Casting Gijsbersions on Heightened Persons

Victor Gijsbers has uploaded a novel type of file to the IF Archive: a self-collated Collected Works , replete with fragments, correspondence, ideas, the various files that attest to over a decade of creative output. Looking through it, I was reminded of the mercurial, magnetic, almost mystical attraction of an author’s papers collected at some academic library, how there’s a tangible experience not just of art but of the artist, their journey, their victories, their failures, the humanity gestalt of self unto creation. While this archive has been carefully arranged by the author, one still gets the exploratory thrill of sorting through, say, Kafka’s papers, searching through fragment after fragment, yearning desperately for some silk thread to carry you from the surging underworld howling before you…

I had previously played his Turandot (which appears to be the one game not included in this archive), which had moved me in a way that I hadn’t expected. I got the lampoon of the ridiculous, gendered mores of the traditional heteronormative paradigm: the young man spends wild years in pure hedonistic nonsense, but then sobers up, chases the Lady, whose influence (reified in physical beauty, a beauty that is both for itself and yet safely symbolic of all the proper buzzwords approbated for love) baptises him into a newly responsible social mode, so that he moves through a kind of death into a sanctioned life. All this is played up with a level of camp that can only be described as operatic paired with a bubbling sludgestream of gutterspeech and foul deeds, resulting in a viscerally repulsive rebuke, and yet this very condemnation seemed also to refuse the underlying paradigm, that we presume ourselves anew through the assumption of veils, that who we pretend to be is also as ridiculous as who we wake up as each and every day, and because in very personal ways I find myself complicit in a similar emotional paradigm, I found that I could not safely extricate myself from the rebuke, meaning that I ultimately felt rather humiliated by association. Ultimately, the line, uttered in Turandot’s contemptuously sceptical tone: “I am sure escaping from your self-built prison is both wonderful and worthy of rhetoric rare and resounding, but what’s in it for me? Why do you think I would be interested in entering your inner sanctum and overseeing an ambitious rebuilding project?” made me cry.

Compelled by the experience, I then tried a bit of Fate , but found the conceit of a queen having her water break then immediately going on an IF puzzle adventure to be so silly that I couldn’t get properly immersed in the story. Thus, it was with a sense of Gijsbers’ oeuvre but not a deep familiarity with it that I entered into his archive, unsure of what I would find.

I began with a helpful Table of Contents, which promised a dizzying array of content. I was particularly excited for Jason and Medea , as I’d found the source material so fascinating that I’d included it in the climax of my own IF story, as well as for an unfinished trilogy about Clytemnestra, as I’d found the source material so fascinating that I’d included it in the climax of my own IF story. I was also excited, and perhaps rather intimidated, by the inclusion of fifteen years of correspondence and essays thinking about IF and its evolution.

Ultimately, I decided to proceed through the archive in the serendipitously alphabetical flow that seemed intended by the author: complete games, incomplete games, reviews and essays, then various posts and fragments.

This flow did, however, begin with a quick look into Gijsbers’ Inform 7 extension, “Attack”, which adds a template that facilitates basic RPG-style combat mechanics. A lot of work seems to have gone into this mechanic, yet I came away feeling that perhaps the extension did not necessarily play to the strengths of text as a game interface. Moreover, the ubiquity of violence as a key form of interaction in video games has always struck me as one of its jejune idee fixes. Playing through actual RPGs, even the story heavy and artistic ones, is rather frustrating: I would get some story, then the thematic development would immediately stop, I would proceed onto 30 minutes to an hour to several hours of mindlessly desecrating the natural world and murdering thousands of people, then return, be given some clutter variously attuned to allow me to murder more people, then presented with some vague nod to how the world had changed because of my actions, a change usually expressed only in reference to the story (“thanks so much for rescuing my cat, I’m happy now”) and not what I’ve actually experienced (nobody cares about the entire tribe of goblins I genocided from the planet to retrieve said cat). The sheer disjunction between myself as a character who makes moral choices and myself as the massest of murderers in the area stymies and degrades many of the genuinely profound experiences these kinds of games have presented to me. One of the things about text games that most appeals to me is precisely their preference for a world immersion in which meaningless mass violence is not foregrounded as my primary method of interaction. I am proud of the countless inventive ways that IF develops a sense of place outside of normative mechanics of killing and looting every creature we stumble across that does not have a dialogue tree (and even a good chunk of the creatures that do). To be fair to Gijsbers, he specifically states in the manual that this extension is intended primarily as a starting point from which others can begin to experiment, and indeed in an abstract way one can imagine some valuable use for these kinds of invisible dice rolls governing a delicate balance of player agency with world hostility. For instance, I can imagine an interesting version of Eat Me by Chandler Groover in which one is not an all-devouring force but is rather engaged in a tight interplay of scalability, how such a cadence could make the experience more symphonic. The problem, however, is that in that example much of this foundation provided by Gijsbers wouldn’t be particularly useful; you would probably have to write your own version of its vision from scratch.

What I did appreciate about “Attack” was the tinkering creativity of Gijsbers poking around at a development system, trying to imagine what could be possible beyond the original design module. The code here is systematic and thoughtful in ways that far exceed its actual nominal use case. It buzzes with ideas, even if it struggles to find a form for those ideas. The result is a trace drawing of dreaming itself: a sheer creative anticipation, a spark, an idea, and a relentless animation towards that idea, that, like so many of our creative endeavours, fizzles in the shadow of the terrifying immanence of actuality, of some definiteness that must swallow all the potentiality, the open-ended drive, the heart-breaking narrowing of progress towards the possibility horizon.

There’s no easy way to segue from talking about an Inform extension to talking about De Baron , so I won’t try. This was my first time playing it, although I knew in advance what the subject matter was. This story is an austere philosophical confrontation with the sickness unto death of the sickest and most life-destroying. The central conceit is to take the problem of lust, a desire that compels us beyond the barriers of morality, a thirst which breaks our bonds to any other desire in a narrowing obsessiveness, and to stage it as a drama of recursion, a fate loop in which the players haplessly bear their prewritten lines as they play and play, the idea being that, just as lust compels us to do what we desperately hate ourselves for doing, so too does the drama unfold according the lines we wish we could not say towards a denouement we wish to avoid but choose not to. (We, of course, as an abstract pronoun germane to interactive fiction, similar to the abstract use of you; I use these second person pronouns for the sake of fluency.)

