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This Week on The Analog Antiquarian

The Voyage of Magellan, Chapter 8: Rivers of Disappointment

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2024 in Uncategorized

 

The Last Days of Zork

If you follow the latest developments in modern gaming even casually, as I do, you know that Microsoft and Activision Blizzard recently concluded the most eye-watering transaction ever to take place in the industry: the former acquired the latter for a price higher than the gross national product of more than half of the world’s countries. I find it endlessly amusing to consider that Activision may have lived long enough to set that record only thanks to Infocom, that humble little maker of 1980s text adventures, whose annual revenues — revenues, mind you, not profits — never exceeded $10 million before Activision acquired it in 1986. And just how did this David save a Goliath? It happened like this:

After Bobby Kotick arranged a hostile takeover of a bankrupt and moribund Activision in 1991, he started rummaging through its archives, looking for something that could start bringing some money in quickly, in order to keep the creditors who were howling at his door at bay for a wee bit longer. He came upon the 35 text adventures which had been made by Infocom over the course of the previous decade, games which, for all that they were obviously archaic by the standards of the encroaching multimedia age, were still fondly remembered by many gamers as the very best of their breed. He decided to take a flier on them, throwing twenty of them onto one of those shiny new CD-ROMS that everyone was talking about — or, if that didn’t work for you, onto a pile of floppy disks that rattled around in the box like ice cubes in a pitcher of lemonade. Then he photocopied the feelies and hint books that had gone with the games, bound them all together into two thick booklets, and stuck those in the box as well. He called the finished collection, one of the first notable examples of “shovelware” in gaming, The Lost Treasures of Infocom.

It sold 100,000 or more units, at $60 or $70 a pop and with a profit margin to die for. The inevitable Lost Treasures II that followed, collecting most of the remaining games,[1]The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures. was somewhat less successful, but still more than justified the (minimal) effort that had gone into its curation. The two products’ combined earnings were indeed enough to give pause to those creditors who had been pushing for the bankrupt company to be liquidated rather than reorganized.

With a modicum of breathing room thus secured, Kotick scraped together every penny he could find for his Hail Mary pass, which was once again to rely upon Infocom’s legacy. William Volk, his multimedia guru in residence, oversaw the production of Return to Zork, a splashy graphical adventure with all the cutting-edge bells and whistles. In design terms, it was an awful game, riddled with nonsensical puzzles and sadistic dead ends. Yet that didn’t matter at all in the marketplace. Return to Zork rammed the zeitgeist perfectly by combining lingering nostalgia for Zork, Infocom’s best-selling series of games, with all of the spectacular audiovisual flash the new decade could offer up. Upon its release in late 1993, it sold several hundred thousand copies as a boxed retail product, and even more as a drop-in with the “multimedia upgrade kits” (a CD-ROM drive and a sound card in one convenient package!) that were all the rage at the time. It left Activision, if not quite in rude health yet, at least no longer on life support. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick.

With an endorsement like that from the man at the top, a sequel to Return to Zork seemed sure to follow. Yet it proved surprisingly long in coming. Partly this was because William Volk left Activision just after finishing Return to Zork, and much of his team likewise scattered to the four winds. But it was also a symptom of strained resources in general, and of currents inside Activision that were pulling in two contradictory directions at once. The fact was that Activision was chasing two almost diametrically opposing visions of mainstream gaming’s future in the mid-1990s, one of which would show itself in the end to have been a blind alley, the other of which would become the real way forward.

Alas, it was the former that was exemplified by Return to Zork, with its human actors incongruously inserted over computer-generated backgrounds and its overweening determination to provide a maximally “cinematic” experience. This vision of “Siliwood” postulated that the games industry would become one with the movie and television industry, that name actors would soon be competing for plum roles in games as ferociously as they did for those in movies; it wasn’t only for the cheaper rents that Kotick had chosen to relocate his resuscitated Activision from Northern to Southern California.

The other, ultimately more sustainable vision came to cohabitate at the new Activision almost accidentally. It began when Kotick, rummaging yet again through the attic full of detritus left behind by his company’s previous incarnation, came across a still-binding contract with FASA for the digital rights to BattleTech, a popular board game of dueling robot “mechs.” After a long, troubled development cycle that consumed many of the resources that might otherwise have been put toward a Return to Zork sequel, Activision published MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat in the summer of 1995.

Mechwarrior 2 was everything Return to Zork wasn’t. Rather than being pieced together out of canned video clips and pre-rendered scenes, it was powered by 3D graphics that were rendered on the fly in real time. It was exciting in a viscerally immersive, action-oriented way rather than being a passive spectacle. And, best of all in the eyes of many of its hyper-competitive players, it was multiplayer-friendly. This, suffice to say, was the real future of mainstream hardcore computer gaming. MechWarrior 2′s one similarity with Return to Zork was external to the game itself: Kotick once again pulled every string he could to get it included as a pack-in extra with hardware-upgrade kits. This time, however, the upgrades in question were the new 3D-graphics accelerators that made games like this one run so much better.

In a way, the writing was on the wall for Siliwood at Activision as soon as MechWarrior 2 soared to the stratosphere, but there were already a couple of ambitious projects in the Siliwood vein in the works at that time, which together would give the alternative vision’s ongoing viability a good, solid test. One of these was Spycraft, an interactive spy movie with unusually high production values and high thematic ambitions to go along with them: it was shot on film rather than the standard videotape, from a script written with the input of William Colby and Oleg Kalugin, American and Soviet spymasters during the Cold War. The other was Zork Nemesis.



Whatever else you can say about it, you can’t accuse Zork Nemesis of merely aping its successful predecessor. Where Return to Zork is goofy, taking its cues from the cartoon comedies of Sierra and LucasArts as well as the Zork games of Infocom, Zork Nemesis is cold and austere — almost off-puttingly so, like its obvious inspiration Myst. Then, too, in place of the abstracted room-based navigation of Return to Zork, Zork Nemesis gives you more granular nodes to jump between in an embodied, coherent three-dimensional space, again just like Myst. Return to Zork is bursting with characters, such as that “Want some rye?” guy who became an early Internet meme unto himself; Zork Nemesis is almost entirely empty, its story playing out through visions, written records, and brief snatches of contact across otherwise impenetrable barriers of time and space.

Which style of adventure game you prefer is a matter of taste. In at least one sense, though, Zork Nemesis does undeniably improve upon its predecessor. Whereas Return to Zork’s puzzles seem to have been slapped together more or less at random by a team not overly concerned with the player’s sanity or enjoyment, it’s clear that Zork Nemesis was consciously designed in all the ways that the previous Zork was not; its puzzles are often hard, but they’re never blatantly unfair. Nor do they repeat Return to Zork’s worst design sin of all: they give you no way of becoming a dead adventurer walking without knowing it.

The plot here involves a ruthless alchemical mastermind, the Nemesis of the title, and his quest for a mysterious fifth element, a Quintessence that transcends the standard Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The game is steeped in the Hermetic occultism that strongly influenced many of the figures who mark the transition from Medieval to Modern thought in our own world’s history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton. This is fine in itself; in fact, it’s a rather brilliant basis for an adventure game if you ask me, easily a more interesting idea in the abstract than yet another Zork game. The only problem — a problem which has been pointed out ad nauseam over the years since Zork Nemesis’s release — is that this game does purport to be a Zork game in addition to being about all that other stuff, and yet it doesn’t feel the slightest bit like Zork. While the Zork games of Infocom were by no means all comedy all the time — Zork III in particular is notably, even jarringly austere, and Spellbreaker is not that far behind it — they never had anything to do with earthly alchemy.

I developed the working theory as I played Zork Nemesis that it must have been originally conceived as simply a Myst-like adventure game, having nothing to do with Zork, until some marketing genius or other insisted that the name be grafted on to increase its sales potential. I was a little sad to be disabused of my pet notion by Laird Malamed, the game’s technical director, with whom I was able to speak recently. He told me that Zork Nemesis really was a Zork from the start, to the point of being listed as Return to Zork II in Activision’s account books before it was given its final name. Nevertheless, I did find one of his choices of words telling. He said that Cecilia Barajas, a former Los Angeles district attorney who became Zork Nemesiss mastermind, was no more than “familiar” with Infocom’s Zork. So, it might not be entirely unfair after all to say that the Zork label on Zork Nemesis was more of a convenient way for Barajas to make the game she wanted to make than a wellspring of passion for her. Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean for any of the preceding to come across as fannish gatekeeping, something we have more than enough of already in this world. I’m merely trying to understand, just as you presumably are, why Zork Nemesis is so very different from the Activision Zork game before it (and also the one after it, about which more later).

Of course, a game doesn’t need to be a Zork to be good. And indeed, if we forget about the Zork label, we find that Nemesis (see what I did there?) is one of the best — arguably even the best — of all the 1990s “Myst clones.” It’s one of the rare old games whose critical reputation has improved over the years, now that the hype surrounding its release and the angry cries of “But it’s not a Zork!” have died away, granting us space to see it for what it is rather than what it is not. With a budget running to $3 million or more, this was no shoestring project. In fact, the ironic truth is that both Nemesis’s budget and its resultant production values dramatically exceed those of its inspiration Myst. Its principal technical innovation, very impressive at the time, is the ability to smoothly scroll through a 360-degree panorama in most of the nodes you visit, rather than being limited to an arbitrary collection of fixed views. The art direction and the music are superb, maintaining a consistently sinister, occasionally downright macabre atmosphere. And it’s a really, really big game too, far bigger than Myst, with, despite its almost equally deserted environments, far more depth to its fiction. If we scoff just a trifle because this is yet one more adventure game that requires you to piece together a backstory from journal pages rather than living a proper foreground story of your own, we also have to acknowledge that the backstory is interesting enough that you want to find and read said pages. This is a game that, although it certainly doesn’t reinvent any wheels, implements every last one of them with care.

My own objections are the same ones that I always tend to have toward this sub-genre, and that thus probably say more about me than they do about Nemesis. The oppressive atmosphere, masterfully inculcated though it is, becomes a bit much after a while; I start wishing for some sort of tonal counterpoint to this all-pervasively dominant theme, not to mention someone to actually talk to. And then the puzzles, although not unfair, are sometimes quite difficult — more difficult than I really need them to be. Nemesis is much like Riven, Myst’s official sequel, in that it wants me to work a bit harder for my fun than I have the time or energy for at this point in my life. Needless to say, though, your mileage may vary.


Zork Nemesis’s story is told through ghostly (and non-interactive) visions…

…as well as through lots of books, journals, and letters. Myst fans will feel right at home.

The puzzles too are mostly Myst-style set-pieces rather than relying on inventory objects.

The macabre atmosphere becomes downright gruesome in places.

Venus dispenses hints if you click on her. What is the ancient Roman goddess of love, as painted by the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, doing in the world of Zork? Your guess is as good as mine. Count it as just one more way in which this Zork can scarcely be bothered to try to be a Zork at all.



