Distributed Memories: CompuServe’s Gamer’s Forum and the Halcyon Days of the Adventure Game Toolkit

Abstract (in English): 

This paper shares the story of the rise and fall of The Adventure Game Toolkit (AGT), a Pascal-based design system written in 1987 by David Malmberg, based on Mark J. Welch's 1985 Generic Adventure Game System (GAGS). It was the leading platform for parser-based interactive fiction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Text Adventure Development System (TADS) as its upstart competitor. The use of these early (pre-Graham Nelson’s Inform 6) parser-based interactive fiction platforms was supported by an annual AGT contest, and a design community that stayed in touch through BBS-communities, the largest of which was Compuserve’s Gamer’s Forum. Malmberg ceased to support AGT in 1992, (the final release was AGT 1.7) but the contest continued until 1994. The competition was rebranded under new management, and with an expanded community and continued on as the Interactive Fiction Competition, (which has been run since 2016 by the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation). A game that I wrote for the AGT contest in 1992, CosmoServe, featured a simulated DOS environment, featuring the frustrating use of dial-up software and the aesthetic of CompuServe screens from that era, as well as the more visceral experience of BBS communication -- wailing modems, paying by the minute, long download times and corrupt files, hard-drive destroying viruses etc…). Ironically, this game is now all that appears to be left of CompuServe's rich gamers’ and game designers’ lifeworld. A collaboratively written work of IF that I organized, Shades of Gray: an adventure in Black and White, written in AGT, was designed and coordinated in a CompuServe Gamer’s Forum private room, and represents the heyday of bulletin board IF collaboration. When CompuServe died in the mid-1990s, after having been assimilated in a borg-like way by its longstanding and hated rival, AOL, nothing of CompuServe remained to be archived digitally, except what individual users might have downloaded to their own computers and backed up on floppy disks. I will soon be launching, through IFTF, a crowdsourced “Digital Archeology” project asking old users of CompuServe Forums (chiefly Gamers and Science Fiction forums, the two places that gamers and game designers hung out), to go into their own basements and see what they can find of media they might have downloaded from CompuServe in its final years. This includes transcripts of conferences, listings and files from libraries, public postings and private email. I will share the history of AGT as a e-lit platform, its code, games, contest, and disappearance from the scene and describe the CompuServe Gamer’s Forum Digital Archeology project, particularly as our finds shed light on the life and times of writers of e-literature and interactive fiction who used early platforms, like GAGS, AGT, and TADS to write and share their work, uploading and downloading it to and from BBS-services. It is a world that has vanished from the digital record – in this paper, and the project it describes, I'm hoping to bring some of it back.

(Source: Author's own abstract)

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Lene Tøftestuen