Memorialising Paul Allen Panks

When an author kills himself it is utterly human and perfectly ghoulish to scavange his work for hints of his “impending” suicide. This is good in one sense as it attracts new readers to his work and makes old ones return. But in another sense it is bad because it invites an existentialist reading – suddenly everything is permeated with angst. This is how we’ve always read Sylvia Plath and it is also how we’ve recently come to read David Foster Wallace. In the case of Wallace it is perhaps an unfortunate approach, but it certainly is valid. Both writers touch upon such subjects as mental illness, suicide, emotional alienation and the individual’s relation to society. Finding clues to their self-destruction in their work isn’t difficult. What about Paul Allen Panks? Is there anything at all in his work that could cast light on his suicide?

No, there isn’t. Not because Paul’s interactive fiction was a gospel of life-affirming optimism, but because it lacked sufficient substance to express any meaningful idea. The characters that populate Paul’s fictional universes lack the cognizance to express anything that could inform on the human condition.

I want you all now to do a thought exercise. Pick your favourite IF writer and ask yourself this. If he or she were to commit suicide, would I find anything in their work that could reasonably cast light on their decision? Or better still, can you think of any IF writer whose work has sufficient substance to inform on the human condition? If not, do you see that as a problem?

This makes as much sense as analyzing the ReiserFS filesystem in an attempt to show how Hans Reiser was bound to murder his wife.

“We”, who, Jacek?

I’m pretty wary of drawing any conclusions about authors from their fiction, especially retrospective conclusions. I think writing can give readers a false sense of intimacy with authors, especially when they connect strongly with a work. And generally, it’s easy to read in implications when that’s what we’re looking for.

It seems that the three of us are in complete agreement about the suicide thing, which still leaves the main question unanswered. Penguin implied that interactive fiction has the expressive capabilities of a file system. Here I disagree. I think that interactive fiction has the same potential as static fiction. The only reason why we don’t have a Raskolnikov is because we don’t have a Dostoevsky. In fact, we don’t even have a Sylvia Plath.

Most IF writers live in a Tolkienesque landscape where everyone is semi-immortal and where the infantile dichotomy of Good versus Evil extinguishes any possibility of a moral polemic. Now, imagine Frodo says “Fuck it” and cuts his throat with his cute little Elf sword. The landscapes changes suddenly and rudely and Frodo’s little buddies are forced to face… yes, what exactly? What have we been forced to face as a consequence of Paul’s suicide? Could it be that we’ve finally reached the point where everyone is forced to acknowledge that talking statues, zombies, wizards, dragons and space monsters are no longer relevant?

Uh, I’m missing the Tolkien reference, I think. In fact, I’m not sure what you’re angling for. Some static fiction writers that writer about mental illness, ennui, depression, etc. suffer from it themselves, and unsurprisingly, you can dig deep into their work and make connections. That’s useful, I suppose, for some professionals in mental health, and academics. But I don’t know that it’s a good thing, or a bad thing - it’s just a thing. Plenty of writers who do not suffer from depression write about it, too, and there’s no conclusions to be drawn there. Plenty of static fiction writers write books where no conclusions can be drawn about the mental state of the writer. I’d say that’s actually the default state. Plenty of writers have committed suicide; only a handful of their works provide fruit when excavated. (Metaphor mixing is fun, y’all.)

Nor do I think the nouns used make much of a difference to the content. It’s perfectly possible to write about depression using fantasy elements. It’s perfectly possible to write about anything using fantasy elements. I wonder if the “problem” you perceive is that people aren’t writing much about depression, mental illness, and ennui? I’m not actually sure if it’s a smaller proportion here than static fiction; I can think of several works that, if not explicitly about depression, at least could be analyzed from that direction.

(ref needed)

You’d want to focus on the code for journals.

He’s referring to Boston. I hear it’s nice.

I don’t know who Paul Allen Panks is nor can I say much about finding people’s later actions in their writing. But I can say that playing most IF does not even show me much of an author voice, much less substance that speaks to the human condition. I’m still struggling to see what many people here see in terms of IF being entertaining. As an example, so many people seem to recommend Photopia. I think it’s dreadfully dull and not very interactive, with a story that you can see the end coming fairly easily. I tried Shrapnel. Another one that gets recommend quite a bit. Take away the “gimmick” aspect and I don’t find it all that interesting. (Spider and Web was like that as well; nifty gimmick to keep you playing, but not much of a story, per se). I sort of liked Anchorhead (another one that people recommend) but I liked it more just because I only had other IF to compare it against and most of the other stuff wasn’t so great.

