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The Many Faces of Middle-earth, 1954-1989

The transformation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from an off-putting literary trilogy — full of archaic diction, lengthy appendixes, and poetry, for God’s sake — into some of the most bankable blockbuster fodder on the planet must be one of the most unlikely stories in the history of pop culture. Certainly Tolkien himself must be about the most unlikely mass-media mastermind imaginable. During his life, he was known to his peers mostly as a philologist, or historian of languages. The whole Lord of the Rings epic was, he once admitted, “primarily linguistic in inspiration, and was begun in order to provide the necessary background history” for the made-up languages it contained. On another occasion, he called the trilogy “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” That doesn’t exactly sound like popcorn-movie material, does it?

So, what would this pipe-smoking, deeply religious old Oxford don have made of our modern takes on his work, of CGI spellcraft and 3D-rendered hobbits mowing down videogame enemies by the dozen? No friend of modernity in any of its aspects, Tolkien would, one has to suspect, have been nonplussed at best, outraged at worst. But perhaps — just perhaps, if he could contort himself sufficiently — he might come to see all this sound and fury as at least as much validation as betrayal of his original vision. In writing The Lord of the Rings, he had explicitly set out to create a living epic in the spirit of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Malory. For better or for worse, the living epics of our time unspool on screens rather than on the page or in the chanted words of bards, and come with niceties like copyright and trademark attached.

And where those things exist, so exist also the corporations and the lawyers. It would be those entities rather than Tolkien or even any of his descendants who would control how his greatest literary work was adapted to screens large, small, and in between. Because far more people in this modern age of ours play games and watch movies than read books of any stripe  — much less daunting doorstops like The Lord of the Rings trilogy — this meant that Middle-earth as most people would come to know it wouldn’t be quite the same land of myth that Tolkien himself had created so laboriously over so many decades in his little tobacco-redolent office. Instead, it would be Big Media’s interpretations and extrapolations therefrom. In the first 48 years of its existence, The Lord of the Rings managed to sell a very impressive 100 million copies in book form. In only the first year of its existence, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy was seen by 150 million people.

To understand how The Lord of the Rings and its less daunting predecessor The Hobbit were transformed from books authored by a single man into a palimpsest of interpretations, we need to understand how J.R.R. Tolkien lost control of his creations in the first place. And to begin to do that, we need to cast our view back to the years immediately following the trilogy’s first issuance in 1954 and 1955 by George Allen and Unwin, who had already published The Hobbit with considerable success almost twenty years earlier.

During its own early years, The Lord of the Rings didn’t do anywhere near as well as The Hobbit had, but did do far better than its publisher or its author had anticipated. It sold at least 225,000 copies (this and all other sales figures given in this article refer to sales of the trilogy as a whole, not to sales of the individual volumes that made up the trilogy) in its first decade, the vast majority of them in its native Britain, despite being available only in expensive hardcover editions and despite being roundly condemned, when it was noticed at all, by the very intellectual and literary elites that made up its author’s peer group. In the face of their rejection by polite literary society, the books sold mostly to existing fans of fantasy and science fiction, creating some decided incongruities; Tolkien never quite seemed to know how to relate to this less mannered group of readers. In 1957, the trilogy won the only literary prize it would ever be awarded, becoming the last recipient of the brief-lived International Fantasy Award, which belied its hopeful name by being a largely British affair. Tolkien, looking alternately bemused and deeply uncomfortable, accepted the award, shook hands and signed autographs for his fans, smiled for the cameras, and got the hell out of there just as quickly as he could.

The books’ early success, such as it was, was centered very much in Britain; the trilogy only sold around 25,000 copies in North America during the entirety of its first decade. It enjoyed its first bloom of popularity there only in the latter half of the 1960s, ironically fueled by two developments deeply antithetical to its author. The first was a legally dubious mass-market paperback edition published in the United States by Ace Books in 1965; the second was the burgeoning hippie counterculture.

Donald Wollheim, senior editor at Ace Books, had discovered what he believed to be a legal loophole giving him the right to publish the trilogy, thanks to the failure of Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American hardcover publisher, to properly register their copyright to it in the United States. Never a man prone to hesitation, he declared that Houghton Mifflin’s negligence had effectively left The Lord of the Rings in the public domain, and proceeded to publish a paperback edition without consulting Tolkien or paying him anything at all. Condemned by the resolutely old-fashioned Tolkien for taking the “degenerate” form of the paperback as much as for the royalties he wasn’t paid, the Ace editions nevertheless sold in the hundreds of thousands in a matter of months. Elizabeth Wollheim, daughter of Donald and herself a noted science-fiction and fantasy editor, has characterized the instant of the appearance of the Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings in October of 1965 as the “Big Bang” that led to the modern cottage industry in doorstop fantasy novels. Along with Frank Herbert’s Dune, which appeared the following year, they obliterated almost at a stroke the longstanding tradition in publishing of genre novels as concise works coming in at under 250 pages.

Even as these cheap Ace editions of Tolkien became a touchstone of what would come to be known as nerd culture, they were also seized on by a very different constituency. With the Summer of Love just around the corner, the counterculture came to see in the industrialized armies of Sauron and Saruman the modern American war machine they were protesting, in the pastoral peace of the Shire the life they saw as their naive ideal. The Lord of the Rings became one of the hippie movement’s literary totems, showing up in the songs of Led Zeppelin and Argent, and, as later memorably described by Peter S. Beagle in the most famous introduction to the trilogy ever written, even scrawled on the walls of New York City’s subways (“Frodo lives!”). Beagle’s final sentiments in that piece could stand in very well for the counterculture’s as a whole: “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”

If Tolkien had been uncertain how to respond to the earnest young science-fiction fans who had started showing up at his doorstep seeking autographs in the late 1950s, he had no shared frame of reference whatsoever with these latest readers. He was a man at odds with his times if ever there was one. On the rare occasions when contemporary events make an appearance in his correspondence, it always reads as jarring. Tolkien comes across a little confused by it all, can’t even get the language quite right. For example, in a letter from 1964, he writes that “in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable.” Whatever the merits of the particular musicians in question, one senses that the “noise” of the “Beatle group” music wouldn’t have suited Tolkien one bit in any scenario. And as for Beagle’s crack about “murderers carrying crosses,” it will perhaps suffice to note that his introduction was published only after Tolkien, the devout Catholic, had died. Like the libertarian conservative Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land became another of the counterculture’s totems, Tolkien suffered the supreme irony of being embraced as a pseudo-prophet by a group whose sociopolitical worldview was almost the diametrical opposite of his own. As the critic Leonard Jackson has noted, it’s decidedly odd that the hippies, who “lived in communes, were anti-racist, were in favour of Marxist revolution and free love” should choose as their favorite “a book about a largely racial war, favouring feudal politics, jam-full of father figures, and entirely devoid of sex.”

Note the pointed reference to these first Ballantine editions of The Lord of the Rings as the “authorized” editions.

To what extent Tolkien was even truly aware of his works’ status with the counterculture is something of an open question, although he certainly must have noticed the effect it had on his royalty checks after the Ace editions were forced off the market, to be replaced by duly authorized Ballantine paperbacks. In the first two years after issuing the paperbacks, Ballantine sold almost 1 million copies of the series in North America alone.

