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The View from the Trenches (or, Some Deadly Sins of CRPG Design)

From the beginning of this project, I’ve worked to remove the nostalgia factor from my writing about old games, to evaluate each game strictly on its own merits and demerits. I like to think that this approach has made my blog a uniquely enlightening window into gaming history. Still, one thing my years as a digital antiquarian have taught me is that you tread on people’s nostalgia at your peril. Some of what I’ve written here over the years has certainly generated its share of heat as well as light, not so much among those of you who are regular readers and commenters — you remain the most polite, thoughtful, insightful, and just plain nice readers any writer could hope to have — as among the ones who fire off nasty emails from anonymous addresses, who post screeds on less polite sites to which I’m occasionally pointed, or who offer up their drive-by comments right here every once in a while.

A common theme of these responses is that I’m not worthy of writing about this stuff, whether because I wasn’t there at the time — actually, I was, but whatever — or because I’m just not man enough to take my lumps and power through the really evil, unfair games. This rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion is all too symptomatic of the uglier sides of gaming culture. Just why so many angry, intolerant personalities are so attracted to computer games is a fascinating question, but must remain a question for another day. For today I will just say that, even aside from their ugliness, I find such sentiments strange. As far as I know, there’s zero street cred to be gained in the wider culture from being good at playing weird old videogames — or for that matter from being good at playing videogames of any stripe. What an odd thing to construct a public persona around. I’ve made a job out of analyzing old games, and even I sometimes want to say, “Dude, they’re just old games! Really, truly, they’re not worth getting so worked up over.”

That said, there do remain some rays of light amidst all this heat. It’s true that my experience of these games today — of playing them in a window on this giant monitor screen of mine, or playing them on the go on a laptop — must be in some fairly fundamental ways different from the way the same games were experienced all those years ago. One thing that gets obviously lost is the tactile, analog side of the vintage experience: handling the physical maps and manuals and packages (I now reference that stuff as PDF files, which isn’t quite the same); drawing maps and taking notes using real pen and paper (I now keep programs open in separate windows on that aforementioned giant monitor for those purposes); listening to the chuck-a-chunk of disk drives loading in the next bit of text or scenery (replacing the joy of anticipation is the instant response of my modern supercomputer). When I allow myself to put on my own nostalgia hat, just for a little while, I recognize that all these things are intimately bound up with my own memories of playing games back in the day.

And I also recognize that the discrepancies between the way I play now and the way I played back then go even further. Some of the most treasured of vintage games weren’t so much single works to be played and completed as veritable lifestyle choices. Ultima IV, to name a classic example, was huge enough and complicated enough that a kid who got it for Christmas in 1985 might very well still be playing it by the time Ultima V arrived in 1988; rinse and repeat for the next few entries in the series. From my jaded perspective, I wouldn’t brand any of these massive CRPGs as overly well-designed in the sense of being a reasonably soluble game to be completed in a reasonable amount of time, but then that wasn’t quite what most of the people who played them way back when were looking for in them. Actually solving the games became almost irrelevant for a kid who wanted to live in the world of Britannia.

I get that. I really do. No matter how deep a traveler in virtual time delves into the details of any era of history, there are some things he can never truly recapture. Were I to try, I would have to go away to spend a year or two disconnected from the Web and playing no other game — or at least no other CRPG — than the Ultima I planned to write about next. That, as I hope you can all appreciate, wouldn’t be a very good model for a blog like this one.

When I think in the abstract about this journey through gaming history I’ve been on for so long now, I realize that I’ve been trying to tell at least three intertwining stories.

One story is a critical design history of games. When I come to a game I judge worthy of taking the time to write about in depth — a judgment call that only becomes harder with every passing year, let me tell you — I play it and offer you my thoughts on it, trying to judge it not only in the context of our times but also in the context of its own times, and in the context of its peers.

A second story is that of the people who made these games, and how they went about doing so — the inevitable postmortems, as it were.

Doing these first two things is relatively easy. What’s harder is the third leg of the stool: what was it like to be a player of computer games all those years ago? Sometimes I stumble upon great anecdotes in this area. For instance, did you know about Clancy Shaffer?

In impersonal terms, Shaffer was one of the slightly dimmer stars among the constellation of adventure-game superfans — think Roe Adams III, Shay Addams, Computer Gaming World‘s indomitable Scorpia — who parlayed their love of the genre and their talent for solving games quickly into profitable sidelines if not full-on careers as columnists, commentators, play-testers, occasionally even design consultants; for his part, Shaffer contributed his long experience as a player to the much-loved Sir-Tech title Jagged Alliance.

Most of the many people who talked with Shaffer via post, via email, or via telephone assumed he was pretty much like them, an enthusiastic gamer and technology geek in his twenties or thirties. One of these folks, Rich Heimlich, has told of a time when a phone conversation turned to the future of computer technology in the longer view. “Frankly,” said Shaffer, “I’m not sure I’ll even be here to see it.” He was, he explained to his stunned interlocutor, 84 years old. He credited his hobby for the mental dexterity that caused so many to assume he was in his thirties at the oldest. Shaffer believed he had remained mentally sharp through puzzling his way through so many games, while he needed only look at the schedule of upcoming releases in a magazine to have something to which to look forward in life.  Many of his friends who, like him, had retired twenty years ago were dead or senile, a situation Shaffer blamed on their having failed to find anything to do with themselves after leaving the working world behind.

Shaffer died in 2010 at age 99. Only after his passing, after reading his obituary, did Heimlich and other old computer-game buddies realize what an extraordinary life Shaffer had actually led, encompassing an education from Harvard University, a long career in construction and building management, 18 patents in construction engineering, an active leadership role in the Republican party, a Golden Glove championship in heavyweight boxing, and a long and successful run as a yacht racer and sailor of the world’s oceans. And yes, he had also loved to play computer games, parlaying that passion into more than 500 published articles.

But great anecdotes like this one from the consumption side of the gaming equation are the exception rather than the rule, not because they aren’t out there in spades in theory — I’m sure there have been plenty of other fascinating characters like Clancy Shaffer who have also made a passion for games a part of their lives — but because they rarely get publicized. The story of the players of vintage computer games is that of a huge, diffuse mass of millions of people whose individual stories almost never stretch beyond their immediate families and friends.

The situation becomes especially fraught when we try to zero in on the nitty-gritty details of how games were played and judged in their day. Am I as completely out of line as some have accused me of being in harping so relentlessly on the real or alleged design problems of so many games that others consider to be classics? Or did people back in the day, at least some of them, also get frustrated and downright angry at betrayals of their trust in the form of illogical puzzles and boring busywork? I know that I certainly did, but I’m only one data point.

One would think that the magazines, that primary link between the people who made games and those who played them, would be the best way of finding out what players were really thinking. In truth, though, the magazines rarely provided skeptical coverage of the games industry. The companies whose games they were reviewing were of course the very same companies that were helping to pay their bills by buying advertising — an obvious conflict of interest if ever there was one. More abstractly but no less significantly, there was a sense among those who worked for the magazines and those who worked for the game publishers that they were all in this together, living as they all were off the same hobby. Criticizing individual games too harshly, much less entire genres, could damage that hobby, ultimately damaging the magazines as much as the publishers. Thus when the latest heavily hyped King’s Quest came down the pipe, littered with that series’s usual design flaws, there was little incentive for the magazines to note that this monarch had no clothes.

So, we must look elsewhere to find out what average players were really thinking. But where? Most of the day-to-day discussions among gamers back in the day took place over the telephone, on school playgrounds, on computer bulletin boards, or on the early commercial online services that preceded the World Wide Web. While Jason Scott has done great work snarfing up a tiny piece of the online world of the 1980s and early 1990s, most of it is lost, presumably forever. (In this sense at least, historians of later eras of gaming history will have an easier time of it, thanks to archive.org and the relative permanence of the Internet.) The problem of capturing gaming as gamers knew it thus remains one without a comprehensive solution. I must confess that this is one reason I’m always happy when you, my readers, share your experiences with this or that game in the comments section — even, or perhaps especially, when you disagree with my own judgments on a game.

Still, relying exclusively on first-hand accounts from decades later to capture what it was like to be a gamer in the old days can be problematic in the same way that it can be problematic to rely exclusively on interviews with game developers to capture how and why games were made all those years ago: memories can fade, personal agendas can intrude, and those rose-colored glasses of nostalgia can be hard to take off. Pretty soon we’re calling every game from our adolescence a masterpiece and dumping on the brain-dead games played by all those stupid kids today — and get off my lawn while you’re at it. The golden age of gaming, like the golden age of science fiction, will always be twelve or somewhere thereabouts. All that’s fine for hoisting a beer with the other old-timers, but it can be worse than useless for doing serious history.

Thankfully, every once in a while I stumble upon another sort of cracked window into this aspect of gaming’s past. As many of you know, I’ve spent a couple of weeks over the last couple of years trolling through the voluminous (and growing) game-history archives of the Strong Museum of Play. Most of this material, hugely valuable to me though it’s been and will doubtless continue to be, focuses on the game-making side of the equation. Some of the archives, though, contain letters from actual players, giving that unvarnished glimpse into their world that I so crave. Indeed, these letters are among my favorite things in the archives. They are, first of all, great fun. The ones from the youngsters are often absurdly cute; it’s amazing how many liked to draw pictures to accompany their missives.

But it’s when I turn to the letters from older writers that I’m gratified and, yes, made to feel a little validated when I read that people were in fact noticing that games weren’t always playing fair with them. I’d like to share a couple of the more interesting letters of this type with you today.

We’ll begin with a letter from one Wes Irby of Plano, Texas, describing what he does and especially what he doesn’t enjoy in CRPGs. At the time he sent it to the Questbusters adventure-game newsletter in October of 1988, Irby was a self-described “grizzled computer adventurer” of age 43. Shay Addams, Questbusters’s editor, found the letter worthy enough to spread around among publishers of CRPGs. (Perhaps tellingly, he didn’t choose to publish it in his newsletter.)

Irby titles his missive “Things I Hate in a Fantasy-Role-Playing Game.” Taken on its own, it serves very well as a companion piece to a similar article I once wrote about graphic adventures. But because I just can’t shut up, and because I can’t resist taking the opportunity to point out places where Irby is unusually prescient or insightful, I’ve inserted my own comments into the piece; they appear in italics in the text that follows. Otherwise, I’ve only cleaned up the punctuation and spelling a bit here and there. The rest is Irby’s original letter from 1988.


I hate rat killing!!! In Shard of Spring, I had to kill dozens of rats, snakes, kobolds, and bats before I could get back to the tower after a Wind Walk to safety. In Wizardry, the rats were Murphy’s ghosts, which I pummeled for hours when developing a new character. Ultima IV was perhaps the ultimate rat-killing game of all time; hour upon hour was spent in tedious little battles that I could not possibly lose and that offered little reward for victory. Give me a good battle to test my mettle, but don’t sentence me to rat killing!

Amen. The CRPG genre became the victim of an expectation which took hold early on that the games needed to be really, really long, needed to consume dozens if not hundreds of hours, in order for players to get their money’s worth. With disk space precious and memory space even more so on the computers of the era, developers had to pad out their games with a constant stream of cheap low-stakes random encounters to reach that goal. Amidst the other Interplay materials hosted at the Strong archive are several mentions of a version of Wasteland, prepared specially for testers in a hurry, in which the random encounters were left out entirely. That’s the version of Wasteland I’d like to play.

I hate being stuck!!! I enjoy the puzzles, riddles, and quests as a way to give some story line to the real heart of the game, which is killing bad guys. Just don’t give me any puzzles I can’t solve in a couple of hours. I solved Rubik’s Cube in about thirty hours, and that was nothing compared to some of the puzzles in The Destiny Knight. The last riddle in Knight of Diamonds delayed my completion (and purchase of the sequel) for nearly six months, until I made a call to Sir-Tech.

I haven’t discussed the issue of bad puzzle design in CRPGs to the same extent as I have the same issue in adventure games, but suffice to say that just about everything I’ve written in the one context applies equally in the other. Certainly riddles remain among the laziest — they require almost no programming effort to implement — and most problematic — they rely by definition on intuition and external cultural knowledge — forms of puzzle in either genre. Riddles aren’t puzzles at all really; the answer either pops into your head right away or it doesn’t, meaning the riddle turns into either a triviality or a brick wall. A good puzzle, by contrast, is one you can experiment with on your way to the correct solution. And as for the puzzles in The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight… much more on them a little later.

Perhaps the worst aspect of being stuck is the clue-book dilemma. Buying a clue book is demeaning. In addition, buying clue books could encourage impossible puzzles to boost the aftermarket for clue books. I am a reformed game pirate (that is how I got hooked), and I feel it is just as unfair for a company to charge me to finish the game I bought as it was for me to play the games (years ago) without paying for them. Multiple solutions, a la Might and Magic, are very nice. That game also had the desirable feature of allowing you to work on several things simultaneously so that being stuck on one didn’t bring the whole game to a standstill.

Here Irby brings up an idea I’ve also touched on once or twice: that the very worst examples of bad design can be read as not just good-faith disappointments but actual ethical lapses on the part of developers and publishers. Does selling consumers a game with puzzles that are insoluble except through hacking or the most tedious sort of brute-force approaches equate to breaching good faith by knowingly selling them a defective product? I tend to feel that it does.

As part of the same debate, the omnipresent clue books became a locus of much dark speculation and conspiracy theorizing back in the day. Did publishers, as Irby suggests, intentionally release games that couldn’t be solved without buying the clue book, thereby to pick up additional sales? The profit margins on clue books, not incidentally, tended to be much higher than that enjoyed by the games themselves. Still, the answer is more complicated than the question may first appear. Based on my research into the industry of the time, I don’t believe that any publishers or developers made insoluble games with the articulated motive of driving clue-book sales. To the extent that there was an ulterior motive surrounding the subject of clue books, it was that the clue books would allow them to make money off some of the people who pirated their games. (Rumors — almost certainly false, but telling by their very presence — occasionally swirled around the industry about this or that popular title whose clue-book sales had allegedly outstripped the number of copies of the actual game which had been sold.) Yet the fact does remain that even the hope of using clue books as a way of getting money out of pirates required games that would be difficult enough to cause many pirates to go out and buy the book. The human mind is a funny place, and the clue-book business likely did create certain almost unconscious pressures on game designers to design less soluble games.

I hate no-fault life insurance! If there is no penalty, there is no risk, there is no fear — translate that to no excitement. The adrenaline actually surged a few times during play of the Wizardry series when I encountered a group of monsters that might defeat me. In Bard’s Tale II, death was so painless that I committed suicide several times because it was the most expedient way to return to the Adventurer’s Guild.

When you take the risk of loss out of the game, it might as well be a crossword puzzle. The loss of possessions in Ultima IV and the loss of constitution in Might and Magic were tolerable compromises. The undead status in Phantasie was very nice. Your character was unharmed except for the fact that no further advancement was possible. Penalties can be too severe, of course. In Shard of Spring, loss of one battle means all characters are permanently lost. Too tough.

Here Irby hits on one of the most fraught debates in CRPG design, stretching from the days of the original Wizardry to today: what should be the penalty for failure? There’s no question that the fact that you couldn’t save in the dungeon was one of the defining aspects of Wizardry, the game that did more than any other to popularize the budding genre in the very early 1980s. Exultant stories of escaping the dreaded Total Party Loss by the skin of one’s teeth come up again and again when you read about the game. Andrew Greenberg and Bob Woodhead, the designers of Wizardry, took a hard-line stance on the issue, insisting that the lack of an in-dungeon save function was fundamental to an experience they had carefully crafted. They went so far as to issue legal threats against third-party utilities designed to mitigate the danger.

