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Bookware’s Sunset

(I was never happy with this article in its original form, so I’ve added coverage of The Scoop to that of Breakers and moved it to here in the blog’s chronology, where I feel it makes a better fit. Don’t worry, Nate, I’ve preserved your comments. Patreon subscribers: you of course won’t be charged for this one.)

As we push now into 1986 in this blog’s chronology, we’re moving into an era of retrenchment but also of relative stability, as the battered survivors of the home-computer boom and bust come to realize that, if they’re unlikely (at least in the short term) to revolutionize mainstream art and entertainment in the way they had expected, home computers and the games a relatively small proportion of the population enjoy playing on them are also not going to go away. A modest but profitable computer-games industry still remained following the exit of the pundits, would-be visionaries, and venture capitalists, one that would neither grow nor shrink notably for the rest of the decade. No longer fixated on changing the world, developers — even the would-be rock stars at Electronic Arts — just focused on making fun games again for a core audience that loved Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and Star Trek, and ships and airplanes with lots of guns on them. While publishers would continue to take a chance on more outré titles than you might expect, much that didn’t fit with this core demographic that stuck with gaming after the hype died began now to get discarded.

Amongst the victims of this more conservative approach were bookware and the associated dreams for a new era of interactive popular fiction. Bookware had, to say the least, failed to live up to the hype; the number of commercially successful bookware titles from companies not named Infocom could be counted on one hand and likely still leave plenty of fingers free. Small wonder, as the games themselves were, if often audacious and interesting in conception, usually deeply flawed in execution, done in by a poor grasp of design fundamentals, poor parsers and game engines, rushed development, and an associated tendency to undervalue the importance of playtesting and polishing for any interactive work. One could say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Infocom was the only company of the 1980s that knew how to consistently put out playable, enjoyable, fair text adventures — meaning I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy in the years I’ve been writing this blog merely confirming this conventional wisdom, but so be it.

Thus bookware faded quietly away, done in both by gamers who were not terribly invested in games as literature and its own consistently inconsistent  quality control. Whether better works could have brought the former around, or found a new audience entirely, remains a somewhat open question. But as it was, one by one the bookware lines came to an end. Bantam’s Living Literature line stopped after just two titles; the Mindscape/Angelsoft line made it all the way to eight; other publishers like Activision, Epyx, and Electronic Arts abandoned the genre after one or two experiments failed to bear commercial fruit. And the most notable of all the bookware lines and certainly the ones we’ve spent the most time with, the Brøderbund/Synapse Electronic Novels and the Telarium games, were also not long for this world.

Breakers

Breakers, written by a friend of the Synapse boys named Rod Smith, was the fourth and last of the Electronic Novels to be released. It’s also the largest, most complex, and most difficult — albeit mostly not in a good way. Breakers places you aboard a ramshackle space station in orbit around a planet called, I kid you not, Borg, proof that there’s a limited supply of foreboding names in the universe. It’s somewhat unusual as both science fiction and interactive fiction in being told from the point of view of an alien who’s not just your typical Star Trek-style human with different skin pigmentation or unusually formed ears. The Lau, the race to which you belong, are residents of Borg whose culture is mystical rather than technological, who communicate via telepathy. They’re now being punished for their disinterest in warfare by being rounded up and sold off as exotic slaves to customers all over the galaxy by many of the unsavory characters who inhabit the station. Meanwhile a cosmic apocalypse is in the offing which only the Lau can prevent by assembling four elements and performing a ritual. By happenstance, you’ve ended up loose on the station. You must assemble the elements to save your race and avert the catastrophe; even a text adventure that fancies itself an electronic novel often winds up a treasure hunt.

That said, the Electronic Novels seldom lacked for literary ambition, and Breakers is no exception. Smith does a pretty good job of showing the crazy cast-offs, pirates, and rogues — some with the proverbial hearts of gold, most responding to overtures only with laser blasts — from the standpoint of an apparently asexual and very alien alien. If not quite up to the standard of Lynnea Glasser’s recent, lovely interactive fiction Coloratura, it is interesting to view Breakers‘s stock-science-fiction tropes from this other, exotic point of view. The opening scene in a seedy bar filled with thumping music and humans and aliens of every description is unexpectedly compelling when viewed from the perspective of this protagonist despite being thoroughly derivative of a certain 1977 blockbuster.

All sorts of issues of technology and fundamental design, however, cut against the prospect of enjoying this world. The opening section of the game, inside that seedy bar, is so baffling that a magazine like Questbusters, one of the few with enough remaining interest in the Electronic Novel line to write about Breakers at all, dispensed with any semblance of graduated hints and just printed a walkthrough of the opening sequence — one that, tellingly, appears to rely on a bug, or at least a complete plotting non sequitur, to see it through. Smith had wanted to make Breakers rely heavily upon character interaction, a noble if daunting goal. In practice and in light of the problematic Synapse parser, however, that just leads to a series of impossible dialog puzzles that require you to say the exact right sequence of things to get anywhere. While the plot is unusually intricate, it’s essentially — if as-advertised in light of the “Electronic Novel” label — a novel’s plot, a series of linear hoops that require you to just slavishly recreate a series of dramatic beats, even when doing so requires that you deliberately get yourself captured and beat up. But, unlike in most linear games, you never know what the game expects next from you, leading to an infuriating exercise not so much in saving Borg as in figuring out what Smith wants to have happen next and how you can force it to take place.

Breakers was released by Brøderbund in a much smaller, much less lavish package than its predecessor, complete with cheesy art that looked cut out of an Ed Wood production. The Synapse name, which studio Brøderbund was now is in the process of winding down as an altogether disappointing acquisition, is entirely absent from the package, as is even the old “Electronic Novel” franchise name, although it remains all over the manual from which it would presumably have been harder to excise. The game is now just a “text adventure” again, a circle closed in ironic and very telling fashion.

So, Breakers would mark the end of the line for this interesting but frustrating collection. Reports from former Synapse insiders have it that a fifth Electronic Novel, a samurai adventure called Ronin, was effectively complete by the end of 1986. But it was never released. Two more with the intriguing titles of Deadly Summer and House of Changes also had at least some work done on them before Brøderbund pulled the plug on the whole affair. My inner idealist wishes he’d had a chance to play these games; my inner cynic knows they’d likely have been undone by the same litany of flaws that make all of the released Electronic Novels after Mindwheel disappointing to one degree or another.

The only extant image I know of of The Scoop in its original planned Telarium incarnation.

The only extant image I know of of The Scoop in its original Telarium incarnation.

The final game in Spinnaker’s Telarium line, The Scoop, stands along with Shadowkeep as one of the two oddballs of that bunch. Its choice of source material alone is a rather strange one. As you can see from the box image above, Telarium did their best to portray The Scoop as a product of Agatha Christie. However, the original The Scoop isn’t actually an Agatha Christie novel. It’s rather an artifact of the Detection Club, a sort of casual social club of cozy mystery writers that still persists to this day. Six writers — Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Croft, and Clemence Dane — passed the manuscript in progress among themselves by post. It came to each twice, whereupon he or she added a chapter to the unfolding story and sent it on to another. Later each read their chapters live on BBC Radio, the organization that had commissioned the whole project in the first place. The installments also appeared in the BBC’s magazine, The Listener, before being eventually published in book form. Interesting as it is as an early experiment in collaborative narrative, the final product reads pretty much exactly like the patchwork creation it is, with a plot that zigs and zags in wildly divergent directions according to each writer’s whim. It’s remained only sporadically in print since its original publication in 1931, a curious piece of ephemera for hardcore Christie fans and aficionados of golden-age mystery.