The fairy tale setting, reminiscent of the kinds of creepy and depressing stories that used to terrify children like that of Bluebeard, plays rather obviously on the idea of the innocence of the child crumbling into a ghostly miseria, but it also cleverly subverts the gendered tropes of the fairy tale: the father presents himself as an exaggerated masculine, with “heroism shining in your eyes” and a “macho lumberjack outfit … [that] accentuates the heavy muscles of your arms”, and both Hilde (the wife) and Maartje (the daughter) are given trope-infused femininities which are implicitly entrusted to the protective patriarch. That this patriarch is the very cause of their suffering demonstrates the way that sexuated male violence is precisely the antagonism that it tasks itself with protecting women from. The photograph album, which shows Maartje’s childhood memories, has its later years ripped out of it, suggesting how her childhood has been stolen from her, a theme paralleled by the Baron’s letter about stealing her: the male conflict of who gets to possess Maartje (father vs. Baron) is precisely the very thing that dispossesses Maartje.

This inner divide between the father qua father and the father qua abuser (which, thankfully, the game exposes as a fiction, preventing the mewling defence of the father about how he somehow isn’t really the abuser, that it is somehow an externalizable figment that can be manifested into the Other of the Baron) projects a confrontation with the gargoyle, whose vampiric lust (for life, in this case) symbolically reiterates the same tension; the dialogue is an objectification of the inner conflict. However, the play of the mirrors, in which our heroic visage becomes replaced by our baronial visage, already, I think, accomplishes this; to me, the gargoyle scene overdetermines, a tendency that proves tangible in the prose itself: for instance, we get a profoundly haunting image of the Baron and the father merging into one in pseudosexual language, but then the prose immediately explains what we just witnessed to us, blunting the effect: “When the two of you fall into each others arms, you feel how his body, his spirit, his essence merges with yours… after a few moments you are alone in the room. The baron has returned to where he came from: your soul.” That last sentence, explaining in a cruder form what the writing has just told us in a better way, demonstrates an anxiety about piling on details until we get the point. Take this frustrating sentence, which adds on imagery that never once actually adds anything: “But being alone has disadvantages too – the black emptiness of loneliness has more than once threatened to devour you.” Yes, being alone can make you lonely. We also get lines like “It is ice cold in the unheated room” which seem rather excessive.

This tendency is unfortunate, because the writing can be really evocative and tense when it allows the images to simply be. I think this style would benefit from being a bit more clipped and spare. Take the sentence: “A penetrating, dissonant sound twice breaks the silence of the night, waking you from restless sleep.” The first part of the sentence is chilling and effective, but then we get a clumpy addendum reminding us that we’ve awoken which dulls the razor sharp abrasiveness of the first part. I am resolutely not against wordiness (as my own writing suggests), I am very polytheistic about literary style, but in this case I think erring to the sharpness of the prose’s imagistic elements would be beneficial. Also, the work needs some editing in general: a climactic line is ruined by a typo (“I know what I have done. I know what I have destroyed. I have no justification. But by God, I sweat that I will do anything that is possible in order to hurt you no more.”) and a couple of unfortunate mistranslations occur (“heaps of half-molten snow”). However, when the work carefully arranges its images to sharpen the thematic blade, then simply stands aside to let us as intelligent readers absorb them, the results are absolutely delightful, as in this great sentence: “The snow gives the world a pristine appearance, except in the streets, where it has degenerated into a dirty brown sludge.”

I remain uncomfortable with the ending, in which we are presented with the abuser in the bedroom; you can break the mirror and kill yourself, or you can promise to leave forever and never return, but all of these choices seem to me to be in a hurry to give us, the readers, a reprieve, a way of believing that the horrible man will learn his lesson and enact justice on himself in some way. I kind of wish the story ended after the talk to Maartje, without offering us a chance to stab the father or make him promise to leave forever, because giving the father a chance to be subject to the player’s correction borders on the dangerous possibility of actually believing his self-recriminations as somehow genuine, that in some sense he is actually in a battle against a lust capable of overpowering his agency, rather than simply affirming that he is a pathetic monster who routinely chose to hurt an innocent person to gratify a brute impulse. I don’t know, maybe all that’s wrong, maybe the work needs the final sundering in order to complete its vision, it’s just, I was exegetically uncomfortable with the ending, I’m not sure it functions perfectly.

The archive presents us with a brief essay about De Baron , in which Gijsbers presents the work as being an attempt to envision interactive fiction where the primary choice is one of literary perception about theme and meaning. I’m not so sure that this “narrativism” is substantially different from simply the idea of interactive fiction that takes itself seriously as literature, in which our engagement is always artistically considered. To me it reads more like a response to accusations than an explanatory essay. The included reviews help to explain why that response was necessary, with readers being beguiled by the idea that there could be an action taken in IF unrelated to solving a puzzle. We must be cautious about reading history only in the context of its retrospective arc: we can look at the fact that Photopia came out in 1998 and wonder why these conversations are still appearing in 2006, but that ignores the reality that these conversations specifically appear in these nodes that lead towards general community agreements (in this case, towards the recognition that IF is not just a puzzlesolving game genre), that ongoing community conversations are not solved by one or two works that challenge a norm but rather by the solidification of trends over time. Lest we get too modernity haughty, we might look around and see all the ways that the general assumption about IF from many players is still that it will be a fun game…

Many people describe De Baron as a crucial marker in IF’s turn to moral choice works, but I’m not so sure that’s accurate, as it’s not really about making a moral choice but reckoning with a legacy of immoral choices. Perhaps the “moral choice” moniker might be better applied to the next game, Fate , which features a queen going through contractions trying to ascertain the future of the soon to be born child. Again, the central framing of the game is rather silly, with a sense of false urgency that detracts more from the atmosphere than it adds.