Over time, though, the mainstream CRPG industry moved toward the save-often, save-anywhere model, leaving Wizardry’s approach only to a hardcore sub-genre known as roguelikes. It seems clear that the change had some negative effects on encounter design; designers, assuming that players were indeed saving often and saving everywhere, felt they could afford to worry less about hitting players with impossible fights. Yet it also seems clear that many or most players, given the choice, would prefer to avoid the exhilaration of escaping near-disasters in Wizardry in favor of avoiding the consequences of unescaped disasters. The best solution, it seems to me, is to make limited or unlimited saving a player-selectable option. Failing that, it strikes me as better to err on the side of generosity; after all, hardcore players can still capture the exhilaration and anguish of an iron-man mode by simply imposing their own rules for when they allow themselves to save. All that said, the debate will doubtless continue to rage.

I hate being victimized. Loss of life, liberty, etc., in a situation I could have avoided through skillful play is quite different from a capricious, unavoidable loss. The Amulet of Skill in Knight of Diamonds was one such situation. It was not reasonable to expect me to fail to try the artifacts I found — a fact I soon remedied with my backup disk!!! The surprise attacks of the mages in Wizardry was another such example. Each of the Wizardry series seems to have one of these, but the worst was the teleportation trap on the top level of Wizardry III, which permanently encased my best party in stone.

Beyond rather putting the lie to some of Greenberg and Woodhead’s claims of having exhaustively balanced the Wizardry games, these criticisms again echo those I’ve made in the context of adventure games. Irby’s examples are the CRPG equivalents of the dreaded adventure-game Room of Sudden Death — except that in CRPGs like Wizardry with perma-death, their consequences are much more dire than just having to go back to your last save.

I hate extraordinary characters! If everyone is extraordinary then extraordinary becomes extra (extremely) ordinary and uninteresting. The characters in Ultima III and IV and Bard’s Tale I and II all had the maximum ratings for all stats before the end of the game. They lose their personalities that way.

This is one of Irby’s subtler complaints, but also I think one of his most insightful. Characters in CRPGs are made interesting, as he points out, through a combination of strengths and weaknesses. I spent considerable time in a recent article describing how the design standards of SSI’s “Gold Box” series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs declined over time, but couldn’t find a place for the example of Pools of Darkness, the fourth and last game in the series that began with Pool of Radiance. Most of the fights in Pools of Darkness are effectively unwinnable if you don’t have “extraordinary” characters, in that they come down to quick-draw contests to find out whether your party or the monsters can fire off devastating area-effect magic first. Your entire party needs to have a maxed-out dexterity score of 18 to hope to consistently survive these battles. Pools of Darkness thus rewards cheaters and punishes honest players; it represents a cruel betrayal of players who had played through the entire series honestly to that point, without availing themselves of character editors or the like. CRPGs should strive not to make the extraordinary ordinary, and they should certainly not demand extraordinary characters that the player can only come by through cheating.

There are several more features which I find undesirable, but are not sufficiently irritating to put them in the “I hate” category. One such feature is the inability to save the game in certain places or situations. It is miserable to find yourself in a spot you can’t get out of (or don’t want to leave because of the difficulty in returning) at midnight (real time). I have continued through the wee hours on occasion, much to my regret the next day. At other times it has gotten so bad I have dozed off at the keyboard. The trek from the surface to the final set of riddles in Ultima IV takes nearly four hours. Without the ability to save along the way, this doesn’t make for good after-dinner entertainment. Some of the forays in the Phantasie series are also long and difficult, with no provision to save. This problem is compounded when you have an old machine like mine that locks up periodically. Depending on the weather and the phase of the moon, sometimes I can’t rely on sessions that average over half an hour.

There’s an interesting conflict here, which I sense that the usually insightful Irby may not have fully grasped, between his demand that death have consequences in CRPGs and his belief that he should be able to save anywhere. At the same time, though, it’s not an irreconcilable conflict. Roguelikes have traditionally made it possible to save anywhere by quitting the game, but immediately delete the save when you start to play again, thus making it impossible to use later on as a fallback position.

Still, it should always raise a red flag when a given game’s designers claim something which just happens to have been the easier choice from a technical perspective to have been a considered design choice. This skepticism should definitely be applied to Wizardry. Were the no-save dungeons that were such an integral part of the Wizardry experience really a considered design choice or a (happy?) accident arising from technical affordances? It’s very difficult to say this many years on. What is clear is that saving state in any sort of comprehensive way was a daunting challenge for 8-bit CRPGs spread over multiple disk sides. Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale didn’t really even bother to try; literally the only persistent data in these games and many others like them is the state of your characters, meaning not only that the dungeons are completely reset every time you enter them but that it’s possible to “win” them over and over again by killing the miraculously resurrected big baddie again and again. The 8-bit Ultima games did a little better, saving the state of the world map but not that of the cities or the dungeons. (I’ve nitpicked the extreme cruelty of Ultima IV’s ending, which Irby also references, enough on earlier occasions that I won’t belabor it any more here.) Only quite late in the day for the 8-bit CRPG did games like Wasteland work out ways to create truly, comprehensively persistent environments — in the case of Wasteland, by rewriting all of the data on each disk side on the fly as the player travels around the world (a very slow process, particularly in the case of the Commodore 64 and its legendarily slow disk drive).

Tedium is a killer. In Bard’s Tale there was one battle with 297 bersekers that always took fifteen or twenty minutes with the same results (this wasn’t rat-killing because the reward was significant and I could lose, maybe). The process of healing the party in the dungeon in Wizardry and the process of identifying discovered items in Shard of Spring are laborious. How boring it was in Ultima IV to stand around waiting for a pirate ship to happen along so I could capture it. The same can be said of sitting there holding down a key in Wasteland or Wrath of Denethenor while waiting for healing to occur. At least give me a wait command so I can read a book until something interesting happens.

I’m sort of ambivalent toward most aspects of mapping. A good map is satisfying and a good way to be sure nothing has been missed. Sometimes my son will use my maps (he hates mapping) in a game and find he is ready to go to the next level before his characters are. Mapping is a useful way to pace the game. The one irritating aspect of mapping is running off the edge of the paper. In Realms of Darkness mapping was very difficult because there was no “locater” or “direction” spell. More bothersome to me, though, was the fact that I never knew where to start on my paper. I had the same problem with Shard of Spring, but in retrospect that game didn’t require mapping.

Mapping is another area where the technical affordances of the earliest games had a major effect on their designs. The dungeon levels in most 8-bit CRPGs were laid out on grids of a consistent number of squares across and down; such a template minimized memory usage and simplified the programmer’s task enormously. Unrealistic though it was, it was also a blessing for mappers. Wizardry, a game that was oddly adept at turning its technical limitations into player positives, even included sheets of graph paper of exactly the right size in the box. Later games like Dungeon Master, whose levels sprawl everywhere, run badly afoul of the problem Irby describes above — that of maps “running off the edge of the paper.” In the case of Dungeon Master, it’s the one glaring flaw in what could otherwise serve as a masterclass in designing a challenging yet playable dungeon crawl.

I don’t like it when a program doesn’t take advantage of my second disk drive, and I would feel that way about my printer if I had one. I don’t like junk magic (spells you never use), and I don’t like being stuck forever with the names I pick on the spur of the moment. A name that struck my fancy one day may not on another.

Another problem similar to “junk magic” that only really began to surface around the time that Irby was writing this letter is junk skills. Wasteland is loaded with skills that are rarely or never useful, along with others that are essential, and there’s no way for the new player to identify which are which. It’s a more significant problem than junk magic usually is because you invest precious points into learning and advancing your skills; there’s a well-nigh irreversible opportunity cost to your choices. All of what we might call the second generation of Interplay CRPGs, which began with Wasteland, suffer at least somewhat from this syndrome. Like the sprawling dungeon levels in Dungeon Master, it’s an example of the higher ambitions and more sophisticated programming of later games impacting the end result in ways that are, at best, mixed in terms of playability.

I suppose you are wondering why I play these stupid games if there is so much about them I don’t like. Actually, there are more things I do like, particularly when compared to watching Gilligan’s Island or whatever the current TV fare is. I suppose it would be appropriate to mention a few of the things I do like.

In discussing the unavoidably anachronistic experience we have of old games today, we often note how many other games are at our fingertips — a luxury a kid who might hope to get one new game every birthday and Christmas most definitely didn’t enjoy. What we perhaps don’t address as much as we should is how much the entertainment landscape in general has changed. It can be a little tough even for those of us who lived through the 1980s to remember what a desert television was back then. I remember a television commercial — and from the following decade at that — in which a man checked into a hotel of the future, and was told that every movie ever made was available for viewing at the click of a remote control. Back then, this was outlandish science fiction. Today, it’s reality.

I like variety and surprises. Give me a cast of thousands over a fixed party anytime. Of course, the game designer has to force the need for multiple parties on me, or I will stick with the same group throughout because that is the best way to “win” the game. The Minotaur Temple in Phantasie I and the problems men had in Portsmouth in Might and Magic and the evil and good areas of Wizardry III were nice. More attractive are party changes for strategic reasons. What good are magic users in no-magic areas or a bard in a silent room? A rescue mission doesn’t need a thief and repetitive battles with many small opponents don’t require a fighter that deals heavy damage to one bad guy.

I like variety and surprises in the items found, the map, the specials encountered, in short in every aspect of the game. I like figuring out what things are and how they work. What a delight the thief’s dagger in Wizardry was! The maps in Wasteland are wonderful because any map may contain a map. The countryside contains towns and villages, the towns contain buildings, some buildings contain floors or secret passages. What fun!!!

I like missions and quests to pursue as I proceed. Some of these games are so large that intermediate goals are necessary to keep you on track. Might and Magic, Phantasie, and Bard’s Tale do a good job of creating a path with the “missions.” I like self-contained clues about the puzzles. In The Return of Heracles the sage was always there to provide an assist (for money, of course)  if you got stuck. The multiple solutions or sources of vital information in Might and Magic greatly enhanced the probability of completing the missions and kept the game moving.

I like the idea of recruiting new characters, as opposed to starting over from scratch. In Galactic Adventurers your crew could be augmented by recruiting survivors of a battle, provided they were less experienced than your leader. Charisma (little used in most games) could impact recruiting. Wasteland provides for recruiting of certain predetermined characters you encounter. These NPCs can be controlled almost like your characters and will advance with experience. Destiny Knight allows you to recruit (with a magic spell) any of the monsters you encounter, and requires that some specific characters be recruited to solve some of the puzzles, but these NPCs can’t be controlled and will not advance in level, so they are temporary members. They will occasionally turn on you, an interesting twist!!!

I like various skills, improved by practice or training for various characters. This makes the characters unique individuals, adding to the variety. This was implemented nicely in both Galactic Adventurers and Wasteland.

Eternal growth for my characters makes every session a little different and intriguing. If the characters “top out” too soon that aspect of the game loses its fascination. Wizardry was the best at providing continual growth opportunities because of the opportunity to change class and retain some of the abilities of the previous class. The Phantasie series seemed nicely balanced, with the end of the quest coming just before/as my characters topped out.

Speaking of eternal, I have never in all of my various adventures had a character retire because of age. Wizardry tried, but it never came into play because it was cheaper to heal at the foot of the stairs while identifying loot (same trip or short run to the dungeon for that purpose). Phantasie kept up with age, but it never affected play. I thought Might and Magic might, but I found the Fountain of Youth. The only FRPG I have played where you had to beat the clock is Tunnels of Doom, a simple hack-and-slash on my TI 99/4A that takes about ten hours for a game. Of course, it is quite different to spend ten hours and fail because the king died than it is to spend three months and fail by a few minutes. I like for time to be a factor to prevent me from being too conservative.

This matter of time affecting play really doesn’t fit into the “like” or the “don’t like” because I’ve never seen it effectively implemented. There are a couple of other items like that on my wish list. For example, training of new characters by older characters should take the place of slugging it out with Murphy’s ghost while the newcomers watch from the safety of the back row.

The placing of time limits on a game sounds to me like a very dangerous proposal. It was tried in 1989, the year after Irby wrote this letter, by The Magic Candle, a game that I haven’t played but that is quite well-regarded by the CRPG cognoscenti. That game was, however, kind enough to offer three difficulty levels, each with its own time limit, and the easiest level was generous enough that most players report that time never became a major factor. I don’t know of any game, even from this much crueler era of game design in general, that was cruel enough to let you play 100 hours or more and then tell you you’d lost because the evil wizard had finished conquering the world, thank you very much. Such an approach might have been more realistic than the alternative, where the evil wizard cackles and threatens occasionally but doesn’t seem to actually do much, but, as Sid Meier puts it, fun ought to trump realism every time in game design.

A very useful feature would be the ability to create my own macro consisting of a dozen or so keystrokes. Set up Control-1 through Control-9 and give me a simple way to specify the keystrokes to be executed when one is pressed.

Interestingly, this exact feature showed up in Interplay’s CRPGs very shortly after Irby wrote this letter, beginning with the MS-DOS version of Wasteland in March of 1989. And we do know that Interplay was one of the companies to which Shay Addams sent the letter. Is this a case of a single gamer’s correspondence being responsible for a significant feature in later games? The answer is likely lost forever to the vagaries of time and the inexactitude of memory.

A record of sorts of what has happened during the game would be nice. The chevron in Wizardry and the origin in Phantasie is the most I’ve ever seen done with this. How about a screen that told me I had 93 sessions, 4 divine interventions (restore backup), completed 12 quests, raised characters from the dead 47 times, and killed 23,472 monsters? Cute, huh?

Another crazily prescient proposal. These sorts of meta-textual status screens would become commonplace in CRPGs in later years. In this case, though, “later years” means much later. Thus, rather than speculating on whether he actively drove the genre’s future innovations, we can credit Irby this time merely with predicting them.

One last suggestion for the manufacturers: if you want that little card you put in each box back, offer me something I want. For example, give me a list of all the other nuts in my area code who have purchased this game and returned their little cards.

Enough of this, Wasteland is waiting.


With some exceptions — the last suggestion, for instance, would be a privacy violation that would make even the NSA raise an eyebrow — I agree with most of Irby’s positive suggestions, just as I do his complaints. It strikes me as I read through his letter that my own personal favorite among 8-bit CRPGs, Pool of Radiance, manages to avoid most of Irby’s pitfalls while implementing much from his list of desirable features — further confirmation of just what a remarkable piece of work that game, and to an only slightly lesser extent its sequel Curse of the Azure Bonds, really were. I hope Wes Irby got a chance to play them.

I have less to say about the second letter I’d like to share with you, and will thus present it without in-line commentary. This undated letter was sent directly to Interplay by its writer: Thomas G. Gutheil, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry, on whose letterhead it’s written. Its topic is The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, a game I’ve written about only in passing but one with some serious design problems in the form of well-nigh insoluble puzzles. Self-serving though it may be, I present Gutheil’s letter to you today as one more proof that players did notice the things that were wrong with games back in the day — and that my perspective on them today therefore isn’t an entirely anachronistic one. More importantly, Gutheil’s speculations are still some of the most cogent I’ve ever seen on how bad puzzles make their way into games in the first place. For this reason alone, it’s eminently worthy of being preserved for posterity.


I am writing you a combination fan letter and critique in regard to the two volumes of The Bard’s Tale, of which I am a regular and fanatic user.

First, the good news: this is a TERRIFIC game, and I play it with addictive intensity, approximately an hour almost every day. The richness of the graphics, the cute depictions of the various characters, monsters, etc., and rich complexity and color of the mazes, tasks, issues, as well as the dry wit that pervades the program, make it a superb piece and probably the best maze-type adventure product on the market today. I congratulate you on this achievement.