Released on the same day in April of 1996 as Spycraft, Activision’s other big test of the Siliwood vision’s ongoing viability, Zork Nemesis was greeted with mixed reviews. This was not surprising for a Myst clone, a sub-genre that the hardcore-gaming press never warmed to. Still, some of the naysayers waxed unusually vitriolic upon seeing such a beloved gaming icon as Zork sullied with the odor of the hated Myst. The normally reliable and always entertaining Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World, the print journal of record for the hobby, whose reviews could still make or break a game as a marketplace proposition even in this dawning Internet age, dinged Zork Nemesis for not having much of anything to do with Infocom’s Zork, which was fair. Yet then he went on to characterize it as a creatively bankrupt, mindless multimedia cash-in, which was not: “Give ’em a gorgeous photo-realistic environment full of fantastic landscapes, some quasi-liturgical groaning on the soundtrack, and a simple puzzle every so often to keep their brains engaged, and you’re off to the bank to count your riches. Throw in some ghostly visions and a hint of the horrific and you can snag the 7th Guest crowd too.” One can only assume from this that Ardai never even bothered to try to play the game, but simply hated it on principle. I maintain that no one who has done so could possibly describe Zork Nemesis‘s puzzles as “simple,” no matter how much smarter than I am he might happen to be.

Even in the face of headwinds like these, Zork Nemesis still sold considerably better than the more positively reviewed Spycraft, seemingly demonstrating that Bobby Kotick’s faith in “Zork on a brick” might not yet be completely misplaced. Its lifetime sales probably ended up in the neighborhood of 150,000 to 200,000 copies — not a blockbuster hit by any means, and certainly a good deal less than the numbers put up by Return to Zork, but still more than the vast majority of Myst clones, enough for it to earn back the money it had cost to make plus a little extra.[2]In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there. Whereas there would be no more interactive spy movies forthcoming from Activision, Zork Nemesis did just well enough that Kotick could see grounds for funding another Zork game, as long as it was made on a slightly less lavish budget, taking advantage of the engine that had been created for Nemesis. And I’m very glad he could, because the Zork game that resulted is a real gem.



With Cecilia Barajas having elected to move on to other things, Laird Malamed stepped up into her role for the next game. He was much more than just “familiar” with Zork. He had gotten a copy of the original Personal Software “barbarian Zork — so named because of its hilariously inappropriate cover art — soon after his parents bought him his first Apple II as a kid, and had grown up with Infocom thereafter. Years later, when he had already embarked on a career as a sound designer in Hollywood, a chance meeting with Return to Zork put Activision on his radar. He applied and was hired there, giving up one promising career for another.

He soon became known both inside and outside of Activision as the keeper of the Infocom flame, the only person in the company’s senior ranks who saw that storied legacy as more than just something to be exploited commercially. While still in the early stages of making Activision’s third graphical Zork, he put together as a replacement for the old Lost Treasures of Infocom collections a new one called Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces: 33 of the canonical 35 games on a single CD, with all of their associated documentation in digital format. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Shogun, Infocom’s only two licensed titles, were the only games missing, in both cases because their licensing contracts had expired). He did this more because he simply felt these games ought to be available than because he expected the collection to make a lot of money for his employer. In the same spirit, he reached out to the amateur interactive fiction community that was still authoring text adventures in the Infocom mold, and arranged to include the top six finishers from the recently concluded First Interactive Fiction Competition on the same disc. He searched through Activision’s storage rooms to find a backup of the old DEC mainframe Infocom had used to create its games. This he shared with Graham Nelson and a few other amateur-IF luminaries, whilst selecting a handful of interesting, entertaining, and non-embarrassing internal emails to include on the Masterpieces disc as well.[3]This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at archive.org. No one at Activision had ever engaged with the company’s Infocom inheritance in such an agenda-less, genuine way before him; nor would anyone do so after him.

He brought to the new graphical Zork game a story idea that had a surprisingly high-brow inspiration: the “Grand Inquisitor” tale-within-a-tale in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, an excerpt which stands so well on its own that it’s occasionally been published that way. I can enthusiastically recommend reading it, whether you tackle the rest of the novel or not. (Laird admitted to me when we talked that he himself hadn’t yet managed to finish the entire book when he decided to use a small part of it as the inspiration for his game.) Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is a leading figure of the Spanish Inquisition, who harangues a returned Jesus Christ for his pacifism, his humility, and his purportedly naïve rejection of necessary hierarchies of power. It is, in other words, an exercise in contrast, setting the religion of peace and love that was preached by Jesus up against what it became in the hands of the Medieval Catholic popes and other staunch insitutionalists.

For its part, Zork: Grand Inquisitor doesn’t venture into quite such politically fraught territory as this. Its titular character is an ideological rather than religious tinpot dictator, of the sort all too prevalent in the 20th and 21st centuries on our world. He has taken over the town of Port Foozle, where he has banned all magic and closed all access to the Great Underground Empire that lies just beneath the town. You play a humble traveling salesperson who comes into possession of a magic lantern — a piece of highly illegal contraband in itself — that contains the imprisoned spirit of Dalboz of Gurth, the rightful Dungeon Master of the Empire. He encourages and helps you to make your way into his forbidden realm, to become a literal underground resistance fighter against the Grand Inquisitor.

The preceding paragraphs may have led you to think that Zork: Grand Inquisitor is another portentous, serious game. If so, rest assured that it isn’t. Not at all. Its tone and feel could hardly be more different from those of Zork Nemesis. Although there are some heavy themes lurking in the background, they’re played almost entirely for laughs in the foreground. This strikes me as no bad approach. There are, after all, few more devastating antidotes to the totalitarian absurdities of those who would dictate to others what sort of lives they should lead and what they should believe in than a dose of good old full-throated laughter. As Hannah Arendt understood, the Grand Inquisitors among us are defined by the qualities they are missing rather than any that they possess: qualities like empathy, conscience, and moral intelligence. We should not hesitate to mock them for being the sad, insecure, incompletely realized creatures they are.

Just as I once suspected that Zork Nemesis didn’t start out as a Zork game at all, I was tempted to assume that this latest whipsaw shift in atmosphere for Zork at Activision came as a direct response to the vocal criticisms of the aforementioned game’s lack of Zorkiness. Alas, Laird Malamed disabused me of that clever notion as well. Grand Inquisitor was, he told me, simply the Zork that he wanted to make, initiated well before the critics’ and fans’ verdicts on the last game started to pour in in earnest. He told me that he practically “begged” Margaret Stohl, who has since gone on to become a popular fantasy novelist in addition to continuing to work in games, to come aboard as lead designer and writer and help him to put his broad ideas into a more concrete form, for he knew that she possessed exactly the comedic sensibility he was going for.

Regardless of the original reason for the shift in tone, Laird and his team didn’t hesitate to describe Grand Inquisitor later in its development cycle as a premeditated response to the backlash about Nemesis’s Zork bona fides, or rather its lack thereof. This time, they told magazines like Computer Gaming World, they were determined to “let Zork be Zorky”: “to embrace what was wonderful about the old text adventures, a fantasy world with an undercurrent of humor.”

Certainly Grand Inquisitor doesn’t lack for the concrete Zorkian tropes that were also all over Return to Zork. From the white house in the forest to Flood Control Dam #3 to Dalboz’s magic lantern itself, the gang’s all here. But all of these disparate homages are integrated into a larger Zorkian tapestry in a way Activision never managed elsewhere. Return to Zork is a compromised if not cynical piece of work, its slapstick tone the result of a group of creators who saw Zork principally as a grab bag of tropes to be thrown at the wall one after another. And Nemesis, of course, has little to do with Zork at all. But Grand Inquisitor walks like a Zork, talks like a Zork, and is smart amidst its silliness in the same way as a Zork of yore. In accordance with its heritage, it’s an unabashedly self-referential game, well aware of the clichés and limitations of its genre and happy to poke fun at them. For example, the Dungeon Master here dubs you the “AFGNCAAP”: the “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person,” making light of a longstanding debate, ancient even at the time of Grand Inquisitor’s release, over whether it must be you the player in the game or whether it’s acceptable to ask you to take control of a separate, strongly characterized protagonist.

It’s plain from first to last that this game was helmed by someone who knew Zork intimately and loved it dearly. And yet the game is never gawky in that obsessive fannish way that can be so painful to witness; it’s never so much in thrall to its inspiration that it forgets to be its own thing. This game is comfortable in its own skin, and can be enjoyed whether you’ve been steeped in the lore of Zork for decades or are coming to it completely cold. This is the way you do fan service right, folks.

Although it uses an engine made for a Myst-like game, Grand Inquisitor plays nothing like Myst. This game is no exercise in contemplative, lonely puzzle-solving; its world is alive. As you wander about, Dungeon Master Dalboz chirps up from his lantern constantly with banter, background, and subtle hints. He becomes your friend in adventure, keeping you from ever feeling too alone. In time, other disembodied spirits join you as well, until you’re wandering around with a veritable Greek chorus burbling away behind you. The voice acting is uniformly superb.

Another prominent recurring character is Antharia Jack, a poor man’s Indiana Jones who’s played onscreen as well as over the speakers by Dirk Benedict, a fellow very familiar with being a stand-in for Harrison Ford in his most iconic roles, having also played the Han Solo-wannabee Starbuck in the delightfully cheesy old television Star Wars cash-in Battlestar Galactica. Benedict, one of those actors who’s capable of portraying exactly one character but who does it pretty darn well, went on to star in The A-Team after his tenure as an outer-space fighter jockey was over. His smirking, skirt-chasing persona was thus imprinted deeply on the memories of many of the twenty-somethings whom Activision hoped to tempt into buying Grand Inquisitor. This sort of stunt-casting of actors a bit past their pop-culture prime was commonplace in productions like these, but here at least it’s hard to fault the results. Benedict leans into Antharia Jack with all of his usual gusto. You can’t help but like the guy.

When it comes to its puzzles, Grand Inquisitor’s guiding ethic is to cut its poor, long-suffering AFGNCAAP a break. All of the puzzles here are well-clued and logical within the context of a Zorkian world, the sort of puzzles that are likely to stump you only just long enough to make you feel satisfyingly smart after you solve them. There’s a nice variety to them, with plenty of the “use object X on thing Y” variety to go along with some relatively un-taxing set-piece exercises in pushing buttons or pulling levers just right. But best of all are the puzzles that you solve by magic.

Being such a dedicated Infocom aficionado, Laird Malamed remembered something that most of his colleagues probably never knew at all: that the canon of Infocom Zork games encompassed more than just the ones that had that name on their boxes, that there was also a magic-oriented Enchanter trilogy which took place in the same universe. At the center of those games was one of the most brilliant puzzle mechanics Infocom ever invented, a system of magic that had you hunting down spell scrolls to copy into your spell book, after which they were yours to cast whenever you wished. This being Infocom, however, they were never your standard-issue Dungeons & Dragons Fireball spells, but rather ones that did weirdly specific, esoteric things, often to the point that it was hard to know what they were really good for — until, that is, you finally stumbled over that one nail for which they were the perfect hammer. Grand Inquisitor imports this mechanic wholesale. Here as well, you’re forever trying to figure out how to get your hands on that spell scroll that’s beckoning to you teasingly from the top of a tree or wherever, and then, once you’ve secured it, trying to figure out where it can actually do something useful for you. This latter is no trivial exercise when you’re stuck with spells like IGRAM (“turn purple things invisible”) and KENDALL (“simplify instructions”). Naturally, much of the fun comes from casting the spells on all kinds of random stuff, just to see what happens. Following yet again in the footsteps of Infocom, Laird’s team at Activision implemented an impressive number of such interactions, useless though they are for any purpose other than keeping the AFGNCAAP amused.

