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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

The Pawn’s Second Life (or, When Tony Met Anita)

The Pawn

Two adventure games overshadowed all of the others in North America during 1986. The success of one of these could have been predicted long before it reached store shelves. Leather Goddesses of Phobos combined the Infocom brand, slightly battered by recent events but still widely regarded as the premiere label in adventure gaming, with Steve Meretzky, the company’s most popular and populist author, working in his wheelhouse of science-fiction comedy. And on top of that it added the ultimate temptation: sex. How could it not become a hit?

The year’s other big game, however, was not such a predictable proposition, coming unexpectedly out of left field in the form of a brand new company from the United Kingdom of all places. As I’ve already written, Magnetic Scrolls’s The Pawn wasn’t a terribly good game in a whole lot of very important ways. Yet that was hard to notice at the time in the face of its more immediately obvious strengths. Not only did it offer as much text as the typical Infocom effort combined with a parser that was at least superficially competitive with Infocom’s own, but it absolutely blew Infocom away when it came to presentation, sporting several dozen illustrations of unprecedented quality. Whatever else you could say about it, The Pawn was the best looking text adventure yet released. When one of those magnificent images scrolled down onto the screen the average player’s critical faculties scrolled off to oblivion to make space for it. The Pawn‘s success in both North America and Europe, which could largely be attributed to those pretty if irrelevant pictures — one could turn them off entirely without losing anything other than a bit of atmosphere — was made doubly strange by the fact that a year before its year of triumph it had already made one debut as a humble text-only adventure, only to die quickly of a fatal case of wrong-horse-backing in the form of the Sinclair QL. Yet here it was again. Sometimes you just can’t keep a good — or, in this case, superficially good — game down.

A number of fortuitous circumstances led to The Pawn‘s unlikely revival as a next-generation graphical showcase. The first of them was the sheer stubbornness of Magnetic Scrolls’s managing director Anita Sinclair, comparable to that of her beloved bull terrier Murdoch who made a habit of terrorizing visitors to the company’s offices. When it became clear that the QL was a flop and that the text-only adventure game she, Ken Gordon, and Hugh Steers had been working on for it for over a year couldn’t hope to sell more than a dribble, she was determined to keep going, to try again with other games on other platforms. She therefore arranged a meeting with Tony Rainbird at British Telecom, hoping to sell him on a couple of action-game prototypes she and the boys had knocked together during down times. He turned out to be nonplussed by those games, but, much to her surprise, keenly interested in her misbegotten, foredoomed text adventure.

And so Tony Rainbird’s passion for adventure games became the second of those  fortuitous circumstances. Yes, this slick, gregarious would-be mogul genuinely loved adventure games, genuinely believed they could become the basis for an interactive literature of the future. Keeping as he always did one eye cocked toward North America, he was very aware of Infocom’s progress toward turning text adventures into interactive fiction, and felt keenly his own country’s failings in this regard. British programmers, writers, and designers were, he was convinced, every bit as talented as their American peers, but they had been ill-served to this point by the more primitive, usually cassette-driven hardware they had been forced to target as well as by British gamers’ predilection for cheap, simple games in lieu of the bigger, more ambitious releases typical across the pond. He thus saw adventure games as a major focus — perhaps the major focus — of his new luxury label Rainbird, designed as it was to compete with North America on its own terms with big, ambitious titles of its own. He had already started to pursue the most respected and consistent name in British adventure gaming, believing that he could take their games from Level 9 to whatever level Infocom was on on by giving them better packaging, better (i.e., international) distribution, and better hardware. And then along came Anita Sinclair.

In retrospect at least Tony’s interest in The Pawn seems natural, for it had been consciously designed to challenge Infocom, just as Rainbird had been to challenge American software in general. He was doubly interested when he learned that Magnetic Scrolls had granted only the rights to a QL version of The Pawn to Sinclair Research. There followed an intriguing proposal. Could Magnetic Scrolls port the game to other platforms and add some graphics? If they could do those two things for him, he could sell The Pawn all over the world as part of the collection of high-end, high-concept software he was now putting together.

Graphics had long since become a requirement for any kind of success in the British adventure market, as Tony was well aware; he may have been a text-adventure idealist, but he wasn’t stupid. Yet they proved to be a hard sell to Anita. While certainly excited by the idea of giving The Pawn a new lease on life, she was ambivalent about adding pictures. Indeed, she would never entirely shed her ambivalence on the subject. Heavily influenced by Infocom on this point as in so much else, she would declare even after Magnetic Scrolls had become known largely on the basis of their graphics that “if you have graphics it takes away from your own imagination and dilutes the imagery,” and admit that she often preferred to play her company’s games with the graphics off.

That said, many of her initial objections were practical rather than ideological. The pictures that had long since become standard equipment in all but the most modest, home-grown British adventures were almost universally what was known as line-drawn or vector graphics, a technique pioneered by Ken Williams in the United States way back in the days of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. Under this technique graphics were stored not as pictures but as a series of instructions for drawing a picture: draw a line from this point to this point in this color, fill a rectangle having these boundaries in this other color, etc. The computer then recreated the image at run-time by stepping through this sequence of instructions. In the hands of masters of compression like the Austin brothers at Level 9, vector graphics could be packed by the hundred onto a single disk or cassette. Unfortunately, though, the nature of their creation limited them to straight lines, regular curves, and geometric solids filled in using a handful of primary colors layered on in big, garish swathes; anything like artistic subtlety went right out the window. That hadn’t always mattered all that much in the past, when the visual capabilities of the computers on offer, what with their low resolutions and limited color palettes, couldn’t manage much subtlety anyway. But clearly the traditional method made a poor fit for the new Atari ST, the machine that Tony Rainbird wanted Magnetic Scrolls to target first.

The alternative approach, used occasionally by companies in the United States like Telarium and enabled by the luxury of the disk drives that were common there, were bitmap graphics, where the color of each individual pixel that made up the picture was stored, one after another. While compression techniques could be used to shrink the size of the resulting file somewhat, pictures stored in this way nevertheless used vastly more space. Telarium’s games, for instance, which were generally much smaller than those of Level 9 that shipped on a single disk or cassette, routinely sprawled across four or even five disk sides thanks to their pictures. Still, bitmap graphics was the approach that Tony now advocated to Anita. The ST’s disks could store a lot more data than disks on the 8-bit machines or, God forbid, an 8-bit cassette. And it wasn’t really necessary to illustrate every single location in the game like Telarium did, just a reasonable subset of the more picturesque and interesting.

Tony even had someone in mind to make the pictures, a young artist and art-history scholar named Geoff Quilley who had just the sort of classy, classical sensibility that Tony and Anita alike wanted for the games of Magnetic Scrolls. Based in Oxford, Quilley had painted portraits as well as a mural for Wadham College, and had already done the graphics for a high-brow 8-bit adventure game based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Nowadays he was doing amazing things with NEOchrome, the simple little paint program that shipped with every Atari ST. When Anita still proved reluctant, Tony made her an offer that was difficult to refuse: give Quilley a week or so to illustrate one or two locations from the game, and see if she wasn’t convinced that they could add to The Pawn‘s commercial appeal without being an aesthetic embarrassment. She did, and she was. Quilley would remain with Magnetic Scrolls for years as their art director, drawing himself many of the pictures that would become the chief selling point of their games and supervising an eventual team of artists who drew the rest. Through it all he would remain inflexibly loyal to Neochrome and the Atari ST, even as Anita tried from time to time to tempt him with more advanced Amiga paint programs like Deluxe Paint. He liked to say that the results he got with his primitive tools spoke for themselves, and it was hard to argue with him after you’d had a look.

The Pawn

With their artist now on the job making the pictures, Magnetic Scrolls’s next challenge was to port The Pawn to the Atari ST and to find a way to add said pictures to an adventure game which they had never anticipated would need to contain them. For all that they had modeled so much of The Pawn after Infocom’s efforts, they had neglected to follow Infocom’s lead in one very important way. Instead of running in a virtual machine like Infocom’s Z-Machine, their adventure system compiled down to native 68000 machine language on the QL. Luckily, however, the Atari ST used the same 68000 processor as the QL, so the porting tasking wasn’t too daunting. The pictures proved to be the biggest challenge: they were done in low resolution so as to allow a palette of 16 colors, but the text really needed to be done in the ST’s 4-color medium-resolution mode so as to allow 80 columns. Magnetic Scrolls thus came up with a way to mix the two modes on the same screen, an impressive technical accomplishment in itself. The pictures could be unveiled by using the mouse to slide them down over the text like a window blind. Not only was it an ingenious way to maximize limited screen real estate, but in its day it was an absolutely stunning special effect, one that doubtless sold a fair few copies of The Pawn all by itself. The new engine also took advantage of the ST’s comparatively capacious memory to implement a number of other commonsense conveniences of the sort that Infocom really should have been adding to their own games for the bigger machines by this point, like the abilities to assign common commands to function keys and to recall the last command for editing.

But of course the Atari ST version was only the beginning. Many other platforms also awaited. The Macintosh and the Amiga, being yet more machines based on the 68000, were  fairly easy marks. The Amiga version did get one notable addition: a theme song by John Molloy, one half of the pioneering synth-pop duo Mainframe, whose own DS:3 sampler, built around an Apple II, was enjoying some popularity; three, for instance, had been employed as part of the Live Aid stage setup. The songs of Mainframe themselves were getting a fair amount of play in British clubland, making the acquisition of Molloy’s services something of a coup for Magnetic Scrolls. The Pawn‘s theme, featuring a surprisingly lifelike acoustic guitar amongst other sounds, became one of the first to demonstrate the potential of sampled, as opposed to synthesized, instruments for game music.

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The other ports were, alas, more fraught propositions, entailing as they must artful degradation rather than enhancement. In what can only be described as a masterful technical achievement, Magnetic Scrolls came up with a way to emulate enough of the 68000 instruction set on other processors to run the game. Even more incredibly, they somehow made it run fast enough on the little 8-bit Z80 and 6502 to be acceptable. They hired another artist, Tristram Humphries, to duplicate as best he could each of Quilley’s pictures on a Commodore 64. These were then used in ports not only to the 64 but also to a number of other 8-bit platforms. In cases where it was just hopeless to produce graphics with anything like fidelity to Quilley’s originals, as on the Apple II and the Sinclair Spectrum, the graphics were left out entirely.

The leading lights of British adventure gaming assemble under the Rainbird banner. From left: Mike, Peter, Nick, and Margaret Austin (Level 9); Mike Clarke, Tony Rainbird, and Paula Byrne (Rainbird); Ken Gordon and Anita Sinclair (Magnetic Scrolls).

The leading lights of British adventure gaming assemble under the Rainbird banner. From left: Mike, Pete, Nick, and Margaret Austin of Level 9; Mike Clarke, Tony Rainbird, and Paula Byrne of Rainbird; Ken Gordon and Anita Sinclair of Magnetic Scrolls.

Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls went public with their new partnership at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 1986; the choice of venues was a telling indicator of their hopes of challenging Infocom on their home turf. That April the finished Atari ST version of The Pawn was debuted in Britain in a big joint event featuring not only the principal players from Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls but also the Austin family who ran Level 9, and whom Tony Rainbird had now also successfully courted for his new label. Tony and Anita even managed to convince Anita’s erstwhile mentor Clive Sinclair to drop in and lend some of his aura to the proceedings. The Pawn‘s big box that was unveiled that day included a glossy poster and, Tony being quite the fan of in-box novellas, A Tale of Kerovnia, a clever if superfluous stage-setting story written by Anita’s sister Georgina. The box also contained ciphered hints to be typed into the game itself for decryption. The Pawn may have been riddled with nonsensical puzzles, but at least players wouldn’t have to buy a hint book to get past them.

