Some years ago, I watched an ancient silent movie that laboriously set up the old banana-peel gag. A careless slob tosses the peel from his snack over his shoulder and onto the pavement, and oh no, here comes the hero and his pursuers around the corner! The camera centers on the peel, and — everyone’s feet rush right past it. Nothing happens. I felt astonished: even before movies learned how to talk, they had already found the banana-peel joke tired enough to subvert.
If pressed to name the most worn trope of interactive fiction, I would choose “my crappy apartment”. This describes the output of a certain kind of young author very eager to use a new tool for building virtual worlds, and turning for inspiration to the multi-room, object-filled environment they know best. They then add a crust of easy humor through exaggeration of their bachelor pad’s most degraded aspects, putting extra implementation on the piles of dirty laundry, moldering dishes, and so on. And then they share it with the world! I’ve written this game, and like everyone else who has, I had no idea at the time that it joined a grand (if not exactly proud) tradition, one that continues to this day.
Similarly, I can’t know how cognizant of this trope John Baker felt when he released John’s Fire Witch in 1995. Certainly it begins in full crappy-apartment glory, with the unnamed protagonist exploring the unkempt dwelling of their good friend and drinking buddy, “John Baker”, who has mysteriously vanished. I took note of the awkward writing evidenced in some of the dross I examined while wading through his place, and chalked it up to authorial inexperience of both writing and of life in general. But then, in stages, this seems to become subverted as the game unfolds in directions made entirely unexpected by its own introduction.
I should pause to explain how I came to play this old and charming little adventure game which I hadn’t heard of prior to last month. Earlier in the summer, Brian Rushton wrote a fantastic year-by-year retrospective of the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, a 22-year-old digital arts festival I’ve had the privilege to organize since 2014. Despite my own knowledge of IFComp’s history and origins, I learned a lot from Brian’s writeup of its first year. This included the first mention I’d ever read of John’s Fire Witch.
According to Brian, this game impressed the tiny IF community of 1995 with its ability to deliver a complete and satisfying text-game experience despite its playtime of only a few hours. This suggested an alternative to the trend within the community of sprawling epics that tried to recapture the spirit of the dearly missed text adventures of the 1980s by replicating their enormous size and jacked-up difficulty.
The release of Fire Witch sparked much discussion about the fresh potential for small games on the community’s online forums. This would eventually lead to Kevin Wilson hosting the first IFComp later that year, with its initial single rule that all entries must take no longer than two hours to complete. 22 years later, IFComp still carries this rule, albeit lightly modified (allowing games of any length, but requiring judges to consider only their first two hours at most). And I had no idea that its inspiration lay, in large part, with this one little text adventure from 1995 I knew nothing at all about.
And so, with the 2017 comp’s still weeks away, I certainly had a few hours to try Fire Witch for myself — and zero excuse not to, no matter how belatedly. So I did, and I really dug it! It holds up quite well today, distractingly dated only in minor aspects. It took me around four hours to get all the way through, and I enjoyed most every minute. (The rest of this post avoids spoilers, but if you want to play it for yourself before continuing, go for it. You’ll need a TADS interpeter for your operating system of choice to make it work, and also a notion of how to play traditional parser IF games.)
Back, then, to my own playthrough, and the crappy apartment with hidden depths. First comes the discovery that the domestic map serves merely as prologue — for John, of course, lives above a complex puzzle-dungeon. And I loved it! The dungeon makes no more or less sense than any other completely artificial space that trades away narrative coherence to deliver a lovely knot of interrelated room-and-object, lock-and-key puzzles within a neatly compact space. It’s got a transportation system to figure out, monsters to trick and trap, and a bunch of fiddly magic items to play with. Your only goal, clear from the outset, involves reaching the end, so you can face down the evil ice wizard. (A possible reference, this, to the film Big, surely the most successful mainstream movie to open with a scene about playing a text adventure game.)
The real surprise comes via the puzzle that gates the midgame from the end. A certain taskmaster presents you with reason to return to John’s apartment and see it with fresh eyes and new motivation, hunting for clues hidden in plain sight — and which, it turns out, account for many of the ill-fitting word choices I noted in my initial tour. Arguably, the author could have pulled the trick off a little more smoothly. I must still observe that this 1995 text adventure gave me the pleasure of re-exploring familiar spaces that I today associate with “Metroidvania” games, even though John’s Fire Witch predates half of that portmanteau by two years. Realizing this, I did think of that silent movie, with that banana peel.
The one part of the game for which I needed hints — but not for any reason the author likely intended — involved in the ice wizard’s inner sanctum, piled with “stolen treasures”. All of these play homage to other text adventure games, a mix of stuff from 1980s commercial work as well as Fire Witch’s post-Infocom contemporaries — which is to say, all around 25 years old at this point. I thought recognized a tarot card from Curses, but I had to search the web to see that an important-looking runestone hailed from The Lurking Horror, and needed to seek counsel from other long-time IF fans to identify a “cheez kee” as an item from one of the Unnkulia games. In any event, all these fully interactive items are red herrings, and probably accidentally so — there only to offer diagetic shout-outs to Fire Witch’s inspirations, both classic and (from its own frame of reference) recent. Perhaps a player of the mid-1990s would have recognized this fact immediately, but it sent my 21st-century attention down an unintentional rabbit-hole for quite a while.
Not at all a complaint, mind you! I find this a very interesting example of how a game element might have seemed self-evident upon its release, but has lost clarity since then due to nothing more than the inevitable passage of time.
IFDB suggests that John’s Fire Witch represents Baker’s only IF work. In-game text suggests that those who enjoy this game send the author six dollars, the price of his favorite soup-and-salad lunch at a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, 1995. That’s around ten bucks today. The game also provides a clearly ancient email address, with a backup suggestion of finding him on Usenet — quite unlikely, today. Still, I shall try my luck at getting him his sawbuck. (And, Mr. Baker, if you are reading this and you haven’t heard from me yet — do get in touch. I’d love to buy you lunch.)