ASCII by Jason Scott

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A new review of GET LAMP has been posted, and it is not positive.  (Here’s a WebCitation link).

I won’t even pretend to claim much knowledge of Auntie Pixelante, because I don’t really have much beyond having followed the weblog for the site for about a year, and keeping track of a lot of the tools and assisting programs that are cited there, stuff that gets you out and running if you have some ideas for a game.  Lots and lots of embryonic game ideas come out of that place, so it’s pretty easy to just sit back and enjoy the feed. I didn’t notice the review until my RSS scanner that looks for mentions of the movie kicked it up, but then I saw it in my regular newsreader, so destiny was at hand.

I also won’t pretend to definitively summarize the review in a way that you shouldn’t read it completely; but I’ll take a shot at saying the review is primarily one of disappointment at my focus on Infocom, lack of coverage of the more experimental aspects of interactive fiction, and a monolithic point of view with Infocom constituting the majority of discussion or subject matter in the movie.

Why am I linking to/bringing attention to a negative review? Because the fact is, it’s a review. More than that, it’s a specific call-out to a perspective on the film, and yes, ultimately disappointment that that perspective feels unfulfilled, and there’s just not been that many for GET LAMP, even as we pass a year of release. I know tens of thousands of people have seen the work, and I have seen people write about text adventures and mention they saw GET LAMP, but there’s only a tiny handful of actual film criticism aimed at the work, and that’s always made me a bit sad.

I did go to film school, after all, and part what got drummed into me was the idea that film criticism is part of the process of a film – after it’s finished, after the ballyhoo and the screenings and the promotion would come informed, thoughtful essays as to what the whole thing meant or what meanings and ideas could be teased from the work that the creators either intended or unconsciously added along the way. To that end, I’ve just had very little in that direction. The BBS documentary got some, but even then, nothing even approaching the gold standard of film criticism, which is this article.

And so for me the whole thing is incomplete until it gets reviews, essays and thoughts, good and bad, and any move in that direction pleases me, so thanks to Auntie Pixelante for this review.

And as for the review?

Well, on the charge of “seems way focused on Infocom”, totally guilty as charged. Infocom is so important to the story of interactive fiction that besides a healthy mention in the middle of the main GET LAMP movie, there’s a whole other 40 minute movie called EXAMINE INFOCOM on the disc that covers Infocom and Infocom, Infocom, Infocom. On the second disc, I have extended bonus features discussing nothing but Infocom’s Z-Machine, the unique aspects of Planetfall and a whole other host of Infocom-ish subjects. That’s a fact. Book me.

I’ll take issue with the portrayal of the film as monolithic in opinion – as mentioned Chris Crawford gets a few shots in, but even across other people like inky, Adam Thornton, Andrew Plotkin and Ron Martinez, the entire medium and its failings come in for some shots, and the question of “what’s next” comes up. But, and this is the important aspect that I think is missed, this documentary bootstraps you from nothing about text adventures to going into incredibly detailed discussions of the nature of puzzles and the issues of overflowing object tables with irrelevant descriptions in the name of “realism”, as well as a host of other ethereal subjects that come down to unique problems of the collision of writing with this whole game/experience thing. The movie, that is, is not for people long off the beaten path of game design seeking ever more whacky and up-ending paradigms in the demolishing of current expectations of the very nature of interactive writing – this movie is meant to be a ground-up bringing in of the idea of text adventures and what it all might have meant, from both the idea of an industry and what would draw people to the present day to keep creating in it long after the commercial interest has receded back into the ocean.

There’s a point of view that has occasionally come in, which I call the Mass Effect group, although it’s not directly tied to that specific game, but along the lines of “Why didn’t GET LAMP cover Mass Effect/Bioshock/Cryptozookeeper”. It’s considered a missed opportunity that I didn’t draw a direct, bold line from the text adventure medium into these modern works, but I didn’t think that was the job of this film. It wasn’t even the job of the film to cover point and click games like King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, or The Last Express. I thought that there was no video documentary covering text adventures, and I do believe I was right. In terms of the “coverage” the review mentions, that’s all generally written interviews (and usually just of Steve Meretzky), or essays and recounting of artifacts. If there is another film, television production or even audio production with Amy Briggs, Stu Galley and Marc Blank all discussing their work and the general aspects of the text adventure medium, I’ll be down at Cafe du Chapeau chowing down.

What I was worried about was that all these great folks would pass on without portraying the emotion of the work they were doing, and that this community of text adventure writers, which in some ways is always on edge to tearing itself apart, would fade into self-containment without their work reaching a wider audience. For that, I say mission accomplished. Expecting it to then go on past an hour and a half into realms still experimental, or even attempt to bring in the full parallel line of related game approaches, was just not in the cards, and I hope the next text adventure documentary someone makes covers that.

Thanks for the review!

Categorised as: documentary

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  1. Jim says:

    A thoughtful review and a great response from you. I do think the core of her argument is that she expected this to be a documentary about the ART FORM of interactive text when it is more of a cultural history. I feel like your approach is like those filmmakers who recorded the Rolling Stones just dicking around, chatting, practicing… and then stitched it into a movie, preserving for everyone exactly what the full vibe of the Stones really was. And that’s awesome, but I do agree with her point you could have put a little more drama in it somehow, just to keep the viewer invested more. Simple stuff like build up “oh no, the company is going bankrupt and we can’t finish Zork”, that sort of thing.

  2. Jason Scott says:

    Did you see the Infocom episode? I only ask because there’s quite a bit of drama, ups and downs, triumphs and tribulations, the usual ‘stuff’ where there’s a ‘story’ on top of the accurate reporting of news and history it provides.

  3. Bruce says:

    I’m a little startled to read this review, but I’ve seen similar ones about a number of media. I’d summarise it as “This movie failed to be the movie I imagined after reading the title/tag-line”.

    They’re every right to be disappointed that this wasn’t the movie they wanted, but it’s unreasonable to then turn this disappointment into criticism of what the movie actually is. I consume a great deal of technology history and while the candid interview format of GET LAMP yields a result that I might term folksy; it’s also honest, detailed, and amazingly evocative.

    Sure, more things could have been covered, maybe Roberta Williams’s Mystery House/Wizard and Princess would have provided a nice lead-out, but these are minor content quibbles. It seems as if the review writer wanted some sort of video-format version of Montfort’s _Twisty Little Passages_ which on the face of it seems mad. Leave detailed and sober discussions of place-of-IF-in-literature for the book format that suits it.

  4. Ewen McNeill says:

    This seems an opportune time to ask again: the Get Lamp order page ( says “People who dislike using Paypal: I will have alternate payment methods up soon.” and has since at least the start of this year (if not earlier). Is there still a chance of a non-Paypal payment method? Or should I be angling to get someone more Paypal-agnostic to buy it for me a Christmas present?


  5. Jizaboz says:

    I had the feeling myself of “I wish this movie showed more of X” but only to the extent of wanting more of what was already there.. things that were edited out for whatever reason. I also don’t understand people that have such a dislike for nostalgia.