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The Manhole

The Manhole

Because the CD-ROM version of The Manhole sold in relatively small numbers in comparison to the original floppy version, the late Russell Lieblich’s surprisingly varied original soundtrack is too seldom heard today. So, in the best tradition of multimedia computing (still a very new and sexy idea in the time about which I’m writing), feel free to listen while you read.

The Manhole

Were HyperCard “merely” the essential bridge between Ted Nelson’s Xanadu fantasy and the modern World Wide Web, it would stand as one of the most important pieces of software of the 1980s. But, improbably, HyperCard was even more than that. It’s easy to get so dazzled by its early implementation of hypertext that one loses track entirely of the other part of Bill Atkinson’s vision for the environment. True to the Macintosh, “the computer for the rest of us,” Atkinson designed HyperCard as a sort of computerized erector set for everyday users who might not care a whit about hypertext for its own sake. With HyperCard, he hoped, “a whole new body of people who have creative ideas but aren’t programmers will be able to express their ideas or expertise in certain subjects.”

He made good on that goal. An incredibly diverse group of people worked with HyperCard, a group in which traditional hackers were very much the minority. Danny Goodman, the man who became known as the world’s foremost authority on HyperCard programming, was actually a journalist whose earlier experiences with programming had been limited to a few dabblings in BASIC. In my earlier article about hypertext and HyperCard, I wrote how “a professor of music converted his entire Music Appreciation 101 course into a stack.” Well, readers, I meant that literally. He did it himself. Industry analyst and HyperCard zealot Jan Lewis:

You can do things with it [HyperCard] immediately. And you can do sexy things: graphics, animation, sound. You can do it without knowing how to program. You get immediate feedback; you can make a change and see or hear it immediately. And as you go up on the learning curve — let’s say you learn how to use HyperTalk [the bundled scripting language] — again, you can make changes easily and simply and get immediate feedback. It just feels good. It’s fun!

And yet HyperCard most definitely wasn’t a toy. People could and did make great, innovative, commercial-quality software using it. Nowhere is the power of HyperCard — a cultural as well as a technical power — illustrated more plainly than in the early careers of Rand and Robyn Miller.

The Manhole

Rand and Robyn had a very unusual upbringing. The first and third of the four sons of a wandering non-denominational preacher, they spent their childhoods moving wherever their father’s calling took him: from Dallas to Albuquerque, from Hawaii to Haiti to Spokane. They were a classic pairing of left brain and right brain. Rand had taken to computers from the instant he was introduced to them via a big time-shared system whilst still in junior high, and had made programming them into his career. By 1987, the year HyperCard dropped, he was to all appearances settled in life: 28 years old, married with children, living in a small town in East Texas, working for a bank as a programmer, and nurturing a love for the Apple Macintosh (he’d purchased his first Mac within days of the machine’s release back in 1984). He liked to read books on science. His brother Robyn, seven years his junior, was still trying to figure out what to do with his life. He was attending the University of Washington in somewhat desultory fashion as an alleged anthropology major, but devoted most of his energy to drawing pictures and playing the guitar. He liked to read adventure novels.

HyperCard struck Rand Miller, as it did so many, with all the force of a revelation. While he was an accomplished enough programmer to make a living at it, he wasn’t one who particularly enjoyed the detail work that went with the trade. “There are a lot of people who love digging down into the esoterics of compilers and C++, getting down and dirty with typed variables and all that stuff,” he says. “I wanted a quick return on investment. I just wanted to get things done.” HyperCard offered the chance to “get things done” dramatically faster and more easily than any programming environment he had ever seen. He became an immediate convert.

The Manhole

With two small girls of his own, Rand felt keenly the lack of quality children’s software for the Macintosh. He hit upon the idea of making a sort of interactive storybook using HyperCard, a very natural application for a hypertext tool. Lacking the artistic talent to make a go of the pictures, he thought of his little brother Robyn. The two men, so far apart in years and geography and living such different lives, weren’t really all that close. Nevertheless, Rand had a premonition that Robyn would be the perfect partner for his interactive storybook.

But Robyn, who had never owned a computer and had never had any interest in doing so, wasn’t immediately enticed by the idea of becoming a software developer. Getting him just to consider the idea took quite a number of letters and phone calls. At last, however, Robyn made his way down to the Macintosh his parents kept in the basement of the family home in Spokane and loaded up the copy of HyperCard his brother had sent him. There, like so many others, he was seduced by Bill Atkinson’s creation. He started playing around, just to see what he could make. What he made right away became something very different from the interactive storybook, complete with text and metaphorical pages, that Rand had envisioned. Robyn:

I started drawing this picture of a manhole — I don’t even know why. You clicked on it and the manhole cover would slide off. Then I made an animation of a vine growing out. The vine was huge, “Jack and the Beanstalk”-style. And then I didn’t want to turn the page. I wanted to be able to navigate up the vine, or go down into the manhole. I started creating a navigable world by using the very simple tools [of HyperCard]. I created this place.  I improvised my way through this world, creating one thing after another. Pretty soon I was creating little canals, and a forest with stars. I was inventing it as I went. And that’s how the world was born.

For his part, Rand had no problem accepting the change in approach:

Immediately you are enticed to explore instead of turning the page. Nobody sees a hole in the ground leading downward and a vine growing upward and in the distance a fire hydrant that says, “Touch me,” and wants to turn the page. You want to see what those things are. Instead of drawing the next page [when the player clicked a hotspot], he [Robyn] drew a picture that was closer — down in the manhole or above on the vine. It was kind of a stream of consciousness, but it became a place instead of a book. He started sending me these images, and I started connecting them, trying to make them work, make them interactive.

The Manhole

In this fashion, they built the world of The Manhole together: Robyn pulling its elements from the flotsam and jetsam of his consciousness and drawing them on the screen, Rand binding it all together into a contiguous place, and adding sound effects and voice snippets here and there. If they had tried to make a real game of the thing, with puzzles and goals, such a non-designed approach to design would likely have gone badly wrong in a hurry.

Luckily, puzzles and goals were never the point of The Manhole. It was intended always as just an endlessly interesting space to explore. As such, it would prove capable of captivating children and the proverbial young at heart for hours, full as it was of secrets and Easter eggs hidden in the craziest of places. One can play with The Manhole on and off for literally years, and still continue to stumble upon the occasional new thing. Interactions are often unexpected, and unexpectedly delightful. Hop in a rowboat to take a little ride and you might emerge in a rabbit’s teacup. Start watching a dragon’s television — Why does a dragon have a television? Who knows! — and you can teleport yourself into the image shown on the screen to emerge at the top of the world. Search long enough, and you might just discover a working piano you can actually play. The spirit of the thing is perhaps best conveyed by the five books you find inside the friendly rabbit’s home: Alice in Wonderland; The Wind in the Willows; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Winnie the Pooh; and Metaphors of Intercultural Philosophy (“This book isn’t about anything!”). Like all of those books excepting, presumably, the last, The Manhole is pretty wonderful, a perfect blend of sweet cuteness and tart whimsy.

The Manhole

With no contacts whatsoever within the Macintosh software industry, the brothers decided to publish The Manhole themselves via a tiny advertisement in the back of Macworld magazine, taken out under the auspices of Prolog, a consulting company Rand had founded as a moonlighting venture some time before. They rented a tiny booth to show The Manhole publicly for the first time at the Hyper Expo in San Francisco in June of 1988. (Yes, HyperCard mania had gotten so intense that there were entire trade shows dedicated just to it.) There they were delighted to receive a visit from none other than HyperCard’s creator Bill Atkinson, with his daughter Laura in tow; not yet five years old, she had no trouble navigating through their little world. Incredibly, Robyn had never even heard the word “hypertext” prior to the show, had no idea about the decades of theory that underpinned the program he had used, savant-like, to create The Manhole. When he met a band of Ted Nelson’s disgruntled Xanadu disciples on the show floor, come to crash the HyperCard party, he had no idea what they were on about.

But the brothers’ most important Hyper Expo encounter was a meeting with Richard Lehrberg, Vice President for Product Development at Mediagenic,1 who took a copy of The Manhole away with him for evaluation. Lehrberg showed it to William Volk, whom he had just hired away from the small Macintosh and Amiga publisher Aegis to become Mediagenic’s head of technology; he described it to Volk unenthusiastically as “this little HyperCard thing” done by “two guys in Texas.” Volk was much more impressed. He was immediately intrigued by one aspect of The Manhole in particular: the way that it used no buttons or conventional user-interface elements at all. Instead, the pictures themselves were the interface; you could just click where you would and see what happened. It was perhaps a product of Robyn Miller’s sheer naivetee as much anything else; seasoned computer people, so used to conventional interface paradigms, just didn’t think like that. But regardless of where it came from, Volk thought it was genius, a breaking down of a wall that had heretofore always separated the user from the virtual world. Volk:

The Miller brothers had come up with what I call the invisible interface. They had gotten rid of the idea of navigation buttons, which was what everyone was doing: go forward, go backward, turn right, turn left. They had made the scenes themselves the interface. You’re looking at a fire hydrant. You click on the fire hydrant; the fire hydrant sprays water. You click on the fire hydrant again; you zoom in to the fire hydrant, and there’s a little door on the fire hydrant. That was completely new.

Of course, other games did have you clicking “into” their world to make things happen; the point-and-click adventure genre was evolving rapidly during this period to replace the older parser-driven adventure games. But even games like Déjà Vu and Maniac Mansion, brilliantly innovative though they were, still surrounded their windows into their worlds with a clutter of “verb” buttons, legacies of the genre’s parser-driven roots. The Manhole, however, presented the player with nothing but its world. What with its defiantly non-Euclidean — not to say nonsensical — representation of space and its lack of goals and puzzles, The Manhole wasn’t a conventional adventure game by any stretch. Nevertheless, it pointed the way to what the genre would become, not least in the later works of the Miller brothers themselves.

Much of Volk’s working life for the next two years would be spent on The Manhole, by the end of which period he would quite possibly be more familiar with its many nooks and crannies than its own creators were. He became The Manhole‘s champion inside Mediagenic, convincing his colleagues to publish it, thereby bringing it to a far wider audience than the Miller brothers could ever have reached on their own. Released by Mediagenic under their Activision imprint, it became a hit by the modest standards of the Macintosh consumer-software market. Macworld magazine named The Manhole the winner of their “Wild Card” category in a feature article on the best HyperCard stacks, while the Software Publishers Association gave it an “Excellence in Software” award for “Best New Use of a Computer.”

We aware that The Manhole was collecting a certain computer-chic cachet, Mediagenic/Activision didn't hesitate to play that angle up in their advertising.

Well aware that The Manhole was collecting a certain chic cachet to itself, Mediagenic/Activision didn’t hesitate to play that angle up in their advertising.

Had that been left to be that, The Manhole would remain historically interesting as both a delightful little curiosity of its era and as the starting point of the hugely significant game-development careers of the Miller brothers. Yet there’s more to the story.

William Volk, frustrated with the endless delays of CD-I and the state of paralysis the entire industry was in when it came to the idea of publishing entertainment software on CD, had been looking for some time for a way to break the logjam. It was Stewart Alsop, an influential tech journalist, who first suggested to Volk that the answer to his dilemma was already part of Mediagenic’s catalog — that The Manhole would be perfect for CD-ROM. Volk was just the person to see such a project through, having already experimented extensively with CD-ROM and CD-I  as part of Aegis as well as Mediagenic. With the permission of the Miller brothers, he recruited Russell Lieblich, Mediagenic’s longstanding guru in all things music- and sound-related, to compose and perform a soundtrack for The Manhole which would play from the CD as the player explored.

An important difference separates the way the music worked in the CD-ROM version of The Manhole from way it worked in virtually all computer games to appear before it. The occasional brief digitized snippet aside, music in computer games had always been generated on the computer, whether by sound chips like the Commodore 64’s famous SID or entire sound boards like the top-of-its-class Roland MT-32 (we shall endeavor to forget the horrid beeps and squawks that issued from the IBM PC and Apple II’s native sound hardware). But The Manhole‘s music, while having been originally generated entirely or almost entirely on computers in Lieblich’s studio, was then recorded onto CD for digital playback, just like a song on a music CD. This method, made possible only by evolving computer sound hardware and, most importantly, by the huge storage capacity of a CD-ROM, would in the years to come slowly become simply the way that computer-game music was done. Today many big-budget titles hire entire orchestras to record soundtracks as elaborate and ambitious as the ones found in big Hollywood feature films, whilst also including digitized recordings of voices, squealing tires, explosions, and all the inevitable rest. In fact, surprisingly little of the sound present in most modern games is synthesized sound, a situation that has long since relegated elaborate setups like the Roland MT-32 to the status of white elephants; just pipe your digitized recording through a digital-to-analog converter and be done with it already.

As the very first title to go all digitized all the time, The Manhole didn’t have a particularly easy time of it; getting the music to play without breaking up or stuttering as the player explored presented a huge challenge on the Macintosh, a machine whose minimalist design burdened the CPU with all of the work of sound generation. However, Volk and his colleagues got it going at last. Published in the spring of 1989, the CD-ROM version of The Manhole marked a major landmark in the history of computing, the first American game — or, at least, software toy (another big buzzword of the age, as it happens) — to be released on CD-ROM.2 Volk, infuriated with Philips for the chaos and confusion CD-I’s endless delays had wrought in an industry he believed was crying out for the limitless vistas of optical storage, sent them a copy of The Manhole along with a curt note: “See! We did it! We’re tired of waiting!”

And they weren’t done yet. Having gotten The Manhole working on CD-ROM on the Macintosh, Volk and his colleagues at Mediagenic next tackled the daunting task of porting it to the most popular platform for consumer software, MS-DOS — a platform without HyperCard. To address this lack, Mediagenic developed a custom engine for CD-ROM titles on MS-DOS, dubbing it the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, or MADE.3 Mediagenic’s in-house team of artists redrew Robyn Miller’s original black-and-white illustrations in color, and The Manhole on CD-ROM for MS-DOS shipped in 1990.

In my opinion, The Manhole lost a little bit of its charm when it was colorized. The VGA graphics, impressive in their day, look a bit garish today.

In my opinion, The Manhole lost some of its unique charm when it was colorized for MS-DOS. The VGA graphics, impressive in their day, look just a bit garish and overdone today in comparison to the classic pen-and-ink style of the original.

The Manhole, idiosyncratic piece of artsy children’s software that it was, could hardly have been expected to break the industry’s optical logjam all on its own. Its CD-ROM incarnation, for that matter, wasn’t all that hugely different from the floppy version. In the end, one has to acknowledge that The Manhole on CD-ROM was little more than the floppy version with a soundtrack playing in the background — a nice addition certainly, but perhaps not quite the transformative experience which all of the rhetoric surrounding CD-ROM’s potential might have led one to expect. It would take another few excruciating years for a CD-ROM drive to become a must-have accessory for everyday American computers. Yet every revolution has to start somewhere, and William Volk deserves his full measure of credit for doing what he could to push this one forward in the only way that could ultimately matter: by stepping up and delivering a real, tangible product at long last. As Steve Jobs used to say, “Real artists ship.”

The importance of The Manhole, existing as it does right there at the locus of so much that was new and important in computing in the late 1980s, can be read in so many ways that there’s always a danger of losing some of them in the shuffle. But it should never be forgotten whilst trying to sort through the tangle that this astonishingly creative little world was principally designed by someone who had barely touched a computer in his life before he sat down with HyperCard. That he wound up with something so fascinating is a huge tribute not just to Robyn Miller and his enabling brother Rand, but also to Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard itself. Apple has long since abandoned HyperCard, and we enjoy no precise equivalent to it today. Indeed, its vision of intuitive, non-pretentious, fun programming is one that we’re in danger of losing altogether. Being one who loves the computer most of all as the most exciting tool for creation ever invented, I can’t help but see that as a horrible shame.

