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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Fahrenheit 451: The Game

Fahrenheit 451

At the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 the game you learn that the nuclear apocalypse that ended the book turned out to not be so apocalyptic after all. It seems the country just got knocked around a bit. Now you’re in New York City looking to continue your rebellion against the book burners in charge of things and hopefully in the process rescue Clarisse, whom your sources tell you is still alive and being held prisoner somewhere in the city; it seems she’s gone from Manic Pixie Dream Girl to hardened resistance fighter.

Fahrenheit 451

Going west or north from the starting location gets you instantly killed by some of the fauna that now inhabits Central Park. Obviously that pile of leaves must be the ticket. Or is it?

>move leaves
Can't understand that.

>look under leaves
This is the southeast corner of Central Park. There is a clearing, with a pond to the west and a path leading north along the shore of the pond.

>push leaves
Can't understand that.

>get leaves
Nothing happens.

After ten more minutes of this sort of thing, you might find the magic verb at last…

>kick leaves
Under the leaves you see an old, rusted grating set into a patch of broken concrete.

To call this beginning of Instadeath combined with Parser Fun inauspicious hardly begins to state the case. What a surprise, then, when the game that follows turns into a worthy design with exactly the spark of passion and innovation that is so conspicuously missing in Rendezvous with Rama. If only the parser didn’t continue to undermine it at every turn…

Byron Preiss and Ray Bradbury first worked together on a book called Dinosaur Tales, which combined a number of old and new Bradbury stories on one of his favorite subjects with Preiss’s signature approach to books as lavishly illustrated objects d’art. When the Telarium project began, Preiss was able not only to convince him to sign a contract for the adaptation of his most famous book but also to involve himself in the project a bit more than Arthur C. Clarke would in Rendezvous with Rama: he wrote a summary of the book to be printed inside the game box, and did some interviews just to promote it. Telarium claimed that he also contributed “ideas” to the project, although that phrase is vague enough to mean almost anything; he did frankly state in one interview that he “wasn’t interested in doing the work himself,” would “trust his longtime friend Preiss to render the work faithfully.”

So, Fahrenheit 451 the game fell to Byron Preiss Video Productions, the shell company he and Spinnaker had set up that also created Rendezvous with Rama and Dragonworld from scratch. Preiss installed another veteran of his Be an Interplanetary Spy book series, Len Neufeld, as designer and writer. Being built with the same technology and employing many of the same programmers, artists, and composers as Rendezvous with Rama, Fahrenheit 451 is inevitably superficially similar in flavor to that game. Certainly the two games have plenty of disadvantages in common, including a stubborn and uninformative parser (the slightly less infuriating “Can’t understand that” replacing “You reconsider your words” as Fahrenheit 451‘s error message of choice) and pictures that sometimes look like little more than a smear of discolored pixels (with an ugly brown replacing an ugly blue as Fahrenheit 451‘s hue of choice). Fahrenheit 451 at least lacks Rendezvous with Rama‘s horrid action games. More importantly, it acquits itself far better by engaging with the themes and ideas of its source material rather than just the window dressing of stage set and plot outline. As blogger Dale Dobson noted in his post on the game, it “takes itself, and its inspiration, seriously, and that is to be commended.”

By making the game a sequel to the novel rather than a recreation, Neufeld is freed to create a design that plays in Bradbury’s world with many of Bradbury’s themes but that also works as an adventure game. You have the run of about twenty blocks of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, an area the team knew well; New York City was the home of Neufeld, Preiss, and, most of Preiss’s people. By setting the game in his home town and including famous landmarks like the Plaza Hotel and Tiffany’s, Neufeld manages to make the setting of Fahrenheit 451 feel like a real place, an impression aided by just enough elements of simulation: time passes and day cycles to night, Mechanical Hounds patrol up and down the street on a regular schedule, stores open and close and people come and go from their apartments. You must also eat occasionally and manage your money (which you’ll also need to find more of to complete the game).

The writing is more than solid; it’s sometimes downright lyrical. It’s not afraid to stretch to several paragraphs when the situation calls for it and never feels written down to a computer-game audience. Exploring the world, always one of if not the core pleasure of adventure gaming, is especially pleasurable here, as is solving a collection of interesting puzzles that are always logical and fair. Your ultimate goal is to penetrate the New York Public Library. Your immediate reason for doing so is to rescue Clarisse, who is being held prisoner there, but the goal also has symbolic significance in a game all about the pleasures and importance of books. No, there’s not much of a real story to speak of beyond that goal. And yes, there are a hundred problems I could poke at if we insist on judging the game as a coherent work of fiction, like the way that just about everyone in the whole city seems to be in the Underground, or how Clarisse now seems to be an entirely different person from the one we knew in the book. But this isn’t a book. It’s an adventure game, whose pleasures are anchored in exploring a landscape both physical and mental rather than plot. And the mood of the book is always very present. At the end, you must choose between abandoning the cause and enjoying life with Clarisse or sacrificing yourself on the altar of Literature, a perfect echo of the book’s contrasting of the comfort and superficial happiness of (Bradbury’s perception of) television with the dangerous ideas of the great books.

Many of the puzzles are of the conventional object-oriented stripe — you need this to do that, but to get it you need to find a way to do this, etc. — but the central spine of the design once again finds a way to connect with the themes of the book. You need the assistance of the various members of the Underground who are scattered around the city, but talking with them usually requires a password in the form of a literary quotation. So you spend a lot of your time hunting down and deploying these quotations, which run the gamut from the Song of Solomon to Moby Dick to the inevitable four from Shakespeare. In purely mechanical terms, it’s just another system of magic words, no more complicated or interesting than Adventure‘s PLUGH and XYZZY. Thematically, however, it’s brilliant, especially because the quotes always have something to connect them to the situation or person on which they must be used — even if that something is sometimes only obvious in retrospect. Many were supposedly chosen by Bradbury himself. Indeed, whatever his actual involvement with the development of Fahrenheit 451 the game, Bradbury the author is thoroughly present in it.

Ray Bradbury with his toys

Ray Bradbury with his toys

I actually mean that literally as well as metaphorically. Amidst lots to do and discover, you can find “Ray’s” phone number and call him up. He helps with a puzzle or two directly, but also shares his thoughts on any of the literary quotes you care to ask him about, and will shoot the breeze in the form of a random anecdote if you just TALK TO him. I generally don’t have a lot of patience with the man-child persona Bradbury had by this time well established for his many interviewers. I find it affected and, well, childish, and his art, also long since established by 1984, of sounding profound without actually saying anything drives me nuts. There’s some of that here, but Neufeld and company curate him pretty well; he’s actually fun and interesting to listen to. Most of his responses are phrased as if he’s answering a question you just posed — a neat, verisimilitudes trick that requires a mere modicum of suspension of disbelief.

We’re all terminally ill. Sickness is merely a factor, like money.

Japanese, Italian, French, Chinese, and other East Asian (Thai, Korean, Philippine, etc.), Middle Eastern — when you`re hungry, everything`s good.

Favorite films? King Kong, Fantasia, Citizen Kane.

I told you — my favorite play is St. Joan.

Moby Dick, Tarzan, and Grapes of Wrath are my favorite books. I also love the stories of Hemingway and Poe.

Many of my early stories were published in the magazine Weird Tales in the early thirties and forties.

My love affair with dinosaurs has lasted as long as my affair with Mars.

Such little extras abound. You can REMEMBER snippets of prose from the original novel; in addition to Ray, you can also call many other people from the handy phone booths, most of whom aren’t strictly needed but all of whom add a touch of atmosphere or something to think about; there are alternate solutions to puzzles and many paths to victory.

I wish I could wrap up this article right here, with the final note that, while I find Fahrenheit 451 the novel rather overrated, this game is not only great fun to play but also left me feeling a bit more kindly disposed toward its inspiration and even its inspiration’s author. Alas, I can’t do that, for reasons I first broached at the beginning of this article.

The parser, you see, ruins everything. Telarium wants and claims it to be a full-sentence jobber to rival Infocom’s, but it barely seems to parse at all, just to match arbitrary sequences of words. (Yes, I have to take back what I said in an earlier article about Telarium’s parser being “adequate.”) The fact that it will accept more than two words just compounds the problem, adding a nice dose of combinatorial explosion when you’re trying to figure out what to type at the thing. Worst of all, it’s not consistent in its whims. Sometimes you must TALK <character>; sometimes you must TALK TO <character>; sometimes you must ASK <character>. Synonyms are virtually nonexistent. There’s a character named Emile Ungar whom you can only refer to as “Ungar” — not “Emile,” not “Emile Ungar.” Similar situations are absolutely everywhere. I was having a great experience with the game until I got stuck and turned to the walkthrough, whereupon I found that I had actually solved every single puzzle I’d found so far. I just hadn’t typed the exact phrasing that the parser wanted.

I can hardly express how disheartening this is to me. At one point I was ready to call Fahrenheit 451 the best non-Infocom adventure game I’d yet played for this blog. Now I can’t even really recommend it at all. What’s doubly frustrating is that the game doesn’t absolutely need a better parser per se; none of these puzzles require complicated parser interactions. Telarium just needed to put the game before testers for a week or so, to note what they tried to type and add those phrasings to the pattern matcher. As it is, it feels like a game that only its creators, who had the magic phrases wired into their subconscious, actually played. For a clue to how that could have happened, we might turn to a Harvard Business School study that describes the frantic push at Spinnaker to get the new line out in time for Christmas 1984. In the words of their chairman Bill Bowman:

We had people working 24 hours a day for a month. We converted the board room into a dormitory, with sleeping bags and pillows. People would work until they couldn’t go on anymore, and then they would go upstairs, sleep for a few hours, come down and start working again. We had a caterer bringing in meals for a month, weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays. It was… ridiculous, that’s what it was. But, we had to have the product in a month. We did meet the deadline, but we won’t do it again. It was extremely painful, although when it was finished, the camaraderie that existed in the team was fantastic. This involved some 30% of the people in the company. I think this is going to be our biggest line next year.

It’s hard to imagine this situation allowing for much testing. This leads to an important point: Infocom is justly celebrated for their ambitious, imaginative writers and designers. Yet it’s also true that they were far from the only such talented folks working in text in the 1980s. Infocom’s triumph was, as much as anything else, a triumph of process, of a commitment to quality and doing things right even if that meant taking the slow, plodding route of releasing a game every few months rather than vomiting out half a dozen on the eve of Christmas. Infocom’s games didn’t suffer from the problems of Fahrenheit 451 because Infocom never allowed themselves to get into a situation like the one described above — a situation which, whatever its value in adrenaline and company camaraderie, doesn’t often lead to the best games.