Now, the bad news: the one thing I feel represents a defect in your program (and I only take your time to comment on it because it is so central) and one which is perhaps the only area where the Wizardry series (of which I am also an avid player and expert) is superior, is the notion of the so-called puzzles, a problem which becomes particularly noticeable in the “snares of death” in the second scenario. In all candor, speaking as an old puzzle taker and as a four-time grand master of the Boston Phoenix Puzzle Contest, I must say that these puzzles are simply too personal and idiosyncratic to be fair to the player. I would imagine you are doing a booming business in clue books since many of the puzzles are simply not accomplishable otherwise without hours of frustrating work, most of it highly speculative.

Permit me to try to clarify this point, since I am aware of the sensitive nature of these comments, given that I would imagine you regard the puzzles as being the “high art” of the game design. There should be an organic connection between the clues and the puzzles. For example, in Wizardry (sorry to plug the competition), there is a symbolic connection between the clue and its function. As one simplistic example, at the simplest level a bear statuette get you through a gate guarded by a bear, a key opens a particular door, and a ship-in-a-bottle item gets you across an open expanse of water.

Let me try to contrast this with some of the situations in your scenarios. You may recall that in one of the scenarios the presence of a “winged one” in the party was necessary to get across a particular chasm. The Winged One introduces himself to the party as one of almost a thousand individual wandering creatures that come and offer to join the party, to be attacked, or to be left in peace. This level of dilution and the failure to separate out the Winged One in some way makes it practically unrecallable much later on when you need it, particularly since there are several levels of dungeon (and in real life perhaps many interposing days and weeks) between the time you meet the Winged One (who does not stand out among the other wandering characters in any particular way) and the time you actually need him. Even if (as I do) you keep notes, there would be no particular reason to record this creature out of all. Moreover, to have this added character stuck in your party for long periods of time, when you could instead have the many-times more effective demons, Kringles, and salamanders, etc., would seem strategically self-defeating and therefore counter-intuitive for the normal strategy of game play AS IT IS ACTUALLY PLAYED.

This is my point: in many ways your puzzles in the scenarios seem to have been designed by someone who is not playing the in the usual sequence, but designed as it were from the viewpoint of the programmer, who looks at the scenario “from above” — that is, from omniscient knowledge. In many situations the maze fails to take into account the fact that parties will not necessarily explore the maze in the predictable direct sequence you have imagined. The flow of doors and corridors do not appropriately guide a player so that they will take the puzzles in a meaningful sequence. Thus, when one gets a second clue before a first clue, only confusion results, and it is rarely resolved as the play advances.

Every once in a while you do catch on, and that is when something like the rock-scissors-paper game is invoked in your second scenario. That’s generally playing fair, although not everyone has played that game or would recognize it in the somewhat cryptic form in which it is presented. Thus the player does not gain the satisfaction of use of intellect in problem solving; instead, it’s the frustration of playing “guess what I’m thinking” with the author.

Despite all of the above criticism, the excitement and the challenge of playing the game still make it uniquely attractive; as you have no doubt caught on, I write because I care. I have had to actively fight the temptation to simply hack my way through the “snares of death” by direct cribbing from the clue books, so that I could get on to the real interest of the game, which is working one’s way through the dungeons and encountering the different items, monsters, and challenges. I believe that this impatience with the idiosyncratic (thus fundamentally unfair) design of these puzzles represents an impediment, and I would be interested to know if others have commented on this. Note that it doesn’t take any more work for the programmer, but merely a shift of viewpoint to make the puzzles relevant and fair to the reader and also proof against being taken “out of order,” which largely confuses the meaning. A puzzle that is challenging and tricky is fair; a puzzle that is idiosyncratically cryptic may not be.

Thank you for your attention to this somewhat long-winded letter; it was important to me to write. Given how much I care for this game and how devoted I am to playing it and to awaiting future scenarios, I wanted to call your attention to this issue. You need not respond personally, but I would of course be interested in any of your thoughts on this.


I conclude this article as a whole by echoing Gutheil’s closing sentiments; your feedback is the best part of writing this blog. I hope you didn’t find my musings on the process of doing history too digressive, and most of all I hope you found Wes Irby and Thomas Gutheil’s all too rare views from the trenches as fascinating as I did.

 

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Turning on, Booting up, and Jacking into Neuromancer

When a novel becomes notably successful, Hollywood generally comes calling to secure the film rights. Many an author naively assumes that the acquisition of films rights means an actual film will get made, and in fairly short order at that. And thus is many an author sorely disappointed. Almost every popular novelist who’s been around for a while has stories to tell about Hollywood’s unique form of development purgatory. The sad fact is that the cost of acquiring the rights to even the biggest bestseller is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the cost of making a film out of them. Indeed, the cost is so trivial in terms of Hollywood budgets that many studios are willing to splash out for rights to books they never seriously envision doing anything productive with at all, simply to keep them out of the hands of rivals and protect their own properties in similar genres.

One could well imagine the much-discussed but never-made movie of William Gibson’s landmark cyberpunk novel Neuromancer falling into this standard pattern. Instead, though, its story is far, far more bizarre than the norm — and in its weird way far more entertaining.

Our story begins not with the power brokers of Hollywood, but rather with two young men at the very bottom of the Tinseltown social hierarchy. Ashley Tyler and Jeffrey Kinart were a pair of surfer dudes and cabana boys who worked the swimming pool of the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel. Serving moguls and stars every day, they decided that the things they observed their charges doing really didn’t seem all that difficult at all. With a little luck and a little drive, even a couple of service workers like them could probably become players. Despite having no money, no education in filmmaking, and no real inroads with the people who tipped them to deliver poolside drinks, they hatched a plan in early 1985 to make a sequel to their favorite film of all time, the previous year’s strange postmodern action comedy The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

The idea was highly problematic, not only for all of the reasons I’ve just listed but also because Buckaroo Banzai, while regarded as something of a cult classic today, had been a notorious flop in its own day, recouping barely a third of its production budget — hardly, in other words, likely sequel fodder. Nevertheless, Tyler and Kinart managed to recruit Earl Mac Rauch, the creator of the Buckaroo Banzai character and writer of the film’s screenplay, to join their little company-in-name-only, which they appropriately titled Cabana Boy Productions. As they made the rounds of the studios, the all-too-plainly clueless Tyler and Kinart didn’t manage to drum up much interest for their Buckaroo Banzai sequel, but the Hollywood establishment found their delusions of grandeur and surfer-boy personalities so intriguing that there was reportedly some talk of signing them to a deal — not to make a Buckaroo Banzai movie, but as the fodder for a television comedy, a sort of Beverly Hillbillies for the 1980s.

After some months, the cabana boys finally recognized that Buckaroo Banzai had little chance of getting resurrected, and moved on to wanting to make a movie out of the hottest novel in science fiction: William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Rauch’s own career wasn’t exactly going gangbusters; in addition to Buckaroo Banzai, he also had on his resume New York, New York, mob-movie maestro Martin Scorsese’s equally notorious attempt to make a classic Hollywood musical. Thus he agreed to stick with the pair, promising to write the screenplay if they could secure the rights to Neuromancer. In the meantime, they continued to schmooze the guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel, making their revised pitch to any of them who would listen. Against all the odds, they stumbled upon one guest who took them very seriously indeed.

As was all too easy to tell by taking a glance at her rictus smile, Deborah Rosenberg was the wife of a plastic surgeon. Her husband, Victor Rosenberg, had been in private practice in New York City since 1970, serving the rich, the famous, and the would-be rich and famous. He also enjoyed a profitable sideline as a writer and commentator on his field for the supermarket tabloids, the glossy beauty magazines, and the bored-housewife talk-show circuit, where he was a regular on programs like Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Donahue. When business took him and his wife to Beverly Hills in late 1985, Deborah was left to loiter by the pool while her husband attended a medical convention. It was thus that she made the acquaintance of Tyler and Kinart.

Smelling money, the cabana boys talked up their plans to her with their usual gusto despite her having nothing to do with the film industry. Unaccountably, Deborah Rosenberg thought the idea of making Neuromancer with them a smashing one, and managed to convince her husband to put up seed capital for the endeavor. Tyler, in a scenario that raises the specter of professional couch-crasher Kato Kaelin, actually followed the Rosenbergs back to New York and moved into their mansion as a permanent house guest while he and Deborah continued to work on their plans. There would be much speculation around both Hollywood and New York in the months to come about exactly what sort of relationship Deborah and Ashley actually had, and whether her husband a) was aware of Deborah’s possible extramarital shenanigans and b) cared if he was.

While the irony of Gibson’s book full of cosmetic surgeries and body modifications of all descriptions being adapted by a plastic surgeon would have been particularly rich, Victor took little active role in the project, seeming to regard it (and possibly Ashley?) primarily as a way to keep his high-maintenance wife occupied. He did, however, help her to incorporate Cabana Boy Productions properly in January of 1986, and a few weeks later, having confirmed that Neuromancer rather surprisingly remained un-optioned, offered William Gibson $100,000 for all non-print-media rights to the novel. Gibson was by all indications almost as naive as Deborah and her cabana boys; in his late thirties though he was, he had never earned more than the most menial of wages before finishing the science-fiction novel of the decade eighteen months before. He jumped at the offer with no further negotiation whatsoever, mumbling something about using the unexpected windfall to remodel his kitchen. The film rights to the hottest science-fiction novel in recent memory were now in the hands of two California surfer dudes and a plastic surgeon’s trophy wife. And then, just to make the situation that much more surreal, Timothy Leary showed up.

I should briefly introduce Leary for those of you who may not be that familiar with the psychologist whom President Nixon once called “the most dangerous man in America.” At the age of 42 in 1963, the heretofore respectable Leary was fired from his professorship at Harvard, allegedly for skipping lectures but really for administering psychedelic drugs to students without proper authorization. Ousted by the establishment, he joined the nascent counterculture as an elder statesman and cool hippie uncle. Whilst battling unsuccessfully to keep LSD and similar drugs legal — by 1968, they would be outlawed nationwide despite his best efforts — Leary traveled the country delivering “lectures” that came complete with a live backing band, light shows, and more pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo than could be found anywhere this side of a Scientology convention. In his encounters with the straight mainstream press, he strained to be as outrageous and confrontational as possible. One of his favorite sayings became one of the most enduring of the entire Age of Aquarius: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Persecuted relentlessly by the establishment as the Judas who had betrayed their trust, Leary was repeatedly arrested for drug possession. This, of course, only endeared him that much more to the counterculture, who regarded each successive bust as another instance of his personal martyrdom for their cause. The Moody Blues wrote an oh-so-sixties anthem about him called “Legend of a Mind” and made it the centerpiece of their 1968 album In Search of the Lost Chord; likewise, the Beatles song “Come Together” was begun as a campaign anthem for Leary’s farcical candidacy for governor of California.

In January of 1970, Leary, the last person in the world on whom any judge was likely to be lenient, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment by the state of California for the possession of two marijuana cigarettes. With the aid of the terrorist group the Weather Underground, he escaped from prison that September and fled overseas, first to Algeria, then to Switzerland, where, now totally out of his depth in the criminal underworld, he wound up being kept under house arrest as a sort of prize pet by a high-living international arms dealer. When he was recaptured by Swiss authorities and extradited back to the United States in 1972, it thus came as something of a relief for him. He continued to write books in prison, but otherwise kept a lower profile as the last embers of the counterculture burned themselves out. His sentence was commuted by California Governor Jerry Brown in 1976, and he was released.

Free at last, he was slightly at loose ends, being widely regarded as a creaky anachronism of a decade that already felt very long ago and far away; in the age of disco, cocaine was the wonderdrug rather than LSD. But in 1983, when he played Infocom’s Suspended, he discovered a new passion that would come to dominate the last 13 years of his life. He wrote to Mike Berlyn, the author of the game, to tell him that Suspended had “changed his life,” that he had been “completely overwhelmed by the way the characters split reality into six pieces.” He had, he said, “not thought much of computers before then,” but Suspended “had made computers a reality” for him. Later that year, he visited Infocom with an idea for, as one employee of the company remembers it, “a personality that would sit on top of the operating system, observe what you did, and modify what the computer would do and how it would present information based on your personal history, what you’d done on the computer.” If such an idea seems insanely ambitious in the context of early 1980s technology, it perhaps points to some of the issues that would tend to keep Leary, who wasn’t a programmer and had no real technical understanding of how computers worked, at the margins of the industry. Certainly his flamboyance and tendency to talk always in superlatives made him a difficult fit with the more low-key personality of Infocom. Another employee remembers Leary as being “too self-centered to make a good partner. He wanted his name and his ideas on something, but he didn’t want us to tell him how to do it.”

Mind Mirror

His overtures to Infocom having come to naught, Leary moved on, but he didn’t forget about computers. Far from it. As the waves of hype about home computers rolled across the nation, Leary saw in them much the same revolutionary potential he had once seen in peace, love, and LSD — and he also saw in them, one suspects, a new vehicle to bring himself, an inveterate lover of the spotlight, back to a certain cultural relevance. Computers, he declared were better than drugs: “the language of computers [gives] me the metaphor I was searching for twenty years ago.” He helpfully provided the media with a new go-to slogan to apply to his latest ideas, albeit one that would never quite catch on like the earlier had: “Turn on, boot up, jack in.” “Who controls the pictures on the screen controls the future,” he said, “and computers let people control their own screen.”

In that spirit, he formed a small software developer of his own, which he dubbed Futique. Futique’s one tangible product became something he called Mind Mirror, published by Electronic Arts in 1986. It stands to this day as the single strangest product Electronic Arts has ever released. Billed as “part tool, part game, and part philosopher on a disk,” Mind Mirror was mostly incomprehensible — a vastly less intuitive Alter Ego with all the campy fun of that game’s terrible writing and dubious psychological insights leached out in favor of charts, graphs, and rambling manifestos. Electronic Arts found that Leary’s cultural cachet with the average computer user wasn’t as great as they might have hoped; despite their plastering his name and picture all over the box, Mind Mirror resoundingly flopped.

It was in the midst of much of this activity that Leary encountered William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the oft-cited link between Gibson’s vision of an ecstatic virtual reality called the Matrix and his earlier drug experiences, Leary became an instant cyberpunk convert, embracing the new sub-genre with all of his characteristic enthusiasm. Gibson, he said, had written “the New Testament of the 21st century.” Having evidently decided that the surest route to profundity lay in placing the prefix “cyber-” in front of every possible word, he went on to describe Neuromancer as “an encyclopedic epic for the cyber-screen culture of the immediate future, and an inspiring cyber-theology for the Information Age.” He reached out to the man he had anointed as the cyber-prophet behind this new cyber-theology, sparking up an acquaintance if never quite a real friendship. It was likely through Gibson — the chain of events isn’t entirely clear — that Leary became acquainted with the unlikely management of Cabana Boy Productions and their plans for a Neuromancer film. He promptly jumped in with them.

Through happenstance and sheer determination, the cabana boys now had a real corporation with at least a modicum of real funding, the rights to a real bestselling novel, and a real professional screenwriter — and the real Timothy Leary, for whatever that was worth. They were almost starting to look like a credible operation — until, that is, one of them actually started to talk. Therein lay the rub.

Around the middle of 1986, Cabana Boy made a sizzle reel featuring most of their principal personalities to shop around the Hollywood studios. Even William Gibson along with his agent  and his publicist with Berkley Books were convinced to show up and offer a few pleasantries. Almost everyone comes across as hopelessly vacuous in this, the only actual footage Cabana Boy would ever manage to produce. If these were the best bits that were hand-selected to put Cabana Boy’s best foot forward, one shudders to think about what must have been left on the cutting-room floor.