The Miller brothers had, as most of you reading this probably know, a far longer future in front of them than HyperCard would get to enjoy. Already well before 1988 was through they had rechristened themselves Cyan Productions, a name that felt much more appropriate for a creative development house than the businesslike Prolog. As Cyan, they made two more pieces of children’s software, Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Makerei and Spelunx and the Caves of Mr. Seudo. Both were once again made using HyperCard, and both were very much made in the spirit of The Manhole. And like The Manhole both were published on CD-ROM as well as floppy disk; the Miller brothers, having learned much from Mediagenic’s process of moving their first title to CD-ROM, handled the CD-ROM as well as the floppy versions themselves when it came to these later efforts. Opinions are somewhat divided on whether the two later Cyan children’s titles fully recapture the magic that has led so many adults and children alike over the years to spend so much time plumbing the depths of The Manhole. None, however, can argue with the significance of what came next, the Miller brothers’ graduation to games for adults — and, as it happens, another huge milestone in the slow-motion CD-ROM revolution. But that story, like so many others, is one that we’ll have to tell at another time.

(Sources: Amstrad Action of January 1990; Macworld of July 1988, October 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, and December 1989; Wired of August 1994 and October 1999; The New York Times of November 28 1989. Also the books Myst and Riven: The World of the D’ni by Mark J.P. Wolf and Prima’s Official Strategy Guide: Myst by Rick Barba and Rusel DeMaria, and the Computer Chronicles television episodes entitled “HyperCard,” “MacWorld Special 1988,” “HyperCard Update,” and “Hypertext.” Online sources include Robyn Miller’s Myst postmortem from the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference; Richard Moss’s Ludiphilia podcast; a blog post by Robyn Miller. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in an interview and for sending me an original copy of The Manhole on CD-ROM for my research.

The Manhole: Masterpiece Edition, a remake supervised by the Miller brothers in 1994 which sports much-improved graphics and sound, is available for purchase on Steam.)

  1. Activision was renamed Mediagenic at almost the very instant that Lehrberg first met the Miller brothers. When the name change was greeted with universal derision, Activision/Mediagenic CEO Bruce Davis quickly began backpedaling on his hasty decision. The Manhole, for instance, was released by Mediagenic under their “Activision” label — which was odd because under the new ordering said label was supposed to be reserved for games, and The Manhole was considered children’s software, not a traditional game. I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article as the least confusing way to address a confusing situation. 

  2. The first CD-based software to reach European consumers says worlds about the differences that persisted between American and European computing, and about the sheer can-do ingenuity that so often allowed British programmers in particular to squeeze every last ounce of potential out of hardware that was usually significantly inferior to that enjoyed by their American counterparts. Codemasters, a budget software house based in Warwickshire, came up with a very unique shovelware package for the 1989 Christmas season. They transferred thirty old games from cassette to a conventional audio CD, which they then sold along with a special cable to run the output from an ordinary music-CD player into a Sinclair or Amstrad home computer. “Here’s your CD-ROM,” they said. “Have a ball.” By all accounts, Codemasters’s self-proclaimed “CD revolution,” kind of hilarious and kind of brilliant, did quite well for them. When it came to doing more with less in computing, you never could beat the Brits. 

  3. MADE’s scripting language was to some extent based on AdvSys, a language for amateur text-adventure creation that never quite took off like the contemporaneous AGT


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The Freedom to Associate

In 1854, an Austrian priest and physics teacher named Gregor Mendel sought and received permission from his abbot to plant a two-acre garden of pea plants on the grounds of the monastery at which he lived. Over the course of the next seven years, he bred together thousands upon thousands of the plants under carefully controlled circumstances, recording in a journal the appearance of every single offspring that resulted, as defined by seven characteristics: plant height, pod shape and color, seed shape and color, and flower position and color. In the end, he collected enough data to formulate the basis of the modern science of genetics, in the form of a theory of dominant and recessive traits passed down in pairs from generation to generation. He presented his paper on the subject, “Experiments on Plant Hybridization,” before the Natural History Society of Austria in 1865, and saw it published in a poorly circulated scientific journal the following year.

And then came… nothing. For various reasons — perhaps due partly to the paper’s unassuming title, perhaps due partly to the fact that Mendel was hardly a known figure in the world of biology, undoubtedly due largely to the poor circulation of the journal in which it was published — few noticed it at all, and those who did dismissed it seemingly without grasping its import. Most notably, Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species had been published while Mendel was in the midst of his own experiments, seems never to have been aware of the paper at all, thereby missing this key gear in the mechanism of evolution. Mendel was promoted to abbot of his monastery shortly after the publication of his paper, and the increased responsibilities of his new post ended his career as a scientist. He died in 1884, remembered as a quiet man of religion who had for a time been a gentleman dabbler in the science of botany.

But then, at the turn of the century, the German botanist Carl Correns stumbled upon Mendel’s work while conducting his own investigations into floral genetics, becoming in the process the first to grasp its true significance. To his huge credit, he advanced Mendel’s name as the real originator of the set of theories which he, along with one or two other scientists working independently, was beginning to rediscover. Correns effectively shamed those other scientists as well into acknowledging that Mendel had figured it all out decades before any of them even came close. It was truly a selfless act; today the name of Carl Correns is unknown except in esoteric scientific circles, while Gregor Mendel’s has been done the ultimate honor of becoming an adjective (“Mendelian”) and a noun (“Mendelism”) locatable in any good dictionary.

Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush

So, all’s well that ends well, right? Well, maybe, but maybe not. Some 30 years after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, an American named Vannevar Bush, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering, came to see the 35 years that had passed between the publication of Mendel’s theory and the affirmation of its importance as a troubling symptom of the modern condition. Once upon a time, all knowledge had been regarded as of a piece, and it had been possible for a great mind to hold within itself huge swathes of this collective knowledge of humanity, everything informing everything else. Think of that classic example of a Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, who was simultaneously a musician, a physicist, a mathematician, an anatomist, a botanist, a geologist, a cartographer, an alchemist, an astronomer, an engineer, and an inventor. Most of all, of course, he was a great visual artist, but he used everything else he was carrying around in that giant brain of his to create paintings and drawings as technically meticulous as they were artistically sublime.

By Bush’s time, however, the world had long since entered the Age of the Specialist. As the sheer quantity of information in every field exploded, those who wished to do worthwhile work in any given field — even those people gifted with giant brains — were increasingly being forced to dedicate their intellectual lives entirely to that field and only that field, just to keep up. The intellectual elite were in danger of becoming a race of mole people, closeted one-dimensionals fixated always on the details of their ever more specialized trades, never on the bigger picture. And even then, the amount of information surrounding them was so vast, and existing systems for indexing and keeping track of it all so feeble, that they could miss really important stuff within their own specialties; witness the way the biologists of the late nineteenth century had missed Gregor Mendel’s work, and the 35-years head start it had cost the new science of genetics. “Mendel’s work was lost,” Bush would later write, “because of the crudity with which information is transmitted between men.” How many other major scientific advances were lying lost in the flood of articles being published every year, a flood that had increased by an order of magnitude just since Mendel’s time? “In this are thoughts,” wrote Bush, “certainly not often as great as Mendel’s, but important to our progress. Many of them become lost; many others are repeated over and over.” “This sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all around us,” he believed, “as truly significant attainments become lost in the sea of the inconsequential.”

Bush’s musings were swept aside for a time by the rush of historical events. As the prospect of another world war loomed, he became President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s foremost advisor on matters involving science and engineering. During the war, he shepherded through countless major advances in the technologies of attack and defense, culminating in the most fearsome weapon the world had ever known: the atomic bomb. It was actually this last that caused Bush to return to the seemingly unrelated topic of information management, a problem he now saw in a more urgent light than ever. Clearly the world was entering a new era, one with far less tolerance for the human folly, born of so much context-less mole-person ideology, that had spawned the current war.

Practical man that he was, Bush decided there was nothing for it but to roll up his sleeves and make a concrete proposal describing how humanity could solve the needle-in-a-haystack problem of the modern information explosion. Doing so must entail grappling with something as fundamental as “how creative men think, and what can be done to help them think. It is a problem of how the great mass of material shall be handled so that the individual can draw from it what he needs — instantly, correctly, and with utter freedom.”

As revolutionary manifestos go, Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” is very unusual in terms of both the man that wrote it and the audience that read it. Bush was no Karl Marx, toiling away in discontented obscurity and poverty. On the contrary, he was a wealthy upper-class patrician who was, as a member of the White House inner circle, about as fabulously well-connected as it was possible for a man to be. His article appeared first in the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, hardly a bastion of radical thought. Soon after, it was republished in somewhat abridged form by Life, the most popular magazine on the planet. Thereby did this visionary document reach literally millions of readers.

With the atomic bomb still a state secret, Bush couldn’t refer directly to his real reasons for wanting so urgently to write down his ideas now. Yet the dawning of the atomic age nevertheless haunts his article.

It is the physicists who have been thrown most violently off stride, who have left academic pursuits for the making of strange destructive gadgets, who have had to devise new methods for their unanticipated assignments. They have done their part on the devices that made it possible to turn back the enemy, have worked in combined effort with the physicists of our allies. They have felt within themselves the stir of achievement. They have been part of a great team. Now, as peace approaches, one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best.

Seen in one light, Bush’s essay is similar to many of those that would follow from other Manhattan Project alumni during the uncertain interstitial period between the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War. Bush was like many of his colleagues in feeling the need to advance a utopian agenda to counter the apocalyptic potential of the weapon they had wrought, in needing to see the ultimate evil that was the atomic bomb in almost paradoxical terms as a potential force for good that would finally shake the world awake.

Bush was true to his engineer’s heart, however, in basing his utopian vision on technology rather than politics. The world was drowning in information, making the act of information synthesis — intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary alike — ever more difficult.

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and reenter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve it, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

Bush was not among the vanishingly small number of people who were working in the nascent field of digital computing in 1945. His “memex,” the invention he proposed to let an individual free-associate all of the information in her personal library, was more steampunk than cyberpunk, all whirring gears, snickering levers, and whooshing microfilm strips. But really, those things are just details; he got all of the important stuff right. I want to quote some more from “As We May Think,” and somewhat at length at that, because… well, because its vision of the future is just that important. This is how the memex should work:

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson

There is no record of what all those millions of Atlantic Monthly and Life readers made of Bush’s ideas in 1945 — or for that matter if they made anything of them at all. In the decades that followed, however, the article became a touchstone of the burgeoning semi-underground world of creative computing. Among its discoverers was Ted Nelson, who is depending on whom you talk to either one of the greatest visionaries in the history of computing or one of the greatest crackpots — or, quite possibly, both. Born in 1937 to a Hollywood director and his actress wife, then raised by his wealthy and indulgent grandparents following the inevitable Hollywood divorce, Nelson’s life would largely be defined by, as Gary Wolf put it in his classic profile for Wired magazine, his “aversion to finishing.” As in, finishing anything at all, or just the concept of finishing in the abstract. Well into middle-age, he would be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, an alleged malady he came to celebrate as his “hummingbird mind.” This condition perhaps explains why he was so eager to find a way of forging permanent, retraceable associations among all the information floating around inside and outside his brain.

Nelson coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” at some point during the early 1960s, when he was a graduate student at Harvard. (Typically, he got a score of Incomplete in the course for which he invented them, not to mention an Incomplete on his PhD as a whole.) While they’re widely used all but interchangeably today, in Nelson’s original formulation the former term was reserved for purely textual works, the later for those incorporating others forms of media, like images and sound. But today we’ll just go with the modern flow, call them all hypertexts, and leave it at that. In his scheme, then, hypertexts were texts capable of being “zipped” together with other hypertexts, memex-like, wherever the reader or writer wished to preserve associations between them. He presented his new buzzwords to the world at a conference of the Association for Computing Machinery in 1965, to little impact. Nelson, possessed of a loudly declamatory style of discourse and all the rabble-rousing fervor of a street-corner anarchist, would never be taken all that seriously by the academic establishment.

Instead, it being the 1960s and all, he went underground, embracing computing’s burgeoning counterculture. His eventual testament, one of the few things he ever did manage to complete — after a fashion, at any rate — was a massive 1200-page tome called Computer Lib/Dream Machines, self-published in 1974, just in time for the heyday of the Altair and the Homebrew Computer Club, whose members embraced Nelson as something of a patron saint. As the name would indicate, Computer Lib/Dream Machines was actually two separate books, bound back to back. Theoretically, Computer Lib was the more grounded volume, full of practical advice about gaining access to and using computers, while Dream Machines was full of the really out-there ideas. In practice, though, they were often hard to distinguish. Indeed, it was hard to even find anything in the books, which were published as mimeographed facsimile copies filled with jotted marginalia and cartoons drafted in Nelson’s shaky hand, with no table of contents or page numbers and no discernible organizing principle beyond the stream of consciousness of Nelson’s hummingbird mind. (I trust that the irony of a book concerned with finding new organizing principles for information itself being such an impenetrable morass is too obvious to be worth belaboring further.) Nelson followed Computer Lib/Dream Machines with 1981’s Literary Machines, a text written in a similar style that dwelt, when it could be bothered, at even greater length on the idea of hypertext.

The most consistently central theme of Nelson’s books, to whatever extent one could be discerned, was an elaboration of the hypertext concept he called Xanadu, after the pleasure palace in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” The product of an opium-fueled hallucination, the 54-line poem is a mere fragment of a much longer work Coleridge had intended to write. Problem was, in the course of writing down the first part of his waking dream he was interrupted; by the time he returned to his desk he had simply forgotten the rest.

So, Nelson’s Xanadu was intended to preserve information that would otherwise be lost, which goal it would achieve through associative linking on a global scale. Beyond that, it was almost impossible to say precisely what Xanadu was or wasn’t. Certainly it sounds much like the World Wide Web to modern ears, but Nelson insists adamantly that the web is a mere bad implementation of the merest shadow of his full idea. Xanadu has been under allegedly active development since the late 1960s, making it the most long-lived single project in the history of computer programming, and by far history’s most legendary piece of vaporware. As of this writing, the sum total of all those years of work are a set of web pages written in Nelson’s inimitable declamatory style, littered with angry screeds against the World Wide Web, along with some online samples that either don’t work quite right or are simply too paradigm-shattering for my poor mind to grasp.

In my own years on this planet, I’ve come to reserve my greatest respect for people who finish things, a judgment which perhaps makes me less than the ideal critic of Ted Nelson’s work. Nevertheless, even I can recognize that Nelson deserves huge credit for transporting Bush’s ideas to their natural habitat of digital computers, for inventing the term “hypertext,” for defining an approach to links (or “zips”) in a digital space, and, last but far from least, for making the crucial leap from Vannevar Bush’s concept of the single-user memex machine to an interconnected global network of hyperlinks.

But of course ideas, of which both Bush and Nelson had so many, are not finished implementations. During the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, there were various efforts — in addition, that is, to the quixotic effort that was Xanadu — to wrestle at least some of the concepts put forward by these two visionaries into concrete existence. Yet it wouldn’t be until 1987 that a corporation with real financial resources and real commercial savvy would at last place a reasonably complete implementation of hypertext before the public. And it all started with a frustrated programmer looking for a project.

Steve Jobs and Bill Atkinson

Steve Jobs and Bill Atkinson

Had he never had anything to do with hypertext, Bill Atkinson’s place in the history of computing would still be assured. Coming to Apple Computer in 1978, when the company was only about eighteen months removed from that famous Cupertino garage, Atkinson was instrumental in convincing Steve Jobs to visit the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, thereby setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to the Macintosh. A brilliant programmer by anybody’s measure, he eventually wound up on the Lisa team. He wrote the routines to draw pixels onto the Lisa’s screen — routines on which, what with the Lisa being a fundamentally graphical machine whose every display was bitmapped, every other program depended. Jobs was so impressed by Atkinson’s work on what he named LisaGraf that he recruited him to port his routines over to the nascent Macintosh. Atkinson’s routines, now dubbed QuickDraw, would remain at the core of MacOS for the next fifteen years. But Atkinson’s contribution to the Mac went yet further: after QuickDraw, he proceeded to design and program MacPaint, one of the two applications included with the finished machine, and one that’s still justifiably regarded as a little marvel of intuitive user-interface design.