While the price of the game prompted shock — fully £20, £2 more than even the disk version of Elite — those gorgeous pictures sent even bigger waves through the British gaming community. Their importance to The Pawn‘s success can hardly be overstated. Whatever their value or ultimate lack thereof for the hardcore player, they gave the magazines visual pop to accompany coverage of the game. The Pawn made for a damn good cover; an Infocom game, not so much. In Computer and Video Games magazine, Keith Campbell, the most widely read adventure-game commentator in Britain, gave The Pawn its first big review. It was gushing: 10 for “Vocabulary,” 10 for “Atmosphere,” 10 for “Personal” (how’s that for an arbitrary scoring system?). He described the game as a well-nigh revolutionary product, “in most respects superior” to Infocom even if the graphics were discounted, destined to cause “the standard of software demanded by adventure players to skyrocket.” There was just something about The Pawn — and Anita Sinclair; we’ll get to that momentarily — that could turn even a hardened reviewer like Campbell to jelly. His review was such a coup that Rainbird shipped copies of that issue to North America along with the first copies of The Pawn to get a buzz going.

They needn’t have worried about it. The Pawn hit American shores like a hurricane. Reviewers there, as in Britain, just couldn’t seem to find enough superlatives with which to stamp it. It even did quite well in continental Europe, particularly the computing (and Atari ST) hotbed of West Germany. For that market Rainbird translated the novella, but left the text in the game alone; making the parser parse German was a task that no one at Magnetic Scrolls had the linguistic chops to manage. Undaunted, tens of thousands of Germans struggled valiantly with the oft-gnarly English text, laced as it was with slang and idiomatic usage. It was presumably all worth it for the pictures.

But graphics were just one of The Pawn‘s not-so-secret weapons, the other being the potent comeliness of Ms. Anita Sinclair. The British press, who had the most regular access to Anita and her charms, were the most smitten. One magazine admitted frankly that it would “grab any excuse to print a picture of Anita.” It’s hard to believe that national magazines with editorial staffs and all the rest actually published some of this stuff. Take this (please!) from Amtix: “The lovely Anita Sinclair came up to Ludlow especially to show me The Pawn. Well, I was really impressed… and the game was good too!” Keith Campbell, writer of that aforementioned glowing Pawn review, called his journalistic integrity into question and also shared much more than anyone really needed to know about his private fantasies when he put “Anita Sinclair in a brass bikini” on his year-end list of things he’d like to see in 1987. An even weirder Boris Vallejo-inspired fantasy life seemed to be lived by the writer who gave her the out-of-nowhere appellation of “ice maiden.”

That gem appeared in Sinclair User. And, indeed, it was that magazine that developed the most sustained obsession with all things Anita. A contest announcement there said they’d really wanted to gift the winner with “a fantastically beautiful and intelligent companion,” but, alas, “Anita Sinclair is already spoken for,” so readers would have to settle for a light gun instead. (Presumably she’d finally been forced to use the “I have a boyfriend” line on one of them.) In a year-end roundup Sinclair User‘s readers elected her “Most Attractive Programmer,” a category that mysteriously hadn’t existed the year before. (The many write-in voters who opted for “any female programmer” gave a perhaps even more disturbing glimpse of the state of the average reader’s love life.) This is not to say that the verdict was unanimous, mind you. For some time afterward debate raged over whether Anita really was All That. One letter writer weighed in on this pressing issue with particular force. “Anita Sinclair is about as attractive as a pig’s bottom!” he declared with a noble lack of equivocation. (One wonders what his girlfriend looked like.)

This photograph of Clive Sinclair and Anita Sinclair was used for a captioning contest by Sinclair User. "Juvenile sexist comments might sniggered over in the office but won't be printed and won't win and that's that," they announced. Good to know they're fighting the good fight.

This photograph of Clive Sinclair and Anita Sinclair was used for a captioning contest by Sinclair User. “Juvenile sexist comments might be sniggered over in the office but won’t be printed and won’t win and that’s that,” they announced. Good to know they were fighting the good fight.

But my absolute favorite from this delightful little sub-genre is The Games Machine‘s review of Fish!, a later Magnetic Scrolls game. This — I kid you not — is the opening paragraph:

Anita Sinclair looks fab! I’ve always liked the lady but now that she has put on a little weight since giving up smoking she looks gorgeous. What a pity that on the day she took me to lunch (oh, do get on with it! — Ed.) she could barely walk due to some very painful blisters on her feet. She was also suffering from having a jolly good time at the Telecomsoft dinner the night before where the wine was free! Apart from discussing the PC show, other magazines, adventures in general, and her Audi Quatro, we did eventually get round to Magnetic Scrolls’s new game, Fish!.

As the extract above attests, Anita treated her little coterie of admirers with the bemused tolerance of the popular girl at school who deigns to let the lower social orders sit at her lunch table from time to time. She tactfully buffeted away questions like “Who would you most like to kiss under the mistletoe?” whilst gamely trying to focus her interviewers’ attentions back on the games in question. When some of her more sensitive interlocutors asked her feelings on all of the unwonted attention, she remained coy: “There is obviously interest in me because I’m female, but I don’t notice it very much. I think it could be an advantage.” Nor is there any sign that the other folks who worked at Magnetic Scrolls ever felt slighted by the attention lavished on Anita. To hear the magazines tell it, every Magnetic Scrolls game was practically a solo effort by Anita, even as in reality she drew none of the pictures, wrote very little of the text, and contributed to the designs only as a member of a larger team betwixt and between coding much of Magnetic Scrolls’s technical plumbing and of course running the company. The lack of outrage on the part of all parties at Magnetic Scrolls isn’t hard to explain: in a hugely competitive text-adventure market in which everyone was scrambling for a slice of a steadily shrinking pie, the attention Anita generated was precious, the best PR move Magnetic Scrolls didn’t have to actually make. Certainly their most obvious competitors in Britain, the three boffinish Austin brothers over at Level 9, didn’t have anything at their disposal to match it.

So, yes, there was a lot of smoke and mirrors behind the huge success of The Pawn, born of those pretty pictures and that pretty Anita and a media, heavily influenced by both, that was all too eager to see it as an Infocom-killer. In its way The Pawn is every bit as much a period piece as Starglider. Pointless parser permutations like the famous “USE THE TROWEL TO PLANT THE POT PLANT IN THE PLANT POT” aside, Magnetic Scrolls still had a long way to go to rise to Infocom’s level. A comparison of Leather Goddesses of Phobos with The Pawn doesn’t do the latter any favors. One design is air-tight, the other shambolic in all the worst ways. Magnetic Scrolls would get much, much better in their future games, but remains to this day slightly overrated in my opinion, benefiting just a bit too much from the awe so many of us felt back in the day when we saw those pictures for the first time. Much as their Infocom fixation might lead one to suspect otherwise, Magnetic Scrolls did innovate in their own right in some areas having nothing to do with graphics. Indeed, their later games sometimes verge on brilliance. But they always seem to disappoint almost as much as they delight, dogged by a frustrating inconsistency born, one suspects, largely from the lack of a testing regime to match Infocom’s and a willingness when under pressure to ship to let some things go — parser non sequiters, weird text glitches, underimplemented or underdescribed objects, puzzles that just don’t quite make sense — that Infocom wouldn’t.

Which is not to say that Magnetic Scrolls isn’t worthy of attention. Far from it. Their games are the most technically advanced and literate text adventures that the British games industry would ever manage. We’ll thus be looking at all of the Magnetic Scrolls games that followed The Pawn, beginning with the next two in my next article. Whatever else happens, I certainly won’t have to pan any of them quite as badly as I did The Pawn.

Before I leave you today, though, it’s worth thinking one more time about 1986, the year of the twin commercial triumphs of Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Pawn. While no one could possibly have been aware of it at the time, it would turn out to mark the end of an era. The two big adventures of the following year would be Maniac Mansion and Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards — both driven by graphics rather than text. Text adventures as a commercial proposition still had a few years to go; rest assured that some of the most interesting specimens of the species are still waiting to get their due in future articles. Yet the number of companies working in the field was dwindling, and the genre would never again manage even one, much less two games in any given year with the commercial prominence of Leather Goddesses and The Pawn. Far from taking the text adventure to new heights, as Magnetic Scrolls and Rainbird were confidently predicting, the new 16-bit machines and the games that ran on them would for better or for worse transcend it entirely. Like the contemporary players who remained loyal to the genre, we’ll just have to enjoy the gems of this twilight era while they last.

(Sources for this and the next article: Zzap! of July 1987 and December 1988; Crash of August 1988; ZX Computing of August 1986; Computer and Video Games of December 1985, April 1986, July 1986, May 1987, October 1987, and February 1988; Your Computer of January 1988; Amtix of February 1987 and March 1987; Atari User of June 1986; Questbusters of October 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of January 23 1986; Commodore User of December 1986; Sinclair User of January 1987, February 1987, April 1987, October 1987, February 1988, and August 1989; The Games Machine of December 1987 and November 1988. There are two excellent websites dedicated to Magnetic Scrolls: The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and The Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles. Francesco Cordella also conducted an interview with Rob Steggles, writer for The Pawn and two of Magnetic Scrolls’s eventual six other text adventures, which is available on his website.

The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial hosts an interpreter that will run the Magnetic Scrolls games on many platforms along with all of the games in a form that is ready to run under it. This is certainly the most painless way to play them today. That said, I think these games are actually best experienced as originally presented via an Atari ST or Amiga emulator. In that spirit, I’ve prepared a download of The Pawn with disk images for both platforms and all the other goodies that came in the box for those of you who are hardcore like me.)

 

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Fire and Rain

FirebirdRainbird

While the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga weren’t exactly flying off American store shelves in 1985 and 1986, they at least had the virtue of existing. The British computer industry, by contrast, proved peculiarly unable to produce 16-bit follow-ups to their 8-bit models that had made Britain, measured on a per-capita basis, the most computer-mad nation in the world.

Of the big three in Britain — Sinclair, Acorn, and Amstrad — only Sinclair really even tried to embrace the 16-bit era on a timely basis, announcing the QL the same month of January 1984 that the Mac made its debut. They would have been better off to wait a while: the QL was unreliable, ill-thought-out, buggy, and, far from being the “Quantum Leap” of its name, was still mired in the old 8-bit ways of thinking despite the shiny 68000 processor it shared with the Macintosh. It turned into a commercial fiasco, and Sinclair never got the chance to try again. Torpedoed partly by the QL’s failure but more so by a slowdown in Spectrum sales and Sir Clive’s decision to pull millions of pounds out of the company to fund his ridiculous miniature-television and electric-car projects, Sinclair came within a whisker of bankruptcy before selling themselves to Amstrad in 1986.

Acorn, meanwhile, gave their tendency to overengineer free rein, producing a baroque range of new models and add-ons for their 8-bit BBC Micro line while its hugely ambitious 32-bit successor, the Acorn Archimedes, languished in development hell. Undone by the same slowing market that devastated Sinclair as well as by an ill-advised grab for the low-end in the form of the Acorn Electron, Acorn was also forced to sell themselves, to the Italian company Olivetti.

