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KAOS

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

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

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

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

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

— Knight Orc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knight Orc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knight Orc

Knight Orc on the Amiga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He indicates his mighty axe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woops! That hoof sends you to Orc Heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knight Orc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Fire and Rain

FirebirdRainbird

While the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga weren’t exactly flying off American store shelves in 1985 and 1986, they at least had the virtue of existing. The British computer industry, by contrast, proved peculiarly unable to produce 16-bit follow-ups to their 8-bit models that had made Britain, measured on a per-capita basis, the most computer-mad nation in the world.

Of the big three in Britain — Sinclair, Acorn, and Amstrad — only Sinclair really even tried to embrace the 16-bit era on a timely basis, announcing the QL the same month of January 1984 that the Mac made its debut. They would have been better off to wait a while: the QL was unreliable, ill-thought-out, buggy, and, far from being the “Quantum Leap” of its name, was still mired in the old 8-bit ways of thinking despite the shiny 68000 processor it shared with the Macintosh. It turned into a commercial fiasco, and Sinclair never got the chance to try again. Torpedoed partly by the QL’s failure but more so by a slowdown in Spectrum sales and Sir Clive’s decision to pull millions of pounds out of the company to fund his ridiculous miniature-television and electric-car projects, Sinclair came within a whisker of bankruptcy before selling themselves to Amstrad in 1986.

Acorn, meanwhile, gave their tendency to overengineer free rein, producing a baroque range of new models and add-ons for their 8-bit BBC Micro line while its hugely ambitious 32-bit successor, the Acorn Archimedes, languished in development hell. Undone by the same slowing market that devastated Sinclair as well as by an ill-advised grab for the low-end in the form of the Acorn Electron, Acorn was also forced to sell themselves, to the Italian company Olivetti.

That left only Amstrad still standing in an industry that had been just a year or two before the Great White Hope of a nation, symbol and proof of concept of Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a new, more entrepreneurial and innovative British economy. Unfortunately, Amstrad’s founder Alan Sugar just wasn’t interested in the kind of original research and development that would have been required to launch a brand new machine based on the 68000 or a similar advanced chip. His computers, like the stereos he had been selling for many years before entering the computer market, were all about packaging proven technology into inexpensive, practical products for the masses. There’s something to be said for that sort of innovation, but it wasn’t likely to yield a Macintosh, an Amiga, or even an Atari ST anytime soon.

This collective failure of the domestic makers meant that British punters eager to experience the wonders of 16 bits were forced to look overseas for their new toys. Yet that was a fairly fraught proposition in itself. The Macintosh was practically a machine of myth in Britain for years after its American debut, absurdly expensive and available only through a handful of specialized shops. Only wealthy gentlefolk of leisure like noted Mac fanatic Douglas Adams could contemplate actually owning one. And the Amiga, not even available in Britain until June of 1986, also suffered even thereafter from an expensive price tag and poor distribution.

That left the Atari ST as the only really practical choice. The situation was a surprising one in that Atari had not traditionally been a big player in Britain. The Atari VCS game console that had left its mark on the childhood of an entire generation in North America was virtually unknown in Britain, and, while Atari’s line of 8-bit computers had been nominally available, they had been an expensive, somewhat off-kilter choice in contrast to the Sinclair Spectrums and Commodore 64s that outsold them by an order of magnitude. But Jack Tramiel, previously the head of Commodore and now owner of the reborn post-Great Videogame Crash Atari, knew very well the potential of the European market, and pushed aggressively to establish a presence there. In fact, the very first STs to go on sale did so not in the United States but rather West Germany. By the end of 1985 STs were readily available in Britain as well and, at least in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, quite inexpensive. A British software industry looking for a transformative machine to lift home computing in Britain out of its doldrums placed its first hopes — admittedly largely by default — in the Atari ST.

