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Alter Ego

Alter Ego

Peter J. Favaro started blending computers with psychology some eight years before Activision published his groundbreaking “life simulator” Alter Ego. In his first year as a graduate student of Clinical Psychology at Long Island’s Hofstra University, he and another student developed an obsession with the early standup arcade game Space Wars (a direct descendent of that granddaddy of all arcade games, MIT’s Space War).

During one of the many psychological discussions which developed around those sessions, I wondered whether the games served some kind of therapeutic function for us. They took us away from the pressure of graduate school for a short time and gave us a chance to act out some of our competitive urges. I also wondered what kinds of motor and reflex skills the games were training in us. One of the last things we said about video games that day was that they would be fun to study in some small research projects.

Games and the mostly young people who played them would come to dominate Favaro’s years at Hofstra.

As arcades and the Atari VCS grew in popularity over the course of those years, an anti-videogame hysteria grew in response. The Philippines and Singapore banned arcades outright, claiming they “cause aggression, truancy, ‘psychological addictions’ akin to gambling, and encourage stealing money from parents and others to support children’s videogame habits.” Closer to home, the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite banned children from playing videogames in public without a parent or other adult guardian, prompting a rash of similar bans in small towns across the country that were finally struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1982. Undaunted, Ronald Reagan’s unusually prominent new Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, waded in soon after, saying videogames created “aberration in childhood behavior” and, toting one of the anti-videogame camp’s two favorite lines of argument, claiming again that they addicted children, “body and soul.” Others colorfully if senselessly described videogames as substitutes for “adolescent masturbatory activity,” without clarifying what that deliciously Freudian phrase was supposed to mean or why we should care if it was true.

Favaro labored to replace such poetic language with actual data derived from actual research. His PhD thesis, which he completed and successful defended in late 1983, was entitled The Effects of Computer Video Game Play on Mood, Physiological Arousal, and Psychomotor Performance. One of the first studies of its kind, it found that there was nothing uniquely addictive about videogames. While there were indeed a small number of “maladaptive” children who played videogames to the detriment of their scholastic, social, and familial lives, the same was true of many other childhood activities, from eating sweets and chips to playing basketball. With regard to the other popular anti-videogame argument, that they made children “aggressive,” Favaro found that, while violent videogames did slightly increase aggression immediately after being played, they actually did so less than violent television shows. Also discredited was a favorite claim of the pro-videogame camp, that the games improved hand-eye coordination. Favaro found that playing a videogame for a long period of time made children better at playing other videogames, but had little effect on their motor skills or reflexes in the real world. Favaro would remain at Hofstra doing similar work until several years after completing his PhD.

While he was conducting his research, Favaro, an ambitious, personable fellow who had become something of a hacker following his purchase of an Atari 800, fostered links with the computer-industry trade press. After contributing articles to various magazines for some months, he became a “Special Projects Editor” with SoftSide beginning with the January 1983 issue, curating features on education and the relationship of children to computers until that magazine’s demise a year later. He then spent almost two years with Family Computing in largely the same role. He wrote cover-disk programs like Relaax…, which walks you through a series of relaxation exercises, and Pix, which lets you draw pictures by assembling, collage-like, smaller images on the screen. His most notable creation of this period for our purposes is Success, a multi-player Life-like computerized board game that starts by having you choose a personality — “aggressive,” “impulsive,” “pragmatic,” or “romantic” — and a goal in life — “money,” “knowledge and intellectual curiosity,” or “health and happiness.” You then move around the board flipping “cards” that affect your progress in the various goals: a “recent swamp purchase” decreases your money by $150, while a marriage proposal sends you to an arcade-style mini-game that places you behind the wheel trying to get to the church on time. Other ideas that would be incorporated into Alter Ego can be found in his articles on game design. Presaging the innovative character-creation system of Ultima IV as well as Alter Ego, he suggests in SoftSide‘s September 1983 issue quizzing the player of an adventure game about her personality before kicking off the proceedings in earnest:

In a situation where danger was imminent, would you

A) Ask for help.

B) Take charge and take action.

C) Run for your life.

The same article suggests a scoring system based on the player’s “display of bravery, risk-tasking, judiciousness, pragmatism, or whatever else you would like to reinforce.”

In an interview he gave in 2007 which contrasts weirdly with the idealistic tone of magazine articles like that one, Favaro claimed he made Alter Ego for very pragmatic reasons: out of his “love for game design and the prospect of making some money,” using his academic background as “a way of breaking out of the pack of other designers.” It’s not clear how rigorous his claimed research for the game — interviews with “hundreds of people” about their “most memorable life experiences” — really was, or whether it was even conducted solely in the service of this project or was a more general part of his ongoing psychological research at Hofstra. What is very clear, however, is that his idea for a “life simulator” was just the sort of high-toned, innovative project that Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0 swooned over. It didn’t take much to convince them to sign the project. Favaro would write and prototype the game on his Macintosh, while Activision would contract the final programming out to two outside developers: Kottwitz & Associates to do the Apple II and MS-DOS versions, and Unimac to do the Macintosh and Commodore 64 versions. Activision loved the cachet bestowed on the project by Favaro’s status as an actual psychologist so much that they always made sure to refer to him in the packaging, the manual, and advertisements only as “Peter J. Favaro, PhD.”

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

Alter Ego, which comes in a male and a female version, begins with a multiple-choice personality test that sets your initial scores in twelve characteristics that will be tracked throughout the game: Calmness, Confidence, Expressiveness, Familial, Gentleness, Happiness, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Thoughtfulness, Trustworthiness, and Vocational. You then get to live an entire life: the first scene has you in the womb getting ready to make your big exit (or, if you like, entrance), while the last is the scene of your death, at whatever age and in whatever manner your choices and the cruel vagaries of chance cause that to be. The years between are divided into seven distinct phases: Infancy (birth to age 3), Childhood (ages 4 to 12), Adolescence (ages 13 to 17), Young Adulthood (ages 18 to 30), Adulthood (ages 31 to 45), Middle Adulthood (ages 46 to 64), and Old Age (age 65 to death). Each phase plays out as a series of little interactive vignettes, both universal “life experiences” in the form of the track running down the center of the screen and “life choices,” having to do with relationships, marriage and family life, your career and finances, etc., represented by icons to either side of the experience track. Playing Alter Ego is a matter of choosing to have a life experience or to make a life choice by clicking the appropriate icon, then reacting to what follows as you believe you would in real life — or as you believe the character you’ve chosen to play would. The outcome of most vignettes will affect you in some way, whether by changing some of your twelve characteristics or by bringing more concrete changes to your life, like marriage, a new career, the death of somebody close to you, or for that matter your own death. If nothing else, some time will pass and you will age that little bit. (In a ludic illustration of the way time just seems to fly by faster as you get older, time jumps in larger chunks between later episodes as compared to earlier.) Your personality characteristics, relationship and marriage status, income, etc., in turn affect the vignettes themselves — closing some off to you entirely, altering what transpires in others. While there are still plenty of times where the lack of more comprehensive state-tracking can make the episodes feel inappropriate for your you, Alter Ego does its best, and its best is sometimes better than you might expect.

Leaving aside for a moment the larger thematic innovations of Alter Ego, the interface itself is well worth considering. It is, first of all, yet another impressive implementation of a Macintosh-style interface on computers that predate the Mac itself by years. But more important is Activision and Favaro’s decision to not try to make Alter Ego work through a parser. I’ve railed before against games that want to present big, life-changing choices rather than dwelling on the granular minutiae of Zork, but that insist out of misplaced traditionalism on forcing you to make those choices through a parser. Alter Ego, however, at long last shows the courage to break with tradition. Rather than offer only a few options but force you to wrestle with a parser to divine what they are, Alter Ego just shows you your options and lets you choose one. That may seem reasonable and unremarkable enough today, but it makes Alter Ego one of the first computerized hypertext narratives, a forerunner of Storyspace and the many similar systems that followed. I don’t make any claims to absolute firsts for Alter Ego; our old friends Level 9 in Britain among others were also experimenting with choice-based narratives by the mid-1980s. Still, Alter Ego stands as the most prominent early example of the format. Given that a menu of choices is so much easier to implement than a parser and the relatively complicated world model that must lie behind it, one might well wonder what took the industry so long. My suspicion, for what it’s worth, is that developers were consciously or unconsciously concerned about differentiating themselves from the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were all the rage at the time in children’s publishing.

But now it’s time to get beyond mechanical innovations and the brilliantly original concept itself and look at what it’s actually like to play Alter Ego. More so than even a typical text adventure, which has puzzles and other logistical concerns to distract, a game like this lives and dies for me on the quality of its writing. In this department Alter Ego is, at best, a mixed bag. The early vignettes are the most natural and effective — perhaps because Favaro was technically a child psychologist by trade, perhaps because he was only in his late twenties at the time he wrote the game and thus had only his book learning to draw from when describing the later stages of life. I’m afraid I’m going to be pretty hard on old Peter J. Favaro, PhD, soon enough, so let me first offer a couple of childhood episodes that I really like. One might make you laugh, and the other might… well, okay, it’s a bit sentimental and contrived, what with both husband and daughter managing to get themselves killed by the same freight train, but it’s also very sweet. (In the extracts that follow, I’ll be mixing the male and female versions of the game pretty freely.)

You are sitting in a large place, and a furry man walks up to you. He's walking around you in circles.

Select a mood:
curious
frightened X

Select an action:
point at the furry man
make noises at/talk to the furry man X

The furry man walks right up to you and smells you up and down. His nose pokes into your face and neck. It's cold.

Select an action:
cry X
grab the furry man by the head
push him off you

Your mom comes over and says the furry man is just playing. She takes your hand and puts it on the furry man's back and says, "Nice 'doggie'."

Select an action:
pet the man X
stay frightened and go away from the man

See? It isn't that bad. You pound on the man's back and say, "Nice 'doo-gee'."


There is an elderly woman who lives in a house up the street. Everyone calls her "the witch." Some people say she's really paranoid, calling the cops on kids all the time and screaming out the window, even when there is nobody there. At night she keeps her light on all the time and sits looking out the window.

For the past few days the light has been off. Some of the kids think she's just dead in there or something. They jump in front of her house and sing "Ding dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead," and laugh.

Select a mood:
sad X
happy

Select an action:
sing with everyone else
try to see if anything is wrong X

One afternoon after school, you look from outside the gate to see if there is anything going on inside the house. There is nothing. You can:
go through the gate and knock on the door X
ask a friend to go with you

You hear a voice call out from the back of the house, "Go away and leave me alone!" You can:
say "I'd like to know if you're o.k. in there." X
quit trying and leave

You hear nothing for about 30 seconds. Finally, the door opens. The woman looks pale and dazed. She seems smaller than you imagined and very delicate. In the corner of her almost-bare living room there is a television set; beside it is a large box of old rubber balls and toys that were left, or had accidentally fallen, on her lawn.

She asks you why you have come. You mention that you noticed that the light has gone out, and you thought she might be needing some help. She explains that she has no way to replace it. She is too old to climb up to do it. You can:
ask her if she would like you to do it X
excuse yourself, now that you know it's just a problem with a light bulb

She thanks you. Her face softens. While you are fixing the light, she tells you a very sad story: A long time ago, she had a little girl very much like you, so polite and so kind. She says her daughter was beautiful, and repeats it over and over--"as beautiful as a picture."

She and her husband lived with their daughter not too far from the train yard. She used to tell her child, "Anne Marie, stay away from the tracks, or you'll get hurt." One day, her daughter and her husband went out to play catch with an old ball. The ball got away from Anne and rolled across the tracks.

While she was chasing it, her foot got wedged between two rails. Her father and she struggled to release it, but before they could, they were both struck by a freight train and killed. She's been alone ever since.

