We’re pleased to share this interview with Judith Pintar, our newest board member at the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation. Judith has been involved in the interactive fiction community for nearly 30 years, and her insights into the past, present, and future of IF are fascinating.

(Note: This interview has been edited in the interests of length and clarity.)

David: How did you start playing interactive fiction? What brought you to the medium?

Judith: Like many of us, I grew up inside the Great Underground Empire, playing interactive fiction the way it was first played—with a group of friends, scratch paper, a pencil, a pizza, and no walkthrough.

David: I didn’t have a community for IF, it was all solo for me, but I had a similar experience with Myst—it was such a challenge and I loved working with my friends! We would really puzzle over everything together. Now I feel like a cheater because I’m always looking up the stumpers.

Judith: We’ve collectively gotten really lazy about puzzles. I play nothing without a walkthrough anymore. So, it’s all of us—maybe it has to do with the pace of leisure.

David: What got you started writing IF? Do you remember your very first game?

Judith: My first game—hmm, honestly that has been lost in the mists of time. My first full-length work was CosmoServe, which won the AGT contest in 1991. It was largely inspired by my experiences as a member of Compuserve’s Gamer’s Forum, where I used the handle Teela Brown.

What made CosmoServe unusual was the simulation. It starts out like a regular IF—you are a programmer in a messy office, but when you turn on your computer, the screen turns into a DOS environment. That’s the point at which players today stop playing. They have no idea how to run a program from a DOS command line. I never intended that to be a puzzle, but it became the hardest one. When you dial up to CosmoServe, it looks like what CompuServe looked like back in the day. In the original AGT version I was put in a screechy modem sound. I used to get emails from people telling me that they got confused whether they were actually online or not. Later in the game when a virus corrupts your in-game computer, which you find out by running the in-game CHKDSK, they freaked out thinking that it was happening to their actual computer.

David Malmberg released the final version of AGT as freeware and ran the last AGT contest in 1993, which I judged. That was the dramatic historical moment when AGT was eclipsed by TADS and INFORM. The IFComp took over as the AGT contest ended. That was also when, from the point of view of the IF community, I seemed to go poof from the world. What actually happened was that I went to graduate school, wrote a dissertation while having a baby, and got my first academic job while having another baby. I never stopped writing IF. While I was out of public circulation, I updated CosmoServe, contacted the IFDB and asked them to replace my game file with the new one. I was surprised by the response. I was told (by whom I wish I could remember) that I was welcome to upload a new version, but that the old version of CosmoServe belonged to history, not to me, and that I could not change it. It’s ironic (and fun) that I’m now on the board of the organization charged with the task of archiving that continuing history.

David: I’d really struggle with that in your position. I’m so used to being able to seamlessly update anything I put online. Was there anything really broken in the original?

Judith: No, it just hard to win because of time pressure. I took into account player feedback when I updated it. As soon as my kids started playing computer games (shortly after birth), I was back at teaching IF, though by then AGT was no longer being maintained, and I faced a conundrum. I had leftover loyalty to AGT, since I had been its defender and one of its public faces. I wanted to move on, but I didn’t want to feel like a traitor to my clan, so to speak. When Inform 7 was released, I saw a path forward. I fell in love with the language. I learned it by rewriting CosmoServe. The Inform 7 version is available to be played in not-quite-beta, here.

David: You’ve authored and co-authored IF; did you prefer one over the other? Does each have a pro/con that makes it unique?

Judith: I am really energized by the creative synergy of collaborative work. In terms of pure cognitive pleasure, though, there is nothing I enjoy more than the solo-work of coding complicated interactive narrative. To give you a quick example of what makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I’ve been working on a text-based poker game in which the player, as Alice, plays poker with the White Rabbit while falling down a well. The map is vertical; the player goes up and down while the White Rabbit is doing the same. The cards are randomly strewn throughout the well. The algorithm that helps the Rabbit to decide what card to take and what to drop is straightforward, but I also wanted the cards to fight with each other, to jump out or push each other out of the player’s hand. I wanted players to hear in the distance these dramas happening in the Rabbit’s hand too, a clue to what the Rabbit is holding. There is a narrative arc in this game that has to be revealed in order to win. The player will have to go looking for it deliberately by putting together particular poker hands. The code for this game was So Much Fun to puzzle out. The game (still being bug-tested) can be played here.

