family TV specials new and old. It's true, the general feeling of good will toward man seems to spark the belief that magical things can happen during the holidays. Christmas morning surprises, sparking (or rekindling) of warm romances, the flight of reindeer and the belly-jiggling laughter of elderly elfs seem thoroughly ingrained in our brains if for no other reason than the plethora of catchy jingles the world is inundated with every year.

But with all this giving and getting and counting your blessings, it's not often you feel thankful for your own time here. A trip head-first down a flight of stairs changes that a bit.

If I were counting up the most extraordinary extremes of chance in my life, my fall has to be one of the closest things to a miracle I've found. Black and blue, sure. A scratch or two, indeed. A chip off the elbow, even! But all in all, a rather clean bill of health that defies any rational course of events.

Facing your own demise briefly clarifies the world a bit. That email you were going to write one of these days, the story you wanted to finish by the end of the month, the people you told "See you tomorrow!" all becomes things that, potentially, will never happen. Putting off anything until tomorrow could very well be the last thing you do.

Some people get it when you tell them. And I think that hurts more than the concept of mortality itself when you hear someone say "I thought about what it would be like if you weren't here," and you see how it bothers them, too.

But the feeling goes away. The clarity and drive fades, and all the petty worries and enervation return. It is as if nothing has really changed at all. Nothing besides the vexing impaired use of my left arm, at least.

Yet it's the cusp of a New Year. If there's a time for resolutions, I think this would be it.

Here's to the Year 2008. One with the days just packed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lost Between

The fiendish festivities of All Hallow’s Eve have long since passed. Children, and children at heart, are done toiling away at cobbling costumes, and the pining for candy has all but been forgotten. Another holiday looms on the horizon, with it the promise of gifts, goodies, and wishes held for the entire year fulfilled. The promise of snow, even where there never is any, weighs heavily, and even without a flake, the cold entrance of winter reminds us of seasons past.

Somewhere in between, the month of November is lost. As soon as the shops’ Halloween displays go down, it seems as though the Christmas ones go straight up. Thanksgiving is given the barest of acknowledgement, overshadowed by the coming Black Friday, itself a ritual “celebration” of the month to come.

November is also National Novel Writing Month, (referred to affectionately by its proponents as NaNoWriMo). The goal is, essentially, to write a 50,000 word novel in the span of the month’s 30 days. I learned about this from an old friend’s blog a few years ago. At the time, I thought it was a silly exercise in absurdity, but this year I decided to give it a try. I dismally failed before the month was even up, but it was a fun, exciting experiment, one I’d love to try, in earnest, next year.

But I thought of her, and the many friends that have slipped through the cracks over the years. The many personified Novembers that have been left behind. It’s the kind of void that cannot be repaired with a friendly email or a short chat. Somehow such endeavors always fall away. The strength of that November hole is too strong, lost between the days and months and years of our lives.

Jellyfish, Nikki, Kelly, all the Returners, and everyone else I’ve ever called a friend, or have known me as one…I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Everything Old...

I remember the beaches. Behind them old homes stood, old wood and brick houses that had been in their place since before I was born, before my mother was born, some before my mother's mother was born. There were old stores that had ice cream in old freezers, old restaurants with old menus and old staff that remembered your name. There were old toy stores, where I still remember grabbing tickets that represented video games and bringing them to this little window to retrieve the actual object of my desire. Old video games like Chrono Trigger and old Lego sets with space police. There were old trees and old streets and old parking lots. There were views of the ocean and fireworks in the summer. There were old gas stations and old familiar signs that led the way to the same old turns and the same old roads.

There were a lot of old things. Change is an inevitable part of life, and the things you remember are bound to transform and disappear as time goes on. But all the old things are gone.

And that's a shame.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bridging the Gap

There's a tired old axiom that goes something like: If you hold onto something long enough, sure enough, it will come back in style.