Still, Fahrenheit 451 does do enough things right, and has enough interesting innovations, that you may want to spend some time on Fifth Street. As an expression of the joys of literature it works for me better than the book. By all means feel free to download the Commodore 64 version and give it a shot if it looks tempting.

(The same references I used for my introduction to Telarium and bookware mostly apply here. The photo of Bradbury was part of an interview to promote Fahrenheit 451 the game in the June 18, 1984, issue of InfoWorld.)

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Fahrenheit 451: The Book

(For those of you reading in real-time: I recently was fortunate enough to exchange some emails with C. David Seuss, Spinnaker’s co-founder and president. He filled in some gaps for me, and also pointed me to a Harvard Business School case study that filled in some more. If you’re deeply interested in our current theme, you might want to look back over the previous two articles. There’s nothing new that is really earth-shattering, but I was able to fix a minor error or two and add a few more details on Spinnaker’s history and particularly the SAS development system used for most of the Telarium games.)

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury enjoys by far the best literary reputation amongst science-fiction writers of the Golden Age. Certainly he’s the only one you’re likely to find on a high-school English syllabus. If you’re feeling cynical, you can attribute much of his reputation to a chance meeting with Christopher Isherwood in a bookstore in 1950. When Bradbury showed considerable chutzpah in pushing a signed copy of his book The Martian Chronicles upon him, Isherwood for some reason actually read it and wrote a glowing reviewing heralding this “very great and unusual talent.” “I doubt if he could pilot a rocket ship, much less design one,” wrote Isherwood, thereby granting Bradbury his bona fides as a suitably scientifically inept literary writer, and making him the only science-fiction writer it was acceptable for the intelligentsia to read despite a bibliography that consisted mostly of the likes of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Weird Tales.

But of course attributing Bradbury’s reputation entirely to one English intellectual’s approbation would be unfair. He was — or eventually flowered into — just about the only one of his peers aware of a deeper, richer literary tradition than the one that began with the first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926, the only one who tried to craft beautiful — as opposed to merely functional — prose. He has some entertainingly pulpy adventure stories to his credit and some more labored but lyrical stories, as well as one novel of childhood, Dandelion Wine, that isn’t science fiction at all. Still, his bibliography of truly canonical works is fairly thin for an important writer who claimed to have written every single day for more than seventy years. For all his continuing literary reputation, most of his work after 1962’s Something Wicked This Way Comes was politely received and just as quickly forgotten amongst both genre and literary fans.

Bradbury’s most famous work, Fahrenheit 451, dates to 1953. It’s a book which kind of fascinates me but also frustrates the living hell out of me. If you somehow escaped it in English class, know that Fahrenheit 451 is the story of a fireman named Guy Montag who lives in a future where that profession doesn’t mean what you think it does: firemen now start fires rather than put them out. Specifically, their mission is to burn books, which never caused anyone anything but trouble anyway and have now been replaced by television and other more easy-going entertainments. This mission is considered so essential that houses are built from a special flame-proof material, not out of concern about conventional fire safety but because it makes it easier for the firemen to come and burn any stray books with a minimum of fuss. Because every dystopian novel needs a doomed rebel against the system, Montag grows disillusioned with his profession, and eventually joins the literary underground struggling to keep the flame of knowledge alive. His means of disillusionment is — in another fine dystopian tradition — a girl, a teenage neighbor named Clarisse. And this is where I first start to get really annoyed. Bradbury has been credited, with some truth, with foreshadowing or even inspiring everything from 24-hour news as entertainment to the Sony Walkman in Fahrenheit 451. I’ve never, however, seen him properly credited for his most insidious creation: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first labelled as such by Nathan Rabin in a review of the movie Elizabethtown for the Onion’s AV Club. She has no real existence of her own; we never learn her hopes or fears or anything of her inner life. Her whole purpose rather revolves around the brooding male she has apparently been sent from Manic Pixie Heaven to save through the sheer force of her quirky charm. “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” Rabin writes, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” We can add “sensitive young science-fiction writers” to that sentence.

The rain was thinning away and the girl was walking in the center of the sidewalk with her head up and the few drops falling on her face. She smiled when she saw Montag.

“Hello!”

He said hello and then said, “What are you up to now?”

“I’m still crazy. The rain feels good. I love to walk in it.”

“I don’t think I’d like that,” he said.

“You might if you tried.”

“I never have.”

She licked her lips. “Rain even tastes good.”

“What do you do, go around trying everything once?” he asked.

“Sometimes twice.” She looked at something in her hand.

“What’ve you got there?” he said.

“I guess it’s the last of the dandelions this year. I didn’t think I’d find one on the lawn this late. Have you ever heard of rubbing it under your chin? Look.” She touched her chin with the flower, laughing.

“Why?”

“If it rubs off, it means I’m in love. Has it?”

He could hardly do anything else but look.

“Well?” she said.

“You’re yellow under there.”

“Fine! Let’s try you now.”

“It won’t work for me.”

“Here.” Before he could move she had put the dandelion under his chin. He drew back and she laughed. “Hold still!”

She peered under his chin and frowned.

“Well?” he said.

“What a shame,” she said. “You’re not in love with anyone.”

I’m sure that for certain people — probably mostly romantic boys of about the age when Fahrenheit 451 is most often assigned in school — Clarisse reads as delightful. As for me, I find it hard to believe that a married 33-year-old man wrote this tripe that sounds like something I might have written for my high-school creative-writing class. Even making due allowance for different times, passages like this make it hard for me to see Bradbury as the serious writer Isherwood and others would have me believe him to be.

But if we don’t want to place Bradbury alongside Joyce and Orwell as one of the twentieth century’s greatest, what do we want to do with him? I tend to go down the same road as Bryan Curtis, who claimed that Bradbury was not so much a great writer full stop as a great pulp writer. Fahrenheit 451 is… well, it’s a silly book really. This is a world where Benjamin Franklin is honored as the supposed first book burner; where a bunch of maintenance workers who if they lived in our world would be changing the oil in your car come out to do a quick blood exchange on someone who’s taken a few too many pills; where teenage joy-riders run over pedestrians just for fun with no consequences; where semi-robotic, semi-organic Mechanical Hounds chase fugitives through the streets. All of this is described in luridly purple prose that wouldn’t be out of place in a Roger Corman script — or a computer-game instruction manual. A Mechanical Hound, resting after a hard day on the job: “It was like a great bee come home from some field where the honey is full of poison wildness, of insanity and nightmare, its body crammed with that over-rich nectar and now it was sleeping the evil out of itself.” You’re trying way too hard, Ray…

It’s all so over the top that it makes Fahrenheit 451 kind of fun to read, despite the fact that there’s not a hint of conscious humor in the book. Compared to the masterpiece of dystopian literature, Nineteen Eight-Four, it’s just not even operating on the same level. Orwell’s world is horrifying because it is believable; Bradbury’s is anything but. Every sentence Orwell writes is taut, considered; Bradbury just sort of gushes everywhere, piling on the adjectives until sentences threaten to buckle under their weight. The same goes for his other building blocks: he piles on a nuclear war from out of nowhere at the end of the book because, hey, why not add to the dystopian litany? I’m not sure I’m prepared to accept that Bradbury was a better writer than Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein. I just think he was trying harder to be a good writer (in the sense that would lead to acceptance by Isherwood and his peers) than they were. Bradbury post-Isherwood dearly wanted to leave the pulps behind; he allegedly begged his publisher to remove the words “science fiction” from his books entirely. Yet the pulps remained at the core of who he was as a writer, at least when he was at his best. The Martian Chronicles (1950) and The Illustrated Man (1951) are my favorite books by him because their style is still easy, relatively unaffected by the call to Literature. Fahrenheit 451, unfortunately, often all but buries its pulpy fun elements underneath all that bloated verbiage.

Still, it’s possible to read Fahrenheit 451 as neither an endeavor in serious world-building nor pulpy adventure, but as an allegory about the threat posed to books and, well, thoughtfulness in general by mass media and the technology that enables it — as, in other words, Bradbury’s version of Animal Farm rather than Nineteen Eighty-Four. Certainly this is the most sympathetic way to approach it today if we’re determined to label it Great Literature, even as we remain in doubt whether that was really Bradbury’s intention.

Bradbury was always more than a bit of a Luddite. In later years he railed against the Internet and computers as only a reactionary old man can, displaying breathtaking ignorance in saying a computer was nothing but a glorified typewriter, and he already had two of them. Similarly, his target in the 1950s was television. Yes, there are ways in which Fahrenheit 451 feels shockingly prescient: the clamshell earphones people use to isolate themselves from the world even when out and about in public; the elaborate home-theater setups in every house; the ATM machines. And the questions Bradbury raises are profoundly worth asking still — in fact, more than ever — today, when everyone seems more and more wedded to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and less and less able to just enjoy the proverbial breeze on their cheeks, able to simply be in the non-electronic world of people and physical sensation. It’s also important to note that the dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, unlike that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a populist dystopia. The people have brought this world upon themselves, and fundamentally want things to be this way.

But of course for every point on this chain of thought there’s a counterpoint. If Twitter is a network of narcissistic celebrities and would-be celebrities tweeting about what they had for lunch, it’s also a way for activists in totalitarian countries to communicate outside the reach of the government. If email and the Internet isolate us from our neighbors, they have also opened up a new era of international communication and understanding, not just among the elites and heads of state but amongst ordinary kids in high schools and universities around the world. Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about Fahrenheit 451 in what I know has hardly been a glowing review is that it can lead us to think about these issues seriously. That Bradbury saw so much of the future in which we now live in 1953 is indeed remarkable. I just wish all of his arguments about it weren’t so muddled.

