Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Digital Antiquarian Takes a Holiday

I’m posting this from the good old U.S. of A., where my wife and I are visiting friends and family and availing ourselves of cheap clothes and lots of cheap, greasy food. I’m afraid this holiday also includes a time out from blogging. I will, however, be back on the archaic software beat sometime in the next two to three weeks, once we’ve returned to our home in Norway and I’ve been able to dig myself out from the pile of (paying) work I expect to find awaiting me there. I’ve got some very interesting topics coming up, so please keep me in your hearts and your RSS feeds during this little hiatus. Catch you soon!


The Prisoner, Part 2

David Mullich’s original plan was to write a game inspired by The Prisoner, but not a direct adaptation — an eminently sensible move considering that Edu-Ware did not own the intellectual-property rights to the show and were hardly in a position to purchase them. But Steffin and Pederson, displaying the cavalier attitude toward IP that would soon get them sued for the Space games, not only insisted that the game be called The Prisoner but even planned to use the original series’s distinctive logo. Understandably concerned, Mullich asked them to at least contact ITC Entertainment about the matter. So Steffin and Pederson called ITC and asked them whether they would mind if they — of all things — opened a Prisoner-themed restaurant. When ITC said that was okay, Steffin and Pederson reported back to Mullich that they had “permission.” They got lucky. ITC was at just that instant busy committing institutional suicide via two ill-conceived feature films: Can’t Stop the Music, a disco extravaganza starring the Village People released just in time for the big anti-disco backlash; and Raise the Titanic, an ambitious thriller which went so far over budget that it prompted ITC head Lew Grade to remark that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic instead. Not only were both films commercial flops, but both also had the honor of being nominated for the first ever Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture, with Can’t Stop the Music nudging out its stablemate for the prize. Against that calamitous backdrop, the plundering of a ten-year old television series by an obscure little company in the obscure little field of computer games was not much on ITC’s radar. Yes, the media landscape was very different in 1980…

With that problem “solved,” Mullich set to work designing and coding. He created the entire game completely on his own in “about six weeks time.” That doesn’t sound like much, but remember, this is the fellow who created and coded Network from scratch in three days. The Prisoner in fact represented by far the most ambitious and complex project that Edu-Ware or Mullich had yet worked on. It consists of some 30 individual BASIC programs which are shuffled in and out of memory as needed by a machine-language routine, the only non-BASIC part of the structure.

The conflict in the television series revolves around the question of why Number 6 resigned from the service — the forces that run the Village insist he tell them his reasons, and Number 6 stubbornly refuses to do so. (Of course, whether the answer to this question is really the main priority of the Village, or whether they merely want to get him to surrender this point on the assumption that once he does it will be easy to break him entirely is very much an open question.) It’s very difficult for a player to communicate such an abstract idea to a computer program even today, however, much less on a 48 K Apple II. Mullich therefore replaced the reason with a single randomly-generated three-digit “resignation code” which is presented to the player for the first and only time when she begins to play.

From here on, it will be the goal of the Island to get the player to reveal this code, whether accidentally or on purpose, while it will be the goal of the player to preserve the secret at all costs.

You may have noticed that I referred to the “Island” there rather than the “Village.” Perhaps in the interest of having a veneer of plausible deniability should ITC’s lawyers come calling, Mullich made a number of such changes. Rather than Number 6, for instance, the player is known as simply “#,” and the Island is run not by Number 2 but by the “Caretaker.” Even so, one never has to look hard for the source material; the player lives, as expected, in Building 6, and the Caretaker in Building 2. A bit of code diving even reveals that one of the component programs is named “Village”; apparently Mullich started with that name and never bothered to change the internal program name.

There are, however, also other influences at work here. George Orwell’s 1984 is referenced almost as prominently as The Prisoner television series. The three contradictory aphorisms of Orwell’s Oceania — “War is peace”; “Freedom is slavery”; “Ignorance is strength” — pop up over and over, singly or in tandem. The novel was also an important influence on the television show — “Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison to oneself,” reads a sign in the Village that could have come straight from Oceania — but here the debt is even more explicit. The game’s Wikipedia page currently also claims (without citation) a strong influence for Kafka’s Das Schloß (The Castle), but I’m not entirely convinced of this. While the player’s home on the Island is indeed called the Castle, there have certainly been many more surprising coincidences in literary and ludic history. I don’t really sense any other strong notes of Kafka here, and to my knowledge Mullich has never cited him as an influence. (If you know more about the validity or lack thereof of the Kafka claim, by all means chime in in the comments.)

Kafka homage or not, the game proper begins with us in our Castle, which we learn to our dismay is a big maze inside. Here we are introduced to the general tricksiness of the game. We can dutifully work our way through the maze until we come to the exit. However, we can also simply hit the ESC key (get it?) to get the same result. (ESC in fact gives unexpected results in several areas of the Island, as is obliquely hinted in a few places.) Whether we take the easy or the hard way out, we cannot exit until we answer the question, “Who are you?” The correct answer is of course “#,” but here we also see the first of many attempts the game will make to trick us into entering our resignation code. This time it’s pretty transparent, but never fear, the game will soon get much trickier.

