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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

What’s the Matter with Covert Action?

Covert Action‘s cover is representative of the thankfully brief era when game publishers thought featuring real models on their boxes would drive sales. The results almost always ended up looking like bad romance-novel covers; this is actually one of the least embarrassing examples. (For some truly cringeworthy examples of artfully tousled machismo, see the Pirates! reissue or Space Rogue.)

In the lore of gaming there’s a subset of spectacular failures that have become more famous than the vast majority of successful games. From E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to Daikatana to Godus, this little rogue’s gallery inhabits its own curious corner of gaming history. The stories behind these games, carrying with them the strong scent of excess and scandal, can’t help but draw us in.

But there are also other, less scandalous cases of notable failure to which some of us continually return for reasons other than schadenfreude. One such case is that of Covert Action, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley’s 1990 game of espionage. Covert Action, while not a great or even a terribly good game, wasn’t an awful game either. And, while it wasn’t a big hit, nor was it a major commercial disaster. By all rights it should have passed into history unremarked, like thousands of similarly middling titles before and after it. The fact that it has remained a staple of discussion among game designers for some twenty years now in the context of how not to make a game is due largely to Sid Meier himself, a very un-middling designer who has never quite been able to get Covert Action, one his few disappointing games, out of his craw. Indeed, he dwells on it to such an extent that the game and its real or perceived problems still tends to rear its head every time he delivers a lecture on the art of game design. The question of just what’s the matter with Covert Action — the question of why it’s not more fun — continues to be asked and answered over and over, in the form of Meier’s own design lectures, extrapolations on Meier’s thesis by others, and even the occasional contrarian apology telling us that, no, actually, nothing‘s wrong with Covert Action.

What with piling onto the topic having become such a tradition in design circles, I couldn’t bear to let Covert Action‘s historical moment go by without adding the weight of this article to the pile. But first, the basics for those of you who wouldn’t know Covert Action if it walked up and invited you to dinner.

As I began to detail in my previous article, Covert Action‘s development at MicroProse, the company at which Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley worked during the period in question, was long by the standards of its time, troubled by the standards of any time, and more than a little confusing to track in our own time. Begun in early 1988 as a Commodore 64 game by Lawrence Schick, another MicroProse designer, it was conceived from the beginning as essentially an espionage version of Sid Meier’s earlier hit Pirates! — as a set of mini-games the player engaged in to affect the course of an overarching strategic game. But Schick found that he just couldn’t get the game to work, and moved on to something else. And that would have been that — except that Sid Meier had become intrigued by the idea, and picked it up for his own next project, moving it in the process from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, where it would have a lot more breathing room.

In time, though, the enthusiasm of Meier and his assistant designer Bruce Shelley also began to evaporate; they started spending more and more time dwelling on an alternative design. By August of 1989, they were steaming ahead with Railroad Tycoon, and all work on Covert Action for the nonce had ceased.

After Railroad Tycoon was completed and released in April of 1990, Meier and Shelley returned to Covert Action only under some duress from MicroProse’s head Bill Stealey. With the idea that would become Civilization already taking shape in Meier’s head, his enthusiasm for Covert Action was lower than ever, but needs must. As Shelley tells the story, Meier’s priorities were clear in light of the idea he had waiting in the wings. “We’re just getting this game done,” Meier said of Covert Action when Shelley tried to suggest ways of improving the still somehow unsatisfying design. “I’ve got to get this game finished.” It’s hard to avoid the impression that in the end Meier simply gave up on Covert Action. Yet, given the frequency with which he references it to this day, it’s seems equally clear that that capitulation has never sat well with him.

Covert Action casts you as the master spy Max Remington — or, in a nice nod to gender equality that was still unusual in a game of this era, as Maxine Remington. Max is the guy the CIA calls when they need someone to crack the really tough cases. The game presents you with a series of said tough cases, each involving a plot by some combination of criminal and/or terrorist groups to do something very bad somewhere in the world. Your objective is to figure out what group or groups are involved, figure out precisely what they’re up to, and foil their plot before they bring it to fruition. As usual for a Sid Meier game, you can play on any of four difficulty levels to ensure that everyone, from the rank beginner to the most experienced super-sleuth, can be challenged without being overwhelmed. If you do your job well, you will arrest the person at the top of the plot’s org chart, one of the game’s 26 evil masterminds. Once no more masterminds are left to arrest, Max can walk off into the sunset and enjoy a pleasant retirement, confident that he has made the world a safer place. (If only counter-terrorism was that easy in real life, right?)

The game lets Max/Maxine score with progressively hotter members of the opposite sex as he/she cracks more cases.

The strategic decisions you make in directing the course of your investigation will lead to naught if you don’t succeed at the various mini-games. These include rewiring a junction box to tap a suspect’s phone (Covert Action presents us with a weirdly low-tech version of espionage, even for its own day); cracking letter-substitution codes to decipher a suspect’s message traffic; tailing or chasing a suspect’s car; and, in the most elaborate of the mini-games, breaking into a group’s hideaway to either collect intelligence or make an arrest.

Covert Action seems to have all the makings of a good game — perhaps even another classic like its inspiration, Pirates!. But, as Sid Meier and most of the people who have played it agree, it doesn’t ever quite come together to become an holistically satisfying experience.

It’s not immediately obvious just why that should be the case; thus all of the discussion the game has prompted over the years. Meier does have his theory, to which he’s returned enough that he’s come to codify it into a universal design dictum he calls the “the Covert Action rule.” For my part… well, I have a very different theory. So, first I’ll tell you about Meier’s theory, and then I’ll tell you about my own.

Meier’s theory hinges on the nature of the mini-games. He doesn’t believe that any of them are outright bad by any means, but does feel that they don’t blend well with the overarching strategic game, resulting in a lumpy stew of an experience that the player has trouble digesting. He’s particularly critical of the breaking-and-entering mini-game — a “mini-game” complicated enough that one could easily imagine it being released as a standalone game for the previous generation of computers (or, for that matter, for Covert Action‘s contemporaneous generation of consoles). Before you begin the breaking-and-entering game, you must choose what Max will carry with him: depending on your goals for this mission, you can give him some combination of a pistol, a sub-machine gun, a camera, several types of grenades, bugs, a Kevlar vest, a gas mask, a safe-cracking kit, and a motion detector. The underground hideaways and safe houses you then proceed to explore are often quite large, and full of guards, traps, and alarms to avoid or foil as you snoop for evidence or try to spirit away a suspect. You can charge in with guns blazing if you like, but, especially at the higher difficulty levels, that’s not generally a recipe for success. This is rather a game of stealth, of lurking in the shadows as you identify the guards’ patrol patterns, the better to avoid or quietly neutralize them. A perfectly executed mission in many circumstances will see you get in and out of the building without having to fire a single shot.

The aspect of this mini-game which Meier pinpoints as its problem is, somewhat ironically, the very ambition and complexity which makes it so impressive when considered alone. A spot of breaking and entering can easily absorb a very tense and intense half an hour of your time. By the time you make it out of the building, Meier theorizes, you’ve lost track of why you went in in the first place — lost track, in other words, of what was going on in the strategic game. Meier codified his theory in what has for almost twenty years been known in design circles as “the Covert Action rule.” In a nutshell, the rule states that “one good game is better than two great ones” in the context of a single game design. Meier believes that the mini-games of Covert Action, and the breaking-and-entering game in particular, can become so engaging and such a drain on the player’s time and energies that they clash with the strategic game; we end up with two “great games” that never make a cohesive whole. This dissonance never allows the player to settle into that elusive sense of total immersion which some call “flow.” Meier believes that Pirates! works where Covert Action doesn’t because the former’s mini-games are much shorter and much less complicated — getting the player back to the big picture, as it were, quickly enough that she doesn’t lose the plot of what the current situation is and what she’s trying to accomplish.

It’s an explanation that makes a certain sense on its face, yet I must say that it’s not one that really rings true to my own experiences with either games in general or Covert Action in particular. Certainly one can find any number of games which any number of players have hugely enjoyed that seemingly violate the Covert Action rule comprehensively. We could, for instance, look to the many modern CRPGs which include “sub-quests” that can absorb many hours of the player’s time, to no detriment to the player’s experience as a whole, at least if said players’ own reports are to be believed. If that’s roaming too far afield from the type of game which Covert Action is, consider the case of the strategy classic X-Com, one of the most frequently cited of the seeming Covert Action rule violators that paradoxically succeed as fun designs. It merges an overarching strategic game with a game of tactical combat that’s far more time-consuming and complicated than even the breaking-and-entering part of Covert Action. And yet it must place high in any ranking of the most beloved strategy games of all time. As we continue to look at specific counterexamples like X-Com or, for that matter, Pirates!, we can only continue to believe in the Covert Action rule by applying lots of increasingly tortured justifications for why this or that seemingly blatant violator nevertheless works as a game. So, X-Com, Meier tells us, works because the strategic game is relatively less complicated than the tactical game, leaving enough of the focus on the tactical game that the two don’t start to pull against one another. And Pirates!, of course, is just the opposite.

I can only say that when the caveats and exceptions to any given rule start to pile up, one is compelled to look back to the substance of the rule itself. As nice as it might be for the designers of Covert Action to believe the game’s biggest problem is that its individual parts were just each too darn ambitious, too darn good, I don’t think that’s the real reason the game doesn’t work.

So, we come back to the original question: just what is the matter with Covert Action? I don’t believe that Covert Action‘s core malady can be found in the mini-games, nor for that matter in the strategic game per se. I rather believe the problem is with the mission design and with the game’s fiction — which, as in so many games, are largely one and the same in this one. The cases you must crack in Covert Action are procedurally generated by the computer, using a set of templates into which are plugged different combinations of organizations, masterminds, and plots to create what is theoretically a virtually infinite number of potential cases to solve. My thesis is that it’s at this level — the level of the game’s fiction — where Covert Action breaks down; I believe that things have already gone awry as soon as the game generates the case it will ask you to solve, well before you make your first move. The, for lack of a better word, artificiality of the cases is never hard to detect. Even before you start to learn which of the limited number of templates are which, the stories just feel all wrong.

Literary critics have a special word, “mimesis,” which they tend to deploy when a piece of fiction conspicuously passes or fails the smell test of immersive believability. Dating back to classical philosophy, “mimesis” technically means the art of “showing” a story — as opposed to “diegesis,” the art of telling. It’s been adopted by theorists of textual interactive fiction as well as a stand-in for all those qualities of a game’s fiction that help to immerse the player in the story, that help to draw her in. “Crimes against Mimesis” — the name of an influential Usenet post written in 1996 by Roger Giner-Sorolla — are all those things, from problems with the interface to obvious flaws in the story’s logic to things that just don’t ring true somehow, that cast the player jarringly out of the game’s fiction — that reveal, in other words, the mechanical gears grinding underneath the game’s fictional veneer. Covert Action is full of these crimes against mimesis, full of these gears poking above the story’s surface. Groups that should hate each other ally with one another: the Colombian Cartel, the Mafia, the Palestine Freedom Organization (some names have been changed to protect the innocent or not-so-innocent), and the Stassi might all concoct a plot together. Why not? In the game’s eyes, they’re just interchangeable parts with differing labels on the front; they might as well have been called “Group A,” “Group B,” etc. When they send messages to one another, the diction almost always rings horribly, jarringly wrong in the ears of those of us who know what the groups represent. Here’s an example in the form of the Mafia talking like Jihadists.

