Armchair Arcade Issue #2 - March 2004

Welcome to Armchair Arcade's Second Issue!

Before we discuss what's new, we'd first like to thank everyone for making the first issue and Armchair Arcade in general a huge success. We've had more visitors and positive feedback than we ever expected this early in Armchair Arcade's existence. Second, we were blown away by the amount of international coverage and visits. Again, thank you! Your support is needed and thoroughly appreciated.

This month's issue features four articles that further demonstrate the ongoing editorial direction of Armchair Arcade. One article in particular concerns a topic that could be ripped straight from today's hard news headlines, but is absolutely applicable to the current state of gaming. It's sure to be controversial and a must-read. Please feel free to make comments and discuss these articles (and any others) in our forums. The editors are eager to read your praise, criticism, and questions.

Issue 2's articles:

Gay Characters in Videogames
by Matt Barton
In this article, Matt explores the issue of homosexuality in modern (and classic) videogames, starting with the rather startling endorsement of gay marriage in Atari's The Temple of Elemental Evil.

Interactive Fiction and Feelies: An Interview with Emily Short
by Bill Loguidice
(Original art by Brandon Knox)
In this interview-based piece, Bill gives us the low-down on the current state of Interactive Fiction development and marketing. "Feelies," or small products sometimes included with a game to help spur interest and player involvement, are making a serious comeback thanks to Emily Short and feelies.org. Read all about it here!

Atari 7800 Double Dragon: A Comparative Look
by Mark Wiesner Jr.
In this comparative review, Mark explains why the little-known Atari 7800 version of Double Dragon is as good as or better than other, more popular versions. This article will interest anyone interested in the game or second generation classic consoles in general.

Early Commodore 64 Platformers: Jumpman, Spelunker, Ultimate Wizard, and Pharaoh’s Curse
by Matt Barton
If you recognize any of the games in this title, or are a fan of the Commodore 64, you will not want to miss this article. Matt explores what makes each title distinct, but also how the added features either enhance or detract from gameplay.

A special thanks to everyone who has supported us and we look forward to a continued bright future with both old and new friends!


Atari 7800 Double Dragon: A Comparative Look

Author: Mark Wiesner Jr.
Editing: Bill Loguidice, Buck Feris and Matthew D. Barton
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: All screenshots were provided with permission from the following sources – Atari Age and The Video Game Museum

Title screen of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.

When discussing console versions of the popular 1987 arcade game, Double Dragon (Taito), one likely thinks of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) port or the version for the Sega Master System (SMS). Most gamers are not even aware an Atari 7800 ProSystem version exists, which is sad because it is an excellent translation of the game.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.This article will try to show the strengths and weaknesses of each port, with special attention paid to the little-known, but very worthy, 7800 version. The Atari version’s obscurity may be a result of the fact that the 7800 system itself is not as well known among the gaming community as the NES and SMS.

The 7800 console was designed to succeed where the Atari 5200 SuperSystem had failed. By 1983, the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) was showing its age, and the aforementioned 5200 had not lived up to expectations. Atari surveyed the market and decided to make the 7800 system backward compatible with 2600 games. This feature was not included with the 5200, and was considered among its many flaws. Unfortunately, in 1984, the infamous videogame crash hit, consoles were thought to be dead, and the 7800 was taken off store shelves. Many insiders felt the console - and the videogame industry in general - was extinct. The Tramiel family, who had taken over Atari following the crash, discovered this belief was wrong when the NES began to revive the market in late 1985. In 1986, the Tramiel's re-released the 7800 to compete with Nintendo's system. Unfortunately, the 7800 was released without any new games—only those made back in 1984. Not only did the NES have a head start, but many of the 7800's games were arcade ports that had long since appeared on other systems. While these games might have done well in 1984, 1986 and beyond was a whole different market, with new games such as Nintendo's own Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda making their marks. The 7800’s titles looked antiquated in comparison, though this wasn’t specifically the fault of the system's hardware (see Issue 1's Atari article for more information). The 7800 eventually had some of the best arcade ports available on any console of its era, and Double Dragon was no exception. Double Dragon for the 7800 remains an obscure title, mostly because the system didn’t sell particularly well, and the fact that the title appeared late in the 7800’s marketplace life.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.First, we'll examine the actual 7800 version, programmed by Activision. Overall, Activision did a nice job converting the game for a system initially intended for playing relatively simple arcade games like Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and Namco’s Joust. The graphics are solid by 7800 standards, with good sprites and bright colors. Sound has always been a weakness with the 7800; its sound chip is the same as its predecessor, the 2600 (an add-on chip could be utilized in-cartridge, but was rarely used due to Atari cost-cutting measures). Despite the weak sound capabilities, the Double Dragon theme and music on each level sounds great and is clearly discernible. Play control is good and the collision detection functions well. The only bad thing about the control is that it takes lots of practice. Players using the traditional 7800 joystick may find it tricky to pull off some of the moves. It’s best to invest time practicing the moves on the joystick to get the hang of them. If possible, players should get their hands on a European-style controller (the one that looks similar to the NES gamepad) because it makes performing the moves easier. The 7800 version is also very challenging; the enemies are plentiful and come at the player very aggressively, wielding three of the weapons found in the arcade version: the knife, the bat, and the whip. In the end, the game stands up well with its arcade forebearer.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the NES. Reprinted with permission from The Video Game Museum.As stated earlier, the NES version is probably the home version with which most players are generally familiar. While it’s a fairly good game on its own, it’s somewhat weak against its arcade counterpart. The two imperfections that hurt the game most are its lack of a two-player mode and the system of earning moves. In the arcade, 7800, and SMS versions, two friends can play simultaneously. On the NES, friends can only play on alternating turns; the second player will have to wait until the first player dies to get his chance to fight. The other weakness is that the player has a limited repertoire of moves at the start, being only able to punch, head-butt, kick, and jump. Players earn moves by beating enemies for experience points. As more points are racked up, more moves can be earned, such as the jump kick. When compared to the 7800 version, the NES game easily beats it from a technical standpoint. The NES graphics are far superior, with more detail and colors in the characters and backgrounds. The 7800 characters look blocky in comparison and the backgrounds are not as detailed. Hands down, the NES music and sound effects beat the 7800 game. However, when it comes to gameplay, the 7800 version beats the NES, giving diehard gamers and Double Dragon fans the simultaneous two-player option and arsenal of moves that the NES version lacks. Both versions also have a different final boss. The 7800 version keeps the machine-gun-toting "Shadow Boss" from the arcade, whereas the NES version pits players against Billy Lee’s own brother, Jimmy Lee.

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the SMS. Reprinted with permission from The Video Game Museum.The SMS version looks the best when compared to the arcade. The system's overall technical superiority to the other 8-bit consoles is apparent as the graphics are better rendered and the backgrounds surpass both the Atari and NES versions in detail. The SMS version even adds in the wanted posters from the arcade game that the other two ports lack. The sound is nearly equal to that of the arcade and dwarfs that of the comparitively weak sound in the 7800. The gameplay is superb too, having the simultaneous two-player version that the arcade and 7800 versions have. The control is similar to the 7800 version in that much practice is needed to master the moves. The collision detection needs work too, because unlike the 7800 or arcade games, enemies don’t get stunned by your attacks. This version is equal in challenge to the 7800 version, since enemies are very aggressive and can overwhelm a single player.

Atari 7800 ProSystem Double Dragon (Activision, 1989)Advantages: Faithful to the arcade game, providing a full arsenal of moves and two player simultaneous play.Disadvantages: Blocky and not very detailed graphics, weak sound.Stars: Excellent (4 out of 5 stars)

Sega Master System (SMS) Double Dragon (Sega, 1988)Advantages: Excellent graphics, superior sound, plays like the arcade game.Disadvantages: Collision detection needs improvement.Stars: Good (3½ out of 5 stars)

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Double Dragon (Tradewest, 1988)Advantages: Good graphics, great sound, decent playability.Disadvantages: Weaker graphics compared to SMS, full arsenal of moves not available at start, two player alternating play as opposed to simultaneous.Stars: Good (3 out of 5 stars)

Screenshot of Double Dragon for the Atari 7800. Reprinted with permission from Atari Age.The Final Verdict
All three of the versions cannot compare technically to the arcade because no 8-bit console has ever matched the arcade machine’s capabilities. When compared to each other, however, no clear-cut winner can be established. Each version of the game has its own strengths and weaknesses as outlined above. Just how good is the 7800 version? It’s very good. While the NES and SMS versions have the 7800 beat in graphics and sound, the 7800's translation stands up well in playability. The 7800 version also has better collision detection than the SMS port and has factors that the NES game sorely lacks, such as the two player simlutaneous mode.

