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Get Lamp

Rating: 7/10 - Fans of interactive fiction, classic or modern, will enjoy. Of interest to anyone interested in video games.

Are you a fan of interactive fiction, be it the Adventure/Infocom/Scott Adams era or the modern IFComp/IFArchive era? Get Lamp is a must see. If you are interested in video games, the history, the design, the stories, it's a solid recommendation. If that doesn't sound interesting, Get Lamp isn't likely to convert you.

Documentary creator Jason Scott has talked to huge numbers of people. It seems like he talked to just about everyone from Infocom, one of the two Adventure designers, and healthy chunks of notable modern authors. The only two modern authors I missed were Emily Short and Graham Nelson. (It's not surprising Scott couldn't interview them since Short is famously private and Nelson is England.)

We get an extended visit to Bedquilt cave, the real-world inspiration for Adventure. It was interesting to see, especially the comparisons between the real locations and the game rooms, but it didn't click as much as I might like, but that may be because I haven't played Adventure in a long time. It might be worth playing Adventure before watching Get Lamp if that portion of the history is of interest.

Scott Adams' Adventure International gets brief but interesting coverage. The film spends some time discussing the the puzzles, stories, and game design for interactive fiction. A short segment on Warren Robinett's adaptation of Adventure to the Atari 2600 is interesting. But the meat of the film is the coverage of Infocom, it's start, the employees, and its end. We learn about the Infocom's beginnings, how employees were hired, how games were developed, how it went under. It's thorough, interesting, and fascinating. If you want a documentary on Infocom, this is absolutely great.

Unfortunately the focus on Infocom lead to the biggest weakness of the film. The focus is on the Golden Age of interactive fiction, from its origin in Adventure through the end of Infocom. But that Age ended more than twenty years ago. That casts a pall over the film. The film feels like a wake, with the speakers all telling us how wonderful the deceased was. The children, the modern era gets some brief nods, but it's not much. If you're not already familiar with the names and ideally some of the faces, it won't be clear that much of the discussion is actually about the modern era and not the Golden Age. As a record of the Golden Age, Get Lamp excels, but beyond that point it captures of shadows.

That leads to the next weakness. Scott has done an amazing job interviewing what seems like every person to ever create, play, or be within a mile of an interactive fiction game. The stream of faces can be overwhelming. Interviewees aren't labeled on every appearance. I found myself losing track of who was who. Worse, many interviewees, especially those not part of the Golden Age, were only identified by name, not by their connection to interactive fiction. Anyone not familiar with the modern era is unlike to understand why Scott would interview Cadre, Granade, Plotkin, and Reed.

On the nitpicking end, the idea of an interactive movie with different tracks is cute, but doesn't work well. At about the mid-point of the movie you're given the choice of three different paths, each constituting a second half of the movie. At the end, you're sent back the title. It's clumsy, because if you want to go back to see another path you need to jump through the first half, then sit through the transition scene before getting to the menu. Technically it's a bit buggy; the mid-movie menu doesn't work on an Xbox 360. If you're willing to see the whole movie in one shot, I recommend picking the non-interactive option.

Those weaknesses aside, I repeat my recommendations. If you're a fan of interactive fiction, any era, you'll find this an educational and interesting film.

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