If Covert Action had believable, mimetic, tantalizing — or at least interesting — plots to foil, I submit that it could have been a tremendously compelling game, without changing anything else about it. Instead, though, it’s got this painfully artificial box of whirling gears. Writing in the context of the problems of procedural generation in general, Kate Compton has called this the “10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal Problem.”

I can easily generate 10,000 bowls of plain oatmeal, with each oat being in a different position and different orientation, and mathematically speaking they will all be completely unique. But the user will likely just see a lot of oatmeal. Perceptual uniqueness is the real metric, and it’s darn tough. It is the difference between an actor being a face in a crowd scene and a character that is memorable.

Assuming that we can agree to agree, at least for now, that we’ve hit upon Covert Action‘s core problem, it’s not hard to divine how to fix it. I’m imagining a version of the game that replaces the infinite number of procedurally-generated cases with 25 or 30 hand-crafted plots, each with its own personality and its own unique flavor of intrigue. Such an approach would fix another complaint that’s occasionally levied against Covert Action: that it never becomes necessary to master or even really engage with all of its disparate parts because it’s very easy to rely just on those mini-games you happen to be best at to ferret out all of the relevant information. In particular, you can discover just about everything you need in the files you uncover during the breaking-and-entering game, without ever having to do much of anything in the realm of wire-tapping suspects, tailing them, or cracking their codes. This too feels like a byproduct of the generic templates used to construct the cases, which tend to err on the safe side to ensure that the cases are actually soluble, preferring — justifiably, in light of the circumstances — too many clues to too few. But this complaint could easily be fixed using hand-crafted cases. Different cases could be consciously designed to emphasize different aspects of the game: one case could be full of action, another more cerebral and puzzle-like, etc. This would do yet more to give each case its own personality and to keep the game feeling fresh throughout its length.

The most obvious argument against hand-crafted cases, other than the one, valid only from the developers’ standpoint, of the extra resources it would take to create them, is that it would exchange a game that is theoretically infinitely replayable for one with a finite span. Yet, given that Covert Action isn’t a hugely compelling game in its historical form, one has to suspect that my proposed finite version of it would likely yield more actual hours of enjoyment for the average player than the infinite version. Is a great game that lasts 30 hours and then is over better than a mediocre one that can potentially be played forever? The answer must depend on individual circumstances as well as individual predilections, but I know where I stand, at least as long as this world continues to be full of more cheap and accessible games than I can possibly play.

But then there is one more practical objection to my proposed variation of Covert Action, or rather one ironclad reason why it could never have seen the light of day: this simply isn’t how Sid Meier designs his games. Meier, you see, stands firmly on the other side of a longstanding divide that has given rise to no small dissension over the years in the fields of game design and academic game studies alike.

In academia, the argument has raged for twenty years between the so-called ludologists, who see games primarily as dynamic systems, and the narratologists, who see them primarily as narratives. Yet at its core the debate is actually far older even than that. In the December 1987 issue of his Journal of Computer Game Design, Chris Crawford fired what we might regard as the first salvo in this never-ending war via an article entitled “Process Intensity.” The titular phrase meant, he explained, “the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data.” While all games must have some amount of data — i.e., fixed content, including fixed story content — a more process-intensive game — one that tips the balance further in favor of dynamic code as opposed to static data — is almost always a better game in Crawford’s view. That all games aren’t extremely process intensive, he baldly states, is largely down to the laziness of their developers.

The most powerful resistance to process intensity, though, is unstated. It is a mental laziness that afflicts all of us. Process intensity is so very hard to implement. Data intensity is easy to put into a program. Just get that artwork into a file and read it onto the screen; store that sound effect on the disk and pump it out to the speaker. There’s instant gratification in these data-intensive approaches. It looks and sounds great immediately. Process intensity requires all those hours mucking around with equations. Because it’s so indirect, you’re never certain how it will behave. The results always look so primitive next to the data-intensive stuff. So we follow the path of least resistance right down to data intensity.

Crawford, in other words, is a ludologist all the way. There’s always been a strongly prescriptive quality to the ludologists’ side of the ludology-versus-narratology debate, an ideology of how games ought to be made. Because processing is, to use Crawford’s words again, “the very essence of what a computer does,” the capability that in turn enables the interactivity that makes computer games unique as a medium, games that heavily emphasize processing are purer than those that rely more heavily on fixed data.

It’s a view that strikes me as short-sighted in a number of ways. It betrays, first of all, a certain programmer and systems designer’s bias against the artists and writers who craft all that fixed data; I would submit that the latter skills are every bit as worthy of admiration and every bit as valuable on most development teams as the former. Although even Crawford acknowledges that “data endows a game with useful color and texture,” he fails to account for the appeal of games where that very color and texture — we might instead say the fictional context — is the most important part of the experience. He and many of his ludologist colleagues are like most ideologues in failing to admit the possibility that different people may simply want different things, in games as in any other realm. Given the role that fixed stories have come to play in even many of the most casual modern games, too much ludologist rhetoric verges on telling players that they’re wrong for liking the games they happen to like. This is not to apologize for railroaded experiences that give the player no real role to play whatsoever and thereby fail to involve her in their fictions. It’s rather to say that drawing the line between process and data can be more complicated than saying “process good, data bad” and proceeding to act accordingly. Different games are at their best with different combinations of pre-crafted and generative content. Covert Action fails as a game because it draws that line in the wrong place. It’s thanks to the same fallacy, I would argue, that Chris Crawford has been failing for the last quarter century to create the truly open-ended interactive-story system he calls Storytron.

Sid Meier is an endlessly gracious gentleman, and thus isn’t so strident in his advocacy as many other ludologists. But despite his graciousness, there’s no doubt on which side of the divide he stands. Meier’s games never, ever include rigid pre-crafted scenarios or fixed storylines of any stripe. In most cases, this has been fine because his designs have been well-suited to the more open-ended, generative styles of play he favors. Covert Action, however, is the glaring exception, revealing one of the few blind spots of this generally brilliant game designer. Ironically, Meier had largely been drawn to Covert Action by what he calls the “intriguing” problem of its dynamic case generator. The idea of being able to use the computer to do the hard work of generating stories, and thereby to be able to churn out infinite numbers of the things at no expense, has always enticed him. He continues to muse today about a Sherlock Holmes game built using computer-generated cases, working backward from the solution of a crime to create a trail of clues for player to follow.

Meier is hardly alone in the annals of computer science and game design in finding the problem of automated story-making intriguing. Like his Sherlock Holmes idea, many experiments with procedurally-generated narratives have worked with mystery stories, that most overtly game-like of all literary genres; Covert Action‘s cases as well can be considered variations on the mystery theme.  As early as 1971, Sheldon Klein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, created something he called an “automatic novel writer” for auto-generating “2100-word murder-mystery stories.” In 1983, Electronic Arts released Jon Freeman and Paul Reiche III’s Murder on the Zinderneuf as one of their first titles; it allowed the player to solve an infinite number of randomly generated mysteries occurring aboard its titular Zeppelin airship. That game’s flaws feel oddly similar to those of Covert Action. As in Covert Action, in Murder on the Zinderneuf the randomized cases never have the resonance of a good hand-crafted mystery story. That, combined with their occasional incongruities and the patterns that start to surface as soon as you’ve played a few times, means that you can never forget their procedural origins. These tales of intrigue never manage to truly intrigue.

Suffice to say that generating believable fictions, whether in the sharply delimited realm of a murder mystery taking place aboard a Zeppelin or the slightly less delimited realm of a contemporary spy thriller, is a tough nut to crack. Even one of the most earnest and concentrated of the academic attempts at tackling the problem, a system called Tale-Spin created by James Meehan at Yale University, continued to generate more unmimetic than mimetic stories after many years of work — and this system was meant only to generate standalone static stories, not interactive mysteries to be solved. And as for Chris Crawford’s Storytron… well, as of this writing it is, as its website says, in a “medically induced coma” for the latest of many massive re-toolings.

In choosing to pick up Covert Action primarily because of the intriguing problem of its case generator and then failing to consider whether said case generator really served the game, Sid Meier may have run afoul of another of his rules for game design, one that I find much more universally applicable than what Meier calls the Covert Action rule. A designer should always ask, Meier tells us, who is really having the fun in a game — the designer/programmer/computer or the player? The procedurally generated cases may have been an intriguing problem for Sid Meier the designer, but they don’t serve the player anywhere near as well as hand-crafted cases might have done.

The model that comes to mind when I think of my ideal version of Covert Action is Killed Until Dead, an unjustly obscure gem from Accolade which, like Murder on the Zinderneuf, I wrote about in an earlier article. Killed Until Dead is very similar to Murder on the Zinderneuf in that it presents the player with a series of mysteries to solve, all of which employ the same cast of characters, the same props, and the same setting. Unlike Murder on the Zinderneuf, however, the mysteries in Killed Until Dead have all been lovingly hand-crafted. They not only hang together better as a result, but they’re full of wit and warmth and the right sort of intrigue — they intrigue the player. If you ask me, a version of Covert Action built along similar lines, full of exciting plotlines with-a-ripped-from-the-headlines feel, could have been fantastic — assuming, of course, that MicroProse could have found writers and scenario designers with the chops to bring the spycraft to life.

It’s of course possible that my reaction to Covert Action is hopelessly subjective, inextricably tied to what I personally value in games. As my longtime readers are doubtless aware by now, I’m an experential player to the core, more interested in lived experiences than twiddling the knobs of a complicated system just exactly perfectly. In addition to guaranteeing that I’ll never win any e-sports competitions — well, that and my aging reflexes that were never all that great to begin with — this fact colors the way I see a game like Covert Action. The jarring qualities of Covert Action‘s fiction may not bother some of you one bit. And thus the debate about what really is wrong with Covert Action, that strange note of discordance sandwiched between the monumental Sid Meier masterpieces Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, can never be definitely settled. Ditto the more abstract and even more longstanding negotiation between ludology and narratology. Ah, well… if nothing else, it ensures that readers and writers of blogs like this one will always have something to talk about. So, let the debate rage on.

(Sources: the books Expressive Processing by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and On Interactive Storytelling by Chris Crawford; Game Developer of February 2013. Links to online sources are scattered through the article.

If you’d like to enter the Covert Action debate for yourself, you can buy it from GOG.com.)

 
 

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Railroad Tycoon

It says much about Sid Meier, a born game designer if ever there was one, that he tended to get some of his best work done when he was allegedly on vacation. A few years after his significant other had lost all track of him on what she thought was a romantic getaway to the Caribbean but he came to see as the ideal chance to research his game Pirates!, another opportunity for couple time went awry in August of 1989, when he spent the entirety of a beach holiday coding a game about railroads on the computer he’d lugged with him. The experience may not have done his relationship any favors, but he did come home with the core of his second masterpiece of a game — a game that would usher in what many old-timers still regard as the golden age of computerized grand strategy.

