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"The great thing about living today," I was telling my coworker, "is that there are things you can buy that could never exist before because they are so far off the mainstream. For example, I just bought this documentary on text adventure games..."
He looked at me like I had just told him that I enjoyed bowling with live chickens. Then he laughed. "Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing you'd buy," he said.
It's true that I have a fondness for extremely niche portions of computer history, as anyone who has read my articles about a certain forgotten multimedia computer can attest to. But as I put the first DVD into the player, I had a certain amount of apprehension. How interesting could a documentary about text adventures really be?
I needn't have worried. Get Lamp is a gem of a film. The man behind the movie, Jason Scott, is no stranger to the subject matter. Scott's last work was a documentary about the rise and fall of computer bulletin board systems, and with Get Lamp he has really hit his stride.
Get Lamp comes on two DVDs, the first of which can be browsed in "Interactive" or "Non-Interactive" modes. The interactive mode lets the player walk through the various sections by making choices at the end of each segment. The second DVD contains a large amount of bonus material, including deleted scenes, photos, and an exhaustive collection of modern-day, free, text adventure games. The soundtrack comes from artists such as Zoe Blade (who got her start writing .MOD files for the Amiga) and Tony Longworth, both of whom have made their music available under a Creative Commons license. There's also an amazing music video from MC Frontalot, who I was lucky enough to see live at PAX this year.
The film's title comes from the first bit of inventory the player collects in the very first adventure game, known either simply as "Adventure" ("ADVENT on computer systems that could only handle short file names) or "Colossal Cave." The eponymous Lamp is the star of the show, appearing in every interview scene and in a montage at the end of the documentary. Finding the lamp, which is sometimes hidden behind other objects, on a shelf in the distance, or visible only from a particular camera angle, is a fun game to play while watching the film.
Scott starts off the film by taking the viewer through a tour of the real Colossal Cave, a sprawling set of subterranean caverns in Kentucky. As the camera pans through the caves, Scott lists off each room that corresponds to its in-game equivalent: Bedquilt, The Bird Room, The Hall of the Mountain King, and so on. I played this game as a little kid, and seeing the real locations thirty years later was astonishing—while fascinating in their own right, they were nothing like the images I had held in my imagination.
The "graphics" were, of course, the central selling point of text adventure games: even the most advanced bitmaps and renders could not compare to the images created by the human brain. While there were many small companies that created text adventure games, the greatest of them all was Infocom.
The Infocom era
The documentary's peek into the culture of Infocom is one of the most fascinating stories I've seen in all of high technology. Here was a company that was founded on an uncertain premise—to make some sort of business software (hence the generic, catch-all name)—yet it somehow stumbled upon interactive fiction. As the company grew, it became a Mecca for smart, literate, inquisitive people who would start out as testers and end up designing and writing their own games. The standard way of working was that a designer (known at Infocom as an Implementor, frequently shortened to Imp) would work away on a title by themselves, but come out into the hallway or lunchroom to get advice or technical hints from other coworkers. The spirit of collaboration and camaraderie was infectious. People loved their jobs, and couldn't wait to come into work everyday.
This made it all the more sad when Infocom, like all other text adventure game companies, suddenly went away in the late 1980s. The main problem was a sudden drop in demand for text adventure games as computer graphics dramatically improved. But many Infocom employees thought the company could have successfully transitioned to doing graphical adventures. Instead, upper management decided that the changing market was the perfect excuse to get back to serious business software, so they bet everything on a new database they called CornerStone.
Many Infocom employees referred to the product as "TombStone," instead, a nickname that turned out to be fitting. It was a decent enough product, but management had no idea how to market it. Infocom soon entered the inevitable death spiral, but it had one more remarkable part to play in the history of gaming.
In 1986, Infocom's assets were purchased by Activision, which was having difficulties of its own due to the recent collapse of the console games market. By 1991 Activision had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Manager Bruce Davis, who was originally against the Infocom acquisition, was ready to sell off the entire division for $25,000. Fortunately, a former Infocom employee convinced him instead to bundle every game his company had ever made into a package called "The Lost Treasures of Infocom." Retailing for $99, it sold over 100,000 copies and was almost pure profit. The ashes of Infocom saved Activision from bankruptcy. Today, Activision is the largest gaming publisher in the world.
After Infocom's fall, the film's story shifts to the modern-day revival of interactive fiction as a non-profit hobby, with yearly competitions and a small but enthusiastic fan base. Both the creators and fans are interviewed, and there are some fascinating tales from blind gamers, who, through text-to-speech software, are able to enjoy the games as much as any sighted person. There are even interviews with English professors who use text adventures in some of their courses.
There is some discussion about whether or not text adventure games could ever make a commercial comeback. The Infocom employees originally thought the genre could go on forever, just as purely text-based novels continue be sold many centuries after they were first invented. A few entrepreneurs and fans have tried to commercialize interactive fiction again, but without success. It remains a curious blip in the history of gaming, perhaps never to be repeated. Thanks to Jason Scott, however, it will be preserved for all time.
Jeremy Reimer wants the world to know that he solved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with only one hint. He is currently working on the next instalment of the "History of the Amiga" series.
"They were called 'computer adventure games', and they used the most powerful graphics processor in the world: the human mind." Get Lamp oozes love. A documentary that tells the story of text adventures through the words of the people who made them, it's taken digital historian Jason Scott five years of researching, interviewing, filming, editing and polishing. Finally, the results of his work are available to buy. Check the trailer below.
I haven't seen the full film yet, but man. This is an enormous display of love and dedication to a very niche subject, and it deserves to be celebrated.
The documentary's DVD release contain a ton of features and extras. Split across two DVDs, Get Lamp includes the main documentary plus additional featurettes on Infocom, Mammoth Cave and other subjects, photographs, essays, and even a collectible coin. You can pick it all up here .
You love PC games, huh? Then where's your documentary about them?