That left only Amstrad still standing in an industry that had been just a year or two before the Great White Hope of a nation, symbol and proof of concept of Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a new, more entrepreneurial and innovative British economy. Unfortunately, Amstrad’s founder Alan Sugar just wasn’t interested in the kind of original research and development that would have been required to launch a brand new machine based on the 68000 or a similar advanced chip. His computers, like the stereos he had been selling for many years before entering the computer market, were all about packaging proven technology into inexpensive, practical products for the masses. There’s something to be said for that sort of innovation, but it wasn’t likely to yield a Macintosh, an Amiga, or even an Atari ST anytime soon.

This collective failure of the domestic makers meant that British punters eager to experience the wonders of 16 bits were forced to look overseas for their new toys. Yet that was a fairly fraught proposition in itself. The Macintosh was practically a machine of myth in Britain for years after its American debut, absurdly expensive and available only through a handful of specialized shops. Only wealthy gentlefolk of leisure like noted Mac fanatic Douglas Adams could contemplate actually owning one. And the Amiga, not even available in Britain until June of 1986, also suffered even thereafter from an expensive price tag and poor distribution.

That left the Atari ST as the only really practical choice. The situation was a surprising one in that Atari had not traditionally been a big player in Britain. The Atari VCS game console that had left its mark on the childhood of an entire generation in North America was virtually unknown in Britain, and, while Atari’s line of 8-bit computers had been nominally available, they had been an expensive, somewhat off-kilter choice in contrast to the Sinclair Spectrums and Commodore 64s that outsold them by an order of magnitude. But Jack Tramiel, previously the head of Commodore and now owner of the reborn post-Great Videogame Crash Atari, knew very well the potential of the European market, and pushed aggressively to establish a presence there. In fact, the very first STs to go on sale did so not in the United States but rather West Germany. By the end of 1985 STs were readily available in Britain as well and, at least in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, quite inexpensive. A British software industry looking for a transformative machine to lift home computing in Britain out of its doldrums placed its first hopes — admittedly largely by default — in the Atari ST.

Still, it was far from clear just what sort of form the hoped-for new ST software market would take. The ST may have been a bargain in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, but it was still a fairly expensive proposition within a country just getting back on its economic feet again after what felt like decades of recessions, shortages, and labor unrest. A reasonably full-featured ST system could easily reach £1000, many times what one could expect to shell out for the likes of a cheap and cheerful Speccy. The ST would seemingly need to attract a different sort of buyer, with more money to spend and perhaps a few more years under his belt. This expectation was one of the calculations that led to Rainbird, one of the most significant British software houses of the latter 1980s.

Rainbird was born from Firebird, a slightly older label that has plenty of significance in its own right. In 1984 British Telecom, solely responsible at the time for the telecommunications grid of all of Britain, was privatized, becoming a huge for-profit corporation as part of Margaret Thatcher’s general rolling-back of the socialist wave that had followed World War II. Even before the first shares were sold to the public on November 20, 1984 — the largest single share issue in the history of the world at the time — the newly liberated management of British Telecom began casting about for new business opportunities. It didn’t take them long to notice the exploding market for home-computer software. They thus formed the subsidiary of Telecomsoft, whose first imprint was to be called “Firefly Software.” That name was quickly changed to “Firebird” — it seems marketing manager James Leavey had just been listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird — when they discovered a potential trademark conflict with another company. Firebird made its public bow in time for Christmas 1984 with a whole raft of mostly simple action games, selling for £2.50 (Firebird “Silver”) or £6 (Firebird “Gold”). Many turned into bestsellers.

Whether you considered British Telecom’s entrance into software a necessary result of a rapidly maturing industry or you were like Mel Croucher of Automata in considering them nothing more than “parasites” on software’s creative classes, it marked a watershed moment, a definitive farewell to the days of hobbyists meeting and selling to one another at “microfairs” and a hello to a hyper-competitive, corporatized industry destined someday to be worth many billions. If anyone was still in doubt, in December of 1984 another watershed arrived when newly minted software agent Jacquie Lyons presided over an unabashed bidding war for the right to publish Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite on platforms other than the BBC Micro. Firebird, with the deepest pockets in the industry by far, won the prize.

Although published on the Firebird label, Elite would prove to be something of a model for the eventual Rainbird. Unlike Firebird’s previous releases, which had used the colorful but minimalist packaging typical of British games at the time, Elite‘s big, sturdy box contained not just the cassette or disk but also a thick manual, an equally thick novella to set the stage, a glossy quick-reference card, and a poster-sized ship-recognition chart (all licensed and reproduced from the Acornsoft original). All this naturally came at a price: £15 for the cassette version, fully £18 for the disk version. It marked a new way to sell games in Britain: as luxury products aimed at a classier, more sophisticated, perhaps slightly older consumer. In spite of the extra cost of all that packaging, the profit margins on its higher price points were to die for. If the Elite approach could be turned into a sustainable line rather than a one-off, British Telecom just might have something.

Tony Rainbird

Tony Rainbird

One person inside British Telecom who paid a lot of attention to Elite‘s launch and its subsequent success was Tony Rainbird, a former software entrepreneur in his own right who now worked for Firebird. He began agitating his superiors for a new software label, a sort of boutique prestige brand that would sell more sophisticated experiences at a correspondingly higher price point; it would be, if you can forgive an anachronistic metaphor, the Lexus to Firebird’s Toyota. His thinking was influenced by a number of factors in addition to Elite‘s success. He was very aware of the Atari ST that was then just arriving in Britain, aware that the people who bought that machine and in the fullness of time its inevitable eventual competitors would be willing and able to spend a bit more for software. And he was very aware of the American software market, which at that time was enjoying a golden age of gorgeous game packaging thanks to labels like Infocom, Origin, and Telarium. Games from those publishers and many others in the United States were marked by high concepts, high prices, and, yes, high margins to match. Elite, the first British game that could really compete in the United States on those terms, had been the first game that Firebird exported there; it became as huge a hit in the United States as it had in its native country. A new luxury imprint could continue to export games and other software that suited the higher expectations of Americans, whilst trading on the slight hint of the exotic provided by their British origins.

After getting permission to give the new line a go, with he himself at its head, Tony Rainbird decided that all the games should be published in distinctive boxes done in a deep royal blue, a color which to him exuded class. His first choice for a name was “Bluebird Software.” But, once again, a search turned up a conflict with another trademark, so he allowed himself to be persuaded to give the line his own name. Just as well; it fitted even better as a companion to the Firebird line.

Rainbird was launched quietly at the end of 1985 with two 8-bit creativity titles, The Art Studio and The Music System, that echoed more than faintly Electronic Arts’s Deluxe line of high-toned creative applications in the United States. But it was the following year that saw things get started in earnest, with two splashy game launches for the Atari ST. One of these, The Pawn, is an adventure game we’ve met before, along with its maker Magnetic Scrolls; we’ll continue their story in the next article I write. It’s the other, a space shoot-em-up called Starglider, that I want to spend just a bit of time with today. It’s not really a great game, but it is an interesting one to consider in its historical context, not least because of the colorful history of the person who wrote it, a young hacker with the perfect videogame-character name of Jez San (“Jez” is a nickname for “Jeremy”).

Jez San had already had a greater impact on British computing before his twentieth birthday than most programmers manage in a lifetime. It all began when his father, owner of a successful import/export firm, gave have him an American TRS-80 computer in 1978, when he was not quite thirteen years old. He first won attention for himself by coming up with a hack to let one attach the joystick from an Atari VCS — another piece of foreign exotica that came to him courtesy of his father’s business — to the TRS-80 for playing games in lieu of the awkward keyboard controls that were the norm. His skills had progressed so far by 1982 that his father agreed to become partners with him in a little software-development company to be called Argonaut Software — think “J. San and the Argonauts” — run out of his bedroom. Whilst writing software for whomever would pay him, San was also soon terrorizing the network of British Telecom. He became one of his country’s most skilled phone phreakers, a talent he used to become a fixture on computer networks all over the world. It was in fact as a network hacker rather than a programmer or game developer that he first did something to make all of Britain sit up and take notice.

On October 2, 1983, San hacked the email account of one of the presenters of a live edition of the BBC program Making the Most of the Micro, an incident that has gone down in British computing lore as the “very first live hack on TV.” Millions of Britons watched as the presenter’s computer displayed a “Hacker’s Song” from San in place of the normal login message. Like much involving San, it was both less and more than it seemed. What with War Games a huge hit in the cinema, the BBC wanted something just like what San delivered for their live show where, as the host repeatedly stated, “anything could happen.” San’s alleged victims were more like co-conspirators: “They knew I was going to hack, they were quite hoping I would,” he admits. Why else would they announce the password to all and sundry inside the studio over a live microphone just minutes before the program began? After that, it just took a phone call from a few of San’s friends who were hanging about the studio. Further circumstantial evidence of the BBC’s complicity in the whole incident is provided by the host and presenter’s weird lack of affect when the “Hacker’s Song” appeared on the screen — almost as if they expected it, or something like it, to be there. As for the “Hacker’s Song” itself, it was lifted not from some shady underground but from the very overground pages of the American magazine Newsweek, yet another gift of San’s importer/exporter father.

San was forced to cloak himself in anonymity for this great exploit, but he got the chance to advertise his skills to the world and earn himself some real money in the process soon thereafter, when he was hired by a dodgy little company called Unicom to help in the development of a new, ultra-cheap modem for the BBC Micro. He wrote the software to control the modem, much of which was supplied not on disk or tape but as a new ROM chip to be installed in the computer itself. The modem lacked approval from the British Approvals Board of Telecommunications, meaning that, in one of those circumlocutions only a hidebound bureaucracy could come up with, it was legal to buy and sell but not to actually use on the British telephone network; it was required to bear a bright red triangle on its face to indicate this. Undaunted, Unicom took the non-certification as a badge of street cred, painting little demons on either side of the BABT’s warning triangle that made it look like just part of the logo. The Unicom modem quickly became known as the “Demon Modem.” At a fraction of the price of its more legitimate competitors, it made outlaws of many thousands of Britons and earned San tens of thousands of pounds. Perhaps all those punters should have been more cautious about the people they did business with: in the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders, San makes the eye-popping claim that he imbedded backdoors into the bundled software “to take control of a computer using his modem, to make it play sounds, or type words to the screen.” This sounds frankly dubious to me given everything I know about the technology involved, but I offer it nevertheless for your consideration. At any rate, San claims he mainly used his powers to do nothing more nefarious than cheat at MUD.

San first came face to face with the executives at British Telecom not, as you might expect, because he was hauled into court for his various illegal activities, but rather when he was hired by them to help David Braben and Ian Bell port Elite from the BBC Micro to the Commodore 64. Having accomplished that task in a bare couple of months, he parlayed the success into a contract for a 3D space-combat game of his own, to target the new generation of 68000-based home computers that were on the horizon. Eager to get started, and with the Atari ST and Amiga not yet released, he rented a Macintosh for a while to start developing 3D math routines for the 68000, then shifted development to the ST as soon as it arrived in British shops. When Rainbird came into being, this 16-bit prestige project was quickly moved from Firebird to the new imprint.

Starglider

The finished Starglider that was released by Rainbird in October of 1986 was once again both less and more than it seemed. With Bell and Braben having already started squabbling and proving unable or unwilling to deliver a timely follow-up to Elite, Rainbird clearly wanted to position Starglider instead as that game’s logical successor. Just as Acornsoft had for Elite, Rainbird hired an outside author, James Follett, to write a novella setting the stage for the action. Its almost 70 pages tell the story of an alien invasion force that disguise themselves as Stargliders, a protected species of spacefaring birds, in order to penetrate the automated defenses of your planet of Novenia. You play Jaysan — didn’t I say he had the perfect name for a videogame character? — who with the assistance of his hot girlfriend Katra must save his world using the last manned fighter left in its arsenal. How’s that for a young nerd’s wish-fulfillment fantasy?

