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June 8, 2009

Priceless Memories, Now Just 99¢

I was a child of the late 70s and early 80s, and personally I think it was a great time to grow up. I was 10 years old when Star Wars was released. Could that have been timed any better? Plus, even though I had to be subjected to disco, I wouldn't actually start developing a taste for music until the fad had long passed. I didn't think I watched that much TV back then, but looking back at the top shows of 1978 (Laverne and Shirley, Three's Company, Mork and Mindy, Happy Days, and What's Happening!), I guess I did considering I knew them all, and many more, pretty well. (Speaking of which, you mean to tell me "Soap" never got higher than #13?)

As I've mentioned here and elsewhere a few times, that was around the same time I started to learn programming, on my dad's hulking NorthStar Horizon computer. I loved that beast. It came with some version of BASIC -- I have no idea which version now, but I remember I picked it up pretty quickly. But I had no idea what kind of door had been opened until my dad bought me an amazing treasure of a book:

David H. Ahl's 1978 book, a collection of 101 games written in BASIC, was the perfect kind of resource for an 11 year old -- a book teaching programming and patience in the context of lots and lots of games. Some of them, of course, stretched the definition of game -- I'm not sure how much fun you can have with a program that prints out a calendar, or endlessly repeats words in a sine wave, but what the hell, I mean, people were into biorhythms back then after all, so who knows.

I remember some of them vividly. Acey Ducey, Football, Hammurabi, even Hockey. And, of course, Super Star Trek, the game that would eventually lead to "Missions of the Reliant" some 16 years later (although truth is the first versions of Star Trek started appearing in the late sixties). Looking back now, many were just horribly bad games, as far as games go. But they were still a new experience, and I learned BASIC just by going through many of them and typing them in, line by line, hoping I wouldn't make any typos along the way. Meanwhile, I became familiar with the names of things and places I hadn't heard of before and knew nothing about, like Ahl's magazine "Creative Computing", some town called Morristown, New Jersey, and a strange place called "Decatur". Mostly, I remember that the games were programmed in a way that made them play like dialogues between myself and the author or computer, since so much of the experience was communicated through text.

The website is a fantastic archive of books from that time period, along with its sister site,, a computer magazine archive with articles from Creative Computing, Hi-Res, Compute!, and more. I was stunned when I first found the site and discovered the entire BASIC Computer Games book had been scanned in PDF format, from the front cover through to the back. I've kept the link in my bookmarks for years now, returning once in a while to make sure it was still around. It would be nice if the whole thing was available as a single PDF download, but that probably violates some agreement. I toyed with the idea of just downloading all of the PDFs for it in case the site ever disappeared, but at around 185 files, I wasn't about to put in the time.

It was during a recent visit that I finally noticed a link tucked at the bottom of the index page:

"You may be able to buy a pre-owned, printed copy of the book from"

I clicked it, and I was amazed to find how many used copies were available -- a number of them, in very good condition, were available for 99 cents. $3.99 for the shipping, of course, but could you really argue with owning, once again, a copy of a book with such personal historical significance for less than the cost of a cup of coffee?

(Looking back now at the link, I see there is even one available now for only 33 cents. 33 cents! And another for just 61 cents that is, as keenly noted by the seller, "Ready to read.")

Well, I could hardly pass that up, sucker that I am for such things.

So the book arrived the other day, and it was a strangely disorienting experience flipping through those pages again. It's in fairly good shape, a copy that used to be owned by a school library at Holdrege Middle School, which I'm guessing is this one in Holdrege, Nebraska. The card holder, still on the inside front page, indicates it was actually last checked out in 2006, if you can believe that. Prior to that, it hadn't been checked out since 1996, but I'm even surprised it was checked out that late. I wonder if the kids who checked it out then learned much of anything, that being the year of Quake, Diablo, and Marathon Infinity. I'm guessing Poetry probably wasn't a big hit then.

I don't know what I'll do with this book, probably stick it on a shelf in my office next to the other keepers from days gone by. Still, it's comforting to know it's there, a hard copy of a memory that won't disappear if a web host decides to pull the plug one day. Sometimes, a link to an online PDF just isn't enough. And for 99 cents, who could argue?

June 7, 2009


So apparently the powers that be at the Austin GDC were curious enough about modern interactive fiction to give it the floor (part of it anyway), for a few minutes at least. I received notice the other day that my proposal for a talk on "game design innovations in IF" was accepted for presentation during the Game Writers Summit. I'm pretty happy about that, especially considering that last year I found the Game Writers Summit to be the most interesting part of AGDC. I'm curious to see how many people are intrigued enough by the topic to attend. I'm hoping it's more than four.

Of course, the e-mail notice was soon followed by one of those "Oh shit" moments. I suppose this means I actually have to do it now.

That happens on occasion in the day job. We submit grants all the time for various ambitious research projects, and we're pretty used to rejection. But, occasionally, we do just enough to bullshit our way past the review committees and the work gets funded. Yayz. Except usually it's quickly followed by a collective, audible *gulp*.

So, we'll see how this goes. Many thanks to the people who supported this and helped with the editing. I'll be preparing the talk throughout the summer, so if anyone is interested to see how it evolves, just let me know and I'll keep you updated on it. Below is the synopsis of the talk that will appear in the program guide, which is pretty similar to what I had posted earlier. If you're interested in seeing the whole abstract, just drop me a line and I'll e-mail it to you.

"What's old is new again: game design innovations in interactive fiction"

Synopsis: The modern commercial game industry is frequently criticized for a reluctance toward innovation. Although independent game developers, to a certain extent, have accepted the challenge of advancing innovation in game design, another small but devoted group of individuals has been doing this for years, behind the scenes, in a genre largely overlooked in gaming circles: interactive fiction, formerly known as text adventures. A closer look at the many ways in which this medium has evolved over the years will reveal a number of techniques and strategies that game developers, mainstream and independent alike, might consider exploring and translating to their own genres and projects.