The PAX East Files: The Panel
April 1st, 2010 by Ice Cream Jonsey

Before I start: if anything I write below comes off as obnoxious or pretentious, it’s not intentional. Benjamin “Pinback” Parrish is under strict orders to punch me in the mouf if I get that way while talking about my experience at PAX East last weekend. He’s looking for an excuse; you have no idea how much he would love to fight me right now.

I was determined to go to PAX East once JScott said he was premiering GET LAMP at the con, so when Emily invited me to speak on the panel called Storytelling In The World of Interactive Fiction, it was a bonus to what was already going to be a great weekend. There was only one “problem,” scare quotes: I don’t talk about text games, verbally, with anyone.

It’s not because I don’t want to, it’s just because, well – the experiences I have as a player are solitary. My experiences as an author are also solitary, with the exception that one of three cats will attempt to carve their source code contributions into my arm using their claws. (Shit code, too, filled with semicolons.) I get my social fix from all this by going to a mud and reading a newsgroup instead of hanging out at an IF Suite. At one point during the weekend, Jeremy Freese asked me how I pronounce “Cryptozookeeper,” the name of the game I’m working on now. I really didn’t have an answer for him, because I’ve probably only referred to it five or six times in my real life. (Jeremy is a professor, so I’d be going with his recommendation anyway.) So I didn’t want to mess anything up due to simple inexperience about formulating my thoughts in the real world. I didn’t want to be asked a question and then have to write it down on paper, muttering “hold up…” while I crystalized my thoughts.

I also had no idea how any of these panels work. I asked over at Caltrops and got some good advice. From “N” over there:

[Y]ou probably want some talking points like:

o How to analyze storytelling and how somebody can even measure or determine efficacy.
o List of effective storytelling mechanics and some examples.
o List of ineffective storytelling mechanics and some examples (in other panelists’ work if you want the rest of the session to take care of itself).

I’m not recommending anyone head over there, but I’m very fond of all of them, and those are the kind of people I didn’t want to “let down,” I guess. It’s a jagged alliance at Caltrops anyway. Passing out on stage wasn’t going to help me. Slagging each other’s games would have made for an entertaining hour, but I don’t think it would have furthered the art form much.

The Panel, photo credit Ben Collins-Sussman I was the first person to make it to the Wyvern Theater at PAX, but that’s only because my friends helped me find it well before. Aaron Reed joined me a few minutes later with his laptop and I was slightly relieved – if nobody else showed up I’d commandeer his PC and the panel could be him giving me hints while I finished Blue Lacuna on the projector. I realize now it wouldn’t have done much for anyone attending, but I would have had a great time.

However, Rob, Zarf and Em arrived quickly thereafter and we were a go. Jason was also there filming, and he placed the lantern from his movie on the table next to me. I decided right then that if I froze up or something, my “out pitch” was going to be shoving the mic in the lamp’s face and letting it answer. That sounded a lot better in my anxious mind than it does typing it out, so I got lucky there. We all did.

I had two things mentally prepared for the panel, one of which I actually used. I wanted to note the intentional disconnect between player and player character in Pantomime, hoping to relate how I tried to start the character of Raif in an inevitable position to gain player sympathy, and then drive a wedge there, leveraging the fact that the exact opposite happens in three of my previous games. I got that in, but I was cognizant in the actual act of speaking that it that it was coming off as rehearsed. (The other bit I had planned beforehand was regarding stories in a non-traditional order: in No Time to Squeal, Mike Sousa and I centered a story around an unborn baby, and as someone who doesn’t have children and isn’t trusted with their care, I knew trying to write a game AS a baby wasn’t going to work. By me, I mean – Stephen Granade did a great job in the game Child’s Play where you’re just that. But one of the strengths of IF is that you can make a game with five different settings, because it’s the same “cost” to do a golf course, house, hospital as it is a Magnetic Scrolls-inspired-Wonderland. We were able to take advantage of the fact that all text costs the same… so go IF!) I never really prepare things beforehand because I hate how phony I sound when delivering it. When we got further into the panel and I was able to relax, I think I did a better job coming off as someone genuinely interested in IF.

My heart was racing during Emily’s opener, but by the end I felt completely at ease. I could have talked text games for another two hours. Three if we’re counting The Circuit’s Edge as a text game and, er, Inshallah. So my advice, if you ever find yourself on a panel for custom Doom 3 levels or something, is to surround yourself with a brilliant moderator and three other talented speakers. It takes the edge off; it would have been much more difficult if I were up there with Matt Barringer and Three Panks. I think the only part where I really diverged from my colleagues was when discussion turned to first-person shooters, Half-Life 2 specifically. I enjoy shooting people in the face, but I didn’t really care for HL2, so that was about the last game whose defense I was going to jump to. Although I would say that one of the most satisfying video game experiences of my life was in the level “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm,” the first time I threw one of those giant, circular, industrial razors at a zombie from half a mile away. (I didn’t want to say anything because it would take time away from IF, and there were other panels to discuss shooters, like every other video game panel in the whole of recorded human history.) But here’s the thing, even with that – Aaron had mentioned how he would have liked HL2 if the entire game had been hiding out from those fascists, and when I personally think back to HL2 for good thoughts, I remember throwing razors… and the part where you go up into the building at the beginning and look down at the troubles below. Offhand comments kind of inspired ideas for games I want to make one day, if that makes any sense.

One thing I noticed attending panels is that you can’t deadpan a joke initially – the audience, as a group, needs some sort of indication that you were kidding around. After that, everyone’s expectations have been set, and it’s all good. I attended the General Computer talk, and Kevin Osborn said something hilarious in a steady voice, and he didn’t get the laugh his comment deserved. I’m sure sociologists have researched group chortling dynamics to death, but still. (The General Computer talk was also notable as the guys there mentioned Racing the Beam to describe the method used to display four monsters-turned-ghosts via the Atari 2600. Racing the Beam was co-written by Nick Montfort, who was on the panel for GET LAMP. I wanted to text Nick that he just got his ass name-dropped!!!! by the GC guys, but I didn’t want them to see me texting on my phone because they would have had no idea it was texting through awesome, not boredom. But I loved how it was referenced, it was like, “fuck that 2600; read this one guy’s book describing it, we can’t get into that silicon monstrosity here.”)

We had some interesting questions at the end of the Interactive Fiction panel, although it’s my understanding that every one of these in the world gets multi-part, multiple questions. Alter Ego thought some of the questions went on for a while. Don Woods, Don FREAKING Woods got up to join the Q&A line and I was really pumped to hear what he had to say, though it was funny that HE was asking US something. The last question he asked me, 20 years ago, was if I was going to kill a dragon with what, psh, my bare hands, so it was great that there was a follow-up after all that time.

The final bit from the Q&A was from Jon Blask and it was there that I sort of completely and callously dropped a major spoiler for Pantomime. I had a half-second of mental hesitation before deciding to do it, but what the hell – hopefully it would be something crazy and unpredictable and leave everyone there with one last laugh.

I had an amazing time and if you were there, I hope you did too. If you got turned away, I feel terrible – if I could have done anything to help, I would have. I can’t wait to do all of this again sometime, although you’re gonna want to make sure you either finished Annoyotron or plan on skipping the Q&A, narmean.

I’ve got one other post in me about what it was like to be at the vendor table that I’m going to write up for the next issue of SPAG.
I tried for two minutes to attach a proper caption to that photo. It’s by Ben Collins-Sussman. Thanks, Ben!

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