ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Review Fascination —

This could all be misinterpreted, so let’s just make sure all the positives are on the top, where most people stop reading.

The BBS Documentary sold very well. Enough that I ran out of copies.

But GET LAMP has sold better. Way better. Way, way better. How much better? I’m down to less than 25 percent of my initial stock, after being on sale for a little over five months. To get to this point with the BBS Documentary took four years. In fact, one of the reasons that the BBS Documentary has sold out is because of a dual-pack I had with GET LAMP and BBS that drove sales skyward.

Every day of every week, I am getting orders for this film. I am getting enough orders, and they’re disrupting my daily routine and plans for new projects that in the next few weeks I’m transferring the duties over to a fulfillment house. (They’re nearby and I’ve used them before, so I know the process will be in good hands.)

I get fan mail. I get a lot of fan mail, and thanks for that, but a lot of that fan mail is about GET LAMP and what it meant to the writer.  Long nostalgic memories, questions about learning more or playing more of these games, and questions about technical aspects of production or choices made. Great fan mail.

OK? So things are awesome.

So, as someone who spent some time at film school, I was trained or brainwashed to be interested in film criticism. Less reviews, than contextual discussion and consideration of the meaning of films. I mean, sure, I love hearing star-rating reviews and otherwise seeing the reaction, but I’d hoped that the stuff I’m making would be deserving of an essay or two. If you want an example off the top of my head of this sort of essay, I point you to this rather recent takedown of the Yogi Bear Movie’s problematic portrayal of the bears.

As it stands, I’ve not really seen much of that with either BBS or GET LAMP, although in both cases I’ve seen people use the existence of my film as a jumping-off point to go into a large monologue about their own history. I am completely behind that, since it’s adding to general knowledge, although obviously my films are just a catalyst, instead of the subjects.

And oh, yeah, there are definitely some sweet ones out there, like this positive one from Z-Machine Matter .

But on the whole, reviews have been one-liner, mentioned in weblog entries or forums, not really intense.

But, somewhere out of there, comes this review:

Get Lamp (2010)
I like text adventures games, so it would be normal to assume that a documentary about text adventures games would be an interesting watch for me, but you would be wrong. This movie is aimed at nobody but the maker himself. I can’t find a single redeeming feature in this documentary, they hardly even mention the games. This is just a boring movie, especially if you like to be entertained.

See, now this one fascinates me. It’s in a set called “top 5 worst movies in 2010”. He hastens to mention this is his top five of movies he’s personally seen, which is to his credit. He has a post with his top 10 of 2010, and it includes expected AAA blockbusters like Inception, Kick Ass, Shutter Island, Robin Hood, Scott Pilgrim, etc.  So, of the fifteen movies in his best/worst list, my film’s the only documentary, which I guess says something… but what’s going on there? I’ll probably never really know.

Similarly, it’s easy to go to a thread like this one at Atari Age, ignore comments that say things like “It’s really done well, with fantastic artwork and 2 discs chocked full of IF goodness” and “if anybody deserves the cash, jason scott does” and just go find a comment like:

The film itself and the Infocom documentary are extremely interesting, but the rap music that (highly incongruously and un-atmospherically) opens the latter is ridiculous. Why everything has to be tainted by this unfortunate aesthetic trend is beyond me.

Actually, that comment doesn’t really bother me that much, to tell the truth – I know why the rap music is there and why I chose it, and I can live with it. And as I said, this thread is packed with accolades.

But I do want to pull this review from it:

I watched Get Lamp a few weeks ago and i have to say it was average at best. It was interesting to hear how fascinated people seemed to be by the original Adventure back then. But there was way too much redundant babble of Fans which made the movie pretty boring. IMO not worth 45 bucks…

And while we’re here, here’s  another one (it’s a tweet):

Just finished “Get Lamp”. Didn’t really like it that much. 6/10, 3 stars, C+ and stuff like that. Kind of a disappointment really.

Now, in the case of these last two and a few others, here’s what I think is going on:

  • People are downloading the FLAiR rip of the film.
  • (Hopefully they’re downloading the RePack, which goes in order. Let’s assume yes.)
  • They watch GET LAMP, the main film.
  • Done. Review it.