Still, it was far from clear just what sort of form the hoped-for new ST software market would take. The ST may have been a bargain in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, but it was still a fairly expensive proposition within a country just getting back on its economic feet again after what felt like decades of recessions, shortages, and labor unrest. A reasonably full-featured ST system could easily reach £1000, many times what one could expect to shell out for the likes of a cheap and cheerful Speccy. The ST would seemingly need to attract a different sort of buyer, with more money to spend and perhaps a few more years under his belt. This expectation was one of the calculations that led to Rainbird, one of the most significant British software houses of the latter 1980s.

Rainbird was born from Firebird, a slightly older label that has plenty of significance in its own right. In 1984 British Telecom, solely responsible at the time for the telecommunications grid of all of Britain, was privatized, becoming a huge for-profit corporation as part of Margaret Thatcher’s general rolling-back of the socialist wave that had followed World War II. Even before the first shares were sold to the public on November 20, 1984 — the largest single share issue in the history of the world at the time — the newly liberated management of British Telecom began casting about for new business opportunities. It didn’t take them long to notice the exploding market for home-computer software. They thus formed the subsidiary of Telecomsoft, whose first imprint was to be called “Firefly Software.” That name was quickly changed to “Firebird” — it seems marketing manager James Leavey had just been listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird — when they discovered a potential trademark conflict with another company. Firebird made its public bow in time for Christmas 1984 with a whole raft of mostly simple action games, selling for £2.50 (Firebird “Silver”) or £6 (Firebird “Gold”). Many turned into bestsellers.

Whether you considered British Telecom’s entrance into software a necessary result of a rapidly maturing industry or you were like Mel Croucher of Automata in considering them nothing more than “parasites” on software’s creative classes, it marked a watershed moment, a definitive farewell to the days of hobbyists meeting and selling to one another at “microfairs” and a hello to a hyper-competitive, corporatized industry destined someday to be worth many billions. If anyone was still in doubt, in December of 1984 another watershed arrived when newly minted software agent Jacquie Lyons presided over an unabashed bidding war for the right to publish Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite on platforms other than the BBC Micro. Firebird, with the deepest pockets in the industry by far, won the prize.

Although published on the Firebird label, Elite would prove to be something of a model for the eventual Rainbird. Unlike Firebird’s previous releases, which had used the colorful but minimalist packaging typical of British games at the time, Elite‘s big, sturdy box contained not just the cassette or disk but also a thick manual, an equally thick novella to set the stage, a glossy quick-reference card, and a poster-sized ship-recognition chart (all licensed and reproduced from the Acornsoft original). All this naturally came at a price: £15 for the cassette version, fully £18 for the disk version. It marked a new way to sell games in Britain: as luxury products aimed at a classier, more sophisticated, perhaps slightly older consumer. In spite of the extra cost of all that packaging, the profit margins on its higher price points were to die for. If the Elite approach could be turned into a sustainable line rather than a one-off, British Telecom just might have something.

Tony Rainbird

Tony Rainbird

One person inside British Telecom who paid a lot of attention to Elite‘s launch and its subsequent success was Tony Rainbird, a former software entrepreneur in his own right who now worked for Firebird. He began agitating his superiors for a new software label, a sort of boutique prestige brand that would sell more sophisticated experiences at a correspondingly higher price point; it would be, if you can forgive an anachronistic metaphor, the Lexus to Firebird’s Toyota. His thinking was influenced by a number of factors in addition to Elite‘s success. He was very aware of the Atari ST that was then just arriving in Britain, aware that the people who bought that machine and in the fullness of time its inevitable eventual competitors would be willing and able to spend a bit more for software. And he was very aware of the American software market, which at that time was enjoying a golden age of gorgeous game packaging thanks to labels like Infocom, Origin, and Telarium. Games from those publishers and many others in the United States were marked by high concepts, high prices, and, yes, high margins to match. Elite, the first British game that could really compete in the United States on those terms, had been the first game that Firebird exported there; it became as huge a hit in the United States as it had in its native country. A new luxury imprint could continue to export games and other software that suited the higher expectations of Americans, whilst trading on the slight hint of the exotic provided by their British origins.

