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26 Nov 2015



With the release of MAME/MESS 0.168 today, JSMESS achieved something special and something final: Irrelevancy.


Through the work of JSMESS team member DopefishJustin and MAME/MESS developer Micko, assisted by a number of other contributed factors by both teams, per-driver compilation of MAME/MESS into Emscripten-converted Javascript just “happens” now. It’s one of the features built into MAME/MESS, and further work can be refined there as needed.


Volunteer teamwork for this project therefore shifts over to The Emularity, which is the loading structure for Javascript-based emulators, including MAME/MESS, EM-DOSBOX and others that will be added. The Emularity allows and will continue to allow ease of loading for this breed of emulator in a variety of ways, making the embedding of software history available everywhere, ubiquitously, for a very, very long time.


Pushing it through Emscripten also makes way for a future in which a replacement candidate like WebAssembly will be the eventual final target. Emscripten’s continued dedication to cross-platform compatibility and refinement of the compilation process means that now there’s a dedicated team for compiling (Emscripten), and a dedicated team for emulation (MAME). It’s as sweet as it gets.





This has been a very long road for me. I announced this project idea in this very weblog a mere four years ago. 4 years! (And note that DopefishJ is the first to jump in with assistance. Four years ago! And he’s never wavered.)


4 years is a very long time to bring something like this together. Granted, we had something sort of working within the first year, but to continually refine, improve, find the bugs, re-engineer the whole thing and attempt to make it functionally easier to keep on top of… that took a core set of people a lot of time.


They’re owed a lot of gratitude and thanks, and I need to assemble the canonical list of everyone who helped, but the efforts of DFJustin, Vito, bai, devesine, dreamlayers, clb, jvilk, yipdw, antumbral, balrog, MooglyGuy, haze lord_nightmare, and many others are what brought us to this point.


So, what’s next?


Well, the emscripten support in MAME/MESS is not perfect – it definitely needs eyes looking at it to improve the accuracy and the implementation. But it just got added this month, and I’m quite patient about these sorts of improvements.


The Emularity will need more refinement in terms of making it easier for “just folks” to start embedding software wherever they want it. The code works nicely, it’s just a matter of sitting down and going over how a person who had not had to program javascript would make something run.


And of course MAME/MESS can always use the addition of more people helping it with support, refinement and improvements. The Emscripten/website use case is a strong one – it’s going to be very easy for museums, university teachers, and everyone else to be interacting with this emulator going forward, and so the more focus on getting it comprehensive and quick as well as accurate, the better. It’s instant reward.





As I’ve indicated earlier this month, my focus is not on making sure emulation in the browser is a fact – that’s been established. My focus is entirely on transferring as much lost or in-danger digital information into modern-computer-readable-form as absolutely fast as possible. The emulators are here, and they’re waiting. Now we have to focus on these poor, solid magnetic souls keeping their precious contents, day by day, until they’re rescued.


I am not sad in the least. It was so fun to work with this team to get things where there are, and it’ll be so great to refocus them on parts that need more attention and love (like automatic new-driver building when new versions of MESS/MAME come out).


It is, all told, a great day.


Thanks to everyone.
















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25 Nov 2015
Here’s an update on the Infocom Cabinet, with a side order of ethical debate.





I’ve now dumped the balance of materials I have around into the Infocom Cabinet collection on the Internet Archive. There’s some scatterings left on my hard drives, but they are either 100% personal (think: pay stubs and employee evaluations) or they’re duplicated in many ways in what did go up.


So with this little update comes:

All told, we’re somewhere in the range north of 5,000 individual scanned pages in this uploaded collection. It’s worth it to note that this wasn’t even the full extent of Steve Meretzky’s file cabinet – this was just as much as I grabbed with a sense of “this needs to be saved” cross-purposed with “this will look good scrolling by in the final film”. There’s likely piles of interesting material in the collection, including all of Steve’s work with Boffo and Legend Entertainment, two companies he worked at after Infocom – I just had to call it at some point, or I’d probably be scanning to this day. I again note that Stanford University was donated the entire Meretzky collection, where it sits safely to this day.


For the “what about” crowd… yes, there’s a few other items in the collection, and I may put them up if it makes sense to, but this should really be enough for anyone to produce a reasonably informed opinion on the goings-on, from nearly day one through to the office closing and all the remaining items shipped away, of Infocom, Inc., 1983-1989. They’re readable in the browser, and the original scans that are up are all 600dpi, meaning they can be zoomed in for artistic meaningfulness, which as a documentary film guy I’m pretty big on. It’s a triumph! People are talking about it! It’s making waves!


