PICK UP AX (1990)

PICK UP AX (1990), by Anthony Clarvoe (Broadway Play Publishing, 1991; 70pg; about $8). 

PICK UP AX is not interactive fiction at all; it is a three-character stage play, set in Silicon Valley around 1980, in which the characters play an "Adventure" clone. Much as Shakespeare might allude to mythology or appeal to floral symbolism in order to make a point about human nature, playwright Anthony Clarvoe uses IF as a vehicle to show the audience who his characters are and what they want out of life.

Those who are familiar with Brenda Laurel or the Oz Project will already know that theatre and IF share some common ground: both are about what happens to YOU as you sit in the theatre or type at the keyboard, rather than what has happened to somebody else (as is the case with narrative prose). According to Clarvoe, "The action is driven by struggles for power fought out through language" (ix).

The play was first produced in San Francisco in 1990, and (according to a blurb on the book) was anthologized in "Burns Mantle Best Plays 1989-90," which suggests that the American Theatre Critics Association thought highly of it. Shortly afterwards, Clarvoe was playwright-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. I learned of this play a few years ago, when my wife mentioned that she had seen it at a Dallas-area community theatre around 1990. An Internet search shows that it is still being performed here and there; go see it if you get the chance. In the best tradition of Harold Pinter, the dialogue is rich with shifting allegiances, language and power games, and (pause) tense moments.

To recreate the feel of 1980, the script calls for a box of 5-1/4" disks and sound clips from the likes of The Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin. Fans of such pop-culture treasure chests as MST3K, Pop-up Video, and the Shatner-as-Shatner comedy Free Enterprise will enjoy the casual references to Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost in Space, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, et al. [1]  The script calls for only three characters, but plenty of lighting and sound effects; these factors would make it an excellent choice for a black-box drama student project. Overall, PICK UP AX is worth reading (or attending, or producing) not merely for its IF references, but because it is a well-written, funny, and thought-provoking treatment of this vanished era of Silicon Valley history. In the hands of a skilled director and accomplished actors, a production could be very satisfying.

Explicating the play's two IF scenes will necessitate a few spoilers, but I shall give away neither the ending nor the major plot twists that precede it. Keith is a 27-year-old computer nerd who tries to think as little as possible about the real world. [2]  The play opens with Brian, the same age, but more business-minded, realizing that a critical business deal is collapsing. Keith, meanwhile, describes a booby-trap that he sprang on a reckless player during a recent D & D session. Even though Brian has more serious matters on his mind, he is nonetheless impressed: "You run a mean dungeon, Keith." Keith's response to the crisis is to boot up the computer, presumably to work, but in actuality, to immerse himself in IF:

(KEITH taps a few keys and waits for a program to boot up.)
BRIAN: That's my boy. (BRIAN comes around to read over KEITH's shoulder.) "You are standing in a forest clearing near a small stone cottage...." Keith, you're playing Adventure?
KEITH: Different game, same idea. It's where I used to get away to think.
BRIAN: Exploring an imaginary maze?
KEITH: Some people pace.
BRIAN: Okay, whatever breaks you out of the slump. (9)

Brian immediately recognizes what Brian is doing on the screen. He has obviously had some exposure to "Adventure," since he mentions it by name. Some quibbles: 1) considering how close these two men are, I find it a little surprising that Brian doesn't already know the title of his friend's favorite game -- unless, of course, this is a part of Keith's life that he has not shared until now; 2) Brian shouldn't have had to guess what the game was called, since the title would almost certainly have been printed along with the opening text (although it is certainly plausible for an IF game to lack the usual title page). From a theatrical perspective, however, having Keith explain the game to Brian is a convenient (and necessary) plot device; the playwright wants to make sure that the audience will understand the nature and purpose of an IF game.

Brian describes IF as "[e]xploring an imaginary maze," an assessment to which Keith (and playwright Clarvoe) seems to assent, although plenty of RAIF netizens will have a problem with that definition. Since Keith is both a dungeon master and a software genius, it is sensible to wonder whether he is actually building his own IF game. He might, of course be exploring his own maze, but the dialogue suggests that he is merely a player.

The scene continues, with Brian resisting Keith's invitation to try the game.

BRIAN: I've hated this past-time since high school.
KEITH: You'll get it one of these days. Every time they kill you, you get right up again. Come on, it's highly educational.
BRIAN: Educational, if we did business with swords, I'd learn all kinds of useful stuff.
KEITH: Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you're my only hope. Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you're my only hope. Help me, Obi-wan--
BRIAN: Keith! I'm in a crisis here! Okay. Maybe I haven't made it clear. This company, legally, is a person. Right? A character, like in Dungeons and Dragons? Out there, other people are fighting our character. Hack and slash. They're trying to kill it, and if they do, it'll never get up again. . . . If the company dies, you and I and your bright ideas go on down to scrapheap town. Now do you see where we are?
KEITH: We are standing in a forest clearing near a small stone cottage. (9-10)

The play presents Brian as Keith's protector and father figure, somewhat like Obi-Wan; yet in the world of games, the situation is reversed: without Keith's guidance, Brian is powerless -- as we shall see in a moment. But first, another quibble: PICK UP AX is "an historical play set in 1980, give or take a year or two" (ix). If Brian is 27 in the year 1980, he would have been around 20 when Willie Crowther created Adventure. It is therefore unlikely that Brian could have "hated this past-time since high school" -- unless he was in high school at 20, or unless he is not referring to interactive fiction when he says "this past-time." He may mean that he dislikes computer games in general, but elsewhere he describes meeting Keith in an arcade; further, he is a regular D & D player. In light of these details, Brian's dislike of interactive fiction seems contrived, although it does give Keith and Brian a reason to talk about IF.

