(As the name would indicate, this article marks a belated continuation of my series about the life and times of Microsoft Windows. But, because any ambitious dive into history such as this site has become is doomed to be a tapestry of stories rather than a single linear one, this article and the next couple of them will also pull on some of the other threads I’ve left dangling — most obviously, my series on the origins of the Internet and the World Wide Web, on the commercial online networks of the early personal-computing era, and on the shareware model for selling software online and the changes it wrought in the culture of gaming in particular. You might find some or all of the aforementioned worthwhile to read before what follows. Or just dive in and see how you go; it’s all good.)
For the vast majority of us in the PC software business, it’s important to realize that systems such as Windows 95 will be important and that systems such as Windows NT won’t be. Evolutionary changes are much easier for the market to accept. For a revolutionary upset to be accepted, it must be an order of magnitude better than what it seeks to replace. Not 25 percent or 33 percent better, but at least ten times better. Otherwise, change had better be gradual, like Windows 95. Products such as NT speak to too small a niche to be interesting. And even the NT sales that do occur don’t lead anywhere: right now I’m running on a network with an NT server, but no software is ever likely to be bought for that server. It sits in a closet that no one touches for weeks at a time. This is not the sort of platform on which to base your fortune.
If you’re choosing platforms for which to develop software, remember that what ultimately matters is not technical excellence but market penetration. The two rarely go hand-in-hand. This is not simply a matter of bowing to the foolish whims of the market, however: market penetration leads to standardization, and standards have tangible benefits that are more important than the coolest technical feature. Yes, Windows 95 still uses MS-DOS; no, it’s not a pure Win32 system; no, it’s not particularly integrated; no, it hasn’t been rewritten from the ground up; and yes, it is lacking some nice features found in Windows NT or OS/2. But none of these compromises will hurt Windows 95’s chances for success, and some will actually help make Windows 95 a success. Windows 95 will be the standard desktop-computing platform for the next five years, and that by itself is worth far more than the coolest technology.
— Andrew Schulman, 1994
In July of 1992, Microsoft hosted the first Windows NT Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco. The nearly 5000 hand-picked attendees were each given a coveted pre-release “developer’s version” of Windows NT (“New Technology”), the company’s next-generation operating system. “The major operating systems of today, DOS and Windows, were designed eight to twelve years ago, so they lie way behind our current hardware capabilities,” said one starry-eyed Microsoft partner. “We’ve now got bigger disks, displays, and memory, and faster CPUs than ever before. As a true 32-bit operating system, Windows NT exploits the power of the 32-bit chip.” Unlike Microsoft’s current 3.1 version of Windows and its predecessors, which were balanced precariously on the narrow foundation of MS-DOS like an elephant atop a lamp pole, Windows NT owed nothing to the past, and performed all the better for it.
But what follows is not the story of Windows NT.
It is rather the story of another operating system that was publicly mentioned for the very first time in passing at that same conference, an operating system whose user base over the course of the 1990s would eclipse that of Windows NT by a margin of about 50 to 1. Microsoft was calling it “Chicago” in 1992. The name derived from “Cairo,” a code name for a projected future version of Windows NT. “We wanted something between Seattle” — Microsoft’s home metropolitan area, which presumably stood for the current status quo — “and Cairo in terms of functionality,” said a Microsoft executive later. “The less ambitious picked names closer to Seattle — like Spokane for a minor upgrade, all the way to London for something closer to Cairo.” Chicago seemed like a suitable compromise — a daunting distance to travel, but not too daunting. The world would come to know the erstwhile Chicago three years later as Windows 95. It would become the most ballyhooed new operating system in the entire history of computing, even as it remained a far more compromised, less technically impressive piece of software architecture than Windows NT.
Why did Microsoft split their efforts along these two divergent paths? One answer lay in the wildly divergent hardware that was used to run their operating systems. Windows NT was aimed at the latest and the greatest, while Chicago was aimed at the everyday computers that everyday people tended to have in their offices and homes. But another reason was just as important. Microsoft had gotten to where they were by the beginning of the 1990s — to the position of the undisputed dominant force in personal computing — not by always or even usually having the best or most innovative products, but rather by being always the safe choice. “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” ran an old maxim among corporate purchasing managers; in this new era, the same might be said about Microsoft. Part of being safe was placing a heavy emphasis on backward compatibility, thus ensuring that the existing software an individual or organization had gotten to know and love would continue to run on their shiny new Microsoft operating system. In the context of the early 1990s, this meant, for better or for worse, continuing to build at least one incarnation of Windows on top of MS-DOS, so that it could continue to run even a program written for the original IBM PC from 1981. Windows NT broke that compatibility in the name of power and performance — but, if getting that 1985-vintage version of WordPerfect up and running was more important to you than such distractions, Microsoft still had you covered.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that Microsoft wouldn’t have preferred for you to give up your hoary old favorites and enter fully into the brave new Windows world of mice and widgets. They had struggled for most of the 1980s to make Windows into a place where people wanted to live and work, and had finally broken through at the dawn of the new decade, with the release of Windows 3.0 in 1990 and 3.1 in 1992. The old stars of MS-DOS productivity software — names like the aforementioned WordPerfect, as well as Lotus, Borland, and others — were scrambling to adapt their products to a Windows-driven marketplace, even as Microsoft, whose ambitions for domination knew few bounds, was driving aggressively into the gaps with their own Microsoft Office lineup, which was tightly integrated with the operating system in ways that their competitors found difficult to duplicate. (This was due not least to Microsoft’s ability to take advantage of so-called “undocumented APIs,” hidden features and shortcuts provided by Windows which the company neglected to tell its competitors about — an underhanded trick that was an open secret in the software industry.) By the summer of 1993, when Windows NT officially debuted with very little fanfare in the consumer press, Windows 3.x had sold 30 million copies in three years, and was continuing to sell at the healthy clip of 1.5 million copies per month. Windows had become the face of computing as the majority of people knew it, the MS-DOS command line a dusty relic of a less pleasant past.
With, that is, one glaring exception that is of special interest to us: Windows 3 had never caught on for hardcore gaming, and never would. Games were played on Windows 3, mind you. In fact, they were played extensively. Microsoft Solitaire, which was included with every copy of Windows, is almost certainly the single most-played computer game in history, having served as a distraction for hundreds of millions of bored office workers and students all over the world from 1990 until the present day. Some other games, generally of the sort that weren’t hugely demanding in hardware terms and that boasted a fair measure of casual appeal, did almost equally well. Myst, for example, sold an astonishing 5 million or more copies for Windows 3, while Microsoft’s own “Entertainment Packs,” consisting mostly of more simple time fillers much like Solitaire, also did very well for themselves.
But then there were the hardcore gamers, the folks who considered gaming an active hobby rather than a passive distraction, who waited eagerly for each new issue of Computer Gaming World to arrive in their mailbox and spent hundreds or thousands of dollars every year keeping the “rigs” in their bedrooms up to date, in much the same way that a previous generation of mostly young men had tinkered endlessly with the hot rods in their garages. The people who made games for this group told Microsoft, accurately enough, that Windows as it was currently constituted just wouldn’t do for their purposes. It was too inflexible in its assumptions about the user interface and much else, and above all just too slow. They loved the idea of a runtime environment that would let them forget about the idiosyncrasies of 1000 different graphics and sound cards, thanks to the magic of integrated device drivers. But it had to be flexible, and it had to be fast — and Windows 3 was neither of those things. Microsoft admitted in one of their own handbooks that “game graphics under Windows make slug racing look exciting.”
One big issue that game developers had with Windows 3 for a long time was that it was a 16-bit operating system in a world where even the most ordinary off-the-shelf computer hardware had long since gone 32 bit. The largest number that can be represented in 16 bits is 65,535, or 64 kilobytes. A 16-bit program can therefore only allocate memory in discrete segments of no more than 64 K. This became more and more of a problem as games grew more complex in terms of logic and especially graphics and sound. MS-DOS was also 16-bit, but, being far simpler, it was much easier to hack. The tools known as “32-bit DOS extenders” did just that, giving game developers a way of using 32-bit processors to their maximum potential more or less transparently, with a theoretical upper limit of fully 4 GB per memory segment. (This was, needless to say, much, much more memory than anyone actually had in their computers in the early 1990s.) Ironically, Windows 3 itself depended on a 32-bit DOS extender to be able to run on top of MS-DOS, but it didn’t extend all of its benefits to the applications it hosted. That did finally change, however, in July of 1993, when Microsoft released an add-on called “Win32S” that did make it possible to run 32-bit applications in Windows 3 (including many applications written for Windows NT).
That was one problem more or less solved. But another one was the painfully slow Windows graphics libraries that served as the intermediary between applications software and the bare metal of the machine. These were impossible to bypass by design; one of the major points of Windows was to provide a buffer between applications and the hardware, to enable features such as multitasking, virtual memory, and a consistent look and feel from program to program. But game developers saw only how slow the end result was. The only way they could consider coding for Windows was if Microsoft could provide libraries that were as fast — or at least 90 percent as fast — as banging the bare metal in MS-DOS.
In the meantime, game developers would continue to write for vanilla MS-DOS and to sweat the details of all those different graphics and sound cards for themselves, and the hardcore gamers would have to continue to spend hours tweaking memory settings and IRQ addresses in order to get each new game they bought up and running just exactly perfectly. Admittedly, some gamers did consider this almost half the fun, a talent for it as much a badge of honor as a high score in Warcraft; boys do love their technological toys, after all. Still, it was obvious to any sensible observer that the games industry as a whole would be better served by a universal alternative to the current bespoke status quo. Hardcore gamers made up a relatively small proportion of the people using computers, but they were a profitable niche, what with their voracious buying habits, and they were also trail blazers and influencers in their fashion. It would seem that Microsoft had a vested interest in keeping them happy.
Windows NT might sound like the logical place for such early adopters to migrate, but this was not Microsoft’s view. “Serious” users of computers in corporate and institutional environments — the kind at which Windows NT was primarily targeted — had a long tradition of looking down on computers that happened to be good at playing games, and this attitude had by no means disappeared entirely by the early 1990s. In short, Microsoft had no wish to muddy the waters surrounding their most powerful operating system with a bunch of scruffy gamers. Games of all stripes were to be left to the consumer-grade operating systems, meaning the current Windows 3 and the forthcoming Chicago. And even there, they seemed to be a dismayingly low priority for Microsoft in the eyes of the people who made them and played them.
This doesn’t mean that there was no progress whatsoever. By very early in 1994, a young Microsoft programmer named Chris Hecker, working virtually alone, had put together a promising system called WinG, which let Windows games and other software render graphics surprisingly quickly to a screen buffer, with a minimum of interface from the heretofore over-officious operating system.
