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Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur

Arthur

And so at last, twelve years after a group of MIT hackers had started working on a game to best Crowther and Woods’s original Adventure, it all came down to Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, Infocom’s 35th and final work of interactive fiction. Somewhat ironically, this era-ending game wasn’t written by one of Infocom’s own long-serving Imps, but rather by the relatively fresh and inexperienced Bob Bates and his company Challenge, Incorporated, for whom Arthur represented only their second game. On the other hand, though, Bates and Challenge did already have some experience with era-ending games. Their previous effort, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, had been the last text-only Infocom game to be published. As Bates’s buddy Steve Meretzky delights in saying, it’s lucky that Challenge would never get the chance to make a third game. What with them having already “single-handedly killed” the all-text Infocom game with Sherlock and then Infocom as a whole with Arthur, a third Challenge game “probably would have killed the entire computer-game industry.” We kid, Bob, we kid.

The story of Arthur‘s birth is the story of one of the few things to go according to plan through the chaos of Infocom’s final couple of years. When he’d first pitched the idea of Challenge becoming Infocom’s first outside developer back in 1986, Bates had sealed the deal with his plan for his first three games: a Sherlock Holmes game, a King Arthur game, and a Robin Hood game, in that order. Each was a universally recognizable character from fiction or myth who also had the advantage of being out of copyright. The games would amount to licensed works — always music to corporate parent Mediagenic’s1 ears — which didn’t require that anyone actually, you know, negotiate or pay for a license. It seemed truly the best of both worlds. And indeed, after Bates finished the Sherlock Holmes game, to very good creative if somewhat more mixed commercial results, his original plan still seemed strong enough that he was allowed to proceed to phase two and do his King Arthur game.

He chose to make his game the superhero origin story, if you will, of the once and future king: his boyhood trials leading up to his pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it’s been embedded, thereby proving himself the rightful king of England. That last act would, naturally, constitute the climax of the game. In confining himself to the very beginning of the story of King Arthur, Bates left open the possibility for sequels should the game be successful — another move calculated to warm hearts inside Mediagenic’s offices, whose emerging business model in the wake of the Bruce Davis takeover revolved largely around sequels and licenses.

From the perspective of Challenge, Arthur was created the same way as had been Sherlock, from their offices in suburban Maryland as an all-text game, using a cloned version of Infocom’s DEC-hosted development environment that ran on their own local DEC minicomputer. But after Challenge had delivered their game to Infocom this time around, it went through a lengthy post-production period in the latter’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, offices, during which it was moved to Infocom’s new Macintosh-hosted development environment, then married to graphics created by a team of artists. Due at least to some extent to the nature of its development process, Arthur can be seen as a less ambitious game than any of the three works of graphical interactive fiction that preceded it. Its pictures were used only as ultimately superfluous eye candy, static illustrations of each location without even the innovative scrolling page design of Shogun. A few niceties like an onscreen map and an in-game hint menu aside, this was graphical interactive fiction as companies like Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls had been doing it for years, the graphics plainly secondary to the very traditional text adventure at the game’s core.

Created by a team of several outside contractors, Arthur's pictures are perhaps best described as workmanlike in comparison to the lusher graphics of Shogun and especially Journey.

Created by a team of several outside contractors, Arthur‘s pictures are perhaps best described as “workmanlike” in comparison to the lusher graphics of Shogun and especially Journey.

Far from faulting Arthur for its lack of ambition, many fans then as well as now saw the game’s traditionalism as something of a relief after the overambitious and/or commercially compromised games that had preceded it. Infocom knew very well how to make this sort of game, the very sort on which they’d built their reputation. Doubtless for that reason, Arthur acquits itself quite well in comparison to its immediate predecessors. It’s certainly far more playable than any of Infocom’s other muddled final efforts, lacking any of their various ruinous failings or, for that matter, any truly ruinous failings of its own.

That said, the critical verdict becomes less positive as soon as we widen the field of competition to include Infocom’s catalog as a whole. In comparison to many of the games Infocom had been making just a couple of years prior to Arthur, the latter has an awful lot of niggling failings, enough so that in the final judgment it qualifies at best only as one of their more middling efforts.

A certain cognitive dissonance is woven through every aspect of Arthur. In his detailed and thoughtful designer’s notes for the game, which are sadly hidden inside the hint menu where many conscientious players likely never realized they existed, Bates notes that “there is an inherent conflict built into writing a game about King Arthur. It is the conflict between history and legend — the way things were versus the way we wish they were.” Bates took the unusual course of “cleaving to the true Arthur,” the king of post-Roman Britain who may have reigned between 454 and 470, when the island was already sliding into the long Dark Ages. He modeled the town in which the game is set on the ancient Roman British settlement of Portchester, just northwest of Portsmouth, which by the time of the historical Arthur would likely have been a jumble of new dwellings made out of timber and thatch built in the shadow of the decaying stonework left behind by the Romans. A shabby environment fitting just this description, then, becomes the scene of the game. Bates invested considerable research into making the lovely Book of Hours included with the game as reflective of the real monastical divine office of the period as possible. And he even wrote some snippets of poetry in the Old English style, based on alliteration rather than rhyme. I must say that this approach strikes me as somewhat problematic on its face. It seems to me that very few people pick up an Arthurian adventure game dreaming of reenacting the life and times of a grubby Dark Ages warlord; they want crenelated castles and pomp and pageantry, jousts and chivalry and courtly love.

But far more problematically, having made his decision, Bates then failed to stick to it. For instance, he decided that jousting, first anachronistically imposed upon the real Arthur many centuries after his death, had to be in his own more historically conscientious version of the story “to make the game more enjoyable.” The central mechanic to much of the gameplay, that of being able to turn yourself into various animals, is lifted from a twentieth-century work, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, as is the game’s characterization of Arthur as a put-upon boy. Other anachronisms have more to do with Monty Python than written literature, like the village idiot who sings about his “schizophrenia” and the kraken who says he “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.” I should say that I don’t object to such a pastiche on principle. Writers who play in the world of King Arthur have always, as Bates himself puts it, “projected then-current styles, fashions, and culture backwards across the centuries and fastened them to Arthur.” Far from being objectionable, this is the sign of a myth that truly lives, that has relevance down through the ages; it’s exactly what great writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory, T.H. White to Mary Stewart have always done. The myth of King Arthur will always be far more compelling than the historical reality, whatever it may be. What I object to is the way that Bates gums up the works by blending his psuedo-historical approach with the grander traditions of myth and fiction. The contrast between the Arthur of history and the Arthur of imagination makes the game feel like a community-theater production that spent all its money on a few good props — for instance, for the jousts — and can’t afford a proper stage. Far from feeling faithful to history, the shabby timber-and thatch environs of his would-be Portchester just feel low-rent.

A similar cognitive dissonance afflicts the game and puzzle design. In some ways, Arthur is very progressive, as feels appropriate for the very last Infocom text adventure, presumably the culmination of everything they’d learned. For the first time here, the hint menu is context-sensitive, opening up new categories of questions only after you encounter those puzzles for the first time. (It’s also integrated into the structure of the story in a very clever way, taking the form of Merlin’s future-scrying crystal ball.) The auto-map is useful if not quite as useful as Infocom’s marketing might have liked it to be, and for the first time here the new parser, rewritten from the ground up for this final run of graphical games, does sometimes evince a practical qualitative difference from the old. In these respects and others, Arthur represents the state of the art in text adventures as of 1989.

In other ways, however, Arthur is profoundly old-school, not to say regressive. There is, for instance, an unadulteratedly traditional maze in here, the first such seen in an Infocom game since Zork I‘s “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” There is a trick to figure out at the beginning of the one in Arthur — the old drop ‘n’ plot isn’t possible, necessitating the finding of another method for distinguishing one room from another — but after that moment of inspiration you can look forward to the tedious perspiration of plotting out ten rooms and the hundred separate connections that bind them. How odd to think that the only Infocom games to include traditional mazes were their very first and their very last. And while we’re on the subject of Zork I, I should mention that there’s a thief character of sorts in Arthur who’s every bit as annoying as his shifty progenitor. When you first wander innocently into his domain, he steals all your stuff with no warning. (Thankfully, undo is among the game’s modern conveniences.) But perhaps the best illustration of Arthur‘s weird mixing of new- and old-school is the magic bag you find in Merlin’s cave. It can hold an infinite amount of stuff, thus relieving you of the object-juggling so endemic to so many early text adventures from Infocom and others. Unfortunately, though, the bag is stuck behind the domain of the aforementioned thief, who steals it as soon as you try to walk out with it. Thus this huge convenience is kept out of your hands for what may for many players — Arthur is quite nonlinear — amount to the bulk of the game. Progression and regression, all in one would-be handy bag of holding.

In marrying its puzzles to its plot, Arthur is once again best described as confused. Instead of a single score, Arthur has four separate tallies, measuring how “wise and chivalrous,” “strong and courageous” you’ve so far become. In common with a number of late Infocom games, there’s a slight CRPG element at play here: your scores actually affect your ability to perform certain actions. The goal, naturally, is to “gain the experience you need to claim the sword,” in the course of which you “must demonstrate them [your knightly virtues] for all to see.” So, when it comes down to the final climactic duel with King Lot, the villain of the game, what do you do? You distract him and sucker-punch him, that’s what. How’s that for chivalry?

