Monthly Archives: June 2012


At some point in the last couple of months this site got pretty thoroughly compromised by a group of jackasses peddling counterfeit handbags. I don’t know a huge amount about these things, but the basic scheme seems to have been to hijack this site’s Google search results, both by redirecting searchers to their sites and by setting up heaps of links between my site and theirs, thus piggybacking on my site’s reputation. I’ve been vaguely aware that something not quite kosher was going on for the last several weeks, but I kept thinking to deal with the problem by just swatting down the symptoms — deleting strange files that showed up in my site directories, removing a pile of links that appeared on one of my WordPress theme pages, etc. — rather than rolling up my sleeves and properly scrubbing everything clean. Very, very stupid, I know.

After my very sweet mother-in-law called for the second time this week to tell us that when she clicked my name in Google she got handbags, I decided enough was enough. During the last couple of days I’ve rebuilt the site from scratch, and hardened everything in the process. I also learned a lot about how the bad guys operate, enough to make me wonder if they wouldn’t do better applying all that ingenuity to actually, you know, building a legitimate site like this one that people don’t have to be tricked into visiting. But anyway, I very much believe everything should be fixed now. I still don’t know the original source of the infection, but I believe it must have originated with my hosting provider, who have, alas, been having a bit of a problem with security lately.

I want to emphasize that the database itself was never compromised; your email addresses are all secure. Nor did they install anything that could harm visitors’ computers. You may see some slight weirdness with RSS feeds and the like for a few days while everything settles down, and I expect my site will have an odd association with handbags in Google for another week or two, but then hopefully all will be back to normal. I look forward to spending my time making content instead of farting around with WordPress. I think I’m going to have nightmares for a while about that damn handbag site that seemed to pop up every time I clicked a link…

P.S. If you came here looking to buy a handbag, you’re in the wrong place. We’re just a bunch of un-fashion-conscious nerds around these parts. But I would strongly recommend that you avoid buying from “Purse Vally” or any of the myriad other sites with similarly slightly misspelled names.


Ludic Murder

Some time ago now I presented a definition of my term “ludic narrative” and a brief rundown of the development of the form over the course of the history of games in general, moving from the abstract games of old to games that simulated ever more specific contexts with ever more immediacy and detail, finally culminating in the arrival of Dungeons and Dragons, the first full-fledged example of ludic narrative. I want to look at history from another angle today.

All of the terms that we use to describe the sorts of works I’m usually talking about on this blog — “ludic narratives,” “story games,” “interactive fictions,” many others — pretty clearly describe them as being a fusion of two older forms, story and game. From time to time some designer or blogger or other will pop up with a condemnation that derives from this fact, claiming that ludic narratives are the unsatisfying result of splicing two very different art forms together. Stunned by this insight, the Twittering classes go to work, and so the carousel of life on the Internet goes around once again. Yet the idea that an art form is somehow illegitimate or aesthetically depraved if it subsumes other art forms is pretty absurd. During the heyday of Wagnerian opera that form was praised precisely because it incorporated within it virtually every other respectable art form extant at that time: music, theater, literature, the visual arts (in the spectacular stage designs), even architecture (ever been to Bayreuth?). So, and while it may be overly simplistic, let’s at least for today unabashedly accept the idea of ludic narrative as being woven from two strands, that of game and that of story, and let’s not judge that to be a bad thing. In that earlier post I followed the former strand to the point where it met its mate in the form of D&D. Today I’d like to look at the latter. As we’ll see, games and stories have never been complete strangers to one another.

One of the oldest literary forms of all, so old in fact that its origins are lost in antiquity, is the original fusion of game and literature, the riddle. There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between riddles and modern ludic narratives. As with a ludic narrative, a really first-class riddle must succeed as both a game, in being challenging but solvable, tempting, and, well, fun; and as a story, with writing worthy of aesthetic appreciation and some nugget of wisdom or deeper truth to convey. The Riddle of the Sphinx is one of the oldest and probably the most famous riddle in the canon, and a fine example of one that succeeds as both game and literature:

Which creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?

The answer, of course, is “man.” Not only is this riddle an interesting puzzle in its own right, but it conveys something about the fleeting nature of even the longest life in a lovely, metaphoric way. Indeed, in being a puzzle you must solve this riddle possibly makes you ponder that very theme more than you might if it was presented in some other form. Although it probably predates Sophocles’s Oedipus the King (429 BCE) by many years, it was embedded into that larger work of literature, something that I’ll come back to in just a bit.

While riddles, at least at their best, are definitely literary, they usually aren’t really stories. Yet there is also a definite tradition of play in even narrative-oriented “high” literature. I could trace a line from Tristram Shandy through Moby Dick and Ulysses to Gravity’s Rainbow. All are works that present themselves at least partially as puzzles to be cracked, a trend that’s increased dramatically in the wake of the Modernists and Postmodernists. (“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality,” James Joyce wrote.) Maybe I’ll try to look at that tradition at some point. For today, though, let’s set our sights on what may be the most long-lived of all traditions of gamesmanship in storytelling: the detective story, which would appear to be just about as old as jurisprudence itself.

Some versions of the Old Testament Book of Daniel include the story of Susanna, the young wife of a respected elder of the Jews who was as beautiful as she was virtuous. (It’s generally agreed that this tale, along with a few others, was added to Daniel somewhat after the original authorship, and thus its place in the Biblical canon is in some dispute. Catholic Bibles include it, Jewish and Protestant generally do not, although exhaustive editions, such as the King James, often include it with the Apocrypha.) Two other elders take a liking to Susanna. They therefore hide in the garden until she comes in to take her bath, then spring out to offer her a choice: let them have their fun with her, or else have them tell her husband that they found her in the garden with a young lover. Much to their disappointment, she cries out loudly, thus apparently opting for the second choice. They proceed to tell their lie when other villagers rush in to Susanna’s rescue, claiming that her cry was one of surprise at being caught in the act, and that the unknown young man was able to get away before he could be caught or identified. Being respected elders, they are believed. A tribune finds Susanna guilty of adultery, for which the punishment is death. As she is being led away to her fate, the procession passes by the Prophet Daniel. God comes to him at that instant, telling him that Susanna is innocent. With nary a moment to lose, Daniel rushes to stop the procession, saying that he will prove Susanna’s innocence to everyone’s satisfaction. A brief stay is reluctantly agreed to, whereupon Daniel interviews each of Susanna’s accusers separately, asking under exactly which tree Susanna had her tryst. They’ve of course failed to get their stories straight, and each names a different tree. This is proof enough for the tribune, who proceed to execute her accusers in lieu of Susanna.

