I’ll have the next Digital article for you next weeks, folks. Thanksgiving travel threw a spanner in the works. ;)
Fair warning: this article includes some plot spoilers of Final Fantasy I through VI.
The videogame industry has always run on hype, but the amount of it that surrounded Final Fantasy VII in 1997 was unparalleled in its time. This new game for the Sony PlayStation console was simply inescapable. The American marketing teams of Sony and Square Corporation, the game’s Japanese developer and publisher, had been given $30 million with which to elevate Final Fantasy VII to the same status as the Super Marios of the world. They plastered Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Sephiroth, and the game’s other soon-to-be-iconic characters onto urban billboards, onto the sides of buses, and into the pages of glossy magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Spin. Commercials for the game aired round the clock on MTV, during NFL games and Saturday Night Live, even on giant cinema screens in lieu of more traditional coming-attractions trailers. “They said it couldn’t be done in a major motion picture,” the stentorian announcer intoned. “They were right!” Even if you didn’t care a whit about videogames, you couldn’t avoid knowing that something pretty big was going down in that space.
And if you did care… oh, boy. The staffs of the videogame magazines, hardly known for their sober-mindedness in normal times, worked themselves up to positively orgasmic heights under Square’s not-so-gentle prodding. GameFan told its readers that Final Fantasy VII would be “unquestionably the greatest entertainment product ever created.”
The game is ridiculously beautiful. Analyze five minutes of gameplay in Final Fantasy VII and witness more artistic prowess than most entire games have. The level of detail is absolutely astounding. These graphics are impossible to describe; no words are great enough. Both map and battle graphics are rendered to a level of detail completely unprecedented in the videogame world. Before Final Fantasy VII, I couldn’t have imagined a game looking like this for many years, and that’s no exaggeration. One look at a cut scene or call spell should handily convince you. Final Fantasy VII looks so consistently great that you’ll quickly become numb to the power. Only upon playing another game will you once again realize just how fantastic it is.
But graphics weren’t all that the game had going for it. In fact, they weren’t even the aspect that would come to most indelibly define it for most of its players. No… that thing was, for the very first time in a mainstream console-based videogame with serious aspirations of becoming the toppermost of the poppermost, the story.
I don’t have any room to go into the details, but rest assured that Final Fantasy VII possesses the deepest, most involved story line ever in an RPG. There’s few games that have literally caused my jaw to drop at plot revelations, and I’m most pleased to say that Final Fantasy VII doles out these shocking, unguessable twists with regularity. You are constantly motivated to solve the latest mystery.
So, the hype rolled downhill, from Square at the top to the mass media, then on to the hardcore gamer magazines to ordinary owners of PlayStations. You would have to have been an iconoclastic PlayStation owner indeed not to be shivering with anticipation as the weeks counted down toward the game’s September 7 release. (Owners of other consoles could eat their hearts out; Final Fantasy VII was a PlayStation exclusive.)
Just last year, a member of an Internet gaming forum still fondly recalled how
the lead-up for the US launch of this game was absolutely insane, and, speaking personally, it is the most excited about a game I think I had ever been in my life, and nothing has come close since then. I was only fifteen at the time, and this game totally overtook all my thoughts and imagination. I had never even played a Final Fantasy game before, and I didn’t even like RPGs, yet I would spend hours reading and rereading all the articles from all the gaming magazines I had, inspecting all the screenshots and being absolutely blown away at the visual fidelity I was witnessing. I spent multiple days/hours with my Sony Discman listening to music and drawing the same artwork that was in all the mags. It was literally a genre- and generation-defining game.
Those who preferred to do their gaming on personal computers rather than consoles might be excused for scoffing at all these breathless commentators who seemed to presume that Final Fantasy VII was doing something that had never been done before. If you spent your days playing Quake, Final Fantasy VII‘s battle graphics probably weren’t going to impress you overmuch; if you knew, say, Toonstruck, even the cut scenes might strike you as pretty crude. And then, too, computer-based adventure games and RPGs had been delivering well-developed long-form interactive narratives for many years by 1997, most recently with a decidedly cinematic bent more often than not, with voice actors in place of Final Fantasy VII‘s endless text boxes. Wasn’t Final Fantasy VII just a case of console gamers belatedly catching on to something computer gamers had known all along, and being forced to do so in a technically inferior fashion at that?
Well, yes and no. It’s abundantly true that much of what struck so many as so revelatory about Final Fantasy VII really wasn’t anywhere near as novel as they thought it was. At the same time, though, the aesthetic and design philosophies which it applied to the abstract idea of the RPG truly were dramatically different from the set of approaches favored by Western studios. They were so different, in fact, that the RPG genre in general would be forever bifurcated in gamers’ minds going forward, as the notion of the “JRPG” — the Japanese RPG — entered the gaming lexicon. In time, the label would be applied to games that didn’t actually come from Japan at all, but that evinced the set of styles and approaches so irrevocably cemented in the Western consciousness under the label of “Japanese” by Final Fantasy VII.
We might draw a parallel with what happened in music in the 1960s. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the other Limey bands who mounted the so-called “British Invasion” of their former Colonies in 1964 had all spent their adolescence steeped in American rock and roll. They took those influences, applied their own British twist to them, then sold them back to American teenagers, who screamed and fainted in the concert halls like Final Fantasy VII fans later would in the pages of the gaming magazines, convinced that the rapture they were feeling was brought on by something genuinely new under the sun — which in the aggregate it was, of course. It took the Japanese to teach Americans how thrilling and accessible — even how emotionally moving — the gaming genre they had invented could truly be.
The roots of the JRPG can be traced back not just to the United States but to a very specific place and time there: to the American Midwest in the early 1970s, where and when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, a pair of stolid grognards who would have been utterly nonplussed by the emotional histrionics of a Final Fantasy VII, created a “single-unit wargame” called Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote quite some years ago on this site that their game’s “impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” I almost want to dismiss those words now as the naïve hyperbole of a younger self. But the thing is, I can’t; I have no choice but to stand by them. Dungeons & Dragons really was that earthshaking, not only in the obvious ways — it’s hard to imagine the post-millennial craze for fantasy in mass media, from the Lord of the Rings films to Game of Thrones, ever taking hold without it — but also in subtler yet ultimately more important ones, in the way it changed the role we play in our entertainments from that of passive spectators to active co-creators, making interactivity the watchword of an entire age of media.
The early popularity of Dungeons & Dragons coincided with the rise of accessible computing, and this proved a potent combination. Fans of the game with access to PLATO, a groundbreaking online community rooted in American universities, moved it as best they could onto computers, yielding the world’s first recognizable CRPGs. Then a couple of PLATO users named Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg made a game of this type for the Apple II personal computer in 1981, calling it Wizardry. Meanwhile Richard Garriott was making Ultima, a different take on the same broad concept of “Dungeons & Dragons on a personal computer.”
By the time Final Fantasy VII stormed the gates of the American market so triumphantly in 1997, the cultures of gaming in the United States and Japan had diverged so markedly that one could almost believe they had never had much of anything to do with one another. Yet in these earliest days of digital gaming — long before the likes of the Nintendo Entertainment System, when Japanese games meant only coin-op arcade hits like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the minds of most Americans — there was in fact considerable cross-pollination. For Japan was the second place in the world after North America where reasonably usable, pre-assembled, consumer-grade personal computers could be readily purchased; the Japanese Sharp MZ80K and Hitachi MB-6880 trailed the American Trinity of 1977 — the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Commodore PET — by less than a year. If these two formative cultures of computing didn’t talk to one another, whom else could they talk to?
Thus pioneering American games publishers like Sierra On-Line and Brøderbund forged links with counterparts in Japan. A Japanese company known as Starcraft became the world’s first gaming localizer, specializing in porting American games to Japanese computers and translating their text into Japanese for the domestic market. As late as the summer of 1985, Roe R. Adams III could write in Computer Gaming World that Sierra’s sprawling twelve-disk-side adventure game Time Zone, long since written off at home as a misbegotten white elephant, “is still high on the charts after three years” in Japan. Brøderbund’s platformer Lode Runner was even bigger, having swum like a salmon upstream in Japan, being ported from home computers to coin-op arcade machines rather than the usual reverse. It had even spawned the world’s first e-sports league, whose matches were shown on Japanese television.
At that time, the first Wizardry game and the second and third Ultima had only recently been translated and released in Japan. And yet if Adams was to be believed,Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity. both games already
have huge followings. The computer magazines cover Lord British [Richard Garriott’s nom de plume] like our National Inquirer would cover a television star. When Robert Woodhead of Wizardry fame was recently in Japan, he was practically mobbed by autograph seekers. Just introducing himself in a computer store would start a near-stampede as people would run outside to shout that he was inside.
The Wizardry and Ultima pump had been primed in Japan by a game called The Black Onyx, created the year before in their image for the Japanese market by an American named Henk Rogers.A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union. But his game was quickly eclipsed by the real deals that came directly out of the United States.
Wizardry in particular became a smashing success in Japan, even as a rather lackadaisical attitude toward formal and audiovisual innovation on the part of its masterminds was already condemning it to also-ran status against Ultima and its ilk in the United States. It undoubtedly helped that Wizardry was published in Japan by ASCII Corporation, that country’s nearest equivalent to Microsoft, with heaps of marketing clout and distributional muscle to bring to bear on any challenge. So, while the Wizardry series that American gamers knew petered out in somewhat anticlimactic fashion in the early 1990s after seven games,It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001. it spawned close to a dozen Japanese-exclusive titles later in that decade alone, plus many more after the millennium, such that the franchise remains to this day far better known by everyday gamers in Japan than it is in the United States. Robert Woodhead himself spent two years in Japan in the early 1990s working on what would have been a Wizardry MMORPG, if it hadn’t proved to be just too big a mouthful for the hardware and telecommunications infrastructure at his disposal.
Much of the story of such cultural exchanges inevitably becomes a tale of translation. In its original incarnation, the first Wizardry game had had the merest wisp of a plot. In this as in all other respects it was a classic hack-and-slash dungeon crawler: work your way down through ten dungeon levels and kill the evil wizard, finito. What background context there was tended to be tongue-in-cheek, more Piers Anthony than J.R.R. Tolkien; the most desirable sword in the game was called the “Blade of Cuisinart,” for Pete’s sake. Wizardry‘s Japanese translators, however, took it all in with wide-eyed earnestness, missing the winking and nodding entirely. They saw a rather grim, austere milieu a million miles away from the game that Americans knew — a place where a Cuisinart wasn’t a stainless-steel food processor but a portentous ancient warrior clan.
When the Japanese started to make their own Wizardry games, they continued in this direction, to almost hilarious effect if one knew the source material behind their efforts; it rather smacks of the post-apocalyptic monks in A Canticle for Liebowitz making a theology for themselves out of the ephemeral advertising copy of their pre-apocalyptic forebears. A franchise that had in its first several American releases aspired to be about nothing more than killing monsters for loot — and many of them aggressively silly monsters at that — gave birth to audio CDs full of po-faced stories and lore, anime films and manga books, a sprawling line of toys and miniature figures, even a complete tabletop RPG system. But, lest we Westerners begin to feel too smug about all this, know that the same process would eventually come to work in reverse in the JRPG field, with nuanced Japanese writing being flattened out and flat-out misunderstood by clueless American translators.
The history of Wizardry in Japan is fascinating by dint of its sheer unlikeliness, but the game’s importance on the global stage actually stems more from the Japanese games it influenced than from the ones that bore the Wizardry name right there on the box. For Wizardry, along with the early Ultima games, happened to catch the attention of Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii, a software-development duo who had already made several games together for a Japanese publisher called Enix. “Horii-san was really into Ultima, and I was really into Wizardry,” remembers Nakamura. This made sense. Nakamura was the programmer of the pair, naturally attracted to Wizardry‘s emphasis on tactics and systems. Horii, on the other hand, was the storytelling type, who wrote for manga magazines in addition to games, and was thus drawn to Ultima‘s quirkier, more sprawling world and its spirit of open-ended exploration. The pair decided to make their own RPG for the Japanese market, combining what they each saw as the best parts of Wizardry and Ultima.
This was interesting, but not revolutionary in itself; you’ll remember that Henk Rogers had already done essentially the same thing in Japan with The Black Onyx before Wizardry and Ultima ever officially arrived there. Nevertheless, the choices Nakamura and Horii made as they set about their task give them a better claim to the title of revolutionaries on this front than Rogers enjoys. They decided that making a game that combined the best of Wizardry and Ultima really did mean just that: it did not mean, that is to say, throwing together every feature of each which they could pack in and calling it a day, as many a Western developer might have. They decided to make a game that was simpler than either of its inspirations, much less the two of them together.
Their reasons for doing so were artistic, commercial, and technical. In the realm of the first, Horii in particular just didn’t like overly complicated games; he was the kind of player who would prefer never to have to glance at a manual, whose ideal game intuitively communicated to you everything you needed to know in order to play it. In the realm of the second, the pair was sure that the average Japanese person, like the average person in most countries, felt the same as Horii; even in the United States, Ultima and Wizardry were niche products, and Nakamura and Horii had mass-market ambitions. And in the realm of the third, they were sharply limited in how much they could put into their RPG anyway, because they intended it for the Nintendo Famicom console, where their entire game — code, data, graphics, and sound — would have to fit onto a 64 K cartridge in lieu of floppy disks and would have to be steerable using an eight-button controller in lieu of a keyboard. Luckily, Nakamura and Horii already had experience with just this sort of simplification. Their most recent output had been inspired by the adventure games of American companies like Sierra and Infocom, but had replaced those games’ text parsers with controller-friendly multiple-choice menus.
In deciding to put American RPGs through the same wringer, they established one of the core attributes of the JRPG sub-genre: generally speaking, these games were and would remain simpler than their Western counterparts, which sometimes seemed to positively revel in their complexity as a badge of honor. Another attribute emerged fully-formed from the writerly heart of Yuji Horii. He crafted an unusually rich, largely linear plot for the game. Rather than being a disadvantage, he thought linearity would make this new style of console game “more accessible to consumers”: “We really focused on ensuring people would be able to experience the fun of the story.”
He called upon his friends at the manga magazines to help him illustrate his tale with large, colorful figures in that distinctly Japanese style that has become so immediately recognizable all over the world. At this stage, it was perhaps more prevalent on the box than in the game itself, the Famicom’s graphical fidelity being what it was. Nonetheless, another precedent that has held true in JRPGs right down to the present day was set by the overall visual aesthetic of this, the canonical first example of the breed. Ditto its audio aesthetic, which took the form of a memorable, melodic, eminently hummable chip-tune soundtrack. “From the very beginning, we wanted to create a warm, inviting world,” says Horii.
Dragon Quest was released on May 27, 1986. Console gamers — not only those in Japan, but anywhere on the globe — had never seen anything like it. Playing this game to the end was a long-form endeavor that could stretch out over weeks or months; you wrote down an alphanumeric code it provided to you on exit, then entered this code when you returned to the game in order to jump back to wherever you had left off.
That said, the fact that the entire game state could be packed into a handful of numbers and letters does serve to illustrate just how simple Dragon Quest really was at bottom. By the standards of only a few years later, much less today, it was pretty boring. Fighting random monsters wasn’t so much a distraction from the rest of the game as the only thing available to do; the grinding was the game. In 2012, critic Nick Simberg wondered at “how willing we were to sit down on the couch and fight the same ten enemies over and over for hours, just building up gold and experience points”; he compared Dragon Quest to “a child’s first crayon drawing, stuck with a magnet to the fridge.”
