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Cliff Johnson’s Fool’s Errand

20 Nov

The Fool's Errand

One sunny day, a light-hearted fool strolled along a hilly path, whistling a merry tune. A long wooden pole was slung over his shoulder and attached to it was a cloth bundle which carried his life’s possessions.

“What a marvelous afternoon!” he exclaimed to no one in particular, pausing to appreciate the lovely countryside.

Soon the trees parted and the path led to a small clearing, ending abruptly at the edge of a treacherous cliff. But the fool was undaunted and kept at his swift pace, steadily approaching the sheer drop.

“Your folly is most curious,” a voice boomed. “Have you no fear of death?”

Just as one leg dangled over the side of the cliff, the fool hesitated.

“Who dares to interrupt my errand?” he demanded impatiently.

“I dare,” the bright yellow sun replied.

“Well, then,” the fool considered, “I seek the fourteen treasures of the world and I am told that a man who strays from his path is lost.”

“That may well be true,” spoke the sun, “but I fear that you are already lost. Take this map as my gift. It will aid you in your quest.”

And in a flash of light, an aged parchment appeared at his feet.

“At last! A path to follow!” cried the fool, happily taking the map.

“Perhaps,” the sun murmured, “yet things are never as simple as they may seem.”

But the fool had already run back down the hill and did not hear the sun’s parting words.

Long before “game developer” was recognized by universities as a legitimate career to which one could aspire, people from a dizzying array of backgrounds stumbled into the field. Plenty were the programmers and technologists that you might expect, but plenty of others came from places much farther afield. Infocom, just to take one example, included among their ranks a construction engineer, a journalist, a science-fiction author, a medical doctor, and two lost literature majors, while Sierra’s two most prominent designers were a former housewife and a former jazz musician. Other companies could boast architects, psychologists, rocket scientists, poets, and plain old high-school students. Taken in this light, the story of Cliff Johnson, a filmmaker who decided to start making computer games instead, may not seem quite so atypical. The first game he made, however, is anything but typical. The Fool’s Errand is one of the precious gems of its era, despite — because of? — having been made by a fellow with little intrinsic interest in computers and even less in playing games on them. For an industry that has so often struggled to get beyond a handful of fictional and mechanical genres inspired by a tiny sliver of the rich cultural tapestry of the human race, it’s yet one more reminder of just what a good thing a little diversity can be.

Born in 1953 in Connecticut as the only child of a pair of schoolteachers, Cliff Johnson manifested creativity and curiosity almost from the moment he arrived. As a boy, he spent hours tramping around the woods and dales that surrounded his family home. He loved maps, loved to imagine himself an explorer on the hunt for hidden pirate treasure (“X marks the spot!”). When not roaming the woods, he loved making things with his own hands, whether that meant playing with an erector set or spending long afternoons in the basement doing home-grown chemistry experiments. Gunpowder was easy, the formula printed in lots of places. Chlorine gas proved more tricky, both to make and to get rid of; thankfully the basement had some windows just below its ceiling that helped Cliff get rid of the evidence before Mom and Dad made it home.

Any possibility of Cliff becoming a cartographer or a scientist was, however, derailed on the day that he saw the classic horror flick House on Haunted Hill, starring no less an icon than Vincent Price. Like millions of other kids across the country, he became a B-movie fanatic, a devotee of all things monstrous, horrific, and/or alien. But unlike most fans, Cliff’s personality demanded that he do more than passively consume his obsession. Getting his hands on a Super 8 camera, he started making his own little movies. His technique evolved with impressive speed; soon he was doing stop-motion with live actors to craft his special-effects sequences, a tricky proposition even for professionals. As he got older and his teenage tastes, relatively speaking, matured, he discovered the allure of camp, moving from pulpy horror to slapstick comedy. His magnum opus, shown in his high-school auditorium on three glorious evenings, was called The Return of the Freshman. (It was, naturally, a sequel, and one with a name that beat George Lucas to the punch by thirteen years at that.)

Cliff Johnson

The summer before, while The Return of the Freshman was still in its planning stages, Cliff and his parents had visited Disneyland. He was no stranger to amusement parks, but knew them as the seedy, vaguely disreputable places they generally were at that time, echoes of the still older traveling circuses. Disneyland, however, was something different. In addition to being clean and wholesome and family-friendly, care had been taken with their rides and other attractions to turn them into real experiences. Cliff was particularly entranced by the lovingly sculpted animatronic characters who actually moved. “I could do that!” was his boyish response; after all, he’d gotten quite good at sculpting monsters and props for his movies. Back home, the local amusement park, a run-down place called Lake Compounce, had a ride called Laff-in-the-Dark that had fallen on hard times. Once full of chills and thrills, its bits and pieces had broken down and been removed one by one, so that now it was largely just a ride through a pitch-black tunnel. Cliff asked the Norton family that ran the park for permission to walk through the ride while it was closed, measuring its every dimension, sketching its every curve and straightaway. He and his girlfriend Janice then made models and sketches illustrating how they thought the ride could be restored to its former glory. Showing an audacity that would serve him well throughout his life, Cliff formally proposed their services to the Nortons. For $1000, they would bring a little taste of Disneyland to Lake Compounce. The Norton family agreed, and thus, between shoots for The Return of the Freshman, Cliff along with cast and crew and Janice built monsters and lights and installed them in the ride. The Norton patriarch, also the mayor of the city of Bristol at that time, was so thrilled with Cliff’s work that he agreed to appear in his movie. He played himself, looking out of his window at City Hall at a flying saucer whizzing by. (“What a sport!” remarks Cliff today.)