I actually did like Rameses but I don’t think there was enough substance there, but perhaps there was the start of the human condition to a certain limited extent. Tapestry (also recommended by some) left me less than thrilled. People recommend Galatea a lot – and I just don’t get it. It’s boring. I checked out Alabaster and while it’s clear the game was showcasing a mechanic, it wasn’t showcasing that mechanic in the context of telling a better or more engaging story (at least to me). When I first got into Inform 7, I looked at the ‘Worked Examples’ and those are all clearly showcasing mechanics but are singularly disappointing in terms of showcasing how IF can be a medium for telling stories. Which is doubly worse considering Inform 7 has pretensions to appealing to writers.

I bring this up mainly because it’s hard to detect an actual author voice in many cases. I don’t know if that’s because the mechanics of IF swamp out the voice – since authors are so busy trying to build puzzles in. I don’t know. So when you talk about the “substance to express any meaningful idea”, I guess I just don’t see a lot of that in IF.

So do I see that as a problem? I don’t know. I guess I do largely because I think IF has potential but it’s always swamped in its mechanics. I see threads where people are terribly excited about being able to fade sound or play in a browser, but virtually nothing about how to be more effective authors of stories that allow agency but that still tell a meaningful story. I guess I don’t know what audience IF would like to tap into. It’s probably not just one audience, I realize, but there’s going to be certain core things that the audience will have to have and one of those is a willingess to read a story as if they were reading a book and then interact with it.

I just don’t know. I guess I keep seeing a lot of emphasis put in what I consider to be the wrong place with IF. But then the logical question is: “So why not do something to change that?” Yeah. I could – it’s just that’s it’s really hard to get enthused by IF for me. It’s a hard community to really respect sometimes because you definitely see the cult of personality aspects. And I just don’t see it going anywhere too far beyond where it is. When I look at IF today and I look at IF games from the past, I basically see the same stuff. Better parsers (maybe) and definitely improved development systems: but the output to me is distressingly similar in many cases. I think the IF community sometimes conflates changes in mechanics with progress in medium.

Bottom-line: I’d love to find a work of IF that had something demonstrable to say about depression, mental illness, the happiness of being, the angst of growing up, etc, and could put that in the context of agency in a way that people actually cared about. I’ve looked at games that people have pointed me to but in all cases, those experiences don’t come close to some of the books I’ve read, some of the films I’ve seen, or even some of the games in other formats that I’ve played.

My own Panks memorial project (a game still in development entirely due to the limits of my programming skill … all the writing and design is long done) simply celebrates his work without indulging in analysis.

I won’t say you’re wrong - I’d be hard-pressed to think of an IF game that did more than touch the outer edges of those themes, let alone engaged them in a sustained way. Perhaps Kazuki Mishima’s stories are the closest example.

If you are serious about finding works like that, you might consider running a competition. (I know, I know - save us from more competitions!) I don’t know if you’d get many entries, or any good ones. But it could provide an outlet for any pent up stories that might otherwise lack an audience. I have a WIP that could use a venue like that, if you set the deadline far enough away.

Spring Thing may have served that niche in the past, though now it seems to produce long, kid-friendly games. IF Comp tends to reward short, well-polished, highly playable games in the conventional mold.

I’ve often heard people quote G.K. Chesterton as saying that the purpose of fairy tales is not to teach us that dragons are real, but rather that dragons can be defeated. The simple adventure mold might not be deeply literary, but I think it is relevant to life, because we’re all looking for an escape from our disappointing reality. (Well, I guess I can’t make universal statements like that – I’m always looking for such an escape, searching for the significance that I cannot believe does not exist. I suppose this is largely why I love high fantasy so much.)

Of course, we can never know why Paul Panks killed himself. However, if we must evaluate his unapologetically simple, morally straightforward text adventures in terms of his suicide, one possible conclusion is that Panks became disillusioned with his vision of heroism. Maybe he didn’t see that kind of adventure in his life, and he lost faith that such adventure and honor exists at all. If so, I would not say that the “infantile” dichotomy between good and evil is false; rather, I would say that the dichotomy is far greater than we can ever hope to bridge.

For me, fantasy (and science fiction) is a desperate attempt to believe in the other side of that dichotomy. It can be a struggle for life itself at times, because I think if this disappointing reality is all that I believed in, I would kill myself. I have struggled with suicidal thoughts at times, but my fantasy helps to give me the strength to persevere in this world that I have no desire to live in.

Chesterton may have been ironic. The reason why we create false horrors that can be defeated is because we can’t face the true horror within, the horror that is invincible. This true horror, the one that lurks within each and everyone of us, is far richer and more eloquent than all the dragons and giant spiders put together. Serious literature teaches us how to live with the horror within. Any literature that fails to address the true horror within and instead fabricates false external horrors is not only dishonest but also undignified.