When you are finished fixing the light, the lady gives you some milk and freshly-baked cookies. It almost seems as though she doesn't want you to go. Before you leave, you:
thank her for the cookies and ask if she would like someone around to do odd jobs X
thank her and excuse yourself

Her face brightens. "You must be paid," she says. "I can't afford much, and you'll have to do a fine job, but you can have all the cookies and brownies you can eat. I promise you that." You have done a much kinder thing than you can probably imagine at your age. You've given this woman a reason to live.

Many other vignettes unfortunately manifest the clunkier qualities of the one above without the same endearing sweetness.

The subject of sex has inspired far more bad writing over the course of history than any ten other topics combined. For better or for worse there’s lots and lots of sex in Alter Ego, so much so that it obviously made Activision more than a little nervous; there are prominent warnings on the box and in the manual, and when you actually stumble into a vignette with naughty content you get a big warning message so you can quickly back out with your delicate sensibilities undisturbed. (When we played Alter Ego as kids, of course, that warning meant we’d hit pay dirt.) Some of these episodes feel like they’re lifted from a late-night skin flick.

Perri Barber is an acquaintance who has taken a few of the same classes you have. She is a petite brunette with gorgeous green eyes, a nice smile, and a slim athletic body. She approaches you on campus and asks if you would be interested in helping her paint her dormitory room. What will you do?
help her decorate X
pass on the opportunity

During the course of the afternoon, you get to know one another very well. You work together in close quarters (the room is very small), so a lot of accidental touching and bumping occurs during the day. You aren't sure, but you think that Perri is coming on to you.

Select an action:
suggest that the two of you shower off together
ignore any signals that she might be giving you X

I guess this is not your style. It IS Perri's style, though. She asks if you would like her to scrub all that paint off your gorgeous body.

Select an action:
accept the offer X
reject the offer

The two of you take a nice, warm, romantic shower together. I'll leave what comes after the shower up to your imagination. [Thank God for that!]

When not indulging in teenage-boy fantasies, Alter Ego‘s attempts at the risque manage to be weirdly, anticlimactically square, the sort of things a gaggle of Monty Python housewives would define as transgressive.

Until now, your sexual experiences with your wife have been the standard fare. You've done a little experimenting with positions but that's about it. Have you been thinking about suggesting something a little more out of the ordinary?
"as a matter of fact, yes" X
"no"

What would you like to try?
oral sex X [Shocking!]
being tied up and tickled [No, I couldn't possibly...]
experimenting with marital aids (vibrators, creams, etc.) [Gasp!]
suggesting a menage a' trois (sex with your wife and another woman at the same time) [Now we're getting somewhere... and why do I find the game's need to define this phrase so unaccountably hilarious?]

Your wife is too inhibited to do this, she tells you she would rather not. [Oh, well, it was worth a try...]

In case you were wondering: no, if you play as a woman, you don’t get to ask for sex with two men at once. The woman always gets the short end of the stick in Alter Ego, about which much more in a moment.

Alter Ego is relentlessly hetero-normative. Apart from the ménage à trois, which at least in this context is of course really a heterosexual male fantasy, there are only a couple of places where the game even acknowledges the possibility of alternative sexualities. At one point you can be asked by your French teacher, Mr. Andre, “who everyone in school claims is gay,” to stay after school to help him clean his office. If you ignore the teasing of your classmates and brave the danger, he turns out to not be a Big Scary Gay Man after all: you learn he has a wife and a beautiful daughter, whom he sets you up with to boot. (The game’s blasé assumption that because he has a wife he doesn’t have feelings for men and doesn’t desire you is… interesting.) In another vignette a friend tells you that he believes he is gay, a revelation that the game treats with the same tragic gravity as a terminal disease.

But then, considering the time and place that spawned it, it’s not really fair to expect much more from Alter Ego. It’s very much a product of its time — sometimes depressingly, oppressively so. And, as Adam Cadre once hilariously noted, that time never changes even as a lifetime’s worth of personal experience plays out. Alter Ego‘s milieu is a frozen-in-amber world where a 512 K PC is the best you can buy, where The A-Team and Miami Vice rule the television, where Jordache jeans and Members Only jackets rule in schoolyard fashion, where Madonna is all over MTV (okay, maybe some things really are eternal). Whether you find this horrifying or nostalgically comforting depends on the player I suppose; I lean toward the former personally. Social change — history in general — just doesn’t happen in Alter Ego, which can be as strange to experience as it is understandable from a design perspective: having already tried to create a complete interactive life story, it’s a bit much to expect Favaro to create a believable future history to accompany it, and likely wouldn’t have turned out very well had he tried. Still, playing Alter Ego is like living your life inside the white-bread confines of a 1980s version of The Truman Show. Literally white-bread: apart from the occasional socially-inept immigrant kid you can choose to feel sorry for, everyone in this game is the whitest shade of pale.

If Alter Ego‘s lack of inclusiveness is to some extent forgivable given its origins, I do have more problems dismissing Favaro’s cluelessly demeaning sexism. As with a lot of games I write about, I played Alter Ego with my wife Dorte. She played with the female version, I with the male, and we took turns playing through a life phase at a time and comparing notes. Our agreed approach was to each play ourselves, making the choices we thought we would make at those ages in those situations. As we played, I found myself getting more and more angry at the game and sad for Dorte, as I kept getting to do cool and/or bold things and she kept being offered only meek girlie stuff. I got to go skydiving; she got to get an eyebrow tattoo. I slashed a hated teacher’s tires; she got a new hairdo. I got to buy video equipment or a flash new computer; she got to buy jewelry or “gourmet cooking accessories.” She always got offered the subordinate role, the pretty girl cheering on the boys who were actually doing something. I got to try out for the baseball team; she got to try out for the cheerleading squad. I got to start a rock band with some buddies; she got to call in to a radio show and win backstage passes to a concert (“Could you SCREAM?”).

Favaro’s concept of feminism feels at least two decades behind the times — i.e., about five decades behind our modern times. Alter Ego treats the decision to pick up a single restaurant tab for your steady boyfriend as a blow for “Woman’s Libbers” — when was the last time you heard that term? — everywhere, one so bold that it makes your boyfriend feel “uncomfortable” and emasculated. A male chauvinist you meet at work is just a mustache-twirling villain who says things absolutely no one would dare say openly even in 1986 and who has little to do with the real issues women still confront every day in the working world.

You have been going through a difficult time with an influential businessperson who seems to really enjoy making people miserable with his sexist attitudes, his arbitrary decision-making and his arrogance.

You get called into his office to take the heat for a relatively minor error. The conversation begins, "Look, Darling. I've always believed that a woman's place is in the home. Unfortunately, those bleeding hearts upstairs have made it impossible for me to deal 'man-to-man' around here. There are some problems here that I want resolved, AND NOW!"

One of the interstitial quotes Alter Ego occasionally puts up is this bit of condescension by Sigmund Freud: “The great question… which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” Peter J. Favaro, PhD, also doesn’t have a clue. I normally resist the urge to psychoanalyze the people who write the games I write about, but, given that Favaro spends the entirety of Alter Ego analyzing me and offering commentary and criticism on my every action, I’ll make a slight exception and wonder if this passage, which is worthy of a certain rotund cigar-chomping radio host, reflects deeper insecurities.

Mary Lou Stoker is a friend of your closest female companion and a staunch feminist. The truth is that she is not a feminist in the true sense of the word; she simply despises and resents men, misapplying the feminist philosophy to suit her needs.

One afternoon, you overhear Mary Lou telling your best friend that the love of your life "really doesn't give you that much room to breathe." She says, "I mean, he's okay, considering the rest of the garbage that's out there these days, but I wonder if she feels a little trapped in the same place day in and day out?" She goes on this way for quite a while.

My favorite, unintentionally revealing part of this is the phrase “the feminist philosophy,” as if feminists represent a political party — or conspiracy — who all march in lockstep to the same play book.

The most cringe-worthy parts of Alter Ego as a whole are those parts of the female version that deal with the sexual side of puberty and adolescence. Really, can there be any worse subject for a less-than-subtle 28-year-old male writer to tackle? Despite close competition from the likes of discovering your breasts are growing, getting your first period, and having your first orgasm, I think your first visit to a gynecologist makes for the creepiest episode in the game; this fellow is actually far creepier than the Chester the Molester who tries to pick you up outside your school. After making inquiries with one or two women of my acquaintance, I’ve confirmed that if you’re spending any time at all “naked” in a gynecologist’s office then something is very, very wrong.

Your mother calls you in for a talk about something she says is "very very important." She thinks that it might be a good time to go for a checkup with a "gynecologist," a doctor who specializes in women.

Select a mood:
afraid X
comfortable

Select an action:
go for an exam X
don't go for an exam

On the way over, your mother explains to you, "It's a little embarrassing at first, but he really is a gentle doctor." You dwell for a moment on the word "he," and realize that a man is going to see and "mess around with" all of your most intimate parts.

Select an action:
change your mind and tell her you don't want to see a man doctor
go anyway X

The gynecologist is a very sweet old man. Most of the time you spend naked is with a nurse who helps prepare you for the exam. The doctor is kind enough to warm up the instruments before he examines you.

When the examination begins, he shows you various different parts of your reproductive system and teaches you how to give yourself a breast examination, which he says is very important.

He asks your mother if she would be kind enough to leave the room. When she does, he asks you whether you are sexually active and if you are using birth control. He then asks if you would like more information about birth control.

Select an action:
get more information
say, "no." X [Get me out of here!]

He sees that you are feeling a bit uncomfortable and tells you that if you ever need information about birth control to give the office a call. He leaves you with a little warning. "Don't experiment before you get the facts, young lady."

Alter Ego strictly enforces the law of social averages. There are very good design reasons that it can’t allow you to become an astronaut, a rock star, an international drug smuggler, or even a homeless tramp; doing so would invalidate virtually all of the other vignettes that deal with daily life as most Americans of the 1980s knew it. But if the emphasis on the ordinary is defensible given Alter Ego‘s design constraints, the reductive judgments the game is constantly making about your actions certainly are not. Alter Ego is forever telling you why you’ve done something, and then whether that’s good or bad. If you respond to a blue period by just “letting it pass,” it tells you you’re “denying your feelings” and that “it’s okay to feel blue some of the time.” (When did I say that it wasn’t?) If you fail to gush with loving support after your dad gets fired from his job, you’re scolded for not telling him “he is a worthwhile and cherished human being.” (What if I’ve always had a difficult relationship with him and can’t help but remember that he was never really there for me in similar situations, and thus my feelings are more complex than just a “cherishing?”) If you fail to volunteer time or money to a charity that knocks on your door, you’re called in so many words a selfish jerk who can’t be bothered to think of the children! (What if I’m a bit suspicious of big international charities, and prefer to do my giving in other ways?) If you commit suicide — presumably due to all that feeling-denying that was going earlier — you’re told that suicide is always “an act of anger,” but the last laugh’s on you, because “the people you leave behind will try very hard to put this event in their pasts as quickly as possible.” (Suicide is way more complex than just another way of acting out, as someone with a PhD in Psychology really ought to know.) If you try to offer a little advice to a friend who’s having an affair, you’re mockingly told to butt out, “Sigmund.” (Oh, the irony…) When you have your inevitable midlife-crisis, you’re given this semantic drivel about “wishing” and “wanting”:

One of the key things to consider is the difference between WISHING and WANTING. You can spend the rest of your life WISHING for something magical to happen that will change your unsatisfying situation. If you WANT something badly enough, you do whatever is necessary to make it happen, even if it is difficult.

Playing Alter Ego today as a crotchety 42-year-old, my reaction to stuff like this is to ask what the hell do you know about it, Peter J. Favaro, PhD? No one has the right to pass such easy judgment on the complexities of life. If you’ve ever spent time flipping through self-help books, passages like those above may have a familiar ring, and for good reason: Favoro has since built a career around such pat aphorisms, writing a number of pop-psychology books and appearing on the low-hanging fruit of the talk-show circuit — places like The Montel Williams Show and Fox News morning shows — as a “television psychologist.”

