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Get Lamp

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by Mr Creosote (2012-02-26)

This debate is the result of a bit of roleplaying: Jacob (founder, owner and webmaster of the Classic Adventures Solution Archive) took over the role of 'the sceptic', Mr Creosote played 'the fan'. Both views presented, positive and negative aspects, are in fact a mixture of both person's views.

[Jacob] Today's topic is Get Lamp, a documentary by Jason Scott, whose previous work includes a film about the history of Bulletin Board Systems. Get Lamp takes on the daunting task of exploring the entire history of text adventure. It looks at the early history of adventure gaming and how it developed from a purely, as it would seem at first glance, unrelated hobby: the exploration of caves. The genesis of the entire, multi-billion dollar industry lay within this genre, which has since fallen into disrepute among the masses.

[Mr Creosote] The documentary really goes back to the roots here. These days, there is the tendency to forget about the origins of the genre or even be a little bit embarassed about it. Get Lamp concisely, honestly and proudly shows where it all came from and how it all came to be. A significant amount of time is spent on having cavers talk about the fascination of their hobby, both in the main documentary and one dedicated to a trip to the 'original' cave, as shown in the very first Adventure game.

[Jacob] The remainder of the documentary covers both the professional scene of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the fan-driven creations of the modern era. A large part of the film is dedicated to Infocom, which probably doesn't need much in the way of an introduction. Apart from their staff, the documentation roster pretty much reads as a "Who's Who" of the adventure scene. With the non-Americans being conspicuously absent, but more on that later.

So, let's start at the beginning – what's your general impression of Get Lamp? Exquisite quality or shoddy work?

First impressions

[Mr Creosote] It was a delight to watch it! As you said, the line-up of people who were interviewed for this documentary is quite impressive! The best thing about it, though, was, that each had something to say, stories to tell etc. Some funny, some thoughtful, but always interesting.

[Jacob] Yes, there's a lot of good material in there. I have a nagging feeling, though, that the documentary places itself somewhat between two chairs. Too esoteric for mainstream audiences, and perhaps not bringing enough new information to the table for hardcore fans.

Unless you're extremely well versed in the lore of adventure games, the general lack of introduction of people and the rapid-fire editing, with most people just getting a single sentence thrown in there at a time, will leave you… confused.

[Mr Creosote] I can't really agree there. It's good that the documentary isn't too superficial. Someone who just wants to know how to play a text-based game would simply watch some short video on Youtube anyway, so a certain ground level can be expected of the viewer. That's the same way any other documentary about any other subject does it, too. As for new information, how much have you heard from the first person to write a dissertation on computer game theory before Get Lamp, for example?

The point about all these people, as I understood it, is diversity. Of course, there are 'big heads' there, but if you look carefully, you'll see them introduced quite cleverly: No matter whether it's Brian Moriarty or Dave Lebling, their first sentences are always showing them as fans of earlier works. This shows that they're not different and how the industry was/developed back then. I.e.: It doesn't always matter who is talking, it's just a lot of viewpoints.

[Jacob] Well, I'd just like a little more coherence, instead of having the opinion of five different people in 20 seconds. Some of it might seem a bit out of context :)

[Mr Creosote] Of course, I'm sure every fan would like to see the full, unedited interviews (which, since then, Scott has started posting on the Internet Archive). For people who aren't hardcore fans, though, an edited version sorted by topic is necessary. Which is what the documentary does. Maybe we should talk about the topics it touches?

Contents

[Jacob] Sure. The first section is the early history of adventure games. This covers everything from Will Crowther's pioneering work in Adventure and Scott Adams to Infocom. This leads to three sub-documentaries on puzzles, modern games and what it's like to play adventure games.

The navigation is a bit odd at this point, as I had a hard time discovering that I could select those docs, so I kept having Steve Meretzky's lovely mug reappearing on my screen.

Disc two is all sorts of odds and ends, anecdotes, more or less bizarre tales (well, there were a couple of rather "huh?" sections!), with a number of sound files, photos, game files and such as dvd-rom content. Oh, and there's a adventure rap. It's potentially more odd than it sounds. Did I miss out anything?

[Mr Creosote] There's also a separate documentary about Infocom and another documentary about the cave which inspired Colossal Cave Adventure.

[Jacob] Right

[Mr Creosote] Before we delve into the contents themselves, though, let me say that I not only have to agree about the navigation, but I actually had some technical problems with the first disc. No matter what I did in the Meretzky-menu, I was dumped back to the main menu. So I had to watch all those remaining parts on my computer by jumping directly to those titles.

