Monthly Archives: October 2013

Masters of the Game

Jon Palace helping to feed the Christmas demand for Zork II, 1984

Jon Palace helping to feed the Christmas demand for Zork II, 1984.

I started my article on Infocom’s 1983 with an unsung hero, Dan Horn of the Micro Group. Let’s continue that tradition now that we’ve come to 1984 with another: Jon Palace.

As 1984 dawned, Palace was working as a textbook editor for McGraw-Hill Higher Education in New York City. Wanting to live pretty much anywhere else, he scoured the want ads for jobs as far away as Madison, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Illinois. Then he stumbled across an advertisement in the Boston Globe Magazine from a company he had never heard of: Infocom. Palace had no real idea what Infocom did or what an adventure game was or what exactly they might expect him to do, but he duly applied and was granted an interview. He drove up to Boston one snowy day to sit down with Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn. He knew this was a different sort of operation than the staid, corporate McGraw-Hill when Blank asked him how old he was. “You can’t ask me that in an interview!” Palace replied, shocked, “… but I’m 27.” Blank seemed to like that answer; that was about the average age at Infocom, he noted.

Technology companies in those days still had a bit of a reputation. Palace remembered (almost certainly hyperbolic) accounts he’d read of life at Apple in the early days, where the board of directors would supposedly all share a joint or two before meetings. Thus when Stu Galley started to roll a cigarette in front of him that first day he thought the worst — but no, it was just tobacco. Palace went from the interview to the home of a friend of his in Brooklyn who had a computer and some of Infocom’s games to try to figure out what this company who might be about to hire him was actually all about.

If Palace didn’t quite know what Infocom wanted from him, Infocom didn’t really know either. They felt they needed someone who could serve as a sort of professional liaison for each game, to stand at the hub of the wheel and coordinate among the Imps that wrote the games, the Micro Group that deployed them onto the target platforms, G/R Copy and internal marketing who packaged and advertised them, and the logistics folks who scheduled them for release and got them to the customers. What they were really looking for was a producer, but they didn’t know that; in these early days of the games industry that role had yet to be defined. Then Mike Berlyn piped up to say that the sorts of things they were talking about sort of seemed like the stuff his editor used to do for him back when he was writing novels instead of games. And so Infocom was suddenly advertising for what had to be the strangest “editor” job that was ever offered. And Palace, who didn’t even own a computer, just stumbled into it. Infocom hired him to start that April.

Realizing he had lots of catching up to do if he even wanted to understand most of the conversations taking place around him, Palace took to returning to the office in the evening with his wife and some Chinese food to catch up on the Infocom back catalog. Soon he bought a used Apple IIe from Mike Berlyn so they could play at home. When his parents had trouble grasping just what it was he was now doing for a living, he pulled out The Witness to show them, Infocom-style — interactively. They then spent a fun evening trying to figure out who killed Freeman Linder.

Like Stu Galley, who also initially had no big interest in this whole adventure-game thing, Palace became one of the most idealistic Infocom employees about the potential and the worth of the work they were doing. That idealism, combined with his background in writing and publishing, proved to be invaluable. One might even say that Palace became the final piece of the Infocom puzzle. He filled his producer’s role admirably, but, perhaps even more importantly, he pushed everyone to take their craft that much more seriously. Palace served as a buffer between those ever-opposed forces of Creative and Business, making sure no game was released before its time. Indeed, he gently prodded the Imps to spend that little bit of extra time and effort making their worlds believable, making sure their stories made sense, and, most of all, polishing their prose. Steve Meretzky gave Palace one of his few public acknowledgements in the Leather Goddesses of Phobos hint book, using words which speak not just to the roles he played but to the way he was valued — even beloved — by the Imps for the way he went about it: “Thanks to Jon Palace for a host of things, but especially for his help in ‘sensualizing’ the text, and for being a front-line defense against scheming marketeers.” When Jason Scott began planning interviews for his Get Lamp film almost twenty years after Infocom’s demise, the former Imps were almost unanimous in naming Palace as the greatest of all the unknown contributors to Infocom’s success. In his own low-key way he was as important to all of the great work that came out of the company between 1984 and 1988 as anyone whose name actually appeared on the boxes. He became a key reason that the Imps refused to abandon their sense of craft and artistic integrity even as the circumstances around them, as I shall soon have to recount in all too much detail, made that more and more difficult.

But we don’t have to talk about that just yet. We’re just in 1984, after all, a very successful sales year for Infocom — in fact, the biggest such they would ever enjoy, the very apex of the bell curve that is their commercial history. It was also a year of consolidation and systemization; it was the year of the gray box.

Infocom’s trademark lavish packaging had been something of a sore point with retailers for some time now. Everyone loved creations like the Starcross saucer and the Suspended mask when the games were new; many owners hung the former from the ceiling all around their stores. The problem came after the initial hype had died down, when the games became catalog items to be stocked in quantities of just one or two and shelved toward the back of the store. Here the Starcross saucer tended to roll onto the floor, if it would fit on the rack at all, while the Suspended mask ran the risk of getting squashed flat between the other games on the rack. Moreover, such oddball injection-molded packages were expensive to make, particularly after they became catalog items and the quantities being made in each batch dropped dramatically. Infocom had thus already begun to scale things back; after Suspended all of the games were released in relatively more modest, conventional boxes. But even those were all essentially one-offs. By 1984 Infocom’s games ranged from the minimalist blister packs of the Zork games to the absurd flamboyance of Starcross and Suspended, with everything else somewhere in between. Any given game may have been beautifully packaged, but together on a shelf they kind of looked like a jumbled mess. You’d be hard pressed to realize they were all products of the same company. And, as dealers never ceased to tell them, this jumble was wasting space on the shelves that could be given over to stocking more Infocom games. Something needed to be done.

