ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Goodbye, Paul Panks —

I considered putting this on the GET LAMP weblog, but I decided it just didn’t fit, because this isn’t really about the documentary, but about a person, and his relation to something he loved.

It echoed around inside interactive fiction circles that Paul Panks had died, and while people were positive this was a prank, the obituary was tracked down pretty quickly:


The life of Paul Allen Panks literally came full circle when he passed away unexpectedly July 5, 2009 two days before his 33rd birthday. He was born three months prematurely at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix on July 7, 1976, where he spent four months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It was this fighting spirit that endeared him to us from the start, and helped him with the challenges he would face in his later years. Growing up Paul spent hours drawing, writing & creating computer adventure games, hobbies he enjoyed all of his life. He graduated from Chaparral High School in 1995 and earned a BS degree in Sociology from Northern Arizona University. Paul was preceded in death by grandparents Allen and Lois Panks, and Jim and Ann Williams. He is survived by his parents Gary and Judy, brother Brian, Aunt Jan McLaughlin (Jim), cousins Ryan McLaughlin (Sharon), Tim McLaughlin (Leann), Ethan and Mia McLaughlin, and the Loeffler family. He is also survived by Aunts Shirley Przylucki (Chet), Sally Higdon (Don), and many other loving family members and friends. A celebration of Paul’s life will be held 4:00 P.M. Wednesday, July 15, at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, 12861 N. 8th Avenue, Phoenix. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Paul’s memory to: The Marc Center East Village, 924 N. Country Club Drive, Mesa Arizona 85201, Attention: Cheryl Anderson. Life will never be the same without Paul, who left us way too soon. Arrangements by Messinger Indian School Mortuary.
OK, so here’s the thing about Paul Allen Panks.

As part of the research for my documentary, I spent some time going through the Usenet newsgroups related to interactive fiction (one is, another I mostly wanted to get some ideas of what to focus on, who to talk to, experts who might not be obvious experts, or stuff I’d never have thought was important which in fact incredibly important. And this is what I learned:

There was a guy named Paul Allen Panks. His handle was “dunric” but he switched between the two names constantly. He was a frequent poster for years in interactive fiction newsgroups. He would enter competitions with his games constantly. And in the realm of the interactive fiction community of this period, nobody liked Paul all that much.  He was abrasive, weird, and would go into bizarre spirals of text, driving his contemporaries (who would be horrified to be considered “contemporaries”) up the wall.  Here’s a large collection of his postings, courtesy of Google Groups. He switched accounts a few times, and a couple of his accounts were banned for terms-of-use violations.

Here’s him announcing a leaving of Usenet Forever in March of 2006. It’s not clear if he posted again later. You never could tell.
When I announced I was working on my documentary, Paul mailed me:

My name is Paul Panks and I have authored well over 35
text adventures since 1994. I would be delighted to
contribute to the documentary in any way I can. I am
most noted for my text adventures “Westfront PC: The
Trials of Guilder” and “HLA Adventure.”
Hello Jason,
My name is Paul Panks and I have authored well over 35
text adventures since 1994. I would be delighted to
contribute to the documentary in any way I can. I am
most noted for my text adventures “Westfront PC: The
Trials of Guilder” and “HLA Adventure.”
We made an arrangement for me to come into town and interview him, as I’d agreed to speak on a panel at the University of Advancing Technology in Arizona.  We traded some mail as the date came closer, but I showed up, called and left messages, and he was a no-show. (I ended up interviewing Michael Eilers instead). Oh well, I thought.

After I got back, I mailed him, asking if everything was OK, and he mailed back simply “Yes, why do you ask?”

A few rounds of this, and he wasn’t ultimately interviewed. That was that.
Reviews of his games are, text-speaking, rather bloody affairs. Example:

NINJA II: This is essentially the same Ninja game entered a year before, which the author expanded by exactly one puzzle (however, it didn’t improve things in any way). It’s arguable whether it was a legal entry for the IF-Competition, since its rules admit newly released games only; however, considering the ranks both Ninja and Ninja II earned in the Comp, this argument is mostly of purely theoretical interest.