Now what?





So, there’s an important factor in this. The vast, vast majority of Infocom employees are very much alive, some still working in the games industry, and others who have possibly not thought about the words “Zork”, “Infocom”, or “55 Wheeler Street” for a very long time. And now, out of nowhere, related to no particular anniversary or event, the sum total of the company’s materials are now online somewhere, browsable, and thousands of people are poring over them, studying and commenting.


Some will be delighted. Some will be confused why anyone cares so much, and maybe one or two will be in some ways horrified or nervous, especially if they haven’t gone over what’s been posted themselves.


For the film, I interacted with a variety of Infocom staff, some of them for just one day (interview), some just over a single phone call (saying they wouldn’t be in the film), and others on and off for years. I can’t pretend to call myself their friend beyond the Meretzky family and especially Steve, who I spent a large amount of time with during production and who I occasionally see when I’m in California.


There’s a situation in making a documentary I call “Stop-Motion Interaction” where you interview someone, spend 3 years working on the movie, and then either have the person at the premiere or run into them, and you have been spending months inside your head getting to know the person from what they talked about, and then you see them and to them, you’re just this old dim memory and to you, you’re seeing an old friend again. It can be jarring for both parties.


But there were people I didn’t get the opportunity to talk with at all. They literally have nothing to know about me or my methods or what I’m about, beyond I made some sort of film and that film had an Infocom aspect to it. (Some Infocom alumni just called GET LAMP “The Infocom Movie”, presuming that’s what it’d be about.) For some of them, they will likely see what just happened with all this documentation and have a “reaction”.


So.





This gets enormously complicated. And painful. But if I’m going to talk about where I got to with releasing all this historical information, and to stand as some sort of example of the issues involved, I gotta go here.


It’s explained in excruciating detail in this podcast, so I’ll go with the Cliffs Notes version, like someone explaining why one shoulder blade is 2 inches higher than the other, and why there’s a scar going from one ear to the forehead.


Besides this treasure trove of infocom documentation in Steve’s basement, I had someone contact me saying, basically, “So, you’re working on this movie. Would you like The Infocom Drive?” Like everything else, I said YES without needing any details because that’s how I roll. When the Infocom Drive arrived (a roughly 150mb .zip), it was essentially a snapshot of Infocom at the end of days, Knowing that this was a goldmine that needed to be in some way preserved, I gave three copies away to trusted sources, and one of them wrote an article about a particular narrative thread in the drive’s contents, got a ton of attention, some extremely angry ex-Infocom folks (both privately and public, to me), my movie almost died in the cradle and I didn’t talk to the author for about six years.


Again, the podcast goes into this whole thing for the sake of the looky-loos, but I’m trying to get to the core of the discussion/debate here – that to tell this narrative thread, this article used e-mails, entirely private, pulled from the hard drive and which were never, ever published anywhere and I’m sure the employees on both sides of each letter had no idea their writings survived and just imagine waking up to that nightmare scenario.


Reconciliation did happen, and I did have conversations with a lot of people about it, and I definitely still harbor both the sadness at the initial event and the lost opportunities of six years of potential collaboration.


So then, what exactly am I doing here?





First, I tried to take lessons from the debacle of a half-decade-plus ago and implement them in a way that would protect people:

  • Removal/blacking out of personal information in the realm of addresses and phone numbers, that are surprisingly still intact to the present day;
  • Employee evaluations and specific medical information
  • Anything that might be construed as a personal attack, especially on a person not along the chain (name-calling against specific managers, or a parody gossip article naming two employees, the “parody” aspect possibly misconstrued in modern times)
Steve has been rather open with how he does his work, so there are things in there that I wouldn’t do if I hadn’t worked things out with Steve and gotten his opinion on what’s acceptable. For example, I left in a salary listing for Steve just because it’s both historically interesting and because I think if he had it on his computer, he’d make it part of a presentation at GDC. But only Steve gets that treatment in any way.


I worry about someone defending decisions made decades ago, with 20/20 hindsight applied by groupthink hive-mind perfection-oriented knowledge. I hope that doesn’t happen. People in this group range from early 20s to early 30s (with a few noted exceptions) and Infocom was often either their first job, or a completely crazy 90 degree change in career. They did what they did, and it came from competence and doing the right thing as they saw it. I don’t know if any of us could stand up to such scrutiny and get top marks across the board.


Beyond this, though, there’s the situation itself.