Infocom therefore did something they rarely did (and arguably could have done more often): they looked at what the competition was doing. The model for packaging in the industry at this time was the folio-style package used by Electronic Arts. It was a consistent look that immediately marked a game as a product of EA. Being deliberately evocative of a record sleeve, it also conjured exactly the image that EA, that would-be purveyor of hip, sophisticated entertainment crafted by a new generation of “electronic artists,” wanted to present to the world. Retailers absolutely loved it: it was slim and compact but still attractive, as easy to shelve onto racks spine-outward by the dozen as it was to open up, unfold, and stick in a display window. Infocom, driven particularly by head of marketing Mike Dornbrook, decided they needed something like that. What they came up with in association with the ever-essential G/R Copy was a veritable masterstroke.

The Witness gray box version

The box is, not coincidentally, of about the dimensions and thickness of a typical hardcover novel. With the era of bookware in full bloom and Infocom’s games now showing up on more and more bookstore racks thanks to a distribution deal with Addison Wesley, the packaging and all of its associated rhetoric emphasizes the game’s literary qualities. Said emphasis extends right down to the contents of the disk; you type, for instance, “LOAD ‘STORY’,8” to start a game on the Commodore 64. The cover, meanwhile, prominently displays Infocom’s official new name for their works: not “adventure game,” not “text adventure,” but “interactive fiction.” It also shows where the game fits in a matrix of genres (consisting in the beginning of “Fantasy,” “Science Fiction,” “Tales of Adventure,” and “Mystery”) and difficulties (“Interactive Fiction Junior,” “Standard,” “Advanced,” and “Expert”).

The Witness gray box version

The cover of the box flips open like a book for easy in-store browsing; it isn’t shrink-wrapped. Inside the left cover is a set of testimonials from happy customers. Most are the sort of thing you would expect, but, Infocom being Infocom, one or two bizarre remarks or complete non sequiturs were usually included in every game.

A bound-in booklet — called in-house the “browsie” because it was aimed as much at potential customers browsing in the store as at those same customers after they had brought the game home — begins with something to set the fictional stage: an issue of National Detective Gazette, a Stellar Patrol brochure, “The Great Underground Empire: A History.” The second half of the browsie is given over to a conventional instruction manual that incorporates everything Infocom had learned over the previous several years about teaching people how to play their games as quickly and painlessly as possible. The “Sample Transcript and Map,” an innovation which first appeared in Seastalker, the final pre-gray-box release, is a particular stroke of genius. It shows by example how to play and how to make a map via a fictional game made up just for the occasion by Infocom. Each title got its own sample transcript which takes place in a similar environment to the one found on the disk and demonstrates that title’s general style of play.

The new scheme was welcome not least in that it let Infocom separate each game’s fictional context from technical instructions on how to work it. Previously they had blended everything together, a conceit that must have seemed clever when they first did it for Deadline but that had grown very strained by 1984. (The original version of The Witness is a typical example. Its National Detective Gazette includes an article titled “Investigative Machines of the Future!” explaining this “Computer” that in the “early part of the next millennium” will be “the most important tool of the detective’s trade.”)

The Witness gray box version

After the browsie comes the portion of the package that is sealed, containing the various physical feelies as well the game disk itself, all peeking enticingly through a clear plastic cover for the benefit of in-store browsers.

The Witness gray box version

And finally there’s the back side of the box, which has the expected flavor text for the game as well as a shot of all the feelies on display. Then comes some standard text, a sort of mission statement for Infocom interactive fiction (“It’s like waking up inside a story!”; “You’re more than a passive reader!”), along with an explanation of the difficulty levels.

Converting the entire catalog to the new format was a huge task which consumed lots of resources during the first half of 1984. While much of the material that would go into the gray boxes already existed, it had to undergo considerable reworking in virtually every case to fit into the new format. Just untangling the fictional context from the technical instructions was a time-consuming, delicate task. And much had to be written from scratch, such as a suitably clever sample transcript for every single game. The three Zork games, which had previously shipped in blister packs containing only a disk and a slim manual telling how to play, demanded the most effort of all; a browsie and set of feelies that would be evocative enough to stand alongside those in the other games had to be designed for each from scratch.

Brilliant as the new packaging was, there was some inevitable sadness at Infocom over the loss of the likes of the Starcross saucer and the Suspended mask and a certain individual personality for each title that the old “anything goes” approach to packaging had represented. Certainly compromises — sometimes painful ones — had to be made. Steve Meretzky was particularly broken up about the loss of the infotater from the Sorcerer package; it was just too big to fit into the gray-box feelie tray, and so had to be replaced with a simple booklet.

The matrix of genres and difficulties was as useful to Infocom internally as it was to their customers. A diagram showing its current state — i.e., what current and upcoming games slotted in where — could generally be found on a whiteboard in the marketing department. This allowed them, as Jon Palace puts it, to “figure out where the holes were” in the current product line and not “put too many in one place.” In deciding what games to approve for development, big emphasis would be given to keeping the matrix balanced, making sure there were games for all fictional interests and all experience levels. After the beginning of the gray-box era you wouldn’t see unbalanced stretches like the one in late 1982 and early 1983 when three of five titles were science fiction — or for that matter Seastalker and Cutthroats, two titles released back to back just as the matrix was coming into force that were both nautical “Tales of Adventure” set in contemporary times.

The genres on the matrix were always much more defensible than the difficulty levels, which often seemed like little more than wishful thinking driven by the slot marketing would like for any given game to occupy. Zork I, while not quite so objectionable as Zork II, was a huge game with some very questionable puzzles that never would have made it into a later Infocom game. Just mapping its huge geography full of willfully inconsistent room connections could require hours of patient, dogged work with graph paper, pencil, and eraser. Yet Zork I also remained Infocom’s biggest seller by a country mile, selling more copies every year it remained on the market; it sold more than 150,000 copies in 1984 alone, an absolutely huge figure for the era and enough to account for more then 20% of Infocom’s total sales for the year. Many computer dealers still seemed to regard Zork I as an essential accessory to be taken home by the customer along with printer paper and some blank disks every time they sold a new computer system. Infocom simply couldn’t drive such customers away with an “Advanced” or “Expert” label on this evergreen. So, Zork I became a “Standard”-level game. Similar concerns would soon lead to Infocom’s adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the cruelest game they had released since the days of Zork, Deadline, and Suspended but also one with a potential mass appeal like nothing they had done before, also being given the “Standard” label.