And yet, as the saying goes, you have to start somewhere. Japanese gamers were amazed and entranced, buying 1 million copies of Dragon Quest in its first six months, over 2 million copies in all. And so a new sub-genre was born, inspired by American games but indelibly Japanese in a way The Black Onyx had not been. Many or most of the people who played and enjoyed Dragon Quest had never even heard of its original wellspring Dungeons & Dragons.
We all know what happens when a game becomes a hit on the scale of Dragon Quest. There were sequels — two within two years of the first game, then three more in the eight years after them, as the demands of higher production values slowed down Enix’s pace a bit. Wizardry was big in Japan, but it was nothing compared to Dragon Quest, which sold 2.4 million copies in its second incarnation, followed by an extraordinary 3.8 million copies in its third. Middle managers and schoolmasters alike learned to dread the release of a new entry in the franchise, as about half the population of Japan under a certain age would invariably call in sick that day. When Enix started bringing out the latest games on non-business days, a widespread urban legend said this had been done in accordance with a decree from the Japanese Diet, which demanded that “henceforth Dragon Quest games are to be released on Sunday or national holidays only”; the urban legend wasn’t true, but the fact that so many people in Japan could so easily believe it says something in itself. Just as the early American game Adventure lent its name to an entire genre that followed it, the Japanese portmanteau word for “Dragon Quest” — Dorakue — became synonymous with the RPG in general there, such that when you told someone you were “playing dorakue” you might really be playing one of the series’s countless imitators.
Giving any remotely complete overview of these dorakue games would require dozens of articles, along with someone to write them who knows far more about them than I do. But one name is inescapable in the field. I refer, of course, to Final Fantasy.
Legend has it that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, chose that name because he thought that the first entry in the eventual franchise would be the last videogame he ever made. A former professional musician with numerous and diverse interests, Sakaguchi had been working for the Japanese software developer and publisher Square for a few years already by 1987, designing and programming Famicom action games that he himself found rather banal and that weren’t even selling all that well. He felt ready to do something else with his life, was poised to go back to university to try to figure out what that thing ought to be. But before he did so, he wanted to try something completely different at Square.
Another, less dramatic but probably more accurate version of the origin story has it that Sakaguchi simply liked the way the words “final’ and “fantasy” sounded together. At any rate, he convinced his managers to give him half a dozen assistants and six months to make a dorakue game.In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.
The very first Final Fantasy may not have looked all that different from Dragon Quest at first glance — it was still a Famicom game, after all, with all the audiovisual limitations that implies — but it had a story line that was more thematically thorny and logistically twisted than anything Yuji Horii might have come up with. As it began, you found yourself in the midst of a quest to save a princess from an evil knight, which certainly sounded typical enough to anyone who had ever played a dorakue game before. In this case, however, you completed that task within an hour, only to learn that it was just a prologue to the real plot. In his book-length history and study of the aesthetics of Japanese videogames, Chris Kohler detects an implicit message here: “Final Fantasy is about much more than saving the princess. Compared to the adventure that is about to take place, saving a princess is merely child’s play.” In fact, only after the prologue was complete did the opening credits finally roll, thus displaying another consistent quality of Final Fantasy: its love of unabashedly cinematic drama.
Still, for all that it was more narratively ambitious than what had come before, the first Final Fantasy can, like the first Dragon Quest, seem a stunted creation today. Technical limitations meant that you still spent 95 percent of your time just grinding for experience. “Final Fantasy may have helped build the genre, but it didn’t necessarily know exactly how to make it fun,” acknowledges Aidan Moher in his book about JRPGs. And yet when it came to dorakue games in the late 1980s, it seemed that Sakaguchi’s countrymen were happy to reward even the potential for eventual fun. They made Final Fantasy the solid commercial success that had heretofore hovered so frustratingly out of reach of its creator; it sold 400,000 copies. Assured that he would never have to work on a mindless action game again, Sakaguchi agreed to stay on at Square to build upon its template.
Final Fantasy II, which was released exactly one year after the first game in December of 1988 and promptly doubled its sales, added more essential pieces to what would become the franchise’s template. Although labelled and marketed as a sequel, its setting, characters, and plot had no relation to what had come before. Going forward, it would remain a consistent point of pride with Sakaguchi to come up with each new Final Fantasy from whole cloth, even when fans begged him for a reunion with their favorite places and people. In a world afflicted with the sequelitis that ours is, he can only be commended for sticking to his guns.
In another sense, though, Final Fantasy II was notable for abandoning a blank slate rather than embracing it. For the first time, its players were given a pre-made party full of pre-made personalities to guide rather than being allowed to roll their own. Although they could rename the characters if they were absolutely determined to do so — this ability would be retained as a sort of vestigial feature as late as Final Fantasy VII — they were otherwise set in stone, the better to serve the needs of the set-piece story Sakaguchi wanted to tell. This approach, which many players of Western RPGs did and still do regard as a betrayal of one of the core promises of the genre, would become commonplace in JRPGs. Few contrasts illustrate so perfectly the growing divide between these two visions of the RPG: the one open-ended and player-driven, sometimes to a fault; the other tightly scripted and story-driven, again sometimes to a fault. In a Western RPG, you write a story for yourself; in a JRPG, you live a story that someone else has already written for you.
Consider, for example, the two lineage’s handling of mortality. If one of your characters dies in battle in a Western RPG, it might be difficult and expensive, or in some cases impossible, to restore her to life; in this case, you either revert to an earlier saved state or you just accept her death as another part of the story you’re writing and move on to the next chapter with an appropriately heavy heart. In a JRPG, on the other hand, death in battle is never final; it’s almost always easy to bring a character who gets beat down to zero hit points back to life. What are truly fatal, however, are pre-scripted deaths, the ones the writers have deemed necessary for storytelling purposes. Final Fantasy II already contained the first of these; years later, Final Fantasy VII would be host to the most famous of them all, a death so shocking that you just have to call it that scene and everyone who has ever played the game will immediately know what you’re talking about. To steal a phrase from Graham Nelson, the narrative always trumps the crossword in JRPGs; they happily override their gameplay mechanics whenever the story they wish to tell demands it, creating an artistic and systemic discontinuity that’s enough to make Aristotle roll over in his grave. Yet a huge global audience of players are not bothered at all by it — not if the story is good enough.
But we’ve gotten somewhat ahead of ourselves; the evolution of the 1980s JRPG toward the modern-day template came in fits and starts rather than a linear progression. Final Fantasy III, which was released in 1990, actually returned to a player-generated party, and yet the market failed to punish it for its conservatism. Far from it: it sold 1.4 million copies.
Final Fantasy IV, on the other hand, chose to double down on the innovations Final Fantasy II had deployed, and sold in about the same numbers as Final Fantasy III. Released in July of 1991, it provided you with not just a single pre-made party but an array of characters who moved in and out of your control as the needs of the plot dictated, thereby setting yet another longstanding precedent for the series going forward. Ditto the nature of the plot, which leaned into shades of gray as never before. Chris Kohler:
The story deals with mature themes and complex characters. In Final Fantasy II, the squeaky-clean main characters were attacked by purely evil dark knights; here, our main character is a dark knight struggling with his position, paid to kill innocents, trying to reconcile loyalty to his kingdom with his sense of right and wrong. He is involved in a sexual relationship. His final mission for the king turns out to be a mass murder: the “phantom monsters” are really just a town of peaceful humans whose magic the corrupt king has deemed dangerous. (Note the heavy political overtones.)
Among Western RPGs, only the more recent Ultima games had dared to deviate so markedly from the absolute-good-versus-absolute-evil tales of everyday heroic fantasy. (In fact, the plot of Final Fantasy IV bears a lot of similarities to that of Ultima V…)
Final Fantasy IV was also notable for introducing an “active-time battle system,” a hybrid between the turn-based systems the series had previously employed and real-time combat, designed to provide some of the excitement of the latter without completely sacrificing the tactical affordances of the former. (In a nutshell, if you spend too long deciding what to do when it’s your turn, the enemies will jump in and take another turn of their own while you dilly-dally.) It too would remain a staple of the franchise for many installments to come.
Final Fantasy V, which was released in December of 1992, was like Final Fantasy III something of a placeholder or even a retrenchment, dialing back on several of the fourth game’s innovations. It sold almost 2.5 million copies.
Both the fourth and fifth games had been made for the Super Famicom, Nintendo’s 16-bit successor to its first console, and sported correspondingly improved production values. But most JRPG fans agree that it was with the sixth game — the last for the Super Famicom — that all the pieces finally came together into a truly friction-less whole. Indeed, a substantial and vocal minority will tell you that Final Fantasy VI rather than its immediate successor is the best Final Fantasy ever, balanced perfectly between where the series had been and where it was going.
From its ominous opening-credits sequence on, Final Fantasy VI strained for a gravitas that no previous JRPG had approached, and arguably succeeded in achieving it at least intermittently. It played out on a scale that had never been seen before; by the end of the game, more than a dozen separate characters had moved in and out of your party. Chris Kohler identifies the game’s main theme as “love in all its forms — romantic love, parental love, sibling love, and platonic love. Sakaguchi asks the player, what is love and where can we find it?”
Before that scene in Final Fantasy VII, Hironobu Sakaguchi served up a shocker of equal magnitude in Final Fantasy VI. Halfway through the game, the bad guys win despite your best efforts and the world effectively ends, leaving your party wandering through a post-apocalyptic World of Ruin like the characters in a Harlan Ellison story. The effect this had on some players’ emotions could verge on traumatizing — heady stuff for a videogame on a console still best known worldwide as the cuddly home of Super Mario. For many of its young players, Final Fantasy VI was their first close encounter on their own recognizance — i.e., outside of compulsory school assignments — with the sort of literature that attempts to move beyond tropes to truly, thoughtfully engage with the human condition.
It’s easy for an old, reasonably well-read guy like me to mock Final Fantasy VI‘s highfalutin aspirations, given that they’re stuffed into a game that still resolves at the granular level into bobble-headed figures fighting cartoon monsters. And it’s equally easy to scoff at the heavy-handed emotional manipulation that has always been part and parcel of the JRPG; subtle the sub-genre most definitely is not. Nonetheless, meaningful literature is where you find it, and the empathy it engenders can only be welcomed in a world in desperate need of it. Whatever else you can say about Final Fantasy and most of its JRPG cousins, the messages these games convey are generally noble ones, about friendship, loyalty, and the necessity of trying to do the right thing in hard situations, even when it isn’t so easy to even figure out what the right thing is. While these messages are accompanied by plenty of violence in the abstract, it is indeed abstracted — highly stylized and, what with the bifurcation between game and story that is so prevalent in the sub-genre, often oddly divorced from the games’ core themes.
Released in April of 1994, Final Fantasy VI sold 2.6 million copies in Japan. By this point the domestic popularity of the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole was rivaled only by that of Super Mario and Dragon Quest; two of the three biggest gaming franchises in Japan, that is to say, were dorakue games. In the Western world, however, the picture was quite different.
In the United States, the first-generation Nintendo Famicom was known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, the juggernaut of a console that rescued videogames in the eyes of the wider culture from the status of a brief-lived fad to that of a long-lived entertainment staple, on par with movies in terms of economics if not cachet. Yet JRPGs weren’t a part of that initial success story. The first example of the breed didn’t even reach American shores until 1989. It was, appropriately enough, the original Dragon Quest, the game that had started it all in Japan; it was renamed Dragon Warrior for the American market, due to a conflict with an old American tabletop RPG by the name of Dragonquest whose trademarks had been acquired by the notoriously litigious TSR of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Enix did make some efforts to modernize the game, such as replacing the password-based saving system with a battery that let you save your state to the cartridge itself. (This same method had been adopted by Final Fantasy and most other post-Dragon Quest JRPGs on the Japanese market as well.) But American console gamers had no real frame of reference for Dragon Warrior, and even the marketing geniuses of Nintendo, which published the game itself in North America, struggled to provide them one. With cartridges piling up in Stateside warehouses, they were reduced to giving away hundreds of thousands of copies of Dragon Warrior to the subscribers of Nintendo Power magazine. For some of these, the game came as a revelation seven years before Final Fantasy VII; for most, it was an inscrutable curiosity that was quickly tossed aside.
Final Fantasy I, on the other hand, received a more encouraging reception in the United States when it reached there in 1990: it sold 700,000 copies, 300,000 more than it had managed in Japan. Nevertheless, with the 8-bit Nintendo console reaching the end of its lifespan, Square didn’t bother to export the next two games in the series. It did export Final Fantasy IV for the Super Famicom — or rather the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, as it was known in the West. The results were disappointing in light of the previous game’s reception, so much so that Square didn’t export Final Fantasy V.Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today. This habit of skipping over parts of the series led to a confusing state of affairs whereby the American Final Fantasy II was the Japanese Final Fantasy IV and the American Final Fantasy III was the Japanese Final Fantasy VI. The latter game shifted barely one-fourth as many copies in the three-times larger American marketplace as it had in Japan — not disastrous numbers, but still less than the first Final Fantasy had managed.
The heart of the problem was translation, in both the literal sense of the words on the screen and a broader cultural sense. Believing with some justification that the early American consoles from Atari and others had been undone by a glut of substandard product, Nintendo had long made a science out of the polishing of gameplay, demanding that every prospective release survive an unrelenting testing gauntlet before it was granted the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” and approved for sale. But the company had no experience or expertise in polishing text to a similar degree. In most cases, this didn’t matter; most Nintendo games contained very little text anyway. But RPGs were the exception. The increasingly intricate story lines which JRPGs were embracing by the early 1990s demanded good translations by native speakers. What many of them actually got was something very different, leaving even those American gamers who wanted to fall in love baffled by the Japanese-English-dictionary-derived word salads they saw before them. And then, too, many of the games’ cultural concerns and references were distinctly Japanese, such that even a perfect translation might have left Americans confused. It was, one might say, the Blade of Cuisinart problem in reverse.
To be sure, there were Americans who found all of the barriers to entry into these deeply foreign worlds to be more bracing than intimidating, who took on the challenge of meeting the games on their own terms, often emerging with a lifelong passion for all things Japanese. At this stage, though, they were the distinct minority. In Japan and the United States alike, the conventional wisdom through the mid-1990s was that JRPGs didn’t and couldn’t sell well overseas; this was regarded as a fact of life as fundamental as the vagaries of climate. (Thanks to this belief, none of the mainline Final Fantasy games to date had been released in Europe at all.) It would take Final Fantasy VII and a dramatic, controversial switch of platforms on the part of Square to change that. But once those things happened… look out. The JRPG would conquer the world yet.
Where to Get It: Remastered and newly translated versions of the Japanese Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, V, and VI are available on Steam. The Dragon Quest series has been converted to iOS and Android apps, just a search away on the Apple and Google stores.
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 Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, and Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo. GameFan of September 1997; Retro Gamer 69, 108, and 170; Computer Gaming World of September 1985 and December 1992.
Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative “Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”; “The Long Life of the Original Wizardry“ by guest poster Alex on The CRPG Addict blog; “Wizardry: Japanese Franchise Outlook” by Sam Derboo at Hardcore Gaming 101, plus an interview Robert Woodhead, conducted by Jared Petty at the same site; “Wizardry‘s Wild Ride from West to East” at VentureBeat; “The Secret History of AnimEigo” at that company’s homepage; Robert Woodhead’s slides from a presentation at the 2022 KansasFest Apple II convention; a post on tabletop Wizardry at the Japanese Tabletop RPG blog; and “Dragon Warrior: Aging Disgracefully” by Nick Simberg at (the now-defunct) DamnLag.
|↑1||Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity.|
|↑2||A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union.|
|↑3||It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001.|
|↑4||In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.|
|↑5||Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today.|
Fair warning: although there’s no nudity in the pictures below, the text of this article does contain frank descriptions of the human anatomy and sexual acts.
