In part 2 of my epic interview for NULL emag, we talk about my current and past projects including Iniquity BBS, Darkness 2.0, and Gutter, along with a bit more on the art scene.
Lately you’ve become a member of ArakNet and started helping with Phenom projects. Does this mean that you are becoming active again in the scene? Did you ever stop? 😉
My involvement in ArakNet isn’t really about any of that. Rather, I recognize Smooth’s huge efforts and contributions in recent years to promote all things scene related, from running boards, putting out great ANSI (and even some nice Amiga ASCII lately) forming Phenom and putting out mods and doors, and of course running Arak. It reminds me a lot of what I was up to in the late 90s, except that he’s a better artist and coder than me. 😉 So, on the one hand I wanted to support Arak, but I also wanted to be involved in some of the great conversation going on there. Distortion, being Zer0net’s HQ, has largely avoided losing focus by adding too many other networks, but occasionally another “othernet” comes a long that I feel like compliments Zer0net well and has a lot to offer me and my users.
I haven’t really participated in any Phenom products nor have any of their members worked with me on Darkness or anything else, though I wouldn’t say that’s off the table either. My activity as of late, like my work on Darkness 2, is mostly personal, but my interest and involvement is definitely on an upswing as of late. I have a lot of plans for other projects. For instance, I’m planning on giving Distortion a major refresh pass soon, I’ll be putting out a new Zer0net infopack to celebrate our 20th anniversary, as mentioned, I’m working on some new mods and code that could end up being some of the first new Demonic releases in many years, if I should decide to dust it off, and I’ve just recently started working a blog/ezine, which I’ll be using to document all of these things (and hopefully expand on having some more interesting content beyond that later on.) So while I’ve always been “active” to some degree (beyond keeping Distortion and Zer0net going, mostly by releasing art) I’m definitely spending a lot more quality time on other things lately, and I’m pretty happy about it.
What’s Iniquity? Why did you stop development on it? I see that Phenom has started the development of Iniquity 3 and you are a part of it. How is that going?
Iniquity was an underground scene focused BBS software developed in the mid 90s by a dude named Fiend. I’d been dabbling with a lot of the scene related software, stuff like Vision/X and Oblivion/2, when I first stumbled across Iniquity 1.00 a23 and soon after a25r2, and I instantly fell in love with it. It had a ton of great features and an awesome customized feel right out of the box that all somehow felt more than the sum of its parts. Finding Iniquity was the moment I knew I definitely needed to setup my own BBS, and the moment I started really trying to learn how to mod. It just totally clicked with me.
Iniquity’s history is pretty storied. I won’t go into the whole thing, but Fiend stopped developing it, dumping out an a26 release that, while buggy as hell, showed glimpses at some real genius, like his IPL scripting language and TextFX graphics support. The source eventually got leaked and a cabal of Iniquity devotees not unlike myself took it upon themselves to try to “finish” it, if you will, putting out Iniquity 2.00. They released the code too, which I ended up playing with in 1999, making a lot of little bug fixes and minor improvements to, mostly for my own purposes, and when the calendar rolled over into the year 2000, some much needed Y2K fixes. Unfortunately I lost my latest and greatest version of the code not long after my last release thus ending my run of unofficial patches.
Anyway, it soon became clear to me that what Iniquity really needed was a port to native Windows and Linux versions, a built-in telnet server, etc. to be worth putting a lot of time into and I didn’t think I had the programming chops or the free time to take up such a task myself. I made efforts into helping others work towards porting and continuing Iniquity, including sharing my old code and trying to organize a team, but little really came of it. One effort, in cooperation with Spec of Theoretically BBS, actually seemed like it might bear some fruit, as Spec managed to get out an incomplete port of Iniquity to WIN32 using Virtual Pascal, complete with its own telnet daemon and DOOR32 support. But it was quite unstable due largely to a half completed attempt to move the message bases to JAM format, so he deemed this only a prototype, ceasing development on it in favor of doing a proper re-code of it in FPC. We dubbed this new version Iniquity 3. He made a big push early on but work on it soon petered out. While he’s continued to dabble with it over the years, little has come to light.
At some point, maybe 2 years ago, Ispyhumanfly (who was a Zer0net SysOp and supporter from way back – awesome dude!) reappeared on the scene and with that, had plans to start a new, modern take on the classic BBS software, and particularly had his sights set on reviving Iniquity. He reached out to me out of respect for my previous work on it (especially my work with Spec on our version of Iniquity 3) and I updated him on my involvement and pointed him to Spec for his blessing, and that’s about the sum of my involvement in the project. I definitely wish him luck with it, and if it gets further along, will be glad to contribute to it, but for now that’s about it.
For my part, I’ve recently been considering using Iniquity again for another setup I’m planning on working on, which will surely lead me to continuing development on my 2.x fork as I find more bugs that need squashing.
What else are you doing in the scene nowadays?
I’m actively working on finishing Darkness 2.0, and I still run Distortion and Zer0net. I also still occasionally contribute ASCII to Impure and Break as well as ANSI to Blocktronics. Those are my main focus areas.