Cliff did such a good job on that hometown ride that word got out on the amusement-park circuit about this talented teenager who, being a teenager, worked pretty cheap. He spent the next few years traveling the country as far from home as Colorado and California, making monsters for low-rent amusement parks and saving money for his dream of attending film school right in the heart of Hollywood, at the University of Southern California.

He finally began USC Film School in 1974. University worked on him just as it ideally ought to, opening new intellectual vistas. Having entered an aficionado of monster movies and Disney, perhaps primed for a career in Hollywood special effects — and at a good time too, what with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg just around the corner — he discovered there a new world of film, film made as art for art’s sake. More specifically, he discovered avant-garde animation. Working under Professor Gene Coe, a semi-legendary figure at USC, he made a number of experimental films that did very well on the festival circuit, earning several prizes. He still remembers his years at USC as some of the best and most artistically productive of his life.

But then, in 1979, he was suddenly finished, with a freshly minted Master’s Degree in his hand and no clear idea of what to do next. Virtually the entire avant-garde animation industry, to the extent that such a thing existed at all, existed in Canada and Europe rather than the United States. Cliff couldn’t see himself moving there, but he also no longer had any desire to become a part of the mainstream Hollywood machine that surrounded him in Southern California. So, he became an entrepreneur, an all-purpose filmmaker-for-hire who served a client list consisting mostly of big corporations that needed films made for practical in-house purposes and didn’t want to pay too much for the service. Cliff, by now an accomplished animator as well as cameraman, could do entire films virtually by himself, adding charts and graphics and titles and cartoons and whatever else was needed to his live-action footage to meet his clients’ needs. He did a large number of training films for Southern California Edison in particular, producing, as he would later put it, “such notable works as Heating, Air Conditioning and Ventilation and other film classics.” Yes, it was pretty boring stuff, but it was a pretty decent living.

And yet the fact remained that his new life was as much of a creative comedown from his art-for-art’s-sake days at USC as it was a financial windfall. An artistically stymied Cliff thus began to look around for diversions from his dull working life. Three influences in particular came together at this time to start him in earnest down the road toward The Fool’s Errand.

First, there were his parties. As far back as his teenage years, he had loved to throw elaborate multimedia parties — multimedia in the old sense of the word, implying the blending of different sorts of media in a physical rather than a digital space. He would fill the rooms of a house with lights, sound, music, film, figures, and props, and arrange his guests’ progress through the house so as to tell a little story or illustrate a theme. Soon he began adding an interactive element, a little puzzle or mystery for his guest to solve. These mysteries were, he notes wryly today, “more jobs for Watson than Sherlock,” but, despite or because of their simplicity, his guests really took to them. He kept throwing the parties, growing ever more elaborate all the while, through his time at USC and especially while working as a filmmaker-for-hire, when he desperately needed the creative outlet they provided.

Next, there was Masquerade. Soon after leaving USC, Cliff became one of countless thousands of people all over the world to be fascinated by a little children’s picture book called Masquerade. Written by a reclusive English painter named Kit Williams, it tells the story of a hare who carries a treasure from the Moon to the Sun, with fifteen of William’s intricate paintings as illustrations. What so enthralled Cliff and all those others, however, was the end of the book, which reveals that the hare has lost his treasure, and that it’s up to you, the reader, to find from clues scattered through the book where it now lies in the real world. Masquerade became an international phenomenon that obsessed treasure hunters and puzzle solvers for more than two-and-a-half years, selling nearly 2 million books in the process. Cliff, who didn’t personally enjoy solving puzzles all that much, was perhaps less obsessed than many of those buyers, but he found the idea of Masquerade, of a book that could stand alone but could also serve as a grand puzzle, endlessly intriguing as something he might create.1

And finally, there was the tarot deck. Not remotely of a spiritual or supernatural bent, Cliff nevertheless came upon a lovely Rider-Waite tarot deck and found himself fascinated with the characters and ideas represented there.

A section of the Fool's Errand treasure map.

A section of the Fool’s Errand treasure map.

All of these influences merged together in a 1981 project that would prove to be a non-computerized prototype of the final version of The Fool’s Errand that was still six years in the future. Wanting to create another fun and unique experience for his friends as a Christmas gift, like all those themed parties, Cliff decided to write, just for them, a little book much like Masquerade, telling the story of a Fool who wanders through a fairy-tale land based loosely on the world of the tarot. Filling the back of the book, after the 21-page story, were another 14 pages containing pieces of a treasure map; shades of Cliff’s childhood roaming the Connecticut woodlands dreaming of pirate maps and buried treasure. The player should cut out and assemble the pieces using clues from the story, which was divided into 81 sections, each relating to one piece of the map. Accomplishing that got you to an endgame, a crossword requiring you to correctly place the names of 13 treasures mentioned in the story to decode a final message: “Merry Christmas!” (Those of you who’ve already played The Fool’s Errand on a computer will recognize all of this as essentially the second half of that game, the part you embark on after completing all of the initial puzzles.) Unlike Masquerade, over which so many puzzlers fretted for years, The Fool’s Errand was designed to be a pleasant challenge but not an exhausting one, solvable in a single long, lazy holiday afternoon. He was thus disappointed when, out of the dozens of people to whom he sent the book, only three actually solved it. The lesson he took away was that, while he believed his friends to be a pretty intelligent group on the whole, this sort of complex puzzle required a special kind of intelligence — or, perhaps better said, a special kind of personality — that made it a poor fit for most of them. He put his storybook back on the shelf, and returned to the themed parties that were so much better received.