Arthur

Before wrapping up my litany of complaints, I do have to also mention a low-level bugginess that’s not awful by the standards of the industry at large but is quite surprising to find in an Infocom game. The bugs seem to largely fall into the category of glitches rather than showstoppers: if you immediately wear some armor you’ve just discovered instead of picking it up first and then wearing it, you don’t get the points you’re supposed to; another character who normally won’t follow you into a certain location will suddenly do so if you lead him in animal form, which allows you to bypass a puzzle; etc. Relatively minor as such glitches may appear on their face, Arthur‘s CRPG-like qualities make them potentially deadly nevertheless. Because your success at certain necessary actions is dependent on your score, the points you fail to earn thanks to the bugs could make victory impossible.

Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s influential adventure-game columnist, called Arthur nothing less than “Infocom’s most poorly produced game ever,” labeling the disk-swapping required by the Apple II version “simply outrageous”: “When you have to change disks because part of a paragraph is on one, and the rest on another, you know something is wrong with the design. This is also sometimes necessary within a single sentence.” These problems made the much-vaunted auto-map feature essentially unusable on the Apple II, requiring as that version did a disk swap almost every time you wanted to take a peek at the map. Granted, the Apple II was by this point the weak sister among the machines Infocom continued to support, the only remaining 8-bit in the stable — but still, it’s hard to imagine the Infocom of two or three years before allowing an experience as unpolished as this into the wild on any platform.

During Arthur‘s lengthy post-production period, Bates already turned his mind to his next project. It was here that that surprisingly durable original plan of his finally fell victim to the chaos and uncertainty surrounding Infocom in these final months. Still searching desperately for that magic bullet that would yield a hit, Infocom and Mediagenic decided they didn’t feel all that confident after all that the Robin Hood game would provide it. Bates delivered a number of alternative proposals, including a sequel to Leather Goddesses of Phobos and a game based on The Wizard of Oz — yet another licensed game that wouldn’t actually require a license thanks to an expired copyright. Most intriguingly, or at least amusingly, he proposed a mash-up of the two ideas, a Wizard of Oz with “more suggestive language, racier insinuations, and a sub-stratum of sex running throughout. We could substitute a whip for the striped socks and dress Dorothy in leather.” History doesn’t record what Mediagenic’s executives said to that transgressive idea.

In the end, Bates had his next project chosen for him. In a development they trumpeted in inter-office memoranda as a major coup, Mediagenic had secured the rights to The Abyss, the upcoming summer blockbuster from James Cameron of Terminator and Aliens fame. This time Bates drew the short straw for this latest Mediagenic-imposed project that no one at Infocom particularly wanted to do. He was provided with a top-secret signed and numbered copy of the shooting script, and dispatched to Gaffney, South Carolina, where filming for the underwater action-epic was taking place inside the reactor-containment vessel of a nuclear power plant which had been abandoned midway through its construction. After meeting briefly there with Cameron himself, he returned to Maryland to purchase an expensive set of Macintosh IIs through which to clone Infocom’s latest development system. (With Infocom’s DEC system being decommissioned and sent to the scrapyard at the end of 1988, he now didn’t have any other choice but to adapt Challenge’s own technology to the changing times.) The beginning of the Abyss game he started on his new machines, a bare stub of a thing with no graphics and little gameplay, would later escape into the wild; it’s been passed around among fans for many years.

But events which I’ll document in my next article would ensure that the interactive Abyss would never become more than a stub and that the money spent on all that new equipment would be wasted. Bob Bates’s Infocom legacy would be limited to just two games, the first a very satisfying play, the second a little less so. Lest we be tempted to judge him too harshly for Arthur‘s various infelicities, we should note again that the three most prolific Imps of all — Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank — had all delivered designs that failed far more comprehensively in the months immediately preceding the release of Bates’s effort, Infocom as a whole’s last gasp, in June of 1989. By the time of its release, Arthur was already a lame duck; the Infocom we’ve come to know through the past four and a half years worth of articles on this blog was in the final stages of official dissolution. With its anticlimactic release having been more a product of institutional inertia than any real enthusiasm for the game on Mediagenic’s part, Arthur‘s sales barely registered.

So, it remains for us only to tell how the final curtain (shroud?) came to be drawn over the short, happy, inspiring, infuriating life of Infocom. And, perhaps more importantly, we should also take one final glance back, to ask ourselves what we know, what we’ve recently learned, and what will always remain in the realm of speculation when it comes to this most beloved, influential, and unique of 1980s game-makers. We’ll endeavor to do all that next time, when we’ll visit Infocom for the last time.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Plus the September 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989. And my huge thanks go out to Bob Bates, who granted me an extended interview about his work with Infocom.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 

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Journey

Journey

The parser is and has always been both the text adventure’s ace in the hole and its Achilles heel. Devotees will tell you, correctly in my opinion, that it offers possibilities for interaction — even, one might say, possibilities for interactive wonder — allowed by no other interface. Detractors will tell you, also correctly, that it’s too persnickety, too difficult to use, that in its opacity and inscrutability it violates every rule of modern interface design. Devotees will reply, yet again in my opinion correctly, that if you take away the parser you take away the magic. What can compare with typing some crazy command and seeing it work? What, the detractors reply, can frustrate more than figuring out what to do, not being able to get the parser to acknowledge your efforts, turning to a walkthrough, and finding out you were simply using the wrong verb or the wrong phrasing? And so we go, round and round and round. This waltz of point and counterpoint says as much about the text adventure’s decidedly limited mass appeal as it does about why some of us love the form so darn much.

For most of the text adventure’s lifespan people have been devising various ways to try to break the cycle, to capture at least some of the magic without any of the pain. Even Infocom, whose parser was legendary in its day, had a go in their final days at doing away with the gnarly, troublesome thing altogether, via a game called Journey.

The idea that became Journey can be dated to November 6, 1987, when a proposed “new project” emerged from an internal planning meeting. By that point, attitudes about Infocom’s future prospects had broken into two schools of thought. One view, still dominant inside Infocom’s own offices but viewed with increasing skepticism in the headquarters of their corporate masters Mediagenic,1 held that the fundamental model of interaction that Infocom’s games had always utilized, that of reading text and typing commands in response, was still commercially viable in the broad strokes. What was needed was to make that model a bit more visually appealing and accessible, by adding pictures and other audiovisual pizazz to break up their walls of text and by making the parser smarter and friendlier. The other view held that Infocom needed to throw out all their old approaches — among them their parser — and tackle their new role as Mediagenic’s designated “master storytellers” with an entirely blank slate. Conservatives versus radicals, denialists versus realists — call the camps what you will, the lines were drawn.

True to the dominant internal opinion, Infocom put the majority of their resources into one last kick at the can for their parser-based games, putting three new illustrated but still parser-driven text adventures into development. They hedged their bets just a little, however, by making sure the new version 6 Z-Machine they had in development to power those games could support purely mouse-based point-and-click interaction as well the traditional keyboard-driven approach. And then they started this “new project” of theirs to see what the possibilities for non-parser-based adventuring might really be.

The meeting notes read that said new project should be “true to [the] corporate philosophy”; that it should “embody the concept of ‘interactive storytelling'”; that it should “employ a simple, intuitive user interface unlike the one used in our traditional IF games”; and that, while initially “intended for use on existing home computers,” it should be “readily adaptable to other interactive media, such as CD-I, DVI, Nintendo, etc.” Finally, the plan called for “minimal (or optional) use of text.” This last would fall by the wayside in light of Infocom’s limited resources and complete lack of experience working in anything other than text; instead they would settle for lots of pictures to accompany the text. Otherwise, though, the game Marc Blank wrote in response to this plan would hew quite closely to it.

Ironically, it was Blank who had been the mastermind behind the magnificent parser, first implemented as part of the original Zork at MIT, that had been so key to Infocom’s ascendancy during the first half of the 1980s. Now he would be working on the interface that might just become its replacement if the conservative camp should prove mistaken in their faith in the old ways. But then, Blank wasn’t much of a sentimentalist. Assuming he thought of it at all, the idea of sounding the death knell of the traditional Infocom game didn’t bother him one bit. On the contrary, this new project was a perfect fit for Blank, exactly the sort of medium-advancing technical challenge he loved. He insists today that throughout his work with Infocom game design and story were always secondary in his mind to the technology that enabled them. Thus virtually every one of the games with which he was most intimately involved, whether as the officially recognized Implementor or the self-styled “wizard behind the curtain” enabling the creativity of another, pushed Infocom’s technology forward in one way or another. That would be more true than ever of Journey, which Blank created as he had Border Zone from the West Coast, working as an independent contractor rather than an Infocom employee. Blank:

Journey was an experiment to find out whether you could play an interactive story without having to type. It was all about whether you could still have people feel they had the ability to do a lot of different things, but not force them to guess words or use a keyboard. A lot of people just don’t like that; they aren’t good at it. It’s a turn-off. For me, the idea was to just experiment with another style of evolving the story — a different interface, just to see where it would go.

Even more so conceptually than technically, this new interface of his was going to be a tricky business. A bunch of hard-branching links in the form of a computerized Choose Your Own Adventure book was likely to appeal to no one. At the same time, though, to simply write a traditional text adventure in which the parser was a menu-based labyrinth of verbs and nouns would be both technically impractical — there wouldn’t be enough space on the screen for such a thing for one thing, and even the new version 6 Z-Machine didn’t support scrolling menus — and unplayable in its sheer complication. Blank would need to thread the needle, staking a middle ground between the extreme granularity of Zork and the huge irreversible plot swings that accompany almost every branch in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. To a rather remarkable degree really, he succeeded in doing just that.

