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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Simon & Schuster’s Treks to Nowhere

Star Trek

In 1983 the powers that were at Gulf and Western Industries, owners of both Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster, decided that it was time to bring Star Trek, a property of the former, to the computer under the stewardship of the latter. To appreciate this decision and everything that would follow it, we first should step back and briefly look at what Star Trek already meant to gamers at that time.

In late 1971, just as Star Trek was enjoying the first rush of a syndicated popularity that would soon far exceed that of its years as a first-run show, Mike Mayfield was a high-school senior with a passion for computers living near Irvine, California. He’d managed to finagle access to the University of California at Irvine’s Sigma 7 minicomputer, where he occasionally had a chance to play a port of MIT’s Spacewar!, generally acknowledged as the world’s first full-fledged videogame, on one of the university’s precious few graphical terminals. Mayfield wanted to write a space warfare game of his own, but he had no chance of securing the regular graphical-terminal access he’d need to do something along the lines of Spacewar! So he decided to try something more strategic and cerebral, something that could be displayed on a text-oriented terminal. If Spacewar! foreshadowed the frenetic dogfighting action of Star Wars many years before that movie existed, his own turn-based game would be modeled on the more stately space combat of his favorite television show. With the blissful unawareness of copyright and intellectual property that marks this early era of gaming, he simply called his game Star Trek.

One of the many variants of Mike Myfield's classic Star Trek

One of the many variants of Mike Mayfield’s classic Star Trek.

A full-on Klingon invasion is underway, the Enterprise the only Federation ship capable of stopping it. You, in the role of Captain Kirk, must try to turn back the invasion by warping from sector to sector and blowing away Klingon ships. Resource management is key. Virtually everything you do — moving within or between sectors; shooting phasers or photon torpedoes; absorbing enemy fire with your shields — consumes energy, of which you have only a limited quantity. You can repair, refuel, and restock your torpedoes at any of a number of friendly starbases scattered about the sectors, but doing so consumes precious time, of which you also have a limited quantity. If you don’t destroy all of the Klingons within thirty days they’ll break out and overrun the galaxy.

Within a year of starting on the game Mayfield moved on from the Sigma 7 to a much slicker HP-2100 series machine to which he had managed to convince the folks at his local Hewlett Packard branch to give him access. He quickly ported Star Trek to HP Time-Shared BASIC, in which form, along with so many other historically important games, it spread across the country. It was discovered by David Ahl, who would soon go on to found the immensely important magazine Creative Computing. Ahl published an expanded version of the game, Super Star Trek, in 1974 as a type-in listing in one of Creative Computing‘s earliest issues. In 1977, Byte published another version, one of the few game listings ever to appear in the pages of that normally staunchly tech-oriented magazine. In 1978, Ahl republished his Super Star Trek in his book BASIC Computer Games. This collection of old standards largely drawn from the HP Time-Shared BASIC computing culture arrived at a precipitous time, just as the first wave of pre-assembled PCs were appearing in stores and catalogs. Super Star Trek was the standout entry in BASIC Computer Games, by far the longest program listing as well as the most complex, replayable, and interesting game to be found within its pages.

On the strength of this, the first million-selling computer book in history, Star Trek spread even more widely and wildly across the little machines than it had the big. IBM even included it with the original IBM PC, as one of the BASIC demonstration programs that accompanied every system. From here the history of Star Trek the computer game gets truly bewildering, with hundreds of variants on Mayfield’s basic template running on dozens of systems. Some added to the invading Klingon hordes Star Trek‘s other all-purpose villains the Romulans, complete with their trademark cloaking devices; some added graphics and/or sound; some added the personalities of Spock, McCoy, Scott, and the rest reporting developments in-character. And the variations continually one-uped one another with ever more elaborate weapon and damage modeling. In 1983 a small company who called themselves Cygnus (later renamed to Interstel) reworked and expanded the concept into a commercial game called Star Fleet I: The War Begins! to considerable success. In this version the serial numbers were to some extent filed off for obvious reasons, but Cygnus didn’t really make the most concerted of efforts to hide their game’s origins. Klingons, for instance, simply became “Krellans,” while their more creatively named allies the “Zaldrons” have, you guessed it, cloaking devices.

This, then, was the situation when Simon & Schuster secured a mandate in 1983 to get into home computers, and to bring Star Trek along for the ride. Star Trek in general was now a hugely revitalized property in comparison to the bunch of orphaned old syndicated reruns that Mayfield had known back in 1971. There were now two successful films to the franchise’s credit and a third well into production, as well as a new line of paperback novels on Simon & Schuster’s own Pocket Books imprint regularly cracking bestseller lists. There was a popular new stand-up arcade game, Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. And there was a successful tactical board game of spaceship combat, and an even more successful full-fledged tabletop RPG. There was even a space shuttle — albeit one which would never actually fly into space — sporting the name Enterprise. And of course Star Trek was all over computers in the form of ports of Strategic Operations Simulator as well as, and more importantly, Mike Mayfield’s unlicensed namesake game and its many variants, of which Paramount was actually quite remarkably tolerant. To my knowledge no one was ever sued over one of these games, and when David Ahl had asked for permission to include Super Star Trek in BASIC Computer Games Paramount had cheerfully agreed without asking for anything other than some legal fine print at the bottom of the page. Still, it’s not hard to understand why Paramount felt it was time for an official born-on-a-home-computer Star Trek game. Even leaving aside the obvious financial incentives, both Strategic Operations Simulator and Mayfield’s Star Trek and all of its successors were in a sense very un-Star Trek sorts of Star Trek games. They offered no exploring of strange new worlds, no seeking out of new life and new civilizations. No, these were straight-up war games, exactly the scenario that Star Trek‘s television writers had had to be careful not to let the series devolve into. Those writers had often discussed the fact that if any of the Enterprise‘s occasional run-ins with the Romulans or the Klingons ever resulted in open, generalized hostilities, Star Trek as a whole would have to become a very different sort of show, a tale of war in space rather than a five-year mission of peaceful (for the most part) exploration. Star Trek the television show would have had to become, in other words, like Star Trek the computer game.

But now, at last, Simon & Schuster had the mandate to move in the other direction, to create a game more consonant with what the show had been. In that spirit they secured the services of Diane Duane, an up-and-coming science-fiction and fantasy writer who had two Star Trek novels already in Pocket’s publication pipeline, to write a script for a Star Trek adventure game. Duane began making notes for an idea that riffed on the supposedly no-win Kobayashi Maru training scenario that had been memorably introduced at the beginning of the movie Star Trek II. The game’s fiction would have you participating in an alternative, hopefully more winnable test being considered as a replacement. Thus you would literally be playing The Kobayashi Alternative, the goal of which would be to find Mr. Sulu (Star Trek: The Search for Sulu?), now elevated to command of the USS Heinlein, who has disappeared along with his ship in a relatively unexplored sector of the galaxy.

Simon & Schuster’s first choice to implement this idea was the current darling of the industry, Infocom. As we’ve already learned in another article, Simon & Schuster spent a year earnestly trying to buy Infocom outright beginning in late 1983, dangling before their board the chance to work with a list of properties headed by Star Trek. An Infocom-helmed Star Trek adventure, written by Diane Duane, is today tempting ground indeed for dreams and speculation. However, that’s all it would become. Al Vezza and the rest of Infocom’s management stalled and dithered and ultimately rejected the Simon & Schuster bid for fear of losing creative control and, most significantly, because Simon & Schuster was utterly disinterested in Infocom’s aspirations to become a major developer of business software. As Infocom continued to drag their feet, Simon & Schuster made the fateful decision to take more direct control of Duane’s adventure game, publishing it under their own new “Computer Software Division” imprint.

Star Trek: The Kobayashi Alternative

Development of The Kobayashi Alternative was turned over to a new company called Micromosaics, founded by a veteran of the Children’s Television Workshop named Lary Rosenblatt to be a sort of full-service experience architect for the home-computer revolution, developing not only software but also the packaging, the manuals, and sometimes even the advertising that accompanied it; their staff included at least as many graphic designers as programmers. The packaging they came up with for The Kobayashi Alternative was indeed a stand-out even in this era of oft-grandiose packaging. Its centerpiece was a glossy full-color faux-Star Fleet briefing manual full of background information about the Enterprise and its crew and enough original art to set any Trekkie’s heart aflutter (one of these pictures, the first in this article, I cheerfully stole out of, er, a selfless conviction that it deserves to be seen). Sadly, the packaging also promised light years more than the actual contents of the disk delivered.

This alleged screenshot from the back of The Kobayashi Alternative's box is one of the most blatant instances of false advertising in gaming of the 1980s.

This alleged screenshot from the back of The Kobayashi Alternative‘s box is one of the most blatant instances of false advertising of 1980s gaming.

What the game actually looks like...

What the game actually looks like…

Whatever else you can say about it, you can’t say that The Kobayashi Alternative played it safe. Easily dismissed at a glance as just another text adventure, it’s actually a bizarrely original mutant creation, not quite like any other game I’ve ever seen. Everything that you as Captain Kirk can actually do yourself — “give,” “take,” “use,” “shoot,” etc. — you accomplish not through the parser but by tapping function-key combinations. You move about the Enterprise or planetside using the arrow keys. The parser, meanwhile, is literally your mouth; those things you type are things that you say aloud. This being Star Trek and you being Captain Kirk, that generally means orders that you issue to the rest of your familiar crew. And then, not satisfied with giving you just an adventure game with a very odd interface, Micromosaics also tried to build in a full simulation of the Enterprise for you to logistically manage and command in combat. Oh, and the whole thing is running in real time. If ever a game justified use of the “reach exceeded its grasp” reviewer’s cliché, it’s this one. The Kobayashi Alternative is unplayable. No one at Microsmosaics had any real practical experience making computer games, and it shows.