I appreciate the menu idea in a geeky sort of way, but before it is even possible to select any of the further parts, one always has to go/skip through the history/introduction part which is a bit awkward and unnecessary. The bit by Meretzky was very moving, though. You could hear it in his voice that this is a subject which has never left him.

[Jacob] Yes, a plain ol' menu would have worked nicely. And as for Meretzky, he and his peers obviously still have a lot of affection for the genre

History

[Mr Creosote] So what are your thoughts on the history part? Wasn't the montage of old covers and games just great fun to look at?

[Jacob] It aims to cover the Golden Age of Adventure Games (TM). I have a hunch that modern IF afficionadoes would like to think that this didn't happen in the 30-40 years ago, but that's a side note! The chap who started it all via his cave simulation, Will Crowther, has declined to be included in the film, but the program works fine, anyway. They talk to a number of spelunkers, and Don Woods, who expanded the original Adventure. Some time is dedicated to Scott Adams, who by and large started the computer games industry (what the documentary does not really emphasize enough, though, that it's really just the computer games industry – the role of video game companies like Magnavox or Atari is neglected in this context).

And then a large segment is dedicated to Infocom, which of course is well deserved. But apart from wetting myself a bit over seeing all these luminous people in action, I thought the film spent too much time on people gushing over how great and fabulous Infocom were, and then suddenly the overview of 15 years of adventure history was over. Admittedly, Infocom were pioneers and frontrunners, but I kept thinking "Well, erm, what happened to everybody else? They talked to Robert Pinsky, who wrote the experimental Mindwheel, and there are other fascinating people in there who deserved more screen time.

[Mr Creosote] Well, the bit about Adventure International's bancruptcy would have deserved to be in the main documentary instead of the outtakes for sure, but you've got to admit that Infocom shaped the genre more than anyone else. The documentary is correctly pointing out that they were literally ruling the games charts for years! They are simply inseperable from the genre and their history mirrors that of the whole genre perfectly.

[Jacob] Well, sales are one thing, of course! I certainly won't deny them their place in the annals of gaming history, I just thought that a bit more time could have been dedicated to some of the others. Another issue I have with the Infocom segment in the history part is that it's perhaps a bit too nice. Surely it would have been interesting to hear more about the problems they faced along the way – including that (in)famous collaboration with Douglas Adams. Finally… I could start whining about the absense of the entire European scene here, but I suppose it would be a bit like being at the largest ice cream buffet in the world and then begin bemoaning the lack of the pistacchio flavoured one :) I think Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls, as the main competitor of Infocom, could have fitted in there, but I appreciate Jason's logistical challenges and am sure they'll be in part two.

[Mr Creosote] More would always be better for the fan, of course, but again, for the casual viewer, it's important to get to the point. Those other companies each have a history which is quite similar to Infocom's in the end, just shifted a few years on the time scale. So why tell the same story again? If someone tried to do something 'different', it was included. You mentioned Robert Pinsky, his game was one of the first attempts to get some 'serious literature' into the format. These are the kind of people who give such a documentary a mass appeal and I'm glad he agreed to be interviewed. More computer programmers saying the same things we've already heard from others wouldn't have helped.

Gameplay topics

[Jacob] The history part is followed by three shorter segments, the first being "the experience of playing adventure games". Parts of it is interesting, but I get an overall feeling of "preaching to the choir". Yes, people who watch this documentary already know that playing adventure games is great.

[Mr Creosote] There were some fresh and interesting things in there. For example, I hadn't really considered how blind people could and would appreciate text-based games. Also, the bits about scientific research on the subject were quite interesting.

Then there was something about teaching writing with the help of IF and about perception changes of genre staples like mazes as well as the inherent problems of the genre (the illusion of total freedom for the player which can never be fulfilled). So, on the whole, while this probably wasn't the most consistent part of the documentary, there was a lot of food for thought and quite a few fresh perspectives.

[Jacob] Yes, the research part was fascinating, I'd have to agree. Again, given the editing style, I think it would have been preferable to have fewer people talking for longer amount of time. I thought the jumping from topic to topic was a bit disorienting. Isn't there a nifty spell in Enchanter that lets you re-arrange something? I could have used that!

Some bits are a bit too rambling, but I'll grudgingly admit that it's interesting to hear about those design challenges.