Hecker knew exactly what game to target as a proof of concept for WinG: DOOM, id Software’s first-person shooter, which had recently risen up from the shareware underground to complete the remaking of a broad swath of gamer culture in the image of id’s fast-paced, ultra-violent aesthetic. If DOOM could be made to run well under WinG, that would lend the system an instant street cred that no other demonstration could possibly have equaled. So, Hecker called up John Carmack, the man behind the DOOM engine. A skeptical Carmack said he didn’t have time to learn the vagaries of WinG and do the port, even assuming it was possible, whereupon Hecker said that he would do it himself if Carmack would just give him the DOOM source — under the terms of a strict confidentiality agreement, of course. Carmack agreed, and Hecker did the job in a single frenzied weekend. (It doubtless helped that Carmack’s DOOM code, which has long since been released to the entire world, is famously clean and readable, and thus eminently portable.)
Hecker brought WinDOOM, as he called it, to the Computer Game Developers Conference in April of 1994, the place where the leading lights of the industry gathered to talk shop among themselves. When he showed them DOOM running at full speed on Windows, just four months after it had become a sensation on MS-DOS, they were blown away. “WinG could usher in a whole new era for computer-based entertainment,” wrote Computer Gaming World breathlessly in their report from the conference. “As a result of this effort, we should expect to see universal installation routines, hardware independence, and an end to the memory-configuration haze that places a minimum technical-expertise barrier over our hobby and keeps out the novice user.”
Microsoft officially released WinG as a Windows 3 add-on in September of 1994, but it never quite lived up to its glowing advance billing. Hecker was a lone-wolf coder, and by some reports at least a decidedly difficult one to work with. Microsoft insiders from the time characterize WinG more as a “hack” than a polished piece of software engineering. Hecker “was able to take a piece of shit called Windows and make games work on it,” says Rick Segal, a Microsoft executive who was then in charge of “multimedia evangelism.” “He strapped a jet engine on a Beechcraft and got the thing in the air.” But when developers started trying to work with it in the real world, “the wings came off first, followed by the rest of the plane.” That’s perhaps overstating the case: WinG combined with Win32S was used to bring a few dozen games to Windows more or less satisfactorily between 1994 and 1997, from strategy games like Colonization to adventure games like Titanic: Adventure Out of Time. WinG was not so much a defective tool as a sharply limited one. While it gave developers a way of getting graphics onto the screen reasonably quickly, it gave them no help with the other pressing problems of sound, joysticks and other controllers, and networking in a game context.
Many of Microsoft’s initiatives during this period were organized by and around their team of “evangelists,” charismatic bright sparks who were given a great deal of freedom and a substantial discretionary budget in the cause of advancing the company’s interests and “fucking the competition,” as it was put by the evangelist for WinG, an unforgettable character named Alex St. John. St. John was a 350-pound grizzly bear of a man who had spent much of his childhood in the wilds of Alaska, and still sported a lumberjack’s beard and a backwoods sartorial sense; in the words of one horrified Microsoft marketing manager, he “looked like a bomb going off.” Shambling onto the stage, the living antithesis of the buttoned-down Microsoft rep that everybody expected, he told his audiences of gamers and game developers that he knew just what they thought of Windows. Then he showed them a clip of a Windows logo being blown away by a shotgun. “The gamers loved it,” says Rick Segal. “They thought they had someone who had their interests at heart.”
St. John soon decided that his constituency deserved something much, much better than WinG. His motivations were at least partly personal. He had come to loathe Chris Hecker, who was intense in a quieter, more penetrating way that didn’t mix well with St. John’s wild-man persona; St. John was therefore looking for a way to freeze Hecker out. But he was also sincere in his belief that WinG just didn’t go far enough toward making Windows a viable platform for hardcore gaming. With Chicago on the horizon, now was the perfect time to change that. He thundered at his bosses that games were a $5 billion market already, and they were just getting started. Windows’s current ineptitude at running them threatened Microsoft’s share in not only that market but the many other consumer-computing spaces that surrounded it. At some point, game developers would say farewell to antiquated MS-DOS. If Microsoft didn’t provide them with a viable alternative, somebody else would.
He rallied two programmers by the names of Craig Eisler and Eric Engstrom to his cause. In attitude and affect, the trio seemed a better fit for the unruly halls of id Software than those of Microsoft. They ran around terrorizing their colleagues with plastic battle axes, and gave their initiative the rather tasteless name of The Manhattan Project — a name their managers found especially inappropriate in light of Japan’s importance in gaming. But they remained unapologetic: “The Manhattan Project changed the world, for good or bad,” shrugged Eisler. “And we really like nuclear explosions.”
As I just noted, St. John’s title of evangelist afforded him a considerable degree of latitude and an equally considerable financial war chest. Taking advantage of the lack of any definitive rejection of their schemes more so than any affirmation of them among the higher-ups, the trio wrote the first lines of code for their new, fresh-from-the-ground-up tools for Windows gaming on December 24, 1994. (The date was characteristic of these driven young men, who barely noticed a family holiday such as Christmas.) St. John was determined to have something to show the industry at the next Computers Game Developers Conference in less than four months.
WinG was also still alive at this point, under the stewardship of the hated Chris Hecker — but not for long. Disney had released a CD-ROM tie-in to The Lion King, the year’s biggest movie, just in time for that Christmas of 1994. It proved a debacle; hundreds of thousands of children unwrapped the box on Christmas morning, pushed the shiny disc eagerly into the family computer… and found out that it just wouldn’t work, no matter how long Mom and Dad fiddled with it. The Internet lit up with desperate parents of sobbing children, and news of the crisis soon reached USA Today and Billboard, who declared Disney’s “Animated Storybook” to be 1994’s Grinch: the game that had ruined Christmas.
Although the software used WinG, that was neither the only nor the worst source of its problems. (That honor goes to its support for 16-bit sound cards only, as stipulated in tiny print on the box, at a time when many or most people still had 8-bit sound cards and the large majority of computers owners had no idea whether they had the one or the other.) Nevertheless, the disaster was laid at the feet of WinG inside the games industry, creating an overwhelming consensus that a far more comprehensive solution was needed if games were ever to move en masse from MS-DOS to Windows. Alex St. John shed no tears: “I was happy to be proven right about WinG’s inadequacy.” The WinG name was hopelessly tainted now, he argued. Chris Hecker was moved to another project, an event which marked the end of active development on WinG. When it came to Windows gaming in the long term, it was now the Manhattan Project or bust.
By the spring of 1995, St. John had managed to assemble a team of about a dozen programmers, mostly contractors with something to prove rather than full-time Microsoft employees. They settled on the label of “Direct” for their suite of libraries, a reference to the way that they would let game programmers get right down to making cool things happen quickly, without having to mess around with all of the usual Windows cruft. DirectDraw would do what WinG had done only better, letting programmers draw on the screen where, how, and when they would; DirectSound would give the same level of flexible control over the sound hardware; DirectInput would provide support for joysticks and the like; and DirectPlay would be in some ways the most forward-looking piece of all, providing a complete set of tools for online multiplayer gaming. The collection as a whole would come to be known as DirectX. St. John, a man not prone to understatement, told Computer Gaming World that “the PC game market has been suppressed for two major reasons: difficulty with installation and configuration, and lack of significant new hardware innovation for games, because developers have had to code so intimately to the metal that it has become a nightmare to introduce new hardware and get it widely adopted. We’re going to bring all the benefits of device independence to games, and none of the penalties that have discouraged them from using APIs.”
It’s understandable if many developers greeted such broad claims with suspicion. But plenty of them became believers in April of 1995, when Alex St. John crashed into the Computer Game Developers Conference like a force of nature. Founded back in 1988 by Chris Crawford, one of gaming’s most prominent philosophers, the CGDC had heretofore been a fairly staid affair, a domain of gray lecture halls and earnest intellectual debates over the pressing issues of the day. “My job was to see DirectX launched successfully,” says St. John. “I concluded that if we set up a session or a suite at the conference itself, no one would come. Microsoft would have to do something so spectacular that it couldn’t be ignored.” So, he rented out the entirety of the nearby Great America amusement park and invited everyone to come out on the day after the conference ended for rides and fun — and, oh, yes, also a presentation of this new thing called DirectX. When he took the stage, the well-lubricated crowd started mocking him with a chant of “DOS! DOS! DOS!” But the chanting ceased when St. John pulled up a Windows port of a console hit called Bubsy, running at 83 frames per second. It became clear then and there that the days of MS-DOS as the primary hardcore-gaming platform were as numbered as those of the old, hype-immune, comfortably collegial CGDC — both thanks to Alex St. John.
St. John and company had never intended to make a version of DirectX for Windows 3; it was earmarked for Chicago, or rather Windows 95, the now-finalized name for Microsoft’s latest consumer operating system. And indeed, most of us old-timer gamers still remember the switch to Windows 95 as the time when we began to give up our MS-DOS installations and have our fun as well as get our work done under Windows. But for all that DirectX couldn’t exist outside of Windows 95, it wasn’t quite of Windows 95. It wasn’t included with the initial version of the operating system that finally shipped, a year behind schedule, in August of 1995; the first official release of DirectX didn’t appear until a month later. “DirectX was built to be parasitic,” says St. John. “It was carried around in games, not the operating system.” What he means is that he arranged to make it possible for game publishers to distribute the libraries free of charge on their installation CDs. When a game was installed, it checked to see whether DirectX was already on the computer, and if so whether the version there was as new as or newer than the one on the CD; if the answer to either of these questions was no, the latest version of DirectX was installed alongside the game it enabled. In an era when Internet connectivity was still spotty and online operating-system updates still a new frontier, this approach doubtless saved game makers many, many thousands of tech-support calls.
Now, though, we should have a look at some of the new features that were an integral part of Windows 95 from the start. Previous versions of Windows were more properly described as operating environments than full-fledged operating systems; one first installed MS-DOS, then installed Windows on top of that, starting it up via the MS-DOS command line. Windows 95, on the other hand, presented itself to the world as a self-contained entity; one could install it to an entirely blank hard drive, and could boot into it without ever seeing a command line. Yet the change really wasn’t as dramatic as it appeared. Unlike Windows NT, Windows 95 still owed much to the past, and was still underpinned by MS-DOS; the elephant balanced on a light pole had become a blue whale perched nimbly up there on one fin. Microsoft had merely become much more thorough in their efforts to hide this fact.
And we really shouldn’t scoff at said efforts. Whatever its underpinnings, Windows 95 did a very credible job of seeming like a seamless experience. Certainly it was by far the most approachable version of Windows ever. It had a new interface that was a vast improvement over the old one, and it offered countless other little quality-of-life enhancements to boot. In fact, it stands out today as nothing less than the most dramatic single evolutionary leap in the entire history of Windows, setting in place a new usage paradigm that has been shifted only incrementally in all the years since. A youngster of today who has been raised on Windows 10 or 11 would doubtless find Windows 95 a bit crude and clunky in appearance, but would be able to get along more or less fine in it without any coaching. This is much less true in relation to Windows 3 and its predecessors. Tellingly, whenever Microsoft has tried to change the Windows 95 interface paradigm too markedly in the decades since, users have complained so loudly that they’ve been forced to reverse course.
