WRITING THE CABAL


(I've enjoyed reading other people's accounts of writing IF, so I thought I'd do one of my own. Warning: the following is extremely spoilery.)


In 1996 I watched a BBC Timewatch documentary which exposed the work of two pseudohistorians on their bestseller The Tomb of God. They had pieced together a nonsensical conspiracy based on the Templars, the Freemasons, and the Rennes-le-Chateau hoax, and for the first 40 minutes the programme seemed to take it seriously. But then it made a sudden about-turn and started demolishing every single crackpot claim in the book. Again and again the authors were confronted with the facts and again and again they were left gobsmacked. Seeing charlatans being unmasked was a rare pleasure indeed.

Years later, I remembered the programme and thought its structure would make for an interesting IF game. The PC would spend most of the game uncovering a conspiracy; but just at the end, as the final piece was about to be put in place, everything would collapse around him like a big occult Jenga set. That was the form; I still needed some content. I needed a conspiracy, and I didn't have one. So I forgot about the idea.

Some time after that, I bought the computer game Deus Ex on impulse. (Brief review: quite good as a first-person-shooter, lamentable as interactive fiction.) The central conceit of this game (possible spoiler here) is that every conspiracy theory you've ever heard is literally true. That's a fun idea, and it's a funny idea, but I didn't think Deus Ex was funny enough. It had the odd moment of irony here and there, but on the whole it ended up taking itself far too seriously, like most computer games. I found myself wishing for a game that played the same premise for laughs.

All through these years I had been getting increasingly exasperated with the IF newsgroups, and by 2003 I was on the verge of unsubscribing totally and leaving IF for good. One night in late July, after reading yet another annoying "literature vs. games" post, or maybe something by the trolls, I began to wonder what would happen if the big RAIF conspiracy theory was literally true -- if "the Cabal" really existed. And then the game leaped into my head almost fully-formed.

Clearly the Cabal was responsible for the decline of Infocom, and since I don't think any globe-spanning conspiracy is complete without pyramids, this meant Infidel had to figure. Which also meant Mike Berlyn -- who also brought in Kevin Wilson and the Avalon story. The pyramid contained a secret book: obviously the Protocols of the Elders of IF, which was also obviously the DM4, which brought in Graham Nelson. The PC was a blend of several RAIF idiots and a guy I met on Amtrak, and he simply had to have a final, doomed showdown with Andrew Plotkin, in which the conspiracy would fall apart.

I was immediately excited about the idea, and knew I had to do it. Usually I don't approve of in-joke games, but I don't get IF ideas very often so when one comes along I have to run with it. What's more, I knew this was something I could do well -- a mix of skepticism and IF, my two biggest online interests. Like all good ideas, it seemed really obvious -- so obvious that I was afraid someone else would do it first if I didn't hurry.

I spent a short while sorting out the story and getting the right locations. Places I considered but dropped include Christminster College, Cambridge and the infamous Grassy Knoll. When I knew the player would enter the GMD Archive, any remaining doubts that I would do this game were instantly removed. The book Them -- Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson, which I had recently read, gave me the idea to use the Weaver Compound -- which was also obviously the White House from Zork.

Assembling the right cast of NPCs took a bit more time; it was a trickier task than it sounds. It's not enough that a name merely has resonance in the IF community; some names just wouldn't work in a game like this, and it's hard to put your finger on why not. What makes "Being Andrew Plotkin" a funny idea, but "Being Adam Cadre" or "Being Emily Short" seem weird and even stalkerish? It helped that three of the names I eventually chose belong to people a generation older than me; somehow, this makes their personas and achievements seem secure enough to survive a gentle parodying, and removes some suspicion of rivalry on my part. Of the three other people, Inform, Curses, SPAG, Avalon, Glulx, So Far and more ensured that they had all attained a legendary status on the newsgroups long before I arrived, and acquired a kind of "cult of personality" that had unfairly overshadowed their real personalities, to some extent. "It's not easy being a living legend," wrote Zarf in his review of Being Andrew Plotkin, and I can't speak from experience, but I imagine that's true. (Some people even believe relentless hero-worship drove Graham Nelson off the newsgroups.) It wasn't my intention to contribute to these "cults of personality" in The Cabal, though they did make it easier to use the names. The "Zarf" in the game obviously references Zarf the legend rather than Andrew Plotkin the person.

