Monthly Archives: September 2014


Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

I feel fairly confident in stating that Thomas M. Disch trails only Robert Pinsky as the second most respected literary figure to turn his hand to the humble text adventure — speaking in terms of his literary prestige at the time of his game’s release, that is. The need for that last qualifier says much about his troubled and ultimately tragic life and career.

Disch burst to prominence alongside Roger Zelazny and the rest of science fiction’s New Wave in the mid-1960s. Yet Disch’s art was always even more uncompromising — and usually more uncompromisingly bleak — than that of his peers. His first novel bears the cheery name of The Genocides, and tells the story of the annihilation of humanity by an alien race who remake the Earth into a hyper-efficient nutrient farm, apparently without ever even recognizing humans as sentient. In its final scenes the remnants of the human race crawl naked through the innards of the aliens’ giant plants, stripped of even a veneer of civilization, reduced to feeding and fucking and waiting to be eradicated like the unwanted animal infestations they are. Camp Concentration — sensing a theme? — another early novel that is perhaps his most read and most acclaimed today, tells of another ignominious end to the human race, this time due to an intelligence-boosting super-drug that slowly drives its experimental recipients insane and then gets loose to spread through the general population as a contagion.

The protagonist of the latter novel is a pompous overweight intellectual who struggles with a self-loathing born of his homosexual and gastronomic lusts, a man who can feel uncomfortably close to Disch himself — or, more sadly, to the way Disch, a gay man who grew up in an era when that was a profoundly shameful thing to be, thought others must see him. Perhaps in compensation, he became a classic “difficult” artiste; his reputation as a notable pain in the ass for agents, editors, and even fellow writers was soon well-established throughout the world of publishing. He seemed to crave a validation from science fiction which he never quite achieved — he would never win a Hugo or Nebula for his fiction — while at the same time often dismissing and belittling the genre when not picking pointless fights within it with the likes Ursula Le Guin, whom he accused of being a fundamentally one-dimensional political writer concerned with advancing a “feminist agenda”; one suspects her real crime was that of selling far more books and collecting far more awards than Disch. Yet just when you might be tempted to dismiss him as an angry crank, Disch could write something extraordinary, like 334, an interwoven collection of vignettes and stories set in a rundown New York tenement of the near future that owes as much to James Joyce as it does to H.G. Wells; or On Wings of Song, both a sustained character study of a failed artist and a brutal work of satire in precise opposition to the rarefied promise of its title — these “Wings of Song,” it turns out, are a euphemism for a high-tech drug high. Disch wrote and wrote and wrote: high-brow criticism of theater and opera for periodicals like The New York Times and The Nation; reams of science-fiction commentary and criticism; copious amounts of poetry (always under the name “Tom Disch”), enough to fill several books; mainstream horror novels more accessible than most of his other efforts, which in 1991 yielded at last some of the commercial rewards that had eluded his science fiction and poetry when he published The M.D., his only bestseller; introductions and commentaries to the number of science-fiction anthologies he curated; two plays and an opera libretto; and, just to prove that the soul of this noted pessimist did house at least a modicum of sweetness and light, the children’s novel The Brave Little Toaster, later adapted into the cult classic of an animated film that is still the only Disch story ever to have made it to the screen.

The dawn of the brief bookware boom found Disch at something of a crossroads. On Wings of Song, published in 1979, would turn out to be his last major science-fiction novel, its poor commercial performance the final rejection that convinced him, the occasional short story or work of criticism aside, to write in other genres for the remaining quarter century of his life. He was just finishing his first horror novel, The Businessman, when his publisher Harper & Row came to him to ask if he might be interested in making his next novel interactive, in the form of the script for a computer game. Like just about every other book publisher in the United States, Harper & Row were in equal measure intrigued by the potential for interactive literature and terrified lest they be left out of a whole new field of literary endeavor. They were also, naturally, eager to leverage their existing stable of authors. Disch, a respected and established author of “literary” genre fiction who didn’t actually sell all that well as a rule, must have seemed an ideal choice; they’d get the cachet of his name without foregoing a bunch of guaranteed sales of a next traditional novel. For his part, Disch was intrigued, and jumped aboard with enthusiasm to write Amnesia.

We know quite a lot about Disch’s plans for the game thanks to a fellow historian named Stephane Racle, who in 2008 discovered his design script, an altogether fascinating document totaling almost 450 pages, along with a mock-up of Harper & Row’s planned packaging in a rare-books shop. The script evinces by its length and detail alone a major commitment to the project on Disch’s part. He later claimed to find it something of a philosophical revelation.

When you’re working on this kind of text, you’re operating in an entirely different mode from when you’re writing other forms of literature. You’re not writing in that trance state of entering a daydream and describing what’s to the left or right, marching forward, which is how most novels get written. Rather, you have to be always conscious of the ways the text can be deconstructed. In a very literal sense, any computer-interactive text deconstructs itself as you write because it’s always stopping and starting and branching off this way and that. You are constantly and overtly manifesting those decisions usually hidden in fiction because, of course, you don’t normally show choices that are ruled out — though in every novel the choices that are not made are really half the work, an invisible presence. With Amnesia, I found myself working with a form that allowed me to display these erasures, these unfollowed paths. It’s like a Diebenkorn painting, where you can see the lines that haven’t quite been covered over by a new layer of paint. There are elements of this same kind of structural candor in a good Youdunit.

