RSS

Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Bureaucracy

 

“Writing a book is staring at a piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”

— Douglas Adams

Shortly after the release of his second Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel, with the money now pouring in and showing no signs of stopping, Douglas Adams moved from his dingy little shared flat in Islington’s Highbury New Park to a sprawling place on Upper Street. Later to be described down almost to the last detail as Fenchurch’s flat in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the place had one floor that consisted of but a single huge L-shaped room that, coming complete as it did with a bar, was perfect for the grand parties he would soon be holding there.

There was just one problem: he couldn’t get his bank to acknowledge the fact that he had moved. For the rest of his life Adams swore up and down that he had done everything exactly as one was supposed to, had dutifully gone personally down to his local branch of Barclays Bank, filled out a change-of-address form, and handed it to a woman behind the counter. Barclays duly acknowledged the change — and sent said acknowledgement to his old address in Highbury New Park. Adams wrote them back, pointing out the mistake, which the bank promptly and contritely apologized for. Said apology was sent, once again, to Highbury New Park. This cycle continued, as Adams told the story anyway, for no less than two infuriating years. Toward the end of that period, having tried politeness, bluster, threats, and reason, he resorted to charm and outright bribery in a letter to one Miss Wilcox of Barclays, gifting her with a book and even holding out a tempting possibility of marriage to a hugely successful author — namely, him — if she would just change his damn address in her bank’s computers already.

My address is at the top of this letter. It is also at the top of my previous letter to you. I am not trying to hide anything from you. If you write to me at this address I will reply. If you write to me care of my accountant, he will reply, which would be better still. If you write to me at Highbury New Park, the chances are that I won’t reply because your letter will probably not reach me, because I don’t live there any more. I haven’t lived there for two years. I moved. Two years ago. I wrote to you about it, remember?

Dear Miss Wilcox, I am sure you are a very lovely person, and that if I were to meet you I would feel ashamed at having lost my temper with you in this way. I’m sure it’s not your fault personally and that if I had to do your job I would hate it. Let me take you away from all this. Come to London. Let me show you where I live, so that you can see it is indeed in Upper Street. I will even take you to Highbury New Park and introduce you to the man who has been living there for the past two years so that you can see for yourself that it isn’t me. I could take you out to dinner and slip you little change-of-address cards across the table. We could even get married and go and live in a villa in Spain, though how would we get anyone in your department to understand that we had moved? I enclose a copy of my new book which I hope will cheer you up. Happy Christmas.

History does not record whether this passionate missive was the one that finally did the trick.

Most writers collect interesting, humorous, and/or frustrating incidents as they go about their daily lives, jotting them down literally or metaphorically for future use, and Douglas Adams was certainly no exception. He tried to shoehorn this one into Life, the Universe, and Everything, his third Hitchhiker’s novel, via an extended riff about a change-of-address card that fouls up a planet’s central computer systems so badly that they initiate a nuclear Armageddon, but it just didn’t work somehow. The whole sequence ended up getting condensed down to a one-line gag in an extract from the in-book Hitchhiker’s Guide, listing “trying to get the Brantisvogan Civil Service to acknowledge a change-of-address card” as one of life’s great impossibilities. Still, he continued to believe the anecdote was worthy of more than that, worthy of more even than becoming just another of the arsenal of funny stories with which he amused journalists, fans, and party attendees alike.

It seems that it was the process of making the infuriating, subversive, brilliant Hitchhiker’s game with Infocom that first prompted Adams to think about making a game out of his travails with Barclays, along with the insane bureaucratic machinations of modern life in general. It was at any rate during Steve Meretzky’s visit to England to work on the Hitchhiker’s game with him that he first mentioned the idea. Meretzky, busy trying to get this game finished in the face of the immovable force that could be Adams’s talent for procrastination, presumably just nodded politely and tried to get his focus back to the business at hand.

Seven or eight months later, however, with the Hitchhiker’s game finished and selling like crazy, Adams stated definitively to Mike Dornbrook of Infocom that he’d really like to do a social satire of contemporary life called Bureaucracy before turning to the sequel. Asked by Electronic Games magazine at about this time whether he would “soon” be starting on the next Hitchhiker’s game, his answer was blunt: “No. I really feel the need to branch out into fresh areas and clear my head from Hitchhiker’s. I certainly have enjoyed working with Infocom and would very much like to do another adventure game, but on a different topic.”

The desire of this boundlessly original thinker to just be done with Hitchhiker’s, to do something else for God’s sake, certainly isn’t hard to understand. What had begun back in 1978 as a one-off six-episode radio serial, produced on a shoestring for the BBC, had seven years later ballooned into a second radio serial, four novels, a television show, a stage production, a pair of double albums, and now, so everyone assumed, a burgeoning series of computer games. Adams himself had a hand to a lesser or (usually) a greater extent in every single one of these productions, not to mention having spent quite some time drafting and fruitlessly hawking a Hitchhiker’s movie script to Hollywood. It had been all Hitchhiker’s all day every day for seven years.

Being the soul of comedy for millions of young science-fiction nerds had never been an entirely comfortable role for Adams. Sometimes the gulf between him and his most loyal fans could be hard to bridge, could leave him feeling downright estranged. Eugen Beers, his publicist, describes the most obsessive of his fans in terms that bring to mind a certain beloved old Saturday Night Live skit:

One of my abiding memories is how much he loathed book signings. It’s always a scary time for an author when you actually meet your fans, and Douglas had some of the ugliest and certainly some of the most boring people I’ve ever met in the whole of my life. They would come up to him to get their book signed and say, “I notice on page 45 you refer to…” and Douglas would say, “I haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.”

Beers notes that Adams was “incredibly patient, in fact patient beyond anything I would have been.” Yet, and ungenerous as Beers’s description of the fans may be, the disconnect was real. Adams’s heroes growing up had been The Goon Show and later Monty Python, not Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein. He desperately wanted to prove himself as a humorist of general note, not just that wacky Hitchhiker’s guy that the nerds all like. Yes, Hitchhiker’s had made him rich, had paid for that wonderful Islington flat and all those lavish parties, but at some point enough had to be enough.

Infocom’s great misfortune was to have barely begun their own Hitchhiker’s odyssey just as Adams finally decided to bring his to an end. On the one hand, Adams’s desire to explore new territory must have sounded a sympathetic chord for many of the Imps; they had after all refused to continue the Zork series beyond three games out of a similar desire to not get stereotyped. But on the other hand they all had, and not without good reason, envisioned Hitchhiker’s as a cash cow that would last Infocom for the remainder of the decade, a new guaranteed bestseller appearing like clockwork every Christmas to buoy them over whatever financial trials the rest of the year might have brought. For Mike Dornbrook it must have felt like a nightmare repeating. First he had been deprived far too soon of the Zork series, the first of which still remained Infocom’s best-selling game; now it looked like something similar was happening even more quickly to the would-be Hitchhiker’s series, whose first game had become their second best-selling. In describing why he was “concerned” about making Bureaucracy Infocom’s Douglas Adams game for 1985 and pushing the next Hitchhiker’s game to 1986 at best, Dornbrook unconsciously echoes Adams’s own reasoning for wanting to move on: “The whole financial deal we had signed with him was based on a bestselling line of books that was very, very popular, very well-known. He hadn’t proved himself at anything else yet, for one thing. It was a little hard telling him that…”

It was a little hard to tell him, so Dornbrook and Infocom largely didn’t out of a desire to keep Adams happy. As his current contract with Infocom only covered Hitchhiker’s games, it was necessary to negotiate a new one for Bureaucracy. Dornbrook had some hopes of getting Adams at something of a discount, given that he’d be coming this time without the Hitchhiker’s name attached, but he was stymied even in this by Ed Victor, Adams’s tough negotiator of an agent. Infocom was left saddled with a game that they didn’t really want to do, which they would have to pay Adams for as if it was one that they wanted very badly indeed.

As Dornbrook and other staffers have occasionally noted over the years, there was nothing in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s contract that technically prevented them from just going off and doing the next Hitchhiker’s game on their own, whether in tandem with or instead of Bureaucracy. The contract simply gave Infocom the right to make up to six Hitchhiker’s games for the cost of a certain percentage of the revenue generated thereby, full stop. They’ve stated that it was their respect for Adams as a writer and as a person that prevented them from ever seriously considering making Hitchhiker’s games without him. I don’t doubt their sincerity in saying this, but it’s also worth noting that to go down that route would be to play with some dangerous fire. While Adams may have been personally sick to death of Hitchhiker’s, he had shown again and again that he considered the franchise to be his and his alone, that if anything got done with it he wanted to do it — or at least to closely oversee it — himself. Not only would a unilateral Infocom Hitchhiker’s game almost certainly spoil their relationship with him for all time, but it risked becoming a public-relations disaster if Adams, never shy of stating his opinions to the press, decided to speak out against it. And could any of the Imps, even Steve Meretzky, really hope to capture Adams’s voice? An Adams-less Hitchhiker’s game risked coming off as a cheap knock-off, as everything that Infocom’s carefully crafted public image said their games weren’t.  Thus Bureaucracy — and, for now, Bureaucracy alone — it must be.

In light of its being rather forced upon them in the first place and especially of the exhausting travail that actually making it would become, it’s difficult for most old Infocom staffers to appreciate Bureaucracy‘s intrinsic merits as a concept. Seen in the right light, however, it’s a fairly brilliant idea. Douglas Adams was of course hardly the first to want to satirize the vast, impersonal machines we create in an effort to make modern life manageable, machines that can not only run roughshod over the very individuals they’re meant to serve but that can also trample the often well-meaning people who are sentenced to work within them, even their very creators. What was the Holocaust but a triumph of institutional inertia over the fundamental humanity of the people responsible for its horrors? Years before those horrors Franz Kafka wrote The Trial, the definitive comedy about the banality of bureaucratic evil, a book as funny in its black way as anything Douglas Adams ever wrote. Just to make its black comedy complete, all three of Kafka’s sisters later perished in the Holocaust. Set against those events, Adams’s struggle with Barclays Bank to get his address changed seems like the triviality it truly was.

What, though, to make of this idea of a satire of the bureaucratic impulse as interactive fiction? I think there’s a germ of genius in there, a germ of something as brilliant and subversive as anything in the Hitchhiker’s game. Playing a text adventure — yes, even one of Infocom’s — is to often feel like you’re interacting with the world’s pettiest and most remorseless bureaucrat. We’re all only too familiar with sequences like this one, which as it happens is taken from the eventual finished version of Bureaucracy:

>put blank cartridge in computer
[This story isn't allowed to recognise the word "blank."]

[Your blood pressure just went up.]

>i
You're holding an unlabelled cartridge, an address book, a small piece of laminated card, an airline magazine, $57.50, an envelope containing a memo, a power saw, a Swiss army knife, a coupon booklet, a damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan, a flyer, a Popular Paranoia magazine, your passport, your Boysenberry computer (containing an eclipse predicting cartridge), a small case and a hacksaw. You're wearing a digital wristwatch, and you have a deposit slip and a wallet in your pocket.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You're holding too much already.

>drop painting
You drop the damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan.

You're beginning to feel normal again.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You take the eclipse predicting cartridge out of your Boysenberry computer.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
The unlabelled cartridge slips into your Boysenberry computer with a thrilling little click...

One of Adam’s initial ideas was to have a blood-pressure monitor that would increase every time you got into a tussle with the parser like the one above. This idea made it into the finished game. Yet there are signs, fleeting clues, that that should only have been a beginning, that he would have gone much further, that his idea was to create a game that would end up as, among other things, a self-referential commentary on the medium of interactive fiction itself, a further venturing down the road that the Hitchhiker’s game had already started on with its lying parser and its willingness to integrate your typos into its story. Tim Anderson of Infocom recalls a puzzle involving a pile of boxes, of which you needed to specify one that the parser would obstinately refuse to recognize. How fun such a game could have been is very much up for debate; it sounds likely to run afoul of all of the issues of playability and fairness that make Hitchhiker’s the last game in the world to be emulated by a budding designer of interactive fiction. Nevertheless, I would love to see that original vision of Bureaucracy. While some pieces of it survived into the finished game in the form of the blood-pressure monitor and the snooty, bureaucratic tone of the parser, for the most part it became a different game entirely — or, rather, several different games. Therein lies a tale — and most of the finished game’s problems.

Endeavoring as always to keep Adams happy, Infocom assigned as his partner on the new game no less august an Imp than Marc Blank, who along with Mike Berlyn had been one of the two possible collaborators Adams had specifically requested for the Hitchhiker’s game; he’d had to be convinced to accept Steve Meretzky in their stead. Alas, Blank turned out to be a terrible choice at this particular juncture. He was deeply dissatisfied with the current direction of the company and more interested in telling Al Vezza and the rest of the Board about it at every opportunity than he was in writing more interactive fiction. Bureaucracy thus immediately began to languish in neglect. This precedent would take a long, long time to break. The story at this point gets so surreal that it reads like something out of a Douglas Adams novel — or for that matter a Douglas Adams game. Infocom therefore included it in the finished version of Bureaucracy as an Easter egg entitled “The Strange and Terrible History of Bureaucracy.”