If you own an Atari 7800, this game is one to look out for. Alternately, if you are a Double Dragon fan or collector, you will surely not want to miss the 7800's version of the game.

Guide to Game Rankings:

Early Commodore 64 Platformers: Jumpman, Spelunker, Ultimate Wizard, and Pharaoh’s Curse

Author and Screenshots: Matthew D. Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Notes: All screenshots were taken directly from a Commodore 64 emulator

Platform games are those in which gameplay consists of jumping, climbing, (and, too often) falling from platforms that hover mysteriously between the player’s avatar and the goal. Probably the most popular platform games are either Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981) or one of Nintendo's near-ubiquitous Mario Bros. games. These are, of course, legendary games and worthy of considerable study, but I would like to focus my attention on four lesser-known platform games that were widely available for the Commodore 64 (C-64) computer: Epyx’s Jumpman (1983), Synapse Software’s Pharaoh’s Curse (1983), Broderbund’s Spelunker (1984), and Electronic Arts’ Ultimate Wizard (1986)1. All of these games offer unique features that dramatically affect the gameplay. In the last issue of Armchair Arcade, I discussed Nintendo's Metroid and Rainbow Arts' Turrican and how these games differed in terms of complexity. In this article, I will be revisiting that theme, but this time showing how increased complexity does not always allow for a more involving and replayable game.

Screenshot from 'Jumpman' for the Commodore 64I pity the poor child of a C-64 family who was deprived of Epyx’s Jumpman, which must surely rank in the top ten classic games for that hallowed system2. The object of Jumpman is simple: Collect the bombs and advance to the next level. This is only possible, of course, with a great deal of harrowing leaping from the edge of one platform to the next, all the while dodging a small white bullet that slowly scrolls horizontally or vertically across the screen and “shoots” speedily towards the avatar if he crosses its path. There are also more significant obstacles: Occasionally, a part of a platform will disappear if Jumpman seizes a bomb, so strategy is required to collect the bombs in the proper order. Later levels involve a plethora of creative and increasingly difficult challenges: Robots, vampires, fires, moving ladders, and aliens just to name a few. Only masterful players will see these levels, of course, since the first beginner level, “Easy Does It,” is difficult enough to stump many would-be jumpmen at the gate.

There are so many wonderful things we could discuss about Jumpman. The game has a quirky, sarcastic humor that is sure to make even the grimmest player chuckle occasionally. When the avatar dies, for instance, he drops from platform to platform in a painful, cartoonish fall. When he finally lands at the bottom, small stars circle his head as Chopin’s Funeral March plays in all its SID-chip glory. The great part of this fall is that Jumpman collects any bombs he happens to contact on his way to the bottom!

As one can observe in the screenshot here, Jumpman's graphics were minimalistic. While this fact may turn off some players, those of us in the know realize that such graphics allow players to focus on what is truly the essence of a videogame, namely, the gameplay—and gameplay is truly Jumpman’s triumph.

Screenshot from 'Spelunker' for the Commodore 64With all of Jumpman’s bells and whistles, it’s hard to imagine a game that could somehow offer more. Broderbund’s Spelunker, released a year later, does seem, however, to go a step beyond. I will not argue here that Spelunker is a better game, but it does offer some substantial improvements. Probably the biggest improvement is that while Jumpman’s action takes place all on one screen, Spelunker features a coherent “game world” composed of many levels. The avatar rides an elevator up and down a considerably deep mining shaft in his quest to recover some priceless treasure located at the very bottom3. For many players, this gameworld is quite absorbing; I hear reports that some players even become claustrophobic or nauseated as they progress ever deeper into the cave.

The quirky humor present in Jumpman is not present in Spelunker. The introductory music is slow, melodic, and somber. When the game begins, new players are lucky to last more than a few seconds, as even the tiniest error in jumping judgment will destroy the avatar. As one site puts it, “The main character is a little more fragile than a six-year old with hemophilia and bones made of paper mache.” This is a game that requires intense precision, concentration, and a Buddha’s patience. In short, this game is insanely difficult. As if pixel-perilous jumps and landings weren’t difficult enough, Broderbund threw in a time limit shorter than a boy can hold his breath, a ghost that flutters in periodically to visit death upon the player, bats who drop deadly guano on his head, and, finally, sticks of dynamite. The dynamite is supposed to help the spelunker past rocks and other obstacles, but if he doesn’t get far enough away from the blast—death.

That said, why would anyone want to play that pinnacle of gaming frustration known as Spelunker? One likely reason from a gameplay point of view is the spelunker’s equipment. Unlike Jumpman, who could only pick up bombs, the spelunker can retrieve dynamite and flares which are handily lying about the cave. The flares are used to ward off the guano-dropping bats, and the dynamite is necessary in a number of tight locations. The spelunker is also equipped with a blower-like device to ward off the ghost, but the player must time this process to the second. Only the most strategic of players will advance very far in Spelunker; sweaty palms and much swearing are inevitable.

Perhaps a more compelling reason is simple curiosity. What is at the bottom of this damnable shaft? There is definitely no easy way to find out—I have yet to meet a player who has beaten this game. One thing is for certain, though, it must be utterly fantastic to merit this much danger!

Screenshot from 'Ultimate Wizard' for the Commodore 64The third game I will be discussing today is Electronic Arts’ Ultimate Wizard. This game, published three years after Jumpman, returns to the same-screen action of its predecessor and blatantly copies most of the graphics and gameplay. The first time I saw this game, I swore it was a sequel to Jumpman. Even the famous Jumpman death scene is duplicated here! Players with a preference for originality and a hostility towards “borrowing” may wish to forget this title, but, all such prejudices aside, Ultimate Wizard remains a great game and further extends the Jumpman theme.

The goal of Ultimate Wizard is a little different than Jumpman. Here, the player must collect keys, bring them to locks, and advance to the next level. A great deal of recognizable treasure is lying about, most of which simply adds to the player’s score. However, some of those treasures grant the player spells, which are the key feature of this game that makes it worthy of attention. One way to think about this game is Jumpman with a wizard’s robe and cap and a few handy incantations. The game also borrows Jumpman’s wry humor; one of the levels is designed just like Donkey Kong—complete with fiery barrels. It’s called, “Where is Mario?”

One of the most memorable spells available to the wizard is "Invisibility," which allows him to slip past one of the rather intelligent monsters which chase after him in the maze. Another is "Disintegration," which casts a magic missile towards an enemy. "Feather Fall" allows the avatar to fall gently from a distance—a feature sorely missed in Jumpman. The spells add a distinctly strategic element to the game that, for many players (including Shane R. Monroe of Retrogaming Radio) makes this title a dramatic improvement over its predecessor. While I agree that Ultimate Wizard is a fine game and worthy of respect, given a choice, I would remain faithful to Jumpman, if for no other reason than—let’s face it, Electronic Arts seems to have plagiarized most of this game, and it’s also nearly as hard as Spelunker.

I have saved my favorite early platform game, The Pharaoh's Curse for last. Most people I have met who have played this game on the C-64 remember it well enough to still know the password to the second level. The music, sound effects, and graphics are all top notch for 1983, but the gameplay is what really makes Pharaoh’s Curse a must-have.

Like Spelunker, Pharaoh’s Curse extends across several screens. Unlike Spelunker, though, the gameworld is not coherent. What I mean by this is that the levels consist of a number of screens which can only be displayed one at a time. Therefore, the avatar exists left, right, or down, and finds himself on a new screen each time. There is no “in between” like Spelunker, but we still have more fluidity here than in Jumpman or Ultimate Wizard.

Screenshot from 'Pharaoh's Curse' for the Commodore 64The goal of Pharaoh’s Curse is similar to Jumpman: Collect all the treasures on each level. Of course, these treasures are not easily accessible; some require careful jumping, others a heart-quickening dash through deadly mashers, and some keys that must be dragged from other rooms. The avatar usually needs some help from a lift to get to a platform; however, these lifts are booby-trapped and only careful timing ensures a safe ascent. To make life even more difficult, a gun-wielding warrior and mummy randomly appear and chase down the explorer. It’s probably best not to question how ancient mummies acquire firearms, but it’s a nice trade-off for unlimited ammunition in the avatar’s pistol. Another, less-deadly but much more annoying enemy is the hawk, which occasionally swoops down on the avatar, picks him up, and randomly deposits him on another level. The bird seems to enjoy doing this the second before the avatar seizes a hard-to-reach treasure. The flight is also enough to jostle the key out of the avatar’s hand, which makes reaching the locked treasures a very challenging task. Death comes often and easy in Pharaoh’s Curse, but since the player receives an extra life every time he or she retrieves a treasure, dying isn’t quite as frustrating as in the other games.