In October of 1969, smack dab in the midst of all this success, Tolkien, now 77 years old and facing the worry of a substantial tax bill in his declining years, made one of the most retrospectively infamous deals in the history of pop culture. He sold the film rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the Hollywood studio United Artists for £104,602 and a fixed cut of 7.5 percent of any profits that might result from cinematic adaptations. And along with film rights went “merchandising rights.” Specifically, United Artists was given rights to the “manufacture, sale, and distribution of any and all articles of tangible personal property other than novels, paperbacks, and other printed published matter.” All of these rights were granted “in perpetuity.”

What must have seemed fairly straightforward in 1969 would in decades to come turn into a Gordian Knot involving hundreds of lawyers, all trying to resolve once and for all just what part of Tolkien’s legacy he had retained and what part he had sold. In the media landscape of 1969, the merchandising rights to “tangible personal property” which Tolkien and United Artists had envisioned must have been limited to toys, trinkets, and souvenirs, probably associated with any films United Artists should choose to make based on Tolkien’s books. Should the law therefore limit the contract to its signers’ original intent, or should it be read literally? If the law chose the latter course, Tolkien had unknowingly sold off the videogame rights to his work before videogames even existed in anything but the most nascent form. Or did he really? Should videogames, being at their heart intangible code, really be lumped even by the literalists into the rights sold to United Artists? After all, the contract explicitly reserves “the right to utilize and/or dispose of all rights and/or interests not herein specifically granted” to Tolkien. This question of course only gets more fraught in our modern age of digital distribution, when games are often sold with no tangible component at all. And then what of tabletop games? They’re quite clearly neither novels nor paperbacks, but they might be, at least in part, “other printed published matter.” What precisely did that phrase mean? The contract doesn’t stipulate. In the absence of any clear pathways through this legal thicket, the history of Tolkien licensing would become that of a series of uneasy truces occasionally  erupting into open legal warfare. About the only things that were clear were that Tolkien — soon, his heirs — owned the rights to the original books and that United Artists — soon, the person who bought the contract from them — owned the rights to make movies out of them. Everything else was up for debate. And debated it would be, at mind-numbing length.

It would, however, be some time before the full ramifications of the document Tolkien had signed started to become clear. In the meantime, United Artists began moving forward with a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that was to have been placed in the hands of the director and screenwriter John Boorman. Boorman worked on the script for years, during which Tolkien died and his literary estate passed into the hands of his heirs, most notably his third son and self-appointed steward of his legacy Christopher Tolkien. The final draft of Boorman’s script compressed the entire trilogy into a single 150-minute film, and radically changed it in terms of theme, character, and plot to suit a Hollywood sensibility. For instance, Boorman added the element of sex that was so conspicuously absent from the books, having Frodo and Galadriel engage in a torrid affair after the Fellowship comes to Lothlórien. (Given the disparity in their sizes, one does have to wonder about the logistics, as it were, of such a thing.) But in the end, United Artists opted, probably for the best, not to let Boorman turn his script into a movie. (Many elements from the script would turn up later in Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur.)

Of course, it’s unlikely that literary purity was foremost on United Artists’s minds when they made their decision. As the 1960s had turned into the 1970s and the Woodstock generation had gotten jobs and started families, Tolkien’s works had lost some of their trendy appeal, retaining their iconic status only among fantasy fandom. Still, the books continued to sell well; they would never lose the status they had acquired almost from the moment the Ace editions had been published of being the bedrock of modern fantasy fiction, something everyone with even a casual interest in the genre had to at least attempt to read. Not being terribly easy books, they defeated plenty of these would-be readers, who went off in search of the more accessible, more contemporary-feeling epic-fantasy fare so many publishers were by now happily providing. Yet even among the readers it rebuffed The Lord of the Rings retained the status of an aspirational ideal.

In 1975, a maverick animator named Ralph Bakshi, who had heretofore been best known for Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to earn an X rating, came to United Artists with a proposal to adapt The Lord of the Rings into a trio of animated features that would be relatively inexpensive in comparison to Boorman’s plans for a live-action epic. United Artists didn’t bite, but did signify that they might be amenable to selling the rights they had purchased from Tolkien if Bakshi could put together a few million dollars to make it happen. In December of 1976, following a string of proposals and deals too complicated and imperfectly understood to describe here, a hard-driving music and movie mogul named Saul Zaentz wound up owning the whole package of Tolkien rights that had previously belonged to United Artists. He intended to use his purchase first to let Bakshi make his films and thereafter for whatever other opportunities might happen to come down the road.

Saul Zaentz, seated at far left, with Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Saul Zaentz had first come to prominence back in 1967, when he’d put together a group of investors to buy a struggling little jazz label called Fantasy Records. His first signing as the new president of Fantasy was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a rock group he had already been managing. Whether due to Zaentz’s skill as a talent spotter or sheer dumb luck, it was the sort of signing that makes a music mogul rich for life. Creedence promptly unleashed eleven top-ten singles and five top-ten albums over the course of the next three and a half years, the most concentrated run of hits of any 1960s band this side of the Beatles. And Zaentz got his fair share of all that filthy lucre — more than his fair share, his charges eventually came to believe. When the band fell apart in 1972, much of the cause was infighting over matters of business. The other members came to blame Creedence’s lead singer and principal songwriter John Fogerty for convincing them to sign a terrible contract with Zaentz that gave away rights to their songs to him for… well, in perpetuity, actually. And as for Fogerty, he of course blamed Zaentz for all the trouble. Decades of legal back and forth followed the breakup. At one point, Zaentz sued Fogerty on the novel legal theory of “self-plagarization”: the songs Fogerty was now writing as a solo artist, went the brief, were too similar to the ones he used to write for Creedence, all of whose copyrights Zaentz owned. While his lawyers pleaded his case in court, Fogerty vented his rage via songs like “Zanz Kant Danz,” the story of a pig who, indeed, can’t dance, but will happily “steal your money.”

I trust that this story gives a sufficient impression of just what a ruthless, litigious man now owned adaptation rights to the work of our recently deceased old Oxford don. But whatever else you could say about Saul Zaentz, he did know how to get things done. He secured financing for the first installment of Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, albeit on the condition that he cut the planned three-film series down to two. Relying heavily on rotoscoping to give his cartoon figures an uncannily naturalistic look, Bakshi finished the film for release in November of 1978. Regarded as something of a cult classic among certain sectors of Tolkien fandom today, in its own day the film was greeted with mixed to poor reviews. The financial picture is equally muddled. While it’s been claimed, including by Bakshi himself, that the movie was a solid success, earning some $30 million on a budget of a little over $4 million, the fact remains that Zaentz was unable to secure funding for the sequel, leaving poor Frodo, Sam, and Gollum forever in limbo en route to Mount Doom. It is, needless to say, difficult to reconcile a successful first film with this refusal to back a second. But regardless of the financial particulars, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t make it back to the big screen for more than twenty years, until the enormous post-millennial Peter Jackson productions that well and truly, once and for all, broke Middle-earth into the mainstream.

