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Monthly Archives: October 2016

How Jordan Mechner Made a Different Sort of Interactive Movie (or, The Virtues of Restraint)

One can learn much about the state of computer gaming in any given period by looking to the metaphors its practitioners are embracing. In the early 1980s, when interfaces were entirely textual and graphics crude or nonexistent, text adventures like those of Infocom were heralded as the vanguard of a new interactive literature destined to augment or entirely supersede non-interactive books. That idea peaked with the mid-decade bookware boom, when just about every entertainment-software publisher (and a few traditional book publishers) were rushing to sign established authors and books to interactive projects. It then proceeded to collapse just as quickly under the weight of its own self-importance when the games proved less compelling and the public less interested than anticipated.

Prompted by new machines like the Commodore Amiga with their spectacular graphics and sound, the industry reacted to that failure by turning to the movies for media mentorship. This relationship would prove more long-lasting. By the end of the 1980s, companies like Cinemaware and Sierra were looking forward confidently to a blending of Hollywood and Silicon Valley that they believed might just replace the conventional non-interactive movie, not to mention computer games as people had known them to that point. Soon most of the major publishers would be conducting casting calls and hiring sound stages, trying literally to make games out of films. It was an approach fraught with problems — problems that were only slowly and grudgingly acknowledged by these would-be unifiers of Southern and Northern Californian entertainment. Before it ran its course, it spawned lots of really terrible games (and, it must be admitted, against all the odds the occasional good one as well).

Given the game industry’s growing fixation on the movies as the clock wound down on the 1980s, Jordan Mechner would seem the perfect man for the age. Struggling with the blessing or curse of an equally abiding love for both mediums, his professional life had already been marked by constant vacillation between movies and games. Inevitably, his love of film influenced him even when he was making games. But, perhaps because that love was so deep and genuine, he accomplished the blending in a more even-handed, organic way than would most of the multi-CD, multi-gigabyte interactive movies that would soon be cluttering store shelves. Mechner’s most famous game, by contrast, filled just two Apple II disk sides — less than 300 K in total. And yet the cinematic techniques it employs have far more in common with those found in the games of today than do those of its more literal-minded rivals.


 

As a boy growing up in the wealthy hamlet of Chappaqua, New York, Jordan Mechner dreamed of becoming “a writer, animator, or filmmaker.” But those ambitions got modified if not discarded when he discovered computers at his high school. Soon after, he got his hands on his own Apple II for the first time. Honing his chops as a programmer, he started contributing occasional columns on BASIC to Creative Computing magazine at the age of just 14. Yet fun as it was to be the magazine’s youngest contributor, his real reason for learning programming was always to make games. “Games were the only kind of software I knew,” he says. “They were the only kind that I enjoyed. At that time, I didn’t really see any use for a word processor or a spreadsheet.” He fell into the throes of what he describes as an “obsession” to get a game of his own published.

Initially, he did what lots of other game programmers were doing at the time: cloning the big standup-arcade hits for fun and (hopefully) profit. He made a letter-perfect copy of Atari’s Asteroids, changed the titular space rocks to bright bouncing balls in the interest of plausible deniability, and sent the resulting Deathbounce off to Brøderbund for consideration; what with Brøderbund having been largely built on the back of Apple Galaxian, an arcade clone which made no effort whatsoever to conceal its source material, the publisher seemed a very logical choice. But Doug Carlston was now trying to distance his company from such fare for reasons of reputation as well as his fear of Atari’s increasingly aggressive legal threats. Nice guy that he was, he called Mechner personally to explain why Deathbounce wasn’t for Brøderbund. He promised to send Mechner a free copy of Brøderbund’s latest hit, Choplifter, suggesting he think about whether he might be able to apply the programming chops he had demonstrated in Deathbounce to a more original game, as Choplifter‘s creator Dan Gorlin had done. Mechner remembers the conversation as well-nigh life-changing. He had been so immersed in the programming side of making games that the idea of doing an original design had never really occurred to him before: “I didn’t have to copy someone else’s arcade game. I was allowed to design my own!”

Carlston’s phone call came in May of 1982, when Mechner was finishing up his first year at Yale University; undecided about his major as he was so much else in his life at the time, he would eventually wind up with a Bachelors in psychology. We’re granted an unusually candid and personal glimpse into into his life between 1982 and 1993 thanks to his private journals, which he published (doubtless in a somewhat expurgated form) in 2012. The early years paint a picture of a bright, sensitive young man born into a certain privilege that carries with it the luxury of putting off adulthood for quite some time. He romanticizes chance encounters (“I saw a heartbreakingly beautiful young blonde out of the corner of my eye. She was wearing a blue down vest. As she passed, our eyes met. She smiled at me. As I went out I held the door for her; her fingers grazed mine. Then she was gone.”); frets frequently about cutting classes and generally not being the man he ought to be (“I think Ben is the only person who truly comprehends the depths of how little classwork I do.”); alternates between grand plans accompanied by frenzies of activity and indecision accompanied by long days of utter sloth (“Here’s what I do do: listen to music. Browse in record stores. Read newspapers, magazines, play computer games, stare out the windows. See a lot of movies.”); muses with all the self-obliviousness of youth on whether he would prefer “writing a bestselling novel or directing a blockbusting film,” as if attaining fame and fortune was as simple as deciding on one or the other.

At Yale, film, that other constant of his creative life, came to the fore. He joined every film society he stumbled upon, signed up for every film-studies course in the catalog, and set about “trying to see in four years every film ever made”; Akira Kurosawa’s classic adventure epic Seven Samurai (a major inspiration behind Star Wars among other things) emerged as his favorite of them all. He also discovered an unexpected affinity for silent cinema, which naturally led him to compare that earliest era of film with the current state of computer games, a medium that seemed in a similar state of promising creative infancy. All of this, combined with the example of Choplifter and the karate lessons he was sporadically attending, led to Karateka, the belated fruition of his obsession with getting a game published.

To a surprising degree given his youth and naivete, Mechner consciously designed Karateka as the proverbial Next Big Thing in action games after the first wave of simple quarter munchers, whose market he watched collapse over the two-plus years he spent intermittently working on it. Plenty of fighting games had appeared on the Apple II and other platforms before, some of them very playable; Mechner wasn’t sure he could really improve on their templates when it came to pure game play. What he could do, however, was give his game some of the feel and emotional resonance of cinema. Reasoning that computer games were technically on par with the first decade or two of film in terms of the storytelling tools at his disposal, he mimicked the great silent-film directors in building his story out of the broadest archetypal elements: an unnamed hero must assault a mountain fortress to rescue an abducted princess, fighting through wave after wave of enemies, culminating in a showdown with the villain himself. He energetically cross-cut the interactive fighting sequences with non-interactive scenes of the villain issuing orders to his minions while the princess looks around nervously in her cell — a suspense-building technique from cinema dating back to The Birth of a Nation. He mimicked the horizontal wipes Kurosawa used for transitions in Seven Samurai; mimicked the scrolling textual prologue from Star Wars. When the player lost or won, he printed “THE END” on the screen in lieu of “GAME OVER.” And, indeed, he made it possible, although certainly not easy, to win Karateka and carry the princess off into the sunset. The player was, in other words, playing for bigger stakes than a new high score.

Karateka

The most technically innovative aspect of Karateka — suggested, like much in the game, by Mechner’s very supportive father — involved the actual people on the screen. To make his fighters move as realistically as possible, Mechner made use for the first time in a computer game of an old cartoon-animation technique known as rotoscoping. After shooting some film footage of his karate instructor in action, doing various kicks and punches, Mechner used an ancient Moviola editing machine that had somehow wound up in the basement of the family home to isolate and make prints out of every third frame. He imported the figure at the center of each print into his Apple II by tracing it on a contraption called the VersaWriter. Flipped through in sequence, the resulting sprites appeared to “move” in an unusually fluid and realistic fashion. “When I saw that sketchy little figure walk across the screen,” he wrote in his journal, “looking just like Dennis [his karate instructor], all I could say was ‘ALL RIGHT!’ It was a glorious moment.”