What is so great about Pharaoh’s Curse? For one, the gameplay is much smoother and consistent than in the other games. Here, pixel-perfect jumping is not required; the avatar can scramble a bit if he misses a ledge, and he can fall from any height without injury. These facts relieve the player of a great deal of frustration and make the game much more playable. Most of the challenge of this game consists of timing and quick reflexes; avoiding the hawk and shooting the mummy and warrior call for a highly active and alert player. Unlike Spelunker and Ultimate Wizard, there are no special items the avatar can retrieve for new abilities — save the keys - which are only used in two or three locations.

What we have in these four games are examples of the same basic game with varying levels of complexity. Jumpman and Pharaoh’s Curse are the most straightforward; once the player masters the art of jumping, climbing, and (in one case) shooting, the rest of the game consists of mastering individual levels. Ultimate Wizard and Spelunker add a dynamic layer of complexity to the mix, and require players to master not only basic controls but find strategic uses for new equipment and abilities. Ultimate Wizard probably ends up being the most complex—a fact which likely accounts for its relative obscurity versus the other titles described herein.

I will wrap this article up with some advice for game makers, but also with a confession that issues of complexity and difficulty are not likely to be easily resolved. Some players prefer very difficult and complex games like Ultimate Wizard, while others appreciate a lower learning curve. Fortunately, I have the luxury of possessing several friends who were not familiar with any of the games discussed in this article, so I invited them to try each. Without fail, they were most captivated by Pharaoh’s Curse, and I worried for awhile if I would be able to remove them from the computer long enough for me to finish this article.

Would Pharaoh’s Curse have been a better game if the programmer had added “power-ups” and extra abilities? I can easily imagine a power-up giving the avatar a more powerful weapon, or requiring him to find tools (like dynamite or a pick) to access certain parts of levels. He could have learned to cast spells like the Ultimate Wizard. For some reason, though, such additions seem more superfluous than intriguing. Obviously, there is a very fine art to power-up based complexity—Metroid is one of the few titles that has succeeded most admirably. One fact is for certain: Game makers must ensure that their games are not so difficult or complex as to turn away potential players at the gate, which is why I feel Ultimate Wizard and Spelunker are less popular among new players than Jumpman or Pharaoh’s Curse.


[1] Broderbund is also responsible for the groundbreaking platform game Lode Runner. Pun intended.

[2] Jumpman was created by Randy Glover for the Atari 800 (8-bit computer line) first, then ported to the C-64. You can read much more about this wonderful game at the Epyx Shrine, a site I recommend very highly.

[3] This mission, of course, is not obvious to those players who received this game without the accompanying print documentation.

Gay Characters in Videogames

Author and Screenshots: Matthew D. Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Buck Feris
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Additional Screenshots and Scans: Buck Feris and Bill Loguidice

Notes: All pictures were taken directly from the editors' personal materials unless otherwise indicated
Special Thanks: Buck Feris and Bill Loguidice

Creative Commons License
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Box cover for Troika's 'The Temple of Elemental Evil'In Troika Game’s computer role playing game The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003), the player is presented with a role-playing scenario that may shock even seasoned veterans of the genre: The player is asked to rescue, and given the option to marry, an openly gay character.

After several hours (or days) of fairly routine hacking and slashing through giant frogs and bandits, the player’s adventuring party finds itself in the pirate-themed port village of Nulb, an “adventurer’s trap,” the like of which any player of TSR’s classic Dungeons and Dragons tabletop (pen and paper) game is likely to have wandered into on countless occasions. There’s a blacksmith for purchasing arms and armor, a house where the party can rest, and a special pirate named Bertram who flirts with a male member of the party. Bertram promises a lifetime of love and happiness in return for the winning of his freedom from his lover and master, a certain pirate captain who is happy to trade off his sex toy/punching bag for the right amount of cash.1 Surely, Nulb must be on the west coast of this game world!

Screenshot from Troika's 'The Temple of Elemental Evil.' The caption reads, 'You and Bertram are married in a small ceremony, and he opens a dentistry office in Verbobonc. You live happily ever after.'The party can elect to take Bertram with them or, more likely, allow him to remain in Nulb where he will pleasantly pass the hours until the player finishes the game. He shows back up in the concluding scenes if the player rescued him. A portrait is displayed with two men embraced, and the narrator levelly explains that you and Bertram were married and lived, as they say, happily ever after.

The irony is surely not lost on readers of Armchair Arcade; we expect to rescue a fairy princess, not a pirate fairy. Yet, The Temple of Elemental Evil does not blush in its mission to accommodate all types of players, even those male players who prefer the intimacy of other men to women.

So, what do we make of Bertram? Does his presence here indicate a radical re-envisioning of computer games; the long-expected (but often dreaded) incursion of the “gay movement” into that one literary sphere which has been, until now, the unquestioned domain of young, straight men of the middle and upper class? How far we have come from those naive days of SSI's Curse of the Azure Bonds, when gay characters were unthinkable, and female characters, if they were portrayed at all, sported enormous breasts on prominent display—even if the display came at the cost of their armor’s integrity!

Scan of the manual for 'Curse of the Azure Bonds'In general, I think we should admit that classic computer role-playing games (and the majority of modern games) are sexist, if by that term we mean that they exclude females and gays as potential players. The assumption made by game makers was that the overwhelming demographic of Americans who purchased and played videogames were a particular strand of white, straight males, who were often victims of vicious stereotyping themselves. I’m thinking here of “geeky gamers,” those nerds who wore calculator watches and were unequipped physically to win honor on the football field or basketball court. Sexuality for these unfortunate few was limited to masturbation and pornographic magazines (if one were lucky). Perhaps the only way to tolerate such a life is with considerable power of imagination, and these people had that pulsing at every pimple. What computer role-playing games supplied was a chance to escape from a world of tyrannical locker jocks, puritanical parents, and beautiful women (for whom hardcore gamers served only as a source of cheap amusement). A quick glance around any classic Dungeons and Dragons session will, more often than not, reveal a group of nerds in ill-fitting trousers and cheap tennis shoes who get a little too excited about a long sword +5, and who, when pressured, will admit that while facing an army of trolls in the darkest dungeons of Moridir does not warrant the quaffing of a potion of barkskin, actually speaking to an attractive woman is cause to soil one’s armor.

These are, of course, exaggerated stereotypes of “geeky gamers” that are both hurtful and wrong. Yet, when I recently posted about “gay characters” in videogames on a popular retro-gaming forum, an overwhelming number of responses contained the harshest stereotyping of gay people imaginable. Though gamers may have been subjected to stereotyping and insults most of their lives, this fact does not make them less likely to hurl them at others. The general consensus was that game makers should not include gay characters in videogames.

Why should anyone want to change this status quo? Why incorporate gay characters into a mainstream videogame? Tom Decker, producer of The Temple of Elemental Evil, counts adding Bertram as one of his “best decisions.” He describes his reasoning in a recent interview at RPG Vault:

Doing some of the writing for the game, I had a lot of fun with creating some of the characters and quests in Nulb. I particularly felt strongly that since we had several heterosexual marriages available in Hommlet, we should include at least one homosexual encounter in the game (although there were actually two, one was in the brothel that was removed) and not to make it a stereotyped, over the top situation, but on par with the other relationships available in the game. I felt strongly about keeping the character of Bertram in the game, and I am glad we were allowed to keep him, despite any controversy it might cause. It's been entertaining reading the boards about Bertram and reactions to him.

Unfortunately, Decker does not explain why he felt so strongly about incorporating gay marriage into his game, though his feelings seem to stream from a sense of fairness. Another possibility, of course, is that Bertram is present purely for shock value. Regardless, I think The Temple of Elemental Evil will go down in history as the first mainstream videogame2 to promote gay marriages. Is this something the videogame community should celebrate or condemn?

Gay Characters in Videogames: The Modern Moral Spirit

Before I begin to answer this question and take my stand on the issue, it is probably best to attempt to analyze exactly what the problem is with gay characters in videogames. Why is this even an issue?

Let us consider for a moment the ever increasing addition of gay characters to modern television programs. Such an addition would have been scandalous just a few decades ago, but now we have Billy of One Life to Live, Will and Grace, Willow and Tara of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ricky Vasquez in My So-Called Life, strutting their stuff with all the temerity of Dr. Frank N. Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show). This is a short list, and I’m sure anyone with access to a cathode ray tube and a remote control could list at least a hundred more. Surprisingly, this surge of homosexuality into television programming has not sparked a moral revolution; far from it, anyone daring to speak out on the matter is likely to lose his job. When it comes to gay characters in television, movies, and even children’s literature—we’re forced to swallow. Ironically, the current president of the United States is sponsoring a bill to ban gay marriages. We can infer from this, perhaps, that Mr. Bush does not watch much television.

