Super-Doomed Planet – a review of IF Comp reviews

Some donkey-eared jackass named Wesley Osam, who runs the Super Doomed Planet blog, has compared my last year’s Comp entry, _LAIR of the CyberCow_, to this year’s soulless piece of cynical nihilistic twaddle, _Eruption_.  Unfavorably.

He writes:

(I was, incidentally, amused to note that this innocuous game absolutely incensed the author of one of last year’s nonsensical time wasters, who calls Eruption “a profoundly empty work of non-art” and says the author “carried nothing in his heart to express in a work of IF.” Which raises the frightening possibility that The Lair of the CyberCow was meant as some kind of deeply meaningful personal statement.)

Since he hasn’t posted my reply, either due to the censorious delicacy of his character or the technological voracity of his blog, I’ll address the topic here.  I’ve never defended _LAIR_, other than to apologize for the bugs, but to see this guy pointing and laughing — the subcontext of his comment being, “What a weenie!” — while putting it second to _Eruption_, I think calls for a response.

I’m proud of _LAIR_.  (Something that the author of _Eruption_, you’ll notice, cannot say.)  I regret the bugs, but I wrote it and I meant it and I’m glad I did.  Every decision I made in the design and programming of _LAIR_ was for the purpose of putting a fun and meaningful game in front of the player.

“Meaningful?” you say.  “Meaningful?  A game called ‘LAIR of the CyberCow’ — meaningful?”

–Yeah.  Meaningful.  I stand by that.

“What meaning,” you ask, “could ‘LAIR of the CyberCow’ possibly have?”

Well, I’m not going to answer that.  I don’t believe an author should publish, or even write, reviews of his own work.  But I will say I worked hard on the game — I can honestly say it wouldn’t have been possible for me to work any harder — and I was getting at something, and I meant what I was getting at.

People didn’t like the bugs?  I didn’t like them more.  And it’s not the case that I looked them over, saw that there were bugs that would make it unplayable for some users, and said, “Eh.  Screw ’em.  The players can deal with that.  They don’t deserve any better.”  — And I don’t think that anybody who submits a game to the IF Comp really does do that.

(You see, I’m not primarily writing about my game; I’m writing about Comp games in general.)

What happened was, the bugs bit me in the ass.

I remember at the time telling several people that I *did* beta-test.  In retrospect, that’s only partially true.  What I did was mostly a lot of alpha-testing.  Didn’t know the difference.  And it’s an important difference, with Adrift, because all variables are global, and they are referenced by their position in a massive linked list.  So one change upstream can (sometimes) have a cascading effect that throws everything out of whack.

Those errors largely I caught, thanks to my beta-testers.

The version I released wasn’t even that buggy.  But people didn’t play the version I released:  they converted it; they played it in weird (meaning standard) interpreters; they played it with other versions of Adrift.  And the conversion process hopelessly corrupted the game.

So people reviewing it said it was broken as a game; it was unplayable; and it was a waste of time.  One guy ended his review with, “Fuck you.”  Word got out, people made up their minds, and very few gave it a chance.

Many thanks to those who did.

But the technical problems really are my fault:  I shouldn’t have gone with Adrift, and I should have beta-tested it under Comp-like conditions:  “Here’s the game file.  Now run it.”

Even so, it is a radically different thing to deliver a work of art that tries to express something and fails, through failure to master the medium, than it is to deliver a work of art that makes no attempt to be interesting or meaningful.

I teach English as a second language.  Let me ask you:  which would you rather listen to:  a long story, a joke, from someone whose pronunciation and grammar are more wrong than right, that you might not get, but that they honestly think is funny — or a long joke told with perfect diction and enunciation, that the teller *knows* isn’t funny?

My view is that the first case can be improved, because grammar and pronunciation can be taught, but the second cannot — at least, not from without.  When someone doesn’t have the basic idea of communication, but is only trying to get something out of you — some money, a grade, a Comp score — you have nowhere to start and nothing to work with.