Yet, although the Bakshi adaptation was the only Tolkien film to play in theaters during this period, it wasn’t actually the only Tolkien film on offer. In November of 1977, a year before the Bakshi Lord of the Rings made its bow, a decidedly less ambitious animated version of The Hobbit had played on American television. The force behind it was Rankin/Bass Productions, who had previously been known in television broadcasting for holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Their take on Tolkien was authorized not by Saul Zaentz but by the Tolkien estate. Being shot on video rather than film and then broadcast rather than shown in theaters, the Rankin/Bass Hobbit was not, legally speaking, a “movie” under the terms of the 1969 contract. Nor was it a “tangible” product, thus making it fair game for the Tolkien estate to authorize without involving Zaentz. That, anyway, was the legal theory under which the estate was operating. They even authorized a sequel to the Rankin/Bass Hobbit in 1980, which rather oddly took the form of an adaptation of The Return of the King, the last book of The Lord of the Rings. A precedent of dueling licenses, authorizing different versions of what to casual eyes at least often seemed to be the very same things, was thus established.

But these flirtations with mainstream visibility came to an end along with the end of the 1970s. After the Ralph Baski and Rankin/Bass productions had all had their moments in the sun, The Lord of the Rings was cast back into its nerdy ghetto, where it remained more iconic than ever. Yet the times were changing in some very important ways. From the moment he had clear ownership of the rights Tolkien had once sold to United Artists, Saul Zaentz had taken to interpreting their compass in the broadest possible way, and had begun sending his lawyers after any real or alleged infringers who grew large enough to come to his attention. This marked a dramatic change from the earliest days of Tolkien fandom, when no one had taken any apparent notice of fannish appropriations of Middle-earth, to such an extent that fans had come to think of all use of Tolkien’s works as fair use. In that spirit, in 1975 a tiny game publisher called TSR, incubator of an inchoate revolution called Dungeons & Dragons, had started selling a non-Dungeons & Dragons strategy game called Battle of the Five Armies that was based on the climax of The Hobbit. In late 1977, Zaentz sent them a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the game be immediately taken off the market. And, far more significantly in the long run, he also demanded that all Tolkien references be excised from Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn’t really clear that Zanetz ought to have standing to sue, given that Battle of the Five Armies and especially Dungeons & Dragons consisted of so much of the “printed published matter” that was supposedly reserved to the Tolkien estate. But, hard charger that he was, Zaentz wasn’t about to let such niceties stop him. He was establishing legal precedent, and thereby cementing his position for the future.

The question of just how much influence Tolkien had on Dungeons & Dragons has been long obscured by this specter of legal action, which gave everyone on the TSR side ample reason to be less than entirely forthcoming. That said, certain elements of Dungeons & Dragons — most obviously the “hobbit” character class found in the original game — undeniably walked straight off the pages of Tolkien and into those of Gary Gygax’s rule books. At the same time, though, the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons had, as Gygax always strenuously asserted, much more to do with the pulpier fantasy stories of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard than they did with Tolkien. Ditto the game’s default personality, which hewed more to the “a group of adventurers meet in a bar and head out to bash monsters and collect treasure” modus operandi of the pulps than they did to Tolkien’s deeply serious, deeply moralistic, deeply tragic universe. You could play a more “serious” game of Dungeons & Dragons even in the early days, and some presumably did, but you had to bend the mechanics to make them fit. The more light-hearted tone of The Hobbit might seem better suited, but wound up being a bit too light-hearted, almost as much fairy tale as red-blooded adventure fiction. Some of the book’s episodes, like Bilbo and the dwarves’ antics with the trolls near the beginning of the story, verge on cartoon slapstick, with none of the swashbuckling swagger of Dungeons & Dragons. I love it dearly — far more, truth be told, than I love The Lord of the Rings — but not for nothing was The Hobbit conceived and marketed as a children’s novel.

Gygax’s most detailed description of the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons appeared in the March 1985 issue of Dragon magazine. There he explicated the dirty little secret of adapting Tolkien to gaming: that the former just wasn’t all that well-suited for the latter without lots of sweeping changes.

Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered (in terms of the D&D game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games. The Professor drops Tom Bombadil, my personal favorite, like the proverbial hot potato; had he been allowed to enter the action of the books, no fuzzy-footed manling would have needed to undergo the trials and tribulations of the quest to destroy the Ring. Unfortunately, no character of Bombadil’s power can enter the games either — for the selfsame reasons! The wicked Sauron is poorly developed, virtually depersonalized, and at the end blows away in a cloud of evil smoke… poof! Nothing usable there. The mighty Ring is nothing more than a standard ring of invisibility, found in the myths and legends of most cultures (albeit with a nasty curse upon it). No influence here, either…

What Gygax gestures toward here but doesn’t quite touch is that The Lord of the Rings is at bottom a spiritual if not overtly religious tale, Middle-earth a land of ineffable unknowables. It’s impossible to translate that ineffability into the mechanistic system of causes and effects required by a game like Dungeons & Dragons. For all that Gygax is so obviously missing the point of Tolkien’s work in the extract above — rather hilariously so, actually — it’s also true that no Dungeon Master could attempt something like, say, Gandalf’s transformation from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White without facing a justifiable mutiny from the players. Games — at least this kind of game — demand knowable universes.

Gygax claimed that Tolkien was ultimately far more important to the game’s commercial trajectory than he was to its rules. He noted, accurately, that the trilogy’s popularity from 1965 on had created an appetite for more fantasy, in the form of both books and things that weren’t quite books. It was largely out of a desire to ride this bandwagon, Gygax claimed, that Chainmail, the proto-Dungeons & Dragons which TSR released in 1971, promised players right there on the cover that they could use it to “refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers.” Gygax said that “the seeming parallels and inspirations are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current ‘craze’ for Tolkien’s literature.” Questionable though it is how “studied” his efforts really were in this respect, it does seem fairly clear that the biggest leg-up Tolkien gave to Gygax and his early design partner Dave Arneson was in giving so many potential players a taste for epic fantasy in the first place.

At any rate, we can say for certain that, beyond prompting a grudge in Gary Gygax against all things Tolkien — which, like most Gygaxian grudges, would last the rest of its holder’s life — Zaentz’s legal threat had a relatively modest effect on the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Hobbits were hastily renamed “halflings,” a handful of other references were scrubbed away or obfuscated, and life went on.

More importantly for Zaentz, the case against TSR and a few other even smaller tabletop-game publishers had now established the precedent that this field was within his licensing purview. In 1982, Tolkien Enterprises, the umbrella corporation Zaentz had created to manage his portfolio, authorized a three-employee publisher called Iron Crown Enterprises, heretofore known for the would-be Dungeons & Dragons competitor Rolemaster, to adapt their system to Middle-earth. Having won the license by simple virtue of being the first publisher to work up the guts to ask for it, Iron Crown went on to create Middle-earth Role Playing. The system rather ran afoul of the problem we’ve just been discussing: that, inspiring though so many found the setting in the broad strokes, the mechanics — or perhaps lack thereof — of Middle-earth just didn’t lend themselves all that well to a game. Unsurprisingly in light of this, Middle-earth Role Playing acquired a reputation as a “game” that was more fun to read, in the form of its many lengthy and lovingly detailed supplements exploring the various corners of Middle-earth, than it was to actually play; some wags took to referring to the line as a whole as Encyclopedia Middle-earthia. Nevertheless, it lasted more than fifteen years, was translated into twelve languages, and sold over 250,000 copies in English alone, thereby becoming one of the most successful tabletop RPGs ever not named Dungeons & Dragons.