What we are seeing here is a radical re-envisioning of what it means to be a man of moral integrity in this age of political correctness and the occasional superstar’s slipping boob. We are entering a near-Victorian Era, though strangely in reverse, with our “updated” Ten Commandments being in effect exactly opposite of those inscribed upon those hallowed tablets with lightning bolts and the unquestioned authority of Jehovah. The Bible, after all, simply tells us to burn homosexuals, and that kind of teaching doesn’t sync well with the modern moral spirit. George W. Bush’s stance on gay marriage is quite clear; he and other religious fundamentalists feel we must protect sacred institutions from violation by "moral degenerates."

If I were asked to describe this moral spirit in any learned terms, I would reach for my copy of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, a three-volume work written by a rather controversial philosopher whose gay lifestyle was cut short when he died of AIDS in the early 1980s. Foucault tells us that we are entering a George Orwellian-like world where surveillance, confession, and therapy allow power to penetrate ever more deeply into our personal and public lives. Certain discourses trump all others; though we privilege the opening-up of academic discourse to subjects like sadomasochism, we at the same time limit and expel those aged voices which hold all such material as an abomination not only to the University, but the nation. Of course, in American rightwing rhetoric, being a liberal has come to mean embracing all forms of sexuality, and some of the left’s most influential thinkers (Kristeva, for instance) are now claiming that everyone is bisexual. Many feminists and queer theorists have urged gay couples not to marry. For them, seeking to gain legitimacy through the institution of marriage is merely replicating a facet of a corrupt and unworthy social system.

Screenshot taken from the movie 'Jeffrey'One of the changes in our moral temperament, according to Foucault, is the requirement to speak about sex in candid and learned ways. We are told to teach our children how to properly masturbate, if not how to wear condoms; we are told that two men or two women can live just as happily as a married couple than their heterosexual counterparts; we are even assured that two men can reap the physical benefits of an unimpeded sexuality and raise children in a positive and healthy environment. The sight of Dad #1 kissing and fondling Dad #2 is not only appropriate, but absolutely nutritious for the social and mental development of these bright-eyed youngsters.

We are routinely asked to speak about sex, and are also told to take pride in being able to do so. Let Grandpa Curmudgeon blush when our sixteen year old describes having anal sex with her boyfriend of the week; the new morality says that it is good; it is healthy for Nellie to feel comfortable talking and discussing such issues, and as long as she uses the proper form of protection, who are we to judge? Sexuality is purely a personal preference, we are told over and over again, and since every person is unique and entitled to his/her/its pursuit of pleasure, we have no right to intervene. The only thing that is important is to label, classify, and categorize oneself as accurately and clinically as possible. The bedroom has become a truly public place; it is our domain, sure enough, but we are obligated to form our personalities around whatever activities take place there. The only sin in this modern morality is not allowing (or forcing) someone to speak his mind—assuming, of course, that the comments are not hostile towards any of the 365 flavors of ice cream or yogurt available at the local sex shop. We value most highly the freedom of a man to confess his genetic pre-condition of homosexuality; such discourse must not be censored; however, that redneck preacher or Arkansas hillbilly who dares utter a protest must be silenced at all costs. Thus we reach the reversal of the so-called Victorian Era, during which we are told that even using the term “leg” was a serious faux pas, and concerned mothers wrapped dressings around piano legs for fear that seeing them might morally corrupt her children. Now our contemporary mother teaches her children the most frank clinical and popular terms not only for legs, but for clitorises, and the most suspicious young men are those who do not seem to have any desire to have sex with a woman or another man—such people are politely told to consider therapy. The asexual being is the only figure of moral suspicion and hatred these days. Age is certainly no escape—every third commercial on television is a promotion for one drug or another that will raise that old mizzenmast and help one set sail once again upon the sea of sexual pleasure and moral gratification. The last sexual taboos (pedophilia, incest, and bestiality) are no longer universally offensive. In short, we take our immorality as seriously as the Victorians took their morality.

Foucault asks us to question the notion that our sexual fetish is who we are. Many Americans argue that someone who prefers sex with other men is not just enjoying a fantasy; he is gay. Someone who enjoys both male and female sex partners is bi. This is not a sexual preference, then, but an “orientation”, a socially-constructed identity, and people are expected to conform to the rather arbitrary mannerisms, language games, and political positions that match their “type.” In fact, the homosexual as an identity did not emerge until we began seriously to discuss and portray him, usually in clinical terms. As any curious schoolboy knows quite well, just reading about and describing sexual activities, especially taboo activities, are exciting in and of themselves; no one should doubt Foucault is correct in his assertion that discussions of sex, even in the context of “this is evil and sick; let’s describe it in detail” does far more to encourage and fetishize the conduct than repress it. Foucault asks a simple but provoking question: Is all this talk about sexuality, with its obsession with labels and categories, really making the world a freer place?

The question is whether folks identifying with labels like “gay” would do better to resist them. It’s a complex and difficult problem. Consider the plight of the black identity; blacks can either downplay difference and “be like the whites,” thus gaining acceptance into mainstream society (“I’m just like you, but I happen to have black skin”), or they can establish and protect difference and resist assimilation (“Being black is about far more than skin color, but you can’t know what means because you’re white.”) There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to both possibilities, but one fact is certain: One cannot put a token in the arcade machine and keep it, too. Mainstreaming always involves a certain amount of violence as many of the characteristics that define a group are blurred or destroyed for the sake of homogenization.

Now, this has been a long and hopefully entertaining rant that may at first have only a tenuous connection to the subject at hand. Perhaps I have grown too fond of my own words and drifted off course like the drunkest pirate captain? I think not, matey.

Playing Gay Characters in Videogames

Playing a gay character in a videogame and seeing a gay character on a television may seem at first to be vastly different activities. We “watch” gay characters on television; we don’t “become” them. However, this attitude is rather naive in that it ignores the obvious role of living vicariously through a fictional character, a rather moot point in literature that nonetheless seems to escape most laypersons. In older literature, the person we are to identity with is made obvious with a name like “Everyman” or some Greek or Latin derivative of the term; the character we are supposed to be is stripped of as many particular or specific details as possible and functions rather like a hollow shell into which the reader inserts himself. Ben Johnson was quick to point out that the reason why Shakespeare’s plays are so wonderful is that he was a master at this subtle art. D.B. Weiss, author of Lucky Wander Boy, claims that Double Dragon II was the first game in which the player’s character was so well-defined that identification was difficult. Before that, it was just a pie-shaped wedge, and anybody could be that. It is obvious to anyone familiar with my earlier article why first-person shooters are so popular—the player can be the character quite literally; the game never shatters the vicarious identification by representing the character’s face or body. As soon as such an image would appear on screen, the player would snap a bit—“Hey, that’s not me, I’m much shorter,” and so on.

An obvious question arises when we read a work of fiction: Who are we supposed to be? Where does the reader come in? The reason why so many men do not wish to read romance novels is that they simply can’t identify with the characters or the narrator. Any fiction guide worth its font size cautions writers against works with no characters the reader can relate to; even space aliens should be given enough human characteristics to allow the reader to enjoy the story.3 A story about various forms of molds and algae, stripped of all personification, would be about as much fun as various forms of mold and algae.

Dr. Frank N. Furter from 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'We are not forced to assume the role of that “transsexual from Transylvania,” Dr. Frank N. Furter, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Instead, the character may stand out as literally alien and fundamentally exotic; a spectacle and glorifying of abnormality and explosive irony that very few people would choose to identify with. The characters most of us identify with, Brad and Janet, are two woefully naive young people who have hitherto suffered precious little of the immoral smorgasbord available a few miles up the road. We watch (with varying degrees of discomfort) as these characters are “corrupted,” Brad and Janet have sex with Dr. Frank N. Furter, thus betraying each other and forever sundering their loving relationship to each other. Janet becomes a nymphomaniac, and Brad, ah, poor Brad, has little for his pains but a gnawing awareness that he will really never fit-in anywhere. The straight white male in this movie has been screwed.

