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Romancing the Genre

An interview with Plundered Hearts author Amy Briggs

by Neil deMause

XYZZYnews: So how did you, a mild-mannered English major, wind up getting hired to implement for Infocom? And what have you been doing since leaving?

Amy Briggs (AB): It's a little deceptive to claim I'm a "mild-mannered English major" because I had been a physics major for a while in college, and had taken a few computer science classes in addition to theater and English. By the time I graduated from college, I had played several Infocom games, plus several Scott Adams' games -- they really were the best combination at the time of cutting-edge technology (we may snort now, but for the home computer user they were) and good stories. Admittedly, my programming skills were less than several of the other Implementors who were there when I was, but I knew my way around the computer.

After college I did the standard what-to-do-now? drifting, and finally decided to mooch off a sister who was living in Massachusetts, figuring I could drift as successfully in Boston as in the Midwest. As I packed to move, a friend pointed out that Infocom was located in Cambridge, and I joked, "Well, I'll get a job with them, writing games." The week after I arrived in Massachusetts, Infocom advertised for Testers -- the people who tested the games in the early stages to make sure that the programs and the puzzles worked. I wrote Infocom a cover letter that I blush about today, telling them basically what I've just written above, including the coy phrase, "I have a ridiculous sense of the sublime." Amazingly enough, the letter worked (although they asked me what that phrase meant during the interview, and I stumbled out something incomprehensible), and three weeks after I arrived in Massachusetts without a plan for my life, I started work at Infocom.

I threw myself into the company, as most of the employees did. I worked (if you can call playing a game "work") 10-12 hours a day, and on weekends I taught myself ZIL, the programming language, and mocked up a little game, which, when they went to hire another Implementor a year later, got me the job. I have to mention that Steve Meretzky was instrumental in pushing me and showing me how to do everything from compiling ZIL to insisting that I be taken seriously.

When I left Infocom, I had planned to write the Great American Novel. I was asked, "why can't you write the Great American Interactive Novel?" to which I responded that characters are the stuff of great novels, and that realistic character was a great weakness in interactive fiction. That novel didn't get written, but now I find myself looking at character again. For the past few years I've been in graduate school, chasing a PhD in cognitive psychology. I study how people understand stories; my dissertation looks at how people understand characters in novels.

XYZZYnews: Do you ever have people recognize your name and, say, approach you to ask for tips on what to do with the laudanum?

AB: I occasionally get fan mail, even in my ivory tower. I haven't been asked for hints in years, which is good, because I doubt I could play the game successfully myself anymore.

XYZZYnews: I get the sense that a lot of the humor and creativity of the Infocom games was a product of the atmosphere and camaraderie of the Imps. Do you think that can ever be re-created, or has the business of computer games changed too much?

AB: Definitely, the atmosphere of Infocom charged the games. Creativity, breaking bounds, and all-around "do it if it makes someone laugh" were encouraged. We were all young, creative, humorous, enthusiastic people, we loved what we were doing and we enjoyed our own games more than anything -- and that shows in the games themselves, I believe. I include not just the Imps in my "we," but the testers, the programmers who designed the interpreters, and even, yes, even the Marketers, who served as jovial (and sometimes not so jovial) antagonists to the Imps' rule-breaking.

Certainly the business of computer games has changed dramatically. A typical Infocom game was a bunch of words on a simple screen, and the creative efforts were put into the story, the puzzles and the descriptions, not into gorgeous pictures, sounds, interesting ways to move around in the environment. The constraints of running on the Commodore 64 in a fashion helped the games be richer, I believe, than if we had been writing then for the Pentium Pro. The minute the creative process requires a committee, something is lost -- and with rare exception, few individuals can construct a modern game largely by themselves. Maybe that's one reason why Myst is so good -- it was largely written by brothers, right? As far as you can get from a committee, without one person doing everything.

