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Interview with a Player Extraordinaire

XYZZYnews talks with Michael Kinyon

by C.E. Forman

XYZZYnews: Please tell us a little about yourself and the aspects of your life that don't touch on IF.

Michael Kinyon (MK): I am 32 years old. I live in South Bend, Indiana, USA. I am married and happily have no children. I am an assistant professor of mathematics at Indiana University South Bend. (Those wishing to find out more about my mathematical research can get information from my home page at http://www.iusb.edu/~mkinyon/. I lead a quiet academic-in-the-ivory-tower sort of life.

XYZZYnews: You've mentioned on r.g.i-f that you decided to become solely a tester of IF games, not an author. What led to this decision? What was the very first game you ever beta-tested?

MK: In retrospect, I realize that the remark to which you refer sounds quite a bit more pretentious than I intended it to be. I did not mean to make it sound like a high-minded defense of playtesting as an art; that certainly contributed to the decision, but there were other far more mundane reasons. For one thing, I have never had any ideas for games that are worth pursuing. For another, I do not really have the time to learn a game development system. Those two reasons alone are quite sufficient as an excuse for not writing games.

I began my testing "career" by sending bug reports on already-released games to their authors. The first games for which I did this were Unnkuulia I, II, and Zero (and yes, I did register those games). I had no particular reason for doing this other than good will and a wish to help out. My vision of share/freeware programs at the time was that they were always works in progress.

At about the same time, I was also sending short bug reports on Curses (one of the early releases) to Graham Nelson. Here I had an ulterior motive: I hated to bother Graham by asking him for hints, so I approached him in the spirit of exchange, a bug for a hint. Graham was very responsive to my reports, which I found very encouraging.

The real breakthrough for me came when on a lark I posted an "advertisement" to r.a.i-f announcing my availability as a beta-tester. In the ad, I "quoted" some of the prominent people in the newsgroup praising me for my wonderful abilities. I forget all of them now, but the one I still think was best was my quoting Mike Roberts as saying that I had talked him out of writing TADS in BASIC. People responded in good humor, and then I started getting testing requests.

There is an implicit part of your question that I have not yet addressed: why do I like to test at all? I am not an expert at self-psychoanalysis, but I can give you a few thoughts on this. Some of it stems from not so much a destructive instinct as much as a deconstructive instinct: what are the limits of the game and where does its behavior go beyond the expectations of the author or the player. Some of it is also based on repetition as a form of anxiety reduction. Recall that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud wrote of patients who were constantly reliving traumatic episodes, a clinical observation that flew in the face of his earlier thought. My approach to IF, whether I am testing or just playing, is similar to this; I will replay a single scene again and again until I am as familiar with it as I can be. This is not something I do because I decided to do it, it's just the way I play. I think the reason I do play this way is to cope with the stress of "living in the game". Or maybe a better way of saying it is that it allows me to put some critical distance between myself and the character with whom I am supposed to be identifying in the game. In any case, when one plays like this (notice how cleverly I depersonalized my style of play by using the word "one", as if to suggest I am about to draw a universal conclusion), one is bound to stumble across bugs and design problems. Thus was an undeserved reputation born. Of course it was also supported by several self-serving posts on the newsgroups.

XYZZYnews: Currently, about how many games in the Archive display your name in the testers credits?

MK: I am not very good at order-of-magnitude estimates (an embarrassing characteristic, considering what I do for a living). Some of my testing credits include, in no particular order: Curses, Jigsaw, Christminster, So Far, Horror of Rylvania, Waystation, Legend Lives, Enhanced, Lost New York, Gumshoe, Magic Toyshop, Night in the Computer Centre, A Change in the Weather, Small World, Kissing the Buddha's Feet, Tapestry, Stargazer, Wearing the Claw, The House of the Stalker, and Lethe. I'm probably forgetting some at the moment, and I've probably mangled a game title or two; my apologies to the authors! I've also tested quite a few things that were never released. One I can mention, because the author makes fun of himself for vaporware, is Avalon.

XYZZYnews: Which, if any, have been your favorites?

