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.