But Cliff’s reputation among his friends as a devious mind was now established, and would lead to his introduction to the brave new world of computerized puzzle design. One of his friends, Allen Pinero, came to him with a proposition. Pinero had jumped onto the home-computer bandwagon early, purchasing an Apple II, and had devised a unique text-adventure engine that let the player control two characters at once through a split-screen view. With the core programming in place, though, he was having some trouble devising a plot and puzzles — in short, something for the characters to actually do. Despite knowing nothing about the state of the art in home computers, much less adventure games — he’d never played or even seen one in his life before Pinero showed him a few of Scott Adams’s to prime his pump — Cliff came up with a plot that tangled together several stories from Greek mythology; the two characters under the player’s control became none other than Jason and Hercules. He also devised a batch of puzzles that often required the characters to work together from different rooms, and to illustrate their adventures he drew pictures freehand, which Pinero than translated into vector graphics on the screen. Released in late 1982 by Scott Adams’s Adventure International, Labyrinth of Crete, like most Adventure International games by that time, made little impact in either the trade press or at retail, although it did sell well enough through their mail-order catalogs that they funded ports to the Atari 8-bits and the Commodore 64.

For Cliff it was a fun little experience in its way, but also a frustrating one. It’s safe to say that it didn’t ignite any dormant passion for computers or computer games. He chafed constantly at the limitations of the two-word parser and the primitive world model. It often seemed that nine out of ten ideas he proposed were greeted by Pinero with a “Sorry, can’t do that,” followed by some esoteric technical reasoning he didn’t really understand and didn’t really care to. Pinero’s Apple II itself remained to him an incomprehensible and irascible black (or rather beige) box, all strident squawks and ugly colors. He was, needless to say, completely baffled by Pinero’s efforts to program the thing. If anything, the experience only confirmed his dislike of computers. He certainly didn’t rush out to buy one himself. He and Pinero did discuss doing another game together, but Pinero in particular was feeling completely burnt-out by all the work that had done into the first — far more work than he had ever imagined it would be.

Cliff’s opinion of computers didn’t change until one day in late 1984 when he idly wandered into a store selling the Apple Macintosh and promptly fell in love. Ironically, he had long since shot one of his corporate films inside Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, the very place where most of the ideas behind the Macintosh were invented. For whatever reason, that experience had left little impression on him, done nothing to alter his opinion of computers as balky, unpleasant contraptions. The Macintosh itself, however, just did it for him right away. He loved its friendly demeanor, loved the simplicity of its point-and-click operating system, loved the elegance of its crisp black-and-white display in contrast to the ugly blotches of pixelated color he remembered on the screen of Pinero’s Apple II. He became just another of the thousands of creative souls, many of them far removed from your typical computer nerd, who saw magic possibility in “the computer for the rest of us.” He simply had to have one. A few thousand dollars later, he was armed with a shiny new 512 K “Fat Mac” with all the bells and whistles, purchased with vague justifications that it would be useful for his business.

Cliff was perhaps unusually receptive to the idea of a life-changing event at about this point. His work as a filmmaker was more stultifying than ever. Even a chance to do animations for a brief-lived children’s television series called Out of Control, which was broadcast by the Nickelodeon cable channel as their first original series ever, hadn’t lifted his malaise. So, yes, he was looking for a way out even before he wandered into that store. Soon his new Macintosh would provide it.

He first programmed his Macintosh by writing macros for keeping track of his business finances in the Microsoft Multiplan spreadsheet. His programming began in earnest, however, only when a friend of his, knowing he was very enamored with his new computer, gifted him with a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the machine. It was, surprisingly for this inveterate computer hater, not quite Cliff’s first exposure to the language. The only computerized gadget he had ever owned prior to purchasing his Macintosh had been an Atari VCS game console, for which he had received, again as a gift, Atari’s “BASIC Programming” cartridge. Delivered as a hedge to fretful parents thinking of replacing Junior’s game console with a real home computer, it was a shockingly primitive creation even by the standards of its day. Programs, which had to be laboriously entered using Atari’s infuriating “keyboard controllers,” could be all of 63 characters in length, and couldn’t be saved. But despite it all, Cliff had found the experience of programming vaguely interesting, enough to devote an afternoon or two to, as he puts it, “getting a tiny square to move around the screen.” Now, with this latest gift of a BASIC, those memories came back, and he started learning to program his Macintosh with real enthusiasm. The natural question then became what to do with his burgeoning skills.

Cliff happened to be acquainted with Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman of the legendary comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre. For a time, they all discussed bringing Firesign’s most famous character, the hard-boiled detective Nick Danger, to interactive life via some sort of adventure game. Yet that puzzle-filled storybook that Cliff had made several years before, the one that had left him feeling like it was a genuinely great idea that just hadn’t found the right audience, kept popping into his head. People who played on computers at that time — yes, even “computers for the rest of us” like the Macintosh — tended to be the sort of people who noticed the little things, who were intrigued by them. What might they make of a computerized puzzle book? Married by this point, he told his wife Kathy one day that he had to drop the filmmaking business, had to drop everything and find out. With Kathy still attending university, they would just have to live on savings and credit cards while he saw it through. Thus was The Fool’s Errand reborn as a computer game.

