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The End of the Line for Level 9 as the Market Takes Its Toll on Magnetic Scrolls

At the zenith of their commercial success in early 1985, the Austin brothers of Level 9 left their family home of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire to move into a grand old house called Rocklease, built into a steep hillside near the Somerset coast. Asked shortly thereafter what they did for excitement on their lonely perch high above a valley inhabited only by grazing cows, Pete Austin noted that life in Rocklease wasn’t without its excitements: “Occasionally a horse goes by.” The Austins spent their free time going for long hikes through the countryside and cultivating a lovely garden — not exactly typical pursuits for game developers. Yet the quiet life in the country suited Pete Austin in particular very well indeed. Level 9’s new environs almost immediately began to rub off on his creations.

Somerset is intimately associated with Arthurian Britain. The area around the town of Glastonbury is, many believe, the legendary Avalon, while churches and ruins throughout the region echo with longstanding oral legends involving Camelot and the Holy Grail. Does a landscape retain some of the spirit of those who came before? When tramping through the hills and dells of Somerset, so rich with the atmosphere of myth, it can feel hard to deny. For Pete, a longtime King Arthur buff, that was a big part of the appeal of the place. It can hardly be a coincidence that shortly after moving into Rocklease his muse started guiding him toward Le Morte d’Arthur and The Once and Future King as inspirations for his work with Level 9.

Pete Austin was an Arthurian traditionalist. “The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are known to all,” he said in an interview, “but it is a sad fact that most modern interpretations seem to owe nothing to the original tales.” He wanted to use Level 9 to correct that in some modest way, to return some of the grandeur to a tradition that in Pete’s view had been increasingly slighted and abused since well before Monty Python had decided to make a mockery of the whole thing on film. The real legends of King Arthur were first the inspiration for the grand unfinished project that consumed much of the Austins’ time and energy during the mid-decade years: Avalon, a huge multiplayer text adventure that attempted to bring its namesake to life again, complete with the full cast of Arthurian characters. That quixotic project eventually collapsed under its own weight, but Pete never lost his desire to do the Arthurian legends right. So, after getting Knight Orc and the two Gnome Ranger games off his chest, he decided to make Lancelot, a more conventional single-player adventure game telling the full tragic story of King Arthur’s ill-made knight.

Lancelot begins with the namesake knight meeting and jousting with a disguised King Arthur on the road to Camelot, just as in legend.

Lancelot begins with a meeting and a joust with a disguised King Arthur on the road to Camelot, just as in legend.

It was all of course hopeless, just as much so in its own way as had been Avalon. In a three-part text adventure that could run on a 48 K Sinclair Spectrum, Pete proposed to retell the full story of one of the great characters of world literature, complete with its themes of loyalty and betrayal, the longing for the sacred and the allure of the profane. The medium simply couldn’t live up to the vision, and the end result feels just plain weird. The granular, detail-obsessed medium of parser-driven interactive fiction is utterly unsuited to a story of this grand scope, even if Level 9 had been allowed 600,000 words instead of 60,000. As it is, vast swathes of rich plot are crammed into single rooms on a sprawling map, major battles won by typing a single command, fateful scenes like Lancelot and Arthur’s Queen Guinevere’s surrender to temptation summed up in a few sentences. We’ve seen this sort of mismatch between medium and content before in such games as Telarium’s adaptation of Nine Princes in Amber, so I won’t belabor the problems too much here. I’m tempted to say that Pete Austin, a very experienced text-adventure designer by this stage, really should have known better, but the whole game is created in such earnest, is so obviously a labor of love, that I find myself wanting to be more forgiving than I probably should.

This is yet another Level 9 game that uses the KAOS system of active characters, giving it at times much the same Bizarro World quality as Knight Orc — hardly the mood of stately grandeur the text tries to evoke. (For example: “Dusk began to suck the colours from the greying world,” the game tells you instead of just saying it’s getting dark.)  From time to time the game seems to go crazy, with everyone suddenly attacking everyone else for no reason whatsoever. Even the map seems bugged, with an apparently inadvertent maze created by one location that doesn’t lead back to the location it should.

Lancelot marked Level 9’s debut with a new publisher, an unexpected new lease on life after the disappointment of their previous deal with  Rainbird. Mandarin Software was a brand new label on the British market, eager to make their mark and still hopeful that Level 9’s text adventures had some commercial life left in them. They signed an unusual deal with Level 9 that reflects the weakness of the latter company’s position; it allowed Mandarin to pick and choose among the games they were offered, publishing only those they judged to have sufficient commercial appeal to make it worth their while. Thus even as Lancelot was appearing on the Mandarin label, becoming Level 9’s big release for the year, the Austins were releasing the more idiosyncratic Ingrid’s Back! on their own. As I described in my last article, Mandarin promoted Lancelot quite lavishly, via a Masquerade-style treasure hunt that Pete Austin obligingly designed. But doubtless the best thing about the deal from Level 9’s perspective was the relationship Mandarin had with the American publisher Datasoft, a new chance at this late date to break into the American market that had so stubbornly eluded them thus far.

The Lancelot contest is shoehorned rather awkwardly into the game.

The Lancelot contest is shoehorned rather awkwardly into the game.

Alas, it would continue to elude them. Even had the American text-adventure market not been if anything even more sick than the British, Lancelot‘s problems could hardly have been expected to go unnoticed. Questbusters, one of the few American magazines to bother noting the game’s existence at all, called it “virtually unplayable.” Many British reviewers were only slightly kinder. “When it hits the high notes,” said Amstrad Action, “it certainly matches anything the company has done so far, but the low notes seem even more depressing as a result.” The Games Machine called it “mostly a text-reading exercise.”