When you want to know where the zeitgeist is heading, just look to what the punters are lining up to see on Broadway. To wit: the unexpected breakout hit of the 2003 to 2004 season was Avenue Q, a low-budget send-up of Sesame Street where the puppets cursed, drank, and had sex with one another. They were rude, crude, and weirdly relatable — even lovable, what with their habit of breaking into song at the drop of a hat. The most enduring of their songs was a timeless show tune called “The Internet is for Porn.” (Eat your hearts out, Rodgers and Hammerstein!) It became, inevitably, an Internet meme of its own, reflecting an unnerving feeling that the ground was shifting beneath society’s feet, that the most important practical affordance of the World Wide Web, that noble experiment in the unfettered exchange of information, might indeed be to put porn at the fingertips of every human being with a computer on his desk.
And yet the world hadn’t seen anything yet in 2003; the statistics surrounding Internet porn would become truly gob-smacking after streaming video and smartphones became everyday commodities. By 2016, Pornhub, the biggest smut aggregator on the Internet, would be attracting four visits per year for every man, woman, and child on the planet. There was enough material on that site alone to keep a porn hound glued to his screen for five times as long as Homo sapiens have existed, with more fresh porn being uploaded to the site every few months than the entirety of the twentieth century had managed to produce. Needless to say, the pace of neither porn consumption nor production has cooled off a jot in the years since.
On one level, the sheer size of porn’s digital footprint is kind of hilarious. How many images do we really need of an activity which has only a limited number of possible permutations and combinations in the end, despite the fevered efforts of the imaginations behind it to discover… well, not quite virgin territory, but you know what I mean. I’ve long since come to realize that I am, for better or for worse, a member of the last generation of Western humanity to have grown up thinking of images of naked bodies and sexual activity as a scarce commodity. Cue the anecdotes about the lengths boys like I was used to have to go to in order to get a glimpse of an actual naked or even partially unclothed woman: sneaking into Dad’s Playboy stash, circumventing the child lockout on the family television’s cable box, perusing Big Sister’s Victoria’s Secret catalog, even resorting when worst came to worst to the sturdy maidens in equally sturdy brassieres that used to be found in the lingerie section of the Sears catalog. Such tales read as quaintly as the courtship rituals of Jane Austen novels to the generation after ours, who just have to pull their phones out of their pockets to see sights that would have shocked the young me to my pubescent core.
Yet lurking behind the farcical absurdity of porn’s present-day popularity are serious questions for which none of us have any concrete answers. What does it do to young people to grow up with virtual if not physical sex at their literal fingertips? For that matter, what does it do to those of us who aren’t so young anymore? Some point hopefully to statistics which seem to show that accessible porn leads to dramatically decreased rates of real-world sexual violence. But even those of us who try our darnedest to be open-minded and sex-positive can’t always suppress the uneasy feeling that turning an act as intimate as making love into a commodity as ubiquitous as toilet paper may come at a cost to our humanity.
Of course, we won’t be able to resolve these dilemmas here. What we will do today, however, is learn how the song “The Internet is for Porn” may have been more truthy than even its writers were aware of. For if you look at the technologies and practices that make the modern Web go — not the idealistic building blocks provided by J.C.R. Licklider and Tim Berners-Lee and their many storied colleagues, but the ones behind the commercial Web of today — you find that a crazy amount of them came straight out of porn: online payment systems, ad trackers, affiliated marketing, streaming video, video conferencing… all of them and more were made for porn.
It was fully eight years before Avenue Q opened that the mainstream media’s attention was captured for the first time by porn on the Internet. On June 14, 1995, Jim Exon, a 74-year-old Democratic senator from Nebraska, stood up inside the United States Capitol Building to lead his colleagues in a prayer.
Almighty God, lord of all life, we praise you for the advancements in computerized communications that we enjoy in our time. Sadly, however, there are those who are littering this information superhighway with obscene, indecent, and destructive pornography. Now, guide the senators when they consider ways of controlling the pollution of computer communications and how to preserve one of our greatest resources: the minds of our children and the future moral strength of our nation. Amen.
As Exon spoke, he waved a blue binder in front of his face, filled, so he said, with filthy pictures his staff had found online. “I cannot and would not show these pictures to the Senate,” he thundered. “I would not want our cameras to pick them up. If nothing is done now, the pornographers may become the primary beneficiary of the information revolution.”
Most of his audience had no idea what he was on about. An exception was Dan Coats, a Republican senator from Indiana, who had in fact been the one to light a fire under Exon in the first place. “With old Internet technology, retrieving and viewing any graphic image on a PC at home could be laborious,” Coats explained in slightly more grounded diction after Exon had finished his righteous call to arms. “New Internet technology, like browsers for the Web, makes all of this easier.” He cited a study that was about to be published in The Georgetown Law Review, claiming that 450,000 pornographic images could already be found online, and that these had already been downloaded 6.4 million times. What on earth would happen once the Internet became truly ubiquitous, something everyone expected to happen over the next few years? “Think of the children!”
Luckily for that most precious of all social resources, Coats and Exon had legislation ready to go. Their bill would make it a federal crime to “use any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under eighteen years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.” Nonplussed though they largely were by it all, “few senators wanted to cast a nationally televised vote that might later be characterized as pro-pornography,” as Time magazine put it. The bill passed by a vote of 86 to 14.
On February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the final version of the Communications Decency Act into law. “Today,” he said, “with the stroke of a pen, our laws will catch up to the future.” Or perhaps not quite today: just as countless legal experts had warned would happen, the new law was immediately tied up in litigation, challenged as an unacceptable infringement on the right to free speech.
Looking back, the most remarkable thing about this first furor over online porn is just how early it came, before the World Wide Web was more than a vague aspirational notion, if that, in the minds of the large majority of Americans. The Georgetown Law study which had prompted it — a seriously flawed if not outright fraudulent study, written originally as an undergraduate research paper — didn’t focus on the Web at all but rather on Usenet, a worldwide textual discussion forum which had been hacked long ago to foster the exchange of binary files as well, among them dirty pictures.
Nevertheless, by the time the Communications Decency Act became one of the shakier laws of the land the locus of digital porn was migrating quickly from CD-ROM and Usenet to the Web. Like so much else there, porn on the Web began more in a spirit of amateur experimentation than hard-eyed business acumen. During the early days of Mosaic and Netscape and Web 1.0, hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks who could sense a communications revolution in the offing rushed to learn HTML and set up their own little pages on the Web, dedicated to whatever topic they found most interesting. For some of them, that topic was sex. There are far too many stories here for me to tell you today, but we can make space for one of them at least. It involves Jen Peterson and Dave Miller, a young couple just out of high school who were trying to make ends meet in their cramped Baltimore apartment.
In the spring of 1995, Jen got approved for a Sears credit card, whereupon Dave convinced her that they should buy a computer with their windfall, to find out what this Internet thing that they were seeing in the news was really all about. So, they spent $4000 on a state-of-the-art 75Mhz Packard Bell system, complete with monitor and modem, and lugged it back home on the bus.
Dave’s first destinations on the Internet were Simpsons websites. But one day he asked himself, “I wonder if there’s any nudity on this thing?” Whereupon he discovered that there was an active trade in dirty pictures going on on Usenet. Now, it just so happened that Dave was something of a photographer himself, and his favorite subject was the unclothed Jen: “We would look at [the pictures] afterwards, and that would lead to even better sex. I wanted to share them. I wanted people to see Jen’s body.” Jen was game, so the couple started uploading their own pictures to Usenet.
But Usenet was just so baroque and unfriendly. Dave’s particular sexual kink — not an unusual one, on the spectrum of same — made him want to show Jen to as many people as possible, which meant finding a more accessible medium for the purpose. In or around October of 1995, the couple opened “JENnDAVE’s HOME PAGE!” (“I called us Jen and Dave rather than Dave and Jen,” says Dave, “because I knew nobody was there to see me. I wasn’t being sweet; I was being practical.”) At that time, Internet service providers gave you a home page with which to plant your flag on the Web as part of your subscription, so the pair’s initial financial investment in the site was literally zero. This same figure was, not coincidentally, what they charged their visitors.
But within five months, the site was attracting 25,000 visitors every day, and their service provider was growing restless under the traffic load; in fact, the amount of bandwidth Jen and Dave’s dirty pictures were absorbing was single-handedly responsible for the provider deleting the promise of “unlimited traffic” from its contracts. Meanwhile the Communications Decency Act had become law — a law which their site was all too plainly violating, placing them at risk of significant fines or even prison terms if the courts should finally decide that it was constitutional.
Yet just how was one to ensure that one’s porn wasn’t “available to a person under eighteen years of age,” as the law demanded, on the wide-open Web? Some folks, Jen and Dave among them, put up entrance pages which asked the visitor to click a button certifying that, “Yep, I’m eighteen, alright!” It was doubtful, however, whether a judge would construe such an honor system to mean that their sites were no longer “available” to youngsters. Out of this dilemma, almost as much as the pure profit motive, arose the need and desire to accept credit cards in return for dirty pictures over the Internet. For in the United States at least, a credit card, which by law could not be issued to anyone under the age of eighteen, was about as trustworthy a signifier of maturity as you were likely to find.
We’ll return to Jen and Dave momentarily. Right now, though, we must shift our focus to a wheeler and dealer named Richard Gordon, a fellow aptly described by journalist Samantha Cole as “a smooth serial entrepreneur with a grifter’s lean.” Certainly he had a sketchy background by almost anyone’s terms. In the late 1970s, he’d worked in New York in insurance and financial planning, and had gotten into the habit of dipping into his customers’ accounts to fund his own lavish lifestyle. He attempted to flee the country after being tipped off that he was under investigation by the feds, only to be dragged out of the closet of a friend’s apartment with a Concorde ticket to Paris in his hand. He served just two years of his seven-year prison sentence, emerging on parole in 1982 to continue the hustle.
Two years later, President Ronald Reagan’s administration effected a long-in-the-offing final breakup of AT&T, the corporate giant that had for well over half a century held an all but ironclad monopoly over telegraphy, telephony, and computer telecommunications in the United States. Overnight, one ginormous company became 23 smaller ones. There followed just the explosion of innovation that the Reagan administration had predicted, as those companies and other, new players all jockeyed for competitive advantage. Among other things, this led to a dramatic expansion in the leasing of “1-900” numbers: commercial telephone numbers which billed the people who called them by the minute. When it had first rolled them out in the 1970s, AT&T had imagined that they would be used for time and temperature updates, sports scores, movie listings, perhaps for dial-a-joke services, polls, and horoscopes. And indeed, they were used for all of these things and more. But if you’ve read this far, you can probably guess where this is going: they were used most of all for phone sex. The go-go 1980s in the telecom sector turned personalized auditory masturbation aids into a thriving cottage industry.
Still, there was a problem that many of those who wanted to get in on the action found well-nigh intractable: the problem of actually collecting money from their customers. The obvious way of doing so was through a credit card, which was quick and convenient and thus highly conducive to impulse buying, and which could serve as an age guarantee to boot. But the credit-card companies were huge corporations with convoluted application processes for merchants, difficult entities for the average shoestring phone-sex provider teetering on the ragged edge of business-world legitimacy to deal with.
Richard Gordon saw opportunity in this state of affairs. He set up an intermediate credit-card-billing service for the phone-sex folks. They just had to sign up with him, and he would take care of all the rest — for a small cut of the transactions he processed, naturally. His system came with an additional advantage which phone-sex customers greatly appreciated: instead of, say, “1-900-HOT-SEXX” appearing on their credit-card statements, there appeared only the innocuously generic name of “Electronic Card Systems,” which was much easier to explain away to a suspicious spouse. Gordon made a lot of money off phone sex, learning along the way an important lesson: that there was far more money to be made in facilitating the exchange of porn than in making the stuff yourself and selling it directly. The venture even came with a welcome veneer of plausible deniability; there was nothing preventing Gordon from signing up other sorts of 1-900 numbers to his billing service as well. These could be the customers he talked about at polite cocktail parties, even as he made the bulk of his money from telephonic masturbation.
The Web came to his attention in the mid-1990s. “What is the Net?” he asked himself. “It’s just a phone call with pictures.” So, Gordon extended his thriving phone-sex billing service to the purveyors of Internet pornography. In so doing, he would “play a significant role in the birth of electronic commerce,” as The New York Times would diffidently put it twelve years later, “laying the groundwork for electronic transactions conducted with credit cards, opening the doors to the first generation of e-commerce startups.”
In truth, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this step to the evolution of the Web. Somewhat contrary to The New York Times‘s statement, Richard Gordon did not invent e-commerce from whole cloth; it had been going on on closed commercial services like CompuServe since the mid-1980s. Because those services were run from the top down and, indeed, were billing their customers’ credit cards every month already, they were equipped out of the box to handle online transactions in a way that the open, anarchic Web was not. Netscape provided the necessary core technology for this purpose when they added support for encrypted traffic to their Navigator browser. But it was Gordon and a handful of others like him who actually made commerce on the Web a practical reality, blazing trails that would soon be followed by more respectable institutions; without Gordon’s Electronic Card Services to show the way, there would never have been a PayPal.
In the meantime, Gordon happily accepted babes in the woods like Jen Peterson and Dave Miller, who wouldn’t have had a clue how to set up a merchant’s account with any one of the credit-card companies, much less all of them for maximum customer convenience. “He was the house for Internet porn in those days,” says one Steven Peisner, who worked for him. “At that time, if you had anything to do with Internet porn, you called Electronic Card Systems.”
Thanks to Gordon, Jen and Dave were able to sign up with a real hosting company and start charging $5 for six months of full access to their site in early 1996. By the turn of the millennium, the price was $15 for one month.
The site lost some of its innocence in another sense as well over the course of time. What had begun with cheesecake nudie pics turned into real hardcore porn, as others came to join in on the fun. “I would be with other girls and Jen would be with other dudes and most of the time, that was in the context of picture taking,” says Dave. “People said, ‘Oh Jen and Dave, you’ve gone away from your roots, you’re no longer the sweet innocent couple that you were. Now, you’ll screw anybody.'”
Their unlikely careers in porn largely ended after they had twins in 2005, by which time their quaint little site was already an anachronism in a sea of cutthroat porn aggregators. Today Dave works in medical administration and runs pub quizzes on the weekends, while Jen maintains their sexy archive and runs a home. They have no regrets about their former lives. “We were just looking to have a good time and spread the ideals of body-positivity and sex-positivity,” says Jen. “Even if we didn’t yet have the words for those things.”
A Pennsylvanian college student named Jennifer Ringley was a trailblazer of a different stripe, billing herself as a “lifecaster.” In 1996, she saw an early webcam, capable of capturing still images only, for sale in the Dickinson College bookstore and just had to have it. “You could become the human version of FishCam,” joked one of her friends, referring to a camera that had been set up in an aquarium in Mountain View, California, to deliver a live feed, refreshed every three to four seconds, to anyone who visited its website. Having been raised in a nudist family, Ringley was no shrinking violet; she found the idea extremely appealing.
The result was JenniCam, which showed what was going on in her dorm room around the clock — albeit, this being the 1990s, in the form of a linear series of still photographs only, snapped at the rather bleary-eyed resolution of 320 X 240. “Whatever you’re seeing isn’t staged or faked,” she said, “and while I don’t claim to be the most interesting person in the world, there’s something compelling about real life that staging it wouldn’t bring to the medium.” She was at pains to point out that JenniCam was a social experiment, one of many that were making the news on the early Web at the time. Whatever else it was, it wasn’t porn; if you happened to catch her changing clothes or making out with a boy she’d brought back to the room or even pleasuring herself alone, that was just another aspect of the life being documented.
