After Infocom was shut down in 1989, Mike Dornbrook, the mastermind behind the company’s InvisiClues hint books and much else that has become iconic for interactive-fiction fans of a certain generation, was determined to start a company of his own. Indeed, he was so motivated that he negotiated to take much of Infocom’s office furniture in lieu of cash as part of his severance package.
But alas, his entrepreneurial dream seemed vexed. He embarked on a mail-order catalog for maps and travel books — until he learned that Rand-McNally was starting a catalog of its own. He pivoted to offering customized traffic reports for drivers on the go — until it was decided by the authorities in the Boston area where he lived that mobile-phone users would not be allowed to call “premium-rate” numbers like the one he was setting up. So, in January of 1991, he started a regular job at a targeted-marketing and data-processing consultancy that had recently been purchased by American Express. Two years later, he was laid off, but carried his knowledge and contacts into his own data-mining startup. He was still trying to line up enough investment capital to get that company going properly when he got a call from Steve Meretzky, who before becoming a star Infocom designer had been his roommate in a little Boston apartment; in fact, it was Dornbrook who had first introduced Meretzky to the wonders of Zork, thus unleashing him on the world of adventure games.
Unlike Dornbrook, Meretzky had stayed in the games industry since Infocom’s shuttering, designing four adventures for Legend Entertainment and one for Activision from his Boston home. But he had grown tired of working remotely, and dearly missed the camaraderie and creative ferment of life at Infocom. Superhero League of Hoboken, his latest game for Legend (and by far the most inspired of his post-Infocom career in this critic’s opinion), had turned into a particularly frustrating experience for him; delays on the implementation side meant that it was still many months away from seeing the light of day. He had thus decided to start a games studio of his own — and he wanted his old pal Mike Dornbrook to run it for him. “I’ll help you to get it going,” agreed a somewhat reluctant Dornbrook, who after enduring the painful latter years of Infocom wasn’t at all sure he actually wanted to return to the industry.
And so Boffo Games was born. Sadly, all of Dornbrook’s forebodings would prove prescient.
At the time, the hype around multimedia computing was reaching a fever pitch. One of the biggest winners of the era was a Singaporean company called Creative Labs, whose Sound Blaster sound cards had been at the vanguard of a metamorphosis in computer audio since 1989. More recently, they had also begun selling CD-ROM drives, as well as “multimedia upgrade kits”: sound cards and CD-ROM drives in one convenient package, along with a few discs to get purchasers started on their magical journey.
Of late, however, another company had begun making waves in the same market. The Silicon Valley firm Media Vision had first captured headlines in newspaper financial sections in November of 1992, when it raised $45 million in an initial public offering in order to go head to head with Creative. Soon after, Media Vision released their Pro AudioSpectrum 16 sound card, the first to offer 16-bit — i.e., audio-CD-quality — sound playback. It took Creative months to follow suit with the Sound Blaster 16.
But Media Vision’s ambitions extended well beyond the sound-card and CD-ROM-drive market, which, as most financial analysts well realized, looked likely to plateau and then slowly tail off once everyone who wanted to add multimedia capabilities to an existing computer had done so and new computers were all shipping with these features built-in. To secure their long-term future, Media Vision planned to use their hardware profits to invest heavily in software. By the Christmas buying season of 1993, announced the company’s CEO Paul Jain at the beginning of that same year, they would have ten cutting-edge CD-ROM games on the market. To prove his bona fides, he had recruited to run his games division one Stan Cornyn, a legendary name among music-industry insiders.
Cornyn had been hired by Warner Bros. Records in 1958 to write liner notes, and had gone on to become instrumental in building Warner Music into the biggest record company in the world by the end of the 1980s, with superstars like Madonna and Prince in its stable of artists. During his last years at Warner, Cornyn had headed the Warner New Media spinoff, working on Philips CD-I titles and such other innovations as the CD+G format, which allowed one to place lyrics sheets and pictures on what were otherwise audio CDs. In 1992, he had left Warner. “Corporate [leadership] wanted my company to turn a profit, and I had no idea how our inventions would conquer the world,” he would write later. “That, I left to others.” Instead he decided to reinvent himself as a games-industry executive by signing on with Media Vision. His entrance said much about where the movers and shakers in media believed interactive entertainment was heading. And sure enough, he almost immediately scored a major coup, when he signed press darling Trilobyte to release their much-anticipated sequel to The 7th Guest under the Media Vision banner.
As it happened, Marc Blank, one of the original founders of Infocom, had worked at Warner New Media for a time with Cornyn; he had also remained friendly with both Mike Dornbrook and Steve Meretzky. When he read about Cornyn’s hiring by Media Vision, it all struck Dornbrook as serendipitous. “I thought, ‘Aha!'” he remembers. “‘We have a new person who needs content and has a massive budget, and we have a connection to him.'” It was now the fall of 1993. Media Vision hadn’t published the ten games that Paul Jain had promised by this point — they’d only managed two, neither of them very well-received — but that only made Cornyn that much more eager to sign development deals.
Blank proved as good a go-between as Dornbrook had hoped, and a meeting was arranged for Monday, January 17, 1994, in the Los Angeles offices of Stan Cornyn’s operation. Taking advantage of cheaper weekend airfares, Dornbrook and Meretzky took off from a Boston winter and landed amidst the storied sunshine of Southern California two days before that date. Looking at the pedestrians strolling around in their shorts and flip-flops while he sweated in his winter pullover, Dornbrook said to his friend, “You know, I can kind of see why people want to live out here.”
“You’d never catch me out here,” answered Meretzky, “because of the earthquakes.”
“It would be just our luck, wouldn’t it…” mused Dornbrook.
Fast-forward to 4:30 AM on Monday morning, in the fourth-floor hotel room they were sharing. Dornbrook:
The initial shock threw Steve out of his bed and threw me up in the air. I grabbed onto my mattress and held on for dear life. It was like riding a bucking bronco. The building was shaking and moving in ways I didn’t think a building could survive. I was convinced that at any second the ceiling beams were going to fall on me and crush me. That went on for 35 seconds — which feels like about five minutes in an earthquake. And then it stopped.
We were both fine, but it was pitch black in the room; all the lights were out. But I noticed there was a little red light on the TV. I thought, “Oh, we still have power.” So, I decided to turn the TV on. All my life, the public-broadcast system was telling me, in case of an emergency, they would tell me what to do. While I’m turning it on, Steve is yelling, “We need to get out of here!”
I said, “I want to see what they’re telling us to do.” It was a newsroom in LA, one of the main network stations. The camera was zoomed all the way back in a way you normally didn’t see. There were all these desks, all empty except one. That person was screaming and putting his hands over his head and crawling under the desk — and then the power went out.
I knew the TV station was many, many miles from us. This was not just local; this was a major quake. I’m thinking that the San Andreas Fault might have given way. We might not have water; we’re in a desert. We might be trapped here with no water! So, I crawled into the bathroom and started filling the bathtub with water. Steve is yelling, “What the hell are you doing? We’ve got to get out of here!”
I said, “We need water!”
After the bathtub was full, we got dressed in the dark and worked our way down the hall. We had no way of knowing if there was floor in front of us; it was pitch black. So, I let him go first. He felt his way down the hall, making sure there was a floor there. We got to the exit stairs, and they were pitch black also. We went down step by step, making sure there was another step in front of us, all the way to the first floor.
Then we opened the door into the parking lot, and I remember gasping at the sight. We’re in a desert, it’s dry as can be, and there’s no power for hundreds of miles. You could see stars right down to the horizon. I’ve never seen a sky so clear. It was stunning.
The 1994 Los Angeles earthquake killed 57 people, injured more than 9000, and did tens of billions of dollars of property damage. But the show must go on, as they say in Hollywood. The meeting with the Media Vision games division convened that afternoon in Stan Cornyn’s house, delayed only about six hours by the most violent earthquake in Los Angeles history.
Anyone familiar with my earlier coverage of Steve Meretzky’s career will know that he collected game ideas like some people collect stamps. True to form, he showed up at Cornyn’s house with no less than 21 of them, much to the chagrin of Dornbrook, who would have vastly preferred to pitch just one or two: “Because they don’t really have a clue what will work, and they think you do.” On this occasion, though, everyone in the room was feeling giddy from having survived the morning, not to mention the bottles of good wine Cornyn brought up from his cellar, as they listened to Meretzky work through his list. When he was finally finished, Cornyn and his team huddled together for a few minutes, then returned and announced that they’d take eleven of them, thank you very much, and they’d like the first by Christmas at the latest. As a demonstration of good faith while the lawyers wrote up the final contracts, Cornyn handed Dornbrook and Meretzky a check for $20,000. “Get started right now,” he said. “We don’t want you to lose a day.”
After they’d digested this bombshell, Dornbrook and Meretzky asked each other which idea they could possibly bring to fruition in the span of just nine months or so, given that they were literally starting from scratch: no office, no staff, no computers, no development tools, no investors. (Boffo’s founding capital had been exactly $10.) They decided on something called Hodj ‘n’ Podj.
Hodj ‘n’ Podj wasn’t a traditional adventure game, but it was a classic Steve Meretzky project, a game concept which had caught his fancy a long time ago and had remained in his notebook ever since. Its origins reached back to Fooblitzky, the most atypical Infocom game ever: a multiplayer board game that happened to be played on the computer, designed mostly by Mike Berlyn circa 1984. It was a roll-and-move game which revolved around deducing which four of eighteen possible items your character needed to collect in order to win, and then carrying them across the finish line before your competitors did the same with their collections. Played on the company’s big DEC PDP-10, Fooblitzky was a fixture of life inside mid-period Infocom. In late 1985, it became the one and only Infocom product to use their little-remembered cross-platform graphics engine, becoming in the process something of a case study in why such an engine was more problematic than their ubiquitous textual Z-Machine: Fooblitzky shipped only for the IBM PC, the Apple II, and the Atari 8-bit line of computers, running on the last two at the speed of treacle on a cold day and not coming close to utilizing the full graphics capabilities, modest though they may have been, of any of its hosts. A casual family game at a time when such things were virtually unheard of on computers, and a completely silent and graphically underwhelming one at that, it sold only about 7500 copies in all.
Meretzky’s idea, then, was to update Fooblitzky for an era of home computing that ought to be more friendly to it. He would retain the core mechanics — roll and move, deduce and fetch — but would polish up the interface and graphics, write a fresh framing story involving a kidnapped princess in a fairy-tale kingdom, and add one important new element: as you moved around the board, you would have to play puzzle- and/or action-based mini-games to earn the clues, items, and money you needed. The game would run under Windows — no futzing about with MS-DOS IRQ settings and memory managers! — in order to reach beyond the hardcore-gamer demographic who would probably just scoff at it anyway. It seemed a more than solid proposition, with an important practical advantage that shot it right to the top of Boffo’s project list: the mini-games, where the bulk of the programming would be required, were siloed off from one another in such a way that they could be developed by separate teams working in parallel. Thus the project should be finishable in the requested nine months or so.
Back in cold but blessedly stable Boston, Dornbrook and Meretzky rented office space, hired staff, and bought computers on Media Vision’s dime. The final contract arrived, and all still seemed fine, so much so that Dornbrook agreed to wind up his data-mining venture in favor of doing games full time again. Then, one morning in early April, he opened his newspaper to read that Media Vision was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for serious accounting malfeasance.
In retrospect, the signs had been there all along, as they usually are. The move into software should have raised antennas already more than a year before. “When a company switches or expands its business line into something completely different, it generally means management fears that growth will slow in the main line,” wrote stock-market guru Kathryn F. Staley as part of the round of Monday-morning quarterbacking that now began. “When they expand into a highly competitive business that costs money for product development (like software game titles) when the base business eats money as well, you sit back and watch for the train wreck to happen.” Herb Greenberg, a financial correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been sounding the alarm about Media Vision since the summer of 1993, noting how hard it was to understand how the company’s bottom line could look as good as it did; for all the buzz around Media Vision, it was Creative Labs who still appeared to be selling the vast majority of sound cards and CD-ROM drives. But nobody wanted to listen — least of all two Boston entrepreneurs with a dream of starting a games studio that would bring back some of the old Infocom magic. Media Vision’s stock price had stood at $46 on the day of that earthquake-addled meeting in Los Angeles. Four months later, it stood at $5. Two months after that, the company no longer existed.
As the layers were peeled away, it was learned that Paul Jain and his cronies had engaged in a breathtaking range of fraudulent practices to keep the stock price climbing. They’d paid a fly-by-night firm in India to claim to have purchased $6 million worth of hardware from them that they had never actually made. They’d stashed inventory they said they had sold in secret warehouses in several states. (This house of cards started to fall when Media Vision’s facilities manager, who was not in on the scheme, asked why she kept getting bills from warehouses she hadn’t known existed.) They’d capitalized the expense of their software projects so as to spread the bills out over many years — a practice that was supposed to be used only for permanent, ultra-expensive infrastructure like factories and skyscrapers. Herb Greenberg revealed in one of his articles that they’d go so far as to capitalize their corporate Christmas party. After long rounds of government investigations and shareholder lawsuits, Paul Jain and his chief financial officer Steve Allan would be convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to prison in 2000 and 2002 respectively. “This was certainly one of the dirtiest cases I was ever involved in,” said one lawyer afterward. There is no evidence to suggest that Stan Cornyn’s group was aware of any of this, but the revelations nevertheless marked the end of it alongside the rest of Media Vision. Cornyn himself left the games industry, never to return — understandably enough, given the nature of his brief experience there.