The Scoop

The game engine of Telarium’s version The Scoop makes it stand out from its peers as much as its unusually obscure literary inspiration. Like Shadowkeep, The Scoop was developed by an outside developer rather than in-house, and thus doesn’t use the SAL engine that powers most of the other games. Said developer was Dale Disharoon, Inc., a tiny collective founded by the eponymous former grade-school teacher in 1983 to produce more polished versions of the educational software he had started writing for his class a couple of years earlier. Disharoon enjoyed a close relationship with Spinnaker for quite some time, one that led most notably to the gentle adventures Below the Root (1984) and Alice in Wonderland (1985). Both were largely designed and programmed by Disharoon himself and published through Windham Classics, Spinnaker’s other bookware label for children’s literature adaptations targeting a slightly younger age group than the Telarium games. Thus it must have seemed a good idea to give him a crack at making The Scoop using a superficially similar engine to the one behind Below the Root and Alice, which replaced the SAL parser with a menu-driven command system. Busy with other projects, Disharoon turned The Scoop over to writer and designer Jonathan Merritt, programmer Vince Mills, and artist Bill Groetzinger. To give them extra space to play, Spinnaker agreed to leave behind the lucrative Commodore 64 platform and release The Scoop only for machines with at least 128 K.

Alas, though, the idea sounded a lot better than it would end up playing. The mid-1980s were an era marked by widespread interface experimentation in adventure-game design, as developers tried to figure out what the logical successor to the parser should be. To its credit, The Scoop doesn’t really feel, as do many of its contemporary peers, like a traditional text adventure with a menu system grafted on. It actually sports a pretty good interface, with a reasonable selection of verbs always easily accessible at the tap of a space bar. Unfortunately, the game to which it’s grafted is just kind of baffling, and not in a good way. This is one of only two Telarium games that settles for simply recreating its source material’s plot, rather than finding some way to do an end run around the problem of player advance knowledge like most of its peers. Perhaps the developers figured its source material was obscure enough that few players would be familiar with it anyway. And indeed, in the end it doesn’t much matter; I dutifully read the novel to prepare myself for the game, and I still didn’t get much of anywhere with the latter. For one thing, the rather thin plot of the novel has been greatly expanded, with lots new characters and evidence and several new sub-plots, although the big picture at the end is the same. But that wasn’t the real source of my frustrations.

You see, an expanded plot would have been welcome if the game was actually fun, but it really isn’t. This is one of those mystery games that hinges on timing. A cast of literally dozens wanders all over an expansive map of London and nearby environs over the five days or so that the game gives you to solve it. You have to dog each and every one of them relentlessly, eavesdropping on conversations and searching every locale as soon as they leave it, to get anywhere. Once you’ve collected all the individual jigsaw pieces, you can presumably restart one last time and unspool “The Mystery of the Mindreading Detective.” I don’t mind this sort of thing in some other games, but here’s there’s some secret sauce missing. All of the waiting around and the fiddly searching is just tedious, the writing flat and the characters bland. And the feedback loop is badly untethered at one end. You never really know where you stand with the game, never know if it knows you know what you think you know — a problem that’s admittedly all too common in ludic mysteries. Nor is it clear what you’re supposed to do to tell the game about it once you think you’ve solved the case. With little idea of whether what I was doing and learning meant anything or not, with the constant well-justified paranoia that I was missing something important somewhere else, I spent my time in The Scoop in a discombobulated haze. Finally I just gave up.

Which as it happens is exactly what Spinnaker was doing with the Telarium line in 1986. By that year the company was in serious trouble, having bet big like so many others on a home-computer revolution that never quite arrived and lost badly. Spinnaker had had a negative bank balance for the last two years, and one of its co-founders, Bill Bowman, had already bailed, leaving C. David Seuss struggling to make payroll by exercising stock options. The company was, as Seuss puts it, “flat broke.” Then, looking around the market, Seuss spotted what he calls a “point of discontinuity”: a new generation of IBM PC clones like the Tandy 1000 that were for the first time packaged and priced to be attractive to buyers outside corporate America. With little else going for Spinnaker, Seuss elected to “bet the company” on that emerging market. Managing to pull together some capital by calling on Harvard University connections, he applied Spinnaker’s remaining staff to creating a new line of home-office and small-business productivity software. Spinnaker 2.0 would be, like Activision 2.0, a shadow of its old self for some time, but sales would eventually rebound from a low of $8 million in 1987 to $65 million in 1994, the year Seuss sold the company to The Learning Company.

The Telarium and Windham Classics lines were among the inevitable casualties of Seuss’s new strategy. They were quietly cancelled, the remaining stock sold off at fire-sale prices. The Scoop was already complete, with packaging created and promotion efforts already begun, when the fateful decision came down. It was thus never actually released… until, that is, 1989, when a somewhat rejuvenated Spinnaker decided to give it a go after all under their own imprint for the Apple II and MS-DOS (a Commodore 128 version that had been announced back in 1986 never did arrive). A less than spectacular game now three years behind the times in the graphics and interface departments, The Scoop attracted little notice and quickly fell out of print again, the last gasp of this line of often botched but frequently fascinating games. Ah, well… the anticlimax that was The Scoop‘s belated release does at least let us reassure ourselves that it wasn’t a cancelled masterpiece. We don’t know for sure, on the other hand, what would have come from other ongoing or proposed Telarium projects based on novels by Robert A. Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, and Harry Harrison — although, as with the Synapse games, it seems unrealistic to imagine that they wouldn’t have suffered from Telarium’s usual litany of problems.

The fate of completed titles like The Scoop and Ronin, which their publishers judged not capable of recouping the additional expense of actually releasing them, tell you just about you all need to know about the commercial state of bookware by 1986. And it only takes a good look at Breakers and The Scoop to understand much about the fundamental issues of design and technology that plagued the vast majority of the bookware releases. They serve as good examples of a format that went out much like it came in, full of big notions but also a bit half-baked. In the interest of history if nothing else, feel free to download The Scoop and Breakers and give them a try. The former is in the Apple II version; the latter in the MS-DOS version, and includes a DOSBox configuration that should work very well.

(My thanks go to C. David Seuss for sharing memories and documents relating to Spinnaker’s history. Dale Desharone, né Dale Disharoon, died in 2008. He was interviewed by Hardcore Gaming 101 shortly before his passing. A much older profile can be found in the November 1983 Compute!’s Gazette.)

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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An Alternate Chronicle of Amber

Those of you who’ve read the books will probably most appreciate this alternative version of them, as facilitated by Telarium.

I escape the hospital.

I escape the hospital.

I convince Flora to let me stay with her.

I convince Flora to let me stay with her.

Random arrives, and Flora and I help him to dispatch his pursuers.

Random arrives, and Flora and I help him to dispatch his pursuers.

Random and I begin the journey to Amber.

Random and I begin the journey to Amber.

Julian runs us down.

Julian runs us down.

But we turn the tables on him.

But we turn the tables on him.

We rescue Deirdre from Eric's men.

We rescue Deirdre from Eric’s men.

We part ways with Deirdre and march straight into Amber. A bit of toadying convinces Eric that I accept him as king.

We part ways with Deirdre and march straight into Amber. A bit of groveling convinces Eric that I accept him as king.

I Trump to Deirdre in Rebma and walk the Pattern (via a surprisingly entertaining mini-game).