After getting permission to give the new line a go, with he himself at its head, Tony Rainbird decided that all the games should be published in distinctive boxes done in a deep royal blue, a color which to him exuded class. His first choice for a name was “Bluebird Software.” But, once again, a search turned up a conflict with another trademark, so he allowed himself to be persuaded to give the line his own name. Just as well; it fitted even better as a companion to the Firebird line.

Rainbird was launched quietly at the end of 1985 with two 8-bit creativity titles, The Art Studio and The Music System, that echoed more than faintly Electronic Arts’s Deluxe line of high-toned creative applications in the United States. But it was the following year that saw things get started in earnest, with two splashy game launches for the Atari ST. One of these, The Pawn, is an adventure game we’ve met before, along with its maker Magnetic Scrolls; we’ll continue their story in the next article I write. It’s the other, a space shoot-em-up called Starglider, that I want to spend just a bit of time with today. It’s not really a great game, but it is an interesting one to consider in its historical context, not least because of the colorful history of the person who wrote it, a young hacker with the perfect videogame-character name of Jez San (“Jez” is a nickname for “Jeremy”).

Jez San had already had a greater impact on British computing before his twentieth birthday than most programmers manage in a lifetime. It all began when his father, owner of a successful import/export firm, gave have him an American TRS-80 computer in 1978, when he was not quite thirteen years old. He first won attention for himself by coming up with a hack to let one attach the joystick from an Atari VCS — another piece of foreign exotica that came to him courtesy of his father’s business — to the TRS-80 for playing games in lieu of the awkward keyboard controls that were the norm. His skills had progressed so far by 1982 that his father agreed to become partners with him in a little software-development company to be called Argonaut Software — think “J. San and the Argonauts” — run out of his bedroom. Whilst writing software for whomever would pay him, San was also soon terrorizing the network of British Telecom. He became one of his country’s most skilled phone phreakers, a talent he used to become a fixture on computer networks all over the world. It was in fact as a network hacker rather than a programmer or game developer that he first did something to make all of Britain sit up and take notice.

On October 2, 1983, San hacked the email account of one of the presenters of a live edition of the BBC program Making the Most of the Micro, an incident that has gone down in British computing lore as the “very first live hack on TV.” Millions of Britons watched as the presenter’s computer displayed a “Hacker’s Song” from San in place of the normal login message. Like much involving San, it was both less and more than it seemed. What with War Games a huge hit in the cinema, the BBC wanted something just like what San delivered for their live show where, as the host repeatedly stated, “anything could happen.” San’s alleged victims were more like co-conspirators: “They knew I was going to hack, they were quite hoping I would,” he admits. Why else would they announce the password to all and sundry inside the studio over a live microphone just minutes before the program began? After that, it just took a phone call from a few of San’s friends who were hanging about the studio. Further circumstantial evidence of the BBC’s complicity in the whole incident is provided by the host and presenter’s weird lack of affect when the “Hacker’s Song” appeared on the screen — almost as if they expected it, or something like it, to be there. As for the “Hacker’s Song” itself, it was lifted not from some shady underground but from the very overground pages of the American magazine Newsweek, yet another gift of San’s importer/exporter father.

San was forced to cloak himself in anonymity for this great exploit, but he got the chance to advertise his skills to the world and earn himself some real money in the process soon thereafter, when he was hired by a dodgy little company called Unicom to help in the development of a new, ultra-cheap modem for the BBC Micro. He wrote the software to control the modem, much of which was supplied not on disk or tape but as a new ROM chip to be installed in the computer itself. The modem lacked approval from the British Approvals Board of Telecommunications, meaning that, in one of those circumlocutions only a hidebound bureaucracy could come up with, it was legal to buy and sell but not to actually use on the British telephone network; it was required to bear a bright red triangle on its face to indicate this. Undaunted, Unicom took the non-certification as a badge of street cred, painting little demons on either side of the BABT’s warning triangle that made it look like just part of the logo. The Unicom modem quickly became known as the “Demon Modem.” At a fraction of the price of its more legitimate competitors, it made outlaws of many thousands of Britons and earned San tens of thousands of pounds. Perhaps all those punters should have been more cautious about the people they did business with: in the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders, San makes the eye-popping claim that he imbedded backdoors into the bundled software “to take control of a computer using his modem, to make it play sounds, or type words to the screen.” This sounds frankly dubious to me given everything I know about the technology involved, but I offer it nevertheless for your consideration. At any rate, San claims he mainly used his powers to do nothing more nefarious than cheat at MUD.

