Tuesday, 1 December 2020

IFComp 2020 spiel: Amazing Quest by Nick Montfort

I played Amazing Quest by Nick Montfort today, having only glanced at some reviews of it. I enjoyed it and was curious about its contents, which I knew I'd be able to look at and comprehend.

I then went to read every other review of it to see if anyone had said what I might say, thus removing the need for me to say anything. I was surprised at how much negativity the game had drawn. Reviews declaring Amazing Quest could be full of hidden meanings that might elevate it if they weren't hidden, was some arms-length ironic joke, must be full of in-jokes, was definitely trolling them, had wasted their time, meta-this, meta-that, etc. So much suspicion for something so simple! Below I share some thoughts and rhetorical meanderings on the game with reference to some ideas coming from the reviews.

Does knowing (not even necessarily understanding) tech/historical context help one like Amazing Quest?


This is the kind of game you can (and did) write in BASIC in the 1980s, especially if your microcomputer was low on RAM. The Commodore 64 that Montfort has used was not low on RAM, but contests to produce maximum program bang for minimum listing length (sometimes called 'one-liners' for a single-line program, for instance) were popular in the day. Now they remain popular in retro circles. Amazing Quest is in the spirit of such contests in either context. Looking at its listing, it's also a good example of getting that much effect out of that short a program.

In my review survey, I see that even amongst reviewers who lived through these times, had such computers and/or performed such activities, opinions on the game still vary. Someone said (paraphrase), 'I wrote better (programs) when I was fifteen.' Well, I did as well, but I don't think I ever went in for the minimal source approach. In itself, Amazing Quest's source to outputted game ratio is impressive.

The context of the instructions and strategy guide

The instructions for the game are presented as a single typed sheet. It may have come from a typewriter, a daisy wheel printer or be a facsimile of such output. The upshot is, this is a pastiche presentation of 1980s instruction sheets that came in games.

At the stage of the instructions alone, interpretation can sit easily between sincere and cute. Instructions absolutely were this florid about basic content in the day, often embellishing a game's simple graphics with some imaginative strokes to get them to take off in your brain. Similar mechanics are at work with the simple prose in the Scott Adams games. Neuroscientifically, I don't know how younger people today read into the Adams prose. Does it ever take off for them? Or does it just sit there on the page looking literal and undernourished? I assume it, and other prose like it, could work for them if they persisted, thanks to neural plasticity. But who's going to do that work now unless they have a special interest in the kind of material they're doing the work for? There's not enough of it around now, casually, to generate much need or interest. Response to Amazing Quest also shows there's not much tolerance for it per se, but this has to be figured in with some sense of IFComp expectations. IFComp always generates haste and a degree of intolerance that, objectively, we'd have to say is reasonable, especially now there are so many games to play. This means an Amazing Quest can get eyeballs on it, but those eyeballs are primed to quickly move past anything for almost any reason. And relatively speaking, Amazing Quest has prompted a lot of folks to come up with a lot of reasons.

The strategy guide is definitely even cuter than the intro, raising the embellishment stakes even higher and at further length for what is, mechanically, an all probabilities-based random game.

Is the game's randomness so obvious?

It wasn't to me. However, knowing I was dealing with a tiny BASIC program - and still before looking at it - I suspected it could be. There was definitely no way to know just from playing. I think it's testament to the prose Montfort wrote and the style of choices offered, and the fact they can turn out clearly positive or negative outcomes (even if only two!) that players can feel their actions altering things, as reviews indicated they did.

Does it matter if (or should I say That) they don't? For this kind of game in the 1980s, it didn't to me then (assuming the game didn't screw you over. Then I'd be angry. But this game is just measured progress towards victory) and so it doesn't matter to me now so long as the journey evokes something.

Would it matter if the same game had been presented to me in Twine?

Here's context again: For me I'm sure I would not have received it as well. I've got my memory of the time the game can be said to be a pastiche of, the context, the knowledge of how it's done then or now, the knowledge that the knowledge is specialist knowledge. That all impresses me and I enjoy the technical level a bit, but only because I enjoy the experience of the game enough. If we took all that away and I've just got small, random texts in the Twine interface for a short duration, I'd be considerably less entertained.

Am I consistent about this kind of thing? Definitely not! But I expect my own sliding scale involves the scale of the game. As any game gets larger, I feel it can stand more on its own by the girth of its design, no matter what system it's being delivered with. My positive appreciation of Amazing Quest is both dependent upon its small size and outsize to its size because of the tech involved.

Does it matter how something was made?

There was a quote somewhere in the IFComp debates like, 'This isn't a competition for technical proficiency, it's a competition for interactive fiction.' True on the surface. Nobody can hold any player or judge to more than that, but where individuals know or are interested in more than that, or are authors themselves, they probably can and will apply it. We'll also typically write such evaluations into our reviews.

Re: how things are made, in movies, I particularly dislike how CGI has stepped in for things that weren't even that hard to do practically when they were all done practically. Every time some character stands on a nondescript hill in a Lord of the Rings film and I'm supposed to believe the sun and sky are behind them when they aren't, I'm irritated. I can see the fake, intensity-lacking light that's barely falling on anything, unlike even in the cheapest sword and sorcery film of the 1980s. In the context of a film filled with tons of photoreal people and Earthy environments, I wish they'd gone and shot on a real hill at the right time of day. I've plenty of similar annoyances with CGI blood and other cinema topics, etc.

Why do these things matter to me? It's not just dogmatic principle. Certain ways of doing things create aesthetics which may not be obtainable in other ways. If I value the aesthetic, I value the way of getting it, and may not accept substitutes that produce poorer facsimiles. In films, I mostly like real light when there's real light everywhere else. If it's a hypercolourful ballad like The Phantom Menace, then I'm open to the CGI look, because that's the whole aesthetic.

I'm sort of speaking to Amazing Quest's isness here. It's a C64 game, and has that aesthetic. If you don't know about or care for that, or feel (justifiably) that you're only here for interactive fiction, the words on the page, I can see why it may not have done much for you. For me, it's a case of all of how the words get there, what they are, how the game's made, how the whole thing feels, and how the instructions and guide reproduce a certain technological and historical context accurately.


How would I rate Amazing Quest, were I still able to? I don't know, and because I don't have to, I'm spared agonising over it. The more things are unlike each other, the harder they are to rate against each other on a single scale. Amazing Quest is a lot less like the other things in this IFComp, and there are tons of other things. My appreciation for it stands out on some other limb of the tree that I probably can't see if I stand so I can see the other hundred limbs all at once. In life, I encourage anyone to go more towards any game and stand there, rather than standing out in the tower/bungalow/semi-detached house of yourself and looking in with unnecessary suspicion. This isn't the worldview I endorse just for Amazing Quest, it's the one I try to endorse for any game. I probably fail myself sometimes, but that'll always be the dream.

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