Level 9’s other release through Mandarin, which actually predated Lancelot by a few months, was much better received. Time & Magik, a collection of three older Level 9 games in enhanced versions, had been originally planned as a Rainbird release, a follow-up to the two earlier Rainbird trilogies Jewels of Darkness and Silicon Dreams. This time out, a bit of only mildly tortured ret-conning linked Lords of Time, Level 9’s Doctor Who-inspired standalone time-travel epic, with Red Moon and The Price of Magik, a pair of innovative fantasy titles featuring CRPG-style spell and combat mechanics. Learning from the poor reception of the two Rainbird trilogies, the Austins did a much better job of modernizing these older games for the latest generation of 16-bit computers, adding some quite nice bitmap illustrations to replace the old vector graphics — or, in the case of Lords of Time, the nonexistent graphics — and hiring outside writers to flesh out the text, in some places almost to late-Infocom levels of atmospheric verbosity.

The ghostwriter of the Lords of Time has passionate opinions about proper can-opener design.

The ghostwriter of the new Lords of Time has passionate opinions about proper tin-opener design.

And yet — and this is what continues to make Level 9 so incredibly frustrating for me as a critic — they still squandered a beautiful opportunity to fix some of the problems in the originals that had been spawned by limited time, limited testing, and limited hardware. Take for instance one of the dodgy puzzles in Lords of Time. In the obligatory Ice Age area, you find yourself in a “freezing cave, where ice crusts the walls, glittering like diamonds. You can see a little icicle hanging from the ceiling.” The puzzle here, naturally, is to acquire the icicle. Neither jumping, nor standing on anything, nor throwing anything at the icicle will work. Instead you need to “SHOUT,” whereupon “the din shakes the icicle loose.” Now, all that would be needed to transform this from a dodgy puzzle to a perfectly acceptable one would be a little nudge in the room description, perhaps noting how “the sounds of your movements in this cavern echo back to you, so loudly as to seem almost unnatural” or some such. But such a nudge Level 9 still doesn’t deign to provide, throwing away a chance to right the design sins of old in favor of lots of extraneous textual gilding that’s nice to have but ultimately inessential.

Whatever my misgivings, reviewers were much kinder to Time & Magik than they had been to any other Level 9 game of the last couple of years. The bitter irony in its more positive reception was of course the fact that these were not new games at all, just reworked echoes of the Austins’ glory years. This fact was hardly lost on reviewers, who used it to emphasize just how far Level 9 had fallen in their opinions since the games’ original releases. Oddly, the most wholly positive take on Time & Magik, untainted by gripes about the current games or nostalgia for the past, was the one printed in the American Questbusters. “The British finally get one right!” ran the headline of a crazily superlative review that went on to call it “one of the top five games in its genre.”

But neither of the Mandarin releases sold very well in Europe or the United States. Just as Rainbird had the year before, Mandarin dropped Level 9 by the end of 1988, tired of flogging what they had now decided for themselves was indeed a dead horse.

It just a wasn’t a good time to be peddling text adventures, as Magnetic Scrolls, the only other significant company in Britain still making the things, was also experiencing. In response to the two companies’ travails, Tony Rainbird, no longer head of the publisher that bore his name but still a great fan and booster of the genre, came forward with a scheme to give text adventures some life support. He wanted to start a fan club, called Official Secrets, to bind the remaining adventuring hardcore together, giving them a place to read about their hobby, swap hints, and buy the games that were disappearing from store shelves via mail order. Official Secrets would offer a magazine, a free help line for members, and a mail-order arm called Special Reserve to serve each of these purposes respectively. Wielding the same charm that had once allowed him to simultaneously sign rivals Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls to his Rainbird label, Tony brought them both along into Official Secrets, turning these two companies who had pointedly never had much of anything to say to or about one another — both always pointed to Infocom as their chief inspiration and chief competitor — into de facto business partners on the venture. They would share in the annual fees of £20 per member, a potentially valuable source of extra income in these tough times. In return, they’d provide lots of insider access to the magazine, along with hints for their games and occasional contests and perks, beginning with a whole new game made exclusively for Official Secrets members by Magnetic Scrolls.

Magnetic Scrolls pretty clearly didn't put their usual care into the pictures for Myth.

Magnetic Scrolls pretty clearly didn’t put their usual care into the pictures for Myth.

Myth, written by a staffer named Paul Findley, was described by Magnetic Scrolls as “a mini-adventure”; it includes just four pictures and a very abbreviated geography, coming off to modern eyes as something of a forerunner to the “Comp-sized” games that have been the norm in interactive fiction for so many years now. It’s 30 A.D., and the Greek gods, already losing ground for centuries to their Roman equivalents, aren’t a bit happy about another new rival called Christianity. Deciding that they’ve all become too fat and complacent, Zeus announces that he’s withdrawing each god’s immortality unless and until he succeeds in a mission he’s designed for him. You play Poseidon in this game that was clearly intended to be the first of many such godly adventures. The premise is a lot of fun, the writing is consistently witty and engaging, and the puzzles are generally acceptable despite a few things that could have been better implemented or just better described. On the whole, it’s a reasonably solid effort.

It wasn’t, however, enough of an attraction to prompt all that many people to pay Official Secrets’s hefty membership fee, especially in light of the ever-present pirate network that quickly made it easy enough to get Myth for free. The club and the magazine did hang on until 1991, but the period of Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls’s active involvement ended within months. Tony Rainbird slashed the membership fee, and Official Secrets took on more and more of a hobbyist rather than a professional sheen, becoming something quite different from his original vision.