Stranger, because less explicable, were the difficulty levels bestowed on other games. Starcross, by no means a trivial challenge but one full of logical puzzles in a relatively consistent environment, was nevertheless an “Expert” game, while Infidel, the most straightforward game Infocom had yet produced outside of the deliberately easy Seastalker, became an “Advanced” game. One can only presume that, with the “Standard”-level Cutthroats about to be released and Seastalker in the “Junior” slot, Infidel fit the matrix better as an “Advanced”-level “Tale of Adventure.” Ditto for Starcross with Planetfall and the forthcoming Hitchhiker’s, both of which were already crowded into the “Standard” science-fiction slot. In the end marketing likely did themselves few favors with this sort of wishful thinking. Any new player who bought Zork I or Hitchhiker’s and was completely baffled, then looked at the box to see this was only “Standard”-level interactive fiction, “a good introductory level for adults”… well, she probably wasn’t likely to buy another. No one likes to feel stupid. If Infocom couldn’t make the difficulty levels accurate (and, as noted, there were indeed legitimate commercial concerns that made this problematic), they would have been better served to leave them off entirely.

Be that as it may, times in general were good. Infocom was the main reason for the bookware craze that was the hot new trend in entertainment software in 1984, even though, ironically, their own first book adaptation would only appear at the end of the year in the form of Hitchhiker’s. And their reputation extended far beyond the software industry. They were in Mike Berlyn’s words “intellectual rock stars”; it seemed everyone wanted a piece of them. Christopher Cerf, a big wheel with the Children’s Television Workshop, took a few of them out to meet with Jim Henson to discuss creative opportunities. George Romero of horror-movie fame asked them about movie rights to Zork. Timothy Leary wrote Berlyn a gushing letter about Suspended, saying it had “changed his life” and revealed to him the potential of computers with its portrayal of split consciousness. He later visited Infocom in person to discuss a collaboration. He envisioned a “personality” that would live in the computer, observe what you did and how you liked to do it, and adjust the experience of using the computer accordingly. None of these talks ultimately came to anything, but for this bunch of hackers and refugees from academia, who had mostly been kids or teens when Night of the Living Dead was provoking shock and outrage at the Saturday matinees and the Moody Blues were serenading Leary on the radio, it was heady stuff indeed. (Leary did eventually find a willing collaborator in Electronic Arts. Timothy Leary’s Mind Mirror — “Tune in, turn on, boot up” — became one of the strangest products that company would ever release, one that would never have seen the light of day outside of the experimental mid-1980s.)

And then, to cap off a crazy year, Simon & Schuster came calling waving tens of millions in their faces.

The story of the Simon & Schuster negotiation, only recently fully known thanks to the Get Lamp project, begins with one of the most important and controversial figures in publishing of the late twentieth century: Richard E. Snyder. Snyder started at Simon & Schuster in 1960, and had risen to vice president by the time the massive conglomerate Gulf and Western (or, as Mel Brooks dubbed them in Silent Movie, Engulf and Devour) acquired the company in 1975; his biggest claim to fame during these early years was perhaps giving Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward the title for All the President’s Men. After years of chafing against the hidebound practices of Simon & Schuster’s original management, he at last got the chance he had been dreaming of from Gulf and Western, who made him president in 1975 and CEO in 1978. Determined to wrench the company out of the past and into the modern world of media and entertainment, Snyder unabashedly pursued celebrities and big, commercial projects whilst building a reputation as the meanest man in his field, the barbarian at the gate of the tweedy, traditional world of publishing. He took a special delight in firing people, setting aside a room for the purpose that came to be called the “executive departure lounge.” His reputation spread far and wide; he made Fortune magazine’s list of “America’s Toughest Bosses” in 1984 in an article which compared him to the Ayatollah Khomeini — only Snyder had more hostages, Fortune wrote, in the form of an entire company which supposedly quaked in fear of him. He also became known for, in the words of Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley, “his assiduous accumulation of executive perquisites unmatched since the heyday of William Randolph Hearst, if not Croesus.” But he got results: in fifteen years he took Simon & Schuster from a $40-million business to a $2-billion business, from a modest trade publisher to the biggest, most diversified publisher in the world.

Much of that growth was fueled by aggressive acquisitions that let Simon & Schuster capitalize on any hot trend that came down the pop-culture pipe. Thus they were only being true to form when they began nosing around Infocom, kicking the tires as it were, as early as late 1983. They were eager to point out (in Mike Dornbrook’s words) “all the wonderful things they could do” for Infocom, which included among other things the chance to make games in the Star Trek universe; Paramount Pictures was also a subsidiary of Gulf and Western, and Simon & Schuster already published the Star Trek line of novels on their Pocket Books imprint. Snyder got personally involved in the latter half of 1984. Like any good publisher, he talked often to people in the bookstore trade. Waldenbooks, the biggest chain in the United States at the time, continued to mention often how well they were doing with this company called Infocom and this thing they made called interactive fiction.

And so Snyder, who could be charming as hell when he wanted to be, decided to try to make a deal personally. He invited Marc Blank and Mike Dornbrook to visit him in his executive suite near the top of a skyscraper in Rockefeller Center. It made, to say the least, quite the contrast to Infocom’s comfortable little home on Wheeler Street back in Cambridge. Dornbrook recalls marveling at the restroom, which “used gold in ways I had never thought of using gold.” The three had lunch in Snyder’s executive dining room at a table big enough to seat thirty — Dover sole, prepared by Snyder’s personal chef and served by three liveried attendants. Snyder stroked them like a master. Dornbrook:

Marc said, “Mike, why don’t you tell Mr. Snyder a little bit about InvisiClues?”