In contrast to so much in the Bible, it’s odd how contemporary this story sounds to our ears. Remove the explicit prompting of God that put Daniel on the case and the determination to punish every crime with the one-size-fits-all sentence of death, and it could easily be an episode of any of a hundred crime dramas. One can imagine Columbo shambling up to each of the two elders to deliver his questions, complete with lots of mumbled asides and self-deprecations, until… gotcha! Like all those detectives to follow, Daniel essentially treats the crime as a puzzle to be solved using logic and intuition — along with in his case, being a prophet and all, just a little bit of divine guidance.

He plays detective again in another Apocrypha-banished tale, “Bel and the Dragon.” Here the king has rejected his claim that a rival god to Yahweh, the dragon god Bel, is a fraud of his priesthood. The king cites the sacrifice of meat and wine which he leaves in Bel’s sealed temple every night, which is always gone in the morning. Daniel therefore scatters ashes over the floor of Bel’s temple just after the sacrifice is placed and before the temple is sealed. Sure enough, next morning there is a trail of footprints showing how the priests entered from a secret door to retrieve the meat and wine themselves. It’s a story that could easily be a text-adventure puzzle — and a pretty good one at that.

Ancient as it is, the detective story really exploded in popularity during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the idea of Science and Rationality as an answer to all the problems of mankind was also very much in vogue. The classic modern archetype of the form, at least in English, is Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which he introduces his detective C. Auguste Dupin. There’s much about “Murders” that feels typical of Poe — the florid diction, the long philosophical digression that opens the story, the Gothic darkness that encloses it. (“It was a freak of fancy in my friend,” writes the narrator, Dupin’s version of Watson, “to be enamored of the Night for her own sake.”) Yet, surprisingly from a writer known for his obsession with irrationality and madness, Dupin is ultimately a living testimony to the power of what Poe calls “the analytical facility.” Dupin and the narrator read in the newspaper about a seemingly impossible crime: a woman and her daughter found murdered in an apartment that was still locked from the inside, and witnesses who all report hearing the assumed murderer speaking in a different language. Treating the scant physical evidence and witness reports as pieces of a logic puzzle, Dupin concludes that the murderer was in fact an escaped orangutan, and his “language” meaningless gibbering; tellingly, each witness reported the murderer to be speaking in a language she herself did not understand. Dupin then proceeds to track down the ape and its owner without ever venturing from his apartment, using only the newspaper.

Dupin appears in just three stories by Poe, but his influence on the generations of detectives that followed was immense. Nowhere is it more pronounced than in the most famous detective of all, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In addition to the character of his detective, even the structure Doyle chose is the same, an everyman narrator describing the adventures of this impossibly brilliant fellow in terms to which you and I can relate. There’s a telling “lady doth protest too much” moment in the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), where Doyle acknowledges the elephant in the room. Dupin, Holmes tells Watson when the latter points out how similar Holmes’s methods are to those of Doyle’s inspiration, is “a very inferior fellow” compared to him, although his reasons for saying so aren’t exactly rigorously worked out.

At this point I need to pause for a moment to describe what makes the nineteenth-century detective different from those who would follow. In her 1985 PhD thesis on Adventure (one of if not the first to be written about a videogame), Mary Ann Buckles makes an important distinction between “game as literature” and “literature as game”:

The object of the work is the determining factor: if the main goal is for the reader to decipher some veiled meaning or to figure out the answer to a question or puzzle posed by the work, its basic character is game-like. Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger,” mystery/detective literature, and some aspects of hermetic and Baroque poetry can, I believe, be viewed as games. On the other hand, if a puzzle posed in the work is also answered in the work so that the reader is not responsible for the solution, it is not a game. There might be clever, playful literary devices in them that can be considered as little games, but these are used to enhance the meaning or beauty. It is then the depiction or representation of some meaning or aesthetic experience that is the main object.

For all their gamesmanship, the stories of Dupin and Holmes fall into the category of “game as literature” for one reason: they don’t present to us, the readers, any truly solvable puzzles. The chain of logic that leads Dupin to his murdering orangutan is absurd. If we know who the killer is, it’s possible to follow his logic back from its conclusion, but any given link on the chain of logic is equally admitting of dozens of alternate possibilities. As a bemused Poe wrote in response to the praise heaped upon him for his Dupin stories, “Where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?”

Doyle is an even worse offender. Not only does Holmes always choose the correct of a myriad of possible explanations for even the most trivial of evidence, but Doyle often keeps his reader in the dark about crucial elements of the cases, letting Holmes solve the case with inside information, as it were. The typical Holmes story begins with someone visiting 221B Baker Street with a seemingly impossible case, proceeds through Watson bumbling around and Holmes being cryptic, and ends with Holmes explaining to everyone, not least the reader, how brilliant he was. The poor reader never has a chance; the games in the Sherlock Holmes stories are all internal to the stories, to be played and solved by Holmes alone while we look on admiringly. Dupin and Holmes are not so much examples of the Power of Logic in the real world as they are of naive faith in logic as a semi-mystical force, more superheroes (“Logic Man!”) than practical examples. One of Holmes’s classic tricks is to give a rundown of a stranger’s character and life circumstances in minute detail, all from observing their appearance and behavior for a scant moment or two. There are a few occasions in the stories where he invites Watson to have a go at the same thing. Watson, not being graced with Holmes’s superhuman Powers of Logic, makes a series of very reasonable inferences and deductions — and, of course, gets everything spectacularly wrong. Suffice to say that we — and anyone living in the real world — would be more like Watson than Holmes.

