Interview: Jacek does Adam

This is the second in a series of interviews with pre-eminent members of the IF community. My second interviewee is the hard-drinking, dazzlingly original Missouri classicist, author of Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis and lifelong president of the Adam Thornton Fan Club: Adam Thornton.

Jacek: As a writer, what do you seek specifically in interactive fiction that you cannot find in other media?

Adam: An audience small enough that I can become notorious without having to actually be all that good at my craft. It’s also an entertaining medium for forcing your readers to become complicit in heinous acts. And then there’s a long-standing perversion of mine, which is to perform acts of artistic creation in wildly-inappropriate forms–like cramming The Fellowship Of The Ring into an Atari 2600 text adventure cartridge.

Jacek: But if the heinous acts are going to have any resonance (beyond being merely gross), we must assume the acts the player commits by proxy have moral significance. Do you think IF can simulate morality the way it can simulate a cupboard, or do you think that SAVE, RESTORE and UNDO make morality in IF moot?

Adam: You know, you’d think they’d make it moot. I mean, clearly, logically, rationally, they should. But I still feel sort of bad about crushing that lizard in Trinity, and The Baron is set up to also make you make distasteful choices in order to further your character’s own narrative arc. In both those cases, though, there’s a positive consequence to doing something wrong–you get to see more of the game. As far as simulating morality in a more open world, well, there no longer is interactive fiction that really takes place in much of a sandbox. For that you have to go to the RPG world, and there, usually, the choice is “torture a puppy while pistol-whipping grandma” versus “save the orphans and accept no payment” and the mechanical consequence is whether red or blue lightning bolts come out of your fingertips.
So I don’t think save/undo/restore make morality moot, but the Hobson’s Choice foisted upon us by game design sorta does; you steer the player, in general, towards the choice you require him to make, or the game ends with a “HA HA SUCKER” message. I don’t think it has to be this way–in fact, Phallus of Don, although very linear for the most part, does have a variety of endings based on some function of your moral choices and your perspicacity in defeating D&D undead. The problem is, more generally, that your moral choices generally just reflect how far right or left on the meter your game-ending-infodump is. And that’s because giving totally different story arcs that depend on your choices is a hell of a lot of writing.

Jacek: What do you see as the most important quality in an IF writer?

Adam: Self-delusion. Followed at some distance by obsessive-compulsive disorder and a Rabbinical love of argument for its own sake.

Jacek: Could you elaborate on the self-delusion part?

Adam: You work for six years, and maybe 5000 hours, on a game that perhaps fifty people play, six of whom write reviews, three of which are positive. You have to delude yourself somehow that it matters. Even if you’re fairly up-front with yourself that it’s self-gratification, actual masturbation gives you a whole lot better effort-to-reward ratio.

Jacek: Do you have any religious ambitions?

Adam: That’s an odd question. The straight answer is “no,” but there must be some reason you’re asking.

Jacek: No, meaning you don’t believe in the possibility of salvation, or no, meaning you believe your soul is beyond redemption?

Adam: Oh. Much closer to the first. I’m an atheist, myself. And, oh boy, will I be surprised if I was wrong.

Jacek: Do you prefer writing drunk or sober?

Adam: You really have to ask? Drunk, of course.

Jacek: Are you drunk and disciplined when you write, like Hemingway, or just drunk, like Cheever?

Adam: When I am writing and I am drunk I am disciplined. The trick is, of course, that often when I get drunk, even if I had thought beforehand that I wanted to write, it turns out that I lack the motivation. Once I get rolling, I’m pretty fearsomely disciplined about continuing to write. Most of my marathon writing sessions, in fact, end when the bottle is empty and/or when I pass out. If I’m sober and writing I’m likely to notice that my back hurts after a few hours, or that there are other things I ought to be doing.

Jacek: Do you believe the government was behind the 9/11 attacks?

Adam: No.

Jacek: Do you believe in alien abductions?

Adam: No. So, er, I think you’re trying to draw me out on something here, but I don’t see what. Do I come across as a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist? 'Cause I thought I was trying to portray Grumpy Drunken Hillbilly.