That said, connecting all of the texture provided by the novella to the actual game requires quite an effort of imagination. Starglider lacks the huge universe of Elite, and lacks with it Elite‘s strategic trading game and the slow-building sense of accomplishment that comes from improving your ship and your economic situation and climbing through the ranks. Most of all it lacks Elite‘s wondrous sense of limitless freedom. Rather than a grand space opera, Starglider is a frenetic shoot-em-up in which you down enemies for points — nothing more, nothing less. Get to and destroy a faux-Starglider, the “boss” of each level, and you advance to the next, where everything becomes a little bit harder. With no save facility beyond a high-scores table, it would fit perfectly into an arcade.

Starglider

Which is not to say that Starglider wasn’t impressive in its day within its own more limited template. The game’s most innovative feature may just be its missile-eye view: when you fire a missile you can switch your view to a camera in its nose and guide it to its target yourself. There’s also a modicum of strategy required: you need to return to a depot periodically to repair your ship and restock your weapons, and you need to replenish your energy supplies by skimming over power lines located on the surface of Novenia (shades of Elite‘s fuel scoops). But mostly Starglider seems more concerned with showing off what its 3D engine can do than pushing boundaries of gameplay. Its wireframe 3D graphics aren’t exactly a revelation in comparison to Elite‘s, but there are far more enemies now with more complex shapes, which move more smoothly — the Stargliders themselves, enormous birds that smoothly flap their wings, are particularly well-done — and which are now in color.

The problem with a game that lives and dies on its technical innovations is that once those innovations are incorporated into and improved upon by other games it has very little to offer. Writing about Elite, I noted that Braben and Bell could easily have stopped after they had a workable 3D action game, the first of its kind on a PC, and been assured of having a sizable hit on their hands. What made Elite a game for the ages was their decision to keep going, to use that 3D engine as a mere building block for something grander. The lack of a similar grander vision is what makes Starglider, as reviewer Ashley Pomeroy put it, “a period piece.” Within a year or two other games would offer 3D engines that used solid polygons instead of wireframes — including, ironically, later versions of Elite itself. Many of Starglider‘s other aspects that were impressive back in the context of 1986 are most kindly described as quaint today, like the poorly digitized voice of Katra that occasionally screams out a monosyllabic exclamation. Most embarrassing of all is the brief digitized snippet of a studio-recorded theme song that plays as the game starts; it sounds like a particularly cheesy Saturday-morning toy advertisement.

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The use of digitized sound from the real world is of course a signpost to the future of multimedia gaming, and represented a real coup in 1986, as San himself describes: “On the Atari ST Starglider was the first game to use sampled sound. I sat with my ST open, measuring voltages off the sound chip, and modulating the volume controls in real time on the three channels to find what voltages came out so that I could play samples.” Technically brilliant it may well be. Timeless, however, it’s not.

In its day, though, it was more than enough to make Starglider just the big hit needed to get the fledgling Rainbird imprint off the ground. Its sales soared well into the six figures once ported, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to quite a variety of 8-bit and 16-bit machines (a list that includes the Amiga and at long last the Macintosh, the platform where its development first began). The sheer number of ports illustrates what would soon become Rainbird’s standard business model: to release games first as prestige titles on the 16-bit machines, then port them down to the less capable but more numerous 8-bitters where the really big sales numbers could be found. Rainbird quickly learned that an Atari ST or Amiga game on the Commodore 64 still retained some of the cachet that clung to anything involving a 68000. (Cinemaware in the United States would quickly learn the same thing and engage in a similar triangulation.)

Jez San used the income Starglider generated to put his one-man-band days behind him, bringing in additional programmers to establish Argonaut as one of the mainstays of British game development for almost two decades to come. Argonaut became one of the leading lights of a certain school of game programming, centered in Europe, that would continue to program the new 16-bit machines largely as they had the older 8-bits: in raw assembler, banging right on the hardware and ignoring operating systems and all the rules of “proper” programming found in the manuals. The approach seemed to demand young minds. Indeed, it seemed to delight in chewing them up and spitting them out before their time. In 1987 a 21-year-old San was already starting to feel his powers fading in contrast to the young turks he was hiring to work for him; he declared he’d likely be “over the hill” in about two more years. He was therefore eager to complete the transition he’d already begun into a purely managerial role. Even professional sports didn’t worship youth like this brutal meritocracy.

San and his colleagues and the many other developers like them positively swaggered about their prowess at down-and-dirty to-the-metal assembly-language coding, treating those who chose to work differently with contempt. “I don’t believe you can write performance software in C,” said San bluntly in that same 1987 interview. What he apparently failed to understand or didn’t consider significant was that, in being forced to focus so much on the trees of registers, opcodes, and interrupts, he was forgoing a veritable forest of conceptual complexity and design innovation. Higher-level languages had, after all, been invented for a reason. It’s very difficult, even for an agile 20-year-old mind, to conceive really interesting systems and virtual worlds when one is also forced to manually keep track of the exact position of the electron gun painting the screen. Thus the games that Argonaut and houses like them produced were audiovisually spectacular in their day but can seem underwhelming in ours. The fundamental limitations of their designs are all too painfully apparent today, long after even the best of 1980s graphics and sound have lost their ability to awe. For that reason I don’t know that we’ll be hearing a lot from this school of game development in the years to come on this blog, but rest assured that they’ll be beavering away in the background, brilliant in their own ephemeral way.

(Sources: the film From Bedrooms to Billions; the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders; Amazing Computing of November 1987; Retro Gamer 86 and 98; Amiga Computing of June 1988; Your Computer of January 1985, February 1986, June 1986, October 1987; Computer and Video Games of February 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of March 21 1985, November 7 1985, November 14 1985, and March 27 1986; Computer Gamer of August 1986; Home Computing Weekly of April 30 1985; Games Machine of October 1988. The web site The Bird Sanctuary is full of information on Firebird, Rainbird, and their games. If you’d like to experience Starglider for yourself, feel free to download a zip from here containing Atari ST and Amiga disk images along with all of the goodies that accompanied them.)

 

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Brian Fargo and Interplay

Interplay

I touched on the history of Brian Fargo and his company Interplay some time ago, when I looked at the impact of The Bard’s Tale, their breakout CRPG hit that briefly replaced the Wizardry series as the go-to yin to Ultima‘s yang and in the process transformed Interplay almost overnight from a minor developer to one of the leading lights of the industry. They deserve more than such cursory treatment, however, for The Bard’s Tale would prove to be only the beginning of Interplay’s legacy. Let’s lay the groundwork for that future today by looking at how it all got started.

Born into suburban comfort in Orange County, California, in 1962, Brian Fargo manifested from an early age a peculiar genius for crossing boundaries that has served him well throughout his life. In high school he devoured fantasy and science-fiction novels and comics, spent endless hours locked in his room hacking on his Apple II, and played Dungeons and Dragons religiously in cellars and school cafeterias. At the same time, though, he was also a standout athlete at his school, a star of the football team and so good a sprinter that he and his coaches harbored ambitions for a while of making the United States Olympic Team. The Berlin Wall that divides the jocks from the nerds in high school crumbled before Fargo. So it would be throughout his life. In years to come he would be able to spend a day at the office discussing the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, then head out for an A-list cocktail party amongst the Hollywood jet set with his good friend Timothy Leary. By the time Interplay peaked in the late 1990s, he would be a noted desirable bachelor amongst the Orange County upper crust (“When he’s not at a terminal he can usually be found rowing, surfing, or fishing”), making the society pages for opening a luxury shoe and accessory boutique, for hosting lavish parties, for planning his wedding at the Ritz-Carlton. All whilst continuing to make and — perhaps more importantly — continuing to openly love nerdy games about killing fantasy monsters. Somehow Brian Fargo made it all look so easy.

But before all that he was just a suburban kid who loved games, whether played on the tabletop, in the arcade, on the Atari VCS, or on his beloved Apple II. Softline magazine, the game-centric spinoff of the voice-of-the-Apple-II-community Softalk, gives us a glimpse of young Fargo the rabid gamer. He’s a regular fixture of the high-score tables the magazine published, excelling at California Pacific’s Apple II knock-off of the arcade game Head-On as well as the swordfighting game Swashbuckler. Already a smooth diplomat, he steps in to soothe a budding controversy when someone claims to have run up a score in Swashbuckler of 1501, a feat that others claim is impossible because the score rolls over to 0 after 255. It seems, Fargo patiently explains, that there are two versions of the game, one of which rolls over and one of which doesn’t, so everyone is right. But the most tangible clue to his future is provided by the question he managed to get published in the January 1982 issue: “How does one get so many pictures onto one disk, such as in The Wizard and the Princess, where On-Line has more than 200 pictures, with a program for the adventure on top of that?” Yes, Brian Fargo the track star had decided to give up his Olympic dream and become a game developer.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur, 1982.

By that time Fargo was 19, and a somewhat reluctant student at the University of California, Irvine as well as a repair technician at ComputerLand. No more than an adequate BASIC programmer — he would allow even that ability to atrophy as soon as he could find a way to get someone else to do his coding for him — Fargo knew that he hadn’t a prayer of creating one of the action games that littered Softline‘s high-score rankings, nor anything as complex as Ultima or Wizardry, the two CRPGs currently taking the Apple II world by storm. He did, however, think he might just be up to doing an illustrated adventure game in the style of The Wizard and the Princess. He recruited one Michael Cranford, a Dungeons and Dragons buddy and fellow hacker from high school, to draw the pictures he’d need on paper; he then traced them and colored them on his Apple II. He convinced another friend to write him a few machine-language routines for displaying the graphics. And to make use of it all he wrote a simple BASIC adventure game: you must escape the Demon’s Forge, “an ancient test of wisdom and battle skill.” Desperate for some snazzy cover art, he licensed a cheesecake fantasy print in the style of Boris Vallejo, featuring a shapely woman tied to a pole being menaced by two knights mounted on some sort of flying snakes — this despite a notable lack of snakes (flying or otherwise), scantily-clad females, or for that matter poles in the game proper. (The full Freudian implications of this box art, not to mention the sentence I’ve just written about it, would doubtless take a lifetime of psychotherapy to unravel.)

The Demon's Forge box art, which won Softline magazine's Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

The Demon’s Forge box art, which won Softline magazine’s sarcastic Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

Fargo employed a guerrilla-marketing technique that would have made Wild Bill Stealey proud to sell The Demon’s Forge under his new imprint of Saber Software. He took out a single advertisement in Softalk for $2500. Then he started calling stores around the country to ask about his game, claiming to be a potential customer who had seen the advertisement: “A few minutes later my other line would ring and the retailer would place an order.” It didn’t make him big money, but he made a little. Then along came Michael Boone.

Boone was another old high-school friend, a scion of petroleum wealth who had dutifully gone off to Stanford to study petroleum engineering, only to be distracted by the lure of entrepreneurship. For some time he vacillated between starting a software company and an ice-cream chain, deciding on the former when his family’s connections came through with an injection of venture capital. His long-term plan was to make a golf simulation for the new IBM PC: “IBM seemed like the computer that business people and the affluent were buying. So, I should write a golf game for the IBM computer.” Knowing little about programming and needing product to get him started, he offered to buy out Fargo’s The Demon’s Forge and his Saber Software for a modest $5000, and have Fargo come work for him. Fargo dropped out of university to do so in late 1982. He assembled a talented little development team consisting of programmers “Burger” Bill Heineman and Troy Worrell along with himself, right there in his and Boone’s hometown of Newport Beach.1

Boone Corporation. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. Jay Patel isn't present in this photo.