But what if the puzzles imbedded in these stories were fairer, actually solvable by the reader, so that the reader could play detective right along with the protagonist of the story? It’s not an untenable notion by any means. In 491 BCE Sophocles told in Oedipus the King how Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx to win the hand of Queen Jocasta. Let’s not dwell on what an ugly match that turned out to be, but instead note that the reader/playgoer has a chance to ponder and solve the riddle right along with Oedipus — or not. It’s game as literature and literature as game intertwined, to be taken as the reader/playgoer chooses. Another famous example is of course the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit, which Bilbo ironically wins by ignoring the proper rules of riddling and simply asking, “What have I got in my pockets?” Sometimes the only way to win is to cheat a bit…

In the early twentieth century, some authors started to write tighter, fairer mysteries, where all clues at the disposal of the detective were also available to the reader, and where the killer could be reasonably deduced by following the trail of evidence, however tangled. Eventually, in 1929, one R.A. Knox codified ten rules of good practice that made a fair, solvable detective story. Like Graham Nelson’s later Player’s Bill of Rights, they’re a sometimes hilarious mixture of the general and commonsensical (“All supernatural and preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course”) and the author’s specific pet peeves (“No Chinaman must figure in the story,” a reaction to the absurdities of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels).

While I’m not sure I want to push this point too far, there is a certain parallel between the development of the text adventure and that of the modern detective novel, of unfair early works prompting reactions like those of Nelson and Knox, who began to codify better design policy — at least if we are interested in reading detective novels primarily for their game-like aspects. (Certainly the Dupin and Sherlock Holmes stories have other appeals that have made them more enduring than most of the later, fairer works.) The cruel irony in the case of the text adventure is that such rigorous public discussion of design policy did not take place until the form was already commercially dead, arguably partly slain by the very design sins Nelson belatedly railed against.

The 1920s and 1930s are often called the golden age of detective fiction, when the genre reached a far larger readership than it has before or since. The queen of the era was of course Agatha Christie, the bestselling novelist of all time. She wasn’t always completely fair — she wasn’t above withholding the occasional key bit of evidence known by her detective from her reader, and on two occasions even made the murderer the narrator himself — but she generally gave the reader at least the ghost of a chance of figuring it out for herself. Christie was not interested in plumbing the depths of her character’s souls, but rather moved them around in her books like chess pieces, components of the puzzle that was her real concern. Indeed, there’s a feeling of unreality about classic whodunits that is unusually pronounced even for genre literature. Murder, about the ugliest business there is, becomes just a target for intellectual curiosity. The golden-age whodunit is all about the puzzle.

Given that, a logical next step might be to remove the trappings of the novel entirely, to just throw all of the evidence into the reader’s lap and challenge her to solve the crime herself. We’ll talk about the first person to make that leap next time.


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Time Zone: Aftermath

Time Zone met a fairly cool reception upon its release. It wasn’t panned in the magazines; bad reviews were all but nonexistent in this era. Still, it received surprisingly little coverage for such a major release from such a major publisher. When it was discussed, the main preoccupation was its immense size, with little attention given to its other qualities. Most likely those assigned to write about it were as intimidated by it as everyone else, and didn’t know quite where else to begin.

Feedback from the everyday gaming public in the only form that ultimately matters to a publisher, sales, was also very disappointing. As they had for the other Hi-Res Adventures, On-Line had announced plans to port the game to the Atari 400 and 800 — where, thanks to the small disk capacity of those machines, it was projected to occupy an astounding 20 disk sides. In the wake of very poor sales, however, they quietly shelved those plans, judging it not worth the effort. Within a few months all active promotion had ceased, as On-Line wrote the game off as a failed, not-to-be-repeated experiment and moved on. Luckily they still had plenty of more successful software, enough so that the Time Zone project, while it certainly didn’t help the bottom line, didn’t by itself endanger the house that Ken and Roberta had built.

It’s tempting to see in Time Zone‘s failure the adventuring public standing up for their rights at last, rejecting the absurdities of the genre to the strains of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (hopefully the Who’s version rather than Twisted Sister’s). Alas, this probably wasn’t the case. Cruelty and unfairness were still largely what was expected of an adventure game at this stage. Of the games I’ve looked at so far for this blog, only (bizarrely enough) Softporn is not at least a little bit sadistic, and that hadn’t prevented many of them from becoming hits. Time Zone‘s sins were not so much unique as compounded by its size, affirmatively answering the question of whether a game could be simply too big.

The other question Time Zone answered was whether an adventure game could cost too much, and therein lies the more obvious reason for its failure. Prices had escalated rapidly since the days of 1978, when individual programmers had sold games in Ziploc baggies for $5 or $10. Publishers watched in delight as they raised their prices — to $20, $35, finally to $50 with the arrival of Wizardry — and people just kept on buying, even as the United States and the world plunged deeper into the worst recession prior to the recent one. Looked at from today’s perspective, the games business circa 1982 looks like the proverbial license to print money, as publishers could sell games created in a few months by one or two programmers for prices that were, when considered with inflation, equal to or greater than those of modern AAA titles developed by teams of hundreds. Yet there was a limit, and Wizardry and Time Zone by their respective success and failure pretty definitively found it. From then on publishers would not dare to venture much beyond $50 for even their most lavish productions. As the public’s expectations went up, resulting in games that needed bigger development teams and ever more time to make, profit margins correspondingly shrank. No wonder so many game-makers from those halcyon days can’t help but look back on the early 1980s with a certain wistfulness.