Windows 95 may still have been built on MS-DOS, but 32-bit applications were now the standard, the ability to run 16-bit software relegated to a legacy feature in the name of Microsoft’s all-important backward compatibility. (Microsoft went to truly heroic lengths in the service of the latter, to the extent of special-casing a raft of popular programs: “If you’re running this specific program, do this.” An awful kludge, but needs must…) Another key technical feature, from which tens of millions of people would benefit without ever realizing they were doing so, was “Plug and Play,” which made installing new hardware a mere matter of plugging it in, turning on the computer, and letting the operating system do the rest; no more fiddling about with an alphabet soup of IRQ, DMA, and port settings, trying to hit upon the magic combination that actually worked. Equally importantly, Windows 95 introduced preemptive multitasking in place of the old cooperative model, meaning the operating system would no longer have to depend upon the willingness of individual programs to yield time to others, but could and would hold them to its own standards. At a stroke, all kinds of scenarios — like, say, rendering 3D graphics in the background while doing other work (or play) in the foreground — became much more practical.
A Quick Tour of Windows 95
Windows 95 stretched the very definition of what should constitute an operating system; it was the first version of Windows on which you could do useful things without installing a single additional application, thanks to built-in tools like WordPad (a word processor more full-featured than many of the commercially available ones of half a decade earlier) and Paint (as the name would imply, a paint program, and a surprisingly good one at that). Some third-party software publishers, suddenly faced with the prospect of their business models going up in smoke, complained voraciously to the press and to the government about this bundling. Nonetheless, the lines between operating systems and applications had been blurred forever.
Indeed, this was in its way the most revolutionary of all aspects of Windows 95, an operating system that otherwise still had one foot rooted firmly in the past. That didn’t much matter to most people because it was a new piece of software engineering second, a flashy new consumer product first. Well before the launch, a respected tech journalist named Andrew Schulman told how “the very name Windows 95 suggests this product will play a leading role” in “the movement from a technology-based into a consumer-product-based industry.”
If a Windows program queries the GetVersion function in Windows 95, it will get back 4.0 as the answer; a DOS program will get back the answer 7.0. But in its marketing, Microsoft has decided to trade in the nerdy major.minor version-numbering scheme (version x.0 had always given the company trouble anyway) for a new product-naming scheme based on that used by automobile manufacturers and vineyards. Windows 95 isn’t foremost a technology or an operating system; it’s a product. It is targeted not at developers or end users but at consumers.
The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said, “And it must be 3.25 seconds long.”
I thought this was funny, and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.
In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time…
Ironically, Eno created this, his most-heard single composition, on an Apple Macintosh. “I’ve never used a PC in my life,” he said in 2009. “I don’t like them.”
On a more populist musical note, Microsoft elected to make the Rolling Stones tune “Start Me Up” the centerpiece of their unprecedented Windows 95 advertising blitz. By one report, they paid as much as $12 million to license the song, so enamored were they by its synergy with the new Windows 95 “Start” menu, apparently failing to notice in their excitement that the song is actually a feverish plea for sex. “[Mick] Jagger was half kidding” when he named that price, claimed the anonymous source. “But Microsoft was in a big hurry, so they took the deal, unlike anything else in the software industry, where they negotiate to death.” Of course, Microsoft was careful not to include in their commercials the main chorus of “You make a grown man cry.” (Much less the fade-out chorus of “You make a dead man come.”)
Microsoft spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars in all on the Windows 95 launch, making it by a veritable order of magnitude the most lavish to that point in the history of the computer industry. One newspaper said the campaign was “how the Ten Commandments would have been launched, if only God had had Bill Gates’s money.” The goal was to make Windows, as journalist James Wallace put, “the most talked-about consumer product since New Coke” — albeit one that would hopefully enjoy a better final fate. Both goals were achieved. If you had told an ordinary American on the street even five years earlier that a new computer operating system, of all things, would shortly capture the pop-culture zeitgeist so thoroughly, she would doubtless have looked at you like you had three heads. But now it was 1995, and here it was. The Cold War was over, the War on Terror not yet begun, the economy booming, and the wonders of digital technology at the top of just about everyone’s mind; the launch of a new operating system really did seem like just about the most important thing going on in the world at the time.
The big day was to be August 24, 1995. Bill Gates made 29 separate television appearances in the week leading up it. A 500-foot banner was unfurled from the top floor of a Toronto skyscraper, while hundreds of spotlights served to temporarily repaint the Empire State Building in the livery of Windows 95. Even the beloved Doonesbury comic strip was co-opted, turning into a thinly veiled Windows 95 advertisement for a week. Retail stores all over the continent stayed open late on the evening of August 23, so that they could sell the first copies of Windows 95 to eager customers on the stroke of midnight. (“Won’t it be available tomorrow?” asked one baffled journalist to the people standing in line.) There were reports that some impressionable souls got so caught up in the hype that they turned up and bought a copy even though they didn’t own a computer on which to run it.
But the excitement’s locus was Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, campus, which had been turned into a carnival grounds for the occasion, with fifteen tents full of games and displays and even a Ferris wheel to complete the picture. From here the proceedings were telecast live to millions of viewers all over the world. Gates took the stage at 11:00 AM with a surprise sparring partner: comedian Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show, the country’s most popular late-night talk show. He worked the crowd with his broad everyman humor; this presentation was most definitely not aimed at the nerdy set. His jokes are as fine a time capsule of the mid-1990s as you’ll find. “To give you an idea of how powerful Windows 95 is, it is able to keep track of all O.J.’s alibis at once,” said Leno. Gates wasn’t really so much smarter than the rest of us; Leno had visited his house and found his VCR’s clock still blinking 12:00. As for Windows 95, it was like a good date: “smart, user-friendly, and under $100.” The show ended with Microsoft’s entire senior management team displaying their dubious dance moves up there onstage to the strains of “Start Me Up.” “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” gushed Gates afterward.
Windows 95 sold 1 million copies in its first four days, 30 million copies in its first seven months, 65 million copies in its first sixteen months. (For the record, this last figure was 15 million more copies than the best-selling album of all time, thus cementing the operating system’s place in pop-culture as well as technology history.) By the beginning of 1998, when talk turned to its successor Windows 98, it boasted an active user base three and a half times larger than that of Windows 3.
And by that same point in time, the combination of Windows 95 and DirectX had remade the face of gaming. A watershed moment arrived already just one year after the debut of Windows 95, when Microsoft used DirectX to make the first-ever Windows version of their hugely popular Flight Simulator, for almost a decade and a half now the company’s one really successful hardcore gamer’s game. From that moment on, DirectX was an important, even integral part of Microsoft’s corporate strategy. As such, it was slowly taken out of the hands of Alex St. John, Craig Eisler, and Eric Engstrom, whose bro-dude antics, such as hiring a Playboy Playmate to choose from willing male “slaves” at one industry party and allowing the sadomasochistic shock-metal band GWAR to attend another with an eight-foot tall anthropomorphic vagina and penis in tow, had constantly threatened to erupt into scandal if they should ever escape the ghetto of the gaming press and make it into the mainstream. Whatever else one can say about these three alpha-nerds, they changed gaming forever — and changed it for the better, as all but the most hidebound MS-DOS Luddites must agree. By the time Windows 98 hit the scene, vanilla MS-DOS was quite simply dead as a gaming platform; all new computer games for a Microsoft platform were Windows games, coming complete with quick and easy one-click installers that made gaming safe even for those who didn’t know a hard drive from a RAM chip. The DirectX revolution, in other words, had suffered the inevitable fate of all successful revolutions: that of becoming the status quo.
St. John’s inability to play well with others got him fired in 1997, while Eisler and Engstrom grew up and mellowed out a bit and moved into Web technologies at Microsoft. (The Web-oriented software stack they worked on, which never panned out to the extent they had hoped, was known as Chrome; it seems that everything old truly is new again at some point.)
Speaking of the Internet: what did Windows 95 mean for it, and vice versa? I must confess that I’ve been deliberately avoiding that question until now, because it has such a complicated answer. For if there was one tech story that could compete with the Windows 95 launch in 1995, it was surely that of the burgeoning World Wide Web. Just two weeks before Bill Gates enjoyed the coolest day of his life, Netscape Communications held its initial public offering, ending its first day as a publicly traded company worth a cool $2.2 billion in the eyes of stock buyers. Some people were saying even in the midst of all the hype coming out Redmond that Microsoft and Windows 95 were computing’s past, a new era of simple commodity appliances connecting to operating-system-agnostic networks its future. Microsoft’s efforts to challenge this wisdom and compete on this new frontier were just beginning to take shape at the time, but they would soon become the company’s overriding obsession, with well-nigh earthshaking stakes for everyone involved with computers or the Web.
(Sources: the books Renegades of the Empire: How Three Software Warriors Started a Revolution Behind the Walls of Fortress Microsoft by Michael Drummond, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace by James Wallace, The Silicon Boys by David A. Kaplan, Show-stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary, Masters of DOOM: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, Unauthorized Windows 95: A Developer’s Guide to the Foundations of Windows “Chicago” by Andrew Schulman, Undocumented Windows: A Programmer’s Guide to Reserved Microsoft Windows API Functions by Andrew Schulman, David Maxey, and Matt Pietrek, and Windows Internals: The Implementation of the Windows Operating Environment by Matt Pietrek; Computer Gaming World of August 1994, June 1995, and September 1995; Game Developer of August/September 1995; InfoWorld of March 15 1993; Mac Addict of April 2000; Windows Magazine of April 1996; PC Magazine of November 8 2005. Online sources include an Ars Technica piece on Microsoft’s efforts to keep Windows compatible with earlier software, a Usenet thread about the Lion King CD-ROM debacle which dates from Christmas Day 1994, a Music Network article about Brian Eno’s Windows 95 theme, an SFGate interview with Eno, and Chris Hecker’s overview of WinG for Game Developer. I owe a special thanks to Ken Polsson for his personal-computing chronology, which has been invaluable for keeping track of what happened when and pointing me to sources during the writing of this and other articles. Finally, I owe a lot to Nathan Lineback for the histories, insights, comparisons, and images found at his wonderful online “GUI Gallery.”)
I’ve set up an account on Mastodon for posting new articles and (very rarely) other newsworthy tidbits. You can access it at https://oldbytes.space/@DigiAntiquarian. For the time being at least, this will exist in addition to rather than instead of my Twitter feed. I’ll only delete the latter if things go completely off the rails on Twitter. Like a lot of people, I’m in wait-and-see mode right now, but it never hurts to be prepared, right?
