Brian Rushton, also known as Mathbrush, is an interactive fiction author, frequent tester, prolific critic, and all-around supporter of IF. His games have earned a collective seven XYZZY nominations, as well as three top ten IFComp placements: 2nd for Color the Truth (IFComp 2016), 5th for Absence of Law (IFComp 2017), and 10th for Ether (IFComp 2015). He also won IntroComp 2017 with Sherlock Indomitable, which he later finished and submitted to Spring Thing. As of this post he has written an astounding 1,851 reviews on the Interactive Fiction Database. Brian, Greg Frost, and I rebooted the Seattle/Tacoma IF meetup a year and a half ago. And Brian is an incredible encourager of others in their IF work, especially new writers. That includes me.
Perhaps I should tell that story. It’s March of 2017. I had discovered the modern hobbyist IF scene two months earlier and had been working on my first IF game, A Beauty Cold and Austere, for about a month. I realized that I needed to ask someone in the IF community for advice about ABCA. In particular, I wanted to know what other games out there were like the math-heavy one I was trying to write. But I didn’t know anyone in the IF community, and I was leery of trying someone at random. However, there was this guy with the nickname “Mathbrush” who had written a ton of reviews for the IFDB. If anybody knew the IF back catalog well enough to know about similar games and might be sympathetic to a math-themed one, it probably would be this guy. So I cold-emailed him. Within a few hours Brian had responded with some helpful suggestions. Then, at the end of his email, he asked me if I knew of any math job openings in my part of the U.S. His family was living in Hawaii, and for personal reasons they wanted to move back to the mainland. It turned out the math department where I teach was hiring for a short-term position, and the application deadline was in a few days. Brian applied for the job, and he got it. So I had the privilege of working with Brian for two years.
Brian recently agreed to answer some questions for me.
Tell us a little about yourself. What do you do when you’re not writing or playing or reviewing IF?
I’m a high school math teacher in Coppell, TX. I like to go for walks or play games with my son, and I enjoy reading all types of fiction I can get my hands on. Right now I’m reading online creepypastas and my grandmother’s old Star Trek novels.
How did you get into interactive fiction?
My dad showed me Zork once when I was a kid, but I forgot about it. When I got an iPad in 2010, I searched for “Zork” on the app store and found the Frotz app which comes with a bundle of games. I loved Curses!, Anchorhead, Child’s Play and Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina. But Varicella and Vespers freaked me out so bad that I quit playing for 5 years.
When I tried again in 2015, I was hooked. I bought Lost Treasures of Infocom and tried all the classic games. I noticed they didn’t have many IFDB reviews, so I made it a goal to complete as many reviews as I can. I began to notice things that were considered difficult or problematic, like 3d movement or conversation systems, and that inspired me to try making my own games.
Your 3d movement game was Ether, right? And your conversation system game was Color the Truth?
Yeah, exactly. Since then I’ve mostly just made random stuff lol.
You’ve been part of the IF community for years now. What about IF keeps you coming back to it?
IF in the IFComp/intfiction.org/IFDB has that same kind of free-spirited, collaborative feeling that you see throughout history, like the early days of sci-fi or the small group of writers Mary Shelley was in. Most games are released for free, and there’s a push for innovation and some legitimately good criticism out there (including yours!). It’s large enough that you can never run out of new games to try, but small enough that you can have an effect.
What are your two or three favorite works of IF? Why do you like these particular games so much?
I love Curses!, and I always will. It wasn’t my very first game I played, but it was close. The literary quotes, the sprawling map, the feeling of incredible depth was like nothing I had ever experienced. I’ve never beaten it without a walkthrough, but I use it less each time I play. I love the feeling I get while playing, and a lot of that comes from its recurring themes of rebirth or resurrection.