Disch came to see the player’s need to figure out what to type next as a way to force her to engage more seriously with the text, to engage in deep reading and thereby come to better appreciate the nuances of language and style that were so important to him as a writer.

Readers who ordinarily skim past such graces wouldn’t be allowed to do that because they’d have to examine the text for clues as to how to respond; they’d have to read slowly and carefully. I thought that was theoretically appealing: a text whose form allowed me a measure of control over the readerly reponse in a way unavailable to a novelist or short-story writer. I’ve always been frustrated that genre readers are often addictive readers who will go through a novel in one night. I can’t read at that speed — and I don’t like to be read at that speed, either.

Philosophical flights aside, Disch didn’t shirk the nitty-gritty work that goes into crafting an interactive narrative. For instance, he painstakingly worked through how the protagonist should be described in the many possible states of dress he might assume. He even went so far as to author error messages to display if the player, say, tries to take off his pants without first removing his shoes. He also thought about ways to believably keep the story on track in the face of many possible player choices. One section of the story, for example, requires that the player be wearing a certain white tuxedo. Disch ensures this is the case by making sure the pair of jeans the player might otherwise choose to wear have a broken zipper which makes them untenable (this also offers an opportunity for some sly humor, an underrated part of Disch’s arsenal of writing talents). Even Douglas Adams, a much more technically aware writer who was very familiar with Infocom’s games before collaborating with Steve Meretzky on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, couldn’t be bothered with this kind of detail work; he essentially authored just the main path through his game and left all the side details up to Meretzky.

Amnesia‘s story is not, outside the presence of a drug capable of inducing sustained and ever-encroaching amnesia, science fiction. It’s rather a noirish mystery in which no character, including the amnesiac protagonist, is pure, everyone has multiple layers of secrets and motivations, and nothing is quite what it initially seems. Disch almost seems to have challenged himself to make use of every hoary old cliché he can think of from classic detective fiction, including not only the device of amnesia itself but also hayseed Texans who shoot first and ask questions later, multiple femme fatales, and even two men who look so alike they can pass as identical twins. It takes a very good writer to get away with such a rogues gallery of stereotypes. Luckily, Disch was a very good writer when he wanted to be. Amnesia is not, mind you, deserving of mention alongside Disch’s most important literary works. Nor, one senses, is it trying to be. But it is a cracker of a knotty detective story, far better constructed and written than the norm in adventure games then or now. Among its most striking features are frank and even moving depictions of physical love that are neither pornographic nor comedic, arguably the first such to appear in a major commercial game.


Cognetics -- Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg -- trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Benley, failing miserably at it.

Cognetics — Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg — trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Bentley, failing miserably at it.

To implement his script, Harper & Row chose a tiny New Jersey company called Cognetics who were engaged in two completely different lines of endeavor: developing the user interface for Citibank ATMs and developing edutainment software for Harper & Row, specifically a line of titles based on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock television series. The owner of Cognetics, Charlie Kreitzberg, already had quite a long background in computing for both business and academia, having amongst other accomplishments authored a standard programming text called The Elements of FORTRAN Style a decade before. Working with some colleagues, Kreitzberg had developed an extendible version of the Forth programming language with a kernel of just 6 K or so to facilitate game development on the Apple II. He dubbed this micro-Forth “King Edward” for reasons known only to him. The actual programming of Amnesia he turned over to a local kid named Kevin Bentley; they had met through Kreitzberg’s wife, who shopped at the grocery store owned by Bentley’s family. And so it was poor young Kevin Bentley who had Disch’s doorstop of a script dropped on his desk — no one had apparently bothered to tell the untechnical Disch about the need to limit his text to fit into the computers of the time — with instructions to turn it into a working game. He had nothing to start with but the script itself and that 6 K implementation of Forth; he lacked even the luxury of an adventure-specific programming language like ZIL, SAL, AGI, or Comprehend.

It was of course a hopeless endeavor. Not only had Disch provided far, far too much text, but he’d provided it in a format that wasn’t very easy to work with. Disch, for understandable reasons, thought like a storyteller rather than a world builder. Therefore, and in the absence of other guidance, he’d written his story from the top down as essentially a hypertext narrative, a series of branching nodes, rather than from the bottom up, as a set of objects and rooms and people with descriptions of how they acted and reacted and how they could be manipulated by the player. Each part of his script begins with some text, followed by additional text passages to display if the player types this, that, or the other. Given the scope of possibility open to the player of a parser-driven game, that way lies madness. We’ve seen this phenomenon of text adventures that want to be hypertext narratives a surprising number of times already on this blog. Amnesia is perhaps the most painful victim of this fundamental confusion, born of an era when hypertext fiction didn’t yet exist outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books and any text- and story-driven game was assumed to necessarily be a parser-driven text adventure.