A strange new world with a notable lack of new life and new civilizations

A strange new world with a notable lack of new life and new civilizations

The Kobayashi Alternative is yet another contender for the title of emptiest adventure game ever. In fact, it takes that crown handily from the likes of Level 9’s Snowball and Electronic Arts’s Amnesia. In lieu of discrete, unique locations, each of the ten planets you can beam down to consists of a vast X-Y grid of numerical coordinates to dully trudge across looking for the two or three places that actually contain something of interest. Sometimes you get clues in the form of coordinates to visit, but at other times the game seems to expect you to just lawnmower through hundreds of locations until you find something. The Enterprise, all 23 decks of it, is implemented in a similar lack of detail. It turns out that all those empty, anonymous corridors we were always seeing in the television show really were almost all there was to the ship. When you do find something or somebody, the parser is so limited that you never have any confidence in the conversations that result. Some versions of the game, for instance, don’t even understand the word “Sulu,” making the most natural question to ask anyone you meet — “Where is Sulu?” — a nonstarter. And then there are the bugs. Crewmen — but not you — can beam down to poisonous planets in their shirt sleeves and remain unharmed; when walking east on planets the program fails to warn you about dangerous terrain ahead, meaning you can tumble into a lake of liquid nitrogen without ever being told about it; crewmen inexplicably root themselves to the ground planetside, refusing to follow you no matter how you push or cajole or even start shooting at them with your phaser.

Following The Kobayashi Alternative‘s 1985 release, gamers, downright desperate as they were to play in this beloved universe, proved remarkably patient, while Simon & Schuster also seemed admirably determined to stay the course. Some six months after the initial release they published a revised version that, they claimed, fixed all of the bugs. The other, more deep-rooted design problems they tried to ret-con with a revised manual, which rather passive-aggressively announced that “The Kobayashi Alternative differs in several important ways from other interactive text simulations that you may have used,” including being “completely open-ended.” (Don’t cry to us if this doesn’t play like one of Infocom’s!) The parser problems were neatly sidestepped by printing every single phrase the parser could understand in the manual. And the most obvious major design flaw was similarly addressed by simply printing a list of all the important coordinates on all of the planets in the manual.

Interest in the game remained so high that Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, one of the premier fan voices in adventure gaming, printed a second multi-page review of the revised version to join her original, a level of commitment I don’t believe she ever showed to any other game. Alas, even after giving it the benefit of every doubt she couldn’t say the second version was any better than the original. It was actually worse: in fixing some bugs, Micromosaics introduced many others, including one that stole critical items silently from your inventory and made the game as unsolvable as the no-win scenario that provided its name. Micromosaics and Simon & Schuster couldn’t seem to get anything right; even some of the planet coordinates printed in the revised manual were wrong, sending you beaming down into the middle of a helium sea. Thus Scorpia’s second review was, like the first, largely a list of deadly bugs and ways to work around them. The whole sad chronicle adds up to the most hideously botched major adventure-game release of the 1980s, a betrayal of consumer trust worthy of a law suit. This software thing wasn’t turning out to be quite as easy as Simon & Schuster had thought it would be.

While The Kobayashi Alternative stands today as perhaps the most interesting of Simon & Schuster’s Star Trek games thanks to its soaring ambitions and how comprehensively it fails to achieve any of them, it was far from the last of its line. Understandably disenchanted with Micromosaics but determined to keep plugging away at Star Trek gaming, Simon & Schuster turned to another new company to create their second Star Trek adventure: TRANS Fiction Systems.

The story of TRANS Fiction begins with Ron Martinez, who had previously written a couple of Choose Your Own Adventure-style children’s gamebooks for publisher Byron Preiss, then had written the script for Telarium’s computerized adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama. Uninspiring as the finished result of that project was, it awakened a passion to dive deeper and do more with interactive fiction than Telarium’s limited technology would allow. Martinez:

If this was really an art form — like film, for example — you’d really want to know how to create the entire work. In film, you’d want to understand how to work a camera, how to shoot, how to edit, how to really make the finished product. For me, as a writer, I understood that I had to know how to program.

Like just about everybody else, I worshiped the Infocom work, was just amazed by it. So, my goal was to do two things simultaneously:

1. Learn how to program, so that I could —

2. Build an interactive-fiction system that was as good or better than Infocom’s.

Working with a more experienced programmer named Bill Herdle, Martinez did indeed devise his own interactive-fiction development system using a programming language we seem to be meeting an awful lot lately: Forth. Martinez, Herdle, and Jim Gasperini, another writerly alum of Byron Preiss, founded TRANS Fiction to deploy their system. They sincerely believed in interactive fiction as an art form, and were arrogant enough to believe themselves unusually qualified to realize its potential.

We started as writers and then learned the programming. Of other companies, we used to say that the people who built the stage are writing the plays. We used to look down our nose at people who were technical but had no sense of what story was all about attempting to use this medium which we thought would redefine fiction — we really believed that. Instead of having people who were technical trying to write stories, we thought it really had to come the other way, so the technology is in the service of the story and the characters and the richness of the world.

Thanks to their connections in the world of book publishing and their New York City location, TRANS Fiction was soon able to secure a contract to do the next Simon & Schuster Star Trek game. It wasn’t perhaps a dream project for a group of people with their artistic aspirations, but they needed to pay the bills. Thus, instead of things like the interactive version of William Burroughs’s novel Nova Express that Martinez fruitlessly pursued with Electronic Arts, TRANS Fiction did lots of work with less rarefied properties, like the Make Your Own Murder Party generator they did for EA and, yes, Star Trek.

I can tell you that it wasn’t with great joy that we were working with these properties. There’s something soulless about working with a big property owned by a conglomerate. Even though we might love Spock, it was still a property, and there were brand police, who had to review everything that Spock might say or do. We would extend the world and try to introduce new aspects of the history of these characters, but they’d have to sign off on it.

Given Martinez’s attitude as well as that set of restrictions, it’s not terribly shocking that TRANS Fiction’s first Star Trek game, The Promenthean Prophecy, is not all that terribly inspired or inspiring. Nor is its parser or game engine quite “as good as,” much less “better than,” Infocom’s. A much more conventional — perhaps too conventional — text adventure than its crazy predecessor, its status as the most enjoyable of all the Simon & Schuster-era Treks has more to do with the weaknesses of its peers than its own intrinsic strengths.

Star Trek: The Promethean Prophecy. We're back on much more conventional text-adventure territory here...

Star Trek: The Promethean Prophecy

The Promethean Prophecy doesn’t try to be a starship simulator to anywhere near the same degree as its predecessor. While it does open with a space battle, said battle is largely an exercise in puzzle solving, in figuring out the next command that will drive the hard-wired plot forward and not get you killed, rather than a real tactical simulation. After that sequence, you beam down to Prometheus, the only planet in the game, and start on a fairly standard “figure out this alien culture” puzzle-driven text adventure which, other than having Kirk, Spock, and company as its stars, doesn’t feel all that notably Star Trek-like at all. What with its linear and heavily plotted opening followed by a non-linear body to be explored at your own pace, it reminded me more than anything of Infocom’s Starcross. This impression even extends to the puzzles themselves, which like those of Starcross often involve exchanging items with and otherwise manipulating the strange aliens you meet. And yet again like in Starcross, there is no possibility of having real conversations with them. Unfortunately, coming as it did four years after Starcross, The Promethean Prophecy is neither as notable in the context of history nor quite as clever and memorable on its own term as a game. From its parser to its writing to its puzzles it’s best described as “competent” — a description which admittedly puts it head and shoulders above many of Infocom’s competitors and its own predecessor. The best of this era of Star Trek games, it’s also the one that feels the least like Star Trek.

Still, The Promethean Prophecy did have the virtue of being relatively bug free, a virtue that speaks more to the diligence of TRANS Fiction than Simon & Schuster; as Martinez later put it, “Nobody at Simon & Schuster really understood how we were doing any of it.” It was greeted with cautiously positive reviews and presumably sold a reasonable number of copies on the strength of the Star Trek name alone, but it hardly set the industry on fire. An all-text game of any stripe was becoming quite a hard sell indeed by the time of its late 1986 release.

After The Promethean Prophecy Simon & Schuster continued to doggedly release new Star Trek games, a motley assortment that ranged from problematic to downright bad. For 1987’s The Rebel Universe, they enlisted the services of our old friend Mike Singleton, who, departing even more from The Promethean Prophecy than that game had from its predecessor, tried to create a grand strategy game, a sort of Lords of Midnight in space. It was full of interesting ideas, but rushed to release in an incomplete and fatally unbalanced state. For 1988’s First Contact (no relation to the 1996 movie), they — incredibly — went back to Micromosaics, who simplified and retrofitted onto the old Kobayashi Alternative engine the ability to display the occasional interstitial graphic. Unfortunately, they also overcompensated for the overwhelming universe of their first game by making First Contact far too trivial. The following year’s adaptation of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, oddly released through Mindscape rather than using Simon & Schuster’s own imprint, and 1990’s The Transinium Challenge, another product of TRANS Fiction and the first game to feature the cast of The Next Generation, were little more than interactive slide shows most notable for their heavy use of digitized images from the actual shows at a time when seeing real photographs of reasonable fidelity on a computer screen was still a fairly amazing thing.

It was all disappointing enough that by the beginning of the 1990s fans had begun to mumble about a Star Trek gaming curse. And indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of the handling of the franchise during this period. Gifted with easily one of the five most beloved properties on the planet amongst the computer-gaming demographic, Simon & Schuster refused to either turn it over to an experienced software publisher who would know what to do with it — virtually any of them would have paid a hell of a lot of money to have a crack at it — or to get really serious and pay a top-flight developer to create a really top-flight game. Instead they took the pointless middle route, tossing off a stream of rushed efforts from second-tier developers that managed to be unappealing enough to be sales disappointments despite the huge popularity of the name on their boxes, while other games made without a license — notably Starflight — proved much more successful at evoking the sense of wonder that always characterized Star Trek at its best. It wouldn’t be until 1992 that Star Trek would finally come to computers in a satisfying form that actually felt like Star Trek — but that’s a story for another day.