As my beta testers will confirm, I was constantly worried about using real people's names and wasn't sure about how to approach it. The right thing to do was to ask permission, but I was reluctant to do that since there were too many people: if one of them objected the whole game would go in the can, and I was too excited about the game to let that happen. I thought, and still think, the characterisations were in good humour, and outrageous enough not to be confused with the real people, but it would have been hard to convey this in email. In the end, I decided to go with a disclaimer and a note in the credits, and hope the game would speak its good intentions for itself. That said, I wouldn't recommend using real people's names in IF unless you know what you're doing, even though I may have lost all moral authority to say this.

Two obvious precedents in using real names are Being Andrew Plotkin and Stiffy Makane: the Undiscovered Country. While Rob Wheeler asked the subject of BAP for permission, I was fairly sure Adam Thornton didn't ask Chris Crawford or Espen Aarseth if he could include them in SMTUC, and this gave me a lot of confidence to go on. BAP and SMTUC were also more direct inspirations in that I wanted to capture the IF satire of latter, and Adam Thornton's ingenious way of constructing a seamless whole out of random unconnected things, and combine it with the fast pace and consistent laughs of BAP. Since it was now August and I wanted to finish the game in time for the Comp, I also decided to try out Rob Wheeler's Make IF Fast procedure, which, crudely summarised, is "write the whole thing in prose first and then throw some code around it." I didn't have the patience to write the entire game in prose, but I did follow the plan for each individual chapter.

I drew up a schedule which had me finishing the game in mid-September. To speed things up, I decided to limit the possible interaction with NPCs -- they're all basically implemented as phtalkoo conversations. And since they all have real people's names, I didn't want the player to be able to interact with them too closely in the first place. (I try to establish early on that the PC despite his talk is quite cowardly, so the player should never be too nervous about what he'll do when he approaches an NPC.) To minimise coding and prevent the dreaded combinatorial explosion, there are very few portable objects in the game, and few times the PC can use them.

Apart from the short dream sequence I did for Narcolepsy, The Cabal was my first foray into the second-person voice. I'm usually more comfortable with first-person, since it makes it easier to characterise the PC and distinguish clearly between PC and player (and narrative voice and author). Writing a whole game in the second person was a kind of challenge to myself. I was impressed with the way Adam Cadre managed to write a sympathetic-unsympathetic second-person PC distinct from the player in Varicella, and I tried to do something similar here. The narrative voice in The Cabal is meant to both mock the PC and tell it from his point of view, and I think it succeeds in doing that. The PC is an obvious asshole, but hopefully not so much of an asshole that you want to stop playing.

The other aspect of The Cabal that I'm most pleased with is the plotting. I tried to make it so that the player is always anticipating something, or looking forward to some event in the future and trying to bring it about. It seems an elementary point, but surprisingly few games get it right. Many comp games in particular begin and then come to an immediate standstill as there's no reason to keep playing. It's easier, I admit, to have good plotting in a very linear game like The Cabal; and that's part of the reason I tend to prefer linear games.

The first scene was originally going to be set in a beach bar in Bermuda, but I decided to change it to a McDonalds in Florida to maximise the tastelessness of the PC while staying inside the Bermuda triangle. Later, I found out that Miami Beach wouldn't be such a hotbed of humidity, but oh well. The first few turns of inactivity are there to let the player settle in and establish some of the PC's beliefs and political opinions. Somewhere in there is a reference to the "enjoying my coffee" scene from The Big Lebowski, which having recently watched the DVD for the nth time I realise is far too close to the original. Even at this early stage, the writing was already falling behind schedule. I wasted time trying to find out if there really was a McDonalds in Miami Beach (I eventually found a picture of one on the web) and coding a random 'banana skin' event which occurs when the PC tries to chase "Mike".

