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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Project: Space Station, Part 3: The Game

Project: Space Station

Stan Kent and his company AstroSpace may have exited the stage, but Avant-Garde Publishing, the new owners of HES, weren’t ready to give up on Project: Space Station. They reached out to Larry Holland to finish the game.

Holland shares with Stan Kent some impressive academic credentials, but he’s otherwise his polar opposite: a quiet get-the-job-done sort who has always avoided interviews and public exposure as much as possible. After earning a Bachelors in anthropology and archeaology from Cornell in 1979, he spent two years out in the field, working on digs in Africa, Europe, and India, before starting on a PhD at Berkeley. He settled there near Silicon Valley just as home computers were beginning to take off. He bought himself one of the first Commodore 64s, learned to program it, and was hired by HES in early 1983 to port action games like Super Zaxxon to it. He proved himself clever and reliable at the work, enough so that it was decided to dump Project: Space Station in his lap. It was just the chance Holland needed to show what he could really do. He pared down and refined AstroSpace’s shaggy mixture of advocacy and simulation, synthesizing a bunch of disparate pieces that looked more like engineering tools than pieces of a game into something that fit on a single disk side and was actually fun — and all without sacrificing the spirit of the original concept.

Project: Space Station starts you out on July 1, 1985, with two space shuttles, $10 billion(!), and high hopes. You’ll have to plan and build your station module by module, while also, this being the new era of space exploration, earning enough from commercial satellite launches and the results of the experiments you run up there to keep the project going. From the perspective of today especially, Project: Space Station is a simulation of an alternate history in which the American space station not only got funded and built in the 1980s but all of NASA’s manned-space initiatives — most notably the shuttle — lived up to all of their plans and hopes. In this timeline shuttle launches are truly routine. You can assign a couple of astronauts to a shuttle, launch it, bring them down a few days later after having delivered their payload, then launch them again a week later like the space truckers they are. In a small concession to reality, every ten launches or so the shuttle might lose some thermal tiles, thus needing an extra ten days or so for repairs, but the thing blessedly never blows up or burns up. You even have clients asking you to hoist satellites for them for $40 million to $70 million a shot, and the shuttle is cheap enough to operate that you can turn a profit on that; pack several satellites into the cargo bay and send ‘er up before your arch-rival, the European Space Agency with their boring unmanned rockets, steals the job from you.

Project: Space Station Project: Space Station

The first thing you notice when you first start Project: Space Station is how friendly it strains to be. I’ve made it a point to mention in the past how the innovations of the Lisa and Macintosh trickled down to cheaper machines in a way that gave the Apple computers influence far out of proportion to their actual sales numbers. That influence is all over Project: Space Station; this program simply couldn’t have existed a couple of year earlier. Everything is presented via icons and menus, navigable with the trusty joystick, while the space-station design screen has you sketching out your station by pulling modules into place with a “mouse” pointer. There’s even a — get this — context-sensitive help system to guide you through the game along with some canned tutorials to get you started. Hardware limitations inevitably restrict all of this in practice, but Project: Space Station feels like it was looking ahead about ten years into the future of software — or just looking very carefully at what was happening on the Mac, which largely amounted to the same thing.

The other obviously extraordinary thing about Project: Space Station is the fact that it runs entirely in real time. There were plenty of grand strategy games already available for machines like the Commodore 64; SSI alone had published dozens of them by 1985. But, true to that company’s roots in cardboard wargaming, most of these felt like tabletop rules sets that had been translated to the computer. Project: Space Station, however, is undeniably a born-and-bred computer game. There are no turns here. As you navigate through its screens the clock is constantly ticking, sometimes much to your consternation, as when you find yourself with research projects that need to be tweaked, a shuttle costing you money in space that needs to be landed ASAP, a precious satellite contract about to be awarded to those pesky Europeans, and another shuttle on the launch pad about to begin its countdown. Where do you begin? This game does nothing if not teach how to prioritize and how to manage your time. It also does a great job of not making you feel like you’re just tinkering with a dry spreadsheet, a syndrome that afflicted many other contemporary strategy games, a genre not exactly known for its graphics at a time when graphics in general were, shall we say, somewhat limited in comparison to today. Project: Space Station‘s graphics are actually quite nice for the era and the machine. But more importantly, you get to do such a variety of stuff in this game that it stays fresh and interesting for a surprisingly long time. When you’re tired of budgeting, there’s a shuttle to land via a real-time action game; when you’re tired of tweaking research projects, there’s that new laboratory module to move into place via an EVA.

So, let me walk you quickly through the different sections of the game, each of which is represented by and always accessible via its icon at the top of the screen.

Project: Space Station

The Plan section is the expected spreadsheet portion of the game, where you allocate funds to your different departments; buy the actual pieces of the station which you’ll be assembling, erector-set-like, in orbit; hire and fire astronauts; and provision and schedule shuttle launches. The most interesting and surprising part of this section is the astronaut-selection process. Each of the 32 possible astronauts has not only a professional specialty but also a personality. You have to consider whom you put together, because personality clashes can and will result if you put, say, a control freak together with a more laissez-faire kind of fellow. You’ll grow attached to some of these folks, and you’ll feel awful if you kill one or more of them by stranding a shuttle in orbit or botching an EVA.

Project: Space Station

Shuttle launches are affected by the weather; you’ll want to watch it carefully, and delay the launch if conditions are too unfavorable. Occasional mechanical snafus will also cause delays. Once the candle is lit, you take control, guiding the shuttle into orbit via a little action game that doubtless would have horrified the original Project: Space Station team with its lack of realism but is nevertheless a nice, not-too-difficult break from the strategic side of the game. If you stray too far off course, the shuttle will end up parked in orbit far from your station, making any EVA operations to expand or repair it much more time consuming and hazardous.

Project: Space Station

Shuttle landings also involve a simple action game. Rough landings can result in damage to the shuttle and extra repair time before it can fly again.

Project: Space Station

The Station section is there mainly to let you transfer astronauts between a shuttle in orbit, which can hold up to six people, and the station, whose capacity depends on how many crew modules you’ve bought, flown into orbit, and linked up, along with how much additional station infrastructure you’ve built to support the crew: power modules, radiator modules to disperse heat from the power modules, emergency modules to protect the astronauts from the occasional solar flares. And of course there’s not much point in having people at the station without something for them to do — meaning research projects, which require laboratory modules, which require yet more power modules, which… you get the picture.

Project: Space Station

The EVA section is the most fanciful part of the game. You venture outside shuttle and station using worker pods that have everything to do with 2001: A Space Odyssey and nothing to do with anything NASA was likely to come up with in the mid-1980s. You use the pods to construct the station, clear occasional debris that’s made its way into the station’s orbit, and launch commercial satellites; in the screenshot above, I’ve just attached a Payload Assist Module to a satellite to boost it into geosynchronous orbit. It’s very easy to run out of fuel or damage a pod so badly that it’s no longer functional. When that happens, you’d best have a backup pod that you can use to rescue the first before oxygen runs out. Once you’ve experienced a single time the excruciation of waiting for an astronaut to die from oxygen deprivation, unable to do anything about it, you’ll make sure you always do, believe me.

Project: Space Station Project: Space Station

Finally there’s the real heart of the game, the R & D section; after all, it does bill itself on the box as a “science simulation in space.” You can have up to four research projects running at once, assuming you have a station that can support them. While you receive a generous initial budget which you can supplement with satellite launches, your research should eventually become the heart of your revenue stream, as it is the heart of the game’s rhetorical argument for a space station as a fundamentally practical, commercial proposition that will eventually pay for itself and then some. Some projects can also yield practical improvements that will make your station run more efficiently. There are 40 impressively specific projects to choose from, divided into 9 categories: Agriculture, Astronomy, Bio Medical, Earth Watch, Geology, Materials Science, Meteorology, Physics, and Space Technology. It’s a big thrill when one yields a major breakthrough, enough so that you’ll probably be willing to ignore questions like why it’s necessary for people in space to examine the satellite imagery used to make a crop survey.

I don’t want to overstate the case for Project: Space Station. While thoroughly entertaining in its early stages, it does have a litany of little problems that are very likely to turn you off eventually. Many involve research. If you don’t happen to be watching an R & D project when a milestone is completed, it’s very easy to miss it; once replaced by something else, each R & D notification from each project is lost forever whether you’ve actually read it or not. That’s a very bad thing because each project yields exactly three milestones, after which it continues to suck money from your budget but doesn’t earn you much of anything. You’re thus often left uncertain whether a given project has run its course or a big windfall might be just around the corner. Even more infuriating is when a project starts saying a “key scientist” is needed for research to continue, without telling you whom or even what type of scientist you should be looking for. Gameplay then devolves into a tedious — and expensive — ferrying up of shuttleloads of possibilities and swapping them in one at a time, whilst you wonder what the hell sort of a research team would just tell you they feel the need for someone else but not whom or what for.