Once upon a time Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky collaborated on a game called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Everyone wanted a sequel, but Douglas thought it might be fun to do something different first. He called that something Bureaucracy, and wanted Marc Blank to work on it with him. Of course, Marc was busy, and Douglas was busy, and by the time they could both work on it, they were too busy to work on it. So, Jerry Wolper [a programmer who had collaborated with Mike Berlyn on Cutthroats] got a free trip to Las Vegas to talk to Douglas about it before it was decided to let it rest for a while instead. Jerry decided to go back to school, so Marc and Douglas spent some time on Nantucket looking at llamas, drinking Chateau d'Yquem, and arguing about puzzles. Nothing much happened for a while, except that Marc and Douglas got distracted again. Paul DiLascia [a senior member of the Cornerstone development team] decided to give it a try, but changed his mind and kept working on Cornerstone. Marc went to work for Simon and Schuster, and Paul went to work for Interleaf. Jeff O'Neill finished Ballyhoo, and, casting about for a new project, decided to take it on, about the time Jerry graduated. Jeff got a trip to London out of it. Douglas was enthusiastic, but busy with a movie. Progress was slow, and then Douglas was very busy with something named Dirk Gently. Jeff decided it was time to work on something else, and Brian Moriarty took it over. He visited England, and marvelled at Douglas's CD collection, but progress was slow. Eventually he decided it was time to work on something else. Paul made a cameo appearance, but decided to stay at Interleaf instead. So Chris Reeve and Tim Anderson took it over, and mucked around a lot. Finally, back in Las Vegas, Michael Bywater jumped (or was pushed) in and came to Boston for some serious script-doctoring, which made what was there into what is here. In addition, there were significant contributions from Liz Cyr-Jones, Suzanne Frank, Gary Brennan, Tomas Bok, Max Buxton, Jon Palace, Dave Lebling, Stu Galley, Linde Dynneson, and others too numerous to mention. Most of these people are not dead yet, and apologise for the inconvenience.

Trying to unravel in much more detail this Gordian knot that consumed more than twice as much time as any other Infocom game is fairly hopeless, not least because no one who was around it much wants to talk about it. The project, having been begun to some extent under duress, soon become a veritable albatross, a bad joke for which no one can manage to summon up much of a laugh even today. Jon Palace is typical:

There may be some fun things left in the game, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth. At some point it became, the less I can have to do with it the better. It wasn’t fun doing that game. Bureaucracy is the only game I can remember that was just downright not fun to do.

The natural question, then, is just what went so horribly awry for this game alone among all the others. Infocom’s official version of the tale neglects only to assign the blame where it rightfully belongs: solidly on the doorstep of Douglas Adams.

Adams was a member of a species that’s not as rare as one might expect: the brilliant writer who absolutely hates to write, who finds the process torturous, personally draining to a degree ironically difficult to capture in words. Even during the seven-year heyday of Hitchhiker’s, when he was to all external appearances quite industrious and prolific indeed, he was building a reputation for himself among publishers and agents as one of the most difficult personalities in their line of business, not because he was a jerk or a prima donna like many other authors but simply because he never — never — did the work he said he was going to do when he said he was going to do it. The stories of the lengths people had to go to to get work out of him remain enshrined in publishing legend to this day. Locking him into a small room with a word processor and a single taskmaster/minder and telling him he wasn’t allowed out until he was finished was about the only method that was remotely effective.

It wasn’t as if Infocom had never seen this side of Douglas Adams before. His procrastination had also threatened to scupper the Hitchhiker’s game for a while. They had, however, as they must now have been realizing more and more, gotten very lucky there. With Infocom’s star on the ascendant at that time, the publishing interests around Adams had clearly seen a Hitchhiker’s Infocom game as a winning proposition all the way around. They had thus mobilized to make it part of their 1984 full-court press on their embattled author that had also yielded So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the overdue fourth Hitchhiker’s novel. Infocom, meanwhile, had fortuitously paired Adams with Steve Meretzky, the most self-driven, efficient, and organized of all the Imps, who always got his projects done and done on time — as evidenced by his sheer prolificacy as an author of games, gamebooks, and lots and lots of fake memos. Even with Meretzky’s boundless creative energy on Infocom’s side, it had taken colluding with Adams’s handlers to isolate the two of them in a hotel in Devon to get Adams to follow his partner’s example and buckle down and work on the game.

With the industry now shifting under Infocom’s feet in ways that were hardly to their advantage, with Cornerstone threatening to sink the company even if they could find a way to keep selling lots of games, with the project in question a one-off that no one knew much about rather than another entry in the Hitchhiker’s line-up, Infocom lacked the leverage with Adams or his handlers to do anything similar for Bureaucracy. And Meretzky was staying far, far away, having apparently decided that he’d done his time in Purgatory with Douglas Adams and had earned the right to work on his own projects. Thus despite allegedly “working on” Bureaucracy personally for almost two years, despite all of the face-to-faces in Las Vegas, Nantucket, and London, Adams’s contributions at the end of that time amounted to little more than the rough idea he had brought to Infocom in the first place: the name, the blood-pressure monitor, and a few vague puzzles ideas like the boxes that sounded interesting but that no other than him quite understood and that he never deigned to properly explain. Meretzky:

Douglas’s procrastination seemed much worse than it was with Hitchhiker’s. That seems odd because he did the first game only grudgingly, since he had already done Hitchhiker’s for several different media, but Bureaucracy was what he most wanted to do. Perhaps the newness and excitement of working in interactive fiction had worn off; perhaps he had more distractions in his life at that point; perhaps it was that the succession of people who had my role in Bureaucracy didn’t stay with the project for more than a portion of its development cycle and therefore never became a well-integrated creative unit with Douglas; perhaps it was that, lacking the immovable Christmas deadline that Hitchhiker’s had, it was easier to let the game just keep slipping and slipping.

Brian Moriarty is less diplomatic: “Douglas Adams was a very funny man, very witty, a very good writer, and also very, very lazy. Anyone who knew Douglas will tell you that he really didn’t like to work very much.” Just to add insult to injury, when Adams did rouse himself to work on a game project it turned out to be for a competing developer. In January of 1986 he spent several days holed up in London with a sizable chunk of the staff of Lucasfilm Games, contributing ideas and puzzles to their Labyrinth adventure game. That may not sound like the worst betrayal in the world at first blush, but consider again: he devoted more time and energy to this ad-hoc design consultation than he ever had to what was allegedly his own game, the one Infocom had started making at his specific request.

The succession of Imps who were assigned to the project were forced to improvise with their own ideas in face of the black hole that was Adams’s contribution. Details of exactly who did what are, however, once again thin on the ground. The only Imp I’ve heard claim specific credit for any sequence that survived into the final game is Moriarty, who remembers doing a bit where you’re trying to order a simple hamburger in a fast-food joint, only to get buried under a bewildering barrage of questions about exactly how you’d like it. The inevitable punchline comes when a “standard, smells-like-a-dog’s-ear burger with nothing on it” is finally delivered, regardless of your choices.

By late 1986, as the Bureaucracy project was closing in fast on its two-year anniversary, it was not so much a single big game as a collection of individual little games connected together, if at all, by the most precarious of scaffolding, each reading not like a game by Douglas Adams but a game by whatever Imp happened to be responsible for that section. Not only had Adams’s ideas for leveraging the mechanics of program and parser in service of his theme been largely abandoned, but at some point a fairly elaborate satire of paranoid conspiracy theorists — sort of an interactive Illuminatus! trilogy — had gotten muddled up with the satire of impersonal bureaucratic institutions in general. As the recent revelations about the National Security Agency have demonstrated, the two all too often do go together. Still, those parts of Bureaucracy had wandered quite far afield from everyday frustrations like trying to get a bank to accept a change-of-address form. It had all become quite the mess, and nobody had much energy left to try to sort it out.

If you had polled Infocom’s staff at this point on whether they thought Bureaucracy would ever actually be finished, it’s unlikely that many would have shown much optimism. The project remained alive at all not due to any love anyone had for it but rather out of what was probably a forlorn hope anyway: that getting this game out and published would pave the way to the next Hitchhiker’s game, to another potential 300,000-plus seller. Having done their part in getting Bureaucracy done, with or without Adams, Infocom hoped he would do his by returning to Hitchhiker’s with them. Few who knew Adams well would have bet much on that particular quid pro quo, but hope does spring eternal.

And then, miraculously, more than a glimmer of real hope did appear from an unlikely quarter. Marc Blank was long gone from Infocom by then, but had continued to keep in touch with his old friends among the Imps. At the November 1986 COMDEX trade show in Las Vegas, he bumped into Michael Bywater, a good friend of Douglas Adams and a fellow writer — in fact, a practitioner of his own brand of arch British humor that, if you squinted just right, wasn’t too different from that of Adams himself. Knowing the fix his old friends were still in with the game he had been the first to work on so long ago, a light bulb went off in Blank’s head. He hastily brokered a deal among Infocom, Adams, and Bywater, and the last arrived in the Boston area within days to hole up in a hotel room for an intense three weeks or so of script-doctoring. Infocom’s Tim Anderson, the latest programmer assigned to the project, stayed close at hand to insert Bywater’s new text and to implement any new puzzles he happened to come up with.

Jumbling the chronology as we’re sometimes forced to around here in the interest of other forms of coherency, we’ve already met Bywater in the context of his personal and professional relationship with Anita Sinclair and Magnetic Scrolls, and the salvage job he would do on that company’s Jinxter nine months or so after performing the same service for Infocom. As arrogant and quick to anger as he can sometimes be (one need only read his comments in response to Andy Baio’s misguided and confused article on the would-be second Hitchhiker’s game to divine that), everyone at Infocom found him to be a delight, not least because here at last was a writer who was more than happy to actually write. In a few weeks he rewrote virtually every word in the game in his own style — a style that was more caustic than Adams’s, but that nevertheless checked the right “British humor” boxes. Just like that, Infocom had their game, which they needed only test and publish to finally be quit of the whole affair forever. Right?

Well, this being the Game That Just Wouldn’t Be Finished, not quite. Janice Eisen, a current reader and supporter of this blog and an outside playtester for Infocom back in the day, recalls being given a version of Bureaucracy for testing that was largely the same structurally as the released version and that seemed to sport Bywater’s text, but that nevertheless differed substantially in one respect. The ultimate villain in this version, the person responsible for all of the bureaucratic tortures you’ve been subjected to, was not, as in the final version, a bitter computer nerd seeking to exact vengeance on the world and (for some reason) on you for his inability to get a date, but rather none other than Britain’s Queen Mother. As a satirical theme it’s classic Bywater. He was and remains a self-described republican, seeing the monarchy as setting “an appalling example to the whole nation by making clear that there’s at least one thing — head of state — that you can’t achieve but can only be born to.”

Some weeks after testing this version of Bureaucracy at home as usual, Janice, who lived close to Infocom’s offices, got a call asking if she could come in to test what would turn out to be the final version on-site. She was also told she could bring a friend of hers, another Infocom fan but not a regular tester, to join in. They spent a Saturday playing through the game, with a minder on-hand to give them answers to puzzles if necessary to make sure they got all the way through the game. It’s not absolutely clear whether Bywater was involved in the further rewriting made necessary by the replacement of the Queen Mother with the nerd, but the lavishly insulting descriptions of the latter — “ghastly,” “sniveling,” “ratty,” and “ineffectual” number amongst the adjectives — sound nothing like any of the Imps’ styles and very much like Bywater’s. When she asked why Infocom had made the changes — she had enjoyed the Queen Mother much more than the nerd — Janice was told that Infocom had feared that they were going too far into the realm of politics, that they were afraid that the Queen Mother, 86 years old at the time, might die while the game was still a hot item, making them look “terrible.” (This fear would prove unfounded; she would live for another fifteen years.)

So, it was a tortured, cobbled, disjointed creation that finally reached store shelves against all odds in March of 1987, and apparently one that had been subject to the final violation of a last-minute Bowdlerization. For all that, though, it’s a lot better game than you might expect, a better game even than most of the Infocom staffers, having had it so thoroughly spoiled in their eyes by the hell of its creation, are often willing to acknowledge. I quite like it on the whole, even if I have to temper that opinion with a lot of caveats.

Bureaucracy shows clear evidence of the fragmented process of its creation in being divided into four vignettes that become, generally not to the game’s benefit, steadily more surreal and less grounded in the everyday as they proceed. The first, longest, and strongest section begins after you have just gotten a new job and moved to a new neighborhood. Your new employer Happitec is about to send you jetting off to Paris for an introductory seminar. You just need to “pick up your Happitec cheque, grab a bite of lunch, a cab to the airport, and you’ll be living high on the hog at Happitec’s expense.” Naturally, it won’t be quite that easy. It’s here that the game pays due homage to the episode that first inspired it: your mail had been misdelivered thanks to “a silly bit of bother with your bank about a change-of-address card.” Subsequent sections have you trying to board your flight at the airport; dealing with the annoyances of a transcontinental flight, which include in this case something about an in-flight emergency that will force you to bail out of the airplane; and finally penetrating the dastardly nerdy mastermind’s headquarters somewhere in the jungles of Africa.

Much of Bureaucracy‘s personality is of course down to Bywater (about whom more in a moment), but I’m not sure that he comprises the whole of the story. I’d love to know who wrote my favorite bit, which is not found in the game proper but rather in one of the feelies. Your welcome letter from Happitec is such a perfect satire of Silicon Valley’s culture of empty plastic Utopianism that it belongs on the current television show of the same name. The letterhead’s resemblance to Apple’s then-current Macintosh iconography is certainly not accidental.