Karateka

Doug Carlston, who clearly saw something special in this earnest kid, was gently encouraging and almost infinitely patient with him. When it looked like Mechner had come up with something potentially great at last, Carlston signed him to a contract and flew him out to California in the summer of 1984 to finish it up with the help of Brøderbund’s in-house staff. Released just a little too late to fully capitalize on the 1984 Christmas rush, Karateka started slowly but gradually turned into a hit, especially once the Commodore 64 port dropped in June of 1985. Once ported to Nintendo for the domestic Japanese market, it proceeded to sell many hundreds of thousand units, making Jordan Mechner a very flush young man indeed.

So, Mechner, about to somehow manage to graduate despite all the missed assignments and cut classes spent working on Karateka, seemed poised for a fruitful career making games. Yet he continued to vacillate between his twin obsessions. Even as his game, the most significant accomplishment of his young life and one of which anyone could justly be proud, had entered the homestretch, he had written how “I definitely want my next project to be film-related. Videogames have taken up enough of my time for now.” In the wake of his game’s release, the steady stream of royalties therefrom only made it easier to dabble in film.

Mechner spent much of the year after graduating from university back at home in Chappaqua working on his first screenplay. In between writing dialog and wracking himself with doubt over whether he really wanted to do another game at all, he occasionally turned his attention to the idea of a successor to Karateka. Already during that first summer after Yale, he and Gene Portwood, a Brøderbund executive, dreamed up a scenario for just such a beast: an Arabian Nights-inspired story involving an evil sultan, a kidnapped princess, and a young man — the player, naturally — who must rescue her. Karateka in Middle Eastern clothing though it may have been in terms of plot, that was hardly considered a drawback by Brøderbund, given the success of Mechner’s first game.

Seven frames of animation ready to be photocopied and digitized.

Seven frames of animation ready to be photocopied and digitized.

Determined to improve upon the rotoscoping of Karateka, Mechner came up with a plan to film a moving figure and use a digitizer to capture the frames into the computer, rather than tracing the figure using the VersaWriter. He spent $2500 on a high-end VCR and video camera that fall, knowing he would return them before his month’s grace period was out (“I feel so dishonest,” he wrote in his journal). The technique he had in the works may have been an improvement over what he had done for Karateka, but it was still very primitive and hugely labor-intensive. After shooting his video, he would play it back on the VCR, pausing it on each frame he wanted to capture. Then he would take a picture of the screen using an ordinary still camera and get the film developed. Next step was to trace the outline of the figure in the photograph using Magic Marker and fill him in using White-Out. Then he would Xerox the doctored photograph to get a black-and-white version with a very clear silhouette of the figure. Finally, he would digitize the photocopy to import it into his Apple II, and erase everything around the figure by hand on the computer to create a single frame of sprite animation. He would then get to go through this process a few hundred more times to get the prince’s full repertoire of movements down.


On October 20, 1985, Jordan Mechner did his first concrete work on the game that would become Prince of Persia, using his ill-gotten video camera to film his 16-year-old brother David running and jumping through a local parking lot. When he finally got around to buying a primitive black-and-white image digitizer for his trusty Apple II more than six months later, he quickly determined that the footage he’d shot was useless due to poor color separation. Nevertheless, he saw potential magic.

I still think this can work. The key is not to clean up the frames too much. The figure will be tiny and messy and look like crap… but I have faith that, when the frames are run in sequence at 15 fps, it’ll create an illusion of life that’s more amazing than anything that’s ever been seen on an Apple II screen. The little guy will be wiggling and jiggling like a Ralph Bakshi rotoscope job… but he’ll be alive. He’ll be this little shimmering beacon of life in the static Apple-graphics Persian world I’ll build for him to run around in.

For months after that burst of enthusiasm, however, he did little more with the game.

At last in September of 1986, having sent his screenplay off to Hollywood and thus with nothing more to do on that front but wait, Mechner moved out to San Rafael, California, close to Brøderbund’s offices, determined to start in earnest on Prince of Persia. He spent much time over the next few months refining his animation technique, until by Christmas everyone who saw the little running and jumping figure was “bowled over” by him. Yet after that progress again slowed to a crawl, as he struggled to motivate himself to turn his animation demos into an actual game.

And then, on May 4, 1987, came the phone call that would stop the little running prince in his tracks for the better part of a year. A real Hollywood agent called to tell him she “loved” his script for Birthstone, a Spielbergian supernatural comedy/thriller along the lines of Gremlins or The Goonies. Within days of her call, the script was optioned by Larry Turman, a major producer with films like The Graduate on his resume. For months Mechner fielded phone calls from a diverse cast of characters with a diverse cast of suggestions, did endless rewrites, and tried to play the Hollywood game, schmoozing and negotiating and trying not to appear to be the awkward, unworldly kid he still largely was. Only when Birthstone seemed permanently stuck in development hell — “Hollywood’s the only town where you can die of encouragement,” he says wryly, quoting Pauline Kael —  did he give up and turn his attention back to games. Mechner notes today that just getting as far as he did with his very first script was a huge achievement and a great start in itself. After all, he was, if not quite hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite, at least getting rejection letters from such people as Michael Apted, Michael Crichton, and Henry Winkler; such people were reading his script. But he had been spoiled by the success of Karateka. If he wrote another screenplay, there was no guarantee it would get even as far as his first had. If he finished Prince of Persia, on the other hand, he knew Brøderbund would publish it.

And so, in 1988, it was back to games, back to Prince of Persia. Inspired by “puzzly” 8-bit action games like Doug Smith’s Lode Runner and Ed Hobbs’s The Castles of Dr. Creep, his second game was shaping up to be more than just a game of combat. Instead his prince would have to make his way through area after area full of tricks, traps, and perilous drops. “What I wanted to do with Prince of Persia,” Mechner says, “was a game which would have that kind of logical, head-scratching, fast-action, Lode Runner-esque puzzles in a level-based game but also have a story and a character that was trying to accomplish a recognizable human goal, like save a princess. I was trying to merge those two things.” Ideally, the game would play like the iconic first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones runs and leaps and dodges and sometimes outwits rather than merely outruns a series of traps. For a long while, Mechner planned to make the hero entirely defenseless, as a sort of commentary on the needless ultra-violence found in so many other games. In the end, he didn’t go that far — the allure of sword-fighting, not to mention commercial considerations, proved too strong — but Prince of Persia was nevertheless shaping up to be a far more ambitious, multi-faceted work than Karateka, boasting much more than just improved running and jumping animations.

With just 128 K of memory to work with on the Apple II, Mechner was forced to make Prince of Persia a modular design, relying on a handful of elements which are repeatedly reused and recombined. Take, for instance, the case of the loose floorboards. The first time they appear, they’re a simple trap: you have to jump over a section of the floor to avoid falling into a pit. Later, they appear on the ceiling, as part of the floor above your own; caught in an apparent cul de sac, you have to jump up and bash the ceiling to open an escape route. Still later, they can be used strategically: to kill guards below you by dropping the floorboards on their heads, or to hold down a pressure plate below you that opens a door on the level on which you’re currently standing. It’s a fine example of a constraint in game design turning into a strength. “There’s a certain elegance to taking an element the player is already familiar with,” says Mechner, “and challenging him to think about it in a different way.”