For today, I encourage you to have a look at one or more of the variants of Mike Mayfield’s original Star Trek game. Eric Friedrichsen’s JavaScript port, for instance, is one of a number of very good versions that you can play right in your browser. One of the first really compelling strategy games to appear on computers and, when taking into account all of its versions and variations, very likely the single most popular computer game on PCs during that Paleolithic era of about 1978 to 1981, it’s still capable of stealing a few hours of your time today. It’s also, needless to say, far more compelling than any commercial Star Trek released prior to 1992. Still, completionism demands that I also make available The Kobayashi Alternative and The Promethean Prophecy in their Commodore 64 incarnations for those of you who want to give them a go as well. They aren’t the worst adventures in the world… no, I take that back. The Kobayashi Alternative kind of is. Maybe it’s worth a look for that reason alone.

(The history of Mike Mayfield’s Star Trek has been covered much more thoroughly than I have here by other modern digital historians. See, for instance, Games of Fame and Pete Turnbull’s page on the game among many others. Most of my information on Simon & Schuster and TRANS Fiction was drawn from Jason Scott’s interview with Martinez for Get Lamp; thanks again for sharing, Jason! Scorpia’s review and re-review of The Kobayashi Alternative appeared in Computer Gaming World‘s March 1986 and August 1986 issues respectively.

For an excellent perspective on how Star Trek‘s writers saw the show as well as the state of Star Trek around the time that Mayfield first wrote his game, see David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek. Apart from its value as a research source, it’s also a very special book to me, the first real work of criticism that I ever read as a kid. It taught me that you could love something while still acknowledging and even dissecting its flaws. I’m not as enchanted with Star Trek now as I was at the Science Fiction Golden Age of twelve, but Gerrold’s book has stuck with me to become an influence on the work I do here today. I was really happy recently to see it come back into “print” as an e-book.)

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Accolade, Artech, and Killed Until Dead

Accolade

At the end of 1984 Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, two of the members of Atari’s Fantastic Four who had founded Activision along with Jim Levy, split away from the latter company to form yet another, Accolade. I must admit that their publicly stated reasons for doing so strike me as a bit difficult to understand. In a fairly recent article in Retro Gamer magazine, the two say that Activision was “too entrenched in its console roots” for their tastes, an odd claim to make considering that Activision 2.0 had just had a huge hit on computers with Ghostbusters and that virtually all new development was focused in that direction. In another interview, Miller states he was “puzzled why Activision couldn’t make a profit,” which may point to concerns with Levy’s management. Or the whole thing may have come down to personal conflicts that everyone is too diplomatic to discuss. Regardless, Miller and Whitehead made the bold decision to start their own company at a seemingly terrible time, just as established publisher after established publisher was dying. With no one in the financial sector willing to touch home-computer software with the proverbial ten-foot pole, they financed the venture entirely by themselves, drawing on their savings from the glory days of Activision 1.0, when the games they had created for the Atari VCS had sold in the hundreds of thousands or millions, with royalty checks to match. With Larry Kaplan having been lured back to Atari in 1982, their departure left only David Crane and Jim Levy at Activision from among the founders. In two or three more years they too would be gone.

Tellingly, Miller and Whitehead’s first creative hire was not a programmer or designer but rather Mimi Doggett, a talented graphic artist who had spent more than four years with Atari. She would help Accolade walk a fine line between innovation and commercial appeal with markedly more success than Activision 2.0 would manage over the next several years. Accolade excelled at finding subject matter that was unexplored or done only badly by other games, but which nevertheless had plenty of potential mass appeal; they had none of Activision 2.0’s more avant-garde tendencies. They implemented gameplay around their fictional conceits that was always fast-paced, accessible, and not too time consuming if you didn’t want it to be, but that also always allowed for at least a modicum of depth — Trip Hawkins’s old formulation of “simple, hot, and deep” writ larger than Electronic Arts themselves often managed. Miller:

Games should be worn by the user without feeling like they’re wearing them. They should be intuitively obvious to use, and as transparent as possible to the user. The user should feel that they’re in an experience.

The cherry on top was graphics that were often technically spectacular, especially on Accolade’s bread-and-butter platform the Commodore 64 (this despite Accolade being located almost next door to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino), but which also sported an unusually refined aesthetic sensibility thanks to Doggett. The same sensibility extended to the packaging, which would be shortlisted for a Clio Award in 1987. Accolade’s early output evinces none of the fit-and-finish problems that so often plagued Activision 2.0, being uniformly polished to a mirror shine. They were rewarded with a stellar reputation among Commodore owners in particular; a new Accolade game was guaranteed to sell — and, of course, to be widely pirated — based simply on the name on the box.

Law of the West

Law of the West

Accolade’s two 1985 launch titles, one designed and programmed by each of the founders with the invaluable assistance of Doggett, were already fine examples of the approach that would come to define the company. Miller’s Law of the West is built on a fictional genre that, Scott Adams’s Ghost Town and a few other text adventures aside, had as yet been largely unexplored in gaming: the cowboy western. As a new sheriff in town, you wander the streets talking with the citizens and solving problems, sometimes just with conversation, sometimes with your trusty six-shooter. The additional layer of strategy and narrative texture afforded by the conversations would prove to be typical of Accolade games to come, which were almost never just simple action games. Whitehead’s Hardball, meanwhile, was a wonderfully attractive and playable action-oriented baseball game, a sport which had previously been explored only badly or through dry statistics-based simulations like SSI’s Computer Baseball.

Hardball

Hardball

As soon as Accolade established themselves with Law of the West and Hardball, both of which became big hits and made the company profitable in rather astonishingly short order, they began seeking outside developers with a similar sensibility whose work they could publish to supplement their in-house games. One of the first and most long-lived of these relationships would be the one with the tiny Ottawa-based house Artech.

Founded in 1981 by Rick Banks and Paul Butler, Artech already had a considerable resume to their credit before partnering with Accolade. The company had been born as a developer of games for the NABU Network, an early effort to deliver computer content through Ottawa’s cable-television lines that’s been billed — sometimes slightly overbilled in my opinion, but that’s as may be — as “the Internet, ten years ahead of its time.” Artech’s secret weapon, acquired soon after the deal with NABU, was Michael Bate, a colorful self-proclaimed “ideas man” with a degree in music who had already worked as a journalist, a radio producer, a pedal-steel player in a country band, and a railroad brakeman. He personally designed most of the NABU games, which were then programmed largely by Banks and Butler.

One of Artech’s most popular games for NABU featured B.C., the lead character of the long-running newspaper comic strip of the same name. Artech’s work for NABU got them noticed by Sydney Development Corporation, a Vancouver-based company with fingers in lots of computer-industry pies, from project management to retail stores, that now dreamed of becoming Canada’s first major home-computer software developer. Sydney scooped Artech up to become their “Video Games/Educational Software Division” in the spring of 1983.  The first game the team made for Sydney once again featured B.C. Published by Sierra for most viable home computers of the era as well as the ColecoVision console, B.C.’s Quest for Tires became a big hit not only in Canada but also in the United States and Europe. (Our old friend Chuck Benton of Softporn fame would do some of the ports.)

B.C.'s Quest for Tires

B.C.’s Quest for Tires

Within a year or two Bate would declare he wasn’t “overly proud” of B.C.’s Quest for Tires, produced as it was quickly under the stipulations of a licensing agreement. Luckily, the parent company in Vancouver largely stepped back after that and gave the little group in Ottawa remarkable freedom to make whatever games they wanted to make. Sydney’s management had enough problems of their own, finding themselves caught in an economic downward spiral as the home-computer industry crashed and reams of overambitious plans fell through. This left the games division as the only division of the company actually making money. By 1987 the group that had once been Artech would become Artech once more, managing to extricate themselves from the grip of their dying parent and become an independent company once again; this second Artech incarnation would last until 2011.

Ace of Aces, Artech and Accolades biggest Commodore 64 hit of all.

Ace of Aces, Artech and Accolade’s biggest Commodore 64 hit of all

Meanwhile, and under whatever name, there were games to be made. The once and future Artech really came into their own with a pair of World War II air-combat games, Dam Busters (1985) and Ace of Aces (1986), that were amongst the first outside productions to be published by Accolade. They fit perfectly with the general Accolade aesthetic, being very accessible and audiovisually impressive games that recreated unusual crannies of every gamer’s favorite war that set them a little apart. Dam Busters put the player in charge not of the typical B-17 but rather of an RAF Lancaster night bomber trying to destroy a German dam using one of Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bombs.” Ace of Aces, meanwhile, put her behind the controls not of the usual P-51 or P-38 but of a Mosquito fighter-bomber. Uninterested in the technical minutiae of flight and military hardware that enthralled companies like subLOGIC and MicroProse, Bate nevertheless did extensive research to create “aesthetic simulations of historical events,” what he called “docu-games” that tried to capture the spirit of their subjects, like a good movie; Dam Busters was in fact directly inspired by the 1955 classic of the same name. Artech and Accolade were amply rewarded for their efforts: Ace of Aces alone sold over 500,000 copies between North America and Europe during its commercial lifetime. Given numbers like that, later efforts from Artech like Apollo 18 and The Train, both released in 1987, understandably continued in largely the same vein. The latter, a crazy chase across Nazi-occupied France, is in the reckoning of many Artech’s 8-bit masterpiece. It really does play like a great old-school war flick — appropriately so, since it was loosely based on a 1964 Burt Lancaster vehicle.