Bureaucracy

From the cult of personality around Happitec’s “founder and president” to the way it can’t even be bothered to address you by name to the veiled passive-aggressive threat with which it concludes, this letter just so perfect. All it’s missing is a reference to “making the world a better place.”

Bywater, for his part, acquits himself more than well enough as the mirror-universe version of Douglas Adams, almost as witty and droll but more casually cruel. His relentless showiness makes him a writer whom I find fairly exhausting to try to read in big gulps, but he always leaves me with a perfect little bon mot or two to marvel over.

This is the living room of your new house, a pretty nice room, actually. At least, it will be when all your stuff has arrived as the removals company said they would have done yesterday and now say they will do while you're on vacation. At the moment, however, it's a bit dull. Plain white, no carpets, no curtains, no furniture. A room to go bughouse in, really. Another room is visible to the west, and a closed front door leads outside.


This deeply tacky wallet was sent to you free by the US Excess Credit Card Corporation to tell you how much a person like you needed a US Excess card, what with your busy thrusting lifestyle in today's fast-moving, computerised, jet-setting world. Needless to say, you already had a US Excess card which they were trying to take away from you for not paying your account, which, equally needless to say, you had paid weeks ago.


The stamp on the leaflet is worth 42 Zalagasan Wossnames (the Zalagasans were too idle to think of a name for their currency) and shows an extremely bad picture of an Ai-Ai. The Ai-Ai is of course a terribly, terribly rare sort of lemur which is a rare sort of monkey so altogether pretty rare, so rare that nobody has ever seen one, which is why the picture is such a blurred and rotten likeness. Actually, come to think of it, since nobody has ever seen the real thing, the picture might in fact be a really sharp, accurate likeness of a blurred and rotten animal.


The machine says: "Jones here. I'm the new tenant of your old house. There's a whole bunch of mail been arriving here for you. Urgent stuff from the Fillmore Fiduciary Trust. You know what I thought? I thought 'Do the right thing, Jones. Forward the guy's mail.' Then I found out about the termites. Then I found out about the nightly roach-dance. So I thought 'Rats.' I've returned your mail to your bank. Sort it out yourself."

So, when the scenario gives him something to work with Bywater can be pretty great. He’s much less effective when the game loses its focus on the frustrations of everyday existence, which it does with increasing frequency as it wears on and the situations get more and more surreal. He seems to feel obligated to continue to slather on heavy layers of snark, because after all he’s Michael Bywater and that’s what he does, but the point of it all begins rather to get lost. His description of your fellow passengers aboard an African airline as playing “ethnic nose flutes” is… well, let’s just say it’s not as funny as it wants to be and leave it at that. And his relentless picking away at the service workers you encounter — “The waiter squints at his pad with tiny simian eyes, breathing hard at the intellectual effort of it all.” — doesn’t really ring true for me, largely because I never seem to meet so many of these stupid and/or hateful people in my own life. Most of the people I meet seem pretty nice and reasonably competent on the whole. Even when I’m being gored on the bureaucratic horns of some institution or other, I find that the people I deal with are mostly just as conscious as I am of how ridiculous the whole thing is. As Kafka, who was himself an employee of an insurance company, was well aware, this is largely what makes bureaucracies so impersonal and vaguely, existentially horrifying. Ah, well, as someone who sees nothing cute about someone else’s baby — sorry, proud parents! — I can at least appreciate Bywater’s characterization of same as a “stupid, half-witted” thing emitting “hateful little bleats.”

The puzzles are perhaps the strangest mixture of easy and hard found anywhere in the Infocom catalog. The first two sections of the game are very manageable, with some puzzles that might almost be characterized as too easy and only a few that are a bit tricky; the best of these, and arguably the most difficult, is a delightful bit of illogical logic involving your bank and a negative check. When you actually board your flight and begin the third section, however, the difficulty takes a vertical leap. The linear run of puzzles that is the third and fourth sections of Bureaucracy is downright punishing, including at least three that I find much more difficult than anything in Spellbreaker, supposedly Infocom’s big challenge of a game for the hardcore of the hardcore. One is an intricate exercise in planning and pattern recognition taking place aboard the airplane (Bywater claims credit for having designed this one from scratch); one an intimidating exercise in code-breaking; one more a series of puzzles than a single puzzle really, an exercise in computer hacking that’s simulated in impressive detail. None of the three is unfair. (The puzzle that comes closest to that line is actually not among this group; it’s rather a game of “guess the right action or be killed” that you have to engage in whilst hanging outside the airliner in a parachute.) The clues are there, but they’re extremely subtle, requiring the closest reading and the most careful experimentation whilst being under, in the case of the first and the third of this group, time pressure that will have you restoring again and again. Bureaucracy raises the interesting question of whether a technically fair game can nevertheless simply be too hard for its own good. The gnarly puzzles that suddenly appear out of the blue don’t serve this particular game all that well in my opinion, managing only to further dilute its original focus and make it feel still more schizophrenic. I think I’d like them more in another, different game. At any rate, those looking for a challenge won’t be disappointed. If you can crack this one without hints, you’re quite the puzzler.

Although it’s Infocom’s third release in their Interactive Fiction Plus line of games that ran only on the “big” machines with at least 128 K of memory, Bureaucracy doesn’t feel epic in the way of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. A glance at the story file reveals that it uses less than half of the extra space allowed by the newer Z-Machine, in contrast to the previous two games in the line that stuff the format to the gills. I would even say that quite a number of Infocom’s standard releases subjectively feel bigger. One suspects that Bureaucracy became an Interactive Fiction Plus title more by accident than original intent, the extra space serving largely to give a chatty Michael Bywater more room to ramble and to allow stuff like that elaborate in-game computer simulation. And given the way the game was made, I’d be surprised if its code was particularly compact or tidy.

Despite all of the pain of its creation and the bad vibes that clung to it for reason of same, Infocom released Bureaucracy with relatively high hopes that the Douglas Adams name, still printed on the box despite his minimal involvement, would be enough to sell a substantial number of copies even absent the Hitchhiker’s name. Adams, showing at least a bit more enthusiasm for promoting Bureaucracy than he had for writing it, gave an interview about it to PBS’s Computer Chronicles television program, during which it becomes painfully apparent that he has only the vaguest notion of what actually happens in the game he supposedly authored. He also appeared on Joan Rivers’s late-night talk show; she declared it “the funniest computer game ever,” although I must admit that I find it hard to imagine that she had much basis for comparison. None of it helped all that much. As was beginning to happen a lot by 1987, Infocom was sharply disappointed by their latest hoped-for hit’s performance. Bureaucracy sold not quite 30,000 copies, a bit better than the Infocom average by this point but short of Hitchhiker’s numbers by a factor of more than ten.

The game’s a shaggy, disjointed beast for sure, but I still recommend that anyone with an appreciation of for the craft of interactive fiction give it a whirl at some point. If the hardcore puzzles at the end aren’t your bag, know that the first two sequences are by far its most coherent and focused parts. Feel free to just stop when you make it aboard the airplane; by that time you’ve seen about 75 percent of the content anyway. Whatever else it would or should have become, as Infocom’s only work of contemporary social satire Bureaucracy is a unique entry in their catalog, and in its stronger moments at least it acquits itself pretty well at the business. That alone is reason enough to treasure it. And as a lesson in the perils of staking your business on a single mercurial genius… well, let’s just say that the story behind Bureaucracy is perhaps worthwhile in its way as well.

(As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Reader Janice Eisen took the time to correspond with me about her memories of testing Bureaucracy, for which I owe her huge thanks. Other sources include the two Douglas Adams biographies, Hitchhiker by M.J. Simpson and Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb; the Family Computing of September 1987; the Electronic Games of April 1985; and the audio of Steve Meretzky and Michael Bywater’s joint conversation in London back in 2005.)

 
 

Tags: , ,

Hollywood Dave’s Hijinx

Hollywood Hijinx

Most happy offices, if they’re lucky, have one guy (or girl) who’s more important for the way he helps others enjoy coming to work than for the actual work he gets done personally when he’s there. He’s the guy who remembers birthdays and graduations; who organizes the softball team and the potlucks and the rotisserie baseball league and the NCAA basketball pools; who’s always willing to fetch lunch or (after working hours, hopefully!) a keg of beer; who’s always available for a meeting around the proverbial water cooler to laugh at a great new joke or commiserate with old disappointments. For Infocom, which for most of its lifetime was possessed of a very happy office indeed, that guy was “Hollywood” Dave Anderson.

A California boy through and through — one only had to hear his nickname or look at the loud beachwear he wore to work every day he could get away with it to divine that — Anderson had first come to Boston in late 1982 with his buddy Jeff O’Neill, executing a reverse Manifest Destiny to seek their promised land to the east. He was working in a sawmill a few months later when he saw an advertisement in the newspaper from a company he’d never heard of called Infocom, looking for game testers. He didn’t know much of anything about computer games, but getting paid to play them all day certainly sounded a lot better than life at the sawmill. He became one of Infocom’s first full-time testers, taking over from Steve Meretzky, who was already moving on up to write Planetfall. Soon O’Neill joined him in the same role. Hollywood was good at his job, thorough and insightful in everything from spotting typos to bigger questions of design and puzzle fairness. With the testing department growing rapidly around him in Infocom’s first bloom of major commercial success, within six months he was the grand old man of the group, officially given the title of Lead Playtester.

Something else that happened at nearly the same time does much to explain the even more important role that Anderson was already playing at Infocom. One day in November of 1983, he decided it was high time that somebody clean up the stagnant goldfish pond located outside Infocom’s Wheeler Street offices. He scooped out the three fish, moved them to a temporary holding tank, drained the pond and diligently scrubbed it clean, and put fresh water back in. Anyone who knows anything about fish — a group that apparently didn’t include Anderson or anyone else at Infocom whom he might have talked to about his scheme — can probably guess what happened when he put the fish back in the next day. They all promptly died, undone by a screwed-up pH balance or incorrect oxygen content or bad karma or whatever it is that makes domestic fish die if you so much as look at them wrong (one wonders how evolution ever spared this bunch). The others at Infocom decided to prosecute him for the fish’s murder, with Marc Blank acting as prosecutor, Steve Meretzky as his defense attorney, Mike Dornbrook as fishy expert witness, and nine upright Infocom employee/citizens as the jury. After a lengthy — okay, not really lengthy — trial, he was found not guilty, the victim of a frame job by the real murderer, a Micro Group programmer — and jury member to boot! — named Poh Lim. Lim was sentenced to life in the Graphics “Group,” a truly solitary confinement given the state of the company’s graphics technology at the time.

Hollywood’s trial passed into Infocom lore as one of the first grand comic absurdities of the sort that their staffers would raise to a high art. It also says much about his own role in daily life in the office, from the energetic helpfulness that led him to clean the pond so thoroughly in the first place to the gleeful way he jumped aboard to play his role in the whole (mis)carriage of justice. His name didn’t appear on the game boxes, but faithful readers of Infocom’s New Zork Times newsletter, if they were really paying attention, would have noticed that his name and sometimes picture crop up over and over in accounts of the cheerful insanity that was daily life at the company. He doesn’t hog the limelight — he wasn’t that kind of guy, not at all — but he’s always there, as a participant and as often as not an instigator.

Hollywood agrees to doff his trademark loud shirt to act as host of a live-action What's My Line? show.

Hollywood doffs his trademark loud shirt for once to act as host of a live-action What’s My Line? show.

Back in his preferred attire, Hollywood cuts a pumpkin with a chainsaw (!) at Infocom's Halloween party.

Back in his preferred attire, Hollywood carves a pumpkin with a chainsaw (!) at Infocom’s Halloween party. I guess the time at the sawmill did prove to be good for something after all.

It was for example Hollywood who, after seeing the noble sport at a lounge in his namesake city in California, brought hermit-crab racing to Infocom. Teams were established, and a prize collection of crabs bought by Hollywood at a local pet store auctioned off to each to carry its standard at Drink’em Downs raceway, constructed in the ample space left over inside the CambridgePark Drive offices after Cornerstone had come and gone.

Drink'em Downs track announcer Hollywood calls the action as Stu Galley looks on in suspense. Races could take a while, as the crabs had a tendency to say, "Screw this!" and stay in their shells at the starting gate.

Drink’em Downs track announcer Hollywood calls the action, assisted by track timer Stu Galley. The latter had a difficult job: races could take a while, as the crabs had a tendency to say, “Screw this!” and shrink into their shells at the starting gate.

But Hollywood’s most legendary exploits took place on the softball field. He was instrumental in setting up Boston’s Software Softball League, which included along with Infocom the likes of Spinnaker and Lotus. Hollywood became the coach of Infocom’s team, making the official uniform, inevitably, a loud floral shirt. The games became a pivotal part of Infocom’s social calendar, a bonding experience notable even by the company’s usual close-knit standards. In trying to explain how it was at Infocom during the early days when everything they touched seemed to turn to gold, many old employees turn back to those sun-kissed summer days on the softball field when a ragtag bunch of them would show up with several coolers full of beer and little idea who was even playing what position to compete against companies often several times their size, companies that held actual practice sessions and even had actual uniforms — and, much more often than not, Infocom would win. That said, those chalking the wins purely up to Infocom’s charmed early life were doing something of a disservice to their best player. It seems safe to say that Hollywood all but won some games by himself, what with his eye-popping yearly batting averages of .800 or better and his habit of hitting home runs by the handful.