There were of course some people who bought Time Zone, and even some who claimed to enjoy it. It managed to place 20th in Softalk magazine’s readers’ poll for the best software of 1982, beating out the likes of Infocom’s Deadline. And Electronic Games magazine gave it a year-end “Certificate of Merit.”

The most prominent fan of all was Roe R. Adams III, the prolific adventure-game reviewer and columnist for several magazines who according to legend became the first in the world to solve the game, just one week after its release, and according to Steven Levy’s Hackers then “declared Roberta’s creation one of the greatest gaming feats in history.” Adams was active on a telecommunications service known as The Source, an important early online community that was the first of its kind barring only PLATO, and as such is probably worthy of a post or three in its own right. After watching his other, less adept adventuring friends flounder in the game, he convinced the powers that were on The Source to set up an area called the Vault of Ages, dedicated to plumbing the mysteries of Time Zone collaboratively. Users were greeted with the following upon going there:

Welcome to the Vault of Ages. Here we are coordinating the greatest group effort in adventure solving — the complete mapping of On-Line’s Time Zone.

I am the curator of the vault. You are the 85th intrepid time traveler to seek the knowledge of the vault. Herein we are gathering, verifying, and correlating information about each time zone. Feel free to visit here anytime, but remember that for the vault to fill, we need your contributions of information. Anytime you have new information about mapping, puzzle solutions, traps overcome, items found, s-mail this info to me. After verification, your contributed jigsaw puzzle piece will be added to the vault file, and your name will be entered upon the rolls as a master solver. Now step this way and I will introduce you to the Master Catalog.

Eventually with more than 1800 members, the Vault of Ages is a fascinating example of early crowd-sourcing, an ancestor of everything from Wikipedia to a thousand Lost message boards, and as such of perhaps more ultimate significance than Time Zone itself.

Within On-Line, Time Zone was notable in retrospect for being the first project of Jeff Stephenson. The great unsung hero of On-Line’s (soon to be Sierra’s) glory years, Stephenson would largely take over from Ken Williams as the company’s hacker-in-chief as the latter found business concerns monopolizing his time. Stephenson became the technical architect behind the next two generations of Sierra adventure games, designing the AGI and SCI engines and development tools that allowed Sierra’s games, like Infocom’s, to run on any platform for which the company wrote an interpreter. We’ll be getting much more familiar with Stephenson and his work in the years to come.

Still, most within On-Line were happy to forget about Time Zone as quickly as possible. That’s not all that surprising, given the chaotic development process, the unsatisfying final result, and the commercial failure of the project. Yet it went beyond even that. There was something ill-starred about Time Zone that seemed to affect many involved with it. Most of the youngsters who worked on the game left for university or other greener pastures upon its completion, happy not to have anything more to do with the games industry. Terry Pierce, the 18-year-old artist who had drawn all of those 1400 pictures virtually singlehandedly, burned out more dramatically. He was the best friend of Ken’s little brother John, who was only slightly older but already filling numerous high-profile roles at On-Line, including putting together the packaging for Time Zone. John describes a “kind of psychotic episode,” in which Terry was found “walking down the snowy highway at night in below freezing weather with no shoes or shirt on.” He also was gone shortly after that incident, severing all contact with his erstwhile best friend and everyone else at On-Line for over 20 years.

But the saddest tale of all was that of Bob Davis. Davis, you’ll remember, was the personable fellow who had gone from clerking at a liquor store to designing his own game to heading the Time Zone project in six months. He had a history of alcoholism and drug abuse, but had managed to get himself basically clean and sober by the time he started working for On-Line. But around the time that Time Zone was wrapping up, Davis, making more money than he ever had in his life, started to indulge in a big way again. He quit his job shortly after, deciding he could write games on his own and sell them to publishers. Davis was a bright guy when sober, but he hadn’t a prayer of authoring a game from scratch when bereft of tools like Ken’s ADL adventure-scripting language. He fumbled with learning assembly language for the Atari VCS, one of the most notoriously difficult programming platforms ever devised. But mostly he shot up drugs.

Soon the royalty checks started to get smaller as his game Ulysses and the Golden Fleece went from new hit to catalog status, and soon after the money was gone along with his wife. Davis began calling On-Line’s offices on an almost daily basis, asking for a job he obviously was no longer capable of doing — or, even better, just a straight handout. Knowing where the money would go if he just gave it to him, one kind-hearted old colleague offered to pay his mortgage directly; Davis angrily slammed down the phone in response. He started trying to pass bad checks all over town, becoming a pariah in this small community where everybody knew everybody. In a story that rings familiar to all too many of us, he “flamed out in a way that burned every bridge along the way,” in John Williams’s words, and by the end of the year was in jail in Fresno. I don’t know what happened to him after that, although I can say that he never rejoined the games industry to build on his unlikely early success. John believes he called On-Line just once after his release from jail, to an understandably “chilly reception.” But Bob Davis, first through all those increasingly desperate phone calls and then through the bad memories of his fall from grace, haunted On-Line for years afterward, casting a pall over everyone’s memories of Time Zone itself.

And that sad note is where we’ll have to leave it with Time Zone. As we’ll soon have several occasions to learn again, individuals and companies could fall as fast as they rose in the early PC industry.


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Time Zone: Tackling the Monster

As a kid, I absolutely loved time-travel stories. I devoured Quantum Leap and Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol, and later in adulthood was very enamored with Connie Willis’s more sophisticated takes on the tropes. As cool science-fictional concepts go, time travel is pretty hard to top. By comparison every other genre of story is limited, bound to whatever milieu the author has chosen or invented. But time travel lets you go hopscotching through the universe — or a multiplicity of them — within the bounds of a single volume.