One cannot help but feel that she protested a bit too much. After all, her original domain name was boudoir.org, and she wasn’t above performing the occasional striptease for the camera. Even if she hadn’t played for the camera so obviously at times, we would have reason to doubt whether the scenes it captured were the same as they would have been had the camera not been present. For, as documentary-film theory teaches us, the “fly on the wall” is a myth; the camera always changes the scene it captures by the very fact of its presence.
Like Jen and Dave, Ringley first put her pictures online for free, but later she began charging for access. At its peak, her site was getting millions of hits every day. “The peep-show nature of the medium was enough to get viewers turned on,” writes Patchen Barss in The Erotic Engine, a study of pornography. “Just having a window into a real person’s life was plenty — people would pay for the occasional chance to observe Ringley’s non-porn-star-like sex life, or to just catch her walking naked to the shower.”
Ringley inspired countless imitators, some likewise insisting that they were engaged in a social experiment or art project, others leaning more frankly into titillation. Some of the shine went off the experiment for her personally in 2000, when she was captured enjoying a tryst with the fiancé of another “cam girl.” (Ah, what a strange world it was already becoming…) The same mainstream media that had been burning with high-minded questions to ask her a few years earlier now labeled her a “redheaded little minx” and “amoral man-trapper.” Still, she kept her site going until December 31, 2003, making a decent living from a 95-percent male clientele who wanted the thrill of being a Peeping Tom without the dangers.
Sites like Jen and Dave’s and to some extent Jennifer Ringley’s existed on the hazy border between amateur exhibitionism and porn as a business. Much of their charm, if that is a word that applies in your opinion, stems from their ramshackle quality. But other keen minds realized early on that online porn was going to be huge, and set out far more methodically to capitalize on it.
One of the most interesting and unique of them was the stripper and model who called herself Danni Ashe, who marketed herself as a living, breathing fantasy of nerdy males, a “geek with big breasts,” as she put it. Well before becoming an online star, she was a headline attraction at strip clubs all over the country, thanks to skin-magazine “profiles” and soft-core videos. “I ventured onto the Internet and quickly got into the Usenet newsgroups, where I was hearing that my pictures were being posted, and started talking to people,” she said later. “I spent several really intense months in the newsgroups, and it was out of those conversations that the idea for Danni’s Hard Drive was born.” According to her official lore, she learned HTML during a vacation to the Bahamas and coded up her site all by herself from scratch.
In contrast to the sites we’ve already met, Danni’s Hard Drive was designed to make money from the start. It went live with a subscription price of $20 per month, which provided access to hundreds of nude and semi-nude photographs of the proprietor and, soon enough, many other women as well. Ashe dealt only in pictorials not much more explicit than those seen in Playboy, both in the case of her own pictures and those of others. As Samantha Cole writes, “Danni never shot any content with men and never posted images of herself with anything — even a sex toy — inside her.” Despite its defiantly soft-core nature in a field where extremism usually reigns supreme, some accounts claim that Danni’s Hard Drive was the busiest single site on the Internet for a couple of years, consuming more bandwidth each day than the entirety of Central America. It was as innovative as it was profitable, setting into place more building blocks of the post-millennial Web. Most notably, it pioneered online video streaming via a proprietary technology called DanniVision more than half a decade before YouTube came to be.
Danni’s Hard Drive had 25,000 subscribers by the time DanniVision was added to its portfolio of temptations in 1999. It weathered the dot.com crash of the year 2000 with nary a scratch. In 2001, the business employed 45 people behind the cameras — almost all of them women — and turned an $8 million annual profit. Savvy businesswoman that she was, Ashe sold out at the perfect moment, walking away with millions in her pocket in 2004.
Equally savvy was one Beth Mansfield, who realized, like Richard Gordon before her, that the easiest and safest way to earn money from porn was as a facilitator rather than a maker. She was a 36-year-old unemployed accountant and single mother living with her children in a trailer in Alabama when she heard the buzz about the Web and resolved to find a way to make a living online. She decided that porn was the easiest content area in which to do so, even though she had no personal interest in it whatsoever. It was just smart business; she saw a hole in an existing market and figured out how to fill it.
Said hole was the lack of a good way to find the porn you found most exciting. With automated site-indexing Web crawlers still in their infancy, most people’s on-ramp to the Web at the time was the Yahoo! home page, an exhaustive list of hand-curated links, a sort of Internet Yellow Pages. But Yahoo! wasn’t about to risk offending the investors who had just rewarded it with the splashiest IPO this side of Netscape’s by getting into porn curation.
So, Mansfield decided to make her own Yahoo! for porn. She called it Persian Kitty, after the family cat. Anyone could submit a porn site to her to be listed, after which she would do her due diligence by ensuring it was what they said it was and add it to one or more of her many fussily specific categories. She compared her relationship with the sex organs she spent hours per day staring at to that of a gynecologist: “I’m probably the strangest adult cruiser there is. I go and look at the structure [of the site, not the sex organs!], look at what they offer, count the images, and I’m out.” While a simple listing on Persian Kitty was free, she made money — quite a lot of money — by getting the owners of porn sites to pay for banner advertisements and priority placement within the categories, long before such online advertising went mainstream. Like Danni Ashe, she eventually sold her business for a small fortune and walked away.
We’ve met an unexpected number of female entrepreneurs thus far. And indeed, if you’re looking for positives to take away from the earliest days of online porn, one of them must surely be the number of women who took advantage of the low barriers to entry in online media to make or facilitate porn on their own terms — a welcome contrast to the notoriously exploitive old-school porn industry, a morally reprehensible place regardless of your views on sexual mores. “People have an idea of who runs a sexually oriented site on the Web,” said Danni Ashe during a chance encounter with the film critic Roger Ebert at Cannes. “They think of a dirty old man with a cigar. A Mafia type.” However you judged her, she certainly didn’t fit that stereotype.
Sadly, though, the stereotype became more and more the rule as time went on and the money waiting to be made from sex on the Web continued to escalate almost exponentially. By the turn of the millennium, the online porn industry was mostly controlled by men, just like the offline one. In the end, that is to say, Richard Gordon rather than Danni Ashe or Beth Mansfield became the archetypal porn entrepreneur online as well.
Another of the new bosses who were the same as the old was Ron “Fantasy Man” Levi, an imposing amalgamation of muscles, tattoos, and hair tonic who looked and lived like a character out of a mob movie. Having made his first fortune as the owner of a network of phone-sex providers, Levi, like Gordon before him, turned to the Web as the logical next frontier. His programmers developed the technology behind what we now refer to as “online affiliate marketing,” yet another of the mainstays of modern e-commerce, in a package he called the “XXX Counter.”
In a sense, it was just a super-powered version of what Beth Mansfield was already doing on Persian Kitty. By taking advantage of cookies — small chunks of persistent information that a Web browser can be asked to store on a user’s hard drive, that can then be used to track that user’s progress from site to site — the XXX Counter was able to see exactly what links had turned a sex-curious surfer into a paying customer of one or more porn sites.
This technology is almost as important to the commercial Web of today as the ability to accept credit cards. It’s employed by countless online stores from Amazon on down, being among other things the reason that a profession with the title of “online influencer” exists today. (Oh, what a strange world we live in…) Patchen Barss:
The esoteric computer technology which originally merely allowed EuroNubiles.com to know when PantyhosePlanet.com had sent some customers their way is today a key part of how Amazon, iTunes, eBay, and thousands of other online retailers work. Each offers a commission system for referring sites that send paying traffic their way. They rarely acknowledge that this key part of their business model was developed and refined by the adult industry.
All of the stories and players we’ve met thus far, along with many, many more, added up to a thriving industry, long before respectable e-commerce was much more than a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’s eye. Wired magazine reported in its December 1997 issue that an extraordinary 28,000 adult sites now existed on the World Wide Web, and that one or more of them were visited by 30 percent of all Internet-connected computers every single month. Estimates of the annual revenues they were bringing in ranged from $100 million to $1.2 billion. The joke in Silicon Valley and Wall Street alike was that porn was the only thing yet making real money on the Web (as opposed to the funny money of IPOs and venture capitalists, a product of aspirations rather than operations). Porn was the only form of online content that people had as yet definitively shown themselves to be willing — eager, in fact — to pay for. From the same Wired article:
Within the information-and-entertainment category — sales of online content, as opposed to consumer goods and financial services — commercial sex sites are almost the only ones in the black. Other content providers, operating in an environment that puts any offering that doesn’t promise an orgasm at a competitive disadvantage, are still trying to come up with a viable business model. ESPN SportsZone may be one of the most popular content sites on the Web, but most of what it offers is free. Online game developers can’t figure out whether to impose a flat fee or charge by the hour or rely on ad sales. USA Today had to cut the monthly subscription fee on its website from $15 to $13 and finally to nothing. Among major print publications, only The Wall Street Journal has managed to impose a blanket subscription fee.
“Sex and money,” observes Mike Wheeler, president of MSNBC Desktop Video, a Web-based video news service for the corporate market. “Those are the two areas you can charge for.”
The San Francisco Chronicle put it more succinctly at about the same time: “There’s a two-word mantra for people who want to make money on the Internet — sex sells.”
Ironically, the Communications Decency Act — the law that had first prompted so many online porn operators to lock their content behind paywalls — was already history by the time the publications wrote these words. The Supreme Court had struck it down once and for all in June of 1997, calling it a gross violation of the right to free speech. Nevertheless, the paywalled porn sites remained. Too many people were making too much money for it to be otherwise. In attempting to stamp out online porn, Senators Coats and Exon had helped to create a monster beyond their wildest nightmares.
I could keep on going, through online technology after online technology. For example, take the video-conferencing systems that have become such a mainstay of business life around the world since the pandemic. Porn was their first killer app, after some enterprising entrepreneurs figured out that the only thing better than phone sex was phone sex with video. The porn mavens even anticipated — ominously, some might say — the business models of modern-day social-media sites. “The consumers are the content!” crowed one of them in the midst of setting up a site for amateur porn stars to let it all hang out. The vast majority of that deluge of new porn that now gets uploaded every day comes from amateurs who expect little or nothing in payment beyond the thrill of knowing that others are getting off on watching them. The people hosting this material understand what Richard Gordon, Beth Mansfield and Ron Levi knew before them. Allow me to repeat it one more time, just for good measure: the real money is in porn facilitation, not in porn production.
In light of all this, it’s small wonder that nobody talked much about porn on CD-ROM after 1996, that AdultDex became all about online sex, showcasing products like a “$100,000 turnkey cyberporn system” — a porn site in a box, perfect for those looking to break into the Web’s hottest sector in a hurry. “The whole Internet is being driven by the adult industry,” said one AdultDex exhibitor who asked not to be named. “If all this were made illegal tomorrow, the Internet would go back to being a bunch of scientists discussing geek stuff in email.” That might have been overstating the case just a bit, but there was no denying that virtual sex was at the vanguard of the most revolutionary development in mass communications since the printing press. The World Wide Web had fulfilled the promise of the seedy ROM.
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Sources: The books How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex by Samantha Cole, Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age by Frederick S. Lane III, The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise by David Kushner, The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, and The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession by Kelsy Burke. Wired of February 1997 and December 1997; Time of July 1995; San Francisco Chronicle of November 19 1997; San Diego Tribune of May 8 2017; New York Times of August 1 2003 and May 1 2004; Wall Street Journal of May 20 1997. Online sources include “Sex Sells, Doesn’t It?” Mark Gimein on Salon, Jen and Dave’s current (porn-free) home page, and “‘I Started Really Getting Into It’: Seven Pioneers of Amateur Porn Look Back” by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay at The Cut.
Finally, for a highly fictionalized and sensationalized but entertaining and truthy tale about the early days of online porn, see the 2009 movie Middle Men.
Fair warning: although there’s no nudity in the pictures below, the text of this article does contain frank descriptions of the human anatomy and sexual acts.
If I’m showing people what a CD-ROM can do, and I try to show them the Kennedy assassination, their eyes glaze over. But if I show them an adult title, they perk right up.
— John Williams of Sierra On-Line, 1995
As long as humans have had technology, they’ve been using it for titillation. A quarter of a million years ago, they were carving female figurines with exaggerated breasts, buttocks, and vulvae out of stone. Well before they started using fired clay to make pottery for the storage of food, they were using the same material to make better versions of these “Venus figurines,” some of them so explicit that the archaeology textbooks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries didn’t dare to reproduce or even describe them. And then as soon as humans had pigments and dyes to hand, they used them to paint dirty pictures on the walls of their caves.
Immediately after the world’s first known system of writing came to be in Mesopotamia, the people of that region began using it for naughty stories. (In one of them, a new wife tells her husband to place his hand in her “goodly place,” promising to compensate him in kind thereafter: “Let me caress you. My precious caress is more savory than honey.”) The ancient Greeks covered their household and decorative items with sexual imagery. And the Romans too were enthusiastic and uninhibited pornographers, as evidenced by the famous erotic wall frescoes inside Pompeii’s brothel.
Things changed somewhat in Europe with the rise of Christianity, a religion which, unlike the pagan belief systems that preceded it, framed the questions surrounding sex — whether you did it, with whom you did it, how you did it, even how and how much you thought about doing it — as issues of intense spiritual significance. “To be carnally minded is death,” wrote Saint Paul.
Yet the vicarious desires of the flesh couldn’t be quelled even by the prospect of an afterlife of eternal torment. Porn simply went underground, where it has remained to a large extent to this day. The Decameron of Boccaccio and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, two of the most celebrated examples of Medieval literature, preserve some of the bawdy tales of promiscuous priests and nubile nuns that the largely illiterate peasantry told one another when they gathered in taverns out of earshot of their social betters.
The Gutenberg Bible of the fifteenth century was followed closely by less rarefied printed books, with titles like The Errant Prostitute. In the seventeenth century, the renowned English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote ashamedly of how he had found a copy of a book called The Girls’ School in a second-hand store, and spent so much time perusing its pages whilst, er, indulging himself that he finally felt compelled to burn “that idle, roguish book.” The book generally considered the first true English novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, appeared in 1740; John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the first English erotic novel, was published just eight years later. It spawned a lively market for written erotica, the consumption of which, followed perhaps by a visit to a brothel or two, became the Victorian Age’s version of sex education for gentlemen.
And then along came photography. Some of the first photographs ever taken were of nude women and cavorting couples; traveling circuses sold them from under the table to furtive men while their wives and children were off buying sweetmeats. Improved photographic techniques, combined with cheap “pulp” paper and cheaper printing technologies led to the first mass-market “skin” magazine in 1931: The Nudist, a publication of the American Sunbathing Association, who knew perfectly well that most of their audience wasn’t buying the magazine for tips on how best to soak up the rays. Throughout modern times, pornographers have often couched titillation under just such a veneer of “educational value.” And another, even more enduring truth of modern porn was also on display in The Nudist‘s pages: the camera lens focused most lovingly on the women. The producers and consumers of visual pornography have always been mostly men, although the reasons why this has been the case are matters for debate among psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. (The opposite is largely the case for textual erotica in the post-photographic age, for whatever that’s worth.)