David: I’ll have to look at that after our interview. (Editor’s note: I did, and recommend it: It’s a parser-based Inform 7 work that’s very challenging but rewarding)

Most games have very traditional roles, but interactive fiction spans so many disciplines. How would you describe your role? Writer or programmer? The Storyteller? CEO? If you had to pick one job title, what would it be?

Judith: Storyteller. Before I wrote IF, I was a professional storyteller, performing for children as an artist-in-residence in schools, and for drunk adults in festivals, renaissance fairs, and comedy clubs. I never memorized my stories, which were different every time I performed them, tailored for each audience. I really missed the improvisational and interactive aspects of performance when I wrote my stories down. You see what’s coming here. IF fixes that problem. IF offers the spirit of a live storytelling performance, without the drunks.

My interest in collaborative authoring, and crowd-sourced IF began with SOGGY, but I have been a teacher of IF nearly as long as I have been an author. During the 90s I taught AGT as an artist-in-residence in middle/high schools. Since it was released, Inform 7 is now my language of choice for teaching parser-based IF. I teach other sorts of interactive narrative, through Twine. Besides authoring their own games, students in my Game Design course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign contribute to an ongoing collaborative IF that takes place inside a sprawling campus-based game world. Each semester the students build upon the work of the students before. They learn to code by fixing the bugs in the code that came before them. You can play the intentionally incomplete, a la Minecraft, ongoing buggy Quad Game here.

David: I can see why you were drawn to IFTF; there are a lot of parallels to your work as a professor, and as a storyteller.

Judith: It’s not immediately obvious to people how my creative work and my academic work fit together (at least, it’s not obvious to academics looking at my vita). But it all makes sense to me. I am a sociologist of science and technology, which means I’m interested in the entangling of society and culture with technology. Most broadly I study collective narrative. I have approached this in the ways that communities remember traumatic war experiences, and in how science becomes culture. I am quite comfortable teaching in the Informatics Program at UIUC, where all my interests converge. I direct the Electronic Literatures & Literacies Lab, which is intended as a place for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

David: Just as albums and IF used to have feelies and have lost them with the shift to full digital, do you see any other future-proofing that we’re missing in interactive fiction?

Judith: That’s a great question. I had a conversation recently with Jerome McDonough who studies digital preservation at the iSchool here at UIUC about his work on archiving “intangible culture,” especially as it relates to games and their technologies. I asked him if CompuServe Gamer’s Forum, as an episode in the history of online gaming, could be archived. He said no, that the old BBS experiences are gone without a trace, lost worlds. We might be able to preserve the system an old game was played on, but we still lose some of the experience. It’s what I said at the beginning of the interview. Infocom games were played by groups of people, with pizza and pencils. How do we archive that?

Obviously we want to archive games and the technologies used to run them. But do we have to, do we want to, can we archive the experience of playing the game. Is the game the same without the feelies? Is the game the same without the community? Is the game the same without the contemporary popular culture? Is the game the same without having played other games first? How do we preserve those intangible things? Or do we just need to let them go?

David: I think that’s all part of why you’re here, right? You have such an impressive background in the field, and you have these great insights into the future of interactive fiction and the importance of archiving. Why did you join the Foundation board? Do you have any specific goals?

Judith: The announcement of the launching of IFTF came across my feed in the usual way, and it seemed to me to be a natural and important development. When I was asked to join the board I was delighted to support its dual mission of preservation and promotion. We want to ensure that that IF (its technologies, tools and games) survive as a living art form and that IFTF, as the guardian of that legacy, is a rock of stability, regardless of who is on the board.

I am happy to take my turn serving the IF community, having been part of it from the beginning. In terms of what I personally bring to the IFTF, I think my interests in digital inclusion, in broadening the use of IF languages and tools (Inform 7, Twine but also other emerging platforms) into the social sciences among other areas, and the development and archiving of IF pedagogical materials, may be two areas in which I can contribute. Other things will emerge unpredictably.