A passage in the DM4 got me excited about doing some properly-researched locations, so I used the opening of the Egypt scene as an excuse to do some quickie web research. I found a site with a detailed map of the Giza plateau and also some 360 degree Quicktime panoramas of the view from the top of each pyramid, so the view as described in the game is reasonably accurate. The descriptions of the individual pyramids are full of injokes about the "pyramidiots" who are routinely derided on sites like www.skepdic.com and www.randi.org. In fact, I put the PC on Menkuare specifically so that I could include some classic pyramidiocy about Khufu.

I found an Infidel walkthrough on the web and modified it slightly so that the PC wouldn't have to use a rope and would find and use up certain objects on the way (I had neither the time or the inclination to code complex object interactions, and certainly not to do any proper rope code). The "Protocols" are (of course) modelled on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which I correctly guessed could be found in their entirety on the web. The thing about Zion is that while the title is infamous, none of the actual content is; I had to skim through several dreary prefaces until I could find something worth parodying. Protocol no. 1 seemed to fit the bill. The first paragraph of the "Protocols" in the game is the first paragraph of Protocol no. 1 with some IF stuff thrown in; the second paragraph is copied directly; and the third paragraph blends rather smoothly into the well-known passage from the Inform Designer's Manual.

"Graham Nelson" was orginally a British explorer type with khaki shorts and a pith helmet, a bit like Charles Sternhart from Indy 4, but then I decided a maths professor with a gun was much funnier. In any case, I couldn't get the idea of "lush Victorian whiskers" out of my head, and they work so much better with a gown and mortarboard. The characterisation is not based on the real Graham Nelson, but unlike the Berlyn characterisation it is obviously based on the newsgroup persona, or legend. It's beyond my abilities to replicate Nelsonian speech or prose, so I tried to keep the scene short enough that no one would notice.

The PC is clearly one of those nerds who would note the calibre and brand of any gun pointed at them. I suspected a .22 Beretta would be the kind of small, elegant European weapon that any true Illuminatus would have on their person, and I wasted far too much time on the web trying to find out what one looked like. Turns out it looks pretty much like you would expect.

I also spent too long finding out where the GMD Archive and then Sankt Augustin were. They turned out to be close enough to the Rhine for me to get away with putting the GMD castle there, but I would have put it on the Rhine anyway. I was thinking of a cross between a Rhineland schloss and Dracula's castle in Transylvania (I'm now sorry I didn't add a few streaks of lightning). Oh, and a touch of Castle Greyskull. The linden trees are probably out of place, but I couldn't resist a silly "unter den Linden" gag. And anyway, the PC is much better at recognising guns.

The first few rooms of Castle GMD are full of references to Freemasonry and Rennes-le-Chateau; perhaps too many references, but I hope the thrill of being inside the GMD Archive makes up for the avalanche of weirdness. The operatic aria probably tips the balance in favour of the weird, especially since it's mainly the service of a lame Magic Flute/Westfront PC joke that few people will get. That said, O Isis and Osiris does manage to tie in the previous scene in Egypt, and if you listen long enough, you get a John Ashcroft joke. A pointless feature I coded is that the knights in the hall are doing something different each time you return from the stairs.

"Volker" is a classic Illuminatus type, one of those well-dressed old gents who lounge around in smoking rooms plotting the fate of the world. His speech is modelled on the Denis Healy interview in Jon Ronson's Them -- which is meant to reassure the author about the harmlessness of the Bilderberg Group, but which actually comes across as rather disturbing and creepy. The butler isn't based on anyone in the IF community, but is there to contribute to the impression of weirdness and evil. He's possibly based on the Alec Guinness character in Murder by Death, but it's so long since I've seen the movie that I can't remember.

