And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One & Infinite Adventure post infinitum

Here be major spoilers, of course.

Infinite Adventures #1-3

In 2017, I had an IFComp entry that placed reasonably well: The Unofficial Sea-Monkey Simulation™. In some ways it foreshadowed And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One (hereafter abbreviated ATYC), with its teenage protagonist and DOS-era aesthetic. So, in the summer of 2018, I set about writing what I hoped would be my first parser entry to the Comp.

Most of the original conception remains: the ridiculously long title, the premise of simplistic levels giving way to more detailed ones, transdimensionality, a behind-the-scenes witch, and a teenage friendship that’s breaking apart. The early writing went well—the intent of Infinite Adventures #1 and #2, beyond their satiric dullness, was to teach players that the way to progress in the story was to talk to someone and then give them something—simple fetch quests. I enjoyed writing the assertive witch in Infinite Adventure #3, and building the other programs on Riley’s computer went fairly well.

But I hit two roadblocks:

  1. I didn’t know Riley was going to strip off her shirt. I already knew I intended of Strip Poker to be decidedly unsexy, but Riley apparently wanted to rebel against that (just like she wants to rebel against a lot of other things, I suppose). I tried to let my characters be themselves without getting in their way, and they sometimes surprised me, for better or worse. I really didn’t want to write this scene nor did I necessarily want to deal with Emerson’s reactions (and if this is the last time I will ever write the word “boobies,” I’ll be delighted, thank you very much). I sat with Riley’s actions for a while and decided they were authentic, so I wrote the scene with no idea how I was going to reclothe her later. I liked writing Ashley, the stripper, though, because I think she was haughtily judging me the entire time.
  2. More importantly, CompuDoctor, Em, and I all learned Em’s mother was dead at exactly the same time: in the scene where he’s reading Em’s info out of a database. Em’s mom was very much alive prior to this, and I had to edit her out of some basic backstory things. And then I had to kill CompuDoctor’s son. And then I was a murderer and had no idea what I was going to do about that, either.

I was 39k words in and felt like I had written myself into multiple corners. And I knew I was in the awful middle of a project, where there seems like there’s still so much to do and the ending is impossibly far away. I didn’t know what happened after Adventure #3 or what I was doing with the witch. I knew the next set of adventures were supposed to be automated and preferably amusing, and I had no ideas about those either. I was stuck, and in November I flat-out abandoned ATYC.

Infinite Adventures #4-8

But I really liked Em, and Riley, too, despite (or maybe because of) her intransigence. Over the next two years, I realized that the witch was secretly Em’s mother. And I found a frame to (try to) make sense to the recursive nature of Infinite Adventure: you, the player, are not actually Emerson at age 14; rather, you are Emerson at age fortysomething, playing dumb DOS games too late at night.

So I sat down around the time IFComp 20 began and decided to finish the story. I got Riley her shirt back, wrote some silly autoadventures (inspired by the autoplay scene of stealing the fabulous idol from the governor’s mansion in The Secret of Monkey Island, including using some nouns and verbs from that scene in homage), wrote the big fight scenes with Riley which I was also dreading, and hoped that revealing the actual nature of the protagonist after 99.9% of the story was complete was not a catastrophic design choice. I was fortunate to get some excellent beta-testers from the Intfiction forums. I arm-twisted a few friends as well. I tried to polish everything I could, and by the summer of 2021 I was finished. The final project is 80k words.

Stray notes on ATYC

Emerson is supposed to be a gender-neutral protagonist. Only one reviewer specifically noted this, and I felt one or two others deliberately skirted the issue. All others said Em was a boy (which doesn’t necessarily align with my personal conception, though that’s irrelevant). Em was originally supposed to be named Riley, actually, until I wrote the first few lines of the story and Riley kinda claimed the name for herself. I’m a little bummed, because I really did want to write Em well enough to be interpreted in different ways regarding gender, but I feel I came up a bit short.

For the game’s story, I wanted the real-world story to be pretty commonplace to balance out the absolute weirdness of what Em is perceiving: a game that’s morphing into Riley’s house, talking to other video game characters, moving objects between digital worlds and the real one, and so on. So the actual teenage story is about a friendship breaking up because someone is moving away—something that feels like it happens to everyone.

I think players enjoy feeling they’re making steady progress in a game, and I knew I wanted the story of ATYC to be more important than the puzzles. So most puzzles have more than one solution, and that was easier to design for than I thought it would be. That’s largely because the two solutions are a.) the fairy obvious one and b.) the convoluted one. Having the witch manage the player’s inventory every so often was very helpful in preventing bloat, and it was fun to write. Inventory pruning was also to help players see that the things they still had were probably useful somewhere.