David: Having covered archiving the past…what’s the future of interactive fiction, in your opinion?

Judith: I do think that all kinds of writing are going to become more interactive—nobody thinks twice about hyperlinks, so why can’t branching become ubiquitous too? I see interactive narrative influencing how people think, how they collaborate, how they write papers and reports. I also see AI becoming a more central feature of IF in ways that Emily Short envisions. And of course Twine will be taught to kids at the same time that they learn to write, while Inform 7 will become the first programming language of choice. I see a future where IF authors get well paid for what they do!

My personal IF projects focus on developing collaborative IF environments. Minecraft for IF, that’s what I’m after. I’m going to start looking for grants for “The Illinois Map”. (Editor’s note: Preview this at http://el3.judithpintar.com/collaborations/ and scroll down to the Illinois Map.) It’s going to be an open-ended interactive history of Illinois virtual learning environment, where people can learn to program Inform, can contribute code, bug-test, do research, or write and edit text, on hundreds of short historical simulations written in Inform, the best of which are incorporated into “the map”. A player will be able to travel from downtown Chicago today to Springfield when Lincoln lived there, find him in his law office and have a chat. The map expands in both space and time. The website will have a community aspect, with forums, and tutorials, and statuses, and levels of participation, and guides for teachers, etc… I’m starting the process of looking for grants, but I’m moving ahead even if I don’t find funding. My students have already produced content.

Also on the pedagogy end of things, I’m also prototyping a kind of IF game that teaches Inform as the point of the game (though it’s entwined with a narrative as well). I’ve finished my first iteration of the idea. If you win the game, you are awarded with a text file of Inform code that you can cut and paste into Inform. (Editor’s note: See it at https://judithpintar.com/wp/game/escape/

David: Shades of CosmoServe, in a way! We’re getting into future territory and circling back around to the past. I’m noticing though that, even in just your work, there is a lot of open territory in the future.

Judith: Yes! I believe there’s room to stretch out in multiple directions. What Chris Klimas is doing with narrative form is different from what Emily Short is doing with AI, and different again from what I’m doing with collaboration. I think it’s a really exciting time to be writing IF. Not that I think the classic forms will go away—not at all! IFTF is on top of that. But I do believe that IF’s influence on other sorts of writing and games and yet-to-be-discovered creative genres is going to grow.

And of course we’re going to be talking to our IFs, and not typing. I just had a vision of someone on a long biking trip playing your biking IF while they ride…. Now you have to write it! If you get stuck, drop me a line. (Editor’s note: Judith got me to reveal that I have an always on the backburner work in progress about bike racing early on in our conversation.)

David: Thank you for the offer and for this interview. I’m excited for your role at the Foundation and your future work in IF.

Six weeks ago we announced that IFTF was adopting the IF Archive. I am pleased to say that we completed the transition this week. Visit ifarchive.org and you will find yourself on our brand-new Linode server.

We’ve taken the opportunity to update a few things.

First, the server now runs HTTPS thanks to LetsEncrypt.org. In fact, we are now using https://ifarchive.org/ as our primary address. The old HTTP address will redirect to HTTPS.

(You might wonder why HTTPS is needed. It’s true that the IF Archive doesn’t have any kind of web authentication system, much less any need for your credit card info. But we agree with LetsEncrypt’s mission of making web activity secure and un-snoopable by default. And it’s free and easy to set up, so why not, right?)

On a similar note, we’ve disabled the ability to upload files by anonymous FTP. That channel was insecure — and almost entirely used by warez-kiddies looking for free storage space. Nearly all real contributions come in through the Archive’s web upload form, so we’re going to rely on that from now on.

(Anonymous FTP download still works!)

Speaking of the web upload form, you’ll notice a couple of new fields.

Right to use:
◯  I am the author of this file and I give permission for the IF Archive to host and distribute it.
◯  I am not the author, but to the best of my knowledge the author is okay with this.

Back in the earliest days of the IF Archive, nobody paid attention to open-source licenses. The community just collected IF games with the understanding that everything was meant to be passed around the Internet. (Which is why the commercial Infocom games, which were clearly not meant to be passed around, were never put on the Archive.)