But by no means was it all smooth sailing for Iron Crown. During the game’s early years, which were also its most popular, they were very nearly undone by an episode that serves to illustrate just how dangerously confusing the world of Tolkien licensing could become. In 1985, Iron Crown decided to jump on the gamebook bandwagon with a line of paperbacks they initially called Tolkien Quest, but quickly renamed to Middle-earth Quest to tie it more closely to their extant tabletop RPG. Their take on the gamebook was very baroque in comparison to the likes of Choose Your Own Adventure or even Fighting Fantasy; the rules for “reading” their books took up thirty pages on their own, and some of the books included hex maps for plotting your movements around the world, thus rather blurring the line between gamebook and, well, game. Demian Katz, who operates the definitive Internet site devoted to gamebooks, calls the Middle-earth Quest line “among the most complex gamebooks ever published,” and he of all people certainly ought to know. Whether despite their complexity or because of it, the first three volumes in the line were fairly successful for Iron Crown — and then the legal troubles started.

The Tolkien estate decided that Iron Crown had crossed a line with their gamebooks, encroaching on the literary rights to Tolkien which belonged to them. Whether the gamebooks truly were more book or game is an interesting philosophical question to ponder — particularly so given that they were such unusually crunchy iterations on the gamebook concept. Questions of philosophical taxonomy aside, though, they certainly were “printed published matter” that looked for all the world like everyday books. Tolkien Enterprises wasn’t willing to involve themselves in a protracted legal showdown over something as low-stakes as a line of gamebooks. Iron Crown would be on their own in this battle, should they choose to wage it. Deciding the potential rewards weren’t worth the risks of trying to convince a judge who probably wouldn’t know Dungeons & Dragons from Maze & Monsters that these things which looked like conventional paperback books were actually something quite different, Iron Crown pulled the line off the market and destroyed all copies as part of a settlement agreement. The episode may have cost them as much as $2.5 million. A few years later, the ever dogged Iron Crown would attempt to resuscitate the line after negotiating a proper license with the Tolkien estate — no mean feat in itself; Christopher Tolkien in particular is famously protective of that portion of his father’s legacy which is his to protect — but by then the commercial moment of the gamebook in general had passed. The whole debacle would continue to haunt Iron Crown for a long, long time. In 2000, when they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they would state that the debt they had been carrying for almost fifteen years from the original gamebook settlement was a big part of the reason.

By that point, of course, the commercial heyday of the tabletop RPG was also long past. Indeed, already by the time that Iron Crown and Tolkien Enterprises had inked their first licensing deal back in 1982 computer-based fantasies, in the form of games like Zork, Ultima and Wizardry, were threatening to eclipse the tabletop varieties that had done so much to inspire them. Here, perhaps more so even than in tabletop RPGs, the influence of Tolkien was pervasive. Designers of early computer games often appropriated Middle-earth wholesale, writing what amounted to interactive Tolkien fan fiction. The British text-adventure house Level 9, for example, first made their name with Colossal Adventure, a re-implementation of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s original Adventure with a Middle-earth coda tacked onto the end, thus managing the neat trick of extensively plagiarizing two different works in a single game. There followed two more Level 9 games set in Middle-earth, completing what they were soon proudly advertising, in either ignorance or defiance of the concept of copyright, as their Middle-earth Trilogy.

But the most famous constant devotee and occasional plagiarist of Tolkien among the early computer-game designers was undoubtedly Richard Garriott, who had discovered The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, the two influences destined more than any other to shape the course of his life, within six months of one another during his teenage years. Garriott called his first published game Akalabeth, after Tolkien’s Akallabêth, the name of a chapter in The Silmarillion, a posthumously published book of Middle-earth legends. The word means “downfall” in one of Tolkien’s invented languages, but Garriott chose it simply because he thought it sounded cool; his game otherwise had little to no explicit connection to Middle-earth. Regardless, the computer-game industry wouldn’t remain small enough that folks could get away with this sort of thing for very long. Akalabeth soon fell out of print, superseded by Garriott’s more complex series of Ultima games that followed it, while Level 9 was compelled to scrub the erstwhile Middle-earth Trilogy free of Tolkien and re-release it as the Jewels of Darkness Trilogy.

In the long-run, the influence of Tolkien on digital games would prove subtler but also even more pervasive than these earliest forays into blatant plagiarism would imply. Richard Garriott may have dropped the Tolkien nomenclature from his subsequent games, but he remained thoroughly inspired by the example of Tolkien, that ultimate fantasy world-builder, when he built the world of Britannia for his Ultima series. Of course, there were obvious qualitative differences between Middle-earth and Britannia. How could there not be? One was the creation of an erudite Oxford don, steeped in a lifetime worth of study of classical and Medieval literature; the other was the creation of a self-described non-reader barely out of high school. Nowhere is the difference starker than in the area of language, Tolkien’s first love. Tolkien invented entire languages from scratch, complete with grammars and pronunciation charts; Garriott substituted a rune for each letter in the English alphabet and seemed to believe he had done something equivalent. Garriott’s clumsy mishandling of Elizabethan English, meanwhile, all “thees” and “thous” in places where the formal “you” should be used, is enough to make any philologist roll over in his grave. But his heart was in the right place, and despite its creator’s limitations Britannia did take on a life of its own over the course of many Ultima iterations. If there is a parallel in computer gaming to what The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth came to mean to fantasy literature, it must be Ultima and its world of Britannia.

In addition to the unlicensed knock-offs that were gradually driven off the market during the early 1980s and the more abstracted homages that replaced them, there was also a third category of Tolkien-derived computer games: that of licensed products. The first and only such licensee during the 1980s was Melbourne House, a book publisher turned game maker located in far-off Melbourne, Australia. Whether out of calculation or happenstance, Melbourne House approached the Tolkien estate rather than Tolkien Enterprises in 1982 to ask for a license. They were duly granted the right to make a text-adventure adaptation of The Hobbit, under certain conditions, very much in character for Christopher Tolkien, intended to ensure respect for The Hobbit‘s status as a literary work; most notably, they would be required to include a paperback copy of the novel with the game. In a decision he would later come to regret, Saul Zaentz elected to cede this ground to the Tolkien estate without a fight, apparently deeming a computer game intangible enough to be dangerous to quibble over. Another uneasy, tacit, yet surprisingly enduring precedent was thus set: Tolkien Enterprises would have control of Tolkien tabletop games, while the Tolkien estate would have control of Tolkien videogames. Zaentz’s cause for regret would come as he watched the digital-gaming market explode into tens and then hundreds of times the size of the tabletop market.

In fact, that first adaptation of The Hobbit played a role in that very process. The game became a sensation in Europe — playing it became a rite of passage for a generation of gamers there — and a substantial hit in the United States as well. It went on to become almost certainly the best-selling single text adventure ever made, with worldwide sales that may have exceeded half a million units. I’ve written at length about the Hobbit text adventure earlier, so I’ll refer you back to that article rather than describe its bold innovations and weird charm here. Otherwise, suffice to say that The Hobbit‘s success proved, if anyone was doubting, that licenses in computer games worked in commercial terms, no matter how much some might carp about the lack of originality they represented.