Grand Inquisitor isn’t an especially long game on any terms, and the fairly straightforward puzzles mean you’ll sail through what content there is much more quickly than you might through a game like Nemesis. All in all, it will probably give you no more than three or four evenings’ entertainment. Laird Malamed confessed to me that a significant chunk of the original design document had to be cut in the end in order to deliver the game on-time and on-budget; this was a somewhat marginal project from the get-go, not one to which Activision’s bean counters were ever going to give a lot of slack. Yet even this painful but necessary surgery was done unusually well. Knowing from the beginning that the scalpel might have to come out before all was said and done, the design team consciously used a “modular” approach, from which content could be subtracted (or added, if they should prove to be so fortunate) without undermining the structural integrity, if you will, of the game as a whole. As a result of their forethought, Grand Inquisitor doesn’t feel like a game that’s been gutted. It rather feels very complete just as it is. Back in the day, when Activision was trying to sell it for $40 or $50, its brevity was nevertheless a serious disadvantage. Today, when you can pick it up in a downloadable version for just a few bucks, it’s far less of a problem. As the old showbiz rule says, better to leave ’em wanting more than wishing you’d just get off the stage already.


 

“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.” Unfortunately, the property has been condemned by the Grand Inquisitor. “Who is the boss of you? Me! I am the boss of you!”

The “spellchecker” is a good example of Grand Inquisitor’s silly but clever humor, which always has time for puns. The machine’s purpose is, as you might have guessed, to validate spell scrolls.

This subway map looks… complicated. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to simplify it in a burst of magic? Laird told me that this puzzle was inspired by recollections of trying to make sense of a map of the London Underground as a befuddled tourist.

Nothing sums up the differences between Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor quite so perfectly as the latter’s chess puzzle. In Nemesis, you’d be futzing around with this thing forever. And in Grand Inquisitor? As Scorpia wrote in her review for Computer Gaming World, “Think of what you’ve [always] felt like doing with an adventure-game chess puzzle, and act accordingly.”

There are some set-piece puzzles that can’t be dispatched quite so easily. An instruction booklet tells you to never, ever close all four sluices of Flood Control Dam Number 3 at once. So what do you try to do?

Playing Strip Grue, Fire, Water with Antharia Jack. The cigars were no mere affectation of Dirk Benedict. His costars complained repeatedly about the cloud of odoriferous smoke in which he was constantly enveloped. A true blue Hollywood eccentric of the old-school stripe, Benedict remains convinced to this day that the key to longevity is tobacco combined with a macrobiotic diet. Ah, well… given that he’s reached 79 years of age and counting as of this writing, it seems to be working out for him so far.

Be careful throwing around them spells, kid! Deaths in Grand Inquisitor are rendered in text. Not only is this a nice nostalgic homage to the game’s roots, it helped to maximize the limited budget by avoiding the expense of portraying all those death scenes in graphics.



Laird Malamed had no sense during the making of Grand Inquisitor that this game would mark the end of Zork’s long run. On the contrary, he had plans to turn it into the first game of a new trilogy, the beginning of a whole new era for the venerable franchise. In keeping with his determination to bring Zork back to the grass roots who knew and loved it best, he came up with an inspired guerrilla-marketing scheme. He convinced the former Infocom Implementors Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn to write up a short text-adventure prelude to the story told in Grand Inquisitor proper. Then he got Kevin Wilson, the organizer of the same Interactive Fiction Competition whose games had featured on the Masterpieces CD, to program their design in Inform, a language that compiled to the Z-Machine, Infocom’s old virtual machine, for which interpreters had long been available on countless computing platforms, both current and archaic. Activision released the end result for free on the Internet in the summer of 1997, as both a teaser for the graphical game that was to come and a proof that Zork was re-embracing its roots. Zork: The Undiscovered Underground isn’t a major statement by any means, but it stands today, as it did then, as a funny, nostalgic final glance back to the days when Zork was nothing but words on a screen.

Unfortunately, all of Laird’s plans for Zork’s broader future went up in smoke when Grand Inquisitor was released in November of 1997 and put up sales numbers well short of those delivered by Nemesis, despite reviews that were almost universally glowing this time around. Those Infocom fans who played it mostly adored it for finally delivering on the promise of its name, even if it was a bit short. The problem was that that demographic was now moving into the busiest phase of life, when careers and children tend to fill all of the hours available and then some. There just weren’t enough of those people still buying games to deliver the sales that a mass-market-focused publisher like Activision demanded, even as the Zork name meant nothing whatsoever to the newer generation of gamers who had cut their teeth on DOOM and Warcraft. Perhaps Bobby Kotick should have just written “Zork” on a brick after all, for Grand Inquisitor didn’t sell even 100,000 units.

And so, twenty years after a group of MIT graduate students had gotten together to create a game that was even better than Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure, Zork’s run came to an end, taking with it any remaining dregs of faith at Activision in the Siliwood vision. Apart from one misconceived and blessedly quickly abandoned effort to revive the franchise as a low-budget MMORPG during the period when those things were sprouting like weeds, no Zork game has appeared since. We can feel sad about this if we must, but the reality is that nothing lasts forever. Far better, it seems to me, for Zork to go out with Grand Inquisitor, one of the highest of all its highs, than to be recycled again and again on a scale of diminishing returns, as has happened to some other classic gaming franchises. Likewise, I’m kind of happy that no one who made Grand Inquisitor knew they were making the very last Zork adventure. Their ignorance caused them to just let Zork be Zork, meant they were never even tempted to turn their game into some over-baked Final Statement.

In games as in life, it’s always better to celebrate what we have than to lament what might have been. With that in mind, then, let me warmly recommend Zork: Grand Inquisitor to any fans of adventure games among you readers who have managed not to play it yet. It really doesn’t matter whether you know the rest of Zork or not; it stands just fine on its own. And that too is the way it ought to be.



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Sources: the books Zork Nemesis: The Official Strategy Guide by Peter Spear and Zork: Grand Inquisitor: The Official Strategy Guide by Margaret Stohl; Computer Gaming World of August 1996, February 1997, and March 1998; InterActivity of May 1996; Next Generation of August 1997; Los Angeles Times of November 30 1996.

Online sources include a 1996 New Media profile of Activision and “The Trance Experience of Zork Nemesis at Animation World.

My thanks to Laird Malamed for taking the time from his busy schedule to talk to me about his history with Zork. Note that any opinions expressed in this article that are not explicitly attributed to him are my own.

Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor are both available as digital purchases at GOG.com.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures.
2 In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there.
3 This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at archive.org.
 

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1998 Will Be Great

Hi, folks!

I don’t have an article for you this week, but, rather than leave you hanging with nothing whatsoever to read, I thought I would post a little preview of what’s coming over the next year or so. Note that this “year” of mine applies to both real time and to the historical timeline, which have become largely one and the same these days. I do still have one 1997 article in the pipeline, on Activision’s last two graphical Zork games. I’ve also pushed a couple of topics that were originally earmarked for 1997 into 1998.

So, here’s what’s coming, with some further clarifications wherever it feels appropriate. If you like to be totally surprised by each new article, now is the time to stop reading. If, on the other hand, you played a role in any of the following, or know someone who did, or have any other kind of research tips or inside information to share, by all means get in touch via email, Mastodon, or just in the comments below.

  • The Journeyman Project trilogy. I nearly passed these over, but on a whim I decided to try the 1997 remake of the first game, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. This prompted me to play Buried in Time and Legacy of Time as well. To whatever extent these can be considered Myst clones, they stand now as my favorites in the sub-genre.
  • Starcraft.
  • Douglas Adams in the 1990s and beyond, including Starship Titanic. He filled quite a lot in the early years of this blog, and, although he wasn’t such a high-profile presence in games and computing after the 1980s, he deserves to have his story finished.
  • Tex Murphy: Overseer.
  • Might and Magic VI.
  • Sanitarium and Nightlong: Union City Conspiracy. Yes, this is an odd couple. These two games are linked only in being early harbingers of where adventure games would go as their AAA commercial heyday faded into the past. The budgets would get smaller, the list prices would decrease, and most of the studios still making them would be located in Europe rather than North America (although this last is only true of one of this particular pair). None of these changes strikes me as necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, they often gave space for design to come to the fore again.
  • The X-Files. As I promised a reader recently in the comments section, this is also a good chance to talk about the television show, one of the most indelibly 1990s of all media creations. (Wasn’t it nice when our most prominent conspiracy theories revolved around aliens from outer space?)
  • The Windows 98 launch.
  • Grim Fandango.
  • The casual-sports-game phenomenon. Did you know that schlocky little Deer Hunter made way, way more money for its creator than Starcraft or Half-Life or any other iconic late-1990s mega-hit you care to name? I’ve always found these incongruities between gaming history as it’s remembered by the hardcore crowd and the reality on the ground at the time to be fascinating.
  • Game shows. Most years, I allow myself one significant departure from the game-by-game brief, and I think this will be this year’s. It’s a topic I’ve been mulling over for a long time now, given that television game shows were the first “video” games of all in a sense. There’s probably two or three articles here, tying in the end back into 1990s CD-ROMs like Jeopardy! and the You Don’t Know Jack series — the latter of which is another of those hidden moneyspinners of the era, that you would barely know existed from reading Computer Gaming World and the like.
  • Interactive fiction. I never intended to stop writing about text adventures; it’s just that I haven’t had quite enough to say about them in the last few years to make a good article. Now, however, we’ve come to the year of Anchorhead, Spider and Web, and Photopia. In terms of seminal works, 1998 is arguably the interactive fiction community’s biggest single year of all.
  • Half-Life.
  • The first two Oddworld games, which I think are best discussed as a unit.
  • Railroad Tycoon II. (My lord, have I gotten addicted to this game…)
  • Fallout 1 and 2. Again, I think this pair can be most profitably discussed together. And waiting until this point lets me better tie them into the CRPG Renaissance that was cemented by Baldur’s Gate.
  • The downfall of TSR and its purchase by Wizards of the Coast. Another long-running story that deserves a proper conclusion, even if it is more computer-game adjacent than specific.
  • The aforementioned Baldur’s Gate.
  • Speaking of conclusions to long-running stories: the strange and rather anticlimactic end of Ken and Roberta Williams’s Sierra, including coverage of King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity and Quest for Glory V.
  • Boulder Dash and its successors. Yes, you read that right. I spent a lot of time with Boulder Dash as a kid on my Commodore 64, and I think it deserves an article, however belated. I don’t know why I didn’t write one back in the day, but better late than never. I already circled back to pick up Lode Runner
  • Thief.

And now to explain why a couple of topics are not on this list. I plan to discuss the two Freespace games as a unit later. And I haven’t forgotten Her Interactive and Nancy Drew; I’m just waiting for the right place to tell that story. I’d like to end it on a triumphant note, and the first Nancy Drew game is still a little rough around the edges.

I know that there’s a (small) minority of you who would like to see more coverage of Voyager Interactive. I’m afraid I just haven’t found the later discs as compelling as I did the early ones, so I think I’m going to table that topic. I’m sorry!

Of course, I’m always eager to read your thoughts on what you find most (and, if you like, least) appealing from the list above and what other topics you’d like to see covered. I can’t promise to follow up on all of your suggestions — I have to be guided as well by the kinds of games I most enjoy, by what I find most interesting in general, and simply by what I think would yield a readable article — but many of them have led me in the past to subjects I never would have thought to write about on my own. (In fact, a couple of these can be seen on the list above…)

If you’re a regular reader and you haven’t yet become a supporter, please do give it some thought if your financial circumstances permit. I depend on all of you to keep writing and to keep this site ad-free.

