Author Highlights: Paul Allen Panks

So far in my Author Highlights have mainly dealt with authors who were very successful in terms of competitions. I have several more of those I plan on writing.

But there are other authors that had a major impact on the community, even if not in terms of great quality. Their stories can be useful as well.

As a caveat, I have limited perspective, both on the past and the present, and much of my views boil down complicated issues to simple, inaccurate summaries.

Background:
Paul Allen Panks was one of the best-known figures in the interactive fiction world in the 00’s. He was a frequent poster on rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction (precursors to this forum) and entered IFComp with a significant number of games from 2004-2007.

From the beginning of IF to the present day, there have been programmers working individually or in small groups to make custom-made parsers with Basic. These programmers tend to idealize the ‘retro’ aspect of IF, eschewing artsy IF and focusing on Text Adventures as a separate category, especially those with Tolkien or D&D-inspired settings and often with some kind of combat. Because these ideals conflict with the story- and simulation-centered aspects of much of the IFComp/XYZZY world, the two groups have often butted heads. In more recent years, the ‘Retro’ community and the ‘Comps’ communities seem to have more in common, with well-known IFComp entrants like Marco Innocenti doing classic-type adventures and retro authors like Stefan Vogt (who has well-crafted products) interacting with those in the comp community.

In any case, Paul Allen Panks acted mostly alone. He openly disclosed that he had been admitted for psychiatric care on several occasions, and said that many of his games were inspired by his hallucinations, which explained their use of color and their random, dream-like side-characters.

Paul was unpopular on the forums, and frequently posted for self-promotion. While he had some high-quality games, most of his work entered in comps was small, badly designed, or derivative of his former works.

Selected Works:

Westfront PC (1993/2000):

(Note: the creation date is listed on IFDB as 1993, but the earliest announcement I could find for public release was 2000)

This is Pank’s biggest work, and, in my opinion, his best. It satisfies many of the desires of the retro gaming group: a big game (1000+ rooms), classic adventure style, retro look, fantasy setting (with an inn and village), and RPG-style combat. It looks good, too, with lots of different colors.

Panks worked on this for years, and constantly posted about updates in the forums. Other users derided him for his frequent self-promotion, and he fought back, often posting reviews or statistics about other sites that liked his game.

This game was inspired by Zork and also by MUDs (multi-user dungeons), a separate and very popular group of text games where people could (and still can) chat with other users and play an adventure together.

This game was the direct inspiration for Adam Cadre’s Endless, Nameless . Many elements directly match up, like playing darts or the color schemes. Endless, Nameless is a meta-commentary about the interactive fiction world (for instance, there is a sorceress who gifts text adventure characters with voices and conversation).

Panks claimed thousands of downloads for Westfront PC. I’ve never dived deep into it, but I find it interesting. I believe that many on this forum would find it a treat.

Ninja (2004):

This game goes a long way towards explaining the animosity towards Panks. Released in IFComp 2004, it’s one of the smallest IFComp games ever released (although not smaller than Breaking the Code , which just displayed a highly illegal piece of code to jailbreak DVDs).

You basically move a couple of rooms over and kill a dragon. That’s it.

Paul O’ Brian described it as follows:

It’s just really not good at all. But there is a way to enjoy it, at least for me. See, I like to think that there exists a tiny sliver of possibility that Panks is actually just a satirist with a very, very, very dry wit. I mean, really – if IF were a Christopher Guest movie, Panks would just have to be a character. It’s almost as if he’s playing a character all the time in his postings, and this game works perfectly as reductio ad absurdum interactive fiction. Look at it as a parody, as perfectly straight-faced and utterly ridiculous all at once, and it may provide a moment’s entertainment. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’d give it a high score in the comp or anything.

Jesus of Nazareth (2005)

This game and the other entered this year (see below) seemed designed purposely to be controversial. This is a combat RPG where you are Jesus. Parts of it are purposely offensive, but other parts seem quite a bit sincere.

Ninja II (2005)

This game, the other 2005 IFComp game, was even more of a statement. It’s just like *Ninja * (2004), word for word, but has exactly one extra room with another dragon to kill in one hit. One usually positive reviewer said: “I like writing constructive reviews, but there’s not enough to work with here to even provide constructive criticism.” The negative reviews were much harsher.

Fetter’s Grim (2006) / Green Falls (2006) / Simple Adventure (2006) / Adventure XT (2007) Ghost of the Fireflies (2007) / Vampyre Cross (2007):

These games, all entered in IFComp, are essentially all the same game. It’s eery. They all start in a tavern, which has two floors. Exiting the tavern, you find yourself in the center of a village, standing by a well. Of to one side is a church, shaped like a cross inside. Leaving the town, you fight a hellhound. Often Jesus is an enemy. They all use the same custom parser.

Each of them has small variations (Ghost of the Fireflies has an East Asia theme, Adventure XT has Smurfs, which got it disqualified from IFComp). But otherwise, they’re almost exactly the same game.

Other works:

Panks had several other games, but I haven’t played most of them. Two games were inspired by him: Endless, Nameless, by Adam Cadre, which I mentioned before, and Ninja’s Fate by Hannes Schueller, a tribute game which incorporates a Panks Museum.

Themes:

Panks games are, by his own word, based on hallucinations. They also all seem to tie into the idea of some sort of ‘ideal adventure’ he was constantly recreating but never able to achieve. Like many in the retro community, he idealized the Commodore 64 era and fantasy adventures in particular. He frequently used religious elements, including Christian and Norse mythology.

Conclusion:

Paul Panks passed away in 2009 at the age of 32:
https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/azcentral/obituary.aspx?n=paul-allen-panks&pid=129569950

During his life, he frequently wrote Wikipedia articles on himself which were quickly deleted for non-notability. I think he would have been happy to know that someone would write his history one day, however imperfectly.

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http://ppanks76.cbm8bit.com/166316.html

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I never had an interaction with Paul. I just assumed I had time.

He’d have been right at home on Steam with Early Access, by the way. I have seen games on Steam get negative reviews simply because they were finished, that is to say, people left negative reviews for some games because the project had the audacity to be completed. That’s not a problem Westfront PC on Steam would have had. Endless updates, the best value for anyone’s dollar. I wish he could have made it a few more years and seen that the scene would have adapted to him. And with how easy it is these days to get a Commodore 64 emulator going…

He was one of us. He “promoted” himself a little too often, which, god, that was a thing that annoyed most of the newsgroups back then. Who would even notice now. I don’t think he was a bad guy. I miss him.

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One place where Panks’s legacy lives on is IFComp’s author rule #5 that limits the number of author’s entries to three per year. The story goes that back when the rules didn’t mention any limit (presumably because it was assumed that making even one parser game was such an effort that people wouldn’t submit more than one or at most two) Panks contacted the organizer and asked how many he was allowed to submit. The organizer, knowing that Panks was very prolific, said three which was then formalized and was affectionately known as the Panks Rule.

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