Books, Films, Radio etc

50 Years of Text Games

Book 4

Aaron Reed, who has been in the Interactive Fiction (IF) community for many years, created an awesome substack called 50 Years of Text Games. It's a history of the medium calling out some of the most influential games including Adventure, Zork, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Curses, Photopia and a recent favorite, Universal Paperclips.

Now he's turned that substack into an even more compelling book. It's available now on Kickstarter. You can get the electronic version, softcover or deluxe hardcover version. I'm looking forward to this. It really looks fabulous. There's also a bonus 60 page addendum that covers additional games not in the original substack. 

Aaron is also the author of several excellent books and IF games including Blue Lacuna, one of the largest games ever, and Creating Interactive Fiction in Inform7.

Book 2


James Kestrel's Five Decembers

Five decembers TC 3a

Every now and then a book comes along that you have to tell people about. It grabs you, holds on to you and the only way to release the energy is to share it with others. Five Decembers by James Kestrel is that kind of book. It's the best book I've read this year. 

The book starts as you might expect in a noir crime novel. But that's not giving Kestrel full credit. He's a student of the genre and, like his main character Honolulu Police Detective Joe McGrady, he knows what he's doing. Kestrel is laying the scene in the first couple of chapters as McGrady investigates a murder. But really, he's setting McGrady up for a fall.

It's November 1941 and the book is imbued with the atmosphere of pre-war Hawaii. There's a tension in the air and Kestrel paints an apt picture of Chinatown, the seedy harbor brothels and the sweat and smoke of the police station right down to the captain's 15c benzedrine inhaler. Given the navy build-up you might think you know where things are going, but like McGrady, you haven't a clue. I'll I can say is he lands in Hong Kong December 7, 1941. And from there, it becomes a very different story. Yes it's a noir crime story, but it's much more than that. It's an epic story of love and war and faith and betrayal. 

Although this is the first book under this name, this isn't Kestrel's first rodeo. He studied at the world-renowned Interlochen Arts Academy writing program under Jack Driscoll. He's written six other well-received novels. As historic noir fiction, Five Decembers was a departure and two-dozen publishers turned it down before Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime took it. Although the path could have been easier for Kestrel, I'm glad it landed with Hard Case Crime. Ardai is also a student of the genre and he likely understood and appreciated the significance of the book more than others. 

Five decembers TC 1I've read a lot of Hard Case Crime over the years, starting with their first book in 2004 by Lawrence Block. They've published some great authors including Stephen King, Max Allen Collins, Michael Crichton, Donald Westlake, Ariel S. Winter, Scott Von Doviak and others. Kestrel is right up there. In fact, I'd say Five Decembers is the best book Hard Case Crime has ever published. No surprise, he's got great reviews in the New York Times, Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly and elsewhere. This book would make one helluva movie. 

With this book, James Kestrel earns his spot as one of the "Three K's of Historic Fiction" alongside Philipp Kerr (Berlin Noir) and Joseph Kanon (The Good German).

Bottom line, this is an absolute page turner. Buy it now and put it at the top of your reading list.


The Reincarnationist Papers

Reincarnationist papers

Tech executive D. Eric Maikranz hit the jackpot with his novel The Reincarnationist Papers which was made into the film Infinite starring Mark Wahlberg. Maikranz self-published the novel back in 2009 with an innovative crowd-sourced reward to anyone who helped him land a film deal. By chance a copy of the book was discovered in a hostel in Nepal by Rafi Crohn, who worked at a Hollywood production company. After many twists and turns over ten years, it was turned into an explosive over-the-top sci-fi adventure. I first heard about Maikranz' publishing journey on the Bestseller Experiment podcast hosted by authors Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux

Maikranz's novel asks the question: "What if... you could live forever?" I mean, what could be more captivating than that?

The Reincarnationist Papers is a stunning and original first novel that exposes you to a fantastical world of people who live forever via reincarnation. You can't help but wonder how you would cope with the situations the narrator faces, whether it's his troubled life before he understands his reincarnations or the temptations of hedonism, lust and greed. If you liked Ken Grimwood's Replay, you will find this equally intriguing. It's a breezy summertime read, perfect for airport travel or hanging out at a beach.

Maikranz is working on a sequel, which will be a welcome follow-up to the slightly enigmatic ending. 

The book is published by Blackstone and is also available on Audible.


Len Deighton's Game, Set, Match

Berlin game

Of all the writers I've enjoyed, there's one that resonates with me more than all others: Len Deighton. Although Le Carré, Chandler, MacDonald and Kerr are all still widely read, Deighton seems to have fallen by the wayside in the last twenty years. He still writes non-fiction, but his last novel was published in 1996. There's only been one adaptation since then, the wonderful 2017 BBC mini-series SS-GB. I'm hoping this will be the launching point for more adaptations and more interest in Deighton. 

For fans of espionage, noir or anything in between, I strongly recommend giving Deighton a read. His first novel, The IPCRESS File predated Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and was made into a successful film with Michael Caine. Deighton published fifteen more books over twenty years, mostly set in the cold war. You really can't go wrong with any of Deighton's early books. Funeral in Berlin, An Expensive Place to Die, Spy Story, SS-GB and XPD are especially good. (Four of these early books are packaged as the Spy Quartet.)

