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Andrew Plotkin and Emily Short: The CGM Interviews

by Lara Crigger

The following interviews originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #185 in shorter form. The interviews are reprinted with permission.

Andrew Plotkin Interview, Part 1

Lara Crigger: Would you give a little introduction to who you are and what you are famous for?

Andrew Plotkin: I am a geek from Pittsburgh. I didn't start in Pittsburgh and I'm not there now, but Pittsburgh seems to be where I am when I'm not anywhere else. And I am famous for inventing "Capture the Flag with Stuff".

But in terms of IF—I am one of the early notables of, I suppose one would say, literary text adventures.

Or maybe one wouldn't say that. In fact, don't say that. "Literary" is the wrong term. I didn't invent the idea of adventure games with strong stories—those go back to Infocom's third year. And I don't mean to imply that I'm writing "mainstream literature" either. I've written mostly science fiction and fantasy games, the most common genres for IF.

What I started focussing on, back in 1995-ish, were the techniques IF could use to engage the player in the story. As opposed to the game world, the puzzles, the environments—those had been the mainstays of IF design up until then. I was attracted to IF games because of the sense of complicity—feeling that you're the one who did it. And all these games had that sense, but they didn't seem to be working it hard enough. So I did that.

I've also written some IF tools and infrastructure, extending the design that Infocom used for their products.

How did you get started writing IF?

Oh, well, really I started by writing sophomoric parodies of Infocom games. In Applesoft Basic. I was about thirteen.

I spent some time in high school fooling around with ideas for the World's Greatest IF Development System. (Like everyone else.) It never went anywhere, though. And while I occasionally considered text adventure ideas, none of them got started either.

So my actual return to IF was 1995, when I entered A Change in the Weather in the first annual IF Competition. I can't give you any sweeping motivation for it. I'd written an IF interpreter; I'd looked at the current state of the development tools; and then I said, ok, time to write a game.

What's your favorite game that you've ever written?

Too many favorites. I still think A Change in the Weather is good, although it's only barely playable by modern standards. That was my first attempt at conveying moods by means of gameplay, and it seems to have worked out. Spider and Web, on the other hand, is as close as I've gotten to the one perfect moment of adventuring experience: the beginning of the end, the moment where the pieces fall together. Again, it seems to have worked for people.

What's your least favorite game that you've ever written?

Too many—no, I already used that answer. I suppose I'm disappointed that The Dreamhold didn't draw in more new IF fans, but that's a problem with marketing, not with the game. (My fault either way, of course.)

I will dodge the question by naming The Space Under the Window, which isn't a full-fledged text adventure. It's also very small, and I always felt I should have done more with it before I released it.

What do you like most and least about writing IF?

The fun is breaking ground. The novel has hundreds of years of development behind it—you can still invent new approaches, but you're shaving off slivers. (Hm. Ignore the corpse of that metaphor.) In IF, everyone is inventing techniques, all the time. There are huge territories we haven't even looked at yet. I have more ideas for fragments of IF interaction than I could possibly write; more than I could invent stories or settings for, really.

The least fun part is—writing a game is a lot of work. Surprise! It's almost like it's an art form, like all the others. I actually haven't released a game for a year now; I've had other stuff to work on, and I haven't had time to write IF. Never enough time, mutter mutter.

Where do you typically find inspiration for games? What about the puzzles?

I think I start with the techniques and interactions, the stuff I was talking about earlier. How can I lead the player into and out of an action? How can I make him complicit in the story? Then I develop a sequence of events around that, and that implies the setting and story.

Now, that doesn't mean that I design a bunch of actions, and then then a sequence of events, and then a story and characters. All those decisions are happening at the same time. I'm describing what inspires what—but there's plenty of back-and-forth between the layers.

What do you think is the greatest strength of interactive fiction? Likewise, what is its greatest weakness?

Both the same answer, and both what I've been saying all along: the player is the one in the story. No passive form of entertainment quite feels that way, no matter how big you make the screen and the speakers. And, contrariwise, no passive form of entertainment can leave the player stuck halfway through—unable to get to the end of the story. When an adventure game stops working for a player, he's left with half a story in his head.

(Yes, I think IF would never have revived itself without the existence of hint files and help forums. Nobody needs hints for every game, but neither can anyone pay attention to the field without occasionally asking for a nudge.)

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These interviews copyright © 2006, Lara Crigger. Originally published in Computer Games Magazine, Issue 185. Reprinted with permission.

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