I’m new to Mastodon and still struggling just a bit to wrap my head around it, so do let me know if I’ve done anything horribly wrong.
When we started out with Mean Streets, we wanted a vintage, hard-boiled detective from the 1930s and 1940s. You know, the Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler classic character. But since then, we’ve changed our picture of [our detective] Tex [Murphy]. We want to see some human vulnerability. We don’t want the superhero. Too much of the videogame genre is just these invincible characters. They aren’t real; they don’t have texture; they don’t have any kind of fabric to their personality. It’s not very interesting really, dealing strictly with such a one-dimensional character.
For us, the idea was to make this person seem more real. Whether he’s fumbling around or whatever — okay, let’s give him a talent, but let’s put a few defects in his character. He’s still a good guy, but he screws up a lot and says the wrong thing. He’s really from a different time period. We set it in the future because we wanted to give it the gadgets and get it out of today. So we take this man out of time. The general focus of Tex is this: I’m this guy who’s got these problems, who tries to date women but has a hard time with it, and ends up dating the wrong women. If someone good actually likes Tex, well, he figures there must be something wrong with them.
But now, to take Tex down three different paths… this is very interesting.
— Chris Jones in 1995, speaking about plans for The Pandora Directive
Under a Killing Moon, the first interactive full-motion-video film noir to feature the perpetually down-on-his-luck detective-out-of-time Tex Murphy, didn’t become one of that first tier of mid-1990s adventure games that sold over a million copies, captured mainstream headlines, and fomented widespread belief in a new era of interactive mainstream entertainment. It did become, however, a leading light of the second tier, selling almost half a million copies for its Salt Lake City-based developer and publisher Access Software over the course of the year after its release in late 1994. Such numbers were enough to establish Tex Murphy as something more than just a sideline to Links, Access’s enormously profitable series of golf simulations. Indeed, they made a compelling case for a sequel, especially in light of the fact that the second game ought to cost considerably less to make than the $5 million that had been invested in the first, what with the sequel being able to reuse an impressive game engine whose creation had eaten up a good chunk of that budget. The sequel was officially underway already by the beginning of 1995.
The masterminds of the project were once again Chris Jones and Aaron Conners — the former being the man who had invented the character of Tex Murphy and who still played him onscreen when not moonlighting as Access’s chief financial officer (or vice versa), the latter being the writer who had breathed new life into him for Under a Killing Moon. The sequel was to be an outlier in the novelty-driven world of game development, representing a creative and writerly evolution rather than a technological one. For the fact was that the free-roaming 3D adventuring engine used in Under a Killing Moon was still very nearly unique.
Conners concocted a new script, called The Pandora Directive, that was weightier and just plain bigger than what had come before; it was projected to require about half again as much time to play through. It took place in the same post-apocalyptic future and evinced the same Raymond Chandler-meets-Blade Runner aesthetic, but it also betrayed a marked new source of inspiration: the hit television series The X-Files, whose murky postmodern vision of sinister aliens and labyrinthine government conspiracies was creeping into more and more games during this era. Conners was forthright about its influence in interviews, revealing at the same time something of the endearingly gawky wholesomeness of The Pandora Directive‘s close-knit, largely Mormon developers, which sometimes sat a little awkwardly alongside the subject matter of their games. Watching The X-Files in secret, away from the prying eyes of spouses and children, was about as edgy as this bunch ever got in their personal lives.
Everyone else in the development team is a family man, and X-Files is a little heavy for the kids. So they all ask me to record it. I bring it in and we watch it during lunch. I really like the show. It’s been nice because we watch carefully to see what they do with music and lighting to portray a mood. Their production is closer to what we do than to a cinematic feature — tighter budget, working faster. So we found the show very informative.
If anything, The X-Files‘s influence on The Pandora Directive‘s plot is a little too on-the-nose. Like its television inspiration, the game revolves around the UFO that allegedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, the wellspring of a thousand overlapping conspiracy theories in both real life and fiction. If the one in the game is ultimately less intricately confounding than its television counterpart, that is only, one senses, because Conners had less space to develop his mythology. It’s all complete nonsense, of course, but The Pandora Directive is hardly the only game to mine escapist fun from the overwrought fever dreams of the conspiracy theorists.
But Jones and Conners were as eager to experiment with the form of their game as its content. Like the vast majority of adventure games, Under a Killing Moon had draped only a thin skein of player agency over a plot whose broad beats were as fixed as those of any traditional novel or film. You could tinker with the logistical details, in other words — maybe do certain things in a different order from some other player — but the overall arc of the story remained fixed. Conners’s script for The Pandora Directive aimed to change that, at least partially. While your path to unraveling the conspiracy would remain mostly set in stone, you would be able to determine Tex’s moral arc, if you will. If you played him as a paragon of virtue, he might just win true love and find himself on the threshold of an altogether better life by the end of the game. Cut just a few ethical corners here and there, and Tex would finish the game more or less where he’d always been, just about managing to keep his head above water and make ends meet, in a financial and ethical sense. But play him as a complete jerk, and he’d wind up dissipated and alone. Chris Jones on the bad path, which was clearly a challenge for this particular group of people to implement:
It’s a gradual fall. Bit by bit. Bad decision here, another there. As Tex sees it and the surroundings begin to change, he realizes that he blew it. His opportunity’s gone; this other girl is dead because of his mistake. And that darkens the character. So if each step gets you just a little darker, then it’s believable. It starts to have a real texture to it. That’s what we’re trying to do. Tex makes choices, tripping down the dark path, and starts to question himself: “Do I want to save myself? Or maybe this is what I want.” And then eventually you’re trapped. And that’s when it gets very interesting. We start to give Tex some options where the player will say, “Whoa! Can I make this choice?” By the end of the game, he turns into a real cynical bastard. If he chooses to stay on the darker side — each choice is just a shade of gray really, but all those shades of gray add up to a pretty dark character by the time you’re done. Just like in life.
I’m a bit uncomfortable about the way the [dark] path turns out. That was never my vision of what Tex could be. On the other hand, we have this medium which allows you to do such a thing. It is our competitive advantage over movies and television to be able to say to our audience, “Sit in this seat, make different decisions, and see how it turns out.” If we can pull it off with our characterizations and acting… well, now, that’s a very powerful medium. And so I feel like we have a responsibility to do that, to provide these kinds of choices. As I said, as an actor, I feel uncomfortable with this portrayal of Tex. But I feel it would shortchange people who buy the game to say, no, this is Tex, do it my way. If you’re kind of leaning down the dark path, take it and see what happens. You become the character. I’m in your hands.
In addition to the artistic impulse behind it, the more broad-brushed interactivity was intended to allay one of the most notable weaknesses of adventure games as a commercial proposition: the fact that they cost as much or more than other types of games to buy, but, unlike them, were generally interesting to play through only once. Jones and Conners hoped that their players would want to experience their game two or three times, in order to explore the possibility space of Tex’s differing moral arcs.
They implemented a user-selectable difficulty level, another rarity in adventure games, for the same reason. The “Entertainment” level gives access to a hint system; the “Game Players” level removes that, whilst also removing some in-game nudges, adding some red herrings to throw you off the scent, making some of the puzzles more complex, and adding time limits here and there. Again, Jones and Conners imagined that many players would want to go through the story once at Entertainment level, then try to beat the game on Game Players.
But the most obvious way that Access raised the bar over Under a Killing Moon was the cast and crew that they hired for the cinematic cut scenes and dialogs that intersperse your first-person explorations as Tex Murphy. While the first games had employed such Hollywood actors as Margot Kidder, Brian Keith, Russell Means, and even the voice of James Earl Jones as its narrator, it had done so only as an afterthought, once Jones and Conners had already built the spine of their game around local Salt Lake City worthies. This time they chose to invest a good part of the money they had saved from their tools budget into not just “real” actors but a real, professional director.
The official resumé which Access’s press releases provided for Adrian Carr, the man chosen for the latter role, was written on a curve typical of interactive movies, treating the five episodes he had directed of the cheesy children’s show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, his most prominent American credit to date, like others might a prestigious feature film. “He has directed, written, and/or edited work in almost every genre, from features to documentaries, television drama to commercials,” Access wrote breathlessly. All kidding aside, Carr really was an experienced journeyman, who had directed two low-budget features in his native Australia and edited a number of films for Hollywood. He had never seriously played a computer game in his life, but that didn’t strike Jones and Conners as a major problem; they were confident that they had a handle on that side of the house. Carr was brought in not least because professional actors of the sort that he’d seen before on television or movie screens tended to intimidate Chris Jones, who’d directed Under a Killing Moon himself. He “didn’t know how to handle them exactly,” allowed Conners.
Whatever the initial impulse behind it, it proved to be a very smart move. Adrian Carr may not have been the film industry’s ideal of an auteur, but he was more than capable of giving The Pandora Directive a distinctive look that wasn’t just an artifact of the technology behind the production — a look which, once again, stemmed principally from The X-Files, from that television show’s way of portraying its shadowy conspiracies using an equally shadowy visual aesthetic. Carr:
We started lighting darker, and putting in Venetian blinds and shadows and reflections to create texture. And the poor people who render the backgrounds moaned, “But it’s so dark!” And I’d say, “But it’s a movie!”
This has been one of my contributions, I guess. The technicians have been learning about mood. Like when Tex comes home and the room is only lit from outside, or there’s just one lamp on — see, guys, the murkiness is actually good, it creates a certain texture for the mood that we want.
The cast as a whole remained a mixture of amateurs and professionals; those returning characters that had been played by locals in the previous game were still played by them in this one. Among these was Tex Murphy himself, played by Chris Jones, the man whom everyone agreed really was Tex in some existential sense; he probably wasn’t much of an actor in the abstract, probably would have been a disaster in any other role, but he was just perfect for this one. Likewise, Tex’s longtime crush Chelsee Bando and the other misfits that surround his office on Chandler Avenue all came back to make up for in enthusiasm what they lacked in acting-school credentials.
On the other hand, none of the professional actors make a return appearance. (I must admit that I sorely miss the dulcet tones of James Earl Jones.) The cast instead includes Tanya Roberts, who was one of Charlie’s Angels (in the show’s last season only), a Bond girl, and a Playboy centerfold during the earlier, more successful years of her career; here she plays Regan Madsen, the sultry femme fatale who may just be able to make Tex forget his unrequited love for Chelsee. Also present is Kevin McCarthy, who had been a Hollywood perennial with his name in every casting director’s Rolodex for almost half a century by the time this game was made, with his role in the 1956 B-movie classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers standing out as the one real star turn on his voluminous resumé; here he plays Dr. Gordon Fitzpatrick, the former Roswell scientist who draws Tex into the case. And then there’s John Agar, who first captured international headlines back in 1945, when he married the seventeen-year-old former child star Shirley Temple. He never got quite that much attention again, but he did put together another long and fruitful career as a Hollywood supporting player; he appears here as Thomas Malloy, another would-be Roswell whistleblower.
