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November 15, 2011

Five Questions for Robb Sherwin, Creator of Cryptozookeeper

Cryptozookeeper is a work of interactive fiction. For you kids, back in the 80s we used to call these things “text adventures.” If I could attempt to describe interactive fiction (IF) to a modern gamer, it would go something like this: take all the combat out of an RPG like Final Fantasy or Dragon Age, so that all you have left is the walking around, the puzzles, and the cutscenes. Then, take all the graphics out of the game, and replace it with written descriptions of everything. Sound like fun?

No. That sounds terrible, because commercial RPGs all have terrible writers. The puzzles are moronic and the stories are excruciating. But… what if somebody put a lot of thought into the stories? What if the puzzles weren’t written by hallucinating toddlers? It may surprise you to find out that there remains a secret society of IF authors, creating games that comprehensively reject the values of modern-day gaming. IF games reject the proposal that better games have better graphics and – radically, in the age of games like Bioshock where you can’t even die – reject the idea that gamers like easy games. IF games put the story first, and everything else second.

Robb Sherwin is the author of such a game, and we’ve invited him to talk a little bit about it. I should disclose that I know Robb a little from talking with him here and there on the Internet, and that as he developed Cryptozookeeper he approached us at Fwonk for permission to use our music for his game, which is released under a Creative Commons license. We responded, of course, that because we also release our music under Creative Commons, we had already given the entire Creative Commons community permission to use our music in this fashion. Robb really went to town with this idea, and Cryptozookeeper includes literally hours of independent music.

On to the interview!

Hi Robb!

First, let me thank you for taking the time to talk a little about Cryptozookeeper and its place in the world Creative Commons gaming. As of this writing, Cryptozookeeper has been downloaded 3,441 times from the Internet Archive. Congratulations!

Thanks. It amazes me that people have downloaded a terabyte and a half of my Big Foot game. I feel this would have disbanded the early ARPANET had they known what it would later breed. I’m extremely grateful it didn’t come up back then.

#1: I read that Cryptozookeeper took you about five years to complete. I’m about to ask you a personal question. The question is in two parts. As you answer this question, please keep in mind that we at Fwonk* also spend a lot of time and effort putting work onto the internet for free. The question is A: how many *hours* do you think you spent (rounded to the nearest hundred) on Cryptozookeeper? B: why would a person go to all that trouble?

I’ve tried to estimate it, and I think it took somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 hours to make Cryptozookeeper. There were stretches where I woke up early, downed a pot of coffee and didn’t stop until it was time for bed. There were also times where I was on vacation, or trying to get in shape after work, or was waiting for a new clicky keyboard because I spilled a pot of coffee on the old one. I tried to work on it each weeknight no matter how tired I was, as doing that gets you into the zone.

As for why — I know it wasn’t a sane thing to do. I wanted to make an episodic game that came off like an entire season of a British comedy or something. My life was in a place where I didn’t have kids and wasn’t taking my job home with me, so if there was ever going to be a time to make a long game, it was going to be my early 30s. But it really came down to the fact that I had a longish story I wanted to tell, and was finally good enough at programming and Photoshop to implement it. That being said, the next thing I create is going to be so short it will make “Don’t Shit Your Pants” seem like a 100%-achievement runthrough of Skyrim.

#2: Let’s talk about connoisseurs. At Fwonk*, a lot of the artists are making music primarily for what I’ll call a connoisseurial class of listeners who are very attuned to a specific set of aesthetic values (e.g. ambient drone music); a side effect (or maybe the intention!) of targeting that audience is that what you might call the “mainstream” listener will automatically find the work to be alienating. So the question is: when you’re making a game like Cryptozookeeper, are you thinking mainly about that kind of connoisseurial minority? How much do you worry about that kind of gamer, versus what you might think of as a mainstream gamer?

I’ve accepted the reality that I’m making niche games in a programming language (Hugo) that has been marginalized within a subgenre of video games (text adventures) way past its commercial prime. Part of me hopes that appeals to certain players.

When the abandonware site Home of the Underdogs was regularly updated, I used to love clicking around trying to unearth gems that didn’t get any mainstream attention. The unique voice of the artists involved were fascinating. There are text game players that don’t like games with cursing and irresponsible sex and drug use. But these things happen, they aren’t exactly disappearing in our culture, and they are ignored (for understandable reasons) in professional development studios where there is real money at stake. I think independent game developers can distance themselves by not self-censoring, though. I think treating our audience as adults is where we can thrive. If you’re going to ignore a mainstream audience, you might as well ignore it completely.

(That being said, having made games that seem to really resonate with a minority of text adventure fans, if I had an idea for a game as good as Tetris or Ultima or even freaking Mappy, I’d be coding that up as quickly as possible and stuffing my pillow with deposit receipts. I’m just not wired to find inspiration that way.)