I Trump to Deirdre in Rebma and walk the Pattern (via a surprisingly entertaining mini-game).

I use the Pattern to transport myself back to Amber.

I use the Pattern to transport myself back to Amber.

I Trump Bleys to me, and together we murder Eric.

I Trump Bleys to me, and together we murder Eric.

But now Bleys turns on me! This will really take some groveling...

But now Bleys turns on me! This will really take some groveling…

I locate Brand in shadow via his Trump, and rescue him from his imprisonment of Bleys's making.

I locate Brand in shadow via his Trump, and rescue him from his imprisonment of Bleys’s making.

We stumble across Benedict. Brand makes overtures which I reject, then leaves.

We stumble across Benedict. Brand makes overtures which I reject, then leaves.

I get a call from Bleys and Brand's former co-conspirator Fiona. We cut a deal of our own.

I get a call from Bleys and Brand’s former co-conspirator Fiona. We cut a deal of our own.

Amber is under attack! I agree to march with Benedict to her defense.

Amber is under attack! I agree to march with Benedict to her defense.

Back in Amber I reveal Bleys and Brand's nefarious schemes, leaving Fiona out of it. After I lead the forces of Amber to victory (doubtless from safely in the rear), most everyone except Bleys and Brand thinks I'm a pretty swell guy. I become king of Amber!

Back in Amber I reveal Bleys and Brand’s nefarious schemes, leaving Fiona out of it. After I lead the forces of Amber to victory (doubtless from safely in the rear), most everyone except Bleys and Brand thinks I’m a pretty swell guy. I become king of Amber!

 

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Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber

Technological futurists and the people who love them have been talking for some time now about something called the Singularity, that moment in the (near?) future when computing technology will reach some critical mass and change everything forever in ways we can hardly begin to imagine. I’m not so interested in discussing the merits of the idea here, but I do want to say that singularities can take many forms, and to note that the sort of singularities one sees are perhaps more emblematic of one’s own personal hobby horses than some might like to admit. In that spirit, I’d like to propose a singularity of my own, albeit one recently passed rather than oncoming. It landed right about the middle of the 1960s.

To see what I’m talking about, watch a movie or listen to a hit song from 1960 followed by one from 1970. While it may be extreme and rather narcisstic and certainly horridly Western-centric to divide all recent history into pre-1960s and post-1960s, it’s nevertheless hard for me to come up with another instant when everything changed so completely. Films and songs are of course only signifiers of the deeper changes in the culture: changes in gender roles and responsibilities, in race relations, in attitudes toward war and peace and government and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. The 1960s changed the way people talked, the way they dressed, they way they thought in a way far more profound than the mere vicissitudes of fashion. Perhaps most of all, they changed what is still for so many the most uncomfortable of uncomfortable subjects, sex, forever. We’re still dealing with the fallout every day: in the United States, at least, your decision of which party to vote for still has a great deal to do with whether you think all of these changes were in general a good or a bad thing.

Even written science fiction, that literary ghetto which had hitherto marched along blissfully ignoring and being ignored by changes in the larger world of arts and letters, wasn’t insulated from these winds of change. A New Wave of writers poured into — the old guard might, and sometimes did, say “invaded” — the stolid old halls that the pulps had built. These new writers were very different from the old holy trinity of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. They replaced an absolute faith in objectivity and rationalism with a tolerance for ambiguity and an honest curiosity about spirituality, particularly (this being the 1960s) of the Eastern variety. They replaced adventures in outer space with explorations (this again being the 1960s, when psychedelics were everywhere) of inner space. They replaced workmanlike (not to say clunky) prose with literary flights of fancy and experimental structures showing the influence of folks like James Joyce and William S. Burroughs; a surprising number of the New Wave stars were poets in addition to short-story writers or novelists, for God’s sake. They replaced characters that served primarily as grist for the mill of Plot and Idea with real, three-dimensional humans whose subjective experiences were the point of the works in which they featured. American science fiction, like seemingly every other institution in the country, went to war with itself for a time, with John W. Campbell opining on behalf of the Old Guard in the pages of Analog that the Kent State protestors had gotten what they deserved while Michael Moorcock preached anarchism and feminism from his soapbox as editor of New Worlds.

Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny

One of the biggest stars of the New Wave is our real subject for today: the man with the perfect science-fiction writer’s name of Roger Zelazny. He burst onto the scene in the mid-1960s with a series of dazzling short stories and a short novel, This Immortal, which took place on a post-apocalyptic Earth populated by creatures and minor gods from a sort of fever dream of Greek mythology. Then in 1967 he delivered Lord of Light, an audacious transplantation of the Hindu pantheon — if you haven’t realized it already, Zelazny was big on myth — to an interstellar milieu. The structure was as intricate as many a Modernist novel, the language gorgeous. The central character, Mahasamatman (he “called himself Sam”), reminds one in his rebellion against the rest of the pantheon of no one so much as the Satan of Paradise Lost.

Lord of Light deservedly swept science fiction’s two biggest prizes, the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, for its year. Along with a groundbreaking collection of short stories of the same year edited by Harlan Ellison and to which Zelazny also contributed, Dangerous Visions, it’s gone on to stand as perhaps the perfect exemplar of New Wave science fiction and why it mattered — this even though Zelazny himself rejected the label. There was a moment there when Roger Zelazny was accorded the honor amongst a ridiculously strong field of fellow up-and-comers of being just possibly the most promising young writer in science fiction. Lord of Light was great, but, what with Zelazny still so young, many predicted even better things from him once he matured a bit, got beyond just dazzling with the sheer high-wire virtuosity of his language and plots and began to really dig into his worlds and themes.

But somehow that never quite happened. Oh, he continued to be astonishingly prolific, releasing for instance three novels in 1969 alone. His books remained readable; Zelazny was too professional to deliver anything else. Yet, while the reputation of contemporaries like Ursula Le Guin have only soared higher in the years since the heyday of the New Wave, Zelazny gradually found himself banished to the mid-lists, just another competent and salable genre writer. Much of his later work felt kind of forgettable, at its worst even kind of facile. Maybe it was down to an unwillingness to go to the hard places. Certainly it’s hard not to feel that this writer, who throughout his career cranked out novels at the rate of one or two every year along with a steady stream of short stories, might have benefited from just slowing down a bit, from applying all of his enormous energy to a single book for a while.

On the other hand, lots of readers — more than had enjoyed the likes of Lord of Light, actually — liked the later Zelazny, liked his readable, fast-paced novels that weren’t too demanding on either their reader or their writer. Zelazny, for his part, always rejected aspirations to literature in interviews, making it clear that he considered himself simply a working writer whose first consideration must be the financial. Even Lord of Light, he eventually revealed, had some commercial calculation at its base: he made it straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy in order to maximize its readership. Lovers of Zelazny’s early work could at least console themselves that even his most pedestrian novels still showed flashes of the old brilliance. Anyway, there was still plenty of time for him to buckle down and deliver another masterpiece. Until suddenly there wasn’t: he died of colorectal cancer at age 58 in 1995.