Harper & Row's original Amnesia box art

Harper & Row’s original Amnesia box art

In mid-1984, just as it was dawning on Cognetics what a mouthful of a project they’d bitten off, Harper & Row, the instigators of the whole thing, suddenly became the first of the big book publishers to realize that this software business was going to be more complicated than anticipated and, indeed, probably not worth the effort. (The depth of the blasé belief of which they were newly disabused that software publishing couldn’t be that hard is perhaps best measured by the fact that they had all of the box art for Amnesia prepared before Cognetics had really gotten started with the actual programming, evidently thinking that, what with Disch’s script delivered, it couldn’t be long now.) They abruptly pulled out, telling Kreitzberg he was welcome to do what he liked with Fraggle Rock and Amnesia. He found a home for the former with CBS, another old-media titan still making a go of software for the time being, and for the latter with Electronic Arts, eager to join many of their peers on the bookware bandwagon. EA producer Don Daglow was given the unenviable task of trying to mediate between Disch and Cognetics and come up with some sort of realizable design. He would have his hands full, to such an extent that EA must soon have started wondering why they’d signed the project at all.

In addition to being a noir mystery, Disch had conceived Amnesia as a sort of extended love letter to his adopted home of Manhattan. Telarium’s Fahrenheit 451, when released in late 1984, would also include a reasonably correct piece of Manhattan. Disch, however, wanted to go far beyond that game’s inclusion of twenty blocks or so of Fifth Avenue. He wanted to include almost all of the island, from Battery Park to the Upper West and East Side, with a functioning subway system to get around it. The resulting grid of cross-streets must add up to thousands of in-game locations. It was problematic on multiple levels; not only could Disch not possibly write enough text to properly describe this many locations, but the game couldn’t possibly contain it. Yet Disch, entranced by the idea of roaming free through a virtual Manhattan, refused to be disabused of the notion. No, EA and Cognetics had to admit, such a thing wasn’t technically impossible. It was just that this incarnation of Manhattan would have to be 99 percent empty, a grid of locations described only by their cross-streets, with only the occasional famous landmark or plot-relevant area poking out of the sea of nothingness. That’s exactly what the finished game would end up being, rivaling Level 9’s Snowball for the title of worst ratio of relevant to irrelevant locations in the history of the text adventure.

The previous paragraph underlines the most fundamental problem that dogged the various Amnesia teams. Disch never developed with Cognetics and EA the mutual respect and understanding that led to more successful bookware collaborations like Amazon, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Mindwheel. Given the personality at the center of Amnesia, that’s perhaps not surprising. I described Disch as “difficult” earlier in this article, and, indeed, that’s exactly the word that Kevin Bentley used to describe him to me. His frustration with the collaboration was still palpable when I recently corresponded with him.

The conclusion I reached was that Tom wanted to write a book and have it turned into a game by creating a sort of screenplay adapted from a book. The trouble was that a screenplay to my mind was the wrong metaphor for an adventure game. The missing piece of the puzzle seemed to be that Tom didn’t grasp that an adventure game was a matrix of possibilities and it was up to the user to discover the route, and the point was not to cram the user toward the “conclusion.” Tom was very unhappy with the notion that the player might not experience the conclusion of the story the way that he intended in the script, so he insisted that the user be directed toward the conclusion.

Bentley and Kreitzberg met with Disch just a handful of times at his apartment near Union Square to try to iron out difficulties. The former remembers “lots of herbal tea being offered,” and being enlisted to fix problems with Disch’s computer and printer from time to time, but it’s safe to say that the sort of warm camaraderie that makes, say, the Mindwheel story such a pleasure to relate never developed. Before 1984 was out, frustrated with the endless circular feedback loop that the project had become and uninterested in the technical constraints being constantly raised as issues by his colleagues, Disch effectively washed his hands of the whole thing.

His exit did allow EA and Cognetics a freer hand, but that wouldn’t necessarily turn out for the better. Feeling that the game “was lacking in the standard sorts of gaming experience (like a score, sleep, food, etc.)” and looking for some purpose for that huge empty map of Manhattan, EA requested that Bentley shoehorn all that and more into the game; the player would now have to eat and sleep and earn money by taking odd jobs whilst trying to come to grips with the central mystery. The result was a shotgun marriage of the comparatively richly implemented plot-focused sections from Disch’s original script — albeit with more than half of the text and design excised for reasons of capacity — with a boring pseudo-CRPG that forces you to spend most of your time on logistics — earning money by begging or washing windows or doing other odd jobs, buying food and eating it, avoiding certain sections of the city after dark, finding a place to sleep and returning there regularly, dealing with the vagaries of the subway system — all implemented in little better than a Scott Adams level of detail. Daglow came up with an incomprehensible scoring system that tries to unify all this cognitive dissonance by giving you separate scores as a “detective,” a “character,” and a “survivor.” And as the cherry on top of this tedious sundae, EA added pedestrians who come up to you every handful of moves to ask you to look up numbers on a code wheel, one of the most irritating copy-protection measures ever implemented (and that, of course, is saying something).