It also makes a pretty darn appealing premise for an adventure game, maybe even more so than for traditional fiction, what with setting being the literary element adventures do best. And indeed, time travel forms its own lively adventure sub-genre which just happens to include some of my very favorites. Time Zone does not make that list, but it is the first major text adventure to really explore the genre. Considering what a natural fit it is for an adventure game, I’m only surprised that a game like Time Zone took this long to appear. (And yes, I know I’m opening myself up to long lists of obscure or amateur titles that did time travel before Time Zone. By all means, post ’em if you got ’em. But as a professional adventure with a full-fledged time-hopping premise, I’d say Time Zone is probably worthy of recognition as the first text adventure to really go all in for time-travel fiction of the sort I knew as a kid.)

Time-travel stories may be written out of fascination with the intrinsic coolness of time travel itself, but they do often need some sort of framing premise and conflict to motivate their heroes. Time Zone goes with a B-movie riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the “dawn of man,” echoes the Time Zone manual, and mankind is being observed with interest by an advanced alien race, the Neburites. Here, however, the aliens are evil, and get pissed off as the centuries go by and mankind’s essential badassitude asserts itself:

The year is 4081. The Earth is a fast-paced, highly technological society. The advancement of Earth in the last 2000 years is an amazement to Earth historians and a constant source of pride to Earth scientists. The Neburites, though, feel quite the opposite.

In the 2000 years since our last glimpse of the extraterrestrials they have advanced little, and their jealousy for the Earth’s advancement has grown to a mad fervor. The evil Neburite ruler Ramadu fears that the Earth will very soon become the superior race in the galaxy. This must not happen. His plan is to strike now, before the Earth is advanced enough to defend itself against an attack. So Ramadu has built an awesome ray gun, and aimed it directly at the distant Earth.

It seems that unless something is done, if Ramadu is not stopped and his weapons destroyed, Earth will never see the year 4082.

Stopping him is, of course, a job for you, an everyday Earthling living in 1982, given to you along with a time machine by “a terrestrial guardian or keeper.”

It’s never explained just why you were chosen rather than someone from, you know, the year 4081 who might consider the Earth’s pending destruction a more urgent problem, nor why this mission needs to involve all this time travel at all. You must visit dozens of times and places to collect the equipment you’ll need to confront Ramadu on his home planet in 4081 — exotic stuff like a hammer, a knife, a rope, and a damn rock(!). It would be a lot easier and faster to pop into your house — the time machine just appeared in your back yard, after all — or at worst down the street to the local hardware store to collect these trinkets and be on your way directly to Ramadu.

To some extent these absurdities are part and parcel of adventure gaming even today. (If you somehow lose the walking stick that is key to many puzzles in my own game The King of Shreds and Patches, why can’t you just go to a shop and buy another one?) Even today games often drag and contort their stories, not without split seams and shrieks of pain, into shape to accommodate their technical affordances. As a collection of smaller adventures bound together with bailing wire and duct tape, Time Zone has no notion of global state other than through the objects the player is carrying with her, which she obtained by solving various zones, just as Wizardry has no way of controlling for winning other than by looking to see whether the party is carrying the amulet they could only obtain by taking out Werdna. The necessary suspension of disbelief just seems somehow more extreme in Time Zone, as, for example, when I park my time machine on a city street in the middle of downtown London without anyone seeming to notice or care.

But, yes, you can say I’m just anachronistically poking holes in a game running on very limited technology — except that Infocom released a game at the same time that showed that a reasonably consistent, believable premise and setting was very possible even with 1982 technology. (More on that in a future post.)

It’s not really surprising given the simplistic story and world model, but it is interesting to note the lack of many traditional time-travel tropes and concerns in Time Zone, the questions and paradoxes that do almost as much as the multiplicity of settings time travel offers to make it such a fun premise for a story (or a game). For instance, there’s no thought at all given to what happens if you change history. I suppose thought is not really needed, first of all because many zones have nothing interesting really going on anyway. For those that do, alteration of history is prevented by what Carl Muckenhoupt (whose own posts on Time Zone I highly recommend as companions to this one) calls “the poverty of the game engine.” The parser understands very little beyond what you have to do to solve the game, meaning that if you try to do something to mess with history — like, say, kill Christopher Columbus — you’re not going to be able to communicate your idea anyway.

The one place where Time Zone does nod toward traditional time-travel concerns is in not letting you carry objects back in time to a point before they were invented; if you try it, the anachronistic objects are destroyed. This of course provides Roberta Williams with a way of gating her puzzle design, preventing the player from using an obviously applicable item from solving this or that puzzle. It can also be very annoying, not only because it’s all too easy to be careless and lose track of what you’re carrying where, but also because it’s not always clear to the player — or, I strongly suspect given the countless historical gaffes in the game, to Roberta either — just when an item was invented, and thus just where the (time)line of demarcation really lies. In the small blessings department, the game does at least tell you when objects are destroyed this way. Given the era and the designer, one could easily imagine it keeping mum and letting you go quite a long way before figuring out you’ve made your game unwinnable.

But I should outline the general structure of the game before we go any further. From your home base that is literally your contemporary home, you can travel to each of the seven continents in any of five times — 50 BC, 1000 AD, 1400 AD, 1700 AD, 2082 AD — to collect what you need for the climax on Neburon in 4082 AD. (The manual says 4081, but it seems to have been written back when the game was still expected to ship in 1981 — thus the neat 2100-year gap.) Oh, and you can also visit 400 million BC, but only in one location. It’s explained as being thus limited because this was before the continents as we know them came into being. The same is also claimed to be true, bizarrely, of 10,000 BC (obviously there were no geologists around On-Line). Not all of the zones need to be visited; some serve only as red herrings. In what is, depending on your point of view, either a ripoff or the funniest joke in the game (or both), Antarctica in every single time consists of just a single location. You can only get out of your time machine, say, “Gee, it’s too cold here,” and climb back inside.