Here’s a collection of his games, which you’re free to try out and make your own conclusions. Some are very small, and others, as I will now highlight, were huge.
It’s obvious, looking back, that his favorite creation and the one he put the most of himself into was Westfront, variations of which he released for years. His 2001 announcement of this game is worth noting, especially when he mentions the size of the world in the game:
Dear Interactive Fiction Enthusiasts,

I wish to discuss with you the nature of my game “Westfront PC: The
Trials of Guilder”. It has been called a cross between Zork,
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars and several online MUDs
(Multi-User Dungeons). I am very humbled by such a mixture and am
warmed to the heart by the kind praise and words of encouragement.
Westfront PC (or simply, “WFPC”) is not meant to be a traditional text
adventure game. It was inspired by a host of adventure games, from
Zork to The Pawn to online MUDs and even some Graphical Adventure
games. It is an odd mixture to say the least. But the truth of the
matter is this: Westfront PC is half adventure  game, half an inside
joke and the rest eccentrically fun nonsense.
The game itself has 1,728 “rooms” spread across four different
continents. But the fun of the game is not so much exploring the rooms
as it is discovering new items and solving the various puzzles and
quests around the game.
Strange events such as a “mysterious voice” that bellows odd phrases
to the now infamous “Inspector Funkydog” spice up the gameplay. The
pleasant use of color in the text allows for easier reading and better
sense making.
Gameplay is straight forward: Solve 25 quests and defeat Salin’s Evil
Army. Sounds easy, right? Along the way, make new friends (Faldor,
Wolf, Warrior, Zombie, Barbarian and Leopard) and discover new worlds
(Burton Mansion, Hambley Abbey) in your quest to restore order to the
mythical land of Guilder.
I coded Westfront PC on the Commodore 64 in 1994, which isn’t saying
much, other than that I tried to limit myself to the capabilities of
the system. Soon after that, I ported the game over to the IBM
PC-compatible line of microcomputers. And the rest, as they say, is
I am currently working on a whole new text adventure in the more
traditional lineage, similar to Zork and Castle Adventure. My goal
isn’t to surpass Westfront PC…it is to create a whole new adventure
game with different worlds to explore and much better room
descriptions. If I receive even one positive feedback, I believe I
will have succeeded in my goal of publishing an adventure game others
find enjoyable.
Thank you for listening. 🙂 Have a nice day!
You read right: 1,728 locations, in a genre that most examples limit to under 75 distinct locations.  He claimed it would take months to truly play his games. I believe him.

Like a lot of smaller groups, the modern interactive fiction community has certain mores and beliefs that permeate, and are unspoken until someone violates them. Paul apparently violated them a lot – one was that his games could be easily solved, leaving 90 percent of the rooms untouched, and all his little side-quests and efforts unseen. This would cause a low rating, when it was more that he obviously saw these as small worlds that could allow for all sorts of outlooks. Another issue was self-promotion, especially incessant self-promotion; not appreciated on the message boards, and Paul did it constantly. When he made (often minor) revisions to games and then re-issued them, this earned ire as well. He was, really, steeped in ire in this community. But he kept coming back.

I’ve been pretty scattershot, so far, in describing this person. And the reason for that was that he wasn’t really a person for me, just a collection of hatred by others, essays about various subjects, and a bunch of games, which I didn’t have time to really play through and understand. And, on top of it, someone who, when I took the time to try and interview, just didn’t end up happening. This missed interview situation happened with a bunch of people, but in his case, it felt more like he had just hidden away when I got too “real” and close, and then started mailing me again after I was many safe miles away. But I’ll never know, will I?

I hope others chime in to talk about him, because there’s a lot of his writing online and the interactive fiction forums, normally prone to the occasional flamewar, would go crazy in things regarding Panks. The complaints seemed to be that he constantly posted notifications of his game, re-release old games as if they were new, and take on all comers in all directions. Rarely does a game of his rate more than a 1 out of 5 from this group of interactive fiction enthusiasts. He holds almost no allies online that I can find, save the person going “Well, his game was OK” who doesn’t defend him as much as saying that the games were playable, which is more than you can say for some entries in the field.