The flash point for lovers and haters of newer Zelazny is a series of ten fantasy novels set in a world called Amber. Drawing upon Zelazny’s usual mythical archetypes as well as Platonic philosophy, the Amber series postulates a perfect shining city on a hill, Amber itself, of which all other reality — or realities; infinite alternate universes worth of them — are but imperfect shadows. As one travels outward from Amber the shadows become steadily wilder and stranger, until one arrives at last at Amber’s polar opposite, the Courts of Chaos. The elemental forces of Order and Chaos which Amber and the Courts respectively represent exist in an uneasy symbiotic state — which doesn’t prevent them from constantly trying to get the upper hand on one another. Within Amber lives a royal family of superhumans and apparent immortals. They can communicate with one another and instantly jump to one another’s locations in Amber or in shadow via a set of magical cards, the family Trumps. They can also, albeit more laboriously, visit anywhere in shadow by simply walking — or driving, or riding — there, slowly manipulating and adjusting the reality around them as they go until they arrive at just the place they were looking for. (The early books dwell for some time on the intriguing philosophical question of whether they are visiting lands that always existed in shadow or creating them in their mind’s eye; like much else, however, this question is forgotten in the later books, by which time Amber is conducting trade negotiations with lands in shadow.) Amber’s royal family, consisting of an inconveniently absent father along with nine brothers and four sisters, is riven with far more strife and suspicion than one might expect from a family supposedly representing Order. Upon their various plots rest most of the series’s most compelling plots.

The first five Amber books, later to become known as the “Corwin Cycle,” were published between 1970 and 1978. They tell of the struggles of Prince Corwin of Amber, first against his hated brother Eric for the throne and later against the forces of Chaos who threaten Amber and the very fabric of reality itself. The books proved to be very popular, by far the most popular thing Zelazny had ever written. And so he wrote another five books, the “Merlin Cycle” describing the adventures of Corwin’s son, between 1985 and 1991. Most critics will tell you that the series declines in quality almost linearly, a half-step or so at a time starting right from the second book. The first book, Nine Princes in Amber, while much more straightforwardly written and plotted than the likes of Lord of Light, breathes the old Zelazny magic as we learn about this grandly mysterious multiverse and are introduced one by one to the family of Amber and their Shakespearian intrigues and rivalries. But as the books go on with strangely little differentiation from one to another — it really does feel as if Zelazny would just write the story until he had the 225 pages that was his publisher’s ideal length, then stop for a while — it begins to feel like just a series of long, anecdotal meanderings, particularly by the time we get to the much inferior Merlin Cycle. It’s pretty clear after a certain point in the latter that he’s making it up as he goes along, and apparently forgetting in the process a good part of what he’s already written. As Amber turns from a magical perfection to a mundane place that doesn’t seem all that qualitatively different from any of the shadows, as characters reverse themselves or change personalities entirely to suit Zelazny’s newest plotting whims, as ultimately pointless digressions come to occupy entire books worth of story, the later books manage to retroactively spoil much of what came before. By the time the whole thing sputters to a halt with the most anti-climactic of endings in which Merlin does exactly what he spent the previous several books saying he didn’t want to do, much of the allure of Nine Princes in Amber has long since been ground into dust.

That, anyway, is my attitude today. I should note that 25 years ago when I first read the Amber books I thought they were magnificent, Corwin and even Merlin the most dashing and cool heroes imaginable. Now they seem as often as not like smug, smirking jerks who are nowhere near as clever as they think they are. Merlin in particular, I’ve gradually come to realize, is actually as dumb as a box of rocks; he spends most of his time like the player’s character in a videogame, being manipulated and led by the nose through his foreordained plot by other characters in the story. Still, Amber remains readable even at its worst, even when you know that none of this is really going anywhere in particular; Zelazny knew how to craft a page turner. My wife and I used my omnibus Chronicles of Amber as bedtime reading for several months. By the end we were spending a lot of time making fun of its endless, exhaustively detailed fight scenes, the occasional stabs at free-verse poetry that misfire horribly, the creepy Mary Sue quality to Corwin and Merlin (like them, we weren’t surprised to learn, Zelazny was a fencing aficionado, but presumably beautiful women didn’t all fall swooning before him the way they did for them), and the sheer stupidity of the hapless Merlin, but we did finish all ten books. I suppose that says something. Thomas M. Wagner summed up the Amber series about as charitably as one can on his reviews site: “There’s no point in pretending this is great literature any more than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it captures the quintessence of pulp escapism with just about as much purity. It’s fast-paced, gobs of fun, and requires about as many brain cells as an old Johnny Weismuller movie.” That should be good enough. Or it would be if Zelazny hadn’t proved himself capable of so much more. I’ll leave you to come down on whichever side you prefer.

Given its intriguing if not exactly rigorous fantasy milieu as well as the politicking that can make it seem like a fantasical version of Diplomacy, not to mention its considerable popularity at one time, Amber made a compelling setting for ludic narrative. In 1991, Erick Wujcik published the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, one of several streamlined tabletop RPG systems that appeared around that time with an emphasis on story and texture and, most of all, character interaction; this in contrast to older games like Dungeons and Dragons with their obsession with minutiae and tactical combat. Each player in the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game takes the role of a member of the royal family. If everyone is in the proper Amber spirit, the gamemaster need not say much beyond that; the intrigues and betrayals all blossom naturally. Although it never gained the commercial prominence of fellow second-generation RPGs like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, Amber attracted a cult of loyal players who still keep it alive today.

But long before The Diceless Roleplaying Game there was another ludic Amber, this one produced by Telarium for the computer. Like the simultaneously released Perry Mason game, Nine Princes in Amber appeared just as its source material was getting a boost in the form of new installments after a fallow period of some years. In the case of Amber, this material took the form of Trumps of Doom, the first volume in the Merlin Cycle and first Amber novel since the Corwin Cycle had concluded seven years before. Roger Zelazny was happy to cash Telarium’s checks, but otherwise contributed even less to the project than had Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury to their respective games. He did graciously sign his name to a suitable back-of-the-box blurb: “I’m thrilled to see my Amber books become a challenging computer adventure. For anyone interested in exploring contingent paths through my tale, the possibilities here are almost endless.” The actual game, however, is a product of the same committee approach that yielded Perry Mason.

As such things go, it’s at least a very relevant blurb. Like Perry Mason, Nine Princes in Amber is a crazily unusual and ambitious work of interactive fiction. There’s a modest slate of object-oriented puzzles to deal with as well as an elaborate and frustrating fencing simulation that has all the problems typical of randomized combat in text adventures. There’s also a graphics-based mini-game that is, unlike the horrid arcade sequences in earlier Telarium games, actually quite fun to play. Yet the main focus is once again on character interaction. The included verb list is even more far-ranging than that of Perry Mason, including some entrants that have quite possibly never featured in another work of interactive fiction before or since: verbs like “placate,” “flatter,” “mention,” “bluff,” and “stall.” The heart of the game is a series of tense encounters with your various siblings in which you’ll have the opportunity to try out those and many more.

That said, Nine Princes in Amber can at first seem underwhelming. The game seems to play out as a linear series of Reader’s Digest condensed scenes from the first two books, with most of the texture — like, inevitably, that provided by Corwin’s occasional amorous encounters — painfully absent. Do in any given scene what Corwin did in the book, and you get to continue to the next; do something else, and you get killed and see one of the “forty possible final endings” the box copy trumpets. As Jason Compton put it in a review on Lemon 64, gameplay can seem to devolve into, “All right, dammit, I know what Corwin did in the book, so how can I express it in terms the parser will understand?” In comparison to, say, Fahrenheit 451, which used its source novel as a springboard for something entirely new, this can seem depressingly unambitious, not to mention unchallenging for those who have read the books and impossible for those who haven’t.

