Ben Parrish, author of the recently released experimental IF piece Annoyotron and the seminal 1997 Apartment F209 has been a constant contributor to both rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction for years. His website, "My Own Private Oregon," is without question one of the most creative and entertaining on the web. Mr. Parrish recently completed an interview with the staff of Reviews From Trotting Krips discussing his previous work and his feelings regarding the current IF scene.
1. If you could, please tell us a bit about yourself and your personal involvement as a fan and developer within the interactive fiction scene. Which old-school text adventures do you recall spending the most time with?
"It all started in a five thousand watt radio station in Fresno, California." - Ted Baxter
I am a twenty-eight year old software engineer, originally from the Maryland suburbs. I enjoy laughing, making people laugh, engaging in fruitless bouts of self-loathing and introspection, good food, and the occasional drink. Not necessarily in that order. I've always had much creative potential, be it in music, visual arts, writing, or what have you. I've never worked too hard at exploring any of that potential, though, since I believe that once you let potential energy become kinetic, you're limiting your options, and then you have nothing to look forward to.
I have never completed an Infocom text adventure. In fact, with the exception of relatively small games, created usually for IF competitions, I have never completed a single text adventure in my life. The only reasonably substantial text adventure I have completed was Andrew Plotkin's "Spider and Web", and given the nature of the ending, that hardly even counts. I begin a game, which renews my love of the art, and play fervently until I get about halfway through. Then I quit.
I believe all this is because I do not particularly enjoy playing text adventures. As with most things in my life, I enjoy the concept more than the reality. However, I do have a passion for the concept, moreso than most things. I have always believed that text adventures were the purest, most noble form of entertainment to be found on a computer. Not counting Rollercoaster Tycoon, of course.
My first experience with text adventures was an online version of Zork, when I was very very young, and modems looked and acted like the one in Wargames. I was so taken with the concept that eventually I copied Zork from a friend of mine to put on the Apple II we had. With glee, I played it halfway through, and then quit. But I knew right then that what I really wanted to do was <EM>create</EM> the games, and I knew I had tremendous potential in this area. Of course, I never worked too hard at exploring that potential.
The first and only complete text adventure I ever wrote was in BASIC on a Commodore 64, when I was about 11 or so. It was called "Astro Adventure." It took place on a spaceship, and in a shuttlecraft, and on several different planets, including Earth. Amazingly, I accomplished this in only 26 rooms. I remember "26" because after hours and days of exhaustive work on the game, I counted the rooms at the end and was horribly dismayed to find that all I had was 26 of them.
The game was not good. It reminds one of a text adventure one might write in BASIC on a Commodore 64 when one was 11. I don't remember much of it, but I remember a few key points :
o At one point, to progress, you had to "open hole".
o The puzzles were mostly of the following variety :
You have landed on Mars. There are passages leading east and north.
Oh no! You've been eaten by a big slimy Mars monster!
Of course, if only you'd been smart enough to type "N" instead of "E", you would have gleefully continued to the next planet, or whatever. The game was not good. I remember discussing with a friend of mine at the time how cool it would be to be able to write games as awesome as Infocom. (This is called "foreboding".)
A few years ago, I found out about the resurgence of the hobby. And then I found out about Inform. Apparently, it would not only let you write games as awesome as Infocom, it would actually let you <EM>write Infocom games</EM>. All of a sudden, I lost about fifteen years of maturity and all I could see was me and that friend of mine at 3 in the morning, staying up way past our bedtimes to write one more room into our bad games in our stupid BASIC programs. Finally. Text adventures were alive again. This is, as far as I can tell, a Good Thing. I am still happy about it. Of course, the concept has proven more enticing than the reality. I've talked about and argued about and discussed the games far more than I've played or written them. But hey, that's the way I am. And be happy about it, because without people out there loving the games on an emotional level, they'll never survive.
2. Anyone clever enough to take an inventory check knows that Apartment F209 was chiefly inspired by your desire to learn the Inform 6 programming language. What motivated and inspired you in your design of Annoyotron?
I was learning Inform 6 for the second time. Not to be confused with learning it the third time, which I plan on doing within the next month or so. On one level, Annoyotron is a simple exercise in using global variables. But then...
I believe I am regarded as lovable, but insane, by many of the people who know me. Who knows, they may be correct. I think this happens because I will occasionally, out of nowhere, start laughing. This is because at that very moment, I made up a joke in my mind, and nobody's jokes make me laugh harder than my own. In fact, I rarely find other people's jokes that funny at all. But mine? Oh, lordy, I can bring tears to my eyes.
Annoyotron was a joke I made up that made me, out of nowhere, start to laugh. So that was part of my motivation.
The other part was that with the current rennaissance of the hobby, we're getting some very, very good games. We are also getting some very, VERY bad ones. Games that don't work. Games written sloppily. Games that are too short, or too stupid, or too utterly annoying to have been worth even the meager download time, much less the time spent by the author to create the thing. But the thing is, even with these efforts, the author had only the best intentions, and probably was really trying to make a good game. And that's what makes it all the more pitiful and depressing.