Some of the zones contain historical characters drawn straight from grade-school history books, giving the game (like so much of Roberta Williams’s work) a feel of children’s literature.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that Time Zone is not exactly rigorous about putting these characters precisely when they belong. It’s kind of tough to know to what extent Roberta messes with chronology just to be able to fit in all the cool stuff she wants to given just five time periods in which to put it all — Columbus certainly seems like a must-have, even if he is displaced by 92 years — and to what extent it’s all down to sloppy or nonexistent research. In her interview with Computer Gaming World to promote Time Zone, Roberta mentions an error she made, placing a rhea bird in Australia rather than South America. She explains the error away more disingenuously (or is this supposed to be funny?) in the manual:

To make a more interesting and challenging adventure, we have made some minor changes. For example, at one point in the game (I won’t say where) we have placed a rhea egg where you will never find a rhea bird. Anyone knowledgeable in ornithology knows that a rhea bird belong in South America (which is not where it is). This type of thing happens from time to time in Time Zone.

Worrying so much over such a minor point leaves one thinking that Time Zone‘s history must be rigorous indeed. Um, no. In addition to thinking that Pangaea still existed in 10,000 BC, the game also thinks that man invented fire in 10,000 BC. (In fact, it lets you be the one who invents fire, creating all sorts of timeline repercussions — if the game was more interested in such things, that is).

And it places brontosauruses (from the Jurassic period) and tyrannosauruses (from the Cretaceous) together in 400 million BC, hundreds of millennia too early for either. And then there’s Napoleon ruling in 1700 AD.

It’s hard for me to attribute this to the need to have cool stuff, because Louis XIV’s France was a pretty interesting historical moment in its own right. And your mission in this zone is to collect a comb and some perfume, which fits better with the Sun King’s effete court than with the more martial Napoleon. So, I must reluctantly conclude that Roberta doesn’t know her Louis XIV from her Napoleon. She also thinks that Saint Petersburg is in Asia, and that Peter the Great was the husband of Catherine the Great. “History books aren’t a lot of fun,” she asserts in the manual. Which kind of begs one to wonder why someone who doesn’t like history books is writing a game about history.

Time Zone has always had a reputation as a fearsomely unfair and difficult game. That’s true enough, but it’s not universally true when you look at it in a granular way. Many — probably most — of the puzzles break down into a few repeated archetypes, such as trading one fairly obvious item for another item.

There’s even a limited but surprising amount of kindness (or “user friendliness,” as the manual says over and over; presumably that term had just come into vogue). In addition to the game’s being kind enough to tell you when you lose an item in the timestream, the inventory limit, while present, is a very generous 16 items or so. And there is only one maze, if we restrict the term to rooms that are not laid out so that going north after going south gets you back where you started.

There are, however, large, tedious-to-map grids of empty rooms in virtually every zone you visit, and the game never tells you which exits from a location are available, forcing you to rely on trial and error. (Thank God the Hi-Res engine doesn’t support diagonal exits.) Indeed, Time Zone may have the shabbiest ratio of rooms to things to actually do in them in adventure-game history. By my count there are 57 items in the game, about the same as each of the first two Zork games — but spread over more than 1300 rooms. If anything the ratio feels even worse than that, as you wander through endless “pastures,” “meadows,” “fields,” and “city streets.” Actually playing Time Zone feels not like a grand journey through history, but rather a long slog through a whole bunch of nothing. No wonder poor Terry Pierce was reduced to tears at having to draw this monotony.

To relieve the boredom, entering some of these otherwise meaningless locations leads to instant death. The only way to solve many of these “puzzles” is to learn from the deaths and not enter that location again.

Some of the pictures are pretty nice, up to the standard of the earlier Hi-Res Adventures. Others show the strain of drawing 1400 pictures in eight months; they look pretty bad.

Something that’s often overlooked about the Hi-Res Adventures today is that they are not simply text adventures with illustrations, after the style of, say, the Magnetic Scrolls games of the later 1980s. Right from Mystery House there was an element of interactivity to their graphics: drop an item in an area and you would see it there; open a door and you would see it open onscreen; etc. That’s quite impressive. However, occasionally, just occasionally, Roberta decides to put essential information into the picture rather than bothering to describe it in text. Because this happens relatively seldom, and because there’s so much else in those pictures that isn’t implemented in the game, these occasions are devilishly easy to miss entirely.

In the picture below, that little green thing at the bottom right that looks like an air vent is an essential oxygen mask — apparently for a person with a very weirdly shaped head, but that’s another issue — that’s going to get destroyed if we go back in time with it in the time machine with us.

Nothing in the picture below is implemented except one of the drawers, which contains a knife that you need.

Only the cabinet is implemented below, which… you know the drill.

And the tusks of the elephant skeleton are implemented as separate objects that can be pried out and taken, something I’d never suspect in a million years.

All of this is frustrating in the extreme, but none of it is really that different from the other Hi-Res Adventures. What makes Time Zone so untenable, and leads to its reputation for difficulty and cruelty, is the combinatorial-explosion factor. There’s a pretty fixed order in which you need to work your way through the zones, using items found in one to solve puzzles in the next. Yet the game gives no clue whatsoever what that order must be, leaving you hopelessly at sea about where to go next or what to work on. (And then of course if you miss something like one of the above…) By late in the game you’ll have a full inventory plus a whole collection of extra objects piled outside your time machine, and won’t even know what to take with you from zone to zone.

Throw in all of the other annoyances — the pointless sudden deaths; the huge empty maps; the items and entire zones that serve only as red herrings; the uncertainty about what you can and can’t interact with; the obstinate parser; and just a few howlingly bad puzzles to top it all off — and the result is just excruciating. Theoretically this game could be solved, but really, why would you want to? Anyone willing to put this amount of methodical, tedious work in for so little positive feedback might be better off doing something that benefits mankind, or at least earns her a paycheck.

Or maybe it can’t be solved. It wouldn’t be a Roberta Williams game without a couple of really terrible puzzles. One of those is found in Asia (should be Europe, but why quibble?) in 1700 AD, where you have to wait outside Catherine the Great’s castle for five turns for no apparent reason for her to emerge with hubby Peter the Great and drop a hat pin.