Most of all, though, thank you for being the best readers in the world! I’ll have a proper new article for you next week, and the 1997 ebook should be coming along in the relatively near future.



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Riven

Robyn and Rand Miller.

Sometimes success smacks you right in the face. More often, it sneaks up on you from behind.

In September of 1993, the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller and the few other employees of Cyan, Inc., were prototypical starving artists, living on “rice and beans and government cheese.” That month they saw Brøderbund publish their esoteric Apple Macintosh puzzle game Myst, which they and everyone else regarded as a niche product for a niche platform. There would go another year before it became abundantly clear that Myst, now available in a version for Microsoft Windows as well as for the Mac, was a genuine mass-market hit. It would turn into the gift that kept on giving, a game with more legs than your average millipede. It wouldn’t enjoy its best single month until December of 1996, when it would set a record for the most copies one game had ever sold in one month.

All of this — not just the sales figures themselves but the dozens of awards, the write-ups in glossy magazines like Rolling Stone and Newsweek, the fawningly overwritten profiles in Wired, the comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Michael Jackson’s Thriller — happened just gradually enough that it seemed almost natural. Almost natural. “It took a while for it to hit me that millions of people were buying this game,” says Robyn Miller. “The most I could really wrap my head around would be to go to a huge concert and see all of the people there and think, ‘Okay, this is not even a portion of the people who are playing Myst.'”

The Miller brothers could have retired and lived very comfortably for the rest of their lives on the fortune they earned from Myst. They didn’t choose this path. “We took salaries that were fairly modest and just put the company’s money back into [a] new project,” says Rand.

Brøderbund was more than eager for a sequel to Myst, something that many far smaller hits than it got as a matter of course within a year. But the Miller brothers refused to be hurried, and did not need to be, a rare luxury indeed in their industry. Although they enjoyed a very good relationship with Brøderbund, whose marketing acumen had been essential to getting the Myst ball rolling, they did not wish to be beholden to their publisher in any way. Rather than accepting the traditional publisher advance, they decided that they would fund the sequel entirely on their own out of the royalties of the first game. This meant that, as Myst blew up bigger and bigger, their ambitions for the game they intended to call Riven were inflated in tandem. They refused to give Brøderbund a firm release date; it will be done when it’s done, they said. They took to talking about Myst as their Hobbit, Riven as their Lord of the Rings. It had taken J.R.R. Tolkien seventeen years to bridge the gap between his children’s adventure story and the most important fantasy epic in modern literary history. Surely Brøderbund could accept having to wait just a few years for Riven, especially with the sales figures Myst was still putting up.

Cyan’s digs reflected their rising status. They hadn’t even had a proper office when they were making Myst; everybody worked out of their separate homes in and around Spokane, Washington, sharing their output with one another using the “car net”: put it on a disk, get into your car, and drive it over to the other person. In the immediate aftermath of Myst’s release and promising early sales, they all piled into a drafty, unheated garage owned by their sound specialist Chris Brandkamp. Then, as the sales numbers continued to tick upward, they moved into an anonymous-looking former Comfort World Mattress storefront. Finally, in January of 1995, they broke ground on a grandiosely named “Cyan World Headquarters,” whose real-world architecture was to be modeled on the virtual architecture of Myst and Riven. While they were waiting for that building to be completed — the construction would take eighteen months — they junked the consumer-grade Macs which had slowly and laboriously done all of the 3D modeling necessary to create Myst’s environments in favor of Silicon Graphics workstations that cost $40,000 a pop.


Cyan breaks ground on their new “world headquarters.”

The completed building looked very much apiece with their games, both outside…

…and inside.

The machines that made Riven. Its imagery was rendered using $1 million worth of Silicon Graphics hardware: a dozen or so workstations connected to these four high-end servers that did the grunt work of the ray-tracing. It was a far cry from Myst, which had been made with ordinary consumer-grade Macs running off-the-shelf software.

And the people who made Riven


There were attempts to drum up controversies in the press, especially after Riven missed a tentative Christmas 1996 target date which Brøderbund had (prematurely) announced, a delay that caused the publisher’s stock price to drop by 25 percent. The journalists who always seemed to be hovering around the perimeter of Cyan’s offices claimed to sniff trouble in the air, an aroma of overstretched budgets and creative tensions. But, although there were certainly arguments — what project of this magnitude doesn’t cause arguments? — there was in truth no juicy decadence or discord going on at Cyan. The Miller brothers, sons of a preacher and still devout Christians, never lost their Heartland groundedness. They never let their fluke success go to their heads in the way of, say, the minds behind Trilobyte of The 7th Guest fame, were never even seriously tempted to move their operation to some more glamorous city than Spokane. For them, it was all about the work. And luckily for them, plenty of people were more than willing to move to Spokane for a chance to work at The House That Myst Built, which by the end of 1995 had replaced Trilobyte as the most feted single games studio in the mainstream American press, the necessary contrast to all those other unscrupulous operators who were filling their games and the minds of the nation’s youth with indiscriminate sex and violence.

The most important of all the people who were suddenly willing to come to Spokane would prove to be Richard Vander Wende, a former Disney production designer — his fingerprints were all over the recent film Aladdin — who first bumped into the Miller brothers at a Digital World Expo in Los Angeles. Wende’s conceptual contribution to Riven would be as massive as that of either of the Miller brothers, such that he would be given a richly deserved co-equal billing with them at the very top of the credits listing.

Richard Vander Wende.

Needless to say, though, there were many others who contributed as well. By the time Cyan moved into their new world headquarters in the summer of 1996, more than twenty people were actively working on Riven every day. The sequel would wind up costing ten times to fifteen times as much to make as its predecessor, filling five CDs to Myst’s lone silver platter.

Given the Millers’ artistic temperament and given the rare privilege they enjoyed of being able to make exactly the game they wished to make, one might be tempted to assume that Riven was to be some radical departure from what had come before. In reality, though, this was not the case at all. Riven was to be Myst, only more so; call it Myst perfected. Once again you would be left to wander around inside a beautiful pre-rendered 3D environment, which you would view from a first-person perspective. And once again you would be expected to solve intricate puzzles there — or not, as you chose.

Cyan had long since realized that players of Myst broke down into two broad categories. There were those they called the gamers, who engaged seriously with it as a series of logical challenges to be overcome through research, experimentation, and deduction. And then there was the other group of players — a far, far larger one, if we’re being honest — whom Cyan called the tourists, who just wanted to poke around a little inside the virtual world and take in some of the sights and sounds. These were folks like the residents of a retirement home who wrote to Cyan to say that they had been playing and enjoying Myst for two years and two months, and wanted to hear if the rumors that there were locations to explore beyond the first island — an island which constitutes about 20 percent of the full game — were in fact true.

Riven was meant to cater to both groups, by giving the gamers a much deeper, richer, more complex tapestry of puzzles to unravel, whilst simultaneously being kept as deliberately “open” as possible in terms of its geography, so that you could see most of its locations without ever having to solve a single conundrum. “The two complaints about Myst,” said Rand Miller, “were that it was too hard and too easy. We’re trying to make Riven better for both kinds of players.” Whereas Myst allowed you to visit four separate “ages” — basically, alternative dimensions — after solving those early puzzles which had so stymied the retirees, Riven was to take place all in the same dimension, on a single archipelago of five islands. You would be able to travel between the islands right from the start, using vehicles whose operation should be quite straightforward even for the most puzzle-averse players. If all you wanted to do was wander around the world of Riven, it would give you a lot more spaces in which to do so than Myst.

Of course, while the world of Riven was slowly coming together, the real world wasn’t sitting still. Myst had been followed by an inevitable flood of “Myst clones” from other publishers and studios, which, in lieu of a proper sequel from Cyan, did their best to pick up the slack by offering up their own deserted, 3D-rendered environments to explore. None of them was more than modestly successful; Activision’s Zork Nemesis, which may have done the best of them all, sold perhaps 150,000 copies, barely one-fiftieth of the final numbers that Myst put up when all was said and done. Meanwhile the genre of adventure games in general had peaked in the immediate aftermath of Myst and would be well into an increasingly precipitous decline by the time Riven shipped in October of 1997. The Last Express, the only other adventure that Brøderbund published that year, stiffed badly in the spring, despite sporting prominently on its box the name of Jordan Mechner, one of the few videogame auteurs with a reputation to rival that of the Miller brothers.

Yet Cyan’s own games still seemed weirdly proof against the marketplace pressures that were driving so many other game makers in the direction of real-time strategy and first-person shooters. In June of 1997, the nearly four-year-old Myst was propelled back to the top of the sales charts by the excitement over the approaching debut of Riven. And when it did appear, Riven didn’t disappoint the bean counters. It and Myst tag-teamed one another in the top two chart positions right through the Christmas buying season. Myst would return to number one a few more times in the course of 1998, while an entire industry continued to scratch its collective head, wondering why this particular game — a game that was now approaching its fifth birthday, making it roughly as aged as the plays of Shakespeare as the industry reckoned time — should continue to sell in such numbers. Even today, it’s hard to say precisely why Myst just kept selling and selling, defying all the usual gravities of its market. It seems that non-violent, non-hardcore gaming simply needed a standard bearer, and so it found one for itself.

Riven wasn’t quite as successful as Myst, but this doesn’t mean it didn’t do very well indeed by all of the standard metrics. Its biggest failing in comparison to its older sibling was ironically its very cutting-edge nature; whereas just about any computer that was capable of running other everyday software could run Myst by 1997, you needed a fairly recent, powerful machine to run Riven. Despite this, and despite the usual skepticism from the hardcore-gaming press — “With its familiar, lever-yanking gameplay, Riven emerges as the ultimate Myst clone,” scoffed Computer Gaming World magazine — Riven’s sales surpassed 1 million units in its first year, numbers of which any other adventure game could scarcely have dreamed.[1]An article in the May 17 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times claimed that Riven had sold 4.5 million copies by that point, three and a half years after its release. This number has since been repeated in numerous places, including Wikipedia. I’ll eat my hat if it’s correct; this game would have left a much wider vapor trail behind it if it was. Read in context in the original article, the figure actually comes across as a typo.

Riven was a huge hit by any conventional standard, but it didn’t have the legs of Myst. Already for long stretches during 1998, it was once again being comfortably outsold by Myst. Lifetime retail sales of around 1.5 million strike me as the most likely figure — still more than enough to place Riven in the upper echelon of late 1990s computer games.

Fans and boosters of the genre naturally wanted to see a broader trend in Riven’s sales, a proof that adventures in general could still bring home the bacon with the best of them. The hard truth that the games of Cyan were always uniquely uncoupled from what was going on around them was never harder to accept than in this case. In the end, though, Riven would have no impact whatsoever on the overall trajectory of the adventure genre.


Because Riven is a sequel in such a pure sense — a game that aims to do exactly what its predecessor did, only bigger and better — your reaction to it is doomed to be dictated to a large extent by your reaction to said predecessor. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine anyone liking or loving Riven who didn’t at least like Myst.