I’m a huge lover of books, so I ought to be very sympathetic toward Fahrenheit 451‘s defense of literature. Actually, however, I find it rather wrong-headed in that it misses everything that is personally important to me about literature. The rebellion that Montag finally joins at the end of the novel is made up of aging professors and other erudite types who have each memorized a classic work of literature, to be passed on to future generations of rebels and preserved until humanity decides it is ready for it again. Beyond representing a wonderfully interesting game of Chinese whispers, this scheme bothers me because it treats books as objects to be mothballed away, a static canon of Great Works held sacrosanct. It’s another sign of the conservative, even reactionary viewpoint from which Bradbury writes — a viewpoint I just don’t share and don’t ever want to. I’m for a living literature of creativity and reinvention; I’d rather watch a bunch of Italian prisoners put on an earthy performance of Julius Caesar that really matters to their own lives than watch a meticulously researched reproduction of the Elizabethan theater experience put on by a bunch of fussy scholars — to say nothing of those bores who pride themselves on pulling out an out-of-context Shakespeare quote for every occasion. Bradbury’s rebels should be spending at least as much time creating new books as preserving those that have gone before. The health of a culture is measured not by the size of its museums but by the creative life out there on its streets. And no, the irony of someone who calls himself the Digital Antiquarian writing this is not entirely lost on me. Suffice to say that museums and preservation are important too, but will never be as beautiful as a kid who picks up pen, paintbrush, instrument, or computer for the first time.

Bradbury continually confuses books as physical objects with the idea of books or, if you like, ideas. Frustratingly, at times he does seem to get the distinction:

Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

In another place he rails against what a later generation would come to call political correctness:

Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.

Yet, as he himself noted in the more lucid passage that precedes this one, all of these ideas can be conveyed by other means than paper and print. Nor are all books by some inherent property of the form challenging or enlightening. The bestseller rolls and airport newsstands are filled with volumes that are neither. And what of challenging films, television, even, yes, computer games? How are these things controlled when the firemen are obsessed only with paper books, any and all of them? With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not always the message.

Fahrenheit 451 is a stew of conflated ideas about censorship, the decline of reading, technology, media, government, nuclear apocalypse, even automobiles. Heady, worthwhile topics all, but it’s hard to pull one thing apart from another, hard to extract a cogent point of view on anything. Perhaps the book’s secret weapon is that it’s hard to find anything solid enough in this amorphous mass to really kick against. Bradbury himself became an expert at weaving and dodging through criticisms of the book as times and interlocutors changed. One year he was writing an afterword that was all about censorship in current times; a few years later Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t about censorship at all. The only ideas we can fully get our hands around are thoroughly banal: books are good, burning them is bad; everything’s going to hell with the younger generation.

The latter has been key to the book’s popularity with disgruntled authority figures everywhere, just as the pulpy fun and melodrama makes it appealing to teenagers. If it’s not ultimately a great book, it’s certainly one with something to appeal to a lot of different people, which made it a pretty good target for adaptation into a commercial computer game. We’ll see how that fared next time.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama

In the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke discusses the music choices of astronaut David Bowman in the latter stages of his voyage to Saturn aboard the Discovery, after the malfunctioning supercomputer HAL has killed all of his crew mates and left him as alone as any human has ever been, millions of miles from the nearest fellow member of his species. He begins with opera, but soon finds that he can’t bear to hear human voices. So he moves on to the instrumental music of the Romantic composers, but soon finds their emotionalism “oppressive.” At last he finds peace in the cool abstractions of Bach’s architectures in sound.

It’s a passage that always makes me think of Clarke’s own qualities as a writer. You won’t find rich characters in his works, nor any insight whatsoever into that elusive thing known as the Human Condition. When he tries to do that sort of thing, the results are always odd, like something written from the standpoint of an alien who doesn’t quite get the chaotic emotions of humanity. And sometimes it’s kind of creepy. Take our subject for today, Rendezvous with Rama, which postulates a society of the future in which plural marriage is the norm and the crew aboard a spaceship can engage in spirited orgies without it breeding jealousies or having any effect on their group cohesion. Like when reading Heinlein’s libertarian free-love fantasies, this stuff leaves me screaming at the pages that people just aren’t made that way — not to mention that it leaves out virtually everything that’s actually interesting to read about love and sex. Sex to Clarke is all clunky mechanical and chemical interactions. It’s little surprise that he waxes poetic on the “sexual overtones” of spaceship docking in 2010. (“The rugged, compact Russian ship did look positively male when compared with the delicate, slender American one.”)

So, no, you don’t read Clarke for his insights into the psyche. What you do read him for are his Big Ideas, and for a glimpse at the ineffable majesty of the universe in all its unfathomable immensity and improbable orderliness. Published in 1973 when Clarke was at the peak of his powers and popularity in the wake of the 2001 film and novel, Rendezvous with Rama shines despite the aforementioned embarrassing attempts at personalizing its rather abstract story. It shines so brightly, in fact, that’s it’s arguably the archetypical Clarke novel, the one to read if you want to appreciate who he was and why he is important through a single book.

Rama tells the story of an object which enters the solar system from interstellar space in the year 2131. At first observers assume the object, which they christen Rama, to be just another asteroid — albeit a large one, with a diameter of some 40 kilometers. When a probe is launched to take pictures, however, the truth is immediately obvious: Rama was made rather than formed. It’s a spaceship of some sort, humankind’s first visitor from the stars. It’s hastily determined that exactly one spacecraft, the Endeavor, can make rendezvous before Rama slingshots around the Sun and back out into the depths of interstellar space. The bulk of the novel tells of the Endeavor‘s crew’s methodical exploration of Rama’s interior. There are a few emergencies to spice things up, but mostly Clarke is content to revel in the sense of wonder of the occasion and the unknowable mystery that is Rama itself, which operates with all the austere and remorseless precision of a Bach fugue. The Endeavor is forced to leave to avoid being burned up as Rama nears perihelion with the Sun. As Rama does so it siphons energy from the Sun itself by a mysterious process. And then it’s gone, leaving behind more questions than it answered. Rama, it seems, never had any interest in Earth or its inhabitants; our solar system was merely a handy gas station on the road to who knows where.

Clarke’s refusal to do more than nick the outer layer of the onion of mysteries that is Rama is, as a thousand reviewers before me have already commented, kind of infuriating. Yet it’s also crucial to the veneer of believability that makes Rama’s wonders all the more wondrous for us the readers. Why should we expect to understand an alien culture advanced enough to build something like Rama after a few weeks of poking around inside a single artifact? The unsolved mysteries are actually key to a sense of awe that can only be diminished by reading the series of ill-advised sequels which Clarke farmed out to Gentry Lee in his latter years, which give us the answers we thought we wanted and in the process turn the story into just another mediocre space opera.

In addition to a sense of awe, Rendezvous with Rama also leaves us with with one humdinger of a setup for an adventure game. Rama‘s plot, such as it is, of exploring a conveniently deserted spaceship and trying to puzzle out how things work reads like it was written with the medium in mind. It thus served as ready inspiration for such early adventure games as Infocom’s Starcross. And thus when Byron Preiss started looking for books to adapt to interactive fiction Rendezvous with Rama was about the most obvious candidate imaginable, especially because Preiss already had an established professional and personal relationship with Clarke; Preiss had recently produced The Sentinel, a collection of nine vintage Clarke short stories, for Berkley Book’s Masterworks of Science Fiction and Fantasy series, and was currently helping him with an autobiography that would never actually emerge. The contract was quickly signed.

Like Fahrenheit 451 and Dragonworld, the other two of the initial group of Telarium games that originated with the imprint, Rendezvous with Rama was created by a new shell company Preiss and Spinnaker founded just for the purpose: Byron Preiss Video Productions. Spinnaker’s Chief Technology Officer, Dick Bratt, masterminded an ambitious and expensive cross-platform adventure-game engine called SAS, the Spinnaker Adventure System. His job was made more challenging by the fact that he needed to support not just text but also graphics, sounds, even embedded action games. Given Preiss’s history as a publisher of graphic novels and lavishly illustrated coffee-table books, this all-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to computerized storytelling was a virtual inevitability. Bill Bowman, one of Spinnaker’s founding partners, described SAS in some detail in a Harvard Business School case study:

It has been an important investment, and gives us a competitive advantage nobody else has. It cost well over $1 million, but it enables us to take a script from an author, add some art work, and a secretary can translate it into SAL (Spinnaker Adventure Language) that we created here. It is a very complex computer program and a sophisticated graphics tool. The result is that we put the new game on the machine once, and automatically get versions for each of the different microcomputers we support. This cuts the development costs dramatically, because normally you have to rewrite the program for each version for a different computer. Another important advantage is that we have all versions ready for sale at the same time, and we can profit from advertising, and not lose sales. SAL is a part of SAS (Spinnaker Adventure System). The second part of SAS is a graphics tool, that takes a normal picture on paper and prepares programs for all the different computers that display it. We have something similar for music: our musician plays some music in a special organlike machine, and in less than an hour we have the computer code that will play that music, optimized for each microcomputer. Another very important saying is that we have to “play test” the programs only once. Testing is a very important cost; it can take between 200 and 400 hours to test all the options that one of these programs offers. We would have to do it for each version of the same program if they were programmed independently, as almost everybody else in the industry does. Thanks to the system, our production costs are now about a third of what they were one year ago. It is an enormous asset for us. Two or three companies, at most, have something similar for text, but nobody has anything like it for graphics and music in the whole industry, and these features are becoming more and more important.

Having spent some time dissecting the Telarium games, I feel pretty confident in saying how SAL works. All of the basic logic for the game is compiled to native code for the target platform, of which there were only an eventual four: the Commodore 64, Apple II, IBM PC, and Atari ST. This kernel of perhaps 30 to 35 K remains in memory all the time. All of the assets it needs, including the actual text that is displayed as well as pictures and music, are stored on the games’ multiple disk sides, to be swapped into memory as needed. (If the assets needed are not on the disk currently in the drive, the kernel simply puts up a prompt to ask for the one it needs.) Action games can be swapped in in place of the usual adventure kernel, which they simply reload when done. All of this could add up to quite a lot of data by the standards of the time. Telarium games spill across four or five disk sides on the Apple II and Commodore 64, a fact Spinnaker happily trumpeted in their advertising.

Ron Martinez

Ron Martinez

Arthur C. Clarke with Byron Preiss and David M. Harris, Telarium's editor

Arthur C. Clarke with Byron Preiss and David M. Harris, Telarium’s editor

The team that worked on Rendezvous with Rama included programmer Michael P. Meyer and illustrator Robert Strong, along with writer and designer Ronald Martinez, one of Preiss’s regular stable of writers who had cut his teeth on interactivity via a couple of volumes in the Be an Interplanetary Spy series of interactive children’s books. Arthur C. Clarke’s own participation was, at best, limited. He lived, as he had already for almost thirty years, in Sri Lanka, and traveled so reluctantly that when he agreed to host a British television series on unusual science phenomena he required that the film crew come to him. The Telarium folks met him in person just twice during their work on the game, when he set aside afternoons during his occasional trips Stateside for consultations on the upcoming film version of 2010 to chat with them and — one senses most importantly — pose for some press photos with them. (Had it not been for 2010, it’s questionable whether they would have met at all.) The rest of the time they communicated with him via telephone and, most commonly, email, thanks to a satellite linkup Clarke (who famously first proposed the idea of the geosynchronous communications satellite in 1945) had installed in his home in Sri Lanka. Martinez says they would “run things by him,” but admits that it was “never really clear how much he was understanding or how much he was really digging into it.” Clarke’s biggest role was to pose for those publicity photos and to furnish a suitable quote written (or ghost-written) just for the back of the box.