Why did I attempt to interview him? Because it was (and is) obvious that this was a person who loved interactive fiction. While he might anti-socially bump into others in his realm, he loved the realm completely. For over a decade that I can track him, he writes these games, hones them, lives in them. He wants them to be as good as he can muster. He implies, in many messages, that he suffered from hallucinations and depression. His death at the age of 32 with little detail indicates his implications may have been truthful.  But through these trials, he always had these games, felt a need to share them, to let people now what he was up to and to give them his worlds, his dreams.

Paul in his own words shows up in this entry on the Lemon64 boards, talking about all his memories of programming games on his Commodore 64. If you didn’t battle him on forums or Usenet, I’ll bet this is quite a touching recount of a person who had a lifelong interest in something, and regretted nothing about it.

Categorised as: computer history | documentary

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  1. Jonathan Blask says:

    It’s been some years, but I do remember being annoyed at his incessant promotion. That said, I never hated the guy. I was impressed that he was just as open and honest about his own problems as he was about his enthusiasms. Mainly, he would just make some of us wish that he found the help he needed. Now that he’s gone and that book is closed, I cannot help but appreciate his contribution to the IF community at a time of my life when it was important to me. It is sad to see him go, especially considering his struggles, but it is good to know that he had a loving family.

    Years from now, I expect to still evoke the name of Inspector Funkydog, because hey, that is timeless.

  2. Daniel Auger says:

    I’m shocked. I don’t even know what to say. He was very active on and I had traded some PMs recently. He had a knack for creating very odd threads on the lemon message board which became sources of entertainment and healthy conversation. He will be missed.

  3. Daniel Auger says:

    Jason, this may fill in the gaps regarding Paul’s behavior: He suffered pretty seriously from schizophrenia and other health issues. He was public about this on Lemon over the past year.

  4. I disliked Paul immensely, but I’m fascinated by people like him…the clueless, socially-inept, utterly impotent self-boosters who are unwilling (or unable) to even BEGIN to recognize their own limitations. Make no mistake: Paul annoyed everybody, online and in real life. He had no friends.

    I can say this with some certainty because I kept up with his infrequent blog entries — some of them deleted weeks after he wrote them — and geez, I even read his books when he tried to sell them on Lulu. I wanted to see what he’d do next, and I got sort of fascinated watching his moodswings: from self-aggrandizement, to endless and repetitive rehashings of The Lost Adventure Game He Wrote In His Teens, to stories about encounters with women in bars who obviously despised him, to depressed agonizing about his desire for a wife, and wallowing in his own mythology…

    …and here’s the crucial thing about Paul Panks: he lived a personal mythology, and a very fragile one. Maintaining it required a firm belief in one thing: that people just didn’t understand him because he was too clever and subtle. You’d see this facade crack once in a while, but it was always followed by him deciding that he was just joking about whatever mistake he’d made or lie he’d told.

    Part of me wanted to email Paul and say “Okay, step one: when you meet a girl you’re interested in, don’t tell her how you’re hopelessly in love with the fiance you lost six years ago.” But what doomed Paul was his TOTAL unwillingness to see any flaws in himself except for minor ones he could sort of brag about.

    What makes me sad now is realizing that, yeah, this probably wasn’t “unwillingness,” it was probably an outright “inability.” He was probably more mentally ill than I thought, though it’s easier to cut people slack when they’re not being morons.

    Anyway, I can’t pretend that Paul was simply “misunderstood” or “never given a chance” or “a struggling genius.” By all indications he was an obnoxious, self-obsessed, talentless boob. But fascinating nonetheless, and I think he probably felt pretty terrible most of the time, even if he’d never consciously admit it.

  5. Tim F. says:

    Geez Muffy, if you disliked the guy so much why are you even here? It’s pretty cold of you to post such things about the guy when he’s not around anymore to defend himself.

    I didn’t know Paul personally.. just through sites like Lemon 64, and yeah, he was a little odd and quirky but it made for interesting conversations. I’ll take odd and quirky over boring (or Muffy like) any day.