Let’s be clear: it was a crazy thing to do. Having programmed for a bare handful of months, Cliff proposed programming a commercial-quality game. Having never seriously played a computer game in his life, he proposed designing one. Knowing no one in and nothing about the games industry, he proposed selling his creation at some point to a publisher. He didn’t even like to solve puzzles, not really. His consolation, if he had only known it, might have been that he was mirroring to an uncanny degree Kit Williams, the man who had set him down this path in the first place. Kit also had never evinced the slightest interest in actually solving puzzles, had conceived the grand puzzle that was Masquerade strictly as a gimmick to get people to really look at his artwork and — let’s be honest here — to sell books.

Cliff started, as you’d expect, with his old storybook itself. His original story of the Fool’s wanderings through a tarot-inspired fairy-tale land went into the computer version almost verbatim. The patchwork treasure map also went in, consisting of the same 81 tiles, each linked to a section of the story; it would be much easier to unscramble on the monitor screen, requiring only mouse clicks rather than scissors and glue. And the crossword full of treasures, your reward for completing the map, remained as the final puzzle. But fleshing out this spine, often called today the “meta-puzzle” of the game, would be a collection of other, smaller puzzles that were new to the computer version. Entering each treasure in the final puzzle, for instance, would require not just that you figure out what that treasure should be from the story but that you solve another set-piece puzzle as well. And most of the story itself would be hidden from you at the beginning; opening up the other sections for reading would require, you guessed it, solving puzzles.

A friend of Cliff’s used to have a subscription to Games magazine, and would loan him each issue after he was finished with it, by which time all of the puzzles were marked up with his solutions. Cliff didn’t care. He wasn’t so interested in solving the puzzles, which took time he didn’t feel he could spare anyway, as he was in looking at how they were put together, enjoying them almost as one might a work of art. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was already thinking like a game designer. Now that subconscious preparation was about to serve him well.

The individual puzzles he crafted for his game are multifarious, many of them old favorites of the sort that he had studied in those magazines: word searches, anagrams, cryptograms, crosswords, mazes, jigsaws. Others, however, are delightfully original, like the tarot-inspired card game that requires you to first figure out what the rules are before you can concentrate on actually winning the thing. Some, like the word-concatenation puzzles, are almost naive outgrowths of Cliff’s early experiments with BASIC. A few, the least satisfying in my opinion, are essentially action games, dependent as much on reflexes as smarts.

Through the early months, Cliff was writing each puzzle as it own self-contained BASIC program, unclear exactly how he would tie them together to create a unified experience. Most of his problems came down to Microsoft BASIC itself. Because it was interpreted rather than compiled, it was painfully slow. Even worse, its programs required that the end user also have Microsoft BASIC in order to run them. In short, it was an environment for casual hobbyists and students of programming, not for the creation of a full-fledged commercial game. About a year after he’d first bought his Macintosh, a life-saver arrived in the form of ZBASIC, a compiled version of the language whose programs could run on any Macintosh, and at several times the speed of the Microsoft version at that. There were unfortunately enough syntactical differences between the two dialects that Cliff had to spend quite some time porting his code, but he ended up with a much more powerful and flexible language that was up to the task of implementing The Fool’s Errand.

Very much the amateur, self-taught programmer, Cliff’s code was, as a few technical friends told him at the time and as he freely admits today, neither terribly efficient nor terribly well-structured. Yet it had a couple of overriding virtues: it worked, and Cliff at least understood how it worked. Throughout the development of The Fool’s Errand, he constantly shared his puzzles in progress with his wife, with his old friend and Labyrinth of Crete partner Allen Pinero, and with another old friend, David Wood. Still, Cliff remained haunted by a “morbid pessimism” that at some point the whole house of cards, built from dozens of little BASIC programs all piled atop and beside one another, would collapse into hopeless chaos.

But it didn’t happen, and by the end of 1986 he had something complete enough to start shopping to publishers. Cliff still knew next to nothing about the games industry, but once more that old audacity, that willingness to just call his supposed betters and ask for whatever it was he wanted, served him well. A few publishers showed serious interest, despite the fact that the Macintosh market was still quite a minor one when it came to games. He met with Activision, publisher of what remains to this day the only computer game to have ever really captured Cliff’s interest as a player, the casual Mahjong puzzler Shanghai. They were quite willing to sign him, but the royalty they offered seemed rather paltry and, even worse, they insisted that he sign over to them his copyright. If there was one thing Cliff’s years in and around Hollywood had taught him you should never do, it was that. So he ended up signing instead with a young Macintosh-centric publisher called Miles Computing. Tiny though they were by the standards of the industry at large, they had already made a decent name for themselves in Macintosh circles with games like Harrier Strike Mission, which as the platform’s first available flight simulator had done very well for itself, and a line of clip-art disks for desktop publishers. They offered a much better royalty than Activision, were willing to let him keep his copyright, and were based right there in Southern California.