My involvement has waxed and waned widely over the last almost 20 years, though that has mostly been due to a lack of free time and competing interests, as mentioned. I’ve started work on a new blog at https://jackphla.sh where I intend to write about a lot of these subjects in a similarly long winded fashion as I’m doing now. 😉 I’m also considering putting out an old school text version just to give NULL some competition!
Tell us more about Darkness 2.0. When is this coming out? What should we expect? Who is involved in the project?
Originally Darkness started as an exact Legend of the Red Dragon clone at a time when its development had entered a lull, and then it became its own thing, though the design didn’t move much beyond LORD in a different setting with some additional features inspired by other games. I had plans (or at least ideas) to flesh out a lot of those systems, but my work on the game gradually slowed to a stop before I got much of that done. Between that, some bad design choices, some unfixed bugs, and an incredible amount of typos and other cringy text, the final state of Darkness isn’t something I’m particularly proud of. The thing is, a lot of people in today’s BBS scene know me mostly from Darkness, and even still run it, and in that state it’s a bit of an embarrassing legacy to leave behind.
I’d always wanted to revisit Darkness and thought about it a lot over the years. I knew I wanted to come up with a different design than the cookie-cutter LORD clone 1.0 was, and that might require a slightly different, more interesting theme as well. I just couldn’t ever come up with anything I was happy with. Finally I just said “fuck it” and started working on what I called Darkness 1.10 which was just going to be a huge bug fix and cosmetic overhaul release for Darkness 1.0. As I got deeper into it, I decided that I had so much work to do I might as well just start over from scratch. That’s how Darkness 2.0 came to be.
So I took a lot of what I learned since the original Darkness – more coding and technical knowledge and experience, more influences from other sources, work on other (unreleased) door games, and some new ideas of what I might do with the design and the theme of the game, and got started. It’s not just a new version, it’s a total re-code and a total redesign (although one still highly influenced by the original Darkness.)
Here’s a short rundown of what to expect:
- It’s still a LORD clone, but with huge changes to the overall gameplay structure including no more random, unfair deaths, a more challenging way to attack sleeping players, an item collecting/trading system, distinct areas of the world with varied enemies and events, etc.
- The setting/theme and presentation is reworked to be a bit more serious and mature than what my teenage-self came up with back in the late 90s. Thank god. That, and there’s now a bit of an overt post-apocalypse vibe rather than being straight up cyberpunk.
- Another aspect of the presentation, influenced by another game I had been working on that was sort of a hybrid between LORD, MUDS, and Rogue-likes, Darkness 2.0 has much more verbose descriptions and a lot more of them too. I’ve also included proper spelling and capitalization as an added bonus. Heyooo!
- Integrated configuration/player editors for online editing (and better portability.) Seems kind of important in the Internet age!
- A very simple scripting language (inspired by a combination of RTSoft’s REF, Batch, and some other similar scripts) to replace more complicated IGM creation. Right now this lets you add custom events, but I’ll probably expand it in future versions to a more IGM like “other areas” menu again.
- A lot more!
- Unlike Darkness 1.0, which technically stopped development before it even left beta, after the 2.0 release, I plan on continuing to support the game, releasing semi-regular updates for the foreseeable future. Like RTSoft’s updates to LORD, I plan on including new content (items, enemies, events, etc.) with every new release. I already have a lot of that content more or less ready, in fact.
For now, Darkness 2.0 is all me outside of sourcing some new ANSI from some art scene people and of course, enlisting people to help with testing. Darkness 2.0 is currently feature complete and right now I’m concentrating on making various tweaks related to difficulty and balance based on early tester feedback, as well as making a final cosmetic pass on it, then it’ll go into a closed beta. It should be available to play on DoorParty first, so keep checking there!
You were involved in one of the most popular emags of the art scene, Gutter. It seems clear that emags are dead now. Why do you think this happened? After all, groups that published emags in the past still exist and there are still some very talented artists around. Why did this aspect of the scene disappear?
I doubt you could pin it on a single thing, honestly. I mean, a stand out issue for both emags and ezines for me is that there’s a lot less interested people these days. Back in the day there were a hell of a lot more people who were participating in the scene as end-users or “consumers” if you will than there are. Now, most people still in the scene are directly involved in running boards, creating art, mods, code, etc. In other words, we’re our own audience, which makes the whole scene more insular.
There are other issues too, from the technical like the shift away from DOS in the PC scene and the shift away from trusting unknown executables/binaries in computing in general. The spread of more and more operating systems and architectures makes text more appealing for portability, and there was actually a pretty cool, separate “ezine” scene that splintered off for a while there. That might be still around for all I know, as I was never all too involved in it. Speaking of separate scenes, there have always been other emags and ezines that didn’t necessarily cross directly over to us in the BBS scene. The demo scene had their own disk mags, H/P groups had their own zines and text files, of course, and in the mainstream blogs, vlogs, podcasts and social media platforms assumed many of those same roles emags and ezines used to fill.