Why do you tell jokes? — To feel that happy little smug feeling because you made someone laugh.  And that’s the right reason to tell them.

Now look:

I’m not going to ask anyone to change how they rate IF Comp games.  But I will ask everyone to change how they look at them.  I know a lot of us are engineers, but let’s focus a little less on what our authors say and a little more on what they mean.

This is something that donkey-eared Wesley Osam, and people like him, can’t do.  He’s blind to meaning; he’s an illiterate who reads.  This is how you get checklist reviewers:  they can’t evaluate a written text on anything but spelling, but man, can they evaluate it on spelling! 

Thus, to Wesley and others of his ilk, _Eruption_ is a pretty good game:  because it spells things right.  And the author’s own shameful admission, that it means nothing and he entered it out of contempt for his fellow authors, and for the Comp as a whole, because it would boost his ego, doesn’t hit Wesley.  Wesley’s defense of the game is:  It means nothing?  No biggie.  — Because he can’t fathom meaning generally.

I agree with Wesley on one point.  His word for the game is innocuous.  And it is:  Richard Bos has created the ultimately innocuous piece of IF.  _Eruption_ is innocuous; it is safe; it is inoffensive.  And it is inoffensive, safe, and innocuous because it means nothing.  Could a blank piece of paper offend?

And what happens when this game that Richard has entered to show his contempt for all scoring-worse-than-average game-writers scores well?  — And if Wesley has its way, it will score well. — He, Richard Bos, will feel validated.  It will boost his ego.  We, the greater IF-playing community, will have told him he was right to feel and show contempt for his fellow-gamewriters; and for us, the players, who have a right to expect safe, inoffensive, spell-checked, meaningless, soulless, contemptuous art.

Is there an IF community?  Communities cooperate.  Cooperation means getting help from people who are stronger than you, but it equally means helping people who are weaker.  Without the second half, the first half doesn’t happen.

Communities have standards of civility.  And its members are expected to meet those standards.  If the standard of competency — spell-checking your game — is important, how much more important is the standard of civility?  Without it, people respect only those who are stronger than they are, and cooperation, the stuff that community is made of, breaks down.

The idea that flaming bad, unspellchecked entries will improve future Comps is unfathomably stupid.

What do you think will happen when you bash brand-new authors for failure to master the form?  And then you’re going to turn around and whine because there are fewer IF entries every year?  You, who I’m talking to, know who you are.

We had a whole big thing about making it possible for non-programmers to write IF games.  We — people who aren’t me — created a new language to make it happen, called Inform 7.  You might’ve heard of it.  And then, when we get newbies writing interactive fiction, we treat them appallingly badly?

When you have increasingly fewer entries, and more of them are proportionally by newbies, what does that tell you but that the previous years’ newbies aren’t coming back to write more games for you?

I’m not talking about gilding the truth; I’m talking about speaking the truth while being on the author’s side.  Assume they’re trying to communicate something.  Assume that the game is meaningful.

I’m putting up a transcript of _LAIR of the CyberCow_.  I ran through it for its different endings and edited the result together in CYOA form.  It’s not a proper CYOA — the section breaks are at plot points — but I think it proves a point:

_LAIR_ was not a good game.  It got a bad score — I think around a 3 — and I suppose it deserved the score it got.  But it was a good-faith entry.

And, most of the people who write games for the IF Comp — good ones and bad ones — do it in good faith.  They’re trying really hard to put something across to you.

This is supposed to be a good time.  But it’s up to you to make it a good time, for everybody.  You don’t take anything away from the experience by being on the author’s side.  You don’t take away the author’s motivation to do better.

Don’t have the attitude that anyone who has made a good-faith entry should have quit.  In a footrace, is the last guy to cross the finish line supposed to see the second-to-last runner cross ahead of him and say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll just stop right here.” –?  Do you admire that in a person?