But to answer your question, I don't think that the particular atmosphere of Infocom can ever be re-created, because it was rather a fluke in the first place. This is not to say that an equally creative, charged, exciting -- but different -- group couldn't happen again, since lightning strikes in different places.

XYZZYnews: So what made you decide to do a romance-novel game? You certainly seem to have a flair for the genre -- did you read much romance before writing Plundered Hearts?

AB: I wanted to write a game that women like myself would enjoy, and I enjoyed romances. Actually, even more than romance, I enjoy historical fiction, and that's a genre that's still largely untapped in the game industry, unless you count Castles, or the medieval side of Dungeons and Dragons games. I'm not sure why that genre has been ignored -- I think we decided at Infocom that a historical romance would be a little more focussed at a particular audience than historical fiction. Also, I very definitely wanted a female protagonist, and I wanted to play with the humor of being a romantic heroine -- typically passive and docile, with at most "spunk" -- in a situation where she has to take the reins.

XYZZYnews: Any particular reason you decided to have multiple endings?

AB: Well, in an ideal world there would have been whole multiple story lines, where you determine your fate throughout the course of the game. As it was, I spent one-third the time that the game was in testing editing it down to fit the Commodore 64, so I had to make do with different endings.

XYZZYnews: In addition to the setting, obviously, Plundered Hearts is different from a lot of other Infocom games in the story-ness of it -- as you yourself said at one point, it's more about people than things. (Certainly it's the only Infocom game that borrows a puzzle from "The Princess Bride.") There's recently been a move among current authors to make IF more like stories, less like puzzles -- how much do you think IF can, or should, emulate written fiction in this regard?

AB: To start, a wee correction: I didn't borrow that puzzle from the Princess Bride, but from a book called The Sherwood Ring, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. It was one of my favorites as a child.

I mentioned above that I felt constrained by the lack of ability to do character in IF, especially so in a romance. How can you "fall in love" with a handsome stud who is literally programmed to respond to only a few pat phrases? I don't think that IF should entirely veer away from games into stories. As a consumer, I don't like reading on a computer screen, I'd rather curl up with a book. But for a game, something that engages my attention in a different way than being buried in someone else's decisions and experiences, I am willing and interested in sitting at the computer.

XYZZYnews: You're one of the few well-known women in IF, something that's become notable again in recent years. For example, of 27 games entered in this year's Short Interactive Fiction Competition, every one was written by a man. Do you have any ideas why IF has tended to be written mostly by men? And was it odd to be one of the few women at Infocom?

AB: I think computers in general are still a male-dominated phenomenon. Not to say that there aren't women interested in programming or designing with computers, and that there aren't more now than there were 10 years ago. I could rattle off a bunch of pseudo-sociological and pseudo-psychological theories about why, but I don't have any actual data.

I didn't think it was odd to be one of the few women at Infocom, I was just me. But maybe you should ask the men if it was weird for them to have a woman in their midst.

XYZZYnews: Do you still keep up with IF, or computer games in general? If so, are there any games you particularly liked recently (text or graphic)? What direction do you think Infocom would've taken (or would you want it to have taken) had it continued?

AB: I have played Myst, and loved it. 7th Guest is next on my list, when I have the time. Other than that, I'm woefully out of date with computer games (as the titles that I've played show -- isn't 7th Guest several years old now?). I've heard there's a large underground of shareware all-text adventures, but I've never tapped into them.

The second half of your question is more difficult for me to answer. I'm a bit too pragmatic about the fact that Infocom did close down (or was closed down, depending upon one's view). Like any other games company, if miraculously Infocom didn't depend upon selling games, one would hope that they would continue to write original, creative, fun and engaging games, that sometimes would hit and sometimes would not, but which would always be new and different. Given the increased capabilities for graphics and sounds, the ideal 1997 Infocom game would have integrated puzzles and experiences using those graphics and sounds. They would continue to push the envelope of experience and enjoyment.

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