There are a number of other areas like this where the game’s ambitions outrun the capabilities of an 8-bit 64 K computer with a blocky low-resolution screen, where you feel like the game just isn’t telling you things you really ought to be able to know. Which research projects are expected to yield the most immediate returns for the early days of your station? When can you expect the next injection of financial assistance from Congress, and how much will it be? If a research team is suffering personality clashes, who exactly is having a problem with whom? And then there’s the goal problem, in the sense that there really isn’t one. The whole affair must presumably spin down into entropy at some point, when you’ve done all of the research projects and can no longer sustain your station, although it seems that can take a very long time; on his now-defunct blog dedicated to the game, Geof F. Morris posted screenshots of a station that lasted into 2007 in game years. I would venture to guess that Larry Holland was not so much unaware of these problems as just unable to push the hardware any further to correct them. Project: Space Station‘s sensibility is so modern that it can lead us to expect more from it than a Commodore 64 can deliver even under the control of a great programmer.

The game didn’t have much commercial luck. It was released at last in late 1985, some three years after Stan Kent had first conceived it and just a few months before the Challenger, which features as one of the two shuttles in the game, blew up on its way to orbit and suddenly made Project: Space Station‘s sunny optimism about a future in space feel tragically anachronistic. Avant-Garde Publishing went under shortly thereafter, marking the final end of the HES label. Yet Project: Space Station wasn’t dead yet. It ended up in the hands of Accolade, who rereleased it in 1987 as a member of their Advantage line of budget games, with some small but important changes: the Challenger was replaced by the Discovery, and the starting date was moved up to 1987. It made no great impact then either, and faded away quietly into commercial oblivion at last.

Surprisingly given its (lack of) commercial performance, Project: Space Station spawned a modest, oddly specific sub-genre of space-station-building games that also included Electronic Arts’s Earth Orbit Stations as well as Space MAX from the perfectly named Final Frontier Software and the more fanciful E.S.S. Mega from Coktel Visions, which replaced American with European boosterism. Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, a management simulation of the Moon race, might also be considered something of a spiritual heir. All except that last share with the space shuttle itself today a certain melancholia. Thoroughly of their time as they are, they can be a bit disconcerting to us in ours, showing as they do ambitions never fulfilled, grand adventures never quite undertaken.

Project: Space Station is even more fascinating as a piece of history than many of the titles I write about, being a document of our sunniest expectations for a future in space prior to the Challenger explosion that changed everything. But even taken as just a game, it’s impressive and noble enough that I’d recommend you play it for a little while in spite of its issues. You can download the original Commodore 64 version from here if you like, or find its ports to the Apple II and IBM PC on other sites. Most games — even the equally-noble-in-its-own-way Ultima IV — treat life so cheaply, sending you off to slaughter in the name of becoming a hero. It’s nice to play a game that’s all about preserving the precious lives of your astronauts, that shows that a game can be absolutely without violence and still be riveting, that shows that heroism need not come with a body count. Would that ludic history had many more like it.

(Larry Holland — who in later years tended to be billed as Lawrence Holland — has generally managed to avoid talking much about his personal life and background as well as his early career. The best print source is a profile in the spring 1992 issue of LucasArts’s newsletter The Adventurer. While I generally try to avoid wikis or overly fannish sources, his page on Wookiepedia is also very complete and appears to collect just about everything we know about him, scanty though it may be.)

 
 

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Project: Space Station, Part 2: The Dream

A proposed NASA space station with shuttle docked

As long as there has been a space program, there have been space-program boosters. With budgets dwindling and interest waning after Apollo 11, however, NASA suddenly needed them as never before. Various people started various organizations to educate, to advocate, to lobby, sometimes even to agitate the case for space. Briefly among the more prominent of these folks during the early 1980s was Stan Kent, a precocious English rocket scientist still in his mid-twenties.

Growing up working class in the industrial city of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, Kent wrote to NASA asking for more information about the Titan rocket used to hoist the Gemini space capsules into orbit. Much to his family’s surprise, they sent it, cementing a passionate love affair with space and with NASA. (NASA was notably wonderful about this sort of thing in their 1960s heyday; many a starry-eyed kid all over the world received a similar thick envelope filled with pictures and articles for no charge but the cost to mail a letter to Houston.) At age 15, he demonstrated for the first time what would prove to be a lifelong knack for self-promotion. Determined to find a way to come to the United States to study rocket science, he entered a contest to design a functioning powered aircraft which won him national attention inside his home country and was enough to recommend him to a wealthy philanthropist in Santa Clara, California, named Austen Warburton. With Warburton’s assistance, he came to the United State to attend university at the age of 17, and graduated from Stanford with a Masters in aerospace engineering in 1978 at the age of 22, winning the prestigious Herman Oberth Gold Medal in the process for his paper on “The Space Shuttle External Tank as a Reentry Module.” He was soon working for Boeing and later Lockheed, and doing consulting jobs for NASA itself.

Kent’s public space advocacy began in 1979, when he got wind of proposals within NASA to stop monitoring the two Viking probes that had landed on Mars three years before simply because they couldn’t afford to continue to pay people to do it. He organized a Viking “charity” which presented NASA administrator Robert A. Frosch with a check for $60,000 to go toward continued monitoring on January 7, 1981. The sum would increase to over $100,000 in the months to come, then increase dramatically again when he organized with former astronaut and Moon-walker Pete Conrad to sell off recovered pieces from the old Skylab space station by way of further fundraising. (By that time Viking 2 had already gone offline due to a failed battery. Viking 1 would continue to transmit — and, yes, to be monitored — until a botched software update took it offline on November 11, 1982.)

Under the aegis of Delta Vee, the nonprofit corporation he set up with the assistance of Warburton and some aerospace colleagues, Kent stumped the country on behalf of space, appearing on television, on radio, in Omni magazine (with whom he did much of his advocacy in partnership), and in countless newspaper articles. He worked to set up a nationwide network of “neighborhood space centers” — “the McDonald’s of space” — and gave speeches to anyone who would have him. Far from your stereotypical rocket scientist, Kent made space cool in what the L.A. Times described as his “new-wave haircut, beige suit, purple shirt, and bright red tie”; he looked like “he might be a member of a rock band.” In September of 1981 he testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications at the age of just 25. His pitch emphasized a new, more pragmatic take on space very much in keeping with the dawning hyper-capitalism of the 1980s. The NASA that Kent described was fundamentally a practical enterprise whose work would bring scientific and technological breakthroughs to make life better for ordinary Americans, along with economic benefits to the country; Kent was fond of citing such dubious surveys as the one done in 1972 by Chase Econometrics, which claimed that every $1 spent on the space industry injected $10 to $15 back into the economy within five to seven years.

In that spirit, he and his partners soon set up a second, for-profit corporation they named AstroSpace. Its initial purpose was to research and hopefully to exploit a pet idea Kent called SOLARES: “Space Orbiting Light Augmentation Reflector Energy System,” a way to beam concentrated sunlight down to Earth for use as energy. In the meantime, though, the home-computer boom was happening. Soon Kent hit upon a more earthbound project for his company: to create a computer game that simulated the building and operation of the permanent space station that he and so many others felt represented the next logical steppingstone to Mars and beyond. By 1983 he had sold the idea to Jay Balakrishnan of Human Engineered Software, who loved big, high-concept edutainment titles.

Project: Space Station was certainly that. The game that Kent and Balakrishnan described (separately) to InfoWorld magazine in 1984 — it was quite obviously the HES product that the latter was most excited to discuss — filled nine disk sides. Balakrishnan:

It’s an absolute simulation. First of all, to start you have to go to Congress to requisition a budget. You have to choose your scientific team that will comprise the space mission. There’s a book, almost like a story, with different fictitious characters that you can select your team from. There’s a whole page of biographical data on each person — where they went to school, whom they married, whether they’re stable individuals or not, and so on. Then you must decide on what kind of industry you’re going to develop in space — for example, if you want to make ball bearings or crystals or whatever.

Then you design your space station. Each one is a different module. You might build a plant area, living quarters, etc. Then you run a simulation. Now the plant starts working, giving oxygen and life, and the industry starts working. You see that it’s a viable operation. Finally, after you have overseen everything, you resign your post. You were the director of a successful space industry, so you get your gold watch at the end. Of course, during the game all kinds of random things can occur. Maybe you’ve gone over budget. So you go back to Washington, D.C., and appeal for a higher requisition to keep the business going.

Together Kent and Balakrishnan organized an “advisory” board for the project that consisted of Kent’s colleagues in the aerospace industry along with the high-school students who would be the game’s most obvious target market, all “overseen” by the hapless, computer-illiterate Leonard Nimoy (who must have been wondering by this point why he’d signed on with HES at all).