Blank’s first brilliant stroke was to make Journey, if not quite a full-fledged CRPG, at least a CRPG-like experience. You the player identify most closely with a single character named Tag, who also serves as the author of the past-tense “chronicle” of the adventure that you’re helping him to create. You’re responsible for managing several of his companions in adventure as well, however, each with his own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. Most notably, the wizard Praxix can cast spells, each of which requires a certain combination of reagents which you’ll need to collect over the course of your Journey. Many problems can be solved in multiple ways, using different spells or combinations of spells, the special abilities of one character or another, and/or your own native cleverness. While the scope of possibility in Journey is undeniably limited in comparison to a traditional Infocom game, in practice it feels broader than you might expect.

Journey

To understand a little better how that might be, let’s have a closer look at the interface, as shown in the screenshot above. You’ll notice that the menu at the bottom of the screen is divided into five columns. The first contains possibilities that apply to the entire party — usually involving movement — along with access to the “Game” menu of utility commands. The second column, which isn’t actually clickable, lists each character in the party; the party can include up to five people, who can come and go according to choices and circumstances. The third, fourth, and fifth columns contain “verbs” applying only to the individual party member whose row they inhabit; these also come and go as circumstances change. Many verbs will lead to a further menu or menus of “nouns.” For example, asking Praxix the wizard to “cast” leads first to a direct-object list of available spells, and then on to an indirect-object list of possible spell targets, as shown in the screenshot below. Clicking on the name of Bergon to the far right on that screen would complete a command equivalent to typing “cast elevation on Bergon” in a traditional Infocom game. The whole system is elegant and well thought-through. Limited though it may be in contrast to a parser, it nevertheless presents a vastly larger possibility space than a Choose Your Own Adventure story, not least because it has a world model behind it that’s not all that far removed from the one found in any other Infocom game.

Journey

Journey is, as you’ve doubtless gathered by now, a high-fantasy story, a quality that, combined with the CRPG-like flavor, delighted a beleaguered marketing department still searching desperately for a counter to the huge popularity of the Ultima, Bard’s Tale, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series. Looking for a way to distinguish it from Infocom’s more traditional “graphical interactive fiction,” marketing dubbed it a “role-play chronicle” — not exactly a phrase that trips off the tongue. Blank:

I wanted to call it ‘role-playing fiction.’ They came back with role-play chronicle, and I said, “What does that mean?” They said, “Well, it’s like a chronicle,” and I said, “Yeah, it sort of is because it’s told in the past tense.” So they just sort of invented a phrase. It’s not my favorite, but it’s passable, and I don’t think Journey will stand or fall on what category you put it in. There are a lot of games that are called this type or that, but what really matters is what people think of them.

Awkward though marketing’s name may have been, there is indeed some truth behind it. One of the more interesting aspects of the game is its commitment to the idea of being a chronicle — or, if you like, a novel — that you, through Tag, are creating as you play. If you choose to make a transcript of your adventure, you can opt to have it not include your explicit command choices if you like, just the text that appears in response. The end result can read surprisingly well — a little disjointed at times, yes, but far better than would, say, Zork in this format.

There is, granted, no denying the story’s derivative nature; this is a game that absolutely oozes Tolkien, a fact that Infocom’s marketing department, far from concealing or denying, trumpeted. Journey, runs the game’s official announcement in Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, is “a classic narrative in the exciting tradition of Tolkien” that “plunges you into an uncharted world of dwarves, elves, nymphs, and wizards.” True to its inspiration, Tag, ultimately the hero of the story, is seemingly the meekest and weakest of a group of disparate companions who form a fellowship and set out on a lonely quest to save their land from an encroaching evil that threatens their civilization’s very existence. Sound familiar? Name a proper noun in The Fellowship of the Ring, and chances are it has an analogue in Journey.

Journey

For instance, in place of Tolkien’s magic rings Journey has magic stones as the key to defeating the Dread Lord, its version of Sauron. In this extract, Gandalf… I mean, the great wizard Astrix tells the party of the true nature of their quest.

"I have been following your progress with great interest," the Wizard said, stroking his stringy gray beard. "You are a very resourceful group, that is certain!"

His voice then became dark. "The question is: Have you mettle enough to make siege on the Dread Lord himself?" And then, smiling, the darkness fell from his voice, and he answered his own question, "We shall see, I suppose; we shall see."

Leading us to his hearth, he sat us in a semi-circle around the blazing fire and spoke. "There is a story I must tell, a story of Seven Stones. Created in a time lost to living memory, these Stones contained the very strength and essence of our world. Of the Seven, Four were entrusted to the races of men who could use them best: Elves, Dwarves, Nymphs, and Wizards.

"These are the Four: the Elf Stone, green as the forests of old, and the Dwarf Stone, brown as the caverns of Forn a-klamen; the Nymph Stone, blue as the deep waters of M'nera, and the Wizard Stone, red as the dark fire of Serdi.

"The four races are now sundered, and the Four have long been kept apart, but now, with the Dread Lord rearing his misshapen head in our lands, we must bring them together again. For with them, we can hope to find the Two, and then, finally, the One with whose help we can destroy all Evil.

"For it is told that having the Four, it is possible to find the Two; so, also, do the Two give witness to their master, the One that in elder days was called the Anvil!"

Yet somehow Journey is far less cringe-worthy than it ought to be. For a designer who stubbornly, almost passive-aggressively insists today that the technology “was more important than the story” to him, Blank delivered some pretty fine writing at times for Infocom. Journey is full of sturdy, unpretentious prose evoking a world that, overwhelmingly derivative though it is, really does manage to feel epic and interesting in a way too few other gaming fictions have matched in my experience. I was always interested to explore the world’s various corners, always happy and genuinely curious when the opportunity arose for Tag to learn a little more about it from one of the other characters. Coming from me, someone who generally finds the real world much more interesting than fantastical ones, that’s high praise.

Indeed, when I first began to play Journey I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the whole experience. Not expecting to think much of this oddball effort released in Infocom’s dying days, I’d put off playing it for a long, long time; Journey was the very last of the 35 canonical Infocom games that I actually played. Yet when I finally did so I found it a unique and very pleasant experience. It felt very much like what I presumed it to be attempting to be: a more easygoing, relaxed take on the adventure game, where I could feel free to just take in the scenery and enjoy the story instead of stressing too much over puzzles or worrying overmuch about logistics. The game’s own rhetoric, obviously trying to wean players of conventional interactive fiction into this new way of doing things, encourages just such a relaxed approach. “Try to play as much as possible without overusing Save,” says the manual. “There are no ‘dead ends’ in Journey; feel free to experiment and take chances. Every action you take will cause the story to move forward.” This idea of a text adventure with no dead ends encourages comparisons with the contemporary works of Lucasfilm Games in the graphic-adventure realm, who were working toward the same goal in response to the notoriously player-hostile designs of Sierra. Marc Blank’s contemporary interview comments make the comparison feel even more apt:

We’ve learned a lot about interactive storytelling, but it’s been sort of clunky and not directed. I thought it would be interesting to design a story in which you really couldn’t get stuck. The choices you have to make are more tied into the story than into the minutia of manipulating objects. That really led to the whole style of telling the story and the interface. All that came out of the desire to try something like that.

So, yes, Journey and I had a great relationship for quite a while. And then it all went off the rails.

The first sneaking suspicion that something is rotten at the core of Journey may come when it hits you with some puzzles mid-way in that suddenly demand you type in phrases at a command line. Not only a betrayal of the “no-typing” premise that Infocom had hoped would make Journey amenable to game consoles and standalone CD-ROM players, these puzzles aren’t even particularly worthy in their own right, requiring intuitive leaps that feel borderline unfair, especially in contrast to the consummate ease with which the rest of the game is played. But, alas, they’re far from the worst of Journey‘s sins.

For there inevitably comes a point when you realize that everything Infocom has been saying about their game and everything the game has been implying about itself is a lie. Far from being the more easy-going sort of text adventure that it’s purported to be, Journey is a minefield of the very dead ends it decries, a cruel betrayal of everything it supposedly stands for. It turns out that there is exactly one correct path through the dozens of significant choices you make in playing the game to completion. Make one wrong choice and it’s all over. Worse — far worse — more often than not you are given no clue about the irrecoverable blunder you’ve just made. You might play on for hours before being brought up short.

The worst offenders to all notions of fairness and fun cluster around the magic system and its reagents. Remember those puzzles I mentioned that can be solved in multiple ways? Well, that’s true enough in the short term, but in the long term failing to solve each one in the arbitrary right way — i.e., solving it by using a spell instead of your wits, or simply by using the wrong spell — leaves you high and dry later on, without the necessary reagents you need to get further. Playing Journey becomes an exercise in stepping again and again through the story you already know, clicking your way hurriedly through the same text you’ve already read ten times or more, making slight adjustments each time through so as to get past whatever dead end stymied you last time. This process is exactly as much fun as it sounds. In contrast to this exercise in aggravation, Shogun‘s summary halting with a “this scene is no longer winnable” message when you fail to do what the novel’s version of Blackthorne did suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.

How incredible to think that Journey and Shogun stemmed from Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, designers of the original Zork and Infocom’s two most veteran Implementors of all. These two of all people ought to have known better. Both games’ failings feel part and parcel of the general malaise infecting everything Infocom did or tried to do after 1987. Absolutely nothing that anyone did seemed to come out right anymore.

Like those of Shogun, Journey's 100-plus pictures are the work of artist Donald Langosy.