That Meier felt empowered to spend so much time on a game that featured no war or killing says much about the changing times inside MicroProse, the erstwhile specialist in military simulations and war games he had co-founded with the flamboyant former active-duty Air Force pilot “Wild” Bill Stealey. The first great deviation from the norm for MicroProse had been Meier’s first masterpiece, the aforementioned Pirates! of 1987, which Stealey had somewhat begrudgingly allowed him to make as a palate cleanser between the company’s military games. After that, it had been back to business as usual for a while, with Meier designing a submarine simulator based on a Tom Clancy thriller (the audience synergy of that project was almost too perfect to be believed) and then a flight simulator based on the rampant speculation among aviation buffs about the Air Force’s cutting-edge new stealth fighter (the speculation would almost all prove to be incorrect when the actual stealth fighter was unveiled, leaving MicroProse with a “simulation” of an airplane that had never existed).

Yet by the time the latter game was nearing completion in late 1988, a couple of things were getting hard to ignore. First was the warm reception that had been accorded to Pirates!, the way that entirely new demographics of players who would never have dreamed of buying any of MicroProse’s other games were buying and enjoying this one. And second was the fact that the market for MicroProse’s traditional military simulations, while it had served them well — in fact, served them to the tune of nearly 1 million copies sold of their most successful simulation of all, Sid Meier’s F-15 Strike Eagle — was starting to show signs of having reached its natural limit. If, in other words, MicroProse hoped to continue to increase their sales each year — something the aggressive and ambitious Stealey liked doing even more than he liked making and flying flight simulators — they were going to have to push outside of Stealey’s comfort zone. Accordingly, MicroProse dramatically expanded the scope of their business in the last two years of the 1980s, buying the Firebird and Rainbird software labels from British Telecom and setting up an affiliated-label program for distributing the work of smaller publishers;  Stealey hoped the latter might come in time to rival the similar programs of Electronic Arts and Activision/Mediagenic. In terms of in-house development, meanwhile, MicroProse went from all military games all the time — apart from, that is, the aberration that had been Pirates! — to a half-and-half mixture of games in the old style and games that roamed further afield, in some cases right into the sweet spot that had yielded the big hit Pirates!.

Sid Meier, right, at MicroProse circa early 1990 with tester Russ Cooney.

Thus the first project which Sid Meier took up after finishing F-19 Stealth Fighter was a spy game called Covert Action. Made up like Pirates! of a collection of mini-games, Covert Action was very much in the spirit of that earlier game, but had been abandoned by its original designer Lawrence Schick as unworkable. Perhaps because of its similarities to his own earlier game, Meier thought he could make something out of it, especially if he moved it from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, which had become his new development platform with F-19 Stealth Fighter. But Covert Action proved to be one of those frustrating games that just refused to come together, even in the hands of a designer as brilliant as Meier. He therefore started spending more and more of the time he should have been spending on Covert Action tinkering with ideas and prototypes for other games. In the spring of 1989, he coded up a little simulation of a model railroad.

The first person to whom Meier showed his railroad game was Bruce Shelley, his “assistant” at MicroProse and, one senses, something of his protege, to whatever extent a man as quiet and self-effacing as Meier was can be pictured to have cultivated someone for such a role. Prior to coming to MicroProse, Shelley had spent his first six years or so out of university at Avalon Hill, the faded king of the previous decade’s halcyon years of American tabletop war-gaming. MicroProse had for some time been in the habit of hiring refugees from the troubled tabletop world, among them Arnold Hendrick and the aforementioned Lawrence Schick, but Shelley was hardly one of the more illustrious names among this bunch. Working as an administrator and producer at Avalon Hill, he’d had the opportunity to streamline plenty of the games the company had published during his tenure, but had never been credited with an entirely original design of his own. When he arrived at MicroProse in early 1988 — he says his application for employment there was motivated largely by the experience of playing Pirates! — Shelley was assigned to fairly menial tasks, like creating the maps for F-19 Stealth Fighter. Yet something about him clearly impressed Sid Meier. Shortly after F-19 Stealth Fighter was completed, Meier came to Shelley to ask if he’d like to become his assistant. Shelley certainly didn’t need to be asked twice. “Anybody in that office would have died for that position,” he remembers.

Much of Shelley’s role as his Meier’s assistant, especially in the early days, entailed being a constantly available sounding board, playing with the steady stream of game prototypes Meier gave to him — Meier always seemed to have at least half a dozen such potential projects sitting on his hard drive alongside whatever project he was officially working on — and offering feedback. It was in this capacity that Shelley first saw the model-railroad simulation, whereupon it was immediately clear to him that this particular prototype was something special, that Meier was really on to something this time. Such was Shelley’s excitement, enthusiasm, and insightfullness that it wouldn’t take long for him to move from the role of Meier’s sounding board to that of his full-fledged co-designer on the railroad game, even as it always remained clear who would get to make the final decision on any question of design and whose name would ultimately grace the box.

It appears to have been Shelley who first discovered Will Wright’s landmark city simulation SimCity. Among the many possibilities it offered was the opportunity to add a light-rail system to your city and watch the little trains driving around; this struck Shelley as almost uncannily similar to Meier’s model railroad. He soon introduced Meier to SimCity, whereupon it became a major influence on the project. The commercial success of SimCity had proved that there was a place in the market for software toys without much of a competitive element, a description which applied perfectly to Meier’s model-railroad simulation at the time. “Yes, there is an audience out there for games that have a creative aspect to them,” Meier remembers thinking. “Building a railroad is something that can really emphasize that creative aspect in a game.”

And yet Meier and Shelley weren’t really happy with the idea of just making another software toy, however neat it was to lay down track and flip signals and watch the little trains drive around. Although both men had initially been wowed by SimCity, they both came to find it a little unsatisfying in the end, a little sterile in its complete lack of an historical context to latch onto or goals to achieve beyond those the player set for herself. At times the program evinced too much fascination with its own opaque inner workings, as opposed to what the player was doing in front of the screen. As part of his design process, Meier likes to ask whether the player is having the fun or whether the computer — or, perhaps better said, the game’s designer — is having the fun. With SimCity, it too often felt like the latter.

In his role as assistant, Shelley wrote what he remembers as a five- or six-page document that outlined a game that he and Meier were calling at that time The Golden Age of Railroads; before release the name would be shortened to the pithier, punchier Railroad Tycoon. Shelley expressed in the document their firm belief that they could and should incorporate elements of a software toy or “god game” into their creation, but that they wanted to make more of a real game out of it than SimCity had been, wanted to provide an economic and competitive motivation for building an efficient railroad. Thus already by this early stage the lines separating a simulation of real trains from one of toy trains were becoming blurred.

Then in August came that fateful beach holiday which Meier devoted to Railroad Tycoon. Over the course of three weeks of supposed fun in the sun, he added to his model-railroad simulation a landscape on which one built the tracks and stations. The landscape came complete with resources that needed to be hauled from place to place, often to be converted into other resources and hauled still further: trains might haul coal from a coal mine to a steel mill, carry the steel that resulted to a factory to be converted into manufactured goods, then carry the manufactured goods on to consumers in a city. When Meier returned from holiday and showed it to him, Shelley found the new prototype, incorporating some ideas from his own recent design document and some news ones of Meier’s making, to be just about the coolest thing he’d ever seen on a computer screen. Shelley:

We went to lunch together, and he said, “We have to make a decision about whether we’re going to do this railroad game or whether we’re going to do the spy game.”

I said, “If you’re asking me, there’s no contest. We’re doing the railroad game. It’s really cool. It’s so much fun. I have zero weight in this company. I don’t have a vote in any meeting. It’s up to you, but I’m ready to go.”

Shelley was so excited by the game that at one point he offered to work on it for free after hours if that was the only way to get it done. Thankfully, it never came to that.

Dropping Covert Action, which had already eaten up a lot of time and resources, generated considerable tension with Stealey, but when it came down to it it was difficult for him to say no his co-founder and star designer, the only person at the company who got his name in big letters on the fronts of the boxes. (Stealey, who had invented the tactic of prefixing “Sid Meier’s” to Meier’s games as a way of selling the mold-busting Pirates!, was perhaps by this point wondering what it was he had wrought.) The polite fiction which would be invented for public consumption had it that Meier shifted to Railroad Tycoon while the art department created the graphics for Covert Action. In reality, though, he just wanted to escape a game that refused to come together in favor of one that seemed to have all the potential in the world.

Meier and Shelley threw themselves into Railroad Tycoon. When not planning, coding — this was strictly left to Meier, as Shelley was a non-programmer — or playing the game, they were immersing themselves in the lore and legends of railroading: reading books, visiting museums, taking rides on historic steam trains. The Baltimore area, where MicroProse’s offices were located, is a hotbed of railroad history, being the home of the legendary Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the oldest common-carrier rail network in the country. Thus there was plenty in the area for a couple of railroad buffs to see and do. Meier and Shelley lived and breathed trains for a concentrated six months, during which they, in tandem with a few artists and other support personnel, took Railroad Tycoon from that August prototype to the finished, boxed game that shipped to stores in April of 1990, complete with a beefy 180-page manual written by Shelley. Leaving aside all of Railroad Tycoon‘s other merits, it was a rather breathtaking achievement just to have created a game of such ambition and complexity in such a short length of time.

But even in ways apart from its compressed development time Railroad Tycoon is far more successful than it has any right to be. It’s marked by a persistent, never entirely resolved tension — one might even say an identity crisis — between two very different visions of what a railroad game should be. To say that one vision was primarily that of Meier and the other that of Shelley is undoubtedly a vast oversimplification, but is nevertheless perhaps a good starting point for discussion.

One vision of Railroad Tycoon is what we might call the operational game, the building game, or the SimCity-like game, consisting of laying down stations, tracks, and switches, scheduling your trains, and watching over them as they run in real time. A certain kind of player can spend hours tinkering here, trying always to set up the most efficient possible routes, overriding switches on the fly to push priority cargoes through to their destinations for lucrative but intensely time-sensitive rewards. None of this is without risk: if you don’t do things correctly, trains can hurtle into one another, tumble off of washed-out bridges, or just wind up costing you more money than they earn. It’s therein, of course, where the challenge lies. This is Meier’s vision of Railroad Tycoon, still rooted in the model-railroad simulation he first showed Shelley back in early 1989.

The other vision of Railroad Tycoon is the game of high-level economic strategy, which first began to assert itself in that design document Bruce Shelley wrote up in mid-1989. In addition to needing to set up profitable routes and keep an eye on your expenses, you also need to judge when to sell bonds to fund expansion and when to buy them back to save the interest payments, when to buy and sell your own stock and that of other railroads to maximize your cash reserves. Most of all, you need to keep a close eye on the competition, who, if you’ve turn the “cutthroat competition” setting on, will try to buy your railroad out from under you by making runs on your stock — that is, when they aren’t building track into your stations, setting up winner-take-all “rate wars.”

This vision of Railroad Tycoon owes much to a board game called 1830: Railways and Robber Barons which Shelley had shepherded through production during his time at Avalon Hill. Although that game was officially designed by Francis Tresham, Shelley had done much to help turn it into the classic many board-game connoisseurs still regard it as today. After Shelley had arrived at MicroProse with his copy of 1830 in tow, it had become a great favorite during the company’s occasional board-game nights. While 1830 traded on the iconography of the Age of Steam, it was really a game of stock-market manipulation; the railroads in the game could have been swapped out for just about any moneymaking industry.

Put very crudely, then, Railroad Tycoon can be seen as 1830 with a SimCity-like railroad simulation grafted on in place of the board game’s pure abstractions. Bill Stealey claims that Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, actually called him after Railroad Tycoon‘s release to complain that “you’re doing my board game as a computer game.” Stealey managed to smooth the issue over; “well, don’t let it happen again” were Dott’s parting words. (This would become a problem when Meier and Shelley promptly did do it again, creating a computer game called Civilization that shared a name as well as other marked similarities with the Avalon Hill board game Civilization.)