I think, in ways, it has never been more true. As each decade defines itself, the new millennium has enrobed itself with the idea that not only should our clothes look like clothes from another era, but they should like they were actually from that era, articles lost for decades and found again in dusty, old trunks or in neighborhood yard sales. Brand new clothing comes complete with faded logos, holes, and thread-bare seams. I should know, I own a handful of choice of examples.

But it's not just our fashion. Ford's success with its retro-inspired Mustang GT has coaxed other car-makers into taking their own – less inspired – stabs of bringing back the hard, angular lines of pre-90s automobiles. Coca-Cola, after years of jazzing up their white swash, has gone back to a design so stark and bereft of fanfare that it seems as if something is missing. I wonder what the younger generation makes of these throwbacks to classics? While I may remember when Coke was just a red-and-white can, do middle school students plunking change into the campus soda machine look at it with such recognition? Will these kids, when they grow up, remember fondly the vibrant two-color design as a relic of their own generation, completely unaware of its far-reaching beginnings?

And now with franchises like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers making resounding comebacks, the memories of each generation is becoming more and more entwined. Men and women approaching their 30s are remembering the same things, in slightly different forms perhaps, that their children will in a decade or so.

The other day, I walked into a coffee shop to order an iced tea. The eighteen-something barista, sporting a stud in her nose, was having a conversation with a thirty-something man, dressed in business attire, and an old lady, wearing the requisite white 'fro hairdo that one has come to expect. Each of them were textbook examples of their generations. But they were all talking together about a subject that, if we were to heed the demographic, applied to none of them. What would J.K Rowling do now, that Harry Potter was done?

This encounter concreted something I have contemplated for a while. I think we are seeing a bridge in the gap. Parents befuddled by their children's videogames are being replaced by parents who grew up playing those videgames. Grandpa is picking up a Wii-mote. Grandma (like the lady in the previous example) is tapping away on her wi-fi enabled notebook. Kids and grownups a like are remembering fondly childhood icons again and again.

Me? I reach past orderly armies of red and white labels to get my soda: A Barq's bottle that has hardly changed in 50 years.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Why Can I Not See Myself in Your Eyes?

Memories retained from childhood always seem to evoke sweeter sensations than their sources would warrant. An old television show, a silly song, the smell of wet asphalt; these things, if experienced for the first time, are rarely in the realm of extraordinary. Yet, armed with the heavy perfume of impalpable nostalgia, these fragments of recollections weigh heavily on our hearts and can elicit the strongest of emotions.

The Rankin and Bass classic, The Last Unicorn, is one of those rare cases that seem to shake simple nostalgia and bear fruit of new and intense understanding. I have vague memories of a warbly VHS recording from long ago, but when I watched it again recently, it struck me in a way entirely separate from simple familiarity. All in all a beautiful, lovely story.

Having heard much praise for the original book, and of Peter S. Beagle in general, I picked up a copy on a whim. The cover itself is underwhelming, which is a pity. The text deserves far better than the canned Photoshop texture and drop shadow effects.

But the work within is truly magical. It walks the line between an honest fantasy and self-referential parody in such a way that even the most obtuse of facts become completely believable. Prince Lír can talk of slaying dragons and being a hero with every bit of knowledge that we as readers have come to know of them. Princesses must be saved, nefarious plots by an evil brother or uncle must be thwarted, and a weapon exists somewhere to conquer any foe. But despite this breaking of the fourth wall, it never becomes a joke. Prince Lír is as real as any character, and this goes as well for the rest of the stellar cast. Fans of the film will notice that all of the characters are a bit darker than they are portrayed in the movies, but they are all that much more believable for their faults and moments of bitterness. Molly Grue actually ends up being one of the most positive characters.

Most of all, the character of Amalthea intrigues me. The author describes her in a way that conveys her magical heritage to exactness. Her beauty transcends beauty, so that even her imperfections seem to enhance it. Her struggle with her new feelings, with what she has become, and what she used to be, enchanted me to the end.