Like those of Shogun, Journey‘s 100-plus pictures are the work of artist Donald Langosy.

As bizarre as it is to see such frankly awful game design from a company like Infocom and an Implementor like Marc Blank, the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of Journey is still stranger. “Unlike other games you may have played, there are virtually no dead ends,” the manual promises. “Any action you take will advance the story toward one of its many endings.” I suppose there’s a germ of truthfulness here if you count a dead end only as being stranded in a walking-dead situation; the nature of Journey‘s interface means that you will always get a clear message that the jig is up once you’ve run out of options to move forward, sometimes even accompanied by a helpful hint about where you might have messed up way back when. Still, the assertion seems disingenuous at best. When people talk about multiple endings and multiple paths through an interactive story, this isn’t quite what they mean. Ditto Blank’s contemporary claim that there are “dozens” of “alternative endings,” and “very few places where you get killed.” Really, what’s the practical difference between a losing ending that involves death and one that leaves Tag and his friends defeated in their quest? The Dread Lord wins either way.

Today, none of the people left at Infocom during this final unpleasant period of the company’s existence are particularly eager to talk about those painful end times or the final batch of underwhelming games they produced. Thus I’ve never seen anyone even begin to address the fraught question of just what the hell they were thinking in trying to sell this sow’s ear of a game as a silk purse. Part of the disconnect may have stemmed from the physical distance between Marc Blank and the people at Infocom who wrote the manual and did the marketing; this distance prevented Blank from being as intimately involved in every aspect of his game’s presentation as had long been the norm for the in-house team of Imps. And part of the problem may be that the rhetoric around the game was never modified after the original vision for Journey became the cut-down reality necessitated by time pressure and the space limitations of even the latest version 6 Z-Machine. (While Journey‘s text feels quite expansive in comparison to the typical parser-based Infocom game, Blank was still limited to around 70,000 words in total; the perception of loquacity is doubtless aided by the fact that, Journey‘s scope of player possibility being so much more limited, a much larger percentage of that text can be deployed in service of the main channel of the narrative rather than tributaries that many or most players will never see.) Regardless of the reasons, Journey stands as the most blatant and shameless instance of false advertising in Infocom’s history. It’s really, really hard to square marketing’s claim of “no dead ends” with a game that not only includes dead ends but will end up being defined by them in any player’s memory. Infocom was usually better than this — but then, that’s a statement one finds oneself making too often when looking at their final, troubled run of games.

True to the Tolkien model to the last, Infocom planned to make Journey the first of a trilogy of games, the latter entries of which would likely have been written by other authors. Blank proposed starting on an untitled sort of narrative war game as his own next project, “a variant of traditional FRP [fantasy-role-playing] games in which the predominant activity is combat on the battlefield level, as opposed to the hand-to-hand level.” It would use the menu-driven Journey interface to “make a complex game simple to use and learn” and to “provide a narrative force to the unfolding of the war.” But events that followed shortly after the concurrent release and complete commercial failure of Journey and Shogun in March of 1989 put the kibosh on any further use of Journey‘s interface in any context.

And that’s a shame because its interface had huge potential to bridge the gap between the micromanagement entailed by a parser and the sweeping, unsatisfyingly arbitrary plot-branching of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s only in the past decade or so that modern authors have returned to the middle ground first explored by Blank in Journey, constructing choice-based works that include a substantial degree of world modeling behind their text and a more sophisticated approach to interaction than a tangle of irrevocable hard branches. In the years since they began to do so, the quantity of choice-based works submitted to the annual Interactive Fiction Competition has come to rival or exceed those of more traditional parser-based games, and commercial developers like Inkle Studios have enjoyed some financial success with the model. While they provide a very different experience than a parser-based game, my own early engagement with Journey demonstrates how compelling games of this stripe can be on their own terms. And they’re certainly much more viable than traditional text adventures as popular propositions, being so much more accessible to the parser-loathing majority of players.

Unsatisfactory though it is as a game, Journey marks Infocom’s final mad flash of innovation — a flash of innovation so forward-thinking that it would take other developers working in the field of interactive narrative a good fifteen years to catch up to it. Perhaps, then, it’s not such a terrible final legacy after all for Marc Blank in his role as Infocom’s innovator-in-chief — a role he continued to play, as Journey so amply proves, right to the end.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Plus the May 1989 issue of Questbusters, and the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 

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Manhole, Anyone?

As part of my research for an upcoming article, I would really like to beg, borrow, or buy a copy of the 1989 CD-ROM version of The Manhole for the black-and-white Macintosh. Note that this means neither the 1988 floppy-disk release nor the 1994 Masterpiece edition or any other re-release. If you happen to have a line on this rarity, I’d hugely appreciate it if you could contact me and let me know. I’d be equally happy with a digital or physical copy, and am willing to pay for the latter.

Thanks a million, and see you in a few days with my next proper article!

Update: Reader Casey Muratori knows the folks at Cyan, and put me in touch with them. They’re going to send me a copy, so problem solved. My huge thanks go to Cyan and to Casey, who has just provided yet more proof that I have the best readers in the world.

 

Shogun

Shogun

One of the generation of male writers forged in the crucible of World War II, James Clavell had a much harder war of it than such peers as Norman Mailer, James Jones, Herman Wouk, Gore Vidal, J.D. Salinger, and James Michener. As a young man of barely twenty years, he found himself facing the Japanese onslaught on the Malay Peninsula at the onset of hostilities in the Pacific Theater. Following the most humiliating British defeat of the entire war, he spent the next three and a half years in prisoner-of-war camps, watching as more than nine out of every ten of his fellow soldiers succumbed to malnutrition, disease, and random acts of violence. Somehow he survived it all and made it home.

In 1953, he emigrated from his native England to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a film director, despite knowing only as much about how movies were made as his actress wife had deigned to tell him. He never actually became a director, but he did gradually establish himself by dint of pluck and sheer stubbornness as a screenwriter. Clavell claimed he learned how to write stories with mass appeal in Hollywood, developing a style that would preclude more than the merest flirtations with the sort of literary respectability enjoyed by the list of names that opened this article. To hear him tell it, that was just fine with him: “The first time you write a novel you go into ecstasy with the purple prose — how the clouds look, what the sunset is like. All bullshit. What happens? Who does what to whom? That’s all you need.”

If one James Clavell novel was going to please serious students of the literary arts, it would have to be his first, a very personal book in comparison to the epic doorstops for which he would later become known. Holding true to the old adage that everyone’s first novel is autobiographical, King Rat was a novelized account of Clavell’s grim experience as a prisoner-of-war. Published in 1962, its success, combined with his difficulty finding sufficient screenwriting gigs, led him to gradually shift his focus from screenplays to novels. The next book he published, Tai-Pan (1966), was a much longer, more impersonal, wider-angle historical novel of the early years of Hong Kong. Four similar doorstops would follow at widely spaced intervals over the next thirty years or so, all chronicling the experiences of Westerners in the Asia of various historical epochs.

James Clavell’s fiction was in many ways no more thoughtful than the majority of the books clogging up the airport bestseller racks then and now. His were novels of adventure, excitement, and titillation, not introspection. Yet there is one aspect of his work that still stands out as surprising, even a little noble. Despite the three and a half years of torture and privation he had endured at the hands of his Japanese captors, he was genuinely fascinated by Asian and especially Japanese culture and history; one might even say he came to love it. And nowhere was that love more evident than in Clavell’s third novel, his most popular of all and the one that most of his fans agree stands as his best: 1975’s Shogun.

The star of Shogun is a typical Clavell hero, a Capable Man whose inner life doesn’t seem to run much deeper than loving queen and country and hating Papists. John Blackthorne is the English pilot — i.e., navigator — of the Erasmus, the first Dutch vessel to discover Japan, circa 1600. Unfortunately, the Spanish and Portuguese are already there when the Erasmus arrives, a situation from which will spring much of the drama of this very lengthy tale of 1100-plus pages. Blackthorne becomes Clavell’s reader surrogate, our window into the strangeness, wonder, mystery, and beauty of feudal Japan.

While Blackthorne’s adventures in Japan are (very) roughly based on those of an actual English adventurer named William Adams, Clavell plays up the violence and the sex for all its worth. Many a youthful reader went to bed at night dreaming fever dreams of inscrutable and lovely geishas and the boxes of toys they kept to hand: “The beads are carefully placed in the back passage and then, at the moment of the Clouds and the Rain, the beads are pulled out slowly, one by one.” (Did finding that sort of thing enticing mean you were — my God! — gay?) Read by adults, such passages… er, extracts are still riotously entertaining in the way that only truly committed Bad Writing can be. My wife Dorte and I used Shogun as our bedtime reading recently. While it didn’t do much to encourage conjugal sexy times, it certainly did make us laugh; Dorte still thinks “pillowing,” Shogun‘s favorite Japanese euphemism for sex, is unaccountably hilarious, and is forever going on about pillowing this and pillowing that. (She also loves the notion of a “poop deck,” but I suppose I can’t blame Clavell for that.)

