Author Highlights: Andrew Plotkin

(Brian Rushton) #1


Andrew Plotkin (also known as zarf and erkyrath) rose to prominence by being the first to win several IF competitions and awards, including the first IFComp and two of the first three XYZZY Awards.

He has been consistently productive since that time, creating IF tools such as Glulx, Quixe, and Lectrote, as well as kickstarting the successful commercial IF game Hadean Lands.

He began writing IF in his teens, including his first game, Inhumane. He has also produced significant non-IF work, such as Sytem’s Twilight and the Werewolf party game.

Selected Works:

A Change in the Weather (1995)

This was Andrew Plotkin’s breakout game, and winner of the first Interactive Fiction Competition. This game features a protagonist at a sort of outdoor party/activity who just wants to be alone, walks across an old rotting bridge, and explores an old hill with interesting geological features.

There’s nothing fantastical or surreal about the setting, but the world is described in great detail, with a sort of melancholy faded feeling. For instance, there is a shed described as follows:

In a way, this game kicked off the story-focused IF trend that Photopia refined a few years later. Just as IF games changed a great deal after Photopia, they also changed a great deal after A Change in the Weather.

So Far (1996)

So Far was the first XYZZY award winner. Though the amount of material was smaller than the norm for ‘big games’ of the time, the intricate puzzles gave it a lot of gameplay hours. This game features numerous characters and animals, very few of which can be interacted with. This is one of the themes of the game, that there are barriers between the PC and any form of connection or communication with others. Locked doors, unfamiliar languages, bizarre customs, all serve to alienate you.

The feeling of loneliness and melancholy this game and A Change in the Weather produce are very typical of Plotkin games.

The Space Under the Window (1997)

This was an influential experimental game by Plotkin pushing the boundaries of IF. In this short game, you type keywords from a short paragraph of text. Each keyword alters the text in various ways. In this sense, the game is a fore-runner to the text-substitutions of First Draft of the Revolution and, later, Twine. The sense of melancholy remains in this game.

Spider and Web (1998)

Spider and Web is another game that remains hugely popular (after winning the XYZZY awards and topping several Best IF of All Time charts) both as a game and as a target for criticism. There is something of the Photopia effect here (or, like Robin Johnson mentioned, the ‘Seinfeld isn’t funny’ effect), where a game’s innovations become more mainstream and it becomes more difficult for people to see what was surprising about a game.

Spider and Web is built around a single interaction, the chair puzzle. Everything leading up to it and following it is just designed to let that moment happen and for it to be powerful. It is in some ways the perfect puzzle, and is perhaps the best-regarded IF puzzle of all time.

It uses unique conversation system with an NPC, features parallel narratives and disjointed time, and makes subtle use of text effects.

Hunter, in Darkness (1999)

After his many earlier success, Plotkin turned to experimentation in new areas. Hunter, in Darkness is actually a tribute to an older game (the name of the older game is perhaps a mild spoiler, so I’ll put it in tags: Hunt the Wumpus). Like Plotkin’s earlier games, it involves a melancholy, lonely setting.

This game has three features that I find interesting. First, it features a telescopic view, almost like Lime Ergot, but not used for puzzles. By this I mean that you can look at a room description, find a scenery object, examine the scenery object to find details, and examine the details to find sub-details.

Second, it uses interaction to communicate claustrophobia and pain. You can frequently become stuck or damage yourself in the course of solving the game. By making the player complicit in these actions, it is more effective than static fiction.

Third, it riffs on old IF tropes, including having a non-standard maze. Plotkin seems to take great pleasure in creating big, scary-looking mazes that are actually completely trivial once a proper technique is discovered. Many of his games feature such a maze.

Shade (2000)

This is Plotkin’s single most popular game. A take on the tired trope of ‘my crappy apartment games’, this has you trying to find your tickets and go on a trip.

This is a psychological game that uses ‘magician’s tricks’ to push the player into certain experiences while letting them think they have control. It also uses subtle signaling to establish mood and unsettle the player.