No:  The last person still runs his best, and when he crosses the line, you still slap him on the back.  Or her.  That’s how it works.

Don’t worry! — losing still sucks.  But the question is whether they lose and feel determined to do better, or lose and never want to come back.  And you’re the person who will make them feel one way or the other.

And that’s how you improve future Comps.  By not being Richard Bos.

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Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 11:09 pm  Comments (12)  
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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. For the record, I simply never received your reply.

  2. You made an analogy — about telling jokes — that didn’t really work for me. Possibly because I’d rather hear the boring joke that’s not funny than the awkward one that’s probably not funny either. But it has led me to consider an analogy of my own.

    Richard Bos has cooked a scrambled egg. He just took an egg, cracked it into a pan, scrambled it, and put it on a plate. There’s not much to it; it’s just a plain, boring — but serviceable — egg.

    Some other authors (and I hasten to note that this is in reference to a general phenomenon; I’m not talking about any games in particular, and I don’t remember enough of LAIR for this to be personally in reference to that) put their hearts into making breakfast. A full Spanish omelet, with the eggs beaten ahead of time, and the whole thing mixed up with peppers and onions and tomatoes and cheese. But when it’s done, you realized that the milk they used was gone sour, and part of it’s a bit burnt while other bits are runny, and they didn’t saute the peppers and onions, and there are bits of eggshell in it, and for some incomprehensible reason they decided to give it some color by adding in a bit of grape-flavored beverage powder, and… well. It’s definitely got heart and soul. They really *tried hard*. But it’s clear that they hadn’t spend much time before this actually learning how to *cook an egg*.

    And I know I’m selfish. I judge games on how much I like them. How much I enjoy playing them.

    And I know which breakfast I would rather eat.

  3. “The idea that flaming bad, unspellchecked entries will improve future Comps is unfathomably stupid.”

    Had you not read Bos’s rant in the about text, would you—honestly and truly—have judged Eruption in such a fashion? You might have called it boring; you might have called it tepid; you might have awarded it a low score. But your tantrum here is all meta-vitriol, so far as I can tell, and for that reason it is almost entirely empty.

    It doesn’t seem to be the game you dislike, but rather his encouragement of competent use of the medium. What do you think of people like Emily Short only reviewing games that credit beta testers?

    On the other hand, “profoundly empty non-art” has some comedic value as the most gratuitously over-the-top comment I’ve read so far this comp. Tip of the hat.

  4. You *should* judge games according to how well you like them. And you *should* judge all games according to the highest possible standards.

    The analogy to eating breakfast, frankly, strikes me as infantile: Are you saying you want milk from Momma, and your job is to throw a tantrum when you don’t get it?

    Meaning is *actively* constructed in the mind. To watch a movie intelligently, you must ask yourself what it means. And some movies reward this — Hitchcock movies do — and some do not — most made-for TV schlock.

    Now, the production value for made-for-TV schlock is higher than much of Hitchcock’s old work, but it is still schlock. It is empty, meaningless, and stupid.

    If you like empty, meaningless, and stupid IF, that’s fine — you’re welcome to rate Eruption well, and to give it high reviews.

    But I do not accept that this justifies the hostility and visciousness I’ve seen leveled to new authors. Grow up.

    Conrad.

  5. It’s too bad LotCC ended up so buggy. That must have been very disappointing. I gave LotCC a go last year, but decided I wouldn’t play Eruption after reading the ABOUT, although I didn’t have as negative a reaction as you did to it.

    If I were choosing between a plain egg and an omelet that had no chance of being tasty, I would take the egg. If I were choosing between a plain egg and an omelet that was probably going to suck but *just might be awesome*, I would go for the omelet.