I know I’ve been awfully hard on Favaro today, and perhaps not entirely fairly. His project was in a way doomed from the start. I’m sure that neither I, nor you, nor any one person could have done it justice, brilliant as the idea of it is. I’d therefore like to see a modern version of Alter Ego that would try a different approach. Instead of a single author, inevitably blinkered by her experiences and prejudices, I’d like to see a crowd-sourced Alter Ego. People from all over the world, and of all ages, races, genders, and sexualities, would be able to submit their own vignettes reflecting their own lived experiences. The result would be a constantly expanding tapestry of the human experience, accessible to anyone who ever felt an urge to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Rather than flatten the human experience into some idea of the psychologically normal, it would celebrate all of the different ways there are to think and feel and be.

As for the original Alter Ego, it did moderately well commercially; Favaro claims it earned him enough to buy “a house and a car.” Activision and Favaro made plans to release a follow-up called Child’s Play, “a humorous simulation about raising children,” but sweeping changes at Activision in the months after Alter Ego‘s release soon brought an end to that project, and with it Favaro’s career as a game designer.

Alter Ego enjoyed a big revival in the mid-2000s thanks to Dan Fabulich’s web-based version. He’s since also made it available as apps for Android, iOS, and even Kindle e-readers. It’s safe to say by now that many more people have played Alter Ego in its accessible modern incarnations than did so back in the day when it was a $35 boxed game. And indeed, while it does kind of annoy the hell out of me with its dodgy writing, lecturing authorial persona, and blinkered worldview, it’s still worth a look. Not only is it interesting purely for what it tries to do, but many other players genuinely enjoy it on its own terms. And hey, even if you feel like me about it you can still enjoy yourself a lot by making fun of it. Dorte and I had a blast doing that.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with my favorite male-version/female-version juxtaposition of all.

The female version:

You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your lip. Could it be some kind of disease? You think about all the boys you've kissed in the past month and decide to kill anyone who has given you a terminal disease.

And the male version:

You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your penis. Could it be some kind of disease?

Maybe I should take back what I said about the female always getting the short end of the stick…

(Notable writings by and about Favaro can be found in the October 1982 Compute!; the April 1983 and October 1983 Creative Computng; the November 1984 Family Computing; and the November 1982, March 1983, August 1983, September 1983, and January 1984 SoftSide. His three pre-Alter Ego games that were mentioned in the text appeared in SoftSide Selections 54, 58, and 60.)

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Jim Levy and Activision

I’ve already spent a lot of time on the history of one of the two great corporate survivors from the early years of videogames, Electronic Arts. But I’ve neglected the older of the pair, Activision, because that company originally made games only for consoles, a field of gaming history I’ve largely left to others who are far better qualified than I to write about it. Still, as we get into the middle years of the 1980s Activision suddenly becomes very relevant indeed to computer-gaming history. Given that, it’s worth taking the time now to look back on Activision’s founding and earliest days, to trace the threads that led to some important titles that are very much in my wheelhouse. In my view the single most important figure in Activision’s early history, and one that too often goes undercredited in preference to an admittedly brilliant team of programmers and designers, is Jim Levy, Activision’s president through the first seven-and-a-half years of its existence. So, as the title of this article would imply, one of my agendas today will be to do a little something to correct that.

The penultimate year of the 1970s was a trying time at Atari. The Atari VCS console, eventually to become an indelible totem of an era not just for gamers but for everyone, had a difficult first year after its October 1977 introduction, with sales below expectations and boxes piling up in warehouses. Internally the company was in chaos, as a full-on war took place between Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s engineering-minded founder, and its current CEO, Ray Kassar, a slick East Coast plutocrat whom new owners Warner Communications had installed with orders to clean up Bushnell’s hippie playground and turn it into an operation properly focused on marketing and the bottom line. Kassar won the war in December of 1978: Bushnell was fired. From that point on Atari became a very different sort of place. Bushnell had loved his engineers and programmers, but Kassar had no intrinsic interest in Atari’s products and little regard for the engineers and programmers that made them. The reign of Kassar as sole authority at Atari began auspiciously. Even before Bushnell’s departure, Kassar’s promotional efforts, with a strong assist from a fortuitous craze for a Japanese stand-up-arcade import called Space Invaders, had begun to revive the VCS; the Christmas of 1978, although nothing compared to Christmases to come, was strong enough to clear out some of those warehouses.

David Crane, Bob Whitehead, Larry Kaplan, and Alan Miller were known as the “Fantastic Four” at Atari during those days because the games they had (individually) programmed accounted for as much as 60 percent of the company’s total cartridge sales. Like most of Atari’s technical staff, they were none too happy with this new, Kassar-led version of the company. Trouble started in earnest when Kassar distributed a memo to his programmers listing Atari’s top-selling titles along with their sales, with an implied message of “Give us more like these, please!” The message the Fantastic Four took away, however, was that they were each generating millions for Atari whilst toiling in complete anonymity for salaries of around $30,000 per year. Miller, whose history with Atari went back to playing the original Pong machine at Andy Capp’s Tavern and who was always the most vocal and business-oriented of the group, drafted a contract modeled after those used in the book and music industries that would award him royalties and credit, in the form of a blurb on the game boxes and manuals, for his work; he then sent it to Kassar. Kassar’s reply was vehemently in the negative, allegedly comparing programmers to “towel designers” and saying their contribution to the games’ success was about as great as that of the person on the assembly line who put the packages together. Miller talked to Crane, Whitehead, and Kaplan, convincing them to join him in seeking to start their own company to write their own games to compete with those of Atari. Such a venture would be the first of its kind.

The Fantastic Four, 1980: from left, Bob Whitehead, David Crane, Larry Kaplan, and Alan Miller (standing)

The Fantastic Four, 1980: from left, Bob Whitehead, David Crane, Larry Kaplan, and Alan Miller (standing)

Through the lawyer they consulted, they met Jim Levy, a 35-year-old businessman who had just been laid off after six years at a sinking ship of a company called GRT Corporation, located right there in Sunnyvale, California, also home to Atari. GRT had mainly manufactured prerecorded tapes for music labels, but had also run a few independent labels of their own on the side. Eager to break into that other, creative part of the industry, Levy had come up with a scheme to take the labels off their erstwhile parent’s hands, and had secured $350,000 in venture capital for the purpose. But when his lawyer introduced him to the Fantastic Four that plan changed immediately. Here was a chance to get in on the ground floor of a whole new creative industry — and that really was, as we shall see, how Levy regarded game making, as a primarily creative endeavor. He convinced his venture capitalists to double their initial investment, and on October 1, 1979, after the Fantastic Four had one by one tendered their resignations to Atari as an almost unremarked part of a general brain drain that was going on under Kassar’s new regime, VSYNC, Inc., was born. But that name, an homage to the “vertical sync” signal that Atari VCS programmers lived and died by (see Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam), obviously wouldn’t do. And so, after finding that “Computervision” was already taken, Levy came up with “Activision,” a combination of “action” and “vision” — or, if you like, “action” and “television.” It didn’t hurt that the name would come before that of the company they knew was doomed to become their arch-nemesis, Atari, in sales brochures, phone books, and corporate listings. By January of 1980, when they quietly announced their existence to select industry insiders at the Consumer Electronics Show — among them a very unhappy and immediately threatening Kassar — Activision included 8 people. By that year’s end, it would include 15. And by early 1983, when Activision 1.0 peaked, it would include more than 400.

Jim Levy surrounded by his Activision "family," 1981

Jim Levy surrounded by his fast-growing Activision “family,” 1981

Aware from the beginning of the potential for legal action on Atari’s part, Activision’s lawyer had made sure that the Fantastic Four exited Atari with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The first task of the new company thus became to engineer their own VCS development system. Much of this work was accomplished in the spare bedroom of Crane’s apartment, even before Levy got the financing locked down and found them an office. Activision was thus able to release their first four games in relatively short order, in July of 1980. Following Atari’s own approach to naming games in the early days, Dragster, Boxing, Checkers, and Fishing Derby had names that were rather distressingly literal. But the boxes were brighter and more exciting than Atari’s, the manuals all included head shots of their designers along with their signatures and personal thoughts on their creations, and, most importantly, most gamers agreed that the quality was much higher than what they’d come to expect from Atari’s own recent releases. Activision would refine their approach — not to mention their game naming — over the next few years, but these things would remain constants.

Steve Cartwright

Steve Cartwright

In spite of the example of a thriving software industry on early PCs like the TRS-80 and Apple II, it seems to have literally never occurred to Atari that anyone could or would do what Activision had done and develop software for “their” VCS. That lack of expectation had undoubtedly been buttressed by the fact that the VCS, a notoriously difficult machine to program for even those in the know, was a closed box, its secrets and development tools secured behind the new hi-tech electric door locks Kassar had had installed at Atari almost as soon as he arrived. The Fantastic Four, however, carried all that precious knowledge around with them in their heads. Atari sued Activision right away for alleged theft of “trade secrets,” but had a hard time coming up with anything they had actually done wrong. There simply was no law against figuring out — or remembering — how the VCS worked and writing games for it. And so Atari employed the time-honored technique of trying to bury their smaller competitor under law suits that would be very expensive to defend regardless of their merits. That might have worked — except that Activision made an astonishingly successful debut. This was the year that the VCS really took off, and Activision was there to reap the rewards right along with Atari, selling more than $60 million worth of games during their first year. The levelheaded Levy, who had anticipated a legal storm from the beginning, simply treated it as another tax or other business expense, budgeting a certain amount every quarter to keeping Atari at legal bay.

Carol Shaw

Carol Shaw

Under Levy’s guidance, Activision now proceeded to write a play book that many of the publishers we’ve already met would later draw from liberally.  Activision’s designer/programmers were always shown as cool people doing cool things. Steve Cartwright, designer of Barnstorming, was photographed, with scarf blowing rakishly in the wind, about to take to the skies in a real biplane; Carol Shaw, designer of River Raid and one of the vanishingly small number of female programmers writing videogames, appeared on her racing bike; Larry (no relation to Alan) Miller, designer of Enduro, could be seen perched on the hood of a classic car. Certainly Trip Hawkins would take note of Activision’s publicity techniques when he came up with his own ideas for promoting his “electronic artists” like rock stars. Almost from the beginning Activision fostered a sense of community with their fans through a glossy newsletter, Activisions, full of puzzles and contests and pictures and news of the latest goings-on around the offices in addition to plugs for the newest games — a practice Infocom and EA among others would also take to heart. Activision, however did it all on a whole different scale. By 1983 they were sending out 400,000 copies of every newsletter issue, and receiving more than 10,000 pieces of fan mail every week.

Larry Miller

Larry Miller

In those early years Activision practically defined themselves as the anti-Atari. If Atari was closed and faceless, they would be open and welcoming, throwing grand shindigs for press and fans to promote their games, like the “Barnstorming Parade,” featuring, once again, Cartwright in a real airplane; the “Decathlon Party,” featuring 1976 Olympic Decathlon Gold Medal winner Bruce Jenner, to promote The Activision Decathlon; or the “Rumble in the Jungle” to promote their biggest hit of all, Crane’s Pitfall!. While, as Jenner’s presence will attest, they weren’t above a spot of celebratory endorsing now and again, they also maintained a certain artistic integrity in sticking to original game concepts and refusing any sort of licensing deals, whether of current arcade hits or media properties. This again place them in marked contrast to Atari, who, in the wake of their licensed version of Taito’s arcade hit Space Invaders that had almost singlehandedly transformed the VCS from a modest success to a full-fledged cultural phenomenon in the pivotal year of 1980, never saw a license they didn’t want. Our games, Levy never tired of saying, are original  works that can stand on their own merits. As for the licensed stuff: “People will take one look because they know the movie title. But if an exciting game isn’t there, forget it. Our audiences are too sophisticated. You can’t fool them.” Such respect for his audience, whether real or feigned or a bit of both, was another thing that endeared Activision to them.