All of this confusion fell to poor Kevin Bentley to program. He did a fine job, all things considered, even managing a parser that was, if not up to Infocom’s standards, also not worse than its other peers. Nevertheless growing frustrated and impatient with the game’s progress, EA put him up in an “artist apartment” near their San Mateo, California, headquarters in February of 1985 so that he could work on-site on a game that was now being haphazardly designed by whoever happened to shout the loudest. He spent some nine months there dutifully implementing — and often de-implementing — idea after idea to somehow make the game playable and fun. Bentley turned in the final set of code in November of 1985, by which time “everyone was over it,” enthusiasm long since having given way to a desire just to get something up to some minimal standard out there and be done with it. Certainly Bentley himself was under no illusions: “as a game I thought it sorta bombed.” Impressed with his dogged persistence, EA offered him a job on staff: “But I was 20 and far from home. I knew if I left immediately and drove back to New Jersey I could be home for Thanksgiving.” Unsurprisingly given the nature of the experience, Amnesia would mark the beginning and the end of his career as a game developer. He would go on to a successful and still ongoing career in other forms of programming and computer engineering. Charlie Kreitzberg and Cognetics similarly put games behind them, but are still in business today as a consulting firm, their brief time in games just a footnote on their website.

EA's released Amnesia package

EA’s released Amnesia package. Note that it’s simply called a “text adventure,” a sure sign that the bookware boom with its living literature and electronic novels has come and gone.

Amnesia, a deeply flawed effort released at last only during the sunset of the bookware boom, surprised absolutely no one at EA by failing to sell very well. It marks the only game EA would ever release to contain not a single graphic. Contemporary reviews were notably lukewarm, an anomaly for a trade press that usually saw very little wrong with much of anything. Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, admittedly never a big fan of overtly literary or experimental games, issued a pithy summary that details the gist of the game’s problems.

Overall, Amnesia is an unsatisfying game. You can run around here, and run around there, and work up your triple scores as a detective, a character, and a survivor, but so what? Much of what you actually do in the game doesn’t get you very far towards the ultimate solution. Boiled down to the essentials, there are only three things you need to do here: follow up on the clue from TTTT, get and read the disk, and meet Bette. There are auxiliary actions associated with them, but those are the key points. So when you think back on the game as a whole, you don’t see yourself as having done, really, a whole lot, as having been the main character. It’s more as though you came to certain places in a book, and turned a page to get on with the story.

Bottom line: terrific prose, nice maps, too much novel, not enough adventure.

Disch, despite having walked away from the hard work of trying to make the game better over a year before its release and despite having probably never even played the version of Amnesia which arrived in stores, took such reviews predictably personally. Amnesia, he pronounced, had been “one of the quickest disillusionments of my life.” He went on to blame the audience.

The real problem is that there’s simply no audience for this material, no one who would respond enthusiastically to what I do well. Those who buy it, who are aficionados of the form, are basically those who want trivial pursuits; and to offer them something, however entertaining, that involved reading and imaginative skills they did not care to exercise while playing with their computers was foolish. I felt like de Soto, who journeyed to Tennessee looking for the Fountain of Youth — an interesting enough trip, but neither of us found what we were looking for.

People who want to play this sort of game are looking, I suppose, for something like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker, where they can have their familiar experiences replayed. The computer-interactive games that have done well — like the Hitchhiker’s or Star Trek series — have been tied in with copyrighted materials that have already had success with the target audience in prior literary forms. I don’t think the quality of those scripts compares to what I did in Amnesia — Adams’s scripts, for example, are actually very good of a kind, but it’s a matter of one little joke after another. The notion of trying to superimpose over this structure a dramatic conception other than a puzzle was apparently too much for the audience. In the end, I just produced another literary curiosity.

There’s more than a grain of truth in all this if we can overlook the condescension toward Douglas Adams that would be more worthily applied to one of his derivatives like Space Quest. A computer-games audience more interested in the vital statistics of dragons and trolls than the emotional lives of the socially engaged humans around them undoubtedly did prove sadly unreceptive to games that tried to be about something. And reviewers like Scorpia did carry into their columns disconcertingly hidebound notions of what an “adventure game” could and should be, and seemed to lack even the language to talk about “a dramatic concept other than a puzzle,” to the extent that Scopia’s columns on Infocom’s two most forthrightly literary works, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, are little more than technical rundowns and catalogs of puzzle hints — not to mention her reaction to one of Infocom’s first bold literary experiments, the ending to Infidel and poor Brian Mortiarty found himself actively playing down the thematic message of Trinity in interviews in the hope of actually, you know, selling some copies of this supposedly “depressing” game. It’s just that Amnesia, being well-nigh unplayable, is an exceedingly poor choice to advance this argument, and for that Disch deserves his due share of the responsibility. At some level, having just served up — or having at least allowed his name to be attached to — a bad game, he’s not entitled to this argument.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch’s ultimate fate was an exceedingly sad one. After the millennium, his world crashed around him brick by brick. First there was the shock of witnessing the September 11 attack on his beloved New York, a shock that seemed to break a circuit somewhere deep inside him; often open to charges of nihilism, extreme pessimism, even misanthropy during his earlier career, it wasn’t until after September 11 that his hatred for the people who had done this made him begin to sound like a bigot. Then in 2005 Charles Naylor, his partner of three decades, died. In the aftermath came an effort by his landlord to evict him from the rent-controlled apartment the two had shared, an effort which appeared destined for success. With his writing career decidedly on the wane, his books dropping out of print one by one, and his income correspondingly diminishing, he did most of his writing after Naylor’s death in his LiveJournal blog. Amidst the poorly spelled and punctuated screeds against Muslim terrorists and organized religions of all stripes, depressingly similar to those of a million other angry bloggers, would come the occasional pearl of wisdom or poetry to remind everyone that somewhere inside this bitter, suffering man was the old Thomas M. Disch. And suffer he did, from sciatica, arthritis, diabetes, and ever-creeping obesity that left him all but housebound, trapped alone in his squalid apartment with only his computer for company. On July 4, 2008, he ended the suffering with a shotgun. In 1984, for Amnesia, a younger Disch had written from that same apartment that “suicide is always a dumb idea.” Obviously the pain of his later years changed his mind.

