Before the first person shooter there was the second person thinker.
So proclaims the front cover of Jason Scott’s film documentary, Get Lamp, and it’s an apt tagline for the thoughtful exploration of text adventures contained within. Over the course of two years, Scott interviewed a mix of interactive fiction “old-timers,” modern IF authors, and gamers to create an oral history of this ongoing but often overlooked format. From Adventure International founder Scott Adams to a good dozen Infocom veterans; from id Software co-founder John Romero to former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, Get Lamp serves up a diverse sampling of anecdotes and perspectives to provide an informative and entertaining overview.
If you’re looking for a complete history of adventure games, you won’t find it here. Other than a glimpse of King’s Quest boxes wrapped in plastic on an interviewee’s shelf, the Sierra games and everything that came afterward are not addressed in Get Lamp. What you do get is hours of commentary on the text adventures that laid the groundwork for the genre, starting with Adventure (a.k.a. Colossal Cave), the first known work of interactive fiction. The interviews, shot in HD at a 16:9 aspect ratio, are interspersed with photos of packaging and advertisements, game design documents, and a few (understandably) grainy news clips from the 1980s. In many of the interviews, an old-fashioned brass lantern is lurking in the background, Where’s Waldo style.
For those who don’t know the genre’s origins, the original Adventure was designed by caving enthusiast Will Crowther based on the geography of a network of caves located in Kentucky, known as Bedquilt. Get Lamp opens with a brief rundown of the game’s history, with additional context provided separately in a Bedquilt featurette that includes footage of actual Adventure locations. Stanford graduate student Don Woods (who’s interviewed in the documentary) expanded on Crowther’s work by introducing fantasy elements such as elves, trolls, and the magic words ‘xyzzy’ and ‘plugh.’ Adventure became a cult classic among students and programmers who had mainframe access in the 1970s, many of whom went on to pioneer the short-lived commercial IF industry.
In the documentary, MIT alumni and others who played Adventure in the ‘70s describe what many of us will never be able to grasp: the awe and amazement they experienced “interacting” with a computer as they typed questions and received believable answers in return. Adventure wasn’t only the first quest game, it was also one of the first examples of AI—something all gamers now take for granted. They describe a world with no instant access to hints, when adventure gaming was a “team sport.” Completing a game was a long process that could take months or years, and as an Infocom marketing survey revealed, many players never reached the end.
Even so, for a brief time text adventures were on top. Get Lamp’s interviewees describe them as games for “literate people” who wanted to “match wits with a computer.” News coverage predicted that this new form of entertainment would persist well into the 21st century. Even as graphic adventures emerged, it was believed that they and text adventures could peacefully coexist, like movies and books. Hearing this described after the fact and knowing that text adventures would soon fall into obscurity makes watching Get Lamp a bit like watching a Greek tragedy, but it also raises intriguing questions. What might have changed if Infocom had accepted book publisher Simon & Schuster’s $28 million acquisition offer, rather than holding out in hubris and succumbing a year later to Activision for a paltry $2 million? Did the audience truly move on to games with graphics, or did the “literate people” who had been enjoying text adventures simply go back to paperbacks? And how might modern devices like the Kindle renew interest in the genre? Get Lamp focuses mainly on the facts and doesn’t delve into what-ifs (save for the depressing agreement among participants that IF development will never be a practical way to make money), but it provides many seeds for continued conversation among the adventure gaming community.
Jason Scott got lamp
Get Lamp also covers elements that gamers still discuss and debate today, such as the necessity (or not) of puzzles, the importance of note taking and map making (a practice that happens to parallel the mapping of a cave system), and the evolution of game packaging and “feelies.” Though the commentary is specific to text adventures, the interviews provide historical context for conventions that also exist in graphic adventures, and more than once I found myself thinking, “Oh, so that’s why adventure games are like that!” Take death, for example. I’ve always thought of it as an excuse for designers to be sadistic. In fact, when games could only weigh in at about 100K and every scripted response used up precious space, death was a believable (if frustrating) outcome for a command that might otherwise be a reasonable pursuit but didn’t advance the story. The emphasis on exploration, the riddles we feel like we’ve solved over and over, the dreaded maze—as Get Lamp reveals, all of these have their roots in text adventures.
The documentary examines corporate culture, with multiple Infocom implementers (known as “imps”) wistfully recalling the best job they ever had. Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Brian Moriarty (Wishbringer, Beyond Zork), Marc Blank (Zork), Michael Berlyn (Suspended, Infidel), and others talk about the surprising realization that software programming could intersect with entertainment and that they could actually earn a living making games. Just as surprising was the realization a few years later that interactive fiction wouldn’t be around forever. By the end of the 1980s, most of the companies that had risen with the trend were out of business. This subject is expanded upon in an Infocom featurette that appears on the first of Get Lamp’s two DVDs.
Modern perspectives are presented as well. Today there is still a small but thriving IF community, and several authors and players provide interviews. The role of interactive fiction in education is discussed, with teachers weighing in on how it can be used in the classroom. And blind gamers describe the feeling of liberation that IF provides with the help of text readers, giving them a unique opportunity to “see” and interact with the world.
Get Lamp comes in a DVD box set with gorgeous full-color packaging and a “feelie” in the form of a numbered collectible coin. The first DVD contains two versions of the documentary (interactive and non-interactive), the Bedquilt and Infocom featurettes, and a written essay by long-time adventure game champion and former Computer Gaming World columnist Scorpia. The two documentary versions are essentially the same, but partway through the interactive version you’re given the chance to select which topic to follow in the form of a branching dialogue tree. While this is a fun concept, it behaved oddly on my DVD player, bringing me back to the main menu prematurely with no easy way to return to the branch point. Skipping through chapters in an attempt to get back there also had some unexpected results. With the non-interactive version you can watch the full documentary uninterrupted, which I recommend to avoid a potential headache.
The second DVD also contains a trove of information, most notably two hours of interview excerpts not included in the documentary. These aren’t dregs from the cutting room floor; there are some very interesting and funny stories among the clips, including the history behind the style of brass lantern that has come to represent the Zork games (it’s not equipment a real spelunker would use!), the genesis of “invisible ink” hint books, and the origins of the legendary grue. This disc also contains the music video for nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot’s surprisingly catchy IF anthem “It Is Pitch Dark,” and if you pop the DVD into your computer you’ll find tons of IF games and emulators to help you run them.
Jason Scott’s region-free Get Lamp sells from the official website for $40 (plus $5 shipping in North America, or $9 elsewhere). That may sound like a lot, but it’s less than you would have paid for an Infocom game back in the day and only a bit more than you’d pay for a new adventure game now. There’s plenty of history to explore here and the production values are high, so whether you’re a collector or simply want to learn more about how it all began, Get Lamp is a worthwhile purchase.