Pitfall!

Released in April of 1982 just as the videogame craze hit its peak — revenues that year reached fully half those of the music industry — Pitfall! was Activision 1.0’s commercial high-water mark, selling more than 4 million copies, more than any of Atari’s own games except Pac-ManPitfall! would go on to become the urtext of an entire genre of side-scrolling platform games. In more immediate terms, it made Crane something of a minor celebrity as well as a very wealthy young man indeed; one magazine even dared to compare his earnings from Pitfall! with those of Michael Jackson from Thriller, although that was probably laying it on a bit thick. Meanwhile four other Activision games — Laser Blast, Kaboom!, Freeway, and River Raid — had passed the 1 million mark in sales, and dozens of other new publishers had followed Activision’s example by rolling up their sleeves, figuring out how the VCS worked and how they could develop for it, and jumping into the market. The resulting flood of cartridges, many of them sold at a fraction of Activision’s price point and still more of them substandard even by Atari’s less than exacting standards, would be blamed by Levy for much of what happened next.

In April of 1983, Levy confidently predicted in his keynote speech for The First — and, as it would turn out, last — Video Games Conference that the industry would triple in size within five years. In June, Activision went public, creating a number of new millionaires. It was, depending on how you look at it, the best or the worst possible timing. Just weeks later began in earnest the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, and everything went to hell for Activision, just as for the rest of the industry. Activision had always been a happy place, the sort of company whose president could suddenly announce that he was taking everyone along with their significant others to Hawaii for four days to celebrate Pitfall!‘s success; where the employees could move their managers’ offices en masse into the bathrooms for April Fool’s without fear of reprisal; whose break rooms were always bursting with doughnuts and candy. Thus November 10, 1983, was particularly hard to take. That was the day Levy laid off a quarter of Activision’s workforce. It was his birthday. It was also only the first of many painful downsizes.

Levy had bought into the contemporary conventional wisdom that home computers were destined to replace game consoles in the hearts and minds of consumers, that the home-computer market was going to blow up so big as to dwarf the VCS craze at its height. His plan was thus to turn Activision into a publisher of home-computer software rather than game cartridges. His biggest problem looked to be bridging the chasm that lay between the recently expired fad of the consoles and the projected sustained domination of the home computer. The painful fact was that, even on the heels of a hugely successful 1983, all of the home-computer models combined still had nowhere near the market penetration of the Atari VCS alone at its peak. There simply weren’t enough buyers out there to sustain a company of the size to which Activision had so quickly grown. The only way to bridge the chasm was to glide over on the millions they had socked away in the bank during the boom years whilst brutally downsizing to stretch those millions farther. Activision 2.0 would have to be, at least for the time being, a bare shadow of Activision 1.0’s size. Yet “the time being” soon began to look like perpetuity, especially as the cash reserves began to dry up. In 1983, Activision 1.0 had revenues of $158 million; in 1986, three years into Levy’s remaking/remodeling, Activision 2.0 had revenues of $17 million. The fundamental problem, which grew all too clear as Activision 2.0’s life went on, was that the home-computer boom had fizzled about a decade early and about 90 percent short of its expected size.

Ghostbusters

With Activision, despite the frantic downsizing, projected to lose $18 million in 1984, when Columbia Pictures made it known that they would be interested in letting David Crane do a game based on their new movie Ghostbusters, Levy quietly forgot all his old prejudices against licensed products. Ghostbusters the game was literally an afterthought; the movie had already been in theaters a week or two when Activision and Columbia started discussing the idea. The deal was closed within days, and Crane was told he had exactly six weeks to come up with the game before Ghostbusters mania died down — which was just as well, as he was planning to get married in six weeks. Exactly these sorts of external pressures had undone Atari licensed games like Pac-Man and E.T., and were a big part of the reason that Levy had heretofore avoided licenses. Luckily, Crane already had been working on a game for the Commodore 64 he called Car Wars (no apparent relation to the Steve Jackson Games board game, the license for which was held by Origin Systems), which had the player undertaking a series of missions whilst racing around a city map battling other vehicles. Each successful mission earned money she could use to upgrade her car for the next, more difficult level. Crane realized it should be possible to retrofit ghosts and lots of other paraphernalia from the movie onto the idea. Realizing that he couldn’t possibly do it all on his own, he recruited a team of four others to help him. Ghostbusters thus became the first Activision game to abandon the single-auteur model of development that had been the standard until then. In its wake almost every other project also became a team project, a concession to the technical realities of developing for the more advanced Commodore 64 and other home computers versus the old VCS. With the help of his assistants, Crane was able to add many charming little touches to Ghostbusters, like sampled taglines from the movie (“He slimed me!”) and a chiptunes version of Ray Parker, Jr.’s monster hit of a theme song, complete with onscreen words and a bouncing ball to help you sing along.

Ghostbusters

David Crane was Activision’s King Midas. Despite its rushed development, Ghostbusters turned out to be a very playable game, even a surprisingly sophisticated one, what with its CRPG-like in-game economy and the thread of story that linked all of the ghost-busting missions together. It even has a real ending, with the slamming of the dimension door that’s been setting all of these ghosts loose in our universe. Released in plenty of time for Christmas 1984 and doubtless buoyed by the fact that Ghostbusters the movie just kept going and going — it would eventually become the most successful comedy of the 1980s — Ghostbusters became Activision 2.0’s biggest hit by a light year and one of the bestselling Commodore 64 games of all time, selling well into the hundreds of thousands. Like relatively few Commodore 64 games but almost all of the real blockbusters, it became hugely popular in both North America and Europe, where Activision, unlike most of their peers who published there if at all through the likes of U.S. Gold, had set up a real semi-autonomous operation — Activision U.K. — during the boom years. And it was of course widely ported to other platforms popular on both sides of the pond.

It’s at this point that Levy’s story and Activision’s get really interesting. Having proved through Ghostbusters that his company could make the magic happen on the Commodore 64 as well as the Atari VCS, however much more modest the commercial rewards for even a huge hit on the former platform were destined to be, Levy now began to push through a series of aggressively innovative, high-concept titles, often over the considerable misgivings of the board of directors with which Activision’s IPO had saddled him. I don’t want to overstate the case; it’s not as if Levy transformed Activision overnight into an art-house publisher. The next few years would bring plenty of stolid action games alongside the occasional adventure as well as, what with Activision having popped the lid off this particular can of worms to so much success, more licensed titles: Aliens, Labyrinth, Transformers, and, just to show that not all licenses are winners, a computerized adaptation of Lucasfilm’s infamous flop Howard the Duck that managed to be almost as bad as its inspiration. Yet betwixt and between all this expected product Levy found room for the weird and the wacky and occasionally the visionary. He made his agenda clear in press interviews. Rhetorically drawing on his music-industry experience despite the fact that he had never actually worked on the creative side of that industry, he cast Activision’s already storied history as that of a plucky artist-driven indie label that went “head to head with the majors” and thereby proved that “the artist can be trusted,” whilst chastising competitors for “a certain stagnation in creative style, concept, and content.” The game industry was — or should be — driven by its greatest assets, its creators. The job of him and the other business-oriented people was just to facilitate their art and to get it before the public.

Writing a game is close to the whole concept of songwriting and composing. Then you get involved later on with the ink-and-paper people for packaging. There are a lot of similarities between the record business and what we do.

There was a certain amount of calculation in such statements, just as there was in Trip Hawkins’s campaigns on behalf of his own electronic artists. Yet, also as in Hawkins’s case, I believe the core sentiment was very sincere. Levy genuinely did believe he was witnessing the birth of a new form (or forms) of art, and genuinely did feel a responsibly to nurture it. Garry Kitchen, a veteran programmer who had joined Activision during the boom years, tells of how Levy during the period of Activision 2.0 kept rejecting his ideas for yet more simple action games: “Do something different, innovate!” How many other game-industry CEOs can you imagine saying such a thing then or now?

At this point, then, I’d like to very briefly tell you about a handful of Activision’s titles from 1985 and 1986. In some cases more interesting as ideas than as playable works, no one could accuse any of what follows of failing to heed Levy’s command to “innovate!” Some aren’t actually games at all, fulfilling another admonition of Levy to his programmers: to stop always thinking in terms of rules and scores and winners and losers.

The first fruit of the creative pressure Levy put on Kitchen was The Designer’s Pencil. Yet another impressive implementation of a Macintosh-inspired interface on an 8-bit computer, The Designer’s Pencil is, depending on how you look at it, either a thoroughly unique programming environment or an equally unique paint program. Rather than painting directly to the screen, you construct a script to control the actions of the eponymous pencil. You can also play sounds and music while the pencil is about its business. A drawing and animation program for people who can’t draw and a visual introduction to programming, The Designer’s Pencil is most of all just a neat little toy.

Garry Kitchen's GameMaker

Responding to users of The Designer’s Pencil who begged for ways to make their creations interactive, Kitchen later provided Garry Kitchen’s GameMaker: The Computer Game Design Kit. Four separate modules let you make the component pieces of your game: Scenes, Sprites, Music, and Sound. Then you can wrap it all together in a blanket of game logic using the Editor. Inevitably more complicated to work with than The Designer’s Pencil, GameMaker is still entirely joystick-driven if you want it to be and remarkably elegant given the complexity of its task. It was by far the most powerful software of its kind for the Commodore 64, the action-game equivalent of EA’s Adventure Construction Set. In a sign of just how far the industry had come in a few years, GameMaker included a reimplementation of Pitfall!, Activision’s erstwhile state-of-the-art blockbuster, as a freebie, just one of several examples of what can be done and how.

Described by its creator Russell Lieblich as a “Zen” game, Web Dimension has an infinite number of lives, no score, and no time limit. The ostensible theme is evolution: levels allegedly progress through atoms, planets, amoebae, jellyfish, germs, eggs, embryos, and finally astronauts. But good luck actually making those associations. The game is best described as, as a contemporary reviewer put it, “a musical fantasy of color, sight, and sound,” on the same wavelength as if less ambitious than Automata’s Deus Ex Machina. As with that game, the soundtrack is the most important part of Web Dimension. Lieblich considered himself a musician first, programmer second, and not actually much of a gamer: “I’m not really into games, but I love music, so I designed a musical game that doesn’t keep score.” Like Deus Ex Machina not much of a game in conventional terms, Web Dimension is interesting as a piece of interactive art.

Hacker

Hacker begins with a screen that’s blank but for a single blinking login prompt. You’re trying to break into a remote computer system with absolutely nothing to go on. Literally: in contrast to the likes of the Ultima or Infocom games, Hacker‘s box contained only a card telling how to boot the game and an envelope of hints for the weak and/or frustrated. Discovering the rules that govern the game is the game. Designed and programmed by Steve Cartwright, creator of Barnstorming amongst others, it was another achievement of an Activision old guard who continued to prove they had plenty of new tricks up their sleeves. This weird experiment of a game actually turned into a surprising commercial success, Activision 2.0’s second biggest seller after Ghostbusters. Playing it is a disorienting, sinister, oddly evocative experience until you figure out what’s going on and what you’re doing, whereupon it suddenly all becomes anticlimax. “Anticlimactic” also best describes the sequel, Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers; Hacker is the kind of thing that can only really work once.