The Cabana Boy’s attempts to sell their proposed $20 million film to Hollywood were, according to one journalist, “a comedy of errors and naivete — but what they lack in experience they are making up for in showmanship.” Although they were still not taken all that seriously by anyone, their back story and their personalities were enough to secure brief write-ups in People and Us, and David Letterman, always on the lookout for endearing eccentrics to interview and/or make fun of on his late-night talk show, seriously considered having them on. “My bet,” concluded the journalist, “is that they’ll make a movie about Cabana Boy before Neuromancer ever gets off the ground.”

Shortly after the sizzle reel was made, Earl Mac Rauch split when he was offered the chance to work on a biopic about comedian John Belushi. No problem, said Deborah Rosenberg and Ashley Tyler, we’ll just write the Neuromancer script ourselves — this despite neither of them having ever written anything before, much less the screenplay to a proverbial “major motion picture.” At about the same time, Jeffrey Kinart had a falling-out with his old poolside partner — his absence from the promo video may be a sign of the troubles to come — and left as well. Tyler himself split at the end of 1987, marking the exit of the last actual cabana boy from Cabana Boy, even as Deborah Rosenberg remained no closer to a production contract than she had been at the beginning of the endeavor. On the other hand, she had acquired two entertainment lawyers, a producer, a production designer, a bevy of “financial consultants,” offices in three cities for indeterminate purposes, and millions of dollars in debt. Still undaunted, on August 4, 1988, she registered her completed script, a document it would likely be fascinating but also kind of horrifying to read, with the United States Copyright Office.

While all this was going on, Timothy Leary had become obsessed with what may very well have been his real motivation for associating himself with Cabana Boy in the first place: turning Neuromancer into a computer game, or, as he preferred to call it, a “mind play” or “performance book.” Cabana Boy had, you’ll remember, picked up all electronic-media rights to the novel in addition to the film rights. Envisioning a Neuromancer game developed for the revolutionary new Commodore Amiga by his own company Futique, the fabulously well-connected Leary assembled a typically star-studded cast of characters to help him make it. It included Keith Haring, a trendy up-and-coming visual artist; Helmut Newton, a world-famous fashion photographer; Devo, the New Wave rock group; and none other than William Gibson’s personal literary hero William S. Burroughs to adapt his protege’s work to the computer.

This image created for Timothy Leary's "mind play" of Neuromancer features the artist Keith Haring, who was to play the role of Case. Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of just 31, but nevertheless left behind him a surprisingly rich legacy.

This image created for Timothy Leary’s “mind play” of Neuromancer features the artist Keith Haring, who was to have played the role of Case. Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of just 31, but nevertheless left behind him a surprisingly rich legacy.

Leary sub-contracted the rights for a Neuromancer game from Cabana Boy, and was able to secure a tentative deal with Electronic Arts. But that fell through when Mind Mirror hit the market and bombed. Another tentative agreement, this time with Jim Levy’s artistically ambitious Activision, fell through when the much more practical-minded Bruce Davis took over control of that publisher in January of 1987. Neuromancer was a property that should have had huge draw with the computer-game demographic, but everyone, it seemed, was more than a little leery of Leary and his avant-garde aspirations. For some time, the game project didn’t make much more headway than the movie.

Neuromancer the game was saved by a very unusual friendship. While Leary was still associated with Electronic Arts, an unnamed someone at the publisher had introduced him to the head of one of their best development studios, Brian Fargo of Interplay, saying that he thought the two of them “will get along well.” “Timothy and his wife Barbara came down to my office, and sure enough we all hit it off great,” remembers Fargo. “Tim was fascinated by technology; he thought about it and talked about it all the time. So I was his go-to guy for questions about it.”

Being friends with the erstwhile most dangerous man in America was quite an eye-opening experience for the clean-cut former track star. Leary relished his stardom, somewhat faded though its luster may have been by the 1980s, and gloried in the access it gave him to the trendy jet-setting elite. Fargo remembers that Leary “would take me to all the hottest clubs in L.A. I got to go to the Playboy Mansion when I was 24 years old; I met O.J. and Nicole Simpson at his house, and Devo, and David Byrne from Talking Heads. It was a good time.”

His deals with Electronic Arts and Activision having fallen through, it was only natural for Leary to turn at last to his friend Brian Fargo to get his Neuromancer game made. Accepting the project, hot property though Neuromancer was among science-fiction fans, wasn’t without risk for Fargo. Interplay was a commercially-focused developer whose reputation rested largely on their Bard’s Tale series of traditional dungeon-crawling CRPGs; “mind plays” hadn’t exactly been in their bailiwick. Nor did they have a great deal of financial breathing room for artistic experimentation. Interplay, despite the huge success of the first Bard’s Tale game in particular, remained a small, fragile company that could ill-afford an expensive flop. In fact, they were about to embark on a major transition that would only amplify these concerns. Fargo, convinced that the main reason his company wasn’t making more money from The Bard’s Tale and their other games was the lousy 15 percent royalty they were getting from Electronic Arts — a deal which the latter company flatly refused to renegotiate — was moving more and more toward severing those ties and trying to go it alone as a publisher as well as a developer. Doing so would among other things mean giving up the possibility of making more Bard’s Tale games; that trademark would remain with Electronic Arts. Without that crutch to lean on, an independent Interplay would need to make all-new hits right out of the gate. And, as shown by the example of Mind Mirror, a Timothy Leary mind play wasn’t all that likely to become one.

Fargo must therefore have breathed a sign of relief when Leary, perhaps growing tired of this project he’d been flogging for quite some time, perhaps made more willing to trust Fargo’s instincts by the fact that he considered him a friend, said he would be happy to step back into a mere “consulting” role. He did, however, arrange for William Gibson to join Fargo at his house one day to throw out ideas. Gibson was amiable enough, but ultimately just not all that interested, as he tacitly admitted: “I was offered a lot more opportunity for input than I felt capable of acting on. One thing that quickly became apparent to me was that I hadn’t the foggiest notion of the way an interactive computer game had to be constructed, the various levels of architecture involved. It was fascinating, but I felt I’d best keep my nose out of it and let talented professionals go about the actual business of making the game.” So, Fargo and his team, which would come to include programmer Troy A. Miles, artist Charles H.H. Weidman III, and writers and designers Bruce Balfour and Mike Stackpole, were largely left alone to make their game. While none of them was a William Gibson, much less a William S. Burroughs, they did have a much better idea of what made for a fun, commercially viable computer game than did anyone on the dream team Leary had assembled.

Three fifths of the team that wound up making the completed Neuromancer: Troy Miles, Charles H.H. Weidman III, and Bruce Balfour.

Three fifths of the team that wound up making Interplay’s Neuromancer: Troy Miles, Charles H.H. Weidman III, and Bruce Balfour.

And one member of Leary’s old team did agree to stay with the project. Brian Fargo:

My phone rang one night at close to one o’clock in the morning. It was Timothy, and he was all excited that he had gotten Devo to do the soundtrack. I said, “That’s great.” But however I said it, he didn’t think I sounded enthused enough, so he started yelling at me that he had worked so hard on this, and he should get more excitement out of me. Of course, I literally had just woken up.

So, next time I saw him, I said, “Tim, you can’t do that. It’s not fair. You can’t wake me up out of a dead sleep and tell me I’m not excited enough.” He said, “Brian, this is why we’re friends. I really appreciate the fact that you can tell me that. And you’re right.”

In the end, Devo didn’t quite provide a full soundtrack, but rather a chiptunes version of “Some Things Never Change,” a track taken from their latest album Total Devo which plays over Neuromancer‘s splash screen.

The opening of the game. Case, now recast as a hapless loser, not much better than a space janitor, wakes up face-down in a plate of "synth-spaghetti."

The opening of the game. Case, now recast as a hapless loser, not much better than a space janitor, wakes up face-down in a plate of “synth-spaghetti.”

As an adaptation of the novel, Neuromancer the game can only be considered a dismal failure. Like the novel, the game’s story begins in a sprawling Japanese metropolis of the future called Chiba City, stars a down-on-his-luck console cowboy named Case, and comes to revolve around a rogue artificial intelligence named Neuromancer. Otherwise, though, the plot of the game has very little resemblance to that of the novel. Considered in any other light than the commercial, the license is completely pointless; this could easily have been a generic cyberpunk adventure.

The game’s tone departs if anything even further from its source material than does its plot. Out of a sense of obligation, it occasionally manages to shoehorn in a few lines of Gibson’s prose, but rather than even trying to capture the noirish moodiness of the novel the game aims for considerably lower-hanging fruit. In what was almost becoming a default setting for adventure games by the late 1980s, Case is now a semi-incompetent loser whom the game can feel free to make fun of, inhabiting a science-fiction-comedy universe which has much more to do with Douglas Adams — or, to move the fruit just that much lower, Planetfall or Space Quest — than William Gibson. This approach tended to show up so much in adventure games for very practical reasons: it removed most of the burden from the designers of trying to craft really coherent, believable narratives out of the very limited suite of puzzle and game-play mechanics at their disposal. Being able to play everything for absurdist laughs just made design so much easier. Cop-out though it kind of was, it must be admitted that some of the most beloved classics of the adventure-game genre use exactly this approach. Still, it does have the effect of making Neuromancer the game read almost like a satire of Neuromancer the novel, which can hardly be ideal, at least from the standpoint of the licenser.

And yet, when divorced of its source material and considered strictly as a computer game Neuromancer succeeds rather brilliantly. It plays on three levels, only the first of which is open to you in the beginning. Those earliest stages confine you to “meat space,”  where you walk around, talk with other characters, and solve simple puzzles. Once you manage to get your console back from the man to whom you pawned it, you’ll be able to enter the second level. Essentially a simulation of the online bulletin-board scene of the game’s own time, it has you logging onto various “databases,” where you can download new programs to run on your console, piece together clues and passwords, read forums and email, and hack banks and other entities. Only around the mid-way point of the game will you manage to get onto the Matrix proper, a true virtual-reality environment. Here you’ll have to engage in graphical combat with ever more potent forms of ICE (“Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics”) to penetrate ever more important databases.

Particularly at this stage, the game manifests a strong CRPG component; not only do you need to earn money to buy ever better consoles, software, and “skill chips” that conveniently slot right into Case’s brain, but as Case fights ICE on the Matrix his skills also improve with experience. It’s a heady brew, and a wonderfully varied and entertaining one. Despite the limitations of the Commodore 64, the platform on which it made its debut, Neuromancer is one of the most content-rich games of its era, with none of the endless random combats and assorted busywork that stretches the other contemporaneous CRPGs of Interplay and others to such interminable lengths. Neuromancer ends just about when you feel it ought to end, having provided that addictive CRPG rush of building up a character from a weakling to a powerhouse without ever having bored you in the process.

Reading messages from The Scene... err, from Neuromancer's hacker underground.

Reading messages from the Scene… err, from Neuromancer‘s version of the hacker underground.

One of the more eyebrow-raising aspects of Neuromancer is the obvious influence that the real underground world of the Scene had on its own online milieu. The lingo, the attitudes… all of it is drawn from pirate BBS culture, circa 1988. Ironically, it actually evokes the spirit of the Scene far better than it does anything from Gibson’s novel, serving in this respect as quite a lovely historical time capsule. At least some people at Interplay, it seems, were far more familiar with that illegal world than any upstanding citizen ought to have been. Neuromancer is merely one more chapter in the long shared history of legitimate software developers and pirates, who were always much more interconnected and even mutually dependent than the strident rhetoric of the Software Publishers Association might lead one to suspect. Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth was first discovered by his eventual publisher California Pacific via a pirated version someone brought into the office; Sid Meier ran one of the most prolific piracy rings in Baltimore before he became one of the most famous game designers in history… the anecdotes are endless. Just to blur the lines that much more, soon after Neuromancer some cracking groups would begin to go legitimate, becoming game makers in their own rights.

Like other Interplay games from this period, Neuromancer is also notable for how far it’s willing to push the barriers of content in what was still the games industry’s equivalent of pre-Hayes Code Hollywood. There’s an online sex board you can visit, a happy-ending massage parlor, a whore wandering the streets. Still, while it’s not exactly a comedic revelation, I find the writing in Neuromancer makes it a more likable game than, say, Wasteland with its somewhat juvenile transgression for transgression’s sake. Neuromancer walks right up to that line on one or two occasions, but never quite crosses it in this critic’s opinion.

That said, it’s not of course a perfect game. The interface, especially in the meat-space portions, is a little clunky; it looks like a typical point-and-click adventure game, but its actual control scheme is far more baroque, which can lead to some cognitive dissonance when you first start to play. But that sorts itself out once you get into the swing of things. Neuromancer is by far my favorite Interplay game of the 1980s, boldly original but also thoroughly playable — and, it should be noted, rigorously fair. Take careful notes and do your due diligence, and you can feel confident of being able to solve this one.

About to do battle with an artificial intelligence, the most fearsome of the foes you'll encounter in the Matrix.

About to do battle with an artificial intelligence, the most fearsome of the foes you’ll encounter in the Matrix.

Neuromancer was released on the Commodore 64 and the Apple II in late 1988 as one of Interplay’s first two self-published games. The other, fortunately for Interplay but perhaps unfortunately for Neuromancer‘s commercial prospects, was an Amiga game called Battle Chess. Far less conceptually ambitious than Neuromancer, Battle Chess was nothing more or less than a rather everyday chess program, the like of which dozens could be found in the public domain, onto which Interplay had grafted “4 MB of animation” and “400 K of digitized sound” (yes, those figures were considered very impressive at the time). Specifically, when you moved a piece on the board, you got to watch it walk over to its new position, possibly killing other pieces in the process. And that was it, the entire gimmick. But, in those days when games were so frequently purchased as showpieces for one’s graphics and sound hardware, it was more than enough. Battle Chess became just the major hit Interplay needed to establish themselves as a publisher, but one that in the process sucked all of Neuromancer‘s oxygen right out of the room. Despite the strength of the license, the latter game went comparatively neglected by Interplay, still a very small company with very limited resources, in the rush to capitalize on the Battle Chess sensation. Neuromancer was ported to MS-DOS and the Apple IIGS in 1989 and to the Amiga in 1990 — in my opinion this last is the definitive version — but was never a big promotional priority and never sold in more than middling numbers. Early talk of a sequel, to have been based on William Gibson’s second novel Count Zero, remained only that. Neuromancer is all but forgotten today, one of the lost gems of its era.

I always make it a special point to highlight games I consider to be genuine classics, the ones that still hold up very well today, and that goes double if they aren’t generally well-remembered. Neuromancer fits into both categories. So, please, feel free to download the Amiga version from right here, pick up an Amiga emulator if you don’t have one already, and have at it. This one really is worth it, folks.

I’ll of course have much more to say about the newly self-sufficient Interplay in future articles. But as for the other players in today’s little drama:

Timothy Leary remained committed to using computers to “express the panoramas of your own brain” right up until he died in 1996, although without ever managing to bring any of his various projects, which increasingly hewed to Matrix-like three-dimensional virtual realities drawn from William Gibson, into anything more than the most experimental of forms.

William Gibson himself… well, I covered him in my last article, didn’t I?

Deborah Rosenberg soldiered on for quite some time alone with the cabana-boy-less Cabana Boy; per contractual stipulation, the Neuromancer game box says it’s “soon to be a major motion picture from Cabana Boy Productions.” And, indeed, she at last managed to sign an actual contract with Tri-Star Pictures on June 2, 1989, to further develop her screenplay, at which point Tri-Star would, “at its discretion,” “produce the movie.” But apparently Tri-Star took discretion to be the better part of valor in the end; nothing else was ever heard of the deal. Cabana Boy was officially dissolved on March 24, 1993. There followed years of litigation between the Rosenbergs and the Internal Revenue Service; it seems the former had illegally deducted all of the money they’d poured into the venture, more than $2 million all told, from their tax returns. (It’s largely thanks to the paper trail left behind by the tax-court case, which wasn’t finally settled until 2000, that we know as much about the details of Cabana Boy as we do.) Deborah Rosenberg has presumably gone back to being simply the wife of a plastic surgeon to the stars, whatever that entails, her producing and screenwriting aspirations nipped in the bud and tucked back away wherever it was they came from.