This is probably going to be the only time, outside of maybe Sierra and Broderbund, that this level of depth of the life cycle of a game company will ever end up online. And while I know there are archives of some game companies, I don’t believe any had the meticulousness that Steve showed in gathering up company work and management product and placing them into perfectly boxed-up folders indicating what aspect of the firm they were. We literally have the memos introducing the start of the sales team, company library and health insurance… and then the “we’re not doing so well”, the resignation letters, the calls to sell furniture and office supplies. It’s all in there.





It is my strongest belief that this collection will instruct, inform and change things in games, if only to show what situations have persisted for years, and what aspects are evolved from how things were. It’s hard, cold source material, unprettified and unsummarized, and showing something else: Just how ******* amazing Infocom was.


These were good people. Hardworking employees, creative geniuses, and driven towards the goal of being the best of the game companies. A place that people dreamed of being part of from the outside. A company that stood as doing all the right things, until it wasn’t doing the right things. A chance for people to figure out where the cracks showed, where the triumphs were, and where dreams were actually and truly formed and hewed on a daily basis. That’s pretty amazing.


Infocom alumni can e-mail me (jason@textfiles.com) any time if they have concerns about something, or which I overlooked the nature of (I tried to be very careful about this and all the thousands of pages have been vetted by me personally – the buck stops here.) Naturally, the world at large can e-mail me too.


I should rush to say that the reaction on the part of everyone I’ve found has been 100% positive. I’m writing this not because someone complained, but because I saw in a potential scenario that angry and betrayed researcher I was so long ago with my friend (who is still, again, very much my friend) Andy. I know that the result is often not shouting but seething. That solves nothing. I wanted to get ahead of it.


For everyone else, please enjoy this rare and possibly unique peering into what is, ultimately, one of the high holy grails of gaming history.







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23 Nov 2015
This is big news, in the realm of game design studies.


During the production of GET LAMP, I spent a lot of time digitizing or photographing all sorts of artifacts and documents related to Interactive Fiction and text adventures. This included books, advertisements, printouts, and various ephemera that various players or programmers had lying around from that era. This would usually involve one or two ads, maybe a map or two that someone had drawn, and one or two photos snapped at a convention.


But not in the case of Steve Meretzky.


If you’re coming into this relatively new, or even if you need a little brush-up, let me state: Steve Meretzky has earned the title of “Game God” several times over, having been at the center of the early zenith of computer games in the 1980s and persisting, even thriving, in the years since. He continues to work in the industry, still doing game design, 35 years since he started out as a tester at what would become Infocom.


But more than that – besides writing a large amount of game classics in the Interactive Fiction realm, he also was an incredibly good historian and archivist, saving everything.


EVERYTHING.


When we finally connected during production (as it turned out, we lived within 10 miles of each other), Steve showed me his collection of items he had from the days of Infocom (which spanned from roughly 1981 through to the company’s eventual closing and absorption by Activision in the early 1990s). And it was a hell of a collection:





Recognizing the value here, not just for my documentary but for the world at large, I gained permission from Steve to start scanning these items. First, in his basement, and then, when the job extended past a few weekends and it got annoying to have this guy in Steve’s basement, from my home, in a setup that I would work from with a set of pliers (for staples) and just scanning, constantly, as I could:





This took a long time. I scanned as much as I could, and after working on Steve’s “design binders”, which are very large combinations of every scrap of paper related to a game, I took a run at the file cabinet, which had pretty much every major communicated aspect of the Infocom company, from memorandums and business process through to interoffice softball game preparations and crab race outcomes. I definitely didn’t get everything, but I got a whole lot. Something on the order of roughly 9,000 scanned items, in fact.


Ultimately, Steve moved out of his lovely home and went to the west coast. His binders, artifacts and other items went to Stanford University, where they are housed today. I sent them copies of my hard drives, and they are using them (to my delight) to house their own digital form of the archives, and intend to bring in the remainder of the materials over time.


I ended up using a lot of material in GET LAMP, with loving pans across these 600dpi images of puzzles, writing and advertisements while people talked about text games and the craft of creating them. And after the movie was done, I put the scans away and moved onto other projects.


Until now.


Today, I’m dropping the first set of what I hope will be the vast majority of the stuff I scanned during that production year, onto the Internet Archive. The collection is called The Infocom Cabinet, and right now it has every design notebook/binder that Steve Meretzky kept during the period of what most people consider “Classic” Infocom. This includes binders for:

Right there are nearly 4,000 pages of material to go through related to the production of these games.