Jacek: I didn’t mean to be tricky. These are calibrating questions. Their purpose is to establish exactly how much of a space cadet you are. Some of the greatest writers were space cadets, as I’m sure you know. The “philosophical” chapters that punctuate War and Peace are insanely dull, and yet the novel as a whole is a masterpiece. Tolstoy the Nudnik almost wrecked the novel, but Tolstoy the Space Cadet saved it. Would you agree that there is an opposition between a writer’s self-perceived wisdom (which more often than not turns out to be unwisdom) and his talent, and that the talent part usually has a crackpot component to it? Do you think Ezra Pound would have been a stronger poet had he not been an anti-Semite? Or do you think it doesn’t matter, because his talent was of such a magnitude, it compensated for his unwisdom?

Adam: I don’t think Ezra Pound would have been a stronger poet if he were not an anti-Semite. He might well have been a weaker one. I now see where you’re going, and, sure, I’ll grant you that genius and madness are often pretty inextricably intertwined. Let us, however, grant that I am not prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.

Jacek: What kind of shape do you see interactive fiction in today?

Adam: Well, every time I think, “this is it; it really is moribund this time,” something new pops up and people notice it outside our incestuous little community again. This time around, it’s mobile devices, although Robb Sherwin has gotten some notice in the wider indie-game scene for Cryptozookeeper too, even though Hugo is not mobile-playable as far as I know. I’m not sure it’s any worse off than it was in 1998, actually.

Jacek: You’re not discouraged by the impossibility of failure in IF?

Adam: I don’t understand what you mean. There’s plenty of IF that fails. Please explain.

Jacek: Consider the phrase “aspiring novelist.” The reason why we never hear the word “aspiring” applied to an IF writer is because IF is a self-“publishing” medium. As an aspiring novelist you spend X years writing, and then you spend another Y years pitching your novel to publishing houses while collecting a pile of rejection letters. Only a fraction of aspiring novelists ever publish. This creates tense competition, which is a healthy thing. It also creates the possibility of failure. There is dignity in failure because it takes courage to face its possibility. IF offers neither the competition nor the dignity. What it does offer is a ghost town into which anyone can move in and declare himself sheriff.

Adam: Oh, OK. But there’s no room for failure if there’s no room for success. And five years ago I would definitely have told you that IF was dead as a commercial medium and it wasn’t coming back, so there’s no failure there.
But these days…all kinds of unlikely people are buying iPads, and everyone’s phone can run IF interpreters, and people are reading a hell of a lot of text on these devices. So I’m not sure at all that IF really doesn’t have commercial potential anymore. Certainly Zarf quit his day job and got some Kickstarter funding to write a piece of IF for mobile devices. If (and it’s still a big if) and when there’s a commercial market again, then there will be again room for failure.

Jacek: It’s interesting you should mention Robb Sherwin. I remember playing Necrotic Drift and being awed by the paucity of the story’s social register. The characters in Drift are so atavistic, they are often less human than the zombies. Then it struck me that I’m being unfair to Robb. The protagonist of Drift has a father, friends and a girlfriend. That’s more by far than most IF protagonists. The standard IF relationship is that of wizard/apprentice, where the wizard is a distant admonishing figure sending his apprentice on an insanely vague mission. Would you agree that IF suffers from relationshiplessness?

Adam: Oh, absolutely. Writing characters is hard even in just-plain-old-fiction. Writing characters who respond believably to stuff players say and do? To do that right, in the general case, is to solve the AI problem. So almost everyone skirts around it, by having characters that speak their monologues and move quickly off the stage, or act as gates barring progress until unlocked with the correct item. The games that do it the best do it by placing the significant characters totally offstage, so that they exist only inside the imagination of the protagonist–at which point the hard work of coding interaction isn’t the author’s problem anymore.
Weirdly, you’d think that the IF-protagonist-as-an-island trope would lead to a genre of Randian IF, in which the rewards for making selfish versus altruistic choices were a little different than they are in most actual games. Stephen Granade pondered this a couple years ago. Strange that it doesn’t seem to have happened, especially since the troglodytic followers of the batshit-crazy Ayn Rand have seized the upper hand in United States political discourse.

