Robb Sherwin is the author of Fallacy of Dawn, Necrotic Drift, and other works. His new game coming out soon is called Cryptozookeeper.
RS: I am a 34 year old J2EE Developer originally from Rochester, NY. I attended Syracuse University, and moved to Colorado ten years ago. I live with three cats, Frobozz, Reggie and Boggit.
JD: First off, I want to quote some reviews as a way of discussing your prior work.
Chicks Dig Jerks: Begins in seedy bar, moves swiftly to cemetary.
A Crimson Spring: Begins in seedy bar, moves swiftly to cemetary.
Fallacy of Dawn: Begins in sushi bar, moves swiftly to morgue. [Source]
RS: I think I skipped bars in Necrotic Drift? But that all comes from how I used to DM games of AD&D growing up. I honestly couldn’t think of any logical reason why five people of different class and race would get together, so I just used the excuse of them all being at a bar.
JD: The mysterious stranger in a tavern fixation?
RS: Right, exactly.
JD: Sounds plausible. Since you embraced your inner psyche with Necrotic Drift you sort of got past that.
RS: Yeah, and at the same time, I have tried to ask myself if it’s really necessary for everyone in the game to be friends.
JD: Could you expand on that?
RS: A lot of fiction benefits from people arguing, and there is a little more of that in ND [Necrotic Drift], but I try to take it to an extreme in CZK [Cryptozookeeper], where there is more or less open hostility between everyone. Also, with the earlier games, I very much wanted there to be a side kick character. But it started to get ridiculous, because for a lot of the game, I didn’t have them react too much.
JD: Do you think the “cooperative party” mentality of AD&D has influenced game plots in general?
RS: I would say, yes, I think there is a common reference from D&D that game developers just naturally get, growing up. And in text, I think you get it even if you didn’t play D&D, because Adventure and Zork and such have D&D elements. So there is, like, no escaping it.
JD: Let me give you another quote
The oddness won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows Sherwin’s previous work. His games often incorporate eccentric characters, difficult or dysfunctional romantic relationships, crude material handled so deftly that it comes out not being offensive after all, and many, many references to modern pop culture. [Source]
RS: It does sort of bug me that the great majority of games live in this vacuum when it comes to pop culture.
JD: You would prefer more pop culture references in general?
RS: I would assume that there is legal trouble if someone tries to quote a “Lost” reference, so I guess I understand why. But at the same time, I know I spend a lot of time talking about various forms of media with people, and to completely close that out from the kinds of things that your character can talk about seems to restrict things.
JD: You’re saying IF authors in general don’t capture “real” conversation very well?
RS: No, I think that their conversations are great, and in fact, being able to stay on target and stay focused is something I could probably do more of.
Also, it is tough – for instance: I was looking at a bug in FoD recently, and I saw a reference to something being more restrictive than “a Greek cafe”. I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about at first. I did some searches, and apparently like 7 years ago, Greek cafes were cracking down on MMORPGs games, or something. Which was fine at the time, but man, did that get dated. So I am definitely not doing things perfectly or anything.
I remember one review about ND where the reviewer was wondering why the first edition of D&D was referenced. And my reaction was just, well, I am in my 30s still talking about games from 20 years ago, so it was OK that in the future they might do that.
JD: Let me go on to my last quote.
I’m totally fascinated with Robb Sherwin’s evolution as an IF author. The standard progression seems to be to start out with some lousy puzzles and a weak story and so-so writing and cardboard characters, and gradually the author improves to producing pretty good puzzles and slightly less cardboard characters and an occasional nifty one-liner in the writing. Robb Sherwin, on the other hand, has basically had lousy puzzles and gameplay for all his previous games, but they’ve still been great to play because of the high-quality writing and characters. I’m pleased to say that Necrotic Drift, while not actually having good puzzles, has definitely reached the “not annoying” stage, puzzle- and gameplay-wise, and the overall package is really quite nice. [Source]
RS: Puzzles are very tough for me! I actually don’t put them into the initial design doc at all. But I go and add them afterwards, to try to help out the pacing. Sometimes, one might develop while writing a scene, but that is rare.
JD: Does that make it easier or harder to make them organic to the plot?
RS: I think a little easier, only in that, since I am never in a situation where I have this great puzzle I need to insert, they can all spring from the games themselves. But I am in awe of the puzzles other IF authors make.
JD: Have you thought of writing something without puzzles at all, given your initial design docs don’t have them?
RS: Yeah, that wouldn’t be so bad. There are very few puzzles in Pantomime, for instance, until the end. There was not a place where I think it necessarily suffered for it. But, the problem for me, in doing completely puzzless IF, is that I am asking myself, “Should this be a straight fiction story?” And that intimidates me, so.
JD: So you need some justification for nonlinearity, and exploration.
RS: Yeah. That is a good way to put it! I mentally think of the transcript in a puzzleless game, and I’m like, “All this guy did was go west a lot.”
JD: There’s also conversation that does “do something” and conversation which is just sitting chatting.
RS: Exactly – I try to make up for the bad or non-existing puzzles with requiring conversation between everyone.
JD: Is there some magical technical solution that might help? I mean help with the ‘go west’ transcript idea. If there’s some threshold of AI or something that would break it open.