Structurally the game is build around a central spine, a map of the Island through which the player can wander.

On this map are 20 individually numbered buildings, each housing a unique experience enabled by a BASIC mini-game all its own. Indeed, these games form a veritable catalog of BASIC game archetypes of the early microcomputer and late institutional computing era, the sort of concepts that in an alternative universe could have easily popped up on an HP-2000 system or the book BASIC Computer Games. In addition to the maze game in Building 6, we have a couple of ELIZA-like exercises in conversation and a game reminiscent of the early agricultural strategy game Hamurabi, albeit with the player manipulating the amount of power allotted to various Island systems rather than manipulating acres of land and bushels of crops.

In contrast to their friendly predecessors, however, this lot is an unforgiving bunch. Their messages are constantly off-putting. For example, two of the screenshots above show a famous John Donne quotation which the game twists into something sinister to join the 1984 sloganeering. If we win the Hamurabi-style game, we get a gold watch and a “place to retire,” the latter being of course the Island itself — a creepy commentary on the fate of those who are no longer considered economically useful to society. It all combines to create a constant sense of unease and paranoia. Instructions for play are often nonexistent and never complete, and the user interfaces are needlessly inconsistent. In some places, for instance, we can move an avatar using keys representing the three-dimensional compass directions of a real environment (“N,” “E,” “S,” “W”); in others, we must use the two-dimensional directions of the screen (“U,” “R,” “D,” “L”). There are hidden tricks everywhere, such that we sometimes feel it necessary to methodically tap every key on the keyboard looking for those commands the game hasn’t bothered to tell us about but which represent the only possible route to victory. And the games get tricky in other ways.

In the screenshot below, we’ve just been told to cross a pit (represented by the large white square) using “any means at our disposal.” Trouble is, all we can do is move our little avatar (represented, naturally, by the “#”) about — no jump command, no bridge-building command, nothing. What on earth to do?

Well, if we methodically move over every square that is available to us, we eventually find a piece of rope. “What do you want to do with the piece of rope?” the game asks us then. “Cross the pit,” we reply. “Sounds doubtful,” says the game. And sure enough, trying to cross still results in us falling into the pit and being returned to the Castle as punishment. So we return and try again. This time we learn that continuing to search after finding the rope yields a “bundle of sticks.” But no dice, we fall in again. Returning again, we find a third object, a “rusty old wash tub.” Into the pit we fall yet again. Finally, the fourth object, an “inflatable raft,” does the trick.

That’s frustrating, but the contents of other buildings are downright baffling. The library quizzes us on our preferences in reading material, then somehow uses that information to decide whether to award us a vital clue or burn a book in our honor. I still don’t have a clue how its algorithm actually works, and suspect that may be part of its rhetorical point.

Some buildings go beyond baffling to disturbing. Building 17 houses the Island’s version of the (in)famous Milgram Experiment, in which test subjects were told by an authority figure to continue shocking another person to the point of death, and to a disturbingly large degree complied. Here we get to do the shocking, if we choose.

Throughout all this the game is constantly trying to get us to reveal our resignation code, through ploys obvious and subtle. The most devious of all comes when we visit the Hospital. In the midst of an absurd free-association personality test, we are suddenly dropped to BASIC with an apparent error message.

The natural reaction to the above would be to LIST line 943 to see what the problem might be. If we do, however, we have just lost. The number 943 is of course our resignation code, and we have just been tricked into revealing it. There was never any real error at all; we are still in the program. We are still the Prisoner.

Just like in the television show, the game is constantly offering us a seeming chance for escape, then pulling the rug out from under us. We can in certain situations escape from the main complex to the wilderness around it. This is the only bit of the game to use the Apple II’s hi-res graphics mode; all other displays are built using low-resolution character graphics, which suit the game perfectly. The stark black-and-white displays have almost a Constructivist feel.

If we can dodge the Rovers, semi-sentient guardians that are lifted directly from the show, we might be able to escape via an improbably placed train station. We do. We return home. We call up the “Company” that employed us.

They ask for our resignation code, and when we refuse to give it we wind up right back where we started. This whole sequence is unusually direct about invoking television episodes like “The Chimes of Big Ben,” “Many Happy Returns,” and “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darling,” in which Number 6 seemingly returns to his home of London only to realize that his prison has followed him there as well.

Tricks like these leave us feeling a bit like Charlie Brown out for a rousing game of football with Lucy. When we meet a seeming resistance organization called the Brotherhood, we are therefore inclined to expect more of the same.

The questions they ask us when we meet them doesn’t exactly reassure us:

“Are you willing to give your life, commit murder, commit acts of sabotage which might cause the deaths of innocent people, cheat, forge, blackmail, distribute habit-forming drugs for the cause of freedom?”