  6. […] Richard Bos’ Eruption! October 13, 2009 I’m playing Eruption next because it really, really pissed Conrad Cook off, and I want to know why.  (Conrad, while I don’t think he’s a bad dude, does not […]

  7. I’m afraid I don’t really understand what you’re getting at. In what way is my comparison infantile? And is Richard’s game similar to “milk from Momma” in some regard? Have I thrown a tantrum? If it appears that way, I do apologize: I had no intention of appearing uncivil.

    But, to answer you’re question: no, I’m not saying that I want milk from Momma, nor did I intend to throw a tantrum. I’d merely like to play coherent, mechanically-sound (in language, coding and design), well-tested comp games. And I would prefer a well-crafted but soulless game over a shoddy one with heart.

    (And do you seriously consider Hitchcock’s work to be analogous to the amateurish, poorly-crafted games that Richard was complaining about?)

  8. I think that one of the problems IF games have is that – especially for a typical puzzle game – polish and testing are *necessary*.

    Whereas a shoot-em-up (for example) can still provide entertaining gameplay despite terrible bugs, a merely ‘unpolished’ IF game is often quite simply unplayable. Typically in an unpolished IF, if you can’t think of the same action as the author, if an important item isn’t mentioned explicitly, if you don’t do things in the order the author expected, then you’re unable to progress.

    Having said all that, if Eruption is an omelette of some sort, it’s been served with a napkin with the words: “Ha ha! You ate my omelette!” written on it. If you don’t want people to judge your work based on peripheral (or ‘meta’) insults, don’t include them.

  9. The reason I say the analogy is infantile is that you’ve given yourself a purely passive role. Someone else does all the cooking; you sit back and eat — and approve, or don’t.

    So let me ask: What does it mean to you to be a good player?

    Since I’m arguing against displaying meanness and contempt toward first-time authors (as Richard Bos does), I have inferred that you consider his crappy little number in his About text to be a valid exercise of his perogative as a person who has spellchecked his game. In contrast, I consider it to be appalling manners and bad sportsmanship, and I *don’t* think a programming exercise which is acknowledged to be meaningless and pointless, devoid of story or interesting puzzle, *does* meet the minimum standards for the IF Comp.

    The alternative to sitting back and mindlessly consuming IF, thinking only whether it tickles your palate, is to approach IF with an active mind. –I gather you don’t have much experience talking to people who speak broken English:

    You have to work to understand them. It fouls up delivery of the punch line (often), but generally you can eventually fathom what they’re telling you — if you work at it. And it can be quite interesting.

    I don’t think it should be a terrible burden to try actively to make meaning out of a work of *interactive* fiction. But even readers whose tastes run towards pap ought to be civil to authors who haven’t learned the trick of grinding down the substance of their story to an acceptably soft consistency. And certainly for a contending author to pre-emptively pee on half of his opponents, who can’t reply to him without disqualifying themselves, while admitting that his game has no story and no ambitions toward being interesting — I have a problem with it.

    To answer your question, I won’t predict any of the rough entries’ authors will be a Hitchcock. I won’t even predict they’ll be an Eric Eve or an Emily Short. But I think several of them might well be a Jim Aikin — thoroughly solid IF designers, who don’t have a scary level of mastery of programming, but who can make good, competent, fun text games.

    But they won’t, if we let small-minded Nimrods like Richard Bos shout them out of the community. People aren’t coming back to write more games for us — because of people like Richard Bos.

    I *will* predict, though, that if Richard Bos keeps to his paint-by-the-numbers routine, where the most he can say is that he’s stayed inside the lines, we’ll never get anything worth mentioning from him. Apart from his sneering contempt toward other authors.

    Listen — It’s within the rules for new authors to submit rough games to the IF Comp. The IF Comp was started with new authors in mind. To foster new authors and thereby to raise the level of expertise in the community. And it’s no good to say “that’s the history, but it’s something else now,” when *most* of the authors are new.

    If you don’t want it to *be* within the rules for new authors to submit rough games to the IF Comp, then lobby those who run the Comp to do what comps everywhere do to set a minimum standard — have a qualifying round.

