SPAGreads: March 2015

Hello everyone! April’s issue is coming along nicely, and while we’ve got a lot of great content in the works, there is still room for you! We are especially seeking out reviewers for ParserComp, and artists. If this is you, please get in touch. If this isn’t you, get in touch anyway! Submission guidelines are here.

In the meantime, I’d like to kick off a new feature I’m tentatively calling SPAGreads! This will be a monthly feature, between issues, highlighting the best IF-related writing I’ve come across in the interim. Part of SPAG’S mission — the P for Preservation, if you will — is to perpetuate the tradition of IF criticism. It’s particularly important nowadays, as IF is receiving more attention than it has in years, yet attention so diffuse it’s easy to encounter only slivers of it. The bulk of these links will be new, but I’ll also include a section for older pieces worth your time, as part of “preservation” is keeping alive work from the past. Each piece will come with some commentary, as not to be a straight-up linkdump.

If you have a suggestion for a piece you think we should feature, email us! As always, we particularly welcome pieces from outside the mainstream IF press, on undercovered topics or by underrepresented authors. We accept everything from a Serious Longform Piece in the New York Times to a blurt on your blog written mostly in emoji, from the beginnings of IF to a piece so cutting-edge IT HASN’T EVEN BEEN RELEASED YET (good luck pulling that one off). Format is irrelevant, venue is irrelevant; all we care about is that it is worth our readers time.


New Reads:

Andrew Plotkin, “Trinity Design Ruminations,” The Gameshelf, February 28, 2015

It’s generally agreed that the plot logic of the ending doesn’t really hold together. In fact, my teenage self was moved to write a letter of complaint to Infocom! I received a gracious response — I think it was written by Moriarty himself — which basically said “The game ends the way we felt it had to end.” Which is unarguable. (This letter is in my father’s basement somewhere, and one day I will dig it out and scan it with great glee.)

But today I am moved to be argumentative. If I were the author of Trinity, what would Ihave done?


An exploration of the ending of Trinity and how else it might have ended, with tangents on speculative fiction, alternate history, whimsy, and all that good stuff. For obvious reasons, contains spoilers. (Also worth reading are Jimmy Maher’s deep, deep dives on the game.)

Carolyn VanEseltine, “Writing Graceful Parser NPCs,” February 9, 2015

IF authors have been struggling with NPC implementation for decades. People are complicated. They take actions and they have reactions. They have opinions and memories. They can hold conversations and have emotional responses. They are spectacularly difficult to emulate in games – especially parser games, where the core conceit is that the player can do anything and the game world will respond appropriately.


Most IF authors who want to write stories (as opposed to anything else in the can o’ worms the term comes from) run up against the problem that the most compelling thing about a story — the people — are the hardest things to implement without breaking somehow. This piece is all about elaborate ways to dodge the issue — which, in a way, is the story of programming. A follow-up, on the NPCs in Beet the Devil, is also included.

Zack Kotzer, on Rob Dubbin’s Football for Amateurs

(Vice-y clickbait title excised. Our site, our rules.)

Dubbin speaks highly of football’s ebbs and flows, and it’s one of the sport’s aspects that figures prominently in his game as well. Most of the game consists of trying to second-guess your artificial opponent—like computer chess, but with only two moves. Do you pass or do you run? Do you defend against a pass or a run? After you make your decision, a little bouncy synthetic bongo rhythm plays as two sportscasters dictate everything happening that you cannot see (which is most of the game).


Is this IF? Who knows? Dubbin co-wrote Earl Grey, which did quote well in its comp. Back in the day Z-abuse was a thing: twisting the programming of the Z-machine to implement all types of nonsense, like Tetris or golf. Some of these entered the IF Competition. But what it makes me think of is narrative: how sports, as an enterprise, is about the art of spinning a story around what’s essentially generated numbers and plays. This is what sportswriters do every day (at least, they aspire to, when they’re not churning out sports scores at 12:56 a.m. while the copy editors weep for bed), what they do at even greater scale during Big Sports Events (until they give up and talk about deflated balls), and it’s striking — to me, at least — how easily this kind of narrative dissolves.

(I guess a disclaimer should go here: this isn’t out yet, but I’ve played it — at the IF  meetup, in fact. It is unusually compelling.)

Emily Short, “Choose Your Erotica,” February 18, 2015

Parser-based AIF — “adult interactive fiction” — has been around for a long time, though it has generally had its own forums and meeting places; every once in a while someone would turn up on with a coding question about layered clothing, or submit an adult game to a competition, but for the most part AIF didn’t overlap much with the main IF community. I did play a few pieces, but they were usually aimed unambiguously at heterosexual men. A common structure was to have a series of puzzles that would “unlock” sex scenes with assorted partners. (Here’s a review I did back in 2006 of Ron Weasley and the Quest for Hermione, for instance.) Sometimes these were cut-scenes, but sometimes you could use parser commands to do a play-by-play of which parts went where.

As choice-based IF has become more prevalent, so has choice-based, female-POV erotica. Here I take a look at several.