Now, contrast this type of identification with that taking place in these modern television shows, where gay characters are presented to us without any of the ridiculous animosity of Dr. Furter. Here we see “healthy” and positive people, enjoying wholesome lifestyles that would make The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family proud. We are handed portraits of gay persons and couples that we would feel good about having next door, just as The Cosby Show helped racist Americans get comfortable with the idea of having a black couple next door. One doubts seriously if the true black experience in America at that time would have been fit for the television. “They’re just like us” seems to be the motto of the modern spirit, though it is to be immediately followed by, “But we must celebrate their difference.” I’m the sort of chump who can’t help but grin at the naivety of people who insist that everyone is unique, yet must resort to a retinal scan or DNA analysis to really tell them apart—All in the Family seems to have had a more accurate view of race relations. Do we really do gay people a service by welcoming them into our world with the sole stipulation being that they act just like us?

People seek out literature (whether that be Microsoft's Xbox or a TV) for one purpose: to live vicariously through someone else. The harder it is for a reader or player to identify with a character in the literature, the less successful it will be.4 The audience must recognize themselves; they must think, “Oh, no, what will I do—the killer is in this darkness somewhere!” If all the audience sees are characters, and those too well-defined or eccentric for identifying with, the result will be boredom. There is a situation here that is most often described in terms of “marked” and “unmarked” characteristics. These are terms from linguistics that make a lot of sense when describing potential avatars in videogames. For instance, if the avatar is to be a knight, then we make certain assumptions that are considered unmarked. For instance, the knight is male, European, and strong. Someone may say, “Well, my knight is going to be female and speak with a Texas accent.” These characteristics are called marked because they clash with our expectations. Now, we could talk about marked and unmarked characteristics with some universal set of values in mind, but I think it makes more sense to look at what an individual player has in mind when determining what is “me” and what is “other.” For instance, someone with a Texas accent may wish to play a character with the same accent—this could conceivably make it easier for the player to identify with the avatar. Theoretically, it makes sense to say that the more marked characteristics a player must accept in her avatar, the less capable she will be of identifying with the avatar and enjoying the game. What I hope is apparent here is that characteristics aren’t “marked” or “unmarked” universally, but individually; we each have our own experience-informed way of categorizing such things. Furthermore, it is not necessary or always desirable for players to control avatars that are similar to them. A small girl in a wheelchair, for instance, may not want to play an avatar with the same disability and may even be offended if someone just assumes she would. Tact seems to be utterly necessary in these situations. We must strike a careful balance between making a player feel included without making brash assumptions his or her preferences.

This point at last brings us to my analysis of the “issue” of gay characters in videogames. Let’s make a quick example: Cinemaware's Defender of the Crown. At one point in this game, the player is asked to rescue a maiden—a typical enough subplot in this genre of games. If the daring rescue is successful, the player is informed that he has fallen in love with the maiden (the romantic scene is ripped straight from the cheesiest of soap-operas and will not be described in detail here). Here are the possible women the player can rescue:

Composite illustration made from screenshots of Cinemaware's 'Defender of the Crown'

Screenshot from Cinemaware's 'Defender of the Crown'As a youth, I was happiest when I rescued Rosalind of Bedford, who is the most beautiful of the four. I can say that because I am exercising my personal taste. I enjoy women; there are four women, one of them is my favorite. But what if I were female? Ostensibly, that choice would have been ruled out at the beginning of the game, when the player is asked to choose among four male avatars. But what if I were gay? Conceivably, one of these avatars could be. No matter how many times someone plays Defender of the Crown, though, he will not be asked to rescue Prince Herbert.

The rescue of Prince Herbert from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'

Indeed, the reason why this famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is so amusing is that the viewer knows exactly what Sir Lancelot’s reaction will be to the “male maiden.”

Defender of the Crown assumes that the player is male and will enjoy marrying a beautiful princess; the game does not take into consideration a female nor a gay character. The game should probably carry a message on its package: “Not intended for gay or female characters.”

This seems like a tidy conclusion, and the answer to the Defender of the Crown problem is obvious: Make one of the personas gay, make another female, make one black, and so on, until every possible player “type” is represented. Unfortunately, this article was not prepared in time for Cinemaware to consider it for the revamped release; there, the persona selection is omitted entirely, and the player must choose Robin Hood. Efforts to include all player possibilities in other games have been of mixed success. Electronic Arts' The Sims Online has been noted for its inclusion of gay character possibilities, but I’ll let this The Sims Online fan speak on the matter, since I have so little experience with this line of games. From what I see, I’m not missing much.

One of the strengths of role-playing games is the emphasis on vicarious living; most often, players are given quite a bit of freedom in designing their own character—someone whom he or she can relate to, but also someone he or she would like to be. New World Computing's Might and Magic VII offers a wide enough selection, though no obvious gay characters are present and, in particularly bad taste, the default party has a single black character—who is a thief.

Box cover for Broderbund's 'Lode Runner'What I’m working with here is the vast body of classic and modern videogames. The question I’m asking is whether or not there are any games here that a non- straight-white male would want to play, and the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Most of the games I have in mind are “classic” games like Atari’s Asteroids, Taito’s Bubble Bobble, Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris, Broderbund’s Lode Runner, and so on—games whose “poor” graphics were actually wonderfully abstract and well-suited for the player of difference. Indeed, often the only player-specifications made in any of these games was on the front cover of the package—there we might see a man representing the Lode Runner, for instance. Without such redundant materials, anyone could have assumed the role of the Lode Runner; why did they just assume he would be a white male?

The reason is obvious. Young white males made up of the majority of the videogame buying public, so it only made sense to market exclusively to them. Consider that so many old videogame advertisements, whether for games or consoles, showed us a father and son enjoying a videogame while the mother and daughter sat back and watched. Computer Space, the first arcade game, featured this advertisement. The barefoot woman in the photograph seems to be offering herself as much as the arcade game; given this choice, I know of few men who would have sought change for a quarter. What all of this male-targeted marketing has created is a self-perpetuating demographic; new males are lured to videogames, but women, gays, and to some extent blacks, have been excluded. It is important here for the reader to realize that I am quite aware of the abundance of games featuring sexy female avatars; Eidos' Tomb Raider or Fear Effect 2 spring instantly to mind. However, the question I pose is whether Lara Croft and Rain are meant to appeal to young women who might identify with them, or young men with an appreciation for the well-endowed? For an idea of the problem I have in mind, imagine a game in which players were forced to choose a “Fabio” like main character wearing a thong. Screenshot from Sir-Tec's 'Druid: Daemons of the Mind'This kind of uncomfortable identification has been asked of women for too long in the videogaming world. Where are the games for “regular” girls, those without gigantic breasts and voluptuous lips? Indeed, one of the few avid female gamers I know personally constantly makes this complaint: “I have small breasts,” she tells me, “I don’t want to play a female character with heavy jugs; I just can’t relate to that.” It seems a female gamer would just about have to be gay to enjoy playing some of the modern games with female avatars. For the same reason that I wouldn’t want to play Fabio, she doesn’t want to play Lara. Fortunately for me, I can choose Sierra's Half-Life, whose main character bears a close enough resemblance to me for identification to take place.

Furthermore, regarding Fear Effect 2, I may as well describe my own prejudice concerning the presence of “lipstick” lesbians in videogames and movies. I have often discovered troves of lesbian pornography in my male friends’ adult film archives. When pressured, these friends revealed to me that they enjoy these films because they wish to avoid challenging their sexual identity by viewing other males having sex, especially when penises or other male parts are prominently displayed during the movie. For these sexually insecure individuals, women-only pornography is safer and more comfortable. Far from helping men grow more comfortable with alternative sexualities and ease “homophobia,” these “lesbian” films and games actually reinforce such tendencies. Any man who has actually had sex with a woman probably questions whether the women portrayed in these films are “real” lesbians, though trying to generalize or “essentialize” what it means to be a “real” lesbian is about as easy as deciding, once and for all, which game deserves the title of “Best Videogame Ever.”

Inconclusions

As I have tried to demonstrate in the above paragraphs, and in my previous article for Armchair Arcade, identification plays a major part in enjoying a videogame. If the game is abstract, like Tetris, identification takes place in the same way it does when we watch cartoons: We find enough of ourselves in the personalized features of the characters to identify with them. Readers of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics will understand what I mean when I say that identification becomes more difficult as the characterization becomes more realistic. I don’t want to go into great detail about Scott’s book here; any readers who found this article interesting should not waste time getting to the local bookstore (Graphic Novels section) and purchasing a copy of the book. Even though Scott is concerned with comics, we can practically take everything he says about them and apply it directly to videogames.

Let me give a quick example here, then I’ll try to live up to the feeling expressed in the above subtitle.