In more modern times, we tried to adopt a policy of “only upload your own work.” We wanted to be able to say that most of the files on the Archive were there with the copyright holder’s explicit permission — even if the oldest files came from a looser era.

In practice, however, that was too strict a policy. For one thing, people keep uncovering “new” IF games and tools from that earlier era! We want to preserve that rediscovered material even if the original author is out of the picture. Also, we have compilations like IFComp where the games are uploaded by the administrator, rather than the authors.

So we have rewritten our Terms of Use. The summary is:

  • anything with an explicit open-source license is distributed under that license;
  • anything with no clear license was uploaded under an implicit “the Archive can host this and distribute it for personal use only” license;
  • everything written by the Archive maintainers (indexes, file descriptions, etc) is now IFTF content with a Creative Commons license.

Hopefully that covers the way we actually work. When you upload, you’ll have to check one of the two options listed above.

There are a host of minor updates as well. You won’t notice them all. For example, I took the opportunity to rewrite the indexer script into Python 3. This tool runs behind the scenes to generate all the index pages that you see when browsing. I wrote the original version of that tool in C, which is the worst possible language for a string-processing tool… well, it was 1999 and I didn’t have a better one. It’s much cleaner now and it gets the &-escapes right.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Thanks to the IF Archive committee for their help in the server move. Check out the About the Archive page for the names of everyone involved!

I’m pleased to announce that in July, two new members have joined the IFTF Twine committee: Dan Cox and Colin Marc.

Dan is a graduate student in Old Dominion University’s Rhetoric and Composition program, and has produced a truly impressive amount of documentation and guides for Twine. If you’ve never visited his YouTube channel, you really ought to— it’s a wealth of tutorials about both Twine 1 and 2.

Colin maintains Philomela, a site that hosts Twine works for free— more than 13,000, in fact. In recent months, we worked with Colin to begin backing up Philomela to an IFTF archive.

Welcome, Dan and Colin!

p.s. Very belatedly, we now have a page on our site with more information about the Twine committee, including its charter and current membership.

Last year, IFTF created a new account at GitHub, taking advantage of that service’s generous standing offer of free paid-tier access to nonprofit organizations. As of this month, we have a couple of public projects posted to it:

  • ifcomp holds all the code and content (aside from the actual games!) that has powered the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition’s web application since 2014. Jason McIntosh led the project to develop this iteration of IFComp software, and a team of volunteers continues to carry it forward.

    Very recently — and largely through the efforts of volunteer developer Adam Herzog — the app has made use of GitHub-friendly automated testing technologies like Travis and Coveralls, making sure that new contributions to the codebase don’t accidentally break anything already there.

    At present, the IFComp app doesn’t have a more interesting name than “the IFComp app”. We’re still pretty proud of it.

  • ifarchive-ifmap-py is a new port by Andrew Plotkin of the software that creates the index files found throughout the IF Archive’s website. It hasn’t been deployed to production yet, but we’ll all see the fruits of its output when the Archive’s team launches its nascent new server.

    This software improves upon its 1990s-vintage version, also written by Andrew Plotkin, and shared as a separate IFTF repository for completeness’s sake.

Do feel free to keep an eye on our account — we plan to keep open all IFTF-owned software source and other documents that don’t have any clear need to stay private. We welcome issue-reporting, pull requests (what Git fans call proposed software patches), and all that good open-sourcey stuff from the community on any material so shared.

Last night, pursuant to IFTF’s new stewardship of the IF Archive I began setting up the Linode VPS that will serve as the new ifarchive.org server. As with all IFTF purchases, donations from the IF community pay for this machine. So, now as ever: thank you. I quite look forward to seeing it online and serving the public at the core of a reinvigorated Archive.

I want to tell you about the new machine’s name, and why we named it so.

While we don’t invest heavily in classic-IF iconography for IFTF projects, we do like to keep a candle lit here and there in recognition of bedrock-level work. Take IFTF’s logo, for example: we came up with a design that could be read as either a hypertext game’s node-graph, or a text adventure’s map of connected rooms. We juggled various stick-and-ball patterns around, and when I noticed that this one looked a bit like the edge of a white house with a mailbox next to it, in profile, we knew we had to keep it.