Immense though its influence was, some of the elements of 1830 came to Railroad Tycoon shockingly late. Meier insists, for instance, that the three computerized robber barons you compete against were coded up in a mad frenzy over the last two weeks before the game had to ship. Again, it’s remarkable that Railroad Tycoon works at all, much less works as well as it does.

The problem of reconciling the two halves of Railroad Tycoon might have seemed intractable to many a design team. Consider the question of time. The operational game would seemingly need to run on a scale of days and hours, as trains chug around the tracks picking up and delivering constant streams of cargo. Yet the high-level economic game needs to run on a scale of months and years. A full game of Railroad Tycoon lasts a full century, over the course of which Big Changes happen on a scale about a million miles removed from the progress of individual trains down the tracks: the economy booms and crashes and booms again; coal and oil deposits are discovered and exploited and exhausted; cities grow; new industries develop; the Age of Steam gives ways to the Age of Diesel; competitors rise and fall and rise again. “You can’t have a game that lasts a hundred years and be running individual trains,” thought Meier and Shelley initially. If they tried to run the whole thing at the natural scale of the operational game, they’d wind up with a game that took a year or two of real-world time to play and left the player so lost in the weeds of day-to-day railroad operations that the bigger economic picture would get lost entirely.

Meier’s audacious solution was to do the opposite, to run the game as a whole at the macro scale of the economic game. This means that, at the beginning of the game when locomotives are weak and slow, it might take six months for a train to go from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. What ought to be one day of train traffic takes two years in the game’s reckoning of time. As a simulation, it’s ridiculous, but if we’re willing to see each train driving on the map as an abstraction representing many individual trains — or, for that matter, if we’re willing to not think about it at all too closely — it works perfectly well. Meier understood that a game doesn’t need to be a literal simulation of its subject to evoke the spirit of its subject — that experiential gaming encompasses more than simulations. Railroad Tycoon is, to use the words of game designer Michael Bate, an “aesthetic simulation” of railroad history.

Different players inevitably favor different sides of Railroad Tycoon‘s personality. When I played the game again for the first time in a very long time a year or so ago, I did so with my wife Dorte. Wanting to take things easy our first time out, we played without cutthroat competition turned on, in which mode the other railroads just do their own thing without actively trying to screw with your own efforts. Dorte loved designing track layouts and setting up chains of cargo deliveries for maximum efficiency; the process struck her, an inveterate puzzler, as the most delightful of puzzles. After we finished that game and I suggested we play again with cutthroat competition turned on, explaining how it would lead to a much more, well, cutthroat economic war, she said that the idea had no appeal whatsoever for her. Thus was I forced to continue my explorations of Railroad Tycoon on my own. The game designer Soren Johnson, by contrast, has told in his podcast Designer Notes how uninterested he was in the operational game, preferring to just spend some extra money to double-track everything and as much as possible forget it existed. It was rather the grand strategic picture that interested him. As for me, wishy-washy character that I am, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

One of the overarching themes of Sid Meier’s history as a game designer is a spirit of generosity, a willingness to let his players play their way. Railroad Tycoon provides a wonderful example in the lengths to which it goes to accommodate the Dortes, the Sorens, and the Jimmys. If you want to concentrate on the operational game, you can turn off cutthroat competition, turn on “dispatcher operations,” set the overall difficulty to its lowest level so that money is relatively plentiful, and have at it. If even that winds up entailing more economics than you’d like to concern yourself with, one of Railroad Tycoon‘s worst-kept secrets is an “embezzlement key” that can provide limitless amounts of cash, allowing you essentially to play it as the model-railroad simulation that it was at its genesis. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in Railroad Tycoon primarily as a game of grand economic strategy, you can turn on cutthroat competition, turn off dispatcher operations, crank the difficulty level up, and have a full-on business war that would warm the cockles of Jack Tramiel’s heart. If you’re a balanced (or wishy-washy) fellow like me, you can turn on cutthroat competition and dispatcher operations and enjoy the full monty. Meier and Shelley added something called priority shipments to the game — one-time, extremely lucrative deliveries from one station to another — to give players like me a reason to engage with the operational game even after their tracks and routes are largely set. Priority deliveries let you earn a nice bonus by manually flipping signals and shepherding a train along — but, again, only if you enjoy that sort of thing; a budding George Soros can earn as much or more by playing the stock market just right.

One story from Railroad Tycoon‘s development says much about Sid Meier’s generous spirit. Through very nearly the entirety of the game’s development, Meier and Shelley had planned to limit the amount of time you could play at the lower difficulty levels as a way of rewarding players who were willing to tackle the challenge of the higher levels. Such a restriction meant not only that players playing at the lower difficulty levels had less time to build their railroad network, but that they lost the chance to play with the most advanced locomotives, which only become available late in the game. Almost literally at the very last possible instant, Meier decided to nix that scheme, to allow all players to play for the full 100 years. Surely fans of the operational game should have access to the cool later trains as well. After all, these were the very people who would be most excited by them. The change came so late that the manual describes the old scheme and the in-game text also is often confused about how long you’re actually going to be allowed to play. It was a small price to pay for a decision that no one ever regretted.

That said, Railroad Tycoon does have lots of rough edges like this confusion over how long you’re allowed to play, an obvious byproduct of its compressed development cycle. Meier and Shelley and their playtesters had nowhere near enough time to make the game air-tight; there are heaps of exploits big enough to drive a Mallet locomotive through (trust me, that’s a big one!). It didn’t take players long to learn that they could wall off competing railroads behind cages of otherwise unused track and run wild in virgin territory on their own; that they could trick their competitors into building in the most unfavorable region of the map by starting to build there themselves, then tearing up their track and starting over competition-free in better territory; that the best way to make a lot of money was to haul nothing but passengers and mail, ignoring all of the intricacies of hauling resources that turned into other resources that turned into still other resources; that they could do surprisingly well barely running any trains at all, just by playing the market, buying and selling their competitors’ stock; that they could play as a real-estate instead of a railroad tycoon, buying up a bunch of land during economic panics by laying down track they never intended to use, then selling it again for a profit during boom times by tearing up the track. Yes, all of these exploits and many more are possible — and yes, the line between exploits and ruthless strategy is a little blurred in many of these cases. But it’s a testament to the core appeal of the game that, after you get over that smug a-ha! moment of figuring out that they’re possible, you don’t really want to use them all that much. The journey is more important than the destination; something about Railroad Tycoon makes you want to play it fair and square. You don’t even mind overmuch that your computerized competitors get to play a completely different and, one senses, a far easier game than the one you’re playing. They’re able to build track in useful configurations that aren’t allowed to you, and they don’t even have to run their own trains; all that business about signals and congestion and locomotives gets abstracted away for them.

Despite it all, I’m tempted to say that in terms of pure design Railroad Tycoon is actually a better game than Civilization, the game Meier and Shelley would make next and the one which will, admittedly for some very good reasons, always remain the heart of Meier’s legacy as a designer. Yet it’s Railroad Tycoon that strikes me as the more intuitive, playable game, free of the tedious micromanagement that tends to dog Civilization in its latter stages. Likewise absent in Railroad Tycoon is the long anticlimax of so many games of Civilization, when you know you’ve won but still have to spend hours mopping up the map before you can get the computer to recognize it. Railroad Tycoon benefits enormously from its strict 100-year time limit, as it does from the restriction of your railroad, born from technical limitations, to 32 trains and 32 stations. “You don’t need more than that to make the game interesting,” said Meier, correctly. And, whereas the turn-based Civilization feels rather like a board game running on the computer, the pausable real time of Railroad Tycoon makes it feel like a true born-digital creation.

175 years of railroad history, from the Planet…

…to the Train à Grande Vitesse.

Of course, mechanics and interface are far from the sum total of most computer games, and it’s in the contextual layer that Civilization thrives as an experiential game, as an awe-inspiring attempt to capture the sum total of human thought and history in 640 K of memory. But, having said that, I must also say that Railroad Tycoon is itself no slouch in this department. It shows almost as beautifully as Civilization how the stuff of history can thoroughly inform a game that isn’t trying to be a strict simulation of said history. From the manual to the game itself, Railroad Tycoon oozes with a love of trains. To their credit, Meier and Shelley don’t restrict themselves to the American Age of Steam, but also offer maps of Britain and continental Europe on which to play, each with its own challenges in terms of terrain and economy. The four available maps each have a different starting date, between them covering railroad history from the distant past of 1825 to the at-the-time-of-the-game’s-development near-future of 2000. As you play, new locomotives become available, providing a great picture of the evolution of railroading, from Robert Stephenson’s original 20-horsepower Planet with its top speed of 20 miles per hour to the 8000-horsepower French Train à Grande Vitesse (“high-speed train”) with a top speed of 160 miles per hour. This is very much a trainspotter’s view of railroad history, making no attempt to address the downsides of the rush to bind nations up in webs of steel tracks, nor asking just why the historical personages found in the game came to be known as the robber barons. (For an introduction to the darker side of railroad history, I recommend Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus.) But Railroad Tycoon isn’t trying to do social commentary; it just revels in a love of trains, and that’s fine. It’s immensely likeable on those terms — another byproduct of the spirit of generosity with which it’s so shot through. Just hearing the introduction’s music makes me happy.


Upon its release, Railroad Tycoon hit with the force of a freight train. Following the implosion of the 8-bit market at the tail end of the 1980s, North American computer gaming had moved upscale to focus on the bigger, more expensive MS-DOS machines and the somewhat older demographic that could afford them. These changes had created a hunger for more complicated, ambitious strategy and simulation games. SimCity had begun to scratch that itch, but its non-competitive nature and that certain sense of sterility that clung to it left it ultimately feeling a little underwhelming for many players, just it as it had for Meier and Shelley. Railroad Tycoon remedied both of those shortcomings with immense charm and panache. Soren Johnson has mentioned on his podcast how extraordinary the game felt upon its release: “There was just nothing like it at the time.” Computer Gaming World, the journal of record for the new breed of older and more affluent computer gamers, lavished Railroad Tycoon with praise, naming it their “Game of the Year” for 1990. Russell Sipe, the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine, was himself a dedicated trainspotter, and took to the game with particular enthusiasm, writing an entire book about it which spent almost as much time lingering lovingly over railroad lore as it did telling how to win the thing.

Meier and Shelley were so excited by what they had wrought that they charged full steam ahead into a Railroad Tycoon II. But they were soon stopped in their tracks by Bill Stealey, who demanded that they do something with Covert Action, into which, he insisted, MicroProse had poured too many resources to be able to simply abandon it. By the time that Meier and Shelley had done what they could in that quarter, the idea that would become Civilization had come to the fore. Neither designer would ever return to Railroad Tycoon during their remaining time at MicroProse, although some of the ideas they’d had for the sequel, like scenarios set in South America and Africa, would eventually make their way into a modestly enhanced 1993 version of the game called Railroad Tycoon Deluxe.