I know this is the case in both films when I see someone describe something wrong, like “it’s a 3-DVD set” or “it’s an 8-DVD set” in describing it (meaning they obviously don’t have the physical item), or a major omission. Case in point:

A lot of the rip-reviewers get very pissed that GET LAMP doesn’t spend more time on Infocom. This would be a good criticism if sitting next to the movie on the DVD wasn’t a 50-minute Infocom-only documentary with thirteen employees interviewed (along with some Infocom historian and perspective-providing folks) and covering the entire history of Infocom pulling from thousands of pages of material and photographs. In fact, some of them appear to be so offended that I waste time on “fans” or “the new people” that they give it a sour grade on that fact alone, unaware that their concern was handled in, you know, the whole product.

The strict irony here is that FLAiR was trying to do me a good turn by only including one piece of GET LAMP and imploring people to buy the whole thing if they liked it.  And without a doubt, a sizable number of people have, in their Paypal comment field, told me they downloaded the movie, watched enough of it to go “oh yeah”, and then merrily trotted off to the sales page to get a copy. So it worked, generally. It’s just that when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.

Documentaries are a special thing, which is why I like them – they should inform, entertain, respect, and present a way for a subject to present itself in new locations and stages, so that people previously unaware of something become aware of it. If you’re lucky, you can construct something that people who think they know something learn even more about it, far beyond what they thought they were missing, if at all. A film that leaves you smarter, in other words, not dumber; something where the number of your brain cells that died in that hour and a half were replaced with a bunch of new imprints on the remaining ones. It’s a good goal!

Believe me, I have watched some shit documentaries. Like, real shit, ones that are basically slideshows with a droning “director” never pausing for breath while telling you exactly what to think.  I just can’t imagine making one of those and thinking you made the world better.

I also recently got to watch all the oscar-nominated short documentaries on the 2010 list, and I know I liked the ones the most where I saw stuff happening, right there, that I either didn’t know could happen, or which I didn’t know happened that way. (Pretty much all are in-the-moment, telling you about unfolding events, like fighting pollution or refugees, as opposed to any sort of reminiscing like my films have been to this point.) No acting, or reenactments, no making crap up – there’s the person, they’re telling you what’s going on, now you see it. A couple of the documentaries had very short looking-back sequences, mostly to tell you the person/place wasn’t always in this bad shape.

So where I sit with the films I’ve made is that they’re specifically going after subjects that nobody else has covered to any real amount. (There’s a few small BBS documentaries out there, a few documentaries that mention interactive fiction or text adventures, but my stuff dwarfs them in depth and breadth.)  And I can find some similar thematic approaches out there, but on the whole, the problem is not just getting a grip on the subject and dragging the camera and lights out to the right people, but knowing where to start, and where to finish. Sometimes the production itself makes that choice for you. And when you choose not to cover something, the howls are that much louder and the anger that much more intense, because for some people, they know this was it – this was and is probably going to be the film on the subject, and when my little road-show is gone, that’s it. But some people are just pissed my film isn’t like a host of other documentaries they’ve seen, documentaries that, in fact are primarily faked combinations of unrelated events.

Again, for a good portion of the audience who buy my film, the reaction is what I intended: this box comes in the mail, it’s got this amazing coin and nice packaging, and then it lovingly covers the subject to an insane degree before leaving you to browse around interesting related material that in some cases represents small documentaries of their own. (There’s a 10 minute documentary on the making of Atari Adventure, for example, on Disc 2.)

GET LAMP and BBS hold a lot more in common with a film like Hannu Puttonen’s The Code, which is an attempt to describe the meaning and ideals behind open-source software, via interviews and illustration.  The concept is ethereal and the patchwork of ideas brings out knowledge or learning in the audience.  And, of course, people will judge it based on the fact everyone looks like a programmer. Oh well! But the important thing is that such a film was made, and that with 10 years now behind it, and we can go back and watch it and get the words from the people themselves about their thoughts at that time. That is precious, no matter where your opinions lay about the subject.

If I keep making documentaries, I don’t think the style is going to change –  but it’s interesting to note how I’ve now learned that there’s a small price to pay for splitting a subject up into multiple episodes and creating a deluxe package of a subject – the willingness of people to download one small piece, think they saw the whole thing, and start pontificating on it is both fascinating and terrifying. I don’t like any of the solutions that change how I make the films, so I’ll probably stick with just realizing they’re a tiny minority of the people who truly support the film buying it as a package.