Boone Corporation, 1983. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. They’re toasting with Hires Root Beer. “Hires Root Beer,” “Hi-Res graphics.” Get it?

After porting The Demon’s Forge to the IBM PC, Fargo’s little team occupied themselves writing quick-and-dirty cartridge games like Chuck Norris Superkicks and Robin Hood for the Atari VCS, ColecoVision, and the Commodore VIC-20 and 64. These were published without attribution by Xonox, a spinoff of K-tel Records, one of many dodgy players flooding the market with substandard product during the lead-up to the Great Videogame Crash. Michael Boone agreed to publish under his own imprint a couple of VIC-20 action games — Crater Raider and Cyclon — written by a talented programmer named Alan Pavlish whom Fargo knew well. Meanwhile work proceeded slowly on Boone’s golf simulation for the rich, which was now to be a “tree-for-tree, inch-for-inch recreation of the course at Pebble Beach.” When some Demon’s Forge players called to ask for a hint, Fargo learned that they were part of a company trying to get traction for the Moodies, a bunch of pixeish would-be cartoon characters derivative of the Smurfs; soon they came in to sign a contract for a game to be called Moodies in Iceland.

But then came the Crash. One day shortly thereafter Boone walked into the office and announced that he was taking the company in another direction: to make dry-erase boards instead of computer games. Since Fargo and his team had no particular competency in that field, they were all out of a job. Boone’s new venture would prove to be hugely successful, giving us the whiteboards now ubiquitous to seemingly every office or cubicle in the world and making Boone himself very, very rich. But even had they been able to predict his future that wouldn’t have been much consolation for Fargo and his suddenly forlorn little pair of programmers.

Fargo decided that it really shouldn’t be that hard for him to do what Michael Boone had been doing in addition to managing the development team. In fact, he had already been working on a side venture, a potential $60,000 contract with World Book Encyclopedia to make some rote educational titles of the drill-and-practice stripe. After signing that contract, he founded Interplay Productions to see it through. It wasn’t a glamorous beginning, but it represented programs that could be knocked out quickly to start bringing in money. Heineman and Worrell agreed to stay with Fargo and try to make it work. Fargo added another programmer named Jay Patel to complete this initial incarnation of Interplay. The next six to nine months consisted of Fargo hustling up whatever work he could find, game or non-game, and his team hammering it out: “We did work for the military, stuff for McGraw Hill — we did anything we could do. We didn’t have the luxury of creating our own software. We had to do other people’s work and just kept our ideas in the back of our minds.”

The big break they’d been hoping for came midway through 1984. Interplay “hit Activision’s radar,” and Activision decided to let Fargo and company make some adventure games for them. Activision at the time was reeling from the Great Videogame Crash, which had destroyed their immensely profitable cartridge business almost overnight. CEO Jim Levy had decided that the future of the company, if it was to have one, must lie with software for home computers. With little expertise in this area, he was happy to sign up even an unproven outside developer like the nascent Interplay. Mindshadow and Tracer Sanction, the first two games Interplay was actually willing to put their name on, were the results.

Fargo’s team had found time to dissect Infocom games and tinker with parsers and adventure-game engines even back during their days as Boone Corporation. Mindshadow and Tracer Sanction were logical extensions of that experimentation and, going back even further, of Fargo’s first game The Demon’s Forge. Fargo found a young artist named Dave Lowery, who would go on to quite an impressive career in film, to draw the pictures for Mindshadow; they came out looking a cut above most of the competition in the crowded field of illustrated adventure games. Mindshadow‘s Bourne Identity-inspired plot has you waking up with amnesia on a deserted island. Once you escape the island, you embark on a globe-trotting quest to recover your memories. There’s an interesting metaphysical angle to a game that’s otherwise fairly typical of its period and genre. As you encounter new people, places, and things that you should know from your earlier life, you can use the verb “remember” to fit them into place and slowly rebuild your shattered identity.

Mindshadow did relatively well for Interplay and Activision, not a blockbuster but a solid seller that seemed to bode well for future collaborations. Less successful both aesthetically and commercially was Tracer Sanction, a science-fiction adventure that isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be serious or humorous and lacks a conceptual hook like Mindshadow‘s “remember” gimmick. But by the time it appeared Fargo had already shifted much of his team’s energy away from adventure games and into the CRPG project that would become The Bard’s Tale.

Fargo and his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford had been dreaming of doing a CRPG since about five minutes after they had first seen Wizardry back in 1981. Cranford had even made a stripped-down CRPG on his own, published on a Commodore 64 cartridge by Human Engineered Software under the title Maze Master in 1983 to paltry sales. Now Fargo convinced him to help his little team at Interplay create a Wizardry killer. It seemed high time for such an undertaking, what with the Wizardry series still using ugly monochrome wire frames to depict its dungeons and monsters and available only on the Apple II, Macintosh, and IBM PC — a list which notably didn’t include the biggest platform in the industry, the Commodore 64. Indeed, CRPGs of any sort were quite thin on the ground for the Commodore 64, decent ones even more so. Fargo:

At the time, the gold standard was Wizardry for that type of game. There was Ultima, but that was a different experience, a top-down view, and not really as party-based. Sir-Tech was kind of saying, “Who needs color? Who needs music? Who needs sound effects?” But my attitude was, “We want to find a way to use all those things. What better than to have a main character who uses music as part of who he is?”

Soon the game was far enough along for Fargo to start shopping it to publishers. His first stop was naturally Activision. One of Jim Levy’s major blind spots, however, was the whole CRPG genre. He simply couldn’t understand the appeal of killing monsters, mapping dungeons, and building characters, reportedly pronouncing Interplay’s project “nicheware for nerds.” And so Fargo ended up across town at Electronics Arts, who, recognizing that Trip Hawkins’s original conception of “simple, hot, and deep” wasn’t quite the be-all end-all in a world where all entertainment software was effectively “nicheware for nerds,” were eager to diversify into more hardcore genres like the CRPG. EA’s marketing director Bing Gordon zeroed in on the appeal of one of Cranford’s relatively few expansions on Wizardry, the character of the bard. He went so far as to change the game’s name from Shadow Snare to The Bard’s Tale to highlight him, creating a lovable rogue to serve as the star of advertisements and box copy who barely exists in the game proper: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking.” Beyond that, promoting The Bard’s Tale was just a matter of trumpeting the game’s audiovisual appeal in contrast to the likes of Wizardry. Released in plenty of time for Christmas 1985, with all of EA’s considerable promotional savvy and financial muscle behind it, The Bard’s Tale shocked even its creators and its publisher by running neck-and-neck in sales for months with the long-awaited Ultima IV that appeared just a few weeks later. Interplay had come into the big time; Fargo’s days of scrabbling after any work he could find looked to be over for a long, long time to come.

The inevitable Bard’s Tale sequel was completed and shipped barely a year later. Another solid hit at the time on the strength of its burgeoning franchise’s name, it’s generally less fondly remembered today by fans. It seems that Michael Cranford and Fargo had had a last-minute falling-out over royalties just as the first Bard’s Tale was being completed, which led to Cranford literally holding the final version of the game for ransom until a new agreement was reached. A new deal was brokered in the nick of time, but the relationship between Cranford and Interplay was irretrievably soured. Cranford was allowed to make The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, but he did so almost entirely on his own, using much of the tools and code he and Interplay’s core team had developed together for the first game. The lack of oversight and testing led to a game that was insanely punishing even by the standards of the era, one that often felt sadistic just for the sake of it. Afterward Cranford parted company with Interplay forever to study theology and philosophy at university.

Despite having rejected The Bard’s Tale themselves, Activision was less than thrilled with Interplay’s decision to publish the games through EA, especially after they turned into exactly the sorts of raging hits that they desperately needed for themselves. Fargo notes that Activision and EA “just hated each other,” far more so even than was the norm in an increasingly competitive industry. Perhaps they were just too much alike. Jim Levy and Trip Hawkins both liked to think of themselves as hip, with-it guys selling the future of art and entertainment to equally hip, with-it buyers. Both were fond of terms like “software artist,” and both drew much of their marketing and management approaches from the world of rock and roll. Little Interplay had a tough task tiptoeing between these two bellicose elephants. Fargo:

We were maybe the only developer doing work for both companies at the same time, and they just grilled me whenever they had the chance. Whenever there was any kind of leak, they’d say, “Did you say anything?” I was right in the middle there. I always made sure to keep my mouth shut about everything.

Still, Fargo managed for a while to continuing doing adventure games for Activision alongside CRPGs for EA. Interplay’s Activision adventure for 1985, Borrowed Time, might just be their best. It was created at that interesting moment when developers were beginning to realize that traditional parser-based adventure games, even of the illustrated variety, might not cut it commercially much longer, but when they weren’t yet quite sure how to evolve the genre to make it more accessible and not seem like a hopeless anachronism on slick new machines like the Atari ST and Amiga. Borrowed Time is built on the same engine that had already powered Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, but it sports an attempt at providing an alternative to the keyboard via a list of verbs and nouns and a clickable graphic inventory. It’s all pretty half-baked, however, in that the list of nouns are suitable to the office where you start the game but bizarrely never change thereafter, while there are no hotspots on the pictures proper. Nor does the verb list contain all the verbs you actually need to finish the game. Thus even the most enthusiastic point-and-clicker can only expect to switch back and forth constantly between mouse or joystick and keyboard, a process that strikes me as much more annoying than just typing everything.

The clickable word list is great -- until you leave your office.

Borrowed Time on the Amiga. The clickable word list is great — until you leave your office.

Thankfully, the game has been thought through more than its interface. Realizing that neither he nor anyone else amongst the standard Interplay crew were all that good at writing prose, Fargo contacted Bill Kunkel, otherwise known as “The Game Doctor,” who had made a name for himself as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson of videogame journalism via his column in Electronic Games magazine. Fargo’s pitch was simple: “Okay, you guys have a lot of opinions about games, how would you like to do one?” Kunkel, along with some old friends and colleagues named Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, decided that they would like that very much, forming a little company called Subway Software to represent their partnership. Subway proceeded to write all of the text and do much of the design for Borrowed Time. Fargo gave them a “Script by” credit for their contributions, the first of many such design credits Subway would receive over the years to come (a list that includes Star Trek: First Contact for Simon & Schuster).

Like Déjà Vu, ICOM Simulations’s breakthrough point-and-click graphic adventure of the same year, Borrowed Time plays in the hard-boiled 1930s milieu of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. The tones and styles of the two games are very  similar. Both love to make sardonic fun of the hapless, down-on-his-luck PI who serves as protagonist almost as much as they love to kill him, and both mix opportunities for free exploration with breakneck chases and other linear bits of derring-do in service of some unusually complicated plots. And I like both games on the whole, despite some unforgiving old-school design decisions. While necessarily minimalist given the limitations of Interplay’s engine, the text of Borrowed Time in particular is pretty good at evoking its era and genre inspirations.

Collaborations like the one that led to Borrowed Time highlight one of the most interesting aspects of Fargo’s approach to game development. In progress as well in many other companies by the mid-1980s, it represented a quiet revolution in the way games got made that was changing the industry.

