When I was 13, I received a Texas Instruments TI-994/A computer for Christmas. I soon taught myself how to program in BASIC, and it wasn’t long before I created my own rudimentary text adventure, one that actually owed more to Dungeons & Dragons, the laserdisc arcade game Dragon’s Lair, and those old Choose Your Own Adventure books than to Zork or other classics of the medium. Of course, I had no clue about text parsers, so every option was multiple choice; I couldn’t type something and receive a response.
I also typed in many games from books and magazines, as most computer owners did in the early 80s, and I tried my hand at creating a few other games, but I was never much of a programmer. A friend of mine who owned the same computer could do all kinds of whiz-bang things with his; I was not surprised when he earned his PhD in Computer Science several years ago.
If my little anecdote makes you wistfully nostalgic for the old days, then “Get Lamp” should be right up your alley. Jason Scott’s documentary is an amazing labor of love, from the dozens of interviews he conducted to the professional packaging that houses this two-disc set. He even included a collectible coin that’s reminiscent of the “feelies” Infocom used to throw into their games, such as the detective files that gave background information for the murder mystery Deadline.
I have to admit I wouldn’t have thought text adventures merited much of a documentary, since I always assumed they were just a flash in the pan, but there’s a fan base that keeps the medium going — they even give out annual awards for the best new works of interactive fiction, as they’re typically called these days. It’s not a surprise that graphics-rich games eventually knocked text adventures off their perch, but for several years in the 80s, they captivated thousands of people.
“Get Lamp” is an exhaustive look at that history, starting with the work of programmer and spelunker Will Crowther, who created the first one, Colossal Cave Adventure (also known simply as Adventure). Crowther is reclusive and declined to participate, but others from the early days did, including Don Woods, who brought Adventure to a wider audience, the founders and employees of Infocom, which was the largest text adventure publisher in the world, and many others. We even hear from people who have written scholarly papers about interactive fiction and several of the players and developers who keep the form alive today. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who wrote a text adventure game in the 80s, pops in for some thoughts too.
Since this is a documentary about games, Scott couldn’t resist creating an interactive version that lets you choose what you want to explore next; you can also watch the film straight through. Disc one includes a nice pair of bonus features: a short piece about Bedquilt, the caves that originally inspired Crowther, and a meatier mini-documentary about Infocom’s rise and fall. I’m still amazed that in such a short span Infocom went from a company that Simon & Schuster wanted to buy for $28 million to one that had to sell itself off to Activision for $2 million (with $6 million of debt) before it went out of business.
Over on disc two, Scott offers up a huge heap of cut footage that covers everything from deeper discussions of interactive fiction design to Atari programmer Warren Robinett’s Adventure game for the 2600, which was of course inspired by Crowther’s Adventure. You can also check out clips that spoil the secrets of a lot of games. Finally, there’s a music video from nerdcore hip-hop artist MC Frontalot for his song “It is Pitch Dark,” which is used in the film.
As if all that wasn’t enough, disc two is also a DVD-ROM that contains production photos, images of old Infocom catalogs, and even a bunch of recently released text adventures that you can load and play on your computer, among other things.
Yes, “Get Lamp” is a love letter to a videogame niche, but it can also appeal to anyone who’s curious about the early days of home computing.