In the Panksian era we were all jolly Hobbits fighting dragons and giant spiders, with the occasional murder mystery and space alien thrown in for good measure. Oh, and let’s not forget the talking statue that suffered from severe constipation, or whatever her problem was. Now that the jolly Hobbits have witnessed Frodo erase his own map, they’ve halted at a juncture. Should we take lesson from Paul’s life and his artistic endeavor and continue to write in the time-honoured tradition of D&W (Dragons & Wenches), or should we go post-Panksian and take lesson from Paul’s self-destruction?

I think this reflects a lack of talent in the IF community, the absence of seriously gifted writers. But perhaps an even greater issue is the absence of intelligent expectations. The woman who gave us the constipated statue has recently released a game based on Snow White. It is beyond me why an educated person in their mid-thirties would waste their time on fairy tales. What is stranger still is the fact that this woman is a classicist. Presumably she’s read Plato in the original, and yet she seems to have understood nothing and retained nothing. Sadly, it is people like her who set the expectations for what constitutes good IF.

All I can say is that the horror you feel within is the stuff of true literature. Look it squarely in the eye and write about it. This is how serious writers are made.

I don’t have any skill with graphics, so let’s just pretend that I’ve inserted an image of the picture from here with Graham Nelson’s face photoshopped in.

Well, I liked many of the games that you were complaining about, so I’m not the best person to make recommendations. (I could say that Photopia and Galatea do put these in a way that people care about, you’re just not one of those people; but that wouldn’t be helpful.) But Emily Short’s Best of Three is a puzzleless slice-of-life game that has demonstrable things to say about the angst of growing up, and gives you agency too. Victor Gijsbers’s The Baron might also be worth trying – it seems to be a standard fantasy thing at first, but it isn’t.

I agree with the part about false external horrors in literature. However, I think the true, internal horror that you talk about can never be “eloquent” in itself. This is the horror that, I do believe, gives each of us the potential to be another Hitler (not necessarily in scope, but at heart), if we give in to it. This is the horror that makes people destroy each other and crave domination of others and of the world. It’s the horror that each day causes our natural environment to be desecrated and innocent children to be raped. There’s nothing “eloquent” or romantic in this horror at all. The only eloquence is in resisting it to the bitter death, in sacrificing one’s self to see love triumph even in some small way over selfishness. That’s what I think literature is.

And I don’t think the conventional fairy tale is unworthy of dealing with the true inner horror. Realistic literature certainly has its place, but fairy tales (fantasy and science fiction, etc.) can reveal the struggle against the inner horror more clearly in some ways by creating a system of concrete symbols to represent the abstract struggle. A dishonest fantasy with a phony dragon that the Hero can conquer by his own brute strength would indeed be undignified, as you eloquently expressed in your last post. However, I think we need to believe that dragons can be defeated, or else we might as well follow Panks, because our suffering would be meaningless.

You keep giving examples of the kinds of “Panksian-era” stories that you want us to move beyond. What kind of stories, exactly, do you want to see replace them? Also, no one has yet pointed out that Panks’s work, at least as far as I know, was never considered to be descriptive of the contemporary state of IF. From everything I’ve heard, Panks and his works were generally disliked and not taken seriously (which I think is a tragedy, especially in light his demise).

Thank you, sir. That’s an insightful statement, and very good advice, I think. :slight_smile:

Just don’t forget that when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you, or spits into you, or both, or whichever comes first in the abyss’s mind. The abyss is an unstable fella, sometimes he eats good fruit and tries to stay fit, but most of the time he doesn’t have money for the gym and gets fat real quick. It is not uncommon to watch him ask random people in the streets “Whose death did you wish for today?”, or the immeasurably violent “What is the color of your lover’s voice?”, and then runs away without hearing the answer, jumping high on the trees, screaming “THEY ARE ALL ORANGE, YOU BASTARDS!” He always has a notebook with him, but it’s empty, he never wrote a word, because, poor thing!, he’s afraid that the world will turn into an impressionist painting when he does, because he knows the world will turn into an impressionist painting when he does, and the thing is - [rant]he fucking hates Monet.[/rant]

But I digress, and what I wanted to say was - be careful with that true literature thing; you could end up with your face smudged.