So I described what I’d done. I mentioned the selling price and how many had sold. By that point, late 1984, we’d sold over half a million — the Zork I InvisiClues book alone had sold something like 200,000 copies.

Synder said, “You’ve sold 200,000 copies at $9.95? That’s trade-paperback prices! Do you realize you’re one of the bestselling authors on the planet?”

I said, “What?”

Snyder said, “In terms of dollars you’re at Stephen King level!”

I was totally blown away.

Shortly after, Snyder sent a Gulf and Western acquisitions negotiator and the Simon & Schuster manager he proposed to have oversee Infocom to visit them in Cambridge. They arrived in a limousine to take Blank, Stu Galley, and Al Vezza (who had replaced Joel Berez as planned as Infocom’s CEO in January of 1984) to another opulent lunch. When they got down to specifics at last and made their offer, it was extraordinary: $28 million. To put this in context, understand that Infocom’s board had recently estimated the company’s value at perhaps $10 million, $12 million at the outside.

Yet feelings were mixed on Infocom’s side. While Blank and Joel Berez were reportedly very interested, Galley had taken an immediate dislike to the would-be overseer, feeling certain within minutes that he “didn’t understand” Infocom and never would. And Vezza couldn’t help but feel that if a corporate titan like Snyder, who, say what you would about him, didn’t get where he was by being stupid, was offering that kind of money then in the big picture Infocom must be worth much more. The negotiator’s response to his hemming and hawing only reinforced the impression. In Dornbrook’s recollection, he said, “Look, if it’s just a matter of a few million dollars, I don’t care, I’ll pay you more. But are you or are you not interested in selling?” Still unable to elicit a clear answer to that question, he decided that Vezza was not. Simon & Schuster ended up starting a brief-lived interactive division of their own in lieu of Infocom. Their most high-profile releases became, yes, a few Star Trek adventures.

In light of the course Infocom’s fortunes would soon take, both the people who were there at the time and mere interested parties like you and me will inevitably continue to second-guess the decision — or, perhaps better said, non-decision — for years to come. Jon Palace notes, probably correctly, that there was a certain amount of hubris in Infocom’s rejection of Snyder’s millions, that they couldn’t help but let some of the glowing press go to their heads and really did suspect that Simon & Schuster might just be getting them too cheap at a mere three times their valuation by the company accountants. And certainly interactive-fiction fans who feel the genre died (commercially) far too young are always looking for viable counter-factuals that keep Infocom alive and thriving into the 1990s and hopefully beyond.

Still, it’s hard for me to see this deal turning out all that well for Infocom in the end. Friction almost always results when a small, creative company is bought by, as Dave Lebling describes Simon & Schuster, “a giant soulless corporation.” When the bookware craze died down, as it seems it must whether Infocom was acquired or not, Infocom would have been just an artifact of a trend, one of many that hadn’t taken off quite like Simon & Schuster hoped. You win some and you lose some in business, after all. Nor was Snyder, as famous in the business community as he was hated by Simon & Schuster’s management class for his micromanaging instinct, exactly known as a patient man. A Simon & Schuster Infocom may very well have given us fewer works than did the eventual Activision Infocom; certainly the much larger Simon & Schuster was much more likely to write off an acquisition quickly as a failed bet and move on than was Activision. Even the former Imps, most of whom would have done very well financially by the acquisition, will mostly wryly admit that they look on the Simon & Schuster negotiation wistfully not so much as the potential enabler of many more years of fruitful creativity as an opportunity to cash out on all their hard work, to walk away from Infocom in the end with something more than the salary they’d earned over the years to show for their entrepreneurial efforts. That’s not a feeling we should begrudge them; I’m sure every one of us with mortgages and car payments would look back the same way. But it’s also a long way from the more idealistic what-might-have-beens that tempt us.

And there was always an elephant in the room as the board discussed the merits of Simon & Schuster’s offer: the Business Products division and the Cornerstone database. What had started as a two-man research project in October of 1982 and been officially approved as a viable endeavor ten months later had, since Al Vezza’s arrival as CEO in January of 1984, become Infocom’s strategic priority, consuming all the money the games generated and millions more that they had to acquire through bank loans. Simon & Schuster had no interest in business software, and would have been more than happy just to take the games division for their $30 million. Problem was, Infocom needed the ongoing revenue from the games division to keep Business Products going. Somehow funneling some or all of Simon & Schuster’s millions back into a remade Infocom-as-business-developer would involve tricky, time-consuming accounting shenanigans for which Vezza just didn’t feel he had time; Cornerstone was now entering the final, expensive crunch time, with a planned release in January of 1985. And Cornerstone was the dream of Vezza and at least a few of the other old timers, the reason they had founded Infocom in the first place. If becoming a success in business software is a more prosaic dream than that of inventing a new way of sharing stories, well, hey, it takes the prosaic as well as the poetic to make a world. Who are we to judge?

But the full story of Cornerstone is a story for another article. For now let’s just note that, despite tensions and conflicts that inevitably arose from packing a bunch of game and business developers together in the same increasingly cramped office, things in the big picture were still looking pretty great to just about everyone as they celebrated Christmas 1984. They had sold about 725,000 games that year worth $10 million, up from 450,000 and $6 million the previous year. They were so successful in their field that a whole genre of bookware had sprung up to try to capture some of their success, that their company name risked becoming synonomous, Kleenex-style, with the adventure game — or okay, if you like, “interactive fiction” — itself. And they had some of the more interesting people on the planet coming to them to propose collaborations. Speaking of which: their collaboration with Douglas Adams on the Hitchhiker’s game had sold some 60,000 copies in its first six weeks or so, a pace out of the gate that none of their earlier releases had even approached. If anything had frustrated Infocom over the last couple of years, it had been their inability to field a title that would break beyond the label of just “very successful” to become a phenomenon like Zork I, which at four years old still outsold any of their other games by a factor of two and had in fact just had its biggest sales year ever. Now it looked at last like they had another Zork. With the next Hitchhiker’s game expected by next Christmas, 1985’s game sales were estimated — very conservatively, they thought — as likely to reach at least $13 million. Add to that the at least $5 million or so they expected from the first year of Cornerstone sales, and it looked likely to be one hell of a year.