Since Cabana Boy’s collapse, Neuromancer has continued to kick around Hollywood without ever managing to get made. As of this writing, it appears to still be at least ostensibly a living project. Whether it really matters at this point, when most of the novel’s once-revolutionary ideas have become conventional wisdom, is a question for those still bearing the torch to debate.

Earl Mac Rauch did write the screenplay for Wired, the John Belushi biopic, but it attracted jeers and walk-outs at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, and was a critical and financial disaster. Having collected three strikes in the form of New York, New York, Buckaroo Banzai, and now Wired, Rauch was out. He vanished into obscurity, although I understand he has resurfaced in recent years to write some Buckaroo Banzai graphic novels.

And as for our two cabana boys, Ashley Tyler and Jeffrey Kinart… who knows? Perhaps they’re patrolling some pool somewhere to this day, regaling the guests with glories that were or glories that may, with a minor financial contribution, yet be.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of September 1988; The Games Machine of October 1988; Aboriginal Science Fiction of October 1986; AmigaWorld of May 1988; Compute! of October 1991; The One of February 1989; Starlog of July 1984; Spin of April 1987. Online sources include the sordid details of the Cabana Boy tax case, from the United States Tax Court archive and an Alison Rhonemus’s blog post on some of the contents of Timothy Leary’s papers, which are now held at the New York Public Library. I also made use of the Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to Brian Fargo for taking time from his busy schedule to discuss his memories of Interplay’s early days with me.)

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Wasteland

Wasteland

We can mark the formal beginning of the Wasteland project to the day in December of 1985 when Brian Fargo, head of Interplay, flew out to Arizona with his employee Alan Pavlish to meet with Michael Stackpole. If all went well at the meeting, Pavlish was to join Stackpole and Ken St. Andre as the third member of the core trio who would guide the game to release. His role, however, would be very different from that of his two colleagues.

A hotshot programmer’s programmer, Pavlish, though barely twenty years old, had been kicking around the industry for several years already. Before Interplay existed, he’d done freelance work on Commodore VIC-20 games for their earlier incarnation as Boone Corporation, and done ports of games like Murder on the Zinderneuf to the Apple II and Commodore 64 for another little company called Designer Software. When Pavlish came to work for Interplay full-time, Fargo had first assigned him to similar work: he had ported the non-Interplay game Hacker to the Apple II for Activision. (In those pre-Bard’s Tale days, Fargo was still forced to accept such unglamourous work to make ends meet.) But Fargo had huge respect for Pavlish’s abilities. When the Wasteland idea started to take off while his usual go-to programming ace Bill Heineman1 was still swamped with the Bard’s Tale games and Interplay’s line of illustrated text adventures, Fargo didn’t hesitate to throw Pavlish in at the deep end: he planned to make him responsible for bringing the huge idea that was Wasteland to life on the little 64 K 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64.

However, when Fargo and Pavlish got out of their airplane that day it was far from certain that there would be a Wasteland project for Pavlish to work on at all. In contrast to St. Andre, Stackpole was decidedly skeptical, and for very understandable reasons. His experiences with computer-game development to date hadn’t been happy ones. Over the past several years, he’d been recruited to three different projects and put considerable work into each, only to see each come to naught in one way or another. Thanks largely to the influence of Paul Jaquays,2 another tabletop veteran who headed Coleco’s videogame-design group during the first half of the 1980s, he’d worked on two games for the Coleco Adam, a would-be challenger in the home-computer wars. The more intriguing of the two, a Tunnels & Trolls adaptation, got cancelled before release. The other, an adaptation of the film 2010: Odyssey Two, was released only after the Adam had flopped miserably and been written off by Coleco; you can imagine how well that game sold. He’d then accepted a commission from science-fiction author cum game developer Fred Saberhagen to design a computer game that took place in the world of the latter’s Book of Swords trilogy. (Stackpole had already worked with Flying Buffalo on a board game set in the world of Saberhagen’s Berserker series.) The computerized Book of Swords had gone into stasis when it became clear that Berserker Works, the development company Saberhagen had founded, just didn’t have the resources to finish it.

So, yes, Stackpole needed some convincing to jump into the breach again with tiny Interplay, a company he’d never heard of.3 Luckily for Interplay, he, Fargo, and Pavlish all got along like a house on fire on that December day. Fargo and Pavlish persuaded Stackpole that they shared — or at least were willing to accommodate — his own emerging vision for Wasteland, for a computer game that would be a game and a world first, a program second. Stackpole:

Programmers design beautiful programs, programs that work easily and simply; game designers design games that are fun to play. If a programmer has to make a choice between an elegant program and a fun game element, you’ll have an elegant program. You need a game designer there to say, “Forget how elegant the program is — we want this to make sense, we want it to be fun.”

I was at a symposium where there were about a dozen people. When asked to tell what we were doing, what I kept hearing over and over from programmer/game designers was something like “I’ve got this neat routine for packing graphics, so I’m going to do a fantasy role-playing game where I can use this routine.” Or a routine for something else, or “I’ve got a neat disk sort,” or this or that. And all of them were putting these into fantasy role-playing games. Not to denigrate their skills as programmers — but that’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I know something about petrochemicals, therefore I’m going to design a car that will run my gasoline.” Well, if you’re not a mechanical engineer, you don’t design cars. You can be the greatest chemist in the world, but you’ve got no business designing a car. I’d like to hope that Wasteland establishes that if you want a game, get game designers to work with programmers.

This vision, cutting as it does so much against the way that games were commonly made in the mid-1980s, would have much to do with both where the eventual finished Wasteland succeeds and where it falls down.

Ditto the game’s tabletop heritage. As had been Fargo’s plan from the beginning, Wasteland‘s rules would be a fairly faithful translation of Stackpole’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes tabletop RPG, which was in turn built on the foundation of Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls. A clear evolutionary line thus stretched from the work that St. Andre did back in 1975 to Wasteland more than a decade later. No CRPG to date had tried quite as earnestly as Wasteland would to bring the full tabletop experience to the computer.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective rather than the first-person view of The Bard's Tale. This screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective instead of the first-person view of The Bard’s Tale. Note that this screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later (and vastly more pleasant to play) MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

Early in the new year, Stackpole and St. Andre visited Interplay’s California offices for a week to get the process of making Wasteland rolling. St. Andre arrived with a plot already dreamed up. Drawing heavily from the recent ultra-violent action flick Red Dawn, it posited a world where mutually-assured destruction hadn’t proved so mutual after all: the Soviet Union had won the war, and was now occupying the United States. The player would control a group of American freedom fighters skulking around the farmlands of Iowa, trying to build a resistance network. St. Andre and Stackpole spent a month or more after their visit to California drawing maps of cornfields and trying to find ways to make an awful lot of farmers seem different from one another. (Some of this work can be seen in the Agricultural Center in the finished Wasteland.) But finally the pair had to accept the painful truth: the game they were designing was boring. “I said it will be the dullest game you ever saw,” remembers St. Andre, “because the Russians would be there in strength, and your characters start weak and can’t do anything but skulk and hide and slowly, slowly build up.”

St. Andre suggested moving the setting to the desert of the American Southwest, an area with which he, being born and raised in Arizona, was all too familiar. The region also had a certain thematic resonance, being intimately connected with the history of the atomic bomb. The player’s party might even visit Las Vegas, where folks had once sat on their balconies and watched the mushroom clouds bloom. St. Andre suggested nixing the Soviets as well, replacing them with “ravening monsters stalking through a radioactive wasteland, a few tattered humans struggling to survive against an overwhelming threat.” It meant chucking a fair amount of work, but Fargo agreed that it sounded too good to pass up. They might as well all get used to these sorts of false starts. Little would go smoothly or according to plan on this project.

After that first week at Interplay, St. Andre and Stackpole worked from home strictly in a design role, coming up with the plans for the game that were then left to Pavlish in California to implement in code — still an unusual way of working in the mid-1980s, when even many of the great designers, like Dan Bunten4 and Sid Meier, tended to also be great programmers. But St. Andre and Stackpole used their computers — a Commodore 64 in the case of the former, a battered old Osborne luggable in that of the latter — to do nothing more complex than run a word processor. Bundle after bundle of paper was shipped from Arizona to California, in the form of both computer printouts and reams of hand-drawn maps. St. Andre and Stackpole worked, in other words, largely the same way they would have had Wasteland been planned as a new tabletop adventure module.

Wasteland must be, however, one hell of a big adventure module. It soon became clear that the map-design process, entailing as it did the plotting of every single square with detailed descriptions of what it contained and what the party should be able to do there, was overwhelming the two. St. Andre:

I hadn’t thought a great deal about what was going to be in any of these places. I just had this nebulous story in my mind: our heroes will start in A, they’ll visit every worthwhile place on the map and eventually wind up in Z — and if they’re good enough, they’ll win the game. Certain things will be happening in different locations — monsters of different types, people who are hard to get along with, lots of comic references to life before the war. I figured that when the time came for me to design an area, the Indian Village, for example, I would sit down and figure out what would be in it and that would be it. Except that it started taking a long time. Every map had 1024 squares on it, and each one could do something. Even if I just drew all the buildings, I had to go back and say, “These are all square nine: wall, wall, wall, wall, wall. And if you bump into a wall you’ll get this message: ‘The Indians are laughing at you for walking into a wall.'” Whatever — a map that I thought I could toss off in one or two days was taking two weeks, and the project was falling further and further behind.

Fargo agreed to let St. Andre and Stackpole bring in their old Flying Buffalo buddies Liz Danforth and Dan Carver to do maps as well, and the design team just continued to grow from there. “The guys who were helping code the maps, correcting what we sent in, wanted to do some maps,” remembers Stackpole. “Everyone wanted to have his own map, his own thumbprint on the game.”

Even Fargo himself, who could never quite resist the urge to get his own hands dirty with the creations of this company he was supposed to be running from on high, begged for a map. “I want to do a map. Let me have Needles,” St. Andre remembers him saying. “So I said, ‘You’re the boss, Brian, you’ve got Needles.'” But eventually Fargo had to accept that he simply didn’t have the time to design a game and run a company, and the city of Needles fell to another Interplay employee named Bruce Balfour. In all, the Wasteland manual credits no fewer than eight people other than St. Andre and Stackpole with “scenario design.” Even Pavlish, in between trying to turn this deluge of paper into code, managed to make a map or two of his own.

Wasteland is one of the few computer games in history in which those who worked on the softer arts of writing and design outnumbered those who wrote the code and drew the pictures. The ratio isn’t even close: the Wasteland team included exactly one programmer (Pavlish) and one artist (Todd J. Camasta) to go with ten people who only contributed to the writing and design. One overlooked figure in the design process, who goes wholly uncredited in the game’s manual, was Joe Ybarra, Interplay’s liaison with their publisher Electronic Arts. As he did with so many other classic games, Ybarra offered tactful advice and generally did his gentle best to keep the game on course, even going so far as to fly out to Arizona to meet personally with St. Andre and Stackpole.

Those two found themselves spending as much time coordinating their small army of map designers as they did doing maps of their own. Stackpole:

Work fell into a normal pattern. Alan and I would work details out, I’d pass it down the line to the folks designing maps. If they had problems, they’d tell me, Alan and I would discuss things, and they’d get an answer. In this way the practical problems of scenario design directly influenced the game system and vice versa. Map designers even talked amongst themselves, sharing strategies and some of these became standard routines we all later used.

Stackpole wound up taking personal responsibility for the last third or so of the maps, where the open world begins funneling down toward the climax. St. Andre:

I’m fairly strong at making up stories, but not at inventing intricate puzzles. In the last analysis, I’m a hack-and-slash gamer with only a little thought and strategy thrown in. Interplay and Electronic Arts wanted lots of puzzles in the game. Mike, on the other hand, is much more devious, so I gave him the maps with difficult puzzles and I did the ones that involved walking around, talking to people, and shooting things.

The relationship between these two veteran tabletop designers and Pavlish, the man responsible for actually implementing all of their schemes, wasn’t always smooth. “We’d write up a map with all the things on it and then Alan would say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says St. Andre. There would then follow some fraught discussions, doubtless made still more fraught by amateur programmer St. Andre’s habit of declaring that he could easily implement what was being asked in BASIC on his Commodore 64. (Stackpole: “It’s like a duffer coming up to Arnold Palmer at an average golf course and saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t make that 20-foot putt? I can make a 20-foot putt on a miniature golf course.'”) One extended battle was over the question of grenades and other “area-effect” weapons: St. Andre and Stackpole wanted them, Pavlish said they were just too difficult to code and unnecessary anyway. Unsung hero Joe Ybarra solved that one by quietly lobbying Fargo to make sure they went in.

One aspect of Wasteland that really demonstrates St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to divorce the design from the technology is the general absence of the usual numbers that programmers favor — i.e., the powers of two that fit so neatly into the limited memories of the Apple II and Commodore 64. Pavlish instinctively wanted to make the two types of pistols capable of holding 16 or 32 bullets. But St. Andre and Stackpole insisted that they hold 7 or 18, just like their real-world inspirations. As demonstrated by the 1024-square maps, the two did occasionally let Pavlish get away with the numbers he favored, but they mostly stuck to their guns (ha!). “It’s going to be inelegant in terms of space,” admits Stackpole, “but that’s reality.”

Logic like this drove Pavlish crazy, striving as he was to stuff an unprecedentedly complex world into an absurdly tiny space. Small wonder that there were occasional blowups. Slowly he learned to give every idea that came from the designers his very best try, and the designers learned to accept that not everything was possible. With that tacit agreement in place, the relationship improved. In the latter stages of the project, St. Andre and Stackpole came to understand the technology well enough to start providing their design specifications in code rather than text. “Then we could put in the multiple saving throws, the skill and attribute checks,” says St. Andre. “Everything we do in a [Tunnels & Trolls] solitaire dungeon suddenly pops up in the last few maps we did for Wasteland because Mike and I were doing the actual coding.”

When not working on the maps, St. Andre and Stackpole — especially the latter, who came more and more to the fore as time went on — were working on the paragraph book that would contain much of Wasteland‘s story and flavor text. The paragraph book wasn’t so much a new idea as a revival of a very old one. Back in 1979, Jon Freeman’s Temple of Apshai, one of the first CRPGs to arrive on microcomputers, had included a booklet of “room descriptions” laid out much like a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module. This approach was necessitated by the almost unbelievably constrained system for which Temple of Apshai was written: a Radio Shack TRS-80 with just 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage. Moving into the late 1980s, the twilight years of the 8-bit CRPG, designers were finding the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64 as restrictive as Freeman had the TRS-80 for the simple reason that, while the former platforms may have had four times as much memory as the latter, CRPG design ambitions had grown by at least the same multiple. Moving text, a hugely expensive commodity in terms of 8-bit storage, back into an accompanying booklet was a natural remedy. Think of it as one final measure to wring just a little bit more out of the Apple II and Commodore 64, those two stalwart old warhorses that had already survived far longer than anyone had ever expected. And it didn’t hurt, of course, that a paragraph book made for great copy protection.