The greater issue with the moral choice aspect of the game, however, is we have no idea who the queen is as a person. In De Baron , we had enough contextual clues to understand that the father was a man who had tried to externalize his guilt into a fantastical other in order to avoid taking moral culpability for his crimes, but in Fate , Catherine is so abstractly developed that I really didn’t know what she would do for a vision and why. We see that she is a queen in name only, we see that she is nine months pregnant at barely 20, she feels like she cannot trust the servants, that her child is perceived mostly as a threat to dynastic sovereignty, there are enough hints about the predicament she finds herself in that we can get the gist of what might happen in this world, but we get no flashbacks or reminiscences or dialogue clues about the emotional heft behind her experiences, such that, when presented with the choice of what Catherine would do to see how her child fares, I wasn’t sure what exactly I felt she would do, because I wasn’t sure who she was. I also wasn’t sure why she even cared so much about having such a vision, like is she fantasizing about the success of her child as a way of deriving meaning from a broken life, or is she hoping for some kind of vengeance to be foretold, or is she hoping to find a way out of her current predicament so that she can live a fulfilling life, or is she just worried about the immanent possibility of death, or what? The game offers the player of choosing a vision through their actions, which gives us the task of deciding what the queen is after, and yet the band of possibilities is relatively limited: there are four negative outcomes, all of which are pretty straightforward, and four positive outcomes, three of which are that your child is a good warrior for x faction (so you’re basically deciding which faction matters to you, for reasons we can only guess), and one which is that your child goes to live in the country and has a happy life. We can triangulate certain qualities from each ending; that last ending suggests a strand of escapism, for instance, though we can’t truly be certain whether that’s Catherine’s escapism or the child’s escapism, or maybe even just the child’s natural desire, since perhaps he doesn’t know about his royal past? It’s all a bit mercurial.

However, the saddest thing to me is that the delightful strain of imagism present in De Baron is missing in this game. We still get some great sentences, like “Blood and skin have been suffused into a disgusting mix, with fragments of bone sticking out of it.” Occasionally, we do have some evocative ideas, like “The demon emits a sound like screeching metal, which might be its equivalent of laughter” which provokes a fascinating train of thought about how demons sound . Also, at one point we can obliterate our mind and enter a permanent state of “blue forgetfulness” which I thought was delightful phrasing. For the most part, however, the writing contents itself with faintly sketching things rather than bothering with developing atmosphere or theme. Even the stories that Sir Charles regales us with aren’t actual stories but just random sentences that imply that a story is being told, which felt like a missed opportunity. There’s also a tendency to cliché in some parts, like being told that a battlefield has “a river running red with blood.” If we’re going to get a cliché, at least dazzle it up a bit, put an original twist on it. Also, the riffs on the gendered tropes in the dialogue are fine enough in their sardonic tone, if a bit overdone, but I did find that the conversation with Amy rather unfortunate, where two women have three topics on hand: pregnancy, cosmetics, and men.

With these first two games, I think we can see Gijsbers trying to create IF as a viable literary art where the choice mechanisms serve as the enabling function of an intended literary effect rather than a coincidental or even opposed (solve these three puzzles to turn the page!) function. Whereas De Baron was linear, with our choices along the way being indicative of how we wanted to characterise the character, Fate innovates by opening up the realm of choices to articulate what the character feels and values. We are, in a sense, choosing the fate of our child, which shows what we feel Catherine values. Although I ultimately felt dissatisfied with Fate , I think the ambition behind it is a noble one, and it paints a picture of Gijsbers’ authorial arc towards creating stories in which our participation is a thematic engagement with a text world that lenses the agency of its characters according to how we experience them in such a way that the artistic effect occurs through the redoubling of our Weltanschauung through an orienting Weltbild directrix. The promise of an interactive fiction encounters the somewhat daunting nature of the creation of a fiction in which our interaction is equally a thematic engine capable of generating the artistic current; Gijsbers, in these first two games, is trying to blueprint just such an engine.

I say that, because he says as much himself in an essay entitled Co-authorship and Community . When launching the “About” page for the next game in the list, Figaro , we are told that this is a small proof of concept experiment intended to accompany the aforementioned essay, which is, thanks to this lovely collection, provided for us in the essays folder (imagine the difficulty of having loaded up Figaro from IFDB only to be told that this game was intended to accompany an essay, then having to spend thirty minutes googling through who knows what 2000s-era websites in the desperate and increasingly vain attempt to find the essay not distributed with the game; these are the very things we should be thinking about in terms of long-term IF archival, and I’m glad this collection addresses that very issue). After articulating the basic premise about the need to reconsider the relationship of the reader to the work to truly envision the manifold possibilities of interactive fiction, Gijsbers immediately hits on a dizzyingly bold and rather anarchic idea: what if an IF game was a direct appeal to your coauthorship, and you entangled your vision of the game directly into the work itself, such that, from a single seed, we end up with dozens of works, each one a fictional response to the generative gambit! This wild-eyed pioneering is fun to dream about, but I think it takes away from the purpose of authorship, which is to craft an experience worth experiencing. When reading War and Peace , I don’t get mad that Pierre accepts the duel with Dolokhov, then decide to write the remaining 800 pages as a version where he doesn’t accept the duel. That kind of election isn’t even a meaningful engagement with the work; the power of fiction is precisely the ability to be immersed in another human soul, to participate in the experience of an other, no longer to be existentially alone. If I rewrote Fate , I wouldn’t participate in Fate , I would simply have rewritten it, created something else, and whatever experience Gijsbers developed, and moreover the comments we can derive from it, would be lost. Indeed, it is that very responsiveness to Fate as it was developed that’s infinitely more engaging than just creating my own tangentially related work; writing critically about a text is far more interactive than writing your own work. The direct relation we have with a work is paradoxically lost the second we become a part of it. I find value in this archive, the oeuvre of Gijsbers, precisely because it is a series of possibilities, experiences, and ideas that I did not already have floating in my own mind. I read Stendhal not to decide how best the characters can resolve their tensions but to experience that very network in its fraughtness generative of an infinity of response, such that we still talk about Stendhal today, about what his work made possible . Indeed, the best way to interact with Stendhal is simply to create yourself in the wake of Stendhal, as perhaps Proust does: that is, Proust creating Proust is the vision that Gijsbers feverishly envisions in his essay, just as anyone creating IF today can incorporate the echoes of Gijsbers in their work. That is much more valuable than ripping the work itself open and going in to tinker, which seems to me such a literal interpretation of interactive fiction that it misses the joke, as it were.