Still, Melbourne House appears to have had some trepidation about tackling the greater challenge of adapting The Lord of the Rings to the computer. The reasons are understandable: the simple quest narrative that was The Hobbit — the book is actually subtitled There and Back Again — read like a veritable blueprint for a text adventure, while the epic tale of spiritual, military, and political struggle that was The Lord of the Rings represented, to say the least, a more substantial challenge for its would-be adapters. Melbourne House’s first anointed successor to The Hobbit‘s thus became Sherlock, a text adventure based on another literary property entirely. They didn’t finally return to Middle-earth until 1986, four years after The Hobbit, when they made The Fellowship of the Ring into a text adventure. Superficially, the new game played much like The Hobbit, but much of the charm was gone, with quirks that had seemed delightful in the earlier game now just seeming annoying. Even had The Fellowship of the Ring been a better game, by 1986 it was getting late in the day for text adventures — even text adventures like this one with illustrations. Reviews were lukewarm at best. Nevertheless, Melbourne House kept doggedly at the task of completing the story of Frodo and the One Ring, releasing The Shadow of Mordor in 1987 and The Crack of Doom in 1989. All of these games went largely unloved in their day, and remain so in our own.

In a belated attempt to address the formal mismatch between the epic narrative of The Lord of the Rings and the granular approach of the text adventure, Melbourne House released War in Middle-earth in 1988. Partially designed by Mike Singleton, and drawing obvious inspiration from his older classic The Lords of Midnight, it was a strategy game which let the player refight the entirety of the War of the Ring, on the level of both armies and individual heroes. The Lords of Midnight had been largely inspired by Singleton’s desire to capture the sweep and grandeur of The Lord of the Rings in a game, so in a sense this new project had him coming full circle. But, just as Melbourne House’s Lord of the Rings text adventures had lacked the weird fascination of The Hobbit, War in Middle-earth failed to rise to the heights of The Lords of Midnight, despite enjoying the official license the latter had lacked.

As the 1980s came to a close, then, the Tolkien license was beginning to rival the similarly demographically perfect Star Trek license for the title of the most misused and/or underused — take your pick — in computer gaming. Tolkien Enterprises, normally the more commercially savvy and aggressive of the two Tolkien licensers, had ceded that market to the Tolkien estate, who seemed content to let Melbourne House doddle along with an underwhelming and little-noticed game every year or two. At this point, though, another computer-game developer would pick up the mantle from Melbourne House and see if they could manage to do something less underwhelming with it. We’ll continue with that story next time.

Before we get to that, though, we might take a moment to think about how different things might have been had the copyrights to Tolkien’s works been allowed to expire with their creator. There is some evidence that Tolkien himself held to this as the fairest course. In the late 1950s, in a letter to one of the first people to approach him about making a movie out of The Lord of the Rings, he expressed his wish that any movie made during his lifetime not deviate too far from the books, citing as an example of what he didn’t want to see the 1950 movie of H. Rider Haggard’s Victorian adventure novel King’s Solomon’s Mines and the many liberties it took with its source material. “I am not Rider Haggard,” he wrote. “I am not comparing myself with that master of Romance, except in this: I am not dead yet. When the film of King’s Solomon’s Mines was made, it had already passed, one might say, into the public property of the imagination. The Lord of Rings is still the vivid concern of a living person, and is nobody’s toy to play with.” Can we read into this an implicit assumption that The Lord of the Rings would become part of “the public property of the imagination” after its own creator’s death? If so, things turned out a little differently than he thought they would. A “property of the imagination” Middle-earth has most certainly become. It’s the “public” part that remains problematic.

(Sources: the books Designers & Dragons Volume 1 and Volume 2 by Shannon Appelcline, Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of The Lord of the Rings by John Lennard, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson, Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by John M. Gibson, Playing at the World by Jon Peterson, and Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Dragon Magazine of March 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of December 30 1982; The Times of December 15 2002. Online sources include Janet Brennan Croft’s essay “Three Rings for Hollywood” and The Hollywood Reporter‘s archive of a 2012 court case involving Tolkien’s intellectual property.)

 

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The Hobbit Redux

Sometimes I get things wrong. Usually it’s minor errors that come down to a careless moment or something that got wedged between the teeth of my rusting steel trap of a mind. Luckily, you folks who read what I write almost always come through to correct me when I make mistakes or even when I overreach. Something like that happened with the most recent article I’ve written, but it had causes a little bit more complicated than one of my usual attacks of boneheadedness.

Virtually all of the articles published about Melbourne House and The Hobbit — of which, unsurprisingly given the game’s immense popularity, there were quite a few — describe it as largely the work of Philip Mitchell, who wrote it with the aid of Veronika Megler and Stuart Richie. These are the sources which I relied upon to write my story of the game’s development. Shortly after I published my article, however, Veronika Megler contacted me to tell me that the contemporary sources are, simply put, false. She told me that hers was the primary mind behind the game, that Mitchell developed only the parser and handled the porting to the Spectrum and the addition of the pictures after she had left Melbourne House. Richie’s work, meanwhile, was theoretical rather than technical and played little actual role in the finished game.

I was of course quite nonplussed to hear this, but Veronika’s descriptions of the game’s development and the role played by everyone were so precise that I immediately tended toward believing her. That belief only strengthened as I talked to her more. Today I believe that the official story found in the magazines is a distortion (at best) of the facts.

It’s not difficult to understand how this could have happened. The story of The Hobbit‘s development started to be widely disseminated in the computer press during the lead-up to publication of Philip Mitchell and Melbourne House’s next big adventure game, Sherlock. Thus the pieces in question functioned not only as retrospectives, but — more importantly, at least in the eyes of Melbourne House — promotions for what was coming next. It sounds much better to speak of “the next game by the architect of the hit adventure The Hobbit” than “the next game by the guy who assisted the architect of the hit adventure The Hobbit.” Thus Mitchell’s role was vastly overstated, and Megler’s correspondingly reduced; in effect the two swapped roles, with Mitchell becoming the architect and Megler his assistant. As readers like me took those original articles at face value, this version of events passed down into history.

That’s unfortunate, and I understand Veronika’s frustration at having been effectively robbed of credit that is due to her. However, I can also understand how the pressures of promoting the follow-up to such a gargantuan hit could have led Alfred Milgrom and Mitchell down the path they took. I will also just note for the record that Veronika feels strongly that sexism also played a role in the downplaying of her contribution, although I’m not prepared to levy that accusation myself without knowing the people involved better or having more evidence.

Whatever the reasons behind the changing of the record, I’m convinced at this point that Veronika was indeed the major force behind the form The Hobbit took, as well as its major technical architect. I’ve revised the original article accordingly to reflect the true contributions of everyone involved. If you’ve already read it, I’d encourage you to give the new version a quick skim again, or at the least to know that much of what I credited to Philip Mitchell in the original should rightfully have been credited to Veronika Megler. Sometimes, alas, getting to historical truth is a process. I thank Veronika for taking the time to work with me to document what really happened.

I’m actually on holiday as I write this, back in the United States again. So, it will be a couple of weeks before I’ll have more material for you. But keep my in your RSS readers, because we’ll next be rounding the corner into 1983 at last, and things just keep getting more and more interesting.

In the meantime, happy Thanksgiving to my American readers, and to everyone thanks for reading!