While the existence of a Wasteland paragraph book in itself doesn’t make the game unique, St. Andre and Stackpole were almost uniquely prepared to use theirs well, for both had lots of experience crafting Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. They knew how to construct an interactive story out of little snippets of static text as well as just about anyone, and how to scramble it in such a way as to stymie the cheater who just starts reading straight through. Stackpole, following a tradition that began at Flying Buffalo, constructed for the booklet one of the more elaborate red herrings in gaming history, a whole alternate plot easily as convoluted as that in the game proper involving, of all things, a Martian invasion. All told, the Wasteland paragraph book would appear to have easily as many fake entries as real ones.

You fight some strange foes in Wasteland. Combat shifts back to something very reminiescent of The Bard's Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone's location that you can access by tapping the space bar.

For combat, the display shifts back to something very reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone’s location that you can access by tapping the space bar. And yes, you fight some strange foes in Wasteland

Wasteland‘s screen layout often resembles that of The Bard’s Tale, and one suspects that there has to be at least a little of the same code hidden under its hood. In the end, though, the resemblance is largely superficial. There’s just no comparison in terms of sophistication. While it’s not quite a game I can love — I’ll try to explain why momentarily — Wasteland does unquestionably represent the bleeding edge of CRPG design as of its 1988 release date. CRPGs on the Apple II and Commodore 64 in particular wouldn’t ever get more sophisticated than this. Given the constraints of those platforms, it’s honestly hard to imagine how they could.

Key to Wasteland‘s unprecedented sophistication is its menu of skills. Just like in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, you can tailor each of the up to four characters in your party as you will, free from the restrictive class archetypes of Dungeons & Dragons (or for that matter Tunnels & Trolls). Skills range from the obviously useful (Clip Pistol, Pick Lock, Medic) to the downright esoteric (Metallurgy, Bureaucracy, Sleight of Hand). And of course career librarian St. Andre made sure that a Librarian skill was included, and of course made it vital to winning the game.

Also as in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a character’s chance of succeeding at just about anything is determined by adding her level in a relevant skill, if any, to a relevant core attribute. For example, to determine a character’s chance of climbing something using her Climb skill the game will also look to her Agility. The system allows a range of solutions to most of the problems you encounter. Say you come to a locked door. You might have a character with the Pick Lock skill try getting in that way. Failing that, a character with the Demolition skill and a little handy plastic explosives could try blasting her way in. Or a strong character might dispense with skills altogether and just try to bash the door down using her Strength attribute. Although a leveling mechanism does exist that lets you assign points to characters’ skills and attributes, skills also improve naturally with use, a mechanism not seen in any previous CRPG other than Dungeon Master (a game that’s otherwise about as different from Wasteland as a game can be and still be called a CRPG).

The skills system makes Wasteland a very different gameplay experience from Ultima V, its only real rival in terms of 8-bit CRPG sophistication at the time of its release. For all its impressive world-building, Ultima V remains bound to Richard Garriott’s standard breadcrumb-trail philosophy of design; beating it depends on ferreting out a long string of clues telling you exactly where to go and exactly what to do. Wasteland, by contrast, can be beaten many ways. If you can’t find the password the guard wants to let you past that locked gate, you can try an entirely different approach: shoot your way in, blow the gate open, pick the lock on the back door and sneak in. It’s perhaps the first CRPG ever that’s really willing to let you develop your own playing personality. You can approach it as essentially a post-apocalyptic Bard’s Tale, making a frontal assault on every map and trying to blow away every living creature you find there, without concerning yourself overmuch about whether it be good or evil, friend or foe. Or you can play it — relatively speaking — cerebrally, trying to use negotiations, stealth, and perhaps a little swindling to get what you need. Or you can be like most players and do a bit of both, as the mood and opportunity strikes you. It’s very difficult if not impossible to get yourself irretrievably stuck in Wasteland. There are always options, always possibilities. While it’s far less thematically ambitious than Ultima V —  unlike the Ultima games, Wasteland was never intended to be anything more or less than pure escapist entertainment — Wasteland‘s more flexible, player-friendly design pointed the way forward while Ultima V was still glancing back.

Indeed, a big part of the enduring appeal of Wasteland to those who love it is the sheer number of different ways to play it. Interplay picked up on this early, and built an unusual feature into the game: it’s possible to reset the entire world to its beginning state while keeping the same group of lovingly developed characters. Characters can advance to ridiculous heights if you do this enough, taking on some equally ridiculous “ranks”: “1st Class Fargo,” “Photon Stud,” etc., culminating in the ultimate achievement of the level 183 “Supreme Jerk.” This feature lets veteran players challenge themselves by, say, trying to complete the game with just one character, and gives an out to anyone who screws up her initial character creation too badly and finds herself overmatched; she can just start over again and replay the easy bits with the same party to hopefully gain enough experience to correct their failings. It takes some of the edge off one of the game’s most obvious design flaws: it’s all but impossible to know which skills are actually useful until you’ve made your way fairly deep into the game.

The very fact that re-playing Wasteland requires you to reset its world at all points to what a huge advance it represents over the likes of The Bard’s Tale. The first CRPG I know of that has a truly, comprehensively persistent world, one in which the state of absolutely everything is saved, is 1986’s Starflight (a game that admittedly is arguably not even a CRPG at all). But that game runs on a “big” machine in 1980s terms, an IBM PC or clone with at least 256 K of memory. Wasteland does it in 64 K, rewriting every single map on the fly as you play to reflect what you’ve done there. Level half of the town of Needles with explosives early in the game, and it will still be leveled when you return many days later. Contrast with The Bard’s Tale, which remembers nothing but the state of your characters when you exit one of its dungeon levels, which lets you fight the same big boss battles over and over and over again if you like. The persistence allows you the player to really affect the world of Wasteland in big-picture ways that were well-nigh unheard-of at the time of its release, as Brian Fargo notes:

Wasteland let you do anything you wanted in any order you wanted, and you could get ripple effects that might happen one minute later or thirty minutes later, a lot like [the much later] Grand Theft Auto series. The Ultima games were open, but things tended to be very compartmentalized, they didn’t ripple out like in Wasteland.

Wasteland is a stunning piece of programming, a resounding justification for all of the faith Fargo placed in the young Alan Pavlish. Immersed in the design rather than the technical end of things as they were — which is itself a tribute to Pavlish, whose own work allowed them to be — St. Andre and Stackpole may still not fully appreciate how amazing it is that Wasteland does what it does on the hardware it does it on.

All of which rather raises the question of why I don’t enjoy actually playing Wasteland a little more then I do. I do want to be careful here in trying to separate what feel like more objective faults from my personal issues with the game. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, let me put the latter right out there first.

Put simply, the writing of Wasteland just isn’t to my taste. I get the tone that St. Andre and Stackpole are trying to achieve: one of over-the-top comic ultra-violence, like such contemporary teenage-boy cinematic favorites as the Evil Dead films. And they do a pretty good job of hitting that mark. Your characters don’t just hit their enemies in Wasteland, they “brutalize” them. When they die, enemies “explode like a blood sausage,” are “reduced to a thin red paste,” are “spun into a dance of death,” or are “reduced to ground round.” And then there’s some of the imagery, like the blood-splattered doctor in the infirmary.

Wasteland

The personal appeal you find in those quotes and that image, some of the most beloved among Wasteland‘s loyal fandom, says much about whether you’ll enjoy Wasteland as a whole. In his video review of the game, Matt Barton says that “you will be disgusted or find it hilarious.” Well, I must say that my own feelings rather contradict that dichotomy. I can’t quite manage to feel disgusted or outraged at this kind of stuff, especially since, in blessed contrast to so many later games, it’s almost all described rather than illustrated. I do, however, find the entire aesthetic unfunny and boring, whether it’s found in Wasteland or Duke Nukem. In general, I just don’t find humor that’s based on transgression rather than wit to be all that humorous.

I am me, you are you, and mileages certainly vary. Still, even if we take it on its own terms it seems to me that there are other problems with the writing. As CRPG Addict Chester Bolingbroke has noted, Wasteland can’t be much bothered with consistency or coherency. The nuclear apocalypse that led to the situation your characters find themselves in is described as having taken place in 1998, only ten years on from the date of Wasteland‘s release. Yet when the writers find it convenient they litter the game with absurdly advanced technology, from human clones to telepathic mind links. And the tone of the writing veers about as well, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of designers who contributed to the game. Most of the time Wasteland is content with the comic ultra-violence of The Evil Dead, but occasionally it suddenly reaches toward a jarring epic profundity it hasn’t earned. The main storyline, which doesn’t kick in in earnest until about halfway through the game, is so silly and nonsensical that few of even the most hardcore Wasteland fans remember much about it, no matter how many times they’ve played through it.

Wasteland‘s ropey plotting may be ironic in light of Stackpole’s later career as a novelist, but it isn’t a fatal flaw in itself. Games are not the sum of their stories; many a great game has a poor or nonexistent story to tell. To whatever extent it’s a triumph, Wasteland must be a triumph of game design rather than writing, one last hurrah for Michael Stackpole the designer before Michael Stackpole the novelist took over. The story, like the stories in many or most allegedly story-driven games, is just an excuse to explore Wasteland‘s possibility space.

And that possibility space is a very impressive one, for reasons I’ve tried to explain already. Yet it’s also undone, at least a bit, by some practical implementation issues. St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to make an elegant game design rather than an elegant program comes back to bite them here. The things going on behind the scenes in Wasteland are often kind of miraculous in the context of their time, but those things are hidden behind a clunky and inelegant interface. In my book, a truly great game should feel almost effortless to control, but Wasteland feels anything but. Virtually every task requires multiple keystrokes and the navigation of a labyrinth of menus. It’s a far cry from even the old-school simplicity of Ultima‘s alphabet soup of single-keystroke commands, much less the intuitive ease of Dungeon Master‘s mouse-driven interface.

Some of Wasteland‘s more pernicious playability issues feel like they stem from an overly literal translation of the tabletop experience to the computer.  The magnificent simplicity of the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system feels much more clunky and frustrating on the computer. As you explore the maps, you’re expected to guess where a skill and/or attribute might be of use, then to try manually invoking it. If you’re not constantly thinking on this level, and always aware of just what skills every member of your party has that might apply, it’s very easy to miss things. For example, the very first map you’re likely to visit contains a mysterious machine. You’re expected to not just dismiss that as scenery, or to assume it’s something you’ll learn more about later, but rather to use someone’s Intelligence to learn that it’s a water purifier you might be able to fix. Meanwhile other squares on other maps contain similar descriptions that are just scenery. In a tabletop game, where there is a constant active repartee between referee and players, where everything in the world can be fully “implemented” thanks to the referee’s imagination, and where every player controls just one character whom she knows intimately instead of a whole party of four, the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system works a treat. In Wasteland, it can feel like a tedious, mechanistic process of trial and error.

Other parts of Wasteland feel like equally heroic but perhaps misguided attempts to translate things that are simple and intuitive on the tabletop but extremely difficult on the computer to the digital realm at all costs, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. There is, for instance, a convoluted and confusing process for splitting your party into separate groups that can be on entirely separate maps at the same time. It’s impressive in its way, and gives Wasteland claim to yet another first in CRPG history to boot, but one has to question whether the time and effort put into it might have been better spent making a cleaner, more playable computer game. Ditto the parser-based conversation engine that occasionally pops up. An obvious attempt to bring the sort of free-form conversations that are possible with a human referee to the computer, in practice it’s just a tedious game of guess-the-word that makes it far too easy to miss stuff. While I applaud the effort St. Andre and Stackpole and their colleagues at Interplay made to bring more complexity to the CRPG, the fact remains that computer games are not tabletop games, and vice versa.

And then there’s the combat. The Bard’s Tale is still lurking down at the foundation of Wasteland‘s combat engine, but Interplay did take some steps to make it more interesting. Unlike in The Bard’s Tale, the position of your party and their enemies are tracked on a graphical map during combat. In addition to the old Bard’s Tale menu of actions — “attack,” “defend,” etc. — you can move around to find cover, or for that matter charge up to some baddies and stave their heads in with your crowbars in lieu of guns.

Yet somehow combat still isn’t much fun. This groundbreaking and much beloved post-apocalyptic CRPG also serves as an ironic argument for why the vast majority of CRPG designers and players still favor fantasy settings. Something that feels important, maybe even essential, feels lost without the ability to cast spells. Not only do you lose the thrill of seeing a magic-using character level up and trying out a new slate of spells, but you also lose the strategic dimension of managing your mana reserves, a huge part of the challenge of the likes of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. In theory, the acquiring of ever more powerful guns and the need to manage your ammunition stores in Wasteland ought to take the place of spells and the mana reserves needed to cast them, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. New guns just aren’t as interesting as new spells, especially considering that there really aren’t all that many of the former to be found in Wasteland. And you’re never very far from a store selling bullets, and you can carry so many with you anyway that it’s almost a moot point.

Most of all, there’s just too much fighting. One place where St. Andre and Stackpole regrettably didn’t depart from CRPG tradition was in their fondness for the wandering monster. Much of Wasteland is a dull slog through endless low-stakes battles with “leather jerks” and “ozoners,” an experience sadly divorced from the game’s more interesting and innovative aspects but one that ends up being at least as time-consuming.

For all these reasons, then, I’m a bit less high on Wasteland than many others. It strikes me as more historically important than a timeless classic, more interesting than playable. There’s of course no shame in that. We need games that push the envelope, and that’s something that Wasteland most assuredly did. The immense nostalgic regard in which it’s still held today says much about how amazing its innovations really were back in 1988.

As the gap between that year of Wasteland‘s release and Fargo, Pavlish, and Stackpole’s December 1985 meeting will attest, this was a game that was in development an insanely long time by the standards of the 1980s. And as you have probably guessed, it was never intended to take anything like this long. Interplay first talked publicly about the Wasteland project as early as the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1986, giving the impression it might be available as early as that Christmas. Instead it took fully two more years.

Thanks to Wasteland‘s long gestation, 1987 proved a very quiet year for the usually prolific Interplay. While ports of older titles continued to appear, the company released not a single original new game that year. The Bard’s Tale III, turned over to Bill Heineman following Michael Cranford’s decision to return to university, went into development early in 1987, but like Wasteland its gestation would stretch well into 1988. (Stackpole, who was apparently starting to like this computer-game development stuff, wrote the storyline and the text for The Bard’s Tale III to accompany Heineman’s design.) Thankfully, the first two Bard’s Tale games were continuing to sell very well, making Interplay’s momentary lack of productivity less of a problem than it might otherwise have been.

Shortly before Wasteland‘s belated release, St. Andre, Stackpole, and Pavlish, along with a grab bag of the others who had worked with them, headed out to the Sonoran Desert for a photo shoot. Everyone scoured the oddities in the backs of their closets and the local leather shops for their costumes, and a professional makeup team was recruited to help turn them all into warriors straight out of Mad Max. Bill Heineman, an avid gun collector, provided much of the weaponry they carried. The final picture, featured on the inside cover of Wasteland‘s package, has since become far more iconic than the art that appeared on its front, a fitting tribute to this unique team and their unique vision.

Some of the Wasteland team. Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Some of the Wasteland team. From left: Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Both Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III were finished almost simultaneously after many months of separate labor. When Fargo informed Electronic Arts of the good news, they insisted on shipping the two overdue games within two months of each other — May of 1988 in the case of Wasteland, July in that of The Bard’s Tale III — over his strident objections. He had good grounds for concern: these two big new CRPGs were bound to appeal largely to the same group of players, and could hardly help but cannibalize one another’s sales. To Interplay, this small company that had gone so long without any new product at all, the decision felt not just unwise but downright dangerous to their future.

Fargo had been growing increasingly unhappy with Electronic Arts, feeling Interplay just wasn’t earning enough from their development contracts for the hit games they had made for their publisher. Now this move was the last straw. Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III would be the last games Interplay would publish through Electronic Arts, as Fargo decided to carry out an idea he’d been mulling over for some time: to turn Interplay into a full-fledged publisher as well as developer, with their own name — and only their own name — on their game boxes.