    But for the likes of Richard Bos, with his little, unimaginative and thoroughly uncreative mind, to think he’s going to abuse and intimidate new authors from entering the Comp, and to wrap up with, “Bring it on,” like he’s W. or something — no.

  10. I really shouldn’t get involved in this, but…

    I’d just like to submit that one of the reasons the best of the modern IF community’s work is as good as it is is BECAUSE we have very high standards, and BECAUSE we judge the work of both ourselves and others quite seriously. Holding an author to a certain standard is not a way of belittling said author; it is, rather, a mark of respect toward the author, the work, and the medium itself. I would be very sad to see us lose that, as I think it is exactly what sets us apart from so many other amateur game-making and writing communities on the Internet. Consider the ADRIFT community, where everyone just gets along and doesn’t criticize too harshly (“They gave us this for free! How dare we!”), and then look at the quality of the average ADRIFT game. (Yes, a lot of that (lack of) quality is down to the unspeakably shoddy, poorly designed, and unprofessional ADRIFT system itself, but plenty also can be laid at the feet of the “I’m okay, you’re okay” ADRIFT community culture.) Or have a look at the work of the Adventure Game Studio community; authors continue to deliver the same series of stale and unfair puzzles and hunt-the-pixel gameplay because “that’s the way adventure games are,” and nobody takes the craft seriously enough to ask whether they might be improved.

    That’s not to say that we couldn’t be a bit nicer to one another at times. Some reviewers do go over the top with the vitriol. Some of that is probably a byproduct of playing too many bad to mediocre games in too short of a time. On the whole, though, I don’t think the Comp is best place for authors to find the advice and encouragement you suggest; what we need are more groups like the writer’s group Jim Aikin put together at one time (not sure if it’s still a going concern or not), and the IF Writing Month (or whatever the exact title was) from a while ago.

    And I take exception to your assertion that Comp judges rate spell checked and technically competent entries over boldly creative entries. In last year’s Comp, Cry Wolf, a game riddled with bugs and flaws, finished #11, ahead of competent but creatively slight entries like Recess At Last and The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom. Many judges — myself included — gave it a much higher score than it “technically” deserved because the story and writing were so memorable and engaging. Personally, I gave it a 7 even though I actually had to replay a large section at one point due to a game-breaking bug.

    The problem is that most of the technically shoddy entries are also creatively shoddy; zork, buried chaos rather than Cry Wolf. What are we supposed to do with these entries? Deliver warm words of encouragement to their authors for bothering to write IF at all? Besides being a bit pathetic, community creative disaster lies that way. zork, buried chaos is every bit as soulless as Eruption; it’s just utterly inept in its writing and its technical design as well.

    I didn’t find Mr. Bos’s ABOUT comments to be in the best of taste, but I’m a bit baffled at the rant they’ve provoked. While I certainly have not always agreed with you in the past, I’ve always considered you an enlightened and intelligent commentator on IF. Certainly these screeds about “donkey-headed jackasses” and non sequiturs about “milk from mamma” (while failing to address any of Jota’s very level-headed, polite, and reasonable points) I would have considered beneath you. And as for the pretentious lectures on “meaning making” — really, just give it a rest. It’s not impressing anyone.

  11. It’s my blog, Jimmy. I say what I want.

    C.

    ps – And, Donkey-Eared Wesley’s opinion of _Cry Wolf_ was that it didn’t belong in the Comp.

    The question is whether we will permit jackasses like Wesley and Richard Bos to shout down promising first-time authors. There are people who have civilized manners and good taste, but they generally will not stoop to the level of actively repudiating someone like Richard Bos.

    Think it through.

  12. “The IF Comp was started with new authors in mind. To foster new authors and thereby to raise the level of expertise in the community.”

    That’s not quite correct: the competition was originally started to encourage people to try out Inform.


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