Showing amazing fortitude, Dornbrook, Meretzky, and the team of programmers and artists they’d hired just kept their heads down and kept working on Hodj ‘n’ Podj while Media Vision imploded. When the checks stopped coming from their benefactor, the founders quit paying themselves and cut all other expenses to the bone. That October, Hodj ‘n’ Podj was finished on time and under budget, but it was left in limbo while the bankruptcy court sorted through the wreckage of Media Vision. In December, the contract was bought at the bankruptcy fire sale by Virgin Interactive, and against all odds the game reached store shelves under their imprint in March of 1995. (Virgin also wound up with The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest — an ironic and rather delicious turn of events for them, given that they had actually been the publisher of The 7th Guest back in the day, only to be abandoned by a starstruck Trilobyte when the time came to make the sequel.)
Hard sales figures for Hodj ‘n’ Podj aren’t available, but we can say with confidence that it wasn’t a big seller. In a 1998 Game Developers Conference presentation, Dornbrook blamed a shakeup at Virgin for its disappointing performance. It seems that the management team that bought it at the bankruptcy sale was excited about it, but another team that replaced the first was less so, and this latter refused to fund any real advertising.
These things were doubtless a major factor in its lack of commercial success, but it would be a bridge too far to call Hodj ‘n’ Podj a neglected classic. Although it’s bug-free and crisply presented, it wears out its welcome way more quickly than it ought to. A big part of the problem is the mini-games, which are one and all reskinned rehashes of hoary old perennials from both the analog and digital realms: Battleship, cryptograms, Solitaire, Kalah, video poker, etc. (“These tired old things are games you could play in your sleep, and a bit of freshening up on the soundtrack does little to encourage you to stay awake,” wrote Charles Ardai, harshly but by no means entirely inaccurately, in his review for Computer Gaming World.) Hodj ‘n’ Podj gives you no reason to explore the entire board, but rather makes the most efficient winning gambit that of simply hanging around the same few areas, playing the mini-games you are best at over and over; this speaks to a game that needed a lot more play-testing to devise ways to force players out of their comfort zones. But its most devastating weakness is the decision to support only two players in a game that positively begs to become a full-blown social occasion; even Fooblitzky allows up to four players. A board filled with half a dozen players, all bumping into and disrupting one another in all kinds of mischievous ways, would make up for a multitude of other sins, but this experience just isn’t possible. Hodj ‘n’ Podj isn’t a terrible game — you and a friend can have a perfectly enjoyable evening with it once or twice per year — but its concept is better than its implementation. Rather than becoming more interesting as you learn its ins and outs, as the best games do — yes, even the “casual” ones — it becomes less so.
After Hodj ‘n’ Podj, the story of Boffo turns into a numbing parade of games that almost were. By Mike Dornbrook’s final tally, 35 of their proposals were met with a high degree of “interest” by some publisher or another; 21 led to “solid commitments”; 17 garnered verbal “promises”; 8 received letters of intent and down payments; 5 led to signed contracts; and 2 games (one of them Hodj ‘n’ Podj) actually shipped. I don’t have the heart to chronicle this cavalcade of disappointment in too much detail. Suffice to say that Boffo chose to deal — or was forced to deal — mostly with the new entities who had entered the market in the wake of CD-ROM rather than the old guard who had built the games industry over the course of the 1980s. As the venture capitalists and titans of traditional media who funded these experiments got nervous about a multimedia revolution that wasn’t materializing on the timetable they had expected, they bailed one by one, leaving Boffo out in the cold. Meanwhile the hardcore gaming market was shifting more and more toward first-person shooters and real-time strategy, at the expense of the adventure games which Steve Meretzky had always created. The most profitable Boffo project ever, notes Dornbrook wryly, was one which disappeared along with Time Warner Interactive, leaving behind only a contract which stipulated that Boffo must be paid for several months of work that they now didn’t need to do.
But Boffo did manage to complete one more game and see it released, and it’s to that project that we’ll turn now. The horrid pun that is its title aside, the thunderingly obvious inspiration for Steve Meretzky’s The Space Bar is the cantina scene from Star Wars, with its dizzying variety of cute, ugly, and just plain bizarre alien races all gathered into one seedy Tatooine bar, boozing, brawling, and grooving to the music. Meretzky wanted to capture the same atmosphere in his game, which would cast its player as a telepathic detective on the trail of a shapeshifting assassin. To solve the case, the player would not only need to interrogate the dozens of aliens hanging out at The Thirsty Tentacle, but enter the minds of some of them to relive their memories. Meretzky:
The main design goal for the project was to create an adventure game which was composed of a lot of smaller adventure games: a novel is to a short-story collection as a conventional adventure game would be to The Space Bar. In addition to just a desire to try something different, I also felt that people had increasingly scarce amounts of [free] time, and that starting an adventure game required setting aside such a huge amount of time, many tens of hours. But if, instead, you could say to yourself, “I’ll just play this ‘chapter’ now and save the rest for later,” it would be easier to justify picking up and starting the game. Secondary design goals were to create a spaceport bar as compelling as the one in the first Star Wars movie, to create a Bogart-esque noir atmosphere, to be really funny, and to prove that you could make a graphic adventure that, like the Infocom text games, could have a lot of “meat on the bones.” As with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, I felt that just a collection of independent games was too loose and required a connecting thread; thus the meta-story involving [the player character] Alien Node’s search for the shapeshifter Ni’Dopal. Empathy Telepathy was just a convenient device for connecting the “short stories” to the meta-story.
In the spring of 1995, the tireless Mike Dornbrook was on the verge of clinching a deal to make this game — and for once it was not a deal with a trend-chasing multimedia dilettante: he had no less enviable a fish than Microsoft on the hook. Then Meretzky learned of a startup called Rocket Science Games that had on its staff one Ron Cobb, a visual-design legend who had crafted the look of such films as Alien, The Terminator, Back to the Future (yes, the Delorean time machine was his…), The Abyss, and Total Recall, who had even according to Hollywood rumor been the uncredited creator of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s $792 million-grossing extra-terrestrial. But before all of that, Cobb had made his name by doing the cantina scene for Star Wars. It would be crazy to pass up the chance to have him create the aliens in The Space Bar, said Meretzky. Dornbrook thought it was far crazier to turn down a deal with Microsoft in favor of an unproven startup, but he sighed and made the calls. Soon after, Boffo signed a contract with Rocket Science.
Once again, the warning signs were all there, at least in retrospect. Rocket Science’s founder Steve Blank (no relation to Marc Blank) was a fast-talking showman fond of broad comparisons. His company was “Industrial Light & Magic and Disney combined!” he said. Or, even more inexplicably, it was Cream, the 1960s rock supergroup. Tellingly, none of his comparisons betrayed any familiarity with the current games industry. “Rocket Science feels good and looks good, even though when someone asks me to describe it, I’m somewhat at a loss,” said Blank. In most times and places, a founder unable to describe his company is cause for concern among pundits and investors. But in Silicon Valley in 1995, it was no problem as long as its products were to ship on little silver discs. Blank told his interviewers that he was so awash in investment capital that he could run his company for five years without pulling in any revenue at all.
That was the version of Rocket Science which Boffo signed on with, the one which was capturing the cover of Wired magazine. The following year, “I found out that our games are terrible, no one is buying them, our best engineers [have] started leaving, and with 120 people and a huge burn rate, we’re running out of money and about to crash,” Blank later remembered in a mea culpa published in Forbes. The games in question consisted mostly of simplistic arcade-style exercises, not terribly well designed or implemented, threaded between filmed video snippets, not terribly well written or acted. Gamers took one look at them and then returned to their regularly scheduled sessions of DOOM and Warcraft.
Just as they had with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, Boffo kept their heads down and kept working on The Space Bar while Rocket Science was “cratering,” to use Steve Blank’s favorite vernacular. Meretzky did get to work with Ron Cobb on the visual design, which was quite a thrill for him. A seasoned animation team under Bill Davis, Sierra On-Line’s former head of game visuals, created the graphics using a mixture of pixel art and 3D models, with impressive results. Everyone kept the faith, determined to believe that a game as awesome as this one was shaping up to be couldn’t possibly fail — never mind the weakness of Rocket Science, much less the decline of the adventure-game market. As the months went by and the reality of the latter became undeniable, Meretzky and his colleagues started to talk about The Space Bar as the game that would bring adventures back to the forefront of the industry. “We concentrated on making The Space Bar such a winner that everyone would want to work with us going forward,” says Dornbrook.
In the meantime, Rocket Science continued its cratering. The embattled Steve Blank was replaced by Bill Davis in the CEO’s chair in 1996, and this bought the company a bit more money and time from their investors. In the long run, though, this promotion of an animation specialist only emphasized Rocket Science’s core problem: a surfeit of audiovisual genius, combined with a stark lack of people who knew what made a playable game. In April of 1997, the investors pulled the plug. “It’s tragic when a collection of talent like Rocket Science assembled is disbanded,” said Davis. “It’s a great loss to the industry.” Yet said industry failed to mourn. In fact, it barely noticed.
The Space Bar was in its final stages of development when the news came. Boffo’s contract was passed to SegaSoft, the software division of videogame-console maker Sega, who had invested heavily in Rocket Science games for the underwhelming Sega Saturn. Dornbrook and Meretzky couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. Just as had happened with Hodj ‘n’ Podj, The Space Bar was crawling out from under the wreckage of one publisher into the arms of another who didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it. In the weeks before the game’s release, SegaSoft ran a series of weirdly tone-deaf advertisements for it; for reasons that no one could divine, they were take-offs on the tabloid journalism of The National Enquirer. They were so divorced from the game they claimed to be promoting that the one silver lining, says Dornbrook, was that “at least no one would associate them with our game.”
Unlike Hodj ‘n’ Podj, The Space Bar didn’t prove a commercial disappointment: it turned into an outright bomb. Meretzky still calls its disastrous failure the bitterest single disappointment of his career. Soon after, he and Dornbrook finally gave up and shuttered Boffo. Four years of failure and frustration were enough for anyone.
Dornbrook’s 1998 GDC presentation on the rise and fall of Boffo focused almost exclusively on the little studio’s poor treatment by its larger partners, on the many broken promises and breaches of faith they were forced to endure, until they could endure no more. But at the end of it, he did acknowledge that he might appear to be “blaming all of this on others. Weren’t we also at fault here? Did we have problems on our end?” He concluded that, an unfortunate decision here or there aside — the decision to sign with Rocket Science instead of Microsoft certainly springs to mind — they largely did not. He noted that they never failed to emphasize their biggest strength: “Steve’s a fantastic game designer.”
Does The Space Bar support this contention?
On the surface, the game has much going for it: its rogues’ gallery of misfit aliens is as ingenious and entertaining as you would expect from a meeting of the minds of Steve Meretzky and Ron Cobb; it’s as big and meaty as advertised, packed wall to wall with puzzles; its graphics and voice acting are mostly pretty great; it fills three CDs, and feels like it ought to fill even more. It’s the product of a team that was obviously thinking hard about the limitations of current adventure games and how to move past them — how to make the genre more welcoming to newcomers, as well as tempting once again for those who had gotten tired of the adventure-game status quo and moved on to other things. Among its innovative interface constructs are an auto-map that works wonderfully and a comprehensive logbook that keeps track of suspects, clues, and open puzzles. Dornbrook has called it “a labor of love,” and we have no reason to doubt him.
Nevertheless, it is — and it gives me no pleasure to write this — a flabbergastingly awful game. It plays as if all those intense design discussions Meretzky took part in at Infocom never happened, as if he was not just designing his first adventure game, but was the first person ever to design an adventure game. All the things that Ron Gilbert told the world made adventure games suck almost a decade earlier are here in spades: cul-de-sacs everywhere that can only be escaped by pressing the “restore” button, a need to do things in a certain order when you have no way of knowing what that order is, a need to run though the same boring processes over and over again, a stringent time limit that’s impossible to meet without hyper-optimized play, player deaths that come out of nowhere, puzzles that make sense only in the designer’s head. It’s not just sadistically but incompetently put together as a game. And as a marketplace proposition, it’s utterly incoherent, not to say schizophrenic; how can we possibly square this design with Meretzky’s stated goal of making a more approachable adventure game, one that would be digestible in snack-sized chunks? The Space Bar would seem to be aimed at two completely separate audiences, each the polar opposite of the other; I don’t believe there’s any hidden demographic of casual masochists out there. And there’s no difficulty slider or anything else that serves to bridge the chasm.
If The Space Bar sold ten copies, that was ten too many; I hope those ten buyers returned it for a refund. I don’t blame Mike Dornbrook for not being aware of just how terrible a game The Space Bar was; he was way too close to it to be expected to have an objective view under any circumstances, even as he was, as he forthrightly acknowledges, never really much of a gamer after his torrid early romance with Zork had faded into a comfortable conviviality. Still, to analyze the failure of Boffo only in terms of market pressures, bad luck, and perhaps just a few bad business choices is to fail at the task. In addition to all of these other factors, there remains the reality that neither of their two games were actually all that good. Nothing about The Space Bar would lead one to believe that Steve Meretzky is “a fantastic game designer.”