The defining quality of both games is their thoroughgoing sense of restraint. When Myst first started to attract sales and attention, naysayers saw its minimalism through the lens of technical affordance, or rather the Miller brothers’ lack thereof: having only off-the-shelf middleware like HyperCard to work with, lacking the skill set that might have let them create better tools of their own, they just had to do the best they could with what they had. In this reading, Myst‘s static world, its almost nonexistent user interface, its lack of even such niceties as a player inventory, stemmed not so much from aesthetic intent as from the fact that it had been created with a hypertext editor that had never been meant for making games. The alternative reading is that the Miller brothers were among the few game developers who knew the value of restraint from the start, that they were by nature and inclination minimalists in an industry inclined to maximalism in all things, and this quality was their greatest strength rather than a weakness. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, as it usually does. Regardless, there’s no denying that the brothers leaned hard into the same spirit of minimalism that had defined Myst when the time came to make Riven, even though they were now no longer technologically constrained into doing so. One camp reads this as a colossal failure of vision; the other reads it as merely staying true to the unique vision that had gotten them this far.

While I don’t want to plant myself too firmly in either corner, I must say that I am surprised by some of the things that Cyan didn’t do with twice the time and ten or fifteen times the budget. The fact that Riven still relies on static, pre-rendered scenery and node-based movement isn’t the source of my surprise; that compromise was necessary in order to achieve the visual fidelity that Cyan demanded. I’m rather surprised by how little Cyan innovated even within that basic framework. Well before Riven appeared, the makers of other Myst successors had begun to experiment with ways of creating a slightly more fluid, natural-feeling experience. Zork Nemesis, for example, stores each of its nodes as a 360-degree panorama instead of a set of fixed views, letting you smoothly turn in place through a complete circle. Riven, by contrast, confines its innovations in this area to displaying a little transition animation as you rotate between its rigidly fixed views. As a result, switching from view to view does become a little less jarring than it is in Myst, but the approach is far from even the Myst-clone state of the art.

Cyan was likewise disinterested in pursuing other solutions that would have been even easier to implement than panning rotation, but that could have made their game less awkward to play. The extent of your rotation when you click on the left or right side of the screen remains inconsistent, just as it was in Myst; sometimes it’s 90 degrees, sometimes it’s less or more. This can make simple navigation much more confusing than it needs to be, introducing a layer of fake difficulty — i.e., difficulties that you would not have if you were really in this world — which seems at odd with Cyan’s stated determination to create as immersive an experience as possible. Even a compass with which to tell which way you’re facing at any given time would have helped enormously, but no such concessions to player convenience are to hand.

Again, these are solutions that the other makers of Myst clones — not a group overly celebrated for its spirit of innovation — had long since deployed. Cyan was always a strangely self-contained entity, showing little awareness of what others were doing around them, making a virtue of their complete ignorance of the competition. In cases like these, it was perhaps not so much a virtue as a failure of simple due diligence. Building upon the work of others is the way that gaming as a whole progresses.

When it comes to storytelling as well, Riven’s differences from Myst are more a matter of execution than kind. As in Myst, there is very little story at all here, if by that we mean a foreground plot driving things along. A brief bit of exposition at the beginning picks up right where Myst ended, providing an excuse for dumping you into another open-ended environment. Whereas Myst took place entirely in deserted ages, here you’re ostensibly surrounded by the Rivenese, the vaguely Native-American-like inhabitants of the archipelago. Rather conveniently for Cyan, however, the Rivenese are terrified of strangers, and scurry away into hiding whenever you enter a scene. The few named characters you meet, including the principal villain, are likewise forever just leaving when you come upon them, or showing up, giving speeches, and then going away again before you can interact with them. By 1997, this sort of thing was feeling more tired than clever.

Rand Miller, returning in the role of the patriarch Atrus from Myst, gives you your marching orders and sends you on your way in the introductory movie. Riven makes more extensive use of such scenes involving real actors than Myst, but it’s done well, and never overdone. The end result is about as un-cheesy as these techniques can possibly look to modern eyes.

The real story, in both Myst and Riven, is the backstory that caused these spaces to become the places they are, a backstory which you uncover as you explore them. And in this area, I’m happy to say, Riven actually does outdo its predecessor. Almost everything there is to find out about how the ages of Myst became as they are is conveyed in one astonishingly clumsy infodump, a set of books which you find in a library on that first island after solving the first couple of puzzles. These stop your progress dead for an hour or so as you read through them, after which you’re back to exploring, never to be troubled by much of any exposition again.

By the time of Riven, however, the Miller brothers had learned about the existence of something called dramatic pacing. Here, too, most of the real story comes in the form of books and journals, but these are scattered around the islands, providing an enticement to solve puzzles in order to acquire and read them. The Myst “universe” grew considerably in depth and coherency between Myst and Riven, thanks to a trilogy of novels written by the British science-fiction author David Wingrove in close collaboration with the Miller brothers during that interim. In Riven, then, you get some of the same sense that you get in The Lord of the Rings, that you are only scraping the surface of a world that goes much deeper than its foreground sights and sounds. “The Lord of the Rings is so satisfying because of the details,” said Rand Miller at the time. “You get the feeling that the world you’re reading about is real. Different but real. That’s how we go about designing.” Like Tolkien, the Miller brothers went so far as to make up the beginnings at least of a coherent language for their land’s inhabitants. This sense of established lore, combined with the improved pacing and better writing, makes Riven’s backstory more compelling than that of Myst, makes uncovering more of it feel like a worthwhile goal in itself. Instead of providing a mere excuse for the gameplay, as in Myst, Riven’s backstory comes to fuel its gameplay to a large extent.

And this starts to take us into the territory of the first of the two things that Riven does really, really well, does so well in fact that you might just be willing to discount all of the failings I’ve been belaboring up to this point. The archipelago is a truly intriguing, even awe-inspiring place to explore, thank not just to the cutting-edge 3D-rendering technology that was used to bring it to life, but — and even more so — the thought that went into the place.

Riven makes its priorities clear from the beginning, when it asks you to set up your screen and your speakers to provide the immersive audiovisual experience it intends for you to have.

The adjective “surreal” seems unavoidable when discussing Myst, so much so that Brøderbund built it right into their advertising tagline. (“The Surrealistic Adventure That Will Become Your World.”) Looking back on it now, though, I realize that the surrealism of Myst was as much a product of process as intention. The 3D-modeling software that was used to create the scenery of Myst couldn’t render genuinely realistic scenes; everything it churned out was too geometrical, too stiff, too uniform in color to look in any sense real. The result was surrealism, that forlorn, otherworldly, even vaguely disturbing stripe of beauty that became the hallmark of Myst and its many imitators.

But I would not call Riven surreal. The improved technology that enabled it, on both the rendering side — meaning all those Silicon Graphics servers and workstations, with their complex ray-tracing algorithms — and the consumer-facing side — meaning the latest home computers, with their capability of displaying millions of nuanced shades of color onscreen at once — led to a more believable world. The key to it all is in the textures, the patterns that are overlaid onto the frame of a 3D model in lieu of blocks of solid color to make it look like a real object made out of wood, metal, or dirt. Cyan traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to capture thousands of textures. The same visual qualities that led to that state being dubbed the “Land of Enchantment” and drew artists like Georgia O’Keeffe to its high deserts suffuses the game, from the pueblo walls of the Rivenese homes to the pebbly cliff-side paths, from an old iron tower rusting in the sun to the ragged vegetation huddling around it. You can almost feel the sun on your back and the sweat on your skin.

My wife and I are inveterate hikers these days, planning most of our holidays around where we can get out and walk. Riven made me want to climb through the screen and roam its landscapes for myself. Myst has its charms, but they are nothing like this. When I compare the two games, I think about what a revelation the battered, weathered world of Tatooine was when Star Wars hit cinemas in 1977, how at odds it was with the antiseptic sleekness of the science-fiction films that preceded it. Riven is almost as much of a revelation when set beside Myst and its many clones.



The visuals both feed and are fed by the backstory and the world-building. The islands are replete with little details that have nothing to do with solving the game, that exist simply as natural, necessary parts of this place you’re exploring. In a perceptive video essay, YouTube creator VZedshows notes how “the lived-in world of Riven lets us look at a house and say, ‘Okay, that’s a house.’ And that’s it. A totally different thought than seeing a log cabin on Myst Island and saying, ‘Okay, that’s a house. But what is it for?’ The puzzles in Riven melt into the world around them.”

Which brings us neatly to the other thing that Riven does remarkably well, the one aimed at the gamers rather than the tourists. Quite simply, Riven is one of the most elegantly sophisticated puzzle games ever created. This facet of it is not for everyone. (I’m not even sure it’s for me, about which more in a moment.) But it does what it sets out to do uncompromisingly well. Riven is a puzzle game that doesn’t feel like a puzzle game. It rather feels like you really have been dropped onto this archipelago, with its foreign civilization and all of its foreign artifacts, and then left to your own devices to make sense of it all.

Many of Riven’s puzzles are as much anthropological as mechanical. For example, you have to learn to translate the different symbols of a foreign number system.

This is undoubtedly more realistic than the ages of Myst, whose puzzles stand out from their environs so plainly that they might as well be circled with a bright red Sharpie. But does it lead to a better game? As usual, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Ironically, almost everything that can be said about Riven’s puzzles can be cast as either a positive or a negative. If you’re looking for an adventure game that’s nails-hard and yet scrupulously fair — a combination that’s rarer than it ought to be — Riven will not disappoint you. If not, however, it will put you right off just as soon as you grow bored with idle wandering and begin to ask yourself what the game expects you to actually be doing. Myst was widely perceived in the 1990s as being more difficult than it really was; Riven, by contrast, well and truly earns its reputation.

Each of Myst’s ages is a little game unto itself when it comes to its puzzles; you never need to use tools or information from one age to overcome a problem in another one. For better or for worse, Riven is not like that — not at all. Puzzles and clues are scattered willy-nilly all over the five islands; you might be expected to connect a symbol you’re looking at now to a gadget you last poked at hours and hours ago. Careful, copious note-taking is the only practical way to proceed. I daresay you might end up spending more time poring over your real-world journal, looking for ways to combine and thereby to make sense of the data therein, than you do looking at the monitor screen. Because most of the geography is open to you from the very beginning — this is arguably Riven’s one real concession to the needs of the marketplace, being the one that allows it to cater to the tourists as well as the gamers — there isn’t the gated progress you get in so many other puzzly adventure games, with new areas and new problems being introduced gradually as you solve the earlier ones. No, Riven throws it all at you from the start, in one big lump. You just have to keep plugging away at it when even your apparently successful deductions don’t seem to be yielding much in the way of concrete rewards, trusting that it will all come together in one big whoosh at the end.

All of which is to say that Riven is a slow game, the polar opposite of the instant gratification that defines the videogame medium in the eyes of so many. There are few shortcuts for moving through its sprawling, fragmented geography — something you’ll need to do a lot of, thanks to its refusal to contain its puzzles within smaller areas as Myst does. Just double-checking some observation you think you made earlier or confirming that some effect took place as expected represents a significant investment in time. Back in the day, when everyone was playing directly from CD, Riven was even slower than it is today, requiring you to swap discs every time you traveled to a different island.[2]Some months after its original release, Riven became one of the first games ever to be made available on DVD-ROM. No game benefited more from the switch in storage technology; not only were DVD drives faster than CD drives, but a single DVD disc was capacious enough to contain the whole of Riven. In his vintage 1997 review, Andrew Plotkin — a fellow who is without a doubt much, much smarter than I am, at least when it comes to stuff like this — said that he was able to solve Riven in about twenty hours, using just one hint. It will probably take more mortal intelligences some multiple of one or both of those figures.