Atkinson’s work on the Mac was so essential to the machine’s success that shortly after its release he became just the fourth person to be named an Apple Fellow — an honor that carried with it, implicitly if not explicitly, a degree of autonomy for the recipient in the choosing of future projects. The first project that Atkinson chose for himself was something he called the Magic Slate, based on a gadget called the Dynabook that had been proposed years ago by Xerox PARC alum (and Atkinson’s fellow Apple Fellow) Alan Kay: a small, thin, inexpensive handheld computer controlled via a touch screen. It was, as anyone who has ever seen an iPhone or iPad will attest, a prescient project indeed, but also one that simply wasn’t realizable using mid-1980s computer technology. Having been convinced of this at last by his skeptical managers after some months of flailing,  Atkinson wondered if he might not be able to create the next best thing in the form of a sort of software version of the Magic Slate, running on the Macintosh desktop.

In a way, the Magic Slate had always had as much to do with the ideas of Bush and Nelson as it did with those of Kay. Atkinson had envisioned its interface as a network of “pages” which the user navigated among by tapping links therein — a hypertext in its own right. Now he transported the same concept to the Macintosh desktop, whilst making his metaphorical pages into metaphorical stacks of index cards. He called the end result, the product of many months of design and programming, “Wildcard.” Later, when the trademark “Wildcard” proved to be tied up by another company, it turned into “HyperCard” — a much better name anyway in my book.

By the time he had HyperCard in some sort of reasonably usable shape, Atkinson was all but convinced that he would have to either sell the thing to some outside software publisher or start his own company to market it. With Steve Jobs now long gone and with him much of the old Jobsian spirit of changing the world through better computing, Apple was heavily focused on turning the Macintosh into a practical business machine. The new, more sober mood in Cupertino — not to mention Apple’s more buttoned-down public image — would seem to indicate that they were hardly up for another wide-eyed “revolutionary” product. It was Alan Kay, still kicking around Cupertino puttering with this and that, who convinced Atkinson to give CEO John Sculley a chance before he took HyperCard elsewhere. Kay brokered a meeting between Sculley and Atkinson, in which the latter was able to personally demonstrate to the former what he’d been working on all these months. Much to Atkinson’s surprise, Sculley loved HyperCard. Apparently at least some of the old Jobsian fervor was still alive and well after all inside Apple’s executive suite.

At its most basic, a HyperCard stack to modern eyes resembles nothing so much as a PowerPoint presentation, albeit one which can be navigated non-linearly by tapping links on the slides themselves. Just as in PowerPoint, the HyperCard designer could drag and drop various forms of media onto a card. Taken even at this fairly superficial level, HyperCard was already a full-fledged hypertext-authoring (and hypertext-reading) tool — by no means the first specimen of its kind, but the first with the requisite combination of friendliness, practicality, and attractiveness to make it an appealing environment for the everyday computer user. One of Atkinson’s favorite early demo stacks had many cards with pictures of people wearing hats. If you clicked on a hat, you were sent to another card showing someone else wearing a hat. Ditto for other articles of fashion. It may sound banal, but this really was revolutionary, organization by association in action. Indeed, one might say that HyperCard was Vannevar Bush’s memex, fully realized at last.

But the system showed itself to have much, much more to offer when the author started to dig into HyperTalk, the included scripting language. All sorts of logic, simple or complex, could be accomplished by linking scripts to clicks on the surface of the cards. At this level, HyperCard became an almost magical tool for some types of game development, as we’ll see in future articles. It was also a natural fit for many other applications: information kiosks, interactive tutorials, educational software, expert systems, reference libraries, etc.

HyperCard in action

HyperCard in action

John Sculley himself premiered HyperCard at the August 1987 MacWorld show. Showing unusual largess in his determination to get HyperCard into the hands of as many people as possible as quickly as possible, he announced that henceforward all new Macs would ship with a free copy of the system, while existing owners could buy copies for their machines for just $49. He called HyperCard the most important product Apple had released during his tenure there. Considering that Sculley had also been present for the launch of the original Macintosh, this was certainly saying something. And yet he wasn’t clearly in the wrong either. As important as the Macintosh, the realization in practical commercial form of the computer-interface paradigms pioneered at Xerox PARC during the 1970s, has been to our digital lives of today, the concept of associative indexing — hyperlinking — has proved at least as significant. But then, the two do go together like strawberries and cream, the point-and-click paradigm providing the perfect way to intuitively navigate through a labyrinth of hyperlinks. It was no coincidence that an enjoyable implementation of hypertext appeared first on the Macintosh; the latter almost seemed a prerequisite for the former.

The full revolutionary nature of the concept of hypertext was far from easy to get across in advertising copy, but Apple gave it a surprisingly good go, paying due homage to Vannevar Bush in the process.

The full import of the concept of hypertext was far from easy to get across in advertising copy, but Apple gave it a surprisingly serious go, paying due homage to Vannevar Bush in the process.

In the wake of that MacWorld presentation, a towering tide of HyperCard hype rolled from one side of the computer industry to the other, out into the mainstream media, and then back again, over and over. Hypertext’s time had finally come. In 1985, it was an esoteric fringe concept known only to academics and a handful of hackers, being treated at real length and depth in print only in Ted Nelson’s own sprawling, well-nigh impenetrable tomes. Four years later, every bookstore in the land sported a shelf positively groaning with trendy paperbacks advertising hypertext this and hypertext that. By then the curmudgeons had also begun to come out in force, always a sure sign that an idea has truly reached critical mass. Presentations showed up in conference catalogs with snarky titles like “Hypertext: Will It Cook Me Breakfast Too?.”

The curmudgeons had plenty of rabid enthusiasm to push back against. HyperCard, even more so than the Macintosh itself, had a way of turning the most sober-minded computing veterans into starry-eyed fanatics. Jan Lewis, a long time business-computing analyst, declared that “HyperCard is going to revolutionize the way computing is done, and possibly the way human thought is done.” Throwing caution to the wind, she abandoned her post at InfoWorld to found HyperAge, the first magazine dedicated to the revolution. “There’s a tremendous demand,” she said. “If you look at the online services, the bulletin boards, the various ad hoc meetings, user groups — there is literally a HyperCulture developing, almost a cult.” To judge from her own impassioned statements, she should know. She recruited Ted Nelson himself — one of the HyperCard holy trinity of Bush, Nelson, and Atkinson — to write a monthly column.

HyperCard effectively amounted to an entirely new computing platform that just happened to run atop the older platform that was the Macintosh. As Lewis noted, user-created HyperCard stacks — this new platform’s word for “programs” or “software” — were soon being traded all over the telecommunications networks. The first commercial publisher to jump into the HyperCard game was, somewhat surprisingly, Mediagenic.1 Bruce Davis, Mediagenic’s CEO, has hardly gone down into history as a paradigm of progressive thought in the realms of computer games and software in general, but he defied his modern reputation in this one area at least by pushing quickly and aggressively into “stackware.” One of the first examples of same that Mediagenic published was Focal Point, a collection of business and personal-productivity tools written by one Danny Goodman, who was soon to publish a massive bible called The Complete HyperCard Handbook, thus securing for himself the mantle of the new ecosystem’s go-to programming guru. Focal Point was a fine demonstration that just about any sort of software could be created by the sufficiently motivated HyperCard programmer. But it was another early Mediagenic release, City to City, that was more indicative of the system’s real potential. It was a travel guide to most major American cities — an effortlessly browsable and searchable guide to “the best food, lodgings, and other necessities” to be found in each of the metropolises in its database.

City to City

City to City

Other publishers — large, small, and just starting out — followed Mediagenic’s lead, releasing a bevy of fascinating products. The people behind The Whole Earth Catalog — themselves the inspiration for Ted Nelson’s efforts in self-publication — converted their current edition into a HyperCard stack filling a staggering 80 floppy disks. A tiny company called Voyager combined HyperCard with a laser-disc player — a very common combination among ambitious early HyperCard developers — to offer an interactive version of the National Gallery of Art which could be explored using such associative search terms as “Impressionist landscapes with boats.” Culture 1.0 let you explore its namesake through “3700 years of Western history — over 200 graphics, 2000 hypertext links, and 90 essays covering topics from the Black Plague to Impressionism,” all on just 7 floppy disks. Mission: The Moon, from the newly launched interactive arm of ABC News, gathered together details of every single Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission, including videos of each mission hosted on a companion laser disc. A professor of music converted his entire Music Appreciation 101 course into a stack. The American Heritage Dictionary appeared as stackware. And lots of what we might call “middlestackware” appeared to help budding programmers with their own creations: HyperComposer for writing music in HyperCard, Take One for adding animations to cards.

Just two factors were missing from HyperCard to allow hypertext to reach its full potential. One was a storage medium capable of holding lots of data, to allow for truly rich multimedia experiences, combining the lavish amounts of video, still pictures, music, sound, and of course text that the system clearly cried out for. Thankfully, that problem was about to be remedied via a new technology which we’ll be examining in my very next article.

The other problem was a little thornier, and would take a little longer to solve. For all its wonders, a HyperCard stack was still confined to the single Macintosh on which it ran; there was no provision for linking between stacks running on entirely separate computers. In other words, one might think of a HyperCard stack as equivalent to a single web site running locally off a single computer’s hard drive, without the ability to field external links alongside its internal links. Thus the really key component of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu dream, that of a networked hypertext environment potentially spanning the entire globe, remained unrealized. In 1990, Bill Nisen, the developer of a hypertext system called Guide that slightly predated HyperCard but wasn’t as practical or usable, stated the problem thus:

The one thing that is precluding the wide acceptance of hypertext and hypermedia is adequate broadcast mechanisms. We need to find ways in which we can broadcast the results of hypermedia authoring. We’re looking to in the future the ubiquitous availability of local-area networks and low-cost digital-transmission facilities. Once we can put the results of this authoring into the hands of more users, we’re going to see this industry really explode.

Already at the time Nisen made that statement, a British researcher named Tim Berners-Lee had started to experiment with something he called the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. The first real web site, the beginning of the World Wide Web, would go online in 1991. It would take a few more years even from that point, but a shared hypertextual space of a scope and scale the likes of which few could imagine was on the way. The world already had its memex in the form of HyperCard. Now — and although this equivalency would scandalize Ted Nelson — it was about to get its Xanadu.

Associative indexing permeates our lives so thoroughly today that, as with so many truly fundamental paradigm shifts, the full scope of the change it has wrought can be difficult to fully appreciate. A century ago, education was still largely an exercise in retention: names, dates, Latin verb cognates. Today’s educational institutions  — at least the more enlightened ones — recognize that it’s more important to teach their pupils how to think than it is to fill their heads with facts; facts, after all, are now cheap and easy to acquire when you need them. That such a revolution in the way we think about thought happened in just a couple of decades strikes me as incredible. That I happened to be present to witness it strikes me as amazing.

What I’ve witnessed has been a revolution in humanity’s relationship to information itself that’s every bit as significant as any political revolution in history. Some Singularity proponents will tell you that it marks the first step on the road to a vast worldwide consciousness. But even if you choose not to go that far, the ideas of Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson are still with you every time you bring up Google. We live in a world in which much of the sum total of human knowledge is available over an electronic connection found in almost every modern home. This is wondrous. Yet what’s still more wondrous is the way that we can find almost any obscure fact, passage, opinion, or idea we like from within that mass, thanks to selection by association. Mama, we’re all cyborgs now.

(Sources: the books Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and Insanely Great: The Life and Times of the Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything by Steven Levy; Computer Lib/Dream Machines and Literary Machines by Ted Nelson; From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine, edited by James M. Nyce and Paul Kahn; The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort; Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond by Jakob Nielsen; The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Also the June 1995 Wired magazine profile of Ted Nelson; Andy Hertzfeld’s website Folklore; and the Computer Chronicles television episodes entitled “HyperCard,” “MacWorld Special 1988,” “HyperCard Update,” and “Hypertext.”)

  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 


Posted by on September 23, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Cracking Open the Mac

The Macintosh II

The biggest problem with the Macintosh hardware was pretty obvious, which was its limited expandability. But the problem wasn’t really technical as much as philosophical, which was that we wanted to eliminate the inevitable complexity that was a consequence of hardware expandability, both for the user and the developer, by having every Macintosh be identical. It was a valid point of view, even somewhat courageous, but not very practical, because things were still changing too fast in the computer industry for it to work, driven by the relentless tides of Moore’s Law.

— original Macintosh team-member Andy Hertzfeld

Jef Raskin and Steve Jobs didn’t agree on much, but they did agree on their loathing for expansion slots. The absence of slots was one of the bedrock attributes of Raskin’s original vision for the Macintosh, the most immediately obvious difference between it and Apple’s then-current flagship product, the Apple II. In contrast to Steve Wozniak’s beloved hacker plaything, Raskin’s computer for the people would be as effortless to set up and use as a stereo, a television, or a toaster.

When Jobs took over the Macintosh project — some, including Raskin himself, would say stole it — he changed just about every detail except this one. Yet some members of the tiny team he put together, fiercely loyal to their leader and his vision of a “computer for the rest of us” though they were, were beginning to question the wisdom of this aspect of the machine by the time the Macintosh came together in its final form. It was a little hard in January of 1984 not to question the wisdom of shipping an essentially unexpandable appliance with just 128 K of memory and a single floppy-disk drive for a price of $2495. At some level, it seemed, this just wasn’t how the computer market worked.

Jobs would reply that the whole point of the Macintosh was to change how computers worked, and with them the workings of the computer market. He wasn’t entirely without concrete arguments to back up his position. One had only to glance over at the IBM clone market — always Jobs’s first choice as the antonym to the Mac — to see how chaotic a totally open platform could be. Clone users were getting all too familiar with the IRQ and memory-address conflicts that could result from plugging two cards that were determined not to play nice together into the same machine, and software developers were getting used to chasing down obscure bugs that only popped up when their programs ran on certain combinations of hardware.

Viewed in the big picture, we could actually say that Jobs was prescient in his determination to stamp out that chaos, to make every Macintosh the same as every other, to make the platform in general a thoroughly known quantity for software developers. The norm in personal computing as most people know it — whether we’re talking phones, tablets, laptops, or increasingly even desktop computers — has long since become sealed boxes of one stripe or another. But there are some important factors that make said sealed boxes a better idea now than they were back then. For one thing, the pace of hardware and software development alike has slowed enough that a new computer can be viable just as it was purchased for ten years or more. For another, prices have come down enough that throwing a device away and starting over with a new one isn’t so cost-prohibitive as it once was. With personal computers still exotic, expensive machines in a constant state of flux at the time of the Mac’s introduction, the computer as a sealed appliance was a vastly more problematic proposition.

Determined to do everything possible to keep users out of the Macintosh's innards, Apple used Torx screws, which were almost unheard of at the time, and even threatened them with electrocution should they persist. The contrast with the Apple II, whose top could be popped in seconds, could hardly have been more striking.

Determined to do everything possible to keep users out of the Mac’s innards, Apple used Torx screws for which screwdrivers weren’t commonly available to seal it, and even threatened users with electrocution should they persist in trying to open it. The contrast with the Apple II, whose top could be popped in seconds using nothing more than a pair of hands to reveal seven tempting expansion slots, could hardly have been more striking.