I find this original conception of Project: Space Station fascinating as an early example of a computer game with an explicit real-world rhetorical goal. One could call it without hyperbole propaganda, a political advertisement for a NASA space station. The justifications it makes for such a project are the same as those Kent was making in his speeches, and, indeed, those that Ronald Reagan more obliquely referred to in his State of the Union address of 1984. In Project: Space Station, players would enjoy success not so much in the form of exploratory firsts or pure scientific breakthroughs but rather that of crop surveys that would make American agriculture more efficient, new semiconductors that would make American computers more powerful, lasers that would revolutionize American manufacturing, even the proverbial cure for cancer. If it wasn’t always entirely clear why some of these research projects had to be done by people in space, well, that was a problem Project: Space Station shared with some of Kent’s speeches.

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

This huge game being developed by a bunch of aerospace people with no experience in game development was of course all but doomed to failure. Kent and company did manage to get far enough to produce some intriguing screenshots that, as published in the April 16, 1984, issue of InfoWorld, stand today as the only tangible artifacts left to us from this version of Project: Space Station. The whole thing collapsed by the end of that year, with HES going bankrupt and being absorbed by Avant-Garde Publishing and AstroSpace coming to an abrupt end along with Kent’s time as a space advocate. He made an extreme and kind of bizarre change in life direction, opening back in Santa Clara a night club called One Step Beyond that became a regular stop on the college-rock touring circuit for some years. Today he writes erotica, hosts naughty events at a sex shop, and is something of a fixture of the Southern California nightlife scene while apparently still keeping his hand in from time to time as a rocket scientist. In 2012 he consulted on the perfect combination of all his interests: a proposed Playboy space station.

(Stan Kent’s space advocacy is chronicled in the August 3 1980 Washington Post, the January 8 1981 and November 12 1982 New York Times, and the July 22 1982 L.A. Times. The two InfoWorld articles that describe Kent’s original vision for Project: Space Station are in the April 16 1984 and September 3 1984 issues. A transcript of his testimony before Congress is contained in the government publication “Future Space Programs, 1981: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-seventh Congress, First Session, September, 21, 22, 23, 1981.” The space-advocacy movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the place of a space station within are treated at length in Reaching for the High Frontier by Michael A. G. Michaud, available online from The National Space Society.)

 
 

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Project: Space Station, Part 1: The Reality

Space Shuttle

It was hard for a space-obsessed kid growing up in the 1980s not to feel just a little bit envious of the previous generation. The late 1960s had marked the climax of one of the most glorious adventures in human history, and the first one that, thanks to the miracle of mass media, everyone could share in in real time. Even the most non-technical and non-scientific among us could understand the clear progression that climaxed in that “giant leap for mankind”: Apollo 7 tested the Apollo capsule in Earth orbit; Apollo 8 voyaged to the Moon and circled it; Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in Earth orbit; Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal; Apollo 11 was the big one, July 20, 1969, the day that changed everything forever for humanity. Or so it must have seemed at the time. By the early 1980s it could feel hard to believe the Moon landing had actually happened. In place of Apollo we got the space shuttle, NASA’s glorified space truck. In place of the clear milestones of Apollo we got a space program whose strategy seemed akin to the missions of the shuttles themselves: go up, circle around for a while doing some things people weren’t really too clear about, then come back down. Oh, we dutifully put together our shuttle model kits and dreamed of seeing an actual launch, but something was missing.

The program to make a reusable space plane was first conceived even before that first Moon landing, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was in cinemas showing a vision of the near future in which a flight into Earth orbit was as routine as a flight for the opposite coast. To achieve such a vision, clearly something would have to change. An Apollo Moon rocket weighed slightly over 450,000 pounds without fuel, of which 12,250 pounds — less than 3 percent of the total — would make its way back to Earth at the end of a mission in the form of the non-reusable command module. The rest was cast away at various stages of the mission, making Apollo 11′s trip to the Moon, if one of — perhaps the — most inspiring voyages in human history, also one uniquely wasteful and completely unsustainable as a model for a future of routine space flight. After all, while NASA had been enjoying effectively blank checks from Congress through the Space Race, it didn’t take a Nostradamus to realize that that was likely to change in a hurry as soon as the Moon was achieved and American pride satisfied.

The budget cuts, when they came, were even more draconian than anticipated, costing NASA three of their planned ten Moon landings — another, Apollo 13, never made it there for other reasons — and forcing them to similarly scale back Skylab, the United States’s first (and to date, outside of the International Space Station, only) space station. The space shuttle survived only by making a series of painful compromises and an unholy alliance with the Air Force that would see it used for classified military missions — basically, to launch a new generation of bigger and heavier spy satellites — about 30 percent of the time. It was a partnership that neither NASA nor the Air Force really wanted. Robert Seamans, a former NASA administrator who had become Secretary of the Air Force by the time the deal was made, thought it was “asinine” to try to coordinate with a civilian agency and put astronauts lives at risk instead of just building a cheaper, simpler unmanned rocket for the purpose. But his and other practical voices were overwhelmed by those of the bureaucrats and the politicians.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

The Air Force partnership had tragic consequences for the shuttle. In order to carry the big spy satellites the Air Force anticipated launching, the shuttle’s cargo bay had to be bigger and wider than it might otherwise have been, giving the shuttle its distinctively chunky, less than aerodynamically ideal shape. While occasionally useful, much of that space went empty much of the time. In case the Cold War should ever turn hot, the Air Force also demanded that it be possible to launch the shuttle from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deploy a satellite, and land again back in California within one orbit without ever flying over Soviet territory, thus minimizing its exposure to space-borne or terrestrial weaponry. In aeronautics jargon, this necessitated that the shuttle have a considerable “downrange” or “crossrange” capability to glide off its normal orbital path, which in turn necessitated the shuttle’s delta-shaped wings that made it less than a pilot’s delight. John Young, the first man to pilot a shuttle to Earth from space, compared it to trying to fly a brick. Other pilots would call landing the shuttle a “controlled plummet,” while passengers compared it to a “dive-bomber run.” Worse, the final design generated far more heat on reentry than would have NASA’s earlier concepts, heat which engineers could combat only through the use of heavy, cludgy thermal-protection tiles that were a constant worry and labor sink throughout the program’s history. Each of the 35,000 tiles on the shuttle was a one-off piece that had to be custom manufactured, and every single one of them had to be carefully inspected by hand after every single launch in the hopes of averting disaster on the next mission. In spite of NASA’s best efforts, the disaster that was perhaps inevitable finally came on February 1, 2003, when the Columbia burned up on reentry. A more elegant shuttle could have minimized or even eliminated the tiles altogether, and saved the lives of seven astronauts.

Well before the Columbia and even the Challenger disasters, a feeling dogged engineers and astronauts alike that the shuttle just wasn’t as safe as it should be in still other ways. This was largely down to yet more concessions and compromises to budgetary realities. In place of a reusable booster section which would have blasted the shuttle into space and then glided — possibly with the aid of a human pilot — back down to a soft runway landing, the shuttle got a massive external fuel tank that would just be cast away, Apollo-style, and a pair of solid-fuel booster rockets that floated back via parachute to drop into the ocean. Essentially little more than hollow metal cylinders filled with propellant, the boosters could be reused, but were problematic in other ways. The shuttle was the first manned space vehicle ever to use solid rockets as a primary means of propulsion; they had heretofore been considered too dangerous because they can neither be throttled nor shut down entirely if something should go wrong during a burn. And, unlike earlier spacecraft, the shuttle was equipped with no emergency escape mechanism whatsoever for launches. Just as the heat tiles’ failings cost the last crew of the Columbia their lives, this lack may have cost the last crew of the Challenger, who appear to have been alive and conscious for at least some portion of their fatal fall back to Earth.

I don’t mean to say that the space shuttle wasn’t a crazily magnificent feat, nor to cast aspersions on the engineers who made it (usually) work in the face of all the cutbacks and compromises, nor to say that I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to fly in it, safety questions and all. The shuttle certainly made for a cool sort of spacecraft, and an almost unbelievably comfortable one. If hardly the lap of luxury by earthbound standards, it was ridiculously roomy by comparison with the American spacecraft that preceded it and those (if any) that appear likely to follow it. Certainly the earliest astronauts in their “Spam in a can” capsules, who had to fight just to get a window, would have loved this craft that an astronaut got to actually fly.

Yet it’s hard for even the most generous observer to avoid noting just how massively the space-shuttle program overpromised and underdelivered. Originally projected as capable of launching again just one week after returning to Earth, the timetable was revised by the time of the Columbia‘s maiden flight in 1981 to one month. No shuttle ever came close to meeting even this timeframe. What with all of the repairs and inspections that were needed — not least to those pesky tiles — a shuttle that launched three times in a year was doing very well for itself. Nor did the huge savings supposedly enabled by this reusable spacecraft ever really materialize. The cost of each launch averaged over the the life of the program ends up in the $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion range, at least ten times what it costs the Russians to put a three-man crew into space via their trusty old Soyuz space capsule and a conventional expendable rocket — and, while fourteen people died aboard the Challenger and Columbia, the Russians haven’t lost a cosmonaut since 1971. The shuttle lacked the romance of the Apollo program, but that was rather implicit in its purpose all along. More damningly, it failed in its goal of making spaceflight a safe matter of (relatively) inexpensive routine.