In addition to illustrating how a totalitarian society has a way of corrupting even those who believe they fight against it, they also parallel a bit too closely the questions that Orwell’s Brotherhood ask Winston and Julia in 1984:

“You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases — to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?”

That Brotherhood turned out to be an elaborate trap concocted by the Party establishment to trap would-be rebels just like Winston and Julia. By this point we’re not expecting much better.

Surprisingly, the Brotherhood turns out to be what it says it is. The fact that we are so inclined to doubt them provides a nice illustration of the effect that constant suspicion and uncertainty has on would-be resistance in a totalitarian society; even those with the bravery and inclination to fight are ineffective for lack of others they feel they can trust. (This idea was beautifully illustrated on several occasions by the television series.) If we do eventually decide to trust, we can carry out a few modest missions of sabotage and culture jamming. For one of these we must change the headlines of the local newspaper.

The screenshot above shows one of the best a-ha moments in the game, a welcome respite from the constant sense of powerlessness and oppression — we need to enter each letter using its ASCII character code.

Carrying out these missions don’t let us do anything so grand as materially overthrow the island. They do, however, score points for us, and that’s very important, because various options only become available and events only occur when our score has reached a certain number. This adds yet another layer of obfuscation to the experience, as the whole world feels in constant flux due to our changing score. Thus we must constantly revisit locations and try things again and again to see if a higher score makes a difference in what we thought we knew. We can’t even use our score to judge how far into the game we really are. While the game gives the score as “XX” of “XX,” the latter value changes along with the former with no apparent rhyme or reason in yet another nasty psychological trick.

So, how does anyone other than a masochist with the patience of a saint ever beat this thing? The answer: you cheat. Here the fact that the whole game is written in BASIC is key. We can comb through the individual programs to figure out everything that is really going on in each one and, eventually, deduce the path to victory. If we’re impatient, we can even change some of the programs to give us a higher score or otherwise make things easier. In engaging in outright psychological warfare on us the game encourages us to break the rules on our side as well. I’m certainly not the first person to make the observation that “cheating” feels right here, entirely within the spirit of the game. Number 6 never got anywhere by behaving honorably to his oppressors; he twisted and lied and manipulated, just like they did, and we love him for it. Why not here as well? There’s a little thrill that comes when we ignore the supposed rules and start to hack. I don’t know whether Mullich imagined The Prisoner this way, but God does it work brilliantly in practice.

However we get there, we ultimately win by visiting the Caretaker and telling him that “the Island is just a computer game.” (We do need to have a sufficiently high score to be “ready for that realization,” contradicting Mullich’s claim in the Tea Leaves interview that it is possible to win instantly just by going to the Caretaker and telling him this.) With that realization behind us, we can unplug the computer and escape.

And after one final halfhearted bid for our resignation code, the game sets us free.

This final collapsing of the fourth wall is pretty brilliant. Just as some have argued that Number 6 was really a prisoner of himself (illustrated by the unmasking of Number 1 in the last episode), we have been voluntarily choosing to spend our time with this dystopian nightmare of a computer game. All along, we could “escape” simply by doing something else with our time. “To win is to lose,” the game tells us as its parting message, describing the feeling all gamers know of struggling with a game for days or weeks, longing for victory, only to wistfully realize… it’s all over now. Have we really won? Did Number 6 really escape?

The Prisoner is teeth grindingly, soul crushingly difficult, but there is an aesthetic point to its cruelty that is absent from other early adventure games. If the design sins of Scott Adams and Roberta Williams are those of inexperienced designers working in a new medium with primitive technology, those of The Prisoner serve a real artistic purpose. It’s the first work of its kind that the nascent computer-game industry produced, a sign of what this new medium could be used for, even (dare I say it) a striving for the claim of Art. Like much conceptual art it’s uncompromising, not really something to be casually recommended as a “fun game,” but fascinating in its commitment. Its approach, of being a sort of holistic computer game that makes the interface and the code used to build it and the fact that you are having this experience on an Apple II computer part of the experience of play rather than merely paths to same, has seldom if ever been duplicated. On today’s vastly more complex systems with less technically proficient users, that would probably not even be possible.

So The Prisoner is historically important, fascinating to talk about, and just brave as hell on the part of Mullich and Edu-Ware… but, no, I’m not sure I can precisely recommend it. In addition to all the usual challenges that games of its era present to the modern player, it requires either the patience of Job or a good subset of obsolete technical knowledge — or both — to beat it. If you do want to experiment, you should be aware that the game writes data to disk as you play; most of the disk images on the Internet therefore contain games already in progress. If you’d like a clean copy to start with on your real Apple II or emulator, I have one for you here. The zip also includes a 1983 SoftSide Selections magazine with instructions for play. (The Prisoner was re-released on the SoftSide disk magazine after the release of the enhanced The Prisoner II made it no longer viable for Edu-Ware to sell on its own.)