Similarly — though out of public view — I two years ago let myself name IFTF’s very first server lantern, after the single most iconic inventory-item from Zork. (This is the organization’s general-purpose machine, managing our mailing lists, our website, and this blog, amongst other things.) Last year, when it came time to build a new machine to serve IFComp, we decided to roll along with the “stuff you pick up at the beginning of Zork” theme, and named it sword.

In a stunning coincidence, it happens that the IF Archive team, pre-IFTF, had also named its server “lantern” — albeit following the delightfully more specific naming scheme of Zork light sources. Regardless, the fact obliged us to choose a new name for the new machine. I turned back to the list of early-game Zork stuff, and… the choice was obvious, really.

And that’s why the new, under-construction IF Archive server, destined to preserve and share IF work of all sorts for many years to come, bears the name bottle.

One oft-mentioned fact about the IFComp is that it’s the longest continuously-running game competition on the Internet (that we know of, anyhow). It’s even older than Windows 95, believe it or not—discussions about the comp began on rec.arts.int-fiction, one of the main watering holes of the interactive fiction community, months before Windows 95’s August 15 release date. But what was that first comp like?

The rules were simpler—well, the rule was simple. Kevin Wilson, the first comp’s organizer, enforced just one: each game had to be completed in two hours or less. Sound familiar? It was originally suggested that games be limited to a certain number of rooms—tricky to imagine how this would have worked once non-parser IF was entered into the comp, of course, but the counterargument at the time was that limiting the number of locations in a game doesn’t necessarily cap its length. (Still true—just ask devotees of the room-escape genre.)

Though there were only twelve entries total—by comparison, there were 61 in 2016—they were managed in a a bit more complicated manner than in modern comps. Judging was split based on the development system used to create them: either Inform or TADS. So that first year, there were two first-place winners, two second-place, and so on. This split was due to concern that everyone judging wouldn’t be able to play games from both systems, as interpreters weren’t available for every platform and the computing landscape of 1995 was more diverse than it is now. To give you an idea, it was still possible to buy a Commodore Amiga in a store back then. This split was removed in subsequent comps.

Among the authors were some familiar names:

  • Stephen Granade, who would go on to run IFComp from 1999 to 2013
  • Magnus Olsson, who edited SPAG between 1997 and 1999
  • IFTF’s own Andrew Plotkin

The prize pool worked exactly the same way it has for the lifespan of the competition, with winners taking their pick of donated prizes in descending order. Some notable prizes:

Besides the IFComp site’s own page, SPAG’s coverage of the competition makes for good reading about IFComp’s inaugural year. You’ll find reviews of each entry— and of course, all the entries are still playable in modern interpreters, and in my opinion have aged well. My own favorites? The One That Got Away and Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents “Detective”. I’ve never been good at puzzle-y IF, you see…

July has begun, so IFComp registrations are open for this year. If you intend to enter IFComp, you have until September 1 to register on the site. (Games aren’t due until Sept 28 — everyone spends at least four weeks betatesting, right?)

But we have something new this year. IFComp is running its first fundraiser! Which is IFTF’s first fundraiser, too! The Colossal Fund is now collecting donations for IFComp cash prizes.

All IFComp prizes are community donations. Usually it’s a mix of cash donations, books, games, and other fun stuff. We love the fun stuff — we’re still accepting that! But as a registered nonprofit, IFTF is in a position to raise more money and set up a broader range of cash prizes.

For all the details and FAQs, see our IFComp announcement. We have graphs and tables and everything.

Thank you for your support of IFComp over the past 22 (!) years.

The IF community is committed to the preservation and continuity of its culture. That commitment is centered on the IF Archive, which has been hosting IF games, tools, and documents since 1992.

The Archive was originally an FTP site hosted in Germany. In 1999, I set up a mirror on the (new-fangled) World Wide Web. In 2001, the original FTP site shut down and ifarchive.org became the primary Archive host. The server machine has moved a couple of times since then, but with little change — except that it has continued to grow. Today, the file collection fills nearly nine gigabytes of disk space.