By the time The Nudist made the scene, still images of nakedness already had serious competition. Back in 1896, Thomas Edison had released a movie called The Kiss to widespread outrage. “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time,” ran the description in Edison’s catalog, rather overselling the thrill of an 18-second movie that ends with little more than a chaste series of henpecks. But never fear, matters quickly escalated from there. The first known full-fledged porn film appeared in 1908. A synopsis of the action shows that, when it comes to porn as so many other things, those wise words from the Book of Ecclesiastes (“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun”) ring true: “A woman was seen pleasuring herself with a dildo, then another man and woman joined her for a threesome, involving lots of oral sex before intercourse.” By the 1920s, a full-fledged “blue” film industry was thriving in Hollywood alongside the more respectable one, using many of the same sets and in some cases even the same performers. The arrival of the Hays Code in 1933 put a damper on some of the fun, but the blue movies never went away, just slunk further underground. During the Second World War, the American military turned a blind eye to the “stag films” that infiltrated its ranks at every level; those who made them said it was their patriotic duty to help the boys in uniform through all those lonely nights in the barracks.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought big changes to movies, both above- and below-ground. Suddenly things that hadn’t been seen in respectable fare since 1933 — bare female breasts and sex scenes prominent among them — became commonplace in even the most conservative Middle American movie houses. At the same time, the arrival of cheap Super 8 cameras and projectors combined with the general loosening of social mores to yield what some connoisseurs still call the “golden age” of porn. To distinguish themselves from a less prudish mainstream-film industry, the purveyors of porn pushed boundaries of their own, into every imaginable combination of people and occasionally animals, with ever tighter shots of the actual equipment in action, as it were.
By 1970, there were more than 750 porn-only movie theaters in the United States alone. In 1973, a pornographic comedy called Deep Throat, a timeless tale of a woman born with her clitoris on the wrong end of her torso, became an international sensation, shown even by many “legitimate” theaters. Made for $25,000, it eventually grossed $100 million, enough to make it far and away the most successful film of all time when measured in terms of return on investment.
At the time, Deep Throat was widely heralded as the future of porn, but the era of mainstream “porno chic” which it ushered in proved short-lived. Instead of yielding more blockbusters in the style of respectable Hollywood, the porn industry that came after was distinguished by the sheer quantity of material it rolled out for every taste and kink. This explosion was enabled by the arrival of videotape in 1975; shooting direct to video was cheaper by almost an order of magnitude than even Super 8 film. But even more importantly, videotape players for the home gave the porn hounds and would-be porn hounds of the world a way to consume movies in privacy, thereby giving the porn industry access to millions upon millions of upstanding pillars of their communities who would never have frequented sticky-seated cinemas. Every porno kingpin in the world redoubled his production efforts in response, even as they all rushed en masse to move their libraries of “classics” onto videotape as well. The gold rush that followed made Deep Throat look like the flash in the pan it was. In 1978 and 1979, three quarters of all home movies sold in the United States were porn. That percentage inevitably dropped as the technology went more mainstream in the 1980s, but the raw numbers remained huge. Even in the late 1990s, Americans were still renting $4.2 billion worth of porn on videotape each year.
Advances in voice communication as well were co-opted by porn. The party lines of the 1960s and the pay-per-call services that sprang up in the 1980s were quickly taken over by it: respectively, by people wanting to talk dirty to one another and by people willing to pay a professional to talk dirty to them.
Just why is porn so perpetually on the technological cutting edge, both driving and being driven by each new invention that comes around? Perhaps it’s down to its fundamentally aspirational nature. While voyeurism for the sake of it certainly has a place on the list of human fetishes, for most of its consumers porn is a substitute — by definition a less than ideal one — for something they’re not getting, whether just in that precise moment or in their current life in general. So, they’re always looking for ways to get closer to the real thing, as Walter Kendrick, the author of a book-length history of porn, told The New York Times back in 1994.
Pornography is always unsatisfied. It’s always a substitute for the contact between two bodies, so there’s a drive behind it that doesn’t exist in other genres. Pornographers have been the most inventive and resourceful users of whatever medium comes along because they and their audience have always wanted innovations. Pornographers are excluded from the mainstream channels, so they look around for something new, and the audience has a desire to try any innovation that gives them greater realism or immediacy.
If you look at the history of pornography and new technologies, the track record has been pretty good. Usually everyone has come out ahead. The pornography people have gotten what they want, which is a more vivid way to portray sex. And the technology has benefited from their experimentation. The need for innovation in pornography is so great that it usually gets to a medium first and finds out what can be done and what can’t.
If early computers are not as strong an example of this phenomenon as photography, film, and videotape, that perhaps speaks more to the nature and limitations of that particular technology than it does to any lack of abstract interest in using computers for getting off. Yet sex definitely wasn’t absent from the picture even here. I’ve written elsewhere on this site of how the men who worked at Bell Labs in the 1960s contrived ways to put naked women on their monitor screens using grids of alphanumeric characters in lieu of a proper bitmap, of how Scott Adams sold games of Strip Dice alongside his iconic early adventure games, and of how Sierra On-Line once made a mint with the naughty text adventure Softporn, about a loser who wishes he was a swinger trying to navigate the dating scene of the late disco era.
Softporn may have had a name that no big publisher like Sierra would have dared use much after its 1981 release date, but in other ways it became the template for the mainstream games industry’s handling of sex. The rule was that a little bit of sexiness was okay if it was presented in the context of comedy. Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos went this way to significant success in 1986, helping to convince Sierra to revisit the basic premise of Softporn in the graphical adventure Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards the following year. Larry starred in a whole series of games after his first one proved a huge hit, becoming the poster child for risqué computer gaming. His success in turn brought more games of a similar style from other publishers, from Accolade’s Les Manley (yes, really) series to Legend’s Spellcasting series. The players of such games walked a fine line between being vicariously titillated alongside their protagonists and laughing at them for being the losers they were.
Still, even the Church Lady would have blanched at calling such games porn; they were in fact no more explicit than the typical PG-13-rated frat-boy movie. To find pictures of actual naked women on computers, you would have to download them — slowly! — from a BBS, or buy a still less respectable game like Artwox’s Strip Poker via mail order.A few years ago, I went to a retro-gaming exhibition here in Denmark with a friend of mine. We got to talking with a woman who worked at the museum hosting it, who told us of her own memories from those times. It seems her brother had managed to acquire a copy of Strip Poker for his Commodore Amiga. Being a lover of card games, she tried to play it, but all the stupid pictures kept getting in the way. “I just wanted to play poker!” she lamented. I suspect this story may have something to tell us about the differences between the genders, but I have no idea what it is. Few distributors or retailers would risk handling such titles, what with the mainstream culture’s general impression that any and all forms of digital entertainment were inherently kids’ stuff.
But by 1993 or so, that impression was at last beginning to change. The arrival of mouse-driven user interfaces, decent graphics and sound, and CD-ROM had made “multimedia” one of the buzzwords of the zeitgeist. Part and parcel of the multimedia boom was a new generation of “interactive movies,” which featured real human actors playing their roles according to your instructions. Computer games, went the conventional wisdom, were growing up to become sophisticated adult entertainment — potentially in all senses of the word “adult.” Just like the makers of conventional movies during the 1960s, the makers of these interactive movies were eager to push the boundaries, to explore previously taboo subjects and see how much they could get away with. They had to be careful; 1993 was also the year of an overheated Senate hearing on videogame content, partially prompted by an early interactive movie for the Sega Genesis console called Night Trap. But be that as it may, many of the people behind interactive movies believed strongly in the principle that they should be allowed to show anything that a non-porn traditional film might, as long as, like such a film, they played with an open hand, disclosing the nature of the content to possible buyers upfront.
The pioneer of the risqué — but not pornographic — interactive movie was a game called Voyeur, released in 1993 for the Philips CD-i, a multimedia set-top box for the living room — don’t call it a games console! — that was marketed primarily to adults. The following year, Voyeur made it to ordinary computers as well.
Masterminded by David Riordan, whose earlier attempt at an interactive movie It Came from the Desert has aged much better, Voyeur casts you as a private dick surveilling a potential candidate for the American presidency, a fellow who makes Gary Hart and Bill Clinton look like choirboys. Everything from infidelity to incest, from sado-masochism to an eventual murder is going on in his house. But, like so many productions of this ilk, the game is caught between the urge to titillate and the fear of going too far and getting itself blacklisted. The end result is a weird mixture of the provocative and the prudish, as inimitably described by Charles Ardai, the most entertaining reviewer ever to write for Computer Gaming World magazine.
For those connoisseurs of striptease who prefer the tease to the strip, Voyeur should be a source of endless delight. Women are forever unfastening their bra straps in this game, or opening their towels while conveniently facing away from the camera, or walking around in unbuttoned vests that don’t quite reveal what you think they’re going to, or leaning toward each other for lesbian kisses that somehow never get completed. Men have it worse in some ways: they get led around in bondage collars, handcuffed to bedposts, and violently groped by their sisters. No one actually manages to have sex, though; all they do is go around interrupting each other. No wonder that after several hours of this someone ends up murdered.
Coming a year after a panties-less Sharon Stone had shocked movie-goers in that scene in Basic Instinct, in a time when even network television shows like NYPD Blue were beginning to flirt with nudity, Voyeur was pretty tame stuff, notable only for existing on a computer. There was very little actual game to Voyeur, even by comparison to most interactive movies; as the player, your choices were limited to deciding which window to peep into at any given time. Yet it attracted a storm of press coverage and sold very well by the standards of the time — enough to prompt a belated 1996 sequel that was if anything even more problematic as a game and that didn’t sell anywhere near as well.
In fact, only one other game of this stripe can be called an outright commercial success. That game was Sierra’s 1995 release Phantasmagoria, designed against type by Roberta Williams, best known as the creator of the family-friendly King’s Quest series. Having written about it at some length in another article, I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that Phantasmagoria became Sierra’s best-selling game to date, despite or because of content that was not quite as transgressive as the game’s advertising made it appear. In his memoir, Sierra’s co-founder (and Roberta’s husband) Ken Williams speaks of the curious dance — two steps forward, one step back — that interactive movies like this one were constantly engaged in.
There was a scene in Phantasmagoria which was shot with Victoria Morsell, the heroine of the story, topless. Roberta wrote the scene and helped direct it. If it were a horror film no one would have thought anything about it, other than giving the film an “R” rating. But this was a videogame, and the market hadn’t fully realized yet that interactive stories weren’t always just for kids. When it came time to release the game, we edited [it] to only show some side-boob. Even with only a hint of nudity, Phantasmagoria was not a game we felt was appropriate for children. [We] voluntarily self-rated the product with a large “M” for Mature.
But Ken Williams must have believed the market was evolving quickly, because just a year after the first Phantasmagoria Sierra released a sequel in name only — it had nothing to do with the characters or story of the first — called Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, which proudly strutted all of the stuff that its predecessor had only hinted at. Designed by Lorelei Shannon rather than Roberta Williams, A Puzzle of Flesh was as sexually explicit as any mainstream game would get during the 1990s, an interactive exploitation flick steeped in sado-masochism, bondage, and the bare boobies that had been so conspicuously lacking from Roberta’s game. Like too many Sierra adventure games, its writing and design both left something to be desired. And yet it was an important experiment in its way, demonstrating to everyone who might have been contemplating making a game like it that there really were boundaries which they would be well advised not to cross. In contrast to many organs of game journalism, Computer Gaming World did deign to give A Puzzle of Flesh a review, but said review oozes disgust: “Playing this game, if one can grace this morally reprehensible product with such happy terms as ‘play’ and ‘game,’ is extremely unpleasant; to do so ‘for fun’ requires a fascination with hardcore schlock or a hardened attitude toward horror and exploitive erotica. You have been duly warned.”
It speaks to one of the peculiarities of American culture that the magazine could work itself into such a lather of moral outrage over this game whilst praising the booby-less ultra-violence of HyperBlade (“The 3D Battlesport of the Future!”) in the very same issue. (“Fractured skull. Severed bronchial artery. Shattered tibia. This will eventually come as music to your ears. Want to cut an opponent’s head off and throw it in the goal? Pretty brazen, but that’s okay too.”) But such were the conditions on the ground, and publishers had to learn to live with them. Sierra never made another full-fledged interactive movie after A Puzzle of Flesh. The genre as a whole slowly died as the limitations of games made from spliced-together pieces of canned video became clear to even the most casual players. The dream of a games industry that regularly delivered R-rated content in terms of sex as well as violence blew away like so much chaff on the breeze alongside the rest of the interactive-movie fad. Mind you, games would continue to be full of big-breasted, scantily-clad women to feed the male gaze, but gamers wouldn’t get to see them in action in the bedroom.
Yet this isn’t to say that there was no sex whatsoever to be had on CD-ROM. Far from it. Even as the above-ground industry’s fad for interactive movies was swelling up and then petering out, there was plenty of explicit sex available for consumption on “seedy ROM,” the name a wag writing for The New York Times coined for the underground genre. A cottage industry sprang up around the technology of CD-ROM when it was still in its infancy — an industry which it would be disarmingly easy for a historian like me, trolling through my old issues of Computer Gaming World and the like, to never realize ever existed. This has always been the way with porn; despite its eternal popularity, it lives in the shadows, segregated from other forms of media whose consumers are less ashamed of their habit. It is forced to exist in its own parallel universe of distribution and sales — and yet people who are determined to see it always find a way to meet it where it lives. This was as true of porn during the multimedia-computing boom as it has been in every other technological era and context.
The pioneer of the seedy-ROM field, coming already in 1990 — fully three years before Voyeur, at a time when the standards around CD-ROM had barely been set and most people had not yet even heard of it — was a product of a tiny company called Reactor, Incorporated. It called itself Virtual Valerie. Implemented using Apple’s HyperCard authoring system, it plays a bit like The Manhole with sex; you can explore your girlfriend Valerie’s apartment, discovering a surprising number of secret paths and Easter eggs therein, or you can spend your time exploring Valerie herself. Relying on hand-drawn pixel graphics rather than digitized photographs or video, it’s whimsical in personality — almost innocent by contrast with what would come later — but it nevertheless demonstrated that there was an eager market for this sort of thing. “A left-handed mouse designed for use by right-handed people will be a hot seller,” wrote Anne Gregor only partly jokingly in CD-ROM Today, one of the few glossy magazines that dared to cover this space at all.
Virtual Valerie was the canary in the coal mine. In her wake, dozens of companies plunged into making and selling porn on CD-ROM, smelling an opportunity akin to the porn-on-videotape boom of the recent past. They sold disks full of murky images downloaded from Usenet, where a lively trade in porn went on alongside lively discussions. They sold old porn movies on CDs, the better for gentlemen to view on the computer in the home office, away from the prying eyes of the wife and kids. (The Voyager Company’s version of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night was promoted in 1993 as the very first full-length movie on CD-ROM, but it actually wasn’t this at all: it was rather the first non-pornographic movie on CD-ROM.) And then there were the more ambitious, genuinely interactive efforts that followed in the footsteps of Virtual Valerie. “Virtual girlfriends” became a veritable sub-genre unto itself for a while. Girlfriend Teri, for example, claimed a vocabulary of 3000 words. Journalist Nancie S. Martin called her perfect for men who preferred “a woman you can talk to, who, unlike most real women, has no opinions of her own. While she can’t discuss Proust, she can say, ‘It’s so big!’ on demand.”
It was proof of a longstanding axiom in media: no matter how daunting the obstacles to distribution, porn will out. When American CD-duplication houses refused their business, the purveyors of seedy ROMs found alternatives in Canada. When no existing software distributor or retailer was willing to touch their products, when the big computer and gaming magazines too rejected them or allowed them only small advertisements sequestered in their back pages, they advertised in the skin magazines and urban newspapers instead, and sealed the deal through mail order and through porn-rental shops that stocked their CDs alongside the usual videotapes. Those who joined this latest porn gold rush were a variegated lot, ranging from the likes of Playboy and Penthouse, whose libraries of photographs stretched back decades, to hardcore pornography pimpers like Vivid Media with catalogs of their own that were equally ripe for re-purposing, to fresh faces who were excited about the overall potential of multimedia, and saw porn as a way to make money from it or to nudge it along as a consumer-facing technology, or both.