Following a pattern that was already all too typical, The Bard’s Tale III — the more traditional game, the less innovative, and the sequel — became by far the better selling of the pairing. Wasteland didn’t flop, but it didn’t become an out-and-out hit either. Doubtless for this reason, neither Interplay nor Electronic Arts were willing to invest in the extensive porting to other platforms that marked the Bard’s Tale games. After the original Apple II and Commodore 64 releases, the only Wasteland port was an MS-DOS version that appeared nine months later, in March of 1989. Programmed by Interplay’s Michael Quarles, it sports modestly improved graphics and an interface that makes halfhearted use of a mouse. While most original players of Wasteland knew it in its 8-bit incarnations, it’s this version that almost everyone who has played it in the years since knows, and for good reason: it’s a far less painful experience than the vintage 8-bit one of juggling disks and waiting, waiting, waiting for all of those painstakingly detailed maps to load and save.

Wasteland‘s place in history, and in the mind of Brian Fargo, would always loom larger than its sales figures might suggest. Unfortunately, his ability to build on its legacy was immediately hampered by the split with Electronic Arts: the terms of the two companies’ contract signed all rights to the  Wasteland name as well as The Bard’s Tale over to Interplay’s publisher. Thus both series, one potential and one very much ongoing, were abruptly stopped in their tracks. Electronic Arts toyed with making a Bard’s Tale IV on their own from time to time without ever seeing the idea all the way through. Oddly given the relative sales numbers, Electronic Arts did bring a sequel of sorts to Wasteland to fruition, although they didn’t go so far as to dare to put the Wasteland name on the box. Given the contents of said box, it’s not hard to guess why. Fountain of Dreams (1990) uses Michael Quarles’s MS-DOS Wasteland engine, but it’s a far less audacious affair. Slipped out with little fanfare — Electronic Arts could spot a turkey as well as anyone — it garnered poor reviews, sold poorly, and is unloved and largely forgotten today.

In the absence of rights to the Wasteland name, Fargo initially planned to leverage his development team and the tools and game engine they had spent so long creating to make more games in other settings that would play much like Wasteland but wouldn’t be actual sequels. The first of these was to have been called Meantime, and was to have been written and designed by Stackpole with the help of many of the usual Wasteland suspects. Its premise was at least as intriguing as Wasteland‘s: a game of time travel in which you’d get to meet (and sometimes battle) historical figures from Cyrano de Bergerac to P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein to Amelia Earhart. At the Winter CES in January of 1989, Fargo said that Meantime would be out that summer: “I am personally testing the maps right now.” But it never appeared, thanks to a lot of design questions that were never quite solved and, most of all, thanks to the relentless march of technology. All of the Wasteland development tools ran on the Apple II and Commodore 64, platforms whose sales finally collapsed in 1989. Interplay tinkered with trying to move the tool chain to MS-DOS for several years, but the project finally expired from neglect. There just always seemed to be something more pressing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly given the enthusiasm with which they’d worked on Wasteland, neither St. Andre nor Stackpole remained for very long in the field of computer-game design. St. Andre returned to his librarian gig and his occasional sideline as a tabletop-RPG designer, not working on another computer game until recruited for Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 project many years later. Stackpole continued to take work from Interplay for the next few years, on Meantime and other projects, often working with his old Flying Buffalo and Wasteland colleague Liz Danforth. But his name too gradually disappeared from game credits in direct proportion to its appearance on the covers of more and more franchise novels. (His first such book, set in the universe of FASA’s BattleTech game, was published almost simultaneously with Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III.)

Fargo himself never forgot the game that had always been first foremost his own passion project. He would eventually revive it, first via the “spiritual sequels” Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), then with the belated Kickstarter-funded sequel-in-name-as-well-as-spirit Wasteland 2 (2014).

But those are stories for much later times. Wasteland was destined to stand alone for many years. And yet it wouldn’t be the only lesson 1988 brought in the perils and possibilities of bringing tabletop rules to the computer. Another, much higher profile tabletop adaptation, the result of a blockbuster licensing deal given to the most unexpected of developers, was still to come before the year was out. Next time we’ll begin to trace the story behind this third and final landmark CRPG of 1988, the biggest selling of the whole lot.

(Sources: PC Player of August 1989; Questbusters of Juy 1986, March 1988, April 1988, May 1988, July 1988, August 1988, October 1988, November 1988, January 1989, March 1989. On YouTube, Rebecca Heineman and Jennell Jaquays at the 2013 Portland Retro Gaming Expo; Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo at Unity 2012. Other online sources include a Michael Stackpole article on RockPaperShotgun; Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman on Gamasutra; GTW64’s page on Meantime.

Wasteland is available for purchase from GOG.com.)


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

  2. Paul Jaquays now lives as Jennell Jaquays. 

  3. Interestingly, Stackpole did have one connection to Interplay, through Bard’s Tale designer Michael Cranford. Cranford sent Flying Buffalo a Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure of his own devising around 1983. Stackpole thought it showed promise, but that it wasn’t quite there yet, so he sent it back with some suggestions for improvement and a promise to look at it again if Cranford followed through on them. But he never heard another word from him; presumably it was right about this time that Cranford got busy making The Bard’s Tale

  4. In what must be a record for footnotes of this type, I have to also note that Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Friends of the Wasteland: The Legacy of Flying Buffalo

Flying Buffalo

Two advances, one technical and one conceptual, led to computerized adventure and RPG games as we came to know them in the 1980s. The technical advance was of course the PC revolution, dating from, depending on how you prefer to look at these things, either the arrival of the first Altair kit computers in 1975 or that of the first pre-assembled consumer-grade computers, the legendary Trinity of 1977. The conceptual advance was a slightly older, subtler development, but hardly of less importance. It dates to 1974, the year that Dungeons & Dragons was published. Shortly after beginning this blog, I wrote of Dungeons & Dragons that “its impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” Much as that claim may cause many cultural gatekeepers to slam down their portcullises in horror, I stand by it more than ever today.

When it comes to computer games in particular, the noise that a bunch of tabletop gamers struck up in the 1970s just keeps on echoing. Whether you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG or not, if you play computer games today you are heir to what those folks first wrought all those decades ago. Sometimes the influence is so strong that I feel compelled to take an extended look back.

Well, readers, what can I say? We’re coming to another of those times. In the course of the next handful of articles I’ll find myself again needing to look back to the tabletop games of the 1970s to understand the computer games of the 1980s. We’ll start that journey today with a loose-knit group of friends and colleagues who quietly changed the face not only of games but also of books. And it all started because one of them arrived late to a game night.

Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, and programmer Alan Pavlish dressed up as Wasteland Warriors, 1988.

Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, and programmer Alan Pavlish dressed up as Wasteland Warriors, 1988.

The game night in question took place in April of 1975 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The individual in question was a shy 28-year-old librarian with the incongruously Arthurian name of Ken St. Andre. In deference to his chivalrous moniker, St. Andre had always loved adventure and fantasy fiction, right from the day he first discovered the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard as a young boy. His motivation for reading, then as always, was unabashed escapism:

I have never been particularly strong, athletic, heroic, good-looking, or successful with women. I’m the kind of guy who would like to live a life of high adventure, but am either too smart or too chicken to really pursue such a life. Tarzan and Conan—those guys are my ideals—physically superhuman, handsome, courageous, and irresistible.

He dreamed of becoming a professional writer of similar stories, but, not being a terribly outgoing or self-confident sort, had found it easier to take a graduate degree in library science and settle into a quiet nine-to-five routine.

St. Andre’s social calendar, such as it was, was dominated by his other great love: that of games. He had learned chess at his father’s knee at the age of 6, and gone on to become president of his high school’s chess club. But as of the spring of 1975 his biggest ludic obsession was Diplomacy. Having discovered the game only a year or so before, he now played every chance he got, and was already crafting variants of his own that moved the setting from pre-World War I Europe to worlds of fantasy drawn from his imagination and the paperbacks on his bursting bookshelves. He thus had cause to be particularly disappointed tonight to find that his friends had already started playing without him: the game they were playing was Diplomacy.

Bored and made restless by the fun his friends were having without him, St. Andre started poking through the other games lying about the place. One of them couldn’t help but catch his eye, a wood-grained box lying amid the sea of cardboard with the name Dungeons & Dragons stamped on its front. Released more than a year before by a tiny garage-run company called Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), Dungeons & Dragons was prompting considerable discussion in gaming circles. But, with TSR’s distribution reaching little beyond the Midwest, the game was hard to come by in other parts of the country. St. Andre had heard of it, but had never seen it in the flesh. Now, thanks to a member of his gaming group who’d scored a copy somewhere and brought it along as a curiosity to show to the group, he had his chance. He opened the box to discover four rulebooks and a pile of reference cards.

St. Andre loved what he read on the first pages of the first of the rulebooks. Promising as he did to let him play the role of Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars or Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Gary Gygax could hardly have done a better job of appealing to St. Andre’s instinct for escapist adventure had he written the introduction just for him. As he read further, however, St. Andre grew more and more nonplussed. This game was complicated. When he turned to the combat rules, which were grouped together in a rulebook inexplicably titled Chainmail instead of Dungeons & Dragons, he gave up, baffled by rules that demanded miniatures and a referee willing to literally build the battlefield on a tabletop (“construct terrain on 2′ X 2′ pieces of masonite or similar material, sculpting hills, gullies, ridges, rivers, and so on with plaster and/or paper mache”). That sort of arts-and-crafts project might have sounded appealing to some, but St. Andre wasn’t among them.

It was a classic clash of expectations. Gary Gygax and TSR were steeped in the culture of hardcore miniatures wargaming, where no rule was too complicated, where physically making from scratch the battlefield and the combatants that roamed across it was half the fun. Dungeons & Dragons itself had been created not as a standalone game but as a fantasy storytelling “supplement” to TSR’s Medieval wargame Chainmail.

St. Andre, for all his love for games in general, had no particular truck with minutiae-obsessed wargames. He preferred more easygoing, social games like Diplomacy or even Monopoly. His reaction to Dungeons & Dragons was thus: “What a great concept! What a terrible execution!” He would later sum up his differences with Gygax by saying that he was interested in taking the stories he loved and turning them into games, while Gygax wanted to take his hardcore wargames and add a bit of story.

Still, the fire had been lit. Over three feverish days and nights, St. Andre laid out the basis for a new game, which he then tested and refined with his friends for the next couple of months. For most of this period they continued to call the game they were playing Dungeons & Dragons, an anecdote that provides as good a marker as any of the endeavor’s fundamental innocence as well as its sheer derivativeness. But when he started thinking about actually publishing the game, St. Andre knew that he need to give it a name of its own. He came up with Tunnels & Troglodytes, whereupon a member of his group named Dan Carver promptly shortened it to Tunnels & Trolls. Pithy, catchy, and cheeky in its willingness to riff off of its inspiration, it suited the game’s personality perfectly. A kind critic of Tunnels & Trolls might note how much faster and simpler it was to play than Dungeons & Dragons. A less kind critic might note that those qualities were not down to any unique mechanical elegance so much as a willingness to leave just about everything to the Dungeon Master — yes, Tunnels & Trolls retained the name for its own referee — to make up as the game went along. Whether you find that notion appealing says much about what sort of player you are.

St. Andre paid the print shop at Arizona State University $60 to run off the first 100 copies of his game, which now filled about 40 typewritten pages — or roughly the size of one of those four Dungeons & Dragons books. He struggled to sell more than a handful of his modest print run; he was anything but a natural salesman.

Luckily, he had among his gaming acquaintances a fellow named Rick Loomis, owner of a tiny company called Flying Buffalo that was based right there in Scottsdale. We’ve met Flying Buffalo before in the context of their main business as of 1975: a play-by-mail grand-strategy game called Starweb that was moderated by a big Raytheon 704 minicomputer. Starweb, which incredibly is still ongoing today, would become an influence on later PC games, particularly on those of the British designer Mike Singleton, creator of the 1984 classic The Lords of Midnight. Indeed, after a start like Starweb one can imagine Flying Buffalo doubling down on gaming’s digital frontier, perhaps becoming an early publisher of PC games. But instead Loomis made his big play on the tabletop, a decision that was all but foreordained by what transpired between him and Ken St. Andre in 1975.

St. Andre asked Loomis in his shy way if the latter might be able to take his remaining copies of Tunnels & Trolls with him to the first ever Origins Game Fair at Johns Hopkins University that July. Loomis agreed to do so as a favor without much enthusiasm. Once at the Fair, he stuck the plain, hand-stapled booklets on a corner of Flying Buffalo’s table, sure no one would glance at them twice. He sold every single copy.

Legend says that he did so under the evil eye of Gary Gygax, selling his Dungeons & Dragons sets for several times the cost of Tunnels & Trolls and staring daggers at Loomis all the while from TSR’s booth on the other side of the hall. Never the cuddliest of personalities, Gygax was outraged by Tunnels & Trolls, considering it nothing more than a cheap, inferior knockoff of his idea. (The name didn’t do much to help Flying Buffalo’s case…) Several times over the years TSR, which grew to be a very litigious firm under Gygax’s watch, would rattle their legal sabres at Flying Buffalo, thankfully without ever quite following through on the big lawsuit that might have buried the smaller company under lawyers’ fees.

The first RPG to be published by a company other than TSR, Tunnels & Trolls established the dynamic that has continued to rule the tabletop-RPG industry to this day. Unusually in this world of ours where pioneers so often go unrewarded, Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop RPG, has remained the most popular by a veritable order of magnitude. All other games have been forced to define themselves in relation to — and frequently in opposition to — Gygax’s vision. Of no game was this more true than Tunnels & Trolls. After all, Tunnels & Trolls prompted the comparisons before you even opened its rulebook, just as soon as you read its title. As he’s always at pains to emphasize, St. Andre may very well have had only the vaguest understanding of Dungeons & Dragons at the time he wrote Tunnels & Trolls, but his game was comprehensively a reaction to it nevertheless: “deliberately designed to be simpler in its mechanics, less expensive, faster to play, and more whimsical.”

The things that had baffled St.Andre about Dungeons & Dragons were largely the same things that would continue to baffle new players for decades to come. Why did armor make characters more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when they were hit? (St. Andre opted for the latter approach in his game.) What the hell was the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom? (Reasoning that anyone truly wise wouldn’t be spending her days chasing monsters and looting dungeons, St. Andre ditched the latter statistic, replacing it with Luck.) Was it really necessary to use a pile of weird polyhedral dice, especially given that such dice didn’t come included with Dungeons & Dragons and weren’t terribly easy to find in the mid-1970s? (St. Andre made sure that his game needed only a couple of standard six-sided dice, of the sort anyone could find by raiding that old Monopoly game in the closet.) In what kind of society did people walk around advertising that they were “lawful,” “neutral,” or “chaotic?” (St. Andre ditched the concept of alignment entirely.) Did there really need to be two entirely separate schools of magic, each with its own fiddly rules? (St. Andre ditched clerics as well, a decision that had the added upside of keeping his game from being “dominated by some pseudo-Christian religion.”) Even if a foolish consistency really was the hobgoblin of little minds, was it necessary for Dungeons & Dragons to be so consistently inconsistent, for every rule to read like it had been created in a vacuum, with no reference to or knowledge of any of the others?