But the Pandora Directive actor that absolutely everyone remembers is Barry Corbin, in the role of Jackson Cross, the government heavy who is prepared to shut down any and all investigations into the goings-on at Roswell by any and all means necessary. Whereas McCarthy and Agar built careers out of being handsome but not overly memorable presences on the screen — a quality which served them well in their multitude of supporting roles, in which they were expected to be competent enough to fulfill their character’s purpose but never so brilliant as to overshadow the real stars — Corbin was and is a character actor of a different, delightfully idiosyncratic type, with a look, voice, and affect so singular that millions of viewers who have never learned his name nevertheless recognize him as soon as he appears on their screen: “Oh, it’s that guy again…” At the time of The Pandora Directive, he was just coming off his most longstanding and, to my mind anyway, defining role: that of the former astronaut Maurice Minnifield, town patriarch of Cicely, Alaska, in the weird and beautiful television show Northern Exposure. In Corbin’s capable hands, Maurice became a living interrogation of red-blooded American manhood of the stoic John Wayne stripe, neglecting neither its nobility nor its toxicity, its comedy nor its pathos.
Although The Pandora Directive didn’t give Corbin an opportunity to embody a character of such well-nigh Shakespearean dimensions, it did give him a chance to have some fun. For unlike Maurice Minnifield, Jackson Cross is exactly what he appears to be on the surface: a villain’s villain of the first order. Corbin delighted in chewing up the scenery and spitting it in the face of the hapless Chris Jones — a.k.a, Tex Murphy. Jones, revealing that he wasn’t completely over his inferiority complex when it came to professional actors even after giving up the director’s job:
It’s already a little intimidating to work with people who are just consummate professionals. Then the first scene we shot together, Tex was supposed to be grilled by Barry’s character, Jackson Cross. I’m sitting in this chair, and he just came up and scared the hell out of me. Really, he looked through me and I just melted. Fortunately, that’s what my character was supposed to do. I truly felt like I was going to die if I didn’t answer him right. It was frightening.
The Pandora Directive was released with high hopes all around on July 31, 1996, about 21 months after Under a Killing Moon. It shipped on no fewer than six CDs, two more than its predecessor, a fairly accurate gauge of its additional scope and playing time.
Alas, its arrival coincided with the year of reckoning for the interactive movie as a viable commercial proposition. Despite the improved production values and the prominent placement of Barry Corbin’s unmistakable mug on the box, The Pandora Directive sold only about a third as many copies as Under a Killing Moon. Instead of pointing the way toward a new generation of interactive mainstream entertainment, it was doomed to go down in media history as an oddball artifact that could only have been created within a tiny window of time in the mid-1990s. Much like Jane Jensen in the case of The Beast Within, Chris Jones and Aaron Conners were afforded exactly one opportunity in their careers to make an interactive movie on such a scale and with such unfettered freedom as this, before the realities of a changing games industry sharply limited their options once again.
Small wonder, then, that both still speak of The Pandora Directive in wistful tones today. Developed in an atmosphere of overweening optimism, it is and will probably always remain The One for them, the game that came closest to realizing their dreams for the medium, having been created at a time when a merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood still seemed like a real possibility, glittering and beckoning just over the far horizon.
And how well does The Pandora Directive stand up today, divorced from its intended role as a lodestar for this future of media that never came to be? Pretty darn well for such an undeniable period piece, I would say, with only a few reservations. If I could only choose one of them, I think I would be forced to go with Under a Killing Moon over this game, just because The Pandora Directive can occasionally feel a bit smothered under the weight of its makers’ ambitions, at the expense of some of its predecessor’s campy fun. That said, it’s most definitely a close-run thing; this game too has a lot to recommend it.
Certainly there’s more than a whiff of camp about it as well. As the video clip just above amply attests, not even the talented actors in the cast were taking their roles overly seriously. In fact, just like Under a Killing Moon, this game leaves me in a bit of a pickle as a critic. I’ve dinged quite a few other games on this site for “lacking the courage of their convictions,” as I’ve tended to put it, for using comedy as a crutch, a fallback position when they can’t sustain their drama for reasons of acting, writing, or technology — or, most commonly, all three. I can’t in good faith absolve The Pandora Directive of that sin, any more than I can Under a Killing Moon. And yet it doesn’t irritate me here like it usually does. I think this is because there’s such a likeability to these Tex Murphy games. They positively radiate creative joy and generosity; one never doubts for a moment that they were made by nice people. And niceness is, as I’ve also written from time to time on this site, a very undervalued quality, in art as in life. The Tex Murphy games are just good company, the kind you’re happy to invite into your home. Playing them is like watching a piece of community theater put on by your favorite neighbors. You want them to succeed so badly that you end up willing them over the rough patches with the power of your imagination.
The archetypal Access Software story for me involves a Pandora Directive character named Archie Ellis, a hapless young UFO researcher who, in the original draft of the script, stepped where he didn’t belong and got himself killed in grisly fashion by Jackson Cross. Barry Corbin “just dominates that scene,” said Aaron Conners later. “It was like we let this evil essence into the studio.” Everyone was shocked by what had been unleashed: “The mood on the set was just so oppressive.” So, Conner scurried off to doctor the script, to give the player some way to save poor little Archie, feeling as he did that what he had just witnessed was simply too “traumatic” to leave an inevitability. You can call this an abject failure on his part to stick to his dramatic guns, but it’s hard to dislike him or his game for it, any more than you can, say, make yourself dislike Steve Meretzky for bringing the lovable little robot Floyd back to life at the end of Planetfall, thereby undercutting what had been the most compelling demonstration to date of the power of games to move as well as entertain their players.
I won’t belabor the finer points of The Pandora Directive‘s gameplay and interface here because they don’t depart at all from Under a Killing Moon. The first-person 3D exploration, which lets you move freely about a space, looking up and down and peering into and over things, remains as welcome as ever; I would love it if more adventure games had been done in this style. And once again there are a bevy of set-piece puzzles to solve, from piecing torn-up notes back together to manipulating alien mechanisms. Nothing ever outstays its welcome. On the contrary, The Pandora Directive does a consistently great job of switching things up: cut scenes yield to explorations, set-piece visual puzzles yield to dialog menus. There are even action elements here, especially if you choose the Game Player mode; your furtive wanderings through the long-abandoned Roswell complex itself, dodging the malevolent alien entity who now lives here, are genuinely frightening. This 3D space and one or two others are far bigger than anything we saw in the last game, just as the puzzle chains have gotten longer and knottier. And yet there’s still nothing unfair in this game, even in Game Player mode; it’s eminently soluble if you pay attention to the details and apply yourself, and contains no hidden dead ends. Say it with me one more time: the folks who made this game were just too nice to mistreat their players in the way of so many other adventure games.
I would like to write a few more words about the game’s one big formal innovation, letting the player determine Tex’s moral arc. Jones and Conners deserve a measure of credit for even attempting such a thing in the face of technological restrictions that militated emphatically against it. Live-action video clips filled a huge amount of space and cost a lot of money to produce, such that to offer a game with branching paths, thus leaving a good chunk of the content on the CDs unseen by many players, must have cut Chris Jones’s accountant’s heart to the quick. Points for effort, then.
As tends to the be the case with many such experiments, however, I’m not sure how much it truly adds to the player’s final experience. One of the big problems here is the vagueness of the dialog choices you’re given. Rather than showing you exactly what Tex will say, the menus offer options like “insensitive but cheerful” or “pretend nothing’s wrong,” which are open to quite a range of overlapping interpretations. In not making Tex’s next line of dialog explicit, the designers were trying to solve another problem, that of the inherent anticlimax of clicking on a sentence and then listening to Tex dutifully parrot it back. Unfortunately, though, the two solutions conflict with one another. Far too often, you click an option thinking it means one thing, only to realize that Tex has taken it in a completely different way. This doesn’t have to happen very often before the vision of Tex the game is depicting has diverged in a big way from the one you’re trying to inhabit, making the whole exercise rather moot if not actively frustrating.
Aaron Conners himself admitted that “95 percent of the people who play will end up on the B path,” meaning the one where Tex doesn’t prove himself to be a paragon of virtue and thus doesn’t get his lady love Chelsee — not yet, anyway — but doesn’t fall into a complete moral abyss either. And indeed, this was the ending I saw after trying to play as a reasonably standup guy. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t succeed in saving poor Archie either.) Predictably enough, the Internet was filled within days of the game’s release with precise instructions on how to hack your way through the thicket of dialog choices to arrive at the best ending (or the worst one, for that matter). All of which is well and good — fans gotta fan, after all — but is nevertheless the polar opposite of the organic experience that Jones and Conners intended. Why bother adding stuff that only 5 percent of your players will see without reading the necessary choices from a walkthrough? The whole thing strikes me as an example — thankfully, a rare one — of Jones and Conners rather outsmarting themselves, delivering a feature which sounded better in interviews about the amazing potential of interactive movies than it works in practice.
Then again, the caveat and saving grace which ought to be attached to my complaints is that none of it really matters all that much when all is said and done; the B ending that most of us will see is arguably the truest to the spirit of the Tex Murphy character anyway. And today, of course, you can pick and choose in the dialogs in whatever way feels best to you, then go hunt down the alternate endings on YouTube if you like.
It may sound strange to say in relation to a game about sinister government conspiracies, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but playing The Pandora Directive today feels like taking a trip back to a less troubled time. It’s just about the most 1990s thing ever, thanks not only to its passé use of video clips of real actors but to its X-Files-derived visual aesthetic, its subject matter (oh, for a time when the most popular conspiracy theories were harmless fantasies about aliens!), and even the presence of Barry Corbin, featured player in one of the decade’s iconic television programs. So, go play it, I say; go revel in its Mormon niceness. The post-millennial real world, more complicated and vexing than a thousand Roswell conspiracy theories, will still be here waiting for you when you return.
(Sources: the book The Pandora Directive: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Electronic Entertainment of July 1995; Computer Gaming World of March 1996 and December 1996; Retro Gamer 160. Online sources include the now-defunct Unofficial Tex Murphy Web Site and a documentary film put out by Chris Jones and Aaron Conners in recent years.