Level 9 was the first to bow out of Official Secrets, and for a very simple reason: in 1989, they shocked their remaining fans by announcing that they were bowing out of text adventures altogether. Having been dropped by Mandarin thanks to the disappointing sales of Time and Magik and Lancelot, they would release a final game under their own auspices, and after that they would be moving on to the greener pastures of other, healthier gaming genres. The announcement was tinged with some bitterness. “People have been declaring the death of the adventure market for years, so Scapeghost is an appropriate final release,” said Pete Austin. “It comes from beyond the grave and you play a ghost.”

Scapeghost's visuals are perhaps best described as Gothic noir.

Scapeghost‘s visuals are perhaps best described as Gothic noir.

In Scapeghost, you do indeed play a ghost, that of a recently deceased police officer who was led to death and disgrace by his corrupt partner. In the course of the adventure, divided as usual into three parts, you will have a chance to right this injustice, and also — and perhaps more importantly — to put things right with those loved ones you leave behind. If the perfect swansong is a work that encapsulates all that has come before, Scapeghost qualifies. Once again it has at its core a great, unusual, even potentially medium-advancing idea, with lots of real heart and soul behind it. And once again that’s undone by a lot of little bugs, glitches, and annoyances. Personally, I gave up on trying to play honestly when I got hung up for a long time on a guess-the-verb issue; I was typing “PET DOG” when I should have been typing “PAT DOG.”1 More an exercise in noirish melancholy than horror, Scapeghost is yet one final Level 9 game that could have — should have — been great.

Level 9’s plan at the time of Scapeghost‘s belated release — it came fully a year after Lancelot and Ingrid’s Back!, their longest gap ever between releases — was to remake themselves as a more generalized developer of graphical games for the 16-bit platforms. For this purpose they created a cross-platform engine they called HUGE (“wHolly Universal Game Engine”), a successor to their longstanding A-Code text-adventure engine. HUGE offered “digitised sounds, multi-directional scrolling, fast animation, flexible sprites, and sprite parking.” Mike Austin claimed that it had “165,000 lines of code and has taken ten man-years to develop.” The clear inspiration behind the new approach was Cinemaware, whose games were all the rage on machines like the Commodore Amiga. But the transition to the graphical mainstream never quite came together for Level 9, largely, one suspects, due to the same lack of capital that had always plagued their textual efforts as well. After porting Cinemaware’s It Came from the Desert to MS-DOS and creating a couple of underwhelming original action/strategy games that came off like pale shadows of Cinemaware’s games, they folded quietly in 1991. All of the Austins moved on to other lives outside of game development.

And so the plucky Austin brothers of Level 9 make their exit from our story here. As I’ve explained at more than ample length by now, most of their catalog is a hard sell to modern players in comparison with that of Infocom and even Magnetic Scrolls, but their groundbreaking ambitions for their text adventures and the extent to which they managed to achieve at least some of them in the face of scant resources and incredibly limited hardware shouldn’t be forgotten. What their games often lacked in execution they made up for in vision. I hope I’ve managed to give them their historical due.

Level 9’s retirement from the text-adventure market left Magnetic Scrolls alone in Britain — and in the midst of a major crisis of their own. By the end of 1988, British Telecom had decided to get out of the software business, letting word leak out to the street that their labels Firebird and Rainbird — the latter still being Magnetic Scrolls’s publisher — were up for sale. The planned sale brought most projects to a halt within both labels, as everyone waited to see who the new owner might be. The situation killed any chance of commercial success for Fish!, one of Magnetic Scrolls’s very best games — indeed, my personal favorite in their catalog. At last in May of 1989 an unlikely buyer emerged: the American publisher Microprose, who were beginning to branch out from their roots in military simulations for the Tom Clancy generation. Microprose’s very American, very gung-ho games had proved surprisingly popular in Europe, allowing them to build up a substantial organization there. They believed it made a lot of sense to scoop up British Telecom’s labels, whose accessible action-based fare like Starglider and Starglider II might provide just the added dose of mainstream appeal they were looking for on both sides of the Atlantic. One thing they weren’t interested in at all, however, was cerebral text adventures. Having been left in limbo for months while British Telecom hung out Rainbird’s shingle, Anita Sinclair was now informed by the new owners that her company’s further services wouldn’t be required.

“The collapse was horrendous,” says Anita. She was left scrambling to find another publisher for the huge make-it-or-break-it project she had underway, a text adventure like no one had ever seen before. With Infocom having been shut down in the United States by this time, her company was the only text-adventure developer left standing. Could they successfully reinvent their chosen medium? Only time — and a future article — would tell.

(Sources: Amstrad Action of December 1987, July 1988, September 1988, November 1988, November 1989, and January 1990; Questbusters of June 1989 and December 1989; 8000 Plus of November 1988, December 1988, and February 1990; Computer and Video Games of December 1988, February 1989, and December 1989; The Games Machine of June 1988, December 1988, and December 1989; Zzap! of January 1989; Page 6 of July 1989; Amiga Computing of October 1988; ZX Computing of September 1986; Computer Gaming World of December 1989; Commodore User of June 1989; Zero of March 1990.

I’ve prepared a zip file for you containing the three late Level 9 games I discussed today in two formats. The first, which is strictly for the hardcore or the purist, is the disk images of the original Amiga versions, playable in an Amiga emulator. The other, more accessible format will work under Glen Summer’s Level 9 interpreter, which is available for many platforms. Once you’ve downloaded the correct version of the interpreter for your computer, just fire it up and open the file “gamedata1.dat” from a game’s directory to play.

Myth and all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games are available from The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial in forms suitable for playing with the Magnetic interpreter — or you can now play them online, directly in your browser, if you like.)