So, Martinez and team were largely left alone to do with Rendezvous with Rama what they would. What that should be was by no means entirely clear. The notion of bookware sounded great when first broached, but as soon as one started to really think about it some problematic aspects started to surface. Trying to slavishly recreate the plot of a book as a game was a technical impossibility. Interactive-fiction systems simply couldn’t handle the complexity of even the most simplistic of novels. Even Infocom’s games, the class of the industry, could manage only the sketchiest of plots to motivate their exploration and puzzle solving; suffice to say that none of their games would have made good books. No one had a good solution for the combinatorial explosion of possibilities that would be touched off as soon as the player deviated from the plot, yet neither was there much point in just forcing the player to recreate the events of the novel. And how to make the game interesting and challenging to players, many of whom were presumably there because they had already read the book on which the game was based and thus knew everything that happened in it? Other Telarium games tried to work around these questions in a variety of ways. Rendezvous with Rama, however, didn’t really bother; it’s the only of the first batch of games to settle for just retelling the same essential story in radically simplified fashion, with the obligatory excising of all reference to the Endeavor‘s crew’s sex lives and other modest content changes apparently more motivated by the need to not offend than anything else. (The most appreciated of these involves the simps, creepy genetically modified monkeys that the crew of the Endeavor use essentially as slaves for all menial tasks in the book. In the game, the simps thankfully become androids.)

In Telarium’s defense, the novel is, as already noted, almost absurdly amenable to adaptation as an adventure game. Still, it’s difficult indeed to excuse the lukewarm nature of the whole enterprise. Rama the novel is far from intricately plotted, but there is a dynamism to its version of Rama the spacecraft, which slowly comes to life as it draws nearer to the Sun: lights come on, strange mechanisms begin to hum with energy, the atmosphere warms, and, most fabulous of all, semi-organic automatons start to scuttle about for reasons that can only be surmised. None of these surprises unfold in the game. Rama is simply another static environment to be explored, of the sort we’d already seen in a thousand adventure games before. The limitations of the SAL engine may explain such failings, but it doesn’t excuse them. Infocom had been creating virtual worlds that evolved on large scales during play for years by the time of this game’s release.

Nor does Martinez seem all that enthused to tell us about said static world. Clarke is no poet, but his descriptions of Rama’s interior are suitably awe inspiring. Here’s how Captain Norton of the Endeavor glimpses the panorama for the first time:

With all his strength, he threw the little cylinder straight upward — or outward — and started to count seconds as it dwindled along the beam. Before he had reached the quarter minute, it was out of sight; when he had got to a hundred, he shielded his eyes and aimed the camera. He had always been good at estimating time; he was only two seconds off when the world exploded with light. And this time there was no cause for disappointment. Even the millions of candle power of the flare could not light up the whole of this enormous cavity, but he could see enough to grasp its plan and appreciate its titanic scale. He was at one end of a hollow cylinder at least ten kilometers wide, and of indefinite length. From his viewpoint at the central axis, he could see such a mass of detail on the curving walls surrounding him that his mind could not absorb more than a minute fraction of it. He was looking at the landscape of an entire world by a single flash of lightning, and he tried by a deliberate effort of will to freeze the image in his mind.

All around him, the terraced slopes of crater rose up until they merged into the solid wall that rimmed the sky. No— that impression was false; he must discard the instincts both of Earth and of space, and reorientate himself to a new system of co-ordinates.

The description then continues for several more paragraphs.

When we step inside the vast cylindrical cavity of Rama for the first time in the game, Martinez gives us this:

You are at RAMA’s somewhat flattened, northern hub. The floor around the hub curves up gradually to become RAMA’s inner walls. Radiating from the hub, 120 degrees apart, are three stairway-like structures. Each appears to be several kilometers long. Due to its configuration, it seems as though you are standing upright on the hub, with the passageway from the long corridor going down in relation to your current position.

There’s no sense of the momentousness of the occasion; Martinez manages to make the most wondrous archaeological expedition in human history seem boring. Yes, technical limitations made it impossible to indulge in the sort of long passages that Clarke could employ, but Dave Lebling did a better job in Starcross in the face of similar restrictions, and Pete Austen did a still better job in Snowball. And the pictures, which are largely all done in the same palette and all but indistinguishable from one another, show no more enthusiasm for their subjects.

Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama

All of this is particularly baffling in light of Telarium’s expressed plans to get beyond adventure games as static puzzle boxes. Yet that’s all that Rendezvous with Rama is. If I may speak anachronistically, it’s downright Myst-like, just a static, empty landscape with strange machines to manipulate and puzzle out. Character interaction is limited to the occasional message over your helmet speaker from one of your crewmates, and the ability to occasionally use them as a hint system by asking them to ADVISE.

Worse, it’s not a particularly good puzzle box, a huge disappointment considering that the scenario is positively teeming with puzzle possibilities (as a later Myst-like graphic game, Rama, would amply demonstrate). The vast interior of Rama is implemented as hundreds of individual, mostly empty rooms to be tediously trod through and mapped in the hopes of finding something, anything that you can actually do. When you find them, the puzzles themselves are sometimes interesting, but too often push the limits of the world model past the breaking point. That’s apparently not that hard to do; even some of the “puzzles” described in the novel that were seemingly lifted right out of an adventure game had to be simplified to make them work in this adventure game. Often you have to read Martinez’s mind along with his text to see exactly what he is seeing, as the text fails to clearly set the scene (usually a sign of a lack of testing). Take this description of the wall of a structure:

The rectangular building is about 20 meters tall and 10 wide. Its surface is like polished enamel. A single post rises from the roof, and there are small indentations in the wall you are facing.

I spent quite some fiddling with the indentations, sure they must be some mechanism for opening a door. But actually they’re handholds, for climbing. The text fails to convey that they go all the way up the wall. It’s a clever puzzle, as far as it goes. (It’s not as trivial as just climbing the wall; the handholds are too small — for you). But it’s ruined by the failure to, you know, clearly tell me what I’m actually seeing. The parser, which in general is not horrible but definitely more limited than Infocom’s, also makes puzzle solving harder by its lack of feedback. Virtually any invalid input is greeted with the blasé non sequitur “You reconsider your words.” And absolutely no attention is given to partially correct actions that could serve as hints, not to mention the Easter eggs that make Infocom games like Sorcerer such a delight. Nope, just “You reconsider your words” over and over again.

A purposelessness infects all of your wanderings. It’s clear in the abstract what your mission should be — to explore this huge spaceship — but it’s not clear what the game expects from you in that context. There is no scoring system or other way of measuring your progress. There is a timer which does represent one of the game’s few innovations. It counts down in real time, forerunner of quite a number of (mostly underwhelming) experiments with real-time elements that interactive-fiction makers would indulge in over the next several years. Still, even this innovation is undermined by the fact that you’re never told exactly how much time you have. In fact, you have so much time that it’s hard to imagine it ever becoming a real problem. Rama‘s other notable innovation, a couple of shoehorned action games, is problematic in conception and horrid in execution. Both are so bad that Telarium ripped them out of later versions of Rama out of sheer embarrassment.

It eventually emerges that you don’t have enough fuel to escape; you must find a source on Rama itself. This additional source of drama was not in the book, and is kind of absurd from a fictional standpoint, as it means that you’ve effectively been sent on a suicide mission. (Who would have imagined that fuel would conveniently be available on Rama?) But, hey, at least it’s motivation of a sort. If you jump through a truly improbable series of puzzly hoops you can eventually reach a much vaunted “new ending” to the story, in which you learn that — oh, no, not this trope again! — Rama is actually an elaborate intelligence test constructed by distant aliens to measure humanity’s worthiness for future contact. Not only does this idea rip off Starcross (where it was equally unsatisfying), but it also cuts off at the knees the central theme of Clarke’s novel that we humans just aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. For a game that was supposed to be the herald of a new era of interactive fiction of serious literary merit, Rama‘s shabby, ham-handed take on the novel that inspired it is appalling.

So, no, Rendezvous with Rama is not a very good game. Even the supremely uncritical computer press of 1984 couldn’t bear to give it more than neutral reviews; “nothing special” wrote adventure superfan Shay Addams in Commodore Power Play in a typical example. Those who had been hostile to the entire idea of Telarium from the beginning must have been nodding along happily, having had all of their prejudices and low expectations justified. Luckily for us if somewhat more disconcertingly for them, most of Telarium’s other games would have a bit more to recommend them.

Perhaps the oddest outcome of Telarium’s Rendezvous with Rama was the subsequent career of the man responsible for all that dull text, Ronald Martinez. Whatever his failings on this project, Martinez became fascinated with the idea of interactive fiction, and determined to do it better than he had in this game. He learned how to program so as to work on a new suite of interactive-fiction technology, and eventually founded Trans Fiction Systems, an interactive-fiction development studio of his own whose parser was one of the few that could legitimately rival Infocom’s. We may just be running into him and his works again on this blog. When and if we do, I should have more positive things to say about both.

The Telarium story should also get more inspiring from here. In the meantime, the masochists and historians among you may want to download the Commodore 64 version of Rendezvous with Rama for yourselves.

(The same references I used for my introduction to Telarium and bookware mostly apply here. Jason Scott’s interview with Ron Martinez for Get Lamp was particularly useful for this article. The photos were taken from an article in the December 1984 Compute!’s Gazette.)

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Bookware

Bookware

Suppose that in some alternate universe you are William Shakespeare. Strolling about London one day in the late sixteenth century, mulling over plans for your next novel, you come upon some workmen erecting a large wooden structure of peculiar shape. The design of the building strikes you as inappropriate for either a dwelling or a place of business.

A few questions gain you some information about a recent invention (this is an alternate universe, remember) called the “play.” Live people, sometimes costumed and in makeup, are getting up on a flat surface called a “stage” and acting out stories!

