So, bear with me. In 2012 I ran Cover Stories, a game jam where people supplied cover art, and then other people made games based off the cover art. One of the images I supplied for it got picked up by Joey Jones, who wrote IFDB Spelunking. Joey used IFDB’s ten random games feature, played the games and recorded his experience.
IFDB Spelunking was part of a long, if sparse tradition. In the 90s they employed the framing of Mystery Science Theater 3000, along with its basic technique: pick a truly atrocious work, then offer a snarky commentary to go alongside it.
I loved the idea. One of the things which came through particularly in Joey’s run was that it seemed as though he’d had a fun time in the process, despite or even because of mild frustrations. And it was such a straightforward template! It virtually invited you to make your own.
With some re-rolls to eliminate games I had already played, I picked ten. Seven of these were available and playable – Mountains of Ket, Samhain, Sweet Sixteen, Dracula Episode 2: The Arrival, Down and Out at the Big Creepy House on the Poison Lake, Take One and ARGH’s Great Escape.
I got pretty far into emulating them, at least on the surface. I sunk a great deal of effort into it. Why didn’t I finish it?
- Making it playable was rough. In particular, the largest of the games, Mountains of Ket, is a spectacularly unfair early-80s cave-crawl. I started out working with the principle that players would be strongly encouraged to use walkthroughs, but many of my testers wanted in-game contextual hints instead. They were right, but the thought of implementing all that was kind of overwhelming.
- Inconsistent voice. I wasn’t quite clear all the way through if the narration was meant to be a) me, as I first encountered the games, b) me, with the experience of hindsight, or c) a metafiction character whose job was exploring old games for loot. I could fix this but it’d be a slog.
- Cloning IF, particularly punishingly hard old-school IF on legacy platforms, is tedious work, especially if you don’t have access to the source. Playing deeply-unfair games on emulators to figure out what they do under specific circumstances is fun detective work at first, but it gets old.
- IP. I’m really not enamoured with the current state of intellectual property law, but I’m equally unimpressed by people who think that all data should be open-source and artists should have no special rights to their own work. Basically, if one of the authors came along and said ‘hey, I’m not all that comfortable with you using my game in this way,’ my response would basically be ‘yeah, fair enough.’ It’s kind of hard to commit to the laborious process of polishing up a game if there’s a chance you may end up withdrawing it.
- Meta-game. I wanted there to be lots of interactions between objects from different games, and special behaviours that relied on things changing across multiple worlds. I wanted there to be enough of this that the average player would run into a few of them. Given that there’s no way of knowing what order a player will play the games in, this looked to be a lot of work, and what I did implement was fairly trivial.
- The major difference between MST3K and its IF descendant is that movies have a higher bar to entry. Even C-list trash like The Killer Shrews required a budget, a cast, crew, distribution; if you’ve been able to manage all that, you should be put-together enough to take your knocks. IF shitgames, on the other hand, are likely to have been produced by enthusiastic fourteen-year-olds, and snarking about them is a somewhat different matter.
- Content. Several of the games are creepy towards women, ranging from lacklustre damseling to rape-fantasy, and Sweet Sixteen ranks among the most unpleasant porn games I’ve ever played. I tried to address this appropriately – thus the subtitle – but I’m not convinced that I succeeded.
- I ended up feeling as though this wanted to be a work of criticism, and I don’t really know how to do that in a game format yet. Snark and sniping, that’s easy; building a sustained line of argument through a discursive medium is a lot trickier.
OK, so why did I want it to see the light of day?
- It represents a great deal of work.
- Joey Jones really wanted to see it published. Joey was the person I really made this for, and that’s a tough thing to get past.
- There were some legitimate points that I felt came out of it – the importance of archiving, the creepy legacy of misogyny that games in general, and IF no differently, have to contend with. I didn’t specifically go hunting for sexism; I did a random search through obscure corners, and it showed up.
- I did a bunch of small, silly things that entertained me no end, and which hopefully might entertain other people too. Footnotes are the best thing. Customising I7’s default behaviours to mimic different games was fun. I have far more love for the mistranslated-Spanish section than it really deserves.