  1. It did occur to me that the verb “to pet” might be an Americanism. If British people are much more likely to “pat” than “pet,” the problem becomes much more forgivable, as this game was released only to the domestic market. But extensive research — I asked several British people of my acquaintance — yielded a mixed range of responses. My tentative conclusion is that “pet” is commonly used as a verb in at least some British dialects. Any further insight that British readers have into this burning question would be appreciated. 

 

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Kit Williams’s Golden Hare, Part 2: The Aftermath

One day lagomania gripped Britain; the next the hare had been discovered and it was all over except the ennui. The television segments and newspaper articles ceased almost as quickly as the charter tours and the book signings. Rod Argent’s Masquerade musical, which had been all set to make the jump from the Young Vic to the West End, went from a packed house to an empty one overnight, and closed within two weeks. Kit Williams shelved his merry-leprechaun persona and went back to his painting. Tom Maschler and his publicity machine at Jonathan Cape gnashed their teeth at their uncooperative, unappealingly anonymous winner, who had spoiled their plans for making this moment a climax rather than an anticlimax, and in the process cost them the chance to turn Masquerade into an ongoing series of similar grand public treasure hunts. As it was, the public’s appetite for this sort of fare seemed permanently spoiled by the bad taste “Ken Thomas” had left in its mouth.

Instead another craze began to sweep through Britain. Just weeks after Masquerade wound up, the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro started shipping in quantity to British consumers, transforming what had been a burgeoning underground hobby into a full-blown mainstream craze for computers and especially computer games. By 1984, British per-capita computer ownership had exceeded that of the United States, marking it as the most computer-mad nation on earth. It was in connection with this latest craze for computers, barely a glint in a few dreamers’ eyes when Kit Williams had fashioned the golden hare five years before, that the treasure unexpectedly reemerged from the bank vault into which Ken Thomas had stuck it.

News of a company called Haresoft first arrived in the June 5, 1984, issue of Home Computing Weekly. (Yes, Britain was so computer-mad that it could support a weekly magazine for enthusiasts — in fact, two of them.) Thanks to an “exclusive arrangement,” the magazine offered readers a chance to buy something called Hareraiser Prelude for most major platforms directly from Haresoft before it shipped to stores. The announcement marked the beginning of a new hunt for the hare. Or, if the winner preferred, she could take £30,000 in cash in lieu of the hare — that being, according to Haresoft, its estimated value as a piece of art and a cultural touchstone after all of the Masquerade excitement. The hare wasn’t actually buried this time, “to avoid damaging the countryside and to give an equal chance to young people who cannot travel freely.” All you needed to find it in virtual space was “patience and an inquisitive mind” for a puzzle “that could be solved by adult and child alike.” But doing so wouldn’t be cheap. Would-be winners would have to purchase not only Hareraiser Prelude but also Hareraiser Finale to divine the hare’s new location, each for the princely sum of £8.95, a premium price point normally reserved for only the most desirable and ambitious games.

The division into a Prelude and a Finale did rather leave one wondering where the meaty middle had gone. Those punters foolish enough to fork over the money were given yet more cause to wonder. “I find all my feelings of eager anticipation suddenly turned to shock and desolation,” wrote one earnest treasure hunter who’d convinced herself she was about to embark on a new Masquerade. What she got instead was something much, much shabbier.

Hareraiser

Hareraiser

A remarkably threadbare product even for an era when ramshackle junk was the rule rather than the exception, the Hareraiser “games” are as ugly as they are inscrutable; at least Masquerade gave you some lovely pictures to look at while you pored hopelessly over its puzzle. A handful of kilobytes of code — the Prelude and Finale together could fit into the memory of a 16 K Sinclair Spectrum — depict a crudely drawn landscape made up of ground, trees, sky, clouds, and sun, all executed with the stick-figure flair of an ungifted three-year-old. The opening text says you can move around this space with the cursor keys, but if there is any logic to the geography at all it must be that of a giant text-adventure-style maze. Assuming you can judge your location from the number and positions of the trees (perhaps a dangerous assumption), moving north and then south doesn’t return you to your starting point. Occasionally, according to no detectable rhyme or reason, a hare runs across the screen, thus providing the sum total of the action. The only other element is an occasional cliché that pops up at the bottom: “Use your brain”; “Can you see the wood for the trees”; “Early bird catches the worm.”

All Haresoft correspondence was conducted by someone calling himself “Jeff Lubbock,” who may or may not have actually existed. Lubbock’s official line was that Ken Thomas had sold the hare to his company for £20,000, but said company’s behavior bore lots of suspicious similarities to Thomas’s own immediately after winning the hare. Haresoft hungered after notoriety, the better to sell more copies of Hareraiser, yet hid behind a cloak of anonymity at the same time, conducting all business and public relations solely via press releases and advertisements. Although Home Computing Weekly had been fooled into lending some of their credibility to Haresoft at the outset, the company would never again be accorded that sort of respect. The young men writing for the laddish gaming magazines with titles like Crash and Zzap! may not have been the most nuanced of critics, but even they had little trouble sniffing the odor of disreputability that fairly poured out of Haresoft. For one thing, the numbers just didn’t add up. “Where will it all come from?” wrote Computer and Video Games of the £30,000 prize in their review. “Suppose £1 per game is put into a kitty — that’s one helluva lot of copies to hope to sell for a puzzle that isn’t even a game!” Sinclair User was equally direct: “It is rather difficult to understand why this program was produced at all, though cynics may draw their own conclusions.”