For much of the shuttle’s lifetime, NASA had trouble answering a fairly fundamental question: just what was it really good for? In the optimistic early days of the program they floated the idea that the shuttle might be a viable commercial proposition, an actual moneymaker for the agency. Other countries as well as private companies would pay NASA to truck their satellites into space. But this never materialized in any significant way; the shuttle was far, far too expensive to launch, not to mention too prone to unexpected delays and other problems, to compete with cheap, reliable unmanned rockets for commercial satellite launches. Twice West Germany paid NASA to launch the shuttle and give them free use of a Spacelab laboratory module installed in the cargo bay, but that was about as good as it would ever get for the shuttle as a commercial entity.

The shuttle also failed to live up to expectations as a tool for the military. Work on the planned alternative launch site for military missions at Vandenberg fell far behind schedule, and was finally abandoned in the wake of the Challenger disaster after over $4 billion had been spent. Of 27 military personnel recruited and trained to serve as astronauts on the shuttle, only 2 ever made it into space due to disorganization, turf wars, and poor inter-agency communication. Instead the military had to content itself with essentially sub-contracting its payloads out to NASA; the missions launched from the Kennedy Space Center and featured the usual rotating crew of civilian astronauts. These so-called “Department of Defense” missions, which numbered nine between 1985 and 1992, always felt a bit farcical. Their satellite payloads, despite usually being officially considered “classified,” were an open secret at best around the Kennedy Space Center; during the run-up to the second of these launches, to put a Defense Satellite Communications System into orbit in October of 1985, even reporters were walking around in “DSCS” tee-shirts. Never happy about being bound to the shuttle in the first place, the military started working in earnest to find an alternative following the Challenger disaster and the subsequent thirty-month hiatus in launches. That alternative turned out to be, inevitably, a cheaper and simpler unmanned rocket in the form of the Titan IV, latest in a venerable line of military and civilian workhorse launchers.

Lots of good science was done aboard the shuttle betwixt and between all these dashed expectations. Yet it was hard for even a space-loving kid, much less the general public, to get all that excited about experiments in applied plasma physics or materials science. After the novelty of the first few flights which proved the crazy contraption actually worked, it was just hard to get excited about the space shuttle in general. Only one tantalizing prospect seemed like it had a chance of changing all that: a permanent station in space, to be built, supplied, and maintained by the shuttle.

Artist's conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

Artist’s conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

This idea of a space station had been bound up with that of the shuttle itself right from the beginning. After all, that inspiring 2001 future had featured both, hadn’t it? Without a space station, where was the space shuttle to actually go? (“Nowhere,” some would soon be saying.) In this, NASA’s original vision for the post-Apollo future, the space shuttle was to be just that, the shuttle bus ferrying people, materials, and equipments up to where the real action was happening. The shuttle wasn’t supposed to be exciting in itself. The real excitement would be happening up there, as a permanent settlement in space grew and developed and just maybe started thinking about building its own spacecraft right there in orbit to visit the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, perhaps Halley’s Comet (which was conveniently due for a visit in 1986). NASA anticipated building both parts of the program — the station and the ancillary shuttle to service it — in tandem. It was only when the budget cuts started to bite that they had to make the hard decision to go ahead with the space shuttle alone as a necessary precursor to the station. If the shuttle without the space station felt like a spacecraft without a purpose, that’s because it largely was.

And so NASA continually tried to find a way to get the space-station project out of stasis. During the mid-1970s some planners floated the intriguing idea that it might be possible to reuse the recently abandoned Skylab as the core of a more permanent station. Plans were mooted to send an early shuttle mission to Skylab with a rocket pack that could be used to push it out of its decaying orbit. Later missions would then have refurbished, repaired, and reactivated the station for habitation. Such plans were doomed, however, by delays in the shuttle program and by heavy sunspot activity that caused Skylab’s orbit to decay more quickly than anticipated. On July 11, 1979, Skylab crashed to Earth, raining debris down on Western Australia and causing NASA considerable embarrassment almost two more years before the eventual maiden flight of the Columbia.

The space-station project remained alive after that as a theoretically real thing, but generated little more than sketches and plans for which NASA could never seem to amass more than a fraction of the necessary funding. In his January 1984 State of the Union Address, President Reagan gave the project a badly needed shot in the arm via a would-be Kennedy-esque pronouncement.

Our next frontier [is] space. Nowhere do we so effectively demonstrate our technological leadership and ability to make life better on Earth. The Space Age is barely a quarter of a century old. But already we’ve pushed civilization forward with our advances in science and technology. Opportunities and jobs will multiply as we cross new thresholds of knowledge and reach deeper into the unknown.

Our progress in space — taking giant steps for all mankind — is a tribute to American teamwork and excellence. Our finest minds in government, industry, and academia have all pulled together. And we can be proud to say: We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free.

America has always been greatest when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain. Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.

A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, in communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space. We want our friends to help us meet these challenges and share in their benefits. NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals.

Couched in empty political tautologies as it is (“America has always been greatest when we dared to be great?”), that declaration did lead to some action: an official Space Station Program Office was established at the Johnson Space Center, strategic plans and blueprints were created with more enthusiasm. Any momentum was abruptly dissipated, however, by the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, an event which stopped American manned spaceflight in its tracks for two and half years of investigating and soul-searching. The shuttle program would never quite be the same again, while hopes for the space station were all but dashed. Reagan’s successor George Bush gave NASA another apparent boost in a major speech on July 20, 1989, refloating the old idea of the station, now to be named Freedom, as a base for launching future missions to the Moon and Mars. But that speech was just another in an emerging tradition of Presidents making grand pronouncements about space exploration that come to nothing. Just as had happened with the space shuttle, project Freedom was steadily scaled back and compromised in the face of dwindling budgets. In 1993, NASA’s independent Freedom was finally folded into the International Space Station, itself only a shadow of what NASA had originally planned for the station to be.

Even at that, though, the ISS finally provided the space shuttle with a purpose for which it seemed eminently suited. Beginning with the first ISS building block which the Endeavor carried into orbit in 1998, the aging shuttle fleet got from the station a new lease on life and a new sense of purpose; this was what the shuttle had been designed to do all those years ago. But then came the Columbia disaster of 2003, and all the old doubts resurfaced. It was almost with a sense of relief that NASA retired the shuttle at last in 2011, before any more lives were lost, even if doing so left them with no way to get people into space at all for what looks to be, at best, some years to come. It was hard to escape the feeling as the shuttle fleet was parceled out to museums that something had gone horribly wrong in the aftermath of Apollo, that a brilliant beginning had been squandered.

(A very good short summary of the shuttle program and its discontents is found in The Final Countdown by Pat Duggins. For more on the shuttle as a military vehicle, see this article at Smithsonian Air and Space. For more on the drawbacks of the shuttle’s design and the alternative once proposed by Max Faget, see this article at The Space Review.)

 

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Human Engineered Software (or, The Software Icarus)

Jay Balakrishnan

Jay Balakrishnan

Narayana Pillai Balakrishnan was a native of Cherthala, India, who, after traveling the world for years as a player of traditional Indian music, came to Hollywood in the early 1950s to teach the trendy new practice of Hatha Yoga to the stars. The software company founded by Jay — an Americanized shortening of “Sanjay” — Balakrishnan, the son he and his American wife raised there, would evince through its short, chaotic life a similar blending of idealism with commercialism.

Like many American children of Indian parents, Jay Balakrishnan kept one foot planted in each culture, spending much of his childhood and adolescence in schools in India’s Kerala region. During a summer break from the University of Southern Florida, he discovered computers while working at the Naval Electronics System Command in Charleston; he describes the discovery as a “religious experience.” When he went back to university, he “loaded up on computer-science courses.” After graduation, he worked as a programmer for GTE and later Hughes Helicopter. Meanwhile, in 1978 he bought his first Commodore PET, intending to use it only to do calculations for a course in piloting. But he soon found the PET every bit as entrancing as the big machines he worked with on his day job. He wrote an assembler, initially planning to submit to a magazine as a type-in-listing. However, his friends told him it was good enough to sell commercially, and so Balakrishnan founded Human Engineered Software (HES, or HESWare), out of his apartment on his 25th birthday in June of 1980.

Unlike the other early software companies I’ve profiled on this blog, HES got its start on the relatively unpopular — in North America, that is — Commodore PET. Otherwise, though, this story begins similarly. Balakrishnan wrote all of the early software himself, packaged it himself, shipped it himself when orders came in from the tiny advertisements he took out in magazines and newsletters like Kilobaud, Compute!, and The Midnite Software Gazette. Running on a PET with as little as 8 K of memory, those early products were, like the assembler that got the ball rolling — literally; he named it HESBal — mostly programming tools: a file editor called HESEdit, a BASIC program lister called HESLister.