I personally enjoyed Canneryvale quite a bit as well. It starts out slowly and requires a big time investment, but I loved the payoffs as you go further and further. I haven’t revisited it the way I have Curses!, but it probably gave me the biggest emotional reaction I have had to a game. It has two worlds, self-reference, a surreal atmosphere, and I’m a sucker for all of that.
You have played a very large number of IF games – even older ones that don’t get played much anymore. If you could get modern IF players to play one of these older, less-played games, which one would it be and why?
Stephen Granade wrote a big, surreal game called Losing Your Grip, and it used to be referenced quite a bit. It has 5 acts, with two possible 4th acts that you might experience. It’s about a series of dreams that you experience while being rushed to the hospital, and a lot of it is about your relationship with your father. It’s not too hard to see why it’s played less: it’s an older style, hard enough that you’d have to commit to it for a while and/or go to discussion forums for hints. But with the walkthrough, or looking at past threads, you can see the excellent story.
Speaking of which, how have you managed to play so many works of IF?
I’ve always been an insatiable reader. When I was a kid, I’d read everything in the house and even started reading the dictionary when I ran out of everything else. When I read most of the books I wanted to read, I turned to IF as a new source of stories.
I have a ‘binging’ personality as well, so when I get into something like a TV series or IFComp, I spend all of my free time on it.
Finally, I cheat. I use walkthroughs, I don’t work too hard at solving difficult puzzles, I open Twine code in the browser and decompile parser games. Ade McTavish made a series of 3 puzzle games called Hard Puzzle, which were incredibly hard to solve. I solved 2 of them by decompiling, and he referenced that by making ‘cheating’ required for Hard Puzzle 4.
Do you have a favorite among the games you’ve written?
I definitely think that Absence of Law is the best. When I got the idea for it, I thought, “This is going to be the greatest IF game of all time.” It didn’t turn out that way (my skill isn’t always up to completing my ideas), but it’s the highest-rated of my games. I researched the best puzzles from past games and incorporated as many of them as I could: language puzzles, combat puzzles, single-verb puzzles, timed treasure hunts. And I even hard-wired it to have music that responds to in-game commands. Even if it didn’t turn out perfect, I’m happy with the work I put into it.
What was the most difficult game of yours to write?
My commercial game In the Service of Mrs. Claus. The biggest game I had ever written before was 60,000 words, and my contract required at least 100,000, with the unspoken assumption that anything under 150,000 would be considered too short by consumers.
For two years I worked on it 6 days a week. It became part of my family’s life and routine. In that time, I moved, changed careers, divorced, started another commercial project which was abandoned, released an Introcomp/Spring Thing game called Sherlock Indomitable, and wrote the game Origin of Madame Time as an IFComp prize. My life came and went, but the daily toil of trying to write even 500 words a day never went away. It’s finally done now, and it’s been really hard to muster the energy to write anything since then!
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as an IF author from your first game until now?
My biggest lesson from everything is that beta testers are everything. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are, if you respond to your beta testers’ requests and fix their complaints, your game will be good. It’s impossible to extract yourself completely from your work and see it objectively. I wish I could give all of my beta testers I’ve ever had a gold medal!
Do you have any current IF projects you’re working on that you’d be willing to tell us about a little bit?
As an IFComp prize for 2018, I agreed to make a sequel for the winner’s game. I’ve just finished the alpha for Changing Trains, a sequel to Alias: The Magpie. It’s still bare-bones, but it involves a heist on a train and changing into numerous different costumes.
I’m also running the Emily Short Anniversary Contest (with entries due on March 24th), celebrating 20 years of work by Emily Short, author of Galatea and Counterfeit Monkey. Any type of entries are welcome, of any engine and any size!
What advice would you give to someone planning to write IF for the first time?
To do it! And for any language you use, I recommend completing a small game first. The experience of completing a game and releasing it will teach you invaluable lessons, and reveal your biggest mistakes to yourself. You’ll have a lot of problems in your first game, and it helps if you haven’t invested half of your life into it! I particularly recommend speed-IF contests like Ectocomp in October.