Poor reviews turned to outright snubs between the first and second Hareraiser; virtually no one even bothered to review or even announce the availability of the Finale when it appeared a few months after the Prelude. Just as well, as it was effectively indistinguishable from the Prelude anyway. As Haresoft’s press releases and advertisements grew ever more strident in light of what must have been nearly nonexistent sales, dismissal turned to open scorn. Sinclair User jeered at Haresoft’s non sequitur of a claim that they had released Hareraiser in two parts “to make it fun and enable competitors of all ages to participate”: “Bet you thought it was just a way to make more money.” A claim that Hareraiser was being bought by schools “to involve pupils in developing computer-logic skills” prompted a little investigative reporting. “We couldn’t make an awful lot of sense of it,” said one of the few headmasters who would admit to having bought the programs. “I think most schools bought Hareraiser to try and win the £30,000 for their school. That’s certainly why we had a look at it.” So much for “developing computer-logic skills.” The most bizarre of all the Haresoft press releases claimed that Anneka Rice, host of a hugely popular game show called Treasure Hunt that also owed more than a little something to Masquerade, had revealed a clue to the puzzle when making a live appearance at Harrod’s. Since the appearance hadn’t been filmed, apparently the clue could only be useful to those who coincidentally happened to be at the event and retained a perfect memory of every word Rice had said there.

The question of whether there ever was a real solution to the alleged puzzle of Hareraiser is, like so many questions surrounding Kit Williams’s golden hare, impossible to fully answer. Disassembling the programs to look for a solution, as a commenter here recently suggested, is a nonstarter, as there is no “winning” screen, no opportunity to solve the puzzle on the computer and have the program acknowledge your achievement. You’re rather expected to solve it on pencil and paper using clues from the programs. It’s possible that a puzzle of some sort was created in good faith, but was so horrid no one ever had the ghost of a chance of figuring it out. Still, not building a winning state into the program itself did allow Haresoft to arbitrarily declare the solution to be whatever they wished it to be — and whenever they wished to do so. Indeed, if I had to guess I’d say that here we come to the real plan, such as it was. If Hareraiser took off to become another sensation like Masquerade, Haresoft would have the flexibility to bend the solution to a winner chosen at whatever juncture best maximized the publicity and the profit.

But, in an affirmation of the good sense of the British computing public, Hareraiser didn’t become another Masquerade. The whole thing was so tawdry, so obviously shady, that almost no one bought in. A desperate Haresoft was reduced to creating painfully transparent sock puppets to write in to the magazines who were savaging the programs.

I wonder who these nerds are who think this isn’t any good. I am one of a group of six who have had immense fun from seeking clues on this treasure hunt, and furthermore, it’s not meant to be a book like Masquerade. If one seeks to win the golden hare, the computer gives the clues, the rest is down to you — that is, if you’re intelligent enough.

This testimony from “Mrs. Widdowson” helped not a whit. Haresoft quietly disappeared during the early months of 1985, leaving behind no forwarding address and not a peep about the still winnerless contest.

Dennis Cross, the court-appointed liquidator of Haresoft, shows off the golden hare shortly before it was auctioned off.

Dennis Cross, the court-appointed liquidator of Haresoft, shows off the golden hare shortly before it was auctioned off.

But the wheels of bankruptcy do grind, slowly yet relentlessly. In December of 1988, a month of bombshell revelations about Masquerade, the golden hare, and Ken Thomas, Kit Williams’s treasure resurfaced for auction at Sotheby’s. The court-appointed liquidator of Haresoft, charged with recovering as much money as possible to pay off the bank that had been unwise enough to supply the operation’s seed capital, had found the defunct company’s one asset of any real value to be the hare, and had promptly seized it to auction it off. The auction turned into a media circus, at last providing the big star turn for the hare that Tom Maschler’s publicity machine had planned for the original unveiling. Caron Keating, known among children as host of the television show Blue Peter and among adults as something of a sex symbol, did the hosting honors, wearing the hare around her neck as the ultimate fashion accessory. Kit Williams himself was there to bid for the hare, but had to drop out at £6000. It was finally sold for £31,900 to an anonymous buyer, shocking everyone; everyone had assumed that the estimated worth of £30,000 was, like most things to come out of Haresoft, complete nonsense. The auction put the capstone on the hare’s first checkered and very public decade of existence. Henceforth it would lead a quieter life, winding up in a private collection in Asia. It would be more than twenty years before it would enter the public eye again.

The same month of December 1988 brought a certain vindication to everyone who had witnessed the disappointing ending of the original hunt for the hare, for in the course of this month Ken Thomas’s cherished cloak of anonymity was finally stripped away and many of the details of the cheating everyone had always suspected him of were finally laid bare. The news broke nationwide in The Times of December 11, 1988, just six days after the hare had been sold at auction. But the real legwork had been done by the editor of the local Bedfordshire newspaper, Bedfordshire on Sunday, published near the hare’s burial place in Ampthill Park.

Frank Branston, the editor in question, had first become involved with the story about a year before the hare was dug up, when a local man named John Guard told him out of the blue that he thought he knew where to find it. When Branston queried how he had come by this information, Guard replied that his girlfriend, Veronica Roberts — more commonly called “Ronnie” — had been Kit Williams’s girlfriend at the time he was creating Masquerade.

Guard wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses. A heavy drinker and heavy pot smoker, he had a reputation as a small-time con artist and general ne’er-do-well around town, prone to regular flights of fancy not too different from this claim. But Branston was able to confirm that at least part of his story was true: Ronnie Roberts had indeed been the girlfriend of Kit Williams a few years before. For months, whenever Branston would see Guard around town, he’d quietly ask him about the hare, whereupon Guard would reply only that finding it was proving more difficult than anticipated. When the treasure was finally found right there in Bedfordshire, allegedly because someone’s dog chose to pee on the Amptill Park monument, Branston immediately thought again of Guard. He tracked him down to ask him directly if he was the mysterious Ken Thomas. Guard replied in the negative, albeit in a suspiciously evasive manner. Branston soon had confirmation that Guard couldn’t be Thomas; one look at the pictures of Thomas at the unveiling of the hare was enough, even disguised as he was, to confirm that he wasn’t Guard.