The clever people who have designed and built the first stages, as well as the inventors of acting, are right in there writing and directing the best plays they can come up with. (At least the best they can come up with in their spare time — each of these people necessarily has one or two active careers already going.)

In one of the earliest successful plays, dummies representing invading aliens (Frenchmen, perhaps, or Spaniards, from across the Channel) were lowered on ropes from concealed positions above the stage, while the actor (this play needed only one) ran back and forth, following shouted directions from the audience, trying to shoot all the dummies before they touched the floor. The audience liked this play a lot and cheered it enthusiastically.

In a somewhat more recent show, also very popular, the lead actor climbs about on a crazy scaffolding of planks and ladders, trying to accomplish some rather simple-minded tasks, while others costumed as fantastic creatures try to knock him off by throwing barrels. It’s good slapstick fun, and the audiences love it.

“Wait a minute,” you say to these eager people who have been proudly explaining how plays work. “Wait a minute. That all sounds amusing, yes. But l really think you’re on to something bigger. Let me go home and think about this for a while… How many people can you get onstage at once? How many lines can an actor memorize? Can you have it dark on one half of the stage and light on the other half?”

They look at each other. “We’re not really sure,” one replies at last. “Our stages are still pretty primitive. Our actors are all new at the job. Everybody is. Next year we’ll be able to do more. But what should we try to do?”

You don’t have any instant answers for them. A lot of vague ideas suddenly churning. Possibilities. …

“I hope you will go home and think about it, Will,” says one of the stage managers. “You’re good with words. Maybe we could have the man on the ladder say something more than ‘Ouch!’ and ‘Wow!'”

“Yes, something more,” you agree thoughtfully, turning away. The other stage people call good wishes after you. But you scarcely hear them. Your mind is involved with new ideas.

To work with — depend on — carpenters, actors, experts in stage machinery and lighting? Whatever story emerged would no longer be purely your own. But already you can see that the stage those others have created can capture the imagination and enthrall an audience, even with no more than a few clowns and ladders.

You head for home, for a place where you can sit down and think, and write. Your thoughts are on a story that you had planned to make into a book. The one to be called Hamlet…

The words above were written by science-fiction author and would-be gaming entrepreneur Fred Saberhagen in a feature article about the possibilities for interactive fiction (“Call Yourself Ishmael: Micros Get the Literary Itch”) in the September/October 1983 issue of Softline — the same article in fact that contained the first published discussion of Floyd’s death in Planetfall and what it portended. Saberhagen, whose own flirtations with interactivity would be considerable but commercially frustrating, was at the vanguard of an emerging conventional wisdom about the intersection of computers, games, and books. He and his fellow pundits that started to emerge during 1983 weren’t the first to begin to think along these lines. The editors of SoftSide magazine had first started writing about the literary potential of “compunovels” back in 1979, truly a leap of faith in light of the strangled prose and plots of the Scott Adams games and the other 16 K adventures that were pretty much the only ones available to PC owners at the time. But it took the efforts of not only Saberhagen but also, and probably more significantly, respectable folks writing for respectable mainstream publications like The New York Times Book Review, Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Scientific American to make of it a full-fledged meme. The boldest pundits declared that we were on the cusp of nothing less than a whole new form of literature that could be as rich, meaningful, and aesthetically brilliant as anything put down by Shakespeare or Melville. Suddenly what had once been dismissed as mere “adventure games” were worth taking seriously.

All of the articles just mentioned focused primarily or entirely on Infocom, the only company in the field whose games could realistically stand up to any scrutiny at all as literary works. Seeing this, and seeing Infocom growing less and less afraid to lay claim to the mantle of literary artists under such persistent stroking, lots of other companies started asking how they could steal some of Infocom’s cultural thunder and get a piece of what the pundits said would be the literature of the future. The players who now started entering the field were a surprisingly motley lot. There were the expected startups as well as old dogs in the software game looking to learn some new tricks. Epyx, Brøderbund, and Electronic Arts amongst others all discovered a latent passion for text, as did of all people console developer Imagic, whose action games for first-generation consoles like the Atari VCS had been enormously successful but who were now floundering like everyone else in that industry in the wake of the Great Videogame Crash. But technologists were not the only opportunists looking to jump on the bandwagon Infocom was driving. The huge publishing houses of Simon and Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Random House also started software arms, as did smaller publishers like science-fiction paperback specialist Baen Books. On the other end of the distributional pipeline, the two biggest American bookstore chains, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, both set aside areas in their stores for entertainment software, as did the ubiquitous W.H. Smith in Britain. To complete the strange mixture and hedge the bets of their own software arm, Addison Wesley signed a deal with Infocom in early 1984 to distribute their games to the bookselling trade, an important contract that got Infocom into thousands of bookstores populated with just the sort of literate customers they were trying to reach.

All of this forthright investment in the idea of interactive fiction as a serious literary force by such pillars of mainstream American business feels a bit unbelievable today. Nor is it without a certain note of tragic resonance as the great What Might Have Been for people like me who still unabashedly love the idea. We see here the culture and, at least as importantly, the culture’s business interests trying to work out just what computer games were, what they could be, and perhaps what they should be. It’s a fascinating process to watch, if also — again, for people with my sympathies — one with kind of a heartbreaking ending. Were computer games actually games in the way that, say, Monopoly was? Or were they more like books? Or movies? Or were they — and this was the most messy and complicated and also the most likely answer of all — like any or all or none of the above, depending on the particular title in question and its genre and target audience? The answer to these questions was essential to answer another, more practical one: how, where, and to whom should computer games be sold? The folks we’re concerned with today are those who decided to bet on computer games, or at least a segment of them, as the next iteration in the long history of the book. Even on the business side of the development equation their efforts mix the expected desire to shift a lot of units and make a lot of money with a genuine idealism about the artistic potential of the form in which they were working. It was, as should be more than clear by now, an odd time in media.

If computer games were or could be literature, and if they wanted to be taken seriously as such, said many people, the smartest thing to do was to get people who already knew how to write literature — or at least readable popular fiction — involved in their creation. Or, failing that, the next best thing must be to play in the rich fictional worlds they had created. Lots of people in lots of companies followed this chain of reasoning simultaneously. Thus began the era of what the British press pithily came to call “bookware,” the splicing of the new frontier of computer games with the old of books and their authors, who were sometimes (but not all that often) actively involved, sometimes disinterested but happy to be getting another royalty check, and sometimes dead and thus blissfully unaware of the whole exercise. A trend that had been presaged in 1982 by The Hobbit reached manic full flower in 1984.

The list of bookware that flooded the market in both the United States and Britain between 1984 and 1986 is long, and includes some of the biggest names in genre fiction of the era as well as some surprisingly high-brow figures. An incomplete list might include: The Robots of Dawn (Isaac Asimov); The Mist (Stephen King); Amnesia (Thomas M. Disch); Mindwheel (future American poet laureate Robert Pinsky); High Stakes and Twice Shy (Dick Francis); Wings Out of Shadow (Fred Saberhagen); The Fourth Protocol (Frederick Forsyth); The Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey); The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World (Harry Harrison); The Pen and the Dark (Colin Kapp); The Saga of Erik the Viking (Terry Jones); The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (Sue Townsend); The Width of the World (Ian Watson); The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett); and Infocom’s own The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams). Those whose tastes ran more to the classics could choose from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen); The Time Machine (H.G. Wells); Sherlock (Arthur Conan Doyle); Macbeth (William Shakespeare); The Snow Queen (Hans Christian Andersen); Dante’s Inferno; and Dracula (Bram Stoker). The list of games for which contracts were signed but which went unreleased due to the bookware bubble’s bursting includes Glory Road (Robert Heinlein); another Inferno (this one by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle); Animal Lover (Stephen R. Donaldson); 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne); Special Deliverance (Clifford D. Simak); Soldier, Ask Not (Gordon R. Dickson); and The World Thinker (Jack Vance). The publishers involved with all these efforts largely abandoned the old labels of “adventure game” and “text adventure” in favor of ones that reflected their literary aspirations. Some shamelessly appropriated “interactive fiction” from Infocom (who had themselves, of course, shamelessly appropriated it from Robert Lafore). Others made “interactive novels” or “computer novels.” Bantam Software came up with a particularly catchy label: “living literature.” Mosaic in Britain just bowed to the inevitable and stuck “bookware” on their boxes.

But it was none of the companies or games already mentioned who made the biggest bet on bookware. That was in fact a rapidly growing publisher located ten minutes from Infocom in Cambridge which had heretofore specialized in educational software: Spinnaker. Spinnaker debuted not one but two new imprints for bookware in 1984: Trillium (later Telarium, for reasons we’ll get to shortly), for book adaptations aimed at adults and teenagers; and Windham Classics, aimed at a somewhat younger set. They released no fewer than seven games between the two lines in 1984 alone (two more than Infocom’s total output for the year), followed by another five in 1985 and a final straggler in 1986, the twilight of the brief bookware era.

The story of Trillium and Windham Classics begins with a remarkable young publishing mogul named Byron Preiss. Born in 1953 in New York City, Preiss was one of those characters like Steve Jobs who could seemingly talk anybody into anything, one who as a callow youth not yet out of his teens was already able to convince older and supposedly wiser businesspeople to back his many and varied schemes. Throughout his career, Preiss mixed business with an idealism that seems to have been anything but affected. He first made a mark at seventeen, when he wrote and distributed The Block, an anti-drug comic book written for a near-illiterate reading level and aimed at grade-school children growing up in inner cities. He traveled around the country relentlessly to promote it, and eventually won the official endorsement of the Children’s Television Workshop of Sesame Street fame, as well as the lifelong friendship of one of the most important figures there, Chris Cerf. That’s just the way it was with Preiss throughout his life. He seemed genuinely unaware of the barriers between him and the people of power who could realize his dreams, and in consequence they seemed to just melt away. His gifts for gab and inspiration were legendary, as recalled by Leigh Ronald Grossman, one of a stable of young writers he came to nurture:

He had to be the most passionate person I’ve ever known, able to visualize what was special and exciting about EVERYTHING. I remember going to lunch with Byron and another publisher, in which the discussion hinged on a tired project that the whole staff was sick of dealing with after years of development. By the end of the lunch I was thrilled to be working on such a visionary project… and I’m still not quite sure how he did it.