The puzzle segment is really interesting, not in the least because it really underlines the transformation the adventure game has gone through as a genre. Whereas the old school authors, such as Marc Blank, will happily acknowledge that the early games were largely puzzle fests and embraced that fact, the modern authors seem to frown upon puzzles. Some of them think that they ran their course in the Dark Ages (i.e. the 80s) and that the genre has gone on to bigger and better things.

Somewhat ironically, game designer legend Chris Crawford seems to be very much in line with the representatives of the modern enthusiast's scene in this respect. His statements about stories being about people, not things might as well have come from one of the (relatively speaking) big names of the present (Emily Short comes to mind).

[Mr Creosote] Being more inclined towards the 'old school' myself, I was happy to see how balanced the documentary was in that respect. Especially giving Blank, being one of the 'idols' of the scene, so much screentime to make fun of people complaining about the 'meddled mythology' of Zork and everything. This section really explored the two sides of the puzzle phenomenon: boon and bane at the same time. Bane, if done wrong – there are great, funny examples of puzzles gone wrong on the second disc.

[Jacob] Agreed. Scott Adams pops one about doing unspeakable things to a poor bear! And it's certainly fascinating to hear from both camps and the considerations they gone through.

The modern scene

[Jacob] The third, short section deals with modern IF ("modern" here meaning post-Infocom, the early 1990s, so it's a bit of a misnomer). While it's great to hear from a chap like Andrew Plotkin, who obvious has something on his mind, and it's interesting to learn more about the IF community nowadays, this bit certainly could do with some more introductions! I can imagine a lot of non-fans scratching their noodle when it comes to the merits of Inform 7 as opposed to the abomination that was Inform 6. And so on and so forth. A general complaint is made about the IF community's inability to expand beyond its present boundaries, and this bit really drives that point home!

[Mr Creosote] Well, it does introduce the central pillars of today's community: the Annual IF Comp, the newsgroups, the modern languages… what else would you have expected here? If someone comes to this section with an open mind, he'll get the important pointers.

[Jacob] Hey, I'm open minded! I just like my Talking Heads with a real introduction. Since so much of the film is dedicated to Infocom, I can imagine a lot of potential viewers (i.e. old school fans) will be unfamiliar with some of these fine people. But the section does make for a nice contrast to the classic games part.

[Mr Creosote] I'm not sure how such an introduction to the people would look like. Who would want to watch a biography of Stephen Granade or Andrew Plotkin? Nothing against these people, but what 'defines' them for this documentary is their views on these current issues. So indirectly, you learn who they are.

[Jacob] Okay, okay, you win.

[Mr Creosote] Last, but not least, the topic of potential commercial opportunities in the future were touched upon here. While personally, I'd like to have everything for free, of course, one can't deny that professional commercial marketing would be the only way to get text-based games back into public conscience. I was glad to see so many people there who already tried something along those lines in the past or who are currently trying. Again, an interesting angle which probably should be explored by the community more in the future.

[Jacob] Well, how promising that could be (or rather: couldn't be) is actually answered by Mike Berlyn within the documentary itself. Although I certainly hope I'm wrong, all this effort put into new commercial projects seems a bit of a waste of time to me.

Miscellaneous documentaries

[Jacob] Disc one is rounded out by two documentaries, the first a half hour'ish piece on the exploration of the Real, Authorized, No Fooling Around Here caves that formed the backbone of Adventure. It's not all that adventure game related, but a nice change of pace and scenery. And we even get away from Talking Heads Country for a bit!

[Mr Creosote] The only cave I've ever been to is Chislehurst Caves which are, strictly speaking, not even real caves and even there only the large, well-lit parts and only with a guide. So I'm not going to turn into a professional caver. Yet, as I said, I liked the idea about this part, because it's really a tribute.

[Jacob] The other, clocking in at approx. 45 minutes, expands the story about Infocom first seen in the history part. Anybody's who's ever been somebody at Infocom is interviewed. It's quite interesting, but again, seems to cover an awful lot of familiar ground. I'm sure that anybody even remotely interested in Infocom has heard of their trials and tribulations and that minor stumbling block called CornerStone. But I appreciate their candidness when it comes to Activision. I guess there are no NDAs in play here :)

[Mr Creosote] This documentary was actually excellently made. It was much more consistent, told the story concisely and summed up the ups and downs well. Sure, maybe not a lot of new things there, but acceptable.

[Jacob] Certainly, kudos to Jason for editing this part in a more laid-back fashion. People were given time to speak.

[Mr Creosote] Since I'm reading some dislike of the editing of the main documentary from your statements, let me say that I liked the dynamic editing of that one very much, too. It kept the 'talking heads' stuff interesting.