Little Computer People

Little Computer People is today the most remembered creation of Activision’s experimental years, having been an important influence on a little something called The Sims. It’s yet another work by the indefatigable David Crane, his final major achievement at Activision. The fiction, which Crane hewed to relentlessly even in interviews, has you helping out as a member of the Activision Little Computer People Research Group, looking into the activities of the LCPs who have recently been discovered living inside computers. When you start the program you’re greeted by a newly built house perfect for the man and his dog who soon move in. Every single copy of Little Computer People contained a unique LCP with his own personality, a logistical nightmare for Activision’s manufacturing process. He lives his life on a realistic albeit compressed daily schedule, with 24 hours inside the computer passing in 6 outside it. Depending on the time of day and his personality and mood as well as your handling, the little fellow might prefer to relax with a book in his favorite armchair, play music on his piano, exercise, chat on the phone, play with his dog, watch television, listen to the record collection you’ve (hopefully) provided, or play a game of cards with you — when he isn’t sleeping, brushing his teeth, or showering, that is.  You can try to get him to do your bidding via a parser interface, but if you aren’t polite enough about it or if he’s just feeling cranky the answer is likely to be a big fat “No!”

While Little Computer People was frequently dismissed as pointless by the more goal-oriented among us, other players developed strong if sometimes dysfunctional attachments to their LCPs. For example, in an article for Retro Gamer, Kim Wild told of her fruitless year-long struggle to get her hygienically challenged LCP just to take a damn shower already. In its way Little Computer People offered as many tempting mysteries as any adventure game. Contemporary online services teemed with controversy over the contents of a certain upstairs closet into which the LCP would periodically disappear, only to reappear with a huge smile on his face. The creepy majority view was that he had a woman stashed in there, although a vocal minority opted for the closet being a private liquor cabinet.

While it didn’t sell in anything like the quantities of some of Crane’s other games, Little Computer People was a moderate success. Further cementing its connection to The Sims, Crane and Activision planned a series of expansions that would have added new houses and other environments for the LCPs and maybe even the possibility of having more than one of them, and thus of watching them interact with one another instead of only with their dogs and their players. For reasons that will have to wait for a future article, however, that would never happen.

Shanghai

Activision’s first notable release for the new 68000-based machines was Shanghai. A simple solitaire tile-matching exercise that uses mahjong tiles —  and not, it should be emphasized, an implementation of the much more complex actual game of mahjong — Shanghai was created by Brodie Lockard, a former gymnast who’d become paralyzed following a bad fall and used his “solitaire mahjong” almost as a form of therapy in the years that followed. Particularly in its original Macintosh incarnation, it’s lovely to look at and dangerously addictive. Like many of Activision’s experimental titles of the period, Shanghai cut against most of the trends in gaming of the mid-1980s. Its gameplay was almost absurdly simple while other games were reveling ever more in complexity; it was playable in short bursts of a few minutes rather than demanding a commitment of hours; its simple but atmospheric calligraphic visuals and feel of leisurely contemplation made a marked contrast to the flash and action of other games; its pure abstraction was the polar opposite to other games’ ever-growing focus on the experiential. Moderately successful in its day, Shanghai was perhaps the most prescient of all Activision’s games from this period, forerunner to our current era of undemanding, bite-sized mobile gaming. Indeed, it would eventually spawn what seems like a million imitators that remain staples on our smartphones and tablets today. And it would also spawn, the modern world being what it is, lots and lots of legal battles over who actually invented solitaire mahjong; there’s still considerable debate about whether Lockard merely adopted an existing Chinese game to the computer or invented a new one from whole cloth.

There are still other fascinating titles whose existence we owe to Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0. In fact, I’m going to use my next two articles to tell you about two more of them — inevitably, given our usual predilections around here, the most narrative-focused of the bunch.

(Lots of print sources for this one, including: Commodore Magazine of June 1987, February 1988, and July 1989; Billboard of June 16 1979, July 14 1979, September 15 1979, June 19 1982, and November 3 1984; InfoWorld of August 4 1980 and November 5 1984; Compute!’s Gazette of March 1985; Creative Computing of September 1983 and November 1984; Antic of June 1984; Retro Gamer 18, 25, 79, and 123; Commodore Horizons of May 1985; Commodore User of April 1985; Zzap! of December 1985; San Jose Mercury of February 18 1988; New York Times of January 13 1983; Commodore Power Play of October/November 1985; Lodi News Sentinel of April 4 1981; the book Zap!: The Rise and Fall of Atari by Scott Cohen; and the entire 7-issue run of the Activisions newsletter. Online sources include Gamasutra’s histories of Activision and Atari and Brad Fregger’s memories of Shanghai‘s development.)

 
 

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Starflight

Starflight

Fair warning: this article spoils the ending to Starflight, although it doesn’t spoil the things you need to know to get there.

Starflight, one of the grandest and most expansive games of the 1980s, was born in the cramped confines of a racquetball court. Rod McConnell, a businessman who had been kicking around Silicon Valley for some years, happened to have as his regular playing partner Joe Ybarra, an Apple executive who in late 1982 decamped to join Trip Hawkins’s fledgling new Electronic Arts as a game “producer.” Intrigued by Ybarra’s stories of “electronic artists” and an upcoming revolution in entertainment based on interactivity, McConnell wondered if he might somehow join the fun. He thus started discussing ideas with a programmer named Dave Boulton.

Boulton, who died in 2009, is the unsung hero of Starflight. His involvement with the project wouldn’t last very long, but his fingerprints are all over the finished game. He was, first and foremost, a zealot for the Forth programming language. He was one of the founding members of the Forth Interest Group, which was established just at the beginning of the PC era in 1977 and did stellar work to standardize the language and bring it to virtually every one of the bewildering variety of computers available by the early 1980s. More recently his hacking had led him to begin exploring the strange universe of Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal sets fully eighteen months before Rescue on Fractalus! would make fractals a household name for gamers and programmers everywhere. Boulton enticed McConnell with an idea much bigger than Lucasfilm’s simple action game: an almost infinitely vast planet which, thanks to the miracle of fractals, the player could roam at will.

McConnell founded a company named Ambient Design and hired a couple of young programmers to help Boulton. One, Alec Kercso, was just finishing a degree in Linguistics in San Diego, but was more interested in his hobby of hacking. The other, Bob Gonsalves, was another dedicated Forther who wrote a monthly column on the language for Antic magazine. He was hired on the basis of this as well as his intimate familiarity with the Atari 8-bit platform, which thanks to its audiovisual capabilities was the great favorite around EA circles during that first year or so, until the Commodore 64 came online in earnest. On the strength of McConnell’s friendship with Ybarra and little else — the  whole group of them had among them neither any experience with game development nor any real plan for what their game would be beyond a vast environment created with fractals — EA signed them as one of the first of their second wave of contracts, following the premiere of the first six, reputation-establishing EA games. Ybarra would be their producer, their main point of contact with and advocate within EA. He would have his work cut out for him in the years to come.

The idea soon evolved to encompass not just a single planet but many. The game, to be called Starquest, would let you fly in your starship across an entire galaxy of star systems, each with planets of its own, each of which would in turn be its own unique world, with unique terrain, weather, life forms, and natural resources. For Boulton, the man who had got this ball rolling in earnest in the first place, it was suddenly getting to be too much. You just couldn’t do all that on an 8-bit computer, he said, not even with the magic combination of Forth and fractals. He walked away. He would go on to develop early software for the Commodore Amiga and to join another unheralded founder, Jef Raskin of the original vision for the Apple Macintosh, to work on Raskin’s innovative but unsuccessful Canon Cat.

Left on their own with only Boulton’s prototype fractal code to guide them, Kercso and Gonsalves felt over their heads. They needed to be able to show each planet as a rotating globe from space, complete with the fractal terrain that the player would be able to explore more intimately if she elected to land, but didn’t know how to map the terrain onto a sphere. McConnell soon found another programmer, Tim Lee, who did. Lee had already written firmware for Texas Instruments calculators and written very complex policy-analysis applications for life-insurance companies. Yet another Forth fan, he’d just finished writing an actual game in the language, an IBM PC port of the Datasoft action game Genesis which Datasoft would never ship due to its incompatibility with the PCjr. With the graphics code he’d developed for that project, plus his own explorations of fractal programming, Lee was more than up to rendering those spinning terrain-mapped globes.

One of Tim Lee's spinning terrain-mapped planet. He was also responsible for most of the fundamental low-level architecrure of the game.

One of Tim Lee’s spinning terrain-mapped planets. He was also responsible for most of the fundamental low-level architecture of the game.

Lee also brought with him his programming expertise on the IBM PC. This prompted the team to take a big step: to abandon their little 8-bitters and move to the bigger 16-bit MS-DOS machines. They had recognized that Boulton had been right: their ideas were just too big to fit into 8 bits. MS-DOS was just finishing up its trouncing of CP/M to become undisputed king of the business-computing world, but had managed little penetration into homes, which were still dominated by the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64. On the one hand, the IBM was a terrible gaming platform: its CGA graphics could show only four colors at a time in palettes that seemed deliberately chosen to clash as horribly with one another as possible and give artists nightmares; its single speaker was capable of little more than equally unpleasant bleeps and farts; even standard gaming equipment like joysticks were effectively non-existent due to a perceived lack of demand. But on the other hand, the IBM was an amazing gaming platform, with several times the raw processing power of the 8-bitters and at least twice the memory. Like so much in life, it all depended on how you looked at it. Ambient Design decided they needed the platform’s advantages to contain a galaxy that would eventually encompass 270 star systems with 811 planets between them, and they’d just have to take the bitter with the sweet. Still, it’s unlikely that EA would have gone along with the idea had it not been for the imminent release of the PCjr, which was widely expected to do in home computing what its big brother had in business computing.

Starflight

About this point the last and arguably biggest piece of the development puzzle arrived in the form of Greg Johnson, Kercso’s roommate. Not much of a programmer himself, Johnson had like his roommate also just finished a degree and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He had listened avidly to Kercso’s reports on the game’s progress, and eventually started drawing pictures of imagined scenes on his Atari 800 just for fun. He was soon coming up with so many pictures and, more importantly, ideas that Kercso got him an interview and McConnell hired him. Just like that, Johnson became the much-needed lead designer. Until now the team had been focused entirely on the environment they were trying to create, giving little thought to what the player would be expected to actually do there. As Kercso would later put it, what had been an “open-ended game of exploration” now slowly began to evolve into “a complex story with interwoven plots and twists.” Johnson himself later said his job became to come up with what should happen, the others to come up with how it could happen. Or, as Lee put it, Johnson designed the scenario while the others designed “the game system that you could write the scenario for.” And indeed, he proved to be a boundless fount of creativity, coming up with seven unique and occasionally hilarious alien races for the player to fight, trade, and converse with during her travels.

Critical to those conversations became a designer we’ve met before on this blog, Paul Reiche III, who spent two important weeks helping Johnson and his colleagues to hash out a workable conversation engine which made use of the system of conversation “postures” from a game he had co-designed with Jon Freeman, Murder on the Zinderneuf. Reiche, an experienced designer of tabletop RPG rules and adventures as well computer games, continued to offer Johnson, who had heretofore thought of himself as a better artist than writer or designer, advice and ideas throughout the game’s protracted development.

The system of conversation "postures" from Murder on the Zinderneuf.

The system of conversation “postures” from Murder on the Zinderneuf.

Starflight's implementation of conversation postures.

Starflight’s implementation of conversation postures.

“Protracted” is perhaps putting it too mildly. The process just seemed to go on forever, so much so that it became something of a sick running joke inside EA. The project appeared on more than three years worth of weekly status reports, from the time that EA was mature enough to have weekly status reports until the game’s belated release in August of 1986. Over that time the arcades and home game consoles crashed and burned; the home-computer industry went through its own dramatic boom and bust and stabilization; countless platforms came and went, not least among them the PCjr; EA gave up up on the dream of revolutionizing mainstream home-entertainment and accepted the status of big fish in the relatively small pond of computer gaming; IBM achieved business-computing domination and then ceded it almost as quickly thanks to the cloners; the bookware craze came and went; Infocom rose to dizzying heights and crashed to earth just as quickly; the Soviet Union went from an Evil Empire to a partner in nuclear-arms control. And still, ever and anon, there was Starflight, the much more elegant name chosen for Starquest after the release of Sierra’s King’s Quest. McConnell’s company name changed as well before all was said and done, from Ambient Design to Binary Systems (get it?).