One of the writers with whom Disch seemed to feel the greatest connection was another brilliant, difficult man who always seemed to carry an aura of doom with him, and another who died in tragically pathetic circumstances: Edgar Allen Poe. Disch once wrote a lovely article about Poe’s “appalling life,” the last year of which “seems a headlong, hell-bent rush to suicide.”  Like Disch, Poe also died largely forgotten and unappreciated. Perhaps someday Disch will enjoy a revival akin to that of Poe. In the meantime that Amnesia script sits there tantalizingly, ripe as ever to become a modern work of interactive fiction that need not leave out a single word, that could give us Disch’s original vision undiluted by scores and copy protection and money problems and hunger and sleep timers. Maybe he’d forgive us for trimming some of that ridiculous Manhattan. And maybe, just maybe, his estate would be willing to give its blessing. Any takers?

(First and foremost, huge thanks to Kevin Bentley for sharing with me much of the history of Cognetics and Amnesia. Disch himself talked about Amnesia at greatest length in an interview published in Larry McCaffery’s Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Disch’s writings on science fiction are best collected in the Hugo-winning The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of and On SF. Scorpia’s review of Amnesia appeared in the January/February 1987 Computer Gaming World.

I’ve made Amnesia available here for download in its MS-DOS incarnation with a DOSBox configuration file that works well with it. Note that you’ll need to use the file “ACODES.TXT” in place of the code wheel when the irritating pedestrians start harassing you.)


Posted by on September 29, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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The Magnificent Penguin Hangs Up His Tuxedo

In April of 1984, Mark Pelczarski took a flight from Penguin Software’s home base of Chicago to San Francisco for the “Apple II Forever” event. Traveling with him were Steve Meuse, who had just written new extensions for Penguin’s graphics utilities to take advantage of the Apple IIe and IIc’s double-hi-res graphics mode, and Steve’s wife Marsha. Over the course of the flight, the three sketched out an idea for a series of computer games for “subversively” teaching geography, as had the old board game Game of the States and the perennial favorite Risk. By the time they made it to the Moscone Center to join the other Apple faithful, they had plans for no less than six games, one each for Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. Each would have you traveling through its region of the world on the trail of a villain. Figuring out where your quarry was would require piecing together clues relating to the geography, culture, and history of the region. The Spy’s Adventures Around the World soon became one-third of Penguin’s grand strategic plan for the next few years, to stand alongside the graphics software and the new Comprehend series of adventure games.

Through that summer, at the same time that he was designing and implementing the Comprehend system with Jeffrey Jay, Mark worked with Marsha to put together a prototype. In the fall they refined it with the aid of some educational researchers, tested it out with actual classes of schoolchildren to see how well it held their interest, and hired artists to begin filling it with Penguin’s trademark colorful graphics. Meanwhile Mark developed a cross-platform database-driven engine to replace his original BASIC implementation.

As the work went on, and as has been documented in painful detail elsewhere in this blog, the software industry was becoming a more and more uncertain and dangerous place for a small company like Penguin. Mark therefore broached an idea to Doug Carlston of the larger and more diversified Brøderbund: would he be interested in acquiring Penguin, as he had recently acquired Synapse Software? It’s certainly not the sort of idea that any entrepreneur takes lightly, but Mark felt he had good reasons for approaching Doug — and only Doug: “Doug was by far the person in software publishing whom I most respected.”

The two went about as far back as colleagues possibly could in an industry as young as this one. Mark had first crossed paths with Doug before Penguin or Brøderbund existed, when he was working for SoftSide magazine and Doug was selling his first game through the magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange. Later, whilst they were visiting him at his home in San Rafael, California, Doug had introduced Mark and David Lubar to a hotshot programmer named Chris Jochumson who added animation to the Penguin graphical suite. Mark returned the favor at the West Coast Computer Faire of 1983 when an artist named Gini Shimabukuro approached him with a big collection of clip-art images. Not himself having any programs in the offing that could make use of them, he thought of Doug, who had just demonstrated for him an idea that would soon become famous under the name The Print Shop. Mark sent Gini over to the Brøderbund booth, and her art eventually became a big part of The Print Shop’s finished look. Working together, both men also played important behind-the-scenes roles in the founding of the Software Publishers Association to promote the industry, advocate for the rights of smaller players like Penguin, and rail against piracy.