But Deighton topped all of this with the publication of Berlin Game in 1982, the first of three books in the Game, Set, Match trilogy. This is Deighton's masterpiece, a complex story of subterfuge, class and betrayal. The story is told from the viewpoint of Bernard Samson, a working class brit raised in Berlin who works for MI5. He's a former field agent, hitting middle age, battling his desk-bound bureaucratic superiors, his in-laws and his past. It's a complex story of the penetration of MI5 by the KGB made deeply personal. Deighton followed this up with a WWII prequel called Winter, which is a wonderful standalone book. 

What's amazing is Deighton then went on to write a second trilogy (Hook, Line, Sinker) covering the same story but from a different view point, filling in some missing elements. And then after three fairly forgettable novels in the early 1990's, he wrote a final trilogy (Faith, Hope, Charity) in the same series.

I don't know if Deighton got fed up with espionage or publishing but that was the end of his career in fiction. I'm grateful that Deighton wrote so many wonderful novels. He's still alive and kicking at 90, so I'm secretly hoping maybe there will be one more Bernie Sampson story he wants to tell. You never know.

I've read many of Deighton's novels two or three times. His books are a master class in storytelling with complex characters, sparkling dialog and brilliant subtext. I'm re-reading this series now, looking for ways to improve my own writing.

For those seeking more information, I recommend The Deighton Dossier which covers all of Deighton's work, both fiction and non-fiction, his writing process, interviews and more.


The Whisperer in Darkness Podcast

Whisperer

The BBC has followed up their brilliant adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Case of Charles Dexter Ward with a new podcast The Whisperer in Darkness. They've combined a somewhat obscure novella, brought it to modern day and mashed it up with a 1980 UFO sighting in rural England. The story works very well, though I don't think it quite reaches the same heights as their first podcast, leaving quite a few unanswered questions.

The story brings forward the two main characters Kennedy Fisher and Matthew Heawood, investigators from a fictional true crime podcast called Mystery Machine, as well as a couple of threads from the first series. There's a good chemistry between the lead characters and that makes for a marked improvement over the typical Lovecraft loner.  There's also a few well executed surprises that will have you jumping out of your ear-buds. That said, I didn't understand the purpose of bonus episode 9 at all.  (Spoiler alert: it's a noise loop with a disguised message.) All of that is explained in bonus episode 10.

Nonetheless, the podcast is well worth listening to and I hope they will continue with a third series that brings the story to Innsmouth and ties everything together.  This is great show for anyone interested in paranormal investigation. Kudos to the production team and writers for bringing Lovecraft forward in a compelling modern tale.


Dark Adventure Radio Theater

Dart banner

In my prior post on the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, I mentioned the HPLHS Dark Adventure Radio Theater adaptations. Just in case it wasn't clear, I am a huge fan of these vintage '30's style radio dramas. They are excellent dramatic of many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories. I've listened to many of the stories and they have some classics: "At the Mountains of Madness," The Call of Cthulu," "Dreams in the Witch House" all done in a dead-on OTR (Old Time Radio) format.  Other than "Brotherhood of the Beast", which was based on an RPG game rather than a canonical story, they have been uniformly excellent. (That one just wasn't my cup of tea.) These shows are available directly from the HPLHS web site as well as from Amazon and Audible. However, if you buy them from the HPLHS web site you can also get the "props" including postcards, newspaper stories and similar ephemeral material. That said, they are somewhat expensive, around $20 as CDs with props, or slightly less as MP3 downloads.  


The Case of Charles Dexter Ward Podcast

BBC Charles Dexter Ward

Somehow a random internet search landed me upon the BBC Case of Charles Dexter Ward podcast. This is possibly one of the best adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft's stories I've encountered. It's like a cross between NPR's serial, the X-Files and good ol' HPL himself. BBC Radio 4 produced this 10 episode adaptation and it is completely worth binging on. I listened to the first 5 episodes on a long drive and I found it riveting. 

It's a modern adaptation that uses the podcast format to good effect. It starts as a simple "locked room" mystery being investigated by two podcast journalists. They run a show called (wait for it...) Mystery Machine, replete with requests for funding. This show is so good, it actually had me reaching for my wallet. From there, it expands to a broader tale of madness, occultism, conspiracy, underground tunnels, murder and evil librarians.

I won't go into the details except to say it is completely updated to the 21st century which gives it a verisimilitude that makes it much creepier than most HPL adaptations. The production is top notch and you feel like you are listening to a smalltime investigative podcast recorded via iPhone; you're hearing their discoveries as they are happening with phone calls, audio clips, interviews etc. It's a format that invites you into the scene so that you really feel a part of it. Hopefully there will be a second season which continues the story.  

I love the 1930's charm of the HPLHS Dark Adventure Radio Theater adaptations, but this is a uniquely modern twist on classic Lovecraft. (And of course, both are very worthwhile.)


