Author Interview: Ryan Veeder
2015-11-05 · by sub-Q
Ryan Veeder is the author of Taco Fiction (1st place, IF Comp 2011), MOTORCYCLUS (scariest book currently extant), and The Ascent of the Gothic Tower (commissioned by StoryBundle). He produces a text adventure podcast with Jenni Polodna called Clash of the Type-Ins. He wrote this week’s story, The Horrible Pyramid.
This interview was conducted in November by instant message.
Tory Hoke: How and when and where did you get started in IF?
Ryan: I started playing Infocom games in high school or thereabouts, and I became peripherally aware of the IF scene from there. But I would phase in and out of remembering that IF existed from year to year. In June or July of 2011 I was trying to remember what program I used to play text adventures, and the name I remembered was “Inform,” so I downloaded that without looking very carefully at what it was. I said, “Heck, I have to write the games myself?” But the documentation made it look really fun and easy, AND IT WAS.
Tory: Inform‘s “rule set” scripting scheme takes a little getting used to, but that learning curve suited you?
Ryan: Yeah, I had never done any programming of any kind up to that point, so I had no idea what was weird about it. And I started out with very straightforward projects, ramping up into more sophisticated mechanics very slowly. I still think the stuff I write now is fairly simple compared to what some people have done with Inform.
Tory: Very cool that Inform keeps drawing you back. It’s certainly stood the test of time!
Ryan: Inform and I guess specifically Inform 7 has its detractors, but I’m not smart enough to understand or evaluate their objections. For me it works great.
Tory: Seems like over the last five years both IF and tabletop gaming are undergoing a massive surge in participation. What do you make of it?
Ryan: I don’t know if I’m qualified to make anything of the new popularity of tabletop gaming?
Tory: You are welcome to speculate wildly.
Ryan: All right. I think, in addition to the availability of these very accessible development platforms, Twine, Inform, and so on, the culture has reached a point where “games as artistic expression” is a given rather than a wild new idea. People who make games because they have something to say are getting a lot out of the platforms of IF, not just because it’s so accessible but because in text you can communicate certain things very directly that would be hard to get across in a 3D platformer.
As for the meteoric rise of tabletop gaming, I’m gonna say with no support and without thinking about it much that it’s all because of Kickstarter.
Ryan: Zombies, Run! was the first project I ever backed, and I got a lot out of that.
Tory: Very exciting to see entertainment designed for exercise—that collision of digital space and meatspace.
Your felt dinosaurs are another example of that real-life, fiction-life crossover. How does crafting IRL compare to crafting IF?
Ryan: I think of them both as building worlds for people to play around in. The characters I sew are supposed to have just enough detail to suggest that they come from a specific place and leave it to their owner to imagine what that place is like and what this dinosaur or lizard-person’s personality is.
In IF I build a very specific world and try to give the player different ways to react to it, which is kind of the opposite, but the goal is the same. The goal is “to entertain.” It’s not very sophisticated.
Tory: But the drive to entertain is sophisticated. What is it that keeps bringing you back to entertaining an audience, in all these ways, in all these media?
Ryan: Sorry, my answer to this is kind of complicated.
Tory: Bring it on.
Ryan: Everybody suffers, and I’m pretty sure even terrible people suffer more than they deserve to. In the best case scenario you are a fortunate and good person, you have a minimum of problems, and you try to make things better, but that requires you to engage with how terrible things are for everyone else, and that has an emotional toll, so you’re suffering by virtue of being good.
Every person has enough problems to make them miserable if they don’t also have something to distract them from their problems. So I try to distract people from their problems.
Tory: Play as relief.
Ryan: That’s a lot fewer words than what I said.
Tory: [laughs] What attracts you in particular to that angle?
Ryan: I’ve noticed that that’s what I’m good at, I guess? Or that’s what people want out of me. I don’t get asked for advice, or nominated to chair committees. I get asked to play music and host trivia contests and write games. And make dolls.
Tory: Your blog presence has a kind of glee that’s not necessarily reflected in that answer. What would you say, when creating, your glee level is?