What Miles wasn’t terribly good at doing, Cliff soon learned to his dismay, was actually selling software that didn’t spontaneously sell itself. Released at last in April of 1987 with absolutely no promotion, The Fool’s Errand sank without a trace. One or two reviews buried deep inside magazines, lukewarm and noncommittal, became the full extent of its press presence. Cliff was left in an uncomfortable limbo, unsure what to do with himself next. His savings were exhausted, his credit-card debt was now approaching $50,000, and his royalties were so minimal as to be virtually nonexistent. He wasn’t eager to return to his old business of filmmaker-for-hire, and wasn’t sure he could anyway; once you fall out of people’s Rolodexes in Hollywood it’s damnably hard to get yourself back in. But, based on the evidence so far, this computer-game thing wasn’t exactly proving to be a financial winner either. The name of his game was now seeming sadly apropos. Making The Fool’s Errand, it seemed, had itself been a fool’s errand.

Cliff Johnson, 1987

The game’s life preserver, and thus Cliff’s as well, came in the form of a superlative feature review (“5 Mice!”) written by the prominent Macintosh pundit and columnist Neil Shapiro for the January 1988 issue of MacUser. Shapiro was the first reviewer to take the time to properly dig into the game, to understand what it was and what it was doing. He liked what he saw. In fact, he really liked what he saw. “Cliff Johnson has taken computer gaming, turned it inside-out and upside-down, and redefined the state of the art,” he wrote. He continued to champion the game relentlessly over the months that followed. The floodgates opened; The Fool’s Errand became a hit. A suddenly much more enthusiastic Miles Computing belatedly funded ports to the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and MS-DOS. Cliff, who had nothing to do with programming those versions, was never happy with the way they looked or played. He considers them “Bizarro World” versions of his game, ugly, simplified, and buggy to boot. It was a long, not entirely successful struggle for him just to keep the worst of the porters’ razzle-dazzle videogame flourishes out of the end results. Still, in combination they sold far more copies than the Macintosh original. Total sales of The Fool’s Errand reached 100,000 copies by the end of 1989, perhaps not quite a blockbuster by the standards of the big boys but by far the biggest hit that little Miles Computing had ever enjoyed. Certainly it was more than enough to let Cliff pay off his credit cards and remain a game developer. We’ll be continuing to follow him in his new career in future articles.

For now, though, let’s talk about The Fool’s Errand itself just a little bit more. It’s one of those singular works that defies (transcends?) the conventional wisdom — including plenty of the wisdom that I spout routinely right here on this blog. Having chided people from Scott Adams to Ken Williams for refusing to engage with the games made by others outside their companies, I must admit that Cliff Johnson didn’t know a thing about other computer games at the time he wrote The Fool’s Errand, and never bothered to learn — and yet his game turned out brilliantly. Having harped endlessly on the importance of testing and player feedback, I must admit that The Fool’s Errand was seriously played by just three people not named Cliff Johnson prior to its release — and yet, again, his game turned out superbly, and about as bug-free as a game can be to boot. What is there to say, other than don’t try this at home, kids?

In his Mac User review, Neil Shapiro rather brilliantly described The Fool’s Errand as a “whole buffalo” game. Everything you see on the screen is important, nothing extraneous or inexplicable. When you first start the game, it’s both underwhelming and a little baffling, nothing more than a handful of puzzles — most of them fairly trivial — and a few scattered fragments of a story that doesn’t make much sense. And so you shrug your shoulders and have a go at one of the puzzles, maybe starting with something simple like the word search for names of countries. Slowly you begin to peel back layer after layer of the onion. Are certain words in the story printed in boldface? It’s not just for aesthetic effect; there’s a reason for it that will become clear in time. Have no idea what to do with this scrambled map? Work on other, simpler problems for a while and insight might just come. Finished all of the puzzles from the initial menus and think you’re about to win? You’re about halfway actually, with the tastiest parts of the onion still waiting for you. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderfully intriguing experience solving The Fool’s Errand becomes. My wife Dorte and I played it together, as we do many of the games I write about here, and enjoyed one of the most captivating gaming experiences we’ve ever shared. (I suspect that Dorte, a puzzle addict who’s much better at most kinds of them than I am, would delete the “one of” from that sentence.)

Chatting with me about The Fool’s Errand, Cliff was at pains to emphasize how incredible it is to him that people today, almost thirty years later, continue to enjoy his first game. Like most designers at the time, he wasn’t thinking beyond the next year or so, and certainly gave no thought whatsoever to The Fool’s Errand as a work for posterity. Yet it feels every bit as contemporary and compelling today as it must have then, the very definition of a timeless work. I think we can ascribe that timelessness to a number of things. Far more than just a collection of puzzles, there’s a beauty about this design, its many strands looping over and entwining one another like a Bach fugue: the text with its simple diction of Myth; the pictures, which are so lovely and evocative that black-and-white seems an aesthetic choice here, not a limitation of the hardware; the intricately fashioned meta-puzzle itself, leading to that Eureka! moment when it all comes together. Perhaps most of all, there remains a generosity of spirit about The Fool’s Errand that bleeds through the screen. As Cliff has stated many times, his goal is never to absolutely stymie you, to prove that he’s the cleverer by presenting you with impossible dilemmas. He wants to tempt and entice and, yes, to challenge you — what fun would The Fool’s Errand be otherwise? — but ultimately he wants you to succeed, to peel back the onion and to share in the The Fool’s Errand‘s mysteries. There’s no nonsense in the game; it always plays fair. Take your time with it, and it will reward you in spades.