But then, when you blunder your way at last to the end by trying to recreate the events of the novels as faithfully as possible, you get a shock: the ending you get is not a particularly good one. And so you begin to reexamine and reevaluate, and discover that Nine Princes in Amber is doing — or at at least trying to do — something very audacious. It really is possible to forge your own path through the story, to end up with a set of allies and enemies radically different from those the novel’s Corwin ended up with in his own quest for the kingship of Amber. The claim of forty endings may be a stretch, but it’s possible to reach and win the climactic battle and still see the story branch at least four ways depending on your actions earlier in the game and your relationships with your siblings.

While the Corwin of the novels eventually thinks better of his own ambition to be king, this remains the goal of the Corwin of the game. The game’s universe is even more amoral than that of the novels; not for nothing do you find a copy of The Prince in your sister Flora’s study early in the story. I found I could be most successful by going into full Harry Flashman mode, lying and backstabbing and wheedling my way through events.

There are several choke points through which the narrative will always funnel, whether the player is trying to diverge from the novel or follow its plot exactly. Veterans of the books will recognize them immediately: the Pattern walk in Rebma, the time in the dungeon of Amber, the encounter with Benedict near Avalon, the final battle at the foot of Mount Kolvir. In between, the narrative can branch off in many directions. (This certain amount of linearity is necessary not least because the game is distributed on four disk sides for the Apple II and Commodore 64; the amount of disk flipping required would otherwise be horrendous.) Impressively, the reasons you arrive at the various choke points can be very different, and the relationships you’ve built or failed to build are preserved as you pass through them. In this sense of making all the pieces fit while preserving the player’s freedom, Nine Princes in Amber is one hell of an intricate piece of design.

Indeed, the game is in its way an amazing achievement. I know of no other text adventure from its era — and, come to think of it, possibly of any other — that offers this level of choice over not just the beats of the story or the order in which puzzles are solved but of the very direction of such a grand narrative. Yet it’s also often a pain to play, thanks as usual to that problematic Telarium parser. It’s nice that the game offers verbs like “placate,” but most of the time, even in conversations, most of these clever verbs do nothing; worse, it’s often hard to figure out whether any given verb is doing anything or not. Nine Princes in Amber has, in other words, all of the same problems as Perry Mason. If anything, they’re even more pronounced here.

After thinking about it a bit, I began to feel that even if its parser was much better something would still be off about the game. Many commands that do work are absurdly wide in scope and open to interpretation, sometimes causing hours or weeks to pass in the story: “walk in shadow,” “go to Brand” “attack Amber.” Then it struck me: Nine Princes in Amber is really a choice-based narrative that’s been saddled with the wrong interface. Parsers are very good for complex but granular manipulations. Parser-based games are excellent tools for exploring geographical spaces and manipulating their contents, but not so good for exploring story spaces, for manipulating the narrative itself as does the player of Nine Princes in Amber. As Sam Kabo Ashwell wrote in his great series of articles about Choose Your Own Adventure books and other gamebooks (many of a vintage similar to this game), “CYOA is where you go when you want to prioritise free-flowing, bigger-scale narrative over deep or difficult interaction.” These are indeed the priorities of Nine Princes in Amber. The parser in this context only obfuscates what should be a delightful garden of forking paths. It leaves you constantly poking at unrewarding blind alleys that don’t work simply because that’s not one of the ways the plot is allowed to branch right now.

But imagine Nine Princes in Amber as a hypertext narrative with some limited state tracking and it all falls into place. One could create a node diagram like those Ashwell created for his articles if one was willing to spend enough time plumbing the game’s depths. This isn’t the first time I’ve observed such a disconnect between interface and content; I once went so far as to re-implement one of Robert Lafore’s pioneering experiments in ludic narrative as a choice-based game to prove a similar point. I won’t do the same here, although it is tempting; copyright concerns as well as the vastly greater complexity of the Telarium game prevent me. You’ll have to accept my word that this game would work perfectly well in any of the several viable modern hypertext-narrative engines.

So, chalk up Nine Princes in Amber as — stop me if you’ve heard this before — one more noble Telarium experiment that doesn’t really work as a playable game. Still, like Perry Mason, it’s worth some of your time just to marvel at its ambitions. Failures are after all often more instructive than successes. To experience Nine Princes in Amber, an interesting blend of both, feel free to download the Commodore 64 version here.

 
 

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Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

When they announced the first Telarium games to considerable press fanfare in 1984, Spinnaker Software promised that they would represent not just a new line of adventure games but a whole new approach to interactive fiction that would take the form beyond what even Infocom had so far achieved. The new Telarium philosophy was expressed in interviews by PR mastermind Seth Godin:

The adventure-game market has been pretty much the same since 1976, when the first adventure game came out. That is, they’ve been puzzle-based games, be they text or graphics — they’ve always been based on a series of logic puzzles.

We’re trying to make a game that is based on plot and characterization, not puzzles — the way a book is. If you read Fahrenheit 451, you don’t get stuck on page 50. And if you play the game, you don’t get stuck on frame 50, because the whole idea is that you’re interested in the game because of the characters and the plot and what’s happening. You care about what’s going on.

In short, Telarium promised to “replace puzzles with character-oriented situations.”

Anyone who had been working with adventure games for a while and thus knew what a difficult proposition that was had their skepticism amply justified when the first slate of Telarium games actually appeared near the end of the year. Rendezvous with Rama was, predictably enough given its almost bizarrely adventure-game-like source novel, exactly the “collection of logic puzzles” set in a deserted landscape that Godin had said Telarium wasn’t interested in making. Fahrenheit 451, Dragonworld, and Amazon all played out in more populated worlds, but used their non-player characters as window dressing or, at best, puzzle solutions and password vending machines. And thanks largely to a parser that was truculent even by the standards of the era, Fahrenheit 451 in particular was full of exactly the sort of opportunities to get infuriatingly “stuck on frame 50″ that Godin had promised wouldn’t be there. The games just didn’t live up to the hype.

All of which made the next two releases in the line, which trickled out almost a year after that initial glut, doubly surprising. Both Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder and Nine Princes in Amber try much more earnestly to do the sorts of things that Godin had been talking about all along. Indeed, their character-interaction ambitions and determination to turn the adventure game into genuine interactive fiction exceed even Infocom’s farthest voyages into those fraught realms. Mind you, their ambitions don’t reach anything close to fulfillment, and can be read as an object lesson in the reasons that Infocom chose to shy away from similar projects in the name of crafting playable games. Still, their determination to push the boundaries make them if nothing else some of the most interesting games of their era.

These games can also serve as an object lesson in just how quickly the times can change. By the time they appeared ominous warning signs had turned into a full-blown home-computer-industry slump from which nothing suffered more than the nascent phenomenon of bookware. Perhaps due to the disappointing sales of that initial slate of games (from which, only and oddly, Michael Crichton’s Amazon was excepted), Byron Preiss and his team of talented young writers and illustrators had parted company with Spinnaker, taking with them an apparently all but complete game based on Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones as well as deals in the works with the likes of Philip José Farmer and Alfred Bester. Undaunted, Spinnaker took creative as well as technical ownership of Perry Mason and Nine Princes in Amber in-house; both games are products of committees, including in the case of Perry Mason no fewer than four people — among them the irrepressible Mr. Godin — writing the “scripts.” Whatever the usual merits of such an approach, in this case it results in no noticeable drop-off in quality or ambition. Whatever else you can say about them, these games are no camels.