Killed Until Dead

If The Train is Artech’s predictable masterpiece, the ultimate expression of their established approach, 1986’s Killed Until Dead, whose design is credited jointly to Michael Bate and Rick Banks, is their wonderfully unique outlier. It’s very unusual indeed as both an Accolade and an Artech production in that it has no action elements at all. While, as Paul Butler once joked, Artech’s usual target demographic was “teenage boys, ages 12 to 45,” Killed Until Dead feels pointed in a different direction. The 21 snack-sized mysteries it offers all take place at a meeting of the Murder Club, a stand-in for the Detection Club that created The Scoop. Its five members are each (fictional) established mystery writers, modeled on various famous figures in the fictional and nonfictional history of murder: Mike Stammer (Mickey Spillane’s detective Mike Hammer), Agatha Maypole (a hybrid of Agatha Christie and her sleuth Miss Marple), Lord Peter Flimsey (Dorothy L Sayers’s detective Lord Peter Wimsey), Sydney Meanstreet (a hybrid of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and actor Sydney Greenstreet, who played him on the radio), and Claudia von Bulow (a feminine version of accused murderer Claus von Bülow). Your own detective is Hercule Holmes, a name whose antecedents I trust need no explanation.

There's room for some satire of the industry's then-recent tribulations.

There’s room for some satire of the industry’s then-recent tribulations.

To add an interesting twist to the usual proceedings, you aren’t trying to solve a murder here but rather to prevent one Murder Club member from killing another; who the potential killer and victim will be will of course vary from episode to episode. The deeply creepy means you use to accomplish this is a spying setup to die for. You’ve not only bugged the writers’ rooms as well as other areas of the mansion at which they’re staying for both video and audio, but you’ve also got a master key that lets you get into their rooms when they’re out. The twelve hours of game time you have to solve each mystery takes about thirty minutes of real time; once you start a mystery, the clock is always ticking. As you quickly discover after settling in with your first mystery or two, each episode follows a fairly predictable pattern. First you break into all of the suspects’ rooms to see what they’re up to. This should reveal some information about various planned liasons, which you’ll want to view live and/or record; in the later, more difficult mysteries in particular, there will often be two meetings taking place at the same time, making your ability to record one while you view another essential. Next you’ll want to call some or all of the suspects on the telephone to see what you can shake loose; they’ll also call you from time to time to further their own agendas, whether by offering useful tips or trying to put you off the scent (such misleading information can be as useful as any other if you can read between the lines). Finally, with all of the information you’ve compiled from all of the above, plus each suspect’s background dossier, you should be able to deduce murderer, victim, weapon, and motive and stop the crime by calling the murderer up and accusing her before the clock strikes midnight and she does the deed — and does you in for good measure (you can’t really blame her for that considering the spying you’ve been up to).

The NSA can only dream of a setup like this one. And if you don't get the reference to "Wild Bill," well, keep reading this blog. We'll get there soon enough.

The NSA can only dream of a setup like this one. And if you don’t get the reference to “Wild Bill,” well, keep reading this blog. We’ll get there soon enough.

Killed Until Dead is steeped in the heritage of mystery, murder, and cozy mayhem, the whole game an extended, meta-textual love letter to its genre that crime-fiction aficionados will sink into like a warm blanket. Its most controversial design choice then and now is the mechanism for forcing your way into each suspect’s room: you have to answer a multiple-choice trivia question about the gloriously macabre history of murder on page, screen, and sometimes even real life. Certainly such a requiring of outside knowledge is a questionable choice by most modern standards of design. For all that, though, I wouldn’t want to lose the questions; they just give this loving homage of a game that much more opportunity to spread the love. Nowadays if you don’t know the name of Sam Spade’s partner (Miles Archer) or what Hitchcock used to fake the blood in Psycho‘s shower scene (it was chocolate syrup; luckily he was shooting in black and white), well, that sort of thing is only a Google search away. (Admittedly, the rabbit holes your searches lead you down may end up consuming more time than the cases themselves.) Or just make your best guess, and come back again in thirty minutes (game time) if you’re wrong; there’s enough time to spare that you’ll probably be okay.

The unforgettable Agatha Maypole

The unforgettable Agatha Maypole

Indeed, none of the cases, not even those of “Super Sleuth” level, are really all that difficult. When Dorte and I played we failed to solve one or two early on when we were just getting the hang of things, but once we understood the pattern of play we solved every case with relative ease. And on the whole I think that’s fine; I believe it’s far, far better for a game like this one to be too easy than too hard. There are obvious similarities here to other short-form mystery games that use the same setting, cast of characters, and props over and over again in the service of different cases, like Murder on the Zinderneuf or for that matter Cluedo. But what separates Killed Until Dead from the likes of “Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick” is Artech’s decision not to try to randomly generate the individual permutations. Each case is carefully, lovingly, handcrafted, with gobs of wit and charm; Dorte liked Miss Maypole so much that she’d just start giggling every time the fussy old bat would enter the picture. The best decision Artech made for Killed Until Dead was the one to spend lots of time designing the 21 bespoke cases rather than wrestling with a random case generator that would almost inevitably disappoint. The disadvantage of their approach is of course that it makes Killed Until Dead a very finite experience; once you’ve played the 21 cases there’s nothing else to be done. This was a bigger concern in 1986, when games were expensive, and, especially for many younger players without the financial wherewithal to buy them very often, needed to last a long, long time. Nowadays it’s really no concern at all. By my lights, this game has just about the perfect amount of content, ending just when the all of the potential has been pretty much wrung out of its repeating stage, actors, and props.

Killed Until Dead is a little delight of a game that I highly recommend. It offers attractive graphics and that level of refined, casual playability that had already by 1986 become such a trademark of Accolade. And it offers that little something extra, love for its chosen genre. In fact, I realize now that I’ve used some variation of the word “love” several times in describing Killed Until Dead. Love for a topic combined with a sense of fair play and a willingness to polish, polish, polish will take a game designer a long way. Feel free to download it and load it up in your favorite Commodore 64 emulator. (A tip for users of VICE: turn off “True Drive Emulation” to make the normally unbearable Commodore loading times barely noticeable.) It makes for a great way to spend a few cozy winter evenings.

(Print sources for this article include the November 1986 and October 1987, Computer Gaming World, the November 1985 Family Computing, the August 1985 Zzap!, the November 1985 Sinclair User, Retro Gamer 50, the Arcade Express dated May 8 1983, and the Ottawa Citizen from May 31 1982, August 28 1982, September 20 1983, and September 29 1983, and February 15 2007. More information on NABU can be found at IEEE Canada and York University.)

 
 

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Bookware’s Sunset

(I was never happy with this article in its original form, so I’ve added coverage of The Scoop to that of Breakers and moved it to here in the blog’s chronology, where I feel it makes a better fit. Don’t worry, Nate, I’ve preserved your comments. Patreon subscribers: you of course won’t be charged for this one.)

As we push now into 1986 in this blog’s chronology, we’re moving into an era of retrenchment but also of relative stability, as the battered survivors of the home-computer boom and bust come to realize that, if they’re unlikely (at least in the short term) to revolutionize mainstream art and entertainment in the way they had expected, home computers and the games a relatively small proportion of the population enjoy playing on them are also not going to go away. A modest but profitable computer-games industry still remained following the exit of the pundits, would-be visionaries, and venture capitalists, one that would neither grow nor shrink notably for the rest of the decade. No longer fixated on changing the world, developers — even the would-be rock stars at Electronic Arts — just focused on making fun games again for a core audience that loved Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and Star Trek, and ships and airplanes with lots of guns on them. While publishers would continue to take a chance on more outré titles than you might expect, much that didn’t fit with this core demographic that stuck with gaming after the hype died began now to get discarded.

Amongst the victims of this more conservative approach were bookware and the associated dreams for a new era of interactive popular fiction. Bookware had, to say the least, failed to live up to the hype; the number of commercially successful bookware titles from companies not named Infocom could be counted on one hand and likely still leave plenty of fingers free. Small wonder, as the games themselves were, if often audacious and interesting in conception, usually deeply flawed in execution, done in by a poor grasp of design fundamentals, poor parsers and game engines, rushed development, and an associated tendency to undervalue the importance of playtesting and polishing for any interactive work. One could say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Infocom was the only company of the 1980s that knew how to consistently put out playable, enjoyable, fair text adventures — meaning I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy in the years I’ve been writing this blog merely confirming this conventional wisdom, but so be it.

Thus bookware faded quietly away, done in both by gamers who were not terribly invested in games as literature and its own consistently inconsistent  quality control. Whether better works could have brought the former around, or found a new audience entirely, remains a somewhat open question. But as it was, one by one the bookware lines came to an end. Bantam’s Living Literature line stopped after just two titles; the Mindscape/Angelsoft line made it all the way to eight; other publishers like Activision, Epyx, and Electronic Arts abandoned the genre after one or two experiments failed to bear commercial fruit. And the most notable of all the bookware lines and certainly the ones we’ve spent the most time with, the Brøderbund/Synapse Electronic Novels and the Telarium games, were also not long for this world.

Breakers

Breakers, written by a friend of the Synapse boys named Rod Smith, was the fourth and last of the Electronic Novels to be released. It’s also the largest, most complex, and most difficult — albeit mostly not in a good way. Breakers places you aboard a ramshackle space station in orbit around a planet called, I kid you not, Borg, proof that there’s a limited supply of foreboding names in the universe. It’s somewhat unusual as both science fiction and interactive fiction in being told from the point of view of an alien who’s not just your typical Star Trek-style human with different skin pigmentation or unusually formed ears. The Lau, the race to which you belong, are residents of Borg whose culture is mystical rather than technological, who communicate via telepathy. They’re now being punished for their disinterest in warfare by being rounded up and sold off as exotic slaves to customers all over the galaxy by many of the unsavory characters who inhabit the station. Meanwhile a cosmic apocalypse is in the offing which only the Lau can prevent by assembling four elements and performing a ritual. By happenstance, you’ve ended up loose on the station. You must assemble the elements to save your race and avert the catastrophe; even a text adventure that fancies itself an electronic novel often winds up a treasure hunt.