On July 14, 1989, Mechner shot the final footage for Prince of Persia: the denouement, showing the prince — now played by the game’s project manager at Brøderbund, Brian Ehler — embracing the rescued princess — played by Tina LaDeau, the 18-year-old daughter of another Brøderbund employee, in her prom dress. (“Man, she is a fox,” Mechner wrote in his journal. “Brian couldn’t stop blushing when I had her embrace him.”)

The game shipped for the Apple II on October 6, 1989. And then, despite a very positive review in Computer Gaming World — Charles Ardai called it nothing less than “the Star Wars of its field,” music to the ears of a movie buff like Mechner — it proceeded to sell barely at all: perhaps 500 units a month. It was, everyone at Brøderbund agreed, at least a year too late to hope to sell significant numbers of a game like this on the Apple II, whose only remaining commercial strength was educational software, thanks to the sheer number of the things still installed in American schools. Mechner’s procrastination and vacillation had spoiled this version’s commercial prospects entirely.

Thankfully, the Apple II version wasn’t to be the only one. Brøderbund already had programmers and artists working on ports to MS-DOS and the Amiga, the last two truly viable computer-gaming platforms in North America. Mechner as well turned his attention to the versions for these more advanced machines as soon as the Apple II version was finished. And once again his father pitched in, composing a lovely score for the luxuriously sophisticated sound hardware now at the game’s disposal. “This is going to be the definitive version of Prince of Persia,” Mechner enthused over the MS-DOS version. “With VGA [graphics] and sound card, on a fast machine, it’ll blow the Apple away. It looks like a Disney film. It’s the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen.” Reworked though they were in almost all particulars, at the heart of the new versions lay the same digitized film footage that had made the 8-bit prince run and leap so fluidly.

Prince of Persia

And yet, after it shipped on April 19, 1990, the MS-DOS version also disappointed. Mechner chafed over his publisher’s disinterest in promoting the game; they seemed on the verge of writing it off, noting how the vastly superior MS-DOS version was being regarded as just another port of an old 8-bit game, and thus would likely never be given a fair shake by press or public. True as ever to the bifurcated pattern of his life, he decided to turn back to film. Having tried and failed to get into New York University film school, he resorted to working as a production assistant in movies by way of supporting himself and trying to drum up contacts in the film-making community of New York. Thus the first anniversary of Prince of Persia‘s original release on the Apple II found him schlepping crates around New York City. His career as a game developer seemed to be behind him, and truth be told his prospects as a filmmaker didn’t look a whole lot brighter.

The situation began to reverse itself only after the Amiga version was finished — programmed, as it happened, by Dan Gorlin, the very fellow whose Choplifter had first inspired Mechner to look at his own games differently. In Europe, the Amiga’s stronghold, Prince of Persia was free of the baggage which it carried in North America — few in Europe had much idea of what an Apple II even was — and doubtless benefited from a much deeper and richer tradition on European computers of action-adventures and platform puzzlers. It received ebullient reviews and turned into a big hit on European Amigas, and its reputation gradually leaked back across the pond to turn it at last into a hit in its homeland as well. Thus did Prince of Persia become a slow grower of an international sensation — a very unusual phenomenon in the hits-driven world of videogames, where shelf lives are usually short and retailer patience shorter. Soon came the console releases, along with releases for various other European and Japanese domestic computers, sending total sales soaring to over 2 million units.

By the beginning of 1992, Mechner was far removed from his plight of just eighteen months before. He was drowning in royalties, consulting intermittently with Brøderbund on a Prince of Persia 2 — it was understood that his days in the programming trenches were behind him — and living a globetrotting lifestyle, jaunting from Paris to San Rafael to Madrid to New York as whim and business took him. He was also planning his first film, a short documentary to be shot in Cuba, and already beginning to mull over what would turn into his most ambitious and fascinating game production of all, known at this point only as “the train game.”

Prince of Persia, which despite the merits of that eventual “train game” is and will likely always remain Mechner’s signature work, strikes me most of all as a triumph of presentation. The actual game play is punishingly difficult. Each of its twelve levels is essentially an elaborate puzzle that can only be worked out by dying many times when not getting trapped into one of way too many dead ends. Even once you think you have it all worked out, you still need to execute every step with perfect precision, no mean feat in itself. Messing up at any point in the process means starting that level over again from the beginning. And, because you only have one hour of real time to rescue the princess, every failure is extremely costly; a perfect playthrough, accomplished with absolute surety and no hesitations, takes about half an hour, leaving precious little margin for error. At least there is a “save” feature that will let you bookmark each level starting with the third, so you don’t have to replay the whole game every time you screw up — which, believe me, you will, hundreds if not thousands of times before you finally rescue the princess. Beating Prince of Persia fair and square is a project for a summer vacation of those long-gone adolescent days when responsibilities were few and distractions fewer. As a busy adult, I find it too repetitive and too reliant on rote patterns, as well as — let’s be honest here — just too demanding on my aging reflexes. In short, the effort-to-reward ratio strikes me as way out of whack. Of course, I’m sure that, given Prince of Persia‘s status as a beloved icon of gaming, many of you have a different opinion.

So, let’s turn back to something on which we can hopefully all agree: the brilliance of that aforementioned presentation, which brings to aesthetic maturity many of the techniques Mechner had first begun to experiment with in Karateka. Rather than using filmed footage as a tool for the achievement of fluid, lifelike motion, as Mechner did, games during the years immediately following Prince of Persia would be plastered with jarring chunks of poorly acted, poorly staged “full-motion video.” Such spectacles look far more dated today than the restrained minimalism of Prince of Persia. The industry as a whole would take years to wind up back at the place where Jordan Mechner had started: appropriating some of the language of cinema in the service of telling a story and building drama, without trying to turn games into literal interactive movies. Mechner:

Just as theater is its own thing — with its own conventions, things that it does well, things it does badly — so is film, and so [are] computer games. And there is a way to borrow from one medium to another, and in fact that’s what an all-new medium does when it’s first starting out. Film, when it was new, looked like someone set up a camera front and center and filmed a staged play. Then the things that are specific to film — like the moving camera, close-ups, reaction shots, dissolves — all these kinds of things became part of the language of cinema. It’s the same with computer games. To take a long film sequence and to play that on your TV screen is the bad way to make a game cinematic. The computer game is not a VCR. But if you can borrow from the knowledge that we all carry inside our heads of how cuts work, how reaction shots work, what a low angle means dramatically, what it means when the camera suddenly pulls back… We’ve got this whole collective unconscious of the vocabulary of film, and that’s a tremendously valuable tool to bring into computer gaming.

In a medium that has always struggled to tamp down its instinct toward aesthetic maximalism, Mechner’s games still stand out for their concern with balance and proportion. Mechner again:

Visuals are [a] component where it’s often tempting to compromise. You think, “Well, we could put a menu bar across here, we could put a number in the upper right-hand corner of the screen representing how many potions you’ve drunk,” or something. The easy solution is always to do something that as a side effect is going to make the game look ugly. So I took as one of the ground rules going in that the overall screen layout had to be pleasing, had to be strong and simple. So that somebody who was not playing the game but who walked into the room and saw someone else playing it would be struck by a pleasing composition and could stop to watch for a minute, thinking, “This looks good, this looks as if I’m watching a movie.” It really forces you as a designer to struggle to find the best solution for things like inventory. You can’t take the first solution that suggests itself, you have to try to solve it within the constraints you set yourself.