San first came face to face with the executives at British Telecom not, as you might expect, because he was hauled into court for his various illegal activities, but rather when he was hired by them to help David Braben and Ian Bell port Elite from the BBC Micro to the Commodore 64. Having accomplished that task in a bare couple of months, he parlayed the success into a contract for a 3D space-combat game of his own, to target the new generation of 68000-based home computers that were on the horizon. Eager to get started, and with the Atari ST and Amiga not yet released, he rented a Macintosh for a while to start developing 3D math routines for the 68000, then shifted development to the ST as soon as it arrived in British shops. When Rainbird came into being, this 16-bit prestige project was quickly moved from Firebird to the new imprint.

Starglider

The finished Starglider that was released by Rainbird in October of 1986 was once again both less and more than it seemed. With Bell and Braben having already started squabbling and proving unable or unwilling to deliver a timely follow-up to Elite, Rainbird clearly wanted to position Starglider instead as that game’s logical successor. Just as Acornsoft had for Elite, Rainbird hired an outside author, James Follett, to write a novella setting the stage for the action. Its almost 70 pages tell the story of an alien invasion force that disguise themselves as Stargliders, a protected species of spacefaring birds, in order to penetrate the automated defenses of your planet of Novenia. You play Jaysan — didn’t I say he had the perfect name for a videogame character? — who with the assistance of his hot girlfriend Katra must save his world using the last manned fighter left in its arsenal. How’s that for a young nerd’s wish-fulfillment fantasy?

That said, connecting all of the texture provided by the novella to the actual game requires quite an effort of imagination. Starglider lacks the huge universe of Elite, and lacks with it Elite‘s strategic trading game and the slow-building sense of accomplishment that comes from improving your ship and your economic situation and climbing through the ranks. Most of all it lacks Elite‘s wondrous sense of limitless freedom. Rather than a grand space opera, Starglider is a frenetic shoot-em-up in which you down enemies for points — nothing more, nothing less. Get to and destroy a faux-Starglider, the “boss” of each level, and you advance to the next, where everything becomes a little bit harder. With no save facility beyond a high-scores table, it would fit perfectly into an arcade.

Starglider

Which is not to say that Starglider wasn’t impressive in its day within its own more limited template. The game’s most innovative feature may just be its missile-eye view: when you fire a missile you can switch your view to a camera in its nose and guide it to its target yourself. There’s also a modicum of strategy required: you need to return to a depot periodically to repair your ship and restock your weapons, and you need to replenish your energy supplies by skimming over power lines located on the surface of Novenia (shades of Elite‘s fuel scoops). But mostly Starglider seems more concerned with showing off what its 3D engine can do than pushing boundaries of gameplay. Its wireframe 3D graphics aren’t exactly a revelation in comparison to Elite‘s, but there are far more enemies now with more complex shapes, which move more smoothly — the Stargliders themselves, enormous birds that smoothly flap their wings, are particularly well-done — and which are now in color.

The problem with a game that lives and dies on its technical innovations is that once those innovations are incorporated into and improved upon by other games it has very little to offer. Writing about Elite, I noted that Braben and Bell could easily have stopped after they had a workable 3D action game, the first of its kind on a PC, and been assured of having a sizable hit on their hands. What made Elite a game for the ages was their decision to keep going, to use that 3D engine as a mere building block for something grander. The lack of a similar grander vision is what makes Starglider, as reviewer Ashley Pomeroy put it, “a period piece.” Within a year or two other games would offer 3D engines that used solid polygons instead of wireframes — including, ironically, later versions of Elite itself. Many of Starglider‘s other aspects that were impressive back in the context of 1986 are most kindly described as quaint today, like the poorly digitized voice of Katra that occasionally screams out a monosyllabic exclamation. Most embarrassing of all is the brief digitized snippet of a studio-recorded theme song that plays as the game starts; it sounds like a particularly cheesy Saturday-morning toy advertisement.

