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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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Tales of the Gnome Ranger

Nick, Pete, and Mike Austin of Level 9 pose with Ingrid the Gnome Ranger.

Nick, Pete, and Mike Austin of Level 9 pose with Ingrid the Gnome Ranger.

Of all the creators I’ve written about so far on this blog, the Austin brothers of Level 9 have frustrated me the most, purely on account of their immense unrealized potential. They could have been great, I tell you. They could have been contenders. But timing and circumstances kept it all from ever quite coming together for them.

At first glance, that may seem an odd statement. Certainly one could hardly say that Level 9’s life was cut unduly short. On the contrary, the Austin brothers got a good long kick at the can as such things go, releasing their first text adventures in 1982 and their last fully seven years later. While hardly a huge stretch of time in the grand scheme of things, that stretch does correspond exactly with the beginning and end of the period in which it was practically possible to earn a living selling text adventures in Britain. Level 9, in other words, had all the time at their disposal that, barring sweeping games-industry counterfactuals, they could possibly have been allowed. During those years, they released more text adventures than any developer this side of Infocom.

Compare this with the sharply abbreviated career of Magnetic Scrolls, their rival for the title of “the British Infocom.” Arriving on the scene in earnest only in 1986, Magnetic Scrolls had just barely enough time to cause a brief splash before getting to enjoying their chosen genre’s steady, painful decline into commercial obsolescence.

Look a little harder, however, and we can see that Magnetic Scrolls also enjoyed some advantages that rather offset the sheer brevity of their window of opportunity. Never more than a very small company though they were, in comparison to Level 9 Magnetic Scrolls was very well-capitalized, thanks to the considerable amount of familial wealth that co-founder Anita Sinclair had to put into her company. It’s doubtful whether Magnetic Scrolls even during their best years of 1986 and 1987 made more than a very modest profit, and that must have been more than wiped away by the unusually long technological run-up to those years of prominence — and of course by the painful years of decline that followed them. Like that of Infocom, the final balance sheet for Magnetic Scrolls must show a company that lost far, far more money than it earned, an abject failure by the harsh capitalistic logic of pounds and pence.

But Level 9 didn’t have the luxury of being able to lose money for years on end. Founded on a shoestring by a family of modest means, they needed to consistently earn at least as much money as they spent in order to keep the doors open. And with text adventures a relative niche market in Britain even at their commercial peak, the only way to do so was to pump out a lot of games quickly.

And so we come to the crux of Level 9’s problems, and the root of my own frustration with them. Forced to make three, four, even five games each year, the little trio of brothers couldn’t possibly test and polish each of them as they ought. The same relentless financial pressure forced them — so they believed, at any rate — to make their games available on the widest possible range of platforms, including the tape-based machines that Magnetic Scrolls (and Infocom) eschewed. Level 9’s compression techniques were truly masterful, the envy of any of their rivals, but even with them to hand there was only so much complexity and polish they could pack into 48 K of memory.

It should be noted that the judgments I make on Level 9’s games today are indeed contemporary judgments. In their day, most of them were very well-received. Used to short, primitive games created with the likes of The Quill, reviewers readily forgave dodgy puzzles, occasional parsing problems, and bugs and glitches galore to be able to wander in such comparatively huge and complicated worlds as those provided by Level 9. Some of their games contained as many as 200 locations, and their parser, while falling far short of Infocom’s standards, was certainly the best available from a British company prior to the arrival of Magnetic Scrolls. Yet, anachronistic as the judgement may be, Level 9’s games just haven’t aged very well in comparison to the games of Infocom and even Magnetic Scrolls, and we do need to acknowledge the failings that had to be there from the beginning to bring that about.

The situation is doubly infuriating in light of how good — how innovative — Level 9’s abstract design instincts were. In 1983’s Snowball, they endeavored to tell a consistent story in a coherent world, constructing a grand space opera with a premise worthy of Asimov or Niven at a time when virtually no one else in Britain was thinking of text adventures in those terms, before even Infocom had started referring to their works as “interactive fiction.” In 1985’s Red Moon, they combined a system of magic with combat and CRPG-like emergent mechanics, more than two years before Infocom’s text-adventure/CRPG hybrid Beyond Zork. In 1987’s Knight Orc, they pushed further into the realms of simulation and emergence, debuting their KAOS system of autonomous non-player characters, active inhabitants of an active world who can be not just fought but also befriended and ordered about by you, letting you become the director of your own little play.

Next to such innovations, the text adventures of Magnetic Scrolls, all very derivative of Infocom’s first handful of games, seem rather safe and, well, unadventurous. Some of Level 9’s ideas would still be regarded as innovative in a modern game. How heartbreaking, then, that all of the Level 9 games I’ve just mentioned, and so many more besides, are largely undone by some combination of bugs and playability issues. The situation is so frustrating that I often feel an urge to fix it, to go back through the Level 9 catalog and re-implement each game as it ought to have been the first time around, to bring all the good ideas to the fore where they can be appreciated at last. But that won’t be happening any time soon; maybe in my retirement years, when I’ve grown rich from blogging (a man can dream, can’t he?).

In the meantime, we must take Level 9 as we find them. How welcome, then, that not quite every game in their substantial catalog falls down before reaching the finish line. I’ve finally found my personal Holy Grail of a Level 9 game that doesn’t wind up infuriating me before it’s over. And I found it in a very unlikely candidate, in a game that’s far from being one of their more celebrated.

Gnome Ranger was created during 1987, a difficult period for Level 9. The contract they had signed with Rainbird the previous year, seen at the time as their big shot to take things to the next level (Level 10?), had instead left them playing second fiddle to Magnetic Scrolls; all of their own efforts for Rainbird wound up being overshadowed by those of their stablemate. Rainbird wasn’t thrilled with Jewels of Darkness or Silicon Dreams, Level 9’s reworkings of past glories. They were still less thrilled with Knight Orc, which the perpetually overworked Austin brothers delivered very late and riddled with bugs. With sales of all the Level 9 games lagging far behind those of Magnetic Scrolls, Rainbird saw little reason to retain a second British text-adventure house on the label. This parting was deeply disappointing for the Austin brothers, not least in that it dashed their fondest dream, that of breaking through in the United States; the three Rainbird releases had been the first Level 9 games ever to be made available to Americans.