  6. DanSolo says:

    Muffy St. BernardNo Gravatar wrote:
    “He had no friends.”

    This is demonstrably false and everything else you’ve got to say isn’t far behind.
    Paul was probably be most standards socially inept, but hey, this is the internet, not running for office. He loved IF and retrocomputing, which certainly means he was in the ballpark, and beyond being slightly annoying, not even all that often, anyone who things he was a bad guy is a worse example of social cluelessness than Paul ever was.

  7. Tim, I’m here because the poster invited comments about Paul, and I enjoyed watching Paul’s behaviour from a distance because I find his type of life to be fascinating.

    Do you honestly think it matters to Paul right now whether he can “defend himself?” In fact I’m sure he’d be THRILLED to know that people are writing about him. “Any attention is good attention” was his general pattern of behaviour, and I suspect his biggest fear was that he wasn’t as fascinating to others as he was to himself.

    So Paul, if you’re listening, you WERE fascinating, but I sure as heck am not going to give you the Michael Jackson treatment.

  8. Shane Wood says:

    The world online will be a little less interesting! without Paul’s quirky
    and entertaining posts, Perhaps now! he will finally catchup with his double from the past and find that famous lost adventure of his.

    My thoughts and condolence go out to Paul’s Family and Friends
    as well as Paul’s online Friends.

    Be seeing you Paul, but not just yet 🙂 “c64web”.

  9. Oliver (Six/Style) says:

    I knew Paul from the c64 scene (or what passes for it here in the US). His antics on the message boards were hilarious. I often got the feeling that a lot of people just didn’t get the joke, and the postings I’ve read since his death suggest the same.

    Your description of Paul’s work is pretty accurate, though I think again people just didn’t get it. If there were more people in the IF community who liked to explore in games as opposed to people who want puzzles to solve, his work would probably have been more popular. This is why, when I set out to build the C64 PETSCII MUD, Paul was an obvious choice for text author. It takes a special sort of person to model vast worlds, while anyone can craft a few small puzzles and call it a game.

    Yes, Paul was crazy, but in an enjoyable, productive sort of way. I’ll take crazy over petty elitism any day. The people who so despised Paul had no real reason to do so. He was harmless.

    If he wanted to enter every compo with a game that no-one cared for, who did that harm? If he wanted to post once per week about some disk he lost, in the hopes that someone with a copy would chime in, who did that harm?

    The conflicts surrounding Paul usually served to lessen my opinions of his attackers, and his persistent refusal to flame others in the face of flames, and continued devotion to his work earned him my respect.

  10. DBL says:

    RIP Paul Panks. P.S. How did he die? He was too young…

  11. fluffy bunny says:

    Well said, Oliver. RIP Dunric.

  12. Diego says:

    You know from what I’ve read about his weirdness, ability to have people dislike him, his exagerations and possible art of lying, is it possible that he is really NOT dead and this is just all a ruse like when he claimed he’d never return to the news groups?

    Its just a thought because as I’m reading this, I’ve known a person or two who seemed very similar to Paul. I wouldn’t put it past these guys I know to do something like this to garner much needed attention.

    Just a thought.

  13. Dmackey828 says:

    Paul, you will be missed that’s for sure. No one can say that you Won’t! I’m glad I at least got to exchange messages & chat with you on the IRC Channels.

    RIP – Friend.

  14. Sam Gillett says:

    I knew Paul from comp.sys.cbm. Paul could be annoying at times, but overall I liked him. I even defended him a few times when others became over-zealous in attacking him. I must admit that I also made fun of some of his posts at times… like his infamous attempts to retrieve lost data by sleeping with a floppy disk under his pillow.

    When he wrote about seeing things that were not there his world sometimes seemed frightening and I felt sorry for him. I sometimes wished that I could help him, but there was nothing I could do.

    Whatever Pauls shortcomings, he did not deserve to die at such a young age. May he rest in peace.

    God bless the departed soul of Paul Panks.

  15. Clockmeister says:

    Hey Muffy, you can substitute Pauls name with yours in that tirade of bullshit that you posted. Paul had friends, real friends that genuinely liked his quirkyness.

