On November 30th, 2001, I uploaded the source code of Losing Your Grip to IF Archive. It was, I suspect, the last thing I will ever have to do with that game.
Odd, how our creations take on lives of their own. They become surrogate children, our hopes and fears piled upon their backs. At some point we let them go, and off into the world they totter.
We don't let them go all at once, though. At first, many threads bind us to them. No matter how far they wander, we are connected. But such threads weaken over time. Thinner and thinner they grow, and one day we look up and years have passed. What once burned white-hot in our mind has cooled, glimmering faintly, glimpsed rarely and then only out of the corner of our eye.
These are not new observations. I do not claim to have found a motherlode of originality which I will now mine for your edification. But I have just now, quite unexpectedly, found myself presiding over a personal wake for my game. And so I do what I have often done before: turn to the solace of shaping emotion into words.
Shall I speak of my earliest memory of the game? I am driving between Arkadelphia and Little Rock in 1994. I have dreamed the night before of being in a coma, my body lying still while I roamed through my mind. Back passages had opened before me, leading to things I did not realize about myself. As I pass the town of Malvern I think, this might make a good game.
Shortly thereafter, Kevin Wilson announced his plans to start a software company called Vertigo Software. It was going to publish interactive fiction. He asked people to submit game ideas to him. I did so, talking about a man in a coma, an experimental drug, and my plan to have branches within the game. Once upon a time, the first chapter was going to have one variation; the second, two; the third, four; the fourth, eight. By the time Kevin saw my précis, I had eight chapters. There were to be two branches in chapter four, two in chapter five, and four in chapter six. Kevin was excited about the idea. I began design work, planning the first chapter and painting the rest of the game in broad strokes. Surely it wouldn't take that long to write.
Vertigo Software never materialized, and off I went to graduate school.
In the source code of each of my games I include the date I began programming. It marks the beginning of my journey and serves to push me onwards. The source code to Losing Your Grip reads:
Programming Begin: 23 Aug 96
Memory fades in patches; clear images become fog and mist. Parts of the game evoke no memory for me. I read the text, peer at the code, and it is as if it was written by a friend, someone whose writing style I am familiar with. Or perhaps it was the result of automatic writing, some force moving through me and not deigning to leave memories behind. Other times I look at part of the code and I remember what I had for dinner the night I wrote that section. The day I began coding, I typed that line and walked away for a little while until I felt calm enough to continue.
I had many notes, all written in an old blue spiral-bound notebook. "WriteRight," it said on the front. Inside was information on Terry Hastings, née Jack Freeman, who was undergoing treatment at a clinic. I had drawn a floor map of the clinic. The eight chapters I had told Kevin about had turned into five, one for each finger. There were to be two branches in chapters two and four. I had maps and notes for every section save the final one.
Time spent on writing those notes was time saved in creation during coding. There is a balance to be reached between straitjacket planning and free-form coding-creation. Remarkably, I found that fine line and hewed to it while creating my game of balances and tension.
Pain, too, fades. There were times when I would stare at the screen, wondering what in the hell I was doing. I have memories of this, in the same way that I see photos of myself at play as a child and hearing a faint echo of the actual events in my head. That is someone else painfully wrestling with the code and writing, someone who does not yet know how the game will end.
At this late date I do not remember if I asked on rec.arts.int-fiction for beta-testers. I suspect I did not; I was coy about my game. I had to have Mike Kinyon testing the game. I'd experienced his prowess at testing before and marvelled at the results. He was, as I expected, the light which illuminated many cracks in the edifice I had erected.
I had little idea how much an effect Magnus Olsson would have on the final shape of the game. I spent one hot day in August of 1997 agonizing over the game's first chapter. Magnus had told me how little sense the layout of the first fit's building made. Damn him, he was right. He was right. I wielded my scalpel and made the changes. It was like cutting into my own leg.
There was so much to do. I wanted a manual for the game, newspaper clippings, the brochure from the drug company. Amazingly enough, thanks to the design abilities of Misty, I got these things. My shareware game would have feelies.
And a version of TADS for Windows. If I expected Windows users to pay me for my game, I needed a version that was more than a DOS console application. With the assistance of Andrew Plotkin I had WinTADS working by August of 1997, and had devoured my Kinder-egg payment from Neil Guy shortly thereafter.
15 January, 1998. I would claim that that date will forever be etched in my brain, but I had to resort to Google Groups to verify it. 1998, yes, mid-January, sure, but the exact day? Fog and patches.
You can only check a newsgroup for messages so often before you outstrip the arrival rate of new articles. For a short span in January, I could have told you when each batch of articles arrived at Duke's newsfeed with twenty minutes of accuracy. My obsession was eventually rewarded. Hint requests started to appear. People began discussing the game and What It All Meant.
Head-kicking. Had I only known how popular it would be, I would have made it much more central to the game. Even more of a surprise were the occasional pieces of mail I would get asking how much of Losing Your Grip was drawn from my life. Was your father mean or abusive? Was your family life unhappy? Did your dad really send someone to lock faeries in a cage?
Sorry, no. The hospital and school are real places viewed in a funhouse mirror. Little else is my life reflected. The dedication to the game reads
For my dad, who first taught me love of language.
May I someday write as well as you.
To my experienced eye, Losing Your Grip carries veins of youthful exuberance deep in its strata. Here I experiment wildly with putting parser disambiguation in the mouth of characters. There I add a sack object, common in Inform games. Let the players name the dog? Sure, that might be interesting. If you cannot decide whether or not to let the player explicitly choose which branching path to follow, then do both. I wanted to try everything I could think of, design by see-what-sticks-to-the-wall.
This game was the first of mine to undergo serious public scrutiny. None of my prior work had been so publically reviewed. I worried about this: would I have a skin thick enough to deal with comments? I soon learned an important lesson, here encapsulated in two quotes.
Still, I think fit 1 is clearly the weakest part of the game...
Perhaps the most successful part of Grip is the first fit...
On the whole, people's reactions were all I could have hoped for. I was most pleased with confusion sown by the forking path of chapter two. The fork occurred without warning, leaving many players unaware at first that there was an alternate path. People would ask for hints on rec.games.int-fiction, citing details from one possible chapter two. Others who had taken the other path would then reply, "I never saw any of that. Are you sure you're talking about chapter two?" Store up these little triumphs; you will need them in future days when your experiments do not fare so well.
Even after the initial rush of hint requests and thematic discussions, the game elicited occasional comments. Fifty-some-odd registrations before I ran out of printed manuals. A heated discussion about how I described some monitors, courtesy of Lucian P. Smith, Nick Montfort, and the IF Bookclub.
Everything has a shelf-life. Two years is not a bad lifetime for a piece of interactive fiction. Tony Hutchins, wherever you are, thank you for the final registration. March of 2000 seemed like a fine time to close up shop. The supply of manuals was exhausted, as was I of the game.
In the bottom left of my desk is a drawer. It is deep, and holds a number of my favorite commercial games. Plenty of space is left for a blue notebook, along with printed copies of just about every post to rec.games.int-fiction discussing Losing Your Grip.
For me, generating ideas is like siphoning gas from a car. Once the flow begins I have trouble ending it, lest I choke. TADS 3 is coming out soon. Ideas crowd, jostling for attention. The ruder ones are yelling loudly. I will do what I have often done before: turn to the enjoyment of shaping ideas into worlds.