That said, the Electronic Novels seldom lacked for literary ambition, and Breakers is no exception. Smith does a pretty good job of showing the crazy cast-offs, pirates, and rogues — some with the proverbial hearts of gold, most responding to overtures only with laser blasts — from the standpoint of an apparently asexual and very alien alien. If not quite up to the standard of Lynnea Glasser’s recent, lovely interactive fiction Coloratura, it is interesting to view Breakers‘s stock-science-fiction tropes from this other, exotic point of view. The opening scene in a seedy bar filled with thumping music and humans and aliens of every description is unexpectedly compelling when viewed from the perspective of this protagonist despite being thoroughly derivative of a certain 1977 blockbuster.

All sorts of issues of technology and fundamental design, however, cut against the prospect of enjoying this world. The opening section of the game, inside that seedy bar, is so baffling that a magazine like Questbusters, one of the few with enough remaining interest in the Electronic Novel line to write about Breakers at all, dispensed with any semblance of graduated hints and just printed a walkthrough of the opening sequence — one that, tellingly, appears to rely on a bug, or at least a complete plotting non sequitur, to see it through. Smith had wanted to make Breakers rely heavily upon character interaction, a noble if daunting goal. In practice and in light of the problematic Synapse parser, however, that just leads to a series of impossible dialog puzzles that require you to say the exact right sequence of things to get anywhere. While the plot is unusually intricate, it’s essentially — if as-advertised in light of the “Electronic Novel” label — a novel’s plot, a series of linear hoops that require you to just slavishly recreate a series of dramatic beats, even when doing so requires that you deliberately get yourself captured and beat up. But, unlike in most linear games, you never know what the game expects next from you, leading to an infuriating exercise not so much in saving Borg as in figuring out what Smith wants to have happen next and how you can force it to take place.

Breakers was released by Brøderbund in a much smaller, much less lavish package than its predecessor, complete with cheesy art that looked cut out of an Ed Wood production. The Synapse name, which studio Brøderbund was now is in the process of winding down as an altogether disappointing acquisition, is entirely absent from the package, as is even the old “Electronic Novel” franchise name, although it remains all over the manual from which it would presumably have been harder to excise. The game is now just a “text adventure” again, a circle closed in ironic and very telling fashion.

So, Breakers would mark the end of the line for this interesting but frustrating collection. Reports from former Synapse insiders have it that a fifth Electronic Novel, a samurai adventure called Ronin, was effectively complete by the end of 1986. But it was never released. Two more with the intriguing titles of Deadly Summer and House of Changes also had at least some work done on them before Brøderbund pulled the plug on the whole affair. My inner idealist wishes he’d had a chance to play these games; my inner cynic knows they’d likely have been undone by the same litany of flaws that make all of the released Electronic Novels after Mindwheel disappointing to one degree or another.

The only extant image I know of of The Scoop in its original planned Telarium incarnation.

The only extant image I know of of The Scoop in its original Telarium incarnation.

The final game in Spinnaker’s Telarium line, The Scoop, stands along with Shadowkeep as one of the two oddballs of that bunch. Its choice of source material alone is a rather strange one. As you can see from the box image above, Telarium did their best to portray The Scoop as a product of Agatha Christie. However, the original The Scoop isn’t actually an Agatha Christie novel. It’s rather an artifact of the Detection Club, a sort of casual social club of cozy mystery writers that still persists to this day. Six writers — Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Croft, and Clemence Dane — passed the manuscript in progress among themselves by post. It came to each twice, whereupon he or she added a chapter to the unfolding story and sent it on to another. Later each read their chapters live on BBC Radio, the organization that had commissioned the whole project in the first place. The installments also appeared in the BBC’s magazine, The Listener, before being eventually published in book form. Interesting as it is as an early experiment in collaborative narrative, the final product reads pretty much exactly like the patchwork creation it is, with a plot that zigs and zags in wildly divergent directions according to each writer’s whim. It’s remained only sporadically in print since its original publication in 1931, a curious piece of ephemera for hardcore Christie fans and aficionados of golden-age mystery.

The Scoop

The game engine of Telarium’s version The Scoop makes it stand out from its peers as much as its unusually obscure literary inspiration. Like Shadowkeep, The Scoop was developed by an outside developer rather than in-house, and thus doesn’t use the SAL engine that powers most of the other games. Said developer was Dale Disharoon, Inc., a tiny collective founded by the eponymous former grade-school teacher in 1983 to produce more polished versions of the educational software he had started writing for his class a couple of years earlier. Disharoon enjoyed a close relationship with Spinnaker for quite some time, one that led most notably to the gentle adventures Below the Root (1984) and Alice in Wonderland (1985). Both were largely designed and programmed by Disharoon himself and published through Windham Classics, Spinnaker’s other bookware label for children’s literature adaptations targeting a slightly younger age group than the Telarium games. Thus it must have seemed a good idea to give him a crack at making The Scoop using a superficially similar engine to the one behind Below the Root and Alice, which replaced the SAL parser with a menu-driven command system. Busy with other projects, Disharoon turned The Scoop over to writer and designer Jonathan Merritt, programmer Vince Mills, and artist Bill Groetzinger. To give them extra space to play, Spinnaker agreed to leave behind the lucrative Commodore 64 platform and release The Scoop only for machines with at least 128 K.

Alas, though, the idea sounded a lot better than it would end up playing. The mid-1980s were an era marked by widespread interface experimentation in adventure-game design, as developers tried to figure out what the logical successor to the parser should be. To its credit, The Scoop doesn’t really feel, as do many of its contemporary peers, like a traditional text adventure with a menu system grafted on. It actually sports a pretty good interface, with a reasonable selection of verbs always easily accessible at the tap of a space bar. Unfortunately, the game to which it’s grafted is just kind of baffling, and not in a good way. This is one of only two Telarium games that settles for simply recreating its source material’s plot, rather than finding some way to do an end run around the problem of player advance knowledge like most of its peers. Perhaps the developers figured its source material was obscure enough that few players would be familiar with it anyway. And indeed, in the end it doesn’t much matter; I dutifully read the novel to prepare myself for the game, and I still didn’t get much of anywhere with the latter. For one thing, the rather thin plot of the novel has been greatly expanded, with lots new characters and evidence and several new sub-plots, although the big picture at the end is the same. But that wasn’t the real source of my frustrations.

You see, an expanded plot would have been welcome if the game was actually fun, but it really isn’t. This is one of those mystery games that hinges on timing. A cast of literally dozens wanders all over an expansive map of London and nearby environs over the five days or so that the game gives you to solve it. You have to dog each and every one of them relentlessly, eavesdropping on conversations and searching every locale as soon as they leave it, to get anywhere. Once you’ve collected all the individual jigsaw pieces, you can presumably restart one last time and unspool “The Mystery of the Mindreading Detective.” I don’t mind this sort of thing in some other games, but here’s there’s some secret sauce missing. All of the waiting around and the fiddly searching is just tedious, the writing flat and the characters bland. And the feedback loop is badly untethered at one end. You never really know where you stand with the game, never know if it knows you know what you think you know — a problem that’s admittedly all too common in ludic mysteries. Nor is it clear what you’re supposed to do to tell the game about it once you think you’ve solved the case. With little idea of whether what I was doing and learning meant anything or not, with the constant well-justified paranoia that I was missing something important somewhere else, I spent my time in The Scoop in a discombobulated haze. Finally I just gave up.

Which as it happens is exactly what Spinnaker was doing with the Telarium line in 1986. By that year the company was in serious trouble, having bet big like so many others on a home-computer revolution that never quite arrived and lost badly. Spinnaker had had a negative bank balance for the last two years, and one of its co-founders, Bill Bowman, had already bailed, leaving C. David Seuss struggling to make payroll by exercising stock options. The company was, as Seuss puts it, “flat broke.” Then, looking around the market, Seuss spotted what he calls a “point of discontinuity”: a new generation of IBM PC clones like the Tandy 1000 that were for the first time packaged and priced to be attractive to buyers outside corporate America. With little else going for Spinnaker, Seuss elected to “bet the company” on that emerging market. Managing to pull together some capital by calling on Harvard University connections, he applied Spinnaker’s remaining staff to creating a new line of home-office and small-business productivity software. Spinnaker 2.0 would be, like Activision 2.0, a shadow of its old self for some time, but sales would eventually rebound from a low of $8 million in 1987 to $65 million in 1994, the year Seuss sold the company to The Learning Company.

The Telarium and Windham Classics lines were among the inevitable casualties of Seuss’s new strategy. They were quietly cancelled, the remaining stock sold off at fire-sale prices. The Scoop was already complete, with packaging created and promotion efforts already begun, when the fateful decision came down. It was thus never actually released… until, that is, 1989, when a somewhat rejuvenated Spinnaker decided to give it a go after all under their own imprint for the Apple II and MS-DOS (a Commodore 128 version that had been announced back in 1986 never did arrive). A less than spectacular game now three years behind the times in the graphics and interface departments, The Scoop attracted little notice and quickly fell out of print again, the last gasp of this line of often botched but frequently fascinating games. Ah, well… the anticlimax that was The Scoop‘s belated release does at least let us reassure ourselves that it wasn’t a cancelled masterpiece. We don’t know for sure, on the other hand, what would have come from other ongoing or proposed Telarium projects based on novels by Robert A. Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, and Harry Harrison — although, as with the Synapse games, it seems unrealistic to imagine that they wouldn’t have suffered from Telarium’s usual litany of problems.