Bear in mind: Steve did not mess around when it came to assembling these folders. He includes the light, drizzly roots of a given game, whether it be some cut-out newspaper articles or an exchange between employees of “what should Steve work on next”. (In some cases, heavy descriptions of the games Steve never got a chance to make, including a Titanic game and Minute Mysteries.) It then follows through many iterations of the maps, puzzles, references of any given work. Often, there are draft versions of the artwork and text for the manual and hint books, including all correspondence with outside vendors (like G/R, the copywrite/design group Infocom used heavily and which Steve has the occasional huge disagreement with). Then, once the game is functional, we have letters and feedback from playtesters.


(PLEASE NOTE: I HAVE REDACTED THE NAMES AND PERSONAL INFORMATION OF THE PLAYTESTERS INVOLVED – ORIGINAL UNREDACTED COPIES ARE NOT ONLINE BUT EXISTENT.) 


For someone involved in game design, this is priceless work. Unfettered by the crushing schedules and indie limits of the current industry, the designers at Infocom (including Steve, but not limited to him by any means) were able to really explore what made games so much fun, where the medium could go, and what choices could be made. It’s all here.





But more than that, and I mean much more – Steve kept all the memos, business process, and related papers that were generated through Infocom Inc.’s life. Like, pretty much all of it.


This gets slightly harder for me to put up – I am going to have to work with Steve and some of the other people involved as to what can go up now and what should stay in Stanford’s stacks for researchers to work with. But for now, a healthy set of materials have gone up:

This is a relatively tiny amount of the total internal company scans I have made, but these are the ones that I can put up without worrying about it crashing into anyone’s life. Again, personal information has been removed, and the focus has been on company process and interesting historical documents.





There’s so much more not up right now, but this 4,000 page cache should give you something pretty extensive to chew on. I also can’t promise when the ‘next wave’ will come, as it really will be time consuming to go through compared to the relatively light (personal-information-wise) design binders. But it will!


I can’t thank Steve enough for what he did during the timespan of Infocom – he just absolutely captured a very special company during a very special time and kept it, well-sorted and updated, for years and years. That we have this at all is a tribute to his staying firm to this approach, even with the side-effort of, you know, completely revolutionizing computer games.


Enjoy this holiday treat.







View the full article
11 Nov 2015
Close the air gap. Close the air gap. Close the air gap, the air gap, the air gap.





Close the air gap. Close it. The air gap. Close it.





Close the air gap. Close it right now. This weekend. This month. Close the air gap.





There’s a layer of atmosphere, of air, in between us and the data, and that needs to go. It needs to be pulled in. It really needed to be pulled in years ago. It needs to go in now.


In the nascent period of “will Javascript be up to the task” that came out of the beginning of the JSMESS project, there was a worthwhile point to focusing on the “will it work” aspect. We got it to work. It’s not perfect, but it’s very, very good. If you have a very fast machine, and as time goes on, we will all have fast machines, then the experience can feel great. What’s left is polish and documentation. The beast lives, the machine hums. It needs help, yes, but the amount of people who can help are relatively tiny in the world.


What’s needed is to close the air gap.


I’m not worried about entire classes of “stuff”. Console games made before 2000. The full run of “Friends” on DVD. Most anything released audio-wise on CD that had a UPC symbol. I’m not worried in the same way you shouldn’t be worried about falling rocks when driving through a road in cornfields. It might be a problem, but it shouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind. It’s not in my concern circle that there are probably some releases by Tommy Boy Records or an occasional post-2010 feature film that is difficult to find in just the right video format.


When people talk about ‘saving’ materials into digital form, some of the “big things” get immediate attention and love. For example, Nintendo and especially Mario. We’re set on Mario. But there’s entire swaths of material I call “Advocate-less Items” that just need someone to digitize them regardless. Old user group floppies. Placemats. Rave flyers. Handmade cookbooks. Shop manuals. Beverage distribution one-sheets. Matchbooks. You know, stuff.


I will be resuming work on DIGITIZE THE PLANET because I think that will help bring an army of digitizers to the fore. People who will drop a little money, go get scanners, and help us add materials that are sitting around, give them useful metadata, and then upload them to places like the Internet Archive.


But as I sit here in my room, ripping hundreds of CD-ROMs, floppies, and tapes, and as I start to scan in newsletters, books and pamphlets, I feel like we’re running towards the Tsunami with buckets, trying to catch it. We need more people, and we need more scanning, and we have a lot of work ahead of us.


Close the air gap.





Close the air gap.


Close the air gap.


Close the air gap.




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9 Nov 2015
The title has little context, which I think is appropriate.


One of my friends in high school insisted, nay, demanded that I listen to an album called A BIG 10-8 PLACEwhich was either about or by something called Negativland, which I didn’t have a clue as to what that could mean, and before I could really absorb that, I had to hear the album, and oh man.





