It seems a long time ago, that I first spotted a thread about ASCIIpOrtal, and broke the news. A few months later, an early video triggerred an internet stampede, and now, we’re less than 90 minutes from the release of ASCIIpOrtal.
(EDITORS NOTE: It’s now available to download. The link is at the end of Part 2)
Welcome, to JOMG’s ASCIIpOrtal launch-day interview, with its creator, Joe Larson.
Joe, we’re just hours away from the release of ASCIIpOrtal. But I’d like to spend a few minutes getting to know the guy who created it. You started programming in the late 70’s/early 80’s. What was it like back then?
Oh, man, those were the days of great computers. The PET came in a big box that included the monitor, the keyboard, and hid the CPU in there. The C64 hid everything in just the keyboard unit and you hooked it up to a TV, which was brilliant marketing. If anything went wrong with your C64, the manual told you to “remove the keyboard unit from all its wires, hold the unit 10 to 14 inches above a soft surface like a bed or pillow, and release”. Seriously! That was C64 tech support! I used the Apple IIe at school and it was okay – but the C64 seemed much more colorful.
*C64 pic by Bill Bertram.
You talk about typing in programs from magazines. Can you recall a program you typed in, or wrote yourself, from those days?
Oh goodness, yes. I remember pouring over lines and lines of indecipherable data blocks trying to find that one zero I mistyped as an “O”. I also remember a couple where I actually deduced that there was a typo and fixing them.
One game I made was on the Apple IIe. It was based on the old “Doctor Who” game. You used two paddles, one for X and one for Y to navigate the screen. If you flicked the paddle fast enough, your guy could jump over the blocks that were trying to kill you. The game lives on, as “Robot Escape” on my site, Cymon’s Games.
You’re a former teacher, who’s now doing IT work for an educational software company.
Cymon’s Games is also an “educational” website, isn’t it?
It is. It absolutely is. And I’m not trying to shy away from that. Funny, the word “educational” was never used around “type-ins” back in the 80’s. Instead, they were promoted as “free games” and consequently abandoned, when disks and then CDs became throw-away cheap.
I’ve read that you use the name “Cymon”, as “Joe Larson” is too common. Where’d the name come from?
Cymon is the character with the monitor for a head. [He’s like the site mascot –JOMG] It’s a doodle I did; starting with the idea of a desktop machine reconfigured as a robot. I named him “Cyber-mon”, which was shortened to “Cy-mon”. When I made the site I decided to drop the hyphen, and because it sounds like Simon, I just went with it.
You started programming using BASIC, but your website teaches C/C++. What led you to this choice?
Well, BASIC, as I used it, is pretty much dead at this point. So I had to choose something else I was doing C at the time. I like C. It’s been around for a while and it’ll likely be around for a while more so Cymon’s Games can perhaps remain relevant for years to come. C/C++ has a huge stock library of programs already written for it that I can draw from when I find them.
You publish a program a week. Are there any in particular that you’ve been particularly proud of?
Or ones that got more feedback than others?
Which ones am I proud of? Oh, I start at “Hello” and tell you why I love each one! I don’t know if you want to open that particular can of worms. For the most part I don’t get many public comments on the site. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing this thing in a vacuum, that I don’t have any fans, but then something…. happens and I realize that there are people checking out the site, they’re just doing so quietly.
You’re working on a book, with programs from the site, illustrated with your cartoons. And you’re raising funds for a “graphics tablet” to speed up the process. How’s that going?
Slowly.. about half way now to the point that I want to get it. Any donations and T-Shirt sales are probably going to go towards the tablet fund first.
OK Joe, the internet is a restless beast. So let’s talk ASCIIpOrtal. You’ve attributed your inspiration to a few other titles, including Portal: The Flash Version, Portile & Super Serif Bros. Do you remember the moment when you thought “Hey, I might have a go at this”?
It was Increpare Portile that really got me going. I think because it was incomplete… which is what got my juices flowing. The look-through mechanic on ASCIIpOrtal was my solution to Portile’s mirroring mechanic on inside surfaces. The use of text… was because text is also tile based, but allows for characters instead of just colored blocks.
Did you have any idea at that point… what would be involved?
What were the first things you got working in the game?
Fortunately, I wrote this down! After experimenting with the rotation mechanic I started with trying to make a game like SSB: loading from text files, walking around, pushing boxes, advancing when you hit the exit, and something to kill you.
What was the most difficult thing to get right?
I’ve never made a game like this, so every step had its own challenges. I spent so long thinking about things before I even wrote 1 line of code.. that the “getting it right” was done before I started. I think the hardest part, was making a whole framework… so I could add a new thing to the game without having to rewrite everything. I had to rewrite the main movement algorithms twice and I still don’t think I have it’s right.
Were there any entertaining bugs that caused weird things to happen?
No, no. No bugs. Just unexpected features. There were a couple of times when things didn’t quite work the way I thought they should and I just left it that way. Like text triggers holding down switches. At first I had meant for them to be intangible to everything but the player, but I discovered accidentally that I forgot to implement that and a text trigger could be used to hold down a switch until it’s triggered, at which point it’s removed from the map. I realized this had some cool possibilities and ended up using it in level 1 in combination with a boulder off screen to time the dropping of a box.
Steve Fenton has created the sounds for ASCIIpOrtal.
Can you tell us about the “trumpet voice” that is being used for ASCIIpOrtal sarcastic computer?
It’s brilliant. I have no idea how he did it, but I love it.
Did you write the lines for it? Or someone else?
I wrote 95% of the dialog in the original 50 levels that will be in version 1.0. Some was written by beta folks who submitted levels, and some were written by Europe (spoiler).
How important is story/humour vs. level design/challenge in your game?
I didn’t think very much about the story. The game is kinda abstract in visuals, so I didn’t want to be anything but abstract in the story. I think it was more important that I made a game that held your hands for a few levels, got you started, challenged you slowly, then every once in a while threw a stumper your way. I think the game has some serious challenge potential, but I don’t consider myself an excellent level designer or, for that matter, story writer. So I stuck with my strengths, which is working out how to make something happen, and I look forward to what others will come up with.
Next… Part 2 of JOMG’s ASCIIpOrtal launch-day interview:
Slashdotting, level editing, ASCIIpOrtal Online & the download link.