(I know, you can buy a larger thumb drive for ten bucks these days. But nine gigabytes would have been mind-boggling in 1992!)

Anyway, this year is the Archive’s 25th anniversary, and we are happy to announce its birthday present: adoption into the IFTF family.

It’s not so big a shock as you might think. I will continue to steer the Archive, along with pretty much the same group of people who have managed it to date. The new IFTF Archive committee comprises:

  • Andrew Plotkin (chair)
  • Doug Orleans (current submission filing and organizing)
  • David Kinder (long-time submission filing and organizing)
  • Paul Mazaitis (tech support)
  • Stephen Granade (advisor, also archived IFComp games for 15 years)
  • Jason McIntosh (server setup)

The biggest change is that the Archive will be supported by your IFTF donations, which are gratefully appreciated as always.

We’ve just begun the transition process. The domain registration for ifarchive.org has already been transferred to IFTF’s account. Over the next few weeks we’ll set up a new server on Linode (where iftechfoundation.org and ifcomp.org are already hosted). When we shift to the new server, everything should go on working seamlessly. You won’t even notice — except that the state-of-the-art golian ceraflamingo on the front page will be upgraded to something even more state-of-the-art. We haven’t decided what yet.

Special thanks to Mark Musante, who has taken care of the Archive’s hosting since 2014.

We’re pleased to announce that Judith Pintar will be joining the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation’s Board of Directors.

If Judith’s name seems familiar, it’s because her experience in the interactive fiction medium spans decades. Her BBS satire game CosmoServe won the fifth annual AGT game contest in 1991— four years before the IF Comp was first held. (If you don’t know what AGT is, ask your parents.) She created several other AGT games in the 90s and now works in Inform 7.

Currently, Judith is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). There, she directs the Electronic Literatures & Literacies Lab, an academic community of digital humanities researchers and practitioners. She also teaches a course on interactive fiction at UIUC.

We’re very excited about the knowledge and experience Judith that brings to the foundation.

As we push IFTF projects forward, we are sometimes reminded of cool things that someone wrote years ago.

For example! Spring is the season of IFComp web development, as our volunteers polish up the web site and add new features for this year’s competition. In the course of that discussion, I was reminded that the IFComp server also handles web authentication for two of other IF competitions — IntroComp and the XYZZY awards.

That is, when you vote in those events, you just use your IFComp login. It’s a minor feature, and I don’t think there was ever a big announcement or discussion about it. Someone worked it up a few years ago and it makes life easier for the XYZZY and IntroComp administrators.

But since IFComp is now an IFTF project, IFTF now has a public single-sign-on service for IF competitions! Again, this wasn’t a bullet point on anybody’s planning outline. It just happened because the IF community (communities) have a lot of nifty bits of tech lying around. And since it’s happened, we get to brag about it. Maybe more IF events will make use of it someday. (Contact us!)

Here’s another bit of tech. In 2014 I wrote a quick prototype of an IF screenshotting tool. I imagined a script that could run through the IF Archive, fire up every game, and render the opening screen as an HTML file (or even an image). Yes, this was inspired by Jason Scott’s screenshot-blaster utility on the Internet Archive.

My original prototype was very crude and I didn’t do anything with it. But it popped into my head when I was writing my Glk talk for BangBangCon. The IF-o-Matic ultimately relies on Glk, my common IF display library API. Any IF interpreter which has a Glk port can be launched and generate output in the same way.

Since giving that talk, I’ve gone back to the IF-o-Matic and refined it quite a bit. Last night I threw in the contents of the IF Archive’s Glulx game directory and it did pretty well! Generated 140 screenshots in a few seconds.

Reduced screenshots of six Inform games from the Archive

Displayed games: The Realm of A’oria, Farm Quest, Cheesed Off!, Oppositely Opal, Hard Puzzle 3 : Origins, The Outcasts

The IF-o-Matic is still missing a bunch of features — unpacking zipped-up game files, displaying graphics. But I’m thinking that this will someday be a standard thing that we run on all Glk-compatible and web-compatible games. You should see these screenshots when you browse IFDB. Maybe I’ll set up a Twitter bot and tweet an IF screenshot every day. Possibilities are vast.