He founded his own publishing company, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, in 1974 while enrolled in the film program at Stanford University. Through it he designed and/or published a variety of interesting, often groundbreaking work: a line of paperbacks that tried to revive the pulp adventures of the 1930s more than five years before Raiders of the Lost Ark; adult comics that didn’t involve superheroes and were forerunners of what have come to be called “graphic novels” today; Dragonworld, a beautifully illustrated epic fantasy novel which he himself coauthored; The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, whose pictures were in 3D and could be viewed through a pair of 3D glasses bound into the volume; various profusely illustrated nonfiction volumes for children and adults, on subjects ranging from the Beach Boys to dinosaurs. Throughout he assiduously cultivated relationships. By the time he turned thirty, Preiss’s Christmas-card list included people like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, the aforementioned Harlan Ellison, and Ray Bradbury in addition to many of the biggest names in the business of publishing and, yes, the members of the Beach Boys as well. C. David Seuss (a man whose role in this story will become clear shortly) believes that his sheer likability was perhaps his biggest asset of all; “people just wanted to go along with his ideas because he was just so nice.”

Throughout his career Preiss pushed the boundaries of what a book could be — physically, formally, and aesthetically. It’s thus little surprise that he got involved when the idea of the interactive book began to emerge in earnest in the early 1980s. His first project was a unique series in the crowded field of Choose Your Own Adventure books and copycats that dominated the children’s sections of bookstores at the time. The Be an Interplanetary Spy series mostly replaces simple choices of the “what do you want to do next?” variety with visual and logic puzzles that have to be solved to advance the narrative. In keeping with the through-going theme of Preiss’s career, the books are also lavishly illustrated, to the point that they are more interactive comic book than conventional text; the illustrations are often more important than the words. He would later create two more traditional but also fondly remembered gamebook series, Time Machine and Explorer.

Preiss had been well aware of computers and computer games since the mid-1970s, when like so many other Stanford students he paid a visit to nearby Xerox PARC. By mid-1983, with home computers booming, he felt the time had come to get involved with them as yet another facet of what a book could be. Indeed, the Be an Interplanetary Spy books, which started to appear at just this time, show more than a hint of influence from games like those of Infocom in their many puzzles and their replacing the occasional choices of Choose Your Own Adventure with almost constant interaction. By packing three or four puzzles and narrative branches onto almost every page he was able to make the books feel less granular, more like a parser-based adventure game than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Still, Preiss wanted to go further. He started shopping around an idea for a series of computer games based on works by established authors, many of whom he just happened to have personal relationships with and whose participation — or at least willingness to sign a licensing contract — he could thus all but assure. He found himself a dance partner in the aggressive young Spinnaker Software.

Founded in April of 1982 by two friends from Harvard Business School and the Boston Consulting Group, Bill Bowman and C. David Seuss, Spinnaker was, like Electronic Arts, one of the new guard of slicker, more conventionally professional software publishers that began popping up during 1982 and 1983. Neither Bowman nor Seuss had a hackerish bone in his body. For proof, one need look no further than the ties they insisted on wearing to work every day at Spinnaker, or Bowman’s habit of getting up at 5:30 every morning to attend mass, or his seven children that were often hovering around Spinnaker’s offices after school hours (a marked contrast to life at Infocom, populated mostly by childless twenty- and thirty-somethings). They were savvy businessmen who saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an emerging market after the arrival of the IBM PC (Bowman believes he has one of the first hundred ever built) and the wave of purpose-built home computers that was set off by the Commodore VIC-20. The legendary venture capitalist Jacqueline Morby funded a nationwide jaunt to talk to retailers and look for obvious holes in the market, which revealed an exploding demand for educational software that could not be met by under-capitalized semi-amateurs like Edu-Ware. They jumped at it, with the aid of millions in venture capital arranged by Morby and her company TA Associates. (Morby would also take a place on Spinnaker’s board, along with that of Sierra On-Line and several others, making her one of the most powerful hidden shapers of the software industry of the 1980s.)

Spinnaker released their first products just in time for the Christmas of 1982. Some were done in-house, some by outside developers like educational pioneer Tom Synder Productions. Quality inevitably varied, but some, like Snyder’s In Search of the Most Amazing Thing, have become children’s classics. Still, Spinnaker was emblematic of the changes that swept the software industry with the the home-computer boom and the arrival of traditional big-business interests — and big-business money — looking to capitalize on it, yet another sign that the era Doug Carlston referred to as the software “Brotherhood” was well and truly ended. Their agenda plainly included driving older rivals like Edu-Ware out of the market entirely, a goal they soon accomplished. They placed all but unprecedented emphasis on licensing, branding, and advertising, a result of what Seuss calls his “First Law”: “Apply money at the point of resistance.” Spinnaker poured some 15% of their total earnings for 1983 back into huge advertising buys, much of it outside the trade press in places like Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, and Newsweek. They soon hit upon the scheme of releasing their software under a number of sub-brands, each of which would be as often as possible a licensed take on an already well-known consumer entity. By the end of 1983 their stable already included Fisher-Price (educational software for the very young; name licensed from the huge toy company), Nova (science education; name licensed from the long-running PBS television series), and Better Living (personal productivity software), as well as the flagship Spinnaker brand. Whatever its other merits, the approach was a clever sleight of hand for a company that aimed to do nothing less than own educational software, and in time and with luck to extend that dominance to home-computing software as a whole. Bowman:

“Shelf space is all that matters in this business. If everything is under the Spinnaker brand, the consumer feels he’s not getting much of a choice, but here he can choose any of six brands.”

Feel free to put your own scare quotes around “choose” there. Spinnaker drew analogies between themselves and General Motors, who had their Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, etc. — if nothing else an indication that Bowman and Seuss weren’t afraid to dream big. When Byron Preiss came along with his idea for a new line of bookware, it was both an opportunity to add yet more brands to the stable and to begin to make inroads into entertainment software (something that had been on their long-term agenda from the start), just as the Better Living brand represented their first explorations of the productivity market. Their internal industry studies showed adventure games to be a very good place to start. While they currently sold in less than one-third the numbers of action games, the segment was growing rapidly, while action games were doing just the opposite.

Shortly after Preiss came on the scene, one of Spinnaker’s best outside developers, Dale Disharoon, came to them with a bookware idea of his own: to make edutainment based on classic and contemporary children’s books. Disharoon’s educational titles sold in huge numbers for Spinnaker, so when he talked they tended to listen. Thus was born the Windham Classics line, brand number six for Spinnaker, as a companion to Trillium.

Preiss was most closely involved with the latter, and that’s also where we’ll be spending most of our time. As should be clear by now, Trillium owed its existence to a mixture of artistic idealism and commercial pragmatism — not that such strange bedfellows aren’t pretty much business as usual in any media industry. For Preiss, Trillium represented nothing less than the future — or a possible future — of fiction. For Spinnaker, it represented a bit of the same but also yet another branding opportunity, the chance to stamp the names of popular authors onto boxes and get in one the hot new trend in entertainment software. They placed a young marketing whizkid named Seth Godin in charge of Trillium’s image. (Godin has since become a darling of the business self-help industry; he currently runs “the most popular marketing blog in the world.”) Now it was time to start rounding up authors.

Here Preiss proved the value of all those connections to the world of written science fiction. He pulled out his thick phone list and started calling some of the name authors with whom he’d carefully built relationships over the last decade. He soon had Arthur C. Clarke signed for an adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama and Ray Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451. He also reached a tentative agreement with Robert Heinlein to adapt his juvenile classic Starman Jones, and initiated talks with Roger Zelazny, Philip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison, and Alfred Bester. As with most of the products of the era of bookware, the question of how involved these authors were actually willing to be was always a delicate one. Mostly they wound up doing little more than politely sitting through presentations of the latest versions, with their creative role amounting to little more than a never- or almost never-exercised veto power. And that was about it, beyond signing their name to an appropriately glowing endorsement for the back of the box. Only Ray Bradbury was willing to get somewhat more involved, actively drawing up plot ideas for and by reports even contributing some prose to the Fahrenheit 451 game.

Thus when Spinnaker approached Michael Crichton about adapting one his books, they must have been thrilled to learn that Crichton had already been working on an original game with some associates for eighteen months, and was in fact looking for a publisher. More problematic was a game called Shadowkeep, a text-adventure/CRPG hybrid offered to Spinnaker by a small developer called Ultrasoft. A book or an author was nowhere in sight, but it was just too impressive a game to pass up, so Spinnaker simply flipped the process on its head by hiring Alan Dean Foster, the reigning king of media tie-in novels (he had made his name in the industry by ghost writing the novelization of the original Star Wars for George Lucas), to write a book based on the game. He would thus have his name displayed in huge letters on the box of a game he had had absolutely nothing to do with. For the Windham Classics line, Spinnaker took advantage of some blessedly out-of-copyright children’s classics like The Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, but did sign a license for the recent Green Sky Trilogy, whose author, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, did heavily involve herself in the design of the resulting game. That game, Below the Root, is not a text adventure at all but is a lovely, lyrical classic in its own right.

Indeed, the games of Trillium and Windham Classics take a surprising variety of approaches, mixing illustrated text adventure with action and CRPG elements, sometimes in the same game. But the fundamental goal, particularly for the Trillium games, was to outdo Infocom at their own game. Largely at Seth Godin’s behest, Spinnaker put the Trillium games inside mouth-wateringly beautiful gatefold boxes that on aesthetic grounds might just outdo — dare I say it? — Infocom. They also started a newsletter in an effort to build a community of loyal customers in the same way Infocom had, although they were a bit stumped as to what to put in it beyond plugs and order forms for the games; Spinnaker’s offices weren’t filled with the same sort of inspired madness that made The New Zork Times such a constant delight. Infocom couldn’t help but feel the target Spinnaker had plainly painted on their back, couldn’t help but feel a bit unnerved by this big company — already much larger than them — with their big-name authors and their illustrations and other additional gimmicks that was determined to wrest away from them their comfortable niche in the industry. Spinnaker even negotiated a deal to get the Trillium games into every Waldenbooks in the country to sit side by side with the Infocom games that had also just arrived there thanks to Infocom’s deal with Addison Wesley. Various Infocom folks have quietly acknowledged that Spinnaker was the only competitor who ever really made them nervous in 1984, the year they sold more games than in any other.

They thus must have been quite pleased when the Trillium line hit a major snafu within weeks of launching in the fall of that year. It seemed there already existed a tiny publisher of educational books using the name of “Trillium.” Now the original Trillium’s lawyers came calling. Seuss feels they could have fought the suit and likely prevailed (the original Trillium had never actually registered their name as a trademark), but it would have been time consuming, disruptive, and expensive. Spinnaker chose instead to start the embarrassing process of re-branding the entire line with a new name. They chose “Telarium,” a name that, for what it’s worth, I like a lot better anyway. (To avoid confusion as we crisscross the Trillium/Telarium split in this and future articles, I’m just going to refer to the brand as “Telarium” from now on.)