Happy days on the softball field. Of the guys wearing the ridiculous straw hats, Hollywood is the one to farthest left.

A motley crew but an effective one on the softball field. Of the guys wearing the ridiculous straw hats, Hollywood is the one to farthest left.

The story of Hollywood Anderson at Infocom is to everyone who was actually there and, indeed, to him as well largely the story of an all-around good mate, not of a game designer. This fact highlights a distinction that perhaps isn’t always appreciated enough, setting into stark relief just how differently Infocom was and is regarded by those who were inside the company in contrast to those who just loved the games. The company that people like me love to idealize as visionaries of interactive storytelling was for the people there first and foremost just a great social experience, for many or most the very best of their entire lives. To them Infocom was about computer games only secondarily. The Infocom that they knew is one that we cannot — and, what with them being so hopelessly close to the sausage-making that led to the games, the opposite is also true. When interviewed by Jason Scott for his Get Lamp documentary, Hollywood didn’t seem to want to talk about his one and only game Hollywood Hijinx so much as all the great memories he has of Infocom as a place, memories that often deal only tangentially with the actual nuts and bolts of making interactive fiction.

Even taken on these terms, however, the story of Hollywood’s transformation from tester and life of the Infocom party to Implementor is an unusual one in comparison to that of his peers. Unlike Steve Meretzky or Jeff O’Neill, talented writers and frustrated artists who worked hard to get out of the testing department, and still less like Brian Moriarty, who accepted a job in the Micro Group with the secret agenda of becoming an Imp by hook or by crook, designing his own game just seemed to kind of fall into Hollywood’s lap. He was good at his job and took it seriously, but his passion for the medium didn’t exactly burn with the heat of a thousand suns. He himself notes that the staff was divided between those who believed they were on the cusp of a new form of interactive literature and those who saw their products as “just games.” He, no tortured-artist type by temperament or circumstance, saw them pretty definitively as the latter — the more game-like the better, in fact. Hollywood was an old-school guy who still held Zork up as a sort of gold standard. He was a member of the small minority of even old-school players who love mazes; he loved nothing more than to hunker down with a blank piece of graph paper and a full inventory to drop’em and map’em.

Of course, one would have to be a deeply incurious person to test interactive fiction as a full-time job for literally years without developing some interest in what went into making it. One year Infocom hired a high-school boy named Tom Bok to help with testing over the summer. He got hold of the ZIL source code to the original Zork and started playing around with it, first just by substituting text of his own but later by experimenting with the actual instructions. Both Hollywood and his old buddy Jeff O’Neill got interested in his explorations, and the trio made a spoof they called Zok — a portmanteau of Zork and Bok — that was widely played by others in the office.

Still, while those experiments led O’Neill in fairly short order to pitch and get accepted his idea for Ballyhoo, Hollywood’s own route to Imphood would be more circuitous. When Activision bought Infocom in mid-1986, one of Jim Levy’s first requests was that they start making more games — many more in fact, to the tune of twice as many releases per year as had been their wont. To meet that demand, they would need more Imps, and hard experience had taught them that hiring people off the street and expecting them to learn this absolutely unique art form didn’t usually work, even if they had the money in the budget for it (which they really didn’t). But right there was Hollywood, who’d been testing games for three years now and thus knew the form about as intimately as anyone who hadn’t actually written a game before could. And this was Hollywood, whom everyone liked and appreciated. Wouldn’t it be nice for him to see his name on a box? Hadn’t he earned that through his years of many and varied services? If the door wasn’t quite held wide for him, it was certainly somewhat ajar. All he really had to do was saunter through with a half-decent idea.

In a telling foreshadowing of how his game would end up being developed, even the initial idea wasn’t his. It was Liz Cyr-Jones, another tester who would be promoted to Hollywood’s old role of Lead Playtester upon his departure (how’s that for motivation?), who proposed making his game an extended homage to his long-standing nickname, so ingrained by now that The New Zork Times had taken to writing his name as “Dave” Hollywood Anderson. Hollywood Hijinx would be a scavenger hunt taking place on the mansion of your recently deceased Uncle Buddy and Aunt Hildegarde Burbank, B-movie moguls par deluxe. According to the terms of their will, you need to find ten mementos from their movies in the course of a single night to inherit their fortune. It seemed a fun premise to Hollywood, perfectly suited to his own gaming predilections and experience — or, rather, his lack thereof. It was essentially a Zork set in the present day, the focus firmly on the puzzles that were to him the most interesting part of interactive fiction. The deserted, static grounds of the mansion would make the programming easier, while the played-for-laughs B-movie premise would let him liven them up with a bit of humor and atmosphere while being surreal enough that he didn’t need to worry too much about realism or plot or any of the rest of the stuff that Infocom’s preferred characterization of their games as “interactive fiction” normally implied. He pitched Jones’s idea, and, sure enough, it was accepted. Just like that, he was an Imp.

While it would bear Hollywood Anderson’s name on its cover and it would certainly be him who had final say on the project, Hollywood Hijinx is one of the two Infocom games since the days of the original Zork that is best described as a true group effort. (The other would be their very next game, subject of my next article. Its development would take that path, however, for very different reasons.) Just about everyone in the testing department pitched in with ideas for puzzles and gags, treating it as a welcome chance to make a game of their own for a change instead of only breaking the games of others. But Hollywood’s collaborators also extended far beyond the testing people. The only really big fan of B-movies at Infocom — Hollywood himself barely even knew who Roger Corman was — was, perhaps surprisingly, “Professor” Brian Moriarty, on the surface at least the most serious and “literary” of all the Imps. He pitched in with lots of ideas to lend humor and texture to the game, and took the time to write some of Tinsel World, the dishy showbiz magazine that became the centerpiece of the feelies. Infocom’s packaging people reveled in their freedom from overly stringent Imp guidance to come up with much of the rest from their own whole cloth. Hollywood did most of the programming himself, but admits to spending a lot of time “running around the office groveling” to Steve Meretzky or Dave Lebling to help him when it got beyond “the basics” of ZIL. None of this should be taken as a dismissal of Hollywood’s ability, and certainly not as an accusation of dishonesty. A social animal if ever there was one, this was just his natural way of working. And, good guy that he was, everyone was more than happy to help.

I wish I could tell you that the game that resulted from all of this is one of the Infocom greats, a tribute to Hollywood’s infinite good will and subtle leadership. Sadly, however, I can’t. There are worse games in the catalog than Hollywood Hijinx, but I’m not sure there are any that feel quite so inessential as this one. Indeed, it has to be the single least innovative Infocom game ever. Its most immediately striking feature, not least because you encounter it almost immediately, is the mansion’s defiantly old-school hedge maze, the single largest, gnarliest example of its type ever to appear in an Infocom game. (I did mention that Hollywood loved mazes, didn’t I?) Thankfully you can, after solving a number of other puzzles, put together an in-game map of the thing that will see you through in lieu of solving it yourself; one suspects that this must have been added by Hollywood under duress after hearing from outraged testers. Problem is, it’s all too easy to not realize that’s possible when you first encounter the maze, especially because the map is hidden behind some fairly tricky puzzles that you may not believe are solvable without discovering what’s in the maze’s center first. Remember this, would-be players, and don’t spend several hours mapping the thing — unless, like Hollywood, you enjoy that sort of thing — as I did when I first played!

Of course, innovation isn’t everything, and there’s certainly always room for a well-done Zork-like puzzlefest. Unfortunately, though, Hollywood Hijinx doesn’t quite hold up even on those terms. Most of the puzzles are fine, some (like one involving a certain delightful Godzilla-themed interactive diorama) more than fine. But there’s also one that’s notably terrible, arguably the worst single puzzle to appear in an Infocom game since the infamous baseball maze and bank in Zork II. Because I seem to have developed a regular sideline (or form of personal therapy) in complaining about puzzles, I’m going to describe (and spoil) it in the next paragraph. Sensitive readers may want to skip what follows.

So, you discover a water-filled channel through which you can swim to resurface in a cave complex. Being a cave, however, it has no light. You have a flashlight and also some matches that are theoretically capable of providing some, but the flashlight isn’t waterproof. The obvious thing would be to find a Ziploc bag or other waterproof container to put a light source into, but the mansion’s larder, alas, isn’t well-stocked with such practical necessities. The solution that you eventually discover — or, more likely, look up in the hint book or walkthrough — requires you to coat a match with wax from a burning candle, then scrape it off when you surface on the other end of the pool. That’s an iffy enough proposition in itself, but the game’s text for some reason decides to make it even harder to believe — and to solve. When you “put wax on match,” the response is that “the match head [emphasis mine] is now covered with a thin coating of candle wax.” We have here another of that thriving subspecies of text-adventure puzzles that just don’t make any practical sense whatsoever given the consensus version of reality we presumably share with the games we play. Even if the wax has miraculously kept the match head dry, and even if it’s possible to scrape off all of the glop and still have a strikeable head, all of the rest of the match — you know, the part that actually burns — is still all wet. That it couldn’t possibly burn seems so obvious that I spent a long time banging my head against other walls, sure this particular action couldn’t have anything to do with this particular puzzle. I even took the game’s choice of describing the wax as coating only the head as a deliberate kindness meant to steer me away from seeing it as a solution to the problem of a comprehensively wet match. Little did I know…

The writing in Hollywood Hijinx is mostly fine, enlivening its puzzles with fun props and memories hearkening back to the Burbanks’ glory days. As with so much in this game, it’s hard to say how many of the atmospheric touches were devised by Hollywood himself and how many were passed along to him by others, but then it’s not ultimately all that important anyway. For a guy who was more interested in puzzles than text, Hollywood, to his credit, managed to oversee an enjoyable reading as well as playing experience. The only really jarring moment comes when you screen a copy of Uncle Buddy’s lost film A Corpse Line, when the tone suddenly shifts from gentle satire to full-on zombie horror. I’m still not entirely sure if the disturbing scene you witness and the death you suffer immediately afterward are meant to be parodic and just come off wrong or if they really are meant to be horrific. Either way, they stand out from the rest of the game like, well, a dancing corpse in a top hat.

Much more problematic for anyone trying to solve Hollywood Hijinx are just a few places where the scene that Hollywood is evidently seeing in his mind’s eye isn’t quite captured in its entirety in the text, making, whether intentionally or unintentionally, some things harder than they would otherwise be. (The inside of the fireplace is the most notable offender; know that the “loose mortar” that the game so casually describes apparently isn’t so much loose as irregular, providing lots of convenient… well, I’m sure you can figure the rest out for yourself. The other possibility is that you’re an acrobat who’s capable of sticking one toe into a hole at waist height, stepping up, and balancing there on the face of an otherwise smooth — and loosely mortared to boot — wall.)

The little glitches that dog Hollywood Hijinx may have something to do with the unique collaborative process that was its making. If most of the testers are pitching in with ideas and puzzles, the obvious danger becomes that they get too close to the design, unable to see it anymore as an objective outsider would. In short, if the testers are writing the game, who’s testing it? (There may be an aphorism in there somewhere…) Yet it’s also true that this would hardly be the last time that cracks in Infocom’s usual smooth veneer of polish would be noticeable in their last great surge of text-only games of which Hollywood Hijinx is the first. I’ll take up the question of precisely why that should be at greater length in another article, but will just note for now that Infocom was suddenly being asked to become prolific on a scale which they had never approached before in their history. Between January 1987, the date of Hollywood Hijinx‘s release, and January 1988, when they would release their last all-text adventure game, no fewer than nine titles would pour out of their offices, a rate of production nearly twice that of any other twelve-month period in their history. The number of personnel involved in making the games, meanwhile, did not increase. In fact, just the opposite: Infocom hired their last employee in 1985. As people left in the months and years that followed, they were never replaced. Even when Hollywood stepped up to become an Imp the testing vacancy he left behind remained unfilled in perpetuity, leaving the company with one less conscientious tester to cover a flood of new games that threatened to drown the whole department. Looked at in this light, the biggest surprise is that Infocom’s games of 1987 didn’t suffer still more, that Infocom managed in spite of it all to turn out a some final gems worthy of standing alongside anything from their less harried earlier years.

After Hollywood Hijinx hit the street and promptly became Infocom’s lowest seller to date, their first to fail to break even 20,000 copies, Hollywood Anderson evinced no particular burning desire to make another game. He rather parlayed his knowledge of Aldus PageMaker into his third and final role at Infocom. As their desktop-publishing expert, he helped to put together the newsletters that were still sent out every quarter to the remaining Infocom faithful. (Indeed, the newsletters seemed to grow in size and ambition almost in direct opposition to the dwindling sales of the actual games.) It was a perfect role for him. Even as the realities of life inside CambridgePark Drive grew ever more stressful, he continued to put a good face on it for the outside world, filling the newsletters with stories of the latest antics and coming up with delightfully goofy promotional ideas that could be used to drum up a little enthusiasm for very little of the money that Infocom increasingly didn’t have. The “take a picture of yourself holding an Infocom game on the Great Wall of China” contest, for example, became a particular favorite of fans and employees alike. Still, he remained as always most valuable not for what it said in his job description but for what he brought to daily life at the office. His peers during this last couple of years had more need than ever for his affable charm and unflappable sense of fun.