One of these newcomers to porn was New Machine Publishing, founded by one Larry Miller and two other 25-year-old men in 1992. “At first, we thought we’d do a CD-ROM on the rain forest,” Miller told The Los Angeles Times three years later. “It was gonna be interactive, have bird calls, native music, all that stuff. Then we discovered we were not thinking in real-world terms. No one would have bought it.” Instead they acquired a bunch of footage from a local porno-production company and stuck it on a CD alongside a frame story not that far away in spirit from Voyeur: you were a guest at a hotel where all the rooms were wired for video and sound, and you were in the catbird seat in the control room. The difference, of course, was that their “interactive porn movie,” which they called Nightwatch, didn’t shirk from the money shots. They took 500 Nightwatch discs to a Macworld show in San Francisco and sold every single one of them, at $70 a pop. Attendees “would cruise by,” remembered Miller. “Then they would get to the end of the aisle and do a U-turn.”
It turned out that porn was immune to the infelicities of this early era of digital video that caused customers to turn away from more upstanding multimedia productions. While few could convince themselves to overlook the fact that Voyager’s A Hard Day’s Night played in a resolution more suited to a postage stamp than a computer monitor, they were happy to peer at Nightwatch‘s even blearier clips, jittering before them enigmatically at all of five frames per second. New Machine plowed their Nightwatch profits into The Interactive Adventures of Seymore Butts (yes, really), which did for Leisure Suit Larry what their previous seedy ROM had done for Voyeur. Everyone knew the drill of this sort of scenario by now: another loser protagonist out on the town trying to score. Except that Seymore would get lucky in a way that Larry or Les and their players could hardly have begun to imagine.
Indeed, New Machine was now able to pay for their own film shoots. Robert A. Jones of The Los Angeles Times was permitted to visit the set one day, and returned to bear witness to the ultimate hollowness of mechanistic sex without emotion or context: “Watching it unfold, it’s hard to believe anything of redeeming value could be salvaged from this scene of bored sordidness.” There has always been money to be made in some people’s compulsion to keep watching porn long after the novelty is gone. Why should seedy ROMs be any different?
But, you might be asking, how much money are we talking about here? Alas, that’s a tough question to answer with any degree of certainty. Because porn lives underground, both abhorring the light of mainstream attention and being likewise abhorred, it has always been notoriously difficult to figure out how much money people are actually making from the stuff. Porn on CD-ROM is no exception. That said, the sheer quantity of it that was out there by the middle of the 1990s indicates that real money was being made by at least some of its providers. To be sure, no one was selling discs in the quantities of Voyeur or Phantasmagoria. But then again, they didn’t have to, thanks to vastly cheaper production budgets and the ability to charge a premium price. This latter has always been one of the advantages of peddling smut: most people just want to take their porn and disappear back into blessed anonymity, not haggle and bargain hunt.
We do have some data points. The founders of New Machine Publishing alluded vaguely to selling “tens of thousands” of copies of Seymore Butts, more than many a more wholesome point-and-click adventure game of the era. The first Penthouse Virtual Photo Shoot disc — “Be the photographer!” — reportedly sold 30,000 copies in its first three months. (In another testament to its popularity, no fewer than five additional volumes, featuring different sets of girls for the camera’s roving eye to capture, were later released.) Vivid Entertainment’s interactive division reported having four 10,000-plus sellers on CD-ROM already in the spring of 1994, barely six months after its founding. Fay Sharp, who acted as a distributor and liaison between seedy-ROM makers and mom-and-pop porn shops all over the country, claimed that $260 million worth of porn on disc was sold in that same year. Pixis Interactive claimed multiple titles with sales of 50,000 to 100,000 units a couple of years after that. For all that such numbers may still have been a drop in the bucket compared to porn on videotape, they could mean serious money for the people involved, with the tantalizing prospect of a lot more where that had come from in the future, once multimedia personal computers had become as ubiquitous in American homes as videocassette players. In short, and despite the fact that seedy ROMs would never blow up quite as spectacularly as many of the folks involved in them expected — we’ll get to the reasons for that shortly — all signs are that some people in this market did very well for themselves for a while, thanks to sales that in many cases seem to have dwarfed the numbers racked up by, say, The Voyager Company’s lineup of high-brow explorations of history and science.
Perhaps the best testimony to the real if brief-lived success of porn on CD-ROM is a brouhaha that erupted at COMDEX, the buttoned-down computer industry’s biggest trade show, taking place in November of each year in Las Vegas. In 1993, The New York Times reported with considerable surprise that porn had become one of the highlights of the show in the opinion of businessmen who were ostensibly there to investigate decidedly unsexy server racks and backup systems and the like.
“CD-ROM brings unimaginable quantities of knowledge to those for whom information is their most valuable asset,” said Bill Kelly, president of PC Compo Net of La Habra, California, who sells such knowledge bases as L.A. Strippers: Bikes & Babes & Rock ‘n’ Roll. PC Compo Net was among a half dozen companies selling CD-ROM titles that depict graphic sex with video, sound, and still images. The displays caused traffic jams in the aisles as the predominantly male computer crowd stopped to gawk. Many customers waved fists of cash. One harried booth clerk noted that CD-ROM is ideal for circumventing Japanese laws restricting pornographic films and magazines, because the mirror-like disks give no clue as to their contents and can easily be slipped through customs in an audio-CD case.
Some COMDEX exhibitors complained about their X-rated neighbors on moral grounds; others said they were pleased by the crowds. One Japanese computer dealer, who asked that his name not be used, said it appears that pornography may be the long-awaited “killer” application that will spur the sale of CD-ROM drives. “People who develop CD-ROM software should be overjoyed that we’re here, because we’re helping sell CD-ROM drives,” said Lawrence Miller, one of three partners in New Machine Publishing of Santa Monica, California, which makes games with explicit sexual content.
Concerned about their show’s image, the COMDEX organizers moved the seedy-ROM exhibits into a dank corner of the basement the following year — an apt metaphor for pornography’s place in polite society, yes, but one the exhibitors themselves considered less than gracious, given that they were by now contributing about half a million dollars to the show’s bottom line. In return, COMDEX couldn’t even be bothered to keep the power on for them all the time down there in the cellar. Its organizers were deaf to their complaints: “COMDEX is a place where people show creative new products for the benefit of the industry. This is not appropriate.”
So, Fay Sharp, a rare woman in porn in a role other than that of performer, set up her own show in 1995 just a few blocks away from that year’s COMDEX. Called AdultDex, its admission charge was just $20 if you could show a COMDEX ticket. “COMDEX is the classroom and AdultDex is recess,” said William Margold of the Free Speech Coalition, one of the new show’s sponsors. About 7500 people came by that first year, while the bigger show’s organizers huffed and hawed and threatened this unwelcome parasite. In the end, though, there was nothing they could do about it.
AdultDex became a regular event thereafter, drawing upwards of 20,000 attendees some years. The scene there was much the same as that in the countless Vegas strip clubs that catered to the same clientele of business road warriors enjoying a taste of freedom from the strictures of family life. (“COMDEX attendees don’t gamble, but they line up in those gentlemen’s clubs,” said the chairwoman of the tourism and convention department at the University of Nevada. “I’ve been on flights coming into Las Vegas sitting next to hookers who fly in just for that week.”) Journalist Samantha Cole describes AdultDex as “men in polo shirts and cheap brown suits standing too close to tanned women in bikinis and leather, or leaning their five-o’clock shadows on their breasts. One thing that’s never changed through decades of Las Vegas porn conferences: in this gin-scented setting, men and women do seem like separate species.”
In 1997, the police raided AdultDex — at the instigation, many suspected, of the COMDEX organizers — and handed out citations for “lewd and dissolute conduct” and “performing a live sex act.” But, as always, the porn show must go on. “We were on CNN, the local TV; we have even had an editorial in the newspaper that was favorable,” said Fay Sharp to Billboard magazine. “It’s giving us the kind of publicity we could never buy. It’s showing [that] adult interactivity is very much in the mainstream.” AdultDex wouldn’t pass into history until 2003, when it expired, like any good parasite, alongside its host, COMDEX itself.
Yet even as Fay Sharp was saying those words in 1997, the nature of the products being peddled at AdultDex was changing markedly. The fact was that the seedy-ROM boom was already past its peak, already starting onto the down slope toward what all those dirty discs have become today: the kitschy detritus of a quaint past, media artifacts which manifestly failed to reach the world-changing heights once predicted for them. Pixis Interactive reported that year that its latest sales figures looked suddenly “ghastly.” The smart folks in the cottage industry were now plotting exit strategies from CD-ROM, which in some cases involved going legit — or at least more legit — in one way or another. The boys behind New Machine, for example, reinvested their Seymore Butts profits into casino games on CD-ROM, then took that concept online. At the turn of the millennium, their virtualvegas.com was one of the most popular online-gaming sites on the Internet.
Meanwhile those digital impresarios who intended to stay in porn were trying to figure out how to execute a dramatic shift in terms of delivery medium. For, just as video had once killed the radio star, the World Wide Web was now all too clearly killing the multimedia CD-ROM, regardless of whether it concerned itself with kinky sex or with the fate of the rain forests. Seedy ROMs wouldn’t disappear because of any shortage of horny boys and men — perish the thought! They would disappear because anything they could do, the Web could do better — cheaper and easier and, best of all, even more anonymously. The fact was that the Web was about to change humanity’s relationship to sex in general to an extent that few of even the most enthusiastic proponents of sex on CD-ROM would have ventured to predict. And, almost equally interestingly, sex was about to change the Web — change not only the sites people surfed to and what they did there, but make the whole place safe for commerce and its filthy lucre in a way that a million wide-eyed idealists like its original inventor Tim Berners-Lee could never have managed.
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 How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex by Samantha Cole, Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age by Frederick S. Lane III, The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise by David Kushner, The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession by Kelsy Burke, and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams; The New York Times of November 21 1993, January 9 1994, and October 4 1995; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994; Electronic Entertainment of August 1994 and August 1995; Wired of July 1995; Computer Gaming World of March 1995, July 1996, and March 1997; Wired of July 1995 and February 1997; The Los Angeles Times of March 19 1995; The San Francisco Chronicle of November 19 1997; frieze of March/April 1996; The Las Vegas Sun of November 19 1996; American Heritage of September/October 2000. Online sources include “Inside AdultDex” by Adi Robertson at The Verge, “COMDEX Trade Show Leaves Vegas” by Chris Jones at Casino City Times, and “History of Sex in Cinema” at filmsite.
|↑1||A few years ago, I went to a retro-gaming exhibition here in Denmark with a friend of mine. We got to talking with a woman who worked at the museum hosting it, who told us of her own memories from those times. It seems her brother had managed to acquire a copy of Strip Poker for his Commodore Amiga. Being a lover of card games, she tried to play it, but all the stupid pictures kept getting in the way. “I just wanted to play poker!” she lamented. I suspect this story may have something to tell us about the differences between the genders, but I have no idea what it is.|
A moving train at night is an incredible place to hear stories. Like a campfire.
— Jordan Mechner’s journal, February 24, 1992
I was in Germany once, standing in a train station at night. A train was coming into the station, moonlight glinting off its steel sides. For some reason this image was very vivid to me, and I remember thinking, well, that’s modern European history at a glance.
— Tomi Pierce, 1997
In the years after he completed Prince of Persia and saw it become one of the biggest international videogame hits of the early 1990s, Jordan Mechner did something that one can wish more game designers would find the time to do: he unplugged for a while, leaving games and the sometimes blinkered culture that surrounded them behind as he went off to see the world. From a base in Paris, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. Young, good-looking, rich, talented, and linguistically precocious — his French and Spanish were soon almost as good as his English — he lived “a life right out of Henry James,” as one of his friends told him, whilst lightly supervising his publisher Brøderbund Software’s progress on the Prince of Persia sequel out of his apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement. He was, as he puts it today, “in a rare and fortunate position that few creative artists ever get to experience. At age 28, I was being offered a dazzling array of opportunities to write my own ticket.” Uncertain whether he wanted to keep making games or return to his early dream of becoming a filmmaker, he went to Cuba for several weeks in the summer of 1992, to shoot a twenty-minute wordless documentary about the life of a society 90 miles and 30 years removed from that of the contemporary United States. “I really should make a short film or two before I go after my first big-time feature job,” he wrote in his journal with the blasé optimism of fortunate youth, not pausing to reflect on the reality that most aspiring filmmakers cannot afford to turn their student demo reels over to a first-class Parisian studio for editing and post-production.
It took an older friend named Tomi Pierce to talk some sense into him. A longtime trusted agent of the Brøderbund management team, she had been instrumental in shepherding Prince of Persia to completion, by alternately coddling and cajoling its moody young auteur through milestone after milestone. She did the latter on a long-distance call from California to France that took place just after his adventure in Cuba. Recharging the batteries was all well and good, she said, but enough was enough. She pointed out how insane it was for a young man who had become a veritable name brand unto himself in one entertainment industry to wish to start over from scratch in another. As she later remembered it, she told him that his life “was a pretentious and pathetic wreck,” and urged him to get hands-on with another game sooner rather than later. Being by no means uncreative herself, she even gave him the stub of a story to start with: “It’s a World War II spy story, and here’s the first sentence: ‘I was taking the night train to Berlin.'”
Those words of hers sparked a four-and-a-half-year odyssey that burned Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia fortune right to the ground, ending for the nonce his prospect of living the rest of his life as a globe-trotting dilettante. And he thanked her for it.
Mechner and Pierce were soon talking daily about their game over the transatlantic wire. They decided to move the time period from the Second to the First World War — or rather to just before the First World War, to the summer of 1914, when, almost unremarked by the general public, the dominoes of disaster were falling one by one in Europe. Nothing would ever be the same after that fateful summer; as Barbara Tuchman once wrote, “the Great War of 1914 to 1918 lies like a band of scorched earth, dividing that time from ours.”
But a train would still be the centerpiece of the game. And they knew which train it would have to be: the legendary Orient Express, which left Paris to begin the three-day journey to Constantinople for the last time in a long time on the evening of July 24, 1914. While it was underway, the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia expired, and Europe started the final plunge down the slippery slope to war. Mechner:
Not only did that train cross the very countries that were about to go to war, but at the time, in 1914, it was the very symbol of the unity and financial interdependence of the European countries, kind of like the European Economic Community today. On that train you had a cross-section of all the different segments of European society — all the different countries, all the different political and ideological factions that were about to find themselves at odds.
Needless to say, Mechner and Pierce were not envisioning another cinematic platformer like Prince of Persia. They rather wanted to make a full-fledged adventure game, with a complex story line that did not have to take its cues from the silent movies of yesteryear, as had been the case with Mechner’s previous masterstroke. This was despite — or rather in some ways because of — the fact that Mechner was no fan of adventure games as they were currently implemented, with their fixed plots gated by mostly arbitrary puzzles. He was sure he could do better.
But doing so would require a leap into unknown waters, require him to act as the head of a creative team rather than remaining the lone-wolf coder he had always been before. For better or for worse, those days had ended with the 1980s; Prince of Persia, which shipped on the Apple II three months before that decade expired, had been the last of its breed.
In December of 1992, Mechner visited Brøderbund’s offices near Silicon Valley to iron out some final details concerning Prince of Persia 2, whose release date was fast approaching. He took the opportunity to pitch “the train game” to Doug Carlston, the company’s co-founder (and the future husband of Tomi Pierce).
I’m really excited about this train game. I’ve played all the other adventure games out there, and I think here’s a chance to make something that will blow them all away — not just in terms of story, although that’s a big part of it, but also in the graphic look, sound, music, interface, the way it all fits together — the whole package. I’m talking about a game that will really be a work of art. The first adventure game to have a story and graphics that can stand on their own merits, not just by adventure-game standards.