 

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The Hobbit

In 1977 Alfred Milgrom started Melbourne House, a book publisher, with “four and a half” employees and offices in London and his native Melbourne, Australia. Over the next several years they made a modest go of it. In addition to a stable of young Australian authors, they established something of a specialty as a publisher of mid-list American authors who lacked contracts with the larger British and Australian houses. They signed quite a variety of them: novelist Gerald Green, just coming off a career peak as the screenwriter of the high-profile American television miniseries Holocaust; nonfiction man’s man extraordinaire Robin Moore, most famous for his 1965 book The Green Berets which spawned one of the most unexpected hit songs ever as well as an infamously jingoistic John Wayne movie; Lin Farley, one of the first to write about sexual harassment in the workplace; and Raymond Andrews, author of a trilogy of novels about a black sharecropper family in the mid-century South.

And then came 1980, and with it the Sinclair ZX80. With a PhD in “chemistry, maths, and physics” from Melbourne University, Milgrom had some somewhat atypical interests for a publisher; he had “always been interested in computers.” He quickly bought a ZX80 of his own. That August, Melbourne House published the hastily put together 30 Programs for the Sinclair ZX80, an unadorned collection of short, simple BASIC listings that could fit within the unexpanded machine’s 1 K of memory, including even a very stripped-down Eliza clone. The programs were credited to an alias computer gamers would soon come to recognize almost as quickly as the name “Melbourne House” itself: Beam Software, a contraction of Milgrom’s initials and the last name of another at Melbourne House who worked with him on the book, Naomi Besen.

In barely a year’s time WH Smith would be selling Sinclairs out of their High Street shops, but at this time no one in the bookseller’s trade knew what to make of the book Milgrom was now trying to sell. So he started taking out advertisements in the enthusiast magazines instead for what was likely the first book ever published about a Sinclair computer. It turned into a “runaway success,” the company’s immediate bestseller. Milgrom followed it up with more hastily produced technical books, written both in-house and by others. Melbourne House would remain one of the most prolific of British computer-book publishers for much of the 1980s. With so much opportunity in this area, their interest in publishing other types of books gradually fell by the wayside.

What with their publishing so many program listings in book form, it seemed an obvious move to begin offering some of them on tape for those who didn’t feel like doing so much typing. Accordingly, their first program on cassette, yet another clone of Space Invaders, appeared in February of 1981, the beginning of a slow transformation in primary avocation from book to software publisher. In a sometimes confusing dichotomy, Melbourne House would remain the publishing arm of Milgrom’s organization, while the wholly owned subsidiary Beam Software served as their in-house development group. Melbourne House would also sometimes publish programs created by outside developers, but for all practical purposes Melbourne House and Beam Software were one and the same entity.

Milgrom had been aware of Adventure and its antecedents for years, some of the latter of which were just beginning by mid-1981 to sneak into the British software market in the form of early, primitive efforts by Artic Computing. Realizing that the form was soon likely to be huge in Britain, as it already was in the United States, he decided to commit Melbourne House to creating one bigger and better than anything currently available for British microcomputers. Knowing he lacked the time and the technical skills to implement such an ambitious project, he posted an advertisement back in Australia at his alma mater, the University of Melbourne, looking for computer-science students interested in working part time on a game-development project. (It being the beginning of August, the Australian spring semester was just beginning.) The first to respond was Veronika Megler, a student about to begin her final year as an undergraduate with a particular interest in database design. Milgrom gave her a very simple brief: “Make the best adventure game ever. Period.”

Luckily, Megler had plenty of ideas about how to approach that rather vague objective. She had played just one adventure game in her life — typically enough, the original Adventure by Crowther and Woods. Yet she already felt she knew enough about the form to say what she didn’t like about it, what she wanted her game to do differently. She hated the threadbare world and static nature of Adventure, the way that most of the possible interactions were pre-scripted so that certain verbs only worked in certain places and many perfectly sensible actions were completely unprovided for. Most of all, she hated the way the other characters in the world had nothing to do, no possibility of reacting to the player’s actions. In place of solitary, static puzzle-solving, she imagined a dynamic environment filled with other characters moving about the world and pursuing agendas of their own — something that might actually feel like living inside a real story. Both Megler and Milgrom also very much wanted to get beyond primitive two-word parsers, something only Infocom had so far managed.

Megler recruited a partner to work with her on the game, Philip Mitchell, a fellow senior with whom she had already worked on a number of group projects and whom she knew to be both easy to get on with and a skilled programmer. Milgrom himself added a third member to the team specifically to help them with the parser: Stuart Richie, who was doing a dual degree in English linguistics and computer science, with a special interest in combining the two fields.

At first, the game was planned as a generic fantasy adventure. However, none of the people involved had any experience as writers of fiction. At some point during the early stages of development, someone (it’s unclear exactly who) suggested that it might be possible to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Once named, it seemed the obvious candidate for a story. Bilbo Baggins’s quest to kill the dragon Smaug and return safely with his treasure, overcoming trials and tribulations along the way, was not just suitable for an adventure game but practically identical in the broad strokes to the structure of most of them. And The Hobbit was very popular — probably the most-read fantasy novel of all time, in fact — which would guarantee the game an eager audience. (I’m going to assume from here on that you’ve read the book, which I think is probably true of most everybody reading this blog. If you haven’t, you should. It’s a consistent delight, with none of the reactionary nostalgia for an older, class-bound Britain that sometimes bothers me about The Lord of the Rings.)

Unlike more naive characters like the Austin brothers, Milgrom knew that he needed to work something out with the Tolkien estate before releasing a commercial game based on the novel. About six months in, with some demonstrations ready to show them, he made contact. As Milgrom put it in later interviews, he had “contingency plans” if the Tolkien people should turn him down — presumably, filing the proverbial serial numbers off and releasing the game as a generic fantasy adventure after all. But luckily they were very receptive. They had only one request: that the game be released with a copy of the book included, to which Milgrom readily agreed: “That way you get clues on how to solve the adventure from the book. It also fills in many details we just didn’t have space for in the 48 K.” As I write this, we’re awash in hype over the imminent release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies. It’s amazing to consider that thirty years ago the Tolkien estate was willing to entrust the property to a tiny publisher like Melbourne House employing a few kids working part-time when not at university. Tolkien was then, as he is now, the premiere fantasy writer. It’s just that the position of fantasy fiction within popular culture has changed incalculably, in no small part due to trends whose roots I’ve been chronicling on this blog.

Even with the novel to provide a world and the outline of a plot, the team had an insanely ambitious brief, one that obviously was not going to fly on the current Sinclair machines. Nor had Sinclairs made their way into the Australian market in any great numbers anyway. The most popular PC there at the moment was a Hong Kong-built clone of the TRS-80 sold through the local Dick Smith chain of electronic stores: the dubiously legal Dick Smith System 80. These machines shipped with only 4 K or 16 K of memory, but with a bit of ingenuity could be expanded up to 48 K. They also used the Z80 processor found in many machines, including the Sinclairs. Milgrom and his team decided to make their game on their hacked 48 K System 80s, under the assumption that by the time it was finished other, more consumer-friendly machines with the necessary attributes would be available to which they could port it without too much hassle. This practice of targeting tomorrow’s hardware today is now common in AAA game development; The Hobbit was perhaps the first example of it.