But there was nothing for it but to soldier on alone. Gnome Ranger, the next game in the pipeline, would have been a Rainbird release if all had gone well. Instead they would just release it themselves, like they had done in the old days. They did, however, take some lessons from the split with Rainbird, making an effort to improve their quality control by instituting a real play-testing cycle of one month’s duration. One month wasn’t, needless to say, anywhere near enough to bring a Level 9 game up to the level of polish enjoyed by Infocom’s players, but it was a much-needed step in the right direction. The benefits are immediately apparent in the finished game, rough around the edges though it does indeed still feel in comparison to Infocom.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger is on the surface at least a comedy, a genre Level 9 had rarely explored in their many earlier games. And also like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger is named after the character you play, this time a little busybody of a gnome named Ingrid Bottomlow who’s irritated her entire village so badly that they’ve contrived to teleport her far, far away just to get her out of their hair. As Ingrid the clueless perpetual innocent, who assumes the whole incident was just an unfortunate mishap, you have to make your way back home on foot. Adventure, naturally, ensues.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger uses scanned pencil drawings for illustrations. They were very polarizing at the time. I like their Impressionistic quality myself, and certainly think they suit this game much better than they did Knight Orc.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger uses scanned colored-pencil drawings for illustrations. They were very polarizing at the time. I like their Impressionistic quality myself, and certainly think they suit this game much better than they did Knight Orc.

Gnome Ranger resembles Knight Orc in many other particulars, among them a fun novella to set the stage, written by regular Level 9 collaborator Peter McBride, and the KAOS system of active non-player characters and the many puzzles revolving around giving orders to and coordinating the actions of same. Yet its tone is much, much gentler. Replacing the savage humor of Knight Orc is a more whimsical spirit one might even describe as “cute” — certainly an adjective you’re very unlikely to apply to anything about the earlier game. For instance, in a move you’ll either find hilarious or unbearably twee, every single word that starts with “n” in standard English starts with “gn” in Gnome Ranger: “Gnow what?” it asks when it’s ready for your first command. I find it unaccountably funny myself, and somehow even funnier that Level 9 is so dedicated to the joke that they seldom miss a word. (No, you don’t have to enter your commands using the alternative spellings, although you can if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing.)

Once again like Knight Orc and the other late Level 9 games, Gnome Ranger is divided into three separate acts, each a small, self-contained game in its own right. This division permitted the whole to run on the modest likes of a tape-based Sinclair Spectrum, and, more to our contemporary benefit, kept the design of each section compact and manageable. The three stages of Ingrid’s journey home each have a theme: animal, vegetable, and mineral. My favorite is the second, a series of brilliant little puzzles involving the assembling and use of a series of magic potions, culminating in a recipe for the ultimate cup of tea. Yes, this is a very English game, feeling much more naturally so than the sometimes strained attempts by Magnetic Scrolls to evoke the spirits of Monty Python and Douglas Adams for the American players they were hoping to reach. In contrast to the London-based Magnetic Scrolls, Level 9’s offices remained always in quiet villages and suburbs, in the real bosom of England’s green and pleasant land. The detailed descriptions of the flora in particular evince the love of gardening that was shared by the Austins and Peter McBride, who wrote much of the in-game text as well as the accompanying novella. Like so many other writers and readers who belatedly realize that small stories are usually more compelling than epic ones, the Austins are perhaps growing up here, deliberately eschewing the nerdy bombast of something like Snowball. Like the English countryside they so dearly loved, the pleasures of Gnome Ranger are modest in scale, but no less entrancing for it when you give the game a chance.

Gnome Ranger and most of the other late Level 9 games are among the few text adventures written in the third-person past tense.

Gnome Ranger and most of the other late Level 9 games are among the few text adventures written in the third-person past tense. The tense was presumably chosen to enhance the narrative qualities. In my judgment, it really doesn’t, but it doesn’t distract unduly either.

The KAOS system is still present in Gnome Ranger, the ordering about of a whole squad of helpers still the solution to many puzzles, but it’s toned down considerably here in comparison to the exercise in unhinged chaos (KAOS?) that is Knight Orc. Having developed a new set of tools, Level 9 is now learning how to use them. With most of the weirdness excised, what remains is a compelling set of puzzle mechanics that allows lots of alternate solutions to the problems you encounter, that gives solving the puzzles less of a feeling of stumbling onto the one arbitrary correct command and more of a feeling of taking advantage of emergent circumstance, of strategizing your way to success. Soluble but not trivial, gently funny without trying too hard to be, Gnome Ranger is wonderful to experience as crossword and narrative alike. It’s by far my favorite of Level 9’s games.

It seems that little Ingrid Bottomlow was also a favorite of the Austin brothers, for they chose to revisit her in a sequel, titled Ingrid’s Back!, in 1988. She’s arrived back home again only to find her village in danger of being steamrolled by one Jasper Quickbuck, a greedy real-estate developer whose presence provides a dash of political commentary about the ongoing gentrification of so many British towns and villages. Suddenly there’s need in her village for a busybody like Ingrid; it’s up to her — that is to say, to you — to save it.

The other inhabitants of the village are described with delightful wit.

He was a dwarf from the gnorth, who measured for pleasure with his pole in a hole and his theodolite on the right.


He was the local fishergnome, gnow doubling as the ferrygnome since the Dribble Bridge collapsed. He gnever did much ferrying because he was always busy fishing to supply the Green Gnome, which was crowded with stranded travellers who were waiting for the ferry.


He was a travelling leprechaun, who spent his days peddling his charms to housewives everywhere. He was very small, but very jolly, and given to saying that size wasn’t everything.


He was the family rabbit-herd. He couldn’t decide if he was keeping rabbits for their meat, milk, or fur, but it didn’t matter anyway because the rabbits wouldn’t let him have any of them.

For Ingrid's Back!, Level 9 switched to more traditional computer-drawn graphics, although theirs were never quite as good as those of Magnetic Scrolls.

For Ingrid’s Back!, Level 9 switched to more traditional computer-drawn pictures, although theirs were never quite as good as those of Magnetic Scrolls.

Once again, the second act is my favorite here. It deals with an assault on the village by a demolition crew of trolls. You have to dash about dealing with them one after another through tricks and booby traps. The presence of a harsh time limit makes the experience more stressful than anything in Gnome Ranger, but it’s great fun to dispatch the trolls one by one through ever more hilarious means.

I should take a moment to note that by “dispatch” I don’t mean kill; no one ever has to die in either of the Gnome Ranger games, something else I like about them. The Austin brothers regarded violent games with a certain contempt, calling them “vomit games” after the squelching sounds of blood and guts. Pete Austin:

Most advertising seems to emphasize the violent aspect of games, and, while nobody wants things like My Little Pony prancing about, it would be better to point out that computer programs can be interesting, informative, and broaden the mind. Unfortunately, violence does succeed in selling. If you have an essentially boring concept, the best way to jazz it up is to add some blood. This is what Hollywood has been doing successfully for years, but what you really need is a good script.