This is made especially annoying by the fact that the game doesn’t even have a WAIT verb; you have to fiddle around with endless LOOKs and the like to get the turns to pass. (If you construed from the lack of WAIT that there would be no puzzle mechanics involving time, the joke’s on you.)

The other crowning jewel is the mountainside in the Asia of 1000 AD where you must type a totally unmotivated OPEN SESAME.

Puzzles aside, Time Zone just feels a bit amateurish and sloppy most of the time. Like a piece of fiction from a beginning writer, one senses that no one is in control of its tone or message, which veer about wildly. Nowhere is this more painful than in its depictions of the non-white natives of the zones, which come off as hilariously racist — but, I’m sure, unintentionally so.

There are also weird occasions when the “children’s book” tone suddenly gives way to thoughtless violence.

So, no, Time Zone is not a very good game. The climax on Neburon, which takes two disk sides by itself, is actually the strongest part, full of sudden deaths and empty rooms but also possessed of a forward narrative drive and sense of tension that was still rare in this era, as you penetrate deeper and deeper into the alien base. If released on its own, it would have stood up as possibly the best of the Hi-Res line. As it is, though, it comes at the end of such an exhausting slog that it’s hard to really appreciate. By the time you see the victory screen — which, incidentally, makes no sense; why are the people in your home town of 1982 celebrating a victory you won in 4082? — you’re just glad it’s over, just like the team who made it were when they finally got it out the door.

Sometimes, as The Prisoner taught us, the best way to win is not to play. Time Zone is perhaps doubly disappointing because the premise has so much potential. But neither the technology nor the designer were really equipped to realize such an ambitious idea, and certainly not in the time allowed. Still, Time Zone is of undeniable historical significance, so I have the Apple II disk images and the manual for those of you who’d like to dive in.

Next time: a bit about the aftermath of Time Zone before we move on to something else.


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Time Zone

In January of 1981, as On-Line Systems were settling into their first office in Coarsegold, California, Roberta Williams already had three Hi-Res Adventures to her credit: Mystery House, The Wizard and the Princess, and the introductory adventure Mission: Asteroid. For her next game, she wanted to do something bold and big. Really big. She envisioned the ultimate treasure hunt, through time as well as space, in which the player would have to visit every continent at five different meticulously recreated historical moments, en route to a climax set on an alien planet in the far future that would by itself be larger than most standalone adventures.

When not working with Ken to get On-Line properly off the ground as a real business over the next six months, Roberta developed her idea, deciding exactly when and where should be included and sketching out maps and a puzzle structure as well as a simple framing story to justify it all. She had been so fascinated when first playing the original Adventure that she had “never wanted it to end.” Now, she seemed determined to get as close as possible to that ideal of infinite adventure. Time Zone just kept growing; by the time Roberta set the complete design document before Ken that summer, it had grown from an estimated five or six to twelve disk sides. This at a time when the biggest epics like Ultima and Wizardry were just spilling onto a second side for the first time.

Ken and Roberta had worked closely together on her first three games, with Roberta doing the writing and design and drawing the graphics and Ken coding it all on the computer. Now, however, Ken was busy running the full-fledged company that On-Line Systems had become. Anyway, Time Zone was far too ambitious a project for just two people to tackle. So Ken assembled a team of about ten people for Time Zone, who would spend months working full-time or part-time on the game. The formation of what Ken dubbed “the Time Zone task force” marks a significant moment in the history of game development.

Previously games had been created by one or at most two or three people, each a jack-of-all-trades doing the art, design, and programming as needed. This was after all an era when much game design revolved around exploiting some technical quirk or capability of the hosting hardware, leaving precious little space between the abstracts of design and the details of implementation. Roberta Williams, who as a non-programmer as well as a female was very much the odd woman out in early 1980s game development, felt the need in a contemporary interview for Computer Gaming World to defend her contribution as a pure designer: “Sometimes I feel that people don’t think that I’m as much a part of the creative process as I claim, due to the fact that I don’t program. The designing of the game is the most important and creative part of the project (and also the most fun).” In explicitly separating programmers from artists from designers for the Time Zone project, Ken and Roberta began the march toward the modern model of big-studio development, in which the jack-of-all-trades mastermind has been superseded by teams of hundreds of specialists weaving ever more granular fragments of the whole tapestry. It seems safe to say that Time Zone‘s team was the largest ever assembled to that point to create a computer game — fittingly, as Time Zone was the closest game development got in 1981 to a modern AAA title.

Time Zone was of course to be a Hi-Res Adventure, meaning its appeal would be rooted in the pictures that would illustrate each of its locations. Arguably the most important person on the team after Roberta herself therefore became Terry Pierce, an 18-year old hired straight out of the local high school to draw 1400 pictures for the game in pencil on graph paper. Two others then laboriously traced the pictures on Apple’s Graphics Tablet, filled them in with color, and stored them on disk in a highly compressed format, all accomplished with the tools Ken had originally developed for The Wizard and the Princess. The other side of the operation was the “logistics team,” a few scripters who translated Roberta’s descriptions of geography and puzzles into Ken’s ADL (Adventure Design Language). They created each of Roberta’s “time zones” as a small, self-contained adventure game in its own right. In ostensible charge of the whole was Bob Davis, the personable fellow Ken had hired out of a local liquor store. Yes, in a career trajectory that could only have happened in 1981 and possibly only in the Oakhurst area, Davis had gone from liquor-store clerk to designer of his own game (Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, Hi-Res Adventure #4) to manager of the most ambitious game-development effort in computer history, all in a matter of months. In between finishing up his own game, he now tinkered with ADL for Time Zone and loosely supervised the other coders and artists.