And yet Branston’s suspicions remained. He launched a modest investigation into Thomas’s identity. A bit of research revealed that the solicitor Thomas was using as representation for his negotiations with Jonathan Cape was a local Bedfordshire man. That meant that Thomas was almost certainly a local as well, further raising Branston’s suspicions about a possible connection with Guard. After this, though, he drew a blank. He couldn’t shake anything else loose from Guard, the solicitor, or any of his contacts covering the story in the national media. And so for the next six years he left it at that.

Branston’s curiosity was revived in 1988 when a brief blurb came across his news wire stating that the golden hare of Masquerade was to be sold at auction as part of the liquidation of a company called Haresoft. It was easy enough to check the official records and see who was behind Haresoft. The founder and head was listed as one Dugald Thompson, living in the Bedfordshire village of Bolnhurst, close by Bedford and Ampthill. And the records showed something else: Thompson was also associated with a brief-lived wishful thought of a company called Clayprint, set up by none other than John Guard. Brantson had his connection at last. To keep the two men from concocting a story together, he went out to see Guard at the same time that one of his reporters visited Thompson. After the pair had done a fair amount of wriggling on the hook, a story emerged, largely from Guard rather than the steadfastly uncooperative Thompson, that sounded like at least the partial truth.

Ronnie Roberts had indeed first agreed to tell John Guard what she knew about the hare about a year before its eventual discovery, prompting him to crow about it to Branston and quite possibly others around town. But, being something of a hippie idealist, she would share only on the condition that the proceeds from its finding and presumed sale be donated to animals-rights organizations. Guard readily agreed to this proviso at the time; whether he ever intended to honor it is yet another of those insoluble Masquerade mysteries.

Roberts knew quite a lot, although perhaps not quite as much as she thought she did. She had gone out to Ampthill Park with Kit Williams to have a picnic there one spring equinox, in the midst of which he’d excused himself to go bury a magnet marking the future position of the hare. Yet Williams hadn’t been entirely trusting; he’d made sure she didn’t see the exact spot. Her understanding of the burial location was garbled and incomplete. She knew it had something to do with the position of the memorial’s shadow on the spring equinox, but believed the hare to be buried immediately adjacent to the memorial rather than at the full extent of the shadow. Still, she did know it was in Ampthill Park, which was far more than anyone else knew at the time.

Looking for a further leg up on the search, Guard approached a local metal-detector enthusiast named Eric Compton with Roberts’s information. There was £1000 in it for him, Guard said, if he would bring his gadget out to Ampthill Park and help him find the hare — and, just as importantly, if he would act as the front man for their little conspiracy afterward. Guard knew that his connection to Roberts, and Roberts’s connection in turn to Kit Williams, must come out as soon as he personally tried to claim the prize, and then the jig would be up.

But as it happened, the conspiracy never got that far. Many nights of tiresome late-night digging and metal-detecting close by the memorial, where Roberts believed the hare to be buried, revealed nothing. After a final assault on the actual day of the spring equinox of 1981 had also proved fruitless, Compton begged off in disgust, convinced he’d been suckered into yet another of Guard’s groundless flights of fancy.

That would seem to have marked the end of digging at Ampthill Park for many months, until the physics teachers Mike Barker and John Rousseau hit upon the solution to the puzzle and the precise location of the hare that had so eluded Guard and Compton. The “slight depression” Barker took as worrisome evidence of previous digging when he arrived at Ampthill Park on February 18, 1982, was likely the remnant of Guard and Compton’s efforts, now almost a year old. (The story that “Ken Thomas” told of digging immediately before Barker is, like most of what he said, almost certainly total nonsense.)

And so we come to the crazy final days of the treasure hunt, where we’re sadly cast back into the realm of the unknown and possibly unknowable. We know that John Guard was acquainted with Dugald Thompson, and must have told him about Ampthill Park. We know as well that it was Dugald Thompson who became Ken Thomas. What we don’t know is what sort of arrangement, if any, the two men arrived at. Was Thompson Guard’s new front man, Compton’s replacement in the role? If so, the plan to sell the hare and donate the proceeds to animal-rights charities evidently fell by the wayside in favor of using it to start a shady software company. Still, a partnership of the two men would explain the identity of the mysterious friend Thompson mentioned digging with him on the last day, when the hare was finally found. The other possibility is that Thompson snookered the would-be snookerer, taking Guard’s information and acting on it unilaterally. It’s not as if Guard would have been in any position to come forward with his grievance.

One eyebrow-raising coincidence about the final days of the hunt does seem to be just that: Thompson’s posting his letter to Kit Williams just one day before Mike Barker arrived at Ampthill Park for his own dig. Whether acting alone or in partnership with Guard, Thompson decided to try to win the prize for himself without actually digging up the hare first, through this vague letter that implied he knew more than he did. He had done enough research to realize that, with Ampthill Park lying almost directly on the Greenwich meridian, the memorial’s shadow would be cast directly northward on the spring equinox. He didn’t, however, reckon with the difference between magnetic north and true north, diagramming the former rather than the latter in his letter. It was Barker’s enormous misfortune to have done his digging just as Thompson, with or without Guard, was also nosing around. In combination with some ill-advised hints dropped by Kit Williams in their phone conversation, that was enough to put Thompson on the correct track.