With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams. That sounds like an obvious idea now, but to hire an artist to do the art, a musician to do the music, a writer to do the writing, all opposed to just the one-man show doing everything, was novel. Even with Demon’s Forge, I had my buddy Michael do all the art, but I had to trace it all and put it in the computer, and that lost a certain something. And because I didn’t know a musician or a sound guy, it had no music or sound. I did the writing, but I don’t think that’s my strong point. So, really, [Interplay was] set up to say, “Let’s take a team approach and bring in specialists.”

One of the specialists Fargo brought in for Interplay’s fourth and final adventure game for Activision, 1986’s Tass Times in Tonetown, we already know very well.

Tass Times in Tonetown

After leaving Infocom in early 1985, just in time to avoid the chaos and pain brought on by Cornerstone’s failure, Mike Berlyn along with his wife Muffy had hung out their shingle as Brainwave Creations. The idea was to work as consultants, doing game design only rather than implementation — yet another sign of the rapidly encroaching era of the specialist. Brainwave entered talks with several companies, including Brøderbund, Origin, and even Infocom. However, with the industry in general and the adventure game in particular in a state of uncertain flux, it wasn’t until Interplay came calling that anything came to fruition. Brian Fargo gave Mike and Muffy carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, as long as it was an adventure game. What they came up with was a bizarre day-glo riff on New Wave music culture, with some of the looks and sensibilities of The Jetsons. The adjective “tass,” the game’s universal designation for anything cool, fun, good, or desirable, hails from the Latin “veritas” — truth. The Berlyns took to pronouncing it as “very tass,” and soon “tass” was born. In the extra-dimensional city of Tonetown guitar picks stand in for money, a talking dog is a star reporter, and a “combination of pig, raccoon, and crocodile” named Franklin Snarl is trying to buy up all of the land, build tract houses, and transform the place into a boring echo of Middle American suburbia. Oh, and he’s also kidnapped your dimension-hopping grandfather. That’s where you come in.

I’ve heard Tass Times in Tonetown described from time to time as a “cult classic,” and who am I to argue? It’s certainly appealing at first blush, when you peruse the charmingly cracked Tonetown Times newspaper included in its package. The newspaper gives ample space to Ennio, the aforementioned dog reporter who owes more than a little something to the similarly anthropomorphic and similarly cute dogs of Berlyn’s last game for Infocom, the computerized board game Fooblitzky. It seems old Ennio — whom Berlyn named after film composer Ennio Morricone of spaghetti western fame — has been investigating the mundane dimension from which you hail under deep cover as your gramps’s dog Spot. Interplay’s adventure engine, while still clearly derivative of the earlier games, has been vastly improved, with icons now taking the place of lists of words and the graphics themselves filled — finally — with clickable hotspots. The bright, cartoon-surrealistic graphics still look great today, particularly in the Amiga version.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Settle in to really, seriously play, though, and problems quickly start to surface. It’s hard to believe that this game was co-authored by someone who had matriculated for almost three years at Infocom because it’s absolutely riddled with exactly the sort of frustrations that Infocom relentlessly purged from their own games. To play Tass Times in Tonetown is to die over and over and over again, usually with no warning. Walk through gramps’s dimensional gate and start to explore — bam, you’re dead because you haven’t outfitted yourself in the proper bizarre Tonetown attire. Ring the bell at an innocent-looking gate — bam, you’re dead because this gate turns out to be the front gate of the villain’s mansion. Descend a well and go west — bam, a monster kills you. Try to explore the swamp outside of town — bam, another monster kills you. The puzzles all require fairly simple actions to solve, but exactly which actions they are can only be divined through trial and error. Coupled with the absurd lethality of the game, that leads to a numbing cycle of saving, trying something, dying, and then repeating again and again until you stumble on the right move. The length of this very short game is also artificially extended via a harsh inventory limit and one or two nasty opportunities to miss your one and only chance to do something vital, which can leave you a dead adventurer walking through most of the game. As is depressingly typical of Mike Berlyn, the writing is clear and grammatically correct but a bit perfunctory, with most of the real wit offloaded to the graphics and the accompanying newspaper. And even the slick interface isn’t quite all that it first seems to be. The “Hit” icon is of absolutely no use anywhere in the game. Even more strange is the “Tell Me About” icon, which is not only useless but not even understood by the parser. Meanwhile other vital verbs still go unrepresented graphically; thus you still don’t totally escape the tyranny of the keyboard. Borrowed Time isn’t as pretty or as strikingly original as Tass Times in Tonetown, and it’s only slightly more shy about killing you, but on the whole it’s a better game, the one that gets my vote for the first one to play for those curious about Interplay’s take on the illustrated text adventure.

Thanks to the magic of pre-release hardware, Interplay got their adventures with shocking speed onto the next generation of home computers represented by the Atari ST, the Amiga, and eventually the Apple IIGS. Well before Tass Times in Tonetown, new versions of Mindshadow and Borrowed Time, updated with new graphics and, in the case of the former, the somewhat ineffectual point-and-click word lists of the latter, became two of the first three games a proud new Amiga owner could actually buy. Similarly, the IIGS version of Tass Times in Tonetown was released on the same day in September of 1986 as the IIGS itself. While the graphics weren’t quite up to the Amiga version’s standard, the game’s musical theme sounded even better played through the IIGS’s magnificent 16-voice Ensoniq synthesizer chip. Equally well-done ports of The Bard’s Tale games to all of these platforms would soon follow, part and parcel of one of Fargo’s core philosophies: “Whenever we do an adaptation of a product to a different machine, we always take full advantage of all of the machine’s new features. There’s nothing worse than looking at graphics that look like [8-bit] Apple graphics on a more sophisticated machine.”

And, lo and behold, Interplay finally finished their IBM PC-based recreation of Pebble Beach in 1986, last legacy of their days as Boone Corporation. It was published by Activision’s Gamestar sports imprint under the ridiculously long-winded title of Championship Golf: The Great Courses of the World — Volume One: Pebble Beach. It was soon ported to the Amiga, but sales in a suddenly very crowded golf-simulation field weren’t enough to justify a Volume Two. Despite their sporty founder, Interplay would leave the sports games to others henceforth. They would also abandon the adventure games that were by now becoming a case of slowly diminishing returns to focus on building on the CRPG credibility they enjoyed in spades thanks to The Bard’s Tale.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company's founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company’s founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

By 1987, then, Brian Fargo had established his company as a proven industry player. Over many years still to come with Fargo at the helm, Interplay would amass a track record of hits and cult touchstones that can be equaled by no more than a handful of others in gaming’s history. They would largely deliver games rooted in the traditional fantasy and science-fiction tropes that gamers can never seem to get enough of, executed using mostly proven, traditional mechanics. But as often as not they then would garnish this comfort food with just enough innovation, just enough creative spice to keep things fresh, to keep them feeling a cut above their peers. The Bard’s Tale would become something of a template: execute the established Wizardry formula very well, add lots of colorful graphics and sound, and innovate modestly, but not enough to threaten delicate sensibilities. Result: blockbuster. The balance between commercial appeal and innovation is a delicate one in any creative field, games perhaps more than most. For many years few were better at walking that tightrope than Interplay, making them a necessary perennial in any history of games as a commercial or an artistic proposition. The fact that this blog strives to be both just means they’re likely to show up all that much more in the years to come.

(Sources: The book Stay Awhile and Listen by David L. Craddock; Commodore Magazine of December 1987; Softline of January 1982, March 1982, May 1982, September 1982, January 1983, September/October 1983, and November/December 1983; Amazing Computing of April 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of September 1983; Microtimes of March 1987; Orange Coast of July 2000, August 2000, September 2000, and May 2001. Online sources include: Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman, parts 1 and 3; Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo, part 1; Digital Press’s interview with Heineman; Gamestar’s interview with Fargo; interviews with Bill Kunkel at Gamasutra, Good Deal Games, and 8-bit Rocket; “trivia” in the MobyGames page on Tass Times in Tonetown; and a VentureBeat article on Interplay. Also Jason Scott’s interview with Mike Berlyn for Get Lamp that he was kind enough to share with me. And thanks to Alex Smith for sharing the “nichware for nerds” anecdote about Jim Levy in a comment on this blog. Feel free to download the Amiga versions of Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown from right here if you like.

I’ve finally rolled out a new minimalist version of this site for phone browsers. If you notice that anything seems to have gone sideways somewhere with it, let me know.

The Digital Antiquarian will be taking a holiday next week. Dorte and I are heading to Rome for a little getaway. But it’ll be back to business the week after, when we’ll cross the pond again at last to look at some developments in Britain and Europe.)


  1. Bill Heineman later had a sex change, and now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 

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On S.D.I. (Just a Little) and King of Chicago (Quite a Lot)

In addition to Defender of the Crown, Bob Jacob and Cinemaware were able to deliver two more of their planned four launch titles to Mindscape before the end of 1986. Only Bill Williams’s Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon fell hopelessly behind schedule, getting pushed well into the following year. Of the games that did make it, Sculptured Software’s Atari ST game S.D.I. is mildly interesting as a time capsule of its era, Doug Sharp’s Macintosh game King of Chicago much more so as an important experiment in interactive narrative. Today I’ll endeavor to give each game its just desserts.

S.D.I.

The scenario of S.D.I. is almost hilariously of its time, a weird stew of science fiction and contemporary geopolitics that quotes Ronald Reagan’s speeches in its manual and could never have emerged more than a year or so earlier or later. It’s 2017, the Cold War has gone on business-as-usual for another thirty years, and Ronald Reagan’s vaunted Strategic Defense Initiative is approaching completion at last. In response, a large group of hardliners in the Soviet military have siezed control of many of their country’s ICBM sites to launch a preemptive first strike, while also — this being 2017 and all — flooding Earth orbit with fighter planes to blow up those S.D.I satellites that are already online. This being a computer game and all, the nascent trillion-dollar S.D.I. program comes down to one guy with the square-jawed name of Sloan McCormick, who’s expected to jump into his spaceship to shoot down the rebel fighters in between manually shooting rogue ICBMs out of the sky using the S.D.I. satellites. He’s of course played by you. If you succeed in holding the hardliners’ attacks at bay for long enough, you’ll get a distress call from the legitimate Soviet government’s central command station, whereupon — just in case anyone was thinking you hadn’t done enough for the cause already — you’ll have to singlehandedly enter the station and rescue it from a final assault by the hardliners. Succeed and you’ll get your trademark Cinemaware reward in the form of Natalya, the sultry commander of the station who’s inexplicably in love/lust with you. Who said glasnost was dead?

S.D.I.

Like Defender of the Crown, S.D.I. very nearly missed its planned launch. It took John Cutter stepping in and riding herd over a Sculptured Software that seemed to be just a little out of their depth to push the project along to completion. It isn’t a terrible game, but it is the Cinemaware game that feels least like a Cinemaware game, well earning its status as the forgotten black sheep of the family. Natalya aside, its cinematic influences are minimal. The manual tries heroically to draw a line of concordance through heroes like Flash Gordon and Han Solo to end up at Sloan McCormick, but even it must admit to an important difference: “This time the danger comes, not from an alien invasion, but from a force here on Earth.” Likewise, S.D.I. doesn’t conform to the normal Cinemaware ethos of (in Jacob’s words) “no typing, get you right into the game, no manual.” Flying around in space blasting rebels requires memorizing a number of keyboard commands that can be found nowhere other than the ideally unnecessary manual. What with its demanding, non-stop action broken down into distinct stages, S.D.I. reminds me of nothing so much as Access Software’s successful line of Commodore 64 action games that included Beach-Head and Raid Over Moscow; S.D.I. also shares something of a theme with the latter game, although it didn’t provoke anything like the same controversy. Unfortunately, Cinemaware’s take on the concept just isn’t executed as well. The “flight simulator” where you spend the majority of your time is a particular disappointment; your enemies follow a few distressingly predictable flight patterns, while your control over your own ship is nonsensically limited to gentle turns, climbs, and dives. And the Elite-inspired docking mini-game you have to go through every time you return to your base is just infuriating. But perhaps most distressing, especially to the Amiga owners who finally got their hands on the game when it was ported to their platform almost a year later, were the workmanlike graphics, created in-house by Sculptured Software. One could normally count on great graphics even from Cinemaware games whose gameplay was a bit questionable, but not so much this time. Even Natalya, well-endowed as she was, couldn’t compete with those fetching Saxon lasses from Defender of the Crown.