As for Figaro itself, it’s not really much more than a brief prototype of a game that invites you to decide what the plot is. You are a jealous husband who suspects his wife of infidelity. You have hidden yourself in your bedroom, and you get to choose with whom your wife returns. None of the ideas are actually explored to any effect, it is in some sense entirely arbitrary which outcome you choose, and we are merely presented with the possibility of a game that could have such an option to it. In that way, what Figaro actually accomplishes is the idea of branching as incorporated into parser IF at a time prior to Twine and the digital renaissance of choice IF. I agree that branching is a valuable tool for creating compelling interactive fiction experiences, and so in a sense I don’t disagree with Figaro nearly as much as I disagree with its accompanying essay. I think you could incorporate this very sequence in an intriguing bit of IF; nevertheless, that is not what we encounter here.

Gijsbers appears to have entered a very experimental phase of his IF career at this point, because we are presented with many games that require essays to explain. The next work in the archive is the very confusing Hidden Nazi Mode , which appears to have become The Game Formerly Known as Hidden Nazi Mode . The whole thing is essentially a provocation about the problem of the presentation of non-open source games in academic settings, as, given that they are closed systems, you do not, in essence, know exactly what you’re putting before your students. There could, conceivably, be some horrible code hidden within, waiting to poison your student’s experience. I think, in general, there’s an interesting point here about the unique issues games and other software present for instructors that other media do not. However, I don’t think Hidden Nazi Mode does anything of value in making that point, nor do I think any of this is constituent of something more intellectually significant than a forum post. I actually think a more constructive way to do this would be to write an essay highlighting real world examples of innocuous games that have unsavoury easter eggs or optional content; there are plenty of things in games that are in bad taste and have aged poorly. The general idea, of ensuring that your instruction is presented as a closed garden in which everything is safety tested, could be more convincingly argued in such a way, rather than this outlandish offering.

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Unfortunately, the next game, ‘ Mid the Sagebrush and Cactus , doesn’t have an actual runnable Z-code file in it. I did try to open it up in Inform 7 and run the code, but it no longer compiles properly. Ultimately, I chose just to read the source code. It was certainly not the best way to experience the game as an artwork, as I got a dizzying whirl of plot details in a jumbled order. Nevertheless, I was able to appreciate the game, and one welcomes Gijsbers’ turn to a kaleidoscopic but punchy prose. We get descriptions that are beautiful that somehow nestle well alongside humorous metajokes, as in these dual descriptions of falling asleep: the first occurs if you have enough health to survive and wake up: “Exhausted, you fall into an uneasy sleep. When you wake up the sun is setting, and you know you must take the bullet out now. It’s not going to be pretty, but you are tough. The toughest man this side of the border. It’s only on the other side that you break down.”; the second occurs if you do not have sufficient health to survive and wake up: “Exhausted, you fall into an uneasy sleep – and dream. You walk through an unending, featureless desert. Only the storm clouds overhead move, forming patterns that dissolve as soon as you have identified them. But you know that beyond the horizon two black eyes are waiting for you. Two black eyes from Chihuahua.” That last rather stumbling sentence aside (again we get Gijsbers’ talent for imagism ruined by an anxiety to overexplain), there’s some great writing in there, but what strikes me most is how well the tone sits alongside the first response’s humorous jab at our character. Indeed, ‘Mid the Sagebrush and Cactus is all over the place, but in a way that made it feel intriguing and surprising rather than messy. I rather enjoyed this terse description of a pistol: “One of the wonders of human civilization.” This says so much about our character! There’s so much to unpack about the tone! Like, to the extent that it’s deadpan, you get this really resonant examination of the weirdness of the western, in which technological progress is marked as a technological taming of a wilderness through the excessive use of cruelty, with a pistol encapsulating that exact juncture between inventiveness and violence, but to the extent that it’s wry, we get a sense of the character jaded into a sort of amused nihilism, in which our civilization is nothing more than a thin veneer over the mass murder and suffering it seems to necessitate. I think part of the reason the tension of these two interpretations (the deadpan and the wry) sit so well with each other is precisely that the characters have a wit as dry as the desert around them: a character quips, “what about you just ride into town and get a doctor for me? My leg is hurting like all hell. On a Sunday.” We also get this idiosyncratic evaluation of our condition: “Sweaty, blood-stained – you have seen better days. But nobody would pick a fight with you in a bar.”

The world weary tone these characters have developed derives from the game’s sober, if colorful, examination of the cruelty and sadness of the west. We get a steady drip of the awful things these people shrug off as if it was nothing, because to them it is nothing, the tenor of their lives echoes with a thousand thoughtless vices. Sometimes we get too ready a repartee about this sort of thing that the work comes across as a little juvenile and cartoonish (I had this same issue with Turandot ). Even with a generous allowance for diegetic attitudes that are helpful for illustrating who these people are and what their world is about, the dialogue is always so ready to turn the dial up to eleven that it starts to feel like the game itself doesn’t take these issues seriously enough. Time and again the vulgarness and viciousness of the dialogue fails to add more to these characters than what we already know about them. Still, there is an abrasive existential savvy to this game that keeps its edge even with these excesses, and I think part of that is it’s ability to turn on a dime into something unexpectedly haunting and poignant, as in this line wherein the player is shot: “The bullet goes straight through your brain. You stare at the sun. Was it ever this bright? you wonder as it slowly expands to fill your field of vision. Was it?” Not quite as good as the image at the end of Yukio Mishima’s Runaway Horses , but worthy of being mentioned in the same breath, which is a sparkling accomplishment. The visceral nature of the gunplay is sold well, with each hit staggering you in a particularly physical jolt that helps avoid an analgesic abstraction of pain.

Perhaps that very viscerality elucidates how ‘Mid the Sagebrush and Cactus integrates into Gijsbers’ artistic journey. We already saw, with the Inform 7 extension “Attack”, that Gijsbers is interested in finding a way to directly immerse the player into a simulation of conflict. This direct immersion does, of course, dovetail with his wider interests in creating IF that includes the reader in a “narrativist” participation with the work, where their activity is a core element of how the artwork functions as art. Here we get a narrative that relies on compute simulation, with health points, anger points, various variables through which the player’s confrontation is tracked and manipulated. Our showdown at high noon isn’t just a story element, but one with computer simulation behind it, integrated into the core of its thematic progression. Here Gijsbers is tinkering with simulation as perhaps part of what makes interactive fiction possible only through the aid of a computer, about a digital text as such, one which specifically utilizes an invisible calculation of mechanics towards an outcome we, as the player, don’t experience. (Perhaps this very idea about the inner workings of a text which is obfuscated to the experiential party is the germ of the paranoia that leads to Hidden Nazi Mode .) The fiction is entwined tightly with its simulation, creating a vision of what is artistically possible with digital literature that was previously impossible.