Of course, with 48 K and no disk drive to work with for virtual memory (Australia, like Britain, was still firmly cassette-bound), they still had one hell of a task in front of them. Megler remained the linchpin of the project, developing a whole adventuring system that should be at least theoretically reusable in future games. She also went through the book to develop a plan for the game, mapped the major events and characters to locations in the world, and added them to the engine’s database. Mitchell worked on a full-sentence parser that would allow the player to talk to the other characters in the world and even order them about. He called his system “Inglish.” Together, the code for the engine and the parser was eventually squeezed down to about 17 K, leaving the rest of the memory for Megler’s database. Richie, who was employed by Melbourne House for only a few months, contributed no code, and his ideas ultimately had little influence on the system. Milgrom’s idea of hiring a linguistics expert to develop a parser is one of those that sounds better in theory than it works in reality. As countless other programmers have learned, developing a good adventure-game parser has more to do with common sense and careful diligence than elaborate theories about linguistics or natural-language processing.

The Hobbit‘s development had some similarities to a student project, a certain abstract naiveté that sometimes threatened to send the team wandering hopelessly off course. They were having great fun — perhaps sometimes too much fun — just playing in this world they were building. Thanks to all of its random dynamism, it constantly surprised even them. Megler sometimes played the system like an early version of a god game such as The Sims, injecting new NPCs just to see what would happen and what kind of chaos they would cause with their fellow actors and the player: “I’d written in an angry dwarf that kept trying to kill you, and if you did something (I don’t remember what) it became a randy dwarf, and kept following you around and propositioning you. But Fred and Phil decided that was a little too much, and made me take it out again.”

And then it was the summer of 1982, the semester was over, and — in a demonstration of just what a part-time, semi-amateur project this was — Megler, the primary architect of all this, was suddenly gone: “I was bored with full-time programming and debugging, and eager to get on with a ‘real career’ (which gaming wasn’t, back then).” Only Mitchell stayed behind, to be hired by Milgrom as a regular, full-time employee. By this time The Hobbit was in a relatively finished form, a bit rough around the edges but basically a playable game on the TRS-80/System 80. Now the ideal platform on which to actually release it had come around, just as they had hoped it would: the first Sinclair Spectrums were just reaching consumers back in Britain. What with Melbourne House’s distribution network in that country and the tiny size of the domestic Australian market, the Spectrum and Britain were the obvious target platform and market respectively for their game. Luckily, the Spectrum used the same Z80 chip as their development platform, and had the same 48 K of memory. Porting Megler’s engine to the Speccy should be relatively simple.

The Speccy did also have one important feature that their development machines had lacked: color, bitmapped graphics. Milgrom decided that illustrations could be the cherry on top of his next-generation adventure. He commissioned an artist, Kent Rees, to create — on paper, as was the norm at the time — pictures for about 30 of the game’s 80-odd locations. Mitchell then developed a system to trace these images and import them into the computer, using the vector-drawing techniques pioneered by Ken Williams for Mystery House. (You can see clear evidence of this in the finished game; the computer draws each line and fill one by one before your eyes, like an artist recreating the picture each time.) The illustrations are by no means stunning, but they were certainly novel in their time, and sometimes do manage to add a little something to the atmosphere.

Interestingly, Mitchell continued to do most of this work on the System 80, a much more pleasant machine to work with thanks to its real keyboard. He only moved the finished product to the Spectrum when it came time to test his handiwork. (To add to the irony, the TRS-80 would be one of the few platforms on which The Hobbit would never get an official release.) Thanks to some very efficient drawing algorithms as well as smart text-compression routines that rivaled those of Level 9, Mitchell was able to pack the entire game, with illustrations, into the 48 K Spectrum, a remarkable feat indeed when one considers that he had no recourse to external storage — 48 K was literally all he had to work with for code, text, data, and pictures.

As summer passed into fall, the game was settling into its final form. But now a persistent problem threatened to derail everything: a multitude of tiny glitches and bugs that cumulatively began to overwhelm the experience of every session the longer it continued. Rather than crafting interactions by hand, Megler had striven to make The Hobbit a dynamic simulation. Monsters and other characters move about and act differently in every session, guided by random chance as well as their disposition toward the player (attacking Gandalf, Elrond, or Thorin tends to get you on their bad side); every object has a weight, size, and strength that determine its interactions with every other; each character, CRPG-style, has a certain numerical defensive and offensive strength as well as a health level for determining the results of combat. This could all lead to fascinating examples of what we would now call emergent behavior or even emergent storytelling, but it could also lead to a welter of bugs and general weirdness. Tracking these down turned into a nightmare, as the randomization and dynamism of the world meant that many were impossible to reproduce consistently. This had presented a huge challenge even when Megler was still on the project:

The Hobbit was a tough game to test. Unlike the other games of the time, it was written in assembler, not BASIC, and we would find bugs in the assembly and linking programs. Also, it was not deterministic, and the game played differently every time you played it, as a result of Philip doing a lot of work to develop a “perfect” randomizing routine. Literally, the player had a turn, then each animal had a turn, and the animals just “played” the game themselves according to their character profile, which included interacting with each other. In essence, the animals would do to each other anything that they could do to or with you. So we would constantly have animals interacting in ways that had never been programmed or envisioned. The game would crash because of something that happened in another part of the game that you as the user (or person testing the game!) didn’t see, because the game only showed you what was happening in your location. For a while, we had terrible trouble with all the animals showing up in one location and then killing each other before you got there, before I got the character profiles better adjusted!

Melbourne House struggled with these problems for a time, but eventually, as development stretched toward the eighteen-month mark, seems to have just declared it good enough and pushed it out the door. A telling disclaimer in the manual indicates that they were aware that it wasn’t quite in the state it probably should have been: “Due to the immense size and complexity of this game it is impossible to guarantee that it will ever be completely error-free.” And indeed, the first release of the game in particular is riddled with inexplicabilities. Swords break on spider webs; Bilbo can carry the strapping warrior Brand about for hours; Gandalf and Thorin can walk through walls; garbled text and status messages obviously meant for the development team pop up from time to time. Melbourne House released a version 1.1 shortly thereafter, which fixed some of this but — oops! — also broke another critical interaction, rendering the game unwinnable. Version 1.2 soon followed, but throughout the game’s long published history Melbourne House seemed to remain stuck in the same perpetual game of whack-a-mole. Today it’s still remembered for its bugs almost as much as anything else.

The parser is beset by problems of its own. It does understand a lot, including, for the first time anywhere to my knowledge, adverbs. It’s possible, for instance, to “viciously attack the mean goblin,” although I’d be shocked to learn that it doesn’t just throw away the adverb as it does articles. Yet in other ways, especially in early releases, it’s very frustrating to work with. It’s possible to “climb into the boat,” but not to “enter” or “get in” it; possible to ask Thorin to “carry me,” but not to ask him to “take me” (talk of randy dwarfs aside, no double entendre intended); possible to “look across the river”, but not to “look over” it. When I recently played the game I had at least two occasions where I knew what to do but just could not express it to the game no matter how hard I tried, and finally had to get the answer from a walkthrough. Coming from someone who’s played as many text adventures as I have, that’s a condemnation indeed.