Mechner’s take on visual aesthetics can be seen as a subversion of Ken Williams’s old “ten-foot rule,” which, as you might remember, stated that every Sierra game ought to be visually arresting enough to make someone say “Wow!” when glimpsing it from ten feet away across a crowded shop. Mechner believed that game visuals ought to be more than just striking; they ought to be aesthetically good by the more refined standards of film and the other, even older visual arts. All that time Mechner spent obsessing over films and film-making, which could all could too easily be labeled a complete waste of time, actually allowed him to bring something unique to the table, something that made him different from virtually all of his many contemporaries in the interactive-movie business.

There are various ways to situate Jordan Mechner’s work in general and Prince of Persia in particular within the context of gaming history. It can be read as the last great swan song of the Apple II and, indeed, of the entire era of 8-bit computer gaming, at least in North America. It can be read as yet one more example of Brøderbund’s downright bizarre commercial Midas touch, which continued to yield a staggering number of hits from a decidedly modest roster of new releases (Brøderbund also released SimCity in 1989, thus spawning two of the most iconic franchises in gaming history within bare months of one another). It can be read as the precursor to countless cinematic action-adventures and platformers to come, many of whose designers would acknowledge it as a direct influence. In its elegant simplicity, it can even be read as a fascinating outlier from the high-concept complexity that would come to dominate American computer gaming in the very early 1990s. But the reading that makes me happiest is to simply say that Prince of Persia showed how less can be more. There’s no need to take my word for it; just have a look for yourself.


(Sources: Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner; Creative Computing of March 1979, September 1979, and May 1980; Next Generation of May 1998; Computer Gaming World of December 1989; Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia postmortem from the 2011 Game Developers Conference; “Jordan Mechner: The Man Who Would Be Prince” from Games™; the Jordan Mechner and Brøderbund archives at the Strong Museum of Play.)

 
 

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Cinemaware’s Year in the Desert

The last year of the 1980s was also the last that the Commodore Amiga would enjoy as the ultimate American game machine. Even as the low-end computer-game market was being pummeled into virtual nonexistence by the Nintendo Entertainment System, leaving the Amiga with little room into which to expand downward, the heretofore business-centric world of MS-DOS was developing rapidly on the high end, with VGA graphics and sound cards becoming more and more common. The observant could already recognize that these developments, combined with Commodore’s lackadaisical attitude toward improving their own technology, must spell serious trouble for the Amiga in the long run.

But for now, for this one more year, things were still going pretty well. Amiga zealots celebrated loudly and proudly at the beginning of 1989 when news broke that the platform had pushed past the magic barrier of 1 million machines sold. As convinced as ever that world domination was just around the corner for their beloved “Amy,” they believed that number would have to lead to her being taken much more seriously by the big non-gaming software houses. While that, alas, would never happen, sales were just beginning to roll in many of the European markets that would sustain the Amiga well into the 1990s.

This last positive development fed directly into the bottom line of Cinemaware, the American software house that was the developer most closely identified with the Amiga to a large extent even in Europe. Cinemaware’s founder Bob Jacob wisely forged close ties with the exploding European Amiga market via a partnership with the British publisher Mirrorsoft. In this way he got Cinemaware’s games wide distribution and promotion throughout Europe, racking up sales across the pond under the Mirrorsoft imprint that often dramatically exceeded those Cinemaware was able to generate under their own label in North America. The same partnership led to another welcome revenue stream: the importation of European games into Cinemaware’s home country. Games like Speedball, by the rockstar British developers the Bitmap Brothers, didn’t have much in common with Cinemaware’s usual high-concept fare, but did feed the appetite of American youngsters who had recently found Amiga 500s under their Christmas trees for splashy, frenetic, often ultra-violent action.

Yet Cinemaware’s biggest claim to fame remained their homegrown interactive movies — which is not to say that everyone was a fan of their titular cinematic approach to game-making. A steady drumbeat of criticism, much of it far from unjustified, had accompanied the release of each new interactive movie since the days of Defender of the Crown. Take away all of the music and pretty pictures that surrounded their actual game play, went the standard line of attack, and these games were nothing but shallow if not outright broken exercises in strategy attached to wonky, uninteresting action mini-games. Cinemaware clearly took the criticism to heart despite the sales success they continued to enjoy. Indeed, the second half of the company’s rather brief history can to a large extent be read as a series of reactions to that inescapable negative drumbeat, a series of attempts to show that they could make good games as well as pretty ones.

At first, the new emphasis on depth led to decidedly mixed results. Conflating depth with difficulty in a manner akin to the way that so many adventure-game designers conflate difficulty with unfairness, Cinemaware gave the world Rocket Ranger as their second interactive movie of 1988. It had all the ingredients to be great, but was undone by balance issues exactly the opposite of those which had plagued the prototypical Cinemaware game, Defender of the Crown. In short, Rocket Ranger was just too hard, a classic game-design lesson in the dangers of overcompensation and the importance of extensive play-testing to get that elusive balance just right. With two more new interactive movies on the docket for 1989, players were left wondering whether this would the year when Cinemaware would finally get it right.

Lords of the Rising Sun

Certainly they showed no sign of backing away from their determination to bring more depth to their games. On the contrary, they pushed that envelope still harder with Lords of the Rising Sun, their first interactive movie of 1989. At first glance, it was a very typical Cinemaware confection, a Defender of the Crown set in feudal Japan. Built like that older game from the tropes and names of real history without bothering to be remotely rigorous about any of it, Lords of the Rising Sun is also another strategy game broken up by action-oriented minigames — the third time already, following Defender of the Crown and Rocket Ranger, that Cinemaware had employed this template. This time, however, a concerted effort was made to beef up the strategy game, not least by making it into a much more extended affair. Lords of the Rising Sun became just the second interactive movie to include a save-game feature, and in this case it was absolutely necessary; a full game could absorb many hours. It thus departed more markedly than anything the company had yet done from Bob Jacob’s original vision of fast-playing, non-taxing, ultra-accessible games. Indeed, with a thick manual and a surprising amount of strategic and tactical detail to keep track of, Lords of the Rising Sun can feel more like an SSI than a typical Cinemaware game once you look past its beautiful audiovisual presentation. Reaching for the skies if not punching above their weight, Cinemaware even elected to include the option of playing the game as an exercise in pure strategy, with the action sequences excised.


But sadly, the strategy aspect is as inscrutable as a Zen koan. While Rocket Ranger presents with elegance and grace a simple strategy game that would be immensely entertaining if it wasn’t always kicking your ass, Lords of the Rising Sun is just baffling. You’re expected to move your armies over a map of Japan, recruiting allies where possible, fighting battles to subdue enemies where not. Yet it’s all but impossible to divine any real sense of the overall situation from the display. This would-be strategy game ends up feeling more random than anything else, as you watch your banners wander around seemingly of their own volition, bumping occasionally into other banners that may represent enemies or friends. It suffers mightily from a lack of clear status displays, making it really, really hard to keep track of who wants to do what to whom. If you have the mini-games turned on, the bird’s-eye view is broken up by arcade sequences that are at least as awkward as the strategy game. In the end, Lords of the Rising Sun is just no fun at all.

Lords of the Rising Sun's animated, scrolling map is nicer to look at than it is a practical tool for strategizing.

While it’s very pretty, Lords of the Rising Sun‘s animated, scrolling map is nicer to look at than it is a practical tool for strategizing.

Press and public alike were notably unkind to Lords of the Rising Sun. Claims like Bob Jacob’s that “there is more animation in Lords than has ever been done in any computer game” — a claim as unquantifiable as it was dubious, especially in itself in light of some of Sierra’s recent efforts — did nothing to shake Cinemaware’s reputation for being all sizzle, no steak. Ken St. Andre of Tunnels & Trolls and Wasteland fame, reviewing the game for Questbusters magazine, took Cinemaware to task on its every aspect, beginning with the excruciating picture on the box of a cowering maiden about to fall out of her kimono; he deemed it “an insult to women everywhere and to Japanese culture in particular.” (Such a criticism sounds particularly forceful coming from St. Andre; Wasteland with its herpes-infested prostitutes and all the rest is hardly a bastion of political correctness.) He concluded his review with a zinger so good I wish I’d thought of it: he called the game “a Japanese Noh play.”