But sadly, Ingrid’s Back! itself lacks a good script — or, at any rate, a good puzzle structure — in its first and third acts. There’s precious little to really do at all during the last act in particular; with only a few exceptions, you just have to wander around and collect things. It’s as if in their newfound zeal for solubility the Austins have decided to remove the puzzles entirely. It makes a sad contrast to the compelling puzzles of Gnome Ranger, one almost certainly attributable to the time pressures that were now becoming even more acute as text adventures faded in popularity and each successive game Level 9 released sold fewer copies.

Many of the same old issues of bugs and playability began to creep back into Ingrid’s Back! and Level 9’s other late games. The experience of properly testing Gnome Ranger, while certainly resulting in a better game, provided a mixed lesson on the whole. Many of the outside testers, the Austins believed, decided to share the game with their friends; Pete Austin claimed that some of the problems he saw people writing into the magazines about existed only in the beta versions. Subsequent games were thus not tested as extensively — or possibly, given the state of some of them, not tested at all. “We have to walk this tightrope,” Pete said, “and make these compromises in getting it tested enough to get the bugs out but not enough to get too much piracy.” Such a “compromise” could have only a negative effect on the end result.

Also not doing much to cement Level 9’s commitment to quality control was the fact that they received little obvious reward for it either critically or commercially. Many reviewers, apparently poorly equipped by disposition to appreciate Gnome Ranger‘s pastoral pleasures, were nonplussed by Level 9’s eschewing of the epic for the intimate. There was considerable grumbling, considerable nostalgia for the good old days of sprawling maps with 200 locations — for, ironically, the very attributes Level 9 themselves had used as their primary selling points in the early days. It was all part of a general turning away from Level 9 on the part of the British gaming press, who had always feted them as the undisputed kings of adventure gaming in earlier years but were now hopelessly enamored with Magnetic Scrolls. For the Austins, who in contrast to Anita Sinclair and her band of upstarts had been on the scene since the beginning, it must have felt like a betrayal by old friends.

The Austins were reported to have a third Gnome Ranger game, the conclusion of what had always been planned as a trilogy, designed and ready for implementation by early 1989, but wound up retiring from the text-adventure scene before getting a chance to do so. Ah, well, at least we have the first two — and especially the first. Unloved and largely unremarked even in its own day though it was, its discovery marks the fulfillment of a personal quest I’ve been on for a long time now: the quest for at least one Level 9 game I can unreservedly enjoy and tell you to play. I can, and you should.

To make that as easy as possible for you, I’ve prepared a zip file containing Gnome Ranger and its sequel 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 either game’s directory to play.

Soon it will be time to put a bow on the tale of the 1980s British text adventure in general and Level 9 in particular, but before we do so I want to take you on one final detour back to earlier years. My next story is not about a computer game at all, but it is a story some of you have asked for specifically, and one we’ve already met tangentially several times. And it’s most definitely a story that’s worthy of more than mentions in passing. So, next time we’ll finally do proper justice to Kit Williams and his golden hare.

(Sources: Retro Gamer 7; Crash of February 1988; Page 6 of July/August 1988 and June/July 1989; ACE of December 1987; Amstrad Action of September 1988 and October 1988; Games Machine of December 1988; Zzap! of January 1989.)

 

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KAOS

In a hole in a mound there lived an orc. Not a clear, dry, sandy hole with only spiders to catch and eat, nor yet a comfortable hobbit hole. It was an orc hole, and that means a dirty, clammy, wet hole filled with bits of worms and a putrid smell.

It had a perfectly round garbage heap, blocking the doorway, with a slimy yellow blob in the exact middle for spitting practice. The doorway opened onto a sewer-shaped hall — a deeply unpleasant tunnel filled with smoke, with secret panels, and floors snared and pitted, provided with treacherous chairs and lots and lots of booby traps — the orc was fond of visitors.

But what is an orc? Orcs are not seen much nowadays, since they are shy of human beings. They are a pungent people, little bigger than overweight elves, with the charisma of blow flies and the appetite of gannets. Orcs have little or no magic, except a rudimentary skill with knives and strangling cords and, in short, they are evil little pits.

This orc was unusually ugly, even for an orc. His name was Grindleguts.

Grindleguts had lived in the neighborhood of The Mountain for about a year and most people considered him two steps lower than a tapeworm, not only because of the smell and the plague, but because he kept eating their household pets.

— Knight Orc

Level 9 signs with Rainbird. From left: Nick Austin, Tony Rainbird, Paul Byrne, Pete and Mike Austin.

Level 9 signs with Rainbird. From left: Nick Austin, Tony Rainbird, Paula Byrne, Pete and Mike Austin.

The Austin family who ran Level 9, suddenly Britain’s other great adventure house, would have had to have been almost incomprehensibly magnanimous not to have resented just a little bit Magnetic Scrolls’s breathtaking ascent to prominence on the back of The Pawn. By the time they too signed with Rainbird in 1986 Level 9 had been selling adventure games for four years, amassing a stellar reputation for their ability to pack a staggering amount of text and gameplay into the likes of a little 48 K cassette-based Spectrum. Their games had their problems in terms of puzzles that really needed more thought or at least more hints, but that was such par for the course at the time that British gamers barely seemed to notice whilst marveling over their expansive worlds and the pictures the Austins were soon managing to shoehorn in on top of everything else.

What the Austins couldn’t seem to manage, however, was that single breakout hit that would separate itself from their catalog. This wasn’t hugely surprising in itself; the British adventure market was largely a niche market. Only once every year or two did an adventure like The Hobbit or Sherlock become a force to be reckoned with outside of the magazines’ specialized “Adventure” chart listings. Level 9’s best-selling single game to date had been their least typical. Published by Mosaic rather than Level 9 themselves at the height of the British bookware boom, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 was essentially a Choose Your Own Adventure version of Sue Townsend’s comic epistolary novel of the same name, which was a popular literary sensation in Britain at the time. The ludic version consisted of episodes lifted directly from the novel glued together with unsightly globs of Pete Austin text trying rather too hard to recreate the voice of Townsend’s fussy hypochondriac of a teenage boy. No matter — the license alone was strong enough to push sales well past 150,000 and prompt a second, somewhat less successful game based on the next book in the burgeoning series.

When Level 9 opted to forgo publishing their own parser-driven adventures and signed a contract with Rainbird in early 1986, it was with some hope that the latter could foster the big hit that had so far eluded them and make a name for them in the fabled land of milk and honey known as North America, where money rained from the sky and punters picked it up and plunked it down to buy computer games costing $40 or more. Tony Rainbird’s right-hand woman Paula Byrne whilst working for Melbourne House had brokered the deal that had brought The Hobbit to North America in a deluxe package under the Addison-Wesley imprint, where it had done almost as well as it had in Britain. Thus the Austins could feel reasonably hopeful that she might be able to do something similar for their next game. How disappointing, then, when Rainbird’s big transatlantic hit of an adventure game turned out to be one from a company no one had ever heard of before the launch. To be fair, it was awfully hard for Level 9’s crude vector graphics to compete with the beautiful hand-drawn pictures in The Pawn, and equally hard for the three boffinish Austin brothers to win any attention from the mostly young male trade press when the alluring Anita Sinclair was available for questions somewhere else on the same show floor.