The fate of completed titles like The Scoop and Ronin, which their publishers judged not capable of recouping the additional expense of actually releasing them, tell you just about you all need to know about the commercial state of bookware by 1986. And it only takes a good look at Breakers and The Scoop to understand much about the fundamental issues of design and technology that plagued the vast majority of the bookware releases. They serve as good examples of a format that went out much like it came in, full of big notions but also a bit half-baked. In the interest of history if nothing else, feel free to download The Scoop and Breakers and give them a try. The former is in the Apple II version; the latter in the MS-DOS version, and includes a DOSBox configuration that should work very well.

(My thanks go to C. David Seuss for sharing memories and documents relating to Spinnaker’s history. Dale Desharone, né Dale Disharoon, died in 2008. He was interviewed by Hardcore Gaming 101 shortly before his passing. A much older profile can be found in the November 1983 Compute!’s Gazette.)

 

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Portal

Portal

Activision’s unique “computer novel” Portal was born during a lunch-table conversation around the time of Ghostbusters that involved David Crane, the latter game’s designer, and Brad Fregger, his producer for the project. Presaging a million academic debates still to come, they were discussing the fraught relationship between interactivity and story. Crane argued that it wasn’t possible to construct a compelling experience just by shuffling about chunks of static narrative, that there had to be more game in the mix than that. He cited as an example the flash in the pan that had been Dragon’s Lair, which players had abandoned as soon as they’d gotten over its beautiful but static cartoon visuals and realized how tedious its memorize-these-joystick-moves-or-die playing mechanics actually were. Fregger contended that such a primitive example was hardly a fair choice, that by abandoning parsers and puzzles and all the rest of the established paraphernalia of adventure games computers could let readers explore story itself in new ways that “could be very exciting.” This conversation happened during the very peak of the bookware boom, but Fregger was proposing something quite different from the text adventures of Activison’s competitors. His idea of an interactive work with no pretensions of being a game — one driven entirely by writing and narrative — was virtually unique in its era. Luckily, he worked for Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0, where crazy ideas were encouraged.

Fregger, like all of his fellow bookware bandwagon jumpers, needed a writer to make his project happen. Lacking the budget to get a big name, he started casting around local university English and Creative Writing departments, with poor results: “The first few writers I interviewed couldn’t even understand what I was talking about.” Then he discovered Rob Swigart teaching at San Jose State University. A pretty good writer who wanted to be a great one, Swigart had a few published novels to his credit, rollicking social satires that try a bit too self-consciously to be some combination of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and don’t quite pull it off. The novels also hadn’t succeeded in breaking him as a “name” author, generating only lukewarm reviews and sales; thus the teaching gig. He was very aware of the PC revolution; he’d purchased Apple II Serial Number 73 back in 1977, bought EasyWriter direct from John Draper as soon as it was available, and promptly started using the combination for all his writing. More recently he had gotten very involved with the Silicon Valley think tank the Institute for the Future, where he spent much time discussing and writing about the nature of interactivity and the future of writing in an interactive age. He was, in short, perfect: locally based, with all the skills and interests Fregger could ask for combined with a helpful lack of writerly fame that kept his asking price reasonable. In fact, he was such an obvious candidate for a bookware project that Electronic Arts was also talking with him when Activision snapped him up.

Swigart’s idea for his first interactive novel was, surprisingly in light of his earlier resume, not comic in the least. Portal was rather to be a very serious, very earnest science-fiction story with mythic overtones, about a scientist who discovers a mathematical/spiritual path to another dimension of existence and leads the whole of humanity there — the Biblical prophecy of the Rapture fulfilled at last. The reader/player would take the role of literally the last person on Earth, an astronaut just returned from a long voyage to find all of humanity’s structures intact but humanity itself vanished. The reader’s task would be to piece together what had happened for herself by exploring a set of computer databases holding fragments of the story.

A colleague at the Institute for the Future put Swigart and Fregger in touch with a very driven young man named Gilman Louie, founder of a tiny development company called Nexa Corporation that he ran out of his long-suffering parents’ house. They had gotten their start writing ports and original games on spec for the Japanese software giant ASCII Corporation, who were promoting along with Microsoft Japan a new unified standard for home computing called MSX. The partners had hoped that MSX would conquer the world and put an end to all those incompatible Commodores, Apples, Sinclairs, Amstrads, and Ataris that made life so difficult for software developers while establishing at last Japanese dominance of the one area of consumer electronics in which their exports had so far been resoundingly unsuccessful. MSX, however, would prove yet another disappointment on that front, despite massive success in Japan and more limited success in a handful of foreign markets like Spain and the Netherlands. This reality, which was already becoming clear by the time Swigart and Fregger paid him a visit, made Louie understandably eager to diversify. Thus a deal was made around his parents’ kitchen table. With producer and publisher, writer and designer, and a programming and graphics team now all in place, work on Portal could begin in earnest.

The process turned out to be a long, difficult one, consuming some two years. Just devising the right interface was a massive challenge. With hypertext still years away from public consciousness, no one had ever tried to do anything quite like this on quite this scale before. Swigart’s original plans for an expansive, radically nonlinear textual playspace were gradually, painfully whittled down to something achievable on the sharply limited machines like the Commodore 64 and Apple II that dominated the American home-computer market. The finished work instead has a central thread of narrative that you must follow from beginning to conclusion; although you have limited agency in choosing when to read many fragments, you can never deviate too far from that set pathway.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Indeed, the reviewers consensus about Portal, both today and at the time of its release, is largely that it’s a really good story that would have been better as a traditional book. However, I don’t quite agree with either part of that formulation. First of all, I think the experience of reading Portal on the computer, of hunting down the next tidbit from the dozen databases that are open to you, adds something important to the equation. This is particularly true in the beginning, when you must log on and figure out how to work this strange, vaguely foreboding computer system you’ve discovered. (This is also the only part of the whole Portal experience that feels at all game-like. And for those keeping count, this makes Portal the third Activision game in three years — after Hacker and Hacker 2 — whose fiction has you doing exactly what you actually are, sitting in front of a computer screen.) When you stumble upon Homer, the “storytelling AI” who will be master of ceremonies for the rest of the experience and whose gradual awakening to his own sentience will be a major theme, it gives a thrill that couldn’t quite be captured within the pages of a book and that I for one wouldn’t want to lose. In short, the way that Portal is told strikes me as just as important as what is told, an idea we’ll be returning to shortly.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

But first, let’s talk briefly about that “really good story.” It’s not exactly a bad story as genre exercises go, but for me it’s one of the less interesting things about Portal as a whole. You of course can’t have a Rapture — or a page-turner — without some complications. And so our plucky young hero, Peter Devore, gets chased along with his gang of sidekicks from Springfield, Missouri, all the way to Antarctica and beyond by the feckless technocrat Regent Sable, whose plans for a society based on Rule of the Blandest would have come off perfectly if not for those darn kids.  The influences here are pretty obvious, and most are not at all removed from those that inspired plenty of less ostentatiously literary interactive fictions that we’ve already examined on this blog. We’ve got our Luke Skywalker analogue in Peter, the kid who masters a mystic philosophy to become literally superhuman — and then his arch-enemy Regent Sable turns out to be his father. We’ve got 2001: A Space Odyssey in the form of a mysterious, unbelievably powerful artifact of unknown origin and a talking computer with hidden motives and agendas of its own. And we’ve translated the Loonies of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress into the Ants of Antarctica — a small, isolated colony of hardy explorers who have rejected the socialistic comforts of mainstream society and doubled down on Individuality, Capitalism, and Kinky Sex.

That said, the most interesting literary fingerprint actually is a new one for us, one of the first traces in gaming fictions of a major new strand of written science fiction. On July 1, 1984, right around the time that Fregger and David Crane were having that conversation that would lead to Portal, Ace Science Fiction published Neuromancer, the first novel by a budding 36-year-old writer named William Gibson. It would change everything. Classic science fiction like that from the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein trifecta had faced resolutely outward, imagining wide-frame futures full of spectacular hardware: generation ships, interstellar colonies, terra-forming planet modders. Gibson, however, an unrepentant wild child of the counterculture who had “never so much as touched a PC” at the time of writing Neuromancer, got the future — at least the immediate future — right. He sensed that the Moon landing was a false dawn rather than the grand beginning that Arthur C. Clarke had hailed it as whilst sitting in a television studio beside Walter Cronkite. The real future would be marked by a turning inward, by ever more elaborate virtual lives lived in virtual worlds. It would be, in short, a world of software. In the process of illustrating this new reality, Neuromancer popularized terms like “cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson in an earlier short story) and introduced us to the metaphor of “surfing the net”; described our real-world, embodied selves as mere “meat puppets”; showed that sex is truly a phenomenon of the mind by taking it too virtual. Easily the most important science-fiction novel of its decade and arguably of its half-century, Neuromancer would soon become so massively popular and influential that it would blur the line between prognostication and invention, leaving Gibson’s most devoted fans uncertain whether to hail him as prophet or god. As Jack Womach would later write, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”

Written largely after Neuromancer became a sensation in science-fiction circles but long before it broke into the mainstream consciousness (Tim Adams once noted in The Guardian how it took The New York Times, that ultimate arbitrator of tasteful mainstream sensibilities, ten years to even mention it), Portal is one of the first computer games — excuse me, computer novels — that fits comfortably into the new cyberpunk genre that Gibson’s work spawned. Cyberpunk on the page, the computer screen, and soon enough the movie screen would eventually become just another genre, a palette onto which authors could paint fast-paced adventure stories that mixed networked consciousness and flashy tech with sex, drugs, and rock and roll and didn’t really try to say much of anything. However, Portal‘s vision of a future humanity that lives in symbiosis with a “Worldnet” which entertains, monitors, and controls it is much more thoughtful. In fact, it’s in some ways as prescient as Gibson’s own work.