Many other reviewers, while less boldly critical, seemed nonplussed by the whole experience — a very understandable reaction to the strategy game’s vagaries. Sales were disappointing in comparison to those of earlier interactive movies, and the game has gone down in history alongside the equally underwhelming S.D.I. as perhaps the least remembered of all the Cinemaware titles.

It Came from the Desert

So, what with the game-play criticisms beginning to affect the bottom line, Cinemaware really needed to deliver something special for their second game of 1989. Thankfully, It Came from the Desert would prove to be the point where they finally got this interactive-movie thing right, delivering at long last a game as nice to play as it is to look at.


It Came from the Desert was the first of the interactive movies not to grow from a seed of an idea planted by Bob Jacob himself. Its originator was rather David Riordan, a newcomer to the Cinemaware fold with an interesting career in entertainment already behind him. As a very young man, he’d made a go of it in rock music, enjoying his biggest success in 1970 with a song called “Green-Eyed Lady,” a #3 hit he co-wrote for the (briefly) popular psychedelic band Sugarloaf. A perennial on Boomer radio to this day, that song’s royalties doubtless went a long way toward letting him explore his other creative passions after his music career wound down. He worked in movies for a while, and then worked with MIT on a project exploring the interactive potential of laser discs. After that, he worked briefly for Lucasfilm Games during their heady early days with Peter Langston at the helm. And from there, he moved on to Atari, where he worked on laser-disc-driven stand-up arcade games until it became obvious that Dragon’s Lair and its spawn had been the flashiest of flashes in the pan.

David Riordan on the job at Cinemaware.

David Riordan on the job at Cinemaware.

Riordan’s resume points to a clear interest in blending cinematic approaches with interactivity. It thus comes as little surprise that he was immediately entranced when he first saw Defender of the Crown one day at his brother-in-law’s house. It had, he says, “all the movie attributes and approaches that I had been trying to get George Lucas interested in” while still with Lucasfilm. He wrote to Cinemaware, sparking up a friendship with Bob Jacob which led him to join the company in 1988. Seeing in Riordan a man who very much shared his own vision for Cinemaware, Jacob relinquished a good deal of the creative control onto which he had heretofore held so tightly. Riordan was placed in charge of the company’s new “Interactive Entertainment Group,” which was envisioned as a production line for cranking out new interactive movies of far greater sophistication than those Cinemaware had made to date. These latest and greatest efforts were to be made available on a whole host of platforms, from their traditional bread and butter the Amiga to the much-vaunted CD-based platforms now in the offing from a number of hardware manufacturers. If all went well, It Came from the Desert would mark the beginning of a whole new era for Cinemaware.

Here we can see -- just barely; sorry for this picture's terrible fidelity -- Cinemaware's interactive-movie scripting tool, which they dubbed MasterPlan, running in HyperCard.

Here we can see — just barely; sorry for this picture’s terrible fidelity — Cinemaware’s scripting tool MasterPlan.

Cinemaware spent months making the technology that would allow them to make It Came from the Desert. Riordan’s agenda can be best described as a desire to free game design from the tyranny of programmers. If this new medium was to advance sufficiently to tell really good, interesting interactive stories, he reasoned, its tools would have to become something that non-coding “real” writers could successfully grapple with. Continuing to advance Cinemaware’s movie metaphors, his team developed a game engine that could largely be “scripted” in point-and-click fashion in HyperCard rather than needing to be programmed in any conventional sense. Major changes to the structure of a game could be made without ever needing to write a line of code, simply by editing the master plan of the game in a HyperCard tool Cinemaware called, appropriately enough, MasterPlan. The development process leveraged the best attributes of a number of rival platforms: Amigas ran the peerless Deluxe Paint for the creation of art; Macs ran HyperCard for the high-level planning; fast IBM clones served as the plumbing of the operation, churning through compilations and compressions. It was by anyone’s standards an impressive collection of technology — so impressive that the British magazine ACE, after visiting a dozen or more studios on a sort of grand tour of the American games industry, declared Cinemaware’s development system the most advanced of them all. Cinemaware had come a long way from the days of Defender of the Crown, whose development process had consisted principally of locking programmer R.J. Mical into his office with a single Amiga and a bunch of art and music and not letting him out again until he had a game. “If we ever get a real computer movie,” ACE concluded, “this is where it’s going to come from.”

It Came from the Desert

While it’s debatable whether It Came from the Desert quite rises to that standard, it certainly is Cinemaware’s most earnest and successful attempt at crafting a true interactive narrative since King of Chicago. The premise is right in their usual B-movie wheelhouse. Based loosely on the campy 1950s classic Them!, the game takes place in a small desert town with the charming appellation of Lizard Breath that’s beset by an alarming number of giant radioactive ants, product of a recent meteor strike. You play a geologist in town; “the most interesting rocks always end up in the least interesting places,” notes the introduction wryly. Beginning in your cabin, you can move about the town and its surroundings as you will, interacting with its colorful cast of inhabitants via simple multiple-choice dialogs and getting into scrapes of various sorts which lead to the expected Cinemaware action sequences. Your first priority is largely to convince the townies that they have a problem in the first place; this task you can accomplish by collecting enough evidence of the threat to finally gain the attention of the rather stupefyingly stupid mayor. Get that far, and you’ll be placed in charge of the town’s overall defense, at which point a strategic aspect joins the blend of action and adventure to create a heady brew indeed. Your ultimate goal, which you have just fifteen days in total to accomplish, is to find the ants’ main nest and kill the queen.

It Came from the Desert excels in all the ways that most of Cinemaware’s interactive movies excel. The graphics and sound were absolutely spectacular in their day, and still serve very well today; you can well-nigh taste the gritty desert winds. What makes it a standout in the Cinemaware catalog, however, is the unusual amount of attention that’s been paid to the design — to you the player’s experience. A heavily plot-driven game like this could and usually did go only one way in the 1980s. You probably know what I’m picturing: a long string of choke points requiring you to be in just the right place at just the right time to avoid being locked out of victory. Thankfully, It Came from the Desert steers well away from that approach. The plot is a dynamic thing rolling relentlessly onward, but your allies in the town are not entirely without agency of their own. If you fail to accomplish something, someone else might just help you out — perhaps not as quickly or efficiently as one might ideally wish, but at least you still feel you have a shot.

And even without the townies’ help, there are lots of ways to accomplish almost everything you need to. The environment as a whole is remarkably dynamic, far from the static set of puzzle pieces so typical of more traditional adventure games of this era and our own. There’s a lot going on under the hood in this one, far more than Cinemaware’s previous games would ever lead one to expect. Over the course of the fifteen days, the town’s inhabitants go from utterly unconcerned about the strange critters out there in the desert to full-on, backs-against-the-wall, fight-or-flight panic mode. By the end, when the ants are roaming at will through the rubble that once was Lizard Breath destroying anything and anyone in their path, the mood feels far more apocalyptic than that of any number of would-be “epic” games. One need only contrast the frantic mood at the end of the game with the dry, sarcastic tone of the beginning — appropriate to an academic stranded in a podunk town — to realize that one really does go on a narrative journey over the few hours it takes to play.