(Pause. BRIAN looks at the screen.)
BRIAN: "You are standing in a forest clearing near a small stone cottage. Suddenly a dwarf carrying a stone ax runs out of the woods. He drops the stone ax, opens the cottage door, runs through, and slams the door." Okay. Go through door?
KEITH: You sure you want to do that?
BRIAN: I hate it when you say that! Leave forest clearing, go to Taco Bell? I don't know.
KEITH: What do you have?
BRIAN: A clearing, a cottage, a door, a disappeared dwarf.
KEITH: A stone ax.
BRIAN: Aha. Pick up stone ax.
KEITH: It doesn't know "pick up." Try "get."
BRIAN: You see? Complex, exotic, pathetically limited. "Get stone ax. Enter." Okay. "The stone ax says, 'Command me, O Master.'" Now we're happening.

Brian may simply be one of those people who doesn't "get" IF; but more specifically, the scene quoted above shows Brian's frustration with the parser. We have already seen that Brian is a talker, not a doer -- he makes telephone calls, stages a press conference, and delivers boardroom speeches. Recall that Clarvoe described the events depicted in this play as "struggles for power fought out through language." Brian's dislike of the computer game suggests that, rather than adapting his methods to fit the requirements of the system, he resents the system for not responding to his preferred methods. After Keith manages to direct his attention to the magic weapon, he seems more enthusiastic; but without the advice of a human guide, Brian would rather "Leave forest clearing, go to Taco Bell." (Note: The title of the play, "PICK UP AX" would not be understood by the parser running Keith's game -- Brian must rephrase his command because "It doesn't know 'pick up.'")

Keith says that he turns to his adventure game in order to "get away" from his problems; thus, his suggestion that Brian play the game too may seem like an effort to cheer up or relax his friend. Nevertheless, the virtual lesson of the ax in the forest clearing teaches an important real-world lesson: don't venture into unknown territory unless you are well armed. Since Brian has already likened the world of corporate politics to a different kind of game (D & D), the symbolism is clear and effective.

The lights go out immediately after the magical ax offers its services; when the lights come up again, Mick enters. He knows nothing about computers, yet he recognizes that executives at all the other companies -- including those founded by former members of Keith and Brian's D & D group -- are making under-the-table deals. While Brian sees Mick as another kind of magical ax, Keith seems to recognize that Mick -- a survivor and a problem-solver who is skilled at reading and manipulating his surroundings -- also has all the attributes of a successful role-playing character. He puts his suspicions to the test:

KEITH: Well, as long as it's booted up.... Do you know this?
MICK: (Reading the screen) "You are standing in a forest clearing." What is this?
KEITH: Sort of a game. What would you do?
MICK. Get the ax, go through the door. So?
(KEITH looks at MICK)
(Cue up: Wild Thing)

Whereas Brian uses language to postpone or work around problems, and thus distracts himself from self-preserving actions (such as getting the ax in the first place), Mick thinks in precisely the same blunt, pragmatic, problem-solving terms that the game demands.

While the second act does not return to IF again, Keith does find two additional ways to apply to the real world the mastery he has achieved over the gaming world. One method is the "mood room" -- a corner of Brian's office, consisting of sensors that measure a person's vital signs, a computer that translates the vital signs into emotional data, and a multimedia system that produces an assortment of theatrical effects (light, sound, fog, etc.) based on the sensory data. In an earlier scene, Keith had imagined using this system for a high-tech theme park: "a building full of offices like this, or a labyrinth of cubicles, all in motion, each with a different character, it would be like -- think about it -- it could be like Dungeons and Dragons. It could be this paradise" (13). While Keith desires yet another escapist fantasy, Brian sees its potential as a consensus builder that could aid corporate negotiations. Mick is skeptical, since he says he already knows how to read people's body language and get them to do what he wants; further, he has a trick of pretending to be enraged in order to gain power in business negotiations -- a "mood room" would actually cause him to lose power. Once again, the playwright uses a technological artifact to illustrate and comment upon power relationships acted out on the stage.

The second method by which Keith applies the lessons of the gaming world involves melding his own software genius with Mick's tactics. I won't say anything further on this subject, because that would give away the ending. I'll just say that, after reading this play, I now look very differently at one of the icons on my desktop.


[1] "Not to mention the fact that all three characters are named after members of the Stones." --Paul O'Brian, SPAG Editor. [up]

[2] The professional relationship between Keith and Brian at their imaginary corporation is far from unique; in fact, according to When Wizards Stay Up Late (Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, 1996), Will Crowther shared just such a relationship with Frank Heart at Bolt Beranek and Newman: "For years Heart had been Crowther's champion, lobbying for the company to let Crowther just be Crowther and think up ingenious ideas in his own dreamy way" (264). Crowther created "The Colossal Cave Adventure," the first IF game. [up]

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