It’s disarmingly easy to underestimate Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, by far the best-selling game in history about the doomed luxury liner. At first glance, after all, it looks like just another of the lifeless multimedia Myst clones that were cluttering up store shelves in such quantities in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile the studio behind it was known as CyberFlix, a name which positively reeks of the era when equally misbegotten “interactive movies” were all the rage. And indeed, CyberFlix really was founded by folks convinced that the future of games would be a collision between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
But the prime mover behind the operation, a 30-something Tennessean named Bill Appleton, wasn’t just another of the clueless bandwagon jumpers who were using off-the-shelf middleware packages like Macromedia Director to cobble together dodgy games where the video clips took center stage and the interactivity was an afterthought. On the contrary, Appleton knew how to make innovative technology of his own, and had a lengthy resumé to prove it. His early software oeuvre was the ironic polar opposite of interactive movies, those ultimate end-user products that seemed designed to convince the human being behind the monitor that she couldn’t possibly create anything like this. In the beginning, Appleton was all about empowering people to make stuff for themselves.
A youthful overachiever from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Appleton studied painting and philosophy at university before settling on economics. He was weeks away from earning his master’s degree in that field from Vanderbilt University in the spring of 1984, when he saw an Apple Macintosh for the first time. Like any number of other curious minds who hadn’t heretofore taken much interest in computers, he allowed all of his plans for his life to be utterly derailed by the encounter. He dropped out of university, moved back into his parents’ basement, and rededicated his life to making the Mac do amazing things.
He created an adventure game called Enchanted Scepters, which combined vestiges of the text adventures that were popular on other platforms at the time with simple pictures, sounds, and mouse-driven interactions. In this sense, it was similar to such other early Mac graphic adventures as ICOM Simulations’s Deja Vu, although considerably less refined. The real stroke of genius came when Appleton, a year after releasing the game itself through a small publisher called Silicon Beach Software, packaged up all of the tools he had used to make it and released them as well, under the name of World Builder. The do-it-yourself toolkit spawned a small but dedicated amateur community of adventure makers and players that persisted well into the 1990s. Appleton also adapted World Builder into another product called Course Builder, aimed at educators who wanted to create interactive experiences for the classroom.
With its ethos of empowering a fairly non-technical end user to create original multimedia content, Course Builder especially was veering into the territory soon to be staked out by HyperCard, Apple’s own revolutionary hypertext-authoring system. It’s thus no surprise that, when that software did debut in 1987, Appleton first greeted it as a threat. He quickly decided, however, to adopt the old adage of can’t beat ’em, join ’em — or rather enhance ’em. He moved to Silicon Valley, took control of a team of programmers hired by Silicon Beach Software, and made SuperCard, a system that could run existing HyperCard “stacks” as-is, but that added a whole slew of additional native features to the environment. It attracted some interest in the Macintosh world, but proved unable to compete with HyperCard’s huge existing user base, the result of being bundled with every single new Mac. So, Appleton turned back to games. Hooking up with a Chicago-based developer and publisher called Reactor, he made a beat-em-up game in the tradition of Karateka called Creepy Castle, then embarked on an action-packed 3D extravaganza called Screaming Metal, only for Reactor to go out of business midway through development.
It was thus a thoroughly frustrated Bill Appleton who returned to Tennessee in 1992. His eight years in software had resulted in a pair of cults in the form of the World Builder and SuperCard communities, but he hadn’t ever managed to hit the commercial bullseye he was aiming for. He was a man of significant ambition, and the status of cult hero just wasn’t good enough for him. “I’ve built a lot [of programs] for Silicon Valley,” he said, then went on to air his grievances using the precious diction of a sniffy artiste: “This isn’t about money or power or technology. It’s about art. I’m an artist, and I’ve got to be able to control my work.” Like Bob Dylan and The Band retreating to that famous pink house in Woodstock, he decided he could do so as easily right there in Tennessee as anywhere else.
Appleton recruited a few other bright sparks, none of them your prototypical computer nerds. There were Scott Scheinbaum, a musician and composer who had spent the last fifteen years playing in various local rock bands and working in record stores to make ends meet; Jamie Wicks, an accomplished young visual artist, described by a friend from school as “the quiet guy who sits next to you in class and draws pictures of monsters”; Andrew Nelson, a journalist by education who had grown tired of writing puff pieces for glossy lifestyle magazines; and Eric Quist, an attorney and childhood friend of Appleton. “Bill inoculated [sic] us with his vision of becoming multimedia superstars and taking over the world,” says Scheinbaum. The five of them hatched their plans for world domination in Appleton’s basement before officially founding CyberFlix in May of 1993, with Appleton as the majority stakeholder and decider-in-chief. The division of labor on their games broke down obviously enough: Appleton would be the programmer, Scheinbaum the composer and sound-effects man, Wicks the pixel artist and 3D modeller, Nelson the designer and writer, and Quist the business guy. In fact, by this time they had their first game just about ready to go.
It went by the name of Lunicus. More of a tech demo than a carefully designed game, it began as a graphic adventure that took place on the titular Moonbase Lunicus, only to turn into a frantic corridor shooter, a slightly more sophisticated Castle Wolfenstein that came complete with a pounding rock-and-roll soundtrack. But everyone seemed to agree that its most impressive feature was the sheer speed with which it unspooled from the CD-ROM, thanks to some proprietary software technology developed by Appleton. Called a “mindblower” by no less a pundit than Steven Levy (author of the seminal book Hackers), the game sold 50,000 copies on the Macintosh, then was picked up by Paramount Interactive and ported to Microsoft Windows, where it did rather less well in the face of much stiffer competition. A follow-up called Jump Raven that was still faster did even better in a Mac marketplace that was starving for just this style of flashy action game, selling by some reports almost 100,000 copies.
CyberFlix was riding high, basking in the glowing press they were receiving inside the small and fairly insular milieu of Mac gaming. Being so thoroughly immersed in that world could distort the founders’ perspective. Jump Raven “was the fastest thing on the Mac,” says one early CyberFlix employee. “And that was back when the Mac was going to take over everything.”
CyberFlix moved into a snazzy loft in the center of Knoxville, Tennessee, and set about burnishing their hipster credibility by throwing parties for the downtown set, with live bands and open bars. Knoxville wasn’t quite the country-bumpkin town that East and West Coast media sometimes like to stereotype it as; its three largest employers were the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Many people in local government and business were eager to see CyberFlix as the progenitors of a new line for the city in multimedia. In a major publicity coup, Newsweek magazine was enticed to come down and write a two-page feature on the company, in which the wide-eyed reporter said that Appleton had become “something of a legend” during his time in Silicon Valley — this was something of a stretch — and called the house in whose basement the founding quintet had gotten together a literal log cabin. Others, however, were less credulous. One consultant who was hired to help the company work out a proper business plan remembers that Appleton “absolutely would not listen. He would sit and seem to listen, and then he was off to something else. It was exasperating.”
One of the things he was off to was CyberFlix’s next big game, a Western homage or send-up — the distinction is never clear, and therein lies many of the game’s problems — called Dust: A Tale of the Wired West. It was to be an unadulterated adventure game, whose action elements were limited to a few anodyne mini-games. CyberFlix used mostly employees and friends to play its characters — and therein lies another of the problems. Like many games of its technological ilk and era, Dust lacks the courage of its convictions, resulting in a fatal case of split personality. It seems that CyberFlix first intended to tell a fairly serious story. But as the amateurish acting and the limitations of their tools presented themselves, it drifted further and further into camp as a sort of defense mechanism, albeit without excising the would-be “dramatic” beats that had already been laid down. The result was, as Arinn Dembo noted in a scathing review for Computer Gaming World magazine, a comedy with dramatic relief, an approach that doesn’t work nearly as well as the opposite. Dembo’s concluding paragraphs are so well-stated, and apply so well not just to this game but to many other adventure games, that I’d like to quote them here.
The confusion in the design of this game brings up a general point, which is this: if you want to use dramatic elements in any narrative, you have to earn them. That means taking your subject seriously, even if it is “just a computer game.” Someone has to go to the trouble of fashioning characters deeper than your average mud puddle (and that includes giving them names that aren’t farcical), and writing dialog for them that sounds like something a real person might say.
If, on the other hand, your intention is to satirize the form and make fun of its tropes and limitations, you lay your cards on the table from the start; you don’t try to tap into drama that you don’t deserve. It’s either Blazing Saddles or The Unforgiven — you can’t mix the two. Computer-game writers need to learn that comedy is not a fallback position, something you do when you don’t believe you’re competent to sustain the drama. Satire and farce can be done well, and I’m not against them, but I’m against using them as a screen for poor storytelling.
All of this was made even more problematic by the way that even the jokes usually failed to land. The name of Dust, for example, was intended as a strained “ironic play” on the name of Myst. But this literally no one cottoned onto, until a peeved-sounding CyberFlix employee revealed it in an interview.
The same CyberFlix representative said that, of 90 publications that reviewed Dust, 88 of them recommended it. If so, I managed to stumble on both of the exceptions, and, unfortunately for CyberFlix, they were both biggies: the aforementioned Computer Gaming World, the journal of record among the hardcore set, and Entertainment Weekly, a major taste-maker among the mainstream-entertainment set which the company wanted desperately to reach. Released in late 1995, Dust sold only 30,000 copies between its Macintosh and Windows incarnations. In the aftermath of its failure, CyberFlix was forced to take on more plebeian contract work, such as porting software from Windows to Mac and implementing pre-written design briefs for educational products. Other folks at the company turned to simpler, less expensive sorts of original games. For many both inside and outside of Cyberflix were now beginning to wonder whether interactive movies were really destined to be the future of mainstream entertainment after all. But CyberFlix had one more big game of the old style still in them — the one that would write them into gaming history as something more than just another flash in the pan from the 1990s multimedia boom.
It must be conceded that Titanic: Adventure Out of Time did not have a very auspicious gestation. Its mastermind Andrew Nelson admits that he was prompted to make it by a logic far more plebeian than any of the grand philosophical meditations about fate and hubris that the great ship’s sinking has so often inspired. Back when CyberFlix was just getting off the ground, he’d had an interesting conversation with his sister-in-law: she “was intrigued with these new CD-ROM games, but she had heard they take forever and she didn’t have that much time.” Soon after, he read a magazine article about the Titanic, which noted that the ship had sunk two and a half hours after hitting the iceberg. That seemed like just about the right amount of time for an interactive movie that could appeal to busy adults like his sister-in-law. He decided to take the idea up with Bill Appleton and his other colleagues.
Initially, he didn’t have any more luck than Steve Meretzky had enjoyed at Infocom or Legend with his own Titanic concept. Appleton was particularly unenthusiastic. But Nelson kept hammering away at him, and finally, after Appleton’s own brainchild of Dust had proved a bust, he got his way. The company would go all-in on one last big adventure game.
The project may have been born out of practical commercial reasoning, but that didn’t keep it from taking on a more idealistic personality now. Nelson and many of those around him became full-bore Titanic fanatics. “We read all the books, listened to tapes of survivors, looked at 750 different pictures,” says Scott Scheinbaum. They laid out their virtual ship from the builder’s blueprints that had been used for the original — the very same documents, in fact, that James Cameron and friends were using to build their Titanic replica out of real steel down in Mexico at the very same time, although no one at CyberFlix was aware of this. Computer games which are labelled as “historical” tend to be strategic war games, exercises in moving abstract units around abstract fields of battle. CyberFlix was attempting a different kind of historical re-creation — a living, immersive view of history that dropped you right into the past as an individual on the scene.