Unsubtle prose and dodgy euphemisms aside, the first 25 to 30 percent of Shogun is by far the most compelling. Long enough to form a novel of reasonable length in their own right, the early chapters detail the arrival of Blackthorne and his Dutch cohorts in Japan, upon whose shores they literally wash up, starving and demoralized after their long voyage across the Pacific. I’ve occasionally heard the beginning of Shogun described as one of the finest stories of first contact between two alien cultures ever written, worthy of careful study by any science-fiction author who proposes to tell of a meeting between even more far-flung cultures than those of Europe and Japan. To that suggestion I can only heartily concur. As Blackthorne and his cohorts pass from honored guests to condemned prisoners and back again, struggling all the while to figure out what these people want from them, what they want from each other, and how to communicate at all, the story is compulsively readable, the tension at times nearly unbearable. (One suspects that some of the most horrific scenes, like the ones after Blackthorne and the crew are cast into a tiny hole and left to languish there in sweltering heat and their own bodily filth, once again draw from Clavell’s own prisoner-of-war experiences.) While I admit to being far from intimately familiar with the whole of the James Clavell oeuvre, I’d be very surprised if he ever wrote anything better than this.

After Blackthorne, stalwart Capable Man that he is, manages to negotiate a reprieve for the crew and a place for himself as a trusted advisor to a powerful daimyo named Toranaga, the book takes on a different, to my mind less satisfying character. It ceases to focus so much on Blackthorne’s personal plight as a stranger in a strange land in favor of a struggle for control of the entire country, once again based loosely on actual history, that looms between Toranaga, very broadly speaking the good guy (or at least the one with whom our hero Blackthorne allies himself), and another daimyo named Ishido. At the same time, the Portuguese Jesuits are trying to stake out a place in the middle that will preserve their influence regardless of who wins, whilst also working righteously to find some way to do away with Blackthorne and the Dutch sailors, who if allowed to return to Europe with information on exactly where Japan lies represent an existential threat to everything they’ve built there. Plot piles on counter-plot on conspiracy on counter-conspiracy, interspersed with regular action-movie set-pieces, as all of the various factions maneuver toward the inevitable civil war that will decide the fate of all Japan for decades or centuries to come.

In the meantime, Blackthorne, apparently deciding his life isn’t already dangerous enough, is carrying on an illicit romance with the beautiful Mariko, wife of one of Toranaga’s most highly placed samurai. Their relationship was much discussed in Shogun‘s first bloom of popularity as being the key to the book’s considerable attraction for female readers; very unusually for such a two-fisted tale of war, adventure, and history, Shogun supposedly enjoyed more female readers than male. True to Clavell’s roots, however, Blackthorne and Mariko’s is a depressingly conventional Hollywood romance. We’re expected to believe that these two characters are wildly, passionately in love with one another simply because Clavell tells us they are, according to the Hollywood logic that two attractive people of the opposite sex thrown into proximity with one another must automatically fall in love — and of course lots of sex must follow.

The plot continues to grow ever more byzantine as the remaining page-count continues to dwindle, and one goes from wondering how Clavell is possibly going to wrap all this up to checking Amazon to be sure there isn’t a direct sequel. And then it all just… stops, leaving more loose threads dangling than my most raggedy tee-shirt. I’ve read many books with unsatisfying endings, but I’ve never read an ending quite as half-assed as this one. It’s all finally come down to the war that’s been looming throughout the previous 1100-plus pages. We’re all ready for the bloody climax. Instead Clavell gives us a three-page summary of what might have happened next if he’d actually bothered to write it. It’s for all the world like Clavell, who admitted that he wrote his novels with no plan whatsoever, simply got tired of this one, decided 1100 pages was more than enough and just stopped in medias res. Shogun manages the feat, perhaps unique in the annals of anticlimax, of feeling massively bloated and half-finished at the same time. This is a Lord of the Rings that ends just as Frodo and Sam arrive in Mordor; a Tale of Two Cities that ends just as Carton is about to make his final sacrifice. I’ve never felt so duped by a book as this one.

But I must admit that I seem to be the exception here. Whether because of the masterfully taut beginning of the story, the torrid love affair, or the lurid portrayal of Japanese culture that pokes always through the tangled edifice of plot, few readers then or now seem to share my reservations. Shogun became an instant bestseller. In 1980, a television miniseries of the book was aired in five parts, filling more than nine hours sans commercials. It became the most-watched show ever aired on NBC and the second most popular in the history of American television, its numbers exceeded only by those of Roots, another miniseries event which had aired on ABC in 1977. When many people think of Blackthorne today, they still picture Richard Chamberlain, the dashing actor who played him on television. Together the book and the miniseries ignited a craze for Japanese culture in the West that, however distorted or exaggerated Shogun‘s portrayal of same may have been, did serve as a useful counterbalance to lingering resentments over World War II and, increasingly, fears that Japan’s exploding technological and industrial base was about to usurp the United States’s place at the head of the world’s economy.

At this point, at last, Shogun‘s huge popularity on page and screen brings us in our roundabout way to Infocom — or, more accurately, to their corporate masters Mediagenic.1 (If the preface to the real point of this article seemed crazily extended, I can only plead that, with Shogun the game having little identity of its own apart from the novel on which it’s based, it’s hard to discuss it through any other framework.)

Shogun the game at least looks pretty good.

Shogun the game at least looks pretty good.

Mediagenic’s absolute mania for licensed games following the accession of Bruce Davis to the CEO’s chair has been well-established in other articles by now. Infocom was able to find some excuse to head off most of the ideas in that vein that Mediagenic proposed, but Shogun was an exception. When Mediagenic came to Infocom with a signed deal already in place in late 1987 to base a game on this literary property — from Bruce Davis’s perspective, the idea was right in Infocom’s wheelhouse — their problem child of a subsidiary just wasn’t in any position to say no. Dave Lebling, having recently finished The Lurking Horror and being without an active project, drew the short straw.

Shogun the game was a misbegotten, unloved project from the start, a project for which absolutely no one in the Infocom, Mediagenic, or Clavell camps had the slightest creative passion. The deal had been done entirely by Clavell’s agent; the author seemed barely aware of the project’s existence, and seemed to care about it still less. It was a weird choice even in the terms of dollars and cents upon which Bruce Davis was always so fixated. Yes, Shogun had been massively popular on page and screen years earlier, and still generated strong catalog sales every year. It was hard to imagine, however, that there was a huge crowd of computer gamers dying to relive the adventures of John Blackthorne interactively. Why this of all licenses? Why now?

Shogun

Dave Lebling was duly dispatched to visit Clavell for a few days at his chalet in the Swiss Alps to discuss ideas for the adaptation; he got barely more than a few words of greeting out of the man. His written requests for guidance were answered with the blunt reply that Clavell had written the book more than a decade ago and didn’t remember that much about it; the subtext was that he couldn’t be bothered with any of it, that to him Lebling’s game represented just another check arranged by his agent. Lebling was left entirely on his own to adapt another author’s work, with no idea of where the boundaries to his own creative empowerment might lie. In the past, Infocom had always taken care to avoid just this sort of collaboration-in-name-only. Now they’d had it imposed upon them.

Lebling chose to structure his version of Shogun as a series of Reader’s Digest “scenes from” the novel, cutting and pasting unwieldy chunks of Clavell’s prose into the game and demanding that the player respond by doing exactly what Blackthorne did in the novel in order to advance to the next canned scene. The player who has read the novel will find little interest or challenge in pantomiming her way through a re-creation of same, while the player who hasn’t will have no idea whatsoever what’s expected of her at any given juncture. It’s peculiar to see such a threadbare design from a company as serious about the craft of interactive fiction as Infocom had always been. Everyone there, not least Lebling himself, understood all too well the problems inherent in this approach to adaptation; these very same problems were the main reason Infocom had so steadfastly avoided literary licenses that didn’t come with their authors attached in earlier years. One can only presume that Lebling, unsure of how far his creative license extended and bored to death with the whole project anyway, either couldn’t come up with anything better or just couldn’t be bothered to try.

Shogun includes one graphical puzzle reminescent of those in Zork Zero, a maze representing the tangled allies of Osaka.

Shogun includes one graphical puzzle reminiscent of those in Zork Zero, a maze representing the tangled alleys of Osaka.

Consider the game’s handling of an early scene from the novel: the first time Blackthorne meets Yabu and Omi, respectively the daimyo and his samurai henchman who have dominion over Anjiro, the small fishing village where the Erasmus has washed up. Also present as translator is a Portuguese priest, Blackthorne’s sworn enemy, who would like nothing better than to see him condemned and executed on the spot. In the book, Blackthorne’s observations of the priest’s interactions with the two samurai convince him that there is no love lost between him and them, that Yabu and Omi hate and mistrust the priest almost as much as Blackthorne does. Blackthorne wants to communicate that he shares their sentiment, but of course all of his words are being translated into Japanese by the priest himself — obviously a highly unreliable means of communication in this situation. Desperate to show his captors that he’s different from this other foreigner, he lunges at the priest, grabs his crucifix, and breaks it in two, a deadly sin for a Catholic but a good day’s work for a Protestant like him. Yabu and especially Omi are left curious and more than a little impressed; Blackthorne’s action quite possibly staves off his imminent execution.

In the book, this all hangs together well enough, based on what we know and what we soon learn of the personalities, histories, and cultures involved. But for the game to expect the player to come up with such a seemingly random action as lunging for the crucifix and breaking it is asking an awful lot of anyone unfamiliar with the novel. It’s not impossible to imagine the uninitiated player eventually coming up with it on her own, especially as Lebling is good enough to drop some subtle hints about the crucifix “on its long chain waving mockingly before your face,” but she’ll likely do so only by dying and restoring many times.

Shogun is the only Infocom game outside of Leather Goddesses of Phobos in which you have to "make love to" someone -- or use another euphemism -- in order to score points.