One more aspect is that it’s just always been a lot of work. Not just the coding, but the writing. I feel like there’s always been less of this stuff out there then it seems like there should have, even when the scene was much, much more active. It’s just not that easy to create written content, especially content that other people will actually want to consume.
All that said, there’s still very much a place for emags and zines in the scene in my opinion.
Have you read NULL mag? With your experience in the field, what do you think about it?
I have! I know you want to expand NULL more to have more authors and more variety of content, kind of like the classic European demo scene disk mags, but what I like the most about NULL is that it feels very personal. It’s your thoughts, opinions, and interests, dumped out into text. That is very appealing to me, as it’s almost like some insight into someone else’s perspective. Even the topics I’m not interested in, or maybe disagree with, are still fun to read because of that. It’s very “old school” to me in that sense.
Gutter was very much the same way, since 99% of the written content was from Filth. Everything about it was distinctly him, and he seemingly had (and still has) a gift for that kind of expression. In fact, come to think of it, almost all of my favorite emags and zines were the same way. They all had distinct styles that allowed you to have some sense of the author’s interests, sense of humor, and sense of who they actually were.
Why did Gutter stop? I mean… I know that Filth was doing the writing and you the code stuff, but weren’t there any others to help keep it alive?
We intentionally killed it. While we were actively releasing it Gutter was extremely popular in the ANSI scene and Filth wanted to end it while we were on top, so to speak. We figured 12 consecutive issues was a damn good run, so we stopped there, goals met! Other than the fact that I missed reading it and seeing all of the amazing art contributions we got, I didn’t have any regrets. Sometimes keeping things going in some sort of diminished way ends up doing a disservice to its memory, and I think that would have eventually been the case with Gutter, especially if Filth wasn’t contributing as prominently.
I’d add that I’m absolutely sure Gutter influenced a lot of other scene people to write and with that, Natedogg and I releasing the source code to the engine was, in some weird way, a more fitting way to extend its legacy. We helped other people put out their own emags with their own flavor while still having a little bit of the “Gutter DNA” all up in it. I’m not sure how many emags ended up being released that used the Gutter code, but there were definitely a few. FUBAR is one good example I can think of off the top of my head, and now NULL is being built on top of it too. We love it!
After all this time, in 2018 you released an anniversary pack about Gutter. Was this a sign of nostalgia or maybe a hint that you want to start making Gutter again?
I can’t speak for Filth on that, and it was mostly his doing, but for my part, it’s definitely all about the nostalgia. I do wish we could have put it out as an emag, but I think maybe that was more involved than what he had in mind. If anything, it was more a showcase of the amazing art submissions we had for the mag over its short lifespan. So, no, it wasn’t any sort of prelude to a Gutter re-launch. 🙂 That said, it’s pretty clear from Filth’s writing in the anniversary pack that he totally still has it!
What is ANSI art all about to you? Is it just “beautiful colors”, making things that would imagine to be impossible with just 16 colors and some text chars, or delivering a message to those who see it? I mean there are some very good ASCII/ANSI-ivists out there, that also pass a social message to the scene… should we see more of that?
I don’t feel like a “message” has ever been a vital component of ANSI art beyond the generally expressive nature of art, especially as it was largely created by bored teenagers and young adults with a dizzying array of teenage and young adult problems to be inspired and influenced by (which meant that there was often some emotional subtext going on.) That said, my feeling on the topic has definitely changed over the years. In the 90s, textmode art to me was totally utilitarian. Even the GREAT stuff, ultimately, was there to decorate BBSes and textmode programs. I think it was less that I didn’t “get it” and more that I just appreciated its practical uses more. Nowadays, thanks to my own better understanding of art, but also the efforts of artists in groups like Blocktronics, I see ANSI as a legitimate art form that goes far beyond just manipulating text. So, to give an appropriately abstract answer, I suppose the answer to that, is that ANSI art is all about whatever the artist wants it or feels it to be about, and that is something powerful.
What’s your favorite ANSI group and why?
OOooh. Now that’s a question I don’t get asked too often! How about 5, chronologically?
Well, ACiD has to be on the list because, as with many of us, they were the first ANSI packs I ever encountered and continued to put out consistently excellent work for a long time, and I still can’t get over how amazing and influential some of that original Lord Jazz stuff was back then.
I’ll also always have a soft spot for CiA given the years I spent with them and some of the incredible artists we had.
Next, AWE would be my more esoteric, hipster answer. Given my focus on BBS modding and code, I quickly developed a soft spot for amazing font work and AWE really opened my eyes to the possibilities and an appreciation for just how high the ceiling really was, and when I first started to (badly) draw ANSI, AWE’s quality was really what I aspired to. I’m still nowhere near that, so I guess I still aspire to it, really. 😉
Next, I love a good “supergroup” and Legion’s short but amazing run in 1998 totally blew my mind. Looking through their packs now in 2019, they actually still blow my mind.
Finally, what can you say about Blocktronics? Some of the best artists EVER have contributed to B7 over the years, and their packs quickly transcended your average (amazing) art scene shit to become genuine works of art. Every Blocktronics release is incredible and I’m proud to (occasionally) have my rather amateurish efforts bringing their overall quality down. 😉