Monday, November 9, 2009

Hello, world!

I'm a(n anonymous) child of the '80s ('79 to be precise) and like many of my cohort whiled away many a bemused hour in my childhood with whole hands of fingers jammed into Bantam's "Choose Your Own Adventure" interactive novellas as impromptu bookmarks so as to better keep track of plot forks and branches to return to sometime later.  As I grew and "matured" (nominally) I took up where my babysitter left off and plunged into the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series (after mistaking City of Thieves for the recommended-by-a-friend Thieves' World collection).  The advanced game mechanics were appreciated if typically ignored.

During this period, I was hopelessly devoted to a series of gutless home (micro)computers, though I was always thrilled to scope out the Tower of Babel computing profusion of the mid'80s and investigate how my friend's mom's Mac Classic sized up against my TRS-80 CoCo and the Commodore 64s in the school computer lab - all different machines doing what amounted to the same job in different (and mutually unintelligible) ways.  And as with the books I sandwiched my fingers in, selecting options from menus was a perfectly acceptable convention in this entertaining context also, a streamlining convenience keeping one from having to painstakingly peruse BASIC code listings or memorize byzantine directory structures in order to figure out how to run this week's hot new game.  As a normalized interface convention, it was also perfectly kosher as a game interface mechanism, and during the shareware revolution many programming-poor but narrative-rich would-be auteurs took advantage of various commercial and homebrew systems to share their stories with the world, or at least the sneakernet and their local BBS file areas.

The GUI revolution (let's face it, they were revolting times) made simple menus the order of the day, but along the way eschewed confusing words in favor of simplified icons.  The advent of the internet, a new and exciting medium, heralded the advent of the literary genre for the new millennium: hyperfiction! ... but those of us with paper cut callouses knew better, and watched with dismay as it collapsed at launch into a flaming wreck of academic obscurity.  (In Japan the visual novel arrived as a medium held in similar esteem for entirely different reasons.) Now that hypertext was the order of the day, something used by people who had never waited for a program to load off of cassette tape or stuck their fingers into any kind of publication, we must have assumed that the counterpoint to the rapidly dwindling gamebook publishing industry would be an explosion of the material casually strewn throughout the information superhighway.

But instead we got banner ads.  While gamebook-style interactive reads weren't unknown in this strange new world, amateur hour meant the death of the system that had professional writers and illustrators working beneath trained editors to publish tested material... all of which presupposes a certain profit motive largely absent in this Wild West bordertown.  Instead, people who arranged paragraphs for the love of the game and got their dog-walker to look over it once released their cocktail-napkin gamebooks in whatever medium they had available -- often Microsoft Word DOCs -- and watched them sink out of sight.

Sometimes this was a loss that no one, not even the dog-walker, would mourn, while othertimes -- who knows? -- hitherto unknown and underappreciated gems of the fin-de-siecle never reached their audience because the free webhost went under, or the work was saved in a file format Google didn't at that time index, or the author didn't bother to (or know how to) actually embed links and targets within their document to make it convenient to navigate... or the technological tides shifted and epic works gathered dust in Hypercard vaults or bitrotting on 5¼-inch floppy diskettes nobody had the equipment or knowhow to liberate them from.  Maybe they were languishing in a proprietary data file no one had thought or known to hexedit.  And maybe the publisher went under, leaving the books forevermore out-of-print, consigning the works (often interrupted mid-series) to a kind of limbo existing only in the memories of their onetime players and occasional used bookstore inventory-takers.

I aim to use this blog to give a few of these dusty no hope cases a few more hours in the sun after all these years, presenting the full text (with original illustrations, where possible) of these forgotten interactive stories in a hypertext-navigable Web-browser-playable form in many cases for the first time, ever, with a spot of context besides!  They may not all be winners, but the web is big enough to sustain a bit more nostalgia-bloat, and if people are playing the Atari 2600 E.T. game through emulation today it certainly has nothing in terms of compelling plot and gameplay that even the weakest of these lack. 

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