The phone call was one of the first set-pieces that came into my head as soon as I thought of The Cabal idea. The meeting invitation list, on the other hand, occurred to me as I was implementing the phone table. Inspirations like these, which happen on the fly, are one of the great joys of writing. (Another one for me was the last paragraph of Rameses, which occurred to me just as I had finished the next-to-last one. This was all the more pleasing since it looked like it was a preplanned part of the story's structure.) The Cabal list contains a certain IF-referential number of names. The six original betatesters are the "Inductees"; the seventh happened to be in the Cabal anyway. "SB" isn't me, by the way.

The GMD maze was originally a quick pseudo-maze like the one at the end of the game, but then I thought it would be hilarious to have a real puzzle maze with real clues and then give it all away before the player went in -- which would also continue the theme set by the slab room puzzle in the pyramid. The maze in the game took a whole day to code, including distractions, which was again far too long. It's inspired by the library maze in The Name of the Rose, which I stupidly spent ages flicking through trying to find stuff I didn't need. It contains a few references to the book, including one which is a Name of the Rose and Beevie injoke combined.

I love the idea of the GMD Archive having a copy of the real Necronomicon. I spent hours looking up famous grimoires to accompany it, but ended up using none that I hadn't heard of already. The secret passage and the cellar are two rooms that I didn't feel like implementing properly and never got back to, but I think most people are in such a hurry to get out of there that they don't really notice.

"Kevin Wilson" is meant to be a Californian counter-culture type, with an appearance similar to The Dude from The Big Lebowski but rather neater. Maybe more of a techno-counter-culture type. He's not consciously based on any aspect of the real GKW, but perhaps his confident patter captures some of GKW's enthusiasm. The camper van contains a few Discordian references. Yoon Ha Lee suggested that I should put in a "fnord" somewhere, and for me it seemed like it obviously had to go on the number plate. I'm also rather fond of the "Bonn International Airport is there, on the other side of that Autobahn" joke.

By this time I was falling desperately behind schedule, and so distracted that I wasted hours on things like finding out what kind of engine was in a VW camper van. In addition, I still didn't have a clear idea what would happen in the final scene. It was obvious that I wouldn't get the game finished in time for the comp, and, frustrated, I gave up on it.

The idea kept nagging at me, though, and while the game still wasn't finished I found I couldn't really work on anything else. I returned to it a few months later to write the Ruby Ridge scene. Emily Short has written somewhere that she's fed up of references to the Zork White House, and in general I agree; but this reference had a satirical edge that I just couldn't resist. I also like the contrast between the old colonial residence I imagine the Zork house to be and a plywood shack in the mountains.

"Al" is a classic militia/lone survivalist type, which in some ways matches the persona Al tends to project on the newsgroups. The "Al" in the game also says some things that were said by the real Al, though in different contexts. Incidentally, Al is the only one of the real names who has contacted me about the game, and I was happy to see he enjoyed his characterisation. When I refer to Al in the game as an "raif legend", I'm not being sarcastic. For while he holds a number of opinions I regard as eccentric, to say the least, he holds them in good faith, and in expressing them so forcefully he has certainly contributed to the life and colour of the newsgroups. He's no troll; he's the genuine article. I'd take a hundred posts by Al over one by Howard Sherman, Pudlo or a number of other RAIF personalities.

The PC has another gun to recognise, and this time I was able to consult the helpfully named www.ak-47.net for details, but I ended up making most of the stuff up anyway. The games on the floor are a reference to the tiresome "curator" tendency I used to see sometimes on raif (though not often anymore, it must be said). I wonder did anyone get the "seminary fees" joke?