When Doug expressed tentative interest in the acquisition, Mark flew out to California once again in January of 1985 with a briefcase full of financial reports and details of Comprehend and the Spy’s Adventures series. He shared all of that and then some with Brøderbund, including Penguin’s three-pronged strategy for the future. Doug and Gary Carlston and Gene Portwood listened with apparent interest. While they didn’t share the status of their business to anywhere near the degree that Mark did, they did show a few demos of ideas in development whilst also, Mark claims, expressing a certain level of concern about a lack of really compelling products in their pipeline. A few days later Doug called Mark to say they had decided “not to go forward with” the acquisition, and that was that. Mark, for whom the burden of complete responsibility for Penguin and everyone who worked there was becoming heavy indeed, remembers feeling “disappointed.”

But there was nothing to be done about it and no one else to whom he was inclined to entrust Penguin, so he went back to tweaking and refining the Spy’s Adventures series that was increasingly starting to look like the best thing Penguin had going as the air rushed out of the bookware bubble and the Apple II, The Graphics Magician’s bread-and-butter platform, got longer in the tooth. Mark and his colleagues made it possible to play the Spy’s Adventures solo or multi-player, the latter in either a competitive or a unique cooperative mode. They produced guides and supplemental software for teachers looking to integrate the games into a curriculum. And they tested, tested, tested. They took their time, wanting to make sure the series was perfect. If they could get the first three games out by the end of the year, it should be more than early enough, given that schools traditionally budgeted and purchased for the next school year in the spring.

Then came the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June. “Have you seen the Brøderbund booth?” a colleague asked Mark. No. “Well, you need to.”

Brøderbund was showing a demo of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a game you probably already thought of some time ago, when I first described Penguin’s take on the educational geographical adventure game. Livid, Mark tracked Doug down and confronted him right there on the show floor. The latter refused to engage in any discussion, other than to say that he “knew nothing” about Carmen Sandiego at the time of the January meeting and that he always did his best to exchange information with others to to avoid this sort of thing. Their friendship effectively ended right there. Mark:

My contacts with Doug after that were short. He either did not reply, or replied tersely. He was a lawyer. I don’t know if he felt he had to watch his words, thus the fewer the better?

At this point we want to be just a little bit careful. There was a period of time when Mark believed the most sensationalistic and dastardly interpretation of these events to likely be true: that Brøderbund blatantly stole his idea for a geographical educational adventure and rushed it out as Carmen Sandiego before Penguin could get the Spy’s Adventures out. Today he no longer believes that interpretation to be terribly likely. Nor do I. To believe it requires one to believe in a thirty-year conspiracy of silence amongst the considerable number of people who were involved in the creation of Carmen Sandiego, not all of whom proved to be all that committed to the Carlstons or Brøderbund in even the short term; Dane Bigham, for instance, architect and programmer of Carmen Sandiego‘s cross-platform game engine, left the company as something less than a happy camper just months after the game’s release when he was informed that he would have to start taking a fixed salary rather than royalties. It’s also difficult to believe that Brøderbund could have come up with the character of Carmen herself and the idea of the included almanac, neither of which were in Penguin’s version, and managed to design and program a demo featuring it all in the bare handful of months between January and June. Nor does it seem at all in keeping with Doug Carlston’s apparently well-earned reputation as one of the nicest, fairest people in software.

The real significance of this incident for Mark and for Penguin is more subtle, but perhaps all the more poignant for it. When he told the story to me in detail for the first time, I replied with a ham-handed array of practical questions. Did you not have Brøderbund sign some sort of NDA or other agreement before you told them pretty much everything there was to know about the state of your business? Once you gifted him with the information that you had such a similar project, what was Doug to do, potentially torpedo his own project by telling you? When you approached him with aggressive questions implying he had stolen your idea, can you really blame him so much for doing the lawyerly thing, limiting his liability by saying as little as possible and keeping away from you as much as possible from then on? Wasn’t Doug, in addition to being a nice guy, also a businessman with the livelihood of many others (including most of his own family) depending on the continued existence of his company, and doesn’t that sometimes have to trump friendship?

Mark replied that I “don’t really understand how magical those early years were, and how this was such a dramatic departure.” Doug should have told him that Brøderbund had something so similar in development, and they would somehow have worked something out. Even the mild bit of dishonesty that it’s quite hard to absolve Doug of — that he somehow hadn’t known that Carmen Sandiego was in development at the time of the January 1985 meeting, a claim he himself has refuted in many interviews since — seemed totally out of character for the straight shooter Mark thought he knew. Clearly Doug found himself on the horns of a difficult and ethically ambiguous dilemma. You can judge his behavior for yourself. For Mark, though, these events served as a canary in a coalmine telling him that the days of the software brotherhood were gone and the industry that had replaced it may not be someplace he wanted to be. If this tormented business could bring a nice guy like Doug to behave this way, what might it force Mark himself into doing? If Doug’s behavior represented simply “good business,” did he really want to be in business?