2010 was a busy year for Gijsbers, because we also get a brief diversion into pure logic puzzles in The Art of Fugue , which is mostly by Gijsbers but features a few other contributors. Pure logic puzzles aren’t really my thing, I care about IF purely as a new branch of literature, so I’ll pass on this one.

Next up is Jason and Medea . I initially thought this was also delivered without an executable, but I realize now that I have to go into the materials folder, then the release folder, to find the proper file. My mistake! This work is an adaption from the Euripides play towards Gijsbers’ ongoing fascination with the possibility of simulating systems in order to manipulate larger narrative, thematic possibilities. He recontextualizes the choir, which can serve a social normative judgmental function, as the jury we must impress. We are not merely Medea before Jason, we are performing Medea towards Jason to the audience of the chorus, and yet this very chorus is also redoubled into the actual audience of a play, the “Almost fourteen thousand Athenians [who] look down on you from the ascending, semi-circular rows of seats.” We are conscious of our character as a performance, that our playing the character is aligned directly with how Medea plays herself as a character. We get a rather self aware understanding of what drama originally was, without the conceit of a hermetic seal, in which the chorus measures the response of the culture in which these characters’ themes become incorporated as culture . The interactivity of this fiction literalizes the performative tension of the drama such that our playing of it seems in direct continuity with the lineage it adapts. In this way, Gijsbers understands that interactive fiction is, in many ways, not so much of a departure (his Turandot also examines this concept, with how the libretto is itself a performance, something that in its text state is played ). We get this exact junction literalized for us when we try to interact with the crowd: we’re told that we’re “not here to please the crowd” while a knowing narrative aside admits that "It is evident Euripides is going to finish third again this year.” Thus, we are Medea insofar as this actress is Medea, and yet the text lies unwritten before us, in that our interaction decides how we must play Medea, as if Euripides had written a profusion of lines and, in addition to choosing how to deliver them, we also chose which ones to deliver.

Unfortunately, the actual performance capacity seems remarkably limited. I often found myself struggling to find out how to argue with Jason: you can’t argue about the golden fleece, the Argonauts (nor any of them specifically, like Heracles or Orpheus), Aeetes, Absyrtus, Circe, Glauce (or Creusa), Aphrodite, Cupid, the three tasks, dragon’s teeth, Hecate, the children, Pelias, basically anything you would associate with Jason and Medea. Moreover, arguing about Colchis railroads you into a narrow argument that fails to capture all the fraught tensions of the original play (or myths in general) about a woman leaving her homeland for a man who was also a stranger in a strange land. Moreover, the arguments that do occur are ripped from Euripides in often worse form, making one sometimes wonder why they don’t just go read the play instead.

The reason why not to is the compelling nature of trying to ascertain Medea, not as someone who feels, but as someone who needs to express those feelings for a culture that is not hers. We encounter a very striking rendition of how our expressive realities are culturally transliterated, and how that transliteration often forces us towards normative narratives that subordinate our realities to the expectations are built in of how those realities should function. We’re not arguing how Medea feels, nor are we even arguing to convince Jason, we’re arguing to convince the crowd against Jason, and thus the delicate interplay of attacking and defending requires us to engage with how our stories and souls are bared before the judgment of intervening culture. This can lead to some fascinating results. Crucially, even when I tried to guess how the crowd would react, I was often surprised by how attempts to attack or defend led to unexpected results with the crowd. I, too, was trying a number of ideas, seeing what seemed to stick, then tacking to that wind. The game taught me some truths about not just Euripides but classical drama in general that I had never truly appreciated by forcing me to reckon viscerally with what these characters meant as performance rather than as merely textual abstractions.

Unfortunately, Jason and Medea is as likely to stutter and collapse as it is to actually deliver a cogent compaction. I was often relieved when Jason found a subject to argue with me about, because it freed me from the frustrating obligation of figuring out how to argue with him! Thus, even though I think the idea of Jason and Medea is brilliant, and I appreciate how it furthers the participatory dynamics that Gijsbers pioneers with regards to how to make interactive fiction more than just static stories that require a certain amount of busywork to progress by reestablishing the link between interactive fiction and the legacies of fictions that were always, in their essences, interactive, ultimately I think as a game it falls far short of itself, and the writing is strictly worse than reading even a bad translation of Euripides. Jason and Medea manifests a concern that one sometimes has about Gijsbers’ works, in that they sometimes threaten to be far more interesting to think about than to actually experience. I was also a little disappointed that Gijsbers didn’t pick up a bit more on the gendered tropes inherent to the play, because he usually zeroes in on these pressures and does a decent job plying them towards his own purposes.

We get another continuation of Gijsbers’ pursuit of reinterpreting interactive communities by the fulfilment of the promise he had once conceived alongside Figaro : a game that invites contribution, which is augmented as a collaborative play of pure mechanics, indeed rather reminiscent in that way of The Art of Fugue . I am talking, of course, about Kerkerkruip , an IF roguelike that develops the “Attack” extension from its thematic zenith in Jason and Medea to its mechanical zenith, but which, crucially, invites all players to submit their own code and help develop the game as an open source project, in much the same way that many old school ASCII roguelikes developed (sadly, this archive only seems to carry the original release, I had to go download the latest release from IFDB). I’ve enjoyed some Nethack in my day, so I went into Kerkerkruip with an open mind. Many of the same loops apply: you die to a creature, learn about it, face it the next time, and die smarter. You also get religion boons that help to characterize your playthrough (perhaps as a replacement for the class system). The combat strives to perform as a puzzler, but it seems to me rather more like a dance, with you trying to figure out how best to adapt to the rhythms of each new partner. Kerkerkruip , in reimagining how combat feels, makes a compelling case about IF as a natural format for the roguelike, and indeed the connection feels obvious in hindsight, after Gijsbers has revealed it to us with the polish and panache on offer here. However, Kerkerkruip did not become the next Nethack , a fact that probably has more to do with the frustrations of dealing with the upper limits of Inform 7 than it does with the idea itself. One can imagine a million compelling Kerkerkruip experiences, in the same way that there is the teasingly infinite promise of any roguelike, but the actual Kerkerkruip experience, after its initial novelty, fades rather quickly. An experiment, a promise, a hope, and the long silence thereafter.