Absolutely! In my opinion, literature fails us when it tries to make nice with the evil nature in man. I was merely agreeing that we need to look the “horror” squarely in the eye – that is, acknowledge it – and then fight it with all that we are. Your characterization of the abyss is both wise and funny, and I deeply appreciate the admonition! :slight_smile:

I didn’t want to do this. But I have to. I have to because it’s fair. I have to because being immortalized by death is pathetic. I have to because this conversation has been turned into something that it shouldn’t be. Not because the conversation doesn’t need to happen, but because of the way it started.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not an accomplished writer. I’ve been published ONCE and that one didn’t even count. I’ve never completely written a work of IF. I doubt I ever will. Maybe I just dabble. Maybe I just dream. But I don’t pretend to be something I’m not. But I do read. A lot.

I went back and read Panks’ stuff. A lot of it. Frankly… None of it was very good. With the exception of a couple of proverbial diamonds, most of it was downright bad. This is entirely my opinion. I didn’t know the man. I didn’t idolize him. For me there will never be a “Panksian Era”. For a label like that, one must have made a significant contribution to his art. Or at least been bad enough that people view it as exceptional out of pity. The same could be said for Andy Warhol. There’s no way in creation that Warhol could be the figure that he is without pity. There was nothing good about ANYTHING that he did.

Neither did Panks put out anything that deserved this level of deep examination beyond those close to him. It reaks of one coming to one’s own funeral.

In a complete segue from the original conversation, there’s this discussion about horror. Horror is subjective. VERY subjective. There’s no one work of horror that is going to twist every person’s psyche into a pretzel. I am in love with Lovecraft. I have been for many, many years. His brand of “alluding” always struck a chord with me. But I also love King and Barker, who are very descriptive and direct.

But while you may fear spiders or intruders into your home or the end of the world, I fear the loss of love or the death of my children. I’ll crush a spider with my hand without flinching. I have firearms in almost every room of my house. I have more than one weapon on my person at any given time. There isn’t a man, beast or thing on the face of the planet that I fear or that I don’t think I can deal with. Even if I can’t deal with it, I’m confident enough to believe that I can. It’s those things that I cannot control, I cannot fight, that I’m afraid of. My kids killed in a car wreck by a drunk driver. A tornado hitting their home. Things like that.

You cannot put that into a story. While I may empathize with what you’re saying and I may enjoy it, you cannot scare me.

But what does any of this have to do with Paul Allen Panks? If you liked his stuff, read it and love it and remember him. If you didn’t or have no idea who he was… Keep on keeping on. This seems like the kind of thing where you pour some whiskey out on the curb instead of picking through every minute detail of his work looking for a reason why. All suicides are the same. They’re not happy. It DOESN’T MATTER WHY THEY AREN’T HAPPY after the fact. They’re dead. They don’t care if you know why they’re dead. Because they’re dead. They killed themselves because there was something they couldn’t deal with. Figuring that out doesn’t make them any less dead. Having attempted suicide (albeit it I was obviously as bad at that as I am with writing, especially when posting on forums) and having known people who have attempted to kill themselves and having known people who have actually succeeded… I have an opinion on this that I will stand by.

Point being, if you love his work then love it and remember it fondly. If you hated it, then hate it and remember it fondly. All human beings are worthy of that, whether they wrote IF or pumped your gas. He would appreciate it either way. One day when you’re having some IF conference, his name will come up (and it won’t) and you’ll be like, “I remember that shit. He was awesome/completeshit.”

Beyond that… Don’t look too much into it.

Sorry to drudge up this thread from beyond the…

…er… no, sorry, slip of the tongue, that would really have been bad taste…

…anyway, I’m still playing through my entire IF collection in alphabetical order (mock me not. I’m already up to F, which means I’ve recently played Fine-Tuned and Firebird, and I’m in a pretty good mood), and came up against “firefly.rar”. Which was “Ghost of the Fireflies”, apparently Panks’ last game.

Because the game seemed to be very, very ambitious, and at first glance seemed better than the usual Panks game, I looked up some reviews, looking for some feedback on the game. The universal response (“It’s way better than his previous games, but it’s still a Panks game”) pretty much dissuaded me from booting the game up again.

But in a Merk’s review (, I read that… well, the reviewer looked at the source code to see the ending (as it is, apparently, technically unwinnable, another Panksian touch), and he saw this:

I find this creepy, chilling and disturbing. Although I don’t think anyone could really commit suicide over IF, and if they did it wouldn’t be two years after the release of their last game… well, Panks did, from what I hear, seem to have mental instabilities, and he pretty much depicted his suicide in his last game.

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If Michael Gentry ever poisoned one of his coworkers I think that Little Blue Men would be exhibit A.

Paul Allen Panks, was a good man, troubled, and just all around messed up in the head. He wrote text adventures like no one else did. Though his code could be labeled as spaghetti code. They were still entertaining. I discovered his works three years after his death and it’s a shame he isn’t still around today.


Hey, did you ever publish your tribute game to Panks?