Jewels of Darkness on the Amiga. The graphics didn't compare too favorably to those of The Pawn.

Jewels of Darkness on the Amiga. The graphics didn’t compare too favorably to those of The Pawn.

It also didn’t help that Level 9’s first game for Rainbird was a retread. Jewels of Darkness packaged together their first three games, their so-called “Middle Earth” trilogy, with the Tolkien fan-fiction serial numbers filed away; it was actually something of a small miracle that Level 9 hadn’t been sued by the Tolkien estate already. Level 9 added vector graphics to the text-only originals and, this being a Rainbird game, a novella to set the scene. While it was politely received by reviewers in Britain, sales were doubtless impacted by the fact that many of the hardcore adventurers most likely to buy the somewhat pricy collection already owned one of more of these games in the original. In North America, where Jewels of Darkness became the first ever Level 9 game to be sold, the reception was less polite. Without the historical context or the requisite warm haze of nostalgia in which to view these fairly primitive games, reviewers were left to nitpick the collection’s shortcomings and dwell on the fact that the first game of the trilogy, Colossal Adventure, was essentially an uncredited ripoff of the original Adventure. It was by no means the first version of Adventure to be sold without permission from or reparation to Crowther and Woods, mind you, but its being sold at this late date and under another name fueled a belated sense of outrage on the part of many. When not accusing the Austins of plagiarism, reviewers just talked about how bad the pictures were in comparison to those in The Pawn.

Level 9’s second game for Rainbird, Silicon Dreams, was another collection, this time of their “Eden” trilogy of science-fiction titles that had begun with Snowball, still perhaps their most innovative and interesting game to date. But few took the time to notice the charms of Snowball or either of the other included games. Without controversy to win it even a modicum of attention, Silicon Dreams just vanished.

The underwhelming performance of the two trilogies is understandable, but I’d be doing Level 9 a disservice to join so many contemporary reviewers and gamers in dismissing them completely. As primitive as the games themselves are, you see, the interpreters in which they run on the bigger, newer machines like the Atari ST and Amiga are anything but. Level 9 took advantage of the acres and acres of unused memory available to them on those platforms to implement a number of conveniences that go beyond even what Magnetic Scrolls was doing at the same time. Rather than constantly blocking your machine, pictures load and draw as background tasks whilst you continue to interact at the command line, even on machines that don’t normally support multitasking. You can save a game quickly in memory instead of on disk to come back to it later by using the “ramsave” and “ramload” commands. You can scroll backward and forward through your command history using the arrow keys. And, most impressive of all, you can undo up to about a dozen turns by simply typing “oops.” When you enjoy these sorts of features on a modern interactive-fiction interpreter, you’re enjoying ideas pioneered by Level 9. To take the time to credit Level 9 for them here can feel a bit like celebrating the guy who devised a new bolt to hold your car together, but these sorts of innovations are important in their own right in making text adventures more enjoyable and accessible. So, credit where it’s due. These are conveniences the like of which Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls would never implement to anything like the same degree; neither, for instance, would ever offer more than single-level undo, and even that would be long in coming.

Indeed, Magnetic Scrolls, sexy pictures or no, can feel like quite the hidebound traditionalists in relationship to the late works of Level 9. Nowhere is the difference starker than when we get to Level 9’s third game for Rainbird, an original work at last. Boy, was it original. While Magnetic Scrolls was polishing up a more perfect Zork in the form of Guild of Thieves, Level 9 was seemingly trying to blow up just about every assumption ever held about the genre with Knight Orc.

Knight Orc

Released in July of 1987, Knight Orc is a glorious hot mess of a game that introduced Level 9’s newest adventure engine: KAOS, the Knight Orc Adventure System. No, the acronym doesn’t quite match the name, but I think we can forgive them a bit of fudging because never has an acronym better fit to a game’s personality. Rather than the static worlds that were still the norm in adventure games, KAOS worlds were to be filled with active characters — potentially dozens of them — moving about following agendas of their own. Each is effectively your equal, able to do anything you can instruct your own avatar to do. In fact, learning to use these characters as alternatives to the character you directly control is key. Once you bring a character under your sway, whether through bribery or coercion or plain old kindness, you can issue commands to that character through the mouth of your own, get that character to do just about anything your own can do — and sometimes a bit more, if she has abilities your own does not. You can issue long strings of commands to your minions that might take ten turns or more to carry out. The more complex problems you encounter can require using this capability to orchestrate the actions of several non-player characters working in carefully plotted concert with your own.

Level 9 also announced that beginning with Knight Orc they were just so over mapping, quite a reversal indeed from this company that had previously felt obligated to put at least 200 locations into each of their games. KAOS games would still consist of a grid of discrete rooms, but the right-thinking player would use a handy in-game map or list of notable landmarks to get around by using “go to” in lieu of tedious compass directions.

It all added up to the most radical single reimagining of the text adventure of the genre’s commercial era. Infocom had played with more dynamic, responsive storyworlds of their own, particularly in their first trilogy of mystery games, but never on a scale like this. Perhaps the only games that really compare are Melbourne House’s The Hobbit and Sherlock, which offer much the same Looney Tunes, even-the-programmer-has-lost-control-of-this-thing experience as Knight Orc. Pete Austin actually called Knight Orc Level 9’s “Hobbit basher” before its release. Yet, impossibly, Knight Orc is even stranger. Not even The Hobbit let you orchestrate the activities of multiple minions, like a strategist sitting at the center of a web of action and reaction. What the hell was Level 9 thinking?

Well, whatever they were thinking, it was something of a thoroughgoing theme by this period in their history. The Austins had spent much of their time during 1985 and 1986 on a quixotic project to create a multiplayer text adventure similar to but much more advanced than Richard Bartle’s M.U.D. This was a fairly logical leap to make from single-player text adventures, one Level 9 was hardly alone in contemplating; Infocom, for instance, also spent considerable energy on a proposed online version of their interactive fiction during their salad days. Level 9’s plans, however, were unusually grandiose by anyone’s standards. Avalon was to be based on the Arthurian legends, and was to play in a virtual world consisting of 10,000 locations and 1000 non-player characters — all the standard cast like Arthur, Merlin, and Morgana included — in addition to the many real humans who would also be logged in and wandering about. It would offer an “incredible number of puzzles” for them to solve in traditional text-adventure fashion in the beginning, but Level 9 anticipated that as a player grew in wealth and power her experience would gradually transform, as in some high-level Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, into one of strategy, politics, and resource management. The whole thing would run on a network of souped-up Amigas and/or Atari STs attached to banks of modems.