2012 was a vital transitional year for IF. Emily Short released her career-defining masterpiece Counterfeit Monkey , which still remains the highest rated IF game ever on IFDB, before transitioning to professional (aka paid) games and technology development. Porpentine released Howling Dogs , perhaps the game that contributed the most towards the solidification of choice IF as the second major branch of IF. Adam Cadre reappeared after a gap of nine years with a massive and massively popular game, Endless, Nameless . Andrew Plotkin was midway through this mortal life I found me in a lost woods his own massive magnum opus, Hadean Lands , and posting regular updates on Kickstarter. It was a year of culmination and transition, of returns and disappearances, of the triumph of old ways and the glittering horizons of new possibilities. And, of course, during this pivotal year, Victor Gijsbers, contrarian, provocateur, words by which I mean philosopher, was upon the very bleeding edge of IF, doing, uh, um, he was doing, uhh…

Nemesis Macana is a weird one, in part because even trying to describe how it came about is bizarre. Back in the late 90s, someone wrote a ridiculous pornographic game, noted for its loving tribute to the very seminal works of the band King Missile, wherein the player may also discover their own detachable penis. Adam Thornton then made a Mystery Science Theater 3000 parody about that game, which then inspired him to make a sequel. So far, so 90s/2000s forum culture. I hope you will forgive your correspondent for not bothering to actually play these games. In 2011, for reasons that can only be ascribed to the human condition, two separate sequels were released: The Cavity of Time by Sam Kabo Ashwell and Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by Adam Thornton. These latter two seemed to take the ridiculousness of the subject matter as a way of thinking laterally about IF and how it had developed. The Cavity of Time riffs on what Ashwell would later clarify as one of the basic models of choice IF: the time cave model, which branches constantly, often ending abruptly, never weaving back together. Meanwhile, Mentula Macanus uses the bawdy and ridiculous cadence of Roman novels (think Juvenal and Petronius) to riff on Curses! and its long shadow on how all parser IF functions through Inform.

Nemesis Macana spins this reinvention of Stiffy Makane into a spoof of idée fixe literary criticism which sees every cultural object only insofar as it reflects on a preexisting obsession, a Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov for the IF age. In particular, it highlights how excessive prudishness operates out of a Žižekian perversion, that is, a forbidding surface that inextricably includes its forbidden underside. I was rather reminded of Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday , in which the eradication of the appearance of sexuality in bourgeois life led to an intense and constant sexual obsessiveness, including a very active prostitution element.

Not to be outdone by my mention of Žižek, our pseudoauthor Herman Schudspeer waxes philosophical on all these ideas, except that he inevitably bumbles the waxing on each philosopher he cites: he cites Lucretius with the sort of commandeering spuriousness that perhaps the fractious and rambling Lucretius might himself have done; he bumbles Kant by saying “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror” where it should, of course, be the sublime that couples pleasure with terror; he bumbles Derrida by completely misunderstanding the idea of originary violence; he bumbles Freud and (especially) Lacan by taking them too simplistically; and finally, he even has a go at Marxism, declaring proudly (and incoherently) that “Where we find capitalism, we find sex.” Commodity fetishism indeed!

Ultimately, similar to Figaro or Hidden Nazi Mode , the game itself fails to accomplish anything of note beyond its attendant essay. We are given Stiffy Makane dropping his penis as a nigh transcendent moment of sexual liberation (that is, liberation from sex), but it’s not woven into any deeper idea or thematic chain. Nothing interesting about sex, IF, or sex in IF is really accomplished. It’s all too much of a joke to not simply be a joke. I think the Herman Schudspeer character could be a useful one, if a bit obvious, and I was initially drawn into the high conceptual nonsense of his encounter with Stiffy Makane, but the result is rather flaccid.

After a lost weekend or two, Gijsbers returns with the final completed game in this archive, the copypaste-requiring Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 . A latter day Suspended , we have our parser commands literalized as instructions to a narrator who responds to us. Lemmy (perhaps playing on the fact that he is the head in this motor?) is our hapless accomplice as we order him through a rather dubious recovery mission. He is by far the star of the show, an absolute mess of a man, rambling about childhood memories, about unfortunate realities, who dissembles as often as he actually speaks his mind. He’s a bit racist, a bit misogynist, but most of all he’s a man who has been hurt, who has never had it easy, and who understands that if he doesn’t fight for himself, not only will no one help him, but in fact he’ll be actively devoured by the powers that be. You, as the techie subaltern assigned to guide him, are his antagonist; you and he are not only opposed by the specifics of the mission, but in a sense you are fundamentally opposed, your job is to manipulate him for profit, and if you do your job well enough, you do it to his detriment. Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 is a fascinating game about structural antagonisms in which everyone’s fighting for their own self interest leads to inevitable conflict and destruction.

In the included postmortem for the game, Gijsbers talks about wanting to discover a way to make IF engagement specifically about the player’s perception of success, where we are not goaded towards a preordained outcome but are instead offered a possibility space in which we may ourselves discover what outcomes to pursue. He admits that he was too pressed for time to actually achieve this. Thankfully, rather than being a lesser realization of grand ideals, Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 sidesteps the problem entirely by being about a related, and smaller, concept: how our relation to the text world is lensed through the specificity of the character through whom we act, in this case Lemmy. Gijsbers meditates on the possibility space of an IF game by focusing our attention on the antagonism between us and our mediator, who constricts and skews that possibility space through their person.

In many ways, Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 still shows the same starry eyed pioneerism for the possibilities of form with which Gijsbers started out. His enthusiasm for the philosophical underpinnings of interactive fiction as an artform lead him to repeated attempts to articulate a vision of how digital creation tools can innovate newly possible pathways for literature to pursue. Unlike a similar author like Emily Short, who would become fascinated by an innovation and then deliver a full game mastering the innovation, Gijsbers seems to prefer the role of the tinkerer, the one appearing again and again in unexpected fragments of the fringe, trying to understand what IF should be . Following his career, therefore, can often resemble the frustrating experience of following Zadie Smith’s career, where you follow an author of notable talent who somehow never seems to finally deliver the masterwork they teeter always upon the brink of delivering. One only hopes that such a masterwork is forthcoming, in which case this archive offers teasing behind the scenes glimpses into how such a work became possible only after decades of introspection, invention, and craft.