So I wanted to write a game the other way. I wanted to set out to write the absolute worst, most worthless, pointless game in the history of games, but do it GREAT. None of the egregious, odious qualities of Annoyotron were accidental. In fact, the night I released it, someone found a bug, and I fixed it. I wanted nothing to detract from the pure, pristine uselessnessof the game.
And then I started laughing again.
So the answer to your question is, "I'm an asshole."
3. What was your take on the fake Interactive Fiction Photograph Archive, and did you feel that you got off easy compared to, say, Kent Tessman and J. Robinson Wheeler?
Let me get this straight, there's a webpage devoted to trying to portray IF authors as geeky, dorky-looking misfits of society?
4. How many dates should an enterprising young IF author wait until revealing to a beautiful woman that he is, by night, a programmer of textadventures?
All of them.
There is absolutely no way to make this hobby sound cool. You could write the greatest text adventure ever, and make millions on it, and buy the coolest cars, and buy a house on the beach, and you will still never get any poon, because GODDAMN are you a nerd.
5. Presuming the deal with BradyGames falls through, can we have the Strategy Guide publishing rights for Annoyotron?
Heh. Yeah, that's... that's very funny.
6. Did you ever end up making it with the Pizza Girl?
I never saw Pizza Girl again. But I like to think that she's out there, somewhere. And maybe in a kitchen at some pizza delivery joint out there in the darkness, there's an extra-large with my name on it. I know there's an extra-large with HER name on it, if you catch my drift. HAHA! Heheheheh.
7. Which recently released games (IF or otherwise) have you particularly enjoyed or despised?
Anchorhead is the best IF game I've played since the Infocom games. The writing is so effective, the puzzles so unintrusive, the story so fluid and compelling, I almost didn't mind having to play the first section eighteen hundred times as Michael Gentry kept coming out with new versions every other day. Once I almost had to stop playing because I was getting chills so badly. Mr. Gentry was sort of pegged as a bad guy there for a while, because he ripped Once and Future's author a new one. Personally, I felt he was dead on. Not that I didn't enjoy Once and Future, but his complaints were all valid, and he did more than complain, he wrote a game which gets nearly everything right.
I played Anchorhead halfway through and quit. I also played Once and Future halfway through and quit. Sometimes I wonder how some of these stories actually end.
Jewel of Knowledge also deserves credit for bringing back the "good ol' fashioned text adventure". I've barely played through the first few rooms, but I already I am looking forward to playing halfway through and quitting. Varicella was just released (in beta form) by Adam Cadre, one of the leaders of the "new IF" movement. I have not gotten far at all, but the writing is wonderful. Effective writing is the number one key to successful text adventures.
As far as non-IF games go, the aforementioned Rollercoaster Tycoon is probably the best game I've ever seen on a computer. It is brilliance from one end to the other. It addicts like not even SimCity or Civilization could. It is nothing but pure joy to play. It's pretty good. My other current (and future) favorite is Starfleet Command. I enjoy games about big, powerful spaceships trying to blow each other up. I'm pretty juvenile like that.
8. The advance of approachable development tools has caused an influx of new authors. The hobby seems to be evolving with virtually every new release. What kind of trends would you, as a player, like to see among new games? Furthermore, what types of trends would you like to see authors get away from?
I complained about this on one of the newsgroups the other day, but the trend I would like to see is I'd like people to start writing some games! There are so many new tools and gadgets and development kits and whatnot that development has almost become the end instead of the means. I hadn't even checked out the scene in about six months, and when I got back in July, there had been no notable releases during that entire period. I want the "minicomps" outlawed. I almost want the "real" competition outlawed, but I do think the encouragement it gives is worthwhile, and outweighs the contrived nature of the contest. But really, I think if a game is going to be good, the author has to write it out of love, not out of a desire to win a competition. And you can do that any time. So do it.
A trend I'd like to see people not necessarily get away from, but at least be wary about overdoing, is this movement toward "experimental IF." Puzzle-less IF. New concepts. New ideas. New types of games. Nothing wrong with any of this. But keep in mind, you can ask everyone who plays these games, "What's the best IF game ever?" and an overwhelming majority will still give you the name of an Infocom product. I still like that kind best.
I still like text adventures.
9. Rybread Celsius, Derek Smart, Paul Steed and Matt Barringer (the author of the original Detective) call you at two in the morning. Given that there are no development systems in prison, whom do you bail out of jail?
Probably the Detective guy, because knowing the other three, they probably did something really bad.
10. Is there anything you can tell us about your future IF work; and can we look forward to another Ben Parrish-authored game at some point in the future?
I have stopped making plans for such things. Whenever I make a plan to do something like that, you can be virtually assured that it will never get done. Whenthe time comes, I will just do it. Whether you look forward to it or not is your business.
When that day comes, you can be sure that Reviews From Trotting Krips will be there to document it. Mr. Parrish's games are available locally (Annoyotron and Apartment F209) as well as elsewhere on the web. Namely here and here. Until next time, Bye-bye. Grandpa loves you.