Yet Meretzky could in fact be a fantastic game designer. Back in 2015, writing about his 1987 Infocom game Stationfall, I called him “second to no one on the planet in his ability to craft entertaining and fair puzzles, to weave them together into a seamless whole, and to describe it all concisely and understandably.” I continue to stand by that statement in the context of his games of that era. So, how did we get from Stationfall to The Space Bar?
I belabor this question not because I want to pick on Steve Meretzky, whose half-dozen or so stone-cold classic games are half a dozen more than I can lay claim to, but because I think there’s an important lesson here about the need for collaboration in game design. I tend to see Meretzky’s rather disappointing output during the 1990s — including not only his Boffo games but those he did for Legend and Activision — as another ironic testament to Infocom’s genius for process. Infocom surrounded the designer of each of their games with skeptical, questioning peers, and expected him to work actively with a team of in-house testers who were empowered to do more than just point out bugs and typos, who were allowed to dig into what was fun and unfun, fair and unfair. Meretzky never worked in such an environment again after Infocom — never worked with people who were willing and able to tell him, “Maybe this joke goes on a bit too long, Steve,” or, “Maybe you don’t need to ask the player to go through this dozen-step process multiple times. ” The end results perhaps speak for themselves. Sometimes you need colleagues who do more than tell you how fantastic you are.
Steve Meretzky never designed another full-fledged adventure game after The Space Bar. Following a few dissatisfying intermediate steps, he found his way into the burgeoning world of casual social games, distributed digitally rather than as boxed products, where he’s done very well for himself since the turn of the millennium. Meanwhile Mike Dornbrook signed on with a little company called Harmonix that reminded him somewhat of Infocom, being staffed as they were with youthful bright sparks from MIT. After years of refining their techniques for making music interactive for non-musicians, they released something called Guitar Hero in 2005. Both of the principals behind Boffo have enjoyed second acts in the games industry that dwarf their first in terms of number of players reached and number of dollars earned. So, it all worked out okay for them in the end.
(Sources: the books Games Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III Exploding: The Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group by Stan Cornyn, Capital Instincts: Life as an Entrepreneur, Financier, and Athlete by Richard L. Brandt, Thomas Weisel, and Lance Armstrong, and The Art of Short Selling by Kathryn F. Staley; Computer Gaming World of May 1995, August 1995, May 1997, and December 1997; Questbusters 116; Computer Games Strategy Plus of August 1996; Wired of November 1994 and July 1997; San Francisco Chronicle of August 29 2000; the June 1993 issue of Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction. Online source include a CD Mag interview with Steve Meretzky, an Adventure Classic Gaming interview with Steve Meretzky, a Happy Puppy interview with Steve Meretzky, “Failure and Redemption” by Steve Blank at Forbes, and Mike Dornbrook’s presentation “Look Before You Leap” at the 1998 Game Developers Conference. But my most valuable source of all was Karl Kuras’s more than four-hour (!) interview with Mike Dornbrook for his Video Game Newsroom Time Machine podcast, a truly valuable oral history of the games industry from a unique perspective. Thanks, Karl and Mike!)
The user-interface constructs that are being developed in computer games are absolutely critical to the advancement of digital culture, as much as it might seem heretical to locate the advancement of civilization in game play. Now, yes, if I thought my worth as a person would be judged in the next century by the body counts I amassed in virtual-fighting games, I guess I’d be worried and dismayed. But if the question is whether a wired world can be serious about art, whether the dynamics of interactive media’s engagement can provide a cultural experience, I think it’s silly to argue that there are inherent reasons why it cannot.
— Michael Nash
The career arc of Michael Nash between 1991 and 1997 is a microcosm of the boom and bust of non-networked “multimedia computing” as a consumer-oriented proposition. The former art critic was working as a curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art when Bob Stein, founder of The Voyager Company, saw some of the cutting-edge mixed-media exhibitions he was putting together and asked him to come work for him. Nash jumped at the chance, which he saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a curator on a much grander scale.
I was very interested in TV innovators like Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kaufman, in the development of music videos, and in the work of artists using the computer. [I believed] that opportunities can open up for artists at key times in the history of media — artists dream up the kinds of possibilities that push media to envision new things before the significance of these things is generally understood. “Where do you want to go today?” the [technical] architects of the new media ask, because they don’t know. They’re waiting for some great vision to make all this abstract possibility into compelling experiences that will provide shape, purpose, and direction. The potential of the new media to express cultural ideas has increased much faster than the development of new cultural ideas, so the potential is there.
Michael Nash’s official title at Voyager was that of Director of the Criterion Collection, the company’s line of classic films on laser disc — also its one reliably profitable endeavor, the funding engine that powered all of Bob Stein’s more esoteric experiments in interactive multimedia. But roles were fluid at Voyager. “It felt like a lair of tech-enamored bohemians,” remembers Nash. “The company style was 1970s laid-back mixed with intense intellectual ferment and communalism. The work environment was frenetic, at times even a little chaotic.”
As the hype around multimedia reached a fever pitch, everyone who was anyone seemed to want a piece of Voyager. In a typical week, the receptionist might field phone calls from rock star David Bowie, from thriller author Michael Crichton, from counterculture guru Timothy Leary, from cognitive scientist Donald Norman, from Apple CEO John Sculley, from computer scientist Alan Kay, from particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann, from evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould, from classical cellist Yo Yo Ma, and from film critic Roger Ebert. The star power on the production side of the equation dwarfed the modest sales of Voyager’s CD-ROMs almost to the point of absurdity. (Only two Voyager CD-ROMs would ever crack 100,000 units in total sales, while most failed to manage even 10,000.)
Another of the stars who wound up working with Voyager — a star after a fashion, anyway — was the Residents, a still-extant San Francisco-based collective of musicians and avant-garde conceptual artists whose members have remained anonymous to this day; they dress in disguises whenever they perform live. Delighting in the obliteration of all boundaries of bourgeois good taste, the Residents both deconstruct existing popular music — their infamous 1976 album The Third Reich n’ Roll, for example, re-contextualized dozens of classic postwar hits as Hitler Youth anthems — and perform their own bizarre original songs. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which is which; their 1979 album Eskimo, for instance, purported to be a collection of Inuit folk songs, but was really a put-on from first to last.
During the 1980s, the Residents began to make the visual element of their performances as important as the music, creating some of the most elaborate concert spectacles this side of Pink Floyd. The term “multimedia” had actually enjoyed its first cultural vogue as a label for just this sort of performance, after it was applied to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows put on by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground in 1966 and 1967. Thus it was rather appropriate for the Residents to embrace the new, digital definition of multimedia when the time came. It was Michael Nash who made the deal to turn the Residents’ 1991 album Freak Show, a song cycle about the lives and loves of a group of circus freaks, into a 1994 Voyager CD-ROM. Nash:
Within alienage, we discover a lot about the paradox of our own alienation. The recognition of difference is the way we establish our identity and the uniqueness of our own point of view. We are drawn to extreme kinds of “alien” identity — freak shows, fanatics, psychotics, serial killers, nightmares, monsters from outer space — because we are fascinated by absolute otherness, lying as it does at the heart of our own sense of self. We never tire of this paradox because it is so charged by opposites: quirky, eccentric, weird, dark, transgressive vision is so different from our own and yet so full of the very thing that makes us different, that gives our identity its integrity. I think it’s a powerful dynamic to draw on in establishing the essential attributes of extraordinary inner realms that distinguish the best work in the field.
Personally, I find the sentiment above — and the tortured grad-school diction in which it’s couched — to be something the best artists grow out of, just as I find raw honesty to produce a higher form of art than the likes of the Residents’ onion of off-putting artificiality and provocation for the sake of it. Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, the obvious inspiration for the Residents’ album and the CD-ROM, offers a more empathetic, compassionate glimpse of circus “aliens” in my opinion. But to each his own: there’s no question that Freak Show was another bold statement from Voyager that interactive CD-ROMs could and should deal with any and all imaginable subject matter.
The same year that Freak Show was released, Michael Nash left Voyager to set up his own multimedia publisher. Freak Show had been one of the few Voyager discs that could be reasonably labeled a game. Now, Nash wanted to move further in that direction with the company he called Inscape. In a testament to both the tenor of the times and his own considerable charisma, HBO and Warner Music Group agreed to invest $2.5 million each in the venture. Any number of existing games publishers would have killed for a nest egg such as that.
But then, Inscape and Michael Nash himself were the polar opposite of all existing stereotypes about computer games. Certainly the dapper, well-spoken Nash could hardly have been less like the scruffy young men of id Software, those makers of DOOM, the biggest hardcore-gaming sensation of the year. The id boys were just the latest of the long line of literal or metaphorical bedroom programmers who had built the games industry as it currently existed, young men who played games and obsessed over the inner workings of the computers that ran them almost to the exclusion of all the rest of life’s rich pageant. Nash, on the other hand, was steeped in a broader, more aesthetically nuanced tradition of arts and humanities, and knew almost nothing about the games that had come before the multimedia boom he found so bracing. In an ideal world, each might have learned from the other: Nash might have pushed the existing game studios to mine some of the rich veins of culture beyond epic fantasy and action-movie science fiction, and they in their turn might have taught Nash how to make good games that made you want to keep coming back to them. In the real world, however, the two camps mostly just sniped snidely at one another — when, that is, they deigned to acknowledge one another’s existence at all. Nash was too busy beating the drum for “radical alternative subversive perspectives, what I call transgressive work” to think much about the more grounded, sober craft of good game design.
Most of Inscape’s output, then, is all too typical of such an entity in such an era. The Residents stayed loyal to Nash after he left Voyager, and helped Inscape to make Bad Day on the Midway, another, modestly more ambitious take on the lives of circus freaks. Meanwhile Nash, who seemed to have a special affinity for avant-garde rock music, also joined forces with the only slightly less subversive but much more commercially successful collective known as Devo — in a reflection of their shared sensibilities, both Devo and the Residents had once recorded radically deconstructed versions of the Rolling Stones classic “Satisfaction” — to make something called Adventures of the Smart Patrol. Such works garnered some degree of praise in their time from organs of higher culture who were determined to see that which they most wished to see in them; writing for The Atlantic, Ralph Lombreglia went so far as to call Smart Patrol “the CD-ROM equivalent of Terry Gilliam’s remarkable film Brazil.” Those who encounter these and other, similar rock-star vanity projects today, from artists as diverse as Prince and Peter Gabriel, are more likely to choose adjectives like “aimless” and “tedious.” (“Will we look back in nostalgia on such titles as Bad Day on the Midway and Adventures of the Smart Patrol?” asked Lombreglia in his 1997 article, which was already mourning the end of the multimedia boom. Well, I’m from the future, Ralph… and no, we really don’t.)
It seems to me that the discipline of game design has often suffered from the same fallacy that dogs writing: the assumption that, because virtually everyone can design a game on some literal level, the gulf between bad and good design is easily bridged, with no special skills or experience required. Most of the products of Inscape and their direct competitors serve as cogent examples of where that fallacy — and its associated disinterest in the process that leads to compelling interactivity, from the concept to the testing phase — can lead you.
In the case of Inscape, however, there is one blessed exception to the rule of trendy multimedia mediocrity. And it’s to that exception, which is known as The Dark Eye, that I’d like to devote the rest of this article.
The Dark Eye was Inscape’s very first game, released in late 1995. It’s an interactive exploration of the macabre world of Edgar Allan Poe — not a particularly easy thing to pull off, which explains why games that use Poe’s writings as a direct inspiration are so rare. When we do encounter traces of him in games, it’s generally through the filter of H.P. Lovecraft, the longstanding poet laureate of ludic horror, who himself acknowledged Poe as his most important literary influence. But Poe, whose short, generally unhappy life ended in 1849, was a vastly better, subtler writer than his twentieth-century disciple, with both a more variegated and empathetic emotional range and an ear for language that utterly eluded him. While Poe can occasionally lapse into Lovecraftian turgidity in prose, his poetry is almost uniformly magnificent; works like “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” positively swing with a musical rhythm that belies his popular reputation as a parched, unremittingly dour soul. Like so much of the best writing, they beg to be read aloud.
The problem with adapting Poe’s stories into a computer game — or into a movie, for that matter — is that their action, such as it is, is so internal. Their narrators, who are generally mentally disturbed if not outright insane and therefore thoroughly unreliable, are always their most fascinating characters. Their stories are constructed as epistles to us the readers; we learn of their protagonists not through dialog or their actions in the physical world, but through the words they write directly to us, explaining themselves to us. Without this dimension, the stories would be fairly banal tales of misfortune and mayhem, pulp rather than fine literature.
Bringing the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe to life on the computer, then, requires getting beyond the realm of the literal in which most digital games exist. It requires an affinity for subtlety and symbolism, and a fearless willingness to deploy them in a medium not terribly known for such things. Fortunately, Michael Nash had a person with just such qualities to hand, in the form of one Russell Lees.