Penguin did publish the first three Spy’s Adventures games as planned, but by then Carmen Sandiego had already been out for a couple of months. Mark continues to believe that the Penguin games are better than their Brøderbund counterparts, noting that they contain all of the information the player needs to play them in-game rather than relying on an outside resource. The multiplayer possibilities, he notes correctly, also give them a whole additional dimension. Personally, I acknowledge the latter point in particular as well taken, but remember that big old almanac as a huge part of Carmen Sandiego‘s appeal, most definitely a feature rather than a bug. Whatever, there just wasn’t room for two lines of educational geographic adventure games, and Brøderbund cornered the space for themselves by releasing first and doing a masterful job of promotion; as Mark himself wryly acknowledges, just the names Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and The Spy’s Adventures in North America tell you everything you need to know about the relative promotional flairs of the two companies. The Spy made it to North America, South America, and Europe, but no further, while Carmen eventually conquered time and space and even the PBS airwaves.

Whilst Mark was still reeling from seeing Carmen Sandiego at that CES show, there came another disillusioning moment: he was forced to change the ground of Penguin’s very identity, its name. A couple of years before, when the world of book publishing was beginning to eye that of software publishing with greedy eyes, the Penguin Group had legally objected to the Penguin Software trademark. His lawyers informed Mark that he had a reasonable chance of winning on the merits of the case — his company had been in software first, after all — but the other Penguin had the money and legal resources to make any victory so expensive and time-consuming that it couldn’t help but bury his little company — which was, one suspects, exactly what the Penguin Group, hundreds of times bigger than Penguin Software, was relying on. Mark played for time by dragging out the discovery process and subsequent negotiations as long as he possibly could. But at last as 1985 drew to a close Penguin Software began the difficult process of educating the public about their new identity as “Polarware,” a name that never quite fit and always rankled. A final agreement severing Polarware from the old Penguin name forever was signed in 1986. The bullying tactics of the Penguin Group are doubly dispiriting in light of the imprint’s noble history as the first to bring affordable paperback editions of great literature to the masses. (And, astonishingly, the tactics were still continuing a decade after Polarware closed up shop; see the threatening letter Mark has published on his own site, which leaves one thinking that surely their lawyers must have something better to be doing than policing collections of long-obsolete software for long-obsolete computers.)

With the Spy’s Adventures a bust, the newly minted Polarware must rely entirely upon the other two legs of that strategic triangle, the graphics software and the Comprehend line of adventure games. They released two more Comprehend games in 1986 to join Antonio Antiochia’s Comprehend-revamped Transylvania and its sequel of the previous year. Both 1986 games were also remakes, signs of a maturing industry now able to mine the “classics” of its own past.


One of them we’ve met before on this blog: Oo-Topos, one of the two science-fiction adventures Mike Berlyn had written during his early days with Sentient Software. Mark had known Mike for some years already by 1986, having first met him when Mike was working on an arcade game that Sentient would eventually release as Congo and called Penguin with some questions about how to use The Graphics Magician. As the Comprehend line was getting underway, Mark proposed to Mike, who was still at Infocom at the time, that Penguin/Polarware be allowed to remake Oo-Topos using the Comprehend engine. It sounded fine to Mike, but for two problems: his position at Infocom made it difficult for him to directly involve himself with the remake; and the actual rights to the game resided not with Mike but with his erstwhile partner at Sentient, Alan Garber, from whom he had split on less than amicable terms. Mark was able to work out a deal with Garber instead. Mike received no royalties, but gave his blessing to a remake which smoothed away most of the rough edges of the original and of course added graphics. The result was a very enjoyable adventure game.

The Coveted Mirror

The other game, a charming little fantasy called The Coveted Mirror, was of more recent vintage. The erstwhile Penguin Software had published the original, written and illustrated by freelance illustrator Holly Thomason and programmed by a Stanford systems programmer named Eagle Berns, in 1983. (Berns would go on to quite a career inside Silicon Valley, working most notably for Apple and Oracle.) The new version removed the several surprisingly good arcade-action sequences from the original, but added some additional locations and puzzles in compensation.

The Comprehend adventures are not innovative in the least, and indeed were already feeling like throwbacks in their own time, the last holdouts from the old Hi-Res Adventure approach to adventuring that Sierra had birthed with Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess and long since abandoned along with most of the rest of the industry. For all that, though, I have a huge soft spot for the line. They are, mark you, full of the sort of old-school attributes that will drive most of you crazy: mazes, inventory limits, limited light sources and other sorts of timers, vital information hidden in the graphics, parsers that don’t understand simple constructions like “DROP ALL.” Yet there’s a certain sense of design craft to them that’s lacking in so many of their competitors, and most of all a welcome sense that their authors want you to solve them, want you to have fun with them. Excluding only a few misbegotten riddles in The Crimson Crown, there are no stupid guess-the-word parser puzzles, no cheap tricks meant to send you scurrying with cash-in-hand for the hint book. If you can accept the different standards of a different era, they’re just about the most consistently playable line of parser-driven adventures of the 1980s, excepting only Infocom. Others may have reached further and occasionally soared higher, but their literary aspirations much more frequently only led them to create games that didn’t really work that well as, well, games. Despite their branding as “Interactive Novels,” a mode of phraseology very much in vogue at the time of their conception, the Comprehend titles are content to just be fun text adventures, an impressively nonlinear web of locations and puzzles to explore and solve in the service of just enough plot to get you started and provide an ending.

In addition to five released Comprehend games, Polarware signed contracts for and storyboarded two licensed games that would never get made, one to be based on the Frank and Ernest newspaper comic strip, the other on Jimmy Buffett’s anthem “Margaritaville.” The latter makes a particularly interesting story, one that once again begins with Mike Berlyn.