Your reaction to Riven when approached in “gamer” mode will depend on whether you think this kind of intensive intellectual challenge is fun or not, as well as whether you have the excess intellectual and temporal bandwidth in your current life to go all-in on such a major undertaking. I must sheepishly confess that my answer to the first question is more prevaricating than definitive, while my answer to the second one is a pretty solid no. In the abstract, I do understand the appeal of what Riven is offering, understand how awesome it must feel to put all of these disparate pieces together without help. Nevertheless, when I approached the game for this article, I couldn’t quite find the motivation to persevere down that road. Riven wants you to work a little harder for your fun than the current version of myself is willing to do. I don’t futz around with my notebook too long before I start looking out the window and thinking about how nice it would be to take a walk in real nature. I take enough notes doing research for the articles I write; I’m not sure I want to do so much research inside a game.

Prompted partially by my experience with Riven, I’ve been musing a fair amount lately about the way we receive games, and especially how the commentary you read on this site and others similar to it can be out of step with the way the games in question existed for their players in their heyday. I’m subject to the tyranny of my editorial calendar, to the need to just finish things, one way or another, and move on. Riven is not well-suited to such a mindset. In my travels around the Internet, I’ve noticed that those who remember the game most fondly often took months or years to finish it, or never finished it at all. It existed for them as a tempting curiosity, to be picked up from time to time and poked at, just to see if a little more progress was possible here or there, or whether the brainstorm that came to them unbidden while driving home from work that day might bear some sort of fruit. It’s an open question whether even folks who don’t have an editorial schedule to keep can recapture that mindset here and now, in the third decade (!) of the 21st century, when more entertainment of every conceivable type than any of us could possibly consume in a lifetime is constantly luring us away from any such hard nut as Riven. As of this writing, Cyan is preparing a remake of Riven. It will be interesting to see what concessions, if any, they chose to make to our new reality.

Even in the late 1990s, there was the palpable sense that Riven represented the end of an era, that even Cyan would not be able to catch lightning in a bottle a third time with yet another cerebral, contemplative, zeitgeist-stamping single-player puzzle game. Both Richard Vander Wende and Robyn Miller quit the company as soon as the obligatory rounds of promotional interviews had been completed, leaving the Myst franchise’s future solely in the hands of Rand Miller. Robyn’s stated reason for departing brings to the fore some of the frustrations I have with Cyan’s work. He said that he was most interested in telling stories, and had concluded that computer games just weren’t any good at that: “I felt like, you know what? It’s not working. This whole story thing is not happening, and one of the reasons it’s not happening is because of the medium. It’s not what this medium is good at.” So, he said, he wanted to work in film instead.

The obvious response is that Cyan had never actually tried to tell an engaging foreground story, had rather been content to leave you always picking up the breadcrumbs of backstory. Cyan’s stubborn conservatism in terms of form and their slightly snooty insistence on living in their own hermetically sealed bubble, blissfully unaware of the innovations going on around them in their industry in both storytelling and other aspects of game making, strike me as this unquestionably talented group’s least attractive qualities by far. When asked once what his favorite games were, Richard Vander Wende said he didn’t have any: “Robyn and I are not really interested in games of any kind. We’re more interested in building worlds. To us, Myst and Riven are not ‘games’ at all.” Such scare-quoted condescension does no one any favors.

Then again, that’s only one way of looking at it. Another way is to recognize that Riven is exactly the game — okay, if you like, the world — that its creators wanted to make. It’s worth acknowledging, even celebrating, as the brave artistic statement it is. Love it or hate it, Riven knows what it wants to be, and succeeds in being exactly that — no more, no less. Rather than The Lord of the Rings, call it the Ulysses of gaming: a daunting creation by any standard, but one that can be very rewarding to those willing and able to meet it where it lives. That a game like this outsold dozens of its more visceral, immediate rivals on the store shelves of the late 1990s is surely one of the wonders of the age.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The books The Secret History of Mac Gaming (Expanded Edition) by Richard Moss, From Myst to Riven: The Creations & Inspirations by Richard Kadrey, and Riven: The Sequel to Myst: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Computer Gaming World of January 1998; Retro Gamer 208; Wired of September 1997; Game Developer of March 1998. Plus the “making of” documentary that was included with the DVD version of Riven.

Online sources include GameSpot’s old preview of Riven, Salon’s profile of the Miller brothers on the occasion of Robyn’s departure from Cyan, VZedshows’s video essay on Myst and Riven, and Andrew Plotkin’s old review of Riven.

The original version of Riven is currently available as a digital purchase on GOG.com. As noted in the article above, a remake is in the works at Cyan.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 An article in the May 17 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times claimed that Riven had sold 4.5 million copies by that point, three and a half years after its release. This number has since been repeated in numerous places, including Wikipedia. I’ll eat my hat if it’s correct; this game would have left a much wider vapor trail behind it if it was. Read in context in the original article, the figure actually comes across as a typo.

Riven was a huge hit by any conventional standard, but it didn’t have the legs of Myst. Already for long stretches during 1998, it was once again being comfortably outsold by Myst. Lifetime retail sales of around 1.5 million strike me as the most likely figure — still more than enough to place Riven in the upper echelon of late 1990s computer games.

2 Some months after its original release, Riven became one of the first games ever to be made available on DVD-ROM. No game benefited more from the switch in storage technology; not only were DVD drives faster than CD drives, but a single DVD disc was capacious enough to contain the whole of Riven.
 

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Blade Runner

Blade Runner has set me thinking about the notion of a “critical consensus.” Why should we have such a thing at all, and why should it change over time?

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, about a police officer cum bounty hunter — a “blade runner” in street slang — of a dystopian near-future whose job is to “retire” android “replicants” of humans whose existence on Earth is illegal. The movie had a famously troubled gestation, full of time and budget overruns, disputes between Scott and his investors, and an equally contentious relationship between the director and his leading man, Harrison Ford. When it was finally finished, the first test audiences were decidedly underwhelmed, such that Scott’s backers demanded that the film be recut, with the addition of a slightly hammy expository voice-over and a cheesy happy-ending epilogue which was cobbled together quickly using leftover footage from, of all movies, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

It didn’t seem to help. The critical consensus on the released version ranged over a continuum from ambivalence to outright hostile. Roger Ebert’s faint praise was typically damning: “I was never really interested in the characters in Blade Runner. I didn’t find them convincing. What impressed me in the film was the special effects, the wonderful use of optical trickery to show me a gigantic imaginary Los Angeles, which in the vision of this movie has been turned into sort of a futuristic Tokyo. It’s a great movie to look at, but a hard one to care about. I didn’t appreciate the predictable story, the standard characters, the cliffhanging clichés… but I do think the special effects make Blade Runner worth going to see.” Pauline Kael was less forgiving of what she saw as a cold, formless, ultimately pointless movie: “If anybody comes around with a test to detect humanoids, maybe Ridley Scott and his associates should hide. With all the smoke in this movie, you feel as if everyone connected with it needs to have his flue cleaned.” Audiences do not always follow the critics’ lead, but in this case they largely did. During its initial theatrical run, Blade Runner fell well short of earning back the $30 million it had cost to make.

Yet remarkably soon after it had disappeared from theaters, its rehabilitation got underway in fannish circles. In 1984, William Gibson published his novel Neuromancer, the urtext of a new “cyberpunk” movement in science fiction that began in printed prose but quickly spiraled out from there into comics, television, and games. Whereas Blade Runner‘s dystopic Los Angeles looked more like Tokyo than any contemporary American city, Gibson’s book actually began in Japan, before moving on to a similarly over-urbanized United States. The two works’ neon-soaked nighttime cityscapes were very much of a piece. The difference was that Gibson added to the equation a computer-enabled escape from reality known as cyberspace, creating a combination that would prove almost irresistibly alluring to science-fiction fans as the computer age around them continued to evolve apace.

Blade Runner‘s rehabilitation spread to the mainstream in 1992, when a “director’s cut” of the film was re-released in theaters, lacking the Captain Obvious voice-over or the tacked-on happy ending but sporting a handful of new scenes that added fresh layers of nuance to the story. Critics — many of them the very same critics who had dismissed the movie a decade earlier — now rushed to praise it as a singular cinematic vision and a science-fiction masterpiece. They found many reasons for its box-office failure on the first go-round, even beyond the infelicitous changes that Ridley Scott had been forced by his backers to make to it. For one thing, it had been unlucky enough to come out just one month after E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, the biggest box-office smash of all time to that point, whose long shadow was as foreboding and unforgiving a place to dwell as any of Blade Runner‘s own urban landscapes. Then, too, the audience was conditioned back then to see Harrison Ford as Han Solo or Indiana Jones — a charming rogue with a heart of gold, not the brooding, morally tormented cop Rick Deckard, who has a penchant for rough sex and a habit of shooting women in the back. In light of all this, surely the critics too could be forgiven for failing to see the film’s genius the first time they were given the chance.

Whether we wish to forgive them or not, I find it fascinating that a single film could generate such polarized reactions only ten years apart in time from people who study the medium for a living. The obvious riposte to my sense of wonder is, of course, that the Blade Runner of 1992 really wasn’t the same film at all as the one that had been seen in 1982. Yet I must confess to considerable skepticism about this as a be-all, end-all explanation. It seems to me that, for all that the voice-over and forced happy ending did the movie as a whole no favors, they were still a long way from destroying the qualities that made Blade Runner distinct.

Some of my skepticism may arise from the fact that I’m just not onboard with the most vaunted aspect of the director’s cut, its subtle but undeniable insinuation that Deckard is himself a replicant with implanted memories, no different from the androids he hunts down and kills. This was not the case in Philip K. Dick’s novel, nor was it the original intention of the film’s scriptwriters. I rather suspect, although I certainly cannot prove it, that even Ridley Scott’s opinion on the subject was more equivocal during the making of the film than it has since become. David Peoples, one of the screenwriters, attributes the genesis of the idea in Scott’s mind to an overly literal reading on his part of a philosophical meditation on free will and the nature of human existence in an early draft of the script. Peoples:

I invented a kind of contemplative voice-over for Deckard. Here, let me read it to you:

“I wondered who designs the ones like me and what choices we really have, and which ones we just think we have. I wondered which of my memories were real and which belonged to someone else. The great Tyrell [the genius inventor and business magnate whose company made the replicants] hadn’t designed me, but whoever had hadn’t done so much better. In my own modest way, I was a combat model.”

Now, what I’d intended with this voice-over was mostly metaphysical. Deckard was supposed to be philosophically questioning himself about what it was that made him so different from Rachael [a replicant with whom he falls in love or lust] and the other replicants. He was supposed to be realizing that, on the human level, they weren’t so different. That Deckard wanted the same things the replicants did. The “maker” he was referring to wasn’t Tyrell. It was supposed to be God. So, basically, Deckard was just musing about what it meant to be human.

