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:
- 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.
- 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.
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!