    Paul will be missed by many, myself included. RIP Paul.

  16. Robert says:

    I would like to echo what fluffy bunny said – “Well said, Oliver. RIP Dunric.”

  17. 5k3105 says:

    Paul. Dunric.

    I remember him from comp.sys.cbm. He had always been there it seemed. Years ago he became so obsessed about recovering his lost disks he made a web site devoted to destroying and recapturing data off 5.25 disks. Before I was just annoyed by his questions but when I saw that site it was something I’d never forget.

    We used to joke about his disk recovery experiments. He even wrote about putting the disk under his pillow to recover the information though his dreams.

    He was a very creative and kind person and he will be missed by many.

    RIP Paul.

  18. Paul was a user of the SDF Public Access UNIX System and his abrasive behavior (via email, and USENET) got him in hot water several times, but he was always welcome. Its due to the sheer amount of creativity in his games that allowed that welcome, otherwise he probably would have been long gone and long forgotten. To give you an idea of some of his zany ideas, he wanted to run a family restaurant and vintage video game arcade. Sort of like what Chuck-E-Cheese stuck in somewhere between 1979-1983.

  19. Emily Short says:

    I wouldn’t say that Paul was broadly hated in the IF community at all; more that a few specific people found his behavior very aggravating (and they were outspoken, which is often how the internet works) while many others found it sad or puzzling but were in no position to contribute positively (which is also part of how the internet works).

    I had the impression that the guy was suffering in ways that would explain his unusual interactions. I also had to respect his absolute unsquashability, as game after game was received unenthusiastically but he kept contributing to the competition year after year anyway. Inability to learn anything from criticism is a liability for an artist, but so is oversensitivity. Paul had or simulated an enthusiasm and a degree of self-belief that few can match.

    In addition to that, I never got the sense that he willed any harm or felt any malice towards anyone who didn’t attack him first (and sometimes not even then). That trait counts for a lot with me.

    So I’m sorry to hear of his passing, even though I’ve played only a few of his works and doubt that he would ever have written one that did grab me. I doubt I’m alone in thinking those things.

  20. Soundwave says:

    Let me say this….


    Yes I actually knew Paul in real life back in high school. He did annoy people. He did a few things to embarrass himself. When he came to school, dressed up in a shirt and tie, you knew he was asking someone out. I admit laughing at the guy at times, but I never hated him. He was a nice guy, never meant anyone wrong, and was always positive. I was saddenned to hear the news of his passing, and it was much too soon.

    As for you Muffy, you should NEVER RIP ON THE DEAD. That is just poor of you. Keep talking trash like that, and it comes back on you.

    Afterall Muffy, you don’t sound like someone who’s liked by many people yourself. Clockmeister put it down well.

  21. Ever say spiteful and stupid things in an online forum and then realize what a know-nothing jerk you are? That’s me.

    Paul pushed my buttons because he seemed to be exactly the sort of person who most annoys me: the relentless self-promoter who — in my twisted eyes — brings nothing positive to the world. Somebody who never learns from his mistakes, but still thinks he’s amazing. Since I try to recognize and root out those elements in my own personality, I get almost gleefully annoyed at those who don’t.

    So no, I never saw Paul as a person, and if anybody liked him I didn’t notice (or care). His death was without consequence to me, just a sort of footnote and one last, petty chance to say “I really dislike that sort of person,” and feel smugly that I therefore am not that sort of person.

    This thread isn’t about me so I won’t dwell on my own feelings, but it didn’t take long for me to realize my attitude about this was total sh*t. Who am I to claim to know Paul’s motivations or the feelings of those around him, let alone gleefully stomp on them out of some ugly little urge to feel superior and clever and better than he was?

    I’ve been holding off admitting this to myself until now, but: yeah, my response to Paul — both in life and death — has showed me something awful about myself. Regardless of my assumptions about his motives in life, it was wrong in every way for me to flippantly post them, and — more importantly — the fact that I so obsessively ASSUMED such things says a lot about the way I deal with the world and the way I feel about myself.