It was all hopeless, of course. Level 9, still a tiny family company, didn’t have anything like the resources to pull it off, even assuming they could answer the million practical questions raised by even the quick summary I’ve just given. (What happens when all those puzzles have been solved by eager players? What happens to this Arthurian mythos when some enterprising player kills Arthur? Etc., etc.) Avalon was quietly abandoned by the end of 1986.

KAOS was not, as one might initially suspect, a single-player consolation prize that went into development after Level 9 realized that Avalon just wasn’t going to work. The two projects were actually in development in parallel for some time. Indeed, both were manifestations of deeper predilections that had been with Level 9 for a very long time now. Their very first attempt at an adventure game, written in BASIC for the Nascom kit computer well before Colossal Adventure, had been called simply Fantasy. The game itself seems to have been lost to time, but its description reads like a dry run for Knight Orc. Pete Austin:

It was a game with about thirty locations. It had people wandering about and essentially it was one of the few games where the other characters were exactly the same as the player and they were all after the gold as well. What made it amusing was that they had quite interesting characters, each had a table of attributes, some of them were cowardly, some of them were strong — that kind of thing and we gave them names. There was one called Ronald Reagan and one called Maggie Thatcher and so on, so you could wipe out your least favourite person!

This desire to find a way to let you share your adventure with others, whether in the form of dynamic non-player characters or other flesh-and-blood humans, had obviously never left Level 9.

Level 9’s seemingly sudden abandonment of mapping and traditional navigation was similarly not quite so sudden as it appeared. As early as Snowball with its 7000 rooms set inside a vast generation ship in interstellar space, they had begun to show an interest in more organic, realistic storyworlds where success didn’t depend on methodically visiting every location and plotting it all on paper but rather going where the situation — the plot — led.

And what a plot and situation Knight Orc had to offer! If the quote that opened this article makes you laugh half as much as it does me, you’re on this game’s wavelength. Now consider this: you play the benighted orc Grindleguts. Much of the credit for the… um, unique atmosphere of Knight Orc must go to one Peter McBride, a talented writer who sparked up a friendship and, soon, a working relationship with Pete Austin circa 1984 that would turn him into the most significant single contributor to Level 9’s games without the last name of Austin. A computer hobbyist and self-taught programmer in his own right, McBride already had quite some experience combining computers and writing before meeting the other Pete, authoring books and many a simple BASIC program for the Spectrum. His first major job for Level 9 was to write the novellas, almost 50 pages each, that accompanied Jewels of Darkness and Silicon Dreams. After that he wrote the novella for Knight Orc, of which the introduction above is just the beginning. It’s been described by Robb Sherwin as “the finest piece of authorized fiction ever to accompany a game,” and offhand I certainly can’t think of a better to use in disagreement. Just as importantly, McBride played a big role in crafting the game itself, writing or rewriting much of its text.

Knight Orc

Knight Orc on the Amiga.

Where to start with the walking, talking collection of lowest common denominators who inhabit Knight Orc, all squabbling after the treasures lying about the place and inflicting their petty little cruelties on poor little… well, okay, Grindleguts is equally loathsome. Maybe with the jousting horse who looks like “a flatulent barrel.” Or with the fighter who looks like “a butcher’s shop on two legs.” Or the ant-warrior Kris who looks like “an ogre-sized fried roach.” Or the town layabout, “a lanky, twitchy-fingered nicotine addict.” The most cutting statement of real-world politics comes with the village priest:

He is a sweaty paedophile, quite happy to swarm on about the meek inheriting the Earth, turning the other cheek and the love of you know who... until you mention liberation theology, disarmament, or anyone other than male humans becoming ministers.

And then there’s the knight. God, I love the knight in all his sub-Chaucerian splendor.

>examine knight
"A handsome, parfait knight, great-muscled, fit and slim.
Almost a giant in height, and long and straight of limb.
Clad all in green is he, and green his skin and hair.
His eyebrows are mossy, bright emerald his stare.
No shield, helm or plastron, nor bright chain mail has he.
Of armour has he none. Just, in one hand, holly.
Storm-like and strong, he seems. And swift to strike and stun.
Dreadful his blows, one deems. Once dealt, true death has come."

In other words, he is a bully of the worst type.

The green knight puffs himself up and stares down scornfully from the back of his overgrown pony.

"If thee be brave, not coward base,
Then thee must now my challenge face.
With this, my axe, strike blow for blow.
I'll let thee strike first. Have a go!"

He indicates his mighty axe.

>hit horse with axe
With a surprisingly dextrous stroke you behead the horse. The green knight shouts in surprise, but, before he can retaliate, the massive steed has fallen on him!

That’s such a delicious scene, pretty much exactly what I want to see someone do every time the battle improbably stops around Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies so he can make another speech about Courage and Honor. Cheaters always win and and karma doesn’t exist in Knight Orc. This combined with the focus on dynamic characters makes the game an experience all its own. There are some set-piece puzzles that could have been dropped into almost any adventure game, but they’re in the minority. The majority of the problems you face must be solved by interacting with the others — often, as in the case above, treacherously and to their considerable detriment.

When you die you’re taken to Orc Heaven, revived, and spit back out into the game. The same goes for all of the various other characters, whether killed by you or by each other. This only adds to the Bizarro World personality of the game. If Level 9 had imagined that their active characters would make the game more realistic, would advance them toward that ultimate dream of making the player feel she had (to paraphrase Infocom) “woke up inside a story,” their efforts can only be judged a failure. For one thing, you can’t really talk to any of your minions at all beyond saying “hello”; you can only order them about, using them like automatons at your beck and call. Level 9 themselves would come to talk about their “characters on rails,” a phrase which gives a pretty good sense of the experience of playing Knight Orc. I don’t really say this to criticize, merely to try to describe just what a deeply weird experience it is.

Knight Orc is really, really funny, but it’s also really, really broken. Let me give an example, involving the most low-rent possible version of an English gentleman hunter. Every time you come to a certain crossroads, he bursts out of hiding to harass you:

A mounted hunter bursts through the trees and spurs his nag towards you. Repeated shouts of "Yoiks! Tally ho!", together with his choice of red as camouflage, demonstrate his hunting skill. The fool is waving his lasso and clinging on for dear life.

Not surprisingly, the hunter gets hopelessly entangled in his lasso and misses you completely. Unfortunately, his horse has better luck when it lashes out with one huge hoof.

Woops! That hoof sends you to Orc Heaven.

My eventual solution to this dilemma was to get the hunter to kill someone called Denzyl in my stead, “a right gullible and stupid-looking person” who’s just gullible enough to take me as his friend.

>denzyl, kill hunter
Denzyl says, "No sooner said than done."