As you might imagine, the whole project started to go off the rails pretty quickly. Davis was well liked by everyone — he was a guy with “a huge heart and a ton of enthusiasm” in John Williams’s words — but lacked the experience or temperament to be a project manager. And while he was adept enough with simple ADL scripting, he lacked the technical acumen needed to even come up with a plan for pulling together all of these little games his coders were creating into the monstrous whole that would be Time Zone. Meanwhile Ken, the one guy at On-Line with the technical know-how and organizational smarts to really manage the project, was kept so busy by other concerns that he could spare little attention. Still, he expected Davis and his team to deliver a completed Time Zone before Christmas — an impossible deadline even without all of the partying and other distractions that accompanied life at On-Line.

Then a savior of sorts walked through the door, in the form of one Jeff Stephenson. At 30 years old, Stephenson already had considerable experience in the computer industry, as well as the sort of rigorous understanding of the technology and the organizational skills that most of the self-taught hackers and kids around On-Line lacked. His last employer had been none other than Software Arts, developers of the most important microcomputer application in the world, VisiCalc. Upon moving from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the mountains of northern California, Stephenson decided to drop in on On-Line, the closest technology company, to see if they needed a programmer. From Hackers:

He put on cord jeans and a sport shirt for the interview; his wife suggested he dress up more. “This is the mountains,” Jeff reminded her, and drove down Deadwood Mountain to On-Line Systems. When he arrived, Ken told him, “I don’t know if you’re going to fit in here — you look kind of conservative.” He hired Jeff anyway, for $18,000 a year — $11,000 less than he’d been making at Software Arts.

Stephenson’s first assignment was to join Davis as co-head of the Time Zone project, to cut through the chaos and get the project back on track. His “conservatism” turned out to be exactly what Time Zone needed. He set everyone firmly and clearly about their appointed tasks, like would have been expected within the more businesslike confines of Software Arts. He himself made modifications to Ken’s Hi-Res Adventure engine to let them tie all of the regions in the game together, at least loosely, letting the player move her avatar from mini-adventure to mini-adventure via the time machine and to carry items with her. And he convinced another On-Line programmer, an action-game maestro named Warren Schwader, to dramatically speed up the rendering of the graphics as the player moved through this huge world. That made a game that would be, as we’ll see in my next post, very painful to play at least a modicum less painful.

By this point the focus for everyone had long ago shifted from Roberta’s original starry-eyed dream of an adventure game for (literally!) the ages to just getting the damn thing done in some reasonably acceptable form. Roberta would later say in the CGW interview, “Once we got into it and saw how big of a job it was, we were almost sorry we started it in the first place.” It’s probably safe to say that most of her team would have happily removed the “almost” from that statement. What with the time constraints, they created essentially a skeleton of Roberta’s vision, with the historical vignettes given little more atmosphere or detail than were needed to support the simple overarching puzzle structure.

Still, all those pictures remained to be drawn, bringing an unbelievable burden of work down on Terry Pierce’s thin shoulders. Almost as burdensome as the quantity of work was the sheer tedium of the subject matter: hundreds and hundreds of uninteresting “fields,” “forests,” and “city streets” to accompany the few locations with something to actually do or look at in each region. In what seems a case of bizarrely misplaced priorities today, the Hi-Res Adventure brand demanded that every single one of Time Zone‘s more than 1300 locations be given its own unique picture, even if the location itself consisted of only “You are in a forest.” Ken and Roberta knew perfectly well where their bread was buttered. Hi-Res Adventures didn’t sell so well because of deathless prose or intricate world-modeling; they advanced little beyond the Scott Adams games in these areas. No, they sold so well because of all those colorful pictures that made them some of the most visually arresting software you could run on an Apple II. And so Pierce worked furiously to crank the pictures out; John Williams remembers the poor kid “almost in tears” from the stress, but still frantically sketching away.

Even with such heroic efforts, there was no way Time Zone was going to be ready for Christmas. The project slipped into 1982, finally shipping (with a big sigh of relief from all concerned) about the beginning of March. Taking into account the sheer quantity of locations, On-Line decided the game was worth a premium price: in fact, a rather staggering list price of $99.95, about twice what anyone had dared to charge for even the most ambitious of computer games before. (Indeed, when accounting for inflation Time Zone is still quite possibly the most expensive videogame ever released.) For an advertisement, they created a mock movie poster, making the most explicit link yet between games and movies. It’s an interesting moment in this fraught relationship, a step on the way to the “interactive movies” On-Line and others would be touting a decade down the road.

Roberta also compared Time Zone to an “epic movie in the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille” in her CGW interview.

The introduction to the manual touts the size and scope of the project proudly, reminding one of the similar introduction to Wizardry‘s manual: “Time Zone has been over a year in the making”; “Roberta Williams spent over six months writing and designing the game before the first line of code for the game was actually written”; “it was the biggest project that On-Line Systems has ever embarked upon”; “it required a complete restructuring of our adventure programming procedures”; “Time Zone is by far the largest and most complex game ever written for any microcomputer.” An article in Softline stated, “This game took more than fourteen months to complete and it has been estimated that it will take people a year to solve due to its extreme complexity.” Predictably enough, an adventure fanatic named Roe Adams III finished it in just about a week, and promptly called On-Line to tell them about it. (I suspect Adams must have hacked — not because the amount of actual content in Time Zone really amounts to all that much but because of its handful of completely absurd puzzles. But I suppose a sufficiently methodical and patient man who went without sleep theoretically could solve the game in a week…)

None of the promotion helped very much. Time Zone became a notorious, high-profile flop, the first such that On-Line had ever released — and a fate it richly deserved. As John Williams wrote to me to open our discussion about the game, “It frankly wasn’t that good.” Indeed, Time Zone is something of a nadir in the annals of adventure-game design, the logical culmination of several ugly trends that I’ve been harping on about for quite some time now in this blog. It plays like a caricature of an old-school text adventure, with all of the annoyances of the form and too few of the delights, and with its rushed development peeking through from every crack and seam. More on that next time.

(Thanks for much in this post goes again to John Williams, whose memories are always invaluable to me.)


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