So, I think you should play this game if you haven’t already. If you enjoy the sorts of games I usually feature on this blog, I think this one will blow you away. The state of classic Macintosh emulation in general being a disgraceful mess for such an historically important platform, I want to do all I can to make that easy as possible for you. I’ve therefore made a zip that contains the most user-friendly of the early Macintosh emulators, Mini vMac, in versions for Windows, (modern) Macintosh, and Linux. The zip also includes the ROM file that Mini vMac needs to run (please, nobody tell Apple!), the disk images for the game along with a formatted save disk, the original instruction manual, and some brief instructions I’ve written to get you going with the whole package. Give it a shot. If I’ve done my part properly, it won’t be hard at all, and I think you’ll be glad you did. This one is touched, folks.

(Sources: This article is mostly drawn from a long interview I conducted with Cliff himself. Much other information about his life, career, and games can be found on his personal website, although, in keeping with The Fool’s Errand itself, you sometimes have to dig a bit in unexpected places for it.

If you play and enjoy The Fool’s Errand, be sure to check out The Fool and His Money, the long-awaited 2012 sequel that Cliff describes as “everything The Fool’s Errand is times ten.” Dorte and I haven’t had the pleasure yet ourselves, but, believe me, we will just as soon as I can break free of all my moldy oldies for long enough.)


  1. For better and often for worse, Masquerade‘s connection to computer gaming extends far beyond the story of Cliff Johnson. The man who first “solved” the riddle and was awarded the hare in March of 1982, one Dugald Thompson, did so, it was revealed years later, largely by cheating. A friend of his had as his current girlfriend a former girlfriend of Kit Williams. While Kit had never outright told her where the treasure — a golden hare sculpted by Kit himself — lay, he had inadvertently dropped enough clues that she could point Thompson in the right direction.

    After he was awarded the prize, Thompson formed a company called Haresoft to release an unspeakably horrible computer game called Hareraiser that supposedly contained further clues pointing to a new location of the golden hare. If it did, nobody ever worked them out. More likely, the game was yet another instance of fraud committed by Thompson, designed to make a quick buck from the players that it sent off on a wild goose chase after its nonexistent clues. It justly bombed, Haresoft went into liquidation, and Thompson was forced by his creditors to sell the golden hare at auction.

    Long before those events, Masquerade had inspired other British game developers to embed real-world treasure hunts and other puzzles in their own games, perhaps most notably the hunt for the “Golden Sundial of Pi” buried in the Sussex Downs by Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold of Automata. All told, that golden hare had one hell of a long reach. 

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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37 Responses to Cliff Johnson’s Fool’s Errand

  1. Andrew Plotkin

    November 20, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    Thank you for this article. And to Mr Johnson for offering his time and openness for your interview.

    I mean, I’m always grateful for a new DA article, but this one strikes close to home — for more than the obvious reasons, I hope. I will always treasure the memories of plowing through the metapuzzle: 2 AM in the Baker Hall Mac cluster, surrounded by crumpled-up sheets of notepaper for puzzles whose final solutions I’d extracted.

    I agree that the road of the self-taught(*) puzzle designer is a dangerous one. I’ll go out on a limb and say that CJ’s subscription to Games Magazine (which I had too!) must have been a crucial advantage. _Masquerade_ was famously a terrible puzzle that nobody really solved; the same is true of _Maze_. But _The Fool’s Errand_ is eminently fair and approachable.

    (* But we’re all self-taught, really.)

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      November 21, 2015 at 10:55 am

      You’re welcome!

      No argument that Masquerade wasn’t a very good puzzle, but, at least if we believe the folklore, it actually was solved. Supposedly a couple of university students figured out the precise location. The rules stated that you only needed to mail the correct answer to Kit Williams, that you didn’t need to dig it up yourself. But these two didn’t entirely trust their own solution, so they decided to dig for it before writing. In the few days that they needed to arrange to travel to the site and do that, Thompson mailed in his own deliberately vague, obfuscated “solution.” He hadn’t entirely solved it, you see, not even by cheating. Kit Williams, likely just wanting to be done with the whole thing — he was getting a huge sack of letters every day, each of which he had to carefully read to see if it contained the correct solution — pronounced Thompson’s answer good enough and named him the winner. The legend has it that the two students showed up at the site to do their own dig at the precise same time that Williams and Thompson were out there with a cameraman, recording the retrieval of the golden hare for posterity. That coincidence in particular stretches credibility a bit for me, but, hey, stranger things have happened.

      These grand public treasure hunts tend to work better in theory than in practice because, what with (hopefully) thousands or millions of people getting involved, the puzzle has to be ridiculously hard if it’s not to be solved in the first week. And it’s all but impossible to make a puzzle that’s that hard without also making it a puzzle that’s unfair. Cliff Johnson, of course, had no such constraints in writing The Fool’s Errand. It could be a more generous sort of puzzle, one that *wants* to be solved.

       
      • Andrew Hickey

        December 1, 2015 at 8:22 pm

        The story as I heard it is slightly different. It wasn’t two university students, but two teachers — physics teachers (one taught me at William Hulme’s Grammar in Manchester a few years later, which is why I remember this). They dug up the correct spot, but didn’t see the hare in their spoil (it was very small, and in some sort of earth-covered container). Thompson knew what field it was in, but not any more details, went there regularly to check, dug through their pile of rubble after they left it for the night, and found it before they returned the next morning.