Granted, a sober-minded accountant or financial analyst might have looked at things less optimistically. She might have noted that Infocom had managed to maintain their upward sales trajectory even as the home-computer industry in general suffered a disappointing year of slowing hardware and software sales, failed platform introductions, shrinking or disappearing magazines, and a mainstream media that was suddenly as cynical about home computers as they had been ecstatic about them a year before. It was of course great that Infocom was so far bucking the trends — but would it continue? She also might have wondered why this company that was so ridiculously good and successful at this one thing was so determined to branch out into this other thing. After all, every business student learned that a small company should do one thing and do it well, that trying to do too much too soon was usually a fatal mistake. And, most worrisome of all, she might have noted that Infocom’s board had, wittingly or unwittingly, effectively bet the company on this new thing by going millions into debt to finance it. There was no Plan B if Infocom didn’t become successful in business products like they were in games. Indeed, one fact must have glared out at her as soon as she peeked at the books: thanks to Business Products, Infocom had managed to lose $2.4 million in 1984 despite sales increases of some 67%.

But, Vezza and the board would have replied, that was just temporary, just the money Infocom had to spend to make even more money in an industry that dwarfed the one they currently all but dominated. Cornerstone was shaping up to be a great product. It couldn’t fail.

Could it?

(As usual for my Infocom pieces, my secret weapons for this article were Jason Scott’s Get Lamp project materials. Thanks again for sharing, Jason!)





The story of Shadowkeep, even more so than Amazon the odd duck in the Telarium lineup, begins with Sigma Distributing, one of the first big microcomputer hardware distributors in the Seattle area. In 1981 Christopher Anson, a Sigma vice president, sought and received permission to start a new subsidiary to develop original games to serve the growing demand for software for the computers Sigma was selling. Anson’s first two acts were to name the company Ultrasoft and hire a programmer named Alan Clark away from Boeing. Clark became the technical architect of the set of tools and approaches that would define Ultrasoft during their brief existence.

Anson had decided that the best place for Ultrasoft to make a splash was in the field of illustrated adventure games, a nexus of excitement in the wake of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. Like Scott Adams, Ken Williams, and Marc Blank before him, Clark realized that it would be more efficient in the long run to write an adventure-game engine and language that could give designers a bit of distance from the technical details of implementation as well as let Ultrasoft deploy their games to multiple platforms relatively painlessly. Deciding that a little corporate branding is always in order, they named their adventure programming language simply Ultra; the interpreter for each targeted platform UltraCode; their graphics system UltraVision. From the standpoint of the end user, Ultrasoft’s most obvious innovation — or, if you like, gimmick — involved this last. UltraVision could display not just static pictures but also brief animations, which could be used to, say, show the player’s avatar actually walking from room to room. Less obvious but no less significant, however, was the parser, one of the first developed outside of Infocom that allowed more than two words — although, it should be said, it was nowhere near as impressive a creation overall (more on that shortly).

Ultrasoft developed two adventures using the system, The Mask of the Sun (1982) and Serpent’s Star (1983). Both are interesting in their way, more carefully crafted, atmospheric, and thoughtful than was the norm of the time. Serpent’s Star in particular does a surprisingly good job of matching its puzzles to its theme of Buddhist philosophy. But both — and particularly Mask of the Sun — are also riddled with the sorts of unfair elements that were all too typical of their era. And both are fairly excruciating to play under any conditions. Whatever its other merits, you see, the Ultra system is slow. A quick look at the games’ technical underpinnings gives a clue as to why: the Ultra program logic doesn’t appear to be compiled at all, merely interpreted in place. The only blessing of that approach was that it enabled some frustrated adventurers to find the solutions to the more incomprehensible puzzles by code diving.

Ultrasoft first tried to market and distribute Mask of the Sun and Serpent’s Star on their own, but found it tough sledding for a tiny company with mainly regional connections in the professionalizing software industry of 1983. They soon accepted the role of developer only, licensing both games to Brøderbund for publication. After spending most of 1983 working on an ambitious new game, an adventure-game/CRPG hybrid called Shadowkeep written in a new version of their system which they dubbed Ultra II, they found a publisher for it in Spinnaker, who took the largely completed game as a future member of their planned Telarium line.

Looking to find some way to make the game fit with the bookware theme of the line as a whole, Spinnaker came up with the idea of reversing the usual process, of hiring a name writer to adapt the game into a book rather than the opposite. Luckily, they had substantial time to get the novelization done; they signed the contract with Ultrasoft in late 1983, a year before they planned to launch the Telarium line. Spinnaker approached Warner Books, who hooked them up with the reigning king of media tie-in novels, Alan Dean Foster. After making his reputation within the industry ghost-writing the Star Wars novelization for George Lucas, Foster had gone on to do The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, The Last Starfighter, and Alien among many others. Virtually any big science-fiction or fantasy movie released seemed to arrive with an accompanying Alan Dean Foster novelization. (That’s still true today; his most recent novelization as of this writing is of Star Trek into Darkness.)