Which brings me to another remarkable thing: you can’t die in It Came from the Desert. If you lose at one of the action games, you wake up in the hospital, where you have the option of spending some precious time recuperating or trying to escape in shorter order via another mini-game. (No, I have no idea why a town the size of Lizard Breath should have a hospital.) In making sure that every individual challenge or decision doesn’t represent a zero-sum game, It Came from the Desert leaves room for the sort of improvisational derring-do that turns a play-through into a memorable, organic story. It’s not precisely that knowledge of past lives isn’t required; you’re almost certain to need several tries to finally save Lizard Breath. Yet each time you play you get to live a complete story, even if it is one that ends badly. Meanwhile you’re learning the lay of the land, learning to play more efficiently and getting steadily better at the action games, which are themselves unusually varied and satisfying by Cinemaware’s often dodgy standards. There are not just many ways to lose It Came from the Desert but also many paths to victory. Win or lose, your story in It Came from the Desert is your story; you get to own it. There’s a save-game feature, but I don’t recommend that you use it except as a bookmark when you really do need to do something else for a while. Otherwise just play along and let the chips fall where they may. At last, here we have a Cinemaware interactive movie that’s neither too easy nor too hard; this one is just right, challenging but not insurmountable.

It Came from the Desert evolves into a strategy game among other things, as you manuveur the town's forces to battle new infestations while you search for the main hive with the queen to put an end to the menace once and for all.

It Came from the Desert evolves into a strategy game among other things, as you deploy the town’s forces to battle each new ant infestation while you continue the search for the main hive.

Widely and justifiably regarded among the old-school Amiga cognoscenti of today as Cinemaware’s finest hour, It Came from the Desert was clearly seen as something special within Cinemaware as well back in the day; one only has to glance at contemporary comments from those who worked on the game to sense their pride and excitement. There was a sense both inside and outside their offices that Cinemaware was finally beginning to crack a nut they’d been gnawing on for quite some time. Even Ken St. Andre was happy this time. “Cinemaware’s large creative team has managed to do a lot of things very well indeed in this game,” he wrote, “and as a result they have produced a game that looks great, sounds great, moves along at a rapid pace, is filled with off-the-wall humor without being dumb, and is occasionally both gripping and exciting.”

When It Came from the Desert proved a big commercial success, Cinemaware pulled together some ideas that had been left out of the original game due to space constraints, combined them with a plot involving the discovery of a second ant queen, and made it all into a sequel subtitled Ant-Heads!. Released at a relatively low price only as an add-on for the original game — thus foreshadowing a practice that would get more and more popular as the 1990s wore on — Ant-Heads! was essentially a new MasterPlan script that utilized the art and music assets from the original game, a fine demonstration of the power of Cinemaware’s new development system. It upped the difficulty a bit by straitening the time limit from fifteen days to ten, but otherwise played much like the original — which, considering how strong said original had been, suited most people just fine.

It Came from the Desert, along with the suite of tools used to create it, might very well have marked the start of exactly the new era of more sophisticated Cinemaware interactive movies that David Riordan had intended it to. As things shook out, however, it would have more to do with endings than beginnings. Cinemaware would manage just one more of these big productions before being undone by bad decisions, bad luck, and a changing marketplace. We’ll finish up with the story of their visionary if so often flawed games soon. In the meantime, by all means go play It Came from the Desert if time and motivation allow. I was frankly surprised at how well it still held up when I tackled it recently, and I think it just might surprise you as well.

(Sources: The One from April 1989, June 1989, and June 1990; ACE from April 1990; Commodore Magazine from November 1988; Questbusters from September 1989, February 1990, and May 1990; Matt Barton’s interview with Bob Jacob on Gamasutra.)

 
 

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The Manhole

The Manhole

Because the CD-ROM version of The Manhole sold in relatively small numbers in comparison to the original floppy version, the late Russell Lieblich’s surprisingly varied original soundtrack is too seldom heard today. So, in the best tradition of multimedia computing (still a very new and sexy idea in the time about which I’m writing), feel free to listen while you read.

The Manhole



Were HyperCard “merely” the essential bridge between Ted Nelson’s Xanadu fantasy and the modern World Wide Web, it would stand as one of the most important pieces of software of the 1980s. But, improbably, HyperCard was even more than that. It’s easy to get so dazzled by its early implementation of hypertext that one loses track entirely of the other part of Bill Atkinson’s vision for the environment. True to the Macintosh, “the computer for the rest of us,” Atkinson designed HyperCard as a sort of computerized erector set for everyday users who might not care a whit about hypertext for its own sake. With HyperCard, he hoped, “a whole new body of people who have creative ideas but aren’t programmers will be able to express their ideas or expertise in certain subjects.”

He made good on that goal. An incredibly diverse group of people worked with HyperCard, a group in which traditional hackers were very much the minority. Danny Goodman, the man who became known as the world’s foremost authority on HyperCard programming, was actually a journalist whose earlier experiences with programming had been limited to a few dabblings in BASIC. In my earlier article about hypertext and HyperCard, I wrote how “a professor of music converted his entire Music Appreciation 101 course into a stack.” Well, readers, I meant that literally. He did it himself. Industry analyst and HyperCard zealot Jan Lewis:

You can do things with it [HyperCard] immediately. And you can do sexy things: graphics, animation, sound. You can do it without knowing how to program. You get immediate feedback; you can make a change and see or hear it immediately. And as you go up on the learning curve — let’s say you learn how to use HyperTalk [the bundled scripting language] — again, you can make changes easily and simply and get immediate feedback. It just feels good. It’s fun!

And yet HyperCard most definitely wasn’t a toy. People could and did make great, innovative, commercial-quality software using it. Nowhere is the power of HyperCard — a cultural as well as a technical power — illustrated more plainly than in the early careers of Rand and Robyn Miller.

The Manhole

Rand and Robyn had a very unusual upbringing. The first and third of the four sons of a wandering non-denominational preacher, they spent their childhoods moving wherever their father’s calling took him: from Dallas to Albuquerque, from Hawaii to Haiti to Spokane. They were a classic pairing of left brain and right brain. Rand had taken to computers from the instant he was introduced to them via a big time-shared system whilst still in junior high, and had made programming them into his career. By 1987, the year HyperCard dropped, he was to all appearances settled in life: 28 years old, married with children, living in a small town in East Texas, working for a bank as a programmer, and nurturing a love for the Apple Macintosh (he’d purchased his first Mac within days of the machine’s release back in 1984). He liked to read books on science. His brother Robyn, seven years his junior, was still trying to figure out what to do with his life. He was attending the University of Washington in somewhat desultory fashion as an alleged anthropology major, but devoted most of his energy to drawing pictures and playing the guitar. He liked to read adventure novels.

HyperCard struck Rand Miller, as it did so many, with all the force of a revelation. While he was an accomplished enough programmer to make a living at it, he wasn’t one who particularly enjoyed the detail work that went with the trade. “There are a lot of people who love digging down into the esoterics of compilers and C++, getting down and dirty with typed variables and all that stuff,” he says. “I wanted a quick return on investment. I just wanted to get things done.” HyperCard offered the chance to “get things done” dramatically faster and more easily than any programming environment he had ever seen. He became an immediate convert.

The Manhole

With two small girls of his own, Rand felt keenly the lack of quality children’s software for the Macintosh. He hit upon the idea of making a sort of interactive storybook using HyperCard, a very natural application for a hypertext tool. Lacking the artistic talent to make a go of the pictures, he thought of his little brother Robyn. The two men, so far apart in years and geography and living such different lives, weren’t really all that close. Nevertheless, Rand had a premonition that Robyn would be the perfect partner for his interactive storybook.