Be seeing you!


Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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The Prisoner, Part 1

What with the Cold War threatening to turn into World War 3 more frequently than in any other decade, spy stories were all the rage in the West of the 1960s. There were the James Bond novels and films everyone remembers today, but also The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, “Secret Agent Man,” and of course Get Smart to take the piss out of the lot. On British television, there was the ITC Entertainment program Danger Man, in which, amidst the usual profusion of gadgets, uncertain loyalties, and convoluted plots, Patrick McGoohan saved the free world 86 times in the role of superspy John Drake between 1960 and 1966. And then, just as Danger Man was making a name for itself in North America as Secret Agent and the series was making the big switch to color, McGoohan decided he’d had enough. He pulled the plug after just two color episodes that should have marked the beginning of a whole new, more opulent era for the show, pitching to ITC head Lew Grade a new series to take its place, one to which to the existing production crew could be easily transitioned. That idea became The Prisoner, a 17-episode series first broadcast on British television in 1967 and 1968.

In the first episode an apparent spy, once again played by McGoohan, abruptly decides to retire from the service, refusing to give any reason for the decision to his superiors. He is gassed after returning to his home, awakening to find himself in a place known only as The Village. On the surface it’s an idyllic place, a seaside resort of gorgeous views, clean air, and smiling fellow residents. However, said residents are not allowed to leave, and have in fact all been stripped of their identities. Each person on the island is assigned a number in lieu of her former name, and known only by that identifier; our hero, for example, shall be known henceforward only as Number 6. He soon learns that the Village is a sinister place of tricks and tortures mental and occasionally physical, where every resident lives under a paranoia born of constant electronic surveillance by the head of the place, a person known only as Number 2. (The question of who is Number 1 is one of the constant obsessions of the show, and resolved only in an oblique fashion in the final episode.) Oddly, a rotating cast of Number 2s come and go throughout the 17 episodes, mostly officious little types that illustrate the banality of evil. The goal of all of them is to break Number 6, to get him to tell them why he resigned. The bulk of the episodes concern the cavalcade of tricks they employ to try to accomplish that, always to be dashed in the end against the stalwart resistance of Number 6.

Two men are primarily responsible for the conception of The Prisoner: McGoohan himself, who in addition to starring also executive produced, wrote a number of scripts, and directed some episodes; and George Markstein, who served as script editor for most of the show’s run. Like McGoohan, Markstein was a refugee from Danger Man. The Prisoner was largely shaped by the tension between these two men’s ideas about the show. Markstein saw it as essentially a continuation of Danger Man, a confusing but ultimately grounded, understandable story. Tellingly, he tacitly assumed that Number 6, who is never given another name in the show, is in actuality John Drake of Danger Man, now embarked on another, unexpected phase of his “career.” McGoohan, however, saw the show as an allegorical tale of Everyman struggling with modern society. Tension in art is of course not always a bad thing, and in this case it gave The Prisoner space to explore McGoohan’s more heady ideas without coming completely unhinged from reality. After 13 episodes, though, the burgeoning conflict between the two men exploded, and Markstein left the production after an argument so acrimonious that the two men never spoke to one another again, and never spoke of one another in anything other than tones of contempt. (Markstein also reserved plenty of contempt for the series itself, calling the adoration it continues to receive a case of “the emperor’s new clothes” and calling its most rabid fans “pathetic.”) This rupture left McGoohan free to conclude the series with a final episode that abandons any claim to reality and is, depending on your point of view, either brilliant or a meaningless mess — or perhaps both.

When not twisting themselves into knots trying to superimpose a coherent narrative arc and proper viewing order onto the episodes of a very messy, very un-serialized series, fan debates about The Prisoner can spiral into some very heady intellectual territory. The longstanding fascination of the show derives from the questions it poses about the rights of the individual and the needs of society, questions it by design never definitively answers. “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own,” Number 6 announces in the first episode. While the show seems to implicitly ask us to see Number 6 as a hero, a hardcore collectivist could take this as an ironical portrayal, seeing Number 6 as a selfish egomaniac who refuses to abide by the necessary strictures of a civil society. Fans of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, meanwhile, can see Number 6 as their model paragon of selfish individuality. And there are a million other interpretations that line up somewhere between these extremes — and who knows, maybe even outside of them.

By its very nature The Prisoner seems to encourage fans to find inspirations that are dubious at best. As an example of the latter: a number of university courses have been taught about the show over the years, in which a common claim was that The Prisoner draws heavily from Franz Kafka. Certainly the Village and the whole scenario of The Prisoner bears a strong similarity to Das Schloß (The Castle), and the absurd pantomimes of legal trials in the episodes “Dance of the Dead” and the finale seem to have Der Prozeß (The Trial) stamped all over them. In an early 1990s interview, however, McGoohan definitively put paid to these “obvious” inspirations, saying he had “never read a Kafka.” This is not to say that Kafka does not live somewhere within The Prisoner, but filtered through the later, more grounded and obviously political versions of Kafka’s absurdist dystopias found in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both acknowledged inspirations of McGoohan, and, just perhaps, within certain individual scripts not written by McGoohan. Even those trial scenes could be inspired by Orson Welles’s film version of The Trial rather than Kafka’s original source.