In 1994, Lees was an electrical engineer and aspiring playwright who had little interest in or experience with computer games. But then Nash, a “friend of a friend,” happened to show him Freak Show. He found it endlessly intriguing, and was in fact so enthusiastic that Nash suggested he send him a list of possible projects he might like to make for this new venture called Inscape. One of the suggestions Lees came up with was, he remembers, “dropping into the tales of Poe.” Only after Nash gave the Poe project the green light and Lees found himself suddenly thrust into the unlikely role of game designer did the difficulties inherent in such an endeavor dawn on him: “What have I done? Dropping into the tales of Poe? What does that mean? It’s a completely nonsensical sentence!”
Lees and Inscape eventually decided to present three Poe stories in an interactive format, along with an original tale in his spirit that would serve as a jumping-off and landing place for the player’s explorations of the master’s works. Two of the trio, “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” are among Poe’s most famous works of all, the stuff of English-language high-school curricula for time immemorial; the other, “Berenice,” is less commonly read, but is if you ask me the most disturbing of the lot. All are intimate tales of psychological obsession and, in two cases, murder. (“Berenice” settles for necrophilia in its stead…)
The game begins with you knocking on the door of your uncle’s house. Once inside, your casual family visit takes on a more serious dimension, when you become the reluctant go-between in a love affair between your beautiful young cousin and your brother — a love affair of which your uncle most definitely does not approve. (The relationship is a presumably deliberate echo of Poe’s courtship and marriage to his own thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, whose long, slow death from tuberculosis became the defining event of his life, the catalyst for his final descent into alcoholism, despair, and at last the sweet release of death.) As this frame story plays out, you’re periodically plunged into nightmares and hallucinations in which you enact Poe’s tales. In fact, you enact each of them twice: once in the role of the aggressor, once in that of the victim.
Through it all, The Dark Eye shows the unmistakable influence of the adventure games that other studios were making at the time. The creepily expressive human hand it uses for a mouse cursor, for example, is blatantly stolen from The 7th Guest. But the more pervasive model is Myst. The Dark Eye‘s node-based navigation through contiguous environments, first-person viewpoint, and minimalist, inventory-less interface are obvious legacies of Myst. The technologies behind it as well are the same as Myst: a middleware presentation engine (Macromedia Director in this case), 3D modelers, QuickTime movie clips, all far removed from the heavily optimized bare-metal code which powered games like DOOM (and thus one more reason for fans and programmers of games like that one to hold this one in contempt).
Likewise, all four of the stories that make up The Dark Eye engage in a style of environmental storytelling — or, perhaps better said, backstory-revealing — that will on one level be familiar to players of Myst and its many heirs. And yet it serves a markedly different agenda here. The character you played in Myst was you or whomever else you chose to imagine her to be, a blank slate wandering an alternate multiverse. Not so in The Dark Eye. Lees:
I think coming from a theater background influenced how I thought about it. In my head, “dropping into the tales of Poe” is only interesting if you drop into a character: if you drop into some character’s head. We’re asking the player to not play themself. In many games, the whole idea is that the player gets to be themself, with all kinds of freedom. If you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, you’re you, but a different version of you who can steal cars.
We weren’t interested in that at all. What we were interested in was… you drop into a character, and basically you’re an actor trying to play that character. What does that mean? If you’re a real actor playing the narrator in “The Tell-tale Heart,” for example, you would read through [the script], come up with some backstory for the character, try to flesh the character out so that every line in the performance resonates with a life lived. As the player, you’re not going to get that. So, how do we make up for that in an interactive situation? The way we solved it — and I feel like we did solve it, in fact — was this:
We tried to map that psychological investigation that an actor would bring to a part onto spatial investigation. You’re exploring a space where certain objects have importance to you. It’s not just, I pick up a letter and learn about my character [by reading it]. It’s, I pick up an object that’s important to my character and I hear my character thinking about it, or that object triggers a movie where I see something from my character’s past, or maybe it just plays a little bit of music. So, all these objects are imbued with something from your past. We were trying to “trick” the player into doing a psychological investigation of the part they were playing.
The Dark Eye is interested in enriching your experience of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, not in giving you a way of changing them; you can’t choose not to plunge the knife into the old man who is murdered in “The Tell-tale Heart.” But you can inhabit the story and the characters in a way interestingly different from, if not necessarily superior to, the way you can understand them through the pages of a book. The best compliment I can give to Russell Lees is that the framing story and the three Poe narratives from the perspective of the victims feel thoroughly of a piece with the three more familiar stories and perspectives. It’s no trivial feat to expand upon the work of a literary master so seamlessly.
“The Tell-tale Heart”
“The Cask of Amontillado”
Like so many of gaming’s more esoteric art projects, The Dark Eye is a polarizing creation. Some people love it, while others greet it with a veritable rage that seems entirely out of proportion to such a humble relic of a bygone age. It rams smack into one of the fundamental tensions that have dogged adventure games as long as they have existed. Ought you to be playing yourself in these games, or is it acceptable to be asked to play the role of someone else, perhaps even someone you would never wish to be in real life? The question was first thrashed over in the gaming press in 1983, when Infocom released Infidel, a text adventure whose fleshed-out protagonist was almost as unpleasant as a Poe narrator. It has continued to raise its head from time to time ever since.
But there’s even more to the polarization than that. It seems to me that The Dark Eye divides the waters so because, although it bears many of the surface trappings of a traditional adventure game, its goals are ultimately different. While a game like Myst is built around its puzzles, The Dark Eye has quite literally no puzzles at all. In fact, admits Russell Lees, freely acknowledging the worst of the criticism leveled against it, it has “no gameplay beyond exploration.” You don’t “beat” The Dark Eye, in other words; you explore it. More specifically, you explore its characters’ interior spaces. Watching many gamers engage with it is akin to watching fans of genre fiction confronted with a literary novel, except that here “where’s the puzzles?” stands in for “where’s the plot?” This is not to say that those who appreciate The Dark Eye are better, more refined souls than those who find it aimless and tedious, any more than those who enjoy John Steinbeck are superior to readers of John Grisham. It’s just to say that clashes of expectation can be difficult things to overcome. “We need some new words for works that are interactive but aren’t so much games,” says Lees — a noble if hopeless proposition.
We can see these things play out in the reaction to The Dark Eye from the gaming press after its release. Most reviewers just didn’t know what to do with it. The always articulate Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World reacted somewhat typically:
As with many of the new “exploration” adventure games, the environment reeks of emptiness, especially at first. But it’s worse here than in most: not only are there too many empty rooms, but you aren’t asked to solve puzzles of any sort, not even the lame brainteasers most games use as filler. Making matters worse, there are hallways you see that, for no apparent reason, the computer doesn’t let you go down; doors the game doesn’t let you open; and characters the game doesn’t let you click on. Even the few objects you run across — a meat cleaver, a paper knife — the game doesn’t let you take.
But, because he is a thoughtful if not infallible critic, Ardai must also acknowledge The Dark Eye to be “a singular, disturbing vision equal to the task of rendering Poe’s nightmare worlds.” He even calls it “brave.”
Instead of puzzles, The Dark Eye gives you atmosphere — all the atmosphere you can inhale, enough atmosphere to send you running to a less pressurized room of your house after spending a while in its company. You witness no actual violence on the screen; the camera always cuts away at the pivotal moment. Yet the game is thoroughly unnerving, more psychologically oppressive than a thousand everyday videogame zombies; this game will creep you the hell out. It’s in vacant eyes of the stop-motion-animated digitized puppets that are used to represent the other characters; in the way that the soundtrack, provided by associates of avant-rock musician Thomas Dolby, suddenly swells with nerve-jangling ferocity and then fades into silence again just as quickly; in knowing what awaits you as perpetrator or victim in each of the stories, and being unable to stop it.
The crowning touch is the voice of the legendary Beat author William S. Burroughs, a rare instance of stunt casting that worked out perfectly. Michael Nash, who seemed never to have heard of an edgy cultural icon whose involvement in one of his multimedia projects he didn’t want to trumpet in his advertising, sought out and cast Burroughs for the game without Lees even being aware he was attempting to do so. But Lees was very, very happy when he was informed of it. Burroughs plays the part of your crotchety uncle in the game, and also provides two non-interactive Edgar Allan Poe recitals for you to stumble across: of the poem “Annabel Lee,” which you can hear earlier in this article, and of the story “The Masque of the Red Death.” One anecdote which Lees has shared about the three days he spent directing Burroughs’s performances in the author’s Lawrence, Kansas, home is too delicious not to include here.
He liked starting off the day by toking up. We’re in the [sound] booth and he’s lighting up his marijuana and he says, “Do you want a drag?” And I say, “You know, Inscape’s spending a lot of money to send me out here. I think I have to stay on the ball. You go ahead.”
So, he’d start off by getting a little bit high, and that would loosen him up. Then in the afternoon he liked to drink vodka and Sprite. He would start around 3 PM, and things would get a little mushy, but it also brought some interesting performances out.
I have to admit that on the very last day when we were finishing up, he lit up a joint, and I did share it with Bill.
Within two years of these events, the confluence of cultural forces that could produce such an anecdote would be ancient history. Russell Lees was about halfway through the production of a game based on the Tales from the Crypt comic books and television series when Michael Nash sold Inscape to Graphix Zone, a Voyager-like publisher of multimedia CD-ROMs that was scrambling to reinvent itself as a games publisher in a changing world. The attempt wasn’t successful: the conjoined entity, which was known as Ignite Games, disappeared by the end of 1997. Nash went on to a high-profile career as a music executive, and was instrumental in convincing the hidebound powers that were in that industry to reluctantly embrace streaming rather than attempting to sue it out of existence in the post-Napster era. Russell Lees continued to bounce among the worlds of theater, home video, and games for many years, until finding a stable home at last as a staff writer for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise in 2011.
As the fate of the company that developed and published it would indicate, The Dark Eye wasn’t an overly big seller in its day. Yet it’s still remembered fondly in some circles today — and deservedly so. It solves one of the basic paradoxes of licensed works by not attempting to replace the stories on which it’s based, but rather to complement them. If you haven’t read them before playing it– or if haven’t done so since your school days — you might find yourself wanting to when you’re done. And if you have read them recently, the new perspectives on them which the game opens up might just unnerve you all over again. Then again, you might merely be bored by it all. And that’s okay too; not all art is for everyone.
(Sources: in addition to the Edgar Allan Poe collection that belongs in every real or virtual library — the Penguin one is excellent — the book DVD and the Study of Film: The Attainable Text by Mark Parker and Deborah Parker; Computer Gaming World of April 1996 and May 1996; Electronic Entertainment of August 1995; MacAddict of December 1996; Next Generation of August 1997; Wired of March 1995; Los Angeles Times of July 12 1994 and February 28 1997; American Literature of November 1930. Online sources include “What Happened to Multimedia?” by Ralph Lombreglia in Atlantic Unbound and an accompanying interview with Michael Nash, Emily Rose’s podcast interview with Russell Lees, and Lees’s own website.
The Dark Eye isn’t available for sale, but the CD image can be downloaded from The Macintosh Garden; note that you’ll need StuffIt to decompress it. Unfortunately, it’s a Windows 3.1 application, which means it’s somewhat complicated to get running on modern hardware. But you can do it with a bit of time and patience: Egee has written a very good tutorial on getting Windows 3.1 set up in DOSBox, and you can find the vintage software you’ll need on WinWorld. Another option is to run it on a real or emulated classic Macintosh, as the CD-ROM is a hybrid disc for both Windows and Mac computers. See my article on ten standout Voyager discs for some advice on doing this.)
To the person who [is] contemplating buying this game, what would I say? I would say take your money and give it to the homeless, you’ll do more good. But if you are mad to buy this game, you’ll probably have a hell of a lot of fun playing it, it will probably make you uneasy, and you’ll probably be a smarter person when you’re done playing the game. Not because I’m smarter, but because everything was done to confuse and upset you. I am told by people that it is a game unlike any other game around at the moment and I guess that’s a good thing. Innovation and novelty is a good thing. It would be my delight if this game set a trend and all of the arcade bang-bang games that turn kids into pistol-packing papas and mamas were subsumed into games like this in which ethical considerations and using your brain and unraveling puzzles become the modus operandi. I don’t think it will happen. I don’t think you like to be diverted too much. So I’m actually out here to mess with you, if you want to know it. We created this game to give you all the stuff you think you want, but to put a burr into your side at the same time. To slip a little loco weed into your Coca-Cola. See you around.
— Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison made a very successful career out of biting the hands that fed him. The pint-sized dervish burst into literary prominence in the mid-1960s, marching at the vanguard of science fiction’s New Wave. In the pages of Frederick Pohl’s magazine If, he paraded a series of scintillatingly trippy short stories that were like nothing anyone had ever seen before, owing as much to James Joyce and Jack Kerouac as they did to Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Ellison demanded, both implicitly in his stories and explicitly in his interviews, that science fiction cast off its fetish for shiny technology-fueled utopias and address the semi-mythical Future in a more humanistic, skeptical way. His own prognostications in that vein were almost unrelentingly grim: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” dealt with a future society where everyone was enslaved to the ticking of the government’s official clock; “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” told of the last five humans left on a post-apocalyptic Earth, kept alive by an insane artificial intelligence so that he could torture them for all eternity; “A Boy and His Dog” told of a dog who was smarter than his feral, amoral human master, and helped him to find food to eat and women to rape as they roamed another post-apocalyptic landscape. To further abet his agenda of dragging science fiction kicking and screaming into the fearless realm of True Literature, Ellison became the editor of a 1967 anthology called Dangerous Visions, for which he begged a diverse group of established and up-and-coming science-fiction writers to pick a story idea that had crossed their mind but was so controversial and/or provocative that they had never dared send it to a magazine editor — and then to write it up and send it to him instead.