Erle Stanley Gardner

The original creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner, can stand proudly alongside Dennis Wheatley as one of the great bad writers of the twentieth century, his life story a monument to sheer dogged persistence more so than any innate talent. A rather abrasive personality cut in the classic can-do American mold, he passed the bar and became a lawyer in 1911 without ever darkening the door of a law school. He turned to writing action, adventure, detective, and science fiction with the arrival of the pulps in the 1920s. Showing the commitment with which he approached everything he attempted, he forced himself to churn out 4000 words per night, 1.2 million per year. He was unashamed of his motivations: “I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun.” When questioned why his heroes always seemed to finish off the bad guy at last with the last bullet in their guns, Gardner said, “At three cents a word, every time I say ‘Bang’ in the story I get three cents. If you think I’m going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you’re nuts.”

Once his finances allowed, Gardner further refined his approach to writing, hiring as many as six secretaries to whom he dictated outlines of his stories for completion and polishing; this literary assembly line earned him the sobriquet “the Henry Ford of detective fiction.” By the time of his death in 1970 his oeuvre was so huge and published in such diverse and often ephemeral places as to be virtually uncatalogable. It includes at least 150 novels, at least 500 short stories, a significant body of nonfiction writing (largely on travel and history) for the glossy magazines, radio and television scripts. His sales in his heyday were equally enormous: at one time the Guinness Book of World’s Records could name him nothing less than the best selling writer of all time.

For all that productivity, Gardner would be regarded, like Wheatley, as little more than an historical curiosity today were it not for a single member of his large stable of lawyers, private eyes, and adventurers: Perry Mason. The redoubtable lawyer first appeared in 1933 as the star of the novel The Case of the Velvet Claws. That version of Mason was created in the hard-boiled image of Sam Spade: a two-fisted brawler who’s all about the money his services will earn him and isn’t afraid to resort to blackmail to achieve his ends. But as time passed and Gardner and Mason made the transition from the rough-and-tumble world of the pulps to the more genteel environs of the Saturday Evening Post, Gardner’s Mason gradually softened into something in at least the same zip code as the glibly savvy do-gooder soon to become a fixture of American television.

In the years before that star-making turn by Raymond Burr, Perry Mason was adapted many times into other media, including a string of low-budget movies and a long-running radio serial. Like the novels themselves, all are largely forgotten today, along with the many actors who portrayed Mason in them. But when Gardner saw Burr audition for the television version in 1957, he just knew he’d found his man at last: “Raymond Burr is Perry Mason!” he declared. Aside from a brief, ill-considered stab at the role by Monte Markham in 1973, no one but Burr would ever dare play Perry Mason again.

Burr’s Mason became one of the most enduring characters in the history of television, lasting through not only the original series’s staggering 9-year, 271-episode run (they cranked ‘em out quick in those days) but also a series of 26 well-received television specials broadcast between 1985 and Burr’s death in 1993. He remains a fixture of daytime syndication schedules today, his theme song still immediately identifiable as soon as it comes over the airwaves (or cable line, or Internet…). The televised version of Mason came to entirely supersede his print counterpart, to the extent that even many loyal viewers of the television series then and now don’t realize that there ever was a Perry Mason before Raymond Burr.

Which brings us back to Telarium’s adaptation. Telarium was of course supposed to be a line of book adaptations. Spinnaker had already demonstrated what contortions they would go through to uphold the bookware concept with Shadowkeep, for which they hired Alan Dean Foster to write an inconveniently absent source novel. Still, no one in 1985 was interested in playing a game based on Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, which had largely fallen out of print and into obscurity following his death in 1970. So what we have is a hybrid that dully plays homage to the bookware concept by featuring the name of Erle Stanley Gardner prominently on the cover along with a nice “about the author” blurb to describe him, but which is otherwise an unabashed re-creation of the television version. This Mason is clearly Burr’s Mason. Not only does he feature on the package cover, but his colleagues and opponents in the in-game illustrations are perfect likenesses of the actors who portrayed them on television. The game even opens with a computerized rendering of that iconic theme song.

For obvious reasons, the polite fiction that the authors of the Telarium source materials were all intimately involved with their adaptations is here quietly but definitively dispensed with. This is a licensing deal, pure and simple, with the Gardner estate’s Paisano Productions holding company also getting its name on the box, albeit in the copyright fine print. The timing must have seemed perfect to both Spinnaker and Paisano: Perry Mason’s star was suddenly rising in the wider culture, thanks to the first of that series of television revivals that brought him back to prime time for the first time in many years just as the game was being published.

The game’s case could have fit easily into either the television show or one of Gardner’s books. Your client, one Laura Kapp, was apprehended by the police in an insentient state in her apartment with a gun lying just a few feet away — the same gun, in fact, that killed her husband Victor, who was found lying across the room. It seems that Laura was just released from a mental hospital and was extremely jealous as well as unstable, and for good reason: it appears that Victor was conducting at least one affair in her absence. Open-and-shut case, right? Anyone who says yes has never seen an episode of Perry Mason; the fellow amassed a final record of 268 to 3 (with one defeat later overturned on appeal) on television getting clients out of equally tough spots.

But if The Case of the Mandarin Murder is a fairly typical episode of Perry Mason, it’s a very atypical adventure game, minimizing or dispensing entirely with some of the most established conventions of the genre, among them object-oriented puzzles, mapping and (geographical) exploration, even compass directions. The first part of the game, during which you search the Kapp apartment for clues under the watchful eyes of the police, is the most traditional. But that is only a prelude to the real meat of the experience, which plays out as a series of examinations and cross-examinations in the courtroom. Just as in the television show, you’ll need to direct your faithful colleagues Paul Drake and Della Street to follow up the leads that emerge in the apartment and over the course of the trial; they’ll often be running in to give you vital information in the very nick of time. Also present are Mason’s usual long-suffering foils, Police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg and District Attorney Hamilton Burger (one can’t help but wonder, given his record against Mason alone in the most open-and-shut of cases, how the latter in particular manages to keep his job). And then there are of course this episode’s guest stars and potential suspects, in the form of Laura herself along with the mysterious femme fatale with whom Victor was supposedly conducting his affair, Victor’s business partner and said partner’s wife, a restaurant critic with a grudge, and a doorman with a shady past. The trial can go in many different directions, with various final outcomes possible. It’s not that hard to amass enough evidence and cast doubt on enough testimony to gain a hung jury or even an acquittal for Laura. But to unmask the real culprit and force a patented Perry Mason confession amidst a hail of tears and recriminations… aye, there’s the rub, for both the right and the wrong reasons.

If you read my articles about the earlier Telarium games (or, better yet, if you’ve played any of them), you may be wondering how Telarium’s problematic parser fares in a production as dependent on character interaction as this one. The answer is, slightly better than you might think, but still nowhere near well enough. It’s not that the folks at Spinnaker, perhaps still stinging from criticisms of the parsing in those earlier games, weren’t aware of the challenge. Why else would they include in the package an elaborate and really quite clever “Mandarin Menu” which includes not only a vocabulary list but also a sentence-building chart for phrasing your interrogations?