It takes an admirable amount of bravery to allow those glimpses to include unfinished games, a bevy of which the next folder in the archive reveals to us. It’s already enough of an anxiety to simply release a game, knowing you could polish it endlessly, admitting that there are flaws in this thing you have directed your soul into, realizing that you simply have to accept the limitations that have bound you, become your appearance before the world. Kneeling before judgments, knowing you deserve them, any act of creativity attends a reciprocal act of the terror of being known, of being incomplete, of being unable to fulfil your dreams. To reveal your fragments, your false starts, your failed experiments, to create an archive that admits your creative journey not just for its peaks but for how they loom over your valleys, is an act of creative honesty that is rather inspiring and which commands a certain level of respect.

Of the fragments on offer in this archive, we get an unfinished first game based on the idea of entering an altered state (in this instance, rage) that allows you to interact with the world around you in a novel way. The prose in this game is pretty straightforward, intent on spitting backstory at you so that, presumably, the show can then go on towards a daring prison escape – I say presumably, because the game tapers off pretty quickly. Gijsbers, no doubt simultaneously working on a new debut, De Baron , then appeared to decide that a better way to come to understand the artform is to sit in a museum with a trace pad and copy the old masters – except, in this case, the old masters meant a game released the very same year. The game itself, a beginner friendly puzzler with an evocative sense of urgency, was, perhaps, to Gijsbers, a great way to get more Dutch players interested in IF. He himself recounts playing an old and barely functional Dutch IF game as his introduction to the artform, so perhaps this evangelistic altruism was one of his main motivations to attempt the translation, an evangelistic altruism that Gijsbers has later oriented not just to a number of community-oriented IF endeavours, but even to philosophy, with his own rather excellent series of summaries of philosophers aimed at the many befuddled legions of undergrads asked to parse Nietzsche’s starkly arch semimanifestos that ooze with an inveterate gamesmanship that ups the ante from Kierkegaard’s performative gambits.

Also present among these fragments are a series of attempts to integrate combat simulation into narrative. These stepping stones towards Jason and Medea and Kerkerkruip are varied among themselves and demonstrate Gijsbers’ relentless inventiveness but also his tendency to get frustrated with trying to pull together many different strands into a cohesive artwork. Idols of War , for instance, is a large chunk of code, but which, having painstakingly set everything up, seems at a loss with what to actually do with any of this code. Again, Such bitter business spends a great deal of time meticulously designing its combat system, then fails to think of a game to use it. Gijsbers then envisions a trilogy of experiments, Three Deaths of Klytaemnestra , which includes a design document that lays out the vision, in particular how it tends to subvert itself: “The whole tone is awfully cheerful, constantly congratulating you with your achievements and your new powers. The game exposes the morality of the RPG while at the same time being an enjoyable RPG. Guilty pleasures!” The Bret Easton Ellis approach, where you critique a system while also unapologetically revelling in its excesses. This approach makes sense for Gijsbers, who also writes awful narrators whose excesses are constantly diegetically evoked in the writing, and yet strangely he conceives of this paradigm as being delivered by a nonembodied game narrator, which I think fizzles the concept to more of a cheap joke: “yeah, you enjoyed that game, didn’t you, you monster !” Nevertheless, we get some combat code, then the whole thing collapses once more. Then we get the most intriguing attempt to deploy the “Attack” extension, Dance to the Beat of the Earth . An enigmatic, symbolic game about manoeuvring between the aspects of the gods, we get some gently mercurial writing that reaches, like Marlowe’s Faustus , to the gods via the “topless towers” of Ilium. Of what exactly this manoeuvring would have principally consisted remains a mystery unanswered by the source, although we get teasing bits, such as that movement would consist in “zenith” and “azimuth” rather than compass directions, suggesting a Cosmographia by Bernardus Silvestrius dance of the harmony of spheres. We get many enchanting questions but no answers from this piece.

This obsession with the harmony of the spheres extends to another poetical fragment, As Only Angels Can Fall , which leads from an epigraph from Rilke’s Duino Elegies to a paeanic rhapsody once more to the gods qua heavenly bodies. However, the game also blends its classical source with gnostic theologies, as in this fascinating fragment: “[if meeting-the-prisoner is happening]Look at him. Trapped between these bars for more than a decade, with only the shifting patterns in the lava and the daily appearance of food to break the monotony–it would have driven far greater men mad. Of course, had he been entirely sane to begin with, he wouldn’t have ended up [italic type]here[roman type][end if][if being-the-prisoner is happening]The Prisoner still sits in the cage that has trapped him for over a decade, a cage high above a lake of ever-burning lava unconsumed. But [italic type]something[roman type] has changed. There is [italic type]hope[roman type] in his mind (for the first time in years), hope of–what? Freedom? Redemption? Revenge? Of nothing yet, really: his mind is still too overwhelmed by the alien feeling to decide on the details. They do not matter. Not yet[end if][if speaking-with-samael is happening]And before him Samael has appeared–in the flesh, or nearly so: a dark, bearded male, an over-towering presence whose furrowed forehead bears witness to deep inhuman griefs. No Man is he, but something more, something that has known pain, and hate, and fear, and doubt, all beyond the measure of men. But he looks down on the Prisoner not in hate or anger, but with true love and compassion.” There is something Promethean about this Prisoner, and yet the situation is hellish, and yet our savior is demiurgic… the ambition of the piece is dizzying, and perhaps for that very reason it finds itself incomplete.

Among the fragments, one also finds two unfinished collaborations with Jimmy Maher. The first, Escape , envisions the usual midlife crisis simulation where an office drone in a routine suddenly rebels against the drudgery, but, like so many midlife crises, the idea of rebellion fizzles at what to actually do , and the game ends abruptly. Another Maher collaboration, He Turns Towards the Light , aspires towards a sensory puzzler, again a la Suspended , but fizzles before getting anywhere.

The final fragment included in this archive exists only as a word document describing a general outline for a choice-based dialogue flow in which a variable, sympathy, measures a player’s invisible(?) progress towards a resolution. The writing here isn’t particularly compelling, and for the most part the document feels more like a sketch than an attempt at a game, but nevertheless it is interesting to see Gijsbers in 2015, in the heady apex of Twine’s ascendancy, and in the middle of his hiatus, considering a foray into choice IF, one that he would realize in 2019’s Turandot.