I’ve seen a few “where are they now?” pieces done on one-hit wonders of the music industry in which the subjects have noted how frustrating it can be to be perpetually framed with that negative label. After all, just getting one song played on the radio and bought in mass quantities by a fickle public — hell, just getting signed and getting a record out at all — is more than the vast majority of working musicians will ever achieve. Similarly, while his game is far from the best of the pack, Hollywood Dave Anderson is one of the vanishingly small number of people on the planet who can hold up an Infocom box with his name on the cover. That’s one hell of an achievement in itself. If the skids that got him there were just slightly greased in contrast to his peers, you’ll never meet a single one of them with a resentful word to say about it. Hollywood, because of who he was and what he brought to their lives every day, deserved his tiny little twirl in the limelight. As long as the Infocom catalog is remembered, there will be his game — his name — nestled in there among the others, a reminder of a great chum and a place that was for six or so great years a great place to be young and creative and happy. There are certainly worse legacies to have.

(As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include Infocom’s New Zork Times and Status Line newsletters of Spring 1984, Summer 1984, Summer 1985, Winter 1986, Fall 1986, Winter 1987, Summer 1987, Fall 1987, Winter 1987, Spring 1988, and Summer 1988, and Down From the Top of Its Game, an academic paper on the company’s history.

Hollywood Hijinx and most of the other Infocom games are available for purchase as part of an iOS app.)

 
 

Tags: ,

Two Books on Gaming History

I’d like to tell you quickly today about two books that have recently crossed my desk, both of which do gaming history the way it ought to be done.

Dungeon Hacks

The first is David L. Craddock’s Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games. It’s a collection of “making of” articles not all that different from many that I write here, except that they deal with a genre that I sadly don’t know all that much about. Perhaps the best compliment I can give the book is that, despite very limited personal experience with the games Craddock writes about that’s confined largely to a bit of dabbling here and there in NetHack, I found it interesting enough to stay up late to read it. Craddock is that good a storyteller, one who knows how to keep the anecdotes under control in order to keep the narrative flowing. I’m not entirely sure that he really makes the argument promised in his subtitle; this is a nuts-and-bolts books that focuses on personalities and the processes of making the games in question, and doesn’t spend the time on their greater impact that a phrase like “changed the course of video games” would imply. Especially if you’re a fan of the genre, however, I’m sure you’ll find it a very worthwhile read. I also recommend Craddock’s earlier history of Blizzard Entertainment, Stay Awhile and Listen, which has already proved a valuable source for one or two of my own articles.

Science Fiction Video Games

The other book is of a much broader scope. Neal Tringham’s aptly titled Science Fiction Video Games is just that, an attempt to catalog and set in context all significant science-fiction videogames, ever. Apart from some interesting if brief chapter introductions, the bulk of the book consists of capsule summaries of games grouped by genres: “Adventures,” “Computer Role-Playing Games,” etc. One might well argue that we have MobyGames already for that sort of thing, but Tringham’s project is redeemed by the even-handed nature of his summaries, summaries that cover not only the broad details of plot and mechanics but also the critical consensus on the games’ merits.  Each is a model of thoughtful concision that… well, let’s just say that many MobyGames reviewers could learn a thing or two from Tringham. I’m already finding it to be a valuable volume for my reference shelf. I just wish it covered all games instead of only those that are at least vaguely science fictional. I would change just two other things: a) organize the summaries chronologically rather than alphabetically to give a better sense of how each genre developed (there’s already an excellent index for looking up titles); and b) make it a hell of a lot cheaper.

Both of these books are professionally edited, carefully written, and well laid-out. I didn’t want to throw either of them against the wall ten minutes after starting to read. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but there are actually very few other books from self-publishers and small presses about which I can say the same thing. I hope we’ll soon see many more of similar quality, from these authors and the many others for whom they’ll hopefully serve as an example. Videogames are fun, but they’re also worth taking seriously.

(Full disclosure: I was gifted free copies of both books by their authors. I also gave Craddock some editorial feedback when his book was undergoing its final round of polishing.)

 

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

The scene of Larry's final conquest plays homage to Softporn's famous cover art.

Larry’s dream girl, who also features on the Leisure Suit Larry box cover, pays homage to Softporn‘s famous cover art.

Ken Williams had always loved Softporn, right from the day he first discovered it and spent three or four hours obsessively playing it. It became on that day the only adventure game, ever, that he sat down and solved all by himself, just like any ordinary fan. And yet, while Softporn turned into a huge early hit for Sierra and helped to garner for the company some of its first national attention via an article in Time magazine, its shelf life was relatively short. Right from the beginning its text-only presentation — it was the only text-only game of any sort ever published by Sierra — placed it decidedly at odds with the rest of the company’s catalog. And not only was it an all-text adventure, but it wasn’t even a very sophisticated all-text adventure at that; it was a painfully slow BASIC-driven experience with a two-word parser. And then there was that cover art, with Roberta Williams, who by 1983 had become the wholesome centerpiece of much of Sierra’s public relations, posed topless in a jacuzzi with two other women and a mustached waiter straight out of Porn Chic Central Casting. Small wonder that Softporn was quietly dropped from the catalog that year. With Sierra now pursuing deals with the likes of Jim Henson and Disney, those days seemed like ancient history, the cover art a dispatch from another life.

By late 1986, with Sierra now known chiefly for Roberta’s family-friendly King’s Quest adventures, those wild early days seemed more ancient than ever. And yet Ken still couldn’t quite manage to forget Chuck Benton’s ribald game, so different in style and subject matter not only from any other adventure game in 1981 but also from anything available now, more than five years later. Always eager to see computer games as mainstream, mass-market entertainment, he was naturally eager to pursue any fresh fictional genre that could help push them there. The sex comedy had long been an established commercial winner in the cinemas, accepted or at least tolerated by all but the most morally conservative segments of society. Why not in the realm of games? If he needed further encouragement, it came about this time in the form of Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which rode Steve Meretzky’s naughty wit and more sexual innuendo than actual sex to near the top of the sales charts that 1986 Christmas season, becoming despite its increasingly passé text-only format Infocom’s last major hit and last title to make a real impact on the industry at large. Clearly sex sold in the realm of computer games just as well as it did in that of any other form of media. What, then, might happen if Ken gave the world a sexy game with pictures?

The New England-born Chuck Benton, after hanging around Sierra for a couple of years working on various lower-profile programming projects, had long since concluded that neither California nor the games industry was for him in the long term, fleeing back East to start a technology company of his own. He wasn’t interested in revisiting Softporn, but, as long as he was properly credited and remunerated for his original work, he wasn’t averse to someone else at Sierra doing so. Ken therefore invited Al Lowe to lunch, to ask if he’d like to have a go.

Judged on the basis of his work history at Sierra alone, Al Lowe would seem the strangest of choices to assign to a sex farce. Until now, he had been Sierra’s children’s software specialist, who had spent the last couple of years making games with Disney — about as far away from Softporn as one could get and still be working in the same industry. If you actually knew Al, however, it all made more sense. His reputation as a very funny guy preceded him everywhere; he was the sort of natural comedian who not only loved a good joke but knew how to deliver it in such a way that you almost couldn’t help but laugh. Nor was he bashful in the least if said joke was a little — or a lot — off-color.

Yet Al remained uncertain. Funny guy or not, he’d never tried to write a single line of comedy in his life. Like just about everyone else with an Apple II in 1981, he had played the original Softporn, but only vaguely recalled it. He asked Ken to give him a week or so to review the original and decide if he was really willing to spend months remaking it in Sierra’s AGI graphic-adventuring engine.

His first words to Ken at their next meeting, as repeated about a million times in interviews given by Al himself, have passed into industry legend: “This game is so out of touch it should be wearing a leisure suit!” Pop culture moves fast sometimes. Chuck Benton had written his tale of nightlife in the disco era at the frayed end of said era, approximately five minutes before disco became one of the greatest “what the hell were we thinking?” laughingstocks in the history of pop music. Thus just five years later, with the era of synthpop and hair metal now in full swing, Softporn did indeed seem as out of date culturally as it did technologically. Al would take on the project, he said, only if he could be allowed to not just remake Softporn but to make fun of it. Luckily, the line he’d used to introduce his argument had gotten a big laugh from Ken. Ken said sure, go for it.

But now, having secured Ken’s permission to make fun of Softporn rather than merely remaking it, Al found himself in a tricky situation for any would be satirist: his target, while it may have sold as many as 50,000 copies back in the day, was hardly likely to be known to everyone who might happen to pick up his new game. The vast majority of the many more people who would (hopefully) play his parody would have bought their computers after the original went out of print. And whatever else happened, the new game would need a new name; even Ken Williams wasn’t going to dare to release a game called Softporn in 1987. Al decided that what he really needed was a central character for both he and the player to abuse, one who would personify all of the outmoded disco-era thinking of this old Softporn game that most players wouldn’t know the first thing about. Indeed, amongst his litany of complaints about Softporn was the lack of any such central character; that game refers to its protagonist, Scott Adams-style, as simply your “puppet.” This was hardly unusual amongst adventure games of the 1980s; games that had you explicitly playing a character who clearly wasn’t you were very much the exception, and not always well-received exceptions at that. Still, Sierra’s own recent graphic adventures had always elected to offer a definite protagonist: King’s Quest‘s King Graham, Space Quest‘s stalwart space janitor Roger Wilco.

Batting around ideas with Sierra staffers, Al kept coming back to one employee that no one there liked all that much, a smarmy traveling sales representative named Gary whose sartorial and musical predilections were a decade out of date but who nevertheless always came back from his sales trips full of stories about his latest sexual conquests. Borrowing from the first joke Al had ever made in connection with the project, for a time the new game was to be called Leisure Suit Gary. John Williams had a sister-in-law with a reputation for hard partying that had long since garnered her the nickname of the “Lounge Lizard.” Al liked that so much that he was soon calling his game Leisure Suit Gary in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Seeing the alliterative potential of a change of Gary’s name, and realizing that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put a little distance between the game’s protagonist and his inspiration, he finally settled on Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Larry Laffer would be a “totally mild and lazy guy,” an unlucky-in-love 38-year-old — not quite the original 40-year-old virgin, but close — who’s decided to ditch his Air Supply and Barry Manilow records and head to Lost Wages (replacing Softporn‘s Lost Vagueness) to cover himself from head to toe in fake gold, cheap aftershave, and acres of white polyester, all with the goal of finally getting himself laid. Whether Al Lowe was really still making fun of Softporn by the time he’d found such a personification for that game’s out-of-dateness is more interesting philosophically than practically.

Despite Ken’s enthusiasm, this was a very risky project for a Sierra that was still not all that far removed from a near-death experience. To keep nervous investors at bay it was necessary to make Leisure Suit Larry almost a skunk-works project. Al Lowe’s contract reflected that. He had done the Disney stuff under straightforward work-for-hire arrangements, money paid for services rendered and projects completed. For Leisure Suit Larry, however, Ken convinced him to forgo upfront payment in favor of a very generous royalty on each copy actually sold, thus pacifying his restless investors by shifting virtually the entire risk to Al himself. The game would be written, designed, and programmed by Al alone using Sierra’s standard in-house tools. The only additional staffer assigned to the project was artist Mark Crowe, who had just finished illustrating and co-designing Space Quest, and even he largely worked on it over nights and weekends, devoting his regular working hours to more reputable projects. Al took a huge risk on Leisure Suit Larry, and he would be amply rewarded; in the end the royalties he would garner from the first Leisure Suit Larry and its many sequels would leave him set for life financially. At the time, though, it was all very uncertain. This was unknown territory in more ways than one.

If we address the game that Al and Mark delivered for publication in June of 1987 purely as a piece of adventure-game design, it’s worthy of superlative praise in comparison to any other adventure to come out of Sierra to date, manifesting to any serious degree only a couple of my recent list of “sins”: there is another annoying gambling minigame that can once again only be beat through constant saving and restoring, and, this being a Sierra game, there are one or two unforeshadowed sudden deaths. There’s also one puzzle that doesn’t quite make practical sense (highlight to read: how can you get out your pocketknife to cut the rope when you’re naked and both hands and feet are strapped to the bed?), but even there it’s clear enough what you need to do that it doesn’t matter as much as it might.

Otherwise, Leisure Suit Larry is downright progressive. The places where you can screw up without realizing it are relatively few and usually reveal themselves (sorry!) in fairly short order. The puzzles make sense and are fun to solve and are sometimes even optional in the interest of keeping you moving through the game, while the meta-puzzle that is the narrative sequence of the game as a whole is very satisfying to work out. There is a time limit — Larry has just the one night to score — but it’s generous enough that, what with the occasional saving and restoring you’ll be doing as you sort things out, it’s unlikely to become one of your major problems. Al Lowe bent over backward to address the typical AGI-engine pitfalls that stem from the disconnect between the textual parser and the graphical worldview. Simply typing “look around” in each new location gives you an overview of everything of note in the area and, just as importantly, what to call everything when referring to it through the parser. He also tried to make the anemic parser as usable as possible by gleaning your meaning from the most abstract possible constructions. Simply trying to “use” some applicable item in the general vicinity of a puzzle is usually good enough. Not all of this is exactly elegant (what’s the real advantage of a graphic adventure if I have to constantly type “look around” and read room descriptions?), but it’s a vast improvement over Sierra’s previous games and about the most you could ask of him given that the problems he was trying to address are largely fundamental to the engine itself.