EA very nearly lost patience several times; McConnell credits his old friend Joe Ybarra with personally rescuing the project from cancellation on a number of occasions. With the contract structured to provide payments only after milestones that were few and increasingly far between, McConnell himself took personal loans and worked other jobs so as to be able to pay his team a pittance. Throughout it all he never lost faith, despite ample evidence that they didn’t, to be painfully blunt, entirely know what they were doing. The team members themselves lived on savings or loans when their meager salaries ran out. Many months were consumed by fruitless wheel-spinning. As Lee later admitted, they were so entranced with this model universe that they “spent a lot of time trying to model things that didn’t add to the play of the game.” Forth was never the most readable language nor an ideal choice for a large group project, and as the project wandered off in this or that direction and back again the code got nightmarishly gnarly. This just made trying to modify or add to it take still longer. With McConnell only able to afford a tiny office and most of the team thus working remotely most of the time, just keeping everyone on the same page was difficult. Given the situation and the personalities involved, a certain amount of freelancing was inevitable. “There was no master plan detailing each and every task to be done,” said Kercso later. “We had an idea of what the major modules had to be and we added a lot of final design as we got into programming each of the modules”; then they did their best to mash it all together. Starflight was a prototypical runaway, mismanaged, overambitious project, the likes of which the industry has seen many times since. The difference was, instead of being ignominiously cancelled or shoved out the door incomplete, Starflight somehow ended up amazing. Call it serendipity, or credit it to a team that just wouldn’t give up. Once the core group was assembled, nobody thought of quitting, everyone was determined to finish the game — and on its own original, insanely ambitious terms at that — or die trying. “I remember saying that I didn’t care if I died after it came out,” said Johnson later, but “please, God, let me live until then.”

The hopeless combat screen.

The hopeless muddle of a combat engine.

Some of the confusion and occasional lack of direction is visible in the final game. Even the biggest Starflight fan would have trouble praising the arcade-style in-space combat engine, for instance, which manages to be both far too simplistic and far too baffling to actually control. There’s a disconnected feeling to certain elements, as of clever ideas that were never fully woven into the holistic design. You can gather flora and fauna from the planets you visit and return them to your base to study, for example, but you make so little money from doing so as opposed to mining minerals — and the controls for stunning and gathering your specimens are once again so awkward — that you’re left wondering what the point is. Ditto most of the intriguing alien artifacts you find, which you cart excitedly back to base only to find that they “reveal very little of interest” and are “totally useless to us.” And the game has what should be a fatal case of split personality, being half stately space opera and half silly romp filled with sci-fi alien caricatures.

And yet it really doesn’t matter. Starflight is that rare piece of work that actually justifies the critic’s cliché of being more than the sum of its parts. It’s not a tight design; appropriately given its theme, it sprawls everywhere, sometimes seemingly uselessly so. But even its blind alleys are fascinating to wander down once or twice. It’s the opposite of a minimalist masterpiece like M.U.L.E., whose every last note is carefully considered and exhaustively tested and blended carefully into the whole. And you know what? It’s every bit as awesome.

But for the benefit of those of you who haven’t played it it’s really high time that I tell what the game’s all about, isn’t it?

Your home starbase, where you outfit your ship, select and train your crew, buy and sell equipment and resources, etc.

Your home starbase, where you outfit your ship, select and train your crew, buy and sell equipment and resources, etc. It was largely the work of Alec Kercso.

Starflight starts you off at your base on your home planet of Arth — no, that’s not a typo — with a rather shabbily equipped ship and a little bit of seed capital. If you’re smart, you’ll spend most of the latter training a crew, which will include, in the tradition of a certain classic television series that went where no man has gone before, a Captain, a Science Officer, a Navigator, an Engineer, a Communications Officer, and a Doctor. You’ll also need to save enough to add a cargo pod or three to your ship, so you can begin to earn money by landing on nearby planets and scooping up minerals for sale back at Arth. You need money to upgrade your ship with better engines, weapons, and defenses, to train your crew, and to buy something call endurium (if you can’t find or mine enough of it), Starflight‘s equivalent to dilithium crystals, the semi-magical fuel that enables faster-than-light travel. As you build up your ship and your bank account, you can travel ever farther from Arth, exploring an algorithmically generated galaxy so vast that, like the Fibonacci galaxies of Elite, even Starflight‘s creators hadn’t seen all of it before the game’s release. And so you fly and land where you will, searching for mineral-rich planets you can mine and, even better, habitable planets you can recommend for colonization; you receive a substantial finder’s fee in return. Alien races inhabit various sectors of the galaxy. Some you may be able to befriend or at least achieve a level of mutual toleration with, others you’ll have to fight. Thus the need to fit out your ship with the best possible weapons and defenses.

Exploring the surface of a planet. This module was largely the work of Bob Gonsalves.

Exploring the surface of a planet. This module was largely the work of Bob Gonsalves.

This, then, is Starflight the sandbox game. While it’s in no way derivative of EliteStarflight‘s creators couldn’t have even been aware of the older game until quite late in their own development cycle, since Elite didn’t reach American shores until late 1985 — Starflight does generate a similar compulsion to explore, an addictive need to see what all is out there. But everything about Starflight is richer and more complex, with the exception only of the combat system that was the heart of Elite but a mere afterthought in Starflight (if you had to spend much time in Starflight actually fighting, it would be a very, very bad game). With so much more computing horsepower at their disposal, Binary Systems was able to add layer after intriguing layer: the ability to land on planets, and once there to engage in an exploring and mining mini-game that is as absurdly addictive as it is superficially simplistic; the chance to converse with the aliens you meet instead of just shooting at them; the whole CRPG angle of training a crew and keeping them healthy; sensor- and Navigator-confounding nebulae and wormholes to negotiate. Whereas Elite sessions soon settle down into a comfortable routine of trade-jump-fight-dock, rinse and repeat forever, Starflight always seems to have something new to throw at you.

But the most important difference is the plot that Starflight layers over its sandbox. I realize everyone is different on this point, but personally I always have a little bit of trouble with purely open-ended games (see my review of Seven Cities of Gold for another example). When I play Elite I eventually start to get bored for lack of any real narrative or goal to shoot for beyond the almost impossible one of actually becoming Elite. Ian Bell and David Braben originally wanted to include a real plot, but there just wasn’t room to contain it inside a 32 K BBC Micro. Starflight, however, has the sort of plot-driven direction that Elite so painfully lacks.

So, having told you what you can do in Starflight, let me now tell you why you do it. Evidence has recently turned up on Arth that the planet’s inhabitants did not evolve there; that it was colonized at some point in the distant past, that the colonists regressed into barbarism due to war or other pressures, and that only now has civilization recovered. A cache of old documents has also revealed the secrets of endurium and faster-than-light travel. All of which is great, except that Arth has even bigger fish to fry. A strange wave is spreading across the galaxy, causing stars to flare — with disastrous results for any orbiting planets — as it strike them. Thus your mission is not just to explore and get rich, but to discover the source of the wave and to stop it before it reaches Arth.

Starflight has an unusually elaborate plot for its day, but unlike in so many more recent games it never straitjackets you to it. The plot is more backstory than story. The game is essentially a big scavenger hunt, sending you off to reconstruct quite a complicated galactic history. Follow the trail long enough and you should turn up the clues and objects you need to end the threat to Arth and the galaxy by blowing up a certain Crystal Planet that’s the source of all the trouble. There’s not all that much that you actually need to do to beat the game when you know how. In fact, you can do it in less than two game days. It’s the clue- and object-scavenging that’s all the fun, the process of putting the pieces of the backstory together. When you discover Earth, for example — yes, those original colonizers of Arth came, inevitably, from Earth — it gives a thrill when you first look down on those familiar continents from orbit. Other pieces of the puzzle are almost equally thrilling when they come to light. If you’re playing cold, sans walkthrough — which is honestly the only way to play; you’ll otherwise just be left wondering what all the fuss is about — you’ll need to look everywhere for clues: to the occasional emails you receive from your overseers on Arth; to messages and artifacts you find on the planets; to the map and other materials included in the game package. And, most importantly, you need to talk at length to all those aliens, a goofy and amusing rogue’s gallery of sci-fi clichés. They’re the silly part of this odd mixture of stately epic and silly romp — but they’re so much fun we’ll take them just as they are, cognitive dissonance be damned.

The Elowans, a race of plant-like hippies who evince peace and love along with passive aggression.

The Elowan, a race of plant-like hippies who evince peace and love along with passive aggression.

The Thrynn, who have such weird issues with the Elowan that they'll attack if you have one in your crew.

The Thrynn, who have such weird issues with the Elowan that they’ll attack if you have one in your crew.

The unforgettably loathsome Spemin, who lack backbone -- literally.

The unforgettably loathsome Spemin, who lack backbone — literally.

The Mechans, a group of robots who think you're just what they've been waiting for all these millennia.

The Mechans, a group of robots who think you’re just what they’ve been waiting for all these millennia.

Now, this plot-as-scavenger-hunt approach to gameplay is hardly an innovation of Starflight. The Ultima games in particular had been trolling these waters ever more assiduously by the time it appeared. The breadcrumb-following approach to game design always gives rise to the possibility of getting yourself stuck because you’ve missed that one little thing in this absurdly vast virtual world on which all further progress depends. Yet there is a difference here, not so much in kind as in quality. Starflight is a much more friendly, generous game. Whereas Ultima seems to relish making you fail by hiding vital clues in the most outlandish places or behind the most unlikely parser keywords, there’s a sense that Starflight really wants you to succeed, wants you to solve the mystery and save the galaxy. There are multiple ways to learn much of what you need to know, multiple copies of some vital artifacts hidden in completely different places, multiple solutions to most of the logistic and diplomatic puzzles it sets before you. Yes, there’s a time limit, what with Arth’s sun destined to eventually flare, but even that is very generous, operating more as a way to lend the game excitement and narrative urgency than a way to crush you for failing some hardcore gamer test. Its generosity is not absolute: in my own recent playthrough I had to turn to a walkthrough to learn that you need to be obsequious when you talk to the Velox or they’ll never share an absolutely vital piece of information that I don’t think you can glean anywhere else (remember that, would-be future players!). Still, even these few choke points feel more like accidents than deliberate cruelties strewn in your path by cackling designers. Starflight really does feel like a welcome step toward a more forgiving, inclusive sort of gaming.

Spoilers begin!

No discussion of Starflight‘s plot can be complete without the shocker of an ending. When you finally arrive at the Crystal Planet and are preparing to destroy it, everything suddenly gets deeply weird via a message from an earlier visitor:

I can hardly believe it! Those weird lumps are actually intelligent life. The Ancients are endurium! And we have spent hundreds of years hunting them to burn for fuel in our ships. Their metabolism is so much slower than ours that they live in an entirely different time framework. I don’t think they even know we are sentient. I believe it was only because of a link thru the Crystal Planet that contact was made at all. This Crystal Planet was their last defense. I can hardly blame them. Carbon-based life must have seemed something like a virus to them.

Despite this discovery, the only option — other than to simply stop playing — is to blow up the Crystal Planet anyway, thus annihilating the home planet of a race much more ancient and presumably more sophisticated than your own. It’s a strange, discordant sort of ending to say the least. Some have made much of it indeed; see for instance an earnest article in Envirogamer that would make of Starflight an elaborate allegory for our environmental problems of today, with endurium representing fossil fuels and the stellar wave standing in for global warming. I’m not really buying that. Not only does the article strike me as anachronistic, an argument born of 2009 rather than the mid-1980s, but I somehow have trouble seeing Starflight as a platform for such deliberate messaging; it strikes me as a grand escapist space opera, full stop, without any rhetorical axe to grind. But is Starflight‘s ending a deliberate subversion of genre convention, like the controversial ending to Infidel? Maybe. It’s not as if the game is not without a certain melancholia in other places; for instance, you’ll occasionally meet a race of interstellar minstrels who roam the spacelanes singing sad songs about glories that used to be. Yet after you do the bloody deed on the Crystal Planet the game immediately leaps back to unabashed triumphalism, gifting you with medals and music and glory and a chance to roam the galaxy at your leisure with an extra 500,000 credits in your account, burning genocidal quantities of endurium as you do so with nary a moral qualm to dog your steps. What to make of this seemingly obliviousness to the ramifications of what you’ve just done? You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it represents subtly or just a muddle of mixed messages that got away from their creators. It’s just one more of the layers within layers that make Starflight so memorable for just about everyone who plays it.