Ryan: Yeah, I’m not contemplating the ethics of entertainment while I’m in the middle of a project. That is stuff I worry about between projects, when I’m asking myself, “Why do you keep doing this?”—or when someone else asks me that question, which hasn’t happened before.
When I’m working, I’m pretty selfish. I have to compromise between my desire to entertain the audience and my desire to entertain myself.
In my latest game, The Case of LeAnne’s Missing Bunny, Wendy, there’s a creepy bathroom. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to implement a bathroom before, but it’s a huge pain. The player expects there to be all these fixtures, none of which are important to the game, but if anything is missing the player will trip up on it.
Tory: I hadn’t considered this.
Ryan: So I programmed it such that, when you enter the bathroom, it says “Sheridan’s brain spasmed in disgust as he realized how gross the bathroom was,” and it zips you right back out again. You never get a chance to investigate further. This jives with my own experience with creepy old bathrooms, and hopefully it entertains or at least satisfies the player, but it’s mostly in there because it amuses me, and first of all because I’m lazy.
Tory: Two objectives not at all in conflict! What other IF authors inspire or interest you?
Ryan: I’m always talking to Emily Boegheim about ideas for games and asking her for programming help. She’s a great friend and an essential aspect of my workflow.
Tory: Excellent—and you co-authored Robin & Orchid with her.
Ryan: Yes, she handled a lot of code stuff that is completely out of my depth. I think there’s a misconception out there that I did all the surface-level stuff and she did all the programming of the cat and the camera. I mean the second part is true. I guess I did program the Bible, and if you look closely while playing Robin & Orchid you will notice that the Bible doesn’t work.
There’s also Chandler Groover, who entered a game called Toby’s Nose in the last Spring Thing, and it blew my mind.
Tory: Same here! Toby’s Nose was the first game to get me excited about parser IF. What about it blew your mind?
Ryan: Well, it’s about exploring this very expansive but mostly static world of connected ideas, and it’s the kind of thing that you typically would see done in Twine. But by doing it in a parser—keeping how many layers of connection there are and where the connections are hidden—you end up getting stuck, starting over, trying a different path, in a way that completely matches the experience it depicts.
I’m being super vague about what that experience is. It’s about a dog remembering smells.
Tory: So the content reflects the theme.
Ryan: Yeah! They tried to depict basically the same thing on Sherlock by projecting images onto Benedict Cumberbatch’s face and it didn’t work at all.
Tory: What would you like to see more of in IF?
Ryan: I guess at some point before I started paying attention there must have been a big trend in terrible mazes, because I remember seeing a lot of people complaining about mazes but not seeing the mazes they were complaining about.
Tory: Oh God.
Ryan: And since then mazes have been stigmatized. But I think mazes are due for a comeback. There’s probably a right way to do mazes, and it’s just that the guy who knows how has been afraid to let his light shine for all this time.
Tory: What’s your dream project?
Ryan: When I started in IF I had this concept of a huge collaborative adaptation of the Arabian Nights. Get a few dozen authors together, have them each write games about people telling stories that frame additional games, and the player descends and ascends through layers of narrative until you can’t keep track of them.
Tory: Oh my. Italo Calvino would blush.
Ryan: I don’t know how you could give such a thing a unifying narrative arc, so it would probably just keep going? This is a dream project, so I’m going to say it has infinite content.
I guess that’s something I’d like to see more of in IF: games that don’t end. Something like Animal Crossing, where the world is there for you to come back to whenever you feel like it. I tried to do that with The Island of Doctor Wooby, but I didn’t have the budget to make my dinosaurs as fleshed-out as those villagers.
Tory: What *is* next for you?
Ryan: I’ve been leading my Patreon supporters on with intimations of a game that adapts a well-loved game show. I don’t know how much I should say about it here.
I also have at least one other game about rats that I have to publish before I die.
Tory: Where’s the best place for readers to keep up with you?
Ryan: Definitely my Twitter. If you keep checking back at my blog you’re going to assume I’ve passed on without finishing my magnum rat opus.
Tory: [laughs] Good to know. Thank you for your time today, Ryan! It’s been a treat.
Ryan: Thank you! Sorry about being such a downer in the middle there.
Tory: Not at all! It’s good to get real.