That chain of conjecture, at any rate, seems likely to be the best we’ll ever be able to do. John Guard died some years ago, “of drink and drugs” according to Frank Branston, while Ronnie Roberts vanished without a trace. Eric Compton still lives in Bedfordshire, but has no real knowledge of what might have gone on between Thompson and Guard. Dugald Thompson himself, the shadowy man at the center of the mystery and the one person who certainly knows the entirety of what really happened, was still with us when contacted by the BBC in 2009, but remained as stubborn and patently dishonest as ever. Among other things, he claimed that he found the hare entirely on his own — the connection to Guard and Roberts being just another coincidence — but can’t tell the true story “for legal reasons” (one suspects that the latter statement may in fact be true). He also claims that the idea of the “Ken Thomas” persona was actually concocted by Tom Maschler and Jonathan Cape, a claim contradicted by absolutely everyone else.

So, that’s your dose of scandal and conspiracy for today, the sexy part of the Masquerade story. The real reason I wanted to write these articles, however, has little to do with the contest’s juicy ending, fun as it may be to speculate about. Masquerade, you see, cast an enormous shadow over the computer-game industry that exploded in the years immediately after the contest’s conclusion — a shadow that extended far beyond the tawdry story of Haresoft and Hareraiser. It was only natural for marketers looking to drum up excitement for their games to cast their eyes back to a contest that had just sold more than a million books. And look back they did. For some years British gaming especially was a riot of Masquerade-inspired contests.

Which isn’t to say that the United States was entirely bereft of digital Masquerades. On the contrary, arguably the most slavish digital clone of all, an interactive “children’s storybook” containing clues to the locations of three “solid gold, gem-encrusted” keys hidden in three separate locations in the United States, was a late 1982 American title called Prism from International Software Marketing.  I’ve been unable to find any evidence that any of the keys were ever found, unsurprisingly as it seems that very few ever bought the software; International Software Marketing disappeared within a year. After that, Masquerade‘s influence in the United States, while far from negligible, tended to be more oblique, living in the realms of aesthetics and game design rather than public contests. Most notably, Cliff Johnson’s fairy-tale puzzler The Fool’s Errand was heavily inspired by Kit Williams’s book, although Johnson wisely made his storybook much more soluble. One of the loveliest games of its era, The Fool’s Errand makes a magnificent legacy for the golden hare all by itself.

But in Britain the influence of Masquerade was far more sustained, obvious, and direct. As with the example of Prism in the United States, it tended to be the earliest of the British Masquerade heirs that tried to translate the experience of the earlier treasure hunt most literally. Just months after the hare was dug up, the merry pranksters at Automata introduced a text adventure called Pimania, containing clues to the location of the Golden Sundial of Pi, a much tackier-looking treasure than Kit Williams’s hare but one worth — according at least to Automata — £6000. It wouldn’t finally be discovered until July of 1985, an event that marked the brief-lived Automata’s last hurrah.

I don’t know of any others who actually buried a treasure, but similar trinkets were a definite order of the day as contest prizes for some time. For instance, the first person to solve Castle of Riddles, Peter Killworth’s second published text adventure, received £1500 in cash and a “£700 hallmarked silver ring-shaped trophy mounted on a presentation plinth and inscribed ‘King of the Ring.’”

But publishers soon realized that elaborate objets d’art weren’t really necessary for a rousing contest. Cold, hard cash would do just as well or better. The race toward ever larger jackpots reached its dizzying climax with a 1984 game from Domark called Eureka!, a huge production for the time consisting of five separate text adventures, five action games, and a hardcopy poor man’s Masquerade, or “Book of Riddles,” all allegedly designed by Ian Livingstone of Fighting Fantasy gamebook fame. The collection as a whole was a monument to quantity over quality, but the prize for being the first to slog through it all was nothing to sneeze at: £25,000 in cash, the largest of these sorts of prizes ever awarded (as opposed to merely promised in the case of the benighted Haresoft). The winner, who didn’t emerge until the game had been on the market for more than a year and the contest’s expiration date was looming, was a 15-year-old named Matthew Woodley.

Matthew Woodley, at right, gets his check for being the first to solve Eureka!.

Matthew Woodley, at right, gets his check for being the first (only?) to solve Eureka!.

Yet even a cash prize wasn’t an absolute requirement to evoke some of the old spirit of Masquerade. For many people, just the national recognition of becoming the first to win a game was enough, with or without the structure of a formal contest. Heaps of games shipped with cards to be mailed in with proof of victory. If you happened to be lucky enough to be the first winner, or sometimes just among the first handful, you could count on some press recognition and at least a little swag. Melbourne House, for example, rewarded the teenage Cunningham brothers of Northumberland when they became the first to send in the winning solution to Sherlock four months after the adventure’s release with a gala lunch at The Sherlock Holmes Restaurant and blurbs in several magazines. Acornsoft likewise made sure to recognize Hal Bertram, the first person to become Elite in Elite some six weeks after that game’s release.

All of these contests, whether expressed or implied, served to bind British gamers together, giving the hobby as a whole a personal, clubby feel that wasn’t enjoyed by the larger American scene. That said, they were also a classic double-edged sword. There’s an ugly truth lurking at the heart of Masquerade and all of the similar contests that followed, whether they unspooled digitally or in print. To make a puzzle that will be attempted by thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people and not have it solved within hours — a development that would be commercially disastrous — requires making that puzzle outrageously hard. And outrageously hard puzzles just aren’t much fun for most people. It’s this simple truth that makes the idea of a mass treasure hunt much more alluring than the reality. The differences between the demands of the contest and the demands of good puzzle design are almost irreconcilable. It’s not as if British text-adventure designers in particular needed more motivation to produce unfair and well-nigh insoluble games.