Tunnels & Trolls can almost be read as a satire of Dungeons & Dragons, if it’s possible to satirize something that was itself so new and nascent. St. Andre reworked Gygax’s sturdily descriptive but humorless spell names to bring a dash of joy to their casting: “Lightning Bolt” became “Take That You Fiend!,” “Neutralize Poison” became “Too Bad Toxin.” He once aptly described Tunnels & Trolls as The Lord of the Rings filtered through the sensibility of Marvel Comics. One of the most iconic pieces of Tunnels & Trolls art is one of the earliest, a troll — who, I must say, actually looks rather like a gorilla — with an arrow through his head and a caption below saying, “HA-HA! Yah missed all my vital spots!!” It stems from one of St. Andre’s early game sessions, during which the character being run by Rob (brother of Dan) Carver shot a giant lion at point-blank range with an arbalest, only to see the beast keep right on coming and maul him. St. Andre’s response to Carver’s loudly expressed outrage was immortalized by Carver himself the following day. Crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny where Dungeons & Dragons was pedantic and serious, it captures the anarchic spirit of Tunnels & Trolls beautifully. Come to think of it, “crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny” sums up Tunnels & Trolls itself pretty well.

Tunnels & TrollsHad Tunnels & Trolls been merely the first non-TSR RPG or “merely” the progenitor of the countless rules-light, storytelling-heavy games of today, its place in history would be secure. Yet its influence has been still more marked than those descriptions would imply, thanks to a conversation the Flying Buffalo friends had one night after attending a Phoenix science-fiction convention.

The topic was that perennial problem of so many RPG players, then and now: the need to reconcile busy lives with getting together on a regular basis with friends to play. What if there was a way to play a solo game of Tunnels of Trolls? A fellow named Steve MacAllister suggested that it might be possible to create a sort of interactive, programmed book. The player could read a paragraph setting up the scene, then, depending on the circumstances, either choose an option from a multiple-choice list or roll dice according to the standard Tunnels & Trolls rules, then turn to the next appropriate numbered paragraph to continue the story. And so on, and so on, until the adventure ended in victory or death or some state in between. It might not capture the full flavor or offer the full freedom of a multi-player Tunnels & Trolls session with a good Dungeon Master, but for plenty of players it might just be better than nothing. Loomis himself ran with the idea, and Flying Buffalo published his Buffalo Castle, Tunnels & Trolls Solo Adventure #1, in May of 1976.

Coming three years before Bantam Books kicked off the gamebook craze of the 1980s with the first book of their Choose Your Own Adventure line, the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures were perhaps the most prescient idea of all to come out of Flying Buffalo.1 They were quite successful by the company’s modest standards, selling so much better than conventional multi-player adventures and supplements that at times Flying Buffalo seemed to publish little else. But, as would prove typical for Flying Buffalo in general and Tunnels & Trolls in particular, their influence far outstripped their sales. In the early 1980s, Steve Jackson of the British company Games Workshop had the idea of combining the programmed paragraphs and light RPG mechanics of the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures with the everyday paperback-book form factor of Choose Your Own Adventure. The result was the Fighting Fantasy line, a bestselling juggernaut on both sides of the Atlantic. Sales of the first book in the line alone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982), bettered those of every Tunnels & Trolls product ever made by many multiples. Estimates are that well over 15 million Fighting Fantasy books have been sold in total.

About 1977, a newcomer named Liz Danforth arrived on the scene at Flying Buffalo as a telephone-support operator for Starweb and staff illustrator among other odd jobs. After proving herself as good with words as she was with pictures, she was given the job of editing Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Flying Buffalo’s equivalent to TSR’s Dragon magazine. (As ever, Flying Buffalo was still defining itself in reaction to TSR and what St. Andre liked to call That Other Game. “Sorcerer’s Apprentice will attempt to carry the T&T philosophy of FRP gaming to a wider audience,” he wrote for the first issue. “Namely that role-playing is fun. Dungeons & Dragons, despite its inherent silliness, has somehow taken on the quasi-serious aspects of a religion.”) In later years, Danforth would achieve considerable fame as a freelance illustrator of countless games and book jackets. For now, though, she applied a much-needed sheen of professionalism to the output of Flying Buffalo, whose publications at the time she arrived still looked and read like fanzines. Notably, she all but completely rewrote St. Andre’s rambling prose for a slicker, tighter new edition of Tunnels & Trolls that appeared in 1979.

In 1978, another newcomer named Michael Stackpole arrived. An avid player of Starweb who struck up an acquaintance with Loomis through that game, Stackpole first sold him a new Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure and then parlayed that into a full-time job at Flying Buffalo, something even St. Andre himself — he was, you’ll remember, not much for “high adventure” in real life — never quite dared give up his stable librarian gig to accept. Once again, had Flying Buffalo’s only claim to fame been to serve as the incubator of Michael Stackpole’s talent it would be worthy of at least a substantial footnote in the history of gaming and science-fiction fandom. Stackpole would go on to become a prolific science-fiction novelist, frequently writing books set in the universes of big ludic and cinematic properties like BattleTech, World of Warcraft, and, perhaps most notably, Star Wars. Not being terribly interested in such things, I can’t speak to his qualities as a writer, but he’s certainly been successful at it.

With the help of Danforth and Stackpole, Flying Buffalo slicked-up and professionalized just in time for the wave of success that rolled across the world of tabletop RPGs in general during the next few years. These were the years when school lunch rooms across the country were dotted with Dungeons & Dragons manuals and funny dice, when TSR’s annual revenues topped $20 million, and when a young Tom Hanks was starring in a terrible movie about the dangers of the craze. (The name of that movie and its titular game, Mazes and Monsters, could easily have been that of Tunnels & Trolls had St. Andre and his friends chosen another letter to alliterate on.) TSR, the flagship of the industry, pulled along a whole convoy of smaller vessels, among them Flying Buffalo, in their wake. It was a prosperity and level of mainstream attention — admittedly not always positive mainstream attention — the likes of which the tabletop-RPG industry had never known before nor would ever know again. Flying Buffalo expanded quickly, increasing both the quality and quantity of their output of both Tunnels & Trolls and other products. They were now big enough to attract names like Dave Arneson, Gygax’s less pedantic partner in crafting the original vision for Dungeons & Dragons, and Charles de Lint, another soon to be prominent novelist, to write for them.

Perhaps their most fondly remembered product of this brief halcyon period, as indelibly Flying Buffalo as any Tunnels & Trolls publication, is Grimtooth’s Traps (1981), a system-agnostic collection of hilariously lethal party killers, as introduced and annotated by the titular troll himself. Deeply unfair by any conventional standard, the traps in all their Rube Goldberg complexity are so much fun that you’d almost be willing to forgive any sadistic Dungeon Master who sprung any of them on your party. But then St. Andre has always scoffed at conventional notions of game balance, saying that if the odds were truly even then the heroes wouldn’t be heroes, now would they? Anyway, in his world the Dungeon Master is the absolute final arbiter of everything, free to fudge or ignore dice rolls and deus ex machina the players out of a jam whenever she feels it necessary to advance the real goal of entertaining, exciting cooperative storytelling.

For our purposes, Flying Buffalo’s most significant non-Tunnels & Trolls product must be an entirely new 1983 game called Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes — a game of twentieth-century adventure of all stripes, from John Rambo (mercenary) to James Bond (spy) to Sam Spade (private eye). Michael Stackpole, still a few years removed from beginning his career as a novelist, took it as an opportunity to graduate from writing adventures and supplements to crafting a whole new game system of his own — albeit a game system that owed more than a little to the mechanics of Tunnels & Trolls. His most significant addition to those mechanics was an à la carte menu of skills that took the place of Tunnels & Trolls‘s rigid character classes. Stackpole devised an ingenious and quietly influential system wherein skills could be added to a character’s core abilities to determine her chance of succeeding at something. For instance, she might use Dexterity plus her Pistol skill to shoot at something, Intelligence plus Pistol to figure out what type of pistol a given specimen is, or even Charisma plus Pistol to impress someone else with her shooting skills.

Unfortunately, the year of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes‘s publication was also the year that the bloom began to come off the tabletop rose, not least because the sorts of kids who had flocked to Dungeons & Dragons and its competitors began to discover the adventurous computer games the tabletop industry had done so much to influence. Thanks to declining sales and some unwise financial decisions of the sort that are endemic to a young industry enjoying a sudden spurt of growth — in this case the particular culprit was a too-good-to-be-true financing deal with a local printer — Flying Buffalo very nearly went under. Loomis suddenly didn’t have the resources to properly promote or support Stackpole’s game, nor to do much of anything else for that matter. Sorcerer’s Apprentice ceased publication as part of a series of heartbreaking cost-cutting measures, and Liz Danforth moved on. Michael Stackpole stuck around longer, but would eventually go freelance as well as his career as a novelist began to take off. Flying Buffalo flies on to this day, but, like Chaosium, that other tabletop survivor we met earlier, has never since enjoyed anything like the success of their brief early-1980s heyday.

And that is largely that for Flying Buffalo’s most influential period. But what an influence it was! There’s the proto-4X game and proto-MMORPG all rolled into one that was Starweb. There’s Tunnels & Trolls, the game that proved that Dungeon and Dragons need not be the be-all end-all when it comes to fantasy RPGs, and that showed in the process how much rollicking fun could be had with a rules-light, story-oriented system. There’s the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures and the millions of dog-eared, pencil-smeared paperbacks they spawned. There’s the later careers of Liz Danforth and Michael Stackpole. One could doubtless write several substantial articles of any of these legacies. The legacy on which I’d like to concentrate, however, is yet another one, albeit one related to all of these things.

Even as Flying Buffalo was frantically downsizing, a youthful computer-game executive was fingering his copy of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes and musing. Brian Fargo, founder and head of a little Orange County developer called Interplay, was in the process of finishing his company’s first CRPG, a Wizardry-like dungeon delver called The Bard’s Tale that had been written primarily by his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford and would soon be published by Electronic Arts. But Fargo already had grander ambitions. He loved pulpy post-apocalyptic fictions: the movies The Omega Man and Mad Max, the comic book Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. The post-apocalyptic CRPG he was dreaming of would be the first of its type, and must entail more than mapping endless mazes and slaughtering endless hordes of monsters — not that a little slaughtering would be amiss, mind you. Looking at Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a game he liked very much, he started thinking about another first: working with experienced tabletop designers to translate a set of tabletop mechanics, which even in the rules-lights form favored by Flying Buffalo were far more complex than those of the typical CRPG, to the computer.

Fargo’s first call was to Ken St. Andre, who was very receptive. (“Cross my palm with silver and I’ll be happy to work on games for any company out there,” he jokes today.) St. Andre almost immediately came up with the perfect name, one that would remain unquestioned henceforward: Wasteland. But Fargo would, St. Andre said, need to get Michael Stackpole on board if he wanted to adapt the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes rules; it was Stackpole’s game, after all.

When Fargo duly called him up, Stackpole was initially skeptical; plenty of similar feelers had never turned into anything. But when Fargo asked whether he, Fargo, could fly out to Arizona and talk to him about it in person, Stackpole started to take the idea more seriously. Soon he had officially signed on as well.

Fargo’s choice of partners proved a good one in more ways than one. St. Andre and Stackpole were both very well-acquainted with computer games and didn’t look down on them, a quality that stood them in marked contrast to many of their peers from the tabletop world. Both had become active electronic as well as tabletop gamers in recent years, and both had parlayed this new hobby, as they had their earlier, into paying gigs by writing articles, reviews, and columns for magazines like Computer Gaming World and Questbusters. St. Andre had developed a special enthusiasm for Electronic Arts’s Adventure Construction Set, a system for making simple CRPGs without programming that wasn’t all that far removed in its do-it-yourself spirit from Tunnels & Trolls. He served as head of an officially recognized Adventure Construction Set fan club.

Fiercely loyal to their old friends, St. Andre and Stackpole convinced Fargo to widen the circle yet further, first to include Liz Danforth and then Dan Carver, the very man who had given Tunnels & Trolls its name all those years ago. The new computer project missed only one key figure from the creative core of the old Flying Buffalo. Rick Loomis, busy trying to save his company, had no time for side projects.

This little group of tabletop alumni was embarking on an unprecedented project. While plenty of veterans of the tabletop had flitted over to the more lucrative world of computer games already, no single project had ever employed so many, and never with such a clear goal of bringing the vintage tabletop-RPG experience to a computer game. Whatever his little band of refugees came up with, Fargo knew as he looked on with excitement and no small trepidation, it was bound to be interesting.

(Sources: Matt Chat 90 with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo’s speech at the 2012 Unity conference; recent interviews with Ken St. Andre at Grognardia, Poplitko, Obskures, and the Tunnels & Trolls home page; a vintage St. Andre interview with Demon magazine; RPG.Net’s review of Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. Most of all, Shannon Appelcline’s superb book Designers & Dragons: The 1970s and Jon Peterson’s positively magisterial Playing at the World. The latter book does a far better job making the case for Dungeons & Dragons‘s importance than I have on this blog.)


  1. There were other experiments with interactive books going at the same as and even before the first Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. For instance, author Edward Packard of eventual Choose Your Own Adventure fame published Sugarcane Island, a sort of prototype of the concept, through the tiny Vermont Crossroads Press the same year as Buffalo Castle. There is, however, nothing to indicate that anyone at Flying Buffalo has any awareness of this or other developments prior to Choose Your Own Adventure

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Brian Fargo and Interplay

Interplay

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

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

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

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur, 1982.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soon the game was far enough along for Fargo to start shopping it to publishers. His first stop was naturally Activision. One of Jim Levy’s major blind spots, however, was the whole CRPG genre. He simply couldn’t understand the appeal of killing monsters, mapping dungeons, and building characters, reportedly pronouncing Interplay’s project “nicheware for nerds.” And so Fargo ended up across town at Electronics Arts, who, recognizing that Trip Hawkins’s original conception of “simple, hot, and deep” wasn’t quite the be-all end-all in a world where all entertainment software was effectively “nicheware for nerds,” were eager to diversify into more hardcore genres like the CRPG. EA’s marketing director Bing Gordon zeroed in on the appeal of one of Cranford’s relatively few expansions on Wizardry, the character of the bard. He went so far as to change the game’s name from Shadow Snare to The Bard’s Tale to highlight him, creating a lovable rogue to serve as the star of advertisements and box copy who barely exists in the game proper: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking.” Beyond that, promoting The Bard’s Tale was just a matter of trumpeting the game’s audiovisual appeal in contrast to the likes of Wizardry. Released in plenty of time for Christmas 1985, with all of EA’s considerable promotional savvy and financial muscle behind it, The Bard’s Tale shocked even its creators and its publisher by outselling the long-awaited Ultima IV that appeared just a few weeks later. Interplay had come into the big time; Fargo’s days of scrabbling after any work he could find looked to be over for a long, long time to come. In the end, The Bard’s Tale would sell more than 400,000 copies, becoming the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tass Times in Tonetown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sources: The book Stay Awhile and Listen by David L. Craddock; Commodore Magazine of December 1987; Softline of January 1982, March 1982, May 1982, September 1982, January 1983, September/October 1983, and November/December 1983; Amazing Computing of April 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of September 1983; Microtimes of March 1987; Orange Coast of July 2000, August 2000, September 2000, and May 2001; Questbusters of March 1991. Online sources include: Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman, parts 1 and 3; Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo, part 1; Digital Press’s interview with Heineman; Gamestar’s interview with Fargo; interviews with Bill Kunkel at Gamasutra, Good Deal Games, and 8-bit Rocket; “trivia” in the MobyGames page on Tass Times in Tonetown; and a VentureBeat article on Interplay. Also Jason Scott’s interview with Mike Berlyn for Get Lamp that he was kind enough to share with me. And thanks to Alex Smith for sharing the “nichware for nerds” anecdote about Jim Levy in a comment on this blog. Feel free to download the Amiga versions of Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown from right here if you like.

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

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


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

 

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