King of Chicago

King of Chicago is a far more innovative game. This interactive gangster flick stars you as Pinky Callahan, an ambitious young hoodlum in 1931 Chicago. Al Capone has just been sent away for tax evasion, creating an opening for you and your North Side gang of Irishmen, principal rivals of Capone’s Chicago Outfit. But to unite the Chicago underworld under your personal leadership you’ll first have to oust the Old Man who currently runs your own gang. Only then you can start on the Chicago Outfit — or, as the game calls them, the “South Siders.” Swap out medieval England for Prohibition-era Chicago and the scenario isn’t all that far removed from Defender of the Crown: conquer all of the territory on the map that’s held by your ethnic rivals. The experience of playing the two games, however, could hardly be more different.

Like Defender of the Crown, King of Chicago isn’t so interested in the actual history it references as it is in movie history. It doesn’t even bother to get the dates right; the game begins months before the real Capone was sentenced and sent away. Victory in King of Chicago must mean the North Siders rising again to take over the whole city, a scenario as ahistorical as the Saxons defeating the Normans to regain control of England. (Cinemaware did seem to have a thing for historical lost causes, didn’t they?) Prohibition-era Chicago is just a stage set for King of Chicago, Al Capone just a name to drop. The only place where the game notably departs from gangster-movie clichés is in making you and your gang a bunch of Irishmen rather than Italians — and if you don’t pay attention to one or two last names it’s easy to miss even that, given that there’s no voice acting and thus no accents to spot. Otherwise all of the expected tropes are there, from Pinky’s weeping mother who gives all the money he sends her to the church to his devious, high-maintenance girlfriend Lola. But then, as Bob Jacob so memorably put it, all Cinemaware really had to do was “rise to the level of copycat, and we’d be considered a breakthrough.” Fair enough. As homages go — and you’ll find very few computer-game fictions of the 1980s that aren’t an homage to more established media of one sort of another — King of Chicago is one of the better of its era.

Indeed, some may find it a bit too true to its inspirations. King of Chicago is notable for just how hardcore a take on the gangster genre it is. Pinky is a punk. You can play him as a devious sneak or a violent, impulsive psychopath, but he remains a punk. There’s no redemption to be found amongst King of Chicago‘s many possible story arcs, just crime and bloody murder and revenge and, if all goes well, control of the whole of Chicago. While the ledger quietly omits the brothels that provided so much of the real Chicago mob’s income, that’s about the only place where the game soft-pedals. Even Pinky’s interactions with Lola are peppered with crude remarks about how her skills in bed make up for her other failings. Bob Jacob’s original conception of Cinemaware as games for adults finds its fullest expression here, at least if what constitutes “adult” in your view is jaded sex and casual violence.

King of Chicago

More interestingly, King of Chicago represents one of Cinemaware’s most earnest and ambitious attempt at creating an interactive narrative with at least a modicum of depth. You could convert a play-through into a screenplay and have it read as, if not precisely a good screenplay, at least one that wasn’t totally ridiculous. Not coincidentally, King of Chicago contains far more text than the average Cinemaware game. Its formal approach is also unique: it’s essentially a hypertext narrative, years before that term came into common usage. You control Pinky through a bewildering thicket of story branches by clicking on multiple-choice thought bubbles above his head. Occasionally a little action game emerges to provide a change of pace, but these are relatively deemphasized in comparison with most Cinemaware games. If S.D.I. stands at the purely reactive, action-oriented end of the Cinemaware scale, King of Chicago stands at the opposite pole of cerebral storymaking. It has a certain — and I know Bob Jacob would hate this description — literary quality about it in comparison to its stablemates. You can see its unusual narrative sophistication not least in its female cast. While not exactly what you’d call progressive in its handling of women, King of Chicago does give them actual personalities and roles to enact in the drama, rather than regarding them strictly as prizes for a job well done. In this respect it once again stands out as almost unique in the Cinemaware catalog.

Doug Sharp dressed as a gangster for a King of Chicago promotional shoot.

Doug Sharp dressed as a gangster for a King of Chicago promotional photo shoot.

King of Chicago was the creation of a thirty-something former fifth-grade teacher named Doug Sharp, another of Jacob’s old contacts from his days as a software agent that were serving him so well now as a software entrepreneur in his own right. Sharp had first been exposed to microcomputers during the late 1970s, when he was teaching school in the educational-computing hotbed of Minnesota, home of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and their seminal edutainment game The Oregon Trail amongst other innovations. His habit of taking his school’s Apple IIs home with him on weekends soon led to a job writing educational software for Control Data and Science Research Associates. In 1984 he and a partner, Mike Johnson, started working on a spiritual successor to Silas Warner’s Robot War that they called ChipWits. Programmable robots remained the theme, but they were now programmed using a visual, icon-based language instead of Robot Wars‘s cryptic assembly-language-style code. ChipWits represented a kindler, gentler approach to recreational robot programming all the way around. Instead of focusing on free-form robot-against-robot combat, the game was built as a series of missions, a collection of discrete challenges that the player’s cute little robot had to overcome in the course of a grand and non-violent adventure. Written initially for the Commodore 64, ChipWits became one of the breakout stars of the January 1985 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, and did moderately well once released by Epyx shortly thereafter. The agent who brokered that publishing deal was, you guessed it, Bob Jacob, while Kellyn Beeck, soon to become Cinemaware’s most prolific game designer but then in charge of software acquisitions at Epyx, was the latter company’s signatory to the contract.

Sharp’s next game King of Chicago became the first of the eventual Cinemaware titles to go into development, several months before Jacob would even officially form his company. Sharp threw himself into the project with a will. He “collected all the classic gangster films. I picked apart what I enjoyed most about them and used this information to come up with my characters and storyline.” He worked with a graduate student in the University of Toronto’s drama department named Paul Walsh to learn the subtle nuances of pacing and dialog that make a good play or movie. Walsh became quite taken with the project for a while there in his own right. He had a blast coming up with new episodes for Sharp to sort through, chop up, and, truth be told, often discard. “When you work on a play,” Walsh said, “you have to cut out so much good stuff. With this, all your good ideas get thrown in.” True as ever to Cinemaware’s theme, Jacob would wind up giving Walsh a credit as “Dialog Coach” in the finished product. (Walsh would go on to a long and still-ongoing career as a professor, playwright, dramaturg, and translator of Ibsen.)

King of ChicagoApart from Walsh and some music contributed by Eric Rosser, that original Macintosh King of Chicago was the work of Doug Sharp alone. When the coding and writing got to be too much, he would retreat into his workshop to mold the heads of his various characters out of clay. Once crudely digitized and imported into the game, their grotesque shapes — some of the gangsters seem to have been afflicted with whatever strange illness led to Elephant Man Joseph Merrick — certainly gave the game a unique look, if one perhaps more appropriate to a horror movie than a gangster flick.

But no matter. What’s most interesting about King of Chicago is what’s going on beneath its surface. What might first appear to be a simple branching narrative in the tradition of Choose Your Own Adventure turns out to be something much more sophisticated. It is in fact a hugely innovative leap into uncharted waters in the fraught field of ludic narrative. I want to take some time here to talk about what King of Chicago does and how it does it because these qualities make it, so much less splashy than Defender of the Crown though its surface appearance and commercial debut may have been, of equal importance in its own way. More hypertext narrative than traditional adventure game, King of Chicago does its level best to make a story with you rather than merely tell you a story. This distinction is a very important one.

The story in a storytelling game lies waiting to be discovered — but not written — by you as you make your way through the game. Storytelling games can offer strong, interesting stories, but do so at the expense of player freedom. You generally have local agency only, meaning that you may have some options about the order in which you explore the storyworld and even how you cause events to progress, but you’re nevertheless tightly bound to the overall plot created by the game’s designer. The canonical example of a storytelling game, a perpetual touchstone of scholars from Janet Murray to Chris Crawford, is Infocom’s Planetfall, particularly the death therein of your poor little robot companion Floyd. Every player who completes Planetfall will have experienced the same basic story. She may have seen that story in a slightly different order than another player and even solved its problems in slightly different ways, but Floyd will always sacrifice himself at the climactic moment, and all of the other major plot events will always play out in the same way. Storytelling games are Calvinist in philosophy: free will is just an illusion, your destiny foreordained before you even get started. Still, fixed as their overall plots may be, they allow plenty of space for puzzle solving, independent investigation of the environment, and all those other things we tend to wrap up under the convenient term of “gameplay.” I’m of the opinion that experiencing a story through the eyes of a person who represents you the player, whom you control, can do wonders to immerse you in that story and deepen the impact it has on you. Some folks, however, take the Infocom style of interactive fiction’s explicit promise of an interactivity that turns out to exist only at the most granular level as a betrayal of the medium’s potential. This has led them to chase after an alternative in the form of the storymaking game.

The idealized storymaking game is one that turns you loose in a robustly simulated storyworld and allows you to create your own story in conjunction with the inhabitants of that world.1 Unfortunately, it remains an unsolved and possibly unsolvable problem, for we lack a computerized intelligence capable of responding to the player when the scope of action allowed to her includes literally anything she can dream of doing. Since an infinite number of possibilities cannot be anticipated and coded for by a human, the computer would need to be able to improvise on the fly, and that’s not something computers are notably good at doing. If we somehow could find a way around this problem, we’d just ram up against another: stories of any depth almost universally require words to tell, and computers are terrible at generating natural language. In a presentation on King of Chicago for the 1989 Game Developers Conference, Sharp guessed that artificial intelligence would reach a point around 2030 where what he calls “fat and deep,” AI-driven storymaking games would become possible. As of today, though, it doesn’t look like we’ll get there within the next fifteen years. We may never get there at all. Strong AI remains, at it always has, a chimera lurking a few decades out there in some murky future.

That said, there’s a large middle ground between the fixed, unalterable story arc of a Planetfall and the complete freedom of our idealized storymaking game. Somewhere inside that middle ground rests the field of choice-based or hypertext literature, which generally gives the player a great deal of control over where the story goes in comparison to a traditional adventure game of the Infocom stripe, if nothing close to the freedom promised by a true storymaking game. The hypertext author figures out all of the different ways that she is willing to allow the story to go beforehand and then hand-crafts lots and lots of text to correspond with all of her various narrative tributaries. The player still isn’t really making her own story, since she can’t possibly do anything that hasn’t been anticipated by the story’s author. Yet if the choices are varied and interesting enough it almost doesn’t matter.

