Nov 16, 2011

The Cryptozookeeper Interview

Robb Sherwin, the man behind the excellent and lavishly illustrated Cryptozookeeper interactive fiction offering talks about designing text adventures, his latest creation, horribly mutated beasties and gaming. He also talks about his previous games and, well, you should really read on. And play this.

After more than ten years of creating quality interactive fiction, care to introduce yourself to the Gnome's Lair audience?

I'm Robb -- I live in Denver, Colorado with three cats and an Asteroids machine. I've been making text games for over ten years, and have won a couple awards here and there for them.

And how did you get into this most text-based form of digital entertainment?

Graham Nelson, who gave us Inform and the ability to make games for Infocom's Z-machine, wrote an introduction to programming Inform 6 that was the clearest and most approachable book on creating software that I had ever experienced. It all just clicked for me thanks to that book. I always had a fondness for text games, although I suppose if Graham had written a book on COBOL I'd be a ten-year veteran of payroll systems that have lots of dialogue.

Any favourites? Also, any favourite games that aren't text adventures / interactive fiction?

My favorite text games are Zork, Interstate Zero and something called Knight Orc, which modeled the awful, despicable behavior of players of an MMORPG long before there was such a thing. The non-text game I most wish I made is Mr. Do!, the arcade game from 1982 by Kazutoshi Ueda. I mean, I own a beach ball, night cap and problematic garden, but never thought to solve the latter with the first two.

So, why design interactive fiction?

To be honest, I don't have the math chops to be a very good solo programmer at other kinds of games. You know how in Asteroids, there is a 'mathematical' way to determine if the player's shot hits the jagged edge of an asteroid, instead of the programmer just putting an invisible rectangle around the rock and counting a hit when it's "close enough?" Me either, which is why I have been failing at making the simplest game possible with graphics for like a decade.

But one thing I can do is try to leverage the interactive stories I want to tell in front of a literate, tough audience, all within a genre I have nostalgia for. I can also do all the coding and art myself (which at times has its drawbacks) but still gives me the chance to present a world for players to experience. I love working in interactive fiction, and haven't felt I've approached all that I can do with it.

You have had more than a few successful and (very) well reviewed games such as Necrotic Drift and Fallacy of Dawn; care to briefly let us know what their unique features are? Besides great writing, that is.

I've tried to put at least one unique graphic in place for every single character and room that those games have. When I was playing early Infocom games, they were on a floppy disk with a single red light. And in some ways, just getting to new areas and seeing the disk light up was a reward in itself. Nobody uses floppy disks any more, but by giving each newly-discovered area a visual component, I've tried to mirror that feeling of exploration.

I've also tried to put some jokes in each game, which other text adventures definitely do, but my hope is that someone would want to play one of my games so they can also experience whatever comedic bits I've been working on the last few years, if that makes any sense.

Is there a game you've created and feel it's your best? Your proudest achievement perhaps?

I was flattered to win a couple XYZZY Awards for Fallacy of Dawn. I am still very much into the cyberpunk genre, and I think that cyberpunk has an amazing ability to still be relevant if the technology advances we see every few weeks are incorporated.

There was one thing that happened a couple years ago that made me proud, and it's not because I'm so great or anything; I only mention it because it meant a lot. I was at a vendor table with GET LAMP's Jason Scott at the Boston Penny Arcade Expo, and a guy, this stranger, bought a copy of Fallacy of Dawn. He told me that he really enjoyed the game. There was something about it happening in real life that really made it stick with me. It was like, I was able to get something *lasting* at PAX instead of avian flu.

On to your latest release then: Cryptozookeeper. How would you describe it?

I tried to put together a dialogue-rich, character-driven comedy that included every major beastie in the pseudo-science of cryptozoology. If the potential player really enjoys any of the jokes or lines in the first few moves, my intent is that the game will speak to them throughout on that wavelength. It also has graphics featuring these various crytpids that -- while looking completely made up -- tend to look more genuine than what's normally used as actual proof for them.

What would you say makes it special?

While there's standard adventure game things to do, like DNA to gather and people to talk to, there's also a mini-game in the middle that lets you fight and train the cryptids that you created. You can eventually venture forth with your own army of fantastic creatures. But really, the one thing I tried to do with Cryptozookeeper is design it with the intent that every small decision the player makes is defensible for the particular situation, while leaving it quite clear from a bird's eye view that the player character is going to a really dark place after those decisions add up.