Jacek: Do you believe there is such a thing as an IF Canon, and if so, what games are part of it?

Adam: Well, this is part of a larger question about Canon In General. Let’s presume that I think it’s reasonable for forms to have canonical works, with which everyone who considers him-or-herself knowledgeable about the form should be familiar. Granted that, yes, there is an IF Canon. What’s in it? Well, roughly-chronologically:

In the commercial era:

Adventureland, The Count, Voodoo Castle, and maybe a couple other of the Scott Adams adventures
Much of the Infocom catalog; at least, the Zorks-and-Enchanters, Suspended, Deadline, The Lurking Horror, Trinity, Planetfall. Perhaps a few others
Mystery House
The Wizard and the Princess
Knight Orc
Spellcasting 101

Post-commercial era (no longer even vaguely chronological):

Fallacy of Dawn
Pick Up the Phone Booth And Die
Spider and Web
Little Blue Men

….I’m sure there are others, but that’s a top-of-my-head list

I’m not at all sure about that initial presumption, though.

Jacek: Chronologically, Adventure and Zork would be analogous to The Iliad and The Odyssey. Do you feel that these two games are as playable today as the two poems are readable?

Adam: It’s an interesting question–everyone reads the poems in translation, but almost everyone plays the games in the original. Well, maybe not. There’s an Inform version of Adventure which gives you a much better parser, and no one plays on a paper teletype anymore. In short, once you adjust for the relative scope of the works (Adventure is at most a novella; Zork a short novel), yeah, sure. They’re quite playable although they also provide a window into a world with some very different shared axioms.

Jacek: Assuming there is no possibility of an IF Canon, what would the reason for writing IF be?

Adam: Gonna have to fall back on self-gratification. In which case, yeah, I don’t have a good answer for why you wouldn’t simply masturbate instead, because it’s a lot easier.

Jacek: Harold Bloom argues re-readability is one of the signs of canonicity. Do you think this poses a problem for IF?

Adam: No. I actually do replay games that I enjoyed. Finding the correct path through the game is usually the primary goal, but afterwards it’s often entertaining to look for less-than-optimal endings, to read the prose for itself rather than as the mechanism to push you to the next gate blocking progress, or to look at where and how the author foreshadowed events that, having played the whole thing, you now know are coming.

Jacek: Do you feel the games you have listed have literary merit? Let me put this more bluntly. When you compare the prose of Anchorhead to that of Mason & Dixon, do you feel that Gentry and Pynchon are in the same league? Do you think it’s fair to compare a work of IF to a novel?

Adam: It is fair to compare the works, but I don’t think Gentry and Pynchon are in the same league; but then, the novelists who are in the same league with Pynchon, I can count on not very many hands (and often Pynchon isn’t in Pynchon’s league). The comparison isn’t exactly straightforward, but it’s certainly no less fair than comparing a novel and a movie, which is something that has become, effectively, critically unproblematic.

Jacek: How do you feel about the old Infocom games?

Adam: Quality is wildly inconsistent. Many of them are more notable for being groundbreaking first-in-genre pieces than for being really all that good. The best games these days are easily as good as the best of Infocom. Starcross is pretty much Rendezvous With Rama plus Niven’s stepping discs, right? The Witness is a mediocre film noir piece, and Deadline was a good-but-not-great locked-room murder mystery. But each was the first time we’d seen anything like that in a text adventure. Then again, I play a lot of D&D; I like D&D; I have a soft spot for everything-and-the-kitchen-sink genre mashups.
However, that said, there’s some legitimately excellent design in there: A lot of the cube manipulation in Spellbreaker is terrific puzzlecraft (not, I hasten to point out, the object-weighing puzzle). Look at the multiple-first-person narration in Suspended–that’s never been done as well since (and that’s the bar I’m trying to leap for my next project).
So, for the most part: spectacular and revolutionary when introduced, and often they hold up pretty well.

Jacek: How do you feel about I6?

Adam: I really enjoyed working on that use of timed input we recently looked at together. As you know, I’m an I7 convert (and except for special effects like timed output, it’s really very seldom necessary to drop from I7 to I6 or inline z-code/glulx assembly), but it’s not bad at all. It’s much more like writing a computer program than I7 is, which, depending on whether I’m in the writing-the-narrative part of a game or the implementing-particular-puzzles part, can be either bad or good. I do feel like I have to put on a slightly different thinking cap to write in I6 versus I7. See my answer to your next question.