MK: Among so-called full scale games that have been released, my favorites are Curses, Jigsaw and So Far, not necessarily in that order.

Curses, of course, is the game with which I have the longest personal relationship, and is thus the one to which I am the most attached. If Graham was the game's father, I feel a lot like its maternal uncle (in other words, I'm the useless brother-in-law). Jigsaw is also up there on my list just slightly behind Curses. If you like, you can think of the relationship between these two games as analogous to the relationship between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python's Life of Brian. Both are wonderful, but the earlier work has a less polished and more chaotic feel to it. I don't think I really need to give detailed reviews here of either game; much that expresses what I would say has already been written about both of them. As an aside, I should mention that both games became a part of my life for quite a long time and led to an intense "working" relationship with Graham. Even though we do not actually correspond very often, I still consider him to be one of the most wonderful people I have ever had the privilege of meeting through the Internet. We eventually met in person. Graham took Kamila (my wife) and me to high table dinner at Magdalen College the last time we were in Oxford.

Getting back to games, let me say something about So Far. Of all the games I have played, this is probably the one that has had the largest intellectual and emotional effect on me. In r.g.i-f, people sometimes write about their emotional reactions to certain games; a favorite "tear-jerker" seems to be one of Floyd's two deaths in Planetfall or Stationfall. In my opinion, for maximal impact in a minimalist text, there is nothing to compare with So Far's scene in the crawl space. I also cannot describe adequately how deeply moved I was when I finally finished the game. My main advice to players of that game is to avoid engaging in a Joycean hermeneutic analysis that attempts to discover what each scene "really" means. In my view, IF players are particularly prone to fall into that sort of trap. Although certainly the various scenes in the game have meanings for its author, So Far is the one game above all others that illustrates that the determination of authorial intent is not as important in literary interpretation as is the recognition that the dissemination of a text as a text is a virtual guarantee that meanings will multiply. (Notice I did not say that So Far is without meaning, which was a view I once held.)

Among small games, my favorite is probably A Change in the Weather. When I say "small", I am not, of course, referring to the length of time required for completion, I am referring to such things as the landscape of the game and the sparsity of the text. A Change in the Weather packs quite a bit of punch in a small package.

Do not make too much of the fact that there are only Inform games on my list; I have no particular preference among the game systems. In fact, there is a TADS game that has not been released that I would rank among my all-time favorites, but I can say nothing more about it at this point.

XYZZYnews: Is there a particular genre or style of IF that appeals to you?

MK: My preference is for games that violate the rules of the genre in which they pretend to be situated. All the games I mentioned in my favorites list above do this in one form or another. I am not speaking of mere anachronism (such as a magic wand in a "realist" game), but a genuine attempt to push the limits of a genre for aesthetic effect.

As far as a genre that I would like to see further explored, I have been a bit surprised that there has not been too much attention focused on erotica. I see this as an untapped well for IF.

XYZZYnews: What tactics do you generally use to seek out bugs in games? Which tricks seem to pay off the best? What types of bugs turn up most frequently?

MK: I usually do not use a "test oracle", despite the fact that this is good debugging advice in general. As I mentioned above, playing a scene over and over usually helps. If a game has a lot of takeable objects, then I know there will be bugs aplenty, because no author ever foresees what will happen to all of them. My warning flags go up in timed events as well; it is surprising how many authors forget that if a player leaves the room, descriptions about what is going on in another room no longer make any sense. If there are a lot of fuses in one scene, I will usually try to see if I can make things happen out of sequence. I realize this is not a good answer to your question, but my approach to testing is pretty intuitive.

XYZZYnews: How much does the compiler used seem to affect this?

MK: Nowadays it doesn't, really. Of course in every TADS game, there will be at least one "Which golden ocelot do you mean, the golden ocelot or the golden ocelot?" type of bug, but there are not as many of these as there used to be. Of course the really big bugs are those that crash the interpreter, but I cannot say that any game development system is more prone to this than any other.

XYZZYnews: What traps should potential game authors try to avoid falling into?

MK: My main advice is not to start coding before all the possible implications of a scene have been worked out. I never cease to be amazed how many authors confuse designing with coding.