Perry Mason's sentence-building menu

Still, it doesn’t work out all that well. Many queries, including plenty that seem to comply perfectly well with the chart, fall flat. It’s just way too hard to figure out how the game wants you to phrase things, what keywords — and remember we’re dealing here with lots of abstract subjects like feelings and affairs and alibis — it wants from you to trigger a response in a witness. Combine that with the stubborn lack of feedback typical of the Telarium parser, and you end up with a feeling all too common in interactive fiction, that of never being sure whether a given line of questioning is really unproductive or whether you’re just not phrasing things correctly. In other words, is this witness shaking his head at you for diegetic reasons, because his answer is really no, or is he doing it because the extra-diegetic parser doesn’t understand you? To further complicate matters, you’re constantly being graded by the jury on your competence, confidence and flair for courtroom drama. As soon as you start to bumble and stumble around up there the game is up. Thus playing becomes a matter of experimenting on each witness to figure out what she can understand and what you can get from her, then restoring to play the polished and all but omniscient Mr. Mason we know from television.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

Another problem is more subtle than the war with the parser. The solution to the case, when it finally emerges, is convoluted and, well, pretty much ridiculous — hardly an anomaly in the world of Perry Mason. The problem in the context of a Perry Mason game, however, is that it’s effectively impossible for you to ever arrive at it until the guilty party breaks down and confesses. With no real hard evidence pointing to that guilty party, you’re largely left to just hammer on everyone until somebody finally cracks. You’re rather left in the position of the would-be know-it-all detective in Simon Christiansen’s modern interactive fiction Death Off the Cuff. Yet whereas that game knows what it’s doing and, indeed, is meant as a send-up of absurdly omniscent detectives just like Perry Mason, this game is not so knowing. Believe me when I say that the solution totally comes out of left field — and is totally stupid at that.

Another thing about the case, not so much annoying as just strange: while Victor was a prominent restauranter, nothing “Mandarin” has any real bearing on the case. The subtitle is apparently a reference to the restaurant Victor was planning to open next, but said restaurant isn’t germane to much of anything about the actual murder. About the best thing you can say about it is that it allows for that neat “Mandarin Menu” of sentence composition, a sort of backdoor homage to the hacker’s traditional love for Chinese food. (The subtitle could also be taken as an advertent or inadvertent homage to Gardner himself, who built his early law practice defending the rights of Chinese immigrants. He remained fascinated by China throughout his life, visiting the country several times and allegedly building up a passable proficiency in Cantonese, no mean feat for a Westerner.)

So, no, The Case of the Mandarin Murder doesn’t entirely work as game or as courtroom drama. Yet it’s nonetheless kind of fascinating for what it tries to do as well as for the way it tries to do it. Although it sprawls across the four disk sides typical of all the Telarium games, a single playthrough is unlikely to take much more than two hours (or maybe three if you play the Commodore 64 version I’m making available for download here, what with that machine’s painfully slow disk access). It’s implemented in depth rather than breadth, loaded with details to be uncovered and secrets to be discovered. Sure, some of the Easter eggs are just silly; the dumbest plays on the fact that one of the characters is named Julian, same as a character in Telarium’s contemporanous Nine Princes in Amber game.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder

But that sort of silliness is more the exception than the norm. Better are the moments here and there when the parser does understand you for a few turns at a stretch and you really do feel like Perry Mason up there jabbing and feinting at the witness and playing it up for the jury. Those moments, if not quite enough to make it worthy of an unabashed recommendation, are more than enough to make me toast its ludic dreams and ambitions nobly striven after if ultimately unfulfilled.

(Sorry for the long delay between posts, as well as this site’s going offline for a day or two recently. My mother suddenly and unexpectedly died, which led to lots of emotional turbulence and a frenzied trip back to America. In the midst of all that I neglected to renew my domain registration. Things will hopefully now be settling back into a normal rhythm.

Sources on Telarium this time out were pretty much the usual referenced in previous articles, especially the December 1984 Compute!’s Gazette and the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play. A couple of interesting summaries among many of Erle Stanley Gardner’s life and career can be found at Thrilling Detective and at the website of his long-term home town of Temecula, California. And thanks as always to C. David Seuss for sharing some of his memories and some valuable resources from the glory days of Spinnaker Software.)

 

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Shadowkeep

Shadowkeep

The story of Shadowkeep, even more so than Amazon the odd duck in the Telarium lineup, begins with Sigma Distributing, one of the first big microcomputer hardware distributors in the Seattle area. In 1981 Christopher Anson, a Sigma vice president, sought and received permission to start a new subsidiary to develop original games to serve the growing demand for software for the computers Sigma was selling. Anson’s first two acts were to name the company Ultrasoft and hire a programmer named Alan Clark away from Boeing. Clark became the technical architect of the set of tools and approaches that would define Ultrasoft during their brief existence.

Anson had decided that the best place for Ultrasoft to make a splash was in the field of illustrated adventure games, a nexus of excitement in the wake of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. Like Scott Adams, Ken Williams, and Marc Blank before him, Clark realized that it would be more efficient in the long run to write an adventure-game engine and language that could give designers a bit of distance from the technical details of implementation as well as let Ultrasoft deploy their games to multiple platforms relatively painlessly. Deciding that a little corporate branding is always in order, they named their adventure programming language simply Ultra; the interpreter for each targeted platform UltraCode; their graphics system UltraVision. From the standpoint of the end user, Ultrasoft’s most obvious innovation — or, if you like, gimmick — involved this last. UltraVision could display not just static pictures but also brief animations, which could be used to, say, show the player’s avatar actually walking from room to room. Less obvious but no less significant, however, was the parser, one of the first developed outside of Infocom that allowed more than two words — although, it should be said, it was nowhere near as impressive a creation overall (more on that shortly).

Ultrasoft developed two adventures using the system, The Mask of the Sun (1982) and Serpent’s Star (1983). Both are interesting in their way, more carefully crafted, atmospheric, and thoughtful than was the norm of the time. Serpent’s Star in particular does a surprisingly good job of matching its puzzles to its theme of Buddhist philosophy. But both — and particularly Mask of the Sun — are also riddled with the sorts of unfair elements that were all too typical of their era. And both are fairly excruciating to play under any conditions. Whatever its other merits, you see, the Ultra system is slow. A quick look at the games’ technical underpinnings gives a clue as to why: the Ultra program logic doesn’t appear to be compiled at all, merely interpreted in place. The only blessing of that approach was that it enabled some frustrated adventurers to find the solutions to the more incomprehensible puzzles by code diving.

Ultrasoft first tried to market and distribute Mask of the Sun and Serpent’s Star on their own, but found it tough sledding for a tiny company with mainly regional connections in the professionalizing software industry of 1983. They soon accepted the role of developer only, licensing both games to Brøderbund for publication. After spending most of 1983 working on an ambitious new game, an adventure-game/CRPG hybrid called Shadowkeep written in a new version of their system which they dubbed Ultra II, they found a publisher for it in Spinnaker, who took the largely completed game as a future member of their planned Telarium line.

Looking to find some way to make the game fit with the bookware theme of the line as a whole, Spinnaker came up with the idea of reversing the usual process, of hiring a name writer to adapt the game into a book rather than the opposite. Luckily, they had substantial time to get the novelization done; they signed the contract with Ultrasoft in late 1983, a year before they planned to launch the Telarium line. Spinnaker approached Warner Books, who hooked them up with the reigning king of media tie-in novels, Alan Dean Foster. After making his reputation within the industry ghost-writing the Star Wars novelization for George Lucas, Foster had gone on to do The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, The Last Starfighter, and Alien among many others. Virtually any big science-fiction or fantasy movie released seemed to arrive with an accompanying Alan Dean Foster novelization. (That’s still true today; his most recent novelization as of this writing is of Star Trek into Darkness.)