Spinnaker furnished Foster with design documents and a copy of the Shadowkeep source code and let him have at it. Those were all he had to go on; he doesn’t recall ever meeting or speaking with anyone from the design team, nor ever actually playing the game. He does, however, recall it as a very challenging project indeed. Being a party-based CRPG in the mold of Wizardry, Shadowkeep has no actual protagonist to speak of — no characters at all, really, outside of the fellow who sells you equipment and the evil demon Dal’Brad who shows up for the final showdown on the last of the dungeon levels. He was thus forced to invent the vast majority of the novel himself, whilst struggling to strike a balance between writing some recognizable analogue to the experience of the game and giving away all of its challenges. He did his usual workmanlike job, handing in a readable little genre exercise for simultaneous release with the game. Tellingly, it’s not until halfway through the book that the heroes enter the Shadowkeep — i.e., reach the beginning of the game.


Said game is… well, it’s really strange. Imagine Wizardry played with a text parser, and you’ve pretty well summed up Shadowkeep. You make a party of up to nine(!) characters. Most of the usual is here: attribute scores, classes and races to choose from, ever better equipment and spells to collect. Oddly missing, however, are character levels and any concept of experience; getting more powerful in this game is strictly a matter of finding or buying better stuff. The dungeon levels are the usual 16 X 16 grids full of traps, monsters, and assorted cartographic challenges. There are some original ideas here. For instance, the positions of the monsters that attack you and those of the members of your party are taken account of to a degree not found in Wizardry, adding some strategic depth to the experience. You likewise have more combat options than in Wizardry; in each round you can choose to forget defense and attack twice, or to just parry, or to attack once while not totally neglecting defense. And certainly the full-color graphics, which feature occasional examples of Ultrasoft’s trademark animations, are much better than Wizardry‘s wire frames.



Still, Shadowkeep mostly just makes you appreciate all the more how well Wizardry does the dungeon crawl. The game replaces Wizardry‘s hot-key interface with, yes, a text-adventure parser. You literally just type what you want to do: “OPEN DOOR,” “GET THE TORCH,” “CAST THE LUMINANCE SPELL,” “LIGHT THE TORCH AND PREPARE THE SWORD,” “PUT THE WAND OF TRAVEL IN THE CHEST.” Sounds fine, right? Well, what sounds fine in the abstract doesn’t work so well in practice. You must now type “F <RETURN>” (for “FORWARD”) instead of just “F” every time you want to walk forward a square in the dungeon. This may seem a minor thing, but consider that you’ll be entering this command thousands and thousands of times in the course of playing the game. That extra keystroke thus means thousands and thousands of extra keystrokes. And that’s the tip of the iceberg; this game is death by a hundred such small cuts. Commands by default are carried out by the leader of your party, who is not even a character you select but merely the one with the highest Leadership attribute score. Having someone else do something requires that you prepend her name to the command (“NAOMI GET THE TORCH AND GIVE IT TO REB”) — yet more tedious typing.

And the parser, that focal point of the whole interface, is at least as exasperating as the mainline Telarium parser. Like Byron Preiss Video Productions and many others at this time, Ultrasoft chose to take a profoundly misguided approach to this most critical piece of their engine. As described in an article in Softline magazine:

Ultrasoft’s parser is based on concepts in artificial intelligence. In any given message, it eliminates words that don’t make sense and attempts to make sense out of words that are relevant to the situation. This method frees the player from the verb-noun format of the typical adventure’s input.

In other words, the parser pretends to be smarter than it is by simply throwing out anything it doesn’t understand and doing what it can with the rest. This approach may “free the player from the verb-noun format,” but it also guarantees that complex (and often not so complex) inputs will be not just rejected — which combined with a proper error message is at least a form of useful feedback — but misunderstood. Far from making the parser seem smarter, this just makes it seem that much dumber and that much more infuriating. It leads to situations like that in the Byron Preiss games where any input containing the word “LOOK” anywhere within it causes the parser to dump everything else and print a room description. In Shadowkeep, typing “NAOMI CAST CURE SPELL ON REB” leads her to cast it away into the ether — that “ON REB” was a bridge too far, and thus ignored. Such a system fails to recognize that at least 95% of the time those extra words are not just stuff the player tacked on for the hell of it (who wants to type more than necessary under any circumstances?) but essential information about what she really wants to do.

To play Shadowkeep is to constantly wrestle with the interface. After playing several hours there are basic tasks I still haven’t figured out how to do — like how to cast a cure spell on someone outside of combat, or how to just get a list of the spells a certain character knows. And, like Ultrasoft’s earlier games, Shadowkeep is slow. Every step in the dungeon seems to take an eternity, and as for more complex action… forget about it. Playing is like wading through molasses with shackled feet.

The rewards for all the parsing pain are relatively slight: a handful of logic- or object-oriented puzzles on each level that can perhaps be a bit more complex than they could be under the Wizardry engine. Needless to say, they aren’t worth the rest of the trouble, making Shadowkeep something of a lowlight in the long, chequered history of adventure/CRPG hybrids. Which is a shame, because Shadowkeep‘s dungeon levels do show evidence of some careful craftsmanship and, as noted above, there are some good, original ideas on display here. Shadowkeep is a perfect example of a potentially worthy game destroyed by horrid interface choices. And I mean that literally: if the game isn’t outright unplayable (some patient souls have apparently played and even enjoyed it), it’s closer than I ever need to come to that adjective.

Ultrasoft was already in the process of fading quietly away by the time of Shadowkeep‘s late 1984 release. They never managed to port the Ultra II engine beyond the Apple II, leaving Shadowkeep without that all-critical Commodore 64 version. Spinnaker toyed with doing the port themselves, even announcing it as coming soon on various occasions, but I see no reason to believe that ever happened. (A Commodore 64 version has been a semi-mythical White Whale in collecting circles for many years now, but, despite some anecdotal claims and remembrances, no one has ever produced an actual working version to my knowledge.) The lack of a Commodore 64 version and the underwhelming nature of the game itself combined to make Shadowkeep the least successful — and, today, rarest — of all the Telarium games. Alan Dean Foster’s book, while no bestseller itself, appears to have sold far more copies on the author’s name recognition and its $3 (as opposed to $35) price tag.