Coming as it did just before Civilization, the proverbial Big Moment of Sid Meier’s illustrious career, Railroad Tycoon‘s historical legacy has been somewhat obscured by the immense shadow cast by its younger sibling; even Meier sometimes speaks of Railroad Tycoon today in terms of “paving the way for Civilization.” Yet in my view it’s every bit as fine a game, and when all is said and done its influence on later games has been very nearly as great. “At the beginning of the game you had essentially nothing, or two stations and a little piece of track,” says Meier, “and by the end of the game you could look at this massive spiderweb of trains and say, ‘I did that.'” Plenty of later games would be designed to scratch precisely the same itch. Indeed, Railroad Tycoon spawned a whole sub-genre of economic strategy games, the so-called “Tycoon” sub-genre — more often than not that word seems to be included in the games’ names — that persists to this day. Sure, the sub-genre has yielded its share of paint-by-numbers junk, but it’s also yielded its share of classics to stand alongside the original Railroad Tycoon. Certainly it’s hard to imagine such worthy games as Transport Tycoon or RollerCoaster Tycoon — not to mention the post-MicroProse Railroad Tycoon II and 3 — existing without the example provided by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley.

But you don’t need to look to gaming history for a reason to play the original Railroad Tycoon. Arguably the finest strategy game yet made for a computer in its own time, it must remain high up in that ranking even today.

(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III, The Official Guide to Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon by Russell Sipe, and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay; ACE of May 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1989; Computer Gaming World of May 1990, July/August 1990, and September 1990; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.

Railroad Tycoon Deluxe has been available for years for free from 2K Games’s website as a promotion for Meier’s more recent train game Railroads!. It makes a fine choice for playing today. But for anyone wishing to experience the game in its original form, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a download of the original game, complete with what should be a working DOSBox configuration and some quick instructions on how to get it running.)

 
 

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Monkey Island (or, How Ron Gilbert Made an Adventure Game That Didn’t Suck)

Shortly after completing Maniac Mansion, his first classic graphic adventure, Ron Gilbert started sketching ideas for his next game. “I wanted to do something that felt like fantasy and might kind of tap into what was interesting about fantasy,” he remembers, “but that wasn’t fantasy.” Gilbert loved the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, which took guests through a whole pirate adventure in fifteen minutes, climaxing in a cannon duel between two ships. He only wished that he could linger there, could get out of the little boat that carried guests through the attraction and wander amid the scenery. What the need to keep shoveling amusement-park guests through a paid attraction disallowed, a computer game could allow. Thus was the idea for The Secret of Monkey Island born.

The game casts you in the role of Guybrush Threepwood, a lovable loser who wants to become a pirate. Arriving on Mêlée Island, a den of piratey scum and villainy, he has to complete a set of trials to win the status of Official Pirate. Along the way, he falls in love with the island’s beautiful governor Elaine — her name sets the game up for a gleeful The Graduate homage — and soon has to rescue her from the villain of the story, the evil ghost pirate LeChuck.

The Disnefied piracy wasn’t hard to do, especially after Gilbert discovered a charming little historical-fantasy novel by Tim Powers called On Stranger Tides. Nor was the goofy humor that was so much his stock in trade as a game designer. What did make things complicated, however, was his desire to create a more playable, forgiving adventure game than even Maniac Mansion had managed to be. Gilbert admits that he was struggling, with no more than the beginnings of a design document or, for that matter, a design philosophy, when a mandate came down from Lucasfilm Games’s parent company’s management: they wanted an adventure game to go with the upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Such a mandate was unusual for the privileged little artists’ enclave that still was Lucasfilm Games at this time, but, given the freedom they had so generously been granted for so long, they were hardly in a position to argue about it. Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, and David Fox joined forces to grind out the Indiana Jones game, while Monkey Island went on hold for more than six months.

It was just possibly the best thing that could have happened. The delay gave Gilbert time to continue thinking about adventure-game design in the abstract, to continue groping toward that elusive something — or, better said, somethings — that would make his future games different. Hardly a theorist by nature, he nevertheless sat down and wrote out a manifesto of sorts as a way of codifying his opinions, titling it, in inimitable Ron Gilbert fashion, “Why Adventure Games Suck.” This semi-legendary document, probably the most influential ever written on the subject of adventure-game design, was published in the December 1989 issue of The Journal of Computer Game Design (the paper-based adjunct to the Computer Game Developers Conference).

Some of what Gilbert has to say in his manifesto feels a little rambling and esoteric today, while the vast majority of what does feel relevant we’ve already had reasons to discuss on other occasions — what with the general state of adventure-game design in the 1980s, sometimes on all too many other occasions. Still, the document itself and the ideas it contains can only be regarded as hugely important to the evolution of the adventure game.

Consider what the manifesto has to say about the age-old problem of locking the player out of victory without her knowledge.

I forgot to pick it up

Never require a player to pick up an item that is used later in the game if she can’t go back and get it when it is needed. It is very frustrating to learn that a seemingly insignificant object is needed, and the only way to get it is to start over or go back to a saved game. From the player’s point of view, there was no reason for picking it up in the first place. Some designers have actually defended this practice by saying that “adventure-game players know to pick up everything.” This is a cop-out. If the jar of water needs to be used on the spaceship and it can only be found on the planet, create a use for it on the planet that guarantees it will be picked up. If the time between the two uses is long enough, you can be almost guaranteed that the player forgot she even had the object.

The other way around this problem is to give the player hints about what she might need to pick up. If the aliens on the planet suggest that the player find water before returning to the ship, and the player ignores this advice, then failure is her own fault.

In The Secret of Monkey Island and all of the Lucasfilm adventure games that would follow it, Gilbert and his colleagues implemented an extreme remedy to this problem. Rather than admitting a failure to pick up the right object at the right time to be even potentially the player’s “own fault,” they made certain it was always possible to go back and get said item. Locking yourself out of victory, in other words, became literally impossible.

Now consider what the manifesto has to say about arbitrarily killing the player and about another related old bugaboo, requiring knowledge from past lives.

Live and learn

As a rule, adventure games should be able to be played from beginning to end without “dying” or saving the game if the player is very careful and very observant. It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time. This is not to say that all death situations should be designed out. Danger is inherent in drama, but danger should be survivable if the player is clever.

As an exercise, take one complete path through a story game and then tell it to someone else, as if it were a standard story. If you find places where the main character could not have known a piece of information that was used (the character who learned it died in a previous game), then there is a hole in the plot.

Again, Gilbert and the rest of Lucasfilm would push much further than even the above would imply in their own future designs. Despite the claim that “danger is inherent to drama” — a claim, one has to assume, about which Gilbert must have come to think better — they made it impossible for the player to die, no matter what she did.

Gilbert tells us at the end of his manifesto that he’d like to “get rid of save games” altogether.

If there have to be save games, I would use them only when it was time to quit playing until the next day. Save games should not be a part of game play. This leads to sloppy design. As a challenge, think about how you would design a game differently if there were no save games. If you ever have the pleasure of watching a non-game player playing an adventure game you will notice they treat save games very differently than the experienced user. Some start using it as a defense mechanism only after being slapped in the face by the game a few times, the rest just stop playing.

It’s this idea of designing adventure games as if saves didn’t exist that’s the real key to understanding what made The Secret of Monkey Island and the Lucasfilm adventures which would follow it so different, even so revolutionary. Everything else springs from this one adjustment in perspective. I last played The Secret of Monkey Island nine months or so ago, when my wife and I were on a little holiday in Venice. Each evening, after a long day spent exploring the alleys and canals, we’d retire back to our cozy little hotel and I’d poke at Monkey Island for an hour or two on my laptop before bed. Having played heaps of older adventure games for years prior to getting to Monkey Island — the life of a digital antiquarian sadly doesn’t leave much time for games that aren’t on the syllabus! — I must have experienced it much as its first players did. And I have to say, it’s downright difficult to express how freeing it was to know that I didn’t need to save every ten minutes, didn’t need to stress over the potential of somehow locking myself out of victory with every action. Instead, I could feel free to explore and experiment, knowing the game would take care of me. I don’t say that every game needs to be this way, but I do know that The Secret of Monkey Island is, along with its immediate Lucasfilm predecessor Loom, perhaps the first adventure games I’ve ever played for this blog that felt like natural holiday companions, things to relax into and just enjoy rather than assault with deadly seriousness. And yet The Secret of Monkey Island in particular manages this feat without ever feeling trivial. The game represents a remarkable historical watershed, as of an entire culture of game makers and players waking up and realizing that all the little aggravations they had thought adventure games had to include really didn’t need to be in there at all.

Cheerfully blatant anachronisms like the grog machine and Stan the used-boat salesman are everywhere. Ron Gilbert has mentioned the grog machine as one of his great lessons in “copyrights and trademarks.” Apparently getting it to look enough like a Coke machine to make the joke work but not so much that Lucasfilm was likely to get sued was quite the exercise in triangulation.

Taken apart from its immense importance as a model for future designs at Lucasfilm and elsewhere, The Secret of Monkey Island might initially seem a less than overwhelming package. It exists in very typical adventure-game territory for its era, at first glance dismayingly so. We’ve got yet another sad-sack loser of a protagonist, wandering through a comedy landscape built from pop-culture detritus, anachronisms, and meta-humor. The whole ought to read as lazy as most such efforts. Yet two things save the day, both of which feel intrinsic to the people who wrote the game, Ron Gilbert and his two assistant writers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. The first is the marvelously unaffected quality of the humor. The game is consistently, off-handedly funny without ever conspicuously straining to be in the manner of its peers. Where their humor is labored, Monkey Island‘s is effortless. And then there’s the related quality of a certain sweetness about the game. Guybrush Threepwood is the ultimate innocent. He just wants to be a Disney version of a pirate and to rescue and win the hand of the beautiful Elaine; guile is a foreign concept to him. Not only is The Secret of Monkey Island that rarest of beasts, a self-styled comedy adventure that’s genuinely, consistently funny, it’s about as likeable a game as has ever been made. This is a game where when a cannibal asks you how to “get ahead” he means… no, that one’s just too much fun to spoil.

The Secret of Monkey Island isn’t flashy or self-consciously spectacular in the way that so many contemporaneous Sierra adventures strained to be, but it is sophisticated in its aesthetics in a way few other games of its era can match. Still working with 16-color EGA graphics (a 256-color VGA version, from which the screenshots in this article are drawn, was released within a few months of the original), artists Steve Purcell and Mark Ferrari used their limited color palette to good effect to evoke the various moods of the various environments, while Michael Land crafted a gentle reggae-influenced soundtrack to plink away unobtrusively in the background or swell up into the foreground as circumstances dictated. Playing The Secret of Monkey Island really does feel like wandering through a delightful pirate theme park (a quality which the rather infamous ending of the sequel, which we won’t go into further in this article, would take very much to heart).

Most of all, The Secret of Monkey Island thrives on its puzzle design. The game’s plot plays out in four chapters, within each of which you have broad discretion to solve puzzles at your own pace and in your own order. (“Give the player options” is another commandment in “Why Adventure Games Suck.”) Its most famous puzzle, “insult sword-fighting,” says much about the game’s personality as a whole: instead of fighting with swords, pirates in this game like to fight via insults. You need to collect these insults and their ripostes as you explore, then apply them just right to win the “sword fight.” (Hey, anything’s better than a sharp sword in the gut, right?) The idea was born as Ron Gilbert was watching old pirate movies of the Errol Flynn stripe, and noticed that the opponents spent as much time verbally as physically assaulting one another. What with a verbal joust being far easier to implement in an adventure game than a sword-fighting engine, it didn’t take him long to run with the idea.

