Eric Mayer's Comp 99 Journal

The IF Competition is a lot like a road race. It can involve months of preparation and more than a few moments of agony. The competitor risks the abject humiliation of finishing last or just plain failing to finish. But after its over you've got a t-shirt. At least this year.

I earned my Comp t-shirt by slithering in sixteenth with The HeBGB Horror! My meteoric rise to mediocrity began only last April after I stumbled into the IF archive while looking for Eamon. When I bought my first home computer, little more than ten years ago, my daughter had been fascinated by those cave crawls obtained from the public library. Mostly she liked collecting "friends" who would tag around after her .One nostalgic evening I went searching and was surprised to find something called IF living on the net.

After playing some games like Babel, and some parts of games, and even, finally, escaping the void in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (which the library had mistakenly kept in its public domain section along with Eamon) I read there were systems available to write your own adventures. How could I resist?

Easily. A quick look at Inform and TADS convinced me that those ten years in the void must have affected my brain, to imagine I could write a text adventure, having never written a line of code in my life. (Actually, that wasn't exactly what I thought because at the time I didn't know you called it "code"). All those weirdly arranged parentheses, and semi-colons and strange curlicues hanging out in the middle of blank lines. Impossible.

But when I looked at Thomas Nilsson's Alan I saw the light or, at least, English. Strange, I had to go all the way to Sweden to find an adventure game language in English.

After first amazing the world, or myself at any rate, by reinventing the box (Ladies and Gentleman, it opens, it closes, you put things in, you take things out! A wonder of nature. Behold, the amazing BOX!) I was ready to enter the Competition. Kind of. To be precise I started a second exercise, to teach myself something about actors and as I continued to add one bit after another, and the game continued to run -- more or less -- I started thinking it would be neat to enter this annual contest everyone seemed so keen on. Just to be able to say I had, officially as it were, written a computer game.

It was the sort of urge I'd felt eight or nine years earlier when after several decades as the world's skinniest couch potato non-athlete, I took up running and being able to go a few miles - more or less -- decided to enter a road race. The hilly 10K course was an hour-long near death experience and I finished practically last, but afterwards I had that "Irondequoit 10-K" t-shirt to prove I was a runner.

I had been using a record shop in my programming exercise because I remembered visiting places like Bleecker Bob's back when I was going to school in New York City during the punk rock era. In June, realizing I was suddenly writing for an audience, I started to graft some story elements onto the setting. That isn't as bad as it sounds. When my wife Mary and I co-write mystery stories we tend to operate the same way, having a vague destination in mind but with most of the story made up as we go along and usually becoming increasingly elaborate.

The Lovecraftian theme came into play as soon as I decided to send the hero of The HeBGB Horror! to the game's equivalent of the CBGB rock club. The restrooms, in the basement at CBGB, were definitely places of creeping horror. In the game I left out details like the discarded syringes in the corners.

Until I decided to aim at the Competition, telling a story had been far from my mind. The programming was a game. Over and over I'd type in code, hit compile and wait like a gambler at a slot machine for the "No Errors" jackpot to flash up on the screen. I found the process both mesmerizing and exhilerating. If only there were a compiler that would spot errors in regular fiction. Unfortunately whether a regular piece of fiction succeeds is entirely subjective, whereas if a piece of computer fiction runs it at least succeeds to that extent no matter how inadequate it might be as a piece of literature.

By July, not only was I trying to employ some story elements, I was also discovering that, although Alan might appear to be in English, it doesn't relieve of the author of figuring out some basic programming constructs like "if/else" statements. And since I knew nothing, every time I wanted to accomplish something new in my game I had to learn a little more Alan.

Then "put in" stopped working, along with several other verbs.

Who knows how I did it. My files were a mess. I'd tried this and that and left everything in just in case. I had actors posing as events, until I figured out events, and objects standing in for actors, and when I couldn't turn the actors off I shuffled them into limbo where they fell down but there was no one to see and replaced them with dormant stand-ins. My locations were crowded with invisible actors and objects lurking about in case they were needed and trying to stay out of sight in the meantime. I couldn't even recall all the attributes I'd used or coded and failed to use. I didn't dare remove anything, because who knows what would happen? Yet the game ran - more or less. Still, it began to dawn on me that there might be limits to the type-wildly-and-compile-until-it-works-for-unknown-reasons method.

And then came the chilling:

>put in
>I don't understand.

I had been enjoying the fact that I could simply describe things, toss them into my source code any old place and the computer would obligingly find and present them to the reader at the appropriate spot. Unlike a book where the author has the tedious task of placing every word in sequence. Unfortunately, while the computer could sort out my files easily enough, and grasp all the implications and interrelations in my coding, I couldn't. It was unnerving to realize I'd put together this strange organism which, unlike regular fiction, had a life of its own.

Amazingly I had had enough sense to save copies of my work. After contemplating abandoning the whole project I found the last version in which "put in" and the other suddenly recalcitrant verbs, still worked and rewrote the game from there. But now in August time was getting short. Nevertheless I emailed my intent to enter.

It was about that time that my wife and I learned from our editor that the manuscript for our second novel was due the first of January. We hadn't even started writing. It looked like I was up the Rubicon without a paddle.

I've written this and that for years, carefully avoiding anything a professional editor might deign to purchase, but last year my wife and I finally sold a novel, One For Sorrow, to a small independent publisher. A historical mystery set during the Byzantine Roman era, the book was scheduled to appear in October and was to be the first of a series. My messing about with computer games wasn't the only reason we hadn't even begun the second book, with less than five months until the deadline, but it wasn't, shall we say, the wisest thing for me to be spending a lot of time on at that point.

I began throwing puzzles off my sinking Comp game.