There are a couple of obvious reasons for the huge leap Leisure Suit Larry represents in comparison to Sierra’s previous efforts. The first is that, eager as Al Lowe has often been to dismiss Softporn, Leisure Suit Larry truly is a remake of that game in the sense that, while the character of Larry himself and all of the writing are new, the puzzly spine of the design is all but unchanged. That’s significant because Softporn was itself an unusually friendly and fair game for its day, easily the most solvable adventure Sierra released before Leisure Suit Larry.

The other reason for Leisure Suit Larry‘s success as a game design is that it, very much at Al Lowe’s prompting and hugely to his credit, became the first Sierra adventure ever to go through a proper beta test. Al:

Since the game wasn’t too big, I got it done in about three months. But this was the first non-children’s game I had written, so I was scared to death it would be “dumb” and not understand everything a player could type in.

So I convinced Ken we should try something new: beta-testing. He posted an announcement on CompuServe’s Gamers Forum asking anyone interested in beta-testing a new game to e-mail him a 100-word essay on “why I should get a free game.” It worked. We got scores of replies and ended up with a dozen great beta testers.

To track all the “you can’t do that here” errors (which is what the game says when it doesn’t have a clue what in the hell you typed!), I wrote a special piece of code. Instead of just saying that phrase, it wrote a line to a file on the player’s game floppy. (Hard disks were few and far between back then.) That line told me the scene number, location, the phrase typed, and many other details about the state of the game at that time. I compiled all those files, sorted them scene by scene, and added literally hundreds of responses to the game.

Those testers came up with some great inputs, showing where and when they were frustrated. And because of them, the game makes you think it understands much more than most games of that period.

Absurd as it is that beta testing should represent “something new” to Sierra as late as 1987, it’s difficult to overstate how much better it made the finished game. If you want to know how important actual player feedback is to an adventure design, just play Space Quest or any of the earlier AGI games and then play this one.

Leisure Suit Larry

That said, it seems safe to say that very few people bought Leisure Suit Larry to find out whether Sierra’s design craft was improving. The question most of them were asking is the same as the one that may be on the lips right now of those of you who’ve never played the game: just how dirty is it? Al Lowe and others from the good old days at Sierra have tended to downplay the sex and promote the comedy in recent interviews, claiming that even the box copy really promised much more than the game delivered. Having just played through the game again, I have to say that it’s actually raunchier than their statements might imply, if nowhere near as raunchy as might have been wished by the many teenage boys who played it furtively back in the day, hoping it would help them to get off. No, Leisure Suit Larry is nowhere close to pornography, but it certainly pushes the envelope much further than its most obvious contemporary point of comparison, Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos. While that game was largely a standard save-the-world text adventure with a narrative voice that was inordinately fond of innuendo and the occasional fade-quickly-to-black sexual interlude, Leisure Suit Larry is all about the practical mechanics, if you will, of scoring. Taken in the context of its time, it’s pretty shocking, offering heaps of stuff that hadn’t been seen before in a game from a reputable publisher, or at least not since one called Softporn: blow-up dolls, hookers, pimps, Spanish Fly, condoms, venereal disease, dirty movies, dirty jokes, S&M. A strategically placed “Censored!” stamp appears when Larry actually gets his groove on, and there’s no real nudity other than a tiny pixelated Larry at times and an equally tiny if anatomically correct blow-up doll, but if Leisure Suit Larry had gone to Hollywood in 1987 it would definitely have been R-rated. It’s admittedly shocking not so much for its content in isolation as because its content is in a game, and games just didn’t include that sort of thing in the 1980s. Nevertheless, shocking it is if you’ve been living in the G-rated world of its contemporaries for a long time like your humble Antiquarian here.

It’s a bit hard (sorry!) to see Leisure Suit Larry as a paragon of feminism, even if some of the feminist critiques that have been levied against it over the years are themselves rather overblown.

Leisure Suit Larry was criticized as sexist in a number of the reviews that appeared immediately after its release. “The game contributes nothing to enlightened male attitudes toward women,” wrote MacWorld, while Amazing Computing opined that “many women will probably be incensed.” In the years since it’s only continued to be a lightning rod for feminist critiques of videogames. After all, how could this game whose whole objective is to help Larry score with some random chick or other not objectify and demean women? Al Lowe has long responded that, far from demeaning women, Leisure Suit Larry is itself actually a feminist work in that it’s Larry who’s the bumbling lust-addled idiot, while “the women were always smarter, better read, more knowledgeable, and hipper.” Well, I can’t quite get behind either point of view. The women — the ones in this first installment of the series anyway — are hardly paragons of independence and empowerment. We’ve got a low-rent hooker who’s never even given a name; a gold digger who demands diamonds, wine, and chocolate before she’ll put out; a buxom secretary in single-minded pursuit of some Spanish Fly to share with her boyfriend; a rich girl who apparently spends her evenings sitting naked in her penthouse jacuzzi just waiting for the next stud to come along. The game’s saving grace, such as it is, is that Larry and all of the men are equally pathetic, equally shallow, and equally stupid. Leisure Suit Larry is thus more accurately accused of misanthropy than misogyny. To what extent that’s an improvement must be in the eye of the beholder.

Leisure Suit Larry

Homophobic? Mmm… maybe…

Leisure Suit Larry

…but the jokes relating to straight sex are just as crude.

The most offensive moment in the game actually has nothing to do with sexism or even plain old sex, but is a blatant example of another nasty “-ism.” There’s a convenience store with a turbaned Indian or Middle Easterner behind the counter, a guy to whom even Larry is allowed to feel superior.

Leisure Suit Larry

This guy, who can sell you a condom amongst other things, has the “Engrish” problem of not being able to pronounce (or apparently write) his Rs: “There is a magazine rack near the front door, with a sign reading ‘This no library — no leeding.'”

Leisure Suit Larry

I feel like making fun of another person for his accent has got to be amongst the lowest and cruelest forms of “humor” imaginable. Yet the most shocking thing is this scene’s sheer laziness. It’s not speakers of Indian or Middle Eastern languages who sometimes confuse the English “r” and “l” sounds, it’s speakers of Japanese and other East Asian languages. If you’re going to indulge in broad stereotyping, at least try to get your stereotypes vaguely right according to their own lights. Al Lowe has occasionally noted how he and the others at Sierra were essentially making games for each other. This scene shows that culturally monolithic echo chamber at its worst. When I see a guy like this one behind a counter, I see someone who’s left his home and everything he knows far behind, who’s struggling to learn a new language and make a better life for his family, who’s doing something far bolder and braver than anything that the sheltered nerdy white boys at Sierra who’ve decided it’s appropriate to make fun of him have ever even dreamed of doing. He doesn’t need their grief.

Leisure Suit Larry

This always makes me laugh for some reason, maybe because it’s one of the relatively few places where Leisure Suit Larry shows a certain subtle empathy.

Refined humor this is not...

Refined humor this is not — but, yes, it is sometimes pretty funny.

I think the scene in the convenience store might just help us get to the core of what really bothers me about Leisure Suit Larry‘s humor, to the reason that, while it might make me chuckle here and there, I’ll never consider it great comedy. It’s all about mean-spiritedly making fun of people who are — or who are perceived as — weaker and more pathetic than the people who made the game. Al Lowe is a clever guy and he comes up with some clever gags, but his game is at heart an exercise in bullying, looking down on safe targets from a position of privilege and letting fly. There’s no real warmth and little empathy, no sense of shared understanding between the player and the caricatures going about their business onscreen, and certainly not a trace of the bravery that would be required to go after targets in a position to actually defend themselves. I can’t help but draw a contrast with Knight Orc, a game with a caustic edge even more finely honed than this game’s, but one that was willing to speak truth to power, to knock people down a peg who could actually use a little comeuppance. But most of all I think again of Leather Goddesses, a game I find myself liking even more when I compare it to this one. “Sex is fun!” Leather Goddesses tells us. “Everyone should be having it!” “Look at this loser who can’t manage to just score already!” says Leisure Suit Larry in response.

The "boss key" is another innovation Leisure Suit Larry "borrows" from Leather Goddesses. In this case, though, it's only applicable if you happen to work for a condom manufacturer...

The “boss key” is another innovation Leisure Suit Larry “borrows” from Leather Goddesses. In this case, though, it’s only applicable if you happen to work for a condom manufacturer. Leisure Suit Larry really likes condoms. At least it promotes safe sex. (Just try having sex with the hooker without one…)

Anxious to avoid accusations of selling filth to minors, Sierra came up with the clever idea of a trivia quiz using questions stemming from the 1970s and earlier to make the player “prove” that she really was as old as she said she was. Some of the questions are decidedly obscure, to such an extent that they create quite a challenge to those of us today who are well over the the age of eighteen, but, what with almost thirty years having gone by, aren’t quite up to scratch on our Baby Boomer trivia. Thankfully we have a secret weapon in Wikipedia.

Martha Mitchell was

a. a porno star.

b. a famous author.

c. the outspoken wife of an Attorney General.

d. all of the above.


Who starred in Bedtime for Bonzo?

a. Clint Eastwood

b. Fred Astaire

c. Cary Grant

d. Ronald Reagan


 Kwi-Chang-Caine became famous by saying

a. “I am not a crook.”

b. “The barren fig tree bears no plumes.”

c. “Hi, sailor. New in town?”

d. “Aaaaaiiiyeeeaagggh!”

As the sheer quantity and variety of questions will attest, the quiz became a huge source of amusement in its own right for Sierra, just about everyone around the office pitching in with a question or two. The questions’ time-capsule quality, the knowledge that these things were once common wisdom amongst people of a certain age, makes them one of the most interesting things about Leisure Suit Larry to an historian like me.

As for the quiz’s ostensible real purpose of keeping the kids out, it must have been moderately but hardly comprehensively effective even in the years before Wikipedia. Gamers in that era were, by necessity, incredibly patient, and there’s very little the average teenage boy won’t do if you promise to reward him with a glimpse of sex. Plenty were willing to patiently try again and again waiting for the same questions to recur, or to scour encyclopedias or libraries for the right answers. At worst, the quiz did allow Sierra to maintain the public position that they’d be horrified — horrified! — if an underage player managed to play their “adult” adventure game, that they were doing everything reasonable to prevent that from happening. Their case was strengthened by Ken Williams’s longstanding policy of not supporting the Commodore 64, the computer with the most active cadre of teenage users. The MS-DOS machines where Sierra focused most of their attention were much more expensive than the likes of Commodore’s little breadbox, and thus their user base tended to skew much older. Still, it it’s safe to say that lots of teenage boys evinced a sudden interest in the business computers their parents kept tucked away in their home offices, another sign of the coming Intel/Microsoft hegemony in the home as well as the workplace.

Sierra was in a delicate spot all the way around with Leisure Suit Larry, needing to protect their image as producers of wholesome products for the Radio Shack demographic whilst also getting the word out to those who might be interested. There was never any real possibility of being able to sell the game through Radio Shack, despite the close personal relationship Ken Williams had built with their senior software buyer Srini Vasan. Radio Shack’s roots were planted deeply in the soil of Southern Baptism; there was simply no way they were going to put a sex farce on their shelves. Thus Sierra’s task, which primarily fell onto the thin shoulders of their young marketing director John Williams, must be to make the game sell well enough through other outlets to offset the loss of the retailer that accounted for one-third or more of Sierra’s revenues every month, while at the same time not jeopardizing that very cozy relationship upon which they so completely depended.

So, a careful treading was seemingly called for. At the same time, though, John, despite being a grizzled veteran of the software wars, was still a very young man of barely 25. Everybody wants to feel like a rebel once or twice in his life, and John couldn’t resist a bit of crowing about the new ground Sierra was breaking. He greeted Leisure Suit Larry‘s release with a series of three feature articles for Computer Gaming World heralding the “new wave of adult entertainment software” — a wave at the forefront of which would naturally be Sierra. By the time of the third article the first returning tide of outraged reactions — which, one senses, John was expecting and almost welcomed in his rebel heart — had begun to pour in.

Dear Sierra,

I read with regret in your recent newsletter that you intend to go into the porno software business. How any company with your fine products and reputation can make such a poor decision is beyond me. The glorification of loose moral behavior has caused a rise in social disease and divorce and a general decline in the quality of American society. The money you make from this filth comes at a high price.


Dear Sierra,

Please drop that puerile, obviously immature slimeball John Williams into a greasy brown wrapper and drop it in the nearest trash compactor. Please remove my name from your customer list. I don’t need trash, I can get that anywhere.


Dear Mr. Williams,

Recently, I purchased your HomeWord Plus program. I am very happy with it, but I am returning it because I cannot tolerate your behavior. I have read your little “editorial,” where you trumpet the arrival of filth and perversity in computer gaming. I will not do business with any company that would give a job to someone like you.