The whole debacle was anathema to a company that was so focused on branding. And it was almost as frustrating when negotiations with the Heinlein people to release Starman Jones, previously considered a done deal to the extent that a huge amount of work had already been done on the game, reached an impasse from which they would never emerge despite months and months of Telarium’s optimistically announcing the nearly completed Starman Jones as “coming soon.”

The arrival of Telarium was greeted with hostility and even a certain amount of contempt, not only at Infocom but amongst their other peers as well. Jon Freeman, never one to pull his punches, delivered a withering takedown via his column in Computer Gaming World:

In the first place, the economics of the situation almost guaranteed that the programmers involved, despite the hype, would not be first-class. Big Name Authors and Best-Selling Books don’t come cheap. Although the draw of author and book is clearly a marketing advantage — and should therefore be paid out of the marketing/advertising budget — the cost is normally borne by R&D. A big chunk of the royalties that would otherwise go to the developers of the game is paid, instead, to the author of the book. What top-flight game designer or programmer would take that kind of a pay cut? Regardless of their deficiencies as game designers, most good programmers are still at work on their own ideas. Those who can’t come up with original subjects for games are busy making a lucrative living converting popular games to new computers. Therefore, the majority of programmers available for these book projects are either inexperienced or inadequate or both.

The worst part is that the SF people involved don’t know how little they know about the subject. Few of the authors involved in all these projects play games: most lack the time; many lack the inclination. Technophobes like Ray Bradbury, who admits that he cannot use the computer he owns, believe the apex of computer usage is to enter the text of a book and read it on the CRT. Would he know a good computer game if he fell over one?

Yes, Freeman’s logic is questionable at best. Still, many of the people who had been in the industry for years saw Telarium as calculated and soulless, and not without cause. There was an air of contrivance, even perhaps a note of disingenuousness about the whole enterprise. Seth Godin claimed, “We wanted to go to the people who could write [the games] the best. And that’s not programmers — it’s authors.” Which would be fine if only the authors in question were actually deeply involved; witness the particular absurdity of Shadowkeep as an “Alan Dean Foster” game. Meanwhile Telarium’s addition of graphics and music and even action sequences to the Infocom template just screamed of bullet points on some marketer’s demands for more, more, more than the competition. When the line ultimately proved commercially disappointing, few felt much sympathy. In fact, they cheered the failure as an object lesson that you can’t buy your way to success with big licenses and an overstuffed marketing budget. (A lesson subsequent gaming history has not, alas, always borne out.)

Yet there was also, as I’ve already noted, that idealistic side to Telarium that hasn’t been discussed enough. Yes, it may have been articulated by the terminally slick Seth Godin, but there was a genuine vision driving Telarium, a vision for games as coherent lived fictional experiences.

“We’re trying to make a game that is based on plot and characterization, not puzzles — the way a book is. If you read Fahrenheit 451, you don’t get stuck on page 50. And if you play the game, you don’t get stuck on frame 50, because the whole idea is that you’re interested in the game because of the characters and the plot and what’s happening. You care about what’s going on.”

Or, as he put it another way: “When you’re reading a good book, say a Ludlum thriller, you’re really sweating because you believe you’re part of the story. Adventure games weren’t doing that because the puzzles kept bringing you back to reality.” People in and around Telarium expressed over and over this determination to get beyond arbitrary, often frustrating set-piece puzzle solving to something worthy of Infocom’s chosen label of interactive fiction. To what extent they succeeded is debatable; certainly the games have plenty of rough edges. Still, they’re also more than worthy of the sort of careful second look that too few of the non-Infocom works of the bookware era have heretofore received. We’ll begin the process of remedying that next time.

(Many thanks to C. David Seuss for answering questions and sharing his memories with me. A Harvard Business School case study on Spinnaker was also invaluable. Particularly good contemporary articles on Telarium and the bookware phenomenon are in: the September/October 1983 Softline; the December 1984 Compute!’s Gazette; the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play; the February 1985 Compute!; the April 1985 Electronic Games; the June 18, 1984 InfoWorld; the July 30, 1984 InfoWorld; the August 13, 1984 InfoWorld; the August 1984 Computer Gaming World; the February 1985 Micro-Adventurer; and the May 1985 Commodore Microcomputers. All were used for this article and the ones on individual Telarium games that will follow, as were Jason Scott’s Get Lamp archives which he kindly shared with me. The great illustration that begins this article was taken from the April 1985 Electronic Games.)

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Seastalker

Seastalker

When a starry-eyed youngster heads off to Hollywood to chase her dreams, one of two fates awaits her: she might become one of the small minority that makes it and becomes a star, or she might end up lumped in with the vast majority that struggle and wait tables (seemingly every waiter in Los Angeles is an aspiring actor) for years to no avail. It’s either “Hooray for Hollywood” or “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” writ large. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway. But there’s actually a third possibility: the life of the working character actor, who picks up work where she can find it in the form of whatever small roles are available that don’t need a star to fill them. Just as every kid who picks up a guitar dreams of playing to stadiums full of screaming fans (and don’t let any indie-rock snob tell you different), it’s probably safe to say that no actor sets out to be such an anonymous cog in the Hollywood system. Yet it’s not a bad way to earn a living in the craft you love if stardom eludes you. I’ve long been fascinated by these folks whose names usually appear in the credits only as the audience is filing out of the theater, these working professionals who earn a solid living under the radar of the Dream Factory by learning their lines, showing up on time, and doing whatever’s asked of them and doing it well. This other side of the acting life is the subject of The Dangerous Animals Club, written by one of these bit players, Stephen Tobolowsky. It makes for a great read.

Other forms of media have their own equivalents to Tobolowsky. The publishing industry, for example, has always had people like Jim Lawrence.

Jim Lawrence

Born in 1918, Lawrence began his writing career in 1941 when he was hired by the Jam Handy Organization as a scriptwriter for military training films. From then until the end of his life in 1994 he wrote for seemingly anyone who would pay him. Lawrence himself would be the last person to claim to be a great writer, but he always churned out copy that was, within the scope of the genres within which he worked, solidly crafted and eminently professional. When the project allowed, he even showed a considerable flair for imagination.

Lawrence wrote a staggering variety of stuff over his more than five decades as a working writer, but his specialty and greatest love was always fast-paced action-adventure stories for the young. In that genre, he wrote for old-time radio dramas like The Green Hornet; wrote Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries; wrote a James Bond comic strip for the newspapers; wrote a variety of Marvel comics. His oeuvre includes more than 60 novels alone, virtually none of which bore his own name anywhere in its pages. His most bizarre and disreputable assignment was a series of books about Peter Lance, an alien from the planet Tharb who has come to Earth to study this curious human phenomenon of sex — which he does enthusiastically and at considerable length, thanks to his superhuman stamina and a staggering variety of nubile young women eager to assist him in his research. But the place where Lawrence left his most obvious mark was a series of books about a young scientist/inventor/adventurer named Tom Swift, Jr.

The original Tom Swift was created by publishing pioneer Edward Stratemeyer, founder in the very early twentieth century of the so-called Stratemeyer Syndicate and its accompanying model of children’s book publication — a model that still persists to this day, and one whose echoes we can see in other media from superhero comics to Scooby Doo cartoons. His influence on publishing for adults and young adults was also profound; all those shelves full of Star Trek and Star Wars novels as well as Harelquin romances are, for better or for worse, thoroughly in the tradition of Edward Stratemeyer. His principal innovation was to deemphasize — indeed, to effectively do away with — the importance of the author in favor of the franchise. He published no standalone books, only series based around the recurring adventures of one or more juvenile heroes. All books in a series were allegedly written by the same author, whose name was carefully chosen by Stratemeyer to suit the tone of the series. In actuality, the books were written by teams of publishing B-listers like Jim Lawrence, who must at first usually work from plot outlines provided by Stratemeyer himself. Later, once they had proven themselves a bit, they were often trusted to create their own original stories, as long as they kept well within a detailed set of rules for what the books should and should not include. The best remembered series from Stratemeyer’s heyday today are The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but many others sold in huge quantities during the first half of the twentieth century.

Among them were the original Tom Swift stories, which reached 40 books and sold over 30 million copies. Swift was the aspirational product of his era, a time when people like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford were amongst the most admired in the country. Thus Swift was a teenage genius inventor who solved crimes and stymied his jealous rivals repeatedly using his various gadgets and vehicles. For all their pulpiness, the books included a surprising amount of real science and engineering. Amongst the technologies predicted in their pages were television, fax machines, and handheld movie cameras. Just as many flip-open mobile phones bear a suspicious resemblance to the old communicators from Star Trek, Tom Swift also wound up inspiring some technologies instead of just predicting them. Most famously, tasers were inspired by a Tom Swift story; the name is actually an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”

The series petered to a close in 1941, by which time Swift had grown up and gotten married. The resulting drop-off in popularity prompted a couple of new rules for the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s other series: heroes should not age and should be kept free of romantic entanglements. The Tom Swift, Jr. stories, which began in 1954, were an attempt to right that mistake and turn back the clock by moving the focus to Tom Swift’s son, the spitting image of his father as a boy. The new series ran for 33 books between 1954 and 1971. The inventions got a bit more outlandish, reflecting the era’s obsession with rocketry and space exploration; the second series’s record of prediction is nowhere near as good as that of the first. The new series also never quite matched the first’s popularity or cultural ubiquity during its heyday. Still, it had its famous fans; Steve Wozniak in particular has mentioned the Tom Swift, Jr. books as inspiring him to become an inventor and engineer. Tom Swift Jr. was allegedly written by one Victor Appleton II, presumed son of the Victor Appleton who wrote the first series. However, most of them were actually written by Jim Lawrence.

Lawrence had long since moved on to other series when one day during his morning coffee he read the first significant article about Infocom to appear in the mainstream media: Edward Rothstein’s piece on Deadline and other “participatory novels” which appeared in the New York Times Book Review of May 8, 1983. Although he had never written for the series, he had followed the birth of the Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s fiction with more than professional curiosity. But now what Infocom was apparently doing just sounded so much better. Lawrence, whose previous career proved if nothing else that he’d try just about anything once, was intrigued by the possibilities despite knowing nothing of computers or computer games. He called Infocom’s offices and arranged to drive up to Cambridge for a visit from his home in New Jersey.