The smiley face

Consider a simple smiley face. The image is so abstract; so simple, so universal, that almost any human being can recognize him or herself within it. That smiley face is a sort of “essence” of a happy human face; all of the extra detail has been stripped away, and we are left with the simplest possible image that could evoke that recognition. Compare this simple smiley image with a photograph of the rather handsome young men below. We do not see “universal” humans there; rather, we see individuals, each with his own personality, life history, story, goals in life, and so on. If we were dealing with a small child, we could draw a smiley on a chalkboard and say “This is you!” I doubt the child would have much difficulty with the concept; indeed, small children frequently draw stick figures and claim that they are, “Mom, Dad, and me!” However, imagine trying to convince a child that one of the faces below was she. She would, hopefully, respond in the negative. What this demonstrates is that identifying with any particular avatar is easy or difficult depending on the relative abstraction of the avatar in question. The editorial staff of Armchair Arcade: Bill Loguidice, Matt Barton, and Buck Feris.In the case of an extreme abstraction, like the smiley face, identification is almost universal. However, if we put a bow and lipstick on that smiley, a yellow wedge becomes “Ms. Pac-Man,” a female, and thus allows a whole new sex to enjoy videogames (one wonders why Ms. Pac-Man was so popular with males as well as females; my thoughts are that the game was so abstractly represented that it did not cause any problems with identification. It probably helped that the game was particularly well-constructed and fun to play). Hans-Georg Gadamer, a famous German philosopher, speaks of this same situation in terms of a model versus a portrait in his book Truth and Method5. The idea there is that the model “is not meant as herself; she serves only to wear a costume or to make gestures clear,” whereas someone represented in a portrait is “so much himself that he does not appear to be dressed up” even if he is in an elaborate costume (128). An easy to way to imagine the distinction here is to consider a beautiful young girl in a leather jacket portrayed in a Macy’s catalog, and a Polaroid of that same young woman (perhaps in the same jacket) stored in a photo album at her mother’s house.

Let us return for a moment to the child being told that this image or that image is she. If we showed her a cartoon of a little girl, she’d probably agree. If, however, the cartoon had a feature that differed greatly from the girl; for instance, if it had four arms, or had an antenna jutting from her forehead, the girl would find identification harder, if not impossible. At this point, the parent could introduce a fictional explanation, as in, “Well, this is just a story of a little girl that one day woke to find herself with four arms,” and so on. This kind of “patch” is necessary for most games involving a very specific avatar; many games try to ease the identification by suggesting such a story: “In A.D. 2101. War was beginning,” we are told by the narrator of Toaplan’s Zero Wing (1989). Icom Simulations’ Deja Vu (1987) introduced a particularly clever scheme to explain the player’s presence; he has no clue why he’s there, either.

How can we get more women and gay gamers interested in videogames? Well, for starters, we can tell the marketing departments to stop privileging young, white males in their advertisements and start catering to a wider audience. To be fair, many companies have already taken this step, probably out of fear of the bogey-persons of political correctness.

Perhaps more important develop will be the need to create either very abstract avatars which anyone can identify with, or an abundance of avatars that cover most particularities. It is not true that a gay gamer would always want to choose a stereotypically “gay” avatar; the idea here is that enough choices would be present to include possibilities like playing black, female, gay, young, old, or even non-human avatars. So far, we have yet to see games where these choices have a real effect on the gameplay; interestingly, Curse of the Azure Bonds limited the strength of female avatars, but this “sexist” limitation has been quietly removed in later AD&D products. Should female avatars be more caring and compassionate than male avatars? Should black avatars be allowed to jump higher or run faster than their white counterparts? Should gay avatars be snappier dressers than “straight” avatars? Troubled waters lie ahead, for it seems impossible to ascribe any general characteristics to these groups without doing more harm than good!

Gay avatars are an inevitable development in the evolution of the videogame that will take place with or without this article. If we already see such possibilities opening up in even mainstream titles like The Temple of Elemental Evil, I doubt it will be long before even the idea of a fantasy role-playing game featuring only one white male avatar will seem a strange, misguided aspect of our distant past. Is this a good thing? Should we fight this trend or encourage it? I’d love to offer some general guidelines or at least some advice for game developers on this issue, but, as is perhaps more common in philosophy than we like, the issue only gets more confusing the more we try to analyze it. Perhaps the best approach would be to start talking to self-proclaimed gay persons and determine what they would like to experience in a videogame. To my knowledge, The Temple of Elemental Evil is the only mainstream computer role playing game that gives players a serious gay option without “forcing” gayness on a heterosexual player. Perhaps it will serve as a worthy model for games to come.


1 The Temple of Elemental Evil is actually a computer game conversion of a traditional pen-and-paper based D&D module. The village of Nulb was only “described in a limited fashion in the original module”, so the Troika team took significant liberties fleshing it out.

2 The ESRB, the board that rates videogames for suitability, elected to give The Temple of Elemental Evil a “Teen” rating, despite the gay marriage and homosexual innuendos.

3 A point has been made here concerning Edwin Abbot’s story Flatland, where points, lines, and geometric shapes are the only inhabitants of a fictional world. Even at this level of abstraction, personification helps the reader identify with the characters.

4 This is not to say that players who enjoy Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III are necessarily felons. What it does say is those players who enjoy the game are able to at least imagine themselves in these situations, as I am easily able to imagine myself doing irreparable harm to anyone tailgating my vehicle. The player must say, “Given this context, I would act in this manner.”

5 Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1985.

Interactive Fiction and Feelies: An Interview with Emily Short

Author and Interviewer: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Christina Loguidice and Matt Barton
Original Art: Brandon Knox
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Special Thanks and Notes: Emily Short for being the subject of the feature and providing the product photographs; and Matt Barton for his editorial suggestions
Also see: Baf’s Guide to the IF Archive; PC Gamer UK Interview: Emily Short (via Brass Lantern); L'avventura è l'avventura - Interaction is better than plastic explosive; and 1Up's Magic Word: Interactive Fiction in the 21st Century
The Concept of Interactive Fiction (IF) by Brandon Knox

Interactive Fiction and Feelies: An Interview with Emily Short, is Armchair Arcade’s first in a series of feature articles centered on interviews with computer and videogame professionals. Like all things concerning Armchair Arcade, the editors endeavor to offer more than most readers expect—there is far more here, for example, than a typical question and answer format. With that said, our first two subjects, Emily Short and feelies.org, like that of all future targets in this ongoing interview series, are linked together in significant and interesting ways. Emily Short is an award-winning, modern day Interactive Fiction (IF) author who is deeply involved with the overall IF community. For her own IF creations, Emily has utilized feelies.org, which is a service she helped found that offers high-quality “feelies,” or product inclusions, ranging from printed items to metal artifacts for IF authors’ games, without requiring large numbers of pre-prints or having the authors deal with their own distribution. In addition, Emily represents feelies.org in “North American Fulfillment,” or product delivery, further cementing the common bond.

Before we present the interview, we must explain what is meant by the term “Interactive Fiction.” Although there is some debate whether IF is even the correct term to apply to this type of gaming, most of the community (right or wrong) has come to accept this designation. In simple terms, we can define IF as an interactive electronic book in which the player advances the story through typed commands that are interpreted and responded to by the software’s parser. These commands can be one letter, for instance “N” to represent “Go North,” or complete and complex sentences, such as “Put the flowers in the vase and then take the vase.” Just like a book, IF can be poorly written, but even well written IF can still fail due to poor game design. When IF is done well, meaning the literary aspects such as story and dialogue are as well designed as the technical aspects, what results is a superb union of art and technology. The best IF appeals to both avid readers and hardcore gamers.

Emily Short’s own Website offers a more comprehensive definition of IF (and is an excellent IF resource in general), which is included here as our final clarification of the term’s meaning for the interview to follow:

Interactive fiction works (once called text adventures) are games and stories that you control by typing instructions. They typically have no graphics, or limited graphics that are not the dominant feature of the game. Sometimes the player is asked to solve puzzles, such as finding keys to doors, manipulating machines, collecting treasure, and so on. Sometimes the interaction involves talking to characters, exploring an environment, discovering past secrets, or making moral decisions that affect the plot of the story.

The genres of interactive fiction are quite diverse. You can find modern games that replicate the Dungeons-and-Dragons feel of the oldest text adventures, but there are also works of horror, science fiction, mystery, and romance IF, among others. Some of these pieces are firmly in the "game" category, with challenging puzzles and score-keeping. Some read more like stories or novels. If you enjoyed Infocom games or other commercial text adventures of the past, you'll find new works that appeal to you for the same reasons. But even if you didn't like the old style text adventures, you may find that more recent interactive fiction has something to offer you.