It also has a number of extremely cute girls.

Any particular influences -gaming or otherwise- you'd care to mention?

There is a time in Colorado, from about the middle of October until the first week or so of November, where all the leaves start to fall and the temperatures start to drop. I usually put off getting any real exercise in the summer, so I try to make up for it in autumn. The air at this time gets very still, and the good people of the state are inside, for the most part. I'm a transplant -- I moved from New York in 1998 -- and this stillness, combined with the long stretches of flat land (to the east) and mountains (to the west) just fascinated me. What would it be like if, within this silence, there was all this terrible stuff going on? The game takes place in the dark, over three days, and I was really influenced by walking around this gorgeous state I live in at a time of year where the earth starts to go silent.

Why did you go for those lovably b-movie-ish graphics?

Well, cryptids are all mostly fake-looking when they hit the news, so I felt it was "in bounds" for the theme. But most of the actors in the game lived in far-away places. Gerrit Hamilton (who plays the player character) lives in Georgia. Alex Gray lives in Scotland, Jon Blask lives in Wisconsin... these are quality, but far-away places. The actors are therefore in front of a "green screen" or (more realistically) a "living room wall." I have to then put the actors in backdrops I shot in New Mexico and Colorado. I thought the best way to approach this was to embrace this with heavy outlines and custom Photoshop filters, as it let me work around competing light sources and such. But yeah, it was done out of necessity. Kevin Smith has said that "Clerks" was in black and white only because he couldn't afford to shoot it in color. I have to admit that if I could afford to fly the actors out to my city I would do so, heh.

Did you expect its popularity in the wider indie scene? Where would you attribute it?

Well, I think there has been a certain number of indie-only game blogs that I have yet to interest or get the attention of. I'm trying to get better about promoting my own stuff, but I am sure the e-mails I sent out came out as awkward or unprofessional. I'm all for demonizing marketing on forums like anyone else, but then, every few years, I finish a game and find I'm lacking the know-how to properly promote it. So that Crypto has received the attention it has -- I really am thankful. People have been kind to talk about it and review it. 

How did the boxed version do? I would love to see more interactive fiction commercially available in deluxe versions, mind. How come you decided to go for it?

Well, I had done boxes for Fallacy of Dawn and Necrotic Drift, and I personally wanted the third game in the series to exist as a physical item. I also really loved the music of Clint Hoagland (the guy behind Bachelor Machines) and I thought that teaming up, with one disc being Crypto and the other disc being selected tracks that he's created would make for a fun package. But really, I just needed something tangible to act as a proxy for all the time I spent making Cryptozookeeper. I had hopes that it would connect on the same level with people who like having a game they enjoyed in their hands. It's a shrinking set of people who like that sort of thing, and I don't know if I could justify doing a similar run for a game in the future.

Would you say that text adventures need to update their visuals and/or interfaces in order to approach a wider audience?

I think the biggest advance text games can make is in delaying the moment the player starts typing in swear words out of frustration, and getting games onto the web. I did neither of those things, so I naturally feel particularly qualified to speak as to how valuable they'd be.

For whatever reason, a modern game player will accept that his rocket launcher will not destroy the wooden door in front of him, but not accept that a text game hasn't implemented a Turning test-passing, natural language processor for talking to minor characters. That's OK - what text game developers might be able to do in the future to decrease frustation is to look at as many experiences as possible. Juhana Leinonen placed his latest game (Starborn) on the web and automatically recorded what people did as people played it. He ended up with hundreds of transcripts. It was brilliant. He then revised his game so that it was as smooth as possible for a new player who maybe isn't that into IF to play. I think if we can all learn how a game player's interest starts to fade from the illusion of a text adventure, it would really advance the genre more than better graphics or UIs would.

(Though I would love to make a game at some point that required those old red and blue 3D style glasses.)

Finally, is it text adventure or interactive fiction?

I like both terms, although I'm really more partial to just calling them "warez" because that makes us all sound like we belong at the cool kid's table. =)

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  1. (Takes notes)

    "warez" eh! nope it'll never catch on in the old folks home..

    Excellent interview, Thank you!


  2. Thank you so much oh warez-loving Elderly dear!