But really the entirety of the puzzle design, top to bottom, is just superb, managing to be funny and clever and occasionally challenging without ever devolving into the random using of each object on each other object. Throughout, attention is paid to you the player’s time and sanity in a way very few games of the era bother to do. For instance, at one point you need to follow another character through the jungle to find a secret location. Most games of the time would happily make you do this over and over, every time you want to return to said location — not least because doing so could serve to boost the length of the game at no expense. The Secret of Monkey Island only makes you do it once, then proceeds to do it for you from then on. “No point in having to solve the same puzzle over and over,” said Gilbert. Amen to that.

The game’s system of nudging you on to the correct solution to many puzzles is subtle to the extent that many players never even notice it’s there — and this, it must be said, again feels like the way it ought to be. At the beginning of the game, you’re expected to fulfill three tasks to prove to the pirates on the island that Guybrush has what it takes to become a pirate as well. As you poke around the island, your challengers actually take note of what you’ve done, and will offer some hints based on your progress if you go back and talk to them. “We want to guide the player subtly through the game,” said Gilbert’s colleague David Fox. “If the game works right, it should know that you’re stuck somewhere and it should give you a little help in a subtle way, so that you can solve the puzzle without feeling like it was solved for you.” In the context of 1990, the year of The Secret of Monkey Island‘s release, this was astonishingly progressive design. “As opposed,” remarked Fox wryly, “to the kind of game where the designer seems to be saying, ‘Aha! I’ve got you this time!’ and you have to spend three hours of gameplay to find some hidden object that you need to solve one puzzle.”

A rare example of a game where every element complements every other element, The Secret of Monkey Island has gone down in history as one of the finest, most justly beloved graphic adventures ever made. And for any aspiring adventure designer, even today, it’s a veritable master class in how to make an adventure game that most definitively doesn’t suck.

Released in October of 1990 as Lucasfilm’s second adventure of the year, The Secret of Monkey Island shared with its immediate predecessor Loom its pretend-the-player-can’t-save approach to design. Loom, however, had been a bridge too far for many traditionalist adventure gamers. What with its aggressively minimalist interface and portentous setting and story, it felt like an adventure game filtered through the aesthetics of a European avant-garde film. But The Secret of Monkey Island was, to strain the metaphor, all Hollywood. Whatever its innovations, it was also very much a meat-and-potatoes adventure game in the old style, complete with a menu of verbs, a comic tone, lots of object-oriented puzzles to solve, and a length more in keeping with that people had come to expect from a $40 boxed adventure game. It was thus far better equipped to deliver the gospel of “Why Adventure Games Suck” than Loom had been. While Loom had been greeted with critical uncertainty, reviewers fell over themselves to praise The Secret of Monkey Island, which wasted no time in becoming Lucasfilm Games’s biggest hit to date. It marks an enormously important watershed in the history of Lucasfilm’s adventure games in general, the moment when they commercially and creatively came fully into their own. The classic era of Lucasfilm adventures begins in earnest with The Secret of Monkey Island, which would become nothing less than the ideal most of the games that would follow would strive, sometimes perhaps a little too self-consciously, to reach.

Its commercial performance aside, The Secret of Monkey Island‘s enormous importance in the history of the art of adventure-game design in general shouldn’t be neglected. For many designers working at other companies, Ron Gilbert’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach hit home with the force of revelation. Both Corey Cole, co-designer of the Quest for Glory series for Sierra, and Bob Bates, co-founder of Legend Entertainment, brought up The Secret of Monkey Island unprompted in recent interviews with me as a work that made a huge impression on them. By no means would all designers push as far as Ron Gilbert had in the name of making a more playable adventure game. Corey Cole’s design partner Lori Ann Cole, for example, pronounced herself to be against “capricious” death in adventure games, but insisted that the possibility of death needed to be present to foster “personal involvement” and “an emotional stake” and to elevate the game above “mere amusement” — all of which positions strike me as perfectly reasonable for the very different sort of adventure games she and Corey were making. Still, everyone serious about the art of adventure-game design simply had to reckon with The Secret of Monkey Island, had to decide what its lessons really were and how to apply them. The game’s impact was such that to speak of a pre-Monkey Island and post-Monkey Island era of adventure games wouldn’t be at all out of order.

As the 1990s began, times were beginning to change inside Lucasfilm Games. With the fire hose of cash that had been the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises now ebbing and no new sequels in either blockbuster franchise on the horizon, Lucasfilm in general was concentrating on becoming a more commercially savvy organization. These changes inevitably affected the games division. Just about the instant that The Secret of Monkey Island was hitting store shelves, a major corporate reorganization was in progress at Lucasfilm, which saw the games division given far more resources — their personnel roll grew from about 25 to more than 100 between 1989 and 1991 — but also given much closer supervision. They would now be expected to justify each of their projects to the accountants. This transformation of Lucasfilm Games from sideline to major profit center was by no means viewed as a comprehensively bad thing by everyone working inside the games division — it did after all lead to them finally being let loose on the Star Wars intellectual property, something they’d been wishing for for years — but it would change the character of the place and the games that came from it forever.

The changes meant that the two sequels to Loom which Brian Moriarty had hoped to make would never be realized; Moriarty was instead sent off to work on a new educational-games initiative. A sequel to the big hit The Secret of Monkey Island, however, became a major priority under the new order, especially as Lucasfilm, now devoting lots of resources to flight simulators and those aforementioned Star Wars games, had no other adventures on their calendar for 1991. Released in December of 1991, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge didn’t disappoint commercially. Benefiting from the enormous good will accrued by its predecessor, it became another bestseller, and won a number of the game-of-the-year awards that a tardy industry should have been awarding to its predecessor (inertia being the force it is, most of the awards for 1990 had gone to Sierra’s pretty but horribly designed King’s Quest V, which served as its own argument for “why adventure games suck”). Today, the sequel remains almost as beloved as the original among hardcore Lucasfilm fans.

Personally, though, I’m not such a big fan of Monkey Island 2 as I am of its predecessor. Ron Gilbert had spent two and a half years designing, writing, and developing the first Monkey Island, alone or with others. He was given just a year for Monkey Island 2, a game that’s at least 50 percent larger, and I fancy I can see this disparity in the end result. The writing is neither as sharp nor as sweet. For the first time in a Ron Gilbert game, some of the humor is more gross than clever — spitting, with attention to the color and consistency of your loogies, is a major puzzle mechanic — and some of the rest is weirdly mean-spirited. Guybrush Threepwood has been transformed from the gee-whiz innocent of the first game to a bit of a raging asshole, the type of guy who steals a monocle from an innocent character who can’t see a thing without it and locks another guy who didn’t do anything to him inside a coffin. I don’t know to what I should attribute the change in tone — whether to changes going on inside Lucasfilm Games at the time, to changes going on in the personal lives of Ron Gilbert and/or the other members of his writing team, to the pressure of getting a bigger game out in much less time, or simply to happenstance. I know only that it doesn’t sit that well with me.

Captured by LeChuck in Monkey Island 2. The game will arbitrarily let you use only one item you’re carrying to effect your escape, and there’s no way to know ahead of time what that item is. Guess what that means you have to do…

In terms of puzzle design, the sequel also marks a big step down from its predecessor. While the no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach to design is still present, Monkey Island 2 constantly violates another of the dicta found in Ron Gilbert’s manifesto.

Arbitrary puzzles

Puzzles and their solutions need to make sense. They don’t have to be obvious, just make sense. The best reaction after solving a tough puzzle should be, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that sooner!” The worst, and most often heard after being told the solution, is, “I never would have gotten that!” If the solution can only be reached by trial and error or plain luck, it’s a bad puzzle.

Monkey Island 2 is full of these sorts of, to use Ron Gilbert’s own words, “bad puzzles.” Many solutions are so outlandish that you can stumble upon them only by using every object on every other object. At one point, for instance, you’re carrying a monkey around in your inventory (don’t ask!) when you come upon a closed water valve you need to open. Using the monkey on the valve does the trick because “monkey wrench.” Now, credit where it’s due, there’s some real wit to this. Yet it’s the sort of thing absolutely no player will ever think of on her own, especially given that the game hasn’t heretofore shown any interest in this sort of wordplay. (And that’s without even beginning to consider the problems of localization to other languages than English, which tends to render a puzzle like this into a complete non sequitur.) As you get deeper into the game, there’s more and more of this sort of thing, along with pixel hunts, an infuriating maze, and puzzles that can only be solved by trying to pick up every seemingly immovable item on the screen. Monkey Island 2 at times seems like an experiment in how annoying an adventure game can be without technically violating Lucasfilm’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends policy.

Arbitrary puzzles that can be solved only through trial and error would prove to be Lucasfilm’s Achilles heel going forward; too many of the games to come would feature puzzles designed more to create a laugh at how ridiculous they are than to be interesting or satisfying to solve. The end result is to create a feeling in the player of playing the interface rather than participating actively in the game world.

Despite my complaints, by no means was Lucasfilm’s progressive design philosophy completely abandoned for Monkey Island 2. The puzzle you need to solve to get through the swamp is a prime example. After you figure out what object to use as a paddle, the game solves the puzzle for you on each return visit.

Perhaps aware that they had crossed a line in trying to make Monkey Island 2 more difficult than its predecessor, Lucasfilm added a “Lite” mode to the game which scales the complexity of the puzzle structure back dramatically. Unfortunately, most players agree that the Lite mode goes too far in the other direction, removing most of the interest from the game. Taken together, the very presence of the two modes speaks to a design that didn’t quite hit the sweet spot of the first game, and to a design team that at some intuitive level may have realized this.

Shortly after completing Monkey Island 2, Ron Gilbert left Lucasfilm Games, resulting in a long hiatus for Guybrush, Elaine, LeChuck, and company. Given my snail’s pace through history, there will thus likely be an almost equally lengthy hiatus before they’ll grace these pages again. For now, I can only strongly encourage you to make the time to play The Secret of Monkey Island if you haven’t already. It’s as strong a comedy adventure as you’ll ever see, and as historically important an adventure game as any released since Crowther and Woods’s seminal original Adventure. While you can take or leave its sequel as you see fit, The Secret of Monkey Island is one adventure game that everybody really ought to play. It’s just that important. And even better, it’s just that good.

(Sources: the films From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years and its associated extras; the book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin; A.C.E. of April 1990; The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, and Fall 1991; Computer Gaming World of December 1990, June 1991, October 1991, November 1991, January 1992, May 1992, and November 1992; Retro Gamer 34. Also Ron Gilbert’s blog, The Grumpy Gamer.)

 
 

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A Little Status Update

As the subject line says, just wanted to let you all know about the latest going-ons here at Digital Antiquarian corporate headquarters. My Patreon supporters know already that I visited Rochester a couple of weeks ago to spend more time in the archives of the Strong Museum of Play. This time I spent an entire week going through their recently acquired collection of papers from Brian Fargo and Interplay. What I’ve come back with will do a lot to inform future articles. It’s really interesting and occasionally exciting stuff.

Unfortunately, everything went a little sidewise on the week of my return. I came back sick — it was cold in Rochester, even compared to Denmark! — and then my wife Dorte had a bunch of complications from a root canal and ended up having to spend a night in the hospital. So, we made something of a sorry pair last week. I guess we’ve had a little preview of what it will be like when we’re a decrepit old couple.