It was the early adopters who spotted the potential in that first slow, under-powered Macintosh, the people who believed Jobs’s promise that the machine’s success or failure would be determined by the number who bought it in its first hundred days on the market, who bore the brunt of Apple’s decision to seal it as tightly as Fort Knox. When Apple in September of 1984 released the so-called “Fat Mac” with 512 K of memory, the quantity that in the opinion of just about everyone — including most of those at Apple not named Steve Jobs — the machine should have shipped with in the first place, owners of the original model were offered the opportunity to bring their machines to their dealers and have them retro-fitted to the new specifications for $995. This “deal” sparked considerable outrage and even a letter-writing campaign that tried to shame Apple into bettering the terms of the upgrade. Disgruntled existing owners pointed out that their total costs for a 512 K Macintosh amounted to $3490, while a Fat Mac could be bought outright by a prospective new member of the Macintosh fold for $2795. “Apple should have bent over backward for the people who supported it in the beginning,” said one of the protest’s ringleaders. “I’m never going to feel the same about Apple again.” Apple, for better or for worse never a company that was terribly susceptible to such public shaming, sent their disgruntled customers a couple of free software packages and told them to suck it up.

The Macintosh Plus

The Macintosh Plus

Barely fifteen months later, when Apple released the Macintosh Plus with 1 MB of memory among other advancements, the merry-go-round spun again. This time the upgrade would cost owners of the earlier models over $1000, along with lots of downtime while their machines sat in queues at their dealers. With software developers rushing to take advantage of the increased memory of each successive model, dedicated users could hardly stand to regard each successive upgrade as optional. As things stood, then, they were effectively paying a service charge of about $1000 per year just to remain a part of the Macintosh community. Owning a Mac was like owning a car that had to go into the shop for a week for a complete engine overhaul once every year. Apple, then as now, was famous for the loyalty of their users, but this was stretching even that legendary goodwill to the breaking point.

For some time voices within Apple had been mumbling that this approach simply couldn’t continue if the Macintosh was to become a serious, long-lived computing platform; Apple simply had to open the Mac up, even if that entailed making it a little more like all those hated beige IBM clones. During the first months after the launch, Steve Jobs was able to stamp out these deviations from his dogma, but as sales stalled and his relationship with John Sculley, the CEO he’d hand-picked to run the company he’d co-founded, deteriorated, the grumblers grew steadily more persistent and empowered.

The architect of one of the more startling about-faces in Apple’s corporate history would be Jean-Louis Gassée, a high-strung marketing executive newly arrived in Silicon Valley from Apple’s French subsidiary. Gassée privately — very privately in the first months after his arrival, when Jobs’s word still was law — agreed with many on Apple’s staff that the only way to achieve the dream of making the Macintosh into a standard to rival or beat the Intel/IBM/Microsoft trifecta was to open the platform. Thus he quietly encouraged a number of engineers to submit proposals on what direction they would take the platform in if given free rein. He came to favor the ideas of Mike Dhuey and Brian Berkeley, two young engineers who envisioned a machine with slots as plentiful and easily accessible as those of the Apple II or an IBM clone. Their “Little Big Mac” would be based around the 32-bit Motorola 68020 chip rather than the 16-bit 68000 of the current models, and would also sport color — another Jobsian heresy.

In May of 1985, Jobs made the mistake of trying to recruit Gassée into a rather clumsy conspiracy he was formulating to oust Sculley, with whom he was now in almost constant conflict. Rather than jump aboard the coup train, Gassée promptly blew the whistle to Sculley, precipitating an open showdown between Jobs and Sculley in which, much to Jobs’s surprise, the entirety of Apple’s board backed Sculley. Stripped of his power and exiled to a small office in a remote corner of Apple’s Cupertino campus, Jobs would soon depart amid recriminations and lawsuits to found a new venture called NeXT.

Gassée’s betrayal of Jobs’s confidence may have had a semi-altruistic motivation. Convinced that the Mac needed to open up to survive, perhaps he concluded that that would only happen if Jobs was out of the picture. Then again, perhaps it came down to a motivation as base as personal jealously. With a penchant for leather and a love of inscrutable phraseology — “the Apple II smelled like infinity” is a typical phrase from his manifesto The Third Apple, “an invitation to voyage into a region of the mind where technology and poetry exist side by side, feeding each other” — Gassée seemed to self-consciously adopt the persona of a Gallic version of Jobs himself. But regardless, with Jobs now out of the picture Gassée was able to consolidate his own power base, taking over Jobs’s old role as leader of the Macintosh division. He went out and bought a personalized license plate for his sports car: “OPEN MAC.”

Coming some four months after Jobs’s final departure, the Mac Plus already included such signs of the changing times as a keyboard with arrow keys and a numeric keypad, anathema to Jobs’s old mouse-only orthodoxy. But much, much bigger changes were also well underway. Apple’s 1985 annual report, released in the spring of 1986, dropped a bombshell: a Mac with slots was on the way. Dhuey and Berkeley’s open Macintosh was now proceeding… well, openly.

The Macintosh II

The Macintosh II

When it debuted five months behind schedule in March of 1987, the Macintosh II was greeted as a stunning but welcome repudiation of much of what the Mac had supposedly stood for. In place of the compact all-in-one-case designs of the past, the new Mac was a big, chunky box full of empty space and empty slots — six of them altogether — with the monitor an item to be purchased separately and perched on top. Indeed, one could easily mistake the Mac II at a glance for a high-end IBM clone; its big, un-stylish case even included a cooling fan, an item that placed even higher than expansion slots and arrow keys on Steve Jobs’s old list of forbidden attributes.

Apple’s commitment to their new vision of a modular, open Macintosh was so complete that the Mac II didn’t include any on-board video at all; the buyer of the $6500 machine would still have to buy the video card of her choice separately. Apple’s own high-end video card offered display capabilities unprecedented in a personal computer: a palette of over 16 million colors, 256 of them displayable onscreen at any one time at resolutions as high as 640 X 480. And, in keeping with the philosophy behind the Mac II as a whole, the machine was ready and willing to accept a still more impressive graphics card just as soon as someone managed to make one. The Mac II actually represented colors internally using 48 bits, allowing some 281 trillion different shades. These idealized colors were then translated automatically into the closest approximations the actual display hardware could manage. This fidelity to the subtlest vagaries of color would make the Mac II the favorite of people working in many artistic and image-processing fields, especially when those aforementioned even better video cards began to hit the market in earnest. Even today no other platform can match the Mac in its persnickety attention to the details of accurate color reproduction.

Some of the Mac II's capabilities truly were ahead of their time. Here we see a desktop extended across two monitors, each powered by a separate video card.

Some of the Mac II’s capabilities truly were ahead of their time. Here we see a desktop extended across two monitors, each powered by its own video card.

The irony wasn’t lost on journalists or users when, just weeks after the Mac II’s debut, IBM debuted their new PS/2 line, marked by sleeker, slimmer cases and many features that would once have been placed on add-on-cards now integrated into the motherboards. While Apple was suddenly encouraging the sort of no-strings-attached hardware hacking on the Macintosh that had made their earlier Apple II so successful, IBM was trying to stamp that sort of thing out on their own heretofore open platform via their new Micro Channel Architecture, which demanded that anyone other than IBM who wanted to expand a PS/2 machine negotiate a license and pay for the privilege. “The original Mac’s lack of slots stunted its growth and forced Apple to expand the machine by offering new models,” wrote Byte. “With the Mac II, Apple — and, more importantly, third-party developers — can expand the machine radically without forcing you to buy a new computer. This is the design on which Apple plans to build its Macintosh empire.” It seemed like the whole world of personal computing was turning upside down, Apple turning into IBM and IBM turning into Apple.

The Macintosh SE

The Macintosh SE

If so, however, Apple’s empire would be a very exclusive place. By the time you’d bought a monitor, video card, hard drive, keyboard — yes, even the keyboard was a separate item — and other needful accessories, a Mac II system could rise uncomfortably close to the $10,000 mark. Those who weren’t quite flush enough to splash out that much money could still enjoy a taste of the Mac’s new spirit of openness via the simultaneously released Mac SE, which cost $3699 for a hard-drive-equipped model. The SE was a 68000-based machine that looked much like its forefathers — built-in black-and-white monitor included — but did have a single expansion slot inside its case. The single slot was a little underwhelming in comparison to the Mac II, but it was better than nothing, even if Apple did still recommend that customers take their machines to their dealers if they wanted to actually install something in it. Apple’s not-terribly-helpful advice for those needing to employ more than one expansion card was to buy an “integrated” card that combined multiple functions. If you couldn’t find a card that happened to combine exactly the functions you needed, you were presumably just out of luck.

During the final years of the 1980s, Apple would continue to release new models of the Mac II and the Mac SE, now established as the two separate Macintosh flavors. These updates enhanced the machines with such welcome goodies as 68030 processors and more memory, but, thanks to the wonders of open architecture, didn’t immediately invalidate the models that had come before. The original Mac II, for instance, could be easily upgraded from the 68020 to the 68030 just by dropping a card into one of its slots.

The Steve Jobs-less Apple, now thoroughly under the control of the more sober and pragmatic John Sculley, toned down the old visionary rhetoric in favor of a more businesslike focus. Even the engineers dutifully toed the new corporate line, at least publicly, and didn’t hesitate to denigrate Apple’s erstwhile visionary-in-chief in the process. “Steve Jobs thought that he was right and didn’t care what the market wanted,” Mike Dhuey said in an interview to accompany the Mac II’s release. “It’s like he thought everyone wanted to buy a size-nine shoe. The Mac II is specifically a market-driven machine, rather than what we wanted for ourselves. My job is to take all the market needs and make the best computer. It’s sort of like musicians — if they make music only to satisfy their own needs, they lose their audience.” Apple, everyone was trying to convey, had grown up and left all that changing-the-world business behind along with Steve Jobs. They were now as sober and serious as IBM, their machines ready to take their places as direct competitors to those of Big Blue and the clonesters.

To a rather surprising degree, the world of business computing accepted Apple and the Mac’s new persona. Through 1986, the machines to which the Macintosh was most frequently compared were the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. In the wake of the Mac II and Mac SE, however, the Macintosh was elevated to a different plane. Now the omnipresent point of comparison was high-end IBM compatibles; the Amiga and ST, despite their architectural similarities, seldom even saw their existence acknowledged in relation to the Mac. There were some good reasons for this neglect beyond the obvious ones of pricing and parent-company rhetoric. For one, the Macintosh was always a far more polished experience for the end user than either of the other 68000-based machines. For another, Apple had enjoyed a far more positive reputation with corporate America than Commodore or Atari had even well before any of the three platforms in question had existed. Still, the nature of the latest magazine comparisons was a clear sign that Apple’s bid to move the Mac upscale was succeeding.

Whatever one thought of Apple’s new, more buttoned-down image, there was no denying that the market welcomed the open Macintosh with a matching set of open arms. Byte went so far as to call the Mac II “the most important product that Apple has released since the original Apple II,” thus elevating it to a landmark status greater even that that of the first Mac model. While history hasn’t been overly kind to that judgment, the fact remains that third-party software and hardware developers, who had heretofore been constipated by the frustrating limitations of the closed Macintosh architecture, burst out now in myriad glorious ways. “We can’t think of everything,” said an ebulliant Jean-Louis Gassée. “The charm of a flexible, open product is that people who know something you don’t know will take care of it. That’s what they’re doing in the marketplace.” The biannual Macworld shows gained a reputation as the most exciting events on the industry’s calendar, the beat to which every journalist lobbied to be assigned. The January 1988 show in San Francisco, the first to reflect the full impact of Apple’s philosophical about-face, had 20,000 attendees on its first day, and could have had a lot more than that had there been a way to pack them into the exhibit hall. Annual Macintosh sales more than tripled between 1986 and 1988, with cumulative sales hitting 2 million machines in the latter year. And already fully 200,000 of the Macs out there by that point were Mac IIs, an extraordinary number really given that machine’s high price. Granted, the Macintosh had hit the 2-million mark fully three years behind the pace Steve Jobs had foreseen shortly after the original machine’s introduction. But nevertheless, it did look like at least some of the more modest of his predictions were starting to come true at last.

An Apple Watch 27 years before its time? Just one example of the extraordinary innovation of the Macintosh market was the WristMac from Ex Machina, a "personal information manager" that could be synchronized with a Mac to function as your appointment calendar and a telephone Rolodex among other possibilities.

An Apple Watch 27 years before its time? Just one example of the extraordinary innovation of the Macintosh market was the WristMac from Ex Machina, a “personal information manager” that could be synchronized with a Mac to take the place of your appointment calendar, to-do list, and Rolodex.

While the Macintosh was never going to seriously challenge the IBM standard on the desks of corporate America when it came to commonplace business tasks like word processing and accounting, it was becoming a fixture in design departments of many stripes, and the staple platform of entire niche industries — most notably, the publishing industry, thanks to the revolutionary combination of Aldus PageMaker (or one of the many other desktop-publishing packages that followed it) and an Apple LaserWriter printer (or one of the many other laser printers that followed it). By 1989, Apple could claim about 10 percent of the business-computing market, making them the third biggest player there after IBM and Compaq — and of course the only significant player there not running a Microsoft operating system. What with Apple’s premium prices and high profit margins, third place really wasn’t so bad, especially in comparison with the moribund state of the Macintosh of just a few years before.

Steve Jobs and John Sculley in happier times.

Steve Jobs and John Sculley in happier times.

So, the Macintosh was flying pretty high as the curtain began to come down on the 1980s. It’s instructive and more than a little ironic to contrast the conventional wisdom that accompanied that success with the conventional wisdom of today. Despite the strong counterexample of Nintendo’s exploding walled garden over in the videogame-console space, the success the Macintosh had enjoyed since Apple’s decision to open up the platform was taken as incontrovertible proof that openness in terms of software and hardware alike was the only viable model for computing’s future. In today’s world of closed iOS and Android ecosystems and computing via disposable black boxes, such an assertion sounds highly naive.

But even more striking is the shift in the perception of Steve Jobs. In the late 1980s, he was loathed even by many strident Mac fans, whilst being regarded in the business and computer-industry press and, indeed, much of the popular press in general as a dilettante, a spoiled enfant terrible whose ill-informed meddling had very nearly sunk a billion-dollar corporation. John Sculley, by contrast, was lauded as exactly the responsible grown-up Apple had needed to scrub the company of Jobs’s starry-eyed hippie meanderings and lead them into their bright businesslike present. Today popular opinion on the two men has neatly reversed itself: Sculley is seen as the unimaginative corporate wonk who mismanaged Jobs’s brilliant vision, Jobs as the greatest — or at least the coolest — computing visionary of all time. In the end, of course, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. Sculley’s strengths tended to be Jobs’s weaknesses, and vice versa. Apple would have been far better off had the two been able to find a way to continue to work together. But, in Jobs’s case especially, that would have required a fundamental shift in who these men were.

The loss among Apple’s management of that old Jobsian spirit of zealotry, overblown and impractical though it could sometimes be, was felt keenly by the Macintosh even during these years of considerable success. Only Jean-Louis Gassée was around to try to provide a splash of the old spirit of iconoclastic idealism, and everyone had to agree in the end that he made a rather second-rate Steve Jobs. When Sculley tried on the mantle of visionary — as when he named his fluffy corporate autobiography Odyssey and subtitled it “a journey of adventure, ideas, and the future” — it never quite seemed to fit him right. The diction was always off somehow, like he was playing a Silicon Valley version of Mad Libs. “This is an adventure of passion and romance, not just progress and profit,” he told the January 1988 Macworld attendees, apparently feeling able to wax a little more poetic than usual before this audience of true believers. “Together we set a course for the world which promises to elevate the self-esteem of the individual rather than a future of subservience to impersonal institutions.” (Apple detractors might note that elevating their notoriously smug users’ self-esteem did indeed sometimes seem to be what the company was best at.)

It was hard not to feel that the Mac had lost something. Jobs had lured Sculley from Pepsi because the latter was widely regarded as a genius of consumer marketing; the Pepsi Challenge, one of the most iconic campaigns in the long history of the cola wars, had been his brainchild. And yet, even before Jobs’s acrimonious departure, Sculley, bowing to pressure from Apple’s stockholders, had oriented the Macintosh almost entirely toward taking on the faceless legions of IBM and Compaq that dominated business computing. Consumer computing was largely left to take care of itself in the form of the 8-bit Apple II line, whose final model, the technically impressive but hugely overpriced IIGS, languished with virtually no promotion. Sculley, a little out of his depth in Silicon Valley, was just following the conventional wisdom that business computing was where the real money was. Businesspeople tended to be turned off by wild-eyed talk of changing the world; thus Apple’s new, more sober facade. And they were equally turned off by any whiff of fun or, God forbid, games; thus the old sense of whimsy that had been one of the original Mac’s most charming attributes seemed to leach away a little more with each successive model.

Those who pointed out that business computing had a net worth many times that of home computing weren’t wrong, but they were missing something important and at least in retrospect fairly obvious: namely, the fact that most of the companies who could make good use of computers had already bought them by now. The business-computing industry would doubtless continue to be profitable for many and even to grow steadily alongside the economy, but its days of untapped potential and explosive growth were behind it. Consumer computing, on the other hand, was still largely virgin territory. Millions of people were out there who had been frustrated by the limitations of the machines at the heart of the brief-lived first home-computer boom, but who were still willing to be intrigued by the next generation of computing technology, still willing to be sold on computers as an everyday lifestyle accessory. Give them a truly elegant, easy-to-use computer — like, say, the Macintosh — and who knew what might happen. This was the vision Jef Raskin had had in starting the ball rolling on the Mac back in 1979, the one that had still been present, if somewhat obscured even then by a high price, in the first released version of the machine with its “the computer for the rest of us” tagline. And this was the vision that Sculley betrayed after Jobs’s departure by keeping prices sky-high and ignoring the consumer market.

“We don’t want to castrate our computers to make them inexpensive,” said Jean-Louis Gassée. “We make Hondas, we don’t make Yugos.” Fair enough, but the Mac was priced closer to Mercedes than Honda territory. And it was common knowledge that Apple’s profit margins remained just about the fattest in the industry, thus raising the question of how much “castration” would really be necessary to make a more reasonably priced Mac. The situation reached almost surrealistic levels with the release of the Mac IIfx in March of 1990, an admittedly “wicked fast” addition to the product line but one that cost $9870 sans monitor or video card, thus replacing the metaphorical with the literal in Gassée’s favored comparison: a complete Mac IIfx system cost more than most actual brand-new Hondas. By now, the idea of the Mac as “the computer for the rest of us” seemed a bitter joke.

Apple was choosing to fight over scraps of the business market when an untapped land of milk and honey — the land of consumer computing — lay just over the horizon. Instead of the Macintosh, the IBM-compatible machines lurched over in fits and starts to fill that space, adopting in the process most of the Mac’s best ideas, even if they seldom managed to implement those ideas quite as elegantly. By the time Apple woke up to what was happening in the 1990s and rushed to fill the gap with a welter of more reasonably priced consumer-grade Macs, it was too late. Computing as most Americans knew it was exclusively a Wintel world, Macs incompatible, artsy-fartsy oddballs. All but locked out of the fastest-growing sectors of personal computing, the very sectors the Macintosh had been so perfectly poised to absolutely own, Apple was destined to have a very difficult 1990s. So difficult, in fact, that they would survive the decade’s many lows only by the skin of their teeth.

This cartoon by Tom Meyer, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, shows the popular consensus about Apple by the early 1990s -- increasingly: overpriced inelegant designs and increasingly clueless management.

This cartoon by Tom Meyer, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, shows the emerging new popular consensus about Apple by the early 1990s: increasingly overpriced, bloated designs and increasingly clueless management.

Now that the 68000 Wars have faded into history and passions have cooled, we can see that the Macintosh was in some ways almost as ill-served by its parent company as was the Commodore Amiga by its. Apple’s management in the post-Jobs era, like Commodore’s, seemed in some fundamental way not to get the very creation they’d unleashed on the world. And so, as with the Amiga, it was left to the users of the Macintosh to take up the slack, to keep the vision thing in the equation. Thankfully, they did a hell of job with that. Something in the Mac’s DNA, something which Apple’s new sobriety could mask but never destroy, led it to remain a hotbed of inspiring innovations that had little to do with the nuts and bolts of running a day-to-day business. Sometimes seemingly in spite of Apple best efforts, the most committed Mac loyalists never forgot the Jobsian rhetoric that had greeted the platform’s introduction, continuing to see it as something far more compelling and beautiful than a tool for business. A 1988 survey by Macworld magazine revealed that 85 percent of their readers, the true Mac hardcore, kept their Macs at home, where they used them at least some of the time for pleasure rather than business.

So, the Mac world remained the first place to look if you wanted to see what the artists and the dreamers were getting up to with computers. We’ve already seen some examples of their work in earlier articles. In the course of the next few, we’ll see some more.

(Sources: Amazing Computing of February 1988, April 1988, May 1988, and August 1988; Info of July/August 1988; Byte of May 1986, June 1986, November 1986, April 1987, October 1987, and June 1990; InfoWorld of November 26 1984; Computer Chronicles television episodes entitled “The New Macs,” “Macintosh Business Software,” “Macworld Special 1988,” “Business Graphics Part 1,” “Macworld Boston 1988,” “Macworld San Francisco 1989,” and “Desktop Presentation Software Part 1”; the books West of Eden: The End of Innocence at Apple Computer by Frank Rose, Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Computer Company by Owen W. Linzmayer, and Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything by Steven Levy; Andy Hertzfeld’s website Folklore.)


Posted by on September 16, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction



Will Wright’s City in a Box

Will Wright, 1990

Will Wright, 1990

In “The Seventh Sally,” a story by the great Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, a god-like “constructor” named Trurl comes upon a former tyrant named Excelsius, now exiled to a lonely asteroid by the peoples of the planets he used to terrorize. Upon learning of Trurl’s powers, Excelsius demands that he restore him to his throne. Trurl, however, is wise enough to consider what suffering Excelsius’s reinstatement would bring to his subjects. So, he instead fashions an intricate simulacrum of a kingdom for Excelsius to rule over.

And all of this, connected, mounted, and ground to precision, fit into a box, and not a very large box, but just the size that could be carried about with ease. This Trurl presented to Excelsius, to rule and have dominion over forever; but first he showed him where the input and output of his brand-new kingdom were, and how to program wars, quell rebellions, exact tribute, collect taxes, and also instructed him in the critical points and transition states of that microminiaturized society — in other words the maxima and minima of palace coups and revolutions — and explained everything so well that the king, an old hand in the running of tyrannies, instantly grasped the directions and, without hesitation, while the constructor watched, issued a few trial proclamations, correctly manipulating the control knobs, which were carved with imperial eagles and regal lions. These proclamations declared a state of emergency, martial law, a curfew, and a special levy. After a year had passed in the kingdom, which amounted to hardly a minute for Trurl and the king, by an act of the greatest magnanimity — that is, by a flick of the finger at the controls — the king abolished one death penalty, lightened the levy, and deigned to annul the state of emergency, whereupon a tumultuous cry of gratitude, like the squeaking of tiny mice lifted by their tails, rose up from the box, and through its curved glass cover one could see, on the dusty highways and along the banks of lazy rivers that reflected the fluffy clouds, the people rejoicing and praising the great and unsurpassed benevolence of their sovereign lord.

And so, though at first he had felt insulted by Trurl’s gift, in that the kingdom was too small and very like a child’s toy, the monarch saw that the thick glass lid made everything inside seem large; perhaps too he dully understood that size was not what mattered here, for government is not measured in meters and kilograms, and emotions are somehow the same, whether experienced by giants or dwarfs — and so he thanked the constructor, if somewhat stiffly. Who knows, he might even have liked to order him thrown in chains and tortured to death, just to be safe — that would have been a sure way of nipping in the bud any gossip about how some common vagabond tinkerer presented a mighty monarch with a kingdom. Excelsius was sensible enough, however, to see that this was out of the question, owing to a very fundamental disproportion, for fleas could sooner take their host into captivity than the king’s army seize Trurl. So with another cold nod, he stuck his orb and scepter under his arm, lifted the box kingdom with a grunt, and took it to his humble hut of exile. And as blazing day alternated with murky night outside, according to the rhythm of the asteroid’s rotation, the king, who was acknowledged by his subjects as the greatest in the world, diligently reigned, bidding this, forbidding that, beheading, rewarding — in all these ways incessantly spurring his little ones on to perfect fealty and worship of the throne.

When first published in 1965, Lem’s tale was the most purely speculative of speculative fictions, set as it was thousands if not millions of years in the future. Yet it would take just another quarter of a century before real-world Excelsiuses got the chance to play with little boxed kingdoms of their own, nurturing their subjects and tormenting them as the mood struck. The new strain of living, dynamic worlds filled with apparently living, dynamic beings was soon given the name of “god game” to distinguish it from the more static games of war and grand strategy that had preceded it.

The first of the great god-game constructors, the one whose name would always be most associated with the genre, was a hyperactive chain-smoking, chain-talking Southerner named Will Wright. This is the story of him and his first living world — or, actually, living city — in a box.


Will Wright has always been a constructor. As a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, he built hundreds of models of ships, cars, and planes. At age 10, he made a replica of the bridge of the Enterprise out of balsa wood and lugged it to a Star Trek convention; it won a prize there, the first of many Wright would get to enjoy during his life. When developments in electronics miniaturization made it possible, he started making his creations move, constructing primitive robots out of Lego bricks, model kits, and the contents of his local Radio Shack’s wall of hobbyist doodads. In 1980, the 20-year-old Wright and his partner Rick Doherty won the U.S. Express, an illegal coast-to-coast automobile race created by the organizer of the earlier Cannonball Run. A fighter jet’s worth of electronics allowed them to drive from New York City to Santa Monica in 33 hours and 39 minutes in a Mazda RX-7, cruising for long stretches of time at 120 miles per hour.

Wright was able to indulge these passions and others thanks to his late father, a materials engineer who invented a lucrative new process for manufacturing plastic packaging before dying of leukemia when his son was just 9 years old. His widow was very patient with her eccentric tinkerer of a son, similar in some ways to his practical-minded father but in others very different. Wright spent five years at various universities in and out of his home state of Louisiana, excelling in the subjects that caught his fancy — like architecture, economics, mechanical engineering, and military history — while ignoring entirely all the others. Through it all, his mother never put any undue pressure on him to settle on something, buckle down, and get an actual degree. When he told her in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t be taking over the family business his father had left in trust for him, she accepted that as well. Yet even she must have struggled to accept the notion of her 22-year-old son running off to California with Joell Jones, a painter 11 years his senior; the two had bonded when Jones severed a nerve in her wrist and Wright built a gadget out of metal and rubber bands to allow her to continue to paint. The two would marry in 1984.

Given his love for electronic gadgetry, it will likely come as no surprise that Wright was snared quickly by the nascent PC revolution. Already by 1980 he had added an Apple II to his collection of toys, and with it computer programming and computer gaming to his long list of hobbies; his first computerized love was Bruce Artwick’s primitive original Flight Simulator. But it was only after moving to Oakland with Jones that he started thinking seriously about writing a game of his own. This first and arguably last entirely practical, commercial project of his life was apparently prompted by his now living permanently away from home, an adult at last. At some point even a dreamer has to do something with his life, and making computer games seemed as good a choice as any.

His first game was in some ways the antithesis of everything he would do later: a conventional experience in a proven genre, a game designed to suit the existing market rather than a game designed to create its own new market, and the only Will Wright game that can actually be won in the conventional sense. Like many games of its era, its design was inspired by a technical trick. Wright, who had moved on from his Apple II to a Commodore 64 by this time, had figured out a way to scroll smoothly over what appeared to be a single huge background image. “I knew the Apple couldn’t begin to move that much in the way of graphics around the screen that quickly,” he says. “So I designed the game around that feature.”

Raid on Bungeling Bay on the Commodore 64

Raid on Bungeling Bay on the Commodore 64

Raid on Bungeling Bay owed a lot to Choplifter and a little to Beach-Head, sending you off in a futuristic helicopter to strike at the heart of the evil Bungeling Empire, returning when necessary to your home base for repairs and more ammunition. The most impressive aspect of the game, even more so than its graphical tricks, was the sophisticated modeling of the enemy forces. The Bungeling factories would turn out more advanced hardware as time went on, while your ability and need to disrupt supply lines and to monitor and attack the enemy on multiple fronts created a craving for at least a modicum of strategy as well as reflexes.

Wright sold Raid on Bungeling Bay to Brøderbund Software, who published it in 1984, whereupon it sold a reasonable if hardly overwhelming 30,000 copies on the Commodore 64. But, in contrast to so many of its peers, that wasn’t the end of the story. Hudson Soft in Japan took note of the game, paying Brøderbund and Wright for the right to make it into a cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Wright claims it sold an astonishing 750,000 copies on the NES in Japan and later the United States, giving him a steady income while he played around with the ideas that would become his next project, the one that would really make his name.

As it happened, the first project merged into the second almost seamlessly. Wright had written a tool for his own use in creating the Bungeling Empire’s cities, a little world editor that would let him scroll around a virtual space, laying down tiles to represent land and sea, factories and gun turrets. He realized at some point — perhaps after his game had shipped and yet he was still tinkering with his world inside the editor — that he found this task of creation much more compelling than the act of destruction that was actually playing the game. Might there be others who felt like him? Based on the success of Electronic Arts’s Pinball Construction Set, a program he hugely admired, he thought there just might be.

One fateful day Wright shared his world editor and his still half-baked ideas about what to do with it with his neighbor Bruce Joffe. An established architect and urban planner, Joffe had studied under Jay Wright Forrester at MIT, generally regarded as the founder of the entire field of system dynamics — i.e., using a computer to simulate a complex, dynamic reality. When he saw Wright’s little Bungeling Empire cities, Joffe was immediately reminded of Forrester’s work. He wasted no time in telling his friend that he really needed to check this guy out.

Even though the two have never to my knowledge met, Jay Wright Forrester and Will Wright were a match made in heaven; they shared much beyond the name of “Wright.” Both, to name one example, got their start in the field of simulation with a flight simulator, Jay Wright Forrester trying to build one and Will Wright trying to figure out how Bruce Artwick’s Flight Simulator really worked.

Driven by his desire to make a flight simulator, Forrester had been instrumental in the creation of Whirlwind, the first real computer, in the sense that we understand the term today, to be built in the United States.1 The flight simulator never quite came together, but an undaunted Forrester moved on to Project SAGE, an air-defense early-warning system that became easily the most elaborate computing project of the 1950s. From there, he pioneered economic and industrial modeling on computers, and finally, in the late 1960s, arrived at what he called “urban dynamics.” Forrester’s urban modeling created a firestorm of controversy among city planners and social activists; as he put it in his dry way, it “was the first of my modeling work that produced strong, emotional reactions.” He was accused of everything from incompetence to racism when his models insisted that low-cost urban public housing, heretofore widely regarded as a potent tool for fighting poverty, was in reality “a powerful tool for creating poverty, not alleviating it.”

Of more immediate interest to us, however, is the reaction one Will Wright had to Forrester’s work many years after all the controversy had died away. The jacket copy of Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics reads like a synopsis of the simulation Wright was now about to create on a microcomputer: “a computer model describing the major internal forces controlling the balance of population, housing, and industry within an urban area,” which “simulates the life cycle of a city and predicts the impact of proposed remedies on the system.” When Wright’s neighbor Joffe had studied under Forrester in the 1970s, the latter had been constructing physical scale models of his urban subjects, updating them as time went on with the latest data extracted from his computer programs. If he could build a similar program to live behind his graphical Bungeling Empire cities, Wright would have found a much easier way to study the lives of cities. At about the same time that he had that initial conversation with Joffe, Wright happened to read the Stanislaw Lem story that opened this article. If he needed further inspiration to create his own city in a box, he found plenty of it there.

Never one to shy away from difficult or esoteric academic literature, Wright plunged into the arcane theoretical world of system dynamics. He wound up drawing almost as much from John Horton Conway’s 1970 Game of Life, another major landmark in the field, as he did from Forrester. Wright:

System dynamics is a way to look at a system and divide it into, basically, stocks and flows. Stocks are quantities, like population, and flows are rates, like the death rate, the birth rate, immigration. You can model almost anything using those two features. That was how he [Forrester] started system dynamics and that was the approach he took to his modeling. I uncovered his stuff when I started working on SimCity and started teaching myself modeling techniques. I also came across the more recent stuff with cellular automata [i.e., Conway’s Game of Life], and SimCity is really a hybrid of those two approaches. Because his [Forrester’s] approach was not spatial at all, whereas the cellular automata gives you a lot of really interesting spatial tools for propagation, network flow, proximity, and so forth. So the fact that pollution starts here, spreads over here, and slowly gets less and less, and you can actually simulate propagation waves through these spatial structures. So SimCity in some sense is like a big three-dimensional cellular automata, with each layer being some feature of the landscape like crime or pollution or land value. But the layers can interact on the third dimension. So the layers of crime and pollution can impact the land-value layer.

This description subtly reveals something about the eventual SimCity that is too often misunderstood. The model of urban planning that underpins Wright’s simulation is grossly simplified and, often, grossly biased to match its author’s own preexisting political views. SimCity is far more defensible as an abstract exploration of system dynamics than as a concrete contribution to urban planning. All this talk about “stocks” and “flows” illustrates where Wright’s passion truly lay. For him the what that was being simulated was less interesting than the way it was being simulated. Wright:

I think the primary goal of this [SimCity] is to show people how intertwined such things can get. I’m not so concerned with predicting the future accurately as I am with showing which things have influence over which other things, sort of a chaos introduction, where the system is so complex that it can get very hard to predict the future ramifications of a decision or policy.

After working on the idea for about six months, Wright brought a very primitive SimCity to Brøderbund, who were intrigued enough to sign him to a contract. But over the next year or so of work a disturbing trend manifested. Each time Wright would bring the latest version to Brøderbund, they’d nod approvingly as he showed all the latest features, only to ask, gently but persistently, a question Wright learned to loathe: when would he be making an actual game out of the simulation? You know, something with a winning state, perhaps with a computer opponent to play against?

Even as it was, SimCity was hardly without challenge. You had to plan and manage your city reasonably well or it would go bankrupt or drown in a sea of crime or other urban blights and you, the mayor, would get run out of town on a rail. Yet it was also true that there wasn’t a conventional winning screen to go along with all those potential losing ones. Wright tried to explain that the simulation was the game, that the fun would come from trying things out in this huge, wide-open possibility space and seeing what happened. He thought he had ample evidence from his friends that he wasn’t the only one who liked to play this way. They would dutifully build their cities to a point and then, just like Excelsius in the story, would have just as much fun tearing them down, just to see what happened. Indeed, they found the virtual destruction so enjoyable that Wright added disasters to the program — fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, even a rampaging Godzilla monster — that they could unleash at will. As with everything else in SimCity, the motivation for a player consciously choosing to destroy all her labor was just to see what would happen. After all, you could always save the game first. Wright:

When I first started showing the Commodore version, the only thing that was in there was a bulldozer, basically to erase mistakes. So if you accidentally built a road or a building in the wrong place you could erase it with the bulldozer. What I found was that, invariably, in the first five minutes people would discover the bulldozer, and they would blow up a building with it by accident. And then they would laugh. And then they would go and attack the city with the bulldozer. And they’d blow up all the buildings, and they’d be laughing their heads off. And it really intrigued me because it was like someone coming across an ant pile and poking it with a stick to see what happens. And they would get that out of their system in about ten minutes, and then they would realize that the hard part wasn’t destroying, but building it back up. And so people would have a great time destroying the city with a bulldozer, and then they would discover, “Wow, the power’s out. Wow, there’s a fire starting.” And that’s when they would start the rebuilding process, and that’s what would really hook them. Because they would realize that the destruction was so easy in this game, it was the creation that was the hard part. And this is back when all games were about destruction. After seeing that happen with so many people, I finally decided, “Well I might as well let them get it out of their systems. I’ll add disasters to the game.” And that’s what gave me the idea for the disasters menu.

Wright asked Brøderbund to look at his “game” not as a conventional zero-sum ludic experience, but as a doll house or a train set, an open-ended, interactive creative experience — or, to use the term the market would later choose, as a “sandbox” for the player. Wright:

I think it [sandbox gaming] attracts a different kind of player. In fact, some people play it very goal-directed. What it really does is force you to determine the goals. So when you start SimCity, one of the most interesting things that happens is that you have to decide, “What do I want to make? Do I want to make the biggest possible city, or the city with the happiest residents, or the most parks, or the lowest crime?” Every time you have to idealize in your head, “What does the ideal city mean to me?” It requires a bit more motivated player. What that buys you in a sense is more replayability because we aren’t enforcing any strict goal on you. We could have said, “Get your city to 10,000 people in ten years or you lose.” And you would always have to play that way. And there would be strategies to get there, and people would figure out the strategies, and that would be that. By leaving it more open-ended, people can play the game in a lot of different ways. And that’s where it’s becomes more like a toy.

But Brøderbund just couldn’t seem to understand what he was on about. At last, Wright and his publisher parted ways in a haze of mutual incomprehension. By the time they did so, the Commodore 64 SimCity was essentially complete; it would finally be released virtually unchanged more than two years later.

SimCity on the Commodore 64

SimCity on the Commodore 64

For the moment, though, nobody seemed interested at all. After halfheartedly shopping SimCity around to some other publishers (among them Cinemaware) without a bite, Wright largely gave up on the idea of ever getting it released. But then in early 1987, with SimCity apparently dead in the water, he was invited to a pizza party for game developers hosted by a young businessman named Jeff Braun. Braun, who envisioned himself as the next great software entrepreneur, had an ulterior motive: he was looking for the next great game idea. “Will is a very shy guy, and he was sitting by himself, and I felt sorry for him,” Braun says. In marked contrast to Brøderbund, Braun saw the appeal of SimCity before he ever even saw the program in action, as soon as a very reluctant, thoroughly dispirited Wright started to tell him about it. His interest was piqued despite Wright being far from a compelling pitchman: “Will kept saying that this won’t work, that no one likes it.”

Braun nevertheless suggested that he and Wright found their own little company to port the program from the Commodore 64 to the Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga, more expensive machines whose older and presumably more sophisticated buyers might be more receptive to the idea of an urban-planning simulation. Thus was Maxis Software born.

Wright ported the heart of the simulation from Commodore 64 assembler to platform-independent C while a few other programmers Braun had found developed user interfaces and graphics for the Macintosh and Amiga. The simulation grew somewhat more complex on the bigger machines, but not as much as you might think. “It got more elaborate, more layers were added, and there was higher resolution on the map,” says Wright, “but it had the same basic structure for the simulation and the same basic sets of tools.”

SimCity on the Macintosh

SimCity on the Macintosh

While Wright and the other programmers were finishing up the new versions of SimCity, Braun scared up a very surprising partner for their tiny company. He visited Brøderbund again with the latest versions, and found them much more receptive to Wright’s project this time around, a switch that Wright attributes to the generally “more impressive” new versions and the fact that by this point “the market was getting into much more interesting games.” Still somewhat concerned about how gamers would perceive Wright’s non-game, Brøderbund did convince Maxis to add a set of optional “scenarios” to the sandbox simulation, time-limited challenges the player could either meet or fail to meet, thus definitively winning or losing. The eight scenarios, some historical (the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the fire-bombing of Hamburg in 1944), some hypothetical (a nuclear meltdown in Boston in 2010, the flooding of Rio de Janeiro in 2047 thanks to global warming), and some unabashedly fanciful (a monster attack on Tokyo in 1957), were all ultimately less compelling than they initially sounded, being all too clearly shoehorned into an engine that had never been designed for this mode of play. Still, Brøderbund’s perceived need to be able to honestly call SimCity a game was met, and that was the most important thing. Brøderbund happily agreed to become little Maxis’s distributor, a desperately needed big brother to look after them in a cutthroat industry.


SimCity shipped for the Macintosh in February of 1989, for the Commodore 64 in April, and for the Amiga in May. Some people immediately sat up to take notice of this clearly new thing; sales were, all things considered, quite strong right out of the gate. In an online conference hosted on June 19, 1989, Wright said that they had already sold 11,000 copies of the Macintosh version and 8000 of the Amiga, big numbers in a short span of time for those relatively small American gaming markets. Presaging the real explosion of interest still to come, he noted that Maxis had had “many inquiries from universities and planning departments.” And indeed, already in August of 1989 the first academic paper on SimCity would be presented at an urban-planning conference. Realizing all too well himself how non-rigorous an exercise in urban planning SimCity really was, Wright sounded almost sheepish in contemplating “a more serious version” for the future.

SimCity for MS-DOS

SimCity for MS-DOS

SimCity would begin to sell in really big numbers that September, when the all-important MS-DOS version appeared. Ports to virtually every commercially viable or semi-viable computer in the world appeared over the next couple of years, culminating in a version for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in August of 1991.

SimCity for Super Nintendo

SimCity for Super Nintendo

It’s at this point that our history of SimCity the private passion project must inevitably become the history of SimCity the public sensation. For, make no mistake, a public sensation SimCity most definitely became. It sold and sold and sold, and then sold some more, for years on end. In 1991, the year it celebrated its second anniversary on the market, it still managed to top the charts as the annum’s best-selling single computer game. Even five years after its release, with Wright’s belated “more serious” — or at least more complicated — version about to ship as SimCity 2000, the original was still selling so well that Maxis decided to rename it SimCity Classic and to continue to offer it alongside its more advanced variant. In that form it continued to sell for yet several more years. Shelf lives like this were all but unheard of in the fickle world of entertainment software.

In all, the original SimCity sold at least 500,000 copies on personal computers, while the Super Nintendo version alone sold another 500,000 to console gamers. Spin-offs, sequels, and derivatives added millions and millions more to those numbers in the years that followed the original’s long heyday; at no point between 1989 and today has there not been at least one SimCity title available for purchase. And, believe me, people have continued to purchase. SimCity 2000 (1994) and SimCity 3000 (1999) both became the best-selling single computer games of their respective release years, while post-millennial iterations have sold in the millions as a matter of routine.

But almost more important than the quantities in which the original SimCity sold and the veritable cottage industry it spawned are the people to whom it was selling. By the time they signed Maxis to a distribution contract, Brøderbund had long since demonstrated their knack for getting past the nerdy hardcore of computer users, for bypassing Dungeons & Dragons and military simulations and all the rest to reach the great unwashed masses of Middle America. Brøderbund’s The Print Shop and their Carmen Sandiego series in particular remain icons of ordinary American life during the 1980s. SimCity must be added to that list for the 1990s. Beginning with a June 15, 1989, piece in no less august a journal than The New York Times, seemingly every newspaper and news magazine in the country wrote about SimCity. For a mainstream media that has never known quite what to make of computer games, this was the rare game that, like Carmen Sandiego, was clearly good for you and your kids.

SimCity even penetrated into the political sphere. With a mayoral election pending in 1990, The Providence Journal set up a contest for the five candidates for the post, letting each have his way with a simulated version of Providence, Rhode Island. The winner of that contest also wound up winning the election. More amusing was the experiment conducted by Detroit News columnist Chuck Moss. He sent Godzilla rampaging through a simulated Detroit, then compared the result with the carnage wrought by Coleman Young during his two-decade real-world reign as mayor. His conclusion? Godzilla had nothing on Mayor Young.

If the interest SimCity prompted in the mainstream media wasn’t unusual enough, academia’s eagerness to jump on the bandwagon in these years long before “game studies” became an accepted area of interest is even more astonishing. Articles and anecdotes about Will Wright’s creation were almost as prevalent in the pages of psychology and urban-planning journals as they were in newspapers. Plenty of the papers in the latter journals, written though they were by professionals in their field who really should have known better, credited Wright’s experiment with an authority out of all proportion to the fairly simplistic reality of the simulation, in spite of candid admissions of its limitations from the people who knew the program best. “I wouldn’t want to predict a real city with it,” Wright said. Bruce Joffe, the urban planner who had set Wright down the road to SimCity, responded with one word when asked if he would use the program to simulate any aspect of a city he was designing in the real world: “No.” And yet SimCity came to offer perhaps the most compelling demonstration of the Eliza Effect since Joseph Weizenbaum’s simple chatbot that had given the phenomenon its name. The world, SimCity proved once again, is full of Fox Mulders. We all want to believe.

In that spirit, SimCity also found a home in a reported 10,000 elementary-, middle-, and high-school classrooms across the country, prompting Maxis to offer a new pedagogical version of the manual, focused on techniques for using the simulation as a teaching tool. And SimCity started showing up on university syllabi as well; the construction of your own simulated city became a requirement in many sociology and economics classes.

Back in May of 1989, Computer Gaming World had concluded their superlative review of SimCity — one of the first to appear anywhere in print — by asking their readers to “buy this game. We want them to make lots of money so they’ll develop SimCounty, SimState, SimNation, SimPlanet, SimUniverse… billions and billions of games!” The hyperbole proved prescient; Maxis spent the 1990s flooding the market with new Sim titles.

SimEarth on MS-DOS

SimEarth on MS-DOS

Jay Wright Forrester’s follow-up to his book Urban Dynamics had been Global Dynamics, an inquiry into the possibility of simulating the entire world as a dynamic system. Wright’s own next game, then, was 1990’s SimEarth, which attempted to do just that, putting you in charge of a planet through 10 billion years of geological and biological evolution. SimEarth became a huge success in its day, one almost comparable to SimCity. The same year-end chart that shows SimCity as the best-selling single title of 1991 has SimEarth at number two — quite a coup for Maxis. Yet, like virtually all of the later Sim efforts, SimEarth is far less fondly remembered today than is its predecessor. The ambitious planet simulator just wasn’t all that much fun to play, as even Wright himself admits today.

But then, one could make the same complaint about many of Maxis’s later efforts, which simulated everything from ant colonies to office towers, healthcare systems (!) to rain forests. New Sim games began to feel not just like failed experiments but downright uninspired, iterating and reiterating endlessly over the same concept of the open-ended “software toy” even as other designers found ways to build SimCity‘s innovations into warmer and more compelling game designs. Relying heavily as always on his readings of the latest scientific literature, Wright could perhaps have stood to put away the academic journals from time to time and crack open a good novel; he struggled to find the human dimension in his simulations. The result was a slow but steady decline in commercial returns as the decade wore on, a trend from which only the evergreen SimCity and its sequels were excepted. Not until 2000 would Maxis finally enjoy a new breakthrough title, one that would dwarf even the success of SimCity… but that is most definitely a story for another time.

Given its storied history and the passion it once inspired in so many players, playing the original SimCity as well for the first time today is all but guaranteed to be a somewhat underwhelming experience. Even allowing for what now feels like a crude, slow user interface and absurdly low-resolution graphics, everything just feels so needlessly obscure, leaving you with the supreme frustration of losing again and again without being able to figure out why you’re losing. Not for nothing was this game among the first to spawn a book-length strategy guide — in fact, two of them. You need inside information just to understand what’s going on much of the time. There are games that are of their time and games that are for all time. In my perhaps controversial opinion, the original SimCity largely falls into the former category.

But, far from negating SimCity‘s claim to our attention, this judgment only means that we, as dutiful students of history, need to try even harder to understand what it was that so many people first saw in what may strike us today as a perversely frustrating simulation. Those who played the original SimCity for the first time, like those who played the original AdventureDefender of the Crown, and a bare handful of other landmark games in the history of the hobby, felt the full shock of a genuinely new experience that was destined to change the very nature of gaming. It’s a shock we can try to appreciate today but can never fully replicate.

You can see traces of SimCity in many if not most of the games we play today, from casual social games to hardcore CRPG and strategy titles. Sid Meier, when asked in 2008 to name the three most important innovations in the history of electronic gaming, listed the invention of the IBM PC, the Nintendo Seal of Quality… and, yes, SimCity. “SimCity was a revelation to most of us game designers,” says Meier. “The idea that players enjoyed a game that was open-ended, non-combative, and emphasized construction over destruction opened up many new avenues and possibilities for game concepts.” Many years before Meier’s statement, Russell Sipe, the respected founder of Computer Gaming World, said simply that “SimCity has changed the face of computer-entertainment software.” He was and is absolutely correct. Its influence really has been that immense.

(Sources: Magazines include Amazing Computing of October 1989; Game Developer from April 2006; MacWorld from April 1990; Computer Gaming World from May 1989; Compute! from January 1992; The New Yorker from November 6 2006. Newspapers include The San Francisco Chronicle from November 3 2003; The New York Times from June 15 1989; The Los Angeles Times from October 2 1992. Books include The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem; The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook by Johnny L. Wilson; Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning by Le Corbusier; The Second Self by Sherry Turkle. Current and archived online sources include John Cutter’s blog; Game Research; articles about Will Wright and Sid Meier on Wired; The Next American City; Reform; GameSpot; a 1989 talk given by Jay Wright Forrester, which is hosted at MIT; First Monday; Taylor Francis Online. And finally, there’s the collection of Brøderbund archives I went through during my visit to the Strong Museum of Play.

Beginning with SimCity 2000, the more playable later iterations of the franchise are all available for purchase in various places online. For those of an historical bent who’d like to experience the original, I offer a zip that includes the first three versions — for the Macintosh, Commodore 64, and Amiga.)

  1. The more canonical example in American textbooks, the ENIAC, could only be “programmed” by physically rewiring its internals. It’s probably better understood as an elaborate calculating machine than a true computer; its original purpose was to calculate static artillery firing tables. As in so many things, politics plays a role in ENIAC’s anointment. The first computer programmable entirely in software, pre-dating even Whirlwind, was EDSAC-1, built at Cambridge University in Britain. That such a feat was first managed abroad seems to be just a bit more than some Americans in Silicon Valley and elsewhere can bring themselves to accept. 


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Cliff Johnson’s Fool’s Errand

The Fool's Errand

One sunny day, a light-hearted fool strolled along a hilly path, whistling a merry tune. A long wooden pole was slung over his shoulder and attached to it was a cloth bundle which carried his life’s possessions.

“What a marvelous afternoon!” he exclaimed to no one in particular, pausing to appreciate the lovely countryside.

Soon the trees parted and the path led to a small clearing, ending abruptly at the edge of a treacherous cliff. But the fool was undaunted and kept at his swift pace, steadily approaching the sheer drop.

“Your folly is most curious,” a voice boomed. “Have you no fear of death?”

Just as one leg dangled over the side of the cliff, the fool hesitated.

“Who dares to interrupt my errand?” he demanded impatiently.

“I dare,” the bright yellow sun replied.

“Well, then,” the fool considered, “I seek the fourteen treasures of the world and I am told that a man who strays from his path is lost.”

“That may well be true,” spoke the sun, “but I fear that you are already lost. Take this map as my gift. It will aid you in your quest.”

And in a flash of light, an aged parchment appeared at his feet.

“At last! A path to follow!” cried the fool, happily taking the map.

“Perhaps,” the sun murmured, “yet things are never as simple as they may seem.”

But the fool had already run back down the hill and did not hear the sun’s parting words.

Long before “game developer” was recognized by universities as a legitimate career to which one could aspire, people from a dizzying array of backgrounds stumbled into the field. Plenty were the programmers and technologists that you might expect, but plenty of others came from places much farther afield. Infocom, just to take one example, included among their ranks a construction engineer, a journalist, a science-fiction author, a medical doctor, and two lost literature majors, while Sierra’s two most prominent designers were a former housewife and a former jazz musician. Other companies could boast architects, psychologists, rocket scientists, poets, and plain old high-school students. Taken in this light, the story of Cliff Johnson, a filmmaker who decided to start making computer games instead, may not seem quite so atypical. The first game he made, however, is anything but typical. The Fool’s Errand is one of the precious gems of its era, despite — because of? — having been made by a fellow with little intrinsic interest in computers and even less in playing games on them. For an industry that has so often struggled to get beyond a handful of fictional and mechanical genres inspired by a tiny sliver of the rich cultural tapestry of the human race, it’s yet one more reminder of just what a good thing a little diversity can be.

Born in 1953 in Connecticut as the only child of a pair of schoolteachers, Cliff Johnson manifested creativity and curiosity almost from the moment he arrived. As a boy, he spent hours tramping around the woods and dales that surrounded his family home. He loved maps, loved to imagine himself an explorer on the hunt for hidden pirate treasure (“X marks the spot!”). When not roaming the woods, he loved making things with his own hands, whether that meant playing with an erector set or spending long afternoons in the basement doing home-grown chemistry experiments. Gunpowder was easy, the formula printed in lots of places. Chlorine gas proved more tricky, both to make and to get rid of; thankfully the basement had some windows just below its ceiling that helped Cliff get rid of the evidence before Mom and Dad made it home.

Any possibility of Cliff becoming a cartographer or a scientist was, however, derailed on the day that he saw the classic horror flick House on Haunted Hill, starring no less an icon than Vincent Price. Like millions of other kids across the country, he became a B-movie fanatic, a devotee of all things monstrous, horrific, and/or alien. But unlike most fans, Cliff’s personality demanded that he do more than passively consume his obsession. Getting his hands on a Super 8 camera, he started making his own little movies. His technique evolved with impressive speed; soon he was doing stop-motion with live actors to craft his special-effects sequences, a tricky proposition even for professionals. As he got older and his teenage tastes, relatively speaking, matured, he discovered the allure of camp, moving from pulpy horror to slapstick comedy. His magnum opus, shown in his high-school auditorium on three glorious evenings, was called The Return of the Freshman. (It was, naturally, a sequel, and one with a name that beat George Lucas to the punch by thirteen years at that.)

Cliff Johnson

The summer before, while The Return of the Freshman was still in its planning stages, Cliff and his parents had visited Disneyland. He was no stranger to amusement parks, but knew them as the seedy, vaguely disreputable places they generally were at that time, echoes of the still older traveling circuses. Disneyland, however, was something different. In addition to being clean and wholesome and family-friendly, care had been taken with their rides and other attractions to turn them into real experiences. Cliff was particularly entranced by the lovingly sculpted animatronic characters who actually moved. “I could do that!” was his boyish response; after all, he’d gotten quite good at sculpting monsters and props for his movies. Back home, the local amusement park, a run-down place called Lake Compounce, had a ride called Laff-in-the-Dark that had fallen on hard times. Once full of chills and thrills, its bits and pieces had broken down and been removed one by one, so that now it was largely just a ride through a pitch-black tunnel. Cliff asked the Norton family that ran the park for permission to walk through the ride while it was closed, measuring its every dimension, sketching its every curve and straightaway. He and his girlfriend Janice then made models and sketches illustrating how they thought the ride could be restored to its former glory. Showing an audacity that would serve him well throughout his life, Cliff formally proposed their services to the Nortons. For $1000, they would bring a little taste of Disneyland to Lake Compounce. The Norton family agreed, and thus, between shoots for The Return of the Freshman, Cliff along with cast and crew and Janice built monsters and lights and installed them in the ride. The Norton patriarch, also the mayor of the city of Bristol at that time, was so thrilled with Cliff’s work that he agreed to appear in his movie. He played himself, looking out of his window at City Hall at a flying saucer whizzing by. (“What a sport!” remarks Cliff today.)

Cliff did such a good job on that hometown ride that word got out on the amusement-park circuit about this talented teenager who, being a teenager, worked pretty cheap. He spent the next few years traveling the country as far from home as Colorado and California, making monsters for low-rent amusement parks and saving money for his dream of attending film school right in the heart of Hollywood, at the University of Southern California.

He finally began USC Film School in 1974. University worked on him just as it ideally ought to, opening new intellectual vistas. Having entered an aficionado of monster movies and Disney, perhaps primed for a career in Hollywood special effects — and at a good time too, what with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg just around the corner — he discovered there a new world of film, film made as art for art’s sake. More specifically, he discovered avant-garde animation. Working under Professor Gene Coe, a semi-legendary figure at USC, he made a number of experimental films that did very well on the festival circuit, earning several prizes. He still remembers his years at USC as some of the best and most artistically productive of his life.

But then, in 1979, he was suddenly finished, with a freshly minted Master’s Degree in his hand and no clear idea of what to do next. Virtually the entire avant-garde animation industry, to the extent that such a thing existed at all, existed in Canada and Europe rather than the United States. Cliff couldn’t see himself moving there, but he also no longer had any desire to become a part of the mainstream Hollywood machine that surrounded him in Southern California. So, he became an entrepreneur, an all-purpose filmmaker-for-hire who served a client list consisting mostly of big corporations that needed films made for practical in-house purposes and didn’t want to pay too much for the service. Cliff, by now an accomplished animator as well as cameraman, could do entire films virtually by himself, adding charts and graphics and titles and cartoons and whatever else was needed to his live-action footage to meet his clients’ needs. He did a large number of training films for Southern California Edison in particular, producing, as he would later put it, “such notable works as Heating, Air Conditioning and Ventilation and other film classics.” Yes, it was pretty boring stuff, but it was a pretty decent living.

And yet the fact remained that his new life was as much of a creative comedown from his art-for-art’s-sake days at USC as it was a financial windfall. An artistically stymied Cliff thus began to look around for diversions from his dull working life. Three influences in particular came together at this time to start him in earnest down the road toward The Fool’s Errand.

First, there were his parties. As far back as his teenage years, he had loved to throw elaborate multimedia parties — multimedia in the old sense of the word, implying the blending of different sorts of media in a physical rather than a digital space. He would fill the rooms of a house with lights, sound, music, film, figures, and props, and arrange his guests’ progress through the house so as to tell a little story or illustrate a theme. Soon he began adding an interactive element, a little puzzle or mystery for his guest to solve. These mysteries were, he notes wryly today, “more jobs for Watson than Sherlock,” but, despite or because of their simplicity, his guests really took to them. He kept throwing the parties, growing ever more elaborate all the while, through his time at USC and especially while working as a filmmaker-for-hire, when he desperately needed the creative outlet they provided.

Next, there was Masquerade. Soon after leaving USC, Cliff became one of countless thousands of people all over the world to be fascinated by a little children’s picture book called Masquerade. Written by a reclusive English painter named Kit Williams, it tells the story of a hare who carries a treasure from the Moon to the Sun, with fifteen of William’s intricate paintings as illustrations. What so enthralled Cliff and all those others, however, was the end of the book, which reveals that the hare has lost his treasure, and that it’s up to you, the reader, to find from clues scattered through the book where it now lies in the real world. Masquerade became an international phenomenon that obsessed treasure hunters and puzzle solvers for more than two-and-a-half years, selling nearly 2 million books in the process. Cliff, who didn’t personally enjoy solving puzzles all that much, was perhaps less obsessed than many of those buyers, but he found the idea of Masquerade, of a book that could stand alone but could also serve as a grand puzzle, endlessly intriguing as something he might create.1

And finally, there was the tarot deck. Not remotely of a spiritual or supernatural bent, Cliff nevertheless came upon a lovely Rider-Waite tarot deck and found himself fascinated with the characters and ideas represented there.

A section of the Fool's Errand treasure map.

A section of the Fool’s Errand treasure map.

All of these influences merged together in a 1981 project that would prove to be a non-computerized prototype of the final version of The Fool’s Errand that was still six years in the future. Wanting to create another fun and unique experience for his friends as a Christmas gift, like all those themed parties, Cliff decided to write, just for them, a little book much like Masquerade, telling the story of a Fool who wanders through a fairy-tale land based loosely on the world of the tarot. Filling the back of the book, after the 21-page story, were another 14 pages containing pieces of a treasure map; shades of Cliff’s childhood roaming the Connecticut woodlands dreaming of pirate maps and buried treasure. The player should cut out and assemble the pieces using clues from the story, which was divided into 81 sections, each relating to one piece of the map. Accomplishing that got you to an endgame, a crossword requiring you to correctly place the names of 13 treasures mentioned in the story to decode a final message: “Merry Christmas!” (Those of you who’ve already played The Fool’s Errand on a computer will recognize all of this as essentially the second half of that game, the part you embark on after completing all of the initial puzzles.) Unlike Masquerade, over which so many puzzlers fretted for years, The Fool’s Errand was designed to be a pleasant challenge but not an exhausting one, solvable in a single long, lazy holiday afternoon. He was thus disappointed when, out of the dozens of people to whom he sent the book, only three actually solved it. The lesson he took away was that, while he believed his friends to be a pretty intelligent group on the whole, this sort of complex puzzle required a special kind of intelligence — or, perhaps better said, a special kind of personality — that made it a poor fit for most of them. He put his storybook back on the shelf, and returned to the themed parties that were so much better received.

But Cliff’s reputation among his friends as a devious mind was now established, and would lead to his introduction to the brave new world of computerized puzzle design. One of his friends, Allen Pinero, came to him with a proposition. Pinero had jumped onto the home-computer bandwagon early, purchasing an Apple II, and had devised a unique text-adventure engine that let the player control two characters at once through a split-screen view. With the core programming in place, though, he was having some trouble devising a plot and puzzles — in short, something for the characters to actually do. Despite knowing nothing about the state of the art in home computers, much less adventure games — he’d never played or even seen one in his life before Pinero showed him a few of Scott Adams’s to prime his pump — Cliff came up with a plot that tangled together several stories from Greek mythology; the two characters under the player’s control became none other than Jason and Hercules. He also devised a batch of puzzles that often required the characters to work together from different rooms, and to illustrate their adventures he drew pictures freehand, which Pinero than translated into vector graphics on the screen. Released in late 1982 by Scott Adams’s Adventure International, Labyrinth of Crete, like most Adventure International games by that time, made little impact in either the trade press or at retail, although it did sell well enough through their mail-order catalogs that they funded ports to the Atari 8-bits and the Commodore 64.

For Cliff it was a fun little experience in its way, but also a frustrating one. It’s safe to say that it didn’t ignite any dormant passion for computers or computer games. He chafed constantly at the limitations of the two-word parser and the primitive world model. It often seemed that nine out of ten ideas he proposed were greeted by Pinero with a “Sorry, can’t do that,” followed by some esoteric technical reasoning he didn’t really understand and didn’t really care to. Pinero’s Apple II itself remained to him an incomprehensible and irascible black (or rather beige) box, all strident squawks and ugly colors. He was, needless to say, completely baffled by Pinero’s efforts to program the thing. If anything, the experience only confirmed his dislike of computers. He certainly didn’t rush out to buy one himself. He and Pinero did discuss doing another game together, but Pinero in particular was feeling completely burnt-out by all the work that had done into the first — far more work than he had ever imagined it would be.

Cliff’s opinion of computers didn’t change until one day in late 1984 when he idly wandered into a store selling the Apple Macintosh and promptly fell in love. Ironically, he had long since shot one of his corporate films inside Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, the very place where most of the ideas behind the Macintosh were invented. For whatever reason, that experience had left little impression on him, done nothing to alter his opinion of computers as balky, unpleasant contraptions. The Macintosh itself, however, just did it for him right away. He loved its friendly demeanor, loved the simplicity of its point-and-click operating system, loved the elegance of its crisp black-and-white display in contrast to the ugly blotches of pixelated color he remembered on the screen of Pinero’s Apple II. He became just another of the thousands of creative souls, many of them far removed from your typical computer nerd, who saw magic possibility in “the computer for the rest of us.” He simply had to have one. A few thousand dollars later, he was armed with a shiny new 512 K “Fat Mac” with all the bells and whistles, purchased with vague justifications that it would be useful for his business.

Cliff was perhaps unusually receptive to the idea of a life-changing event at about this point. His work as a filmmaker was more stultifying than ever. Even a chance to do animations for a brief-lived children’s television series called Out of Control, which was broadcast by the Nickelodeon cable channel as their first original series ever, hadn’t lifted his malaise. So, yes, he was looking for a way out even before he wandered into that store. Soon his new Macintosh would provide it.

He first programmed his Macintosh by writing macros for keeping track of his business finances in the Microsoft Multiplan spreadsheet. His programming began in earnest, however, only when a friend of his, knowing he was very enamored with his new computer, gifted him with a copy of Microsoft BASIC for the machine. It was, surprisingly for this inveterate computer hater, not quite Cliff’s first exposure to the language. The only computerized gadget he had ever owned prior to purchasing his Macintosh had been an Atari VCS game console, for which he had received, again as a gift, Atari’s “BASIC Programming” cartridge. Delivered as a hedge to fretful parents thinking of replacing Junior’s game console with a real home computer, it was a shockingly primitive creation even by the standards of its day. Programs, which had to be laboriously entered using Atari’s infuriating “keyboard controllers,” could be all of 63 characters in length, and couldn’t be saved. But despite it all, Cliff had found the experience of programming vaguely interesting, enough to devote an afternoon or two to, as he puts it, “getting a tiny square to move around the screen.” Now, with this latest gift of a BASIC, those memories came back, and he started learning to program his Macintosh with real enthusiasm. The natural question then became what to do with his burgeoning skills.

Cliff happened to be acquainted with Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman of the legendary comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre. For a time, they all discussed bringing Firesign’s most famous character, the hard-boiled detective Nick Danger, to interactive life via some sort of adventure game. Yet that puzzle-filled storybook that Cliff had made several years before, the one that had left him feeling like it was a genuinely great idea that just hadn’t found the right audience, kept popping into his head. People who played on computers at that time — yes, even “computers for the rest of us” like the Macintosh — tended to be the sort of people who noticed the little things, who were intrigued by them. What might they make of a computerized puzzle book? Married by this point, he told his wife Kathy one day that he had to drop the filmmaking business, had to drop everything and find out. With Kathy still attending university, they would just have to live on savings and credit cards while he saw it through. Thus was The Fool’s Errand reborn as a computer game.

Let’s be clear: it was a crazy thing to do. Having programmed for a bare handful of months, Cliff proposed programming a commercial-quality game. Having never seriously played a computer game in his life, he proposed designing one. Knowing no one in and nothing about the games industry, he proposed selling his creation at some point to a publisher. He didn’t even like to solve puzzles, not really. His consolation, if he had only known it, might have been that he was mirroring to an uncanny degree Kit Williams, the man who had set him down this path in the first place. Kit also had never evinced the slightest interest in actually solving puzzles, had conceived the grand puzzle that was Masquerade strictly as a gimmick to get people to really look at his artwork and — let’s be honest here — to sell books.

Cliff started, as you’d expect, with his old storybook itself. His original story of the Fool’s wanderings through a tarot-inspired fairy-tale land went into the computer version almost verbatim. The patchwork treasure map also went in, consisting of the same 81 tiles, each linked to a section of the story; it would be much easier to unscramble on the monitor screen, requiring only mouse clicks rather than scissors and glue. And the crossword full of treasures, your reward for completing the map, remained as the final puzzle. But fleshing out this spine, often called today the “meta-puzzle” of the game, would be a collection of other, smaller puzzles that were new to the computer version. Entering each treasure in the final puzzle, for instance, would require not just that you figure out what that treasure should be from the story but that you solve another set-piece puzzle as well. And most of the story itself would be hidden from you at the beginning; opening up the other sections for reading would require, you guessed it, solving puzzles.

A friend of Cliff’s used to have a subscription to Games magazine, and would loan him each issue after he was finished with it, by which time all of the puzzles were marked up with his solutions. Cliff didn’t care. He wasn’t so interested in solving the puzzles, which took time he didn’t feel he could spare anyway, as he was in looking at how they were put together, enjoying them almost as one might a work of art. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was already thinking like a game designer. Now that subconscious preparation was about to serve him well.

The individual puzzles he crafted for his game are multifarious, many of them old favorites of the sort that he had studied in those magazines: word searches, anagrams, cryptograms, crosswords, mazes, jigsaws. Others, however, are delightfully original, like the tarot-inspired card game that requires you to first figure out what the rules are before you can concentrate on actually winning the thing. Some, like the word-concatenation puzzles, are almost naive outgrowths of Cliff’s early experiments with BASIC. A few, the least satisfying in my opinion, are essentially action games, dependent as much on reflexes as smarts.

Through the early months, Cliff was writing each puzzle as it own self-contained BASIC program, unclear exactly how he would tie them together to create a unified experience. Most of his problems came down to Microsoft BASIC itself. Because it was interpreted rather than compiled, it was painfully slow. Even worse, its programs required that the end user also have Microsoft BASIC in order to run them. In short, it was an environment for casual hobbyists and students of programming, not for the creation of a full-fledged commercial game. About a year after he’d first bought his Macintosh, a life-saver arrived in the form of ZBASIC, a compiled version of the language whose programs could run on any Macintosh, and at several times the speed of the Microsoft version at that. There were unfortunately enough syntactical differences between the two dialects that Cliff had to spend quite some time porting his code, but he ended up with a much more powerful and flexible language that was up to the task of implementing The Fool’s Errand.

Very much the amateur, self-taught programmer, Cliff’s code was, as a few technical friends told him at the time and as he freely admits today, neither terribly efficient nor terribly well-structured. Yet it had a couple of overriding virtues: it worked, and Cliff at least understood how it worked. Throughout the development of The Fool’s Errand, he constantly shared his puzzles in progress with his wife, with his old friend and Labyrinth of Crete partner Allen Pinero, and with another old friend, David Wood. Still, Cliff remained haunted by a “morbid pessimism” that at some point the whole house of cards, built from dozens of little BASIC programs all piled atop and beside one another, would collapse into hopeless chaos.

But it didn’t happen, and by the end of 1986 he had something complete enough to start shopping to publishers. Cliff still knew next to nothing about the games industry, but once more that old audacity, that willingness to just call his supposed betters and ask for whatever it was he wanted, served him well. A few publishers showed serious interest, despite the fact that the Macintosh market was still quite a minor one when it came to games. He met with Activision, publisher of what remains to this day the only computer game to have ever really captured Cliff’s interest as a player, the casual Mahjong puzzler Shanghai. They were quite willing to sign him, but the royalty they offered seemed rather paltry and, even worse, they insisted that he sign over to them his copyright. If there was one thing Cliff’s years in and around Hollywood had taught him you should never do, it was that. So he ended up signing instead with a young Macintosh-centric publisher called Miles Computing. Tiny though they were by the standards of the industry at large, they had already made a decent name for themselves in Macintosh circles with games like Harrier Strike Mission, which as the platform’s first available flight simulator had done very well for itself, and a line of clip-art disks for desktop publishers. They offered a much better royalty than Activision, were willing to let him keep his copyright, and were based right there in Southern California.

What Miles wasn’t terribly good at doing, Cliff soon learned to his dismay, was actually selling software that didn’t spontaneously sell itself. Released at last in April of 1987 with absolutely no promotion, The Fool’s Errand sank without a trace. One or two reviews buried deep inside magazines, lukewarm and noncommittal, became the full extent of its press presence. Cliff was left in an uncomfortable limbo, unsure what to do with himself next. His savings were exhausted, his credit-card debt was now approaching $50,000, and his royalties were so minimal as to be virtually nonexistent. He wasn’t eager to return to his old business of filmmaker-for-hire, and wasn’t sure he could anyway; once you fall out of people’s Rolodexes in Hollywood it’s damnably hard to get yourself back in. But, based on the evidence so far, this computer-game thing wasn’t exactly proving to be a financial winner either. The name of his game was now seeming sadly apropos. Making The Fool’s Errand, it seemed, had itself been a fool’s errand.

Cliff Johnson, 1987

The game’s life preserver, and thus Cliff’s as well, came in the form of a superlative feature review (“5 Mice!”) written by the prominent Macintosh pundit and columnist Neil Shapiro for the January 1988 issue of MacUser. Shapiro was the first reviewer to take the time to properly dig into the game, to understand what it was and what it was doing. He liked what he saw. In fact, he really liked what he saw. “Cliff Johnson has taken computer gaming, turned it inside-out and upside-down, and redefined the state of the art,” he wrote. He continued to champion the game relentlessly over the months that followed. The floodgates opened; The Fool’s Errand became a hit. A suddenly much more enthusiastic Miles Computing belatedly funded ports to the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and MS-DOS. Cliff, who had nothing to do with programming those versions, was never happy with the way they looked or played. He considers them “Bizarro World” versions of his game, ugly, simplified, and buggy to boot. It was a long, not entirely successful struggle for him just to keep the worst of the porters’ razzle-dazzle videogame flourishes out of the end results. Still, in combination they sold far more copies than the Macintosh original. Total sales of The Fool’s Errand reached 100,000 copies by the end of 1989, perhaps not quite a blockbuster by the standards of the big boys but by far the biggest hit that little Miles Computing had ever enjoyed. Certainly it was more than enough to let Cliff pay off his credit cards and remain a game developer. We’ll be continuing to follow him in his new career in future articles.

For now, though, let’s talk about The Fool’s Errand itself just a little bit more. It’s one of those singular works that defies (transcends?) the conventional wisdom — including plenty of the wisdom that I spout routinely right here on this blog. Having chided people from Scott Adams to Ken Williams for refusing to engage with the games made by others outside their companies, I must admit that Cliff Johnson didn’t know a thing about other computer games at the time he wrote The Fool’s Errand, and never bothered to learn — and yet his game turned out brilliantly. Having harped endlessly on the importance of testing and player feedback, I must admit that The Fool’s Errand was seriously played by just three people not named Cliff Johnson prior to its release — and yet, again, his game turned out superbly, and about as bug-free as a game can be to boot. What is there to say, other than don’t try this at home, kids?

In his Mac User review, Neil Shapiro rather brilliantly described The Fool’s Errand as a “whole buffalo” game. Everything you see on the screen is important, nothing extraneous or inexplicable. When you first start the game, it’s both underwhelming and a little baffling, nothing more than a handful of puzzles — most of them fairly trivial — and a few scattered fragments of a story that doesn’t make much sense. And so you shrug your shoulders and have a go at one of the puzzles, maybe starting with something simple like the word search for names of countries. Slowly you begin to peel back layer after layer of the onion. Are certain words in the story printed in boldface? It’s not just for aesthetic effect; there’s a reason for it that will become clear in time. Have no idea what to do with this scrambled map? Work on other, simpler problems for a while and insight might just come. Finished all of the puzzles from the initial menus and think you’re about to win? You’re about halfway actually, with the tastiest parts of the onion still waiting for you. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderfully intriguing experience solving The Fool’s Errand becomes. My wife Dorte and I played it together, as we do many of the games I write about here, and enjoyed one of the most captivating gaming experiences we’ve ever shared. (I suspect that Dorte, a puzzle addict who’s much better at most kinds of them than I am, would delete the “one of” from that sentence.)

Chatting with me about The Fool’s Errand, Cliff was at pains to emphasize how incredible it is to him that people today, almost thirty years later, continue to enjoy his first game. Like most designers at the time, he wasn’t thinking beyond the next year or so, and certainly gave no thought whatsoever to The Fool’s Errand as a work for posterity. Yet it feels every bit as contemporary and compelling today as it must have then, the very definition of a timeless work. I think we can ascribe that timelessness to a number of things. Far more than just a collection of puzzles, there’s a beauty about this design, its many strands looping over and entwining one another like a Bach fugue: the text with its simple diction of Myth; the pictures, which are so lovely and evocative that black-and-white seems an aesthetic choice here, not a limitation of the hardware; the intricately fashioned meta-puzzle itself, leading to that Eureka! moment when it all comes together. Perhaps most of all, there remains a generosity of spirit about The Fool’s Errand that bleeds through the screen. As Cliff has stated many times, his goal is never to absolutely stymie you, to prove that he’s the cleverer by presenting you with impossible dilemmas. He wants to tempt and entice and, yes, to challenge you — what fun would The Fool’s Errand be otherwise? — but ultimately he wants you to succeed, to peel back the onion and to share in the The Fool’s Errand‘s mysteries. There’s no nonsense in the game; it always plays fair. Take your time with it, and it will reward you in spades.

So, I think you should play this game if you haven’t already. If you enjoy the sorts of games I usually feature on this blog, I think this one will blow you away. The state of classic Macintosh emulation in general being a disgraceful mess for such an historically important platform, I want to do all I can to make that easy as possible for you. I’ve therefore made a zip that contains the most user-friendly of the early Macintosh emulators, Mini vMac, in versions for Windows, (modern) Macintosh, and Linux. The zip also includes the ROM file that Mini vMac needs to run (please, nobody tell Apple!), the disk images for the game along with a formatted save disk, the original instruction manual, and some brief instructions I’ve written to get you going with the whole package. Give it a shot. If I’ve done my part properly, it won’t be hard at all, and I think you’ll be glad you did. This one is touched, folks.

(Sources: This article is mostly drawn from a long interview I conducted with Cliff himself. Much other information about his life, career, and games can be found on his personal website, although, in keeping with The Fool’s Errand itself, you sometimes have to dig a bit in unexpected places for it.

If you play and enjoy The Fool’s Errand, be sure to check out The Fool and His Money, the long-awaited 2012 sequel that Cliff describes as “everything The Fool’s Errand is times ten.” Dorte and I haven’t had the pleasure yet ourselves, but, believe me, we will just as soon as I can break free of all my moldy oldies for long enough.)

  1. For better and often for worse, Masquerade‘s connection to computer gaming extends far beyond the story of Cliff Johnson. The man who first “solved” the riddle and was awarded the hare in March of 1982, one Dugald Thompson, did so, it was revealed years later, largely by cheating. A friend of his had as his current girlfriend a former girlfriend of Kit Williams. While Kit had never outright told her where the treasure — a golden hare sculpted by Kit himself — lay, he had inadvertently dropped enough clues that she could point Thompson in the right direction.

    After he was awarded the prize, Thompson formed a company called Haresoft to release an unspeakably horrible computer game called Hareraiser that supposedly contained further clues pointing to a new location of the golden hare. If it did, nobody ever worked them out. More likely, the game was yet another instance of fraud committed by Thompson, designed to make a quick buck from the players that it sent off on a wild goose chase after its nonexistent clues. It justly bombed, Haresoft went into liquidation, and Thompson was forced by his creditors to sell the golden hare at auction.

    Long before those events, Masquerade had inspired other British game developers to embed real-world treasure hunts and other puzzles in their own games, perhaps most notably the hunt for the “Golden Sundial of Pi” buried in the Sussex Downs by Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold of Automata. All told, that golden hare had one hell of a long reach. 


Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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