I’ll probably still keep an eye out for them, though.

Categorised as: documentary

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  1. Jason Scott says:

    There was nowhere to put this in the entry and not derail, but a tiny, tiny set of people (less than 10) have communicated either directly to me or to others in public forums (hence me seeing it), their disappointment, their NON-IRONIC OR KIDDING DISAPPOINTMENT, that the documentary is not about the standard Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP server setup.

    I really wish I could say I was kidding, or they were kidding, but no, people have actually come to my site expecting this and been rather put-off and dispairing/dismissive of this “game” documentary that they found instead.

    I don’t even… I mean, I guess is there anything worse than sentencing them to JUST KEEP BEING THAT PERSON?

  2. Ben Morgan says:

    Since watching Get Lamp when you came to New York several months ago, I have always thought of it as being much more about the people behind the games rather than the games themselves, and ultimately that’s the more interesting subject. By definition, you’d have more information on this than I would, but I’d suspect that the number of people who bought this already knowing about the games and wanting to know more about the behind-the-scenes stuff has probably been a lot higher than people who have never heard of these weird computer games with no graphics or sound before and bought it simply out of curiosity.

    And that thing about the Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP people just made my week. That is their crime, it is also their punishment.

    — Ben

  3. V says:

    re: “but it’s interesting to note how I’ve now learned that there’s a small price to pay for splitting a subject up into multiple episodes and creating a deluxe package of a subject”

    I think thats an argument for getting folks who do rips to label them as partial. Do you think that touring with the film made a perceptible difference in perception and coverage that isn’t simply attributable to your growing reputation?

    Also, you’ve made me want to see Hannu Puttonen’s The Code now, and I hadn’t heard of it. Bonus.

    I wish I could write a proper review of GET LAMP, but I’m a fiction reviewer and not a film reviewer . . . I only have a smattering of film knowledge.

  4. Is it just me, or does stupid criticism from idiots somehow sting more than informed criticism from intelligent people?

  5. Wyatt says:

    @Zacqary (does it shorten to Zacq? That would be neat.)

    Personally, it’s not just you. There’s something so gut-wrenchingly disappointing in failed attempts to educate.

    • Jason Scott says:

      So a little more on all this, because I don’t think the ASCII weblog needs any more “oh whither GET LAMP” postings.

      One of the reasons the film is named GET LAMP is because that name, itself, is a rate limiter against people thinking it’s just any old documentary about the subject – you have to have at least some glimmer of interest in the concept and the idea, or want to at least do some investigation to see if this is what you think it is. And yes, I skew towards people who want a package, and I skew towards people who want to not just know the light side of a subject but REALLY DRILL DOWN into it. The documentaries I make also are made with the belief that artifacts are less important than people, and their stories.

      One of the IMDB reviews of the movie complains I don’t talk about modern games in context, and by that, he means that I don’t show you, say, Call of Duty or Fable, and say “these have roots in text adventures”. For this, he gave me a huge knock.

      What I hope isn’t lost is that when a lot of folks (of this small group who don’t like it) say “I don’t like it”, they’re generally not forthcoming with what they WOULD like it to have been. I can use that. And by “use that”, I mean “point out that I thought that same thing two years ago, and came to conclusions about flow, quality and experience that negate the advantages of going in that direction or covering things that way.”

      A lot of times, people go “he didn’t cover X, Y and Z” without realizing I covered the idea of 20-30 things in one, to show off the idea and concept, without stepping audiences through an interminable process of watching basically the same thing over and over, like if you were shown a fighting game and then shown 20 more fighting games, where any reasonable person will go ‘I get it, two guys face off and punch each other” but there we are six minutes later still being shown stuff. I’d rather link to a list of fighting games and let people browse through it. And similarly with, say, ifwiki or the IFDB.

      But all this said, the issue is probably more fundamental: There’s a reason nobody fuckin’ touched these subjects until now. The fact I was shooting a BBS documentary (hell, a Fidonet documentary) in 2003 and a text adventure documentary in 2007 represents how thousands of potential media outlets and media makers wouldn’t go for it for beyond the prime years or the less-prime or the sub-prime years. My interview rounding-up has to deal with death of subjects for example, or people being so distanced from the subject they barely remember it. I think that’s the obvious thing – nobody expected one, one showed up, folks get to indicate what they think it should have been, when it’s obvious that what it should have been was never made.