Jacek: Wow! You can predict my next question! So it’s true what they say? That you and Graham Nelson have been working on a telepathy extension in I6?

Adam: I can neither confirm nor deny that rumor.

Jacek: In an interview E. L. Doctorow described the novel as a “large canvas capable of holding the most substantial themes.” Do you think this description applies to IF?

Adam: There’s no reason it couldn’t. And yes, I do mean that position despite the fact that it’s impossible to control the reader’s experience the way you can in a novel, unless you write a tied-to-a-chair-and-being-shouted-at game. It just demands a different structure to tell a big story, and I do not think it’s impossible to make that work in IF.
However, I think IF suffers from the problem Don Knuth identified: about 1 in 20 people are capable of really programming well. About 1 in 20 people are capable of writing well. The skills don’t seem to have any correlation with one another, so you end up with about 1 in 400 people able to do both well. And then there’s the whole aspect of game design, which may or may not overlap with either writing or programming all that much. This, plus the limited scope of the overall corpus plus its limited audience, means that we haven’t had too many spectacular authors trying to write IF; it also likely means that, if we did, we’d have someone who wrote well but couldn’t game-design or code his way out of a wet paper bag.

Jacek: An interesting thought-experiment is to take your favourite novel and ask yourself if it would work as IF. If you consider IF as capable a medium as the novel – as you obviously do – can you conceive of an IF adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow?

Adam: I’ve tried many times. And, no, I cannot, although IF adaptations of sections of the novel are quite feasible. I do not know how or what an adaptation of the work-as-a-whole would look like or be. Conversely, I can’t imagine filming the damn thing either.
But then, it’s somewhat debatable whether GR is really a novel in the normal sense.
I could much more easily imagine adapting Inherent Vice but I’m not sure why I’d want to. I can also more easily imagine adapting Against The Day except that the IF adaptation would be about twenty million words, and would suffer from all the faults of Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis in that it would be a fairly haphazard succession of loosely-joined, geographically-constrained, set pieces. In this case, it wouldn’t be the fault of the adaptation, and to be fair, many of the threads would get tied together by the end.
Novels with a more traditional structure, have, of course, been adapted to IF many times.

Jacek: Do you feel I7 makes it easier for writers to programme?

Adam: It makes it easier for writers to code the easier things. I find–as someone who is quite capable of getting paid to write computer programs–that, although cumbersome and verbose, it doesn’t actually make the hard things much harder. But then, I never had a big problem with Applescript either. The syntactic sugar is very definitely in some ways a treacherous promise: once you get to needing to do something that isn’t already in the libraries, you’re going to have to buckle down and write some code, and that code is not going to be expressed most clearly in English syntax. I think the hope is that you can draw in writers who are committed enough to the work that they’re willing to try writing code once they get to the hard parts, and that they will find that the logic necessary to work their way through it isn’t all that different from what they need to do to plot the fiction. This obviously works better for genres like the murder mystery than for whatever-you-would-call Italo Calvino.

Jacek: Ever since you released Mentula Macanus, the question on everyone’s lips has been, does Julia’s nose occur in nature? If so, where can we find its habitat?

Adam: Why, yes, it does indeed. However, a gentleman never blows and tells. I will point out that Julia herself is taken directly from the seminal work of Hans Ørberg in Lingua Latina. Nasus Iuliae foedus est.

Jacek: How would you define the literary genre(s) of your games?

Adam: Much to my chagrin, Emily Short is right. They’re literary criticism, and not, much as I would like them to be, pornography. Dammit.

Jacek: I was hoping you would say “picaresque,” and we’d have a discussion about how well/ill-suited this genre is to IF.