Just as Infocom had experienced with Leather Goddesses, the reaction in the industry could best be described as “nervous. ” Shops and distributors were aware of Leisure Suit Larry‘s huge potential appeal but very timid about openly promoting it for fear of a backlash. Many chains sold it only discreetly, tucking it away quietly on a top shelf. One independent shop took a more definitive stand, sending a demo copy back to Sierra cut in two with a hacksaw. One of the major software charts simply refused to rank it. A customer-support person inside Sierra quit in protest when told she would have to answer questions about it; a newly hired programmer bowed out on his first day when told about it. Ken Williams himself got nervous enough that he ordered all of the jokes about “gay life” to be removed from future versions. If John Williams had deliberately courted controversy, he did indeed receive a modicum of it to enjoy.

The question of to what extent and how quickly that controversy led to sales for Leisure Suit Larry is a more complicated tangle than one might expect. In his many interviews Al Lowe has long told of what a flop Leisure Suit Larry was on its initial release, nothing less than “the worst-selling game in the history of the company.” He attributes much of this initial failure to Sierra’s alleged ambivalence about the game, which led to an unwillingness to promote it and a seeming desire — Ken having presumably thought better of his initial enthusiasm — to just bury it quietly. Only slowly and largely through word of mouth, as Al tells it, did the game build momentum, and it didn’t start doing really big numbers until, depending on the interview, six months to a year after its June 1987 release.

Leisure Suit Larry

Ken Williams gets a cameo. Note the reference to the original Leisure Suit Gary’s profession as a “traveling software salesman.” This is the only place it’s referred to in the finished game. Woops!

It’s a tidy narrative, but there are a lot of reasons to question it. In the last of his articles for Computer Gaming World, John Williams claims that, far from falling on his face in typical Laffer style out of the starting gates, Larry has been “our second most successful product launch, second only to King’s Quest III.” A list of bestsellers for September and October of 1987 published in Sierra’s newsletter shows an only slightly more mixed picture, with Leisure Suit Larry nestled comfortably behind King’s Quest III and Space Quest, the third best-selling of Sierra’s adventure games. That performance is made more impressive when one remembers that Leisure Suit Larry remained barred from Radio Shack, source of fully one-third of Sierra’s sales. The preponderance of the evidence would seem to indicate that Leisure Suit Larry was that rarest of all beasts: a game that was quite successful on its initial release but also turned into a grower, steadily building its momentum and continuing to sell well for years. Nor is there any evidence that Sierra was really all that scared by Leisure Suit Larry. While certainly aware that they had to avoid throwing it in the face of the likes of Radio Shack and other conservative retailers, they clearly conceived it from the beginning as a series, like all of their other adventure games; the finale explicitly (sorry!) promises a sequel which would indeed come in very short order (sorry!), within a year of the original. Nor were they shy about promoting it in their newsletters, or for that matter shy about writing major feature articles for Computer Gaming World heralding its arrival.

Whatever the precise timing, all are agreed that by the summer of 1988, the game’s one-year anniversary, Leisure Suit Larry had become the biggest game Sierra had ever released that wasn’t a King’s Quest, with the hapless Larry Laffer himself well on his way to becoming the most unlikely of videogame icons. The sequels poured out of Al Lowe for years, some strong, some not so strong, but taking more design risks than you might expect and always serving to maintain Leisure Suit Larry‘s place as Sierra’s second-biggest franchise, the perfect alternative to the family-friendly King’s Quest series. For a time there Hollywood was even seriously interested in doing a Leisure Suit Larry sitcom, going so far as to fly Al Lowe down for some meetings that ultimately never panned out. As so often happens in long-running series, Al took more and more pity on his perpetual victim as the series wore along, steadily filing down his sharper edges and finding unexpected seams of likeability. By the time of Leisure Suit Larry 7 in 1996 the little fellow was starting to become downright lovable, a far cry from the skeezy, crudely drawn weirdo of the first game.

Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail

Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail

While Leisure Suit Larry itself was a massive success, Ken William’s broader agenda of which it was a part, that of opening up the world of gaming to more diverse sorts of content, had much more mixed results. In the last of his Computer Gaming World articles, John Williams muses about the possibility of a movie-style rating system for games that could create havens for all sorts of new content: G-rated children’s software; PG-rated action games for the teens; R-rated interactive dramas telling realistic, topical tales; even X-rated games constituting the full-on pornography that Leisure Suit Larry, to so many teenagers’ disappointment, wasn’t. Putting their money where their mouths were, Sierra even had at the time another game in the pipeline that was “adult” in more subtle ways than Leisure Suit Larry: Police Quest, a gritty crime drama written by a veteran police officer. (Unfortunately, it would prove to suffer from most of the typical Sierra design flaws from which Leisure Suit Larry is so notably free.)

In 1988 Leisure Suit Larry won a Codie Award from the Software Publishers Association for “Best Adventure or Fantasy/Role-Playing Program.” Al Lowe remembers the mood on that night as Ken Williams, president of the SPA, gave the keynote address before an audience that included Robin Williams, Hollywood’s most noted games fan.

He [Ken] said that that he thought this was the first of many of these awards to come in the future, and that at some point the Academy Awards would be seen as merely the non-interactive video awards. The real awards would be for interactivity because once you’ve played interactive stories you won’t be content with sitting back and being passive, with watching stories. I thought that was a brilliant statement, and for five or ten years after I thought it was coming true.

This vision for games as a truly mainstream phenomenon like movies, games in a veritable smorgasbord of niches of which at least one or two were guaranteed to appeal to absolutely everyone on the planet, had been with Sierra almost from the beginning and would remain with them until the end. Ken, John, Roberta, and everyone else involved in steering Sierra fully believed that a new era of interactive entertainment was on the horizon. In some senses they would be proved right; games would indeed go mainstream in a big way. But in others they would be proved very, very wrong; games have still not challenged the critical respect or cultural relevancy of Hollywood. When other publishers saw how much money Sierra was making from the franchise and also saw that no one was burning down their offices because of it, Leisure Suit Larry was inevitably copied, sometimes so blatantly as to almost defy belief. Yet there seemed little desire from the industry at large to push beyond the occasional sniggering sex comedy into stories that were “adult” in more subtle ways.

So, then, was Leisure Suit Larry a bold work that tried to break down barriers and redefine the sorts of fictions that games could deal in? Or was it just another example of an industry caught in an eternal adolescence, one unable to address sexuality except through farce or porn? Perhaps it was one or the other or neither; more likely it was both.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of August/September 1987, October 1987, and January 1988; Amazing Computing of February 1988; Retro Gamer 19; Sierra Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 2. Al Lowe has also written fairly extensively about his most famous creation on his personal site.

Much of this article is also drawn from my personal correspondence with John Williams as well as interviews with Al Lowe conducted by Matt Barton, Top Hats and Champagne, and Erik Nagel. Last but far from least, Ken Gagne also shared with me the full audio of an interview he conducted with Lowe for Juiced.GS magazine. My huge thanks to John and Ken!

The original Leisure Suit Larry is available for purchase from GOG.com in a pack that also includes all of the sequels and even Softporn.)

 
 

Tags: , ,

Splendid Isolation: Sierra at Mid-Decade

Some Sierra products of the latter 1980s

The hardest day that Ken Williams ever spent at the helm of Sierra On-Line was one in April of 1984. That was the day that, with cartridges full of the simple action games the venture capitalists had urged him to produce piling up in warehouses following the Great Videogame Crash and with red ink spilling everywhere, he was forced to let two-thirds of his employees go. In ten hours or so Sierra shrank from a company of 120 employees to one of 40. Always one to look another straight in the eye and tell it like it was — a quality that earned for him fantastic loyalty and even love amongst his charges — Ken sat in his office all day delivering the shattering news himself to shocked visage after shocked visage. He went home determined never to have another day like that again, never again to let the advice of others lead him to ruin. Love them or hate them for the strong opinions that their leader was never reluctant to express, no one would ever again be able to call Sierra a follower.

The most important lesson Ken took away from Sierra’s near-death experience was to be very choosy about what platforms he chose to support in the future. He had, for instance, decided that he had no use whatsoever for game consoles of any kind. He would never waver from this position, not even when new household names like Nintendo and Sega would convince many of his similarly vociferous console-hating peers to reconsider. For Ken the consoles that had nearly become the death of his company would always reek of snake oil and volatility, the computers that had birthed it of stability and sanity. Admittedly, at the time that Ken came to this conclusion it hardly stood out like it would in later years. In 1984, believing the time of the consoles to be done forever and foreseeing world domination on the horizon for home computers was very much the conventional wisdom. But the other major platform lesson that Ken had learned, or thought he’d learned, ran just as deep in his psyche but in a far more contrary direction: he had decided that not only the consoles but also the cheap home computers that were supposed to replace them were on the way out.

When one talked about a “cheap home computer” in the United States in 1984 one was almost invariably talking about the Commodore 64, which had just enjoyed an absolutely massive Christmas that made it the premier gaming platform in the country by a mile, a position it would hold firmly for another three or four years. Even when it became clear that the home-computer revolution at large was sputtering, the 64 remained the rock that sustained most of Sierra’s competitors. And yet already in 1984, when the 64 was just coming into its own, Ken Williams was making and following through on a decision to abandon it. A few more 64 titles would trickle out of Sierra over the next year or so, projects that had been in the works before the Crash or porting offers from third parties cheap enough to be worthy of a shrugged assent, but by and large Sierra was done with the Commodore 64 just when the rest of the industry was really waking up to it.

Ken’s loathing for the 64, which he dismissed as a “toy computer,” and its parent company, upon which he tended to bestow still choicer epithets, was visceral and intense. Commodore, just as much or more than Atari and Coleco, had loomed large over Sierra’s ill-fated foray into cartridge games. Many of the cartridges piled up in warehouses, threatening to smother Sierra under their storage costs alone, were for the 64’s older but weaker sibling, the VIC-20. Commodore had all but killed the VIC-20 software market overnight in 1983 when they’d unexpectedly slashed the price of the 64 so far that it didn’t make sense for computing families not to replace their old models with the shiny new one. In killing one of their own platforms without giving even an inkling of their plans for doing so, they’d left Sierra and many other publishers like them high and dry. Now it was 1984, Jack Tramiel was gone, and Commodore’s new management was claiming to be different. To at least some extent they really were earnestly trying to turn Commodore into a different sort of company, but it was all too little too late for Ken. He was done with fly-by-night operations like theirs. He believed that Sierra could hope to find truly safe harbor in only one place: inside the comfortingly bland beige world of IBM.

Sierra’s embrace of IBM might read as shocking, given that their own culture seemed the very antithesis of the crewcut-sporting, dark-suit-clad, company-theme-song-singing world of Big Blue. It’s certainly true that a big part of Serra’s corporate personality was born from the last embers of the counterculture fire of the 1960s, which had managed to smolder for longer in California than just about anywhere else. Their hippie outlook was reflected not just in the image they preferred to project to the world, of a sort of artists commune tucked away in the bucolic wilderness near Yosemite, but also in a certain hedonistic spirit in which just about everyone, especially in the early days, indulged at least a little bit.

Yet there were also other, more conservative currents at work inside Ken and thus also inside Sierra. Ken had spent much of the 1970s as a jobbing programmer working not on the likes of the DEC PDP-10s, where creativity ran wild and so much hacker culture had been born, but on the machines that the industry referred to as the Big Iron: the huge, unsexy mainframes, all clattering punched cards and whirling reel-to-reel tapes and nerve-jarring industrial printers, that already by then underpinned much of the country’s industrial and financial infrastructure. This was the domain of IBM and the many smaller companies that orbited around it. Most hackers looked upon the mainframes with contempt, seeing only a hive mind of worker drones carrying out dull if necessary tasks in unimaginative ways. But Ken, especially after being dumped into the chaos that was the early PC market upon founding Sierra, saw stability and maturity there. Whatever else you could say about those machines, you knew they were going to be there next year and the year after and even the year after that. And you knew as well that, while IBM might move slowly and with infuriating deliberation, they were as close a thing to an irresistible force that the world of business had ever seen once set in motion. One bet against Big Blue only at one’s peril. And IBM was eminently predictable, a blessed trait in an emerging industry like the PC market. They were unlikely to suddenly undercut and destroy one of their platforms without giving all of their partners plenty of warning first. In short, IBM represented for Ken a legitimacy that the likes of Commodore and Atari and even Apple could never hope to match.

Adding to this was the fact that Sierra had had a surprisingly long and close relationship with IBM already, one that by all accounts had engendered a certain mutual trust and respect. IBM had first approached Sierra — not the other way around — in early 1981, just a few months after Ken and Roberta and brother John had packed up and moved out to Oakhurst to start their new company/artists commune in earnest. IBM was soon to introduce their first PC, to be known simply as the “IBM PC,” and they wanted Sierra to port a few of their Apple II hits — most notably their landmark illustrated adventure game The Wizard and the Princess — to their new platform in time for its launch. This Sierra did, thus beginning a steady and often fruitful relationship. IBM again came to Sierra for games and other software for their new home-oriented machine, the PCjr, in 1983. The PCjr turned into a flop, but not before IBM funded the development of Sierra’s revolutionary new AGI platform for making animated adventure games as well as the first game written with it, King’s Quest.