    I’m sorry. I was wrong, and I have learned. That’s probably not what Paul would have cared about, but maybe it’s worth something to those of you who were rightfully shocked at my callous garbage.

  22. Cedric Knight says:

    I was saddened to read of the death of Paul Panks in the interactive fiction magazine SPAG. He was definitely not on the same wavelength as the majority of the IF community and many did indeed find him irritating and have issues with him (Muffy was definitely not the only one), but unless really provoked I recall him responding politely and in good faith. He was prone to reveal his personal insecurities and problems in sometimes quite off-topic messages, and I think many people tacitly felt for him and understood it as a reason for his idiosyncrasies and inability to adapt to everyone else’s expectations. But it was the wrong place, and we could of course do little or nothing to help or influence him… a bit of soul-searching and questioning assumptions is still surely right in tragic circumstances.

    Although I only had patience to play one of his games to completion, he obviously enjoyed making them and Paul Panks added colour to the IF scene, both literally and figuratively.

  23. jason r says:

    I’m sorry for being so shitty to you Paul.Though I haven’t seen you in 18 years I feel I have some blame if you took your own life. We tortured you . Mr. Strongs class, San Pablo man if i hadn’t known you from before you may have had a chance.His parents may be able to place me i may have been the only guy to come over to hang out with him in 8th grade. I was looking you up to say sorry now that we were grown. Sociology. You wanted to know why we were how we were to you . You still thought it was us. We could have been friends now. Sorry I was late buddy. RIP Paul Panks

  24. Sirocco says:

    Wow, I’m late to the party. I heard of his passing recently and decided to throw my 2 pence on the table. I’ve been exposed to his crazed, semi-lucid ramblings for over a decade, in the IF “scene” as well as at the Game Developers Refuge and Tsugumo’s board.

    We banned him at the GDR several times for being a douche. He’d rematerialize months later, resume his douchetastic ways, and feel the wrath of ye olde banhammer once more. It was borderline amusing… almost Quixotic, if you can imagine that. Picture windmills and horses replaced by a 600 foot bust of Tim Curry and a ’72 Pinto. He was the definition of “WTF” before we even decided the term needed to exist.

    Privately, he earned our grudging respect via his pure unadulterated will to create. You just couldn’t stop him. Hell, I doubt he could even stop himself!

  25. Skywise says:

    Like Sirocco, I knew Paul outside of the IF community, on Tsugumo’s Board, then the GDR.

    I’m not surprised, though maybe a bit amused, to see that his reputation elsewhere on the internet matched his reputation in our community. Sometimes he got on my nerves, sometimes he impressed me with his passion for what he was doing. I was a friend to him at some times, and a bully at others. I was a teenager then, and his personality was difficult to handle.

    I remember getting to see the source for Westfront PC at some point. It was mind-blowing to me – a mass of GOTOs for every room, with virtually no reusable code or data structures to manage the mass of information he was presenting. And yet massive it was. I think, as a young aspiring game developer, much of my resentment for Paul came from that – all the time that I would spend learning how to program better, Paul spent building something.

    He was dedicated to the things that he enjoyed. He left behind a body of work, and people he had never met took notice when he went away. This doesn’t mean much on a personal level, but for an artist, that is as much as you can hope to achieve.

    I still feel to some degree that this is just another one of his pranks – I think he had a fake death or two back on the old message boards. And some of the phrases in his obituary just have his strange character to them. “Literally came full circle”? It seems very Panks to try & trick people into saying good things about him – considering what he had to put up with, I wouldn’t totally fault him for it.

    As much as anything, I just hope that it’s not true.

  26. Lucifalle says:

    I just discovered this post today, after spontaneously deciding to look for a half-remembered game I played in my childhood. That game was Westfront PC: The Trials of Guilder. I remember enjoying it immensely, largely due to its unique quirkiness. I never knew Paul, neither online nor in person, so it came to me as a great shock to discover the animosity people felt towards him. From what I have recently heard, he seemed like a creative and fascinating individual.

    I would like to thank Paul for the game he created. It gave me hours of entertainment as a child, and even if his work may not live up to my nostalgia, he will be remembered because of it.