By this stage of the game I had covered most of the things I find annoying about the newsgroups, except for the sexism. The idea of the secretary scene occurred to me fairly late on, as I was implementing the library maze, but at the time I wasn't sure how to make it funny. Having the PC say a lot of uncomfortably sexist things to a girl would probably come across just as creepily as some of those dreadful threads on RAIF. Even months after I finished the Ruby Ridge scene, I had no idea how to approach it. Then in March 2004 I saw the "Hell's Satans" episode of The Simpsons. A fairly mediocre episode, all told, but there is one great moment where Homer walks into a tough biker bar, asks a question, and then we immediately cut to him waking up dazed outside. And then he does it again. And again. And I then knew exactly how to implement the secretary scene.

I still wasn't sure where to set it, though. I toyed with the idea of the Texas Schoolbook Repository, but that belongs to a different kind of conspiracy theory (usually more left-wing than right-wing), and it's too far from Idaho. In the end I lazily set it in the base from Spider and Web. I also lazily made the secretary the one from Ghostbusters, though I never bothered with the Brooklyn accent after mentioning it. Her inexplicable reappearance on each floor is gently suggesting, perhaps too late in the game, that the PC is losing his mind. The "don't you want to ask me about your breasts" line was suggested by Gunther Schmidl.

I wanted some variety in the junk items that appear in the PC's inventory in the maze; it would have been too easy to make them all games. The incredibly long-winded and bullshitty response to >DROP BOOK contains some phrases and figures of speech that were actually used in Cybertext, though so far as I can tell it conveys in one particular clause what Cybertext conveys in its first ten paragraphs. I lose academic brownie points for conciseness.

The initial appearance of "Zarf" is fairly exotic. He's wearing the Cloak of Light from the real Zarf's website, Merlin's steel helmet from Excalibur and the Titanium Cyborg's goggles from Appointment with F.E.A.R, the most underrated Fighting Fantasy gamebook. The hyper-5-simplexes are a reference to a Usenet post. As with my earlier treatment of Graham Nelson, the Zarfian way with words is not something I feel capable of replicating, so the game "Zarf" says very little; his replies to the PC are modelled on the very terse replies the real Zarf sometimes gives to idiots on the newsgroups.

I'm still not totally happy with the way the game ends, but I'm glad I got it finished. There's not much to say about the ending. Oh, Sven the orderly looks like Tor Johnson and has the name of a character from Graham Cluley's Humbug. And I took the Red Hat office location from BAP.

A few words on the pseudonym, for anyone who remembers "Ike Cooper". "Ike" was a reference to David "Lizards" Icke, the UK's most famous crazy conspiracy theorist. "Cooper" was taken from Bill Cooper, who was apparently a well-known conspiracy theorist in the US. Martin Bays noted that "Ike Cooper" is an anagram of "rook piece", which I think is really cool, whatever it may mean. I wasn't sure why I was releasing under a pseudonym, until Vincent Lynch pointed out that part of the fun of in-joke games is guessing who wrote them. And I agree.

I expected The Cabal to be much more controversial than it turned out to be, and braced myself on the week of its release for a very mixed reception. Having prepared to answer various charges, I was surprised when the reaction to the game was on the whole mildly positive. I never imagined I had written something nice. In a way, this was a relief, since it meant most people could see the good humour behind the game, but part of me thinks that more controversy would have got the game more attention. (Not that I'd like an RAIF flamewar about it now.) Most short games released outside the comp disappear without trace, though, so I'm grateful for the attention it got. And I am pleased to see it's now annoying some people on the IF Ratings site.

Speaking of IF Ratings, I see that someone there has labelled The Cabal as a "tribute", which surprises me because I never thought of it as a tribute to anything, but more of a satire. But now I think there's something to the tribute idea. In a sense, albeit a weird sense, The Cabal is a tribute to the IF community as I found it several years ago -- a community that has now sadly retreated from the newsgroups, for the most part. The newsgroup community I saw then was something I wanted to be part of, in a way that the current newsgroup community simply isn't -- to the extent that it's a community at all.

I find "Cabal" jokes on RAIF very tedious, to say the least, and another of my reasons for writing The Cabal was to try and make the Cabal Joke to end all Cabal Jokes. We shall see how well it succeeds.


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