But Robyn, who had never owned a computer and had never had any interest in doing so, wasn’t immediately enticed by the idea of becoming a software developer. Getting him just to consider the idea took quite a number of letters and phone calls. At last, however, Robyn made his way down to the Macintosh his parents kept in the basement of the family home in Spokane and loaded up the copy of HyperCard his brother had sent him. There, like so many others, he was seduced by Bill Atkinson’s creation. He started playing around, just to see what he could make. What he made right away became something very different from the interactive storybook, complete with text and metaphorical pages, that Rand had envisioned. Robyn:

I started drawing this picture of a manhole — I don’t even know why. You clicked on it and the manhole cover would slide off. Then I made an animation of a vine growing out. The vine was huge, “Jack and the Beanstalk”-style. And then I didn’t want to turn the page. I wanted to be able to navigate up the vine, or go down into the manhole. I started creating a navigable world by using the very simple tools [of HyperCard]. I created this place.  I improvised my way through this world, creating one thing after another. Pretty soon I was creating little canals, and a forest with stars. I was inventing it as I went. And that’s how the world was born.

For his part, Rand had no problem accepting the change in approach:

Immediately you are enticed to explore instead of turning the page. Nobody sees a hole in the ground leading downward and a vine growing upward and in the distance a fire hydrant that says, “Touch me,” and wants to turn the page. You want to see what those things are. Instead of drawing the next page [when the player clicked a hotspot], he [Robyn] drew a picture that was closer — down in the manhole or above on the vine. It was kind of a stream of consciousness, but it became a place instead of a book. He started sending me these images, and I started connecting them, trying to make them work, make them interactive.

The Manhole

In this fashion, they built the world of The Manhole together: Robyn pulling its elements from the flotsam and jetsam of his consciousness and drawing them on the screen, Rand binding it all together into a contiguous place, and adding sound effects and voice snippets here and there. If they had tried to make a real game of the thing, with puzzles and goals, such a non-designed approach to design would likely have gone badly wrong in a hurry.

Luckily, puzzles and goals were never the point of The Manhole. It was intended always as just an endlessly interesting space to explore. As such, it would prove capable of captivating children and the proverbial young at heart for hours, full as it was of secrets and Easter eggs hidden in the craziest of places. One can play with The Manhole on and off for literally years, and still continue to stumble upon the occasional new thing. Interactions are often unexpected, and unexpectedly delightful. Hop in a rowboat to take a little ride and you might emerge in a rabbit’s teacup. Start watching a dragon’s television — Why does a dragon have a television? Who knows! — and you can teleport yourself into the image shown on the screen to emerge at the top of the world. Search long enough, and you might just discover a working piano you can actually play. The spirit of the thing is perhaps best conveyed by the five books you find inside the friendly rabbit’s home: Alice in Wonderland; The Wind in the Willows; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Winnie the Pooh; and Metaphors of Intercultural Philosophy (“This book isn’t about anything!”). Like all of those books excepting, presumably, the last, The Manhole is pretty wonderful, a perfect blend of sweet cuteness and tart whimsy.

The Manhole

With no contacts whatsoever within the Macintosh software industry, the brothers decided to publish The Manhole themselves via a tiny advertisement in the back of Macworld magazine, taken out under the auspices of Prolog, a consulting company Rand had founded as a moonlighting venture some time before. They rented a tiny booth to show The Manhole publicly for the first time at the Hyper Expo in San Francisco in June of 1988. (Yes, HyperCard mania had gotten so intense that there were entire trade shows dedicated just to it.) There they were delighted to receive a visit from none other than HyperCard’s creator Bill Atkinson, with his daughter Laura in tow; not yet five years old, she had no trouble navigating through their little world. Incredibly, Robyn had never even heard the word “hypertext” prior to the show, had no idea about the decades of theory that underpinned the program he had used, savant-like, to create The Manhole. When he met a band of Ted Nelson’s disgruntled Xanadu disciples on the show floor, come to crash the HyperCard party, he had no idea what they were on about.

But the brothers’ most important Hyper Expo encounter was a meeting with Richard Lehrberg, Vice President for Product Development at Mediagenic,1 who took a copy of The Manhole away with him for evaluation. Lehrberg showed it to William Volk, whom he had just hired away from the small Macintosh and Amiga publisher Aegis to become Mediagenic’s head of technology; he described it to Volk unenthusiastically as “this little HyperCard thing” done by “two guys in Texas.” Volk was much more impressed. He was immediately intrigued by one aspect of The Manhole in particular: the way that it used no buttons or conventional user-interface elements at all. Instead, the pictures themselves were the interface; you could just click where you would and see what happened. It was perhaps a product of Robyn Miller’s sheer naivetee as much anything else; seasoned computer people, so used to conventional interface paradigms, just didn’t think like that. But regardless of where it came from, Volk thought it was genius, a breaking down of a wall that had heretofore always separated the user from the virtual world. Volk:

The Miller brothers had come up with what I call the invisible interface. They had gotten rid of the idea of navigation buttons, which was what everyone was doing: go forward, go backward, turn right, turn left. They had made the scenes themselves the interface. You’re looking at a fire hydrant. You click on the fire hydrant; the fire hydrant sprays water. You click on the fire hydrant again; you zoom in to the fire hydrant, and there’s a little door on the fire hydrant. That was completely new.

Of course, other games did have you clicking “into” their world to make things happen; the point-and-click adventure genre was evolving rapidly during this period to replace the older parser-driven adventure games. But even games like Déjà Vu and Maniac Mansion, brilliantly innovative though they were, still surrounded their windows into their worlds with a clutter of “verb” buttons, legacies of the genre’s parser-driven roots. The Manhole, however, presented the player with nothing but its world. What with its defiantly non-Euclidean — not to say nonsensical — representation of space and its lack of goals and puzzles, The Manhole wasn’t a conventional adventure game by any stretch. Nevertheless, it pointed the way to what the genre would become, not least in the later works of the Miller brothers themselves.

Much of Volk’s working life for the next two years would be spent on The Manhole, by the end of which period he would quite possibly be more familiar with its many nooks and crannies than its own creators were. He became The Manhole‘s champion inside Mediagenic, convincing his colleagues to publish it, thereby bringing it to a far wider audience than the Miller brothers could ever have reached on their own. Released by Mediagenic under their Activision imprint, it became a hit by the modest standards of the Macintosh consumer-software market. Macworld magazine named The Manhole the winner of their “Wild Card” category in a feature article on the best HyperCard stacks, while the Software Publishers Association gave it an “Excellence in Software” award for “Best New Use of a Computer.”

We aware that The Manhole was collecting a certain computer-chic cachet, Mediagenic/Activision didn't hesitate to play that angle up in their advertising.

Well aware that The Manhole was collecting a certain chic cachet to itself, Mediagenic/Activision didn’t hesitate to play that angle up in their advertising.

Had that been left to be that, The Manhole would remain historically interesting as both a delightful little curiosity of its era and as the starting point of the hugely significant game-development careers of the Miller brothers. Yet there’s more to the story.

William Volk, frustrated with the endless delays of CD-I and the state of paralysis the entire industry was in when it came to the idea of publishing entertainment software on CD, had been looking for some time for a way to break the logjam. It was Stewart Alsop, an influential tech journalist, who first suggested to Volk that the answer to his dilemma was already part of Mediagenic’s catalog — that The Manhole would be perfect for CD-ROM. Volk was just the person to see such a project through, having already experimented extensively with CD-ROM and CD-I  as part of Aegis as well as Mediagenic. With the permission of the Miller brothers, he recruited Russell Lieblich, Mediagenic’s longstanding guru in all things music- and sound-related, to compose and perform a soundtrack for The Manhole which would play from the CD as the player explored.