Shogun is the only Infocom game outside of Leather Goddesses of Phobos in which you have to “make love to” someone — or type another euphemism, if you like — in order to score points. (Unfortunately, you can’t use “pillow” as a verb. This Dorte finds deeply disappointing.) It’s also, needless to say, the only one with nudity. Too bad Blackthorne is covering up his legendary manly member, whose size is a constant point of discussion in the book.

And this is far from the worst of Lebling’s “read James Clavell’s mind” moments. In their announcement of the game in their newsletter, Infocom noted that “the key to success in the interactive Shogun is the ability to act as the British pilot-major Blackthorne would.” For the player who hasn’t read the book and thus doesn’t know Blackthorne, this is quite a confusing proposition. For the player who has, the game falls into a rote pattern. Remember (or look up) what Blackthorne did in the book, figure out how and when to phrase it to the parser, and you get some points and get to live a little longer. Do anything else, and you die or get a message saying “this scene is no longer winnable” and get to try again. In between, you do a lot of waiting and examining, and lots of reading of textual cut scenes — called “interludes” by the game — that grow steadily lengthier as the story progresses and Blackthorne’s part in it becomes more and more ancillary.

In a telling indication of how the times had changed for Infocom, by far the most impressive aspect of Shogun is its visual presentation. Promoted, like the earlier Zork Zero, as “graphical interactive fiction,” it and the simultaneously released Journey are the first Infocom games to unabashedly indulge in pictures for their own sake, abandoning Steve Mereztky’s insistence that his game’s graphics always serve a practical gameplay function. Shogun‘s pictures, drawn in the style of classical Japanese woodcuts by Donald Langosy, are lovely to look at and perfectly suit the atmosphere of the novel. The game’s one truly innovative aspect is the same pictures’ presentation onscreen. Rather than being displayed in a static window, they’re scattered around and within the scrolling text in various positions, giving the game the look of an unfurling illustrated scroll. Infocom had had their share of trouble figuring out the graphics thing, but Shogun demonstrates that, clever bunch that they were, they were learning quickly. Already Infocom’s visual palette was far more sophisticated than that of competitors like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9 who had been doing text adventures with pictures for years. Pity they wouldn’t have much more time to experiment.

"The socks stay on, Mariko!"

“The socks stay on, Mariko!”2

But of course, as Infocom’s vintage advertisements loved to tell us, visuals alone do not a great game make. Shogun stands today as the most unloved and unlovable of all Infocom’s games, a soulless exercise in pure commerce that didn’t make a whole lot of sense even on that basis. Released in March of 1989, its sales were, like those of all of this final run of graphical games, minuscule. In my opinion and, I would venture, that of a substantial number of others, it represents the absolute nadir of Infocom’s 35-game catalog. It is, needless to say, the merest footnote to the bestselling catalog of James Clavell, who died in 1994. And, indeed, it’s little more worthy of discussion in the context of Infocom’s history; the words I’ve devoted to it already are far more than it deserves. I have two more Infocom games to discuss in future articles, each with problems of their own, but we can take consolation in one thing: it will never, ever get as bad as this again. This, my friends, is what the bottom of the barrel looks like.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. And the very last issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter, from Spring 1989.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

  2. Al and Peg 

 

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Peter Molyneux’s Kingdom in a Box

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990.

I have this idea of a living world, which I have never achieved. It’s based upon this picture in my head, and I can see what it’s like to play that game. Every time I do it, then it maybe gets closer to that ideal. But it’s an ambitious thing.

— Peter Molyneux

One day as a young boy, Peter Molyneux stumbled upon an ant hill. He promptly did what young boys do in such situations: he poked it with a stick, watching the inhabitants scramble around as destruction rained down from above. But then, Molyneux did something that set him apart from most young boys. Feeling curious and maybe a little guilty, he gave the ants some sugar for energy and watched quietly as they methodically undid the damage to their home. Just like that, he woke up to the the idea of little living worlds with lots of little living inhabitants — and to the idea of he himself, the outsider, being able to affect the lives of those inhabitants. The blueprint had been laid for one of the most prominent and influential careers in the history of game design. “I have always found this an interesting mechanic, the idea that you influence the game as opposed to controlling the game,” he would say years later. “Also, the idea that the game can continue without you.” When Molyneux finally grew bored and walked away from the ant hill on that summer day in his childhood, it presumably did just that, the acts of God that had nearly destroyed it quickly forgotten. Earth — and ants — abide.

Peter Molyneux was born in the Surrey town of Guildford (also hometown of, read into it what you will, Ford Prefect) in 1959, the son of an oil-company executive and a toy-shop proprietor. To hear him tell it, he was qualified for a career in computer programming largely by virtue of being so hopeless at everything else. Being dyslexic, he found reading and writing extremely difficult, a handicap that played havoc with his marks at Bearwood College, the boarding school in the English county of Berkshire to which his family sent him for most of his teenage years. Meanwhile his less than imposing physique boded ill for a career in the military or manual labor. Thankfully, near the end of his time at Bearwood the mathematics department acquired a Commodore PET,  while the student union almost simultaneously installed a Space Invaders machine. Seeing a correspondence between these two pieces of technology that eluded his fellow students, Molyneux set about trying to program his own Space Invaders on the PET, using crude character glyphs to represent the graphics that the PET, being a text-only machine, couldn’t actually draw. No matter. A programmer had been born.

These events, followed shortly by Molyneux’s departure from Bearwood to face the daunting prospect of the adult world, were happening at the tail end of the 1970s. Like so many of the people I’ve profiled on this blog, Molyneux was thus fortunate enough to be born not only into a place and circumstances that would permit a career in games, but at seemingly the perfect instant to get in on the ground floor as well. But, surprisingly for a fellow who would come to wear his huge passion for the medium on his sleeve — often almost as much to the detriment as to the benefit of his games and his professional life — Molyneux took a meandering path filling fully another decade to rise to prominence in the field. Or, to put it less kindly: he failed, repeatedly and comprehensively, at every venture he tried for most of the 1980s before he finally found the one that clicked.

Perhaps inspired by his mother’s toy shop, his original dream was to be not so much a game designer as a computer entrepreneur. After earning a degree in computer science from Southampton University, he found himself a job working days as a systems analyst for a big company. By night, he formed a very small company called Vulcan in his hometown of Guildford to implement a novel scheme for selling blank disks. He wrote several simple programs: a music creator, some mathematics drills, a business simulator, a spelling quiz. (The last, having been created by a dyslexic and terrible speller in general, was a bit of a disaster.) For every ten disks you bought for £10, you would get one of the programs for free along with your blank disks. After placing his tiny advertisement in a single magazine, Molyneux was so confident of the results that he told his local post office to prepare for a deluge of mail, and bought a bigger mailbox for his house to hold it all. He got five orders in the first ten days, less than fifty in the scheme’s total lifespan — along with about fifty more inquiries from people who had no interest in the blank disks but just wanted to buy his software.

Taking their interest to heart, Molyneux embarked on Scheme #2. He improved the music creator and the business simulator and tried to sell them as products in their own right. Even years later he would remain proud of the latter in particular — his first original game, which he named Entrepreneur: “I really put loads of features into it. You ran a business and you could produce anything you liked. You had to do things like keep the manufacturing line going, set the price for your product, decide what advertising you wanted, and these random events would happen.” With contests all the rage in British games at the time, he offered £100 to the first person to make £1 million in Entrepreneur. The prize went unclaimed; the game sold exactly two copies despite being released near the zenith of the early-1980s British mania for home computers. “Everybody around me was making an absolute fortune,” Molyneux remembers. “You had to be a complete imbecile in those days not to make a fortune. Yet here I was with Entrepreneur and Composer, making nothing.” He wasn’t, it appeared, very good at playing his own game of entrepreneurship; his own £1 million remained far out of reach. Nevertheless, he moved on to the next scheme.

Scheme #3 was to crack the business and personal-productivity markets via a new venture called Taurus, initiated by Molyneux and his friend Les Edgar, who were later joined by one Kevin Donkin. Molyneux having studied accounting at one time in preparation for a possible career in the field (“the figures would look so messy that no one would ever employ me”), it was decided that Taurus would initially specialize in financial software with exciting names like Taurus Accounts, Taurus Invoicing, and Taurus Stock Control. Those products, like all the others Molyneux had created, went nowhere. But now came a bizarre story of mistaken identity that… well, it wouldn’t make Molyneux a prominent game designer just yet, but it would move him further down the road to that destination.

Commodore was about to launch the Amiga in Britain, and, this being early on when they still saw it as potential competition for the IBMs of the world, was looking to convince makers of productivity software to write for the machine.  They called up insignificant little Taurus of all people to request a meeting to discuss porting the “new software” the latter had in the works to the Amiga. Molyneux and Edgar assumed Commodore must have somehow gotten wind of a database program they were working on. In a state of no small excitement, they showed up at Commodore UK’s headquarters on the big day and met a representative. Molyneux:

He kept talking about “the product,” and I thought they were talking about the database. At the end of the meeting, they say, “We’re really looking forward to getting your network running on the Amiga.” And it suddenly dawned on me that this guy didn’t know who we were. Now, we were called Taurus, as in the star sign. He thought we were Torus, a company that produced networking systems. I suddenly had this crisis of conscience. I thought, “If this guy finds out, there go my free computers down the drain.” So I just shook his hand and ran out of that office.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus's database manager gives no hint of what lies in the company's futures.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus’s database manager gives no hint of what actually lies in the company’s future…

By the time Commodore figured out they had made a terrible mistake, Taurus had already been signed as official Amiga developers and given five free Amigas. They parlayed those things into a two-year career as makers of somewhat higher-profile but still less than financially successful productivity software for the Amiga. After the database, which they named Acquisition and declared “the most complete database system conceived on any microcomputer” — Peter Molyneux’s habit of over-promising, which gamers would come to know all too well, was already in evidence — they started on a computer-aided-design package called X-CAD Designer. Selling in the United States for the optimistic prices of $300 and $500 respectively, both programs got lukewarm reviews; they were judged powerful but kind of incomprehensible to actually use. But even had the reviews been better, high-priced productivity software was always going to be a hard sell on the Amiga. There were just three places to really make money in Amiga software: in personal-creativity software like paint programs, in video-production tools, and, most of all, in games. In spite of all of Commodore’s earnest efforts to the contrary, the Amiga had by now become known first and foremost as the world’s greatest gaming computer.