The easiest puzzle is probably getting the apple for CompuDoctor, because Riley directly asks you if you want something to eat about twenty turns after the doctor asks you. The worst solution is getting a second spinal disc to serve as Infinite Adventure Disk #2. Apologies if that’s how you solved that one.

In the elegant Study in Infinite Adventure #4, the summaries of the books are procedurally generated in the form of [subject] [verb] [noun], with about ninety choices for each. Often the plots are weird or nonsensical, but hopefully they’re sufficiently amusing. I just tested it and got a book where “the local baseball team vows to destroy Vincent Van Gogh.” I’d read that book! The elf and thief in the first two adventures also have a shorter list of random conversation topics if you keep talking with them. I wrote these kinds of things as a way to avoiding writing whatever next major section I was supposed to be working on.

The autoplayed Infinite Adventures #5 and #6 are implemented as actual rooms and objects in Inform. The commands are fake-entered, but in terms of Inform the player actually is moving around a map and performing actions. The weird verbs in those games are implemented to give goofy responses if you try them afterward, and one of them can solve the sheriff puzzle in #7.

There are four different endings ranging from very dark to reasonably happily-ever-after, and they all depend on the number of “important items” you give to Riley at the end: the mix tape, the BBS card, and the phreaking booklet. The witch tries to stop you if you don’t yet have those three things before the endgame (though some people told me it wasn’t clued strongly enough), and I wanted the player to actually have choices, so after you give Riley something, you can always choose to hang on to anything else if you have it. (An aside: I fought with Inform for a long time in order to make those three things include the phrase “an important item” and appear first in the player’s inventory, but I think it was necessary.)

I was really worried about the text dumps in the game—places where you get a page or more of text. I tried to limit myself to one per NPC, but the witch gets one almost every time you move the story forward with her, and CompuDoctor gets at least two. Basically, there was a point where it didn’t make sense to offer Em one conversation line for the purpose of the player pressing a button. But reviewers didn’t really comment on them, so I guess they’re okay?

Ashley mentions that Riley has a diary. Originally I was going to implement it, hidden behind a password, in a program called FairCopy (riffing off of WordPerfect). But it would have been essentially lore and nothing else, and it seemed like a lot of unnecessary words to write (and I didn’t have any ideas for specific content, either). I also see in my notes from 2018 that I was planning on ten Infinite Adventures, and I’m glad there aren’t. And apparently I thought Em should be able to get the witch’s wand, too? No, 2018 self, that’s clearly a bad idea.

While the walkthrough isn’t actually part of the game, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. As I wrote at the beginning of my Off-Season at the Dream Factory postmortem, I grew up frustrated and entranced by a particular Scott Adams adventure. I convinced my mother to buy the official hint guide for that game. It was thereafter I learned that what I really lacked was patience—I even gave up on decoding the hints. Still, the “one number, one word” system seems pretty effective, so I tried to replicate that style as faithfully as possible to generate genuine faux 1980s authenticity.

I staged the game’s cover art by arranging a bunch of disks on the floor, and then I took a bunch of photos of them with my phone. Looking at cover art from recent years, there aren’t a lot of straight-up photos (or photos with just text added); most cover art is illustrated. I don’t know if that means anything, but I think it’s interesting.

Infinite Adventure by A. Scotts

At first, I just thought it’d be cool to also have Infinite Adventure (IA) exist somewhere with a weird story about how it was suddenly found after lo these many years. I knew it had to be native to DOS, because otherwise the fiction wouldn’t hold up. And I knew it had to be bad, because it needed to be like the first Infinite Adventure in ATYC.

None of that sounded promising for an IFComp entry.

I actually created the skeleton of the game in Python first just to make sure I could algorithmically create an entire, functional adventure. The “adventures,” of course, are incredibly simplistic, with only two possible goals: either giving a correct item to someone or putting the correct item on / in enchanted things like pedestals or chests. (IA flips between these two goals for each successive game you play.)

It worked! And it was maybe even kinda fun for three minutes until you saw all the tricks the game had to offer, which are few.

I thought the real stumbling block was going to be finding some way to write a DOS program in 2021 that didn’t involve actually learning how to program in DOS. My search turned up one viable option: FreePascal. I could run it in Windows 10 for iterative testing, and I could make a DOS build every once in a while to make sure nothing was going screwy. And that worked too! I had used Pascal for a few small things about fifteen years ago, so the language wasn’t completely alien to me (and I had some old source code I could look at). So I was off, porting my Python code to Pascal to make a DOS program, which is a completely normal thing people do in 2021.