The 65-year-old Lawrence looked in Stu Galley’s words “like Santa Claus,” and had the same enthusiastic twinkle in his eye when he talked about storytelling. This wise old veteran was certainly a different sort of presence in an office filled with ambitious go-getters in their twenties and early thirties, many of whom had grown up reading the various series to which he had contributed. Infocom, who counted it as a corporate goal to get “real” writers involved with their stories (thus the presence of Mike Berlyn, already working on his second game at the time), were thrilled to sign him to a contract.

Infocom was also, of course, eager to branch out into new genres, and here Lawrence’s particular expertise again seemed perfect. They concocted the idea of a new line of “junior” adventures aimed at a new generation of the same children’s readership that had once devoured the Tom Swift books — and who were currently being introduced to the idea of ludic narrative through the Choose Your Own Adventure books and the many other titles being churned out by the booming gamebook industry. If kids thought Choose Your Own Adventure was cool, wait until they saw an Infocom game! The new line could presumably also serve as a gentle introduction to Infocom for adults, an alternative to being thrown in at the deep end via the likes of Zork. Infocom made their first attempt ever to license an existing property, approaching the Stratemeyer Syndicate about licensing Tom Swift or his son for a series of interactive books for a new generation. The Syndicate was happy to do so — for far more money than Infocom was willing or able to pay.

Thus the decision was made to make the game that would become known as Seastalker a Tom Swift adventure in everything but name. In place of Tom, it asks you the player for your first and last name at the beginning. The full name which then appears on the screen becomes (for example) Seastalker: Jimmy Maher and the Ultramarine Bioceptor, a deliberate echo of the old Tom Swift books, which were invariably named Tom Swift and His (Flying Lab, Jetmarine, Rocket Ship, etc.) — only with you inserted, Chose Your Own Adventure-style, as the hero. The game closely echos Tom Swift in many other ways beyond the bare fact of your being a genius boy inventor. Tom Swift’s hometown of Shopton, for example, becomes Frobton (one of very few overt references to Zorkian lore), and sidekick Bud is replaced with a doppelganger named Tip.

For all of his flair for storytelling, there was no way that the thoroughly un-technical Lawrence was going to be able to learn to program in ZIL. Infocom thus decided to assign him Stu Galley as a partner. Lawrence would craft the story and write most of the text, while Galley would program it and finds ways to make it work as an interactive experience. It seemed a perfect assignment for Galley, one of the best pure programmers in a company full of brilliant technical minds but one who tended to have a bit of trouble coming up with original story ideas. (His first game The Witness, you may remember, had been created from an outline provided him by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling.) This use of development pairs was somewhat uncharted territory for Infocom as Seastalker was begun, but a model they would find themselves using for no fewer than three of the five games they would release in 1984.

Work on Seastalker commenced with a lengthy meeting between Lawrence and Galley at Infocom’s offices, during which they hashed out the basic plot: a genetically engineered sea monster is attacking your friends at the Aquadome undersea research station. Only you and sidekick Tip can save them, using the Scimitar, the experimental two-man research submarine you’ve just designed and built. Lawrence then went back home to New Jersey, and development progressed largely through paper mail and telephone calls, with just a few more in-person meetings to mark milestones. Working this way inevitably slowed the process — at more than nine months, Seastalker would have the longest active gestation of any Infocom game to date — but Galley generally found the project to be, like his gently unflappable collaborator, a delight.

There was a time when we got to the last act of the story, where you, the brilliant young inventor, know what the threat is, know what you have to work with (your own inventions and whatever else is available), know the other characters. How do we devise a game strategy that’s interesting but not too difficult to get you to the end? Jim and I worked on this a whole day in Cambridge. I told him, “I feel like we have a big job in front of us because we’ve set up all this elaborate storyline without really knowing how it’s going to end.” Jim said, “Don’t worry, Stu, I’ve gotten heroes out of much tougher situations than this.”

Unlike many established traditional authors who tried to make the leap to interactivity, Lawrence didn’t struggle hugely with his loss of control over every aspect of plotting and timing. Galley theorizes that he may have been aided by his experience writing for comic strips and comic books, for which he had to start putting stories down on paper long before he could foresee what their endings might be or even which writers for hire might end up writing them.

As one might expect given its pedigree, Seastalker absolutely nails the tone of its inspiration. Its is a gee-whiz world full of adventure and excitement in which no problem cannot be solved with a bit of science and a dollop of all-American bravery and ingenuity. It’s never afraid of going over the top; the package includes a letter from the President congratulating you on your latest invention. As fiction, Seastalker makes for a nice, nostalgic place to return to for some of us dealing with the vagaries of adult life. Yet as a system it’s also amongst the most complex things Infocom had yet attempted. Playing Seastalker really does feel, for the first time in an Infocom game and arguably in an adventure game, like taking the leading role in an adventure novel. Events tumble down around you one after another as the plot comes thick and fast, leaving you constantly scrambling to keep up, to save these people who make it clear they’re depending on you. Seastalker is all about its plot that just keeps pushing you along like a bulldozer. There’s little here that feels like a traditional adventure-game puzzle, little time for such cerebral exercises. Even that staple of adventure gaming, mapping, goes out the window thanks to the blueprints of the Scimitar and the maps of both undersea complexes you’ll be visiting included in the package, a first for Infocom. While Deadline and The Witness have a dynamism of their own, their characters go about their business oddly oblivious to you; your job is essentially to observe their behavior, to come to an understanding of their patterns, and then to force yourself into the plot to redirect it at crucial junctures. No forcing is required in Seastalker; you truly are the hero, the cog around which everything and everybody revolves.

The Commodore 64 version of Seastalker showing the split-screen sonar view

The Commodore 64 version of Seastalker showing the split-screen sonar view

One of the most impressive parts of Seastalker is its implementation of the Scimitar. You have to guide it around Frobton Bay yourself, using your sonar display and a depth map included in the package. Later, the climax of the story is an underwater battle involving the Scimitar, the sea monster, and the jealous rival behind all the chaos that is a genuine tactical struggle rather than an exercise in set-piece puzzle solving. For these sequences Infocom devised the first significant extension to the Z-Machine since its inception more than four years before: the ability to split the screen on certain computers, which Seastalker uses to display a non-scrolling upper window that shows your sonar screen as a simple textual rendering. (The member of the Micro Group responsible for moving this enhancement into the interpreters was the newly hired Brian Moriarty, a name we’ll soon be hearing a lot more of.)

Seastalker‘s feelies are, as you might have gathered given the wealth of maps and blueprints I’ve already described, unusually many and varied even for Infocom. There’s a clever set of “InfoCards” with hints printed in a special ink that can only be seen with the aid of an included InfoCard reader — just the sort of little gadget young Tom Swifts are likely to love. But Seastalker‘s packaging is most interesting today in that it serves as a sort of test run for much of what would follow just a month or two later, when Infocom converted their entire existing line of games into a new standardized packaging format, the classic and beloved “grey box.” For the first time we see in Seastalker a sample transcript showing how to interact with the game, an invaluable bit of teaching by example that would be included in every grey box to come. And the front of the box calls the game “Junior Interactive Fiction from Infocom.”

Infocom, despite a generally finely honed promotional instinct, had struggled for years to find a good label for what their games really were, wallowing around in unsatisfying pseudo-compounds like “InterLogic” and plebeian descriptives like “prose games.” Some of the Imps had at last begun to casually refer to their games as “interactive fiction” in interviews during the latter half of 1983, notably in a feature article in the September/October 1983 Softline which dwelt at length on Floyd’s death scene from Planetfall. Seastalker, however, marks its first deployment as part of Infocom’s official rhetoric — appropriately enough, given that Seastalker is more worthy of the label than anything that came before. Infocom wasn’t the first to use the term “interactive fiction” in a computerized context; that honor belongs to Robert Lafore, who created a set of simple branching stories to which he gave that label back in 1979. Yet it was perfect for Infocom’s games, the last piece of the rhetorical puzzle they had been assembling with the able assistance of their mates at G/R Copy for a few years now. With the arrival of the grey boxes, all of Infocom’s games would officially be interactive fiction, the name the whole field of literary games in the Infocom tradition continues to go by to this day.

Released in June of 1984, Seastalker initially sold very well: more than 30,000 units in its first six months. But sales tailed off rather quickly after that; its lifetime figure is in the vicinity of 40,000. It may very well have been a victim of Infocom marketing’s conflation of a game for kids with an introductory game for adults. Certainly Seastalker is very short. Any adult at all experienced with adventure games can easily finish it in an evening, any adult totally inexperienced at least within two. One suspects that the arrival in 1985 of Wishbringer, a much better introductory game for adults, ate into Seastalker‘s sales in a big way.

But then Seastalker wasn’t really designed for adults. Children, who read more slowly and have the patience to relive something over and over (and over…) will likely get considerably more out of it, especially since there are a fair number of alternate paths to follow and even the possibility to finish without the full score; if you screw the pooch, one of your heretofore helpless friends will often stop hand-wringing long enough to jump in at the last minute and save the day for you. Still, it’s debatable how many parents would have been willing to spend $30 or $40 on the game when they could pick up a Choose Your Own Adventure book for $2.

All of which leaves Seastalker feeling like a bit of a missed opportunity in spite of its perfectly reasonable commercial performance. Stu Galley recalls that Infocom demonstrated Seastalker for a group of schoolteachers at the 1984 Summer CES show to the rapturous response that this sort of thing was “just what they needed” to get their kids reading more. One wishes that Infocom could have found some way to reduce the price and/or work aggressively with schools to get the game into more children’s hands. As it was, they dropped the idea of “Interactive Fiction Junior” and of trying to compete with the Choose Your Own Adventure juggernaut within a year, relabeling Seastalker rather incongruously as an introductory-level game for adults like the aforementioned Wishbringer. Even Lawrence and Galley’s second collaboration, Moonmist, was largely marketed as just another adult mystery game despite being at heart a Nancy Drew story in the same way that Seastalker was a Tom Swift.

If you have a child in that sweet spot of about eight to ten years in your life, you can begin to remedy that missed opportunity by giving her Seastalker and seeing what she makes of it. Like so much of Infocom’s work, it’s aged very little. For the rest of us, it’s a great piece of innocently cheesy fun that’s also quite technically and even formally impressive in its way. Infocom never made another game quite like it, which is alone more than reason enough to play it.

(As always, thanks to Jason Scott for sharing his materials from the Get Lamp project.)

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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