RS: Yeah, having better AI (I guess what I mean by that is, AI that I can pull from libraries and plug-ins, so I don’t have to do it, badly, myself) does allow the author to mix things up, as well. Instead of having the antagonist take various steps that get everyone to the end game, he might better be reacting to the player, which would make for a more interesting run-through of the game. Of course, I am completely unqualified to make that stuff, so it’s not like I am issuing a demand or anything.
JD: What’s a puzzle you wished you had written?
RS: I am going to have to go with the wings puzzle in Photopia. It is the only one I can remember that actually had me grinning as I typed it in. I just *knew* what I typed was going to work. That is the ideal, as far as puzzles go, in my opinion. There have been many where I looked at it in the walkthrough and said, “Brilliant!” put that one was easy enough for me to figure out, but easy enough for me to actually, er, do.
JD: So your ideal would be something where the reader/player takes some action beyond the normal enough to be called a “puzzle”, yet is so intuitive they’ll know it will work?
RS: Yeah, I think that is right.
JD: What’s something in IF that you’d like to see — a trend or just a particular type of game? Something you yourself might not feel able to write but have been hoping someone else will.
RS: I would love to see one of the imps make a sequel to one of the games that could really benefit from it, like Spellcasting 401, or something.
But at the same time, along the same lines, games that do a lot with NPCs are really intriguing to me. I do have The Elysium Enigma by Eric Eve ready to play once I finish CZK.
JD: Ok, let’s get into your new work.
RS: Cryptzookeeper is basically a cross between Monster Rancher, Zork, and a good call on Coast-to-Coast AM.
Basically, I am hoping to put together a game that lets the player assemble various DNA snippets that they pulled out in a Zork-style treasure hunt, into the various monsters of legend and cryptozoology. At the same time, I am hoping to have character interaction in the game that makes it familiar to people that have played some of my other wares.
JD: Snarky, irreverent, pop culture, etc.?
RS: Yes! I am also going to try to experiment with selling it. I have no idea how that will sort out, but still. There were a few indie game sites that seemed to close people off if their games were not for sale, so that got me thinking.
I will try to make the direct download very cheap, definitely less than $10 and probably closer to five. I am not sure about the physical copy, as that will depend on the manufacturers and such.
JD: But you’re planning feelies? I remember the “pills” with Fallacy of Dawn and the really curiously colored d20 in Necrotic Drift.
RS: Yeah, I am definitely going to make a version that has a CD and a DVD style container. I am hoping to do some kind of instruction manual as well.
There should definitely be one more thing. I had considered chocolate animals, after getting some molds, but that might be difficult if someone chokes on the creme-filled hydra?
JD: Is there anything else significantly different from your prior work?
RS: CZK is a little different in that I am changing the conversation system.
I have been using the Photopia-style menus for a long time. And while I don’t like strict “ask about x” and “tell about x” I am trying to use a system that I first saw in Ultima 6, where keywords come up in a different color, and those relate to activated conversational topics. Also, the think verb gets used for a list of topics you can ask an NPC about.
JD: So the TADS 3 underlining essentially?
JD: What about the puzzles in Cryptozookeeper? Do you consider them better than your previous ones? Why?
RS: I think that CZK gets around it, because you are always looking for more animal DNA. So, let’s say you see a moth – your goal, even if you are working on something else, might also be to get that moth.
JD: So the puzzle mechanic is well built into the plot this time?
RS: Right, exactly. So, the goal is to make the game not too ridiculous in getting that moth. Because, honestly, four of them fly into my home every time I go into the garage.
I also want to get away from something that David Welbourn said in the Get Lamp interview. He said something to the effect of, “If you see a bone in a text game, you know you’ll eventually have to give it to a dog. I am trying to avoid that sort of thing.”
JD: Simply objects that imply their utility, or is there a larger issue?
RS: Right – it seems very cliche to see objects that just get filed into the mental category of, like PUMA PACIFIER or whatnot. Plus, there is like a 40 year range in placating animals.
JD: What do you mean by that?
RS: A 4 year old knows that the cat likes catnip, and someone that has studies zebras their whole life might know that they like a certain kind of grass (which I co-opt by hopping onto the wiki) so to avoid all that would be the ideal for a text game.
JD: What’s the multimedia like on this one?
RS: I have character and NPC face pics up, when you are talking to people. There is also a location graphic. And then, to the right of the screen, is inventory. The screen gets modified when animals are fighting each other, but for most of the game, it’s very PC-centric.
I am going to try to make the graphics matter more, but at the same time a good friend of mine (who also tests) is blind, so I need to secretly add text to the game that will describe the necessary photos, through the screen reader.
There is music, but only during chapter title breaks. I found that music during the game itself was kind of awkward.
JD: There was some in Necrotic Drift, wasn’t there?
RS: Yeah, in ND, a song would start, and then just end. So if you took a while to solve a particular scene, there would be silence.
I think people also like listening to their own music for text games.
JD: What would be the suggested playlist for Cryptozookeeper?
RS: I develop it listening to “pop punk,” but I don’t recommend that genre of music to anyone. I know it is wildly unpopular.
But I guess, the mood I am trying for, are just those songs you play in the middle of the night. If a song would have worked for All Alone, by Ian Finley, I think it would work here.
More about Robb Sherwin’s past work can be found at the Jolt County website.