Some have gone yet further afield in seeking inspirations. There’s a great moment in one McGoohan television appearance in which an earnest young graduate student asks him if Angelo, a dwarf butler to the various Number 2s who is the only character other than Number 6 to appear in every episode, was inspired by the dwarf who accompanies Una and the Redcrosse Knight in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene; poor McGoohan, who obviously has no idea what the kid is on about, doesn’t quite know what to say in response. Even more so than with most works, The Prisoner seems a series in which people can find what they want to find — which is not necessarily a weakness. Certainly Kafka’s own works have the same qualities.

There is one immediately obvious difference between The Prisoner and the works of Kafka, Orwell, and Huxley: Number 6 is never broken. While many episodes end on an ominous note or a reversion to the status quo after a near escape, he never cracks, never breaks down and tells a Number 2 what he wants to know. Not infrequently, he turns the tables and actually wins a round, humiliating his would-be oppressor in the process. In “A, B, and C” Number 2 attempts to get to the truth by injecting Number 6 with a special drug that lets him control his dreams, only to have Number 6 replace the drug with water and lead him on an elaborate wild goose chase through Dreamland; in “Hammer into Anvil” (a genuine Goethe reference, much to the delight of grad students everywhere) Number 6 tells a a particularly odious Number 2 he “will pay for this” after a woman escapes Number 2’s torture only through suicide, and makes good on the promise; in the penultimate episode Number 2 and Number 6 engage in an extended psychological battle of wills that ends with a broken Number 2 quivering on the floor rather than Number 6, and marks the apparent moment of Number 6’s final victory over the forces of the Village. The contrast to the fragile protagonists of Kafka, Orwell, or Huxley, who are all in their own ways defeated before they even begin to fight, is striking indeed.

One might argue with some justification that this change is necessitated by the very nature of The Prisoner and the economic realities that constrained it; certainly the show was challenging enough without asking the audience to embrace the nihilistic fun of watching the hero be defeated and relentlessly dehumanized week after week. Yet I sense more than that going on here. McGoohan always steadfastly refused to say “what it all meant” beyond repeating that the show was an allegory, but we might find some clues — anti-New Criticism as it might be — in his own biography and beliefs.

For the creator of a show that has come to be seen as symbolic of the trippy 1960s, McGoohan was, well, a bit of a prude really. He allegedly refused the role of James Bond because he didn’t like 007’s womanizing ways and lack of principles, and even on Danger Man he was the always the show’s most stringent censor. He continued in this way on The Prisoner, where he never engaged in even a single onscreen kiss and, apart from the Western pastiche “Living in Harmony,” never even used guns. He repeatedly asserted that The Prisoner was clean, family-friendly entertainment. (That’s a claim that always struck me as really odd; there are many ways to describe The Prisoner, but “family-friendly” has never quite seemed one of them to me.) McGoohan was in fact throughout his life a devoted Catholic. Whatever you think of his beliefs, you can’t help but admire the man for hewing so steadfastly to them, even to the point of scuttling a potential career as Hollywood’s 007. McGoohan simply didn’t want to kiss anyone other his wife, onscreen or off, and how can anyone really fault a guy for that? Certainly he stands as a nice example as a religious man who practiced rather than preached.

When we allow McGoohan’s Catholicism onto the scene, it takes us to some interesting places. Perhaps we can find in The Prisoner an argument for the ineffability for man, for the ultimate unknowability of (for lack of a better term) the soul. It thus represents a push-back against those who would define consciousness as just a collection of physical processes to be cataloged and understand — a push-back against, for instance, the ideas of B.F. Skinner, against the philosophy of radical behaviorism that I briefly introduced a couple of posts ago. In “The Schizoid Man,” Number 2 implicitly constructs an experiment to test Skinner’s assertion that identity is an entirely social construction. He introduces a perfect doppelganger of Number 6 and tells Number 6 that the doppelganger is the real version of himself, surrounding him with evidence that seems to confirm the point. He even changes Number 6’s handedness with an electronic shock treatment, leaving only the doppelganger with the correct handedness. Yet, in a victory of Nature over Nurture, Number 6 clings to his true self throughout and finally wins the day, comprehensively defeating Number 2 and his doppelganger pal. Another episode, “The General,” launches an attack on Skinner’s approach to education. The Village has instituted a program called “Speed Learn,” in which subjects like history are reduced to a collection of dates and facts inserted into the minds of the residents in “15-Second Courses” that seem to operate through a sort of hypnosis. Afterward, the villagers walk around quizzing one another robotically, with every question having a single answer, a single correct interpretation. Nuance, debate, even thought have been eviscerated. The ending of the episode, in which Number 6 destroys the computer at the root of the program in best Captain Kirk style in a whirl of fire and smoke and the mystical question “Why?”, is weak, but the message is strong.