But then, Ridley… well, I think Ridley misinterpreted me. Because right about this period of time, he started announcing, “Ah-ha! Deckard’s a replicant! What brilliance!” I was sort of confused by this response, because Ridley kept giving me all this praise and credit for this terrific idea. It wasn’t until many years later, when I happened to be browsing through this draft, that I suddenly realized the metaphysical material I had written could just as easily have been read to imply that Deckard was a replicant, even though it wasn’t what I meant at all. What I had meant was, we all have a maker, and we all have an incept date [a replicant’s equivalent to a date of birth]. We just can’t address them. That’s one of the similarities we had to the replicants. We couldn’t go find Tyrell, but Tyrell was up there somewhere. For all of us.

So, what I had intended as kind of a metaphysical speculation, Ridley had read differently, but now I realize there was nothing wrong with this reading. That confusion was my own fault. I’d written this voice-over so ambiguously that it could indeed have meant exactly what Ridley took it to mean. And that, I think, is how the whole idea of Deckard being a replicant came about.

The problem I have with Deckard being a replicant is that it undercuts the thematic resonance of the story. In the book and the movie, the quality of empathy, or a lack thereof, is described as the one foolproof way to distinguish real from synthetic humans. To establish which is which, blade runners like Deckard use something called the Voight-Kampff test, in which suspects are hooked up to a polygraph-like machine which measures their emotional response to shockingly transgressive statements, starting with stuff like “my briefcase is made out of supple human-baby skin” and getting steadily worse from there. Real humans recoil, intuitively and immediately. Replicants can try to fake the appropriate emotional reaction — might even be programmed to fake it to themselves, such that even they don’t realize what they are — but there is always a split-second delay, which the trained operator can detect.

The central irony of the film is that cops like Deckard are indoctrinated to have absolutely no empathy for the replicants they track down and murder, even as many of the replicants we meet evince every sign of genuinely caring for one another, leading one to suspect that the Voight-Kampff test may not be measuring pure, unadulterated empathy in quite the way everyone seems to think it is. The important transformation that Deckard undergoes, which eventually brings his whole world down around his head, is that of allowing himself to feel the pain and fear of those he hunts. He is a human who rediscovers and re-embraces his own humanity, who finally begins to understand that meting out suffering and death to other feeling creatures is no way to live, no matter how many layers of justification and dogma his actions are couched within.

But in Ridley Scott’s preferred version of the film, the central theme falls apart, to be replaced with psychological horror’s equivalent of a jump scare: “Deckard himself is really a replicant, dude! What a mind fuck, huh?” For this reason, it’s hard for me to see the director’s cut as an holistically better movie than the 1982 cut, which at least leaves some more room for debate about the issue.

This may explain why I’m lukewarm about Blade Runner as a whole, why none of the cuts — and there have been a lot of them by now — quite works for me. As often happens in cases like this one, I find that my own verdict on Blade Runner comes down somewhere between the extremes of then and now. There’s a lot about Roger Ebert’s first hot-take that still rings true to me all these years later. It’s a stunning film in terms of atmosphere and audiovisual composition; I defy anyone to name a movie with a more breathtaking opening shot than the panorama of nighttime Tokyo… er, Los Angeles that opens this one. Yet it’s also a distant and distancing, emotionally displaced film that aspires to a profundity it doesn’t completely earn. I admire many aspects of its craft enormously and would definitely never discourage anyone from seeing it, but I just can’t bring myself to love it as much as so many others do.

The opening shot of Blade Runner the movie.

These opinions of mine will be worth keeping in mind as we move on now to the 1997 computer-game adaptation of Blade Runner. For, much more so than is the case even with most licensed games, your reaction to this game might to be difficult to separate from your reaction to the movie.


Thanks to the complicated, discordant circumstances of its birth, Blade Runner had an inordinate number of vested interests even by Hollywood standards, such that a holding company known as The Blade Runner Partnership was formed just to administer them. When said company started to shop the property around to game publishers circa 1994, the first question on everyone’s lips was what had taken them so long. The film’s moody, neon-soaked aesthetic if not its name had been seen in games for years by that point, so much so that it had already become something of a cliché. Just among the games I’ve written about on this site, Rise of the Dragon, Syndicate, System Shock, Beneath a Steel Sky, and the Tex Murphy series all spring to mind as owing more than a small debt to the movie. And there are many, many more that I haven’t written about.

Final Fantasy VII is another on the long list of 1990s games that owes more than a little something to Blade Runner. It’s hard to imagine its perpetually dark, polluted, neon-soaked city of Midgar ever coming to exist without the example of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Count it as just one more way in which this Japanese game absorbed Western cultural influences and then reflected them back to their point of origin, much as the Beatles once put their own spin on American rock and roll and sold it back to the country of its birth.

Meanwhile the movie itself was still only a cult classic in the 1990s; far more gamers could recognize and enjoy the gritty-cool Blade Runner aesthetic than had actually seen its wellspring. Blade Runner was more of a state of mind than it was a coherent fictional universe in the way of other gaming perennials like Star Trek and Star Wars. Many a publisher therefore concluded that they could have all the Blade Runner they needed without bothering to pay for the name.

Thus the rights holders worked their way down through the hierarchy of publishers, beginning with the prestigious heavy hitters like Electronic Arts and Sierra and continuing into the ranks of the mid-tier imprints, all without landing a deal. Finally, they found an interested would-be partner in the financially troubled Virgin Interactive.

The one shining jewel in Virgin’s otherwise tarnished crown was Westwood Studios, the pioneer of the real-time-strategy genre that was on the verge of becoming one of the two hottest in all of gaming. And one of the founders of Westwood was a fellow named Louis Castle, who listed Blade Runner as his favorite movie of all time. His fandom was such that Westwood probably did more than they really needed to in order to get the deal. Over a single long weekend, the studio’s entire art department pitched in to meticulously recreate the movie’s bravura opening shots of dystopic Los Angeles. It did the trick; the Blade Runner contract was soon given to Virgin and Westwood. It also established, for better or for worse, the project’s modus operandi going forward: a slavish devotion not just to the film’s overall aesthetic but to the granular details of its shots and sets.

The opening shot of Blade Runner the game.

Thanks to the complicated tangle of legal rights surrounding the film, Westwood wasn’t given access to any of its tangible audiovisual assets. Undaunted, they endeavored to recreate almost all of them on the monitor screen for themselves by using pre-rendered 3D backgrounds combined with innovative real-time lighting effects; these were key to depicting the flashing neon and drifting rain and smoke that mark the film. The foreground actors were built from motion-captured human models, then depicted onscreen using voxels, collections of tiny cubes in a 3D space, essentially pixels with an added Z-dimension of depth.

At least half of what you see in the Blade Runner game is lifted straight from the movie, which Westwood pored over literally frame by frame in order to include even the tiniest details, the sorts of things that no ordinary moviegoer would ever notice. The Westwood crew took a trip from their Las Vegas offices to Los Angeles to measure and photograph the locations where the film had been shot, the better to get it all exactly correct. Even the icy, synth-driven soundtrack for the movie was deconstructed, analyzed, and then mimicked in the game, note by ominous note.

The two biggest names associated with the film, Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford, were way too big to bother with a project like this one, but a surprising number of the other actors agreed to voice their parts and to allow themselves to be digitized and motion-captured. Among them were Sean Young, who had played Deckard’s replicant love interest Rachael; Edward James Olmos, who had played his enigmatic pseudo-partner Gaff; and Joe Turkel, who had played Eldon Tyrell, the twisted genius who invented the replicants. Set designers and other behind-the-scenes personnel were consulted as well.

It wasn’t judged practical to clone the movie’s plot in the same way as its sights and sounds, if for no other reason than the absence of Harrison Ford; casting someone new in the role of Deckard would have been, one senses, more variance than Westwood’s dedication to re-creation would have allowed. Instead they came up with a new story that could play out in the seams of the old one, happening concurrently with the events of the film, in many of the same locations and involving many of the same characters. Needless to say, its thematic concerns too would be the same as those of the film — and, yes, its protagonist cop as well would eventually be given reason to doubt his own humanity. His name was McCoy, another jaded gumshoe transplanted from a Raymond Chandler novel into an equally noirish future. But was he a “real” McCoy?

Westwood promised great things in the press while Blade Runner was in development: a truly open-world game taking place in a living, breathing city, full of characters that went about their own lives and pursued their own agendas, whose response to you in the here and now would depend to a large degree on how you had treated them and their acquaintances and enemies in the past. There would be no fiddly puzzles for the sake of them; this game would expect you to think and act like a real detective, not as the typical adventure-game hero with an inventory full of bizarre objects waiting to be put to use in equally bizarre ways. To keep you on your toes and add replay value — the lack of which was always the adventure genre’s Achilles heel as a commercial proposition — the guilty parties in the case would be randomly determined, so that no two playthroughs would ever be the same. And there would be action elements too; you would have to be ready to draw your gun at almost any moment. “There’s actually very little action in the film,” said Castle years later, “but when it happens, it’s violent, explosive, and deadly. I wanted to make a game where the uncertainty of what’s going to happen makes you quiver with anticipation every time you click the mouse.”

As we’ll soon see, most of those promises would be fulfilled only partially, but that didn’t keep Blade Runner from becoming a time-consuming, expensive project by the standards of its era,  taking two years to make and costing about $2 million. It was one of the last times that a major, mainstream American studio swung for the fences with an adventure game, a genre that was soon to be relegated to niche status, with budgets and sales expectations to match.

In fact, Blade Runner’s commercial performance was among the reasons that down-scaling took place. Despite a big advertising push on Virgin Interactive’s part, it got lost in the shuffle among The Curse of Monkey Island, Riven, and Zork: Grand Inquisitor, three other swansongs of the AAA adventure game that all competed for a dwindling market share during the same holiday season of 1997. Reviews were mixed, often expressing a feeling I can’t help but share: what was ultimately the point of so slavishly re-creating another work of art if you’re weren’t going to add much of anything of your own to it? “The perennial Blade Runner images are here, including the winking woman in the Coca-Cola billboard and vehicles flying over the flaming smokestacks of the industrial outskirts,” wrote GameSpot. “Unfortunately, most of what’s interesting about the game is exactly what was interesting about the film, and not much was done to extend the concepts or explore them any further.” Computer and Video Games magazine aptly called it “more of a companion to the movie than a game.” Most gamers shrugged and moved on the next title on the shelf; Blade Runner sold just 15,000 copies in the month of its release.[1]Louis Castle has often claimed in later decades that Blade Runner did well commercially, stating at least once that it sold 1 million copies(!). I can’t see how this could possibly have been the case; I’ve learned pretty well over my years of researching these histories what a million-selling game looked like in the 1990s, and can say very confidently that it did not look like this one. Having said that, though, let me also say that I don’t blame him for inflating the figures. It’s not easy to pour your heart and soul into something and not have it do well. So, as the press of real data and events fades into the past, the numbers start to go up. This doesn’t make Castle dishonest so much as it just makes him human.