Infocom Source Code and Resources

Github screenshot
Last month, Jason Scott, Internet Archivist and director of the terrific Get Lamp interactive fiction documentary, posted an entire hard drive's worth of Infocom source code on GitHub. I thought I'd share a few observations and links to resources that might be helpful to others in exploring this code and the history of Infocom.

The GitHub repositories include the original ZIL source code to thirty classic interactive fiction games from the '80s: Zork, Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and my personal favorites, the mystery stories Deadline, Suspect and The Witness. There are also unpublished fragments including the lost Hitchhiker's sequel Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Stu Galley's unreleased Checkpoint game, and an ill-fated tie-in to James Cameron's movie The Abyss.  

Deadline screenshotThe games are written in a defunct proprietary Lisp-like language called ZIL (Zork Implementation Language). Sadly, I'm not aware of any working compilers that can compile this code, though I understand There are efforts underway to redevelop a ZIL compiler and most of the Infocom games are now compilable. Which is cool since the Z-Machine is the basis of the underlying architecture and virtual machine code systems for games written in Inform.  Infocom published a manual for ZIL for internal use that is available online. Zarf has also posted a helpful article on ZIL. To me ZIL is kind of like assembly language (with (parentheses)), but the code is still fascinating.

The original MDL mainframe version of Zork (also known as Dungeon) was later translated into Fortran and then machine translated into C. These are higher-level languages than ZIL, but still hard slogging. Luckily, Zork was later ported to Inform6 and Inform7.

Some years ago Volker Lanz wrote and published equivalent version of Deadline in Inform6, but it requires an old version of Inform and as far as I can tell there's no compiled binary version of the game. Most likely the author was concerned that this might have been too close for comfort as copyright violation. It will be interesting to see if anyone translates any of these Infocom games into a modern equivalent in Inform 7. 

Scott had previously posted several Infocom file cabinets --digitized versions of Infocom printed materials including design documents, internal memos, sales reports, logo designs, photos, advertisements, etc which provide a fascinating glimpse into the internal operations of Infocom during it's hey day.

No one seems to have complained about the posting of the Infocom source code, but if it's of interest, I'd get it quick.

For those interested in the history of Infocom and the impact of it's games, I strongly recommend the well-written student research project The History of Infocom (PDF) as well as Jimmy Maher's excellent articles at The Digital Antiquarian.

And for further historical context, here's a link to the Infocom Documentary Scott released along with Get Lamp:


John Yorke's Into The Woods

Yorke woods 2

Here's another book for aspiring writers, called “Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.” Although the book is primarily about screenwriting, I think it's quite good for game authors or novelists who want a better understanding of story structure. first of this book on the British Podcast “The Bestseller Experiment.” This is a very well written analysis of story structure by BBC TV producer and script editor John Yorke. Yorke has also worked in radio and video games, so his ideas have quite broad applicability. Unlike a lot of screenwriting books, Yorke is attempting to provide a formula for perfection. Instead he explains why certain structures are used and their impact on the story. So if Blake Snyder's "Save The Cat" and Robert McKee's "Story" seems a bit too formulaic, you might like the more scholarly inquiry that Yorke provides.

Bxp podcastFor writers seeking a bit of inspiration, BXP is the best podcast I’ve found on writing: informative, entertaining and motivational. What more could you ask for? It’s the ongoing story of two middle-aged blokes in their quest to write and and publish a bestselling novel called “Back To Reality” --currently on sale for $0.99. They’ve done some great interviews with a number of authors I admire, including Ian Rankin, Joe Hill, Michael Connelly, Taylor Jenkins-Reid and more.


Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy

I admit, I have a weakness for rock and roll biogs: The Doors, The Kinks, The Ramones, The Clash, KISS; I've read them all. Hell, I've read and enjoyed biogs by bands like Kraftwerk and I don't even particularly like their music! But it's pretty rare to find a novel that does rock and roll justice. Daisy Jones & The Six comes pretty close to being the perfect rock and roll novel.

The book is told entirely as an oral history charting the rise and fall of a fictional 1970s band Daisy Jones & The Six.  This is quite different from a traditional novel and the story reads like an extended Rolling Stone or MTV interview with a real band. The device works extremely well and pulls you into each of the characters, their foibles, their egos in a way that brings things to life. The story is being told many years after the fact, and the sometimes conflicting accounts are used to great effect in the story. You can still feel the raw emotions of how peoples lives are brought together including all of the joys, pains, hurt feelings and bruised egos. The characters are not always likable and the structure gives the book a bit of a meandering style, but it all comes together in a way that I can only describe as heartwrenching. Jenkins Reid has layered so much drama and emotion into the story that the climax is nothing short of magnificent. She captures the feeling of performance, songwriting, fame and addiction in a way that is truly memorable. 

The book had been on my list for a while, but when I heard an interview with the author Jenkins Reid on the highly-addictive Bestseller Experiment podcast, I bought the book immediately on Audible. The book works especially well in audio because each of the different characters is voiced by a different actor. It's a fantastic book which I highly recommend.  The only other novel I know that captures rock and roll is "Evening's Empire" by Former MTV exec Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's book is in some ways both funnier and deeper, but Jenkins-Reid's will may you cry.