And, while games in other genres like Elite sometimes indulged in public contests and public recognition for firsties, it was indeed always the text adventure with which Masquerade-style contests were most closely identified — unsurprisingly as these games are by their nature big, elaborate puzzles to solve, just like Kit Williams’s book. It’s equally unsurprising, then, that the end of the era of the Masquerade-inspired computer-game contest coincides with the text adventure’s commercial sunset in Britain.

Level 9, the most prolific and respected of British text-adventure makers for most of the genre’s commercial existence, had always avoided contests of this kind, perhaps out of recognition of the damage they tended to do to game design. But in 1988, having been dumped by Rainbird, Level 9 had just signed on with a new publisher called Mandarin who were very eager to do another good old-fashioned treasure hunt; they even wanted to re-institute the idea of a physical treasure. The game in question being an Arthurian exercise called Lancelot, the treasure that Level 9 and Mandarin agreed upon was a replica of the Holy Grail, “hand-crafted from sterling silver,” “gilded inside with 22-carat gold” (bettering Kit Williams’s hare by 4 carats), “encrusted with semi-precious stones,” and worth a cool £5000 in raw materials (bettering the hare by £2000).

In this case, however, designer Pete Austin threaded the needle in a way few if any of his predecessors had managed. He was clever enough to avoid the trap of a contest predicated purely on becoming the first to solve a game, avoiding with it the unfair, insoluble adventure it invariably foisted on its players. Instead he sprinkled clues to a meta-puzzle through his game, but kept the exercise of solving that puzzle separate from that of winning the game. He also made sure that the meta-puzzle was a fair puzzle, providing its methodology openly to would-be contest participants.

Lancelot

The game itself was only required for the first round, which was used to select a pool of finalists who were sent another puzzle hinging around a set of very difficult trivia questions on Arthurian lore and legend. The winner, an adventure-game reviewer named John Sweeney, claimed to have required some thirty reference books to work out the solution and identify the resting place of the Grail in the form of a grid reference on an Ordnance Survey map. (It was all purely an intellectual exercise; the Grail was not, as Mandarin and Level 9 were constantly at pains to emphasize, actually buried there.) By all accounts difficult but fair in conception and execution, the Lancelot puzzle might have pointed a way forward for contests of this nature; it actually sounds like it was kind of fun. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Lancelot‘s sales were nowhere close to being strong enough to justify a prize of such magnificence. John Sweeney’s achievement marked the end of the old era of adventure-game contests as a whole rather than the beginning of a new era of saner, fairer contests. His human-interest story would be just about the last of its kind on the pages of British magazines.

John Sweeney with his freshly won Holy Grail and the things he had to use to win it: his computer, his Lancelot game, and lots and lots of reference books.

John Sweeney with his freshly won Holy Grail and the things he had to use to win it: his computer, his Lancelot game, and lots and lots of reference books.

I’ll return to the twilight years of the British text-adventure industry in my next article. But for now, for today, a final few words on the three biggest principals behind the original Masquerade, two of them human and one lagomorphic.

Tom Maschler’s Jonathan Cape was purchased by Random House in 1987, becoming an imprint thereof. Maschler stepped down from his role as chief editor shortly thereafter, on the advice of doctors who were warning him of the effect many years of burning the candle at both ends was having on his health. He’s led a quieter life since, emerging publicly only on occasion. In 2005, he published a memoir, called simply Publisher, that garnered mixed reviews. He rates the creation of the Booker Prize as his proudest achievement: “It certainly has had an impact, and if it means people think they should occasionally read a good novel, that is something I’m very proud of.” Amen to that.

Kit Williams tried to capture lightning in a bottle a second time in 1984 via an untitled picture book most commonly referred to as “The Bee Book.” The contest this time was merely to ferret out the book’s real name; no physical treasure was buried. The prize, an intricate art object Williams called a “marquetry box,” was won by one Steve Pearce of Leicester. No rumors of foul play dogged the process this time, but the whole exercise garnered not a shadow of the attention (or sales) of Masquerade, and Kit Williams decided that was enough of that. He returned to the life of a simple painter, becoming more reclusive than ever, creating mostly on personal commission and rarely showing his work publicly.

An older Kit Williams and his golden hare, reunited at last in 2009.

An older Kit Williams and his golden hare, reunited at last in 2009.

The whereabouts of the golden hare remained unknown except in rumor for many years. In 2009, however, the thirtieth anniversary of the treasure hunt’s beginning prompted a run of retrospectives in the British media. This attention in turn prompted the hare’s anonymous Asian owner to send it back to its homeland for a time. A BBC film crew captured Kit Williams’s emotional reunion with his most famous creation, which he’d last seen from the audience in Sotheby’s more than twenty years earlier. In 2012, the current owner allowed the Victoria and Albert Museum to publicly display the hare, exactly thirty years after having been so rudely refused permission to do so by Ken Thomas/Dugald Thompson. It had been one hell of a circuitous trip — for the hare itself and for everyone who ever fell under its spell.

(Sources: Most of the sources listed in the previous article apply to this one as well. In addition, there are the Creative Computing of May 1983; Home Computing Weekly of November 22 1983 and June 5 1984; Sinclair User of December 1984, January 1985, March 1985, and October 1987; Crash of January 1985 and October 1985; Computer and Video Games of December 1984 and June 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of August 30 1984 and November 29 1984; Your Sinclair of January 1989; Page 6 of July 1989; Amiga Computing of October 1988. Also see the entry for Hareraiser Finale on the site Games That Weren’t 64.)

 

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