HES was soon doing well enough for Balakrishnan to quit his job at Hughes. Still, running a one-man software company got exhausting quickly. He had elected to offer the ultimate in customer support in the form of a 24-hour help line; this kept him captive in his apartment waiting for the next ring, his sleep interrupted constantly. Thus when a manufacturer of monitors and other hardware called Universal Supply came to him with an offer to buy the company but let him continue to manage it, he was receptive. Balakrishnan and HESWare moved north to Brisbane, California, where he found a partner in running the operation in the form of an ex-Xerox manager named Ted Morgan. He also now had the funding to reach out to other platforms and other authors. Seeing Britain as a potential untapped source of software for the briefly but hugely popular Commodore VIC-20, he traveled to London to attend a computer show and do some networking in June of 1982. It was here that he met the man whose games would dramatically raise HES’s profile and enrich its bank account: Jeff Minter.

I could easily write several feature articles on Minter and the surrealistic action games which he continues to write to this very day; his distinctive style and psychedelic flair make him both one of gaming’s first auteurs and its most long-lived. But, at least for today, we’ll confine ourselves to his connection with HES. When Balakrishnan met him, he had just founded his long-lived British software house, Llamasoft, on the strength of a Defender clone called Andes Attack. It lacked the skewed originality of Minter’s later games, but Balakrishnan was nevertheless impressed with the fast graphics. He worked out a licensing deal, renamed it Aggressor, and moved it from cassette to a VIC-20 cartridge for the American market. Later that year came the much more original Gridrunner, Minter’s — and HES’s — first big hit. More lovably bizarre VIC-20 and Commodore 64 hits poured out of Minter at the rate of a new game every few months, many showing an odd fixation on ruminants: Attack of the Mutant Camels (probably his best-remembered game), Revenge of the Mutant Camels, Advance of the Megacamel, Metagalactic Llamas: Battle at the Edge of Time. HES’s sales jumped from $1.4 million to $13 million between 1982 and 1983, largely on the strength of cheap and cheerful VIC-20 and 64 cartridges — although Balakrishnan did try to keep his hand in other fields as well, releasing hardware expansions for the VIC-20 and a word processor called, inevitably, HESWriter for the 64.

That year the HES story took another unexpected twist. Parent company Universal Supply had been building equipment largely for Atari and Mattel. That suddenly became a very bad business to be in as the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 became a reality. Balakrishnan and Morgan managed to extricate HES from the collapsing Universal Supply, reincorporating it as an independent entity once again. With stars in their eyes, with everyone telling them their industry represented the next big wave in home entertainment, they now embarked on one of the most spectacular boom-and-busts of the home-computer era.

The first step in any good software flameout is to collect lots and lots of investment capital from folks as entranced as you are by the hype about your industry, but who are nevertheless guaranteed to want their money back when the hype doesn’t pan out. HES accepted huge cash injections from the major Silicon Valley venture-capitalist Tech Venture and from a company called Action Industries, a manufacturer of household knickknacks (!) based in Pennsylvania. Most interestingly, Microsoft also came on board. Their participation led to HES releasing a Commodore 64 version of Multiplan, Microsoft’s first attempt at a spreadsheet program in those years before the Office hegemony. Multiplan represents the only piece of software Microsoft would ever develop for the 64.

The next step is to overextend your distribution network. HES aggressively pushed their software into mass merchandisers like K-Mart and Toys “R” Us, opening the way for other publishers to do the same but paying dearly for the privilege of being first. By 1984 Balakrishan estimated that HES’s games were available through 8000 different outlets, while most competitors were only in 3000. This was good in its way, perhaps, but also meant that HES had to make a lot of copies right from the launch of each new title to have it available in so many places. And that in turn meant that when a new title turned out to be a flop — as did for example HESGames, an Olympic-themed effort that was roundly pummeled in the marketplace by Epyx’s Summer Games — they were left stuck with huge amounts of unsold inventory.

Jay Balakrishnan with Leonard Nimoy

Jay Balakrishnan with Leonard Nimoy

Finally, you have to spend hugely on advertising and promotion in comparison to the amount you spend on actually, you know, writing software. The remade HES made their first big promotional splash at Steve Wozniak’s second (and final) US Festival on Memorial Day Weekend 1983, where they had a big spread inside the tech expo. (At a press conference there HES’s spokesman inexplicably spilled the beans at considerable length about IBM’s still-secret PCjr project, to which HES, like a number of software companies, was privy. IBM was, needless to say, livid. An insider with whom I’m in occasional contact who was there claims the spokesman “might have been stoned — there were lots of drugs at that concert.”) They then rented a sort of permanent floating software exhibition on the retired aircraft carrier and newly minted museum ship Intrepid on Manhattan’s West Side. In early 1984 they made their biggest splash when they acquired the services of Leonard Nimoy as spokesman; if Commodore had used Captain Kirk to make the VIC-20 a raging success, they would use Mr. Spock to do the same for HES. Unfortunately, Nimoy seemed to know even less about computers than William Shatner; when asked what kind of computer he had at home, he said he didn’t know. (Nimoy was making a lot of strange career choices at this time, including driving a car for the Bangles in an incomprehensible music video for an admittedly pretty great song and plugging “erasable programmable logic devices” — Mr. Spock! get it? — something he presumably knew even less about than home computers, for Altera Corporation. InfoWorld magazine shruggingly concluded that he was maybe just “hard up for cash.”)

The somewhat, well, intellectual thrust of these promotional efforts, of using Mr. Spock as spokesman and hawking wares inside a museum, points to an interesting dichotomy about HES. They may have been rushing to hit the center of the mass market, but at the same time they weren’t dumbing down their products to do it. Far from it. HES was pushing hard to define themselves as a maker primarily of “edutainment” products. In a 1984 interview with InfoWorld, Balakrishnan describes an intriguing mix of upcoming high-concept titles, most of which would never see the light of day.

We’ve got a game called Cell Defense, in which you are in charge of your body’s immunological system, and viruses attack you. There are various levels. These affect how fast your cells reproduce and whether you are a sick or healthy organism. You are learning a lot about the body as you play the game.

Then we have another game called Reflections, that’s based on physics, with all kinds of lights and bouncing reflections. Then there’s Life Force, in which you essentially learn about genes and genetics. It has eight levels. In the first one, you create an amoeba, then you get into multi-celled organisms. Man is the seventh level. The eighth is the mystery one in which you create an unknown organism by taking ribosomes and nuclei and putting them together.

Our fourth game is called Ocean Quest, in which you go and look for sunken treasure. As you do that, you learn about undersea life. There are different scenarios that affect the game, such as whether you are in the Pacific or the Atlantic. Of course, undersea life and fish differ according to the region.

Following the videogame crash and burn, conventional wisdom held that the simple action games which had defined digital entertainment for the masses prior to that point were now passé — dangerously so, in fact. Tellingly, in that same InfoWorld interview Balakrishnan manages to never mention Jeff Minter or his games in describing HES’s rise to prominence. HES’s 1984 portfolio, like the bookware phenomenon, can be read as a sign of a home-computer software industry wanting to differentiate itself from videogames for very practical commercial reasons. Yet, just as most of the people producing bookware really, deeply believed in it as a potential revolution in reading, HES had plenty of idealism to accompany their excess. If they oversold how much the computers for which they produced software could actually do, well, that was down at least as much to their own dreamy technological utopianism as a simple need to move product. It was a strange, heady time in computer games.

Of course, it also couldn’t last, and for the overextended, over-expanded HES least of all. As these things so often do, the downfall came amazingly quickly. Leonard Nimoy debuted as HES’s spokesman in March of 1984. InfoWorld published the aforequoted ebullient profile of HES and Balakrishnan in their September 3, 1984, issue. Six weeks later the same magazine announced that “HES nears bankruptcy,” that they were casting about desperately for a buyer from amidst their erstwhile competitors while the investors bayed in outrage and flatly refused to throw good money after bad and the axe fell on two-thirds of their 90-person workforce. Days later they filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. When asked what had happened, Morgan didn’t have a whole of insight to offer: “People stopped buying products.”

The remnants of HES were eventually acquired by Avant-Garde Publishing of Eugene, Oregon, a company which dated from the same year as HES and had its own fleet of eager venture capitalists behind it. Avant-Garde kept the HES name alive for a while; the original plan for the merger had the HES name being used for lower-end, mass-market software, the Avant-Garde name for higher-end IBM and Apple software to be sold through dealers. But, while Avant-Garde did keep a number of older HES titles in circulation for a time, they released just one new one under the label. Within a couple of years Avant-Garde too would be gone, justifiably so in light of cheesy efforts like Joe Theismann’s Pro Football, Dave Winfield’s Batter Up!, and Slugfest: Chris Evert-Lloyd Tennis, which purported to teach you or your kids how to play their respective sports with the help of their respective athlete endorsers.