The inspiration for the name of Bullfrog Software.

The inspiration for Bullfrog Software.

Molyneux and his colleagues therefore began to wind down their efforts in productivity software in favor of a new identity. They renamed their company Bullfrog after a ceramic figurine they had lying around in the “squalor” of what Molyneux describes as their “absolutely shite” office in a Guildford pensioner’s attic. Under the new name, they planned to specialize in games — Scheme #4 for Peter Molyneux. “We had a simple choice of hitting our head against a brick wall with business software,” he remembers, “or doing what I really wanted to do with my life anyway, which was write games.” Having made the choice to make Bullfrog a game developer, their first actual product was not a game but a simple drum sequencer for the Amiga called A-Drum. Hobgoblins and little minds and all the rest. When A-Drum duly flopped, they finally got around to games.

A friend of Molyneux’s had written a budget-priced action-adventure for the Commodore 64 called Druid II: Enlightenment, and was looking for someone to do an Amiga conversion. Bullfrog jumped at the chance, even though Molyneux, who would always persist in describing himself as a “rubbish” programmer, had very little idea how to program an action game. When asked by Enlightenment‘s publisher Firebird whether he could do the game in one frame — i.e., whether he could update everything onscreen within a single pass of the electron gun painting the screen to maintain the impression of smooth, fluid movement — an overeager Molyneux replied, “Are you kidding me? I can do it in ten frames!” It wasn’t quite the answer Firebird was looking for. But in spite of it all, Bullfrog somehow got the job, producing what Molyneux describes as a “technically rather poor” port of what had been a rather middling game in the first place. (Molyneux’s technique for getting everything drawn in one frame was to simply keep shrinking the size of the display until even his inefficient routines could do the job.) And then, as usual for everything Molyneux touched, it flopped. But Bullfrog did get two important things out of the project: they learned much about game programming, and they recruited as artist for the project one Glenn Corpes, who was not only a talented pixel pusher but also a talented programmer and fount of ideas almost the equal of Molyneux.

Despite the promising addition of Corpes, the first original game conjured up by the slowly expanding Bullfrog fared little better than Enlightenment. Corpes and Kevin Donkin turned out a very of-its-time top-down shoot-em-up called Fusion, which Electronic Arts agreed to release. Dismissed as “a mixture of old ideas presented in a very unexciting manner” by reviewers, Fusion was even less impressive technically than had been the Enlightenment port, being plagued by clashing colors and jittery scrolling — not at all the sort of thing to impress the notoriously audiovisually-obsessed Amiga market. Thus Fusion flopped as well, keeping Molyneux’s long record of futility intact. But then, unexpectedly from this group who’d shown so little sign of ever rising above mediocrity, came genius.

To describe Populous as a stroke of genius would be a misnomer. It was rather a game that grew slowly into its genius over a considerable period of time, a game that Molyneux himself considers more an exercise in evolution than conscious design. “It wasn’t an idea that suddenly went ‘Bang!'” he says. “It was an idea that grew and grew.” And its genesis had as much to do with Glenn Corpes as it did with Peter Molyneux.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 16 blocks.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 56 blocks.

It all began when Corpes started showing off a routine he had written which let him build isometric landscapes out of three-dimensional blocks, like a virtual Lego set. You could move the viewpoint about the landscape, raising and lowering the land by left-clicking to add new blocks, right-clicking to remove them. Molyneux was immediately sure there was a game in there somewhere. His childhood memory of the ant farm leaping to mind, he said, “Let’s have a thousand people running around on it.”

Populous thus began with those little people in lieu of ants, wandering independently over Corpes’s isometric landscapes in real time. When they found a patch they liked, they would settle down, building little huts. Since, this being a computer game, the player would obviously need something to do as well, Molyneux started adding ways for you, as a sort of God on high, to influence the people’s behavior in indirect ways. He added something he called a “Papal Magnet,” a huge ankh you could place in the world to draw your people toward a given spot. But there would come a problem if the way to the Ankh happened to be blocked by, say, a lake. Molyneux claims he added Populous‘s most basic mechanic, the thing you spend by far the most time doing when playing the game, as a response to his “incompetence” as a coder and resulting inability to write a proper path-finding algorithm: when your people get stuck somewhere, you can, subject to your mana reserves — even gods have limits — raise or lower the land to help them out. With that innovation, Populous from the player’s perspective became largely an exercise in terraforming, creating smooth, even landscapes on which your people can build their huts, villages, and eventually castles. As your people become fruitful and multiply, their prayers fuel your mana reserves.

Next, Molyneux added warfare to the picture. Now you would be erecting mountains and lakes to protect your people from their enemies, who start out walking about independently on the other side of the world. The ultimate goal of the game, of course, is to use your people to wipe out your enemy’s people before they do the same to you; this is a very Old Testament sort of religious experience. To aid in that goal, Molyneux gradually added lots of other godly powers to your arsenal, more impressive than the mere raising and lowering of land if also far more expensive in terms of precious mana: flash floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. You know, all your standard acts of God, as found in the Bible and insurance claims.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Parts of Populous were prototyped on the tabletop. Bullfrog used Lego bricks to represent the landscapes, a handy way of implementing the raising-and-lowering mechanic in a physical space. They went so far as to discuss a license with Lego, only to be told that Lego didn’t support “violent games.” Molyneux admits that the board game, while playable, was very different from the computerized Populous, playing out as a slow-moving, chess-like exercise in strategy. The computer Populous, by contrast, can get as frantic as any action game, especially in the final phase when all the early- and mid-game maneuvering and feinting comes down to the inevitable final genocidal struggle between Good and Evil.

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist), Shaun Cooper (tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist and programmer), Shaun Cooper (artist and tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Ultimately far more important to the finished product than Bullfrog’s Lego Populous were the countless matches Molyneux played on the computer against Glenn Corpes. Apart from all of its other innovations in helping to invent the god-game and real-time-strategy genres, Populous was also a pioneering effort in online gaming. Multi-player games — the only way to play Populous for many months — took place between two people seated at two separate Amigas, connected together via modem or, if together in the same room as Molyneux and Corpes were, via a cable. Vanishingly few other designers were working in this space at the time, for understandable reasons: even leaving aside the fact that the majority of computer owners didn’t own modems, running a multi-player game in real-time over a connection as slow as 1200 baud was hardly a programming challenge for the faint-hearted. The fact that it works at all in Populous rather puts the lie to Molyneux’s self-deprecating description of himself as a “rubbish” coder.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which made it much easier to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which only made it that much easier for Electronic Arts to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is instead done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen. Populous does become intuitive in time, but it’s not without a learning curve.

Development of Populous fell into a comfortable pattern. Molyneux and Corpes would play together for several hours every evening, then nip off to the pub to talk about their experiences. Next day, they’d tweak the game, then they’d go at it again. It’s here that we come to the beating heart of Molyneux’s description of Populous as a game evolved rather than designed. Almost everything in the finished game beyond the basic concept was added in response to Molyneux and Corpes’s daily wars. For instance, Molyneux initially added knights, super-powered individuals who can rampage through enemy territory and cause a great deal of havoc in a very short period of time, to prevent their games from devolving into endless stalemates. “A game could get to the point where both players had massive populations,” he says, “and there was just no way to win.” With knights, the stronger player “could go and massacre the other side and end the game at a stroke.”

A constant theme of all the tweaking was to make a more viscerally exciting game that played more quickly. For commercial as well as artistic reasons — Amiga owners weren’t particularly noted for their patience with slow-paced, cerebral games — this was considered a priority. Over the course of development, the length of the typical game Molyneux played with Corpes shrank from several hours to well under one.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive villages into castles -- and no, the drawing isn't quite done to scale.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive huts into castles.

Even tweaked to play quickly and violently, Populous was quite a departure from the tried-and-true Amiga fare of shoot-em-ups, platformers, and action-adventures. The unenviable task of trying to sell the thing to a publisher was given to Les Edgar. After visiting about a dozen publishers, he convinced Electronic Arts take a chance on it. Bullfrog promised EA a finished Populous in time for Christmas 1988. By the time that deadline arrived, however, it was still an online multiplayer-only game, a prospect EA knew to be commercially untenable. Molyneux and his colleagues thus spent the next few months creating Populous‘s single-player “Conquest Mode.”

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

Perilously close to being an afterthought to the multi-player experience though it was, Conquest Mode would be the side of the game that the vast majority of its eventual players would come to know best if not exclusively. Rather than design a bunch of scenarios by hand, Bullfrog wrote an algorithm to procedurally generate 500 different “worlds” for play against a computer opponent whose artificial intelligence also had to be created from scratch during this period. This method of content creation, used most famously by Ian Bell and David Braben in Elite, was something of a specialty and signpost of British game designers, who, plagued by hardware limitations far more stringent than their counterparts in the United States, often used it as a way to minimize the space their games consumed in memory and on disk. Most recently, Geoff Crammond’s hit game The Sentinel, published by Firebird, had used a similar scheme. Glenn Corpes believes it may have been an EA executive named Joss Ellis who first suggested it to Bullfrog.