The problem was that all I along I knew I wanted there to be secrets in IA about ATYC, but I had no idea what I wanted them to be, nor exactly how I wanted to implement them. For a while I thought I’d have players contact Elise, the witch, outside of both ATYC and IA. She’s got an account on the War Ensemble BBS, which is the BBS advertised on the card you give to Riley in ATYC. (Elise lists her city, state as Infinite, Ad.) War Ensemble is a real, active BBS and is based in Appleton, Wisconsin, just like ATYC says. But asking people to run a DOS program is one thing; asking them to then navigate an esoteric BBS system seemed like a bridge too far. Elise also has an email address, and I thought maybe have some sort of autoresponse if players wrote to her, but that wasn’t satisfying, either. And I thought maybe if a player found THE ANSWER™ in IA, it would tell them to email me and then I would mail them a prize (which would have been an actual 3½” disk with IA on it), but I worried that might violate Comp rules somehow and I had no idea what I’d do if like fifty people emailed me because I don’t own that many disks.

So, eventually I settled on the nexus that when IA #7 breaks down in ATYC, it also breaks down a bit in the DOS IA. The trophy in particular gives an error message in the DOS IA that’s similar to ATYC. (There’s no indication the trophy is present, of course. You just have to type X TROPHY.) More importantly, saving is “corrupted” in the DOS IA. When you save, IA writes an INFINITE.SAV text file. When you try to load, you’re told the file is corrupted. (These commands are listed in IA’s HELP screen.) If you then look at the save file, there’s a hidden plaintext message amongst some garbage, and that opens up the real secrets of IA.

So, open up the secrets already!

The main secret is that in IA you are still playing as over-forty Emerson, and you can talk to all of the main characters from ATYC. They’ll fill you in on the past thirty or so years of their lives. The witch / Em’s mom behaves slightly differently, and she gives Em THE ANSWER™. That answer doesn’t work in IA, but it does in ATYC. In the end, I wanted the reward to be more sentimental than anything practical, something that tied Em to the story’s twin griefs (and thanks to Mike Spivey’s review for helping me think of it this way): the mother’s death and Riley’s leaving.

So, yeah, I submitted IA to IFComp, thinking, “This is a deliberately bad game that’s for DOS so nobody’s going to play it and it has secrets that nobody is probably going to find for a different game they probably won’t care about.” And I had no idea who would try to play it. But it was pretty cool to see some people did—it seems some people liked the challenge of simply getting it running in the first place, and there was an interesting technical thread about how there’s a bug in DOSBox that garbled the text for Linux and Mac machines.

Then I got my first email from someone telling me THE ANSWER™, and I felt like it had been worth it. Then others got it, too. I think some people intuitively guessed their way to the secrets, and later I know some people dumped all the strings out of the .exe file, which is really interesting and something I didn’t even know was possible. So I’m glad some people enjoyed IA. It’s been called an “interactive feelie” for ATYC, and I think that’s a great term.

Writing the blurb for IA was fun because it needed to sound on the edge of plausibility. So there’s a whole invented story about the tragic death of A. Scotts which is mostly left in the mind of the reader. I wanted his death to be bizarre, and originally I was thinking about some sort of alligator farm or zoo in Florida. After some searching, I decided a death at an ostrich ranch was better, and apparently the famous / most touristy one in the US is in Arizona. The funny thing is I was living in Utah while I was writing IA and ATYC, and I literally drove by this exact ranch on a weekend trip just a few days after I learned about its existence and drafted the blurb. So I paid my respects to Adam Scotts, whose name certainly isn’t derived from “Scott Adams” in any way.

The thing is, I think IA is actually a good program for what it does. It generates a solvable adventure. Its parser is solid for the few verbs and nouns it knows (and it helpfully rejects anything else). So, in case you’ve caught the DOS IF bug, or if you just like seeing historical recreations of train wrecks, my source code for Infinite Adventure is online. It could somewhat reasonably be remodeled and extended to create an actual game or game engine if one were so inclined.

Parting thoughts on nostalgia

Between the two phases of writing ATYC, a good friend of mine shared a quote with me. It’s from Carolyn G. Heilburn in her book Writing a Woman’s Life: “Nostalgia, particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for unrecognized anger.” I really like this quote because I see its truth and also because I feel like it’s judging me. I’m a pretty nostalgic person. I’m forever looking back—right now I even find the early days of COVID quarantine nostalgic—but I’m not sure I have unrecognized anger (although the author might argue that’s precisely because the anger is unrecognized).

I think the quote applies pretty well to Em. Why else is Em up at midnight playing a dumb game from thirty years ago? It does seem like Em has some things to be angry about. The mother has been gone for those thirty years as well. And the fight with Riley is never fully explained, but it seems to weigh very heavily on Em, even in the best ending.