I can’t even easily describe this album. It’s primarily a set of audio collage, some of the finest that can blow through headphones, with ridiculous self-reference and unusual disturbing moments. It was just a game and life-changer for me, some crazy kid in 1986, a mere 16 years old and up to that point living with Art of Noise as my most wild band.


I bought a number of Negativland albums over the years, and in college, by a very, very lucky set of circumstances, I got to attend an actual, live, Negativland concert at The Western Front in Cambridge, MA – one of their rare East Coast appearances. I showed up way too early, and met the band.


I’m compressing time insanely – sorry about that, but my personal life with this band is not important to the main points other than to say that it’s progressed on to what will now be a life with Negativland for 30 years next year: 1986-2016.


Along the way, I saw them live a handful of times, and in one case, even put the entire band up in my house in Waltham when they had some Boston appearances. The whole band! In my house! What fan wouldn’t love that?





Maybe I’ve just hit that age where I approach liking different bands to “take it or leave it” – you either listen and are grabbed, or you listen and say “not for me”. But if you like clever or really brilliant sound collage, cultural ridiculing combined with satirical commentary, and the occasional burst of disturbing, intense music, then you may enjoy Negativland.


Along the way, I’ve become really close with one of the members, Mark Hosler, who I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with in various locations, and who has never failed to delight me with his presence. Kevin Smith says “Don’t meet your heroes” but what I counter with is “Get better heroes.”


In the middle of 2015, one of the members of Negativland, Don Joyce, passed away, at the age of 71. He was amazing in his own right. There are some really excellent obituaries and memories out there, and again, I’m not going to add to them here.





What I’m going to do is tell you about how this nearly-30-years-long fan got the chance at the dream of his lifetime, when he was able to leverage his position at a very large, very open network-connected archive to bring forward a collection of Negativland and Don’s work that nobody ever thought would be in one place.


It’s called the Over the Edge Collection.


See, during the time he was in Negativland and doing a lot of sound work with the band, Don was also the host of a weekly radio show in KPFA called “Over the Edge” – an hours-long sound collage of themes, commentary and thrown-into-the-mix listeners that he called Over the Edge. That’s three to five hours a week, every week, for decades. Unique enough as a show, it’s definitely unique in the consistency and execution of his vision. He did his last show, died a few days later, and various people from the band and long-time collaborators showed up and did the very next show entitled THERE IS NO DON, and the show was announced as continuing in some form, but the era of Don Joyce was over.


There were scads and scads of recorded shows from the many years, some of which had been remixed into sold items for the Negativland Seeland Records catalog, but which the vast, vast majority had not seen the light of day since broadcast.


Until now.


Working with the Band’s Archivist, Tim Maloney, who has painstakingly digitized tapes for years, the Internet Archive now has up over 3,000 hours (THREE THOUSAND HOURS) of this radio show. It’d take you a good part of a year to listen to it all.


There are now lots of articles about this hosting of all this material (I particularly like this one), but there’s two things I wanted to address before I set you off to it.





First, I work for such a great place that adding 941 shows of hundreds of megabytes of audio each wasn’t even a rounding error – I didn’t have to bring it up with a single person before I helped do it. This dream of Don’s and others in the band, that all the Over the Edge material would be up somewhere, instantly listenable, came true in hours as the hard drive uploaded the items.


The Archive’s derivers convert all incoming audio to various forms, including .ogg and related formats, as well as generating waveforms and just generally trying to give listeners the most options. It is now possible to listen to all 941 shows (with more coming) and not have to hit a paywall, a banner ad, a rate limiter, or any other barrier. It might be worth considering to donate to such a generous organization.





Second, you need to realize that a band this meticulous, this directed in their focus and approach and art, was making a huge and ridiculous leap when they just threw up these thousands of hours of shows. Up to this point, they’ve crafted nearly every second the public heard of their work, and so presentation was done at great pains and effort. And then, a short time after Don’s passing, we are suddenly given all of these items with, in some cases, almost no descriptions at all.


The choice was pretty clear – only release what had gone through rigorous metadata refinement, fully describing and cataloging this collection until it was 100% ready to go as a perfect crystalline museum piece… or just dump everything up there and figure it out later. It was very difficult to do a 180 and put it all up as is.


As a result, there’s a call for help in describing these shows. Don only described a percentage, and efforts by fans new and old to describe these shows would be appreciated. It might take years, or a few insane weeks, but the literal life’s work of Don and the members of Negativland (and many many others, I rush to say) deserves the community it should get.


Let’s get Stupid.







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