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          December 2, 2015 at 1:13 pm

          Interesting. You’re probably right about some of this, as I was operating from memory. But Thompson definitely visited the site accompanied by Kit Williams and a cameraman; there’s film footage of the dig. It seems odd that Williams would have awarded him the prize if it had in fact already been dug up. He definitely wanted the whole thing to just be over, but he did seem to have at least a modicum of a sense of fair play. Maybe I need to do the research properly and write a Masquerade article…

           
  2. Josh Scherr

    November 20, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    Thanks so much for this – I failed one of my Calc tests in college because my roommate and I spent three days straight solving TFE. It remains one of my favorite games of all time.

    Funnily enough, I also ended up going to USC to study animation in 1993; Gene Coe was still teaching there. They took us on a number of field trips, and on one of them, I was introduced to a guy named Cliff who was showing us all some titles he was developing for the ill-fated Philips CD-I. At some point the penny dropped and I said “wait a minute… are you Cliff Johnson who made The Fool’s Errand? I failed a calc test because of you!” He got a great shit-eating grin on his face and thanked me.

    I was one of the first 100 people to preorder The Fool and His Money – so yeah, that was a long near-decade wait, but it’s worth it. It’s not quite as approachable as TFE – the puzzles are substantially more challenging – but it’s a Cliff Johnson game through and through. I still haven’t finished it yet, not even close. But if he took a decade to make it, I figure I’m allowed at least 5 years to finish solving it.

    By the way, I absolutely love this site. I started supporting you on Patreon b/c I realized I spent hours poring over your articles; I grew up in the Apple II/C64 era of computers and spent many hours playing Infocom games – made a few rudimentary ones myself in Apple BASIC. Keep up the great work!

     
  3. Keith Palmer

    November 20, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    I have Mini vMac running on my computer, and I’ve tried playing The Fool’s Errand; unfortunately, I seem to have wound up shrugging and supposing in a self-deprecating way I’m just not that good with puzzles… the comment about Cliff Johnson going to Disneyland makes me think of another game of his I seem to have had less trouble with (even if I haven’t completed it either), but maybe that’s already bringing up a tale for another day. In any case, this was an unexpected yet thoroughly interesting article, and does have me thinking about giving things another try.

     
  4. TsuDhoNimh

    November 21, 2015 at 6:12 am

    “The Fool’s Errand” is a kinder, gentler version of “The Prisoner”. I tried playing “The Prisoner” a few months ago and realized that I liked the ideas in the game more than I liked the experience of playing the game. “The Fool’s Errand” is engaging and fun no matter how I approach it.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      November 21, 2015 at 11:18 am

      That’s a great comparison. There are a lot similarities there, both games being essentially elaborate meta-puzzles where figuring out what you’re really doing *is* the real game. And I agree that The Prisoner is one of those games that’s perhaps more fun to talk about than it is to play. The Fool’s Errand, however, is great on both levels.

       
  5. Janice M. Eisen

    November 21, 2015 at 6:40 am

    This article brings back many fond memories, so thanks for that. There was indeed something very exciting around the Mac in those days. (Have you seen the book Zen and the Art of the Macintosh? It really catches the feeling.)

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      November 21, 2015 at 11:15 am

      No, I haven’t. Looks very interesting.

      I grew up an Amiga zealot, and could never understand why people paid so much for Macintosh hardware that was so thoroughly outclassed by an Amiga. Which was true, but there was a taste and elegance about the original black-and-white Macintosh that was unheard of among computers of that era. That was something I wasn’t quite ready to appreciate at the time. I think that sensibility influenced many of the platform’s early creations. Certainly The Fool’s Errand’s aesthetics are just as impressive and important to its final effect as its brilliant puzzles.

       
  6. iPadCary

    November 22, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Love, love, LOVE this game!!

     
  7. Steve Metzler

    November 23, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks for the ZIP file with the emulators, Jimmy. Though I couldn’t get the Mac one working at all in El Capitan, I got the Windows one working fine in Win 8.1 and made it through about 5 or 6 of the puzzles yesterday.

    Thoth was a lot of fun. The Old Man kept getting these killer down-cards, and learning when to yield is important. Enjoying it quite a bit so far…

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      November 25, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      If anyone had more feedback on the Mac executable, or, even better, any ideas on why it might not be working, let me know. I don’t regularly use OS X, so I’m not sure where the problem might lie.

       
    • Kirk Klobe

      November 26, 2015 at 2:24 am

      I am able to get it running on El Cap using this version, http://www.gryphel.com/c/minivmac/index.html, but installed via homebrew (‘brew install Caskroom/cask/mini-vmac’).

       
      • Keith Palmer

        November 26, 2015 at 11:47 am

        I decompressed the archive myself and saw the Macintosh executable seems to have wound up a mere “file.” There ought to be a downloadable executable right on the Mini vMac site itself, though. Perhaps including the compressed version of it in the archive, to be opened by users when needed, would work best.

         
        • Kirk Klobe

          November 26, 2015 at 3:05 pm

          Good idea, Keith. I tried downloading the binary (http://www.gryphel.com/d/minivmac/minivmac-3.3.3/minivmac-3.3.3-imch.bin.tgz) and using it with Jimmy’s ZIP in place of the mere “file” version, and it worked fine.

           
          • Jimmy Maher

            December 2, 2015 at 1:14 pm

            I’ve bundled the “.app” folder into the zip instead of (what I thought was) the bare executable. Hopefully this will work out better. Thanks for your help, and let me know if there are still problems.