XYZZYnews: In providing feedback, do you prefer to stick to straightforward bug reports, or are you willing to provide an analysis and criticism of a game if an author requests it?

MK: This depends on how busy I am. I have (unfortunately) agreed to analyze a game and then become too swamped with work to have time to follow up on this.

An unfortunate instance of this was the '96 competition. This is a bit off the subject of your question, but in the interest of self-examination, I have to say that I am not particularly proud of how I handled my testing responsibilities. More than one author requested an analysis, and I just did not have the time to get it done before the competition. In fact I got so busy, I was unable to do even adequate routine testing of some games. If you don't mind, let me use this forum to apologize to all those authors who may have felt that I let them down.

Getting back to your question, one of the problems that comes up is that some authors tend to be a bit thin-skinned in their reactions to an analysis. I realize that many beginners are afraid that their games will not live up to some (nonexistent) standard, but my advice to such authors is to not take the criticism as a personal assault. If I say that "I do not think that such-and- such a scene is very well designed for the following reasons...", I am not saying "You are a lousy designer". I am just trying to help authors refine their games so that they express what I think they want them to express.

XYZZYnews: Suppose someone asks you to beta-test a game that you just can't stand playing. Has this situation ever come up? How would you (tactfully) handle it if it did?

MK: Yes, this has happened a couple of times with unfinished games. (This is not beta-testing, of course, but alpha-testing.) I enjoy testing unfinished games, but sometimes it turns out that an author does not have any idea at all about where a game is going, and this can be very frustrating. When these problems have come up, they have resolved themselves because the authors announced they were giving up on their games. If it were ever the case that I was testing, say, a finished game that I really despised, I would probably just say I was unable to continue testing and leave it at that. If an author pressed me and asked why, I would probably cite personal reasons.

XYZZYnews: How long have you been testing IF games?

MK: Since the fall of 1992.

XYZZYnews: About how many hours a week do you spend on testing?

MK: That varies too much for me to estimate. For instance, I have not tested at all in several weeks, so my average has been pulled way down.

XYZZYnews: Any favorite bug stories you'd like to share?

MK: Heh. Well, I'd better not. I'll let the authors tell about them if they wish.

XYZZYnews: Have you noticed any regular peaks during which many authors tend to release games (not counting the competitions)?

MK: I think the question you really wanted to ask me is if I noticed any times of the year when testing requests reach a peak. Releases come after testing, of course.

The competition has skewed this because more authors are focusing their energies on it. Otherwise, I would say I get more requests in late February and early March than at any other time. I get the fewest requests from October through January.

XYZZYnews: What's the maximum number of games you've been testing at the same time?

MK: Again, the competition affects this. Last year, counting competition and full-size games, I had eight going at once. That was a bit ridiculous, I know, so I will be more careful this year.

XYZZYnews: Have you noticed any specific trends in modern IF? What are your thoughts on where the medium is currently going?

MK: I am currently not up to the task of sorting out my thoughts on this. I think this is a very complicated issue that touches upon involves several factors: the text as a work of art; the anachronism of text-based games in an atmosphere of increasing technological sophistication (a fancy way of expressing the strangeness of playing a text adventure on a modern computer); the predominance of computer scientists, particularly students in the medium; amateurs versus professionals; the growing popularity of the marketing model; etc., etc. I'm afraid it's a bit beyond my powers of ratiocination at the present time.

XYZZYnews: What games are you currently testing? Would you be willing to provide any specific details, or do you prefer to keep the author-tester relationships confidential?

MK: I am not actively testing anything at the moment because no one has asked me. I suspect the reason is that I am not a regular poster on r.*.i-f, and I no longer respond to "call for beta-testers" posts, so many folks do not know that I am available. There are two unfinished games, one of which is Avalon, where I am in a holding pattern. Even if I were actively testing, I do not think I could really say anything about the games (unless the authors requested that I "talk them up"). I respect confidentiality.

XYZZYnews: Anything else you'd like to add?

MK: As I said, I am available right now if anyone would like me to take a crack at a game. Other than that, I'll just say: keep reading XYZZYnews! (How was that for an endorsement?)

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