Shadowkeep consists, like most of the Telarium games, of four disk sides. In this case, however, all four sides are written to during play to preserve the current state of the dungeon levels; the player is expected to copy her originals before beginning. Most of the copies floating around the Internet contain the residue of the previous players in their dungeons. Thankfully, however, reader Peter Ferrie has provided me (and thus you) with a completely pristine set just waiting for you and only you to leave your marks upon them. If whilst playing Wizardry or Bard’s Tale you thought to yourself that this game would be even better if it played a lot slower and had a parser, you’ve just found your dream CRPG. All others should consider this one a subject for historical research only.

And on that less than stellar note we’ll be moving on from Telarium for a while. My final reckoning of their first five releases is: two worthy efforts (Dragonworld and Amazon); one could-have-been-a-contender (Fahrenheit 451); and two total misfires (Rendezvous with Rama and Shadowkeep). Not a horrible track record on the whole. We’ll see if they learned any lessons in time for their last few games down the road a ways. But next it’s time to get back to the big boys in the field, and tell the rest of the story of Infocom’s very eventful 1984.

(In addition to the sources listed in my first article on bookware and Telarium, I also referenced for this article a feature on Ultrasoft in the May/June 1983 Softline. And thanks to Alan Dean Foster for taking the time to share his memories of the Shadowkeep project with me.)


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Amazon in Pictures


I thought we’d look at Amazon a little differently from the other Telarium games because it is, even more so than the others, very much a visual as well as textual experience. I therefore thought I could best convey the experience of playing it with lots and lots of pictures. It also marks one of the last of the classic Apple II “hi-res adventures,” which whatever their other failings had a unique aesthetic of their own. With the Commodore 64 so eclipsing other gaming platforms by 1984 — remember, Amazon with its long gestation period is in a sense much older than its eventual publication date of late that year — we won’t be seeing a whole lot more of this look. So, let this be our goodbye to one era even as it also represents a prime example of the newer, more sophisticated era of bookware. And anyway things have been kind of dry around here visually for a while now. This blog could use some pictures!

Uniquely for the Telarium line, Amazon lets you choose one of three difficulty levels. I’m playing on the highest difficulty of “Expedition Leader” here, which gives the most to see but is also pretty brutal; death lurks literally everywhere, and comes often (usually?) with no warning whatsoever.


Shay Addams referred to Amazon as an “interactive movie” in his Questbusters review, one of the earlier applications of that term to a computer game. And indeed, the opening sequence is very cinematic, and suitably dramatic. After tuning a receiver to catch the satellite transmission, we watch as the camera pans around the smoking, demolished remnants of the previous Amazon expedition’s campground. It ends with a shot of a member of the cannibal tribe that replaces the killer gorillas of the novel as the architects of all this destruction.


Replacing Amy the signing gorilla is Paco the talking parrot, shown here in this lovely illustration by David Durand. I find him kind of hilarious, but I’m not entirely sure if he was written that way intentionally or not; Crichton, whatever his other strengths, isn’t normally what you’d call a funny writer. Paco at first appears to be a classic adventure-game sidekick/hint system, giving advice constantly throughout the game. In a departure from the norm, however, his advice is, at least on Expedition Leader level, disastrously misguided at least 50% of the time, getting you killed or stranded in all sorts of creative ways. Crichton often stated that he wanted to make a more believable, realistic adventure game. In that spirit, I suppose taking everything said by a talking parrot as gospel might not get you very far in the real world. But then if we’re debating realism we have to also recognize that Paco is basically a cartoon character, even more so than Amy the ridiculously intelligent, loyal, and empathetic gorilla of the novel. Foghorn Leghorn’s got nothing on this guy.


Like in the book, we can use our field computer to link up with NSRT headquarters for regular updates. The above shows the situation just after we’ve parachuted with Paco into the Amazon rain forest. Looks like other than the cannibals and the rampaging government troops and that volcano that’s about to erupt there’s nothing to worry about.

Amazon Amazon



Have I mentioned that it’s easy to die at Expedition Leader level? One wrong move leads to one of a rogue’s gallery of gleefully described death scenes to rival one of the Phoenix games.


Crichton’s opinion of Peru’s military seems to be no higher than was his opinion of Zaire’s in the novel.


In another strikingly cinematic scene, we use our handy night-vision goggles and an assist from Paco to sneak away from the troops who captured us.


With the “corrupt government troops” behind us, we now get to deal with the Kemani tribesman. Luckily, they like cigarettes and we happen to have a pack.


We climb the volcanic Mount Macuma, which separates us from our objective and will soon give us problems in another way.


NSRT airlifts some desperately needed supplies to us. (Why do I want to hear Paco saying “De plane! De plane!” when I see this screenshot?)

Amazon Amazon

Crichton may have been trying to make a new type of adventure game, but he couldn’t resist including a very old-school maze which we have to navigate to reach the airdropped supplies. This is actually the only part of the game which requires mapping. Normally it’s much more interested in forward plot momentum than the details of geography.

Amazon Amazon

Getting across the river is even more difficult than was getting over the mountain. Once again our night-vision goggles come in handy.

Amazon Amazon

Next morning we find that mischievous monkeys have stolen our supplies. A merry chase follows, implemented as one of Amazon‘s two action games. These were not likely to make arcade owners nervous, but at least they aren’t embarrassingly bad like the action games in Telarium’s other titles. They’re actually kind of engaging in their way; a nice change of pace. Indeed, Amazon‘s way of constantly throwing different stuff at you is one of the most impressive things about it. The screen is constantly changing. “Whatever works for this part of the story” seems to have been Crichton’s philosophy.

Amazon Amazon

One more obstacle to cross, and we come to the outskirts of the lost city of Chak. It doesn’t exactly look welcoming.