The adventure game and the hypertext are two very distinct forms; fans of one are by no means guaranteed to be fans of the other. Each is in some sense an exploration of story, but in very different ways. If the adventure game is concerned with the immersive experience of story, the hypertext is concerned with possibilities, with that question we all ask ourselves all the time, even when we know we should know better: what would have happened if I had done something else? The natures of the two forms dictate the ways that we approach them. Most adventure games are long-form works which players are expected to experience just once. Most hypertexts by contrast are written under the assumption that the player will want to engage with them multiple times, making difference choices and exploring the different possible outcomes. This makes up for the fact that the average playthrough of the average hypertext, with its bird’s-eye view of the story, takes a small fraction of the time of the average playthrough of the average adventure game, with its worm’s-eye view. It also, not incidentally for Doug Sharp’s purposes, dovetails nicely with the Cinemaware concept of games that play out in no more time than it takes to watch a film, but that, unlike (most) films, can be revisited many times.

Narrative-oriented computer games in the early days hewed almost uniformly to the adventure-game model. Partly this was a matter of tradition; parsers and puzzles had become so established in the wake of Adventure and Scott Adams that it was seemingly hard for many authors to even conceive of alternative models of interaction (witness Nine Princes in Amber, a game that founders on the rocks between text adventure and hypertext). And partly this was a matter of technical constraints; those early machines were so starved for memory that the idea of a complex branching narrative, most of which the player would never see in any given playthrough, was a luxury authors could barely even conceive of affording. Thus during the early 1980s hypertexts were commonly found not on computers but in the hugely popular Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s books and the many spin-offs and competitors it spawned.

The firewall began to come down at last in 1986, after designers began to realize that it was okay to dump parsers and puzzles if their design goals leaned in another direction, and after microcomputers had progressed enough from the days of 16 K and cassette tapes to crack open the door to more narrative experimentation. We’ve already looked closely at a couple of the works that resulted. Portal and Alter Ego each had the courage to abandon the parser, but neither takes full advantage of the new possibilities that come with placing a computer program — a real simulated storyworld — behind the multiple choices of Choose Your Own AdventurePortal is an exploration of a fixed, immutable story that has already happened rather than an exercise in making a new one. Alter Ego is more ambitious in its way, being an interactive story of a life that keeps track of your alter ego’s level of psychological, interpersonal, and economic achievement. Still, it doesn’t adapt the story it tells all that well to either your evolving personality or your evolving life situation, forcing you to power through largely the same set of vignettes every single time you play. King of Chicago, on the other hand, pushes the envelope of narratogicial possibility harder than any game that had yet appeared on a PC at the time of its release.

Here’s how Sharp describes his conception of his interactive movie:

A guy in a projection booth with hours and hours of film about a group of gangsters. The film is not on reels but in short clips of from a few seconds to a few minutes long. The clips hang all over the walls of the projection room. The projectionist knows exactly what’s on each clip and can grab a new one and thread it into the projector instantly. The audience is out there in the theater shouting out suggestions and the projectionist is listening and taking the suggestions into account but also factoring in what clips he’s already shown, because he wants to put together a real story with a beginning, middle, and end, subplots, introduction and development of characters and the whole narrative works. I wanted to minimize hard branches, to keep the cuts between clips as unpredictable as possible. Yet the story had to make sense, guys couldn’t die and reappear later, you couldn’t treat the gangster’s moll like dirt and expect her to cover your back later.

The second-to-last sentence is key. Hypertexts prior to King of Chicago had almost all been built out of predictable hard branches: “If you decide to do A, turn to page X; if you decide to do B, turn to page Y.” Such an approach all too often devolves after a play or two into a process of methodically lawn-mowering through the branches, looking for the path not yet taken until branches or patience is exhausted. Sharp, however, wanted a story that could feel fresh and surprising over many plays. In short, he wanted to deliver an exciting new gangster movie to his player each time. To do so, he would have to avoid the predictability of hard branches. He dubbed the system he came up with to do so Dramaton.

Like real life, Dramaton deals in probabilities and happenstance as much as cause and effect. The game as a whole can be thought of as a big bag of potential scenes, each described and “shot” much like a single scene from a movie, with the important difference that each offers Pinky one or more choices to make as it plays out. These choices can lead to a limited amount of the dreaded hard branching within each scene. Where Dramaton mixes things up, though, is in the way it chooses the next scene. Rather than inflexibly dictating what comes next via a hard branch, each episode alters a variety of variables reflecting the state of the storyworld and Pinky’s place within it. Some of these are true/false flags. (Has Pinky bumped off the Old Man to assume control of the gang? Has the eminently bribeable Alderman Burke been elected mayor?) Others are numeric measurements. (How happy is Pinky’s girl Lola is with her beau? How does the rest of the gang feel about him? How well are the North Siders doing in Chicago at large? How agitated are the police by the gangsters’ activities?)

After an episode is complete, a narrative generator — what Sharp calls the Narraton — looks at all of these factors, then adds a healthy dose of good old randomness to choose an appropriate next episode that fits with what has come before. The player’s specific choices in an episode can also have a direct impact on what happens next, but with rare exceptions such choices are used more to whittle down the field of possibilities than to force a single, pre-determined follow-up episode. For example, if the player has just decided it might be a good idea to go see what’s up with Lola, the following episode will be restricted to those involving her.

To facilitate choosing an appropriate episode, each is assigned “keys,” amounting to the state of affairs in the storyworld that would ideally hold sway for it to fit perfectly into the overall context of the current story. For instance, an episode in which Lola goads Pinky, Lady Macbeth-style, for his failings and lack of ambition might require a low “Lola Happiness” number and a low “Pinky Reputation” score. An episode in which Pinky hears some other gangsters grumbling about the Old Man and must decide how to respond might require a relatively low “Old Man Reputation” number but a high “Gang Confidence” score (thus leading them to feel empowered to speak up). The closer the current reality of the storyworld corresponds with a given episode’s indexes, the more likely that episode is to be chosen.

This method of weaving scenes together had some interesting implications for Sharp himself as he wrote the game, turning the process into something more akin to guiding a child’s growth than constructing a dead piece of technology. He could “improvise” as an author: “If I got a great idea for a new episode, I could set it up in its own sequence, assign it keys, and trust that it would be selected appropriately.” Thus he was actually approaching the storymaking ideal despite being forced to work with fixed chunks of story rather than being able to cause the computer to improvise its own story; he was creating a narrative capable of surprising even him, the author. He notes that there are quite likely episodes in King of Chicago that have never been seen by any player ever because the indexes assigned to them can never be matched closely enough to trigger them — dead ends left behind as the storyworld organically grew and evolved under his careful stewardship.

For the ordinary player of the finished product, there must obviously come a point where episodes begin to repeat themselves and King of Chicago loses its interest. Sharp did his best, however, to delay that point as long as possible. He estimates that all of the episodes in the game played one after another would take about eight hours to get through, while the player is likely to see no more than 20 percent of them in any given playthrough. For a while anyway each of the gangster movies you and King of Chicago generate together really does feel unique. Even the opening scene that kicks off the movie varies with the vicissitudes of the random-number generator. The storyworld of King of Chicago, where your actions have an effect on your own fate and that of those around you but aren’t the whole of the story, can feel shockingly real in contrast to both the canned fictions of adventure games and the hard branches of those less ambitious hypertext narratives that still dominate the genre even today.

Managing a criminal empire by the twenty-question method.

Managing a criminal empire by the twenty-question method.

Unfortunately less effective is the simple economic strategy game that’s grafted onto the interpersonal stories. Here you control how much effort you put into your various criminal endeavors — speakeasies, gambling, and rackets — as well as how much you pay your right-hand man and bean counter Ben, the various officials you bribe, the foot soldiers in the gang, Lola, and of course yourself. In the original Macintosh version of the game this process is almost unbelievably tedious. You’re forced to learn about and control your empire via a question-and-answer session with Ben that takes absolutely forever and that has to be repeated over and over as the months pass. You can easily end up spending more total time having these inane dialogs with Ben then you do with the entire rest of the game.

King of Chicago on the Amiga.

King of Chicago on the Amiga.

Thankfully, the Macintosh version is not the final or definitive one. Over a year after the original release the game finally appeared on the Amiga in a version that isn’t so much a port as a complete remake. While Sharp still acted as programmer and narratologist, Cinemaware’s in-house team completely redid the graphics, ditching Sharp’s Potato Heads in favor of hand-drawn portraits of tough mugs and pouting dames that could be dropped easily into any vintage James Cagney flick. Sharp, meanwhile, took the opportunity to tighten up the narrative, removing some wordy exposition and pointless scenes, rewriting others. The occasional action games were also vastly improved to reflect the Amiga’s capabilities. Best of all, the endless question-and-answer sessions with Ben were replaced with a simple interactive ledger giving an easily adjustable overview of the state of your criminal empire. The strategy angle is still a bit undercooked — the numbers never quite add up from month to month, and cause and effect is far from consistently clear — but it goes from being a tedious time sink to an occasional distraction. The Amiga version plays out in about half the time of the original, with a corresponding additional dramatic thrust.

The Amiga's much-improved economic interface.

The Amiga version’s much-improved economic interface.

Of S.D.I. and King of Chicago, the latter would turn out to be the more successful in the long run, managing to sell more than 50,000 copies — albeit most of them in its vastly improved version for the Amiga and (eventually) the Atari ST, Apple IIGS, and IBM PC rather than its original Macintosh incarnation. Despite its relative commercial success, it’s always been amongst the most polarizing of the Cinemaware games, dismissed by some — unfairly in my opinion, for all the reasons I’ve just so copiously documented — as little more than a computerized Choose Your Own Adventure book. Future Cinemaware games would take their cue from Defender of the Crown rather than its companions on the label’s debut marquee. I wish I could say I expect to be revisiting the ideas behind Doug Sharp’s Dramaton soon, whether via a game from Cinemaware or anyone else, but such bold experiments in interactive narrative have been much less common than one might wish in the history of computer gaming. This just makes it all the more important to credit them when we find them.

(The sources listed in the previous article apply to this one as well. In addition: Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Doug Sharp’s blog; and two presentations given by Sharp, one from the 1989 Game Developers Conference and the other from 1995 American Association of Artificial Intelligence Symposium on Interactive Story Systems.

King of Chicago is available in the emulated Amiga version for iOS and Android for those of you interested in experiencing it today.)


  1. I should note at this point that the terms “storytelling game” and “storymaking game” are hardly set in stone. Some prefer to talk of “canned narratives” and “emergent narratives.” Some, such as Brian Moriarty, have even flipped the terms around, considering the stories in storymaking games to be stories made beforehand by a human designer, and the stories in storytelling games to be stories made up and told on the fly by the computer. Doug Sharp himself seems to favor Moriarty’s usage, but I find my approach more intuitive. Regardless, it’s best not to get too hung-up on ever-shifting terminology in this area, and just try to understand the concepts. 

 
 

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Mike Berlyn Could Use a Little Helping Hand

Mike Berlyn

As some of you who read this blog are doubtless already aware, Mike Berlyn was diagnosed with cancer last September. Whilst undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he’s also been accumulating medical bills not covered by Medicare. In short, he needs at least $36,000 to put him in the clear again and let him concentrate on dealing with his illness rather than worrying about money. If one of Berlyn’s many games touched you or made you laugh at a time when you needed a little boost in your own life, or if you just feel like I do that everyone should have a right to the medical care they need regardless of money, please think about going to the donation page set up by Berlyn’s fellow Infocom alum Dan Horn and contributing whatever feels appropriate and manageable.

And please help to spread the word further via all that “social media” stuff the kids are always talking about these days!

 

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