Historical rediscovery: Zarf's Old Time Religion search

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Tagged: praser 5, web, interactive fiction, old time religion, filk, if

Aaron Reed posted a request this morning, asking for examples of web-native text-based IF from the earlier days of the Internet. ("Before Twine", basically.)

He got a bunch of good answers. I'll pick out Kingdom of Loathing, Planetarium, the Eastgate catalog, and a half-serious mention of the Internet Oracle -- just to have something to link to. Read the Twitter thread for more. Feel free to throw in more.

One of the games suggested -- not by me! -- was my Praser 5 puzzle game. And this leads me down a bit of a rabbit-hole.

It's true that Praser 5 isn't exactly web-native. It was originally a bunch of files and directories living in a shared Unix filesystem at CMU. You'd look around by typing ls; the room description was just a blank file with a long name! The room showed you puzzles, and you could enter answers by running a program which lived in that directory. If you answered correctly, the program would notify me and I'd add you to the access list for the next directory. Yes, manually. It was just my friends at CMU.

This was a great solution for an "online" puzzle game in 1989. But a few years later, of course, we had the Web. So in early 1994, I reimplemented the whole thing as a web app. It was 2000 lines of C code (K&R, not ANSI!) and I ran it off my office machine at CMU. (I'd graduated and gotten a staff job at a CMU software project by then.) In 2005 I ported Praser 5 to Inform and made it available on my web site as a Java applet; in 2010 I updated that to use Parchment. So that's a potted history of P5 and its many lives on and off the Web.

But what does this have to do with religion? I hear you ask. Well, in that 1994-1995 period, I had other ideas for web apps. For example, some friends and I put together the first Internet Easter Egg Hunt. I only had one office machine, so the easiest way for me to add a new app was to recompile the P5 web server with some added functionality.

So, when P5 came up in discussion today, I peeked into my old source archive and saw a bunch of files. Hey, it's egg.c! That was where I implemented the Easter Egg Hunt! Wait, what's this file lyrics.Z?

I popped it up, just like you just did when you saw the hyperlink. And what is it? Six hundred verses of a filk song called "Gimme That Old Time Religion". Wikipedia says that it was popularized outside the SF/Usenet/Pagan world by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. I had forgotten that, but I must have heard their version on the radio growing up. (Mary Cliff's folk music program on WETA, every Saturday.)

Usenet and the early-Internet FTP sites carried lots of versions of the song. I downloaded all the ones I could find. My original site includes this credit:

Particular thanks to Ioseph of Locksley [...] for his immense collection of verses.

(Ioseph of Locksley was the SCA name of Joe Bethancourt. Bethancourt's web site claimed to have over 1000 OTR verses when last it was active. Obviously he kept on collecting 'em long after my project.)

But my web app wasn't just a page containing the lyrics. (75 kilobytes of text on a single web page? Probably would have crashed Netscape.) It was a search app. Honest-to-, er, honest real live case-insensitive keyword search. Not efficiently implemented by any means -- I'm cringing as I re-read this code. But it let you type the name of a deity or religion and get back a list of every verse which mentioned it. As you see, I even supported synonyms (search terms in {braces}) and "see also" links.

I implemented limits to prevent people from searching "a" and getting back the entire database. It would have crushed my server.

Today, of course, 75 kilobytes isn't even a sneeze. So browse all you like. The text-search facility in your browser is far better than anything I made available.

The original site also included this line:

Disclaimer: If you are offended by this page, don't read it.

"Political correctness" hadn't been trademarked by neo-Nazis back then, but it is true that the collection mentions a very great number of religions and deities with very little respect. Not to mention a lot of shallow offhand stereotypes and slurs. Back then, my attitude was "It's the Internet -- grow up." Well, I was young.

Now, of course, my attitude is "This is a historical artifact which was last updated in 1995, including chunks that go back to the 1970s. So, um, it is what it is."

I must say that the cross-section of cultural references is fascinating. Obviously a lot of the verses came straight from practictioners of off-beat religions. You can practically hear them singing "We're here, we're Pagan, get used to it." Quite a bit of deep-cut Pagan-community politics, too. And a lot of mockery of the televangelists of the era. Then you get into the sci-fi and fantasy in-jokes, and, well, it goes on for a while. In alphabetical order. (I can't remember if that part was my doing.)

Like I said, quite a historical rabbit-hole. Again, see Joe Bethancourt's Real OTR page for more on the history of this thing.

There is no verse about Zarf. Sorry.