As the years went by, however, a funny thing happened. Blade Runner never faded completely from the collective gamer consciousness like so many other middling efforts did. It continued to be brought up in various corners of the Internet, became a fixture of an “abandonware” scene whose rise preceded that of back-catalog storefronts like GOG.com, became the subject of retrospectives and think pieces on major gaming sites. Finally, in spite of the complications of its licensing deal, it went up for sale on GOG.com in 2019. Then, in 2022, Night Dive Studios released an “enhanced” edition. It seems safe to say today that many more people have played Westwood’s Blade Runner since the millennium than did so before it. The critical consensus surrounding it has shifted as well. As of this writing, Blade Runner is rated by the users of MobyGames as the 51st best adventure game of all time — a ranking that doesn’t sound so impressive at first, until you realize that it’s slightly ahead of such beloved icons of the genre as LucasArts’s Monkey Island 2 and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.[2]This chart in general is distorted greatly by the factor of novelty; many or most of the highest-ranking games are very recent ones, rated in the first blush of excitement following their release. I trust that I need not belabor the parallels with the reception history of Ridley Scott’s movie. In this respect as well as so many others, the film and the game seem joined at the hip. And the latter wouldn’t have it any other way.


In all my years of writing these histories, I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a game that combines extremes of derivation and innovation in quite the way of Westwood’s Blade Runner. While there is nary an original idea to be found in the fiction, the gameplay has if anything too many of them.

I’ve complained frequently in the past that most alleged mystery games aren’t what they claim to be at all, that they actually solve the mystery for you while you occupy your time with irrelevant lock-and-key puzzles and the like. Louis Castle and his colleagues at Westwood clearly had the same complaints; there are none of those irrelevancies here. Blade Runner really does let you piece together its clues for yourself. You feel like a real cop — or at least a television one — when you, say, pick out the license plate of a car on security-camera footage, then check the number in the database of the near-future’s equivalent to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a lead. Even as it’s rewarding, the game is also surprisingly forgiving in its investigative aspects, not an adjective that’s frequently applied to adventures of this period. There are a lot of leads to follow, and you don’t need to notice and run down all of them all to make progress in your investigation. At its best, then, this game makes you feel smart — one of the main reasons a lot of us play games, if we’re being honest.

Those problems that do exist here arise not from the developers failing to do enough, but rather from trying to do too much. There’s an impossibly baroque “clues database” that purports to aid you in tying everything together. This experiment in associative, cross-referenced information theory would leave even Ted Nelson scratching his head in befuddlement. Thankfully, it isn’t really necessary to engage with it at all. You can keep the relevant details in your head, or at worst in your trusty real-world notepad, easily enough.

If you can make any sense of this, you’re a better detective than I am.

Features like this one seem to be artifacts of that earlier, even more conceptually ambitious incarnation of Blade Runner that was promoted in the press while the game was still being made.[3]Louis Castle’s own testimony contradicts this notion as well. He has stated in various interview that “Blade Runner is as close as I have ever come to realizing a design document verbatim.” I don’t wish to discount his words out of hand, but boy, does this game ever strike me, based on pretty long experience in studying these things, as being full of phantom limbs that never got fully wired into the greater whole. I decided in the end that I had to call it like I see it in this article. As I noted earlier, this was to have been a game that you could play again and again, with the innocent and guilty parties behind the crime you investigated being different each time. It appears that, under the pressure of time, money, and logistics, that concept got boiled down to randomizing which of the other characters are replicants and which are “real” humans, but not changing their roles in the story in response to their status in any but some fairly cosmetic ways. Then, too, the other characters were supposed to have had a great deal of autonomy, but, again, the finished product doesn’t live up to this billing. In practice, what’s left of this aspiration is more of an annoyance than anything else. While the other characters do indeed move around, they do so more like subway trains on a rigid schedule than independent human actors. When the person you need to speak to isn’t where you go to speak to him, all you can do is go away and return later. This leads to tedious rounds of visiting the same locations again and again, hoping someone new will turn up to jog the plot forward. While this may not be all that far removed from the nature of much real police work, it’s more realism than I for one need.

This was also to have been an adventure game that you could reasonably play without relying on saving and restoring, taking your lumps and rolling with the flow. Early on, the game just about lives up to this ideal. At one point, you chase a suspect into a dark alleyway where a homeless guy happens to be rooting through a dumpster. It’s damnably easy in the heat of the moment to shoot the wrong person. If you do so — thus committing a crime that counts as murder, unlike the “retiring” of a replicant — you have the chance to hide the body and continue on your way; life on the mean streets of Los Angeles is a dirty business, regardless of the time period. Even more impressively, you might stumble upon your victim’s body again much later in the game, popping up out of the murk like an apparition from your haunted conscience. If you didn’t kill the hobo, on the other hand, you might meet him again alive.

But sadly, a lot of this sort of thing as well falls away as the game goes on. The second half is rife with learning-by-death moments that would have done the Sierra of the 1980s proud, all people and creatures jumping out of the shadows and killing you without warning. Hope you have a save file handy, says the game. The joke’s on you!

By halfway through, the game has just about exhausted the movie’s iconic set-pieces and is forced to lean more on its own invention, much though this runs against its core conviction that imitation trumps originality. Perhaps that conviction was justified after all: the results aren’t especially inspiring. What we see are mostly generic sewers, combined with characters who wouldn’t play well in the dodgiest sitcom. The pair of bickering conjoined twins — one smart and urbane, the other crude and rude — is particularly cringe-worthy.

Writers and other artists often talk about the need to “kill your darlings”: to cut out those scenes and phrases and bits and bobs that don’t serve the art, that only serve to gratify the vanity of the artist. This game is full of little darlings that should have died well before it saw release. Some of them are flat-out strange. For example, if you like, you can pre-pick a personality for McCoy: Polite, Normal, (don’t call me) Surly, or Erratic. Doing so removes the conversation menu from the interface; walk up to someone and click on her, and McCoy just goes off on his own tangent. I don’t know why anyone would ever choose to do this, unless it be to enjoy the coprolalia of Erratic McCoy, who jumps from Sheriff Andy Taylor to Dirty Harry and back again at a whipsaw pace, leaving everyone on the scene flummoxed.

Even when he’s ostensibly under your complete control, Detective McCoy isn’t the nimblest cowboy at the intellectual rodeo. Much of the back half of the game degenerates into trying to figure out how and when to intervene to keep him from doing something colossally stupid. When a mobster you’ve almost nailed hands him a drink, you’re reduced to begging him silently: Please, please, do not drink it, McCoy! And of course he does so, and of course it’s yet another Game Over. (After watching the poor trusting schmuck screw up this way several times, you might finally figure out that you have about a two-second window of control to make him draw his gun on the other guy — no other action will do — before he scarfs down the spiked cocktail.)

Bottoms up! (…sigh…)

All my other complaints aside, though, for me this game’s worst failing remains its complete disinterest in standing on its own as either a piece of fiction or as an aesthetic statement of any stripe. There’s an embarrassingly mawkish, subservient quality that dogs it even as it’s constantly trying to be all cool and foreboding and all, with all its darkness and its smoke. Its brand of devotion is an aspect of fan culture that I just don’t get.

So, I’m left sitting here contemplating an argument that I don’t think I’ve ever had to make before in the context of game development: that you can actually love something too much to be able to make a good game out of it, that your fandom can blind you as surely as the trees of any forest. This game is doomed, seemingly by design, to play a distant second fiddle to its parent. You can almost hear the chants of “We’re not worthy!” in the background. When you visit Tyrell in his office, you know it can have no real consequences for your story because the resolution of that tycoon’s fate has been reserved for the cinematic story that stars Deckard; ditto your interactions with Rachael and Gaff and others. They exist here at all, one can’t help but sense, only because the developers were so excited at the prospect of having real live Blade Runner actors visit them in their studio that they just couldn’t help themselves. (“We’re not worthy!”) For the player who doesn’t live and breathe the lore of Blade Runner like the developers do, they’re living non sequiturs who have nothing to do with anything else that’s going on.

Even the endings here — there are about half a dozen major branches, not counting the ones where McCoy gets shot or stabbed or roofied midway through the proceedings — are sometimes in-jokes for the fans. One of them is a callback to the much-loathed original ending of the film — a callback that finds a way to be in much worse taste than its inspiration: McCoy can run away with one of his suspects, who happens to be a fourteen-year-old girl who’s already been the victim of adult molestation. Eww!

What part of “fourteen years old and already sexually traumatized” do you not understand, McCoy?

Even the options menu of this game has an in-joke that only fans will get. If you like, you can activate a “designer cut” here that eliminates all of McCoy’s explanatory voice-overs, a callback to the way that Ridley Scott’s director’s cut did away with the ones in the film. The only problem is that in this medium those voice-overs are essential for you to have any clue whatsoever what’s going on. Oh, well… the Blade Runner fans have been served, which is apparently the important thing.

I want to state clearly here that my objections to this game aren’t abstract objections to writing for licensed worlds or otherwise building upon the creativity of others. It’s possible to do great work in such conditions; the article I published just before this one praised The Curse of Monkey Island to the skies for its wit and whimsy, despite that game making absolutely no effort to bust out of the framework set up by The Secret of Monkey Island. In fact, The Curse of Monkey Island too is bursting at the seams with in-jokes and fan service. But it shows how to do those things right: by weaving them into a broader whole such that they’re a bonus for the people who get them but never distract from the experience of the people who don’t. That game illustrates wonderfully how one can simultaneously delight hardcore fans of a property and welcome newcomers into the fold, how a game can be both a sequel and fully-realized in an Aristotelian sense. I’m afraid that this game is an equally definitive illustration of how to do fan service badly, such that it comes across as simultaneously elitist and creatively bankrupt.

Westwood always prided themselves on their technical excellence, and this is indeed a  technically impressive game in many respects. But impressive technology is worth little on its own. If you’re a rabid fan of the movie in the way that I am not, I suppose you might be excited to live inside it here and see all those iconic sets from slightly different angles. If you aren’t, though, it’s hard to know what this game is good for. In its case, I think that the first critical consensus had it just about right.



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Sources: The book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon; Computer and Video Games of January 1998; PC Zone of May 1999; Next Generation of July 1997; Computer Gaming World of March 1998; Wall Street Journal of January 21 1998; New Yorker of July 1982; Retro Gamer 142.

Online sources include Ars Technica’s interview with Louis Castle, Game Developer‘s interview with Castle, Edges feature on the making of the game, the original Siskel and Ebert review of the movie, an unsourced but apparently authentic interview with Philip K. Dick, and GameSpot’s vintage Blade Runner review.

Blade Runner is available for digital purchase at GOG.com, in both its original edition that I played for this article and the poorly received enhanced edition. Note that the latter actually includes the original game as well as of this writing, and is often cheaper than buying the original alone…

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Louis Castle has often claimed in later decades that Blade Runner did well commercially, stating at least once that it sold 1 million copies(!). I can’t see how this could possibly have been the case; I’ve learned pretty well over my years of researching these histories what a million-selling game looked like in the 1990s, and can say very confidently that it did not look like this one. Having said that, though, let me also say that I don’t blame him for inflating the figures. It’s not easy to pour your heart and soul into something and not have it do well. So, as the press of real data and events fades into the past, the numbers start to go up. This doesn’t make Castle dishonest so much as it just makes him human.
2 This chart in general is distorted greatly by the factor of novelty; many or most of the highest-ranking games are very recent ones, rated in the first blush of excitement following their release.
3 Louis Castle’s own testimony contradicts this notion as well. He has stated in various interview that “Blade Runner is as close as I have ever come to realizing a design document verbatim.” I don’t wish to discount his words out of hand, but boy, does this game ever strike me, based on pretty long experience in studying these things, as being full of phantom limbs that never got fully wired into the greater whole. I decided in the end that I had to call it like I see it in this article.
 

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