If writing characters in IF is difficult, writing characters in IF who have sex in IF would seem near-impossibly; even in static fiction, take one misstep and you’re up for a Bad Sex Award. Nevertheless, people are still (ahem) doing it, and often, doing it in Twine. There’s something to this; as Short argues, erotica is not particularly well-suited to parser IF without judicious fades to black or, conversely, full-on leaps into Stiffy Makane satire.

Flourish Klink, “Notes Toward Text Pad,” March 1, 2015

Steve Zultanski, who is a generally hoopy frood, wrote a book called Pad that (asDerek Beaulieu says) “foregrounds the masculinist tendencies of experimental writing.”

That is, it’s a book in which Steve lifts, or tries to lift, every item in his apartment with his dick. (His word.) You can watch a recording of him reading from it at the Bowery Poetry Club.

Of course I had the brilliant idea that this should be a text adventure.

Speaking of Stiffy Makane leaps, how’s this for a game idea? Text Pad is not a text adventure, but it is a transcript, and I am posting it because I want you to go read it right now. (I guess it’s time for another disclaimer: I saw her at a talk the other day, she mentioned this, and I spent the next five minutes or so giggling because I am secretly ten years old and some days this is my favorite album.) For any aspiring programmers: A) Please do this. B) Please send me the beta testers’ notes so I can publish them.

(NOTE: This piece is, unquestionably, NSFW. For obvious reasons.)

Old Reads:

Tobias Carroll, “The Only Thing Worse Than Bad Memories: Playing and Reading Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia,” Hazlitt, Oct. 22, 2013

One of Amnesia’s most challenging aspects—or one of its most frustrating ones—is Hollings’s own stamina. Go too long without food or rest and he’ll find himself passing out; pass out and he’ll soon be arrested, tried, and convicted. But as he’s awaiting execution, Hollings will suddenly have an epiphany: a memory returns that could exonerate him, and which casts much of the ambiguity he’d previously encountered in a new light. This newfound knowledge did nothing to prevent Hollings’s execution from going forward. It was a devilish choice, as storytelling goes; it was also the sort of narrative moment that is most effective in the context of a video game. Perhaps most of all, though, it was a deeply literary choice—the kind of moment that could only come from a novelist working in a different type of media, helping push it towards new realms of possibility. For all that gaming today has expanded to include a wider variety of narratives, from ones where roaming a landscape is eminently rewarding to those where taking a step outside of a preordained path can end a game, Amnesia’s legacy points to a different sort of satisfaction: the kind that can come from a more controlled, authorial experience.


A nice exploration, from a literary perspective (this ran on Penguin Random House’s blog), on an older detective adventure (its successors include Make It Good, among others). It’s hard to overstate just how expansive this is; recently I was working on a piece, stopped in despair as I realized I’d have to implement all of Manhattan, and then despaired some more when I realize someone else already did it! To acclaim!

Carmen Maria Machado, “Why Alice Munro Should Play Gone Home: The Video Game as Story and Experience,” Los Angeles Review of Books

The way that detail is used in Gone Home is utterly masterful. Even dyed-in-the-wool book-based writers and readers can learn and be enriched by the way that each new piece of information recasts the story again and again. There’s little place for straight exposition — nowhere except the occasional note from the sister to keep you on track. You are almost entirely required to read the story in the spaces between the details. This is not an experience for an unsubtle or impatient gamer/reader. Every movement brings about a new revelation of character, of story, of atmosphere. At times, truth intersects above the characters’ heads: unseen to them, but not to you. The found artifacts feel and look real. You struggle to read the ancient, spidery handwriting of Uncle Oscar, you laugh out loud at the irreverent wit of Sam and Lonnie. The notes between them don’t feel like an adult’s conception of teenage girls swapping notes—they feel like an actual teenage exchange you’ve stumbled across by accident, evidence of their spark and smarts and pain. The story plucks emotional triplines, carefully takes your heart apart brick by brick.


I’m a huge fan of LARB, particularly when they use their space to go beyond the churn of new fiction into obsessive luxuriant digressions in all directions, one of which is IF. As the title implies, this piece is largely about Gone Home, which is juuuuuust on the border of what’s IF and what’s not (as I draw that border, rather); but crucially, it’s about Gone Home as a piece of interactive fiction, referencing pieces as canonical as Photopia and Curses to more outre, more hypertext works like Geoff Ryman’s 253 and Judy Malloy’s l0ve0ne (like most early experiments of its sort, so adrift in today’s Web that it has under 3,000 Google hits!) Some of the IF-particular stuff might strike enthusiasts as 101-level, but nevertheless this is the sort of thing I’d give my teeth to publish (hint hint, aspiring pitchers).

Andrew Plotkin, Adam Cadre and Lucian P. Smith, “Roundtable: The Art of the Puzzle,” XYZZYnews, issue 14

I make no secret of admiring XYZZYnews, and their archive is crucial for anyone interested in the history of IF. (As, ahem, is ours. But I digress.) One of the all-time classics: three IF designers at their peak, and designers known for their expertise in designing puzzles, sharing thoughts on it. A must-read for anyone interested in puzzle design.

One thought on “SPAGreads: March 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *