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A Time of Endings, Part 4: Magnetic Scrolls

By the point in late 1988 when Magnetic Scrolls released Fish!, their fifth text adventure and arguably their best yet, a distressing pattern of diminishing returns had already been well-established when it came to sales, that most important metric of all. Anita Sinclair’s little collective had peaked early in commercial if not in design terms, with the release of the illustrated version of their first game The Pawn in 1986. Indeed, alongside Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of PhobosThe Pawn had that year become one of the last two text adventures ever to generate sales sufficient to make the games industry at large sit up and pay attention. The performance of neither game had had all that much to do with its intrinsic design merits: sales of The Pawn had been driven by the timely appeal of its pretty pictures to people looking to show off their new Atari STs and Commodore Amigas, sales of Leather Goddesses by the timeless allure of sex to the largely adolescent male audience for computer games in general. Nevertheless, while for Infocom the year had been a welcome final hurrah that may very well have staved off their inevitable endgame for a year or more, for Magnetic Scrolls it had simply been one hell of an auspicious start.

Sadly, for both companies it would all be downhill from there. Guild of Thieves, Magnetic Scrolls’s follow-up to The Pawn, did quite well in its own right, but nowhere near as well as its predecessor. A pattern was soon established of each successive game selling a little less than the previous. Magnetic Scrolls’s relationship with their publisher Rainbird steadily deteriorated in cadence with their diminishing sales numbers. Anita Sinclair, whom even her most supportive colleagues acknowledged could be difficult at times, never got on very well with Paula Byrne, the woman who was now her primary contact at the label her good friend Tony Rainbird had founded and lent his name to but had left already in late 1986. In a surprisingly frank 1989 statement to the German magazine Aktueller Software Markt, Byrne admitted publicly that she “didn’t have a very good relationship with Anita. Anita had much preferred to work with Tony Rainbird.” When in May of 1989 — just after that interview — Rainbird was acquired by the American publisher MicroProse, Magnetic Scrolls was promptly cut loose. Given her poor relationship with Anita Sinclair and the declining sales of Magnetic Scrolls’s games, Byrne had little motivation to argue with her new bosses’ decision.

For most small developers, that event, described by Anita Sinclair herself as an “horrendous collapse,” would have marked the death knell. With the rights to all of their extant games tied to Rainbird, who were no longer interested in selling them, Magnetic Scrolls no longer had any income whatsoever. Nor were they in much of a position to make new hits to generate new income. All of Magnetic Scrolls’s development technology and wisdom were still tied to text adventures, a genre the conventional wisdom said was dead as a commercial proposition; both Infocom and Level 9, the other two significant remaining practitioners of adventures in English text, were getting out of that game entirely as well at the instant that Rainbird decided to wash their hands of Magnetic Scrolls. But thanks to the familial wealth that had always been Magnetic Scrolls’s secret trump card — even during its peak years of 1986 and 1987, the company had never made all that much money in relation to its considerable expenses — Anita Sinclair could elect to play on a bit longer where Infocom and Level 9, under the thumb of corporate parent Mediagenic and perpetually pinched for cash respectively, had had no choice but to fold their hands. She launched a lawsuit against Rainbird/MicroProse, alleging mishandling of her company’s games and seeking restoration of the rights to the back catalog amidst other damages. At the same time, and despite being without a publisher, she poured all the resources she had into a big development project — in fact, the biggest such project Magnetic Scrolls had ever attempted, and by a virtual order of magnitude at that. Begun well before the release of Fish! and the split with Rainbird, in the wake of recent events it would be elevated from an important initiative to a save-the-company Hail Mary.

Actually, this single grand project is better seen as three projects built on top of one another, with an actual game, the top layer of this layer cake of technology that would finally emerge as Magnetic Scrolls’s swansong, the least taxing of the lot to develop.

The most taxing of the layers, by contrast, was the one at the bottom. It had nothing intrinsically to do with games at all. Magnetic Windows was rather to be a generic system for creating and running modern GUI-based applications on MS-DOS, the Apple Macintosh, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and the Acorn Archimedes, allowing programmers to share much of the same code across these very different platforms. It will perhaps convey some sense of the sheer ambition of this undertaking to note that its most obvious analogue was nothing less than Microsoft Windows, a graphical operating environment built on top of MS-DOS which Microsoft had been pushing for years without a lot of success. Admittedly, Magnetic Windows was in some ways less ambitious than Microsoft Windows; it was envisioned as a toolkit for building and running individual GUI applications, not as a full-fledged self-contained operating environment like the Microsoft product. In other ways, however, it was more ambitious; in contrast to the cross-platform Magnetic Windows, Microsoft Windows was targeted strictly at the standard Intel architecture running MS-DOS as its underlying layer, with no support included or planned for alternative platforms.

Like most GUI systems of the time, Magnetic Windows owed an awful lot to the Macintosh, as shown in this shot from the game Magnetic Scrolls eventually made using it.

Microsoft Windows, little used and less loved, had been something of a computer-industry laughingstock ever since its initial release back in 1985; it would only start rounding into a truly usable form and gaining traction with everyday users with the release of its version 3.0 in 1990. Once again, its travails only serve to illustrate what a huge technical challenge Magnetic Windows must pose for its own parent company. How could Anita Sinclair’s little staff of half a dozen or so programmers, clever though they doubtless were, hope to succeed where a company with thousands of times the resources had so conspicuously struggled for so long?

All things considered, they made a pretty good stab at it. Magnetic Windows was a genuinely impressive piece of work, especially considering the shoestring on which it was made and the fact that it had to run on five different platforms. Yet Magnetic Scrolls’s dreams of someday using it to break into business and productivity software, of hopefully licensing it out to many other developers, never stood much of a chance of being realized. Magnetic Windows’s Achilles heel was the same as that which had dogged Microsoft Windows for years: it craved far more computing power than was the norm among average machines of its era. In its MS-DOS version, Magnetic Windows ran responsively only on a pricey high-end 80386-based machine, while on other platforms throwing enough hardware at it to make it a pleasant experience to use was often even more difficult. That the simple text adventure Magnetic Scrolls would eventually make using it would require such high-end hardware would strike many potential buyers, with some justification, as vaguely ridiculous. And as for Magnetic Scrolls’s dreams of world domination in other types of software… well, that was always going to be one hell of a mountain to climb in the face of Microsoft’s cash reserves, and it only got that much steeper when Microsoft Windows 3.0, at long last the first really complete and usable incarnation of the operating environment, was released the same year as the first product to employ Magnetic Windows.

The middle layer in the cake that would become Magnetic Scroll’s swansong was the most ambitious expansion of the traditionally humble text-adventure interface to date — indeed, it still remains to this day the most ambitious such expansion ever attempted. Of course, Magnetic Scrolls was hardly alone at the time in working in this general direction. Infocom just before the end had made a concerted attempt to remedy as many as possible of the real or perceived failings of the genre in the eyes of modern players, incorporating  into their final run of “graphical interactive fiction” titles things like auto-maps, clickable compass roses, function-key shortcuts, and hint menus along with the now-expected illustrations. Legend Entertainment, Infocom’s implicitly anointed successor, would soon push the general idea yet further via clickable menus of verbs, nouns, and prepositions for building commands without typing, whilst also adding sound and music to the formula.

Still, it was Magnetic Scrolls that pushed furthest of all. Taking full advantage of Magnetic Windows, they designed an almost infinitely customizable interface built around individually openable and closable, draggable and sizable windows. The windows could contain all the goodies of late-period Infocom and Legend plus a lot more: text (including for the first time ever an integrated scrollback buffer), graphics (including occasional animated sequences of sometimes surprising length, enough almost to qualify as little cut scenes), lists of objects in the current room and in the player’s inventory (represented as snazzy icons rather than plebeian text), an auto-map (complete with one-click navigation to any location in the game’s world), a compass rose, an extensive hint menu. Performance issues aside, it was all impressive as hell the first time you fired it up and began to discover its many little nuances. For instance, it was possible to pick up and drop objects by dragging their icons between the objects-in-inventory and objects-in-room windows, while right-clicking one of the object icons opened a menu of likely verbs for use with it — or you could double-click an object to “examine” it via text that appeared in its own separate window. Ditto all this for things depicted in the room illustrations as well. Or, if you liked, you could start with the verb rather than the object in building your command without typing, selecting a verb from a long list of same in the menu bar and then clicking on the object to use with it. Anita Sinclair:

The whole idea of the window system we’ve developed is to take adventures into the next generation. What we found was that people enjoyed the format of text adventures — it is, from a gameplay point of view, the most flexible genre there is — but the problem people had was that when you see a text adventure for the first time, it’s not too obvious where to start or what to do, and the other problem is that people seem to have a huge aversion to typing. So what we wanted to do was to design a system where you can have all the flexibility of a text-adventure game, but with neither of these problems.

The elaborations were extensive enough to qualify today as a fascinating might-have-been in the evolution of the adventure genre as a whole, a middle ground between the text adventures that were and the graphical adventures that were becoming.

At the same time, though, it’s not hard to understand why the approach became an evolutionary dead end: the fact was that almost as soon as you got over being wowed by it all you started to find most of it a little superfluous. While the new interface certainly provided many new ways to do many things, it was highly doubtful whether most of those new ways were really easier than the traditional command line. The dirty little secret of this as well as most efforts in this direction was that they did very little to truly improve the playability of text adventures. Veterans quickly reverted to the clean, efficient command line they had come to know so well, and those newcomers who found the genre interesting enough to stick with it tired almost as quickly of mousing through the fiddly point-and-click interface and learned to use the parser the way the gods of the genre — i.e., Crowther and Woods — had intended it to be used. Meanwhile those who were put off by all the reading and sought, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan, a “hotter” mediated experience weren’t likely to be assuaged for long by all this gilding around a lily that remained at bottom as textual as ever. Seeking a solution to the fundamentally intractable problem of how to keep a genre with such niche appeal as the text adventure at the forefront of a games industry tilting ever more toward the mainstream, Magnetic Scrolls was grasping at straws in telling themselves that a system like this one could represent the “next generation” of adventure games in general. The true next generation in the eyes of most players must be the born-graphical point-and-click adventures of companies like Sierra and Lucasfilm Games, which were just coming into their own as companies like Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls were busily grafting bells and whistles onto their text adventures. In contrast to the games of the former, those of the latter felt like exactly what they were: lipstick on the same old textual swine.

Neat as the new interface was, players who tried to make full use of it spent a lot of time looking at messages like this one.

But what, then, of the topmost layer of our cake, the actual game being surrounded by all this new technology? That game was called Wonderland, and it was given oddly short shrift even by Magnetic Scrolls themselves. Wonderland‘s manual, for instance, spends some three-quarters of its 60-page length exhaustively describing how to use the new windowed interface in general rather than talking all that much about the game buried inside it all. (The times were still such that Magnetic Scrolls felt compelled to start at the very beginning, with chapter titles like “An Introduction to Windowing Environments” and definitions like “icons are small pictures.”) Even today, Wonderland remains among the least discussed and, one senses, least played of the Magnetic Scrolls catalog, being too often dismissed as little more than a dead-end technology demonstration. I must admit that even I never could quite work up the motivation to play it until quite recently, when I tackled it in preparation for this article. Yet what I found when I did so was a game that has a lot more going for it than its reputation would suggest. Yes, on one level it is indeed a dead-end technology demonstration — but that’s far from all it is.

Wonderland was first proposed to Anita Sinclair way back in 1987 by an outsider named David Bishop. At the time, Magnetic Scrolls was already considering the prospect of making a text adventure with a windowed interface. In fact, Sinclair had begun to experiment with that very thing in a game of her own design. “But when I saw Wonderland,” she remembers, “it became obvious that it was a much better game than the one we were working on, and so we shelved that and redefined the ideas that we had for it for Wonderland instead.” Although envisioned from the start as eventually becoming the first game to use the new Magnetic Windows-powered interface, Wonderland was developed using Magnetic Scrolls’s traditional tools while others worked on the other layers of the cake. Only when all of the new technology was completed was the game joined with the new interface that was to sit beneath it. By the time that happened, Wonderland the game had been waiting on the bench for some time, ready to go just as soon as everything else was.

David Bishop

The designer of Wonderland is one of those consummate inside players that can be found kicking around most creative industries, unknown to the public but well-known among his peers, with fingers in a bewildering number of pies. David Bishop had been working at a board-game store in London in the very early 1980s when he had first become aware of the burgeoning world of computer games. Never a programmer, he became something of a pioneer of the role of game designer as a discipline separate from that of game programmer when he formed a partnership with one Chris Palmer, who did know how to program. Together they were responsible for such mid-decade 8-bit hits as Deactivators and Golf Construction Set. His career in game design has continued right up to the present day, coming to encompass just about every popular genre. (That he’s never garnered more public recognition as a designer is perhaps down to the fact that, while he’s designed many successful games, he’s never designed any truly massive, era-defining titles.) Alongside his early efforts in design, he worked for some years as a prominent editor, reviewer, and feature writer for the popular British magazine Computer and Video Games. In years to come, he would add to his titles of game designer and game journalist those of producer, manager, and founder of multiple companies. His one adventure in text, however, has remained Wonderland.

As you may have guessed, Wonderland is based on Alice in Wonderland, that classic Victorian children’s tale by Lewis Carroll that has never lost its charm and fascination for plenty of us adults. In his initial pitch to Magnetic Scrolls, Bishop noted how almost uniquely ideal Alice in Wonderland was for adaptation to an adventure game. Carroll’s novel is as about as plot-less as something labeled a story can be; what plot it does have can be summed up as “a thinly characterized little girl named Alice stumbles into a strange magical land and wanders around therein, taking in the sights.” Despite the idealism expressed in the genre’s alternate name of “interactive fiction,” text adventures are far better equipped to deliver this sort of experience than they are to tackle the more elaborate plots typical of most novels. In place of plot, Alice in Wonderland offers an engaging setting filled with humor and intellectual play — the same recipe to which many a classic text adventure has hewed. And to all of these creative advantages must be added the very practical real-world advantage that the works of Lewis Carroll are long out of copyright.

It’s therefore a little strange, as Bishop also mused at the time he was making his proposal, how few adventure games prior to his had tackled Carroll directly. While plenty of authors, including three of the future Infocom Implementors working on the original PDP-10 Zork, had cribbed shamelessly from the master when designing puzzles, games explicitly set in Carroll’s world had been fairly few and far between. The most prominent text adventure among them was the work of one D.A. Asherman, who had written a freeware game with the long-winded title of The Adventures of Alice Who Went through the Looking-Glass and Came Back Not Much Changed that became very popular as a “door game” on many computer bulletin boards. And yet, the love of wordplay that runs through all of Carroll’s work notwithstanding, the most prominent and artistically successful of the interactive Alice in Wonderland adaptations prior to Bishop’s wasn’t a text adventure at all, but rather an action-adventure written by Dale Disharoon for Spinnaker Software’s brief-lived Windham Classics line of children’s literary adaptations — and even that winsomely charming game had been rather overshadowed by the even more winsomely charming Below the Root, also written by Disharoon using the same engine.

David Bishop’s own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland takes the obvious approach, but is none the worse for it. In other words, if Wonderland never transcends its derivative nature, it never embarrasses itself either. After an opening sequence sends you plunging down that famous rabbit hole, you’re left to wander freely through a geography of about 110 rooms, stuffed with all of the expected characters and set-pieces, from a hookah-smoking caterpillar to a grinning cat, from a mad tea party to a decidedly odd game of croquet. (Consciously excluded in the interest of preserving material for a potential sequel were any elements from Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll’s follow-up to Alice in Wonderland, even though the two books are so much of a piece that it’s difficult even for many dedicated Carroll fans to keep track of what comes from which.)

Certainly Bishop had heaps and heaps of great material to work with in turning Alice in Wonderland into a game. Countless bits from the novel are all but screaming to be made into puzzles; not for nothing have variations on the “drink me” potion that makes Alice smaller and the “eat me” cake that makes her bigger appeared in dozens if not hundreds of adventure games over the years. Bishop uses all this raw material well, giving us a big, open, non-linear game with every bit as much appeal as Guild of Thieves, Magnetic Scroll’s previous best take on this classic old-school approach. As with Guild of Thieves, it’s immensely rewarding to explore Wonderland at your own pace and in your own fashion, poking and prodding, discovering its many unexpected interconnections, solving puzzles and enjoying the dopamine rush each time your score increments on its slow march from 0 to 501.

One of Wonderland‘s animations.

Best of all, Wonderland, even more so than Guild of Thieves, remains quite consistently fair throughout its considerable breadth. Straightforward puzzles to get you into the swing of things and get some points in the bank gradually give way to more challenging ones that require more careful experimentation with the workings of its world, but there never comes a point where challenge regresses into abuse. When I played it recently, I managed to finish the entire thing without once resorting to the hints.1 I have to suspect that Wonderland succeeds as it does, despite coming from a company with a very mixed record in the fairness department, because of the inordinately long time it spent in development, for long stretches of which Bishop’s game was largely just sitting around waiting for the layers of technology being built to live beneath it to be completed. The manual lists no fewer than twelve testers, plus an entire outside firm (“Top Star Computer Service”) contracted for the task. This is vastly more attention than was paid to polishing any previous Magnetic Scrolls game, and serves as further confirmation of my longstanding thesis that there is a very nearly linear relationship between the playability of any given adventure game and the amount of testing it received.

Virgin’s Nick Alexander celebrates with Anita Sinclair his company’s signing of Magnetic Scrolls.

After some uncomfortable months in limbo without a publisher, Magnetic Scrolls finally at the tail end of 1989 signed a deal with Virgin Mastertronic, a vigorous up-and-comer with the weight of Richard Branson’s transatlantic media empire behind it, to release their still work-in-progress Wonderland along with four more games to follow in the two years after it. Anita Sinclair did her best to create the impression that Magnetic Scrolls and Wonderland had been the subject of a veritable bidding war among publishers. (“You know you’ve cracked it when you’ve got publishers knocking on your door instead of you having to knock on theirs.”) In reality, though, much of the industry had decided that future success lay in getting away from text, and remained skeptical of Magnetic Scrolls’s elaborate hybrid of an adventure game, which despite all the flash still contained some 70,000 good-old-fashioned words to read. The deal with Virgin undoubtedly had much to do with the fact that David Bishop, ever the games industry’s vagabond insider, had himself just signed there as a producer.

Magnetic Scrolls had gone dark for almost the entirety of the previous year in the wake of their jilting by Rainbird, but now greeted 1990 with as much aggressive hype as they could muster, trumpeting their forthcoming return to adventuring prominence and hopefully dominance. The young men who then as now made up the vast majority of gaming journalists were as obliging as ever, jumping at any chance to spend time in the presence of the fetching Anita Sinclair. The result was a blizzard of teasers and previews in virtually every prominent British gaming magazine. Sinclair wasn’t shy about laying it on thick: Wonderland would be “mind-blowing”; Wonderland was “like no adventure you’ve ever seen”; “when you see our next product your eyes are going to pop out.” Her interviewers copied it all down and regurgitated it faithfully in their articles, along with the usual asides about what a hot number their interviewee still was. It was sexist as hell, of course, but Sinclair had the self-assurance to use it to her advantage. There was a reason that Magnetic Scrolls had always enjoyed an enormous amount of free publicity from the magazines, and I’m afraid it wasn’t down to anything intrinsic to the games themselves.

Unfortunately, gamers in general proved markedly less enthused than Anita Sinclair’s smitten interviewers when Wonderland finally shipped for MS-DOS in late 1990, followed by versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Acorn Archimedes in 1991 (a planned Macintosh version never materialized). In contrast to the latest purely point-and-click graphical adventures like Lucasfilm’s The Secret of Monkey Island and Sierra’s King’s Quest V, Wonderland struck many as an awkward anachronism. And then of course the performance issues didn’t help. The game ran like a dog on the likes of an Amiga 500, still the heart of the European computer-gaming market. After the better part of a year of constant hype prior to its release, Wonderland disappeared without a trace almost as soon as people could actually walk into a store and buy it.

Having sunk everything into this white elephant of a game, Magnetic Scrolls was now in more serious trouble than ever; there were after all limits even to Anita Sinclair’s financial resources. They would complete just one more product for Virgin. Having recently managed to reacquire their back catalog from Rainbird/MicroProse — the terms of the lawsuit’s settlement otherwise remained undisclosed — they made a Magnetic Scrolls Collection that brought together Guild of Thieves, Corruption, and Fish! under the new Magnetic Windows interface. Dropped by Virgin for their games’ poor sales shortly thereafter, they embarked on a final desperate attempt to switch genres entirely. They started on a game called The Legacy: Realm of Terror, a horror-themed CRPG reminiscent of Dungeon Master, for MicroProse — ironically the very company they had just been suing (whether the publishing deal with MicroProse was connected with the terms of the settlement remains unknown). But Magnetic Scrolls ran completely out of money at last and went out of business well before completing the game; MicroProse wound up turning the work-in-progress over to other developers, who finished it and saw it released in 1993. Most of Magnetic Scrolls’s personnel, including driving force Anita Sinclair, left the games industry for other pursuits after their company shut its doors. “Sometimes I think I would like to write another game,” admitted Sinclair in a 2001 interview which marks one of the vanishingly few times she has spoken publicly about the company since its collapse, “but there are other problems to solve that would be more rewarding.”

What, then, shall we say in closing about Magnetic Scrolls?

For all their indulgent talk about interactive fiction as a literary medium, Magnetic Scrolls was always populated first and foremost by technologists, with technologists’ priorities. Apart from Corruption — perhaps not coincidentally one of their very worst games in design terms — everything they produced hewed to tried-and-true templates, evincing little of the restless eclecticism that always marked Infocom. The innovations found in Magnetic Scrolls’s games were rather technical innovations, and ones that perhaps too often added little to the games that contained them. Because it was cool and fun to implement from a programming point of view, they built an elaborate system of weights, sizes, and strengths into their games from the beginning, even though nothing in their game designs actually required or even acknowledged the existence of such a thing. Similarly, they made a parser capable of understanding lengthy, tangled constructions that no player in the wild was ever likely to type, while forgetting to implement many of the shorter phrases that they were. It’s easy enough to see Magnetic Windows and the interface built using it as the ultimate — and ultimately fatal — manifestations of this tendency. Like FTL Games, another heavily technology-driven developer, their endless tinkering with their tools paralyzed them, kept them from finishing the actual games that were their real mission as a company.

For Magnetic Scrolls, however, the case is a little more complicated than merely that of a factory which got too focused on the component widgets at the expense of the finished product. Even had they managed to find a publisher and release the very worthy Wonderland one or one and a half years earlier as a simple illustrated text adventure, it was hardly likely to have been a success. The fact is that there was no good solution to the problem Magnetic Scrolls found themselves facing as the 1980s expired: the problem of the imploded commercial appeal of text adventures, the only sorts of games they had ever made and the only ones they really knew how to make. Faced with a marketplace that simply wasn’t buying many text adventures anymore, what was a text-adventure developer to do? Short of a complete reinvention as a maker of point-and-click graphical adventures or games in some other genre entirely — a reinvention the company did try to undertake with The Legacy, but far too late — Magnetic Scrolls’s fate feels inevitable, regardless of the details of the individual decisions that may have slowed or hastened their demise. Meanwhile the luridly anonymous, very un-Magnetic Scrolls The Legacy shows where a more comprehensive reinvention must have led them. Was it worth sacrificing their identity to save their company? For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The marketplace forces that seemed almost to actively conspire against Magnetic Scrolls’s success almost as soon as they really got going has led, understandably enough, to no small bitterness on the part of the company’s principals. Already in Magnetic Scrolls’s twilight period, Anita Sinclair became known at conferences and trade shows for her rants about the alleged infantilization of computer games, about how the latest releases all assumed that players couldn’t or wouldn’t read. “When I was in the industry we were pioneers, paving the way for the future,” she said much later in 2001. “People [today] are aiming their games at younger and less sophisticated audiences. Today’s developers are writing in their minds to ten- to twelve-year-olds.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by other former text-adventure developers, as well as by developers of the graphical adventures that did so much to kill text adventures, only to suffer a commercial collapse of their own that was almost as horrendous by the end of the 1990s. Easy and self-justifying though this line of argument is, there’s doubtless some truth to be found therein. Yet it can lead one to a dangerously incomplete conclusion in that it ignores the design sins that led so many of even the older and more sophisticated players Sinclair preferred to court to give up on the genre. Certainly Magnetic Scrolls’s own design record is decidedly spotty. It’s not hard to imagine a player encountering some of the cruelest, most unfair parts of The Pawn, Jinxter, or Corruption and saying, “I’m never playing a game like this again.” Magnetic Scrolls thought they could become “the British Infocom” by matching or exceeding Infocom technically, a task which alone among their peers they accomplished in many areas. What they failed to match — failed to even try to match — was Infocom’s attention to the non-technical details of game design, their rigorous process for taking a game from idea to polished final product.

And yet, lest we be too hard on them, the fact does remain that three of the six games Magnetic Scrolls produced (or six and a half if you count the freebie mini-adventure Myth) are actually good, perfectly recommendable old-school adventure games despite it all, giving the company an overall success-to-failure ratio matched by no other text-adventure maker not named Infocom. So, clearly they were doing something right despite it all. If they never quite succeeded in their ambition of becoming the British Infocom, they did succeed in becoming the next best thing: first among the field of also-rans. And, hey, a silver medal is an achievement in its own right, isn’t it?

(Sources: The One of July 1990; Zero of February 1990, March 1990, and October 1990; Games Machine of February 1990; Computer Gaming World of January 1991; Aktueller Software Markt of June/July 1989; Amstrad Action of July 1989; Computer and Video Games of December 1989; Crash of February 1990; CU Amiga of July 1990; PC Player of September 1993; PC Zone of September 2001; Compute! of January 1993; Sinclair User of December 1986. And of course see Stefan Meier’s Magnetic Scrolls Memorial for a trove of information on the games of Magnetic Scrolls and the company’s history.

As a final tribute to Magnetic Scrolls’s achievements, I do highly encourage any text-adventure fans among you who haven’t played Wonderland to give it a try sometime. You don’t even need to fiddle about with emulators, unless you just want to see the Magnetic Windows-driven interface in action in all its impressive if slightly unwieldy glory. The game is perfectly playable as an ordinary text adventure, played through the standard Magnetic interpreter for Magnetic Scrolls games, which is available, along with Wonderland itself, from Stefan Meier’s Magnetic Scrolls Memorial. For that matter, you can even now play Wonderland, along with all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games, online in your browser.)


  1. The one puzzle that can perhaps be deemed questionable requires you to manipulate Alice’s own body in a way that will only yield an error message from just about every other text adventure ever made. So, know ye, prospective players, that Wonderland allows you to close and open Alice’s left and right eyes individually. 

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lancelot contest is shoehorned rather awkwardly into the game.

The Lancelot contest is shoehorned rather awkwardly into the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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Corrupted Fish

Anita Sinclair’s original vision for her company Magnetic Scrolls cast it as Britain’s answer to Infocom, pumping out multiple finely crafted traditional text adventures each year — albeit text adventures with the commercially critical addition of attractive illustrations. As 1988 began, Magnetic Scrolls had barely begun to execute on that vision, having released just three games. But the times were changing and the text-adventure market clearly softening, and those realities were already beginning to interfere with her plans. Already by the beginning of the year, Magnetic Scrolls was underway with by far their most ambitious project to date, a radical overhauling of the traditional old parser-driven text adventure that was to gild the plain-text lily with not just pictures but clickable hot spots on said pictures, sound and music, animation, clickable iconic representations of the game’s map and the player’s inventory, a clickable compass rose, a menu of verbs, and much, much more, all tied together with an in-house-written system of windows and menus — “Magnetic Windows” — borrowing heavily from the Macintosh. Lurking almost forgotten below all the bells and whistles would be a game called Wonderland, an adaptation of Lewis Carrol.

We’ll get to Wonderland, released at last only in 1990, in due course. Today, though, I’d like to look at the twin swan songs of Anita Sinclair’s earlier vision for Magnetic Scrolls, both of which were already in the pipeline at the time the Wonderland project was begun and both of which were released in 1988.

Corruption

Corruption, the first of the pair, was the brainchild and personal pet project of Rob Steggles, designer in the broad strokes of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier The Pawn and Guild of Thieves. Having worked with Magnetic Scrolls strictly on an occasional, ad-hoc basis heretofore, Steggles finished university after the spring semester of 1987 and called Anita Sinclair to ask for a job reference. Instead, she asked if he’d like to come work for Magnetic Scrolls full-time. Once arrived, Steggles convinced her to let him pursue a project very different from anything Magnetic Scrolls had done to date: a realistic, topical thriller set in the present day and inspired by Infocom’s early trilogy of mysteries. She agreed, and Hugh Steers, another of Magnetic Scrolls’s founders, came to work with Steggles as programmer on the project. Largely the creative vision of Steggles alone, Corruption represents a departure from the norm at Magnetic Scrolls, whose games, much more so than those of Infocom, tended to be collaborative efforts rather than works easily attributable to a single author.

Whether accidentally or on purpose, Steggles captured the zeitgeist in a bottle. This being the height of Margaret Thatcher’s remade and remodeled, hyper-capitalistic Britain, he chose to set his thriller amid the sharks of high finance inside The City of London. He had enough access to that world to give his game a certain lived-in verisimilitude, thanks to friends who worked in banks and a father who went to work every day in the heart of the financial district as an executive for British Telecom. Steggles nosed around inside buildings, chatted with traders, and pored over the Insider Trading Act to get the details right.

In December of 1987, the film Wall Street, with the immortal Gordon Gecko of “greed is good!” fame, debuted in the United States. It appeared in Britain five months later, corresponding almost exactly with the release of Corruption. Magnetic Scrolls couldn’t have planned it better if they’d tried. Today, Corruption is one of the relatively few computer games to viscerally evoke the time and place of its creation — a time and place of BMWs and Porsches, lunchtime deal-brokering at the latest trendy restaurant, synth-pop on the CD player, cocaine bumps in stolen bathroom moments.

In Corruption, you play a young City up-and-comer named Derek Rogers. You’ve just been promoted to partner in your firm for — you believe — your hard work in landing an important deal. In the course of the game, however, you learn that the whole thing is an elaborate conspiracy to frame you for the illegal insider trading for which another partner and his cronies are being investigated. The ranks of the conspirators include not only the head of the firm and many of his associates but even your own wife, who happens to be having an affair with the aforementioned head. Revolving as it does around betrayal and adultery, with drugs thrown in to boot, Corruption is certainly the most “adult” game Magnetic Scrolls would ever make. Steggles says that it was written in a conscious attempt to address an “older” audience — a bit of a reach for him, given that he himself was barely into his twenties.

Corruption acquits itself pretty well in some ways, remarkably so really given its author’s youth and inexperience. The atmosphere of cutthroat high finance comes across more often than not, and the grand conspiracy arrayed against you, improbable though it may be, is no more improbable than those found in a thousand Hollywood productions, among them Wall Street. A crucial feelie is a conversation on an included cassette, professionally produced by Magnetic Scrolls’s resident music specialist John Molloy and scripted by Michael Bywater, still a regular presence around the offices. Like much in Corruption, it’s very well done.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption's pictures look a little drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls's fantasy games.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption‘s pictures look a little dark and drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls’s fantasy games — but maybe that’s the right choice for this milieu.

Unfortunately, as a piece of game design Corruption falls down badly. Unsurprisingly given that it was inspired by the Infocom mysteries, Corruption is a try-and-try-again game, the process of solving it a process of mapping out the movements of the characters around you and learning through trial and error where to be when and what to do there to avoid their traps and crack the case. But it just doesn’t work all that well even on those polarizing terms. The Infocom mysteries, for all that they rely heavily on what would be attributed to coincidence and luck in a conventional detective novel, do hang together as coherent fictions once the winning path through the story is discovered. Corruption doesn’t. Whereas the Infocom mysteries all cast you as a detective charged with investigating a crime that has already taken place, in Corruption you start as just a happy bloke who’s gotten a big promotion. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, you have to start following your associates around, stealing keys and breaking into their offices and cars, laying traps for your dearly beloved wife, all of which does rather raise the question of who’s the real sociopath here. Some of the actions required to win the game simply make no sense whatsoever, not even in the context of you being the most suspicious, paranoid, and devious person in an office full of them. At a certain point, for instance, you get hit by a car and wind up in the hospital. A later puzzle — a puzzle your character couldn’t possibly anticipate — demands that you have something you can only find by stealing it off a doctor in the hospital. So, in addition to being a suspicious and devious jerk with a death wish, old Derek Rogers needs to also be a hopeless kleptomaniac. Or is he just a paranoid schizophrenic? I don’t know; you can diagnose him for yourself.

Corruption is one of those games that I wonder how anyone ever solves without benefit of hints or walkthroughs. In addition to all the problems of timing, some of the individual puzzles are really, really bad. The hospital sequence in particular is a notorious showstopper, its purpose for being in the game as tough to divine as the right way to come out of it. Conversations are a more constant pain; you never know when you’re supposed to tell someone about something, nor, given the parser’s limitations, quite how to say it.

In an interview, Steggles made a statement I continue to find flabbergasting every time I read it. Speaking of Corruption‘s try-and-try-again mode of play, he said, “Believe it or not, it wasn’t a deliberate choice to do it that way and I think that if someone had made that comment about it during development we’d have stopped it because it wasn’t really ‘fair’ on the player.” But really, how could he not know what sort of game he was creating, given that he was inspired by the Infocom mysteries that offered exactly this approach to play? Still, let’s take his words at face value. Not initially realizing what sort of game he was creating — and how hard that game would inevitably turn out to be — speaks to an inexperienced designer whose ideas outran his critical thinking; we can forgive that as a venal sin. But for Magnetic Scrolls not to have arranged for him to have the feedback he needed to know of his game’s failings and correct them… that sin is mortal. It speaks to yet another adventure game released without anyone having ever really tried to play it.

There are signs that some at Magnetic Scrolls knew Corruption wasn’t quite up to snuff. Anita Sinclair came very close to actively discouraging Magnetic Scrolls’s fans from buying the game: “It doesn’t follow that if you enjoyed Jinxter, or even Guild [of Thieves], you will enjoy Corruption.” Corruption, she said, would likely have “limited appeal.”

She would be able to muster much more enthusiasm for Magnetic Scrolls’s second game of 1988. And for good reason: it’s a gem, my personal favorite in their catalog.

Fish!

The game in question is called Fish!, and is the product of an unlikely collaboration involving a musician, a journalist, and a civil servant: John Molloy, Phil South, and Pete Kemp respectively. One day on a long bus ride, good friends Molloy and South were riffing on some of the absurdly difficult and unfair adventure games that were so typical of those days. The discussion proceeded to encompass satirical ideas about possible new scenarios for same. “What if you started the game as a goldfish and you had to save the world?” asked one of them at some point (neither can quite remember which). Thus was born Fish!.

Molloy, who had been doing music for Magnetic Scrolls for a couple of years by then and in addition to being a working musician wasn’t a bad programmer, was attracted to the idea of seeing how the other half lived, of designing and helping to implement a complete game of his own. As Phil South succinctly describes it, “He pitched it to Magnetic Scrolls, they went nuts.” Kemp, another good mate of Molloy’s, joined after the latter gave him a pitch he also couldn’t refuse: “A bit of fun, a bit of money, and everlasting obscurity.”

South and Kemp were soon introduced to the intimidating cast of eccentrics that was Magnetic Scrolls. South:

I remember Magnetic Scrolls being in a rather grimy and unsavoury Victorian suburb of South London and having to brave the trains late at night to get there. I remember Anita being small but scary, and possessing a wisdom far beyond her years. She terrifies the crap out of men twice her size just by looking at them. I remember Ken [Gordon] being the most laid back Scotsman I’d ever met, which puts him on track for being one of the most laid-back guys worldwide. Rob Steggles has an evil sense of humour and at the time had a real passion for Games Workshop’s BLOODBOWL board game. Michael Bywater is scary smart, hugely funny, and also possibly one of THE most grumpy men I’ve ever met.

Fish! casts you as an “inter-dimensional espionage operative” who warps Quantum Leap-style among times, bodies, locations, and dimensions on the trail of criminals. At the beginning of the game, you’re enjoying a spot of rest and relaxation as a goldfish in your own private aquarium, when you’re notified that a gang of anarchists who call themselves the Seven Deadly Fins have stolen something called a focus wheel, needed to keep a planet of fish called Aquaria hydrated. First you need to assemble the pieces of the focus wheel, which the Fins have scattered across three different worlds. Then you can warp to the city of Hydropolis, capital of Aquaria, to set it into operation before the last of the water evaporates and everyone drowns.

I find Fish!'s more colorful, surrealistic graphics to be more attractive than those of Corruption.

I find Fish!‘s more colorful, surrealistic pictures to be much more attractive than those of Corruption.

As you’ve probably gathered, Fish! isn’t a very serious game. It’s rather a surrealistic riot of fishy puns and absurdist humor in the style of Douglas Adams. The prospect of neither surrealism nor Douglas Adams-style humor excites me all that much when starting a new game because those things are usually (over)done so badly, but Fish! pulls it off with aplomb. The fishy wordplay comes fast and furious, inducing groans and smiles in equal measure: “the archway is a magnificent example of craftfishship”; “any old eel could slip in here and break into every apartment on the block”; “some dolphins rush in where angelfish fear to tread”; “the police station is fished day and night by a stalwart dogfish who is ready to solve the troutiest of crimes”; “Tuna Day’s Music Ship is cluttered with amateur musicians, most of whom are playing versions of the ancient heavy-metal hit ‘Smoke Underwater'”; “glancing toward the toilet, you see a trout emerge, adjusting his flies.”

Thanks doubtless to Molloy’s background, much of Fish! is informed by music and the life of a musician. In addition to “Smoke Underwater,” he makes time to acknowledge that timeless classic “Sole Man” by Salmon Dave, and to make fun of buskers.

You notice several students loitering with intent. One of them produces a guitar and starts singing: "Come on feel my nose. The girls grab my clothes. Go why, why why any more." Oh no, he's started busking! Luckily, the other students attack and carry him off before you hear too much.

I love one early puzzle involving a Svengali music producer and his cowed assistant Rod. I know it’s anachronistic, but somehow I always picture Simon Cowell in this scene. (Spoiler Warning!)

An important-looking beetroot-faced producer enters the room behind you. "You," he shouts charmingly, "make some coffee or you're fired." He strides out.

>rod, make coffee

"Sure thing," says Rod, rushing down the corridor. You hear the kitchen door slam, then a few seconds later it slams again as Rod comes out. "That's the way to do it," he beams as he returns, holding a steaming mug of coffee.


The producer appears and grabs the mug. He looks at you and smiles a sickly smile as Rod leaves. "Well done," he says, taking a slurp, "you'll go far in this business. You've already learned the golden rule: if in doubt, delegate." Then he stomps out, looking pleased with himself.

In marked contrast to the confused and confusing Corruption, Fish! is quite fair, at least according to its own old-school lights. The three early acts, each involving the collection of one piece of the focus wheel, are all fairly easily manageable. The final act in Hydropolis, the real meat of the game, is much more challenging, another exercise in good planning and careful timing given that you have only one day to a complete a very complicated mission. So, yes, it’s another try-and-try-again scenario, and far from a trivial one; I found one puzzle in particular, another entry in the grand text-adventure tradition of mazes that aren’t quite mazes, to be so complicated that I ended up writing a program to solve it for me. But the clues you need are always there, and there’s never a need to do anything completely inexplicable like stealing vital medical equipment. Good planning and careful note-taking — and maybe a handmade Python script — will see you through. I love games like this one that challenge me for the right reasons.

Whether because Anita Sinclair was much more personally enthusiastic about this project or because it was a true collaboration from the start, the authors of Fish! got the feedback that Steggles apparently lacked in writing Corruption. Phil South:

Sometimes during play testing it came out that the puzzle was too hard or to too easy. We adjusted the hardness by leaving clues. Sometimes the puzzle was taken out altogether. We played other people’s games and saw how they solved the hardness problem.

After Corruption was finished, Steggles joined the team to do some final polishing and editing, a role he describes as “basically acting as a sub-editor to bring the writing into the house style.” Michael Bywater once again took responsibility for most of the feelies.

Released in time for Christmas 1988, Fish! fell victim to a breakdown in the relationship between Magnetic Scrolls and their publisher Rainbird; it never enjoyed the distribution or promotion of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier games, even as Anita Sinclair said that it stood alongside Guild of Thieves as her personal favorites in the catalog. (As a glance at my own Hall of Fame will attest, that’s an assessment with which I very much agree.) We’ll get into the breakdown with Rainbird and what it meant for Magnetic Scrolls in a future article. For now, though, suffice to say that the release of Fish! marked the end of Magnetic Scrolls’s era of greatest popularity and influence. Molloy, South, and Kemp all moved on with their lives and day jobs, leaving their days as text-adventure authors behind as a fond anecdote for their scrapbooks; none would ever work in the games industry again. Steggles departed in December after a “storming row” with Anita Sinclair over his salary and his general unhappiness with the direction of the company; he also moved on with life outside of games. Michael Bywater’s business relationship with Magnetic Scrolls ended in correspondence with the end of his romantic relationship with Anita.

In a fast-changing market, with so many of the old gang suddenly leaving, Magnetic Scrolls’s future depended more than ever on Wonderland. That project… but I said we’d save that for another day, didn’t I? In the meantime, go play Fish!. Really, how can you can not love a game that describes another featureless dead end as, “This is as far as the corridor goes. On the first date anyway.”

(Sources: Games Machine of August 1988, November 1988; Computer and Video Games of July 1988; Commodore User of June 1988; The One of July 1990; ST News of Summer 1989. Online sources include “Magnetic Scrolls Memories” by Rob Steggles on The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and an interview with Steggles at L’avventura è l’avventura. And huge, huge thanks to Stefan Meier of The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial for digging up a dump of Peter Verdi’s apparently defunct Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles website, including original interviews with Rob Steggles, Michael Bywater, Phil South, and Pete Kemp. You’re a lifesaver, Stefan!

CorruptionFish!, and all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games are available from Stefan’s site in forms suitable for playing with the Magnetic interpreter — or you can now play them online, directly in your browser, if you like.)

 

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Thieves and Jinxes (or, When Michael Met Anita)

The young and brash Tony Rainbird had never made a good fit with the rigid management structure of British Telecom. Thus when in late 1986 he suddenly left the hot new label he had formed barely a year before it came perhaps as more of a surprise to outsiders than to said label’s inner circle. The question of whether he jumped or was pushed will probably never be publicly answered. Asked later about his departure, Tony’s answer could be seen to imply either: “For about 60 different reasons, really, but they added up to a lack of respect for the senior people in the British Telecom hierarchy.”

In a telling indication of just how close he had become in a very short while with his favorite signees, Tony actually moved his office into those of Magnetic Scrolls for a while after leaving British Telecom, working as a management consultant and accountant and even occasionally pitching in on game design in between taking other consultancy gigs for other companies. Meanwhile the engine he had set in motion at British Telecom would continue to chug along apparently business as usual for quite some time; Tony himself noted that he “had recruited a very good team that were well able to take over.” In time, however, the loss of Tony Rainbird’s drive and vision couldn’t help but have an effect on his namesake label. Their most successful games and developer relationships by far would prove to be those initiated during his own brief tenure. By 1988 a distinct state of diminishing returns would set in, with major consequences for Magnetic Scrolls. In the meantime, though, they found a patron of a very different stripe in Michael Bywater, whose presence looms not only over the history of Magnetic Scrolls but also the late history of Infocom.

For many Michael’s chief claim to fame was and is his longstanding friendship with Douglas Adams. This state of affairs has often irked him, and understandably so, given his own considerable accomplishments. The pair’s long, occasionally tempestuous relationship dates back to the early 1970s, when both were reading English at Cambridge and performing with the Footlights, the legendary comedy troupe whose rolls have included the likes of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle of Monty Python amongst many other prominent comedians, actors, and writers. Michael’s schtick was to perform ribald comic songs, self-penned or parodic, whilst accompanying himself on piano, while Douglas performed as a comic actor — not, it must be admitted, a very good one — and wrote skits. They bonded — or not — over a girl that they both fancied. Michael won the romantic competition, marrying (and eventually divorcing) her, but Douglas was never one to hold a grudge. When he hit it big at decade’s end on the back of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he happily supported his still-struggling old friend for a time as Michael slowly built a career of his own as a working writer for many forms of media: film, television, newspapers, magazines. Michael’s own, admittedly more modest sort of big break came when he was hired as a contributing editor at Punch, a slightly long-in-the-tooth but still respected magazine of politics, culture, and, most of all, satirical humor. In addition to that job, he wrote regular columns for The Observer newspaper and MacUser magazine.

Like Douglas, Michael had a fascination with technology, particularly computers, particularly particularly Macs. Indeed, the two old friends had much in common. Both were interested in just about everything, priding themselves on keeping one foot planted in the world of art and literature and the other in that of science and technology. Both knew intimately and drew liberally from the great British tradition of absurdist, satirical comedy that reaches back from Monty Python through P.G. Wodehouse (always Douglas’s favorite humorist) to Jonathan Swift. Both were great raconteurs who loved nothing more than to be the center of attention at a party; Michael was the hit of many a lavish Douglas Adams shindig with his piano playing and his comic songs. And both strongly held plenty of opinions that they weren’t shy about sharing with each other. Their sparring matches about every subject under the sun became famous amongst their circle of acquaintances. In the midst of one heated exchange, Douglas picked up a fish from his plate at a fine French restaurant and smacked Michael across the face with it, leaving the latter as one of the few people in the world able to make reference to a certain old British cliché from actual experience. Still, their arguments did no apparent lasting damage to their friendship.

Quite the contrary: Douglas believed deeply in Michael’s literary talent and found him personally inspiring. At the time that Magnetic Scrolls was hitting it big with The Pawn, Douglas was struggling with his fifth novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, his most earnest attempt ever to separate himself from a legacy that often felt to him like a millstone and define himself as a writer of general note, not just the guy behind that wacky Hitchhiker’s Guide stuff. The titular detective is based in whole or in part on Michael: in the words of Douglas’s biographer Nick Webb, “plump, bespectacled, addicted to cigs, delinquent about money, randy yet unfulfilled, given to gnomic utterances, exploitative, guilty, not entirely wholesome, irritatingly right, and possessed of high-powered but usually non-linear thought processes.” In between using him for inspiration and as a sounding board and editorial consultant for his own writing, Douglas sometimes found writing gigs for Michael to handle on his own, sometimes out of mere loyalty to his old mate and respect for his talents, sometimes and less magnanimously as a surrogate to take on projects he’d gotten himself into and didn’t want to follow through on.

It was largely the latter motivation that led Douglas to get Michael his first gig as an author of interactive fiction. Douglas had convinced Infocom that they would follow up the Hitchhiker’s game not with a direct sequel right away but with a different sort of collaboration, a slice-of-life comedy about the petty bureaucratic tyrannies of modern life. What with his enthusiasm for the project having begun to flag almost immediately after agreeing to do it, he eventually enlisted Michael as a sort of British-humorist surrogate to take it on. The latter thus traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in late 1986 to spend a month holed up in a hotel room near Infocom’s offices with programmer Tim Anderson, writing or rewriting much of the text in Bureaucracy. The full story of Bureaucracy is a long one that we’ll get to in a future article. For now, suffice to say that Michael knew interactive fiction quite well on account of his work on that game as well as his friendship with Douglas Adams when he first met Anita Sinclair at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 1987.

Michael was there to cover the latest and greatest in the world of technology for his various journalistic beats. Anita was there to promote The Pawn, still her company’s only released game, as well as to preview their next, another fantasy romp to be called Guild of Thieves. The two hit it off immediately — Michael still calls Anita “one of the most fascinating and brilliant women I’ve ever met” — and were soon a romantic item. By virtue of, as he himself puts it, his “sleeping with the boss,” Michael became a significant figure at Magnetic Scrolls for the two years or so that their relationship lasted. Leaving their romantic attraction in the realm of the personal where it belongs, the reasons for the professional attraction aren’t hard to suss. Michael was witty, urbane, erudite, and literary down to his bones, exactly the way Anita ideally envisioned Magnetic Scrolls. Anita, meanwhile, was building little virtual worlds out of text and code, something that struck Michael as delightfully futuristic and exciting. They also had something else in common: Michael’s career was destined to be discussed all too often through the prism of Douglas Adams, just as Anita’s career with Magnetic Scrolls would be through that of Infocom. By way of fair warning, I should say now that I’m going to be doing a lot more of both in this very article.

We’ll get to Michael’s creative contributions to Magnetic Scrolls momentarily. First, though, let’s talk intangibles. An association with Michael Bywater, whether personal or professional, usually brought with it an association with his good friend and occasional patron Douglas Adams. Thus Anita was soon living next door to Douglas in Islington and attending many a party at his flat. For Magnetic Scrolls, a relationship with Michael and Douglas led naturally to the furtherance of a relationship with Infocom that had already been tentatively established at the end of 1986, when Anita attended Infocom’s Christmas party and met most of the Imps for the first time. The two companies soon became quite chummy with one another indeed, visiting one another’s offices any time they had an excuse to travel across the ocean. Both have stated on many occasions that they genuinely, personally liked one another, enjoyed socializing together and talking shop about the esoterica of parsers and world models that almost no one else in the world was struggling with with the same degree of seriousness. There was occasional talk amongst the more paranoid souls at both companies of trade secrets and the theft thereof, but the two companies’ core technologies were built on such different lines that the idea was almost inapplicable. Their conversations tended to be more philosophical and general than technical and specific.

The overall market for text adventures was undeniably dwindling by the late 1980s, but if anything this only served to strengthen the relationship. Anyone buying a Magnetic Scrolls or Infocom game from 1987 onward was almost by definition a member of the hardcore who would happily buy from both companies; it wasn’t a zero-sum game like, say, two competing word-processor makers. On the contrary, each could do something for the other. Infocom, after largely ignoring the world outside of North America for years, very much wanted to establish a presence in Europe and especially Britain, not least because their North American sales were continuing to trend so relentlessly downward; they could very much use Magnetic Scrolls’s advice and public support in making this international push. And Magnetic Scrolls craved the cachet that still clung to the Infocom brand, the legitimizing effect brought to their little operation by, say, a joint press conference in London with Dave Lebling. The public relationship was always a bit asymmetrical, with Magnetic Scrolls always pretty clearly the junior partner; Magnetic Scrolls strew their games and feelies with references to Infocom and the Imps, as if to brag about the connection, while, tellingly, Infocom never bothered to reciprocate. There are also some odd instances of apparent wishful thinking from Magnetic Scrolls’s side, such as Anita Sinclair’s claim in late 1987 that she had actually brokered the deal between Infocom and Michael Bywater that finally got Bureaucracy finished, a claim that just doesn’t hold water in light of the established historical timeline. Still, Magnetic Scrolls, alone amongst the other makers of adventure games, had won for themselves a seat at the table with the best in the business.

Indeed, Magnetic Scrolls continues to benefit from the Infocom association to this day, being widely regarded — occasional naysaying fans of the admittedly longer-lived and more prolific Level 9 to the contrary — as the “British Infocom.” Given that appellation, it’s worth noting that Magnetic Scrolls’s games are far from clones of Infocom’s. There is first of all their very British Britishness, which actually played very well in North America, where there was always a substantial demographic overlap amongst fans of Monty Python, fans of Douglas Adams, and fans of text adventures. If anything, Magnetic Scrolls would play up the Britishisms even more in the games that followed The Pawn, to the point that it could start to feel painfully self-conscious on occasion. They found that doing so made their games stand out on foreign shelves; it just made good commercial sense.

But there are also less immediately obvious differences. Magnetic Scrolls, especially in their early games, didn’t embrace storytelling to anywhere near the degree that Infocom had been doing for years now. Their games remained largely text adventures rather than interactive fictions, setting your anonymous avatar loose in a big, interesting environment and just letting you get on with it, collecting stuff and using it to solve puzzles. This was reflected in their development system, which emphasized the simulation aspect of virtual worldbuilding much more than did Infocom’s games. Every object had a weight, a size, even a strength — to determine what would happen if you tried to “break” one item with another — and this data was maintained quite scrupulously in comparison to Infocom’s more relaxed approach to realism. At its best, this could lead to interesting and unanticipated emergent effects. Michael Bywater has told the story of an experimental in-house game that had a rat which could, like all items in the game, be frozen in a tub of liquid nitrogen. Afterward, and much to the surprise of everyone involved, the frozen rat’s tail could be used to slice open a sack in lieu of the knife that had been put in the game for that purpose.

More commonly, though, the emphasis on simulation just leads to you the player carrying around a lot of objects given arbitrary labels like “broken” which the game doesn’t seem quite certain how to deal with. Modern interactive-fiction author Emily Short describes the dangers of out-of-control simulationism:

The premise “the world will have everything!” is not a story concept. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s much better to go in with one specific thing you want to achieve, and execute that really well. If that happens to include building out a liquid system or weather that changes over the course of the story, that’s fine. But you need to have a reason for everything you put in, or it will just get out of hand.

The hard truth that all-encompassing simulationism is more interesting for the programmer than it is for the player would seemingly begin to dawn on Magnetic Scrolls as time went on, but never as fully as it did on Infocom. While Infocom had years to build on their own early games with their hunger, thirst, and sleep timers, harshly realistic inventory limits, and even occasional randomized combat, Magnetic Scrolls’s career of active game-making was dramatically compressed in comparison: less than half the time, about 20 percent the total completed games.

There were also marked differences in process as well as philosophy. Infocom never abandoned their conception of their games as works of one or at most two authors, like the novels they were so self-consciously styled to echo in so many ways. As time went on and the dream of Infocom as pioneers of a new genre of mainstream literature began to fade, they only clung to this vision all the tighter. Beginning with Leather Goddesses of Phobos in 1986, Infocom began putting each game’s author right there on the cover in the place once occupied by the genre tag. When circumstance and happenstance forced collaboration on them, as in the case of Bureaucracy, their internal processes, so efficient in so many other ways, just didn’t seem to be able to deal with it — a failing that has been individually raised as one of the company’s most persistent unsolved problems by quite a number of insiders. Each Magnetic Scrolls game, by contrast, was very much the product of a team process. Artists, designers, programmers, writers, literally the whole staff of the company — all joined in to contribute and complete the game.

At the same time, though, when it came to the most important collaboration of all — the testing process — Magnetic Scrolls trailed far behind Infocom. Too much of the time their games have that echo-chamber quality of works that have never been experienced by anyone other than the people who made them. As I’ve said quite a number of times before, it’s first and foremost a tribute to Infocom’s testing regime that their games managed to be so consistently good as they were. Magnetic Scrolls, with no testing regime to match, couldn’t hope to match Infocom’s level of polish. In addition to a dribble of typos and textual glitches that you just wouldn’t see in an Infocom game, every one of their games seems to be marred by at least one or two Really Bad Ideas that thorough testing would have done away with. “The testing, debugging, and refining process can take forever, but you have to draw the line at some point,” Anita once stated. “Otherwise the game would never see the light of day.” Fair enough, but one could wish at times that Magnetic Scrolls had been willing to draw their line just a bit closer to that infinity.

Guild of Thieves

That said, Magnetic Scrolls’s second game, Guild of Thieves, did manage to put a much better foot forward than The Pawn, becoming in the process their most prototypical game if arguably not their absolute best, the logical first choice for anyone who wants to get a taste of what they were all about. As he had for The Pawn, Rob Steggles during a break from university sketched out virtually the entire design on four pages of closely spaced notebook paper in a matter of a few days, then left it to the rest of Anita’s little team to realize it. The game even took place in Kerovnia, The Pawn‘s fantasy world. The final result, however, turned out much better. Rob Steggles himself admits today that Guild of Thieves “was certainly a lot more accessible and coherent than The Pawn.” For all the praise The Pawn accrued in the press, back-channel communications — quite possibly including some feedback from their new mates at Infocom — must have led Magnetic Scrolls to realize that that game wasn’t quite an ideal adventure. “One of the things people objected to about The Pawn was our weirdness,” said Anita at the time of Guild of Thieves‘s release. “We’ve taken a lot of our weirdness out of Guild of Thieves.” Conflating fairness with difficulty in a way that was depressingly common at the time, Anita declared that the new game would be much “easier,” “aiming at a much more straight-forward market. I mean, you won’t have to be an avid adventurer to enjoy this product.”

Guild of Thieves

Magnetic Scrolls’s second game Guild of Thieves may just contain artist Geoff Quilley’s best work for the company.

Well, I’m not quite sure about that last statement, and I certainly wouldn’t characterize Guild of Thieves as “easy.” I would, however, characterize it as a very, very good old-school adventure game, one of my absolute favorites of its type. You play an apprentice thief whose trial of initiation into the Guild entails looting a castle and its surroundings of valuables. Even in 1987 its plot — or almost complete lack thereof — marked it as something of a throwback, an homage to classic formative works like Adventure and Zork. You’re free to roam as you will through its sprawling world of a hundred or more rooms right from the beginning, solving puzzles and collecting treasures and watching your score slowly increment. Most of the individual puzzles are far from overwhelming in difficulty; for the most part they’re blessedly fair. The difficulty is rather more combinatorial. Guild of Thieves, you see, is a very big game. You’re quite likely to lose track of something in the course of playing it, whether it be a forgotten treasure or an unsolved puzzle. Still, it’s only when you reach the end game, which entails penetrating the Bank of Kerovnia to recover all of the treasures you’ve been “depositing” there for points, that a few of the puzzles begin to push the boundaries of fair play. (Text adventures and banks apparently just don’t agree with one another: one of Infocom’s most famously bad puzzles took place in the Bank of Zork in Zork II.)

Guild of Thieves

Guild of Thieves is old-school in conception, but it’s not without Magnetic Scrolls’s trademark technological inventiveness. The ability to simply “go to” any location in the game in lieu of compass directions and the associated ability to “find” any item is more than just an impressive gimmick; it’s a huge convenience for the player, one might even say a godsend given the sheer sprawl of the game. Magnetic Scrolls’s much-vaunted “data-driven” model of adventuring also bears some useful fruit in the ability to reference objects by kinds. If you are, for instance, carrying a bunch of billiard balls, you can drop them all — and nothing else — by simply typing, “drop balls.” If the parser in Guild of Thieves still isn’t quite as flexible and responsive as Infocom’s — it guesses at your meaning occasionally to sometimes unfortunate effect, and its error messages are nowhere near as comprehensive and useful — it’s very, very close, the closest anyone would ever manage during the era of the commercial text adventure. Certainly it’s the first and only to make one sit up and say from time to time, “Gee, I wish I could do this with the Infocom parser.” That Magnetic Scrolls did this while also shoehorning lovely graphics and a much larger world than was typical of Infocom into the humble little Commodore 64 gives considerable credence to the British press’s oft-repeated assertion that their technology was actually much better than that of Infocom.

Guild of Thieves

The prose in Guild of Thieves is mostly fairly matter of fact, with just the occasional flash of whimsical humor. A fellow thief who’s also casing the place for treasure provides the most frequent and amusing source of comic relief. But otherwise much of the game’s personality and the bulk of its humor are off-loaded to What Burglar, a sort of Guild newsletter largely authored by none other than Michael Bywater. Michael:

It was the time of the breakdown of trades unionism in Britain and there were all these terrible dinosaurs representing The Working Man and in reality just buggering up The Working Man’s life with rules and restrictions and terrible tortured constipated bureaucratic language and all the rest of it… and I thought it would be fun to apply that mindset — of truculent respectability — to something which wasn’t in the slightest bit respectable. And it just went from there.

The humor’s somewhat hit and miss, with more than a little of that “I’m trying ridiculously hard to be very, very British” quality that occasionally dogged Magnetic Scrolls in general, but when it hits it hits very squarely indeed. I particularly like the Guild’s reaction, so typical of any hidebound bureaucracy when its comfortable status quo is threatened, to members who decide to jump ship: “Beaker said he was ‘sick as a macaw’ with young apprentices training at the Guild’s expense and then ‘going off the straight and narrow — becoming doctors and shopkeepers and such.'”

Guild of Thieves

While creating Guild of Thieves was a relatively smooth process for the close-knit little group of friends who had already created The Pawn together, the process of creating Magnetic Scroll’s third game was so torturous that it found expression in the very name of said game. Originally titled Green Magic, it was to be a contemporary urban fantasy written and designed by Anita’s sister Georgina, author of the novella that accompanied the Rainbird release of The Pawn. If Guild of Thieves was Magnetic Scrolls’s Zork, Green Magic was to be their Enchanter, its puzzles revolving around collecting spells and using them to solve more puzzles to collect more spells and… you get the picture. As Anita later put it, though, “Everything seemed to go wrong that possibly could.” Whether despite or because of the familial connection, Georgina just never got on with the team who would be responsible for implementing her ideas, leading to lots of tense conversations and lots of fruitless wheel-spinning on the part of just about everyone involved. Meanwhile the design seemed to wander off-course almost of its own accord; what was supposed to have been a game about spell-casting ended up with just five under-used spells in it as other puzzle ideas kept taking precedence. As the changes came and went and the cost mounted it started to look more and more like a bad penny that just wasn’t worth saving. “I think if you’d taken a poll at Magnetic Scrolls a few months ago about whether we would continue with it or not despite the work we’d already put into it,” said Anita just before its eventual (miraculous?) completion, “just about everyone would have voted to drop it completely.” At last Georgina delivered a final draft and pronounced herself done with it. In Anita’s opinion the writing still just wasn’t very good: “When the first ‘finished’ version came in, I felt like picking it up and giving it a good shake. It was rather twee.”

Christmas 1987 was looming, and Rainbird was expecting a second game from Magnetic Scrolls for the year. Anita therefore once again enlisted her beau Michael Bywater. Initially she asked him to simply polish up some of the worst parts of the text, but Michael, an established professional writer, was understandably not excited about becoming Georgina’s editor. Working in a similar creative frenzy to the one that had yielded the finished Bureaucracy, fueled by coffee and cigarettes and Anita’s encouragements, he rewrote every bit of text in the game in a matter of a few weeks. Michael:

The process was quite interesting because the game logic had already been coded and only the descriptors were changeable. For example we might have had, at the logical level, X cuts Y and A opens & B comes out. Well, you could start with “The fairy sword cuts the cobweb mantle and the magic room opens and Euphorbia the tinkling gnome dances out.” You might think, no, we’ll change all that and have “The enraged ogre’s penknife cuts the imbecile mountaineer’s safety-rope and his anorak tears open and his lunch falls out,” which is obviously a completely different narrative passage, but the underlying structure is the same. And that’s basically all I did. I got the structure and changed the way that structure was enacted.

As for the game’s new title, it was a natural outgrowth of the black humor that had now been surrounding it for some time amongst its would-be creators: Jinxter.

Jinxter

Sometimes Jinxter echoes just a bit too closely the work of Michael’s friend and patron Douglas Adams. See for instance this part that pays homage to Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s game on perhaps one or two too many levels:

>get keyring
As you bend to pick up the keyring, a sudden tremendous roaring fills your ears, like the roar of the sea. It is not, however, the roar of the sea, but the roar of an inhumanly, abominably, unfairly colossal bus. Your response to this hideous threat to your existence is to stand immobile with your mouth hanging open.

>examine bus
You are about to die. Your job is to come to terms with the situation. It's pointless to try to examine anything.

>run
No time for that now. There is a squeal of brakes, followed by a sickening dull cliche as a small dog (which was innocently munching on a passing microscopic space fleet) is propelled into the Land Where Doggies Are Eternally Blessed by a large bus. You, on the other hand, are propelled to the kerbside by a firm grip on your collar, and, when you recover your so-called "senses," you see a large, pot-bellied figure in a herringbone overcoat hovering a couple of feet above the pavement munching on a cheese sandwich.

Yes, I’m afraid it now once again becomes hard to talk about Michael Bywater without using Douglas Adams as the chief point of comparison. Dave Lebling once described Michael as “writing like a somewhat more acerbic Douglas.” Certainly Michael’s humor lacks the humanity of Douglas Adams at his best. If Douglas is laughing at the absurdities of the universe and the people that inhabit it, Michael is laughing at you, out there wasting your time with this silly adventure game. Douglas liked his haplessly average hero Arthur Dent so much that he just kept getting him out of scrapes for book after book. When he finally killed him at the end of Mostly Harmless, he regretted it almost from the moment the book went to press; this senseless murder, which he attributed largely to depression and existential angst following the death of his father, pained him for the rest of his life. Jinxter‘s equivalent to Arthur Dent is your avatar, rescued from the death by large bus described above by forces beyond her ken to save the world. When she gets done doing that, Michael sends her back to be flattened after all; this marks the “winning” ending of the game (Scorpia was once again not amused). Needless to say, Michael has never expressed one instant of regret.

For whatever reason, the art in Jinxter is a bit more pixellated and a bit less dazzling. Ah, well, Bywater's prose perhaps dazzles enough.

The art in Jinxter is more pixellated and less dazzling, likely a result of the time crunch under which it was finalized. Ah, well, Michael Bywater’s prose perhaps dazzles enough.

Michael Bywater’s writing is sometimes ostentatious and sometimes cuttingly cruel but almost always wickedly clever. In fact, the prose in this badly flawed game is almost enough to gambol away entirely with my critical judgment. There’s some Carrollesque wordplay:

>examine roll

The plum roll has the plum role in the entire game, but otherwise is just a red herring.

There’s some adroitly adept alliteration:

>examine fire engine

The furiously flashing fire engine sports a splendid ladder and a fanfare for forcing foot-travelers to flee from its feverish fire-dousing fury (all fundamentally fictitious flapdoodle, of course; for, though finely-forged, this fire engine is a fake, fixed firmly in the fairground).

There’s some unlikely metaphors that would make Dickens proud:

>examine stationmaster

This old buffer has, after years of contact with trains, become at least 50% train himself, as is obvious from the way he steams and puffs and whistles his way around his domain.

There’s even a bit of sly innuendo to remind you that Jinxter came from the company that made the protagonist of their first game a pothead.

>examine harmonica
This is the Larry Adler Special Chromatina, as featured in the movie "Blow Mah Organ, Big Boy." If you put it in your mouth and blow, it makes a happy sound. Same old story, huh?

But we really do need to talk about the flaws now. They’re strangely well-hidden, easy to overlook at first in light of the oft-crackling prose. Then in the final stage you penetrate the castle of the villain, only to get yourself thrown into the dungeon. There comes a puzzle at this point that neatly illustrates everything that went wrong far too often for Magnetic Scrolls. Here’s the setup:

Dungeon
This room has been carefully decorated in traditional dungeon style, and thus is disgusting. Damp drips from the crumbling walls, to which a set of heavy manacles are immovably pinioned. Nearby hangs a rope which appears to be attached to a wooden hatch.

>lift hatch
Try as you might, the hatch won't budge.

>examine rope
This old, rotted rope is attached to the wooden hatch. Looks like you pull on the rope to get the food in the hatch. If there were any food in the hatch, that is. Anyway, you get the picture.

>pull rope
Interesting... as you pull on the rope, the shutter rises to reveal one of those little "dumb waiters." That is to say, a little space with another shutter on the far side. It looks as though the outer shutter closed by means of some interlocking mechanism as the inner shutter opened, probably so that the unfortunate prisoner could get at his food without ever being able to glimpse the outside world.

After a few moments, the weight of the shutter becomes too much for you; you let go of the rope, and the hatch crashes shut.

>tie rope to manacles
You raise the shutter with the rope, which is now long enough to reach the manacles. Once tied, the taut ropes keeps the hatch shutter open.

>enter hatch
Dumb Waiter
You are compressed like toothpaste in a tube into this pigswill-stinking compartment between two hatches, one leading to the dungeon, the other to the kitchen. In the good old days, at this point, a prisoner would have flung open the hatch and eaten you.

>open outer hatch
Try as you might, the outer hatch won't budge.

>close inner hatch
Try as you might, the inner hatch won't budge.

The obvious problem here is how to get the outer hatch open — or the inner hatch closed, which amounts to the same thing given the mechanism that links them. You have quite a collection of items in your inventory, but for purposes of this puzzle the relevant ones are a top hat, a candle, and a book of matches. Feel free to give it some thought before proceeding if you like, although I’m not sure it will do you much good.

So, the solution is to put the top hat below the rope that’s tied to the manacles, put the candle in the top hat so it doesn’t fall over, light it with a match, dive into the hatch, and wait for the candle to burn the rope enough that it breaks. Now, this makes no sense on multiple levels. It’s not a bad puzzle because it’s contrived; most adventure-game puzzles, including just about all of the classics (hello, babel fish!), are contrived, and if you can’t accept that you’re unlikely to be able to accept playing adventure games. It’s a bad puzzle because it just doesn’t make any sense given the consensus physical reality the player expects to share with the game. How on earth can a top hat as wide as my head hold up a narrow little candle? And if it’s some weird, fat candle — the game never describes it as anything other than “a stick of wax with a wick up it” — it should be more than stable enough to stand on its own, sans hat. And can even an “old rotted rope” that must be at least a foot or so above the candle, given that it’s tied to manacles mounted on the wall, really be burned by it enough to break? And then why can’t I just eliminate the middle man, as it were, and light the rope itself on fire? Well, actually, I can, but I just get the message that “The rope burns away” before I can do anything else, an emergent effect of the generic simulationism of which Magnetic Scrolls was so proud. As the cherry on top of this delightful shit sundae of a puzzle, the whole thing is subtly but persistently and thoroughgoingly bug-ridden if you head off on anything but the game’s arbitrary right track. Burning the rope itself directly, for instance, leaves the game in hopeless confusion about whether it’s actually there or not anymore, while tying the rope to other stuff gives a wonderful lesson on all of the ways that ropes in adventure games are notoriously difficult to implement, to such an extent that the advice of many long-time interactive-fiction authors to beginners on the use of them can be summed up in one word: “Don’t.”

As bad as that puzzle is, there’s one that follows that may be even worse, a sliding-blocks puzzle implemented in text — a questionable premise to begin with — that has you moving a bunch of numbers around with no clue whatsoever of what configuration you’re intended to bring them into. This compulsion so many text-adventure designers had to make the final sections of their games really, really hard — i.e., unfair — is frustrating to say the least. As Graham Nelson amongst other interactive-fiction critics has often noted, endgames should if anything ratchet down in difficulty as the player gets closer to victory. By the time she gets to the final puzzle or two, she’s so close she can taste it; she just wants to win. The game should do her that kindness by not throwing impossible barriers in her path.

But you still haven’t yet heard the worst of it with Jinxter. I thought there was no capriciously cruel thing that an adventure game could still do to leave me shocked, but when I played Jinxter recently for the first time it proved me wrong. Unless you’ve been playing straight from a walkthrough or have been otherwise forewarned, your first time through the game is almost guaranteed to end like this:

Hallway
The spiral staircase leads downwards from this hallway, which, from its atmosphere of nervous anticipation, would seem to be some sort of waiting room. There are two Gothic doors set into the far wall. You begin to realize that the architect of this place had something of a one-track mind. You can hear a fearful fracas taking place behind the doors.

>open left door
The left door is now open.

>enter left door
Wrong, wrong, wrong. That was a BAD move. Bet you're wishing you'd gone through the other door, aren't you? Well, it wouldn't have helped. Not one bit. The fact is, you just weren't lucky enough to get out of this scrape. Not this time. Not here. Not now. Had you been a little further up on the luck scale, so to speak, perhaps things would have been different. As it is, they're not, but you are, different that is. You're out of luck. Totally. Completely. It's all gone, and so have you. Goodbye.

It seems that the game has been keeping track of your depletable store of luck all along. Many things that seemed like close calls just added to the game for atmosphere — like the piece of barbed wire that almost hit you in the face when you cut through a fence way back at the beginning — have been depleting this store. Use luck one time to get out of a scrape, and you’re toast when it comes to the endgame. Now you get to play it all over from the beginning, trying to identify and head off these situations; you’ll find out how successful you were only when you get back to the scene above. I’ve played a lot of adventure games, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one quite as heartless as this one — and that, my friends, is saying a lot. Certainly I’ve never seen a game revel in its cruelty as much as Jinxter does in the paragraph above.

The question I’m left with is Why? Cruel tricks were usually included to pad a game’s length, but Jinxter, like its predecessors, is a big game already, with lots of puzzles and plenty to see and do. One wonders why no one told Magnetic Scrolls that torturing the player like this was a really, really bad idea, not exactly the sort of thing that sends her whistling happily off to the shop to buy the next one. The most logical conclusion, especially given the rush to complete Jinxter, is that no one told them because no else ever even played it before it shipped. In one or two interviews Anita mentioned Jinxter‘s luck mechanic in passing, bizarrely spinning it as sort of progressive design choice, a way to let beginning players see more of the game without getting stumped by the hardest puzzles. One could reply to that simply by pointing her to Wishbringer, a game that use a similar mechanic in a way that leaves the player who’s taken the easy way out once or twice with a satisfying winning screen that encourages her to play again for a better score rather than cutting her off at the knees for failing to solve puzzles she didn’t even know existed. About the only thing Jinxter encourages a beginning player to do is not to play any more text adventures.

Speaking of which: Guild of Thieves sold well, but somewhat less well than The Pawn, while Jinxter registered another substantial drop-off from its predecessor. This steady downward sales trend would continue for Magnetic Scrolls, who would never manage another game with anything like the commercial impact of The Pawn. But their games themselves would remain consistently interesting if also consistently inconsistent, and we’ll continue to follow them in future articles. As for Michael Bywater, he wouldn’t have a hand in any of the Magnetic Scrolls games to come, but he’s definitely a character we’ll be meeting again around here for other reasons.

(Sources this time are largely the same as those from my last article. Also: a fascinating if confused and ill-advised article by Andy Baio and the comments therein and Michael Bywater and Steve Meretzky’s joint appearance at an event organized by Yoz Grahame circa 2005. And two biographies of Douglas Adams: Nick Webb’s Wish You Were Here and M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker. You can download the Amiga versions of Guild of Thieves and Jinxter from here if you like, or download the games and an interpreter to run them on many modern platforms from The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial.)

 

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The Pawn’s Second Life (or, When Tony Met Anita)

The Pawn

Two adventure games overshadowed all of the others in North America during 1986. The success of one of these could have been predicted long before it reached store shelves. Leather Goddesses of Phobos combined the Infocom brand, slightly battered by recent events but still widely regarded as the premiere label in adventure gaming, with Steve Meretzky, the company’s most popular and populist author, working in his wheelhouse of science-fiction comedy. And on top of that it added the ultimate temptation: sex. How could it not become a hit?

The year’s other big game, however, was not such a predictable proposition, coming unexpectedly out of left field in the form of a brand new company from the United Kingdom of all places. As I’ve already written, Magnetic Scrolls’s The Pawn wasn’t a terribly good game in a whole lot of very important ways. Yet that was hard to notice at the time in the face of its more immediately obvious strengths. Not only did it offer as much text as the typical Infocom effort combined with a parser that was at least superficially competitive with Infocom’s own, but it absolutely blew Infocom away when it came to presentation, sporting several dozen illustrations of unprecedented quality. Whatever else you could say about it, The Pawn was the best looking text adventure yet released. When one of those magnificent images scrolled down onto the screen the average player’s critical faculties scrolled off to oblivion to make space for it. The Pawn‘s success in both North America and Europe, which could largely be attributed to those pretty if irrelevant pictures — one could turn them off entirely without losing anything other than a bit of atmosphere — was made doubly strange by the fact that a year before its year of triumph it had already made one debut as a humble text-only adventure, only to die quickly of a fatal case of wrong-horse-backing in the form of the Sinclair QL. Yet here it was again. Sometimes you just can’t keep a good — or, in this case, superficially good — game down.

A number of fortuitous circumstances led to The Pawn‘s unlikely revival as a next-generation graphical showcase. The first of them was the sheer stubbornness of Magnetic Scrolls’s managing director Anita Sinclair, comparable to that of her beloved bull terrier Murdoch who made a habit of terrorizing visitors to the company’s offices. When it became clear that the QL was a flop and that the text-only adventure game she, Ken Gordon, and Hugh Steers had been working on for it for over a year couldn’t hope to sell more than a dribble, she was determined to keep going, to try again with other games on other platforms. She therefore arranged a meeting with Tony Rainbird at British Telecom, hoping to sell him on a couple of action-game prototypes she and the boys had knocked together during down times. He turned out to be nonplussed by those games, but, much to her surprise, keenly interested in her misbegotten, foredoomed text adventure.

And so Tony Rainbird’s passion for adventure games became the second of those  fortuitous circumstances. Yes, this slick, gregarious would-be mogul genuinely loved adventure games, genuinely believed they could become the basis for an interactive literature of the future. Keeping as he always did one eye cocked toward North America, he was very aware of Infocom’s progress toward turning text adventures into interactive fiction, and felt keenly his own country’s failings in this regard. British programmers, writers, and designers were, he was convinced, every bit as talented as their American peers, but they had been ill-served to this point by the more primitive, usually cassette-driven hardware they had been forced to target as well as by British gamers’ predilection for cheap, simple games in lieu of the bigger, more ambitious releases typical across the pond. He thus saw adventure games as a major focus — perhaps the major focus — of his new luxury label Rainbird, designed as it was to compete with North America on its own terms with big, ambitious titles of its own. He had already started to pursue the most respected and consistent name in British adventure gaming, believing that he could take their games from Level 9 to whatever level Infocom was on on by giving them better packaging, better (i.e., international) distribution, and better hardware. And then along came Anita Sinclair.

In retrospect at least Tony’s interest in The Pawn seems natural, for it had been consciously designed to challenge Infocom, just as Rainbird had been to challenge American software in general. He was doubly interested when he learned that Magnetic Scrolls had granted only the rights to a QL version of The Pawn to Sinclair Research. There followed an intriguing proposal. Could Magnetic Scrolls port the game to other platforms and add some graphics? If they could do those two things for him, he could sell The Pawn all over the world as part of the collection of high-end, high-concept software he was now putting together.

Graphics had long since become a requirement for any kind of success in the British adventure market, as Tony was well aware; he may have been a text-adventure idealist, but he wasn’t stupid. Yet they proved to be a hard sell to Anita. While certainly excited by the idea of giving The Pawn a new lease on life, she was ambivalent about adding pictures. Indeed, she would never entirely shed her ambivalence on the subject. Heavily influenced by Infocom on this point as in so much else, she would declare even after Magnetic Scrolls had become known largely on the basis of their graphics that “if you have graphics it takes away from your own imagination and dilutes the imagery,” and admit that she often preferred to play her company’s games with the graphics off.

That said, many of her initial objections were practical rather than ideological. The pictures that had long since become standard equipment in all but the most modest, home-grown British adventures were almost universally what was known as line-drawn or vector graphics, a technique pioneered by Ken Williams in the United States way back in the days of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. Under this technique graphics were stored not as pictures but as a series of instructions for drawing a picture: draw a line from this point to this point in this color, fill a rectangle having these boundaries in this other color, etc. The computer then recreated the image at run-time by stepping through this sequence of instructions. In the hands of masters of compression like the Austin brothers at Level 9, vector graphics could be packed by the hundred onto a single disk or cassette. Unfortunately, though, the nature of their creation limited them to straight lines, regular curves, and geometric solids filled in using a handful of primary colors layered on in big, garish swathes; anything like artistic subtlety went right out the window. That hadn’t always mattered all that much in the past, when the visual capabilities of the computers on offer, what with their low resolutions and limited color palettes, couldn’t manage much subtlety anyway. But clearly the traditional method made a poor fit for the new Atari ST, the machine that Tony Rainbird wanted Magnetic Scrolls to target first.

The alternative approach, used occasionally by companies in the United States like Telarium and enabled by the luxury of the disk drives that were common there, were bitmap graphics, where the color of each individual pixel that made up the picture was stored, one after another. While compression techniques could be used to shrink the size of the resulting file somewhat, pictures stored in this way nevertheless used vastly more space. Telarium’s games, for instance, which were generally much smaller than those of Level 9 that shipped on a single disk or cassette, routinely sprawled across four or even five disk sides thanks to their pictures. Still, bitmap graphics was the approach that Tony now advocated to Anita. The ST’s disks could store a lot more data than disks on the 8-bit machines or, God forbid, an 8-bit cassette. And it wasn’t really necessary to illustrate every single location in the game like Telarium did, just a reasonable subset of the more picturesque and interesting.

Tony even had someone in mind to make the pictures, a young artist and art-history scholar named Geoff Quilley who had just the sort of classy, classical sensibility that Tony and Anita alike wanted for the games of Magnetic Scrolls. Based in Oxford, Quilley had painted portraits as well as a mural for Wadham College, and had already done the graphics for a high-brow 8-bit adventure game based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Nowadays he was doing amazing things with NEOchrome, the simple little paint program that shipped with every Atari ST. When Anita still proved reluctant, Tony made her an offer that was difficult to refuse: give Quilley a week or so to illustrate one or two locations from the game, and see if she wasn’t convinced that they could add to The Pawn‘s commercial appeal without being an aesthetic embarrassment. She did, and she was. Quilley would remain with Magnetic Scrolls for years as their art director, drawing himself many of the pictures that would become the chief selling point of their games and supervising an eventual team of artists who drew the rest. Through it all he would remain inflexibly loyal to Neochrome and the Atari ST, even as Anita tried from time to time to tempt him with more advanced Amiga paint programs like Deluxe Paint. He liked to say that the results he got with his primitive tools spoke for themselves, and it was hard to argue with him after you’d had a look.

The Pawn

With their artist now on the job making the pictures, Magnetic Scrolls’s next challenge was to port The Pawn to the Atari ST and to find a way to add said pictures to an adventure game which they had never anticipated would need to contain them. For all that they had modeled so much of The Pawn after Infocom’s efforts, they had neglected to follow Infocom’s lead in one very important way. Instead of running in a virtual machine like Infocom’s Z-Machine, their adventure system compiled down to native 68000 machine language on the QL. Luckily, however, the Atari ST used the same 68000 processor as the QL, so the porting tasking wasn’t too daunting. The pictures proved to be the biggest challenge: they were done in low resolution so as to allow a palette of 16 colors, but the text really needed to be done in the ST’s 4-color medium-resolution mode so as to allow 80 columns. Magnetic Scrolls thus came up with a way to mix the two modes on the same screen, an impressive technical accomplishment in itself. The pictures could be unveiled by using the mouse to slide them down over the text like a window blind. Not only was it an ingenious way to maximize limited screen real estate, but in its day it was an absolutely stunning special effect, one that doubtless sold a fair few copies of The Pawn all by itself. The new engine also took advantage of the ST’s comparatively capacious memory to implement a number of other commonsense conveniences of the sort that Infocom really should have been adding to their own games for the bigger machines by this point, like the abilities to assign common commands to function keys and to recall the last command for editing.