The hunter strikes out wildly with his whip. As is traditional when orcs or their allies are attacked by humans, his blow is deadly. Odin enters from the southwest. Not surprisingly, the hunter gets hopelessly tangled in his lasso and misses you completely. Unfortunately, his horse has better luck when it lashes out with its huge hoof.

In spite of that last sentence which would seem to imply the contrary, I’m still alive at this point, standing there with a suddenly passive hunter and his horse who’s now willing to trade me his lasso — the real point of this whole exercise — for a bit of treasure. Problem solved, right? Well, yes, except that this whole solution was dependent on some combination of emergent behavior and simple bugginess; as best I can tell, the game seems to have been confused by the fortuitous arrival of Odin (don’t ask!) just as the hunter’s horse was about to kill me. The “official” solution to this puzzle is to tie a rope to some signposts, thereby tripping the hunter’s horse and sending him sprawling along with his lasso. I like to think that this little example illustrates everything that’s so good and so infuriating about Knight Orc. I got lucky this time in that “solving” the puzzle in this way didn’t break anything elsewhere. Break one of the middle links in a longer chain of causality in such a way, though, and you might not be so lucky, leaving the game in an unwinnable state that will be all but impossible to track down and correct. Building a dynamic, simulation-oriented game in lieu of just a set of set-piece puzzles is a tremendously demanding endeavor in that everything in that world — even things the programmer has never anticipated — has to work right. Knight Orc too often fails that test. It’s a complicated, difficult game that you can’t trust as a player — a fatal situation.

Unlike Magnetic Scrolls, who chose to demand a disk drive on the 8-bit machines and thus had recourse to virtual memory, Level 9 chose or felt compelled to continue to support the little 48 K cassette-based machines on which they’d built their reputation. Thus Knight Orc is artfully split into three smaller games that each load into memory separately. The first of these revolves around making a long rope to get Grindleguts back into the orc stronghold outside of which he’s been trapped by a long string of very amusing happenstance detailed in McBride’s accompanying novella. He does this by tying together every vaguely ropelike thing he can find, including the aforementioned lasso and even Goldilocks’s hair, which, in one of the most amusing bits of the game, he rudely hacks off like the sniveling little reprobate he is. This first part of the game is fairly manageable, one dodgy puzzle involving a thorny hedge and a welcome mat aside. Once you get to the stronghold, however, the complexity ramps up dramatically. Amongst other things, you need to collect and use no fewer than 21 spells, many found in the most improbable of places. As always, Level 9’s ability to squash a crazy amount of game into 48 K is impressive — maybe a little too impressive. Combined with all of the bugs, it’s enough to make the game as a whole all but unsolvable even if playing straight from a walkthrough, what with all of the wandering characters constantly mucking with everything, never being where you want them, and always stealing items from you just when you were about to use them for something. I’m told that the whole thing is eventually revealed to have taken place in a simulacrum of a fantasy world, similar to the ending of Adventure. Ah, well… Level 9 had ignored that original ending in Colossal Adventure in favor of grafting a bunch more gameplay onto the end, so I suppose they earned the right to use it here.

Knight Orc received a notably cool reception in British adventuring circles, with reviewers dwelling at some length on how all but impossible it was to actually get anywhere with it. Others seemed put off by the sheer bloody-mindedness of it all, apparently preferring their fantasy fantastic and their heroes heroic, while plenty more just wanted the sort of traditional adventure game that Knight Orc most definitively was not. Even the pictures that were included with the 16-bit versions sparked a surprising amount of vitriol. Rather than resorting to vector graphics again or drawing directly on the computer, Level 9 digitized a set of watercolor paintings provided by Godfrey Dowson. The end results have a soothing, almost Impressionistic quality that clashes with the carnal tone of the game itself, but they hardly strike me as worth getting so upset over. They’re rather nice pictures really.

Knight Orc

Nor was Knight Orc destined to be the big break Level 9 dreamed of in North America. A milquetoast Computer Gaming World review made the very cogent observation that the puzzles “are too uneven” — “When random bad luck can spoil a well-thought-out solution, it’s hard to be sure if you’re on the right trail.” — and damned the game with the faint praise of “above average.” Most of the other magazines didn’t even notice Knight Orc, which like its two predecessors vanished quickly from the store shelves.

And so now all of Level 9’s games for Rainbird had proved to be commercial disappointments, while the British gaming press was now indulging in unabashed schadenfreude, saying that Level 9 had lost their mojo to their intra-label rivals Magnetic Scrolls. The Rainbird/Level 9 relationship collapsed under mutual recriminations. Level 9 said with some degree of truth that Rainbird had always favored Magnetic Scrolls, had given their games exactly the sort of promotional push, especially in North America, that Level 9 had never received. They claimed that any enthusiasm Rainbird had had for adventure games not from Magnetic Scrolls had ended with the departure of Tony Rainbird. Rainbird could reply with an equal degree of truth that Level 9 hadn’t given them all that much to promote: just two musty classics collections and one radical departure from their past that was wildly original but also kind of unplayable. A middle ground between retread and innovation would have been welcome at some point. By mutual decision, the two parted ways. Level 9 was now fully on their own again, forced to publish and market their next game for themselves. By 1987 that was a fairly uncomfortable place for a little family shop like theirs to find themselves in, but needs must. They would never regain the commercial mojo they had lost — or had stolen from them — in 1986.

Their best games, however, were actually still in front of them.

I’ve had a difficult relationship with Level 9 since starting this history. As the major interactive-publisher I knew least, they were the one I was most excited to learn more about, but they’ve left me feeling again and again like Charlie Brown on the football field, as their big ideas and interesting fictional concepts proved again and again to be riddled with nonsensical puzzles and fundamental issues of playability. I was ready to give them one final article today and be done with them. But then some of you encouraged me to have another look, I noticed that the games that followed Knight Orc were substantially better reviewed, and I came across this welcome statement from Pete Austin in a late interview:

It is worth saying that in the later ones when it is finished we play through it and we now have about a month’s play testing and we do take the results of the play testing quite seriously. This is from Gnome Ranger [the game that followed Knight Orc] onward. We also, where people find puzzles hard, put hints around the place or make them easier.

It seems that Knight Orc‘s obvious failings finally prompted changes at Level 9. I’ve investigated some of their games still to come, and found works that incorporate many of Knight Orc‘s innovations into more sober, accessible, solvable designs. I’m thus happy to say that there are still articles worth writing about Level 9.

In the meantime, I do encourage you to have a look at Knight Orc. It’s still one of the most unique text adventures I’ve ever played, and you can experience that uniqueness more than well enough in the reasonably playable first part. Whatever else you can say about it, it’s good for one hell of a laugh.