That, anyway, is some of what The Prisoner means to me. Before I get back to computer games, however, I do want to also make a note of the show’s sometimes overlooked formal qualities. If the fight scenes and special effects are a bit cheesy and the acting sometimes dodgy, there’s still a bracing audacity to the show’s presentation that I find kind of thrilling, even — perhaps most — in the episodes that don’t contribute so much to the show’s themes. “Many Happy Returns,” for instance, features not a word of English dialog until over halfway through its running time. And “Living in Harmony” inserts Number 6 into a Western and plays it to the hilt, even replacing the normal opening credits; only in the last ten minutes are we returned to the familiar environs of the Village. I can’t help but imagine how it must have felt for a 1967 television viewer to tune in to The Prisoner only to be greeted with a Western that happens to star the fellow who used to play Number 6. And then there’s that last episode, outlined in a weekend by McGoohan and improvised from there. It’s a riot of crazy imagery, with the much-speculated-upon Number 1 revealed to be a cackling Number 6 hiding under an ape mask, with a crazed firefight to the strains of the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” and with much of the Village launched into space aboard a rocket while Number 6 dances to “Dry Bones” on London’s A20 motorway. The last third is again virtually dialog-free, this time because no one had had time to write any. I’m largely with those folks who say none of it makes a lick of sense, but God do I love it anyway. It just pulses with the last thing you’d expect to find in a downbeat scenario like that of The Prisoner: the improvisatory joy of making art. And when it’s all over I walk away marveling that something this outré once appeared on prime-time television.

So, that’s a little bit of the material David Mullich had to work with in making a computer-game version of The Prisoner. We’ll look at how he ran with it next time.


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Interactive Fantasies

In the early days of microcomputers, every sizable city seemed to have a store that not only sold hardware and software but became a social nexus for enthusiasts. The role that The Byte Shop played in Silicon Valley and that The Computer Emporium played in Des Moines was assumed in Los Angeles by Rainbow Computing. David Gordon, founder of Programma International, and Ken Williams both bought their first Apple IIs there and became regulars around the place. Sherwin Steffin of Edu-Ware was another regular customer. More than a customer, actually: he worked out a deal with Gene Sprouse, the owner, wherein Sprouse gave Edu-Ware a second Apple II system for the use of his partner Steve Pederson and Sprouse received Edu-Ware’s first game, Space, at cost.

Designed and programmed, like all of the earliest Edu-Ware efforts, by Steffin and Pederson themselves, Space was a science-fiction CRPG, the first of a line of “pure” games Edu-Ware labelled Interactive Fantasies to distinguish them from their educational products. The player generates a character using one module, then — shades of Eamon — imports that character into a scenario for play, and (if she survives) exports her again for play in other scenarios. Designed as just the first of a whole family of Space games, Space I features five scenarios in addition to the character generator. Its obvious inspiration — painfully obvious, in that Edu-Ware would later get sued over it — is the tabletop RPG Traveller (1977) from Game Designers’ Workshop, the first long-lived science-fiction RPG and one of the first of any stripe to appear from a publisher other than TSR.

A unique aspect of Traveller is its detailed character-generation system. Rather than just roll up some statistics, choose a character class and some spells, buy some equipment, and start adventuring as in Dungeons and Dragons, character creation in Traveller is a whole sub-game onto itself, kind of an RPG within an RPG, albeit one played at a much more abstracted level. The player creates not just some vital statistics for her avatar but a whole history, following her career in interstellar military service through a series of terms of service. Each term brings skills and experience, but also age, which eventually starts to have debilitating effects of its own. The player must thus balance experience against age in deciding when to retire from the service and start her adventuring career. Filling more than 20 pages in the original Traveller manual, character creation was so detailed and engaging that some grew into the habit of rolling up characters just for the fun of it.

Space might be described not so much as an adaptation of Traveller as a whole as an adaptation of the Traveller character-generation system. Even after the creation process per se is through, the individual scenarios are played at an unusually high level of abstraction, making them feel like a continuation of the same process. If, as some claim, the essence of a CRPG is the character-building process, Space has to be one of the purest examples of the form ever constructed.

Still, Steffin and Pederson felt constrained in Space and, indeed, many other ideas by their lack of formal programming education and skill. Therefore, when they met a young programmer at Rainbow with the technical skills they lacked and a head full of ideas, they took it as a godsend. His name was David Mullich.