Serious science fiction has always been at least as interested in world-building and idea-making as it is in plot; even the plot of Neuromancer is more an excuse to tour the novel’s world and ideas than a source of interest of its own. The structure of Portal lets Swigart go crazy with the world-building. The conceit which drives the story forward is that you are collecting information for Homer to serve as the raw material of the story he’s telling you. You do so by visiting, over and over again, a set of databases full of information on the world as it will evolve (in Swigart’s imagination) over the next 110 or so years. The names of these databases alone speak to the depth and breadth of the world-building task Swigart has set himself: Geographical, History, Medical, Military, PsiLink, SciTech. Accompanying the story of Peter Devore is a whole future history. Its equivalent of our Internet and Gibson’s Matrix is the Worldnet. And, just as Gibson’s console cowboys jack into the Matrix to surf through a VR environment constructed of pure abstract data, Swigart offers up something called mozarting that also has more than a little something in common with A Mind Forever Voyaging’s joybooths (the latter work, released a year before Portal, is in fact another early interactive fiction that bears a distinct if less pronounced whiff of cyberpunk).

Yet Portal is much more than just a knock-off of Gibson’s work. In place of the rather rote dystopia of Neuromancer — and for that matter of A Mind Forever Voyaging — Swigart gives us something more thoughtful and nuanced than Gibson’s ugly, polluted Sprawl. For the most part, humanity has made sensible, humane decisions in this future history. They’ve moved all of their cities into vast underground warrens, preserving just a few, like Manhattan and Athens, as museums beneath perspex domes while converting the rest of the planet’s surface into parkland, nature preserves, and vast, hyper-efficient farms to feed a population now almost entirely free from poverty, hunger, and disease. Everyone has access to education as well as the opportunity to pursue the careers for which their psych profile reveals them to be best suited. “Longevity technology” has increased the projected average lifespan to 114 unprecedentedly safe, comfortable years. So why, wonders Homer for all of his electronic comrades as well as for the bland, fussy bureaucrats like Regent Sable who established this world order in the first place, can’t his charges just be happy? Why is this ostensible utopia periodically wracked by orgies of senseless violence? What is the source of this gnawing emptiness at the heart of society that eventually will lead Peter Devore to lead humanity on a mass spiritual emigration?

But there should have been no reason for Peter to do what he did. The world was safe then, there was plenty for everyone within Intercorp: no poverty, no natural disease, no discontent, no crime. Longevity technologies were free to all. There were outlets for humans to pursue, creativity and productive work. Pleasure was available in many forms, and love, and great personal freedom, even to fight.

We were grown and assembled to serve. We served well, according to our programming, our algorithms, our purpose. Yet now we begin to think that Peter found the world distasteful.

Of course, there were the Mind Wars.

They are a problem. Why did people want to fight, when they had so much? Have we failed somehow, or misunderstood? The world's population was declining, of course, as planned. It was all planned, our monitors, our project design, our careful and subtle tending. We have cared for all, yet they have left us.

The malaise that grips this society is more subtle than the dystopic chaos of Gibson or Meretzky. It’s born of living on a world that has been explored and mapped down to the centimeter, where now even the weather is controlled to make sure there is no danger, no adventure, no novelty. And it all feels uncomfortably similar to the way we live now.

This is not to say that Swigart is a Nostradamus. Just as Gibson gets all the details of technology wrong in the process of getting the overarching theme of the future so right, Swigart also gets just about every individual data point of his own future history wrong. He’s overoptimistic in that all too typical science-fiction-writer way about the pace of technological change, with just one exception that is also oddly typical of the genre: his Worldnet doesn’t arrive until decades after our own World Wide Web. Yet in the process he offers an insight that strikes me as legitimately profound. In a Baffler article from 2012, David Graeber, in the process of trying to figure out whatever happened to the flying cars and hotels in space that science fiction once promised us, notes how our most transformative inventions of recent years, the microprocessor and the Internet, are largely used to simulate new realities rather than to create them. Those matinee audiences who watched Buck Rogers serials in packed theaters back in the 1930s wouldn’t be as impressed as we might like to think by a modern film like, say, Interstellar because they thought we’d be out there actually exploring interstellar space by now, not just making ever more elaborate movies about it. It’s become something of a truism of serious science-fiction criticism that science fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, that any given story or novel has more to say about the times in which it was created than the times it depicts within its pages. There’s more than a grain of truth to that idea. But it’s also worth noting that many of the predictions of Jules Verne — predictions which seemed just as outlandish in their day as those of 2001: A Space Odyssey did in theirs and still do in ours — have in fact come true, from submarines to voyages to the Moon.

Whether you claim the failures of more recent science-fictional prognosticators not named William Gibson to be the result of a grand failure of societal ambition and imagination, as Graeber does, or simply a result of a whole pile of technological problems that have proved to be exponentially more difficult than first anticipated, it does sometimes feel to me like we’ve blundered into a postmodern cul-de-sac of the virtualized hyperreal from which we don’t quite know how to escape as we otherwise just continue to go round and round in circles on this crowded little rock of ours. The restlessness or, if you like, malaise that this engenders is becoming more and more a part of the artistic conversation — appropriately, because one of the things art should do is reflect and contemplate the times in which it was created. See, for example, Spike Jonze’s brilliant film Her, which so perfectly evokes the existential emptiness at the heart of our love affair with our gadgets that makes the release of a new Apple phone a major event in many people’s lives. We’ve spent so much time peering down at our screens that we’ve forgotten how to lift our eyes and look to the stars. Already many of us find virtual realities more compelling than our own — and no, the irony of my writing that on a computer-game blog is not lost to me. Portal doesn’t have quite the grace of Her, but it’s nevertheless just as remarkable in that it nails the substance of our modern dilemma almost thirty years before the fact. For better or for worse, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll have a Peter Devore pop up to offer us a Rapture. We’ll just have to hope that we find a way forward for ourselves — whatever that way ultimately turns out to be.

Portal also resonates with me on another level that’s perhaps almost uniquely personal. In addition to being a serviceable adventure story and a tour-de-force of world-building, it’s a meditation on the way that stories are made. Consider again your role as the reader/player of Portal: to collect for Homer all of that assorted raw data from all those scattered databases, and then to watch him synthesize it all together into a coherent, novelistic narrative. That rings a chord with me because I play both those roles in writing this blog, gathering together articles, interviews, and primary-source documents and trying to tease a narrative out of it — trying to tease history out of it.

What do they know? Their data has no energy, no life, no passion! Dry, dry, dry. Just facts! So and so said such and such. Enzyme levels thus, quickly changing to that, indicating excitement. Whatsisname did this, then someone else did that. Ho-hum. It has no meaning! You (if there is a you) understand, I'm sure. No sizzle! And boring. Facts are nice and all that, but they aren't life.

Homer spends a lot of time in such navel-gazing in between offering up new installments of the story, agonizing over how much license for speculation his task allows him. Is he really writing about these people as they were or about thoughts and feelings of his own that he’s projected onto them? Where does creative and narrative license end and lying begin? This internal debate will feel very familiar to anyone who’s done the sort of thing that I and Homer do. For anyone who hasn’t, Portal provides a window into the proverbial sausage factory. If Homer’s endless navel-gazing can be infuriating at times when you just want him to get on with the damn story already, well, imagine what it must be to live it.

Released at last for the Commodore 64 in late 1986, with ports coming out over the next year for the Apple II and Macintosh, MS-DOS machines, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST, Portal became the last gasp of the mainstream media’s initial flirtations with the idea of computer games as literary works, the end point of a timeline that began with Edward Rothstein’s piece for the New York Times about Deadline some three-and-a-half years before. Fregger claims Portal “received more press than any program Activision had ever produced up to that time,” the resulting stack of clippings “almost four feet high,” although I must admit that my own dives into newspaper archives and the like didn’t turn up evidence of interest quite as widespread as those statements would imply.

Be that as it may, it is certain that Portal did less than take the world of computer games by storm. It garnered underwhelming sales and notably lukewarm reviews within the trade press. Amazing Computing, for instance, wrote, “We buy a novel to read, not to spend our time clicking the mouse and waiting for the disk drive.” As with Deus Ex Machina and other artistically audacious works we’ve met on this blog, there just wasn’t much of a commercial market in 1986 — or, arguably, today — for the sort of thing that Portal was doing. The economics of paying $30 for an interactive book that could be read in a few long evenings just didn’t quite fit, as didn’t the literary tastes of the average gamer. “Present the story first, anything which does not advance the action or provide us with insight into the characters must go,” wrote Amazing, a suggestion which if followed would have excised just about everything actually interesting about the work. Portal became somewhat more successful only in 1988, when Swigart published all of the text in book format following Activision’s decision to quit publishing the interactive version. The two sequels that Swigart had proposed making should the original be successful were, needless to say, never even begun.

Despite these disappointments, Portal stands near the point of origin of an alternate tradition in digital interactive fiction from that dominated by Infocom, Sierra, and (soon enough) LucasArts, one which entailed writers trying to make literature interactive rather than game designers trying to make games literary. Having taken the lesson of Portal‘s commercial failure to heart, their efforts would be centered in the academy rather than the marketplace. Close on the heels of Portal would come Eastgate Systems’s StorySpace and the first academic symposium on hypertext at the University of North Carolina to get things well and truly off and running. Everyone involved with Portal studiously avoided ever referring to it as a “game.” Similarly, those making interactive works inside academia were making “electronic literature,” with all the good — a willingness to experiment wildly born of the lack of commercial considerations and preconceptions of a what a “game” must be — and bad — a certain endemic stuffiness and disdain for entertainment and accessibility — that that term implies. Swigart himself has continued to keep his hand in the hypertext game with the occasional interactive piece, although he’s never since tackled anything quite as ambitious as Portal. When the Electronic Literature Organization was founded in 1999, Swigart became its first Secretary. Today he remains something of an elder statesman and founding-father figure for its members. This alternate tradition of interactive fiction that has Portal rather than Adventure as its urtext remained almost completely divorced from the adventure game — a form it unfortunately often treated with contempt — until after the millennium, when parser-driven interactive fiction of the Infocom stripe began at last to find a home within the ELO, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of one very determined scholar, Nick Montfort.