We’re both doing better now, but I did lose a lot of working time. What that means for you is that what I had originally planned as a one-week hiatus somewhere around this time has turned into a two-week hiatus. I did write an article this week, but my approach for the last year or so has been to hold articles for a week to look at them one more time with fresh eyes prior to publication, and I’d like to get back to that rather than jump the gun now; I think it’s really done a lot for the end result, even as you all continue to help me with the typos and small errors that do creep in in spite of my best efforts. Just bear with me for one more week, then, and all will be back to normal.

Thanks as always for your support!

 

Loom (or, how Brian Moriarty Proved That Less is Sometimes More)

In April of 1988, Brian Moriarty of Infocom flew from the East Coast to the West to attend the twelfth West Coast Computer Faire and the first ever Computer Game Developers Conference. Hard-pressed from below by the slowing sales of their text adventures and from above by parent company Activision’s ever more demanding management, Infocom didn’t have the money to pay for Moriarty’s trip. He therefore had to go on his own dime, a situation which left him, as he would later put it, very “grumpy” about the prospect of his ongoing employment by the very company at which he had worked so desperately to win a spot just a few years before.

The first West Coast Computer Faire back in 1977 had hosted the public unveiling of the Apple II and the Commodore PET, thus going down in hacker lore as the moment when the PC industry was truly born. By 1988, the Faire wasn’t the hugely important gathering it once had been, having been largely superseded on the industry’s calendar by glitzier events like the Consumer Electronics Show. Nevertheless, its schedule had its interesting entries, among them a lecture by Chris Crawford, the founder of the Computer Game Developers Conference which Moriarty would attend the next day. Moriarty recalls showing up a little late to Crawford’s lecture, scanning the room, and seeing just one chair free, oddly on the first row. He rushed over to take it, and soon struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him, whom he had never met before that day. As fate would have it, his neighbor’s name was Noah Falstein, and he worked for Lucasfilm Games.

Attendees to the first ever Computer Game Developers Conference. Brian Moriarty is in the reddish tee-shirt at center rear, looking cool in his rock-star shades.

Falstein knew and admired Moriarty’s work for Infocom, and knew likewise, as did everyone in the industry, that things hadn’t been going so well back in Cambridge for some time now. His own Lucasfilm Games was in the opposite position. After having struggled since their founding back in 1982 to carve out an identity for themselves under the shadow of George Lucas’s Star Wars empire, by 1988 they finally had the feeling of a company on the rise. With Maniac Mansion, their big hit of the previous year, Falstein and his colleagues seemed to have found in point-and-click graphical adventures a niche that was both artistically satisfying and commercially rewarding. They were already hard at work on the follow-up to Maniac Mansion, and Lucasfilm Games’s management had given the go-ahead to look for an experienced adventure-game designer to help them make more games. As one of Infocom’s most respected designers, Brian Moriarty made an immediately appealing candidate, not least in that Lucasfilm Games liked to see themselves as the Infocom of graphical adventures, emphasizing craftsmanship and design as a way to set themselves apart from the more slapdash games being pumped out in much greater numbers by their arch-rivals Sierra.

Brian Moriarty on the job at Lucasfilm.

For his part, Moriarty was ripe to be convinced; it wasn’t hard to see the writing on the wall back at Infocom. When Falstein showed him some photographs of Lucasfilm Games’s offices at Skywalker Ranch in beautiful Marin County, California, and shared stories of rubbing elbows with movie stars and casually playing with real props from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, the contrast with life inside Infocom’s increasingly empty, increasingly gloomy offices could hardly have been more striking. Then again, maybe it could have been: at his first interview with Lucasfilm Games’s head Steve Arnold, Moriarty was told that the division had just two mandates. One was “don’t lose money”; the other was “don’t embarrass George Lucas.” Anything else — like actually making money — was presumably gravy. Again, this was music to the ears of Moriarty, who like everyone at Infocom was now under constant pressure from Activision’s management to write games that would sell in huge numbers.

Brian Moriarty arrived at Skywalker Ranch for his first day of work on August 1, 1988. As Lucasfilm Games’s new star designer, he was given virtually complete freedom to make whatever game he wanted to make.

Noah Falstein in Skywalker Ranch’s conservatory. This is where the Games people typically ate their lunches, which were prepared for them by a gourmet chef. There were definitely worse places to work…

For all their enthusiasm for adventure games, the other designers at Lucasfilm were struggling a bit at the time to figure out how to build on the template of Maniac Mansion. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, David Fox’s follow-up to Ron Gilbert’s masterstroke, had been published just the day before Moriarty arrived at Skywalker Ranch. It tried a little too obviously to capture the same campy charm, whilst, in typical games-industry fashion, trying to make it all better by making it bigger, expanding the scene of the action from a single night spent in a single mansion to locations scattered all around the globe and sometimes off it. The sense remained that Lucasfilm wanted to do things differently from Sierra, who are unnamed but ever-present — along with a sly dig at old-school rivals like Infocom still making text adventures — within a nascent manifesto of three paragraphs published in Zak McKracken‘s manual, entitled simply “Our Game Design Philosophy.”

We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don’t bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke your nose into a place you haven’t visited before. In fact, we make it downright difficult to get a character “killed.”

We think you’d prefer to solve the game’s mysteries by exploring and discovering. Not by dying a thousand deaths. We also think you like to spend your time involved in the story. Not typing in synonyms until you stumble upon the computer’s word for a certain object.

Unlike conventional computer adventures, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders doesn’t force you to save your progress every few minutes. Instead, you’re free to concentrate on the puzzles, characters, and outrageous good humor.

Worthy though these sentiments were, Lucasfilm seemed uncertain as yet how to turn them into practical rules for design. Ironically, Zak McKracken, the game with which they began publicly articulating their focus on progressive design, is the most Sierra-like Lucasfilm game ever made, with the sheer nonlinear sprawl of the thing spawning inevitable confusion and yielding far more potential dead ends than its designer would likely wish to admit. While successful enough in its day, it never garnered the love that’s still accorded to Maniac Mansion today.

Lucasfilm Games’s one adventure of 1989 was a similarly middling effort. A joint design by Gilbert, Falstein, and Fox, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure — an Action Game was also made — marked the first time since Labyrinth that the games division had been entrusted with one of George Lucas’s cinematic properties. They don’t seem to have been all that excited at the prospect. The game dutifully walks you through the plot you’ve already watched unfold on the silver screen, without ever taking flight as a creative work in its own right. The Lucasfilm “Game Design Philosophy” appears once again in the manual in almost the exact same form as last time, but once again the actual game hews to this ideal imperfectly at best, with, perhaps unsurprisingly given the two-fisted action movie on which it’s based, lots of opportunities to get Indy killed and have to revert to one of those save files you supposedly don’t need to create.

So, the company was rather running to stand still as Brian Moriarty settled in. They were determined to evolve their adventure games in design terms to match the strides Sierra was making in technology, but were uncertain how to actually go about the task. Moriarty wanted to make his own first work for Lucasfilm a different, more somehow refined experience than even the likes of Maniac Mansion. But how to do so? In short, what should he do with his once-in-a-lifetime chance to make any game he wanted to make?

Flipping idly through a computer magazine one day, he was struck by an advertisement that prominently featured the word “loom.” He liked the sound of it; it reminded him of other portentous English words like “gloom”, “doom,” and “tomb.” And he liked the way it could serve as either a verb or a noun, each with a completely different meaning. In a fever of inspiration, he sat down and wrote out the basis of the adventure game he would soon design, about a Loom which binds together the fabric of reality, a Guild of Weavers which uses the Loom’s power to make magic out of sound, and Bobbin Threadbare, the “Loom Child” who must save the Loom — and thus the universe — from destruction before it’s too late. It would be a story and a game with the stark simplicity of fable.

Simplicity, however, wasn’t exactly trending in the computer-games industry of 1988. Since the premature end of the would-be Home Computer Revolution of the early 1980s, the audience for computer games had grown only very slowly. Publishers had continued to serve the same base of hardcore players, who lusted after ever more complex games to take advantage of the newest hardware. Simulations had collected ever more buttons and included ever more variables to keep track of, while strategy games had gotten ever larger and more time-consuming. Nor had adventure games been immune to the trend, as was attested by Moriarty’s own career to date. Each of his three games for Infocom had been bigger and more difficult than the previous, culminating in his adventure/CRPG hybrid Beyond Zork, the most baroque game Infocom had made to date, with more options for its onscreen display alone than some professional business applications. Certainly plenty of existing players loved all this complexity. But did all games really need to go this way? And, most interestingly, what about all those potential players who took one look at the likes of Beyond Zork and turned back to the television? Moriarty remembered a much-discussed data point that had emerged from the surveys Infocom used to send to their customers: the games people said were their favorites overlapped almost universally with those they said they had been able to finish. In keeping with this trend, Moriarty’s first game for Infocom, which had been designed as an introduction to interactive fiction for newcomers, had been by far his most successful. What, he now thought, if he used the newer hardware at his disposal in the way that Apple has historically done, in pursuit of simplicity rather than complexity?

The standard Lucasfilm interface of the late 1980s, shown here in Maniac Mansion.

Lucasfilm Games’s current point-and-click interface, while undoubtedly the most painless in the industry at the time, was nevertheless far too complicated for Moriarty’s taste, still to a large extent stuck in the mindset of being a graphical implementation of the traditional text-adventure interface rather than treating the graphical adventure as a new genre in its own right. Thus the player was expected to first select a verb from a list at the bottom of the screen and then an object to which to apply it. The interface had done the job well enough to date, but Moriarty felt that it would interfere with the seamless connection he wished to build between the player sitting there before the screen and the character of Bobbin Threadbare standing up there on the screen. He wanted something more immediate, more intuitive — preferably an interface that didn’t require words at all. He envisioned music as an important part of his game: the central puzzle-solving mechanic would involve the playing of “drafts,” little sequences of notes created with Bobbin’s distaff. But he wanted music to be more than a puzzle-solving mechanic. He wanted the player to be able to play the entire game like a musical instrument, wordlessly and beautifully. He was thus thrilled when he peeked under the hood of Lucasfilm’s SCUMM adventure-game engine and found that it was possible to strip the verb menu away entirely.

Some users of Apple’s revolutionary HyperCard system for the Macintosh were already experimenting with wordless interfaces. Within weeks of HyperCard’s debut, a little interactive storybook called Inigo Gets Out, “programmed” by a non-programmer named Amanda Goodenough, had begun making the rounds, causing a considerable stir among industry insiders. The story of a house cat’s brief escape to the outdoors, it filled the entire screen with its illustrations, responding intuitively to single clicks on the pictures. Just shortly before Moriarty started work at Lucasfilm Games, Rand and Robyn Miller had taken this experiment a step further with The Manhole, a richer take on the concept of an interactive children’s storybook. Still, neither of these HyperCard experiences quite qualified as a game, and Moriarty and Lucasfilm were in fact in the business of making adventure games. Loom could be simple, but it had to be more than a software toy. Moriarty’s challenge must be to find enough interactive possibility in a verb-less interface to meet that threshold.