(Sources: Retro Gamer 6, 7, and 57; Amtix of June 1986; Page 6 of July/August 1988; Your Computer of October 1987; Questbusters of November 1987; Sinclair User of May 1985; ZX Computing of September 1986; Crash of February 1988; Amstrad Action of May 1986; Computer and Video Games of July 1986; ACE of December 1987; Computer Gaming World of April 1988.

Feel free to download Knight Orc to give it a try. The zip file contains two versions of the game: as a disk image for use with an Amiga emulator, or, in the “game” folder, as data ready for use with a Level 9 interpreter that’s available for many platforms. Open “gamedat1.dat” in the interpreter and everything should Just Work from there.)

 

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This Tormented Business, Part 1

An advertisement for Imagine's never-released Bandersnatch

As 1983 transitioned into 1984, the British games industry’s fortunes were soaring alongside those of its star platform, the Sinclair Spectrum. Mainstream press coverage soared right along with sales. Having not experienced the arcade- and console-videogame boom and crash to the extent of the United States, the press in Britain lacked a certain ennui that infected coverage of computer entertainment in that country. Thus picking up a tabloid newspaper really could make you think that games and their makers had arrived as mainstream entertainment, while several specialized weekly newsletters devoted to casual computing could be found at any newsstand, full of all the latest gossip. Trip Hawkins and Electronic Arts, who were earnestly trying to manufacture just this kind of mass-market buzz around their games and their “electronic artists” in the U.S. and largely failing, must have been green with envy. Of course, Britain’s homegrown electronic artists were also garnering a whole lot of money as well as a whole lot of press attention, giving Britons their first real exposure to the software superstar, generally in the form of a skinny, socially awkward young man rather incongruously sporting a Ferrari and a designer suit.

Imagine Software was the very personification of all this hype and excess. Founded by a few bright young sparks in Liverpool in 1982, Imagine burst to prominence and crazy profitability on the back of a slick action game called Arcadia, one of the early Speccy showcases which first made that machine the most popular gaming platform in the country. Thus when Imagine suddenly collapsed in about the most dramatic fashion imaginable in June of 1984 — employees returned from lunch to find the doors barred and their offices occupied by bailiffs working on behalf of Imagine’s creditors, with the whole thing being filmed for national television — it was tempting indeed to conflate their fate with the prospects of the industry as a whole. In truth, Imagine had worked hard to deserve their fate by being richly, conspicuously stupid. They invested in vanity projects like a misbegotten would-be advertising agency called Studio Sing; they refused to hire a single proper, professional accountant (perhaps because they didn’t want to hear what she might say); they twice moved into bigger, flashier offices before the lease on the previous had expired, thus paying double or triple rents for months at a stretch when they couldn’t begin to fill even one of their properties; they threw huge piles of cash into a never-released “mega-game” to be called Bandersnatch which they planned to sell for £40 (the typical going rate for a game at the time was about £5 or £6) and about which nobody was quite sure what it was supposed to be; they allowed their staff of artists and programmers complete “creative freedom,” which translated into many of them not really doing much of anything at all. Against all this, the Ferraris and racing motorcycles everyone at the company seemed to own represented a fairly modest problem.

It was also true, however, that the British software industry as a whole was bound for a stern reckoning with reality, just as was the American. Unlike the American, the British industry was also forced to contend with what they claimed was a booming trade in not just pirating (that was something the Americans knew all too much about) but commercial counterfeiting, a byproduct of the fact that most software was still distributed on cassettes in Britain. These were easy and cheap to duplicate in large quantities, and the simplistic packaging still common in the industry was also quite easy to copy well enough to get the job done. Counterfeiters, industry insiders claimed, could be found selling their wares at every flea market and village festival in Britain. Some even started their own little mail-order operations, selling through advertisements in newspapers. The industry claimed counterfeiters and pirates were costing them at least £100 million every year.

It’s difficult to assess the veracity of such claims. Certainly the games industry in Britain as well as elsewhere has a long history of overheated, overly alarmist rhetoric on the subject, which can perhaps make one more dismissive than one should be of legitimate concerns. What is clear is that, whatever the cause, the software industry didn’t grow in 1984 like it had in 1983. There were now simply too many publishers competing for the same customers. The prudent professionals like Alfred Milgrom of Melbourne House and David Ward of Ocean survived; the muddle-minded amateurs like the boys at Imagine were left with only their memories of one hell of a ride. The shakeout was inevitably wrenching, enough so that the more heatedly apocalyptic predictions for, as it was dubbed in a trade paper, “this tormented industry of ours” can be forgiven. Roger Kean offered a more balanced take in an editorial in Crash magazine:

There is nothing new in this; it seems inevitable that all “new” industries must start in back bedrooms and move to the conglomerate boardroom. If an industry is worth it, big money will move in. Competition increases, tougher marketing emerges, and the under-capitalized pioneer suffers. The benefits of programmers marketing their games through the larger software houses shouldn’t be overlooked though. The programmer is free to concentrate on what he does best while being linked to sufficient finance to market the game well, and at the same time is freed from the real headache of all companies — financial controls.

Melbourne House aside, most of the biggest of the big boys weren’t heavily invested in adventure games. Britain would never have another adventure phenomenon quite like The Hobbit. What it got instead was something that is in its way more inspiring. To program a sellable arcade game on even a simple machine like the Spectrum required quite a depth of knowledge in assembly language and the quirks of the Speccy itself. However, an adventure game was a less daunting prospect, especially with the aid of a tool like The Quill. Accordingly, new adventure games appeared by the handful virtually every week, sometimes from established publishers but also from plenty of teenagers possessed of an entrepreneurial bent, blank cassettes, and Ziploc baggies. This output dwarfed that of the U.S. in quantity if not in quality; World of Spectrum currently has archived 2217 commercial text adventures for the Speccy alone, and I’d venture to guess that at least that many more have been lost to history. Few of them would ever threaten to crack the software top ten, but they nevertheless fueled a thriving cult of eager players.

To sort through this flood in any rigorous way would require more time and dedication than I can muster. Having already looked at Sherlock, the biggest adventure of the year, we’ll just dip in another toe or two before moving on, checking in on a couple of other friends we already met in earlier articles. Being part of the less roller-coastery adventure scene, both Peter Killworth and the Austin family who ran Level 9 weathered the year’s storms quite comfortably.