Jay Balakrishnan continued undeterred as a serial entrepreneur. By the January 1985 Consumer Electronics Show he had already started a new outfit called Solid State Software to develop a new line of productivity software for the trusty old Commodore 64. The circumstance were, mind you, quite a bit different from the glory days of HES. At the January 1984 CES you couldn’t get behind the facade of HES’s grandiose exhibit to see him unless you were a VIP. In January 1985 Info magazine found him sitting behind “a card table in an 8′ X 8′ booth with a stack of 2-color brochures. How times change.”

(Print sources include: the January 1985 Creative Computing; the May 19 1983 Popular Computing Weekly; the September 3 1984, October 15 1984, October 29 1984, and November 19 1984 InfoWorld; Info #6; the October 11 1985 MicroTimes; the February 1981 and April 1986 Compute!. Online sources include articles in The New Indian Express and Rick Melick’s site. The photographs come from InfoWorld. And my anonymous source for the US Festival anecdote shall remain anonymous…)

 
 

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Ultima IV

There’s lots of somethings to be said for sheer audacity in art, for a willingness to stick your neck out and give your audience something they never, ever expected from you. I think sometimes about how the first folks who listened to Revolver must have felt when the erstwhile cuddly Fab Four unleashed the otherworldly chaos of “Tomorrow Never Knows”; how the first buyers of Achtung, Baby must have felt when they hit the play button and heard not the expected soaring anthem but the grinding industrial murk of “Zoo Station”; how, to choose something I’ve already written a bit about here on this blog, viewers who tuned into The Prisoner‘s “Living in Harmony” episode must have felt when instead of a spy drama they got a Western that refused to reveal itself as a dream sequence but instead just kept going and going right through the show’s running time. Lots and lots of people run screaming from these sorts of switcheroos. As for me, though… they always send a thrill up my spine. A willingness to rip it up and start again is pretty high on the list of things likely to draw me to a creator.

Ultima IV

I get some of that thrill when I think about those first people who booted up Ultima IV expecting to create a party via the usual min/maxing routine, only to be greeted with a simple story with the gravitas of a parable — a parable about, well, you.

The day is warm, yet there is a cooling breeze. The latest in a series of personal crises seems insurmountable. You are being pulled apart in all directions.

Yet this afternoon walk in the countryside slowly brings relaxation to your harried mind. The soil and stain of modern high-tech living begins to wash off in layers. That willow tree near the stream looks comfortable and inviting.

The buzz of dragonflies and the whisper of the willow’s swaying branches bring a deep peace. Searching inward for tranquility and happiness, you close your eyes.

A high-pitched cascading sound like crystal wind chimes impinges on your floating awareness. As you open your eyes, you see a shimmering blueness rise from the ground. The sound seems to be emanating from this glowing portal.

There’s the echo of another spiritual journey’s beginning, that undertaken by the narrator of Dante’s Inferno: “In this the midway of our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct.”

Ultima IV‘s opening parable culminates in a mysterious gypsy fortune teller who poses a series of ethical dilemmas designed to determine not what class or race you’d like to play but what kind of person you are. Of the eight noble virtues of Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor, which ones matter most to you?

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

By 1985 gaming had already seen its fair share of debates about who the player’s character in a role-playing game or interactive fiction really was. The very term “role-playing” would seem to imply that the player was not just playing herself thrust into another world, that she was playing a role there, performing as one of Gary Gygax’s idealized Shakespearian thespians. Infocom also had tried to sell their players, to decidedly mixed success and occasional howls of outrage, on seeing interactive fiction through the eyes of people who weren’t necessarily the same as them. For the grand experiment of Ultima IV to succeed it was critical that the opposite point of view prevail, that the player feel it to really be her in the game. Richard Garriott: “Since this is a game about the player’s personal virtues, it is very important that one always identifies with the character and feels responsible for the character’s deeds.”

In a computer game if you roll random dice, you’re just going to sit there and go roll, roll, roll. You get all maxed-out numbers and it’s, “Okay, I’ll take that one.” If you don’t let them roll out and you let them choose numbers, well, it’s kind of a fixed equation. Once they know the map and the game, they can make the perfect decision as to exactly what their stats should be if they are aware that the equations are internal. So I don’t want to give you either of those.

Ultima IV I wanted to be a very personal experience. The reason is because in most of these games you are the puppeteer running this puppet around the world. If this puppet is doing bad things it’s not you, it’s the puppet. You can detach. And I wanted this game to be about personal and social responsibility. It is very important that this be you in the world of Britannia, not something you’ve rolled up. If I’m the computer nerd at home wanting to be a big barbarian going around crushing things, I still want to be a computer nerd down there, in nice clothing. The essence of that character is really the essence of you as an individual.

The gypsy’s questions were designed to tease out the player’s real beliefs and place her in the role in the game that best suited her own personality — to whatever extent seven questions determining the most important to her of eight abstract virtues could manage such a feat, of course. Richard again:

We worked on the phrasing of those questions. Unfortunately, there’s no really perfect way to ask those questions that we’ve yet discovered. Here’s something else that’s interesting. When we were working on this system, I said, “Here’s what I want to do for character development.” I went around to everyone in the office, saying, “Here’s these eight virtues along with a short description as to what I mean by them. Give me your ranking, one to eight, as to how important you think they are.” And then about a week later, after we generated those questions, we went back to the same people and said, “Answer these questions.” Although our company was only about twenty people large, everybody except two people had the exact same outcome to the questions as they did to the judgment. And those two who were wrong only had two transposed in the list. And so it turns out you get the exact same responses as you do to an intellectual discussion of it.

For the record, every time I answer the questions Compassion trumps everything else, and thus I end up a bard starting just outside Lord British’s castle. I don’t know whether this necessarily represents the person I always am, but it’s certainly a good approximation of the person I’d most like to be. So, at least for me, the system does indeed seem to work pretty well.

After that radical opening, the screen which greets the player after the gypsy has passed her final judgment must have struck many as comforting in its familiarity.

Ultima IV

Yes, we’re back to our familiar view with our familiar alphabet soup of single-letter commands to explore the world. That world is now named Britannia rather than Sosaria; it was so renamed after Lord British united the land under his rule following the passing of the Three Ages of Darkness represented by Ultima I, II, and III. The fact that the geography is completely different from that of the previous game is similarly handwaved away, attributed to a great upheaval — must have been one hell of an upheaval — following the destruction of Exodus in Ultima III. The fact that Ultima II inexplicably took place on our Earth is, as per developing Ultima tradition, completely ignored; there are limits to what even the most dedicated ret-conner can accomplish. Also simply ignored is the last of the stupid attempts at anachronistic cleverness that dogged the early Ultimas, the big reveal at the end of Ultima III that Exodus was really a giant computer; in the Ultima IV manual’s version he was just your everyday world-domination-bent evil wizard.

Importantly, this new world of Britannia that you enter is not under attack from yet another evil wizard, or an evil anything else for that matter. This is one of the few CRPGs ever made, and almost certainly the first, to neither have an evil wizard nor to take place in some melodramatic Age of Darkness. Richard has drawn parallels between the Britannia of Ultima IV and Renaissance Italy — or, even better, King’s Arthur’s Britain at the height of the golden age of Camelot; between the player’s quest to become an Avatar of Virtue and the similarly spiritual quest for the Holy Grail. This quest is necessary not despite the land being peaceful and prosperous but because of it, because times of peace and prosperity are the only ones that allow the luxury of pondering a philosophy for living.

That said, becoming an Avatar of Virtue actually represents only the first step of the two-step process of solving Ultima IV. The second step requires you to descend into the Stygian Abyss, a remnant of the Dante-inspired Hell that was the centerpiece of Richard’s first conception for the game, and recover something called the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. The final dungeon serves to hammer home the game’s rhetorical message via a series of puzzles which require you to apply what you’ve learned about the system of virtues, but everything that happens after you become an Avatar is otherwise much less interesting than what happens before. Just as what the Holy Grail represents to Lancelot is far more important to the legend than Galahad’s eventual drinking from it, the recovery of the physical Codex comes as something of an anticlimax to your achievement of Avatarhood. Richard Garriott himself said as much in later interviews, calling the Codex “largely irrelevant” to the real message of Ultima IV, even admitting that he had trouble remembering where or what the Codex actually was. Mostly it just allows Ultima IV a bit more of a traditional CRPG structure, serving as a stand-in for the usual evil wizard’s Whatchamacallit of Infinite Power that can be recovered only by defeating him at the bottom of the last and cruelest dungeon.

Let’s talk, then, about that first, more interesting stage of the game. Becoming an Avatar of Virtue requires that you demonstrate your dedication to each of the eight virtues through your deeds over many hours of adventuring in Britannia. When you have proved yourself worthy of “ascension” in a particular virtue, and have collected a necessary entry rune and a mantra, you can visit a shrine to that virtue and meditate to achieve one-eighth of your eventual Avatarhood. Ultima IV boldly applies these sorts of mystical trappings to an ethical philosophy which carefully avoids the subject of God in favor of simple practicality. Richard Garriott: “If I beat you up, you are going to be angry at me and will be on my back. If I’m nice to you, you are likely to be nice back. It makes good rational sense.” This has been expressed more rigorously by philosophers for millennia now as the idea of enlightened self-interest: you do best for yourself by doing well by others. Parsing a distinction which admittedly really exists only in his mind, Richard claims to ignore morals, which to him represent decisions about right and wrong based on feelings or spiritual beliefs, in favor of ethics, which are grounded in simple, rational common sense. A similar determination to remove the supernatural from the fantastic is everywhere in Ultima, perhaps as a byproduct of Richard being the son of a scientist who would probably have become one himself had Dungeons and Dragons and computers not stepped in. Richard saw Ultima IV‘s magic system, for instance, not as something mystical and mysterious but as merely the natural science of a world that just happens to have different natural laws than our own.