Mullich’s route to computers had been a rather atypical one. As a child he had not been transfixed at all by the mathematics and science that fascinated most hackers; appropriately enough for a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Mullich had been a theater and film buff. With a dream of directing, he had seriously considered making film his major at university, but shied away when he arrived at Cal State Northridge and “saw hundreds of other students who had the same ambition.” Casting about for an alternative, Mullich tried a computer-science class, and fell in love with computers and programming. Soon he was officially a computer-science major, an artsy kid turned hacker. His instructor for a COBOL class happened to be Russ Sprouse, brother of Gene, who hired Mullich for his first contract programming job and later found him a gig as a regular employee at Rainbow.

Steffin and Pederson initially hired Mullich — still finishing up at university — as a part-time contractor. Under those terms he not only coded educational software but also wrote a second set of scenarios for Space as well as the original games Windfall and Network. He not only programmed these games, but conceptualized and designed them from scratch, and quickly at that. Network, for instance, was born when Steffin called Mullich and told him he needed a new game for a trade show next weekend. Mullich designed and programmed Network in three days flat.

As soon as Mullich finished university in 1980, he joined Steffin, Pederson, and sales manager Mike Leiberman at Edu-Ware as Employee #4. There he began working on the most ambitious project he had yet tackled: a computer game based on the classic British television show The Prisoner.

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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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In 1978 the Minnesota Educational Consortium (MECC), home of Don Rawitsch and his game The Oregon Trail, was on the cutting edge of computers in education — so much so that, long before business or the general public took much notice of the things, it began considering how to bring microcomputers into Minnesota classrooms as a supplement to the teletypes, dumb terminals, and large time-sharing systems that were the order of the day. MECC went to the leading producers of microcomputers of the time for bids, a list that was of course headed by Radio Shack. The Shack responded in its usual disinterested fashion.

Some of the companies, particularly Radio Shack, were not enamored with this process and thought it was kind of hokey — the process being the bid process and state requirements — and so they weren’t real particular about how they responded. We told Radio Shack, “You know, if you don’t respond in the right way we can’t accept your bid,” and they weren’t willing to change. Everything was flying high and they were selling TRS-80s like mad.

Although most in the MECC bureaucracy would have preferred to deal with large, stable Radio Shack, tiny Apple bid aggressively and enthusiastically, and won the day. MECC ordered 500 Apple IIs, a huge order in a year in which Apple would sell just 7600 machines in total. Granted, Apple discounted the sale so heavily that it’s doubtful they made much of anything from it. But that mattered not a whit. In a storied career filled with savvy marketing moves, Steve Jobs never made a savvier.

MECC not only began moving Apples into Minnesota classrooms, but also began porting its huge library of BASIC educational programs onto the platform. Let’s think about what this state of affairs means for a moment. MECC was already known all over the country as the leader in computer-based education, the example which all of the other more conservative, less well-funded educational institutions tended to belatedly follow. When those folks began thinking about microcomputers for their classrooms, they naturally asked what MECC was using: the Apple II. When they considered educational software, they once again had to take note of MECC’s rich library — a library being rapidly ported to just one microcomputer, the Apple II.

To push the process of educational adoption, by 1979 Apple was beginning to heavily promote the Apple II as an educational tool via advertisements like these:

Jobs realized that getting his computers into schools was the key to conquering a much bigger market: the home. Education was after all one of the most frequently cited reasons that families bought a computer. When Mom and Dad considered what computer to buy for Junior, the Apple II — the computer with all that educational software, the computer that Junior’s school was using, the computer that Junior himself had told them about and already knew how to operate — seemed to many the only logical choice, even if it did cost a bit more and, increasingly as time went on, didn’t have quite as impressive specifications as competing models. Those discounted Apple IIs for schools were loss leaders that paid off handsomely for years. Indeed, as soon as Apple had enough money to make it feasible, they increased their largesse, offering to give an Apple II absolutely free to every elementary school in the country. Moves like that created a stranglehold that even Apple itself was unable to break for years, when it wished the Apple II would just die already in favor of the Apple III and, later, the Macintosh. From the September 24, 1990, edition of InfoWorld:

Nearly 10 years later, elementary schools continue to buy Apple II technology. As a result, the strategy has kept what many industry observers contend is an overpriced and technically obsolete system in the mainstream. And it provided Apple with a virtual lock on the elementary school market that continues today.

That said, there was a bit more than smart marketing behind the Apple II’s classroom domination. Thanks to Woz’s chip- and circuit-saving design as well as the relative primitiveness of the machine itself, there wasn’t much to go wrong on the Apple II internally. And externally the thing was built like a tank. These factors helped the machines survive literally years of abuse at the hands of a whole generation of schoolchildren pounding their keyboards in frustration, poking at their screens with sticky fingers, and jamming the occasional floppy disk into a drive sideways. Teachers grew to love these tough little partners that offered them an occasional reprieve from classes full of wailing children.

Nor is it fair, regardless of the purity or lack thereof of Apple’s motivations in promoting education so heavily, to frame the discussion only in terms of sales and market share. Woz’s hackerish creation found itself a key player in an ongoing debate about the best way to approach education itself. We can perhaps come to understand that by looking at the career of one man, Sherwin Steffin. (Much of what follows is drawn from a portrait of Steffin and his company, Edu-Ware, that appeared in the May, 1981, issue of Softalk magazine.)