Spoilers end!

In addition to its innovations in the softer arts of design and narrative, Starflight has one final, more concrete quality that sets it apart from what came before, one that can be very easy to overlook but is nevertheless of huge importance. It’s the first of these big open-world games that offers a truly persistent virtual world to explore. Due to the limitations of 8-bit floppy-disk drives, earlier games all fudge persistence in some way. The Wizardry and Bard’s Tale games, for instance, save only the state of your characters between sessions. Everything else resets to its original state as soon as you leave the game, or, indeed, just travel between dungeon levels or between the dungeon and the city. Amongst numerous other oddities, this means that you can actually “win” these games over and over with the same group of characters; they literally forget you’ve done so almost immediately after showing you the victory screen. The 8-bit Ultimas do only a little better: the outdoor world map does persist along with the details of your characters, but cities and dungeons, again, reset themselves ad infinitum. You can go into a town, murder a dozen guards and rob every shop in town, then exit and return to find all restored to peace and tranquility again. Indeed, solving the early Ultimas is virtually dependent on you doing exactly this. Starflight, however, is different. Its whole vast galaxy remembers what you have done, on both a macro- and micro-scale. If you discover a juicy new planet, name it, and recommend it for colonization, it goes by that name for the rest of the game. If you befriend or piss off a given alien race, they don’t forget you or what you’ve done. If you strip-mine a planet of all its minerals, they don’t reappear the next time you land on it. If you make notes in your “Captain’s Log” (a first in itself), they remain there until you delete them. If you blow up an alien race’s home planet thereby destroying their entire civilization, it stays blowed up. This is a huge step forward for verisimilitude, one enabled by Binary Systems’s choice to throw caution to the wind and target the bigger, more capable MS-DOS machines.1

As Starflight neared release at last, it was very much an open question whether it would find an audience. By now the PCjr had come and gone — just as well given that the game’s memory requirements had ballooned past that machine’s standard 128 K to a full 256 K. No one had ever released such a major title exclusively on MS-DOS. Normally if that platform got games at all they were ports of titles that had already proved themselves on the more popular gaming machines, delivered months or years after their debuts elsewhere. Binary Systems and EA could only make sure Starflight supported the popular Tandy 1000’s enhanced graphics and hope for the best.

The best was far better than they had bargained for: initial sales far exceeded the most optimistic expectations, leaving EA scrambling to produce more copies to fill empty store shelves. It would eventually sell well over 100,000 copies on MS-DOS alone, a major hit by the standards of any platform. Starflight placed owners of other computers in the unaccustomed position of lusting after a game on MS-DOS of all places, a platform most had heretofore viewed with contempt. Appearing as it did even as owners of the new generation of 68000-based machines were reveling in their Macs, Amigas, and Atari STs, Starflight was an early sign of a sea change that would all but sweep those platforms into oblivion within five years or so. With it now clear that a market of eager MS-DOS gamers existed, the platform suddenly became a viable first-release choice for publishers and developers. Only years later would Starflight belatedly, and not without much pain given the unique Forthian nature of its underpinnings, be ported to the Amiga, ST, Macintosh, Sega Genesis, and even the little Commodore 64 — the latter of which would probably have been better bypassed. It would sell at least 200,000 more copies on those platforms, a nice instance of creativity and sheer hard work being amply rewarded for Rod McConnell’s idealistic little team of five.

Most of Binary Systems stayed together long enough to craft a fairly workmanlike sequel, Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, released in 1989 for MS-DOS just as the first ports of the original game were reaching those other platforms. It was playable enough, but somehow lacked some of the magic of the original. Most then drifted away from the games industry, with only Greg Johnson continuing to work intermittently as a designer, most notably of the Toejam & Earl games for the Sega Genesis. Starflight had been such an all-consuming, exhausting labor of love that perhaps it was hard for the others to imagine starting all over again on another, inevitably less special project. Making Starflight had been the sort of experience that can come only once in a lifetime; anything else they did in games afterward would have been anticlimax.

If we’re looking for something to which to attribute Starflight‘s success, both commercially and, more importantly, artistically, we’re fairly spoiled for choice. Alec Kercso credits the way that he and his colleagues were allowed to work “organically,” experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t. Credit also the odd idealism that clung to the team as a whole, which prompted them to never back away from their determination to make something bigger and qualitatively different than anything that had come before, no matter how long it took. Credit Joe Ybarra and the management of EA who, skeptical as they may sometimes have been, ultimately gave Binary Systems the time and space they needed to create a masterpiece. Credit Rod McConnell for giving his stable of talented youngsters the freedom to create whilst finding a way to keep the lights on through all those long years. And credit, almost paradoxically, the limited technology of the era. With their graphics capabilities sharply limited, the team was free to concentrate on building an interesting galaxy, full of interesting things to do, and to tweak it endlessly, without needing to employ dozens of artists and 3D modellers to represent every little idea; tellingly, the only artist on the team was Johnson, who was also the lead designer. And of course credit Johnson for giving the game a plot and an unforgettable, quirky personality all its own, without which all of its technical innovations would have added up to little.

There’s a stately dignity to Starflight even amidst all the goofy gags, a sense of something grand and fresh and new attempted and, even more remarkably, actually realized. Few games have ever quite captured that science-fictional sense of wonder quite this well. If you start playing it — and that’s very easy to do now; Starflight 1 and 2 are both available in one-click-installable form from GOG.com — you might just find yourself lost in its depths for a long, long time. This, my friends, is one of the great ones.

(Useful vintage articles on Starflight include an interview with Rod McConnell in the March 1987 Computer Gaming World and especially one with Tim Lee in the July/August 1987 Forth Dimensions. Alec Kercso wrote about the game in, of all places, Jonathan S. Harbour’s Microsoft Visual BASIC Programming with DirectX. Good recent articles include ones in The Escapist, Gamasutra, and Sega-16. Tim Lee gave part of the source code and many design documents to Ryan Lindeman. He once made even more source and documents available online, some of which can still be recovered via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Similarly available only via the Wayback Machine is Miguel Etto’s technical analysis of the game’s Forthian underpinnings.)


  1. This is not to say that all is smooth sailing. Starflight constantly saves updated versions of its data files to disk as you play. It then relies on you to “commit” all of these changes by cleanly exiting the game from the menu. If you ever exit without properly saving, or get killed, your game becomes unplayable until you reset it back to its original data — whereupon you have the joy of starting all over. My advice is to make backups of the files “STARA.COM” and “STARB.COM” after every successful session; then if you get killed or have some other problem you can just copy these back into the game’s directory to get back to a good state. Or, if you like, here’s a DOSBox startup script you can use to automatically keep a few generations of states. Just copy it into the “{[autoexec]” section of the game’s “.conf” file, editing as needed to suit your directory names. 

 
 

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Patreon

Patreon

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s now been about three-and-a-half years since I started this blog. Over that time it’s come a long way. After beginning with no real direction, I found my forte within the first six months or so, and the blog evolved into the grand history you all know and (hopefully) love. Along the way I like to believe I’ve become a better writer, and I know I’ve become a much better and more thorough researcher, with many more sources at my disposal. I must admit that some of those early articles are a bit painful for me to read now (I really need to do something about that someday). But best of all, I’ve found you folks, a core group of loyal readers who seem to grow by just a little bit every month. It hasn’t been a meteoric rise, but it has been a steady one and a fun one. You’re the best readers anywhere, you know, almost unfailingly polite and witty and perceptive and helpful, and I appreciate each and every one of you enormously. Every writer wants, more than anything else, to know some people out there are reading. Thanks for that!

So, having buttered you up, let’s move on to the real subject of today’s post. After some months of dithering over the question, I’ve decided it’s time to take the next step in my blogging career. As you can probably imagine based on the length and depth of the articles I post, the writing and research for the blog  absorbs many hours of my time per week. If I can start to bring in a little bit more, and on a more consistent basis, I’ll be able to devote more time to my work here, which will translate directly into more and better articles for you to enjoy. Imagine if you will a sliding scale of hours devoted to computer-gaming history that terminates in my being able to make it my full-time job. I’m afraid I’m a long way from there, may indeed never reach it, but every little bit of income the blog does manage to generate shifts that scale just slightly in a positive direction, resulting in more articles published, more games and other topics covered, and more depth to that coverage.

I’ve therefore decided to add Patreon to the existing PayPal donation system. As many of you probably already know, Patreon is a way for readers like you to support the work of creators like me through something like the old patronage model that used to fund art and literature back in the day. It has the advantage for me that it represents a steady income stream I can count on on a per-article basis, whereas one-off donations tend to move through cycles of feast and famine that are impossible to plan for. You need only go to my fresh new Patreon page to sign up. If you do so, you’ll be automatically billed for each substantial article that I write for the blog (i.e., articles like this one are not included). You can decide how much that amount will be. I’m certainly not asking you to break the bank here; a dollar or two (or the equivalent in your local currency) is fine, although if any of you love the blog and are flush with cash I certainly wouldn’t balk at more. On the other hand, some of you may want to pay a bit less, maybe just a dollar or two per month. I unfortunately can’t offer monthly and per-article payments simultaneously, but there is a way around it: just set a per-article level of $1 and also set a monthly limit of $1, $2, or whatever you like. This will have the same effect, with the added advantage that you don’t pay anything if I stop blogging for a month for some reason.

Patreon supporters will gain access to a special members area of my Patreon page, where we can interact a bit more informally and where you can have a bit more of a say on certain things that happen around here. I’ll give sneak previews from time to time of upcoming articles, ask for your input on games and topics worthy of coverage, and if there’s interest host occasional meet-ups via Google Hangouts or the like.

The PayPal donation button to the right will not be going away, so if you do still prefer to make a single lump-sum donation by all means feel free. And whether you can contribute financially or not, I could also use your help in one other way. As just about everyone must realize by now, I’m terrible at self-promotion, and worse at social media. So, anything you could do to help me get the word out to potential supporters would be hugely appreciated.

And that’s that, except to say, as Bartles and Jaymes did back in the year of which I’m writing these days, “Thank you for your support.” Next up in the on-deck circle: a certain spacefaring epic.

 

The Forth Dimension

Forth

The Forth programming language reached maturity around 1970 after more than ten years of development and experimentation by its creator, Charles H. Moore. Its first practical use was to control a radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where Moore was employed at the time. From there Forth spread to other telescopes and other observatories, cementing a connection with astronomy and space science that persists to this day; in addition to controlling countless telescopes and planetariums earthside, Forth has been into space many times on probes and satellites of all descriptions. Yet already by the end of its first decade Forth had spread far beyond astronomical circles. It was being used to control the motorized cameras used to film miniature-based special-effects sequences (suddenly a booming business in the wake of Star Wars); to control automotive diagnostic equipment; as the firmware in various medical devices; to control automated agricultural equipment. Closer to our usual interests, Atari had invested a lot of money into developing a version of the language suitable for programming pinball machines and stand-up arcade games, while versions of the language were available for all of the trinity of 1977 within a year or so of their appearance. The key to Forth’s burgeoning popularity was its efficiency: it not only ran faster than just above any language short of assembly, but in the right hands it was also almost unbelievably stingy with memory. Those were good qualities to have in the late 1970s, when the average PC ran at 1 MHz and had no more than 16 K.