The history of IF, or text adventures, spans almost the entire history of computer gaming. IF’s commercial heyday, however, was reached by the early- to mid-1980s. This peak in sales was led by Infocom, a company that hasn’t existed in its original form since the late 1980s, but whose classic products, such as Zork (1980), Planetfall (1983) and The Lurking Horror (1987), still set the standard by which other IF is judged. Furthermore, while IF is still produced and sold by dedicated developers, commercial products have long since been unavailable in mainstream retail outlets.

Early IF only allowed two-word input (“Hit snake”) and often had limited interaction capabilities (“Talk pirate”). Eventually, even with the addition of graphics and sound, the technology behind the software advanced to allow full sentence input and more sophisticated interactive possibilities.

After the fall of commercial IF at retail, a movement began to develop free and relatively easy-to-learn programming languages that offered the same features as the very best commercial products of the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, these languages, such as Alan, TADS and Inform, began to appear in ever greater numbers, featuring increased sophistication and polish with each new release. These languages allow IF authors to produce the remarkable works they do today. Since modern IF authors can expect little or no financial rewards for their work, IF creation is often a labor-of-love, with the end result being a game that will be “read” (experienced) and potentially appreciated mostly by other IF enthusiasts. It is no exaggeration to say that for those that appreciate quality IF, there is no other gaming experience that can quite match it. (For a more detailed timeline of IF, visit Brass Lantern’s excellent “A Brief History of Interactive Fiction”.)

With all of that in mind, we come to our interview subjects. Emily Short’s work is an example of all that can be right with IF, especially modern IF. Many of her creations are as innovative as anything that preceded them and are often as well written as the best the genre has ever offered. What follows is a partial listing of Emily’s creations to date along with any major awards:

  • Banana Apocalypse and the Rocket Pants of Destiny
  • Best of Three
  • City of Secrets (Winner, Best NPCs, Xyzzy Awards 2003; and ranking on the GAMES Magazine “Best 100 Electronic Games of 2003”)
  • The Crescent City at the Edge of Disaster
  • A Dark and Stormy Entry
  • A Day for Fresh Sushi
  • Galatea (Winner, Best Individual NPC, Xyzzy Awards 2000; and Best of Show, 2000 IF Art Show)
  • The Last Sonnet of Marie Antoinette
  • Marble Madness
  • Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus (with Dan Shiovitz; Winner, Spring Thing 2003)
  • Metamorphoses (Winner, Best Writing, Xyzzy Awards 2000)
  • Not Made With Hands
  • Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle
  • Pytho's Mask (Winner, Best NPCs, Xyzzy Awards 2001)
  • Savoir-Faire (Winner, Best Puzzles, Xyzzy Awards 2002; Winner, Best Individual PC, Xyzzy Awards 2002; Winner, Best Story, Xyzzy Awards 2002; and Winner, Best Game, Xyzzy Awards 2002)

Feelies for 'Savoir-Faire' (booklet, letter and scrap of an old document)An interesting facet of classic commercial IF, which was especially evident in the products from Infocom, was that the games often included exquisite feelies, such as the pink, glow-in-the-dark Magick Stone of Dreams from Wishbringer, or the peril-sensitive sunglasses from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, as was detailed in the article on game packaging from Issue 1 of Armchair Arcade, this has long since been a lost art in the mainstream game market. In an attempt to fill this void, feelies.org offers the IF community an opportunity to increase the value and appeal of their products with playful or useful feelies.

With modern IF development software more sophisticated and accessible than ever before and the ability to create an incredible packaging experience for the end user, IF authors are actively producing high quality and endearing works.

What follows is a sample listing of what feelies.org has facilitated for various IF works:

  • A teddy bear in costume for David Dyte's A Bear's Night Out
  • A movie poster for Stephen Granade's Arrival
  • Tourist guide to the city and map for Emily Short's City of Secrets
  • New York subway token for Neil deMause's Lost New York
  • Colored pill of rephasia for Robb Sherwin's Fallacy of Dawn
  • A newspaper clipping for Stephen Granade's Losing Your Grip

Feelies for 'Losing Your Grip' (manual, newspaper clipping, medical form and advertisement proof with corrections) At this point, we would like to welcome Emily Short to Armchair Arcade…

Bill Loguidice from Armchair Arcade (AA): Tell us a little about your writing background. When did your interest in writing first manifest itself and how did you initially express it?
Emily Short (ES): I've been writing stories since I was a little kid. As a teenager for a while I wanted to be a science fiction or fantasy author, and spent a lot of time trying to teach myself how to write well and tell a good story. I think some parts of that exercise took and others didn't. I never sold a story to a magazine, but I did get back a little encouragement on some of the least-awful ones.

AA: You mention that you wanted to be a science fiction or fantasy author as a teenager. Now that you’re an established IF author, have those needs been satisfied, or do you still have interest in more traditional forms of literary publishing?
ES: I’m still interested, but I’m not currently writing anything like that, and I don’t expect to do so in the very near future. Still, there are a lot of things you can do in traditional forms that are more challenging in IF, if not outright impossible.

AA: Can you give us examples of some of the things you can do in traditional forms that are more challenging or difficult to implement in IF?
ES: There are probably a number of other things that qualify, but one thing I think of that's particularly hard to do in IF is any kind of complex or subtle emotional development on the part of the player (main) character.

In a book, you can write your main character falling in love, or changing allegiances, or experiencing a religious conversion, or all sorts of other things along those lines. It's much harder to impose those developments on a character who is partially player-controlled.

You can tell the player that an NPC (non-player character) is extremely attractive, you can try to make the NPC seem emotionally appealing, and you can write scenes in which they're thrown together in romantic situations (whatever that means) but you can't make the player feel, or even necessarily sympathize with, the feelings you want the player character to have.

So there are two things you can do about that if you want to tell a story that relies primarily on complex emotional content. You can have all the major emotional developments happen for an NPC, and let the PC (player character) be, essentially, an observer. Or you can try to write a game that is so open-ended and so responsive that it lets the player choose one of several emotional responses, and have everything play out according to that choice. To some extent, that's what I was trying to do with City of Secrets, but I was a bit constrained by the circumstances of writing it—it was a commissioned game, and it had to come to a specific ending no matter what happened in the middle, and so I couldn't really allow the player any actions that led to radically altered plots. And it's also very very hard to create an environment in which the player has clear choices and comprehends the emotional ramifications of them and is free to do whichever thing he likes.

To me, then, the main thing that's hard to do in IF is build a story where there's a lot of internal character development as opposed to external action. There are some ways to approach it, but they're all challenging, and there aren't very many examples of IF where people have done it successfully before. Whereas if you're writing a book, you can just sit down and write some lines of internal monologue for your protagonist, and it's not inherently different from writing a fight scene or dialogue or anything else.

AA: Tell us a little about your technical background. What was your first exposure to technology? Do you really like technology, or is it a means to an end?
ES: My mother has programmed computers since I was old enough to be aware of her work. We've had one or more computers in the house for almost as long. They've always been a part of my life, and I've mostly assumed that I could make them do what I wanted, if I was willing to put enough time into figuring out the workings. From very early on I realized that a computer was an immensely powerful tool for making the sorts of things I was most interested in – stories and games and pictures – and as we upgraded computers over the years I found them more and more interesting because they could do more and more of what I wanted to do.

AA: What was your first exposure to gaming? At what point did you decide to tackle IF yourself?
ES: Our first home computers had Infocom and Scott Adams IF games on them, as well as Rogue-alikes and some primitive arcade games. I liked the arcade games well enough, but I was terrible at them; and what I wanted to write was IF. Over the years, I made a number of attempts, but without any great success. I didn't find out about modern IF languages until I was in college, and then I decided to teach myself to use them.

That took a while, but the experience wasn't much different from teaching myself to use any other tool. I think the basic process is the same for programming languages and for oil paints, for a band saw and for the clarinet. You play with it a lot; you come up with a lot of garbage; you practice; you critique your work or get feedback from someone else; you eventually get used to the tool and can make it do what you want. Even writing – for all that movies make it look like a wonderfully romantic activity based on sheer inspiration – requires accuracy and technique.

AA: I agree, writing can also be physically and mentally demanding at times! Can you tell us a little about what you do outside of writing Interactive Fiction and working with feelies.org? What about the challenges balancing all of your concurrent interests and activities?
ES: I'm currently finishing my dissertation in classics, and I teach Latin half-time. On and off, I also have tutorial students working with me on Latin, Greek, or writing. And I dabble at other things, being a mediocre photographer and a not-very-experienced cook and a frequent loser of board games.

