Variability-Bringer

I continued my initiation into the IF wing of the e-lit estate by playing Wishbringer (1985) by Brian Moriarty. As a conscious attempt by Infocom to create an introductory-level game, this seemed like a natural next step for my own introduction to the form — even if nearly 40 years later. Not to bury the lede too much, I was also preparing for my wife to go into labor at any moment, so I wanted to select a work that I would be able to play while we were laid up in the hospital for a couple of days with a newborn (though not something to play while she was actually laboring, mind you!). There’s quite a bit of sitting around with a sleeping and/or eating baby after the whole “birth” part is over — in our case, the baby was indeed born on July 25, healthy and happy!

Wishbringer is intended for ‘adult novices,’ in contrast to the Seastalker, which Infocom consciously made for and marketed to ‘junior’ players. Even still, Wishbringer has the feel of children’s literature: framed by a fairy tale of a princess whose 7 suitors are sent off on deadly quests by a covetous step-mother Queen, you play as a young post office page searching for a good witch’s lost cat — abducted, you find out, by her evil sister. Your tool of choice is a magical stone that grants 7 different wishes (each recalling one of the 7 failed suitors) — though the wishes aren’t needed to complete the quest, only intended to make some puzzles easier to complete for IF newcomers. Although I still consider myself a novice at these games, I managed to complete the game sans wishes, aided by only a couple hints.

I discussed A Mind Forever Voyaging as a good introduction to both the mechanics and poetics of IF, and Wishbringer more consciously sets out to guide new players through the form in this way. In addition to the optional wishbringer stone that provides easier solutions to puzzles, the game prompts players to save their progress at key points (where death or otherwise irreversible outcomes are likely); at a point early on, the game warns the player that they’re about to enter a maze, and they should maybe think about mapping it *wink.* Similar to the game-within-a-game set up of AMFV, there’s an arcade machine the incorporates the Wishbringer map that achieves a similar effect. You even encounter a sleeping grue in its natural habitat…along with its jerry-rigged fridge.

Styled as an introduction to the form — and to Infocom games, specifically — Wishbringer is successful several decades on. More than an introductory guide, I found the work itself thoroughly enjoyable. I smiled through whimsical elements like a platypus kingdom accessed by blowing a magical whistle. I liked the open yet small world design, and I quickly became familiar with the town of Festoron as I tromped about. Moriarty plays with fairy tale tropes (and IF tropes) but adds weirdness and idiosyncratic details that make this feel like an original creation and not just a port of a print literary tradition into IF nor just a straightforward introduction to IF. And, of course, this work will always hold a special memory as the game I played in the hospital after my son was born.

I have been playing/reading interactive fiction works on one of two laptops: a new Dell running Windows 10 and a 15-ish year old Dell running Windows XP. On both computers, I’ve been using the Gargoyle IF interpreter, and I’ve been able to easily move game files and save files from one computer to the other. As I mentioned in the previous post on A Mind Forever Voyaging, the ability to continue to easily play old IF works on a range of machines is a huge factor for the ongoing viability of both distinct works as well as the form overall. New readers like myself can quickly get on board by playing new and old games alike without much fuss. My appreciation for this aspect of the digital curation of IF works continued to develop as I played Wishbringer.

Knowing that I would be packing up Wishbringer into my hospital bag, and knowing that I would be playing it in a not-large and not-comfortable hospital room, I explored options for playing IF games on tablets, namely a Kindle Fire tablet that my sister gave me recently. I’m not much of a tablet person, preferring a commodious desktop setup above all, but this was just the right conditions to really break in this device. Fortunately, there’s been really interesting work to develop IF applications for both iOS and Android (which the Kindle Fire OS is based on) mobile environments. Specifically, I used the Text Fiction application, which sports a messenger-style interface and other features like suggested world completion and buttons for common commands like ‘get’ or ‘examine.’

The application was, honestly, a joy to use. I easily downloaded the Wishbringer z file from the Historical Source GitHub repository and got it running in TF. While I didn’t feel like the text messenger interface added much to my experience, it didn’t detract, and TF is a great example of the fungible nature of IF works more broadly. These works have been played across so many types of computers — from mainframes to mobile phones — all in ways that honor and re-create the essence of the form despite significant differences in the hardware and peripherals used to interact with the parsers and simulated worlds. Using a tablet in 2021, I read essentially the same text as someone using an Atari in 1985, even if other parts of the reading/playing experience were quite different. We can and should attend to these differences, treating this and other IF works as dynamic and developing across their various ports along the upgrade path,1 but for now I just want to appreciate the fact that these works remain playable decades after the point of creation, and show no sign of being inaccessible any time soon.

This variable preservation of IF works over time is a fantastic illustration of the ‘variable media paradigm’ developed by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito in Re-Collection,2 stemming from their earlier work with the Variable Media Network. Rinehart and Ippolito propose ‘re-creation’ of cultural works dependent on obsolete media as a preservation strategy when migration to or emulation on current hardware or software prove insufficient. A preservation approach developed for digital and new media art, these ideas can nonetheless be applied to other forms of digital culture. Though, for IF, these efforts have been motivated by the desire to play these games first and foremost, this work is digital curation, and it would behoove librarians and archivists to understand it as such. As forms of reproducible culture, literature and digital games, which IF works sit (sometimes uneasily) at the juncture of, are preserved principally through sustained and renewed engagement by audiences over time. As long as a book is read or a game is played, it remains active in the culture — even if a contemporary Penguin paperback version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover is quite different in important ways from the private edition first circulated among DH Lawrence’s circle in 1928.

For new media artworks that exist as unique objects in museum collections, this kind of variable preservation strategy may likely be carried out by a small team, including conservators, computer scientists, and perhaps the artist herself — as was the case for Shu Lea Cheang’s net art piece Brandon (1998), commissioned and recently restored at the Guggenheim to run in current web browsers.3 For reproducible cultural objects, like e-lit or games, this mode of preservation-through-change can happen in a dispersed way through communities of readers, writers, players. To be clear, moving z-files along the upgrade path to run on newer machines is migration, strictly speaking, though I see aspects of variability/re-creation in systems like Text Fiction, which not only make the older file playable on newer hardware/software but also reframe the interactive experience in important ways. Moving forward, I want to think about ways that cultural heritage professionals can support the memory work already going on in creative communities.

My only gripe about the Text Fiction application is that the save files generated by TF are not compatible with other IF interpreters like Gargoyle. I’d like to be able to transfer these save files onto my main laptop for future reference, but that wouldn’t really be worthwhile in this case. My use of this application, while helping me to engage with Wishbringer in an atypical space and time (e.g. a makeshift bed in a hospital room with my wife and baby), still does not fit well with my emerging personal digital curation practices for IF data (which I’ll perhaps delve into more in a future post). However, I am starting to see how walkthroughs of IF games may fill in this gap, by providing ready reference to the entire text of the game with added commentary. I need to boot up the Text Fiction application on my Fire tablet to refer back to specific things from my playthrough, but I can read through walkthroughs online to find out about pretty much everything that’s possible to do in the game. This post is already getting quite lengthy, though, so I’ll plan to discuss my developing sense of walkthroughs as digital curation aids in the next post…

Notes

  1. Terry Harpold provides a great example of this kind of device/interface-specific interpretation: Terry Harpold, Ex-Foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
  2. Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014).
  3. Deena Engel et al., “Reconstructing Brandon (1998-1999): A Cross-Disciplinary Digital Humanities Study of Shu Lea Cheang’s Early Web Artwork,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 12, no. 2 (September 5, 2018), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/12/2/000379/000379.html.

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