In that spirit, Nelson and his colleagues set out to present as accurate a reproduction of the ship as the resources at their disposal would allow; again, they took their own endeavor as seriously as James Cameron was taking his. They tried to make every detail of every room as authentic as possible, knowing all the while that, while a movie director’s cameras had the luxury of gliding quickly over the surface of things, their players would be able to move around of their own free will in the spaces CyberFlix created and linger over what they saw to their heart’s content. This only made it that much more important to get things right.
A journalist named J.C. Herz came to visit CyberFlix in Knoxville for part of a book she was writing about videogame culture. She found an office with a “24-hour Kinko’s Copies atmosphere — full of equipment and overworked twentysomethings, simultaneously frenetic and oddly mellow.” She was especially taken by a “photo researcher” named Billy, who in his country boy’s baseball cap looked and talked like Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard. “I do the carpeting for the Titanic,” he told her by way of introduction.
We have a room where you start out in the game, and I’ve outfitted the desk with postcards that you can actually flip over and read, and magazines like Brave New World, and I’ve designed the covers for ’em, so you can pick those up and look at ’em. There’s a lot of detail in there that we don’t even expect people to actually look at. It’s like, if you were just tryin’ to half-ass it and get through it, you might make a lamp, but you might not make the electric cord that goes behind the desk. We’re tryin’ to get all the detail in there. There’s a lot of games that you look at today, and a lot of people don’t take the time and energy to go in and really work with their maps to make ’em look real, so they end up coming out lookin’ plastic or fake. I made it so that when you click on [a] scrapbook, it opens up, and then all the pages are just full of imagery, you know, ephemera, things like that. So I go out and I find all the stuff to go in the scrapbook and put it in there. That’s the fun job. I could spend a day or I could spend a month on that book.
I worked 36 hours in two days last week. But they try to make it as accommodating as possible. We’ve got showers, you know. And they stock the refrigerators with Cokes. Everybody gives you Cokes. They want you gettin’ wired so you stay there all the time. And they got some couches. So, I mean, you can stay here forever.
Another of the employees she met was named Alex, a rough-looking character with a Mohawk haircut, earrings, and tattoos to complement his “lengthy criminal record,” who had recently discovered a latent talent for computer art. He demonstrated that not quite everyone working on the Titanic game shared Billy’s passion for it. Long force of habit kept him talking about the people who ran CyberFlix as The Man, even though they let him get away with just about anything.
Whatever it takes to keep us here. Whatever we want. You can come in looking like a wreck, reeking of booze, whatever, and they’re never gonna fire you for it because they need you.
Luckily enough, they’ve been thoughtful not to force any kind of real schedule on us. Just get in when you can and do your shit. So, I just go to work doing whatever I have to do, build sets and do props, little things here and there where it needs to fit in, do movies and help. While I’ve got big jobs off running on the SGI [graphics workstation], I just jump around and do little different things, 2D work or whatever. As long as it takes is as long as you’ve got to spend, and if you’re here friggin’ eighteen hours a day, so be it.
And it’s kind of very strange for me because until I came up here to do this I was always working construction, my whole life, and I felt sorry for all the poor bastards trapped in air-conditioned prisons all day, and I thought it was so much fun to be roaming around on the job site, getting sun and running and hollering and screaming. And that’s all well and good, but you ain’t never gonna make shit. You’re gonna die poor or you’re gonna die pissing away your social-security check in some stinking little bar, and that’s no good. So, I just decided to take the step and at least do this for a few years to say that I could do it, and make some money out of it. If something went horribly wrong here tomorrow and I got kicked out or fired or I had to leave, I would just throw some things in the truck, get out, and go someplace else and do it. Because this industry is just replicating itself at such a disgusting rate, and everybody’s got something to do. And sure, not everything is quality, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like, you got money? All right, pay me, I’ll do it. Give it up. And then you just do it and move on again.
Of course, a game consists of more than just its graphical presentation, regardless of whether the latter is created lovingly or for reasons of filthy lucre. What, then, was CyberFlix’s Titanic game actually all about, beyond the obvious?
Andrew Nelson named his game Titanic: Adventure Out of Time because it really does involve time travel — which, as readers of the previous article in this series will recognize, is rather an ongoing theme in ludic Titanic fictions. It opens not in 1912 in the North Atlantic but in 1942. You play a former agent in His Majesty’s Secret Service who has fallen on hard times. You’ve been drinking your life away in your dingy flat, still haunted by the mission that destroyed your promising career — an espionage mission which took place aboard the Titanic. (Shades of Graham Nelson’s Jigsaw, although the similarities would appear to be completely coincidental.) Then a German bomb falls on your head, but instead of killing you it opens up a rift in space-time, sending you back to April 14, 1912, to try again.
You arrive in your cabin aboard the Titanic at 9:30 on that fateful evening, two hours before the collision with the iceberg. After an introductory spiel from the ship’s steward, you’re free to start exploring. Indeed, the meticulously re-created ship lies at the heart of this game’s appeal. You can roam freely through First Class, Second Class, and steerage; up to the promenade decks and into the bridge and wireless room; to the ship’s gym, complete with state-of-the-art exercise equipment like the “electric camel”; to the gentlemen’s smoking lounge and the Café Parisien; to the squash court and the Turkish sauna, with its alarmingly named “electric bath”; even down into the boiler rooms and the cargo holds. All of these and more are presented as node-based spaces pre-rendered in first-person 3D — in the superficial style of Myst, in other words. But do remember the opening to this article, when I warned you not to underestimate this game. CyberFlix’s technology was better than the vast majority of Myst clones that were flooding the market at this time, and their ambitions for this project at least were higher.
There are in fact only a handful Myst-style set-piece puzzles here, none of them terribly difficult. Instead of fiddling endlessly with esoteric mechanics in a deserted environment, you spend your time here — when not just taking in the views like a virtual tourist, that is — actually talking to a diverse cast of characters whom you meet scattered all over the ship, who in the aggregate are a pretty good representation of the many nationalities, professions, and social classes that were aboard the real Titanic. Having apparently learned a lesson from Dust, CyberFlix splashed out for mostly professional actors this time. The accents are pretty good, and the voice acting in general is, if not always inspired, serviceable enough by the standard of most productions of this nature and vintage.
Prior to the Titanic‘s tragic rendezvous with the iceberg, Adventure Out of Time runs on plot rather than clock time. That’s to say that time aboard the ship, which you can keep track of via your handy pocket watch, advances in increments of anywhere from five to fifteen minutes only when you complete certain milestones. If you choose to do nothing but wander around taking in the scenery, in other words, you have literally forever in which to do so — which isn’t a bad thing, given how big a part of the game’s appeal this virtual tourism really is. In another testimony to just that reality, CyberFlix included a “tour mode” separate from the game proper, which lets you explore the ship whilst listening to historical commentary. One has to assume that, just as most of the people who bought Myst never got off the first island, most of the people who casually plucked this game off a shop shelf were content just to poke around the Titanic for a while and call it a day.
But let’s assume that you’re one of the minority who chose to go deeper. As noted above, progressing through the milestones doesn’t entail solving logic puzzles so much as it does social ones. You scurry all over the ship, from the top of the crow’s nest to the bowels of the engine rooms, talking to everyone you can find, running fetch quests and conducting third-party diplomacy. It goes without saying that a real person on the real ship could never possibly have covered this much ground in a bare two hours, but it doesn’t really matter. Thankfully, in most situations you can jump from place to place by clicking on a map of the ship given to you by the steward at the beginning of the game. You soon learn that there’s a bewildering amount of stuff going on aboard this version of the Titanic well before it hits the iceberg. British and German and Russian and Serbian spies and double agents are all aboard, intriguing their little hearts out in the name of great-power politics.There’s a jewelry-smuggling ring, a servant girl who’s blackmailing the steel kingpin who got her pregnant, even a former flame of your own begging you to help her out with this and that for old times’ sake. And then there’s a rather mediocre painting being passed around, which the epilogue will reveal is from the hand of an obscure Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler…
Finding out about everything that’s going on aboard will likely require multiple playthroughs. For every time you do something to add minutes to the clock, you run the risk of losing the chance to see things that were taking place during the time window that’s just passed. It’s occasionally possible to get all of the intricate plot machinery fouled up and end up with someone talking to you familiarly about things you know nothing about, but this is relatively unusual. Very few other adventure games have attempted to offer their players such a freewheeling story space as this one, and even fewer have succeeded this well. There are no complete dead ends here that I know of; every player’s story can eventually be brought to a resolution of some kind if she just keeps poking at things long enough.
These two hours before disaster strikes are charged with the dreadful foreknowledge of what’s coming — with the knowledge that, if the law of averages holds true, two out of every three of the people you talk to won’t live to see the dawn. I played this game last winter, when we were in the process of moving house and my wife was already working and staying in another town. Sitting all alone in an empty living room on a cold, dark Scandinavian evening, surrounded by the souvenirs of our life together packed up in moving boxes, now strikes me as the perfect environment in which to appreciate it. Others have similar memories. Andrew Nelson:
People use the word “haunting” a lot to describe this game. And I know the feeling, because late at night while I was checking out if the dialog was working and I was strolling down those hallways — and how they were lit by our designers, and the amazing score that Scott Scheinbaum did, it had a very otherworldly feeling to it. Sometimes even I would get chills walking through it and encountering some of these passengers.
It’s debatable to what extent these feelings are the product of real aesthetic intent and to what extent they’re mere artifacts of the technology used to create the game, not to mention the knowledge we possess that’s external to its world. Yet we shouldn’t be too eager to look askance at any game that manages for whatever reason to evoke feelings in its player that go beyond the primary emotional colors, as this one does. And then, too, some things plainly are done, cleverly and deliberately, to heighten the sense of encroaching doom. For example, little establishing cut scenes play from time to time, showing the ship sailing inexorably onward toward its date with a cruel destiny.
After said destiny comes to a head and the iceberg is struck, everything begins to feel more immediate and urgent, as it should. At this point, plot time goes away in favor of something close to if not quite the same as clock time: the clock ticks a handful of seconds every time you make a move as you attempt to wrap up your espionage mission and get certain vital objects safely off the ship along with your own person. One might say that this is the real stress test for the game as a fiction. Can it muster the gravitas to depict a tragedy as immense as this one in an honest, unflinching way?