The connection between Cambridge University’s Phoenix mainframe culture and Acornsoft continued to hold strong in 1984, with Peter Killworth continuing to serve as the conduit. Having ported the Phoenix game Hamil to the BBC Micro the previous year, Killworth did two more direct ports this year. One, of Rod Underwood’s 1980 game Quondam, is of particular value for Phoenix historians: the original, you see, is one of at least two Phoenix games to have been lost entirely in their original incarnations, and thus Killworth’s version represents our only way to play it today. (Sadly, the other — Xerb by Andrew Lipson — would seem to truly be lost forever.) Killworth’s other port was a technical tour de force that consumed most of a year: he managed to cram all of the monumental Acheton onto two BBC Micro disks, using one as a database to fetch text into memory as needed. That dependence on disk storage cut into sales severely; disk drives were still a relative rarity on British home computers, even on the fairly expensive BBC Micro line. But if nothing else Killworth and Acornsoft had bragging rights as purveyors of easily the biggest adventure game yet to appear on a microcomputer, on either side of the Atlantic. Acheton and Quondam otherwise remain the same sort of exercise in mathematics and masochism as the Phoenix/Acornsoft titles I’ve already discussed, so I won’t belabor them any more here. By now we know what we’re getting into with these games.

Level 9 celebrated the New Year with a new game — literally; they started selling it to mail-order customers on January 1. Lords of Time is unusual in being one of very few Level 9 games not solely designed by Pete Austin. Its germ was a proposal sent to the company by a fan named Sue Gazzard, “mother of two boys and reluctant housewife.” The Austins liked her idea for a time-traveling adventure inspired by a certain long-running British science-fiction series so much that they asked her to design it for them, with Pete in the role of programmer and occasional co-designer. Before release Gazzard’s original title of Time Lords became Lords of Time and the more overt Doctor Who references were smoothed away. Yes, the days when Level 9 could innocently release a trio of games that amounted to Lord of the Rings fan fiction were behind them; they would soon be scrubbing those games similarly clean of their inspiration, yet another sign of a maturing industry.

Lords of Time marked the end of an era in another sense: it was the last Level 9 game without pictures. In the eyes of Level 9, the success of The Hobbit had made them a veritable commercial necessity. Most other publishers seemed to agree. Absent an Infocom to fly the pure-text standard proudly, almost every high-profile British adventure game from here on would have to have pictures, despite the resource drain they represented on little computers already being pushed to their limit. (The Acornsoft adventures were among the few exceptions — but they were already becoming something of a specialized taste anyway.)

Having decided to take the plunge, the Austin brothers managed using their usual technical wizardry to pack an absurd number of pictures into a tiny amount of memory. Pete claimed that they could fit 300 pictures into 6 or 7 K of memory using an ultra-compressed version of the vector-graphics techniques Ken Williams had first employed for Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess in the U.S. The end result was not aesthetically masterful, but there was something to be said for giving the people what they wanted. The first Level 9 game to include graphics was Return to Eden, second in the Silicon Dreams trilogy they had begun with Snowball.

Return to Eden Erik the Viking

They rounded out the year with a third game, which appeared under the imprint of Mosaic Publishing rather than their own. The British equivalent to the American Telarium, Mosaic was busy pushing out an ambitious lineup of bookware, including titles based on books by Harry Harrison, Dick Francis, and Michael Moorcock. Level 9’s contribution was The Saga of Erik the Viking, a ludic sequel to the very popular 1983 children’s book by the improbably versatile Terry Jones of Monty Python fame.

Before I started writing this blog, I didn’t know nearly as much about Level 9’s games as a person who already years ago presumed to write a history of interactive fiction probably should have. Given their popular reputation as “the British Infocom” (admittedly, a title also sometimes ascribed to their later rivals Magnetic Scrolls), I dearly wanted to enjoy their games in the course of remedying that. But I must confess I’m finding that easier said than done. Snowball gave me hope that Level 9 was maturing, both with its more coherent fictional context and its fairer — albeit by no means entirely fair — puzzles, but this trio of games represents if anything a step backward. While I can overlook a lot of parser limitations and some strangled prose in light of the games needing to run on a 48 K machine with no recourse to disk-based virtual memory and now the added requirement of pictures, the unsolvable puzzles and the unnecessary cruelties are harder to forgive. There’s a locked door in Lords of Time that can be opened only by typing the magic word “EUREKA.” The only hint given for this is the fact that the door happens to be in an inventor’s laboratory. Otherwise, zilch — not even a nudge that you’re expected to use a secret word at all as opposed to opening the door by some more physical means. No wonder that programs to list the parsing vocabulary of Level 9 games were such a hot item in the magazines of this period. This sort of puzzle always frustrates me because it’s so… well, somehow dishonest. It’s easy and cheap to make a puzzle, or a game, that’s impossible to solve. The art and the craft come in making one that’s interesting, challenging, and solvable.

Return to Eden and Erik the Viking don’t feature any one puzzle quite so absurd, but in the aggregate are just about as impossible to solve and equally rife with annoyances and boring things required just for the hell of it. Eden, for instance, features a helicopter which constantly patrols overhead looking for you. You must “HIDE” every time it appears, which sometimes seems like every other turn. This goes on for literally most of the game; miss an appearance and it’s instant death. In no universe is this sort of thing remotely fun. Meanwhile the carefully worked-out setting of Eden‘s predecessor has been largely replaced with one more typical of adventure games — i.e., one a bit more on the absurd side.

That said, Level 9’s stellar contemporary reputation isn’t hard to understand. Thanks to their compression wizardry, they offered far more to do in every game than virtually anyone else, while their prose was generally a cut or two above the average and even their parser, while limited, was less limited than most. But I’m afraid their games — or at least those of this era — haven’t aged as well as one might wish. In the defense of Level 9 and others working the British market, I should note again that they were contending with horribly restrictive hardware in comparison to their American counterparts. The fact that they got as much game and as much text and graphics as they did into 48 K or (absent the graphics) even as little as 32 K of memory is remarkable in itself.

Still, the most remarkable and inspiring of all aspects of the British scene were all those amateur and semi-amateur creators making games for themselves with The Quill and other tools. They would become — and far sooner than the bigger publishers dreamed — the eventual face of interactive fiction. I probably haven’t quite given them their due, and probably won’t in the future, but I want to at least give them one more round of resounding lip service here.

Yet text adventures were not the most important games to come out of Britain in 1984. Indeed, for all its commercial uncertainty 1984 was an artistic year for the ages, one full of iconic titles and stone-cold classics, arguably the gaming year of the decade in Britain. I’d be truly remiss to not look at this creative explosion in other genres for which the British computers were, truth be told, probably better suited than displaying streams of hand-crafted text. So, next time we’ll jump into the first of a few of the most important and interesting titles from one hell of a crowded field.

(Paul Anderson and Bruce Everiss, respectively the maker and one of the stars of the BBC’s 1984 documentary on the British games industry that captured Imagine’s downfall, were reunited in 2011 at BAFTA for an interesting discussion. Other useful sources for this article: the Your Computer of November 1984; Crash of July 1985; Computer and Video Games of May 1984; and Micro Adventurer of July 1984. Oh, and feel free to download Peter Killworth’s two games of 1984 as well as Level 9’s three in versions for, depending on the game, the BBC Micro or Commodore 64.)

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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