In developing Ultima IV‘s system of ethics, Richard began with a long jumble of possible virtues. Among them were three rather extreme abstractions on this list of abstractions: Truth, Love, and Courage. Watching The Wizard of Oz one day, it struck him that L. Frank Baum may have started with a similar list: “I thought of the Scarecrow looking for a brain, which was Truth; the Tin Man looking for a heart, Love; and the Cowardly Lion, looking for Courage.” It then occurred to his scientist’s mind that these three could be seen as core principles which could be combined to form most of the other items on his list. Honesty is Truth alone; Compassion is Love alone; Valor is Courage alone; Truth tempered by Love is Justice; Love and Courage are Sacrifice; Courage and Truth are Honor; Truth and Love and Courage all together become Spirituality; the absence of all three is Humility. Richard, who loved his symbols, devised a cool-looking diagram to represent the relationships, which ended up inadvertently — or at least subconsciously — resembling Judaism’s Star of David.

The symbol of Ultima IV's system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Compassion. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

The symbol of Ultima IV’s system of virtues. The three traditional primary colors represent the core principles: blue is Truth, red Courage, yellow Compassion. They combine to form the eight virtues (including Humility, which contains none of the three and is thus the black border).

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues

A more readable if less ornate diagram of the virtues.

As a system of belief, it’s perhaps not exactly compelling for an adult (although, hey, cults have been founded on less). As an ethical philosophy… well, let’s just say that Richard Garriott is unlikely to ever rival Kant in university philosophy curricula. There are plenty of points to quibble about: Honesty, Compassion, and Valor are, at least in this formulation, really just synonyms for the core principles that supposedly compose them; the idea that Spirituality is made up of all the virtues lumped together seems kind of strange, as does its presence at all given Richard’s determinedly materialist worldview; the idea of Humility as literally an ethical vacuum seems truly bizarre. (Richard later clarified in interviews that he would have preferred this latter to be Pride, but, “Pride not being a virtue, we have to use Humility”; make of that what you will.) And of course the names of the virtues themselves are rather painfully redolent of the life of a Dungeons and Dragons-obsessed teenager. But poking holes in the system is really missing the point. Ultima IV gave its audience permission to think about these things, laid out in a cool if only superficially logical way. The fact that these ethics still speak the language of Dungeons and Dragons was a good thing, because that’s the language most of Ultima IV‘s audience spoke. Richard himself didn’t claim any mystical truth for the system, freely admitting in interviews that it was essentially arbitrary, that dozens of other formulations could have served his purposes just as well. The one real overriding concern I have with the system is that it can lead to a possibly dangerous ethical absolutism; the only place where Ultima IV does even lip service to the idea that there can be conflicts between its virtues, debate about their merits, is in those questions that open the game. (To his credit, Richard Garriott also spotted the danger, and, indeed, dedicated Ultima V, in many ways an even more thoughtful work than its more heralded predecessor, to exploring the danger of ethical absolutism. Richard characterized that game as, “Now that you’ve shown everybody Avatarhood, let’s show everybody why it’s bad.”)

The way that you build (or lose) mastery of the various virtues is by far the most interesting mechanic in the game, the core thing that makes Ultima IV Ultima IV and the core reason for the game’s stellar reputation today. As you go about your business in its world, Ultima IV is quietly monitoring your actions. If you cheat the blind magic-store proprietor by sneakily paying her less than you should, you lose Honesty; if you’re square with her, you gain it. Running away from enemies costs you Valor; standing and fighting gains it. Giving blood to the healer gains you Sacrifice; refusing costs it. Giving money to beggars gains you Compassion; refusing them… well, you get the picture. Unsurprisingly, the idea has its roots in an admittedly not-widely-used rule in Dungeons and Dragons, which recommends that Dungeon Masters monitor and chart the actions of their players in relation to their professed alignment — “lawful evil,” “chaotic good,” etc. Drift enough and the Dungeon Master could actually impose a new alignment on you, possibly with drastic consequences if, say, your god demanded a certain alignment. In Ultima IV, your progress in the virtues is, inevitably, nothing more than a system of numerical attributes not fundamentally unlike other character attributes — Strength, Experience, Gold, etc. Still, just as Ultima IV tries to make character creation more than a series of dice rolls, it strains mightily to make the virtues an honest reflection of your attitudes and behaviors rather than just a system to be optimized. It hides all of the numbers from you. The only way to learn of your progress in the virtues is to visit the Seer Hawkwind in Lord British’s castle, and even then he just describes your progress in vague generalities. Especially in this day and age, when all of the virtue system’s mechanics have been meticulously documented, we understand all too well that it’s possible to, say, raise Compassion to Avatar level just by giving over and over to the same beggar in the same town. But back in the day particularly, when the system’s underpinnings were not so well understood, it really did feel organic.

The other mechanics of solving Ultima IV — the minutiae of classes and equipment and monsters and leveling up, the puzzles and quests and how to solve them, the locations of towns and dungeons and shrines and artifacts, the seven companions (each representing one of the seven virtues you didn’t choose as most important to you at the beginning of the game) you must eventually round up to complete your adventuring party, etc., etc. — have likewise already been documented as extensively as those of any videogame ever produced. In addition to the countless FAQs, blogs, and web sites generated by the franchise’s many still-rabid fans, at least half a dozen entire books have been published with detailed descriptions of exactly how to best play and solve the game. Most of the nuts and bolts of Ultima IV‘s engine merely extend the technology that Richard had already built through Ultima III in fairly commonsense ways; Richard has often stated that Akalabeth through Ultima III were mostly about improving his technology, Ultima IV about applying his technology at long last to a really worthwhile design. So, I’m not going to talk about most of that in a great deal of depth here; there’s little or nothing I could add to the mountain of practical data at every web surfer’s fingertips, and few fundamental changes to note in the mechanics I described in earlier articles about the franchise. You’ve got a (larger) world map to traverse along with cities, towns, castles, and dungeons; you’ve got horses, ships, and other vehicles to acquire; you’ve got food and equipment to manage (along with, this time, spell reagents, and for a party that will eventually number eight rather than the four of Ultima III); you’ve got lots of people to talk to (this time with a keyword-based pseudo-parser to deepen the interactive possibilities); and of course you’ve got monsters to fight. By now you know the drill.

At this point I probably should confess something: I’m far from sold on Ultima IV as a holistic, playable game. Oh, the concept of the virtues that overlays and underlies the whole is as brilliant and inspiring as I and so many others have already said it is. But you don’t spent all that large a percentage of your time in Ultima IV directly engaging with that concept. You rather spend a whole lot of time, easily hundreds of hours worth if you play the game “straight,” without walkthroughs or spoilers, on lots of things that are often less than compelling at best, dull at average, horrifically, unfairly cruel at worst. Take (please!) the much-vaunted new magic system, in which you have to prepare every single spell you cast by buying its reagents and mixing them together one at a time, a process absolutely devoid of interest after you figure out a given spell’s recipe, one that entails about half a dozen key presses for every single spell you prepare; you can easily spend ten minutes just getting the spells ready for a major dungeon expedition. Combat, never a strong point for Ultima, is more infuriating here than ever; you now have to micromanage up to eight characters through the busywork of taking out the endless hordes of uninteresting monsters that constantly attack when you just want to, you know, walk to the next damn town already. (The number of monsters in each attacking group is actually keyed to the number of characters in your party. In an interesting example of unintended consequences, this means that just about all guides to the game recommend keeping to a party of one as long as possible to try to stave off some of the soul-killing boredom of combat for as long as possible.)

Ultima IV itself doesn’t do a very good job of evincing virtues like Compassion, Justice, even Honor. This is a staggeringly difficult game, a fact that gets rather obscured by the fact that most people playing the game and/or writing about it today are mostly replaying it, and usually with the benefit of that aforementioned copius store of FAQs and walkthroughs. Taken without all that, the way a kid who found it under the tree at Christmas 1985 would have had to approach it, it’s honestly hard to imagine anyone solving it unaided. The design is a spiderweb of all but invisible strands; fail to trace any one of them and you won’t win. Most of the cities in the game are marked on the cloth map that came in the package, but just enough are left unmarked that you’ll need to to scour the whole map square by tedious square to find everything. One village sits at the center of a huge inland lake, its existence impossible to detect unless you happen to meet a pirate ship on the lake — a vanishingly unusual occurrence — fight it, steal it, and take it for a sail. Or you can find the village if you manifest an apparent death wish and sail a ship on the open ocean directly into a whirlpool. Many of the towns and castles contain critical secret doors that are distinguished by the presence of one extra pixel amidst the grainy graphics.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That's a game-critical secret door.