Ellison’s most impactful period in science fiction was relatively short-lived, ending with the publication of the somewhat underwhelming Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972. He obstinately refused to follow the expected career path of a writer in his position: that of writing a big, glossy novel to capitalize on the cachet his short stories had generated. Meanwhile even his output of new stories slowed in favor of more and more non-fiction essays, while those stories that did emerge lacked some of the old vim and vinegar. One cause of this was almost certainly his loss of Frederick Pohl as editor and bête noire. Possessing very different literary sensibilities, the two had locked horns ferociously over the most picayune details — Pohl called Ellison “as much pain and trouble as all the next ten troublesome writers combined” — but Pohl had unquestionably made Ellison’s early stories better. He was arguably the last person who was ever truly able to edit Harlan Ellison.
No matter. Harlan Ellison’s greatest creation of all was the persona of Harlan Ellison, a role he continued to play very well indeed right up until his death in 2018. “He is a test of our credulity,” wrote his fellow science-fiction writer David Gerrold in 1984. “He is too improbable to be real.”
The point of origin of Harlan Ellison as science fiction’s very own enfant terrible can be traced back to the episode of Star Trek he wrote in 1966. “The City on the Edge of Forever” is often called the best single episode of the entire original series, but to Ellison it was and forever remained an abomination in its broadcast form. As you may remember, it’s a time-travel story, in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are cast back into the Great Depression on Earth, where Kirk falls in love with a beautiful social worker and peace activist, only to learn that he has to let her die in a traffic accident in order to prevent her pacifism from infecting the body politic to such an extent that the Nazis are able to win World War II. As good as the produced version of the episode is, Ellison insisted until his death that the undoctored script he first submitted was far, far better — and it must be acknowledged that at least some of the people who worked on Star Trek agreed with him. In a contemporaneous memo, producer Bob Justman lamented that, following several rounds of editing and rewriting, “there is hardly anything left of the beauty and mystery that was inherent in the screenplay as Harlan originally wrote it.” For his part, Ellison blamed Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry loudly and repeatedly for “taking a chainsaw” to his script. In a fit of pique, he submitted his undoctored script for a 1967 Writers Guild Award. When it won, he literally danced on the table in front of Roddenberry inside the banquet hall, waving his trophy in his face. Dorothy Fontana, the writer who had been assigned the unenviable task of changing Ellison’s script to fit with the series’s budget and its established characters, was so cowed by his antics that for 30 years she dared not tell him she had done so.
Despite this incident and many another, lower-profile one much like it, Ellison continued to work in Hollywood — as, indeed, he had been doing even before his star rose in literary science-fiction circles. Money, he forthrightly acknowledged, was his principal reason for writing for a medium he claimed to loathe. He liked creating series pilots most of all, he said, “because when they screw those up, they just don’t go on the air. I get paid and I’ve written something nice and it doesn’t have to get ruined.” His boorish behavior in meetings with the top movers and shakers of Hollywood became legendary, as did the lawsuits he fired hither and yon whenever he felt ill-used. Why did Hollywood put up with it? One answer is that Harlan Ellison was at the end of the day a talented writer who could deliver the goods when it counted, who wasn’t unaware of the tastes and desires of the very same viewing public he heaped with scorn at every opportunity. The other is that his perpetual cantankerousness made him a character, and no place loves a character more than Hollywood.
Then again, one could say the same of science-fiction fandom. Countless fans who had read few to none of Ellison’s actual stories grew up knowing him as their genre’s curmudgeonly uncle with the razor wit and the taste for blood. For them, Harlan Ellison was famous simply for being Harlan Ellison. Any lecture or interview he gave was bound to be highly entertaining. An encounter with Ellison became a rite of passage for science-fiction journalists and critics, who gingerly sidled up to him, fed him a line, and then ducked for cover while he went off at colorful and profane length.
It’s hard to say how much of Ellison’s rage against the world was genuine and how much was shtick. He frequently revealed in interviews that he was very conscious of his reputation, and hinted at times that he felt a certain pressure to maintain it. And, in keeping with many public figures with outrageous public personas, Ellison’s friends did speak of a warmer side to his private personality, of a man who, once he brought you into his fold, would go to ridiculous lengths to support, protect, and help you.
Still, the flame that burned in Ellison was probably more real than otherwise. He was at bottom a moralist, who loathed the hypocrisy and parsimony he saw all around him. Often described as a futurist, he was closer to a reactionary. Nowhere could one see this more plainly than in his relationship to technology. In 1985, when the personal-computer revolution had become almost old hat, he was still writing on a mechanical typewriter, using reasoning that sounded downright Amish.
The presence of technology does not mean you have to use that technology. Understand? The typewriter that I have — I use an Olympia and I have six of them — is the best typewriter ever made. That’s the level of technology that allows me to do my job best. Electric typewriters and word processors — which are vile in every respect — seem to me to be crutches for bad writing. I have never yet heard an argument for using a word processor that didn’t boil down to “It’s more convenient.” Convenient means lazy to me. Lazy means I can write all the shit I want and bash it out later. They can move it around, rewrite it later. What do I say? Have it right in your head before you sit down, that’s what art is all about. Art is form, art is shape, art is pace, it is measure, it is the sound of music. Don’t write slop and discordancy and think just because you have the technology to cover up your slovenliness that it makes you a better writer. It doesn’t.
Ellison’s attitude toward computers in general was no more nuanced. Asked what he thought about computer entertainment in 1987, he pronounced the phrase “an oxymoron.” Thus it came as quite a surprise to everyone five years later when it was announced that Harlan Ellison had agreed to collaborate on a computer game.
The source of the announcement was a Southern California publisher and developer called Cyberdreams, which had been founded by Pat Ketchum and Rolf Klug in 1990. Ketchum was a grizzled veteran of the home-computer wars, having entered the market with the founding of his first software publisher DataSoft on June 12, 1980. After a couple of years of spinning their wheels, DataSoft found traction when they released a product called Text Wizard, for a time the most popular word processor for Atari’s 8-bit home-computer line. (Its teenage programmer had started on the path to making it when he began experimenting with ways to subtly expand margins and increase line spacings in order to make his two-page school papers look like three…)
Once established, DataSoft moved heavily into games. Ketchum decided early on that working with pre-existing properties was the best way to ensure success. Thus DataSoft’s heyday, which lasted from roughly 1983 to 1987, was marked by a bewildering array of television shows (The Dallas Quest), martial-arts personalities (Bruce Lee), Sunday-comics characters (Heathcliff: Fun with Spelling), blockbuster movies (Conan, The Goonies), pulp fiction (Zorro), and even board games (221 B Baker St.), as well as a bevy of arcade ports and British imports. The quality level of this smorgasbord was hit or miss at best, but Ketchum’s commercial instinct for the derivative proved well-founded for almost a half a decade. Only later in the 1980s, when more advanced computers began to replace the simple 8-bit machines that had been the perfect hosts for DataSoft’s cheap and cheerful games, did his somewhat lackadaisical attitude toward the nuts and bolts of his products catch up to him. He then left DataSoft to work for a time at Sullivan Bluth Interactive Media, which made ports of the old laser-disc arcade game Dragon’s Lair for various personal-computing platforms. Then, at the dawn of the new decade, he founded another company of his own with his new partner Rolf Klug.
The new company’s product strategy was conceived as an intriguing twist on that of the last one he had founded. Like DataSoft, Cyberdreams would rely heavily on licensed properties and personalities. But instead of embracing DataSoft’s random grab bag of junk-food culture, Cyberdreams would go decidedly upmarket, a move that was very much in keeping with the most rarefied cultural expectations for the new era of multimedia computing. Their first released product, which arrived in 1992, was called Dark Seed; it was an adventure game built around the striking and creepy techno-organic imagery of the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, best known for designing the eponymous creatures in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. If calling Dark Seed a “collaboration” with Giger is perhaps stretching the point — although Giger licensed his existing paintings to Cyberdreams, he contributed no new art to the game — the end result certainly does capture his fetishistic aesthetic very, very well. Alas, it succeeds less well as a playable game. It runs in real time, meaning events can and will run away without a player who isn’t omniscient enough to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time, while its plot is most kindly described as rudimentary — and don’t even get me started on the pixel hunts. Suffice to say that few games in history have screamed “style over substance” louder than this one. Still, in an age hungry for fodder for the latest graphics cards and equally eager for proof that computer games could be as provocative as any other form of media, it did quite well.
By the time of Dark Seed‘s release, Cyberdreams was already working on another game built around the aesthetic of another edgy artist most famous for his contributions to a Ridley Scott film: Syd Mead, who had done the set designs for Blade Runner, along with those of such other iconic science-fiction films as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TRON, 2010, and the Alien sequel Aliens. CyberRace, the 1993 racing game that resulted from the partnership, was, like its Cyberdreams predecessor, long on visuals and short on satisfying gameplay.
Well before that game was completed — in fact, before even Dark Seed was released — Pat Ketchum had already approached Harlan Ellison to ask whether he could make a game out of his classic short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Doing so was, if nothing else, an act of considerable bravery, given not only Ellison’s general reputation but his specific opinion of videogames as “an utter and absolute stupid waste of time.” And yet, likely as much to Ketchum’s astonishment as anyone else’s, he actually agreed to the project. Why? That is best left to Ellison to explain in his own inimitable fashion:
The question frequently asked of me is this: “Since it is common knowledge that you don’t even own a computer on which you could play an electronic game this complex, since it is common knowledge that you hate computers and frequently revile those who spend their nights logging onto bulletin boards, thereby filling the air with pointless gibberish, dumb questions that could’ve been answered had they bothered to read a book of modern history or even this morning’s newspaper, and mean-spirited gossip that needs endless hours the following day to be cleaned up; and since it is common knowledge that not only do you type your books and columns and TV and film scripts on a manual typewriter (not even an electric, but an actual finger-driven manual), but that the closest you’ve ever come to playing an actual computer- or videogame is the three hours you wasted during a Virgin Airlines flight back to the States from the UK; where the hell do you get off creating a high-tech cutting-edge enigma like this I Have No Mouth thing?”
To which my usual response would be, “Yo’ Mama!”
But I have been asked to attempt politeness, so I will vouchsafe courtesy and venture some tiny explication of what the eff I’m doing in here with all you weird gazoonies. Take your feet off the table.
Well, it goes back to that Oscar Wilde quote about perversion: “You may engage in a specific perversion once, and it can be chalked up to curiosity. But if you do it again, it must be presumed you are a pervert.”
They came to me in the dead of night, human toads in silk suits, from this giant megapolitan organization called Cyberdreams, and they offered me vast sums of money — all of it in pennies, with strings attached to each coin, so they could yank them back in a moment, like someone trying to outsmart a soft-drink machine with a slug on a wire — and they said, in their whispery croaky demon voices, “Let us make you a vast fortune! Just sell us the rights to use your name and the name of your most famous story, and we will make you wealthy beyond the dreams of mere mortals, or even Aaron Spelling, our toad brother in riches.”
Well, I’d once worked for Aaron Spelling on Burke’s Law, and that had about as much appeal to me as spending an evening discussing the relative merits of butcher knives with O.J. Simpson. So I told the toads that money was something I had no trouble making, that money is what they give you when you do your job well, and that I never do anything if it’s only for money. ‘Cause money ain’t no thang.
Well, for the third time, they then proceeded to do the dance, and sing the song, and hump the drums, and finally got down to it with the fuzzy ramadoola that can snare me: they said, “Well (#4), you’ve never done this sort of thing. Maybe it is that you are not capable of doing this here now thing.”
Never tell me not to go get a tall ladder and climb it and open the tippy-topmost kitchen cabinet in my mommy’s larder and reach around back there at the rear of the topmost shelf in the dark with the cobwebs and the spider-goojies and pull out that Mason jar full of hard nasty petrified chickpeas and strain and sweat to get the top off the jar till I get it open and then take several of those chickpeas and shove them up my nose. Never tell me that. Because as sure as birds gotta swim an’ fish gotta fly, when you come back home, you will find me lying stretched out blue as a Duke Ellington sonata, dead cold with beans or peas or lentils up my snout.
Or, as Oscar Wilde put it: “I couldn’t help it. I can resist anything except temptation.”
And there it is. I wish it were darker and more ominous than that, but the scaldingly dopey truth is that I wanted to see if I could do it. Create a computer game better than anyone else had created a computer game. I’d never done it, and I was desirous of testing my mettle. It’s a great flaw with me. My only flaw, as those who have known me longest will casually attest. (I know where they live.)
Having entered the meeting hoping only to secure the rights to Ellison’s short story, Pat Ketchum thus walked away having agreed to a full-fledged collaboration with the most choleric science-fiction writer in the world, a man destined to persist forevermore in referring to him simply as “the toad.” Whether this was a good or a bad outcome was very much up for debate.