Thanks to its open, scrupulously documented hardware design and a third-party operating system that Microsoft was all too happy to sell to anyone who asked for a license, by 1984 clones of IBM’s PC architecture were sprouting up everywhere, just as they had in the mainframe industry in earlier decades. The IBM PC was fast leaving the nest, becoming a well-established hardware and software standard that could survive and develop independently of its parent, a unique phenomenon in the young industry. With so much of corporate America already wedded to that standard, Ken judged that it couldn’t die. More boldly, he also judged that sooner or later it would become the standard everywhere, not only in business but also in the home. The industry would need to settle on one platform across the board someday soon as software continued to grow more complex and porting it to half a dozen or more machines thus ever more costly. No platform was so well-positioned to become that standard as the IBM PC. In anticipation of that day, the IBM PC must be Sierra’s first priority from now on. Second priority would be given to the Apple II line, for which they still retained a lot of knowledge and affection even as the confused messaging coming out of Apple following the launch of the new Macintosh made them less bullish on it than they had been a year or two earlier. Everything else would be ignored or, at best, given much lower priority.

The decision managed to be simultaneously short-sighted and prescient. For many years to come Ken and his colleagues would look forward to every successive Christmas with no small sense of schadenfreude, certain that this simply must be the year that the idiosyncratic also-rans faded away at last and IBM’s architecture took over homes as it already had businesses. For quite some years they were disappointed. Commodore, after very nearly going under in early 1986, got a second wind and just kept on selling Ken’s hated 64s in absurd quantities. And yet more incompatible platforms appeared, like the Atari ST and Commodore’s new Amiga. Sierra somewhat begrudgingly ported their AGI interpreter to both, but, because the games took no advantage of these new machines’ much more advanced audiovisual capabilities, they weren’t generally well received there. For some it seemed that Ken was leaving millions on the table out of sheer stubbornness. Restless investors talked pointedly about “chasing pennies” in the clone market when dollars were ripe for the taking.

Yet in the end, if admittedly in a much later end than Ken had ever predicted, the IBM/Microsoft architecture did win out for exactly the reasons that Ken had said it must: not perhaps the most sexy or elegant on the block, it was nevertheless practical, reliable, stable, and open (or at least open enough). When the big break came, Sierra would be well-positioned with titles that supported the new sound cards, graphics cards, and CD-ROM drives that were making these heretofore dull machines enticing for homes at last, well-positioned to take a spot at the forefront of mainstream computer entertainment.

But that’s a story for later articles. What we’re interested in now is this interim period when Sierra, whilst waiting less than patiently for the clones’ breakthrough, found ways of sustaining themselves in markets ignored by just about everyone else. While the rest chased Commodore 64 owners, Sierra existed in splendid isolation in their own parallel universe. Happy as they were to sell their software through all of the usual gaming channels, far more was sold through shops dealing in IBMs and IBM-compatibles who mostly catered to business customers — but, hey, even businesspeople like to have fun sometimes. “It’s like we were dealing with a distribution channel that our competitors failed to even see was out there,” says John Williams. Still more important, the real key to their survival during these oft-lean years, was yet another alternate channel that even fewer others bothered to explore: Radio Shack.

Tandy 1000

Like the clones that were also so important to Sierra, Radio Shack wasn’t the most exciting retailer in the world. In compensation they were, like IBM, stable and reliable, a quality that endeared them enormously to Ken. In fact, they were after his own heart in more ways than one. In late 1984, when Sierra was still teetering on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy, Radio Shack made a concerted and very clever attempt to succeed where IBM themselves had failed at making a PC clone that people would actually want to buy for the home. The Tandy 1000 was in some ways an outright PCjr copycat, incorporating its 16-color graphics capabilities and its three-voice sound synthesizer. Tandy, however, ditched the PCjr’s horrid keyboard, added a menu-driven shell on top of MS-DOS (“DeskMate”) to make it easier to use, and in general made a proper computer out of it, as expandable as any other clone and without all of the artificial constraints and bottlenecks that IBM had built into the PCjr to keep it from competing with their “big” machines. At about $1200 it was still much pricier than the likes of the Commodore 64, but it was also much more capable in most ways, able to handle typical productivity tasks with ease thanks to its 80-column display and its compatibility with the huge ecosystem of MS-DOS software. It was a very compelling product for a family looking for a somewhat serious computer that could also play games in reasonable style and that wouldn’t completely break the bank. A hit for Radio Shack, it became nothing less than Sierra’s savior.

To understand how that could be, you have to understand two things about Radio Shack. The first is that, while Radio Shack did sell some third-party software, their selection of same was far from overwhelming. What with Radio Shack not selling the more popular gaming machines like the Commodore 64 and being far from aggressive about seeking out software for their shelves, most publishers never really thought about them at all, or if they did concluded it just wasn’t worth the effort. The second salient point is that Radio Shack customers, especially those who splashed out on a big-ticket item like a computer system, were astonishingly loyal. Radio Shack was the dominant retailer in the rural United States, and even more so in the oft-forgotten markets of Canada and Australia. As John Williams once put it to me, “Every town in Canada and Australia had a Radio Shack, even if the only other retailer was a small grocery store.” Many a Radio Shack customer had literally no other option for buying software within fifty or even a hundred miles. Even those customers who lived a bit closer to the center of things often never seemed to realize that they didn’t have to buy software for their new Tandy 1000s from the meager selection on their local franchises’ shelves, that Babbage’s and Software, Etc. and ComputerLand and plenty of others had a much greater selection that would also work perfectly well. Whatever the reason, people who liked their local Radio Shack seemed to really like their local Radio Shack.

This combination of little competition on Radio Shack’s shelves and a captive audience to buy from them spelled gold for Sierra, who established a relationship with Radio Shack and made them a priority in exactly the way that virtually no one else in the industry was doing. Ken struck up a warm relationship early on with Radio Shack’s senior software buyer, a fellow named Srini Vasan, that went beyond that of mere business acquaintances to become a genuine friendship. The two came to trust and rely on each other to a considerable degree. Ken would call Srini before initiating a new project to see if it would “fit” with Radio Shack, and Srini in turn was occasionally willing to take a chance on something outside the partners’ usual bill of fare if Ken really thought it could become a winner. Srini also made sure that Sierra got pride of place in store displays and in the catalogs that Radio Shack shipped to all and sundry. By 1986 no less than one-third of Sierra’s revenue was coming through Radio Shack — the difference and then some between bankruptcy and a modestly profitable bottom line. Radio Shack proved such a cash cow that Sierra even violated Ken’s usual sense of platform priorities at Srini’s prompting to port some of their adventure games as well as other products to one of the Tandy marquee’s lower-end IBM-incompatible models, the Color Computer, where they were by all indications also quite successful.

Selling to the typical Radio Shack customer — rural, conservative, often religious — meant that the software Sierra moved through that pipeline had to be noncontroversial in every way, even more plainly G-rated than was the norm for the industry at large. So too the corporate image they projected in selling it. In this as in so much else Roberta Williams was a godsend. Just a few years on from posing as a topless swinger in a hot tub for the cover of Softporn, she was now an all-American Great Mom, the perfect ambassador to the Radio Shack demographic. Sierra took to featuring her picture — looking always friendly and wholesome and pretty — on the back of all her games, over a caption declaring that “her games have sold more copies than any other woman in computer software history” (a bit of tortured diction that did prove that their copywriting skills still weren’t quite on par with their abstract promotional instincts).

The products they were peddling through Radio Shack and elsewhere can be largely broken down into three categories: one well-remembered today, one only more vaguely recalled, and one virtually forgotten. Those that everyone remembers are of course the AGI-driven graphic adventures, which began with the first three of Roberta Williams’s long-running King’s Quest series, released in quick succession just a year apart from one another, and then gradually opened up as resources became less straitened to include alternative series like Space Quest. Paralleling these releases, and sometimes running under the same AGI engine, was a line of educational software that often used the classic Disney stable of characters. There was some conflation of these two product lines, particularly in the case of King’s Quest, which was often marketed as a family-friendly, vaguely educational adventure series suitable for the younger set and, again, perfect for the typical Radio Shack family. Finally came the forgotten products that were actually quite a useful moneyspinner in their day: Sierra’s line of home-oriented productivity software that had their HomeWord word processor and their Smart Money personal-finance package as its star attractions.

The Disney partnership fit well with the general image Sierra was projecting. After all, what could be more Middle American than Disney? That said, it’s very much a sign of the times that the deal was ever made at all. Sierra was just barely scraping by from week to week, hardly a huge media company’s ideal choice to become a major partner. But then the stock of Disney themselves was at the lowest ebb of its history, in the middle of a long trough between the death or retirement of Uncle Walt’s original Nine Old Men and the critical and commercial revival that was 1989’s The Little Mermaid. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Disney was also trying to fend off an ugly hostile-takeover bid from the predatory financier Saul Steinberg. Sierra actually bought the Disney license, with Disney’s tacit approval, from Texas Instruments, whose bid for world domination in home computers had been thoroughly cut off at the knees during 1983 by Jack Tramiel’s Commodore. Buying the preexisting contract from Texas Instruments allowed Sierra to dodge Disney’s usual huge upfront licensing fee, which they couldn’t possibly have paid. Nevertheless, Sierra paid dearly for the license on the back end via exorbitant royalties. Even at their lowest ebb Disney had a way of making sure that no one got rich off of Disney but Disney.

While Roberta Williams worked on the Disney products on and off when not busy with her King’s Quest games, Sierra’s principal Disney point man was a former musician, musical director, and music teacher with a ready laugh and a great gift for gab. His name was Al Lowe, and Ken Williams had already fired him once.

Lowe had first come to Sierra’s attention via a couple of self-published educational titles that he’d written on his Apple II using BASIC and Penguin Software’s ubiquitous Graphics Magician. Ken was so impressed by them that he took over the publishing of both, and also hired Al himself as a designer and programmer. Al learned assembly language at Ken’s insistence and wrote a children’s adventure game in it called Troll’s Tale, only to be fired after less than a year in the great purge of April 1984. But then, as a dejected Al was about to leave his office, Ken threw him a lifeline. As remembered by Al himself:

“I want you to work as an outside contractor. You write games, and I’ll pay you advances against future royalties instead of a salary. For accounting purposes, if you’re a salaried employee you’re an expense, but if I’m paying you advances against future royalties you’re a prepaid asset. It’ll make the books look better.”

In time Al Lowe would become more important to Sierra’s commercial fortunes and public image than any other member of their creative staff short of Roberta Williams.

Like so much Sierra software, this copy of Mickey’s Space Adventure was sold through Radio Shack. Note the sticker at bottom left advertising Tandy 1000 compatibility.

But first there was Disney, who became a notable pain in the ass for him and everyone else who had to deal with them. Disney has always been known amongst their licensees as control freaks, but in this case they were control freaks who were also clueless. Responsibility for oversight of Sierra’s work ended up getting kicked down to their educational-films division, a collection of aged former schoolteachers who didn’t even know how to boot a computer yet were desperate to prove to their own managers that they were contributing. The problem was that their lack of understanding of the technology involved sharply limited how productive those contributions could be. For instance, Sierra’s artists were constantly being told that they needed to make Mickey Mouse’s ears “rounder” when it simply wasn’t possible; the pixels themselves were just too big and too square. Disney, says John Williams, “knew nothing about the media we were creating, didn’t care, and didn’t want to.” Al Lowe developed the most effective strategy for dealing with them: to ignore them as much as possible.

I would rarely send them anything unless they begged me for it, and I always made sure it took me a few extra days to get something ready for them. I basically played a passive-aggressive postponement game with them. And it worked out because they didn’t really have a lot of good suggestions. They often suggested changes so that they would have some imprint on the product, but their changes were never for the better. It was always just to make it different, so that they could say they’d done something.

The combination of Disney’s control-freak tendencies and their high royalties quickly soured everyone on the deal, iconic though the characters themselves may have been. In the end it resulted in only a handful of releases, including one each for Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Winnie the Pooh, with most activity stopping well before the license itself actually expired. The entire episode is dismissed by John Williams today as an “unproductive side trip,” while Ken Williams walked away from the Disney experience having learned yet one more lesson that he would use to guide Sierra from here on in a direction that was, once again, contrary to the way just about everyone else in the industry was going. From now one they would stay far, far away from licenses of any sort.

Perhaps the most worthwhile result of the partnership was a full-fledged AGI adventure game based on Disney’s 1985 box-office bomb The Black Cauldron that was largely designed by Roberta and programmed, as usual, by Al Lowe. Being designed to be suitable for younger children than even the King’s Quest games, it ditches the parser entirely in favor of a menu-driven interface and is nowhere near as cruel as the typical Sierra adventure game of the era. It would prove to be good training for Al’s next project.

The winding down of the Disney arrangement might have made Al Lowe nervous, may have made him wonder if it also meant the winding down of his career — or at least his career with Sierra — as a maker of games. If so, he didn’t have to be nervous very long. Soon after The Black Cauldron wrapped, Ken invited him to lunch to discuss a dangerous idea that had been brewing at the back of his mind for a while now, one that if carried through would send his new, family-friendly Sierra ricocheting back toward the debauchery of Softporn. We’ll join Al Lowe at that lunch, during which he’ll be introduced to the idea that will change his life forever, next time.

(This article is largely drawn from my personal correspondence with John Williams as well as interviews with Al Lowe conducted by Matt Barton, Top Hats and Champagne, and Erik Nagel. Last but far from least, Ken Gagne also shared with me the full audio of an interview he conducted with Lowe for Juiced.GS magazine. My huge thanks to John and Ken!)

 
 

Tags: , , ,