Adam: Oh. Well, in that case, “Menippean Satire,” which is distinguished from “picaresque” in that the picaresque is, as you have noted, driven by strong characterization (indeed, usually, the protagonist’s name is the name of the book). Whereas “Menippean Satire” is “a bunch of wacky shit happens, for no particular reason other than it amused the author, and then the book is over.”
Which is to say, you’re basically right: characterization in IF basically sucks, and that might be inherent in the medium. Because for the player to have some agency, he has to be able to direct the viewpoint character. Although you can have games which say “You can’t do that because it’s too icky/you’re scared of rejection/it would be unseemly” this trick gets old fast. The CRPG method of dealing with this is to keep track of your scores along some number of axes, and your score determines whether you get to Force Choke your opponents or deflect their blaster shots with your light saber, or whether beggar children hit you up for bottle caps or flee screaming.

Jacek: If you had a say in the jury that sentenced Socrates, would you vote for acquittal or death?

Adam: Well, you know, it’s pretty hard to argue against that “corrupting the morals of the young,” charge. I mean, we’re still talking about it, right? If there’s anyone who thoroughly infected our discourse, it’s Socrates (or at least, yes, Socrates by way of Plato). So, you gotta grant that the jury made the right call there. It’s a fair cop.

Jacek: But don’t you think that Socrates’ death was a blow to reason and a triumph of unreason?

Adam: If the jury had acquitted Socrates, and said, “Go home and don’t do it again,” and he had, do you think we’d have had Western Philosophy in anything like its current form?
The other conclusion you could draw from the trial is that democracy is a dumb idea. Over on this side of the Atlantic, we’re kind of having that debate again right now. I’m interested in whether people think 2012 is going to look like either of 1968 or 1886.

Jacek: You know, this could be a great argument for crucifying Christ. Let us all give thanks to Pilate for the Sistine Chapel. But seriously, are the Chinese worse off because they didn’t put Confucius to death? Of course, all this is peripheral to IF. Socrates/Plato wanted to establish a bulwark against the barbarous excesses of unreason. It’s not like the Blond Beast is likely to emerge from among the bland little souls that write IF today, present company excluded. And if it did, it might actually be a good thing.

Adam: For starters, I’m not blond. Second, the Ethiopians are way ahead of you. St. Pontius Pilate. No kidding. And who knows, maybe we stand at the crossroads of an IF resurgence. What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? The barbarians have always been at the gates; Europe has always been at war with Eastasia.

Jacek: Do you hope to achieve immortality through your art?

Adam: I’d prefer to say that my art is an idealized reflection of my immorality, but yes, of course I would love to encourage dissolute libertinism through it. Oh. You said “immortality.” As Roseanne Rosanna-Danna put it, “Never mind.” As Woody Allen points out, achieving it through not dying would be preferable. And as for me, what do I care? I’ll be dead.

Writing code under the influence of alcohol seems like a particularly challenging endeavour. This was a surprisingly interesting interview, although the interviewing technique was really strange. Sometimes it was insightful, relevant questions, sometimes it was scattershot irrelevancies. Adam managed to rise above these and ended up coming across as quite an intelligent man.

So who’s next Jacek?

The booze thing is indeed odd. Here we have a devotee of Dionysus who eschews madness and ecstasy in favour of logos. No religious beliefs, no UFOs, no conspiracy theories. Why unsoberise yourself if you’re going to stay utterly sane? I’m also miffed by Adam’s claim that writing IF is as meaningful as jerking off and less fun.

I’ve already interviewed Myself and Adam. What other pre-eminent members of this community can you think of?

Is this fake? Just asking…

It’s probably real, and it is actually worth reading. The hobbyhorses may be Jacek’s, but Adam rides them with flair.

Almost certainly real, yeah. Adam and Pudlo are friends/correspondents, IIRC, so Adam would be one of the smallish handful of gents who’d kindly give Pudlo the time of day on this sort of project. Help a brother out kind of thing. Adam’s good people.

I have in my hand a list… a list of the people Jacek Pudlo has been seen together in a room with… And, S. John Ross – you’re not on that list.


Not unlike Clark Kent and Superman.

In my guise as Pudlo: Man of Steel, I assumed everyone else was so idiotic that simply putting on eyeglasses and behaving like a bumbling game writer would fool them. Curse you, Conrad … or should I say: Luthor.

(Haven’t slept much today, not really up to a McCarthy joke, apologies)