Ketchum elected to pair Ellison with David Sears, a journalist and assistant editor for Compute! magazine who had made Cyberdreams’s acquaintance when he was assigned to write a preview of Dark Seed, then had gone on to write the hint book for the game. Before the deal was consummated, he had been told only that Cyberdreams hoped to adapt “one of” Ellison’s stories into a game: “I was thinking, oh, it could be ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,’ or maybe ‘A Boy and His Dog,’ and it’s going to be some kind of RPG or something.” When he was told that it was to be “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” he was taken aback: “I was like, what? There’s no way [to] turn that into a game!” In order to fully appreciate his dismay, we should look a bit more closely at the story in question.
Harlan Ellison often called “No Mouth” “one of the ten most-reprinted stories in the English language,” but this claim strikes me as extremely dubious. Certainly, however, it is one of the more frequently anthologized science-fiction classics. Written “in one blue-white fit of passion,” as Ellison put it, “like Captain Nemo sitting down at his organ and [playing] Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” it spans no more than fifteen pages or so in the typical paperback edition, but manages to cram quite a punch into that space.
The backstory entails a three-way world war involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and China and their respective allies, with the forces of each bloc controlled by a supercomputer in the name of maximal killing efficiency. That last proved to be a mistake: instead of merely moving ships and armies around, the American computer evolved into a sentient consciousness and merged with its rival machines. The resulting personality was twisted by its birthright of war and violence. Thus it committed genocide on the blighted planet’s remaining humans, with the exception of just five of them, which it kept alive to physically and psychologically torture for its pleasure. As the story proper opens, it’s been doing so for more than a century. Our highly unreliable narrator is one of the victims, a paranoid schizophrenic named Ted; the others, whom we meet only as the sketchiest of character sketches, are named Gorrister, Benny, Ellen (the lone woman in the group), and Nimdok. The computer calls itself AM, an acronym for its old designation of “Allied Mastercomputer,” but also a riff on Descartes: “I think, therefore I AM.”
The story’s plot, such as it is, revolves around the perpetually starving prisoners’ journey to a place that AM has promised them contains food beyond their wildest dreams. It’s just one more of his cruel jokes, of course: they wind up in a frigid cavern piled high with canned food, without benefit of a can opener. But then something occurs which AM has failed to anticipate: Ted and Ellen finally accept that there is only one true means of escape open to them. They break off the sharpest stalactites they can find and use them to kill the other three prisoners, after which Ted kills Ellen. But AM manages to intervene before Ted can kill himself. Enraged at having his playthings snatched away, he condemns the very last human on Earth to a fate more horrific even than what he has already experienced:
I am a great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be. Rubbery appendages that were once my arms; bulks rounding down into legless humps of slippery matter. I leave a moist trail when I move. Blotches of diseased, evil gray come and go on my surface, as though light is being beamed from within.
Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known as human, a thing whose shape is so alien a travesty that humanity becomes more obscene for the vague resemblance.
Inwardly: alone. Here. Living under the land, under the sea, in the belly of AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known unconsciously that he could do it better. At least the four of them are safe at last.
AM will be the madder for that. It makes me a little happier. And yet… AM has won, simply… he has taken his revenge…
I have no mouth. And I must scream.
Harlan Ellison was initially insistent that the game version of No Mouth preserve this miserably bleak ending. He declared himself greatly amused by the prospect of “a game that you cannot possibly win.” Less superciliously, he noted that the short story was intended to be, like so much of his work, a moral fable: it was about the nobility of doing the right thing, even when one doesn’t personally benefit — indeed, even when one will be punished terribly for it. To change the story’s ending would be to cut the heart out of its message.
Thus when poor young David Sears went to meet with Ellison for the first time — although Cyberdreams and Ellison were both based in Southern California, he himself was still working remotely from his native Mississippi — he faced the daunting prospect of convincing one of the most infamously stubborn writers in the world — a man who had spent decades belittling no less rarefied a character than Gene Roddenberry over the changes to his “City on the Edge of Forever” script — that such an ending just wouldn’t fly in the contemporary games market. The last company to make an adventure game with a “tragic” ending had been Infocom back in 1983, and they’d gotten so much blow back that no one had ever dared to try such a thing again. People demanded games that they could win.
Much to Sears’s own surprise, his first meeting with Ellison went very, very well. He won Ellison’s respect almost immediately, when he asked a question that the author claimed never to have been asked before: “Why are these [people] the five that AM has saved?” The question pointed a way for the game of No Mouth to become something distinctly different from the story — something richer, deeper, and even, I would argue, more philosophically mature.
Ellison and Sears decided together that each of AM’s victims had been crippled inside by some trauma before the final apocalyptic war began, and it was this that made them such particularly delightful playthings. The salt-of-the-earth truck driver Gorrister was wracked with guilt for having committed his wife to a mental institution; the hard-driving military man Benny was filled with self-loathing over his abandonment of his comrades in an Asian jungle; the genius computer scientist Ellen was forever reliving a brutal rape she had suffered at the hands of a coworker; the charming man of leisure Ted was in reality a con artist who had substituted sexual conquest for intimacy. The character with by far the most stains on his conscience was the elderly Nimdok, who had served as an assistant to Dr. Josef Mengele in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
You the player would guide each of the five through a surreal, symbolic simulacrum of his or her checkered past, helpfully provided by AM. While the latter’s goal was merely to torture them, your goal would be to cause them to redeem themselves in some small measure, by looking the demons of their past full in the face and making the hard, selfless choices they had failed to make the first time around. If they all succeeded in passing their tests of character, Ellison grudgingly agreed, the game could culminate in a relatively happy ending. Ellison:
This game [says] to the player there is more to the considered life than action. Television tells you any problem can be solved in 30 minutes, usually with a punch in the jaw, and that is not the way life is. The only thing you have to hang onto is not your muscles, or how pretty your face is, but how strong is your ethical behavior. How willing are you to risk everything — not just what’s convenient, but everything — to triumph. If someone comes away from this game saying to himself, “I had to make an extremely unpleasant choice, and I knew I was not going to benefit from that choice, but it was the only thing to do because it was the proper behavior,” then they will have played the game to some advantage.
Harlan Ellison and David Sears were now getting along fabulously. After several weeks spent working on a design document together, Ellison pronounced Sears “a brilliant young kid.” He went out of his way to be a good host. When he learned, for example, that Sears was greatly enamored with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, he called up said writer himself on his speakerphone: “Hi, Neil. This is David. He’s a fan and he’d love to talk to you about your work.” In retrospect, Ellison’s hospitality is perhaps less than shocking. He was in fact helpful and even kind throughout his life to young writers whom he deemed to be worth his trouble. David Sears was obviously one of these. “I don’t want to damage his reputation because I’m sure he spent decades building it up,” says Sears, “but he’s a real rascal with a heart of gold — but he doesn’t tolerate idiots.”
The project had its industry coming-out party at the seventh annual Computer Game Developers Conference in May of 1993. In a measure of how genuinely excited Harlan Ellison was about it, he agreed to appear as one of the most unlikely keynote speakers in GDC history. His speech has not, alas, been preserved for posterity, but it appears to have been a typically pyrotechnic Ellison rant, judging by the angry response of Computer Gaming World editor Johnny L. Wilson, who took Ellison to be just the latest in a long line of clueless celebrity pundits swooping in to tell game makers what they were doing wrong. Like all of the others, Wilson said, Ellison “didn’t really understand technology or the challenges faced daily by his audience [of game developers].” His column, which bore the snarky title of “I Have No Message, but I Must Scream,” went on thusly:
The major thesis of the address seemed to be that the assembled game designers need to do something besides create games. We aren’t quite sure what he means.
If he means to take the games which the assembled designers are already making and infuse them with enough human emotion to bridge the gaps of interpersonal understanding, there are designers trying to accomplish this in many different ways (games with artificial personalities, multiplayer cooperation, and, most importantly, with story).
If he objects to the violence which is so pervasive in both computer and video games, he had best revisit the anarchic and glorious celebration of violence in his own work. Violence is an easy way to express conflict and resolution in any art form. It can also be powerful. That is why we advocate a more careful use of violence in certain games, but do not editorialize against violence per se.
Harlan Ellison says that the computer-game design community should quit playing games with their lives. We think Ellison should stop playing games with his audiences. It’s time to put away his “Bad Melville” impression and use his podium as a “futurist” to challenge his audiences instead of settling for cheap laughs and letting them miss the message.
Harlan Ellison seldom overlooked a slight, whether in print or in person, and this occasion was no exception. He gave Computer Gaming World the rather hilarious new moniker of Video Wahoo Magazine in a number of interviews after Wilson’s editorializing was brought to his attention.
But the other side of Harlan Ellison was also on display at that very same conference. David Sears had told Ellison shortly before he made his speech that he really, really wanted a permanent job in the games industry, not just the contract work he had been getting from Cyberdreams. So, Ellison carried a fishbowl onstage with him, explained to the audience that Sears was smart and creative as heck and urgently needed a job, and told them to drop their business cards in the bowl if they thought they might be able to offer him one. “Three days later,” says Sears, “I had a job at Virgin Games. If he called me today [this interview was given before Ellison’s death] and said, ‘I need you to fix the plumbing in my bathroom,’ I’d be on a plane.”
Ellison’s largess was doubly selfless in that it stopped his No Mouth project in its tracks. With Sears having departed for Virgin Games, it spent at least six months on the shelf while Cyberdreams finished up CyberRace and embarked on a Dark Seed II. Finally Pat Ketchum handed it to a new hire, a veteran producer and designer named David Mullich.
It so happens that we met Mullich long, long ago, in the very early days of these histories. At the dawn of the 1980s, as a young programmer just out of university, he worked for the pioneering educational-software publisher Edu-Ware, whom he convinced to let him make some straight-up games as well. One of these was an unauthorized interactive take on the 1960s cult-classic television series The Prisoner; it was arguably the first commercial computer game in history to strive unabashedly toward the status of Art.
Mullich eventually left Edu-Ware to work for a variety of software developers and publishers. Rather belying his earliest experiments in game design, he built a reputation inside the industry as a steady hand well able to churn out robust and marketable if not always hugely innovative games and educational products that fit whatever license and/or design brief he was given. Yet the old impulse to make games with something to say about the world never completely left him. He was actually in the audience at the Game Developers Conference where Harlan Ellison made his keynote address; in marked contrast to Johnny L. Wilson, he found it bracing and exciting, not least because “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” was his favorite short story of all time. Half a year or so later, Pat Ketchum called Mullich up to ask if he’d like to help Ellison get his game finished. He didn’t have to ask twice; after all those years spent slogging in the trenches of commerce, here was a chance for Mullich to make Art again.
His first meeting with Ellison didn’t begin well. Annoyed at the long delay from Cyberdreams’s side, Ellison mocked him as “another member of the brain trust.” It does seem that Mullich never quite developed the same warm relationship with Ellison that Sears had enjoyed: Ellison persisted in referring to him as “this new David, whose last name I’ve forgotten” even after the game was released. Nonetheless, he did soften his prejudicial first judgment enough to deem Mullich “a very nice guy.” Said nice guy took on the detail work of refining Sears and Ellison’s early design document — which, having been written by two people who had never made a game before, had some inevitable deficiencies — into a finished script that would combine Meaning with Playability, a task his background prepared him perfectly to take on. Mullich estimates that 50 percent of the dialog in the finished game is his, while 30 percent is down to Sears and just 20 percent to Ellison himself. Still, even that level of involvement was vastly greater than that of most established writers who deigned to put their names on games. And of course the core concepts of No Mouth were very much Ellison and Sears’s.
Pat Ketchum had by this point elected to remove Cyberdreams from the grunt work of game development; instead the company would act as a design mill and publisher only. Thus No Mouth was passed to an outfit called The Dreamers Guild for implementation under Mullich’s supervision. That became another long process; the computer game of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream wasn’t finally released until late 1995, fully three and a half years after Pat Ketchum had first visited Harlan Ellison to ask his permission to make it.
The latter’s enthusiasm for the project never abated over the course of that time. He bestowed his final gift upon David Mullich and the rest of Cyberdreams when he agreed to perform the role of AM himself. The result is one of the all-time great game voice-acting performances; Ellison, a man who loved to hear himself speak under any and all circumstances, leans into the persona of the psychopathic artificial intelligence with unhinged glee. After hearing him, you’ll never be able to imagine anyone else in the role.
Upon the game’s release, Ellison proved a disarmingly effective and professional spokesman for it; for all that he loved to rail against the stupidity of mainstream commercial media, he had decades of experience as a writer for hire, and knew the requirements of marketing. He wrote a conciliatory, generous, and self-deprecatory letter to Computer Gaming World — a.k.a., Video Wahoo Magazine — after the magazine pronounced No Mouth its Adventure Game of the Year. He even managed to remember David Mullich’s last name therein.
With a bewildering admixture of pleasure and confusion — I’m like a meson which doesn’t know which way to quark — I write to thank you and your staff. Pleasure, because everybody likes to cop the ring as this loopy caravanserie chugs on through Time and Space. Confusion, because — as we both know — I’m an absolute amateur at this exercise. To find myself not only avoiding catcalls and justified laughter at my efforts, but to be recognized with a nod of approval from a magazine that had previously chewed a neat, small hole through the front of my face… well, it’s bewildering.
