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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

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 of 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 interstellar 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 the joys of 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 at first 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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Alter Ego

Alter Ego

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a situation where danger was imminent, would you

A) Ask for help.

B) Take charge and take action.

C) Run for your life.

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

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

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

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

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

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

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

Select a mood:
curious
frightened X

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Select a mood:
sad X
happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Select an action:
accept the offer X
reject the offer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Select a mood:
afraid X
comfortable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The female version:

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

And the male version:

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

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

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

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

 

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Jim Levy and Activision

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Levy surrounded by his Activision "family," 1981

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

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

Steve Cartwright

Steve Cartwright

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

Carol Shaw

Carol Shaw

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

Larry Miller

Larry Miller

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

Pitfall!

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

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

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

Ghostbusters

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

Ghostbusters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garry Kitchen's GameMaker

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

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

Hacker

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

Little Computer People

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

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

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

Shanghai

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

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

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

 
 

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Starflight

Starflight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starflight

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

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

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

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

Starflight's implementation of conversation postures.

Starflight’s implementation of conversation postures.

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

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

The hopeless combat screen.

The hopeless muddle of a combat engine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unforgettably loathsome Spemin, who lack backbone — literally.

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

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

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

Spoilers begin!

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

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

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

Spoilers end!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 
 

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