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The use of digitized sound from the real world is of course a signpost to the future of multimedia gaming, and represented a real coup in 1986, as San himself describes: “On the Atari ST Starglider was the first game to use sampled sound. I sat with my ST open, measuring voltages off the sound chip, and modulating the volume controls in real time on the three channels to find what voltages came out so that I could play samples.” Technically brilliant it may well be. Timeless, however, it’s not.

In its day, though, it was more than enough to make Starglider just the big hit needed to get the fledgling Rainbird imprint off the ground. Its sales soared well into the six figures once ported, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to quite a variety of 8-bit and 16-bit machines (a list that includes the Amiga and at long last the Macintosh, the platform where its development first began). The sheer number of ports illustrates what would soon become Rainbird’s standard business model: to release games first as prestige titles on the 16-bit machines, then port them down to the less capable but more numerous 8-bitters where the really big sales numbers could be found. Rainbird quickly learned that an Atari ST or Amiga game on the Commodore 64 still retained some of the cachet that clung to anything involving a 68000. (Cinemaware in the United States would quickly learn the same thing and engage in a similar triangulation.)

Jez San used the income Starglider generated to put his one-man-band days behind him, bringing in additional programmers to establish Argonaut as one of the mainstays of British game development for almost two decades to come. Argonaut became one of the leading lights of a certain school of game programming, centered in Europe, that would continue to program the new 16-bit machines largely as they had the older 8-bits: in raw assembler, banging right on the hardware and ignoring operating systems and all the rules of “proper” programming found in the manuals. The approach seemed to demand young minds. Indeed, it seemed to delight in chewing them up and spitting them out before their time. In 1987 a 21-year-old San was already starting to feel his powers fading in contrast to the young turks he was hiring to work for him; he declared he’d likely be “over the hill” in about two more years. He was therefore eager to complete the transition he’d already begun into a purely managerial role. Even professional sports didn’t worship youth like this brutal meritocracy.

San and his colleagues and the many other developers like them positively swaggered about their prowess at down-and-dirty to-the-metal assembly-language coding, treating those who chose to work differently with contempt. “I don’t believe you can write performance software in C,” said San bluntly in that same 1987 interview. What he apparently failed to understand or didn’t consider significant was that, in being forced to focus so much on the trees of registers, opcodes, and interrupts, he was forgoing a veritable forest of conceptual complexity and design innovation. Higher-level languages had, after all, been invented for a reason. It’s very difficult, even for an agile 20-year-old mind, to conceive really interesting systems and virtual worlds when one is also forced to manually keep track of the exact position of the electron gun painting the screen. Thus the games that Argonaut and houses like them produced were audiovisually spectacular in their day but can seem underwhelming in ours. The fundamental limitations of their designs are all too painfully apparent today, long after even the best of 1980s graphics and sound have lost their ability to awe. For that reason I don’t know that we’ll be hearing a lot from this school of game development in the years to come on this blog, but rest assured that they’ll be beavering away in the background, brilliant in their own ephemeral way.

(Sources: the film From Bedrooms to Billions; the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders; Amazing Computing of November 1987; Retro Gamer 86 and 98; Amiga Computing of June 1988; Your Computer of January 1985, February 1986, June 1986, October 1987; Computer and Video Games of February 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of March 21 1985, November 7 1985, November 14 1985, and March 27 1986; Computer Gamer of August 1986; Home Computing Weekly of April 30 1985; Games Machine of October 1988. The web site The Bird Sanctuary is full of information on Firebird, Rainbird, and their games. If you’d like to experience Starglider for yourself, feel free to download a zip from here containing Atari ST and Amiga disk images along with all of the goodies that accompanied them.)

 

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