In response to that challenge, Moriarty created an interface that stands out today as almost bizarrely ahead of its time; not until years later would its approach be adopted by graphic adventures in general as the default best way of doing things. Its central insight, which it shared with the aforementioned HyperCard storybooks, was the realization that the game didn’t always need the player to explicitly tell it what she wanted to do when she clicked a certain spot on the onscreen picture. Instead the game could divine the player’s intention for itself, based only on where she happened to be clicking. What was sacrificed in the disallowing of certain types of more complex puzzles was gained in the creation of a far more seamless, intuitive link between the player, the avatar she controlled, and the world shown on the screen.


The brief video snippet above shows Loom‘s user interface in its entirety. You make Bobbin walk around by clicking on the screen. Hovering the mouse over an object or character with which Bobbin can interact brings up an image of that object or character in the bottom right corner of the screen; double-clicking the same “hot spot” then causes Bobbin to engage, either by manipulating an object in some way or by talking to another character. Finally, Bobbin can cast “spells” in the form of drafts by clicking on the musical staff at the bottom of the screen. In the snippet above, the player learns the “open” draft by double-clicking on the egg, an action which in this case results in Bobbin simply listening to it. The player and Bobbin then immediately cast the same draft to reveal within the egg his old mentor, who has been transformed into a black swan.

Moriarty seemed determined to see how many of the accoutrements of traditional adventure games he could strip away and still have something that was identifiable as an adventure game. In addition to eliminating menus of verbs, he also excised the concept of an inventory; throughout the game, Bobbin carries around with him nothing more than the distaff he uses for weaving drafts. With no ability to use this object on that other object, the only puzzle-solving mechanic that’s left is the magic system. In the broad strokes, magic in Loom is very much in the spirit of Infocom’s Enchanter series, in which you collect spells for your spell book, then cast them to solve puzzles that, more often than not, reward you with yet more spells. In Loom the process is essentially the same, except that you’re collecting musical drafts to weave on your distaff rather than spells for your spell book. And yet this musical approach to spell weaving is as lovely as a game mechanic can be. Lucasfilm thoughtfully included a “Book of Patterns” with the game, listing the drafts and providing musical staffs on which you can denote their sequences of notes as you discover them while playing.

The audiovisual aspect of Loom was crucial to capturing the atmosphere of winsome melancholia Moriarty was striving for. Graphics and sound were brand new territory for him; his previous games had consisted of nothing but text. Fortunately, the team of artists that worked with him grasped right away what was needed. Each of the guilds of craftspeople which Bobbin visits over the course of the game is marked by its own color scheme: the striking emerald of the Guild of Glassmakers, the softer pastoral greens of the Guild of Shepherds, the Stygian reds of the Guild of Blacksmiths, and of course the lovely, saturated blues and purples of Bobbin’s own Guild of Weavers. This approach came in very handy for technical as well as thematic reasons, given that Loom was designed for EGA graphics of just 16 onscreen colors.

The overall look of Loom was hugely influenced by the 1959 Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty, with many of the panoramic shots in the game dovetailing perfectly with scenes from the film. Like Sleeping Beauty, Loom was inspired and accompanied by the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whom Moriarty describes as his “constant companion throughout my life”; while Sleeping Beauty draws from Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name, Loom draws from another of his ballets, Swan Lake. Loom sounds particularly gorgeous when played through a Roland MT-32 synthesizer board — an experience that, given the $600 price tag of the Roland, far too few players got to enjoy back in the day. But regardless of how one hears it, it’s hard to imagine Loom without its classical soundtrack. Harking back to Hollywood epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the MT-32 version of Loom opens with a mood-establishing orchestral overture over a blank screen.


To provide the final touch of atmosphere, Moriarty walked to the other side of Skywalker Ranch, to the large brick building housing Skywalker Sound, and asked the sound engineers in that most advanced audio-production facility in the world if they could help him out. Working from a script written by Moriarty and with a cast of voice actors on loan from the BBC, the folks at Skywalker Sound produced a thirty-minute “audio drama” setting the scene for the opening of the game; it was included in the box on a cassette. Other game developers had occasionally experimented with the same thing as a way of avoiding having to cover all that ground in the game proper, but Loom‘s scene-setter stood out for its length and for the professional sheen of its production. Working for Lucasfilm did have more than a few advantages.

If there’s something to complain about when it comes to Loom the work of interactive art, it must be that its portentous aesthetics lead one to expect a thematic profundity which the story never quite attains. Over the course of the game, Bobbin duly journeys through Moriarty’s fairy-tale world and defeats the villain who threatens to rip asunder the fabric of reality. The ending, however, is more ambiguous than happy, with only half of the old world saved from the Chaos that has poured in through the rip in the fabric. I don’t object in principle to the idea of a less than happy ending (something for which Moriarty was becoming known). Still, and while the final image is, like everything else in the game, lovely in its own right, this particular ambiguous ending feels weirdly abrupt. The game has such a flavor of fable or allegory that one somehow wants a little more from it at the end, something to carry away back to real life. But then again, beauty, which Loom possesses in spades, has a value of its own, and it’s uncertain whether the sequels Moriarty originally planned to make — Loom had been envisioned as a trilogy — would have enriched the story of the first game or merely, as so many sequels do, trampled it under their weight.

From the practical standpoint of a prospective purchaser of Loom upon its initial release, on the other hand, there’s room for complaint beyond quibbling about the ending. We’ve had occasion before to observe how the only viable model of commercial game distribution in the 1980s and early 1990s, as $40 boxed products shipped to physical store shelves, had a huge effect on the content of those games. Consumers, reasonably enough, expected a certain amount of play time for their $40. Adventure makers thus learned that they needed to pad out their games with enough puzzles — too often bad but time-consuming ones — to get their play times up into the region of at least twenty hours or so. Moriarty, however, bucked this trend in Loom. Determined to stay true to the spirit of minimalism to the bitter end, he put into the game only what needed to be there. The end result stands out from its peers for its aesthetic maturity, but it’s also a game that will take even the most methodical player no more than four or five hours to play. Today, when digital distribution has made it possible for developers to make games only as long as their designs ask to be and adjust the price accordingly, Loom‘s willingness to do what it came to do and exit the stage without further adieu is another quality that gives it a strikingly modern feel. But in the context of the times of the game’s creation, it was a bit of a problem.

When Loom was released in March of 1990, many hardcore adventure gamers were left nonplussed not only by the game’s short length but also by its simple puzzles and minimalist aesthetic approach in general, so at odds with the aesthetic maximalism that has always defined the games industry as a whole. Computer Gaming World‘s Johnny Wilson, one of the more sophisticated game commentators of the time, did get what Loom was doing, praising its atmosphere of “hope and idealism tainted by realism.” Others, though, didn’t seem quite so sure what to make of an adventure game that so clearly wanted its players to complete it, to the point of including a “practice” mode that would essentially solve all the puzzles for them if they so wished. Likewise, many players just didn’t seem equipped to appreciate Loom‘s lighter, subtler aesthetic touch. Computer Gaming World‘s regular adventure-gaming columnist Scorpia, a traditionalist to the core, said the story “should have been given an epic treatment, not watered down” — a terrible idea if you ask me (if there’s one thing the world of gaming, then or now, doesn’t need, it’s more “epic” stories). “As an adventure game,” she concluded, “it is just too lightweight.” Ken St. Andre, creator of Tunnels & Trolls and co-creator of Wasteland, expressed his unhappiness with the ambiguous ending in Questbusters, the ultimate magazine for the adventuring hardcore:

The story, which begins darkly, ends darkly as well. That’s fine in literature or the movies, and lends a certain artistic integrity to such efforts. In a game, however, it’s neither fair nor right. If I had really been playing Bobbin, not just watching him, I would have done some things differently, which would have netted a different conclusion.

Echoing as they do a similar debate unleashed by the tragic ending of Infocom’s Infidel back in 1983, the persistence of such sentiments must have been depressing for Brian Moriarty and others trying to advance the art of interactive storytelling. St. Andre’s complaint that Loom wouldn’t allow him to “do things differently” — elsewhere in his review he claims that Loom “is not a game” at all — is one that’s been repeated for decades by folks who believe that anything labeled as an interactive story must allow the player complete freedom to approach the plot in her own way and to change its outcome. I belong to the other camp: the camp that believes that letting the player inhabit the role of a character in a relatively fixed overarching narrative can foster engagement and immersion, even in some cases new understanding, by making her feel she is truly walking in someone else’s shoes — something that’s difficult to accomplish in a non-interactive medium.

Responses like those of Scorpia and Ken St. Andre hadn’t gone unanticipated within Lucasfilm Games prior to Loom‘s release. On the contrary, there had been some concern about how Loom would be received. Moriarty had countered by noting that there were far, far more people out there who weren’t hardcore gamers like those two, who weren’t possessed of a set of fixed expectations about what an adventure game should be, and that many of these people might actually be better equipped to appreciate Loom‘s delicate aesthetics than the hardcore crowd. But the problem, the nut nobody would ever quite crack, would always be that of reaching this potential alternate customer base. Non-gamers didn’t read the gaming magazines where they might learn about something like Loom, and even Lucasfilm Games wasn’t in a position to launch a major assault on the alternative forms of media they did peruse.

In the end, Loom wasn’t a flop, and thus didn’t violate Steve Arnold’s dictum of “don’t lose money” — and certainly it didn’t fall afoul of the dictum of “don’t embarrass George.” But it wasn’t a big hit either, and the sequels Moriarty had anticipated for better or for worse never got made. Ron Gilbert’s The Secret of Monkey Island, Lucasfilm’s other adventure game of 1990, was in its own way as brilliant as Moriarty’s game, but was much more traditional in its design and aesthetics, and wound up rather stealing Loom‘s thunder. It would be Monkey Island rather than Loom that would become the template for Lucasfilm’s adventure games going forward. Lucasfilm would largely stick to comedy from here on out, and would never attempt anything quite so outré as Loom again. It would only be in later years that Moriarty’s game would come to be widely recognized as one of Lucasfilm Games’s finest achievements. Such are the frustrations of the creative life.

Having made Loom, Brian Moriarty now had four adventure games on his CV, three of which I consider to be unassailable classics — and, it should be noted, the fourth does have its fans as well. He seemed poised to remain a leading light in his creative field for a long, long time to come. It therefore feels like a minor tragedy that this, his first game for Lucasfilm, would mark the end of his career in adventure games rather than a new beginning; he would never again be credited as the designer of a completed adventure game. We’ll have occasion to dig a little more into the reasons why that should have been the case in a future article, but for now I’ll just note how much an industry full of so many blunt instruments could have used his continuing delicate touch. We can only console ourselves with the knowledge that, should Loom indeed prove to be the last we ever hear from him as an adventure-game designer, it was one hell of a swansong.

(Sources: the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; ACE of April 1990; Questbusters of June 1990 and July 1990; Computer Gaming World of April 1990 and July/August 1990. But the bulk of this article was drawn from Brian Moriarty’s own Loom postmortem for, appropriately enough, the 2015 Game Developers Conference, which was a far more elaborate affair than the 1988 edition.

Loom is available for purchase is from GOG.com. Sadly, however, this is the VGA/CD-ROM re-release — I actually prefer the starker appearance of the original EGA graphics — and lacks the scene-setting audio drama. It’s also afflicted with terrible voice acting which completely spoils the atmosphere, and the text is bowdlerized to boot. Motivated readers should be able to find both the original version and the audio drama elsewhere on the Internet without too many problems. I do recommend that you seek them out, perhaps after purchasing a legitimate copy to fulfill your ethical obligation, but I can’t take the risk of hosting them here.)

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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