See that single white dot above the character that looks kind of like a graphics artifact of some sort? That’s a game-critical secret door.

Conversations can be another nightmare. Every character in the game responds to three keywords given in the manual: “Name,” “Job,” and “Health” (no, I don’t know how Richard settled on that particular inexplicable trio). You’re expected to find other keywords by asking about things the character mentions in those three generic openers, in addition to following up on clues gained in other places of the “Ask XX about YY” variety. But, inevitably, the vast majority of promising-looking words any character mentions are actually not keywords at all. Conversations quickly devolve into a rote entering of every noun or active verb a character uses, with 90 percent of them resulting in “That, I cannot help thee with.” Miss one critical word in a conversation out of sloth or negligence, and that’s a clue overlooked, a thread untraced, and your chance for victory forsworn. Each town or castle, which number sixteen in total, is populated with dozens of individuals. Miss that critical fellow hiding out in a visually impenetrable glade at the extreme edge of the map, and you’re screwed. Miss the single pixel representing a secret door, and you’re screwed. When you finally get to very bottom of the Stygian Abyss and stand before the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, if you fail to answer correctly an out-of-left-field question whose answer requires the ability to read Richard Garriott’s mind, you’re screwed — teleported back to the surface to battle your way down through eight levels of the fiercest creatures in the game and try again. If you were playing in 1985, without the benefit of emulator save states, you would get to do this again and again until you gave up or, as many people finally did, called Origin’s hint line for the answer. If none of what I’ve just described sounds like all that much fun, that’s because for all but the most dogged of players of today it’s really not. Like so many old-school adventure designs, it rewards not cleverness but sheer persistence, a willingness to lawnmower through map after conversation after battle no matter how boring it is.

That, then, is the flip side to Ultima IV the transcendent masterwork: Ultima IV the fiddly, borderline unplayable, tedious mishmash. It’s absurdly easy to make any adventure game impossible, which is one of the many reasons that a designer needs playtesters, and lots of them. Richard Garriott, however, had basically no feedback on many parts of his design. In an interview for Computer Gaming World published shortly after the game, he let drop the bombshell that he was the only person who had managed to complete the game when Origin put it in a box and unleashed it on the world.

A few years ago Michael Abbott, academic and “Brainy Gamer,” sparked quite some conversation with a blog post telling how his students had rejected Ultima IV as “boring.” Predictable outrage toward those kids today followed in the comments and the heaps of reaction posts from other bloggers. Yet my own reaction is to side with Dr. Abbot’s students; Ultima IV is, most of the time, pretty boring. Good on them for recognizing this, I say, for refusing to get sucked into doing boring things for the sake of it. I think kids today are at a minimum every bit as smart as those of my generation were when Ultima IV first hit store shelves, thoroughly capable of deciding that a game is mostly just wasting their time. We shouldn’t begrudge them that freedom if more refined entertainments make their verdict an uncomfortable one for us. Ultima IV stands for me as a hugely important work in the history of its medium, but also one that hasn’t stood the test of time all that well. I love to think about it, love the fact that it exists, that Richard Garriott had the courage to make it — but just thinking about playing it makes me tired. Like a work of conceptual art, to some extent the real power of Ultima IV today is just the fact of its existence.

Of course I’m well aware as a digital historian that my modern take on Ultima IV is a fundamentally anachronistic one. In 1985, the game represented an all but unrivaled gateway to imagination. Solving an Ultima wasn’t really the point; these were worlds to explore, to revisit over a period of months or years until the next Ultima came out (Ultima V would be almost three years in arriving). Everything about Ultima IV — packaged in its big, grandiose box with two big, ornate manuals, with its die-cast ankh that countless boys stuck on a chain and wore to school around their necks, with its big cloth map — marked it as something special, something to be cherished and savored.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

The ankh would join the Silver Serpent as one of the enduring symbols of Ultima, a supposed visual representation of the Way of the Avatar to stand alongside the diagram of the virtues. It was yet another bit of pop-culture detritus that made its way into Ultima: Richard first saw it in the movie Logan’s Run, where it served as the symbol of an underground resistance movement, thought it looked cool and “positive,” and stuck it in the game. When he learned that it meant “life and rebirth” to ancient Egyptians, that just made it that much cooler.

When you discovered a new village tucked away in some corner of the map you didn’t complain about the unfairness of it all, you rejoiced at having uncovered another corner of this fantastic world. Actually solving the game was something that few managed, but it didn’t really matter that much anyway. The point was the journey. Even the price contributed: showing an instinct for manipulating perception through pricing that would have done Apple proud, Origin’s suggested list price gave the game a street price of $50 to $55, about $20 more than the typical title. Far from cutting into its sales, the high price just made the game all the more desirable, all the more special. This experience of Ultima IV was absolutely specific to its time and place, not something we can recapture today no matter how much we blog or commentate or notate. Yes, the magic of Ultima IV was ephemeral, but in its day it was very, very powerful.

By way of illustration, let me tell you about Brian. Brian was one of my best friends in middle and high school, his attitudes fairly typical of the cracking and pirating underground in which he was quite thoroughly immersed. Like most of his friends in the scene, Brian didn’t so much play games as collect them. He had hundreds, maybe thousands of Commodore 64 floppies containing virtually every remotely notable game released for the platform in North America or Europe. Most got booted once or twice, to see what the graphics were like; a few action games would grab his attention in a bigger way for a while, but were soon set aside in favor of haunting the pirate BBS network and enjoying the social dramas of the cracking scene (let me tell you, teenage girls had nothing on this crew). Ultima IV, though, was different. It’s the only game I can ever remember Brian actually buying, the only one more complicated than Boulderdash for which he read the manual, into which he put a real effort. Like a hundred thousand other kids, he hung the map on his bedroom wall, wore the ankh to school. Oh, I’m pretty sure he never came close to finishing it. He probably played it much less, all told, than most similar kids who didn’t have the same embarrassment of gaming riches from which to choose. But the fact that his teenage heavy-metal nihilism went away when he talked about the virtues, that it awoke some other — better? — part of him that was impervious to every other game… I’ve always remembered that. Ultima, and Ultima IV in particular, was just like that.

Chester Bolingbroke, better known as the CRPG Addict, was another Brian.

I wrote each [virtue] with its definition on an index card and every morning I shuffled the cards and chose one at random. That one, I did my best to practice for the day. If honesty came up, I was careful to tell no lies throughout the day. If it was sacrifice, I looked for ways to do something charitable.

Not many, I suspect, would admit to deriving what amounts to their religion from a computer game. But I had rejected conventional religion even as a pre-teen. I balked at Judeo-Christian doctrines that seemed both haphazard and arbitrary: meticulous rules about food and dress, but none about the need to actively seek out and destroy evil (my interpretation of “valor”); commandments against adultery and sabbath-breaking, but none against assault and slavery. Ultima IV, on the other hand, offered a comprehensive and completely nondenominational — secular, even — system of virtue. It fit me like a glove.

There were hundreds of thousands of kids just like Brian and Chester. Ultima IV caused its players to set aside their angst and their irony and try to improve themselves in school lunch rooms and family dinner tables across the land. It was far from the first game with artistic aspirations, far from the first to want to be about something more than escapism; 1985 alone also brought Mindwheel, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and Balance of Power. But those admittedly more philosophically sophisticated efforts appealed mostly to a different, older audience; the average age of the average Infocom buyer was north of thirty, while very few kids indeed had the wherewithal to corner a Macintosh long enough to play Balance of Power even had they been interested in the vagaries of geopolitics. Part of the magic of Ultima IV was that it had been created by a kid just like the ones who mostly played it, raised on Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars, more comfortable with a movie than a novel. Richard Garriott spoke their language, came from the same place they were coming from. Ultima IV, the last of the one-man-band Ultimas, still stands as the most personal expression he would ever create. When he said that ethics matter, that we have the power to choose our values and to live according to them, it resonated because it reflected, as art should, his own lived experience. Yes, many of its players would outgrow Ultima IV‘s simplistic take on ethics, just as many would outgrow the game itself. But hopefully few of that small minority who completed it ever forgot its closing exhortation, delivered as it was in Richard Garriott’s best teenage-Dungeon-Master diction:

Thou must know that the quest to become an Avatar is the endless quest of a lifetime. Avatarhood is a living gift. It must always and forever be nurtured to flourish. For if thou dost stray from the paths of virtue, thy way may be lost forever. Return now unto thine own world. Live there as an example to thy people, as our memory of thy gallant deeds serves us.

(You can download Ultima IV for free from GOG.com. Sources for this article are the same as for the last. I borrowed the diagram of the virtues from Eliott Wall.)

 

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