That was also when I decided to forgo beta testing. I knew better. I had good advice. But its one thing to "know" theoretically that you shouldn't pick up a cat by the tail and quite another,and more painful and bloody thing, to "know" after you've actually tried it. The problem was I had to put the game aside and start on the novel by September. I would not be able to take time off to do bug fixes and I was more than a little afraid that testers might find bugs I couldn't fix. In any event, it looked to me like I could test or enter, but not do both.

And Stephen Granade had announced there would be a t-shirt!

Just like a road race!!

So I sent the game in early and turned my mind toward Byzantine mysteries. But even while writing about unfortunate stylites mysteriously bursting into flames atop their pillars, I couldn't help worrying about my sadly un-beta tested Comp game.

One For Sorrow was officially published on the first day of the Competition. After collecting rejection slips for thirty years it is a remarkable thing to hold in your hand a real book that you are at least partly responsible for. You might think that the possible reaction to a done-for-fun computer game would seem insignificant in the circumstances. Not true. No matter how often I reminded myself of the relative importance of the two projects I couldn't force myself to care any less about reaction to The HeBGB Horror!

In the If newsgroup critical errors were almost immediately reported in Guard Duty and The Waterbird. Good lord. This judging was done in public! What had I let myself in for? Every day I forced myself to scan the newsgroup headers, dreading the one that read: [HeBGB] Fatal bug.

What I received, instead, was an email which said, essentially, "For your first effort this is a GREAT game!"

I'd done it! No matter what else might happen, I had written a computer game that someone had been able to run and had actually enjoyed.

A few more generally complimentary letters followed and my wife urged me not to send in my $15 for a t-shirt until the first ten finishers, who got free shirts, were announced. I cautioned her that authors were likely to hear mainly from people who were enthused about their games, while those who hated them would just vote - and maybe review.

I'd entered the Competition for the same reason I'd entered my first road race. It was a challenge, something new, I wanted to say I'd done it. But, of course, I didn't want to embarrass myself by finishing last. When it became apparent that a few people, at least were able to get to the end of The HeBGB Horror! and no one could get through Guard Duty or the Waterbird I guessed I was going avoid utter humiliation. But I was playing the Comp games and it was obvious to me I wasn't going to finish very high either. Not only were there beautifully programmed games without any discernable bugs there were also plenty which had obviously been conceived of right from the start as real stories.

Then I read the posting which mentioned at the end, a few games the writer left unplayed because they were too buggy - including The HeBGB Horror! After my increasingly high hopes that was the low point of the Comp for me.

Finally it was time for the results and the reviews. My wife and I had already been receiving reviews on the web, and even in Publisher's Weekly, for our novel. It was strange to await reviews for a game too, especially since I didn't expect them to be quite so complimentary.

However, the negative comments turned out to be not very negative. Either the reviewer just didn't care for the game - fair enough - or pointed out that it should've been beta tested - no kidding! And the good reviews absolutely floored me. People I knew even from my brief exposure to IF to be excellent programmers and writers actually had praise. I ended up being ranked by some reviewers from eighth to as high as third, although overall I finished 16th - a good middle of the pack showing and far better than I could reasonably have exoected.

All the feedback, much of it positive, justified to me, my decision to go ahead and enter the game bugs and all. If I hadn't done so I probably would've lost my nerve and never bothered to release it.

A few weeks after the results appeared we got an extension on the second book from our publisher so, with spare time again, I fixed all the bugs I could (lots) and uploaded the Horror! to gmd where it can lurk in eternity, not dead but only sleeping, or for a few years at least.

So what about next time? Well, for one thing, there will be one. I spent too much time learning some programming and had too much fun not to try again. I think I can produce something better, less bugs certainly, with more of a story, and, for the Competition at least, of a more compact and suitable size.

I am not sure whether I should write something "more serious." My programming skills aren't really up to it. A bit of clumsiness, I figure, is more acceptable in a game like The HeBGB Horror! which is nothing more than a simple amusement. Besides, I am not very inclined toward "serious literature" even in my regular fiction writing. My main aim in writing mysteries is to create something entertaining.

And will it be beta tested?

Well, does the sight of Cthulhu cause the mind to reel madly in gibbering terror?

Another thing I'm sure of, the game will again be in Alan. I went back to the TADS manual yesterday, out of curiosity, and got to the middle of Chapter Three before my eyes glazed over and my mind reeled in . . .well. . .you know. . . I am just not a programmer. And I like Alan. OK, it has that plain black screen, but I saw these text adventures first on an Apple II - that is what the screen is supposed to look like, isn't it?

Besides, one of my major interests is orienteering, where you run around the woods with a map looking for control markers. The sport has nearly as many devotees in the United States as text based interactive fiction does but it is popular where it was invented, in Scandinavia, so using a Finnish programming language strikes me as highly appropriate.

All in all, the Competition was a blast.I've received more feedback on The HeBGB Horror! than on all the fiction I've published put together. (although the novel is creeping up) It provided an incentive that convinced me to complete a game and, I expect it will now provide the incentive to try to get it right next time.

Most importantly, this year, there is a t-shirt. I plan on wearing mine at orienteering meets! After all, unlike the protagonist in the Comp version of The HeBGB Horror! I'm not faced with a bug that disables my ability to :

>wear shirt

--Eric Mayer

An addendum added by Eric on December 12th, 1999:

Last night, by accident, I discovered that my nicely cleaned up bug fixed version of The HeBGB Horror! that'd been up at my site for over a week (with no complaints and quite a few hits) and had consequently been uploaded to the if archive in fact started the player at a room in the middle of the game! So, what I said about my lowest moment in the about embarrassment. I realize something similar happened with Robb's Chix but I didn't have any corrective reports, probably because it isn't an obvious bug, just makes the game appear confusing and senseless. So the Comp experience continues!!