#3: I originally met you through Internet forums, much like the one here at Fwonk.com. I noticed that you have a forum community based around IF games, and specifically your games, at joltcountry.com. In what ways has that forum community (and others) affected your progress as an artist?

I’ve been lucky in that there is a good group of guys who visit my forum and have helped test my games. We’ve also been ripping on each other and saying the most horrible things we can think of to each other for ten years. That lends itself to frank discussions of what simply isn’t working from a player’s perspective.

It would make a good graph for one of the many graph-based web comics out there: A reviewer who doesn’t know you at all, and doesn’t care to, can give you really useful feedback that isn’t sugar-coated. You then dip into a valley of kindness as your acquaintances, or just generally nice people play your game (or listen to your album, read your novel, etc.). But once you’re friends with people beyond offending them you can get the best feedback of all. Good criticism, like science, isn’t about your feelings.

A specific example involves music with vocals in a text game. My friend Ben found singing distracting because he was trying to read the game while playing, and his focus was being stolen by the lyrics. I start to glaze over what I’ve written the 50th time I’ve tested a scene, so his comments were helpful, even if they were sandwiched between accusations that I possess the world’s worst taste in pop/rock. This all led to me finding ambient music through FWONK in genres I was better equiped to enjoy and curate.

#4: Your previous IF work, Necrotic Drift, was based loosely on the concept of “Dungeons and Dragons monsters escape into the real world!” Cryptozookeeper basic premise is that your character, after a fashion, breeds the world’s most famous cryptozoological creatures. So the question is: did we used to hang out when I was a kid? Because D&D and cryptozoology were totally my main interests at one point. If not… what led you to choose those topics?

When we were kids we had all these wonderful ways to express ourselves and be creative… and the natural chain of events seemed to be to try to get into creating video games professionally. I figured out that, ten years ago, I was not nearly good enough at C/C++ to contribute, and the games industry treats their developers like the gears of a Play-Dough (TM) spaghetti grinder.

But we never lose our nostalgia for play in those worlds. I can’t legitimately make a licensed D&D game, but I sure could tell a story that felt genuine with a protagonist that was a bit obsessed with it.

There were two reasons I picked cryptozoology, though. Cryptids tend to lend themselves toward combinations, probably because they start out as a real animals that get transmogrified in the telling due to fear, alcohol or adrenaline. Big Foot is kind of a cross between a bear or ape and a man, the Loch Ness monster is sort of like a dinosaur and dolphin or walrus or whatever. That lends itself towards an interesting gameplay mechanic.

The second reason is that the field of cryptozoology reminded me of how it is when I try to explain text games to people in real-life. Cryptozoology is pretty nerdy stuff, as far as geek topics goes. And whenever I find myself accidentally trying to explain text games to people (“It’s a game… sort of where… you type stuff in… it’s really more like writing a novel, but the player can choose what happens…”) it’s like what I’d imagine a rabid cryptozoologist goes through trying to explain why he enjoys camping in a mud-soaked national park and hand-filtering what is ostensibly moose poop.

OK, that analogy sort of got away from me at the end, but there’s some nugget of truth there.

#5: Cryptozookeeper is really, really hard, and it’s pretty long, too. That’s what she said. How did you organize the work? Did you just code it from beginning to end, or did you start at a 10,000 ft view and then drill down into the details?

I had a file (“New Text Document1.txt”) that I used to keep track of all the different “scenes” or chapters I wanted to hit. I tried to throw in a little backstory for the main characters, just so I would get to know them before writing dialogue. But yeah, when I coded it, I started with the first scene, progressed from start to finish, took a detour for a few months to write the bit where you can train and fight cryptids, and then coded the ending. I initially wanted to just “make it solvable” on the first pass. I then went back to the start to ensure that all scenery was implemented, that all known bugs were fixed and to turn the writing from first draft into second, third and fourth draft.

(I did try to make it easier as it gets further along, because the thought of a player not getting to see the end who had invested so much time sucked.)

BONUS QUESTION: For the benefit of readers who now want to check out Cryptozookeeper: how do I get past the dog in the first room?

At the beginning of Cryptozookeeper, the player’s former employer got a sweet deal to “eliminate” the player by siccing the game’s first cryptid (the talking dog) on him. What I was trying to show was that our vegetarian player character with a holistic appreciation for all lifeforms has now begun manipulating animals to save himself.

If you eat the oyster and then tell the game you want to “vomit”, the talking dog will then start, ah, lapping that up instead of savagely mauli– look, I don’t own a dog, but that’s what I thought motivated them. My sources may be incorrect, but hey — I swear the rest of the science in Crypto is dead on. —Robb Sherwin, 11-14-2011