Playing The Hobbit can be, as stated in the perfect title of its one MobyGames review, “strange.” In spite of the grand ambitions, expecting even a shadow of the richness of Tolkien’s world (not to mention his prose) in a 48 K adventure game is expecting too much. There was no real possibility of presenting the temporal element that is so important to stories. Instead, the plot of the novel is mapped to the game’s geography: moving further eastward gets you further and further into the story, from the beginning in Bilbo’s hobbit hole to the climax at Smaug’s lair. (The Battle of the Five Armies, like all of the dwarfs except Thorin, is left out as just too complicated to deal with.) This has the disconcerting side effect that you can travel back in time whenever you wish: the trolls’ camp is just two moves east of Bilbo’s house, and one move west of Rivendell. Needless to say given such a compressed geography, the sense of embarking on a grand journey that the book conveys so well is largely absent. That it works as well as it does is a testament to the book’s almost uniquely adventure-game-suitable quest narrative. Few other temporal landscapes could be mapped even this neatly to the geographical.

The experience feels rather like wandering through a series of stage sets depicting the major scenes from the book — stage sets which are also being wandered by a bunch of other characters just smart enough to be profoundly, infuriatingly stupid. Your companions on the quest, Thorin and Gandalf, are both singularly useless (or worse) when left to their own devices. Never one to let circumstances get in the way of avarice, Thorin will “sit down to sing about gold” in the midst of a goblin, warg, or dragon attack. Gandalf, meanwhile, is also attracted to shiny objects; he constantly plucks random items off your person (“What’s this?”), then tosses them on the ground and wanders off when his one-turn attention span expires. A critical element of the game is the player’s ability — and occasional requirement — to give orders to other (friendly) characters, to have them do things beyond the abilities of a four-foot-tall hobbit. Sometimes they do what you ask, but sometimes they’re feeling petulant. Perhaps the seminal Hobbit moment comes when you scream at Brand to kill the dragon that’s about to engulf you both in flames, and he answers, “No.” After spending some time with this collection of half-wits, even the most patient player is guaranteed to start poking at them with her sword at some point.

And actually, therein sort of lies the secret to enjoying the game, and the root of its appeal in its time. It can be kind of fascinating to run around these stage sets with all of these other crazy characters just to see what can happen — and what you can make happen. Literally, no two games of The Hobbit are the same. I can see what Megler was striving toward: a truly living, dynamic story where anything can happen and where you have to deal with circumstances as they come, on the fly. It’s a staggeringly ambitious, visionary thing to be attempting. Infocom had already moved somewhat in that direction with Deadline, but (probably wisely) had hung the more dynamic elements from a scaffolding of pre-scripted set-piece events — and even at that it was easy in early releases in particular to break through the sense of realism of the simulation.

Needless to say, the idea doesn’t entirely or even mostly work in The Hobbit either. There are still enough traditional puzzles that it’s too easy to lock yourself out of victory and have your living fantasy become a Beckett tragicomedy. Then there’s the wonky physics, the way that entirely random developments can ruin your game, and of course all of those bugs that often leave you wondering whether some crazy thing you’re seeing is an expected part of the general surreality that surrounds you or just something gone haywire. (At a certain point, it kind of ceases to matter anymore; you just go with it.) To say that the game’s reach exceeds its grasp hardly begins to state the case; the thing the game is reaching for is somewhere in orbit above its firmly earthbound self, being an experience huge teams of developers still haven’t entirely succeeded in delivering today. But still, The Hobbit plays like no adventure before it. In my recent game, a warg somehow got into the wood elves’ compound long before I got there. I arrived to find him prancing atop the corpse of the one who should have captured me and thrown me in a cell. Suddenly my problem was not how to escape from the elves but how to get past the warg, a very tough customer — not exactly how it played out in the book, but an exciting experience nevertheless. Sometimes, when it works, The Hobbit can be kind of amazing. It stands today as the direction that was largely not taken in text adventures, and at its best it can make you wonder why.

Expensive American imports aside, The Hobbit marked a whole string of firsts for the British adventure scene: first full-sentence parser; first illustrated game; first title licensed from a book (this would have been a first in the American market as well); not to mention first crazy experiment in emergent text-adventure storytelling. And it arrived just as Spectrums were finally getting to consumers in big numbers, and as said consumers were eager for flashy new experiences to enjoy on their new machines. The Hobbit, in short, became huge. It was a hit out of the gate, and just kept selling and selling as months on the market turned into years. Melbourne House made ports for virtually all of the other viable computing platforms of the time, as well as enhanced versions for disk-drive-equipped machines that improved the graphics, added atmospheric music, and offered a little bit smarter companions, a little bit better parsing, and a little bit more to do. It was in this form that the game finally reached American shores in 1985, through an arrangement with Addison-Wesley. The game promptly became a big hit there as well.

Indeed, The Hobbit seemed adaptable to any market or promotional scheme. In its original British incarnation, it was minimally packaged in a rather garish box typical of the young scene there. In the United States, it was beautifully packaged in a classy fold-out box with a lovely, understated cover illustration drawn by Tolkien himself — one of the best of the golden age of computer-game packaging. Either way, it sold like crazy.

 
Exactly how many copies the game eventually sold is a matter for some speculation. In High Score!, Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson state that it sold more than a million copies, but even given its undoubtedly phenomenal popularity I tend to be leery of such a figure given what I know of sales figures for other games of the era. An article in the British magazine Computer and Video Games dated March 1985 guesses that it may have sold up 200,000 copies by that point. With its entry into the American market (where it was a hit, but not the phenomenon it was in Britain) and continued popularity in Britain, it’s very possible that the game ended up selling half a million copies in total, but it’s hard for me to see my way to much more than that barring better evidence. Still, even the lower figure makes it an excellent candidate for the bestselling text adventure of all time, challenged, if at all, only by Infocom’s Zork I. (The most played text adventure, of course, is and will likely always remain the original Adventure.) The Hobbit made Melbourne House as a major software publisher. And it largely made the British adventure game as its own unique thing, ready to go its own way and try its own things rather than remain beholden to the American approach.

As I write about The Hobbit, “strange” is a word that comes up again and again; everything about it seems anomalous. It’s strange that the game that made the British adventure game should have come from half a world away. It’s strange that a game with such an atypical approach to the form should be the best candidate for the bestselling example of said form of all time. It’s strange that the first publisher to license a book should have been tiny Melbourne House, not one of the more established American publishers. It’s strange that what is, in all honesty, something of a bug-ridden mess should also have such a compelling quality to it. It’s strange that a game based on a novel should be all about emergence rather than attempting to recreate the story of the book. It’s strange that the woman who came up with this new vision of how an adventure game could work left Melbourne House and the burgeoning industry before The Hobbit was even complete, never to return. The Hobbit is most interesting because so much about it is so unlikely.

If you’d like to try it in its original form for yourself, here’s a copy of the Spectrum tape image and the manual. There are lots of Spectrum emulators out there; I use Fuse. Of course, you can also find heaps of other versions out there for heaps of platforms, including the enhanced, disk-based versions that feel more fleshed-out than the original. But never fear, all retain at least a light dusting of the bugs and oddities that are so critical to the Hobbit experience.

(Sources for this article include the web links in the post itself as well as interviews, articles, and profiles in Computer and Video Games #27, Computer and Video Games #41, Crash # 3, Popular Computing Weekly Vol. 1 No. 36, Popular Computing Weekly Vol. 2 No. 43, ZX Computing Vol. 1 No. 6, and Home Computing Weekly #5. And Veronika Megler herself was an invaluable source for this latest, revised version.)

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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