Dreamhold (2004)

Dreamhold comes from a period where IF had played out most of the obvious experiments and was looking to gather new fans. After this game, Emily Short created Bronze, and several other games included tutorial modes.

This is a game about a lonely being in a melancholy, surreal setting. You are in the castle of a wizard. Everything has been abandoned, and there are several masks laying around that you can get memories from.

This game seems heavily influenced by Myst, with big mechanical devices and physics-based puzzles. It is designed as a tutorial game that has been used frequently over the years to introduce players to the genre.

Dual Transform (2010)

This was zarf’s entry into the Jay is Games Casual Gameplay competition, where the authors were asked to write one-room escape games. Zarf didn’t win, placing behind Fragile Shells and Hoosegow, but this game has since become the most popular IF game from 2010.

The requirement of being a ‘one room’ game was playfully stretched here, as there is one room, but many versions of the room. The player has the power to transform the room into different elements or time periods, with everything currently in the room transforming along the same theme. There is one room, one item, one container, one creature.

Hadean Lands (2014)

This game was kickstarted by Andrew Plotkin, who took a considerable amount of time to work on creating a truly grand commercial IF game.

Hadean Lands is Infocom size, or larger. It involves a player wandering around a sort of Zork-punk spaceship, a giant structure that moves across the cosmos in mysterious, alchemical ways. Something has gone horribly wrong with reality, and the player must somehow repair the ship just enough to save everyone.

It has an unusual tiered system, in which early puzzles become automatic actions for larger puzzles, which in turn become automatic actions for even larger puzzles. It is one of the highest-regarded IF games of recent years.


Plotkin’s work revolves around guiding the player towards specific, powerful interactions. He describes his own design philosophy as follows:

This can be seen in every one of his games, but most strongly in Spider and Web (the chair puzzle), Hadean Lands (the central puzzle of the game), and the four hat puzzle games. The hat puzzle was a puzzle spread across four games by separate authors. The ‘desired interaction’ was realizing that elements of different games were intentionally similar and could be transported from one to another.

Plotkin’s works tell stories through puzzles. His puzzles are designed to have meaning and nuances. The gadget puzzles in Spider and Web are designed to communicate your professionality, the maze in Delightful Wallpaper emphasizes your incorporeality, and the necessary struggling in Hunter in Darkness emphasizes your claustrophobia.

Finally, in contrast to Adam Cadre’s vibrant and organic landscapes, Plotkin’s games are melancholic and contemplative. They promote a studious and thorough approach to gameplay, and tend to have few NPCs and little conversation. In this regard, they are very similar to the Myst games, which Plotkin has cited several times as inspiration.


Plotkin has been a steady producer of popular, influential games for years. In 2000, just 5 years after his first big hit, he was memorialized in Being Andrew Plotkin, and that was before many of his most-played games.

His puzzles-as-story approach has been appropriated by many other authors, sometimes blatantly (like Of Forms Unkown) and sometimes more subtly.

His influence is felt in many other ways as well due to his technological achievements, and critical theory concepts such as the Zarfian scale of cruelty.

(Andrew Plotkin) #2

Thanks for writing this up!

I guess we don’t have a convention for “author feedback” yet, since Adam Cadre isn’t active here any more. So I will take the plunge. I won’t try to argue or agree with your analysis – I’m no better at unbiased introspection than the next human – but I can comment on some of the history.

I didn’t design Werewolf, I just thought up the “werewolf” theme for it. (Jmac always twits me about false humility here, but I think it’s important to preserve the history of what has become a folk-gaming phenomenon. Plus, it amuses me that the single line “I think werewolves are niftier, so I changed it” has become my single most successful creative work.)

System’s Twilight is arguably IF. It’s certainly within the modern boundary of IF/narrative/adventure/story-centric games. Readers may not realize that, in 1995, I thought of SysTwi as my “real” game-design career, which I put aside briefly to write A Change in the Weather. I figured I’d toss an entry into this new IFComp thing and then get back to the big graphical shareware games.