As for me, what am I trying to recapture if I ram another party through the Wizardry levels that I’ve memorized pretty well by now, or if I play Super Mario Bros. just to prove I can beat it for the umpteenth time? Very little of ATYC is autobiographical, but I identify pretty closely with the fortysomething Em at the end of the game, up too late, playing something simple and dull, trying to remember something that maybe I never knew in the first place. There’s certainly joy in nostalgia, but there’s a cost, too, and that’s something I hope the ending of ATYC gets at that a bit.

Thank you!

Winning IFComp has been incredible and a bit surreal. I just wanted to say thanks again to my beta testers: Steev Baker, Maddy Buchta, Mike Carletta, Olivia Cypcar, Christopher Hagge, Hatless, Peter Hoppe, Todd Levine, Joel Matthys, Melendwyr, Julia Nelson, Mike Russo, Andrew Schultz, Bekah Sprouse, and Sarah Stock. Thanks to my fellow authors for the Miss Congeniality Award. Thanks to those who left feedback on the IFComp site—a few comments in particular were very meaningful to me. Thanks to everyone to played, reviewed, rated, and/or discussed ATYC and IA. Seriously. Thank you.

Happy infinite adventuring!

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Thanks for writing all this out! I definitely had some loose-end questions, and this tied them up and then some.

I always pictured Em as male, but I also imagined Em would be the sort to get heckled by other guys for “not really making a move on Riley.” I assumed Em had probably, sometime during adolescence, been described as “not really masculine enough” and given the name “Em” as an epithet and learned to deal with it.

Also, for me, Emerson brings to mind Emerson Lake and Palmer and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and yes, that’s last names and not first. But my mind got locked in there. In addition, having a character with a first name that could be a last name also makes them feel a bit more distant.

As for playing old games? I agree there is some anger I never got to play game Y as a kid, which doesn’t explain why I play nostalgic game X instead. I think over the years when I replay something I make a point to actually try something new, a quicker way through, so I don’t spin my wheels staying up late as Em does in IA.

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The depth and cleverness of the whole design are incredible. I didn’t get to play your entries from my random picks, but I would have rated them highly. Congrats!

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Yeah, I had one early tester comment on Ralph Waldo as well. And I know that when I begin reading / playing a story, I make some quick assumptions about the protagonist, and then probably only change those assumptions if I’m presented with direct evidence to the contrary. I spent way too long looking at lists of gender-neutral baby names trying to find one that stuck, especially after Riley stole her name away from Em. Apparently Emerson is becoming a popular-ish name right now. And again, Em can certainly be a boy in the story! I don’t know how much gender neutrality matters to readers / players, though Choice of Games advertises the fact that you can choose your gender and sexuality pretty prominently. It was just something I was aiming toward, and I don’t think I quite arrived there.

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I don’t know who wrote which reviews, but my strong belief is that with plausibly gender neutral protagonists in 2nd-person IF, most players will assume the protagonist to be male. Partially because of the male default, but mostly because people tend to view self-insert characters with their own gender, and there’s a, uh, slight demographic bias in the reviewer base.

I assumed Em was a boy, but I could see either way. I was playing in a group, though, and at least one person in the group assumed Em was a girl (and if I’m not misattributing that statement, it was made by a female) so I would honesty say that you did a good job, it’s just reviewer bias.

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I think one of the reasons people thought Em was a boy is that there was a strong element of romantic/sexual tension between Riley and Em, and being lesbian or bi in the 80s would have had, uh, more complicated dynamics I guess.

I did get that Em was supposed to be gender neutral (just the name Em!), and I did imagine Em as a girl for a while. But if Em were a girl then the way the budding romance was written would be… kind of off?

Self-insert headcanon time: is it weird that I imagine Em and Riley as the parents of the protagonist from A Paradox Between Worlds?

Edit: choice of games and most hosted games do have gender-choice protagonists, but in a lot of games it’s pretty clear that the protagonist was originally conceived of as male or female. For example, a lot of people have said that the protagonist of The Wayhaven Chronicles is pretty strongly female-coded. Having the explicit gender choice does a lot of work.

Edit 2: another headcanon - Em is an egg

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Yeah, for me Em initially felt pretty gender neutral, but the response to the stripper game and the following interaction with Riley placed him pretty strongly as a straight boy. I just couldn’t see that happening the way it was written otherwise, especially in the 80s.

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For what it’s worth, I thought Emerson was a girl for most of the game. Being as sensitive as she is to what’s going on with her friend is (rightly or not) female coded for me, especially at their age. I also just assume 14-year-olds are generally friends with people of the same gender (though obviously that’s not always the case).