  6. Laroquod says:

    Very interesting article, thanks. In my random internet opinion, the best release would’ve been to put out an official torrent of the Infocom doc with a link to website for the full feature, i.e. the exact opposite of the FLAIR approach. Throw the free-downloading hordes whatever red meat they’re most likely looking for, up front, before they get a whiff of your fingers.

  7. l.m.orchard says:

    I, for one, appreciate the hell out of the fact that GET LAMP didn’t delve into exhaustive detail on the inventory of classic text adventures out there for the simple fact that YOU CAN STILL PLAY THOSE GAMES. Whether acquired through eBay or other non-authorized means, you can still play them.

    What no one can do is get a chance to talk to all the people you did, either for cost or time or mortality or simple fact that some or most of the people interviewed don’t want to be bothered by us schmucks in general.

  8. Chris says:

    Hey, feed a free steak dinner to 100 people, and guaranteed you’ll get at least 10 jackasses complaining afterward about the way the potatoes were prepared, or that the tablecloths didn’t match the napkins.

  9. Laroquod says:

    Putting out an official torrent doesn’t mean you have to link it from your website though. The idea is to have it released the way you want to, that’s all. Since there will inevitably be a torrent anyway I can’t see how inserting the word ‘official’ into the torrent’s info (or heck even don’t insert it — go clandestine) is going to change the sales situation. Anyway I just wanted to make the point that torrenters generally convert into buyers when they are immediately and fully impressed and just MUST have more; they don’t generally buy when they are somewhat impressed but didn’t see the focus on the subject matter they were most interested in. This is why I figure having the Infocom doc out there might have worked better at least in the torrent space. But your product is a wild success, I’m sure you are doing something right. 8)

  10. Michael Kohne says:

    Jason, if you don’t want to release an official torrent (and I can understand that), and you don’t want to do a stealth torrent release (because that feels way too much like being a marketing weasel), then you might want to release an official long-form trailer or two. Perhaps 5-10 minutes long, giving a nice snippet of something. I’d actually say that two of them might be appropriate for Get Lamp – one overview, and one about Infocom. That might help drive more understanding of the films, without giving away the whole thing.

  11. Sarah says:

    Whilst I’ve only watched the torrent version, I have to admit it looked well produced and I’m sure it’d push a fan of those sorts of games buttons in just the same way the BBS Documentry went on my “must buy” list.

    But no, the sampler I saw and I know in reality that’s all it was as it’s missing a ton of stuff… didn’t push my buttons.

    Probably because I was never a fan of interactive fiction.

    OTOH I only downloaded it because of who made it, so I figured it’d be worth a shot if that makes any sense what so ever.

  12. Daemon says:

    Jason, this doesn’t come across very well I’n afraid. You seem unable to take criticism, period. It’s a running theme with your blog. Just because someone didn’t like Get Lamp doesn’t mean they’re a certain type of person that you’ve already filed away into some dismissive closet space. It doesn’t mean they watched it with incorrect assumptions, or illegally. As a big fan of the BBS Documentary, I too was very disappointed in Get Lamp. It lacked the cohesion and narrative I found in BBS. The people were simply not interesting enough to focus on. I also agree that games themselves were not at all a part of the production. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some were put off by that. It felt like you had no vision for the work, and your passion for IF did not come through in the final film, unlike BBS.

    Watching it was an underwhelming experience. Is it worth the cost? Sure, for what you get it’s by no means a ripoff, but the film showed none of the promise I saw in BBS. The only good thing I can say about it is the picture was nice. I’m sure you’ll find a way to dismiss this too but I was put off enough by the tone of your post to reply.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Your comment is fascinating in its own right, Daemon!

      If I respond, say, energetically and in my usual flair, I’ll be unable to take criticism – but if I go “ha ha, thanks for your comments”, I’m being dismissive.

      I’m sorry the only good thing in the movie for you was the quality of the picture. I really liked the sound, too. (Compare it to BBS)

      I am checkmated in one move!