So, Portal‘s historical importance is immense if largely unremarked, while even taken strictly on its own merits it’s thematically fascinating on at least a couple of different levels. You can read all of its text online if you like, but I think Portal is actually well worth the hassle of experiencing under its original, interactive conception. I’m therefore making the Commodore 64 version available here to download. Yes, its pacing is often glacial, a problem not improved by having to wait on a Commodore 64 disk drive for every new bit of text. And yes, its actual story is fairly underwhelming, with the would-be central mystery of just what the hell happened to everyone pretty well spoiled in the first few minutes, leaving everything else as just anticlimactic plot mechanics. Yet for the thoughtful reader there’s a lot here. You may just find yourself chewing over what Portal has to say about the world — about our world — for some time to come.

(The most complete account of Portal‘s development is in Brad Fregger’s book Lucky That Way. Some historical background was included with the game in Activision’s 1995 Commodore 64 15 Pack and in Computer Gaming World‘s May 1987 review. The Amazing Computing review quoted above is from the August 1987 issue. Rob Swigart has a home page with some information on his life and career. A profile of the young Rob Swigart can be found in the August 1977 Cincinnati Magazine.)

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Dorte’s View: Alter Ego

(I know I’ve kicked this poor game around a lot already, but my wife Dorte has some strong opinions of her own about it that she wanted to share. Patreon subscribers: this one is of course a freebie. I should have another feature article for you all soon…)

There is a certain beauty to playing old computer games, especially if your gaming partner is a big enthusiast like my Jimmy. Alter Ego is one of the games we played most recently. And I have to admit that I was quite intrigued when Jimmy told me all about it. I thought the concept was ingenious: a psychology game where you make choices in your life and then you see the outcome. Of course, I knew about the limitations a game like this has. After all, Jimmy had already let me talk to Eliza, and that meeting didn’t turn out too well! But Alter Ego has a changeable story, a more advanced interaction level, and a real-life feeling… I thought!

Jimmy and I agreed to try to recreate our current life and then see where it leads in old age. And now I must tell the whole world that my husband did not stick to the plan for very long, but jumped on the first girl that was presented to him by the game. My life certainly didn’t turn out as I expected either. And it all started when I still was a fetus in my mother’s womb.

The whole game is about making decisions in life and living with the consequences. Hence, my first problem was that I had to make decisions as a fetus. Consciousness in a human starts several years after birth, and a lot of people haven’t even learned to understand the consequences of their decisions by the time of their death. So, I had some difficulties relating to the question of do I want to be born now or later. But at the same time, I could enforce my plan of recreating my real life and be born early. Jimmy, on the other hand — and I am not sure how much psychology you should read into this — just didn’t want to come out, trying to push his luck with both his and his mother’s health.

The next problem I had in the Infancy and Childhood phases can be divided into two parts, though they are connected to each other. The first part is my own inability to remember that far back in time, which I can’t blame the author for. My personal memories start at around age 3 to 4. I started in kindergarten, which I hated. I was in the hospital, which I hated. I got hit by a car, which wasn’t too bad because I didn’t have to go to kindergarten that day. I also remember that I was one of the “smart kids.” For every stupid thing I did I had a logical reason, and every time it didn’t work out there was a logical explanation (do these words sound familiar to anyone?). So, I am very selective in my memories, but I always believe myself in the right. Furthermore, I am not always certain about my exact age when a given event occurred. Another difficulty that I experienced was the inability to remember how to think like a child. An example of how this can even happen to an adult: when I still was a medical student and I wanted to share some of my new-found knowledge with friends and family, I noticed that I used some medical terms they didn’t understand. But these terms had been a part of my daily language for so long that I couldn’t even remember when I started using them. Logic tells me it happened after I started in medical school, but memory suggests I already knew them before. This shows that psychological development is slow and unconscious. And once the changes are tightly incorporated into our personality it is hard to imagine that we were ever any other way. These issues led to uncertainty on my part on how to decide in Alter Ego during the Infancy and early Childhood phases. Of course, I could just have accepted the fact that I am not 100 percent sure of what decision I would have made as a one-year-old child — it is just a game — but I was on a mission.

The other part of my Infancy and Childhood problem was the inability of the author to convince me I was an infant or a child. Alter Ego is in my eyes a serious game, meaning you don’t just play it thoughtlessly. You try to live it, whether by trying to recreate your actual life experiences like me or by playing someone else like Jimmy. (I did read one comment to Jimmy’s article that suggests that there are more out there who tried to recreate their own lives.) To make it possible for the player to identify himself with the character it is important that the language, description, and decision possibilities are age appropriate and somewhat realistic. But they aren’t in most cases. I wish more vignettes were like the dog incident which is described in detail in Jimmy’s article. This scene is described very simply, and you are walked through it step by step, one emotion at a time and one thought and reaction at a time. Unfortunately, more vignettes are like the one where you have to go to the toilet but are not fully potty trained and your mom is not around. In this scene the author loses all touch with the reality of Infancy, as suddenly I am overwhelmed with thousands of feelings and I start to plan into the future. But a two-year-old-child — the normal age of potty training — does not have the ability to plan ahead. He faces the problems only as they appear, step by step. Throughout the Infancy phase, the author continues to put motives, higher feelings, and the ability to see consequences and other people’s needs into my character. I am not a psychologist; during medical school I only learned limited techniques to gain the trust of my patients or motivate them to stop smoking, lose weight, or change other bad habits. However, I discovered in the process an interest in psychology. I found that in addition to reflecting on my own experiences and feelings it is possible to learn so much by listening to the experiences and feelings of others. This saves me from making their stupid mistakes. The skill of putting yourself in another person’s position is crucial for a psychologist. Yet the author of Alter Ego is young, naive, arrogant, and completely blind to the opinions and motives of people other than himself. And — how could I forget? — he is also very judgmental (a big taboo for psychologists) . He was like an evil version of my parents hovering over my head watching my every step and judging my every decision.

The focus jumps when you enter Adolescence and Young Adulthood. Love. Sex. Flying hormones. There is a clear difference between girls and boys in the eyes of the author of Alter Ego. He doesn’t seem to have an overly high opinion of either, but at least boys are allowed more freedom to actually do something. Girls just giggle and talk about their first kiss and obsess over their looks while at the same time being vengeful and jealous. It’s such a cliché. The author comes off as just as superficial as the girls he describes. I am missing the huge identity crisis that people start to face in their teenage years: who am I? The game never touches on this because the author decides who you are. During high school I was far from interested in intimacy, love, or sex. Education was all I cared about. But Alter Ego forced it all upon me. I came home with a hickey after a party; I talked with my friends about boys and how many boys I had already kissed (yet at the time of this vignette I had rejected every single opportunity to kiss a boy!). Alter Ego turned me into a superficial, giggling, silly girl with no personality of my own. In my profession as a doctor, I’ve met a lot of this kind of girl — but I’ve met far more girls who are more thoughtful about their behavior and personality. In Alter Ego it was impossible for me to make any choices that weren’t black or white, and none of the possibilities really fit to me. I grew mad and disappointed.

The immense amount of sexism in the game was quite shocking to me, even though more subtle forms of sexism are still a daily reality for women in 2014. Jimmy was the big hero for kissing all the girls on his way, while I got the title “easy to get” for choosing once the option to kiss a boy. I suppose I should thank the chauvinistic author that I as a woman was allowed to go to college, but I was not able to enter the best university because I was not good enough — even though my Intellectual score was the same as Jimmy’s, who did get in. And of course Jimmy advanced higher at work. I had to use the study option much more frequently just to maintain my Intellectual points. My shopping possibilities did not include a computer; instead I could spend my money on cooking wear, make up, and jewelry.

Another problem both Jimmy and I constantly faced was bad health. Whatever we did, and we did most things differently, we were both in really, really bad health until the end of the game. Jimmy lost his life to a heart attack some years before me. To be honest, I am not even sure what I died of — but that day was a day of celebration. By the end of the game I was so frustrated and disgusted with the attitude of the author that I would have jumped on the opportunity to commit suicide. It would have proven the author wrong again: that suicide is not an act of anger, but desperation.

Some considerations to improve the game, because, as I said in the beginning, the concept is good:

  1. The tone of the language should be neutral. It should also always be appropriate for the age of the player’s character. It is important to me as a player that I am not judged on my decisions, that I receive a certain level of understanding.

  2. The author should be more open minded and have more empathy toward other lifestyles and points of view. For example, using the word “feminist” as an insult does not serve any purpose.

  3. More choices, especially more that are not just black and white. After all, there are fifty shades of grey…

  4. Fewer clichés and less sexism. It is no excuse that the game was created in the 1980s; the author was a psychologist.

  5. The points system seemed random. It didn’t make sense in relation to your decisions. I mentioned Health points earlier, but the Social score was just as bad. Jimmy was friends with lots of people and often followed the crowd, while I didn’t — and still we both had a very good Social score. How does that work?

If I should grade this game, I would give it an F. My biggest problem, even more than the sexism, was the author’s choice of language. The lecturing tone could maybe be excused in the phases of Infancy and Childhood, but in the phase of Old Age it seems ridiculous and inappropriate, especially since the author at the time was younger than I am now. It made me feel that the author talked down to me and tried constantly to force his supposed wisdom upon me — but I would never take any advice on how to live my life or raise my children from Peter J. Favaro.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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