David Sears and I worked very hard on I Have No Mouth. And we both get our accolades in your presentation. But someone else who had as much or more to do with bringing this project to fruition is David Mullich. He was the project supervisor and designer after David Sears moved on. He worked endlessly, and with what Balzac called “clean hands and composure,” to produce a property that would not shame either of us. It simply would not have won your award had not David Mullich mounted the barricades.
I remember when I addressed the Computer Game Designers’ banquet a couple of years ago, when I said I would work to the limits of my ability on I Have No Mouth, but that it would be my one venture into the medium. Nothing has changed. I’ve been there, done that, and now you won’t have to worry about me making a further pest of myself in your living room.
But for the honor you pay me, I am grateful. And bewildered.
Ellison’s acknowledgment of Mullich’s contribution is well-taken. Too often games that contain or purport to contain Deep Meaning believe this gives them a pass on the fundamentals of being playable and soluble. (For example, I might say, if you’ll allow me just a bit of Ellisonian snarkiness, that a large swath of the French games industry operated on this assumption for many years.) That No Mouth doesn’t fall victim to this fallacy — that it embeds its passion plays within the framework of a well-designed puzzle-driven adventure game — must surely be thanks to Mullich. In this sense, then, Sears’s departure came at the perfect time, allowing the experienced, detail-oriented Mullich to run with the grandiose concept which Sears and Ellison, those two game-design neophytes, had cooked up together. It was, one might say, the best of both worlds.
But, lest things start to sound too warm and fuzzy, know that Harlan Ellison was still Harlan Ellison. In the spring of 1996, he filed a lawsuit against Cyberdreams for unpaid royalties. Having spent his life in books and television, it appears that he may have failed to understand just how limited the sales prospects of an artsy, philosophical computer game like this one really were, regardless of how many awards it won. (Witness his comparison of Cyberdreams to the television empire of Aaron Spelling in one of the quotes above; in reality, the two operated not so much in different media galaxies as different universes.) “With the way the retail chain works, Cyberdreams probably hadn’t turned a profit on the game by the time the lawsuit was filed,” noted Computer Gaming World. “We’re not talking sales of Warcraft II here, folks.” I don’t know the details of Ellison’s lawsuit, nor what its ultimate outcome was. But I do know that David Mullich estimates today that No Mouth probably sold only about 40,000 copies in all.
Harlan Ellison didn’t always keep the sweeping promises he made in the heat of the moment; he huffily announced on several occasions that he was forever abandoning television, the medium with which he passed so much of his career in such a deadly embrace, only to be lured back in by money and pledges that this time things would be different. He did, however, keep his promise of never making another computer game. And that, of course, makes the one game he did help to make all the more special. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream stands out from the otherwise drearily of-its-time catalog of Cyberdreams as a multimedia art project that actually works — works as a game and, dare I say it, as a form of interactive literature. It stands today as a rare fulfillment of the promise that so many saw in games back in those heady days when “multimedia” was the buzzword of the zeitgeist — the promise of games as a sophisticated new form of storytelling capable of the same relevance and resonance as a good novel or movie. This is by no means the only worthwhile thing that videogames can be, nor perhaps even the thing they are best at being; much of the story of gaming during the half-decade after No Mouth‘s release is that of a comprehensive rejection of the vision Cyberdreams embodied. The company went out of business in 1997, by which time its artsy-celebrity-driven modus operandi was looking as anachronistic as Frank Sinatra during the heyday of the Beatles.
Nevertheless, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream remains one of the best expressions to stem from its confused era, a welcome proof positive that sometimes the starry-eyed multimedia pundits could be right. David Mullich went on to work on such high-profile, beloved games as Heroes of Might and Magic III and Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines, but he still considers No Mouth one of the proudest achievements of a long and varied career that has encompassed the naïvely idealistic and the crassly commercial in equal measure. As well he should: No Mouth is as meaningful and moving today as it was in 1995, a rare example of a game adaptation that can be said not just to capture but arguably to improve on its source material. It endures as a vital piece of Harlan Ellison’s literary legacy.
People say, “Oh, you’re so prolific.” That’s a remark made by assholes who don’t write. If I were a plumber and I repaired 10,000 toilets, would they say, “Boy, you’re a really prolific plumber?”
If I were to start over, I would be a plumber. I tell that to people, they laugh. They think I’m making it up. It’s not funny. I think a plumber, a good plumber who really cares and doesn’t overcharge and makes sure things are right, does more good for the human race in a given day than 50 writers. In the history of the world, there are maybe, what, 20, 30 books that ever had any influence on anybody, maybe The Analects of Confucius, maybe The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, maybe Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If I ever write anything that is remembered five minutes after I’m gone, I will consider myself having done the job well. I work hard at what I do; I take my work very seriously. I don’t take me particularly seriously. But I take the work seriously. But I don’t think writing is all that inherently a noble chore. When the toilet overflows, you don’t need Dostoevsky coming to your house.
That’s what I would do, I would get myself a job as a plumber. I would go back to bricklaying, which I used to do. I would become an electrician. Not an electrical engineer. I would become an electrician. I would, you know, install a night light in a kid’s nursery, and at the end of the day, if I felt like writing, I would write something. I don’t know what that has to do with the game or anything, but you asked so I told you.
— Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)
(Sources: the books The Way the Future Was by Frederick Pohl, These Are the Voyages: Season One by Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream: Stories by Harlan Ellison, and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The Official Strategy Guide by Mel Odom; Starlog of September 1977, April 1980, August 1980, August 1984, November 1985, and December 1985; Compute! of November 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1988, September 1992, July 1993, September 1993, April 1996, May 1996, July 1996, August 1996, November 1996, and June 1999; CU Amiga of November 1992 and February 1993; Next Generation of January 1996; A.N.A.L.O.G. of June 1987; Antic of August 1983; Retro Gamer 183. Online sources include a 1992 Game Informer retrospective on I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and a history of Cyberdreams at Game Nostalgia. My thanks also go to David Mullich for a brief chat about his career and his work on No Mouth.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)
Legend Entertainment fought something of a rear-guard action through the first half of the 1990s. In an industry that had embraced the movies as its aesthetic example, their works remained throwbacks to older ideas about interactive books: “We had the editorial sensibilities of a book publisher rather than a movie company,” says Legend co-founder Mike Verdu. Their games were wordy, and even after the migration to CD-ROM the player was expected to read many of those words for herself rather than have them read aloud to her; they sported illustrations that were carefully composed and lovely to look at, but that were also static in a motion-obsessed gaming milieu, and thus were better suited to stand up well a quarter-century later than they were to wow the masses in their own day. Enough players were intrigued by Legend’s low-key, literary approach to buy 30,000 to 60,000 copies of each new game, but those consistent numbers translated to a steady erosion of Legend’s market share in a fast-expanding industry; by mid-decade, many new games were selling over 100,000 copies each year, and blockbuster million-sellers were appearing at a clip of three or four per annum. Verdu and his partner Bob Bates felt serious pressure to up Legend’s sales and keep pace with their peers.
But, you might say, surely market share isn’t everything. Why couldn’t Legend be content within the niche they had built for themselves? The answer comes down not to hubris but to the harsh realities of game distribution in the 1990s. Games of the type that Legend made still needed to exist as physical products at that time. (Although there was a thriving shareware scene taking advantage of digital distribution, the dial-up online access that was the universal norm could support only small, multimedia-light titles — not the assets-heavy, CD-filling monstrosities of Legend.) Physical products required physical warehousing, physical distribution, and, most critically of all, precious physical shelf space inside brick-and-mortar stores. Here was the real rub. A niche product like a Legend adventure game was a hard sell to a retail purchasing manager who could instead fill the space it would occupy with the likes of a 7th Guest, Myst, DOOM, or Wing Commander III. In short, Legend’s modest product line was in danger of drowning in the flood of flashier, better-advertised games. All of the quality in the world would avail them nothing if they could no longer get their games into the hands of their fans.
So, after the book publisher Random House was inspired by Legend’s literary bona fides to invest $2.5 million in the company in the summer of 1994, Verdu and Bates decided to use a substantial chunk of that money to make a play for the big time. They would make a game set in a node-based, 3D-modelled environment much like that of Myst, and hire a name actor beloved by science-fiction fandom to star in filmed “full-motion-video” sequences, just like Wing Commander III had done. But, because they were Legend, they would invest all of this trend-chasing with meticulous attention to detail in terms of world-building, plot, and puzzle design, and would respect their player’s intelligence and time in a way that too few of their superficially similar peers were doing. What else could Legend do? They were just made that way.
Mike Verdu wrote and designed the game in question, which went by the name of Mission Critical, and shepherded it through every phase of its development. I recently talked with him at some length about the project, and I’ve elected to present this article to a large extent as his own oral history of it. This seemed to me the most appropriate approach, given that he’s more than articulate enough in his own right, and given how his recollections provide such a fascinating picture of how the nuts and bolts of a game came together during the much-ballyhooed era of Siliwood — that semi-mythical convergence of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
For me, full-motion video wasn’t so much the imperative. It was creating the next generation of adventure gaming using immersive environments. With a text adventure, the world is really in your head; it’s created in your mind by the words that we put in front of you. We added illustrations to the picture that the words formed in your mind, but I always dreamed of actually putting you in the world, having it become a fully immersive experience.
So, the primary driver for me was immersiveness. Full-motion video was a cool thing that you got because you had CD-ROM as a storage medium. I had long dreamed of creating a world that you could actually inhabit. The world would feel alive. We wouldn’t have to tell you what it was like, we could show you. That’s where CD-ROM met the state of the art in 3D. We could use AutoCAD and those sorts of tools to deliver a world at a very high level of fidelity through pre-rendered segments. The creative spirit that guided me was bringing a fully realized 3D world to life, and then telling a story in it. That was just delicious. I loved that challenge, couldn’t wait to take it on.
Mission Critical stands today as a landmark in Legend’s history in more ways than one. Legend’s first and, as it would transpire, only serious flirtation with the full-motion-video trend, it would also prove the very last Legend game that was entirely original to them, not being based on any preexisting literary or gaming license. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t derivative in another way: it’s a military space opera of a stripe that will be familiar to readers of David Weber, with some Big Ideas almost worthy of a Vernor Vinge hidden behind its façade of outer-space adventure aboard the Lexington, an interstellar ship of the line in the year 2134.
The Lexington is a combatant in an Earthly world war which has spilled well beyond the boundaries of our solar system. The backstory begins with the evolution of the United Nations into a tyrannical “world government” by the late 21st century. (The political connotations of this setup in the context of our conspiracy-theory-plagued contemporary world are perhaps unfortunate…) Out of fear of a forthcoming technological Singularity, the UN orders a halt to all forms of research and development, opting for a world that is frozen in amber over one where computer brains replace human ones. Feeling that “the cure is worse than the disease,” the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Singapore, along with all of the planet’s nascent space colonies, rebel, and are promptly targeted for “brutal suppression” by the UN. The Lexington, naturally, fights on the side of the freedom-loving pro-techologists, who call themselves the Alliance of Free States.
I had a personal passion for science fiction — not a surprise, given my Gateway games — and had been doing a lot of reading about where technology was at and the Singularity and the early ponderings of what would happen when artificial intelligence surpassed human intelligence. What would that mean? Would it result in an alien form of life, or would it be anthropomorphic in some way because its creators would endow it with human qualities? What would it mean for humanity to reckon with the emergence of artificial intelligence? Would it tear us apart or bring us together? That was the beating heart of the story I wanted to tell.
Then I combined it with a love of ships and the Navy and sailing. I’ve been fascinated by ships forever. I used to draw them and collect models of them and was always thrilled to go down to a port and see the ships there.
I tried to make the science behind the ship’s systems as real as possible. I did a lot of thinking about what actual combat in space might be like. It was certainly not going to be managed by humans; it would be managed by drones. The ships are really just drone carriers. They send the drones out to resolve the battle, and the humans, once the battle starts, are just sitting there going, “Oh, God, I hope this goes our way!”
All of these ingredients came together in a creative stew. But then, there were lots of constraints imposed by the medium. You couldn’t put other characters in there. It had to be a sterile environment, like you saw in The 7th Guest and some of the other earlier products in this space. My answer was to put the other characters in the full-motion-video sequences. Your emotional connections would be made in the opening sequence, and then other video snippets that you would bump into. But it was still pretty thin gruel. A lot of games from this era feel very empty because you couldn’t put other characters in these kinds of environments.
So, that was a major constraint. I was going to have this really cool ship filled with drones that could fight battles, but there couldn’t be anybody else on it. So, there had to be a fictional reason why you were by yourself. But that also is very heroic because, if it’s just you, and you turn the tide of an important event in history, that’s a nice character arc. And there is some artistic resonance to one human alone on a ship light years from anyone else. What that feels like, the lack of connection, the sense that it’s all riding on you.