Populous‘s implementation is fairly typical of the form. Each of the 500 worlds except the first is protected by a password that is, like everything else, itself procedurally generated. When you win at a given level, you’re given the password to a higher, harder level; whether and how many levels you get to skip is determined by how resounding a victory you’ve just managed. It’s a clever scheme, packing a hell of a lot of potential gameplay onto a single floppy disk and even making an effort to avoid boring the good player — and all without forcing Bullfrog to deal with the complications of actually storing any state whatsoever onto disk.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

Given their previous failures, Bullfrog understandably wasn’t the most confident group when a well-known British games journalist named Bob Wade, who had already played a pre-release version of the game, came by for a visit. For hours, Molyneux remained too insecure to actually ask Wade the all-important question of what he thought of the game. At last, after Wade had joined the gang for “God knows how many” pints at their local, Molyneux worked up the courage to pop the question. Wade replied that it was the best game he’d ever played, and he couldn’t wait to get back to it — prompting Molyneux to think he must have made some sort of mistake, and that under no circumstances should he be allowed to play another minute of it in case his opinion should change. It was Wade and the magazine he was writing for at the time, ACE (Advanced Computer Entertainment), who coined the term “god game” in the glowing review that followed, the first trickle of a deluge of praise from the gaming press in Britain and, soon enough, much of the world.

Bullfrog’s first royalty check for Populous was for a modest £13,000. Their next was for £250,000, prompting a naive Les Edgar to call Electronic Arts about it, sure it was a mistake. It was no mistake; Populous alone reportedly accounted for one-third of EA’s revenue during its first year on the market. That Bullfrog wasn’t getting even bigger checks was a sign only of the extremely unfavorable deal they’d signed with EA from their position of weakness. Populous finally and definitively ended the now 30-year-old Peter Molyneux’s long run of obscurity and failure at everything he attempted. In his words, he went overnight from “urinating in the sink” and “owing more money than I could ever imagine paying back” to “an incredible life” in games. Port after port came out for the next couple of years, each of them becoming a bestseller on its platform. Populous was selected to become one of the launch titles for the Super Nintendo console in Japan, spawning a full-blown fad there that came to encompass comic books, tee-shirts, collectibles, and even a symphony concert. When they visited Japan for the first time on a promotional tour, Molyneux and Les Edgar were treated like… well, appropriately enough, like gods. Populous sold 3 million copies in all according to some reports, an almost inconceivable figure for a game during this period.

Amidst all its other achievements, Populous was also something of a pioneer in the realm of e-sports. The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best player in Britain.

The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best Populous player in Britain.

While a relatively small percentage of Populous players played online, those who did became pioneers of sorts in their own right. Some bulletin-board systems set up matchmaking services to pair up players looking for a game, any time, day or night; the resulting connections sometimes spanned national borders or even oceans. The matchmakers were aided greatly by Bullfrog’s forward-thinking decision to make all versions of Populous compatible with one another in terms of online play. In making it so quick and easy to find an online opponent, these services prefigured the modern world of Internet-enabled online gaming. Molyneux pronounced them “pretty amazing,” and at the time they really were. In 1992, he spoke excitedly of a recent trip to Japan, where’d he seen a town “with 10,000 homes all linked together. You can play games with anybody in the place. It’s enormous, really enormous, and it’s growing.” If only he’d known what online gaming would grow into in the next decade or two…

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibitio match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn't appear to have happened.

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibition match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn’t appear to have happened.

The original Amiga version of Populous had been released all but simultaneously with the Amiga version of SimCity. Press and public alike immediately linked the two games together; AmigaWorld magazine, for instance, went so far as to review them jointly in a single article. Both Will Wright of SimCity fame and Peter Molyneux were repeatedly asked in interviews whether they’d played the other’s game. Wright was polite but, one senses, a little disinterested in Populous, saying he “liked the idea of playing God and having a population follow you,” but “sort of wish they’d gone for a slightly more educational angle.” Molyneux was much more enthusiastic about his American counterpart’s work, repeatedly floating a scheme to somehow link the two games together in more literal fashion for online play.  He claimed at one point that Maxis (developers of SimCity) and his own Bullfrog had agreed on a liaison “to go backwards and forwards” between their two companies to work on linking their games. The liaison, he claimed, had “the Populous landscape moving to and from SimCity,” and a finished product would be out sometime in 1992. Like quite a number of the more unbelievable schemes Molyneux has floated over the years, it never happened.

The idea of a linkage between SimCity and Populous, whether taking place online or in the minds of press and public, can seem on the face of it an exceedingly strange one today. How would the online linkage actually work anyway? Would the little Medieval warriors from Populous suddenly start attacking SimCity‘s peaceful modern utopias? Or would Wright’s Sims plop themselves down in the middle of Molyneux’s apocalyptic battles and start building stadiums and power plants? These were very different games: Wright’s a noncompetitive, peaceful exercise in urban planning with strong overtones of edutainment; Molyneux’s a zero-sum game of genocidal warfare that aspired to nothing beyond entertainment. Knowing as we do today the future paths of these two designers — i.e., ever further in the directions laid down by these their first significant works — only heightens the seeming dichotomy.

That said, there actually were and are good reasons to think of SimCity and Populous as two sides of the same coin. For us today, the list includes first of all the reasons of simple historical concordance. Each marks the coming-out party of one of the most important game designers of all time, occurring within bare weeks of one another.

But of course the long-term importance of these two designers to their field wasn’t yet evident in 1989; obviously players were responding to something else in associating their games with one another. Once you stripped away their very different surface trappings and personalities, the very similar set of innovations at the heart of each was laid bare. AmigaWorld said it very well in that joint review: “The real joy of these programs is the interlocking relationships. Sure, you’re a creator, but even more a facilitator, influencer, and stage-setter for little computer people who act on your wishes in their own time and fashion.” It’s no coincidence that, just as Peter Molyneux was partly inspired by an ant hill to create Populous, one of Will Wright’s projects of the near future would be the virtual ant farm SimAnt. In creating the first two god games, the two were indeed implementing a very similar core idea, albeit each in his own very different way.

Joel Billings of the king of American strategy games SSI had founded his company back in 1979 with the explicit goal of making computerized versions of the board games he loved. SimCity and Populous can be seen as the point when computer strategy games transcended that traditional approach. The real-time nature of these games makes them impossible to conceive of as anything other than computer-based works, while their emergent complexity makes them objects of endless fascination for their designers as much or more so for than their players.

In winning so many awards and entrancing so many players for so long, SimCity and Populous undoubtedly benefited hugely from their sheer novelty. Their flaws stand out more clearly today. With its low-resolution graphics and without the aid of modern niceties like tool tips and graphical overlays, SimCity struggles to find ways to communicate vital information about what your city is really doing and why, making the game into something of an unsatisfying black box unless and until you devote a lot of time and effort to understanding what affects what. Populous has many of the same interface frustrations, along with other problems that feel still more fundamental and intractable, especially if you, like the vast majority of players back in its day, experience it through its single-player Conquest Mode. Clever as they are, the procedurally generated levels combined with the fairly rudimentary artificial intelligence of your computer opponent introduce a lot of infelicities. Eventually you begin to realize that one level is pretty much the same as any other; you just need to execute the same set of strategies and tactics more efficiently to have success at the higher levels.

Both Will Wright and Peter Molyneux are firm adherents to the experimental, boundary-pushing school of game design — an approach that yields innovative games but not necessarily holistically good games every time out. And indeed, throughout his long career each of them has produced at least as many misses as hits, even if we dismiss the complaints of curmudgeons like me and lump SimCity and Populous into the category of the hits. Both designers have often fallen into the trap, if trap it be, of making games that are more interesting for creators and commentators than they are fun for actual players. And certainly both have, like all of us, their own blind spots: in relying so heavily on scientific literature to inform his games, Wright has often produced end results with something of the feel of a textbook, while Molyneux has often lacked the discipline and gravitas to fully deliver on his most grandiose schemes.

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. We need our innovative experimentalists to blaze new trails, just as we need our more sober, holistically-minded designers to exploit the terrain they discover. SimCity and Populous would be followed by decades of games that built on the possibilities they revealed — many of which I’d frankly prefer to play today than these two original ground-breakers. But, again, that reality doesn’t mean we should celebrate SimCity and Populous one iota less, for both resoundingly pass the test of historical significance. The world of gaming would be a much poorer place without Will Wright and Peter Molyneux and their first living worlds inside a box.

(Sources: The Official Strategy Guide for Populous and Populous II by Laurence Scotford; Master Populous: Blueprints for World Power by Clayton Walnum; Amazing Computing of October 1989; Next Generation of November 1998; PC Review of July 1992; The One of April 1989, September 1989, and May 1991; Retro Gamer 44; AmigaWorld of December 1987, June 1989, and November 1989; The Games Machine of November 1988; ACE of April 1989; the bonus content to the film From Bedrooms to Billions. Archived online sources include features on Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog for Wired Online, GameSpot, and Edge Online. Finally, Molyneux’s postmortem on Populous at the 2011 Game Developers Conference.

Populous is available for purchase from GOG.com.)

 

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