One year Mark and Mike had found themselves on the same flight from Chicago to Las Vegas for the Winter CES, and arranged to sit together. The conversation came around to music, whereupon Mark mentioned his love for Jimmy Buffett. Long before the Parrothead circus began, Mark had seen him as a struggling singer/songwriter who passed through the University of Illinois student union to sing his poignant early songs of alcohol-addled losers and dreamers adrift on the Florida Keys. Mike mentioned that he had actually lived quite close to Buffett during his tenure in Aspen, Colorado, with Sentient, and that he believed Buffett still had a house there. Knowing only that Buffett lived (according to Mike) in the “Red Mountain subdivision” of Aspen, on a lark Mark sent a letter off to just that: “Jimmy Buffett, Red Mountain subdivision, Aspen, Colorado.” Four months later one of his employees came to him to to tell him that “there’s this guy who says he’s Jimmy Buffett on the phone for you.” There were plans in the works to make a movie out of “Margaritaville,” and it seems Buffett and his associates thought a computer game might make a nice companion (even given that it was somewhat, um, debatable how much of a cross-section there really was between computer gamers and Jimmy Buffett fans). But the movie plans fell through in the end, and neither movie nor game got made.

Penguin/Polarware had managed to stay afloat and even modestly profitable through 1985, but as the mass-market distributors gained more and more power they were increasingly able to impose their will on a small publisher, stretching the time between the shipment of an order and receipt of payment to thirty, sixty, ninety days or longer. Distributors came to dictate terms to such an extent that Polarware might ship them a $30,000 order only to have the distributor announce a few months later that they’d only sold $12,000 of it and thus would only pay for that, while, what with sales having been so slow, they wouldn’t even bother trying to move the rest — but no, they wouldn’t be paying for or returning the leftovers either. Bigger players might impose their own will on the distributors or set up their own distribution systems (as Electronic Arts did from the beginning), but there was very little that Polarware could do. While they did try forming a distributor, which they called SoftRack, to handle their own wares and those of a few other small publishers, it never penetrated much beyond some small independent retailers in the Midwest. For the rest, they must rely upon the established big boys, many of whom lived fast and close to the edge. At the beginning of 1986 what Mark had been dreading finally happened: a few distributors went bankrupt while owing Polarware a lot of money. With accounts suddenly deeply in the red, he was forced to embark on the heartbreaking process of laying off lots of employees he had long since come to regard as friends.

The frantic down-sizing and cost-cutting was enough to let Polarware weather this crisis, but Mark had decided by the end of the year that he’d had enough. The future looked decidedly uncertain. The Spy’s Adventures were a bust, while the Comprehend games had proved only modestly successful. And now the graphics utilities, always the company’s financial bedrock, also faced a doubtful (at best) future. The 8-bit platforms they ran on were now aged, with the press beginning to speculate on how much longer they could possibly remain viable, and Polarware had nothing in the works for and no real expertise with the next generation of 16-bit graphical powerhouses. The Comprehend line also desperately needed a facelift for the new machines, one that the down-sized Polarware wasn’t really in a position to provide. Meanwhile the stress of running Polarware was keeping Mark up at night and starting to affect his health. It was time to quit. Mark walked away, selling Polarware to a group of employees who still thought they could make a go of it. They would manage to release one more Comprehend game, an original with the awkward title of Talisman: Challenging the Sands of Time, in 1987 before accepting the inevitable and selling out to Merit Software.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

For his part, Mark pursued a growing fascination with the then-new computerized music-making technology of MIDI. That led to an early MIDI software package, MIDI OnStage, and combined with the Jimmy Buffett connection he’d established at Polarware took him to Key West to help set up Buffett’s Shrimpboat Sound recording studio; his work rated a mention in the liner notes of the first album Buffett recorded there, Hot Water. Since then Mark has filled his time with quite a variety of activities: setting up another studio for Dan Fogelberg; playing steel drums in a band; developing the mapping technology for early travel-planning CD-ROMs; teaching one of the first online courses ever offered and developing much of the technology that allowed him to do so; developing early web-forum software; teaching programming for twenty years at Elgin Community College. He’s now retired from that last gig, but remains busy and industrious as ever; when I first contacted him to ask him to help me tell the Penguin/Polarware story, I was surprised to find him volunteering as a technology architect for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Mark escaped the chaos with little apparent psychic damage, something not necessarily true of all of his contemporaries.

When I put Penguin behind me, I felt like I’d already had a lifetime of experiences, much more than most people could hope for, imagine, or dream. And I kind of treated what came after as another lifetime. I joke, but only half so, about how “in a past life…’ I did this and that, when talking about things like Penguin Software. But it really does kind of feel like that, and that probably helped keep me sane in living another, more normal life.

(You can download the Comprehend versions of Oo-Topos and The Coveted Mirror for the Apple II, including manuals and all the other goodies, from here if you like.

For another and presumably final time, my thanks to Mark Pelczarski. His memories, which he shared with me in careful detail even though this period of Penguin/Polarware’s history is not his favorite to remember, were just about all I needed to write this article.)


Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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