So, yeah, the story had to be thought-through in a way we had not had to do with previous Legend games, just because, like in a movie, every scene had to be designed, scripted, and then fed to the people who were actually doing all of the rendering. We had very little ability to mess with the story after it had been shaped. That constraint was unfamiliar to me because we had been able to tweak previous Legend games all the way down to the end. It was just writing code — change responses, change puzzles, write some new text, maybe commission a couple of new pieces of 2D art. This time, everything had to be down well in advance, then it was locked down. So, I’d never done so much up-front planning on a game before.
It was a lot of work. I worked harder on that game than I’ve ever worked on anything. The team slept under their desks, worked through the night and into the next day.
The player’s situation is set up in a bravura ten-minute movie that opens the game, filling most of the first of its three CDs. The Lexington is on a beyond-top-secret mission to a planet called Persephone, escorting a science vessel known as the Jericho. But it seems that the Alliance’s security has failed: the ships are met there by a much larger UN cruiser. The Lexington‘s drones are easily defeated, leaving it and the Jericho helpless. At this juncture, the Lexington‘s Captain Dayna, who is played by none other than Michael Dorn — the Klingon Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation — concocts a clever if suicidal plan for preventing the logs of the Jericho, which give the full details of its mission, from falling into enemy hands. He surrenders to his opposite number, and makes arrangements for the crews of both of the vessels in his task force to fly over to the UN cruiser in shuttles. But then he does two things the UN captain does not expect. First, he plants a nuclear bomb in one of the shuttles that will blow up and destroy the UN cruiser and everyone aboard, along with all of the other shuttles and everyone aboard them, as soon as it enters the cruiser’s docking bay. And then he leaves one crew member behind on the Lexington — one person not being worth the UN captain’s bother when he scans the ship to make sure Dayna is abiding by their agreement — to hopefully find a way to complete the original mission alone. That crew member, of course, is you the player.
There was a trend in gaming at the time to lean into celebrities; it was part of this convergence with Hollywood. I knew that I was telling an entirely original story, that we were making one of the biggest bets in the company’s history. I had a sense that we needed a hook that would give a customer reading about the game or looking at it on a shelf some sense of familiarity — a brand that they could latch onto. I knew the market was very crowded with games that looked somewhat like this. So, I thought to cast an actor who would have a resonance with the story we were telling. People would think about the actor in that context, and say, “Oh, I get what kind of story this is going to be.” I was trying to come up with a shorthand way of communicating what it was all about.
We knew absolutely nothing about film making, but I did work with an artist named Kathleen Bober, who had all sorts of connections in the theater scene in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and with a number of video-production companies, including one called Flight Three, which did commercials and other television productions. She and I did a lot of the initial explorations. How do you hire an actor? How does it work? How do you actually do a video shoot? Who can we hire to stage the production? How much does it all cost?
I knew something about dealing with agents because we had dealt with literary agents. So, reaching out to see if we could find an actor who felt right for the role, who had a brand compatible with the story we wanted to tell, was weirdly the least challenging part of it all. The much more challenging part was finding a director and a production facility, learning how to shoot in green screen and composite in environments. Kathleen put together a team for that. The director’s name was Peter Mullett. We brought him on, then worked with Flight Three to create a plan and a budget and a script. I wrote the script; all the painful dialog is my fault. The filming was done in a suburb of Baltimore. We only flew Michael Dorn out for a day or two for the opening movie. It really was that short. Then all of the other little segments took another day or two. The prep for it all and then the post-production took all the time; that was months.
My entire career at that point was just learning, drinking in how to do all kinds of new stuff. I just saw this as one more thing to learn.
When the opening movie finishes and the game proper begins, you find yourself standing in a corridor of the wounded Lexington, observing the world around you from a first-person view. The latter in itself isn’t unusual for Legend; all of their games prior to Mission Critical use the same view. Yet a difference in kind quickly becomes apparent. Whereas the older Legend games, in keeping with the company’s roots in text adventures, use a room-based approach to navigation, Mission Critical‘s is based on nodes within a larger contiguous environment. Thus you can now spin around to view your surroundings in any of four directions. And instead of using pixel art, the views have been pre-rendered in a 3D modeler. Legend, in other words, has seemingly gone full Myst.
You encounter a series of intricate mechanical puzzles as you begin to explore this environment. The first third of the game comes to revolve around repairing the Lexington enough to make it reasonably space-worthy and even combat-worthy again. In the course of doing so, you learn about the lives and personalities of your late fellow crew members by rummaging through their personal effects, and also identify the traitor who betrayed your mission to the UN. Again, the Myst comparisons are unavoidable; the Miller brothers’ game uses much the same kind of environmental storytelling.
There were a bunch of Myst-style games, including some that have faded from memory. CD-ROM enabled a certain kind of production, and then there were a whole bunch of games that seemed similar. It was like this brief emergence of a genre. Then the state of the art moved on, and people figured out how to tell more character-based stories.
I wanted to put real puzzles in one of these games. My sense with these games was that the player interactions were really basic. Legend was known for making great puzzles; I wanted to put great puzzles in one of these games. I wanted to make a true Legend adventure game that just happened to be within this amazing immersive environment. I would like to think that what distinguishes Mission Critical from some of those other products — and may actually have limited its commercial potential, frankly — was the depth and sophistication of the puzzles. The puzzles in this game are serious, hardcore adventure-game puzzles. It was my attempt to make this very rich experience, and not have it be just manipulation of objects. That was my way of differentiating Mission Critical from Myst and other products of that type.
I might quibble with some of Mike’s characterizations of Myst; whatever the design sins of its many imitators, Myst‘s own worlds are scrupulously consistent within the game’s fantastic premise, and its puzzles are quite rigorously logical. Still, there’s no question that Mission Critical boasts a much richer, deeper environment, if perhaps a more prosaic and less evocative one, and that its custom engine admits of forms of interactivity that the simple off-the-shelf software tools employed by the Miller brothers and many of those who followed them couldn’t hope to match. Myst and many other games of its lineage don’t even have player inventories; this may lend them a degree of minimalist elegance in aesthetic terms, but is profoundly limiting in terms of gameplay.
Mike Verdu was obviously aiming for something else. The Lexington is not just vividly but realistically realized once one accepts the black-box premise of faster-than-light travel. Its systems work in a consistent, thought-through way, with nary a gratuitous slider puzzle nor instance of awkward self-referential humor to be found. Anyone annoyed by the artificiality of most adventure-game puzzles needs to play this game. One might go so far as to say that the Lexington itself is Mission Critical‘s most impressive single achievement. The game’s commitment to the lived reality of the ship remains complete from first to last.
I did a stint in defense contracting where I worked on Navy projects, including a lot of submarine-related projects. If you see any verisimilitude — a feeling that the world of the Lexington has some degree of reality to it — that’s me drawing on experiences of visiting Navy yards and tramping around submarines and reading lots and lots of documents. The Lexington is really a submarine in space. I drew on my experience to make it feel like a lived-in ship.
Your efforts to repair the Lexington are lent an added sense of urgency when you learn that another UN force is on its way to Persephone to investigate the fate of the first one. Dealing with it comes to occupy the middle third of the game. Space combat is implemented in the form of a surprisingly well-realized real-time strategy game that’s embedded within the adventure game. While the graphics don’t rival the likes of its standalone contemporary Warcraft II, much less a modern release in the genre, I find that it defies a long tradition of dubious adventure mini-games by being genuinely engaging. As usual, Legend’s design instincts are good; instead of plunging you into a fight to the death within a mini-game interface you’ve never seen before, they introduce it through a series of training simulations that get you up to speed within the framework of the story.
What you’re seeing there is my love of strategy gaming shining through. It’s probably no surprise that I went on to make a bunch of real-time-strategy games after my adventure games because my two great loves are storytelling and strategy. I grew up playing Avalon Hill board games; my dad taught me to play Tactics II and Afrika Korps and Squad Leader. Then I played a lot of the first generation of computer strategy games. I dearly, desperately wanted to make my own strategy game at some point. This game seemed to offer the opportunity to put in a little taste of strategy that would feel very natural. So, why not? Bob Bates was sort of horrified that I wanted to put an entirely different genre of experience into an adventure game. The compromise we reached was a button you could hit to just have it resolved. You never really had to do the strategy game.
Mark Poesch, the engineer who did most of the coding on Mission Critical, spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to build it out. We wanted to bring to life this notion that the battles were fought with drones, and also that fighting in 3D is very different from fighting in 2D. Almost all outer-space strategy games take place on a plane. Those games like Homeworld that tried to introduce a third dimension found that it’s very hard to convey the sense of fighting in 3D space.
In the last third of the game, we shift gears dramatically once again. Now you finally make your way down to the surface of the planet Persephone to find out what the science team aboard the Jericho was so interested in. It’s here that our relatively well-grounded military-science-fiction tale spirals off into Vernor Vinge territory. You encounter an almost godlike race of multidimensional “electronic life forms” who send you hopscotching over vast distances in time and space. The last of the Myst comparisons fall away, as Mission Critical seems to lose interest in immersive environmental storytelling and becomes a much more typical Legend adventure game, full of character interactions and gallons and gallons of plot coming at you thick and fast. Instead of a single ship, you now hold the fate of the entire human race and, indeed, much of the multiverse in your hands.
This is the most problematic part of the game in many ways. The ideas being explored are certainly audacious, for all that they aren’t strikingly original for anyone versed in recent trends in literary science fiction at the time of Mission Critical‘s creation. Yet the contrast with what came before remains jarring, as the game turns into an exponentially less granular experience. It used to take a couple of dozen clicks to repair a breach in the hull of a spaceship; now it takes one or two to change the destiny of billions of sentient beings. My first instinct, born from researching the development history of countless other games, was that constraints of time and money had forced Legend to put the game on fast-forward when the project was already in midstream; Mission Critical would hardly be the first adventure game whose early environments are far more fully realized than its later ones. Mike Verdu confirmed that there was some of that going on, but also revealed that it was more planned and less improvised than I first suspected.
There was supposed to be a sense of increasing momentum, of the sense of scale increasing, the stakes increasing… that was a conscious decision. But you’re right that my ambition was too great for my budget and my schedule. I really hoped the latter part of the game would have the same production values and 3D assets as the first part. Instead things move more and more toward shorthand as you move toward the end.
I came to this upfront because we had to lay everything out then. Do I tell the story I want to tell and scrimp a bit on the assets and the fidelity toward the end? Or do I limit the ambition of the story? I decided I didn’t want to tell a story that was just about wandering around a spaceship fixing things. I made a bet that the first part of the game would ground the player in the world through fidelity and verisimilitude and immersion. Then they would forgive us for moving to a more shorthand sort of storytelling toward the end. Because at that point, what really matters is the story. You’re either hooked by the story or you’re not. If you are, you’re probably going to push on through, and what you’ll remember are the big ideas and the resolution more than the fact that Persephone was not rendered with the same level of fidelity as the Lexington and our cool AI environments were just paintings.
Legend had once hoped to release Mission Critical in the summer of 1995, but that date was eventually pushed back to November. It appeared at that time simultaneously with Shannara, their other game for the year. Neither was an outright commercial failure, but neither provided the commercial paradigm shift Legend had been looking for either.
Mission Critical didn’t sell a ton — maybe 70,000 copies, which meant that it probably broke even at best. Random House was disappointed. The hope had been that it would catapult us out of that range of 30,000 to 100,000 in sales. But we spent three times the budget and got essentially the same result. In that sense, it was a failure.
Yet Mission Critical, despite being so thoroughly of its time in terms of technology and approach, would prove oddly enduring in the memories of both its principal creator and the select group of gamers whom it touched. This lumpy amalgamation of full-motion video, Myst-style pre-rendered environments, real-time strategy, and the traditional Legend approach to interactive storytelling is an artifact from a time when games were not yet all sorted on the basis of gameplay genre alone, when a designer could begin with a narrative experience in mind and just go from there, employing whatever approach seemed best suited to bring his imaginative conceptions to life. Mike Verdu would go on to a high-profile career after Legend at companies like Electronic Arts, Zynga, Facebook, and now Netflix, but he would never again get the opportunity to be a gaming auteur like he was on Mission Critical.
It’s the thing I’ve created that’s lasted the longest. The story seemed to really strike a chord with some people. I would get emails from people saying I’d blown their mind, or it was the most immersive thing they’d ever played. When it reached somebody, it really reached them. But that wasn’t a huge number of people. As an artist, if you reach a small number of people in a profound way, is that better than reaching a million people in a very shallow way? Because this was the game I created that reached a few people in a profound way. The rest of the games I’ve created, especially in the latter part of my career, reached in some cases tens of millions of people, but in a light-touch kind of way.
From a creator’s standpoint, Mission Critical is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever made. It astounds me, but people still play it. I’d always thought of computer games as an ephemeral medium — something you create that quickly becomes obsolete because the advance of technology makes it literally unplayable. People can experience it for a brief window of time, then all they have is their memories. I had resigned myself to that. But it astounds me now that people are still playing the game and posting reviews. This is a much more enduring medium than I thought.
I’ve been delighted that Mission Critical and some of the other Legend games have stood the test of time.
(Sources: This article is drawn in its virtual entirety from the recollections of Mike Verdu. I thank him for taking the time from his busy schedule to talk with me, and wish him all the best in his latest gig with Netflix.
Mission Critical is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com. It comes highly recommended.)