And I’m thinking beyond just this one game. The train game will take maybe two years to develop, and if it’s the hit I think it will be, there’ll be a major opportunity to follow it up with other games with the same interface, the same special “look and feel.” I want this to be a whole line of games. I’ve been working on this for weeks, and I’m so convinced it’s worth it that I’d be ready to go out and do it on my own as an independent project if I need to.
Look, I’ve spent the last two years traveling and making movies and learning a lot, but basically goofing off. I wouldn’t mind really throwing myself into something for a change. I’d like to risk something. So, emotionally, I’m up for it. I’ve already started looking for an apartment in the city. I want to do this game.
I don’t even like adventure games. But I’m going to do this one. This will be the first adventure game since Scott Adams that I’ll actually like.
Carlston was encouraging, but only cautiously so. He told Mechner that, while Brøderbund would be happy to publish his train game when it was ready, they weren’t prepared to make it in-house or to shoulder all of its development costs. In short, Mechner would indeed have to arrange to make it himself independently, under a standard out-of-house development contract. If he had proposed doing a Prince of Persia 3, the verdict might have been different, but Brøderbund just couldn’t go all-in on such an unproven commodity as this. By way of compensation, Carlston was willing to let Mechner borrow Tomi Pierce for as long as he needed her.
Mechner took Carlston’s words to heart; he would make his train game himself, partially financing it out of his own Prince of Persia royalties, then count on Brøderbund to sell it. He went back to Paris only long enough to arrange a more permanent return to the United States. On January 7, 1993, he moved into his new San Francisco apartment. Five days later, he opened a bank account in the name of Smoking Car Productions, his very own games studio. It was full steam ahead on The Last Express, as the “train game” would eventually come to be called.
The deeper Mechner and Pierce dived into the details of the real time and place in which they’d chosen to set the game, the more they wanted and needed to know. The project became more than just a better take on the adventure genre: it became an exercise in living history. “Authenticity” became its watchword. “And thereby [we] added two years to the project,” says Jordan Mechner wryly.
There are any number of ways that computer games can engage with real history, plenty of which have already been featured on this site over the years. Tactical wargames can let the armchair generals among us refight the battles of the past at a granular level, finding out what might have happened if General Lee had not ordered a frontal assault on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg or if Admiral Nagumo had not elected to withdraw from the Battle of Midway after losing all four of his aircraft carriers. Meanwhile grand-strategy games can let us explore more abstract questions about economic and political systems, as well as, inevitably, their consequences on the battlefield. But these forms of engagement are more intellectual than empathetic. Another, perhaps ultimately more valuable service games can do us is to drop us right into history in the way of a great historical novel, to let us walk a mile in the shoes of people who are not generals or statesmen, to see what they see and feel what they feel and decide what they do next when faced with dilemmas that may have no easy answers; this last is an aid to immersion and understanding that no static novel can offer us, no matter how vividly written. Such is what Mechner and Pierce now proposed to do: to let their players truly live through a constrained but meaningful piece of history.
Before they could engage with the bigger issues of the day, they would need to get the nitty-gritty details right, from the angles at which the corridors inside each coach on the Orient Express bent to the way the toilets flushed in the washrooms. Finding these things out was not easy. Although the Orient Express had run between Paris and Istanbul (né Constantinople) from 1883 until 1977, the 1914-vintage carriages were, as far as anyone knew, long gone, excepting only two restaurant cars that were preserved by museums, one in Paris and one in Budapest. Of the interior of the sleeper cars there remained only three photographs. Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the operator of the Orient Express, told our heroes that all of their blueprints and other archives from that era had been destroyed.
Imagine their thrill, then, when they got a call one day from a Parisian club of railroad old timers, in response to an advertisement they had placed in a French railway magazine. “The train companies think these archives have been destroyed,” they were told. “We’ve got ’em.”
They agreed to meet at the Gare de l’Est station in Paris, the departure point of the Orient Express throughout its history. (In fact, a train by that name was still running from the station at the time, but it only went as far as Budapest, making rather a misnomer of its appellation.) Tomi Pierce:
Through a door marked NO ADMITTANCE, we plunged into a rabbit warren of offices under the station. In a grimy room at the end of a long corridor, two very old men were sitting at a table. Around them were stacks of boxes.
They had no idea what a computer game was, but as soon as they realized we were seriously interested in their train, they began to talk furiously. For hours, they bombarded us with information, from the exact date when electricity was introduced on the Express to the social structure among train employees of the time. They joked about the frosted glass in the washrooms — not thick enough to completely conceal the occupants. They sorted through the boxes, pulling out irreplaceable original materials. Passenger lists, menus from July 1914, detailed floor plans, conductor’s rule books — a thousand features of the train were documented. As the old men talked, the Orient Express seemed to rise in ghostly form. “Use it all,” they said a little sadly. “No one else ever will.”
We felt a responsibility to do the right thing. If you listen to these old trainmen — well, they love trains and their history. I thought about their apartments at home, filled to the brim with old train archives they had saved themselves. And when they die, that knowledge is probably gone forever. So, you feel an obligation to them to get it right.
At the end of that interview, they asked if we would like to see their train set. Directly under the central platform was a room the size of a basketball court, filled with the largest train set I had ever seen. Every period of train history was represented. All the train-car and engine types, wide- and narrow-gauge rails, signals and tracks were hand-built. The model-train network had been under continuous construction by the employees at the Gar de l’Est for the last 40 years. Our guide shrugged. “It’s just to amuse ourselves,” he said. “It is… for our pleasure.”
Pierce resolved then and there to turn The Last Express into an exercise in “electronic archaeology”: to “recreate that train and the drama of its time using every high-tech trick we knew.” Mechner:
I mean, you can legitimately ask, “Who cares? What does it matter which way the sleeping car faced?” But there’s something about a piece of history on the verge of being forgotten. Whatever else you can say about this game, it’s authentic.
Word of these crazy Americans who wanted to recreate the Orient Express on a computer screen spread among the trainspotters of Europe. One day they received an unsolicited note from an Italian gentleman: “There is a 1914 Orient Express sleeping car in Athens. It is in dilapidated condition and is not in working order.”
It turned out to be just sitting there right where he said it was, shunted to the side of a railway depot on the outskirts of the city. Unlike the restaurant cars in Paris and Budapest, both of which were maintained as museum pieces with rigorously enforced rules of access, this car was open season. From Jordan Mechner’s journal:
Two days in that sauna of a busted-down Wagon-Lits car, baked by the sun for the past 50 years, or however long it’s been sitting there. Kicking aside debris, sending up clouds of dust, covering the windows with sheets to try to cut down the contrast, sweating, snarling at each other, and generally getting to know that car more intimately than we ever could have if it had been in good condition with an official keeping an eye on us, like the one in Budapest.
They documented every inch of the carriage in pedantic detail. “The colors in the painted ceilings, the mechanism of opening the bed bunks, the tooled leather of the walls, the pattern in the carpet,” wrote Pierce later. “We studied it all.” With the cockiness of youth, Mechner wrote in his journal that “I think we can now safely say that we know more about the 1914 Orient Express than any one person living.” Now they just had to move all that knowledge into the computer.
Extracts from the “Making Of” video included on The Last Express CDs.
Shortly after returning from Athens in August of 1993, Mechner made a pivotal decision. As a Brøderbund insider, he’d been watching with considerable interest the progress of an adventure game called Myst, which Brøderbund planned to publish on the Apple Macintosh the following month. Although his design goals for The Last Express were in many ways far more ambitious than those of Myst, he loved the sense of immersion fostered by its first-person, pre-rendered 3D environments. It seemed the way to go with his game as well. But, as he admitted in his journal, “I know almost nothing about this.” To remedy that, he flew out to Spokane, Washington, to spend several days with the Miller brothers of Cyan, Incorporated, the masterminds of Myst. He even wondered whether it might be possible to hire one or both of them for his own company. In a year or two, the huge success of Myst would retroactively make this musing sound hilariously presumptuous. At the time, though, it must have seemed perfectly reasonable. After all, he was an established auteur with one of the biggest franchises in gaming on his résumé, while the Miller brothers were just a pair of refugees from children’s software trying to make a go of it with the big boys.
In lieu of the Miller brothers, Mechner wound up hiring his own team of 3D modellers and programmers to bring the Orient Express to life. The watchword remained authenticity, down to the literal last screw. The textures in the carriages were pulled directly from photographs of the cars in Paris, Budapest, and most of all Athens: “green velvet upholstered benches, stamped-leather wall panels, flowered ceilings and brass rails. The train that appears onscreen in The Last Express hasn’t been seen in 80 years,” wrote Tomi Pierce.
Indeed, the game has almost a unique claim to historical authenticity. The wargames that the grognards love may wish to think of themselves as infallible “simulations” of events in time, but their what-if scenarios hinge on their designers’ own all-too-fallible interpretations of the events they purport to simulate. The recreated interior of the Orient Express, however, is dependent on no one’s interpretation. It’s simply a copy of the real thing, implemented as meticulously as the technology of the 1990s would allow by people with no allegiance to anything but the truth of their cameras and measuring tapes.
But of course, there had to be more to the game than its environment. The recreated Orient Express was to be the stage for a work of historical fiction, a complicated caper taking place on the train’s last voyage before the Belle Époque ran out, Europe descended into four and a half years of war, and a new twentieth century full of unprecedented wonders and horrors got going for real.
Historians are divided into two broad camps when it comes to the origins of the First World War: the powder-keg school, who see the Europe of the time as just waiting for a spark to start an inevitable conflagration, and the bad-luck school, who see a thoroughly evitable war that came at the end of a long string of random unfortunate events. It’s probably for the best that The Last Express doesn’t take a firm position either way. Rather than whys, it’s interested in how it was to be in Europe just before the Old was swept away forever by the New. Aboard its version of the Orient Express are German industrialists, Russian aristocrats and anarchists, Serbian separatists, Austrian and British spies, French engineers and bohemians and socialists, a Persian harem, even an enigmatic, fabulously wealthy North African “prince.” Unlike the train itself, which is scrupulously realistic, the cast of characters aboard it reflects a sort of hyper-realism; all are, whatever the other details of their individual personalities, archetypes of the social currents swirling around Europe at the time. The only group missing — albeit necessarily so, given the opulent setting — are the unwashed masses who would soon be expected to fight and die in the name of their betters.
There’s something about a train, a circumscribed space rushing inexorably through a landscape from which its occupants are isolated, that’s irresistible to lovers of romantic intrigue. It’s a locked-room mystery, only somehow even better, combining claustrophobia with exotica; small wonder that trains figure so prominently in the classic-thriller canon, from Agatha Christie to Alfred Hitchcock to Patricia Highsmith.
In this iteration on the template, you play Robert Cath, a debonair American doctor who boards the Orient Express in rather… unusual fashion just as it’s pulling out of Paris. He’s responding to a summons from an old friend, a fellow American named Tyler Whitney, whom he now finds dead in their shared compartment, apparently the victim of cold-blooded murder. Cath dares not draw attention to himself because he is sought by the police for some antics he may or may not have gotten up to recently with some Irish terrorists/freedom fighters, so he disposes of the body and assumes his friend’s identity, as you do in such situations. Soon he finds that Tyler, a heedless idealist of the sort that tends to cause an awful lot of trouble in the world, was up to his eyebrows in a complicated conspiracy to sell arms to Serbia’s Black Hand, the terrorist group responsible for the recent assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an act destined to go down in history as the spark that ignited a world war. And then there’s the strange Russian artifact known as the Firebird that’s been stolen out of his friend’s luggage…
But I won’t spoil the story for you. Trust me, it’s worth experiencing for yourself.
A Digression on Being and Time
Let’s pause here for a moment to consider adventure games’ fraught relationship with time. In fact, let’s go way back, to before Myst, before point and click, before even graphics and sound, to a time when all adventure games were text adventures. The earliest of these were treasure hunts: thin quest narratives in which you roamed a static world that changed only when you did something to make it change. Your only goal was to explore and solve puzzles in order to collect treasures, for which you earned points by depositing them back in some safe place. Sure, the introduction to the game might attempt to provide some more noble justification, but that was more or less the gist of it. Once you had all the treasures, you also had all the points and you were done.
But within a year or two, people began to chafe at the limitations of worlds frozen in amber, itched to create real interactive stories where characters and things moved and changed around you independent of your own actions. Scott Adams, the very first man to put a text adventure on a mass-market microcomputer, gave it a shot already in 1979 with an unusual effort called The Count; Roberta Williams, who with her husband Ken was the first to add illustrations to the text adventure, made some more gestures in that direction the following year with Mystery House. But the folks who really moved the needle, here as in so many aspects of the craft of adventure, were the ones at Infocom. In 1982, Infocom’s Marc Blank gave us Deadline, a full-on interactive mystery, taking place in a mansion whose inhabitants moved about and acted on their own accord, challenging you as the detective to figure out what they were up to if you wanted to survive the day, crack the case, and bring the guilty party to justice. Instead of exploring a landscape, it asked you to explore a dynamic possibility space.
Yet there was a big drawback to this approach: the game could and usually did run away from you. If you didn’t happen to be in the right place at the right time to answer the telephone or to intercept the postman, you were just out of luck; the crime was doomed to go unsolved. The only way to beat Deadline was to play it over and over again, gradually putting together where you needed to be when and what you needed to do there. Only then could you make your winning run, where everything just kind of worked out for you in the way it always seems to for Hercule Poirot on the very first try.
In the abstract, it’s as valid an approach to game design as any other. Yet if we’re wedded to the idea of an adventure game as an interactive fiction — as a lived story — rather than a mere meta-puzzle, it can feel deeply artificial and unsatisfying. In a game like Deadline, relatively small and quick-playing and implemented entirely in text, it’s perhaps more agreeable than in one of those later multimedia extravaganzas that force you to watch the same interminable cut scenes again and again. Still, even Infocom learned pretty quickly that their customers didn’t much care for it. Each of the two dynamic mysteries they released after Deadline sold worse than its immediate predecessor, causing them to give up on the approach.
For the fourth Infocom title with the genre label of “Mystery,” 1986’s rather obscure Ballyhoo, author Jeff O’Neill tried something different. Ballyhoo is the first adventure I know of to fully embrace plot rather than clock time. That is to say that events unfold in the rundown circus that is its setting not in response to passing turns but in response to your progress through the plot. As I wrote in my review of Ballyhoo years ago, it “flips the process on its head: makes the story respond to the player rather than always asking the player to respond to the story. Put another way, here the story chases the player rather than the player chasing the story.” As you solve puzzles and make progress, the world rejiggers itself to accommodate the next phase of the story it wants you to live through. Of course, this is not playing fair by the objective rules of simulation. No matter: O’Neill grasped that the player’s subjective experience of an interactive story is what really matters in the end. The approach was adopted by a great number of later adventure games, many of them far less obscure than Ballyhoo — perhaps most famously of all by Jane Jensen’s plot-heavy Gabriel Knight graphic adventures of the 1990s.
Yet plot time can produce pitfalls of its own. Anyone who has ever played a Gabriel Knight game is familiar with the frustration of trying to end the day: of running hither and yon through the world, clicking on everything and talking to everyone for the umpteenth time, looking for that hidden trigger that will satisfy the conditions for grinding the plot gears forward to another evening, so that Gabriel can go home and go to bed and wake up to another morning and the next phase of the story line. This sort of plot stasis can be almost as infuriating as a plot that has run away without you; when you’re caught up in it, it can pull you out of the fiction every bit as much. And then, too, the very notion of plot time philosophically bothers many a player and designer, who see it as a sort of betrayal of the very premise of an adventure game as a living world, one that ought to be allowed to go about its business without any such thumbs on its scales.