             
          • Steve Metzler

            December 4, 2015 at 10:26 pm

            Thanks Jimmy! Working in El Capitan now :-)

             
  8. Roger Anderson

    November 23, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    Hey Jimmy, I’m not much for modern gaming, but I remember the name Cave Johnson from Valve’s Portal series. Seems too close – Cave vs. Cliff. I assumed Cliff was involved but I cannot find evidence of that. Was it a play on words?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      November 25, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      Sorry, afraid I just don’t know…

       
  9. Ken Rutsky

    November 24, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    You probably know about this, but in case:

    http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/4834

    A whole trove of Steve Meretzky’s Infocom archive has been posted for perusal on the Internet Archive, with more to come. This initial dump is over 4000 pages of material.

     
    • Pedro Timóteo

      November 28, 2015 at 10:17 am

      As a coincidence, in one of the archives, the one called “Notes on Actual Games”, there are Meretzky’s notes on playing some non-Infocom games, and around page 102, it’s… The Fool’s Errand! (Also some Might & Magic 2 later).

      That same archive also ends with handwritten notes about Mindwheel and Synapse’s parser.

      These archives have been absolutely delicious, so far. And there’s still a lot to explore…

       
    • Nate

      November 29, 2015 at 9:00 pm

      Jimmy has been using a private copy of the entire archive for a while now. See the “sources” note at the end of recent articles.

      “Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me.”

       
  10. Stephane Racle

    December 1, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    The Masquerade link is interesting. On a related note, Phoenix Software released an Apple II adventure game called Masquerade in 1984. The game was extremely difficult (nearly unsolvable without hints), and included in the packaging was a insert promising a $1000 reward to the first person to correctly solve the game. According to the founder of Phoenix, the reward was paid out, “to a lady in New York”. I always surmised that the idea was a result of Kit Williams’ Masquerade, although I was never able to confirm this (the author’s name is Dale Johnson – I’ve tried to track him down, but the name is too common).

     
  11. Victor Gijsbers

    December 3, 2015 at 9:03 am

    This was one of the first times I actually downloaded and started playing a game you wrote about, Jimmy… and it’s awesome! I used a walkthrough for one puzzle I found more frustrating than fun (“Judgement” or “Justice”, the one where you have to get 25 eyes to appear), but otherwise I’ve been banging my head on it and doing quite well. I’ve just now assembled the sun’s map, so the second part of the game awaits! Thanks for writing about this gem.

     
  12. Dean Valley

    December 20, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Has no one heard of David Blaine? Pretty sure Cliff designed the treasure hunt from the book “Mysterious Stranger”. No mention of his most famous puzzle? How interesting.

     
  13. Peter Ferrie

    February 16, 2016 at 5:51 am

    As far as emulators go, MAME has been making good progress to emulate the Mac. Perhaps it will suffice for a future title.

     
  14. Ruber Eaglenest

    March 15, 2016 at 11:21 am

    I’m quite late to the party because I read you in my news feed. But I want to ask… I always passed over the opportunity to play this because I though it was a hardcore puzzler. So now you say that is accessible maybe I will give it a try.

    But another thing that stop me from playing is language dependence. I fear that the game is so dependant of puzzles about syntax and language that a non native speaker will have problems with it. What do you think? I always pass linguistic puzzle games because that reason.

    Regards.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      March 15, 2016 at 5:26 pm

      Sorry to say it, but I think parts could be a problem for a non-native speaker. Lots of the puzzles, probably the vast majority, rely only on abstract reasoning, but there are some puzzles that play around with words and Anglo culture a bit if I remember correctly. Of course, you can always use a walkthrough for those — I think they’ll be pretty obvious when they come — and enjoy the rest.

      Oh, but note that there is also quite a lot of reading involved…

       
    • Mikko Kuusto

      April 18, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      As a non-native speaker I would say that language in not necessarily a problem. Having played Fool’s Errand a lot I think that there is no reason to fear impossible grammar-attacks :-)

      A truly lovely game, one of my all-time favorites. I was lucky to acquire a Macintosh SE/30 a couple of years ago and playing with original hardware seems to add something to the game experience.

       
  15. Bill Johnston

    June 2, 2016 at 4:09 am

    Despite the glitz and graphics of this modern, tech world, Fool’s Errand remains the standard by which I measure virtually all computer games. No game before — or since — so seamlessly blends ingenuity, dexterity, creativeness and graphics into a package, wrapped in a thoroughly enticing and entertaining story. A little bit of everything, for everyone. Sadly, I’ve been unable to get the emulators to work on my MacBook Pro, and sorely miss reviving the thrill I felt the first time I pieced together the map and solved the puzzle. Congrats, Cliff, on a masterpiece.

     
  16. hcs

    March 23, 2017 at 1:09 am

    Fun fact: “BASIC Programming” was written by Warren Robinett, of Atari VCS “Adventure”.

     
  17. Mike Cripps

    April 10, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks for the archive – I played through and finished The Fool’s Errand in a little over 24 hours with a couple of hints for the “hidden word” puzzles.

    If you want more of this sort of thing there is a very similar book called the “Maze of Games” – available from http://www.lonesharkgames.com/maze/ – I’ve only solved the first quarter of it but it has similar meta-puzzle tendencies.

     

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