I was pretty surprised in the ending I got, where it implies Emerson and Riley are in a romantic relationship, because I hadn’t read that at all in the text. It caused a weird moment in my brain where Emerson switched from female to sort of confusingly androgynous.

I was sort of bummed that Emerson and Riley ended up together. I really like narratives about close, caring friendships, because I think there’s a dearth of them, especially compared to “young love” stories. It seems as though I may have just missed the bits where that’s established in the game, but Emerson worrying about losing a dear friend, and trying to figure out how to help her but not quite having the tools is more moving to me on its own, without the romance.

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Thank you for the interesting process details. I completely understand those odd and creepy cool moments where characters will write their own unexpected dialogue and sometimes do things the author doesn’t expect - but can be completely right for the narrative.

I’ve heard other authors speak of minor characters forcing themselves into the spotlight, and the entire plot of a book changing because a character resolutely refused to get murdered per the outline… !

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That may’ve been part of it as well, especially in a mid-size town such as Appleton. My experience with Appleton is it’s home base for some Lutheran ministries (I think my grandparents bought some sort of Lutheran life insurance. The details escape me. I was young.) And … well, some synods are pretty strict about What The Bible Says ™.

This is a general impression and I’ve never been to Appleton, but this (and thoughts below) are the sorts of thoughts I didn’t relay while I was testing. While this sort of feedback wasn’t needed to flesh out rough edges (ATYC was in very good shape,) nevertheless, I think going forward I will mention this sort of thing.

I also don’t think it’s something an author should feel obliged to control for, but all the same, I realize I could’ve read things a bit closer.

Same here–for me too, the potential romance wasn’t the main focus. For me it was, how much will Em and Riley keep in touch? I thought more about friends I had fun playing potentially boring games with, and there was definitely no romance there, though a few of them got bored around puberty because girls were more interesting, and girls and computers (apparently) didn’t mix! (Also, a lot of girls said computers were weird, so I just assumed that the chance 2 girls would bond over computers would be extremely unlikely.)

Perhaps it’s part of my own memories, how other guys said “you computer types never get the girls.” So I figured everything was platonic. (Note: years later, I realize I never saw said Other Guys with anyone.)

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Thanks so much for this excellent breakdown and summary of the game. Alas, my wife and I only had time to play it for about 30 minutes or so, so it was good to read this and learn what the rest was about.

Honestly? My initial thought at listening to her read and make the choices (it was her first parser game - ever) was “holy shit! This author pulled a Triple Lindy and turned a parser game into a book!”

That may be a crazy thing to say, but it’s how it feels. It comes across as a genuine literary experience, and yet there are all the illusions of choice (esp in the beginning part that we played, where you complete fetch quests in tiny, constrained environments) in the form of IF, so it made for quite a bridge between the world of games and the world of literature.

Shorter version: bravo! :partying_face:

However, I cannot conclude without saying that you’d need some kind of time machine in order for VvG to earn the enmity of a baseball team :baseball: :crossed_swords: :ear: :art:

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BJ, thanks for the write-up, and the game!

I thought “Em” might be Emma until the first time he was called Emerson. I think that was when I “X ME”'d during the strip poker scene, thinking that if she’s female her embarrassment might be explained by being queer and not at peace with it. But then I saw he was Emerson, which I didn’t clock as a gender-neutral name, and put it down to his being in love with Riley and not at peace with that. And as Autumn says, this would not have played out the same for a queer girl in the '80s.

There might have been other cues in the text, and/or it might have been my own biases, but I think my impression of Em as male was cemented by a strong bias towards male protagonists (or male-coded AFGNCAAPS) in stories with that sort of setting, and in the old games it was referencing. If you want to get away from something that institutionalised, I think you need to do it explicitly.

I did read Riley as bi, probably because of the person she reminded me of.

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Thanks for the comments, everyone! I really appreciate hearing how others interpreted Em and Riley.

This definitely makes sense to me, as the romantic ending was another thing that surprised me as I wrote it. The four endings are very different, and they’re only dependent on the comparatively small decisions of which important items you do/don’t give Riley at the end. I was envisioning more of a butterfly effect thing, like “who knows what small action could somehow impact the future in larger ways?” That trope has certainly been overdone, so I guess practically it was just a helpful frame for me to write the endings.


I meant to say in my initial post that I hope to have a post-comp version out by the end of the year. I very much appreciated the bug and typo reports I got. In the comp version, I inadvertently left the standard code that lets player type “* [comment here]” and not get a parser error, and it turns out people a few people used it! So I’m glad it was still in there.

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