Spinnaker furnished Foster with design documents and a copy of the Shadowkeep source code and let him have at it. Those were all he had to go on; he doesn’t recall ever meeting or speaking with anyone from the design team, nor ever actually playing the game. He does, however, recall it as a very challenging project indeed. Being a party-based CRPG in the mold of Wizardry, Shadowkeep has no actual protagonist to speak of — no characters at all, really, outside of the fellow who sells you equipment and the evil demon Dal’Brad who shows up for the final showdown on the last of the dungeon levels. He was thus forced to invent the vast majority of the novel himself, whilst struggling to strike a balance between writing some recognizable analogue to the experience of the game and giving away all of its challenges. He did his usual workmanlike job, handing in a readable little genre exercise for simultaneous release with the game. Tellingly, it’s not until halfway through the book that the heroes enter the Shadowkeep — i.e., reach the beginning of the game.

Shadowkeep

Said game is… well, it’s really strange. Imagine Wizardry played with a text parser, and you’ve pretty well summed up Shadowkeep. You make a party of up to nine(!) characters. Most of the usual is here: attribute scores, classes and races to choose from, ever better equipment and spells to collect. Oddly missing, however, are character levels and any concept of experience; getting more powerful in this game is strictly a matter of finding or buying better stuff. The dungeon levels are the usual 16 X 16 grids full of traps, monsters, and assorted cartographic challenges. There are some original ideas here. For instance, the positions of the monsters that attack you and those of the members of your party are taken account of to a degree not found in Wizardry, adding some strategic depth to the experience. You likewise have more combat options than in Wizardry; in each round you can choose to forget defense and attack twice, or to just parry, or to attack once while not totally neglecting defense. And certainly the full-color graphics, which feature occasional examples of Ultrasoft’s trademark animations, are much better than Wizardry‘s wire frames.

Shadowkeep Shadowkeep

Still, Shadowkeep mostly just makes you appreciate all the more how well Wizardry does the dungeon crawl. The game replaces Wizardry‘s hot-key interface with, yes, a text-adventure parser. You literally just type what you want to do: “OPEN DOOR,” “GET THE TORCH,” “CAST THE LUMINANCE SPELL,” “LIGHT THE TORCH AND PREPARE THE SWORD,” “PUT THE WAND OF TRAVEL IN THE CHEST.” Sounds fine, right? Well, what sounds fine in the abstract doesn’t work so well in practice. You must now type “F <RETURN>” (for “FORWARD”) instead of just “F” every time you want to walk forward a square in the dungeon. This may seem a minor thing, but consider that you’ll be entering this command thousands and thousands of times in the course of playing the game. That extra keystroke thus means thousands and thousands of extra keystrokes. And that’s the tip of the iceberg; this game is death by a hundred such small cuts. Commands by default are carried out by the leader of your party, who is not even a character you select but merely the one with the highest Leadership attribute score. Having someone else do something requires that you prepend her name to the command (“NAOMI GET THE TORCH AND GIVE IT TO REB”) — yet more tedious typing.

And the parser, that focal point of the whole interface, is at least as exasperating as the mainline Telarium parser. Like Byron Preiss Video Productions and many others at this time, Ultrasoft chose to take a profoundly misguided approach to this most critical piece of their engine. As described in an article in Softline magazine:

Ultrasoft’s parser is based on concepts in artificial intelligence. In any given message, it eliminates words that don’t make sense and attempts to make sense out of words that are relevant to the situation. This method frees the player from the verb-noun format of the typical adventure’s input.

In other words, the parser pretends to be smarter than it is by simply throwing out anything it doesn’t understand and doing what it can with the rest. This approach may “free the player from the verb-noun format,” but it also guarantees that complex (and often not so complex) inputs will be not just rejected — which combined with a proper error message is at least a form of useful feedback — but misunderstood. Far from making the parser seem smarter, this just makes it seem that much dumber and that much more infuriating. It leads to situations like that in the Byron Preiss games where any input containing the word “LOOK” anywhere within it causes the parser to dump everything else and print a room description. In Shadowkeep, typing “NAOMI CAST CURE SPELL ON REB” leads her to cast it away into the ether — that “ON REB” was a bridge too far, and thus ignored. Such a system fails to recognize that at least 95% of the time those extra words are not just stuff the player tacked on for the hell of it (who wants to type more than necessary under any circumstances?) but essential information about what she really wants to do.

To play Shadowkeep is to constantly wrestle with the interface. After playing several hours there are basic tasks I still haven’t figured out how to do — like how to cast a cure spell on someone outside of combat, or how to just get a list of the spells a certain character knows. And, like Ultrasoft’s earlier games, Shadowkeep is slow. Every step in the dungeon seems to take an eternity, and as for more complex action… forget about it. Playing is like wading through molasses with shackled feet.

The rewards for all the parsing pain are relatively slight: a handful of logic- or object-oriented puzzles on each level that can perhaps be a bit more complex than they could be under the Wizardry engine. Needless to say, they aren’t worth the rest of the trouble, making Shadowkeep something of a lowlight in the long, chequered history of adventure/CRPG hybrids. Which is a shame, because Shadowkeep‘s dungeon levels do show evidence of some careful craftsmanship and, as noted above, there are some good, original ideas on display here. Shadowkeep is a perfect example of a potentially worthy game destroyed by horrid interface choices. And I mean that literally: if the game isn’t outright unplayable (some patient souls have apparently played and even enjoyed it), it’s closer than I ever need to come to that adjective.

Ultrasoft was already in the process of fading quietly away by the time of Shadowkeep‘s late 1984 release. They never managed to port the Ultra II engine beyond the Apple II, leaving Shadowkeep without that all-critical Commodore 64 version. Spinnaker toyed with doing the port themselves, even announcing it as coming soon on various occasions, but I see no reason to believe that ever happened. (A Commodore 64 version has been a semi-mythical White Whale in collecting circles for many years now, but, despite some anecdotal claims and remembrances, no one has ever produced an actual working version to my knowledge.) The lack of a Commodore 64 version and the underwhelming nature of the game itself combined to make Shadowkeep the least successful — and, today, rarest — of all the Telarium games. Alan Dean Foster’s book, while no bestseller itself, appears to have sold far more copies on the author’s name recognition and its $3 (as opposed to $35) price tag.

Shadowkeep consists, like most of the Telarium games, of four disk sides. In this case, however, all four sides are written to during play to preserve the current state of the dungeon levels; the player is expected to copy her originals before beginning. To my knowledge none of the copies floating around the Internet are pristine. All contain the residue of previous players in their dungeons. I hope that at some point some enterprising collector will take the time to scan and archive an original set of disks. In the meantime I’m posting for download here the cleanest set I can find, whose first player didn’t seem to get much if at all beyond the first dungeon level. If whilst playing Wizardry or Bard’s Tale you thought to yourself that this game would be even better if it played a lot slower and had a parser, you’ve just found your dream CRPG. All others should consider this one a subject for historical research only.

And on that less than stellar note we’ll be moving on from Telarium for a while. My final reckoning of their first five releases is: two worthy efforts (Dragonworld and Amazon); one could-have-been-a-contender (Fahrenheit 451); and two total misfires (Rendezvous with Rama and Shadowkeep). Not a horrible track record on the whole. We’ll see if they learned any lessons in time for their last few games down the road a ways. But next it’s time to get back to the big boys in the field, and tell the rest of the story of Infocom’s very eventful 1984.

(In addition to the sources listed in my first article on bookware and Telarium, I also referenced for this article a feature on Ultrasoft in the May/June 1983 Softline. And thanks to Alan Dean Foster for taking the time to share his memories of the Shadowkeep project with me.)

 
 

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