Count Jordan Mechner and Tomi Pierce among this group. While they couldn’t make their game run in literal real time — it would have been impossible to implement that much content, and quite probably deadly boring for the people who experienced it — they did want it to run in an accelerated version of same, such that the three-day trip to Constantinople would take about five hours of playing time. The other passengers and crew on the Orient Express would move about and pursue their own agendas during those hours, even as the train itself chugged relentlessly onward. All of this would happen no matter what Robert Cath chose to do with himself. Lead programmer Mark Moran:
We created a language where every character has a script. They all have their motivations to drive the story forward. At 8:00 PM, August Schmidt goes to dinner, and has dinner until 8:30. He’s hoping he might run into you at dinner, but if he doesn’t he might see you from 8:30 to 9:00, when he’s in the salon smoking. At 9:30, he’ll grow frustrated and come to your compartment and knock. He’s got a long list of instructions. We created this language where we could write the instructions for every single character.
There would be no patently manufactured drama in The Last Express; if, say, a group of police officers boarded the train to look for a suspected American terrorist, they wouldn’t wait until Cath found the perfect hiding spot before bursting into his cabin. Instead they’d burst in when they burst in, let the chips fall where they may.
And yet it remained an incontrovertible fact that adventure gamers hated sudden deaths and especially walking-dead situations, as it’s called when you’re left wandering around in a game which you can no longer win, often without even knowing that that’s the case. They hated these things so much that LucasArts had built an immensely successful adventure empire out of promising players that they would never, ever put them in that position, no matter what they did or didn’t do. Clearly a simple reversion to clock time alone wouldn’t do for The Last Express. Out of this dilemma sprang the game’s biggest formal innovation: it would have no conventional save command at all. Instead it would let you rewind time itself to some earlier point whenever you wished, as if you were rewinding a videotape of your actions, and pick up again from there. Meanwhile the forward progress of the plot, chugging constantly onward like the train itself, would ensure that any conceivable walking-dead situation couldn’t drag on for very long. Once you died or blundered into some other bad ending, the game would automatically rewind the story to the last point where victory was possible and let you try again. In this way, The Last Express would preserve the integrity — or, if you like, the authenticity — of its storyworld, without driving its players crazy.
Smoking Car would also eliminate the artificial set-piece puzzles that were the typical adventure game’s bread and butter, offering up strictly situational challenges instead that were inseparable from the story: hiding Tyler’s body in your cabin, hiding from the police, figuring out just why that beautiful and famous Austrian concert violinist seems to want to kill you. Needless to say, alternative solutions would abound. Jordan Mechner:
A traditional rule of dramatic construction is that, if you put a gun on the wall, it must go off. In a game, if someone mentions their birth date in a conversation, you’re supposed to write that down, because it might be a combination to a safe. The Last Express deliberately breaks that rule. We just didn’t want to do that. The Last Express is gentler than most adventure games, because the things you have to do to win are not that hard to figure out. It’s what fills the spaces in between that makes life on the train interesting. (Or real life, for that matter.) Anyone who plays The Last Express is going to get drawn in listening to a particular conversation, or reading an article in the newspaper, and miss other events that are happening at the same time. And it’s all okay. You aren’t punished, you don’t miss a crucial clue or get dumped into another story branch. You just have a different experience.
Does the finished game live up to this billing? Not entirely, I must say. The fact is that there are dead ends in The Last Express — how could there not be with such an approach? — and the auto-rewind function, useful though it is, can still leave you replaying substantial chunks of the game, hoping to find a way to progress past the stumbling block this time around. In short, and in direct contradiction to Mechner’s statement above, there are “vital clues” which you can and probably will be “punished” for missing.
In the end, then, I have mixed feelings on this idea of clock time with rewind. I fear that Smoking Car may have violated one of Sid Meier’s principles of game design: that it’s the player who should be the one having the fun, not the programmer or designer. Yes, it’s neat to think about 30 different characters moving about the train pursuing their own agendas, and it was surely exciting to implement and finally see in action. But how much does it really add to the ordinary player’s experience? Ironically given its formal ambitions in other respects, The Last Express has just one story to tell at the end of the day; there’s only one “winning” ending to contrast with the eleven losing ones where Robert Cath doesn’t complete the trip to Constantinople for one reason or another. Would a cleverly designed plot-time structure have been so bad after all? It would definitely have been easier to implement, shaving some time and some dollars out of an extended and expensive development cycle.
But, lest I sound too harsh, let me also say that experiments like this one are necessary to tell us where the limits of fun and frustration lie. If The Last Express proved a road not taken by later adventure designers for a reason, that makes it only all the more valuable a case study to have had to hand.
Like Myst and countless other adventure games of its era, The Last Express blended its computer-generated environments with real human actors. But it did so as it did all things: with a twist. In September of 1994, Smoking Car Productions began a three-week film shoot, just like about a million other game projects seemed to be doing at the time. Yet instead of crudely and incongruously overlaying undoctored digitized images of the actors onto their 3D-modeled scenery, they used only their outlines, coloring them in by hand like comic-book art. It was, one might say, the logical next step for Jordan Mechner, who had filmed his little brother running around a New York park back in the 1980s, then laboriously hand-traced his outline frame by frame on his Apple II in order to give his Prince of Persia a more lifelike sense of movement than just about any other figure ever seen on an 8-bit computer. In this new context, though, it was labor intensive on a whole different scale, adding an incalculable number of months and dollars to the project. Never mind: it had to be done, for there was no appetite for compromise at Smoking Car Productions.
This applied equally to the sound design. A team of voice actors, mostly not the same as the onscreen ones, was hired to voice dialog in English, French, Russian, German, Arabic, Turkish, and Serbo-Croatian. All had to be native speakers for the sake of authenticity. “Casting American actors who can do a fake German or French accent just wasn’t acceptable to us,” says Mechner. Luckily for the player, Robert Cath was written as a rare American polyglot, much like Jordan Mechner himself. Those languages he could understand — the first four of those listed above — were subtitled in the game. The others were left a mystery to the player, as they were to Robert — but if you the player could happen to understand one or more of those other languages, you would realize that these dialogs too made perfect sense.
Originally projected to take two years and $1 million to make, The Last Express ended up taking four years and $5 million. (If we add to the timeline Mechner and Pierce’s earliest design discussions, we end up at almost exactly the length of the First World War itself…) Tomi Pierce:
In October 1994, we were 15 people; by December we were 28; by July 1995, 50 leather-jacketed nerds, spread over four offices, were working 70-hour weeks. Smoking Car had become a bustling thought factory. The 3D department created thousands of train interiors. The art department created and processed 40,000 frames of animation. The programmers built animation tools as well as the game structure. We worked on sound and film editing. Additional dialog recordings in French, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and German created a rich sonic tapestry. A Czech film-music composer wrote and scored a beautiful soundtrack for the game. By 1996, we were running 24 hours a day; people were sharing computers in shifts. We became a major patron of delivery pizza; everyone was either losing or gaining quite a bit of weight.
We missed our first, second, and third product deadlines. Since our cash advances were tied to achieving these milestones, we stretched payables and everyone went on half salary; the tension and stress increased.
Now a year behind schedule, we finally assembled a fully playable version of the game. This is called beta: the point when, like Frankenstein’s monster, all the parts of the body have been hooked up, and it begins to breathe and open its eyes. Play testing began at Brøderbund. Its testers played the game over and over for months, attempting to break it by finding flaws in the design. Every time it crashed, our programmers fixed the weak point… and the process began again. In three months, more than 5000 bugs were logged. All of them got fixed.
February 1997: we were done.
The calm was deafening. One night we all sat down and played the game together for the first time. It seemed to have a life of its own. We were thrilled and humbled to see the strange, living drama we had made — this odd new marriage of story and technology. It may seem counterintuitive, but computer software is in many ways a handicraft business.
Most people who have worked on a large-scale creative project are familiar with the vaguely unnerving, anti-climatic quiet that follows such a project’s completion, that feeling of “Now what?” that marks the time between production and reception. If all goes well, that period of yawning calm is a short one, soon to be replaced by slaps on the back and bonus checks as the sales reports roll in, the belated rewards for a long, hard job well done.
But that wasn’t what happened this time. Brøderbund sent The Last Express out the door with a $1 million marketing budget, and Tomi Pierce even managed to secure a four-page feature on its making in, of all places, Newsweek magazine — hardly an obvious outlet, but emblematic of everyone’s hopes that this interactive story could generate interest well beyond the usual gaming circles. (I’ve quoted liberally from her article here.) And then… crickets. The Last Express flopped like a pancake on a cold linoleum floor.
To my mind, the saddest document in the Jordan Mechner archive at the Strong Museum of Play is an email from him to Brøderbund’s marketing department, dated July 7, 1997. In it, he pleads with Brøderbund not to give up on his baby, not to lower the price and consign all remaining copies to the bargain bins, that graveyard of game developers’ hopes and dreams. Instead he asks them to gird their loins and pour another $1 million into a second marketing campaign. One of the section titles is, “Why we still think Last Express can sell 1 million units.”
Last Express does not appeal primarily to adventure gamers. Its target market is adults, 18 to 44, both men and women, college-educated professionals pre-disposed to purchasing sophisticated, intelligent entertainment. An informal survey of the reviewer and user response to the game shows that we are scoring high with the non-adventure-gamer audience — in particular, with the adult female audience that the entire industry is trying to figure out how to reach. Diana Griffiths and other reviewers have singled out The Last Express as one of the rare games that appeals to intelligent adult women.
People rave about the game for a variety of reasons — the story and characters, the lack of “gaminess,” the sense of “being there” — but they all seem to agree on one thing: Last Express is different. Like Myst, it will probably have limited or partial success within its genre (adventure games), but will ultimately succeed with a much wider audience of non-gamers and non-adventure gamers (i.e., gamers who do not usually play adventure games).
One doesn’t have to read too much between the lines of this missive to recognize that even Mechner doesn’t really believe his arguments will find traction at Brøderbund. He had always had a good relationship with his publisher’s management staff, but they hadn’t gotten where they were by beating dead horses. They were especially unlikely to do so now, given what they had waiting in the barn for release that Christmas season: Riven, the long-anticipated sequel to Myst, the closest thing to a guaranteed million-plus-seller that a softening adventure market could still produce. It made no sense to divide their Christmas marketing energies between two different adventure games and risk fatally confusing the public. So, by the time Riven appeared in stores, The Last Express was already long gone from them, written off as one of the costs of doing business in an unpredictable creative industry. It deserved a better fate.
Mind you, I don’t want to overstate the case for it. Even when setting aside my reservations about clock time with rewind, The Last Express falls short of perfection. Indeed, I think most players would agree that one part of it at least is downright bad. There are about half a dozen places where Robert Cath can get into fisticuffs or knife fights, implemented via a little action-oriented mini-game. I appreciate the sentiment that lies behind them — that of dropping the player right into the action — but that doesn’t change the fact that these places where The Last Express suddenly wants to be Prince of Persia are awful. The controls are sluggish and feedback is nonexistent. They devolve into pushing the mouse about randomly and clicking madly, until you stumble upon the rote combination of moves that will let you continue. It’s hard to imagine anything more off-putting to the audience of non-hardcore adults that Mechner believed the game to be capable of reaching.
Then, too, we’re still stuck in the old Myst interface paradigm of the first-person slideshow game. It’s seldom clear where you can and can’t look or how many degrees you’ll turn when you rotate, making it weirdly easy to get confused and lost inside the train, despite it being about the most linear space one could possibly choose to set a game.
That said, it would take a much stricter critic than I to say that these weaknesses outweigh all of The Last Express‘s strengths. It’s thus unsurprising that so many extrinsic reasons have been floated for the abject commercial failure of The Last Express, by both the principals involved in making it and by the game’s fans. Some of these are dubious: the claim that Smoking Car’s inability to finish the game in time for the 1996 holiday season was the culprit is belied by the existence of other games, such as that very same year’s mega-hit Diablo, which likewise missed the silly shopping season and did more than fine in the end. And some of them are flat-out wrong: Brøderbund’s acquisition by the edutainment giant The Learning Company had nothing to do with it, given that said acquisition occurred fully a year and a half after the game’s release and subsequent washout.
Sooner or later, most arguments tend to fall back on blaming gamers themselves for not being “ready” for The Last Express in some way, as Jordan Mechner is already beginning to do in the email above. In 2021, for example, Mark Moran said that the unusual setting didn’t “resonate” with American gamers. I must admit that I’m not entirely unsympathetic to such sentiments; I have nothing against dragons and spaceships in themselves, but I’ve often wished — and often on record right here — that more games would dare to look beyond the nerdy ghetto and embrace some more of life’s rich pageant. Nevertheless, in the world of games, fantasy and science fiction have always outsold realism, and this seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
And really, there’s not much more to be said on the subject beyond that; audience blaming is always a counterproductive pursuit in the long term, for the critic every bit as much as it is for the artist. The Last Express simply didn’t tickle the fancy of existing gamers. And meanwhile, for all that some of the readers of Newsweek may have found the article about the game to be interesting, very few of them found it interesting enough to venture into the unfamiliar space of a software store to pick it up. One does suspect that, if they had, they would have found the game fairly incomprehensible: The Last Express actually expects quite a lot from its player; by no means it is a “casual” game. Its combination of subject matter and gameplay approach meant it was always destined for niche status at best.
After its rejection by the marketplace, Jordan Mechner quietly closed down Smoking Car Productions, retrenched and regrouped, and jumped back on the horse he’d rode in on. His next game was 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a massive worldwide smash that recouped all the money he’d blown on The Last Express and then some, making him once again a very wealthy man. He elected not to squander his second fortune on any more esoteric passion projects. And who can blame him? The Last Express is the sort of crazy creative gamble that most commercial artists dare to take only once in their lives.
Still, you didn’t have to look too hard at The Sands of Time to see that his train game was still exerting an influence over him: the new game’s central innovation, which a new generation of critics were soon elbowing one another out of the way to praise and analyze, wasn’t really as big an innovation as most of them believed it to be, being a rewind mechanic similar to the one found in The Last Express. Transplanted into a platforming action-adventure, it actually felt far more natural. This, folks, is how game design inches forward.
Alas, Tomi Pierce, who gave as much of herself to The Last Express as the man whose name featured so prominently on the box, never got to play an equally pivotal role on any other game. She died in 2010 of ALS. “A bright light has gone out but continues to sparkle in our memories,” wrote Mechner in memoriam. “We miss her terribly.”
On a happier note, The Last Express lives on today as a cult classic; it’s even been ported to mobile platforms. Some years ago now, I quoted Infocom’s Jon Palace in praise of Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging (a game that, come to think of it, occupies a similar place in his career as The Last Express does in Jordan Mechner’s). Palace’s words have just come back to me unbidden as I write this conclusion: “For me it was, like, ‘Great! Look, we can really elicit an emotional response!’ — an emotional response which isn’t trite. That for me was the best.”
There is nothing trite about the thoughts and feelings The Last Express will stir up in you if you meet it with an open mind. More than just a labor of love, it’s a true work of interactive art as well as an evocative work of history, a long-vanished world brought to life just as it was the instant before it passed away.
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Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III, The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner, The Last Express: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba, The End of Books — Or Books without End?: Reading Interactive Narratives by J. Yellowlees Douglas, and The Guns of August and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman. Computer Gaming World of January 1997 and July 1997; Retro Gamer 112, 118, and 216; Edge of February 2011; Newsweek Special Issue for 1997; Next Generation of January 1997; PC Zone of June 1997. The Jordan Mechner archive at The Strong Museum of Play was invaluable, as was the wealth of material to be found on Mechner’s personal website.