GET LAMP, a documentary about adventures in text

Oct 18, 2010

This weekend, I watched GET LAMP, a documentary by the computer historian Jason Scott about adventures in text. Well, I only watched the first DVD, and I understand there’s lots more on the second one. But still wanted to write a bit of it down here.

I didn’t know much about text adventure games. I played a few, never finished any, and they definitely were not as formative for me as they were to many people in the film. But what I’m greatly interested in is computing history, and how things are born, live and die.

The documentary does a wonderful job at covering both of these aspects. It explores how the genre got started; how puzzles and mazes are central to the experience; how the greatest company in the niche, Infocom, was born out of MIT people, and how it went through its peak in 1980s and got acquired and shut down thereafter; how the genre was dormant for a while, but now lives on as an artistic, rather than commercial, hobbyist medium of interactive fiction.

Many of these games took place in caves. This was no accident, as the first one, Adventure, was born out of Will Crowther’s experience as a caver in Kentucky. Crowther did not appear in the film, but his colleagues and successors talked about how the real informed the virtual.

There’s another, deeper, almost transcendentary aspect to the genre. The games were popular because all you had was text, and how the primary medium and stage of the gameplay was your own imagination; the text and the game was merely a tool of reflection. If the map, the maze, the puzzle was too complex to fit in your head, you’d just draw it out, discuss with collaborators, hunt for hints in some pre-Internet way. As graphical games and Internet appeared, you had to imagine and think less, and all the answers are at your fingertips without having to talk to anyone. Sure, it’s easier, but are we as people better off? An argument and discussion not unlike books vs movies.

Computing advances are not born out of thin air. We build upon what’s been before. Text adventures reminded me of another similar culture that I’ve had a bit more exposure to, the demoscene.

I’ve now become a designer and I make products that are not games. But I do believe there is a game design aspect to many products that goes far beyond simple silly points and achievements and superficial social networks. You’re trying to have a conversation with who’s using what you made, and you can bring joy or frustration to them with your design choices. GET LAMP helped me find some new old perspectives, and for that I’m thankful to Jason who made the film.

See also the review in Ars Technica.