Alas, the short answer is no, not really. Some of this can be blamed on technological constraints; a Myst-style engine is better suited to contemplative exploration than the mass chaos the game is now attempting to project. Yet there’s no denying that the writing also fails the test in the breach. One or two of the characters behave just about believably. The most unnervingly realistic reaction comes from a snobby old First Class busybody who has refused to get into the first lifeboat offered to her because it’s “full of people I don’t know,” and because, like so many passengers, she didn’t truly believe the ship would sink. Now she clutches her pearls alone there on the deck and begs forlornly for assurance that surely there will be more lifeboats, won’t there? But the majority of characters fall victim to the old Dust syndrome. Unable or unwilling to stare down tragedy without blinking, the game falls back on jarringly inappropriate comedy. In terms of its fiction, the actual sinking is by far the weakest part of the game; we can feel thankful that this climax takes up a fairly small portion of the full playing time. Still, it does have one practical saving grace: it gives you one last chance to wrap up any loose ends you failed to get to earlier — one last chance, as it turns out, to change history, hopefully for the better.
For in the epilogue the game returns you to 1942 and presents your actions aboard the Titanic as having determined the course of world history over the last 30 years; think of it as the ultimate riposte to Graham Nelson’s claim that the disaster was not any “turning point” in history. The history for which you’re responsible can be much the same as the timeline we know or even worse. There’s an element of black comedy to many of these scenarios, as when you avert both the First World War and the rise of Adolf Hitler (who has vanquished the monster called Envy that was lurking in the depths of his soul by becoming a successful painter selling vacantly pleasant landscapes to middle-class housewives), only to see the entire world get steamrolled by the Soviet Union. It makes me think of dodging the iceberg in Dateline Titanic: “Oh, no! You hit another one!” But in the ideal case, where you’ve chased down every single plot thread and wrapped them all up neatly, history turns out markedly better, with neither a First World War, a Second World War, nor (presumably, in that there is no Soviet Union) a Cold War.
Adventure Out of Time is an impressive piece of work in many respects, standing out not least because it’s so much more ambitious and, well, just better than CyberFlix’s track record before it would ever tempt one to suspect. It’s possible to finish it with a very different story to tell about your time aboard the Titanic than someone else who has accomplished the same feat. And that is a very rare quality in adventure games.
That said, I can’t quite say that I love this game unabashedly. Its failings in the writing department — its inability to make me really care about any of the characters aboard or to build upon the vague sense of dread it has so masterfully engendered when the time comes for sharper emotions — keep it from joining my own top rank of games. Nevertheless, its rich grounding in real history and the formal ambition it displays mark it as the labor of love it so clearly was. It remains well worth playing as an example of a path seldom taken in adventure games, a welcome example of a game that’s much, much more than it first appears to be.
Its commercial trajectory, on the other hand, is a case study in how those things sometimes don’t matter a whit. Sometimes, all you need to do to have a hit is to get the timing right.
The Titanic was already having one of its recurring moments in media when Adventure Out of Time was released in late 1996, under CyberFlix’s own imprint because the old-media mavens that had been serving as their publishers until this point were all bailing out of games in the wake of disappointing sales. One of the biggest literary novels of the year, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man For Himself, about a young American who sails aboard the ship and interacts with many historical figures before and on the night of the disaster. The following April, a full-blown song-and-dance musical about the ship opened on Broadway, a dubious proposition on the face of it that would nonetheless run for 804 performances.
Tailwinds like these, along with the eternal recognizability of the Titanic name itself, were enough to lift Adventure Out of Time to sales of 100,000 copies in its first year on the market, despite reviews from the hardcore gaming press that were unenthusiastic at best about a product that was widely dismissed as just another tired Myst clone. “If the ocean were as shallow as Titanic‘s gameplay,” wrote Computer Gaming World in a valiant but confused attempt at clever wordplay, “the real ship would never have sunk.” But such reviews really didn’t matter at all by this point; even during this first year, the people who bought Adventure Out of Time generally weren’t the ones who read the likes of Computer Gaming World. Be that as it may, 100,000 copies sold would no doubt have been the limit of the game’s success, had not James Cameron’s movie dropped on December 19, 1997, just as Adventure Out of Time was getting decidedly long in the tooth by the standards of the novelty-obsessed games industry.
The tide had begun to turn for Cameron’s over-time, over-budget film some weeks before that date, when critics traveled to Tokyo to catch some early screenings. They came back raving about what they proclaimed to be that rarest of beasts, a showy blockbuster that could also make its audience think and feel something that went beyond the adrenal emotions. One critic stated that “Titanic plumbs personal and philosophical story depths not usually found in event-scale movies.” “It is a masterwork of big-canvas storytelling,” said another, “broad enough to entrance and entertain yet precise and delicate enough to educate and illuminate.”
The movie earned $29 million in the United States on its opening weekend, then $35 million the next weekend. Just twelve days after its debut, it was already halfway to earning back its much-mocked $200 million budget from domestic receipts alone. Four weeks after that, that milestone was already $100 million in its rear-view mirror, with Hollywood Reporter declaring that it had “shattered all previous models of film performance at the nation’s theaters.” On February 24, 1998 — just nine weeks after its release — it officially became the most successful film in history. One week later, its worldwide gross surpassed $1 billion. It was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards and won eleven of them, including those for Best Director and Best Picture.
Titanic was simply inescapable during 1998. When you turned on the radio, there it was, in the form of Celine Dion’s gloriously overwrought theme song; when you turned on the television, someone was bound to be talking about the film and/or the disaster that inspired it; when you went to work, your colleagues were discussing it around the water cooler; when you came home, you found that your teenage daughter had bought yet another poster of Leonardo DiCaprio to watch over her from her bedroom wall. Not everybody loved the film, mind you; some contrary souls dared to point out that the dialog was a bit trite and the love story more than a little contrived. But absolutely everyone had to reckon with it — not least among them its two young stars and its director, condemned to spend the rest of their careers answering as best they could the question of what you did next after you had already made the biggest movie in the history of the world.
All of this redounded to the immense benefit of some modest little CD-ROMs sitting on the shelves of software stores all over the country, due shortly to be sent back to the distributors that had sent them out. Now, thanks to the film, they suddenly started to sell again — to sell faster than they ever had before, so fast that store owners were soon clamoring for more of them from those selfsame distributors, causing a mad scramble at CyberFlix to crank up the presses once again. Adventure Out of Time enjoyed a whole new commercial life, an order of magnitude larger than its first one. Now companies were knocking at CyberFlix’s door to release the game to European and Asian markets; it was localized into seven different languages in a matter of weeks. By the end of 1998, worldwide sales had surpassed 1 million units. Well after the heyday of interactive movies and adventure games in general, it became the very last of its breed to hit that magical milestone.
But, surprisingly in an industry where one profitable game tends to beget another one just like it, CyberFlix never even tried to make anything else like Adventure Out of Time. After the game’s initial release and modest initial success, Andrew Nelson had wanted to continue to plow the same ground, with a game set aboard another glamorous and doomed means of conveyance: the airship Hindenburg. (Adventure Out of Time itself includes a hint about what was gestating in Nelson’s mind, via a Hindenburg ticket stub you can stumble across in your desk drawer in 1942.) “We’ve got this historical-fiction genre nailed,” said Nelson. “We have this new audience of people who never played a computer game.” But Bill Appleton, looking back on a 1996 which hadn’t yielded any huge adventure hits like in earlier years, wasn’t so sure. Nelson finally gave up trying to convince him and left the company in April of 1997, eight months before Cameron’s film changed everything. CyberFlix released only one major game after Adventure Out of Time, a pirate caper called Redjack: Revenge of the Brethren that returned to the model of Lunicus and Jump Raven, combining multimedia-heavy adventure-style gameplay with 3D action. It sank without a trace even as Adventure Out of Time was soaring to new heights; by some accounts, it sold as few as 10,000 copies in all.
That was enough to convince Bill Appleton, an unsentimental realist about the games market, that his company simply wasn’t made for these times. He was able to face what most others in his position would have closed their eyes to: that the success of Adventure Out of Time was sui generis, a fluke driven by a fortuitous happenstance, a stroke of blind luck that would never, ever come again, no matter how great an adventure game they made next time out. For it did nothing to change the fact that the multimedia boom, which had always been more wishful thinking than reality, was over, and the styles of game it had favored were in precipitous decline. So, he set about dismantling his company even as millions were still pouring into it from Adventure Out of Time. Better to pocket that money and go out a winner than to piss a fortune away on some grandiose new production that was as doomed to fail as the Titanic had been doomed to strike that iceberg. It was a brutal decision, but, from a pure business standpoint at least, it’s hard to argue that it was the wrong one.
Still, there are lingering questions about the way Appleton went about it, especially the bonuses of close to $2 million which he awarded to himself over the course of 1998 even as he was busily shedding staff. On November 30 of that year, he announced to the last of his employees that CyberFlix was done as anything but a holding company to collect the last of the revenues from Adventure Out of Time. Then he decamped for Silicon Valley to “build enterprise software for small companies,” never even saying goodbye to the four other dreamers who had once gathered in his cellar. Of them, only visual artist Jamie Wicks stayed in the games industry, going on to work on the hugely popular EA Sports lineup.
Neither Billy nor Alex, those two unlikely game developers interviewed by J.C. Herz when they were making Adventure Out of Time, ever worked in the industry again either. Likewise, Knoxville’s dream of becoming a new locus of artsy high tech died with CyberFlix. A 1999 history of the company’s rise and fall, written by one Jack Neely for the alternative urban newspaper Metro Pulse, describes the old offices standing “empty and silent,” bringing to mind those haunted corridors of the Titanic in Adventure Out of Time.
“This weekend I was in a mall in Atlanta,” said one former CyberFlix employee whom Neely interviewed for his article, “going through [a] store, and they had a copy of [Adventure Out of Time] on the cheap rack. It’s still around. But it’s kind of sad to see it there.” Already by then, the best game by far to come out of Cyberflix had met the inevitable fate of all Titanic productions, just another unmoored piece of ephemera in the ever-growing debris field of pop culture that surrounds the most famous sunken ship in the world.
(Sources: the books Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi and Joystick Nation by J.C. Herz; InfoWorld of September 14 1987; Compute! of March 1989; Computer Play of April 1989; MacWorld of May 1989, June 1989, April 1992, June 1992, January 1994, and February 1995; Computer Gaming World of August 1993, April 1994, December 1995, and March 1997; MacUser of October 1993 and January 1996; Next Generation of November 1996; Knoxville News Sentinel of November 20 2006; Dragon of February 1987; JOM volume 50 number 1; Knoxville Metro Pulse 942; Newsweek of August 28 1994; Entertainment Weekly of September 22 1995. Online source include an Adventure Out of Time retrospective at PC Gamer, a Game Developer interview with Andrew Nelson, and Stay Forever‘s interview with Andrew Nelson.
Titanic: Adventure Out of Time is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)