Steffin was not one of the young whiz kids of the microcomputer revolution. By the time Apple IIs began arriving in classrooms, he was almost 45 years old, with an impressive career in education already behind him. In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology and a master’s degree in instructional technology, Steffin had combated gangs as a social worker in Detroit, taught junior high school for seven years, served as media director for a Chicago school district, served as coordinator of instructional system development at Northeastern University for four years, and developed instructional television for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York. From 1977, he worked as a senior research analyst at UCLA. The alleged crises in education that he wrestled with there sound eerily familiar today:

Conventional education was in serious difficulty. The end product was being perceived as less competent, less skilled, less curious, and lacking in the desire to learn.

Schools were filled with frustration. The teachers were getting the brunt of the public’s animosity, but the teacher had no mandate within which to work. It seemed that equally as important as teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic were his duties in teaching social skills, making the students patriotic, keeping them off drugs, and teaching them sex education without enlightening them about sex.

“Educational technologists” of Steffin’s generation tended to be greatly enamored with the theories of psychologist B.F. Skinner, inventor of “radical behaviorism.” Skinner believed that all human behavior is predetermined by genetics and by previous experience — the idea of a quasi-mystical “free will” was a useless chimera. He wrote a book, The Technology of Teaching, applying radical behaviorism to the field of education, outlining his idea of “programmed instruction.” Skinner proposed education as essentially a series of rote drills: the student is asked a question, responds, and is immediately informed whether her answer was correct, ad infinitum. Educational technologists developed “programmed learning machines,” automated devices to implement the concept of programmed instruction. Not surprisingly, they weren’t a big success. In a rare show of unity, teachers and students alike loathed them. Not only were they inexpressibly dull to work with, but teachers especially found them downright dehumanizing (a sentiment that, given the thrust of his ideas, Skinner may have embraced wholeheartedly). They correctly argued that many subjects, such as art and literature appreciation and critical thinking, could hardly be pounded home through rote drills.

Steffin began to diverge from his peers, finding the programmed learning machines inadequate. All their other failings aside, they were only good for what he called “convergent thinking, meaning that problems are posed and all students are brought to the same answer.” Divergent thinking, the encouragement of individual critical thinking skills and even opinion, was surely at least as important, for he believed that “thinking is the path to freedom.” With the arrival of relatively cheap microcomputers like the Apple II, Steffin saw a much more flexible tool for learning than the straitjacketed programming learning machines. In spite of having no programming experience or innate aptitude, he developed a program called Compu-Read to teach reading skills, first on UCLA’s big institutional system but later on an Apple II he had bought for research purposes. Like so many other semi-professional / semi-hobbyist programmers in those early years, he initially developed software as a sideline, licensing Compu-Read to the biggest of the early Apple II software publishers, Programma International. In the spring of 1979, however, Steffin was laid off from his post at UCLA. Rather than looking for another, he decided to jump into computer education with both feet, founding Edu-Ware in partnership with a UCLA student, Steve Pederson. Together they began churning out software at a feverish clip, copying the disks themselves and selling them in the Ziploc baggies that were typical of the era.

Edu-Ware’s offerings can be divided into three broad categories. Most were competent but plebian educational drills that, truth be told, were not all that different from the old programmed learning machines. Their names were about as unexciting as their contents: Compu-Read, Fractions, Decimals, Arithmetic Skills, Compu-Spell, Algebra. (At least no one could say they weren’t descriptive.)

In remarkably short order, however, other Edu-Ware programs began to appear that occupied a hazy space at the intersection of educational tool, game, and simulation. Windfall: The Oil Crisis Game placed the player in charge of large (albeit fictional) oil company. She could and presumably would try to win, of course, but she would also, inevitably, learn about a complex system that had almost broken down to produce the 1979 oil crisis. Network placed her in charge of a television network, balancing shows, schedules, and ratings, and learning about the pressures of mass media in the process. Terrorist focused on another subject much on people’s minds as the Iranian hostage crisis dragged on, placing her in the role of terrorist or government authority in hostage taking, airplane hijacking, or nuclear blackmail scenarios.

Created at a time when most other software either ignored the real world entirely or dealt with it only in the form of military hardware, these programs are remarkable for the way they determinedly engage with real, pressing social questions. But they are not just dry simulations. Each reflects an agenda, makes an argument about the world, making them perhaps the first examples of what has come to be called “persuasive games.” Their procedural rhetoric reflects the liberal worldview of Edu-Ware themselves. Network might even qualify as the first procedural satire, being inspired by the 1976 black comedy film of the same name.

And the third category? They don’t pretend to be simulations, or anything other than games for that matter, but they’re no less fascinating for all that. More on them next time.


Posted by on November 5, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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