I always thought of it as returning to my So Far roots! But of course So Far was just a couple of years after Myst, so that’s saying the same thing one level removed.

I don’t think steady is the right word any more. :slight_smile:

(Brian Rushton) #3

That’s really interesting, especially the part about System’s Twilight being your main focus at one point (that’s one game I’ve never beaten! it’s just so big…). Thanks for responding; I hope others are able to offer feedback in the future, too.


I know I’m following up rather late here, but I was wondering if Zarf (since he’s active on this forum) would be willing to talk about one of his games in-depth.

If you’re willing, Zarf, maybe pick a favorite game of yours (if you have one), and talk about what you particularly like about it and why?


This series of author highlights is so enjoyable!

Thank you.

(Chris Conley) #6

Hmm. I would argue whether this is really the case, but regardless, I feel like you spoiled too much of That Puzzle just by writing what you did there without spoiler tags.


I don’t know if there’s much point to putting spoiler tags around the best-known puzzle in one of the best-known games in the IF canon that was released 20 years ago.

The puzzle works so well because it resolves narrative tension at multiple levels.

At the basic level, you have the puzzle: you’re trapped in the chair, you’re clearly expected to escape somehow, and you’re presented with a logical inconsistency regarding your infiltration tools. The player needs to deduce the cause and consequences of this inconsistency and this is already a well-crafted, satisfying puzzle.

But then there are also questions the player may have been asking themselves as they’re playing the first half of the game: why is the protagonist playing games with the interrogator? If they intend to cooperate, why not cooperate from the beginning, instead of offering easily-discredited lies about how they infiltrated the facility? If they intend to resist, why isn’t it a winning move to antagonize the interrogator into killing you early in the game? These questions are subtle enough to not disrupt gameplay: of course you’re supposed to take whatever actions prolong the game as long as possible. But they’re a dissonance at the back of the player’s mind that comes to an extremely satisfying resolution with that one command.

At the deepest level, the puzzle plays with the narrative conventions of the medium itself. Why is the game keeping secrets known by the protagonist away from the player? The player doesn’t think much of this at first, because it’s a standard gameplay convention: an exposition dump at the start of the game would be overwhelming, so it’s standard practice for the player to slowly catch up to the player character’s level of knowledge about their past and their setting as the game progresses. The resolution of the puzzle turns this convention on its head: there actually is an in-universe reason why the player character is hiding information from the player (i.e., is suppressing certain information from conscious thought, so that the interrogator does not pick up on it). The effect is similar to the ending of Bioshock: the player takes for granted during the playthrough that the game is on rails, because of course an FPS is on rails out of narrative necessity: and then the in-universe explanation is incredibly satisfying. But Bioshock’s ending is much weaker than Spider and Web’s climax because Spider and Web presents the player with an interactive puzzle the player solves themselves, rather than Bioshock simply telling the player the punchline.

Now Spider and Web is not perfect: there are certain plot holes (the protagonist should have kept all knowledge of the gas canister secret from the player, but of course this would not work narratively), and the ending falls a bit flat. Spider and Web clearly was strongly influenced by Trinity, but although Spider and Web does a good job explaining to the player the very significant consequences of a breakthrough in teleporter technology to terrorism and warfare, nuclear weapons inspire a certain visceral awe that a fictional weapon simply cannot match. It’s also much harder to swallow that the player ends up making any difference in the end, even when choosing the sabotage ending: surely the technology will be rediscovered, probably in short order, by another team of scientists. By contrast Trinity’s bittersweet ending—that the player somehow averted an even darker timeline where nuclear weapons are an order of magnitude more destructive than in ours—is more logically consistent and satisfying.

So in summary, I don’t think Spider and Web is necessarily Plotkin’s strongest game, when evaluated holistically (I would give that honor to So Far); but I also fully agree with the assessment that it contains IF’s best puzzle. What do you believe are the other contenders?

(Brian Rushton) #8

Thanks for your interesting analysis!

As for best puzzles in general, I think the time travel puzzle at the end of Spellbreaker is very good, also requiring leaps of intuition and a realization about what’s really been going on.