The prose itself is surprising, too. Beagle eschews the classic collection of comfortable clichés in favor of new and telling similes and metaphors. The Red Bull's horns as pale as scars conveys an exactness of color and the resulting emotion of the frightened characters in a way no adjective could have. And sound, the inexplicable sense that is often the most difficult to describe in words, is always treated with an artful reverence that manages to makes us hear with our eyes.

Beagle's unrelenting use of simile does become distracting and grating at times. Few things are simply as they are, and the power of the simile is lessened through its pervasiveness. No one just laughs. Rukh's chuckle like matches is striking (no pun intended) when it is first used, but when every laugh is like the sound of snakes through mud or an ax falling on wood, it ceases to be a creative descriptor and becomes a parody of itself. It's a shame, because there are beautiful images made of the simplest of events. Whether Schmendrick's words march out of his mouth like soldiers or Lady Amalthea glows as brightly as a flower, there are truly affecting phrases wrought throughout the book.

In case I have somehow failed in making it clear, I recommend this book with great fervency. If you have seen the film, you will find yourself well at home with much of it – Beagle wrote the original screenplay, after all. If you have not, then I can only recommend it that much more. It's one of the great fantasy stories of our time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

An Odious Aromatic Epidemic

It's quite isolating when you realize you are in the vast minority of opinion on a subject. That said, I can't help but verbalize how utterly baffled I am by America's obsession with fragrances. Not a single commercial break lilts by without at least three wholly separate olfactory assaults. Concentrated artificial scent gives me a severe headache, but more than that, I just can't wrap my head around the idea of wanting everything to smell like something else. Do we really want our washed clothes to smell like Mountain Breeze Citrus Blend instead of the pleasant subtle scent of freshly laundered cotton? Are our meals so lacking in flavor that we need the extra gusto of Juicy Green Apple and FD&C Yellow #5 embedded into our dishes? Are our houses so full of nasty offending smells that we need plug-in air fresheners that reactivate with Flower-berry Harvest every 8, 12, or 18 minutes?

That's not to say that all scents are bad. There's a certain pleasant romanticism about a light feminine perfume or a coconut-y shampoo. But when people put on enough that you can smell them from six feet away and so thickly that the residue from their hands left on a shopping cart can subsequently apply so much to your own that you cannot remove it after three thorough hand-washings, it just seems to me there is something egregiously wrong with everyone's noses.

So, as a quick off-the-top-of-my-head experiment, I'm going to make a list of a series of scents that the average person, if they don't labor on the way m0re difficult than it should be task of purchasing fragrance-free products, will apply to their person in the day.

Shampoo ~ Fresh Rose and Herbal Blend
Conditioner ~ Tropical Coconut
Lip Gloss/Stick ~ Strawberry
Make Up ~ Unidentifiable but none the less-labeled "Fragrance"
Shaving Cream ~ Again, unidentifiable "Fragrance"
After Shave ~ Burns so good
Toothpaste, Floss, and Breathmints ~ They all smell the same, so let's just keep it simple.
~ Zesty Cinnamon Spice!
Bar of Soap ~ Irish Springs, apparently.
Hand Soap ~ Dial Special Blend of Noxious Fumes
Laundry Detergent ~ Mountain Breeze, from some unknown continent of nasty
Fabric Softener ~ Spring Breeze, which is apparently totally different from the Mountain variety.
Body Lotion ~ Because Irish Springs isn't enough
Fragrant Tissue ~ God forbid your posterior isn't rose petal scented
Air Freshener ~ Flowery Garden or Christmas Tree, pending if you spend more time at home or in the car
Fragrant Feminine Hygiene Products ~ This is just...WTF on every level. I'm sorry
Perfume or Cologne ~ Celebrity du Jour

Of course, the list is weighted to women, but even if we toss out a handful, the average person has at least a dozen completely conflicting scents on their person. One dozen smells. Even if you loved any of these smells to death, what would be the point anymore?

I just don't get it.