[Jacob] But didn't you feel that the film could have scratched the surface a little more here? Again, everybody was so incredibly happy to be part of Infocom. Any downsides? Writer's block, collaborative challenges (enter one Douglas Adams again) etc.?

[Mr Creosote] Sure, we all know about the problems with Bureaucracy, for example. But the only way you can get something like that into such a documentary is through anecdotes. If you truly want to explain all the trouble this production (for example) went through, you'd have to make a whole documentary just about this one issue. Which I would watch – but how many other people? Aren't such stories better told in text anyway?

[Jacob] Surely it could have had its 15 seconds of fame in between all those happy faces? It seems too good to be true!

It might have made a nice move if the disc had included something on this topic in text format. So that those of us, who deep down really envy those Infocom Imps for having what sounds like the best job on the planet, could feel a bit better about ourselves.

[Mr Creosote] Maybe we still have to keep in mind that all this didn't happen that long ago. I'll grant you that the blame of the failure of Infocom was put pretty one-sided on the Activision side, discussions about Infocom's failure to adapt to new technology of games or to break into other markets was relegated to disc two.

[Jacob] Ah, there's our cue… onward to disc 2!

Disc 2

[Jacob] Disc two is a bit of a mixed bag. Various odds, ends, anecdotes and what-have-you leftovers from the interviews. By its very nature it's totally unconnected. Among the more interesting parts: John Romero (yes, the one and only) and his lost adventure game, Jon Palace's (of Infocom fame) thrill over finding a screwdriver in real life which he really needed for a game. Chris Crawford (yes, the one and only, too) on why adventure games never reached their full potential.

[Mr Creosote] I know the screwdriver effect well. I always found that rather alarming rather than fascinating, as Mr. Palace puts it. Chris Crawford… he's presented… the disc introduces him in a sarcastic fashion. While he may be a little self-centered, most of what he says makes sense – at least from a literary of philosophical point of view. Not so much when it comes to marketing aspects.

[Jacob] Crawford has certainly had an illustrious career, so there's weight behind his points – and he makes a fine contrast to some of the gushing adventure fans.

[Mr Creosote] Yes, but what is Crawford really famous for? Strategy games like Balance of Power or Balance of the Planet. Which are great, but have nothing to do with storytelling. The only story-based game he ever made in his commercial career was The Legacy of Siboot.

Of course, he has got this ongoing Erasmatazz project. Though the last time I checked it out (which, admittedly, was ten years ago), their 'masterpiece' (a satire of a business meeting) was less than impressive. It didn't come anywhere close to the visions Crawford apparantely has in his mind.

[Jacob] Maybe the technology just isn't there yet?

A final mention must go to Mary Ann Buckles, who's done some academic work on adventure games. Here she talks about the possibility of adventure games changing people… somehow. It was fairly philosophical, but it mostly just left me confused.

[Mr Creosote] It's the perspective of someone who has thought a lot about these issues, but hasn't been involved in any of the more recent discussions.

What I found important to be on there, although I had read it in a few interviews and articles already, was Bob Bates (of Legend Entertainment fame, a company which unfortunately didn't get any exposure in the documentary), talking about 'programming the else'. I.e. what happens if the player strays from the path of the solution and still wants to be entertained. That is, in a nutshell, what makes Adventure games fun for me!

Final verdict

[Jacob] Get Lamp certainly is a very ambitious project. It gives us an interesting glimpse into the beginnings of an industry in which by now, all the money is spent on games aimed at adolescent boys (sad, really). Especially the parts following the historic bits are maybe a bit too ambitious for their own sake, though. Presenting all these complex issues with no real sense of coherency and apparantly being undecided about its own target audience, I'm not sure how successful the documentary is on the whole.

[Mr Creosote] Maybe I am just someone who is looking more for individual moments… at least under that premise, I found Get Lamp to be delightful. There were many bits (quite a few of which we mentioned here) which were thoughtful, funny ("…but then, you've got this chocolate arm!") or just plainly made me smile. For instance, there was always the undertone of a general appreciation of programming as a creative work. Having worked as a programmer for a couple of years, I found that heartwarming. I would gladly lend the discs to mildly interested, but non-expert friends, because I really believe that in spite of all the details you might criticise, it shows an enthusiasm both in the making and of the interviewees as well as the multi-faceted nature of the genre as a whole.

Remember: What is the subject of a filmed documentary is generally already considered more 'important' by the general public automatically. So in any case, this one is a winner.

[Jacob] That last bit, we can certainly agree on.

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