Saturday, April 30, 2011

Movie Review: GET LAMP

I didn't get off to a good start with text adventures, originally. Played a few bad ones back on the C64 and wasn't that impressed. The early Sierra graphic adventures weren't fit to convert me, either. No one can describe the frustrations the genre often implied better than Ron Gilbert did on his Maniac Mansion Postmortem talk at GDC 2011:

You'd see a bush on the screen. You wouldn't know what to call it, so you type "PICK UP PLANT", and it's "I don't know what a plant is", so you type "PICK UP BUSH" and it's "I don't know what a bush is", you'd say "PICK UP SHRUBBERY" and it's "I don't know what a shrubbery" is, so eventually you type "FUCK YOU", and it's, you know "Do you really need to swear?" and I'm like "Yes, yes, I really need to swear."

Oddly enough, it was also Sierra that won me back for Interactive Fiction many years later, with Leisure Suit Larry 7. While the game was a slick point & click graphical adventure as modern as could be in 1996, it had that neat little parser thing underneath, where all commands that could be executed with the mouse could be typed in instead. But that was only the beginning, as soon I found myself fascinated with the idea of trying out the strangest commands and searching for the naughty easter eggs. That got me to give text adventures a second chance. And as it turns out, the parser often isn't too awful after all, as soon as one gets a general idea how it works and which basic verbs it uses for the most part.

The genre was already about 20 years old then, though. Now it's more than 30. Its mainstream commercial days are long gone. Playing catch-up, with the games itself as with the genre history, has become a thoroughly daunting task as a result. Well, now (since last year's summer, to be exact) there's a documentary to watch to get the greater picture of an unique chapter in gaming history, when computer games aspired to be like books rather than movies, advertised under the only slightly pretentious name Interactive Fiction.

This documentary is the result of a monumental effort, shot and produced by Jason Scott over the course of more than three years, with over 70 interviews being conducted in the meantime. The title of the film? GET LAMP, named after an essential command at the very beginning of many early games, notably the first adventure game ever, simply named Adventure by Will Crowther & Don Woods.

I was curious how GET LAMP would handle the visual representation. After all, what can there be to show about games that consist of plain text only? First of course comes the DVD case, which tries its best to honor the Infocom tradition of unique packaging, with some gorgeous artwork and a numbered coin, which shows the lamp the director kept carrying around while shooting the film, and which shows up in the picture all the time, I suppose in case you feel like playing a drinking game (in which case the movie might actually kill you, I guess).

The film itself starts showing the exploration of a real cave and interviews with various cave explorers. There's no narration, but the documentary generally does an excellent job of telling its narrative through the skilled assembling of interviews. Only here in the beginning I was a little confused for a while until I got that this was actually dealing of the very cave that was used as a model for the cave in Adventure, Colossal Cave.

The rest of the film is much more heavy on the interviews, but contemporary TV footage and newspaper clippings (the latter usually shown too briefly) help to set you back into ancient times of electronic entertainment, while the film goes on to follow the history of Adventure International and Infocom, the two major text adventure companies.

Most adventure game designers are quite funny guys, and thus there's plenty of amusing anecdotes, like business conversations you could only ever have at Infocom, like the one Bob Bates remembers: "The elf is drunk, but I gave him the magic wand..." But it's not only entertaining, but most of all highly educational. Or did you know that the first dissertation on game aesthetics was written in 1985, by a graduate in German literature of all people (her name's Mary Ann Buckle)?

The second half deals with the playing experience (drawing maps!) and the indie IF scene that's thriving nowadays, producing odd name sublines like "interactive fiction author" or "long-time game player," often with no clue what the particular interview partner actually did, so this part is initially much less impressive than the portions full of genre legends sharing their wisdom.

Very interesting to me, however, was a chapter on blind people playing text adventure games. One quote sounded particularly inspiring: "I think it's actually liberating, because you can explore a world with sight." A screen message like "It's pitch black. You don't see a thing," is bound to carry a certain irony in this setting.

Not all is great, though. A serious issue to me was the way the DVD is put together. There's an "interactive" version and a "non-interactive" version of the main documentary, eventually the interactive one presents three choices, asking which content you want to watch next, but there's no real information on whether the other parts would follow afterwards, or if you'd have to go back to the beginning first, or whether the non-interactive version contained all content from the interactive one. Also, because of the whole interactivity thing, the film is broken down into different titles, so DVD players only display the running time of the current title, which makes it a bitch to refer to or find certain sections. Then there's the menu points "EXPLORE BEDQUILT" (which deals with the cave) and "EXAMINE INFOCOM". I clicked on the latter, and it started with familiar scenes from the main documentary, leaving me wondering whether this was merely a recut of Infocom-relevant bits and I was wasting my time. Turns out most of it was new, but I almost skipped the whole thing. I get that they were going for an "adventure"-like composition, but with a documentary, it's just incredibly confusing. Even after clicking on all the main menu points, and also watching the extensive bonus footage on the second disc, I'm still not sure if I've seen everything. The Infocom feature also has a lot of commentary, but it is all in plain text, displayed while the interviewees are talking, which makes it hard to follow, at least for bad multitaskers.

I was also a little bit disappointed that it didn't go into the transition to point&click adventures at Sierra and Lucas Arts. Infocom's and Legend's attempts to add graphics to classic text adventures are mentioned, but that's it. It's easy (and totally legitimate) to just say that was out of the scope of the project, but I personally would have welcomed such a chapter. Also, the second disc contains the music video "It Is Pitch Dark" by MC Frontalot, but no interview with the man, another missed opportunity in my book.

Despite its few flaws, GET LAMP is a must-watch for anyone interested into the history of adventure gaming or even the history of video gaming in general for its myriads of interesting anecdotes. The DVD is rather pricey, but I figure you mostly pay for the packaging.

Information and ordering is available at


  1. Watching the Non-Interactive version, along with the Infocom and Bedquilt mini-documentaries, will give you 99% of what you could see on disc 1.

  2. That's good to know, thanks for the heads up. Also thanks for making a great documentary.

  3. Pretty much! I was surprised that it was focused and mostly coherent. That's a spot-on review.