When I was young, documentaries were the droll presentations that grade school students were subjected to. Usually making no pretense about their supposed educational value, these films rarely made any effort to be engaging or even entertaining. But in the last decade or two, the genre has matured (or maybe I have). The likes of An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, Welcome to Macintosh, and King of Kong have invigorated the medium to the point of making theatrical releases viable. It doesn't hurt that their topics have grown beyond their scientific and historical roots to encompass popular culture topics.
One recent example is BBS: The Documentary, which tells the stories of telecommunications' early adopters who ran dial-up bulletin boards, some of the first consumer-accessible pre-Internet networks. As a participant of that era, I was fascinated by the film's people and personalities and how vibrant their memories of that unique period was. The documentary was almost exclusively the product of one man: Jason Scott, digital archivist extraordinaire. As I wrote in my review in retrocomputing publication Juiced.GS (Volume 11, Issue 1), his inspired editing turned hundreds of hours of raw footage into several elegant and thematic chapters of computer history.
Since that film's release, Mr. Scott has been slowly chipping away at his next project: GET LAMP, a history of text adventures, or interactive fiction. As described on the film's Web site: "[using] limited sound, simple graphics, and tiny amounts of computing power, the first games on home computers … [gave birth to] an entire industry [that] rose over the telling of tales, the solving of intricate puzzles and the art of writing. Like living books, these games described fantastic worlds to their readers, and then invited them to live within them." Here's some early footage of the interviews that preserve that early entertainment art form and its responsible parties:
Mr. Scott recently gave himself a deadline for GET LAMP's publication; as a result, it is being fast-tracked for release at PAX East, a video gaming expo held March 26–28, 2010, in Boston. As the date approaches, more details about the two-disc set are being revealed. Besides ten hours of interviews, the documentary will sport several unique features:
- Original, retro artwork by artist Lukas Ketner. This collage captures the contexts and artifacts of many works of interactive fiction. The piece may additionally be available as a poster, should Mr. Scott receive enough interest in such a product.
- Interactive, branching paths. Just like the games it analyzes, GET LAMP will offer viewers choices about what happens next.
- An upgrade guarantee. If you're one of the product's early supporters, you won't be penalized by having to cough up more bucks later for a director's cut or high-definition edition, as Hollywood is wont to make us do. Instead, Mr. Scott "guarantee[s] that if you buy the GET LAMP DVD online through [its official Web] site, any future editions of GET LAMP will be available to you at cost or close to cost." (The original product, similarly to this Web site, will be available under Creative Commons.)
- Text adventures! As many of these classic games were released as freeware or to the public domain, and some continue to be, Mr. Scott will be including several on a data partition on the disc. Among the collection: the entire Eamon catalog for the Apple II (also available separately).
Preorders are now being accepted, and its possible the first batch of discs will be available at PAX to preorder customers only. A full review will be in Juiced.GS this June — but I'd rather you not wait to support this independent artist who is producing work both entertaining and valuable. We need more documentaries like GET LAMP, and documentarians like Jason Scott.
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Update: GET LAMP will premiere at PAX, but DVDs will not start shipping for another month or two.
Here's a review of the PAX cut of GET LAMP. (Hat tip to Jason Scott)
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