An important difference separates the way the music worked in the CD-ROM version of The Manhole from way it worked in virtually all computer games to appear before it. The occasional brief digitized snippet aside, music in computer games had always been generated on the computer, whether by sound chips like the Commodore 64’s famous SID or entire sound boards like the top-of-its-class Roland MT-32 (we shall endeavor to forget the horrid beeps and squawks that issued from the IBM PC and Apple II’s native sound hardware). But The Manhole‘s music, while having been originally generated entirely or almost entirely on computers in Lieblich’s studio, was then recorded onto CD for digital playback, just like a song on a music CD. This method, made possible only by evolving computer sound hardware and, most importantly, by the huge storage capacity of a CD-ROM, would in the years to come slowly become simply the way that computer-game music was done. Today many big-budget titles hire entire orchestras to record soundtracks as elaborate and ambitious as the ones found in big Hollywood feature films, whilst also including digitized recordings of voices, squealing tires, explosions, and all the inevitable rest. In fact, surprisingly little of the sound present in most modern games is synthesized sound, a situation that has long since relegated elaborate setups like the Roland MT-32 to the status of white elephants; just pipe your digitized recording through a digital-to-analog converter and be done with it already.

As the very first title to go all digitized all the time, The Manhole didn’t have a particularly easy time of it; getting the music to play without breaking up or stuttering as the player explored presented a huge challenge on the Macintosh, a machine whose minimalist design burdened the CPU with all of the work of sound generation. However, Volk and his colleagues got it going at last. Published in the spring of 1989, the CD-ROM version of The Manhole marked a major landmark in the history of computing, the first American game — or, at least, software toy (another big buzzword of the age, as it happens) — to be released on CD-ROM.2 Volk, infuriated with Philips for the chaos and confusion CD-I’s endless delays had wrought in an industry he believed was crying out for the limitless vistas of optical storage, sent them a copy of The Manhole along with a curt note: “See! We did it! We’re tired of waiting!”

And they weren’t done yet. Having gotten The Manhole working on CD-ROM on the Macintosh, Volk and his colleagues at Mediagenic next tackled the daunting task of porting it to the most popular platform for consumer software, MS-DOS — a platform without HyperCard. To address this lack, Mediagenic developed a custom engine for CD-ROM titles on MS-DOS, dubbing it the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, or MADE.3 Mediagenic’s in-house team of artists redrew Robyn Miller’s original black-and-white illustrations in color, and The Manhole on CD-ROM for MS-DOS shipped in 1990.

In my opinion, The Manhole lost a little bit of its charm when it was colorized. The VGA graphics, impressive in their day, look a bit garish today.

In my opinion, The Manhole lost some of its unique charm when it was colorized for MS-DOS. The VGA graphics, impressive in their day, look just a bit garish and overdone today in comparison to the classic pen-and-ink style of the original.

The Manhole, idiosyncratic piece of artsy children’s software that it was, could hardly have been expected to break the industry’s optical logjam all on its own. Its CD-ROM incarnation, for that matter, wasn’t all that hugely different from the floppy version. In the end, one has to acknowledge that The Manhole on CD-ROM was little more than the floppy version with a soundtrack playing in the background — a nice addition certainly, but perhaps not quite the transformative experience which all of the rhetoric surrounding CD-ROM’s potential might have led one to expect. It would take another few excruciating years for a CD-ROM drive to become a must-have accessory for everyday American computers. Yet every revolution has to start somewhere, and William Volk deserves his full measure of credit for doing what he could to push this one forward in the only way that could ultimately matter: by stepping up and delivering a real, tangible product at long last. As Steve Jobs used to say, “Real artists ship.”

The importance of The Manhole, existing as it does right there at the locus of so much that was new and important in computing in the late 1980s, can be read in so many ways that there’s always a danger of losing some of them in the shuffle. But it should never be forgotten whilst trying to sort through the tangle that this astonishingly creative little world was principally designed by someone who had barely touched a computer in his life before he sat down with HyperCard. That he wound up with something so fascinating is a huge tribute not just to Robyn Miller and his enabling brother Rand, but also to Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard itself. Apple has long since abandoned HyperCard, and we enjoy no precise equivalent to it today. Indeed, its vision of intuitive, non-pretentious, fun programming is one that we’re in danger of losing altogether. Being one who loves the computer most of all as the most exciting tool for creation ever invented, I can’t help but see that as a horrible shame.

The Miller brothers had, as most of you reading this probably know, a far longer future in front of them than HyperCard would get to enjoy. Already well before 1988 was through they had rechristened themselves Cyan Productions, a name that felt much more appropriate for a creative development house than the businesslike Prolog. As Cyan, they made two more pieces of children’s software, Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Makerei and Spelunx and the Caves of Mr. Seudo. Both were once again made using HyperCard, and both were very much made in the spirit of The Manhole. And like The Manhole both were published on CD-ROM as well as floppy disk; the Miller brothers, having learned much from Mediagenic’s process of moving their first title to CD-ROM, handled the CD-ROM as well as the floppy versions themselves when it came to these later efforts. Opinions are somewhat divided on whether the two later Cyan children’s titles fully recapture the magic that has led so many adults and children alike over the years to spend so much time plumbing the depths of The Manhole. None, however, can argue with the significance of what came next, the Miller brothers’ graduation to games for adults — and, as it happens, another huge milestone in the slow-motion CD-ROM revolution. But that story, like so many others, is one that we’ll have to tell at another time.

(Sources: Amstrad Action of January 1990; Macworld of July 1988, October 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, and December 1989; Wired of August 1994 and October 1999; The New York Times of November 28 1989. Also the books Myst and Riven: The World of the D’ni by Mark J.P. Wolf and Prima’s Official Strategy Guide: Myst by Rick Barba and Rusel DeMaria, and the Computer Chronicles television episodes entitled “HyperCard,” “MacWorld Special 1988,” “HyperCard Update,” and “Hypertext.” Online sources include Robyn Miller’s Myst postmortem from the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference; Richard Moss’s Ludiphilia podcast; a blog post by Robyn Miller. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in an interview and for sending me an original copy of The Manhole on CD-ROM for my research.

The original floppy-disk-based version of The Manhole can be played online at archive.org. The Manhole: Masterpiece Edition, a remake supervised by the Miller brothers in 1994 which sports much-improved graphics and sound, is available for purchase on Steam.)


  1. Activision was renamed Mediagenic at almost the very instant that Lehrberg first met the Miller brothers. When the name change was greeted with universal derision, Activision/Mediagenic CEO Bruce Davis quickly began backpedaling on his hasty decision. The Manhole, for instance, was released by Mediagenic under their “Activision” label — which was odd because under the new ordering said label was supposed to be reserved for games, and The Manhole was considered children’s software, not a traditional game. I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article as the least confusing way to address a confusing situation. 

  2. The first CD-based software to reach European consumers says worlds about the differences that persisted between American and European computing, and about the sheer can-do ingenuity that so often allowed British programmers in particular to squeeze every last ounce of potential out of hardware that was usually significantly inferior to that enjoyed by their American counterparts. Codemasters, a budget software house based in Warwickshire, came up with a very unique shovelware package for the 1989 Christmas season. They transferred thirty old games from cassette to a conventional audio CD, which they then sold along with a special cable to run the output from an ordinary music-CD player into a Sinclair or Amstrad home computer. “Here’s your CD-ROM,” they said. “Have a ball.” By all accounts, Codemasters’s self-proclaimed “CD revolution,” kind of hilarious and kind of brilliant, did quite well for them. When it came to doing more with less in computing, you never could beat the Brits. 

  3. MADE’s scripting language was to some extent based on AdvSys, a language for amateur text-adventure creation that never quite took off like the contemporaneous AGT

 
 

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