But of course the Atari ST version was only the beginning. Many other platforms also awaited. The Macintosh and the Amiga, being yet more machines based on the 68000, were  fairly easy marks. The Amiga version did get one notable addition: a theme song by John Molloy, one half of the pioneering synth-pop duo Mainframe, whose own DS:3 sampler, built around an Apple II, was enjoying some popularity; three, for instance, had been employed as part of the Live Aid stage setup. The songs of Mainframe themselves were getting a fair amount of play in British clubland, making the acquisition of Molloy’s services something of a coup for Magnetic Scrolls. The Pawn‘s theme, featuring a surprisingly lifelike acoustic guitar amongst other sounds, became one of the first to demonstrate the potential of sampled, as opposed to synthesized, instruments for game music.

The Pawn

The other ports were, alas, more fraught propositions, entailing as they must artful degradation rather than enhancement. In what can only be described as a masterful technical achievement, Magnetic Scrolls came up with a way to emulate enough of the 68000 instruction set on other processors to run the game. Even more incredibly, they somehow made it run fast enough on the little 8-bit Z80 and 6502 to be acceptable. They hired another artist, Tristram Humphries, to duplicate as best he could each of Quilley’s pictures on a Commodore 64. These were then used in ports not only to the 64 but also to a number of other 8-bit platforms. In cases where it was just hopeless to produce graphics with anything like fidelity to Quilley’s originals, as on the Apple II and the Sinclair Spectrum, the graphics were left out entirely.

The leading lights of British adventure gaming assemble under the Rainbird banner. From left: Mike, Peter, Nick, and Margaret Austin (Level 9); Mike Clarke, Tony Rainbird, and Paula Byrne (Rainbird); Ken Gordon and Anita Sinclair (Magnetic Scrolls).

The leading lights of British adventure gaming assemble under the Rainbird banner. From left: Mike, Pete, Nick, and Margaret Austin of Level 9; Mike Clarke, Tony Rainbird, and Paula Byrne of Rainbird; Ken Gordon and Anita Sinclair of Magnetic Scrolls.

Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls went public with their new partnership at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 1986; the choice of venues was a telling indicator of their hopes of challenging Infocom on their home turf. That April the finished Atari ST version of The Pawn was debuted in Britain in a big joint event featuring not only the principal players from Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls but also the Austin family who ran Level 9, and whom Tony Rainbird had now also successfully courted for his new label. Tony and Anita even managed to convince Anita’s erstwhile mentor Clive Sinclair to drop in and lend some of his aura to the proceedings. The Pawn‘s big box that was unveiled that day included a glossy poster and, Tony being quite the fan of in-box novellas, A Tale of Kerovnia, a clever if superfluous stage-setting story written by Anita’s sister Georgina. The box also contained ciphered hints to be typed into the game itself for decryption. The Pawn may have been riddled with nonsensical puzzles, but at least players wouldn’t have to buy a hint book to get past them.

While the price of the game prompted shock — fully £20, £2 more than even the disk version of Elite — those gorgeous pictures sent even bigger waves through the British gaming community. Their importance to The Pawn‘s success can hardly be overstated. Whatever their value or ultimate lack thereof for the hardcore player, they gave the magazines visual pop to accompany coverage of the game. The Pawn made for a damn good cover; an Infocom game, not so much. In Computer and Video Games magazine, Keith Campbell, the most widely read adventure-game commentator in Britain, gave The Pawn its first big review. It was gushing: 10 for “Vocabulary,” 10 for “Atmosphere,” 10 for “Personal” (how’s that for an arbitrary scoring system?). He described the game as a well-nigh revolutionary product, “in most respects superior” to Infocom even if the graphics were discounted, destined to cause “the standard of software demanded by adventure players to skyrocket.” There was just something about The Pawn — and Anita Sinclair; we’ll get to that momentarily — that could turn even a hardened reviewer like Campbell to jelly. His review was such a coup that Rainbird shipped copies of that issue to North America along with the first copies of The Pawn to get a buzz going.

They needn’t have worried about it. The Pawn hit American shores like a hurricane. Reviewers there, as in Britain, just couldn’t seem to find enough superlatives with which to stamp it. It even did quite well in continental Europe, particularly the computing (and Atari ST) hotbed of West Germany. For that market Rainbird translated the novella, but left the text in the game alone; making the parser parse German was a task that no one at Magnetic Scrolls had the linguistic chops to manage. Undaunted, tens of thousands of Germans struggled valiantly with the oft-gnarly English text, laced as it was with slang and idiomatic usage. It was presumably all worth it for the pictures.

But graphics were just one of The Pawn‘s not-so-secret weapons, the other being the potent comeliness of Ms. Anita Sinclair. The British press, who had the most regular access to Anita and her charms, were the most smitten. One magazine admitted frankly that it would “grab any excuse to print a picture of Anita.” It’s hard to believe that national magazines with editorial staffs and all the rest actually published some of this stuff. Take this (please!) from Amtix: “The lovely Anita Sinclair came up to Ludlow especially to show me The Pawn. Well, I was really impressed… and the game was good too!” Keith Campbell, writer of that aforementioned glowing Pawn review, called his journalistic integrity into question and also shared much more than anyone really needed to know about his private fantasies when he put “Anita Sinclair in a brass bikini” on his year-end list of things he’d like to see in 1987. An even weirder Boris Vallejo-inspired fantasy life seemed to be lived by the writer who gave her the out-of-nowhere appellation of “ice maiden.”

That gem appeared in Sinclair User. And, indeed, it was that magazine that developed the most sustained obsession with all things Anita. A contest announcement there said they’d really wanted to gift the winner with “a fantastically beautiful and intelligent companion,” but, alas, “Anita Sinclair is already spoken for,” so readers would have to settle for a light gun instead. (Presumably she’d finally been forced to use the “I have a boyfriend” line on one of them.) In a year-end roundup Sinclair User‘s readers elected her “Most Attractive Programmer,” a category that mysteriously hadn’t existed the year before. (The many write-in voters who opted for “any female programmer” gave a perhaps even more disturbing glimpse of the state of the average reader’s love life.) This is not to say that the verdict was unanimous, mind you. For some time afterward debate raged over whether Anita really was All That. One letter writer weighed in on this pressing issue with particular force. “Anita Sinclair is about as attractive as a pig’s bottom!” he declared with a noble lack of equivocation. (One wonders what his girlfriend looked like.)

This photograph of Clive Sinclair and Anita Sinclair was used for a captioning contest by Sinclair User. "Juvenile sexist comments might sniggered over in the office but won't be printed and won't win and that's that," they announced. Good to know they're fighting the good fight.

This photograph of Clive Sinclair and Anita Sinclair was used for a captioning contest by Sinclair User. “Juvenile sexist comments might be sniggered over in the office but won’t be printed and won’t win and that’s that,” they announced. Good to know they were fighting the good fight.

But my absolute favorite from this delightful little sub-genre is The Games Machine‘s review of Fish!, a later Magnetic Scrolls game. This — I kid you not — is the opening paragraph:

Anita Sinclair looks fab! I’ve always liked the lady but now that she has put on a little weight since giving up smoking she looks gorgeous. What a pity that on the day she took me to lunch (oh, do get on with it! — Ed.) she could barely walk due to some very painful blisters on her feet. She was also suffering from having a jolly good time at the Telecomsoft dinner the night before where the wine was free! Apart from discussing the PC show, other magazines, adventures in general, and her Audi Quatro, we did eventually get round to Magnetic Scrolls’s new game, Fish!.

As the extract above attests, Anita treated her little coterie of admirers with the bemused tolerance of the popular girl at school who deigns to let the lower social orders sit at her lunch table from time to time. She tactfully buffeted away questions like “Who would you most like to kiss under the mistletoe?” whilst gamely trying to focus her interviewers’ attentions back on the games in question. When some of her more sensitive interlocutors asked her feelings on all of the unwonted attention, she remained coy: “There is obviously interest in me because I’m female, but I don’t notice it very much. I think it could be an advantage.” Nor is there any sign that the other folks who worked at Magnetic Scrolls ever felt slighted by the attention lavished on Anita. To hear the magazines tell it, every Magnetic Scrolls game was practically a solo effort by Anita, even as in reality she drew none of the pictures, wrote very little of the text, and contributed to the designs only as a member of a larger team betwixt and between coding much of Magnetic Scrolls’s technical plumbing and of course running the company. The lack of outrage on the part of all parties at Magnetic Scrolls isn’t hard to explain: in a hugely competitive text-adventure market in which everyone was scrambling for a slice of a steadily shrinking pie, the attention Anita generated was precious, the best PR move Magnetic Scrolls didn’t have to actually make. Certainly their most obvious competitors in Britain, the three boffinish Austin brothers over at Level 9, didn’t have anything at their disposal to match it.

So, yes, there was a lot of smoke and mirrors behind the huge success of The Pawn, born of those pretty pictures and that pretty Anita and a media, heavily influenced by both, that was all too eager to see it as an Infocom-killer. In its way The Pawn is every bit as much a period piece as Starglider. Pointless parser permutations like the famous “USE THE TROWEL TO PLANT THE POT PLANT IN THE PLANT POT” aside, Magnetic Scrolls still had a long way to go to rise to Infocom’s level. A comparison of Leather Goddesses of Phobos with The Pawn doesn’t do the latter any favors. One design is air-tight, the other shambolic in all the worst ways. Magnetic Scrolls would get much, much better in their future games, but remains to this day slightly overrated in my opinion, benefiting just a bit too much from the awe so many of us felt back in the day when we saw those pictures for the first time. Much as their Infocom fixation might lead one to suspect otherwise, Magnetic Scrolls did innovate in their own right in some areas having nothing to do with graphics. Indeed, their later games sometimes verge on brilliance. But they always seem to disappoint almost as much as they delight, dogged by a frustrating inconsistency born, one suspects, largely from the lack of a testing regime to match Infocom’s and a willingness when under pressure to ship to let some things go — parser non sequiters, weird text glitches, underimplemented or underdescribed objects, puzzles that just don’t quite make sense — that Infocom wouldn’t.

Which is not to say that Magnetic Scrolls isn’t worthy of attention. Far from it. Their games are the most technically advanced and literate text adventures that the British games industry would ever manage. We’ll thus be looking at all of the Magnetic Scrolls games that followed The Pawn, beginning with the next two in my next article. Whatever else happens, I certainly won’t have to pan any of them quite as badly as I did The Pawn.

Before I leave you today, though, it’s worth thinking one more time about 1986, the year of the twin commercial triumphs of Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Pawn. While no one could possibly have been aware of it at the time, it would turn out to mark the end of an era. Text adventures as a commercial proposition still had a few years to go; rest assured that some of the most interesting specimens of the species are still waiting to get their due in future articles. Yet the number of companies working in the field was dwindling, and the genre would never again manage even one, much less two games in any given year with the commercial prominence of Leather Goddesses and The Pawn. Far from taking the text adventure to new heights, as Magnetic Scrolls and Rainbird were confidently predicting, the new 16-bit machines and the games that ran on them would for better or for worse transcend it entirely. Like the contemporary players who remained loyal to the genre, we’ll just have to enjoy the gems of this twilight era while they last.

(Sources for this and the next article: Zzap! of July 1987 and December 1988; Crash of August 1988; ZX Computing of August 1986; Computer and Video Games of December 1985, April 1986, July 1986, May 1987, October 1987, and February 1988; Your Computer of January 1988; Amtix of February 1987 and March 1987; Atari User of June 1986; Questbusters of October 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of January 23 1986; Commodore User of December 1986; Sinclair User of January 1987, February 1987, April 1987, October 1987, February 1988, and August 1989; The Games Machine of December 1987 and November 1988. There are two excellent websites dedicated to Magnetic Scrolls: The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and The Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles. Francesco Cordella also conducted an interview with Rob Steggles, writer for The Pawn and two of Magnetic Scrolls’s eventual six other text adventures, which is available on his website.

The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial hosts an interpreter that will run the Magnetic Scrolls games on many platforms along with all of the games in a form that is ready to run under it. This is certainly the most painless way to play them today. That said, I think these games are actually best experienced as originally presented via an Atari ST or Amiga emulator. In that spirit, I’ve prepared a download of The Pawn with disk images for both platforms and all the other goodies that came in the box for those of you who are hardcore like me.)

 

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