My problem is that, while I tend to find a lot of things interesting, I usually throw myself into them one at a time. A serious IF project can be very bad for the other work I need to get done. Teaching is a source of some stability because, with that, I do have to stick to a schedule. I can't just flake out for two weeks, leaving my students to stare at the wall until I come back. So that's frustrating, but also useful.

AA: I have a different problem—throwing myself into many projects at once and struggling to get any of them done. Your focus is certainly admirable. Which brings us to feelies.org. How and why did you first get involved with feelies.org? Can you tell us a little about your role with them?
ES: feelies.org started with a conversation that I had with some of my friends in the IF community, about how the one aspect of commercial IF we really missed (as players) was the feelies. Some modern IF comes with "virtual feelies" – PDF files or fake Websites or whatever that are distributed in a Zip file with the game – and I like those, but we were also missing the tangible physical objects.

So, more or less as a lark, we started looking into what we could do about that and how expensive it would be to do reasonable quality short runs of published materials (of various kinds) or other custom objects. I collected a lot of the research information that I found and put it together as a reference page; we located a few authors who wanted to print or reprint some feelies from their games; Gunther Schmidl put together the Web page that we have now, Dylan O'Donnell and Iain Merrick helped get the server and the domain registration set up, and Stacy Cowley volunteered to run the finances. And there we were.

What we have now is a nonprofit and very low-profile Website where people involved with the IF community can buy feelies for games. Some of the feelies are provided entirely by authors – i.e., they send me a box of stuff which I assemble and distribute as needed.

Some of them I put together myself from image files and instructions.

So my role is essentially as drone: do the legwork behind the scenes and get things copied, packaged, and mailed; give authors help with some of the production aspects, in the cases where I have more experience than they do; and write apologetic email when things don't go quite right.

This whole project has been a learning experience because there's a lot I didn't understand about the overhead involved in getting these things done: I priced printing services for a project, for instance, but didn't take into account that I'd also have to spend another $50 at Kinko's fiddling with the file in Adobe Illustrator before I could send it to printers. There are very few items that didn't cost more and take longer than I thought, even though I thought I was estimating carefully based on good information. I think I've finally learned most of the things that I should have known when we started this.

We've now streamlined the procedure to prevent some of the delays in fulfillment that we had at the beginning. Now I get things made in a large batch and have them on the shelf, along with all the packing materials to ship them, before I put anything in the catalog.

Otherwise, it's too stressful to deal with. Often putting a packet together takes a day or two of errand-running to get everything assembled, and it's hard to find two days together when I can completely blow off my other work and pay attention to feelies.

AA: Wow, that sounds quite involved! It seems that feelies.org focuses mainly on products for IF software (after all, the tag-line is “your one-stop shop for interactive fiction feelies”). With hobby development seemingly at an all-time high and new developments for all types of new and classic computers and videogames systems by individuals and companies of all sizes, does feelies.org believe it can (or does it even want to) accommodate the needs of other types of products – say arcade shooters, tactical wargames, etc.?
ES: We've really never considered it, and this is because we're catering to the IF community. There's not much of an incentive to try to branch out and cover other areas, given that we're not a business.

With that said, if someone did approach us saying, "Hey, this is really cool, and I'd like to make something like this for my other game X,” I think we would at least look at what they were suggesting.

AA: As one of the few sources for what used to be a lot more common – inclusions within games – has feelies.org ever considered going to the next step and handling all packaging needs – boxes, DVD keep cases, manuals, etc.? What about publishing or distribution?
ES: Some of those things are more possible than others.

We're not publishers or distributors. We don't have the time, money, or expertise to get things into catalogs or stores, or to buy advertisements and sell stuff ourselves. To become such a company would take a lot of legal work and some capital, and it would also require one of us to have an appetite for that kind of work. I don't.

Printed boxes, the custom kind on slick cardboard, are expensive unless you're making thousands. I've priced them; for the number of runs we're likely to sell, they're so far beyond impractical that it's not even funny. You cannot get a custom printed box when you're likely to sell 50 or 100 of something. Not unless your 50 - 100 customers are fanatical collectors putting down several hundred dollars apiece, anyway.

DVD cases and small manuals are much more doable. A DVD case would add less than a dollar to the price of something; slip in a pretty piece of cover art and you have what looks like a fairly professional, though low-end, game package for about $1.75 apiece. That's possible, and is something we're talking about in the case of some of the packages we're currently planning.

A close-up of one of the feelies that came with Emily’s own 'City of Secrets'
AA: Can you talk about some of the challenges feelies.org faces? Certainly the Website is a challenge in itself to make people really understand what the company can ultimately offer. What are the future goals of the company, if we can term them as such?
ES: Less ambitious than your interview questions seem to suggest. We're not a company; we're a (small) group of volunteers for whom this is a hobby.

Our only real goal is to help interested authors get their feelie packages put together and distributed, and ideally to build up over time a more diverse catalog. The main challenge is always to figure out how to make whatever it is the author wants to make without spending so much money that it'll be prohibitive. I enjoy that, because it's usually a fun logistical challenge to track down suppliers and figure out how to put something together.

AA: Are you presently working on any new IF?
ES: There are many projects half finished on my hard drive, but nothing I expect to finish in the near future.

AA: Do you think your status as an award-winning IF author would increase your ability to sell “regular” stories or books, or do you generally feel that traditional publishers are blind to IF?
ES: I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t care.

AA: Any specific commercial aspirations with your IF or do you prefer to stick with contests and making your work freely available?
ES: I don't have any specific commercial aspirations, no. I couldn't write any of what I've written without the prior work of a lot of other people who wrote programming languages and compilers and interpreters and libraries for them, or maintained Websites and archives, or whatever. So much work goes into the community for free that it seems rude and stupid to turn around and charge those people money for my work.

I also suspect that if I were working for a company, I'd be responsible to a marketing department, and I would find that unpleasant. I like to call the shots when it comes to my own work.

AA: Do you believe there could be a relatively mainstream market again for the right type of IF fiction in fancy packaging (classic Infocom-style) with the right distribution?
ES: I don't know. People ask me this a lot. I am inclined to think that a person could sell some IF commercially, but that it would be a lot of hard work to do so, and that it may never again make enough money to support a company of full-time employees.

If you're interested in that, go see what Peter Nepstad is doing with 1893 – which, by the way, is an extremely cool game. Peter is trying the commercial IF route, in a modest but elegant way, and I think he has the right idea if anyone out there currently does.

AA: Have you found that writing IF has improved the quality or sophistication of your writing, or is the process so involved and different that one has little to do with the other?
ES: Hm. The criticism I’ve received about my IF writing has made me more aware of certain aspects of style, I suppose.

AA: Fair enough. Finally, can you also explain some of the differences between “normal” writing and IF writing? For instance, IF writing must require considerably more text since each object requires a description and can potentially be manipulated by the player.
ES: That's true; to generate any given scene, you usually have to provide far more information than the reader of a book ever reads about a location. What's most challenging about this is not producing the volume so much as it is keeping the content fresh and interesting. I try to write descriptions that engage all the senses and are clear and evocative. I avoid metaphorical description, especially in the early stages of a game, because the player is still learning (through exploration) what the world is like; he might take metaphors literally or be confused by them.

In my IF I also write some action scenes where something happens as a result of the player's behavior. While I don't want to deprive the player of his moment of glory, I try to keep it short. Many players get impatient when asked to read many screens worth of text without getting a chance to act. And because they're playing a game and expecting to interact with the world, they want to be able to read quickly and extract the relevant information about the game world in a hurry.

On the other hand, there are lots of things you don't have to worry about in IF that are more of an issue in more traditional forms. For instance, the pacing of events is more or less in the hands of the player; what control you (as the author) do have over it depends mostly on how you've designed the map and puzzles or other interaction. Narrative structure and plot I lump under “game design” in IF rather than under “writing,” and I approach them differently than I would approach the same issues in a novel.

Author’s final notes: I would like to thank Emily for taking the time to participate in such an in-depth interview for us. Those interested should not only check out feelies.org, but also Emily’s work by visiting her own Website. Most of her IF game titles are available for immediate download and play on the appropriate interpreter. The following titles are also available for play directly online within a standard Web browser:

  • Galatea: Fantasy/SF, easy, estimated play time of 15 minutes. Offers multiple pathways and a unique conversation-based interaction system.
  • Metamorphoses: Surreal fantasy with a touch of Renaissance alchemy, easy-to-moderate difficulty, estimated play time of 2 hours. Offers multiple solutions to most puzzles and attempts to model interactions between objects in a realistic manner.