We’ll get into why Forth is so efficient in just a bit. But first let’s take a look at the language itself. If you’ve programmed before in just about any other language, Forth will likely seem deeply, deeply weird. Still, there’s also something kind of beautiful about it. If you’d like to follow along with the few examples I’ll give in this article, you have many free implementations of the language to choose from. A good choice, and one that has the advantage of working on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux alike, is Gforth.

Forth is an interactive programming language, like the microcomputer BASICs so many of us grew up with. This means that you can enter commands directly at the Forth console and watch them run immediately.

Forth is also a stack-based programming language, and this is the key to everything else about it. Virtually every programming language uses a stack under the hood; it’s one of the most fundamental mechanisms of computer science. But most other languages try to hide the stack from us, strain to make it so that we need not trouble ourselves over it and, indeed, don’t really need to know much about it at all. The only time many programmers even hear the word “stack” is when an infinite loop or runaway recursion causes a program to crash with a “stack overflow error.” Forth, however, doesn’t hide its stack away like something shameful. No, Forth loves its stack, sets it front and center for all to see. Forth demands that if we are to love it, we must also love its stack. Given this, it would behoove me at this point to explain just what is meant by the idea of a stack in the first place.

A stack is just that: a stack of numbers stored in a special part of memory, used for storing transient data. Adding a number to the stack is called pushing to the stack. It always goes on top. Taking a number from the stack is called popping the stack. It’s always the top number — i.e., the most recently pushed — that’s popped, after which that number is erased from the stack. A stack is, in other words, a first-in-last-out system — or, if you like, a last-in-first-out system. If you haven’t quite wrapped your head around the idea, don’t sweat it. It should become clearer momentarily.

Let’s look at how we can do simple arithmetic in Forth. Let’s say we want to add 2 and 3 together and print the result. In a typical modern language like Java, we’d just do something like this:

System.out.print(2 + 3);

In Forth, we do it a bit differently. If you’ve started up a Forth environment, you can type this in and see the result immediately.

2 3 + .

If you happened to use a Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator back in the day, this notation might look familiar to you. It’s known as “postfix” or “reverse Polish” notation. Let’s unpack this piece by piece to see how exactly Forth is handling this expression.

The first thing to understand here is that Forth reads almost everything as a word — Forthese for a command. A number standing by itself is actually interpreted as a word, a command to push that number onto the stack. Therefore, assuming we started with an empty stack, the stack looks like this after the first two parts of the expression above have been processed:

3
2

Now the interpreter comes to the “+,” which is also read as a command, instructing it to pop two values off the stack, add them together, and push the result back onto the stack. After doing so, the stack looks like this:

5

Finally, the “.” just instructs the interpreter to pop the top value off the stack and print it.

Now let’s consider a more complicated algebraic expression, like “(4 + 5) * (6 + 7).” In Forth, it would be written like this:

4 5 + 6 7 + * .

Let’s walk through this. We push 4 and 5 onto the stack.

5
4

We pop them off, add them together, and push the result to the stack.

9

We push 6 and 7 onto the stack.

7
6
9

We add them together and push the result.

13
9

We pop the top two values on the stack, multiply them together, and push the result.

117

And finally we pop and print the result.

To this point we’ve been working interactively. The key to programming in Forth, however, is to define new words; this is Forth’s nearest equivalent to the function calls common to other languages. Let’s consider a function to cube a number, which would look like this in Java:

int cube (int num) {
   return (num * num * num);
}

In Forth, we might do it by entering the following lines at the console:

: CUBE ( N -> N. Cube a number)
   DUP DUP ( Now there are three copies)
   * * ( Get the cube)
;

Let’s again unpack this piece by piece. The colon is a word which tells the interpreter that what follows will be a new word definition, to be terminated by a semicolon. “CUBE” is the name of the new word we are creating. All text within parenthesis are comments, to be ignored by the interpreter. The “N -> N.” notation within the first parenthesis is not required, but is considered good practice in Forth programming. It tells us that this word will pop and operate on the current topmost word on the stack, and will push a single result onto the stack. Forth words do not take arguments like functions in other languages, but operate only on the current contents of the stack. Thus it’s the programmer’s responsibility to set the stack up properly before invoking a word, and to know what that word will have done to the stack when it finishes. The two lines in the middle are the meat of the word, the actual instructions it represents.

Let’s say we call this new word “CUBE” with a 5 on top of the stack — i.e., by entering “5 CUBE .” at the console. Thus the initial stack looks like this:

5

Now we’re going into the body of the word itself. The two “DUP” statements tell the interpreter to duplicate the top value on the stack twice, without destroying — i.e., without actually popping — the original value. So, we end up with:

5
5
5

Now we pop the top two values, multiply them together, and push the result.

25
5

Then we just do the same thing again.

125

And our work is done.

Next we’ll see how we can use this word within another word. But first let’s see how we would do that as a function in Java.

void cubes10() {
   for (int i = 0; i < 10; i ++) {
      System.out.print("\n");
      System.out.print(i + " ");
      System.out.print(cube(i));
   }
}

Here it is as a Forth word:

: CUBES10 ( ->. Print a table of cubes of 0-9.)
   10 0 ( Indices of loop)
   DO ( Start Loop)
      CR I . I CUBE . ( Print a number and its cube.)
   LOOP ( End of loop.)
;

As the first comment indicates, the “10CUBES” word expects nothing on the stack and leaves nothing there. We begin by pushing 10 and 0 onto the stack. Now Forth’s back-asswordness really comes to the fore: the “DO” word pops the last two words off the stack. It will increment a variable — always known as “I” — from the second of these until it is equal to the first of these, looping each time through the block of words contained between “DO” and “LOOP.” Within the loop, the word “CR” simply causes the cursor to move down to the next line. Keeping in mind that “I” represents the current value of the variable being incremented, which can be pushed and popped just like a constant, the rest should hopefully be comprehensible. The output looks something like this:

0 0
1 1
2 8
3 27
4 64
5 125
6 216
7 343
8 512
9 729

Forth is built entirely from words like the ones we’ve just created. In fact, calling Forth a programming language may be something of a misnomer because virtually every piece of its vocabulary is redefinable. Forth comes with a dictionary of common, useful words, but the programmer is always free to replace these with others of her own devising, to make Forth into whatever she wants it to be. The most basic words are not constructed from other Forth words but rather written as in-line assembly language. The programmer adds words to this base which do ever more complicated tasks, until finally she writes a word that subsumes the entire program. To take an example from Leo Brodie’s classic book Starting Forth (one of Forth’s chief products down through the decades has been horrid puns), a Forth program to control a washing machine might have this as its top-level word:

: WASHER
   WASH SPIN RINSE SPIN
;

Each of the words referenced within “WASHER” would likely call several words of their own. “RINSE,” for instance, might look like this:

: RINSE
   FAUCETS OPEN TILL-FULL FAUCETS CLOSE
;

Each of these words would call still more words of its own, until we come to the level of fundamental assembly-language commands to control the CPU on its most basic level. Forth words can even create new words dynamically, resulting in programs that effectively rewrite themselves as they run to suit their environment.

Especially if you’re a programmer yourself, you may have already formed an impression by now of Forth’s strengths and weaknesses. And yes, contrary to the claims of many Forth zealots, the latter do exist in considerable numbers. Even leaving aside the strange reverse notation, which one can eventually get used to, Forth programs can be incredibly hard to actually read thanks to their reliance on pushing and popping to the stack, with the associated lack of helpful variable names. For this reason Forth has occasionally been called a “write-only” language; Forth code can be well-nigh incomprehensible even to the person who originally wrote it after just a week or so has elapsed. It’s the polar opposite of a contemporaneous language I once wrote about on this blog, Pascal, replacing the latter’s pedantic emphasis on structure and readability above all else with a love of hackerish tricks, sleight of hand, and cleverness that can sometimes come off as sort of facile. Just trying to keep a picture in your head of the current configuration of the stack, something on which absolutely everything you do in Forth depends, can be a nightmare as programs get more complicated and their possible states get more varied. If not quite the last language in the world I’d use to write a complicated modern application, it must be pretty close to it. It’s “write-only” qualities make it particularly unsuitable for team projects, a problem given that most useful software long ago got too complicated for solo programmers.

Yet there’s also an uncompromising beauty about Forth that has drawn many people to it, a beauty that has occasionally been compelling enough to override people’s better judgment and make them use the language for purposes to which it really isn’t terribly suited. Whatever else you you can say about it, it sticks to its philosophical guns tenaciously. There’s a fascination to building a dictionary of your own, to effectively making a programming language all your own. Grizzled Forth programmers have often replaced virtually everything that comes with the language to create something that is absolutely theirs. That’s a rare experience indeed in modern programming. People who love Forth really love it. This (in Leo Brodie’s words) “high-level language,” “assembly language,” “operating system,” “set of development tools,” and “software design philosophy” has that rare ability, like my old love the Commodore Amiga, to inspire a level of visceral, emotional commitment that smacks more of romance or religion than practicality.

If we do insist on speaking practically, within certain domains Forth excels. It’s still widely used today in extremely constrained environments where every byte and every processor cycle counts, such as, well, the firmware inside a washing machine. To understand what makes Forth so efficient, we need to first understand that those more readable Java functions I showed you above must ultimately be converted into a form pretty close to that we see in the Forth versions. By making us meet the computer halfway (or further), Forth eliminates a whole lot of shuffling about that costs precious processor time. A well-written Forth program can actually be smaller than its pure assembly-language equivalent — much less the same program written in some other high-level language — because Forth so emphasizes reusable words. And it can be surprisingly easy to port Forth programs from computer to computer; one need only re-implement that bottommost layer of words in the new machine’s assembly language, and leave the rest alone.

Of course, all of these advantages that make Forth so attractive to programmers working on embedded systems and device firmware today also made it mighty appealing to programmers of ordinary PCs of the late 1970s and 1980s, working as they were under stringent restrictions of their own. For some early PCs Forth was the only language other than the ROM-housed BASIC or assembly language that made any sense at all. Stripped down to its essentials, Forth can be tiny; for example, Cognetics Corporation, a developer we met in a recent article, worked with a version of Forth that fit into just 6 K. Thus Forth enjoyed considerable popularity, with a fair number of games and other commercial software written in the language. John Draper, the legendary “Captain Crunch” who taught Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs how to phone phreak amidst myriad other hacking accomplishments, was a particular devotee, distributing a Forth development system for the Apple II which he also used to write the II’s first really usable word processor, EasyWriter. Many of the magazines ran columns or extended series on Forth, which was available, and generally in multiple versions, for virtually every remotely viable machine of the era. One British computer, the ill-fated but fascinating Jupiter Ace, even included Forth in ROM in lieu of BASIC. Tellingly, however, as the 1980s wore on and software got more complex Forth became less common amongst commercial application and game developers, even as it retained a dedicated cult of hobbyists who have persisted with the language to this day. According to Charles Moore, this was as it should be. Forth, he told Jerry Pournelle in Byte‘s March 1985 issue, had never been intended for closed-source commercial software.

Writing big programs to be distributed in object code is a distortion of what Forth is all about. Forth is like a set of craftsman’s tools. You use it to make still more tools that work with whatever you specialize in. Then you use it to solve problems. Forth programs should always be distributed in source code. You should have Forth online at all times. Recompile whenever you want to use a program. Forth programs are tailored, they’re living and dynamic, not static object code.

“Distortion” or not, the most important Forth game, and arguably the most ambitious project ever completed in the language, would appear more than a year after those remarks. I know I’ve been teasing you with it for a while, but, with all the pieces in place at last, we’ll get there next time… really, I promise.

(Probably the best place to look to get an idea of the excitement Forth once generated, as well as a very good picture of the language itself, is the August 1980 Byte, which had Forth as its main theme. My example code in this article has its origins there, as does the picture.)

 
 

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