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The subsequent folder details Gijsbers’ exhaustive (and probably exhausted) attempts to justify his art and clarify his vision. We have him defending his idea of collaborative community artmaking to Stephen Bond, we have a content warning type discussion (no doubt apologetics for De Baron ) entitled “I Will Not Abandon You” which, ironically, ends abruptly beneath the eponymous section title, and we have several unfinished essays about the nature of IF as an artform. Sometimes, in these freewheeling aesthetics treatises, Gijsbers can be profound, as in this very thought provoking idea about recursion: “And of course, if they do come back, and find out more and more about what is going on in the game, and experience more and more of the endings, the reality of that first ending decreases quickly until it is merely one of many possibilities. It has been “de-realised”, robbed of its reality. It is no longer what actually happened, but merely what might happen.” There is a remarkable yet strangely enervating truth in this intriguing concept that I wish Gijsbers would write a whole essay on. What does replayability mean in interactive fiction? In traditional literature, we reread, we notice new things, but there is only salient continuity; what if, every time we read, we noticed new things because the things were genuinely new, the continuity has changed, we are a part of a different drama?

Sometimes, however, Gijsbers can be provocative without sufficient reason: “Analysis of interactive fiction should be judged by a single criterion only: will it help us to write better pieces?” I hope there’s a much wider purpose to analysis, otherwise all the words written here will certainly be worthless! I actually conceive of literary analysis as a fundamentally human endeavour, of trying to come to terms with the immanence of humanity beyond your abandonment within selfhood. Indeed, it is analysis itself which is the greatest form of savouring art, without which art would in some sense be worthless, like a fine vintage poured onto the floor. I don’t even know what it would mean for analysis to facilitate greater interactive fiction if the quality of IF is somehow a nameless or self-evident thing that doesn’t need to be articulated beyond pedagogical awareness of its self-evidence.

I share, of course, Gijsbers’ fascination with the idea of interactivity, rather than an incidental element of a work that functions primarily as literature always has, as being the enabling construct that allows for fundamentally new kinds of literary functions. This isn’t a solved issue, in many ways it is a question that hasn’t yet even been properly asked, and much less so was it in the time period from which these essays originate. The problem I think he runs into is that, in developing his idea of the “player’s creative agenda”, he ends up thinking narrowly about what interactivity even is; that is, he seems to consider interactivity as what the player can add to a narrative design, whereas, in my mind, anything that can be added to a narrative design is fundamentally a different thing than the design itself, which is therefore elided. He seems to be trying to conflate experience with response, but I think bleeding those two realms together simply dilutes them. Anything I can add to With Those We Love Alive is possible only insofar as that artwork can be understood and integrated into my spirit, which can then be added onto, not just by any ideas or worldviews that I contribute, but by the countless other artworks I encounter. I am already the creature grander for having reckoned with the artistic immanence of other creative souls, including Gijsbers, and in everything I do that cocomposition pertains. However, I only achieved such a cocomposition by first having taken the time to understand those artworks on their own terms. The “solution” to Hamlet isn’t to approach it with an “agenda” that I need to dilute it with, such that my experience with Shakespeare successfully reproduces me, that because I’m a rough and ready go-getter I can make Hamlet slay Claudius in the first act so that we can get on with something else, but rather my task should be to understand what is happening in itself and of itself aesthetically, humanly, conditionally of an iteration of our metaphysical predicament, such that, in my own irresolvable binds, I can evoke of my existence the thematic resonances of Hamlet as if they were innate, emanating from the core of my own being.

Beyond this, we get a number of reviews, some included in this folder, others included alongside blog and forum posts in the Various folder. Because I’ve gone on for way too long and am tired, I will simply let the infinitely wiser and wittier Mike Russo sum up Gijsbers’ reviewing technique in this excellent post.

So what are we to make of Victor Gijsbers’ archive? I personally believe it to be a fascinating resource that lets us connect the dots about the nature of his artistic mission and his oeuvre in ways that simply IFDB delving his games would have never made possible. I am awed by his bravery in releasing such a sensitive but comprehensive file for the perusal of the IF community, and I am thankful for the ways he has spent years fighting for interactive fiction as not just an artform that can be integrated into literature but as an artform that can fundamentally broaden the horizon for literature as a radiantly eternally developing unity. He has spent years fighting for a vision of interactive fiction that uses the possibility space of the digital to radically reinvent what art can be and how it can be experienced. He has fearlessly delved the terrifying underside of humankind in works that can be profoundly disturbing and disturbingly profound. His style engages with questions of received gender tropes, the perception of choice, the cruelty of social expectations and norms, and the unbearable heaviness of being. The operatic tenor of his philosophical disgust combines with a ruthless honesty in its longing for a sincerity strong enough to weather abuses. The heart of his style lies in casting gijsbersions on heightened persons .

I hope others follow in his footsteps in creating similar archives. I know Porpentine has done so with Eczema Angel Orifice, and maybe someday when I get in the mood to rave for another 10,000 words, I’ll examine that archive.

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Thanks so much for sharing this! It’s a sensitive, insightful essay that’s given me a lot to chew over (I confess that I’ve actually missed most of Victor’s work but am perennially meaning to get to it, so this is a great orientation towards the pieces that seem likely to be most rewarding) – it very much lives up to your hopes for how analysis can function!

There’s far too much here to dig into, but one piece that especially resonated for me is the way you trace his engagement with the question of where player/reader interactivity can be located. Some stuff I’m working on has lately had me thinking a lot about the relationship between the choices/puzzle-solving/gameplay/interactivity etc. that happens in the game, and the analogous choices/puzzle-solving/etc. that happens in the player’s head, and you’ve given me a bunch of additional perspectives to consider.

I will say the one false note is that your characterization of my review of Victor’s reviewing is far too generous – I appreciate it all the same!

Finally, for those like me who might read this and want to check out the archive themselves, here’s a link – it’s sadly the only occupant of the “collections” folder in the IF Archive

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I concur, thanks for this!

As a side note, the archive actually contains a playable game file of ´Mid the Sagebrush and Cactus, hidden deep in /Games - Complete/2010 Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus/'Mid the sagebrush and the cactus.materials/Release/Sagebrush.gblorb.

And of course the released version is on IFDB, and in the game/glulx folder of the IF Archive as well, under the name SagebrushCactus.gblorb.

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Wow, just seeing this now. Incredible. I’ll be carefully reading it and responding at some point in the hopefully not too distant future!

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