The cannibals attack that night and, in increasing numbers, every night we remain in Chak. The attack is presented as another action game, this time a Space Invaders-like affair which, while not as original or entertaining as the monkey chase, is at least competently executed.

Amazon Amazon

We have about five days in Chak before the volcano erupts. If that sounds generous, know that it’s really not; time passes devilishly quickly. Our main objective is to find the secret staircase that will take us to the endgame.

Amazon Amazon

The endgame requires us to open a series of doors in the correct order using clues found onscreen — one of the few classically adventure-gamey puzzles you’ll find in Amazon. The correct sequence for the above, for example, is 1-3-2. I assume this is because there are 9 marks on the first door, 13 on the second, and 11 on the third. At any rate my first instinct was to arrange them in numerical sequence, and it worked.


The final sequence is, to say the least, a bit more tricky. Now we have nine doors to contend with. This puzzle, which appears only at Expedition Leader level, stumped me entirely and forced me to a walkthrough. If you can solve it, or even just give the methodology for solving it given the correct answer, I’d love to hear about it. To see the answer, highlight the empty space that follows: 3-4-8-1-5-9-2-6-7.


Get past the last of the doors and we come to enough emeralds to warm any greedy adventurer’s heart. And after that, to quote Neal Stephenson, “It’s just a chase scene,” as we rush to get away from the erupting volcano.

Crichton wouldn’t return to computer games until some fifteen years after Amazon. It’s not hard to understand why. Even if Amazon sold 100,000 copies, his earnings from it would have been a drop in the bucket compared to what he earned from his books and movie licenses. Yet Amazon is good enough that it makes me wish he had done more work in interactive mediums.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its problems. The parser is no better than you might expect from such a one-off effort; on at least one or two occasions I knew exactly what to do but had to turn to the walkthrough to figure out how to say it to the game. And the story logic often has little to do with real-world logic. If you don’t do everything just right in the opening stages of the game, for instance, your flight to Peru will get hijacked and you’ll end up dead after the game toys with you a bit — this despite there being no logical reason why your previous failings should have led to your flight getting hijacked.

Still, Amazon is a unique experience, as I hope the pictures above convey. Especially if played on one of the less masochistic levels, it’s a fast-moving rush of a game that’s constantly throwing something new and interesting at you. And it really is relentlessly cinematic, replete with stylish little touches. Even when it’s working with just text, words often stutter onto the screen in clumps to mimic conversation, or are pecked out character by character when they’re coming through your satellite computer hookup. There’s a sense that things could go in any direction, that anything could be asked of you next, rules of computer-game genres be damned. If that sounds appealing, by all means download it, fire up your Apple II emulator, and give it a go.


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From Congo to Amazon

There are new ways of presenting information other than the traditional ways in which the reader or viewer is required to be passive. A few years ago, I realized that I didn’t know about these things, and that I’d better find out about them. The only way I could learn was to actually go and do one. So I said, “Well, I’ll just make a game and then I’ll learn.” And I certainly did.

— Michael Crichton, 1984

Anyone who had been reading Michael Crichton’s novels prior to the founding of the Telarium brand had to know of his interest in computers. The plot of 1972’s The Terminal Man, of a man who has a computer implanted in his brain, is the sort of thing that would become commonplace in science fiction only with the rise of cyberpunk more than a decade later. And of course computers are also all over 1980’s Congo; indeed, they’re the only reason the heroes are out there in the jungle in the first place. Crichton’s personal history with computers also stretches back surprisingly far. Always an inveterate gadget freak, he bought his first computer-like machine in the form of an Olivetti word processor almost as soon as his earnings from his first hit novel, The Andromeda Strain, made it possible. He wrote his books for years on the Olivetti. When the trinity of 1977 arrived, he quickly jumped aboard the PC revolution with an Apple II, first of a stable that within a few years would also include Commodores, Radio Shacks, and IBMs.

Never shy about sharing his interests in print, Crichton became a semi-regular contributor to Creative Computing magazine, who were thrilled to have a byline of his prominence under any terms. Thus they gave him free rein to opine in the abstract:

I would argue that it [computer technology] is a force of human evolution, opening new possibilities for our minds, simultaneously freeing us from drudgery while presenting us with a parody of our own rational sides. Computers actually show us both the benefits and the limits of rationality with wonderful precision. What could be more rational than that pedantic little box that keeps saying SYNTAX ERROR over and over? And what does our frustration suggest to us, in terms of other things to do and other ways to be?

But Crichton was more than the mere dabbler that poeticisms like the above might suggest. He took the time to learn how to program his toys, publishing fairly intricate program listings in BASIC for applications such as casting the I Ching (a byproduct of his seldom remarked interest in mysticism; see his nonfiction memoir Travels, which might just be the most interesting thing he ever wrote); identifying users based on their typing characteristics (inspired by his recent short story “Mousetrap”); and creating onscreen art mirroring that of abstract painter Josef Albers (Crichton’s interest in and patronship of the visual arts also tends to go unremarked). In 1983 he published the book Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers, a breezy introduction for the layman which nevertheless shared some real wisdom on topics such as the absurdity of the drive for “computer literacy” which insisted that every schoolchild in the country needed to know how to program in BASIC to have a prayer of success in later life. It also offered a spirited defense of computers as tools for entertainment and creativity as well as business and other practical matters.

Which isn’t to say that he didn’t find plenty of such practical applications for his computers. During this part of his life Crichton was immersed in planning for a movie called Runaway, which was to star Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons of Magnum P.I. and Kiss fame respectively. He hoped it would be one of the major blockbusters of 1984, although it would ultimately be overshadowed by a glut of other high-profile science-fiction films that year (The Terminator, Star Trek III, 2010). He hired a team to create a financial-modeling package which he claimed would allow a prospective filmmaker to input a bunch of parameters and have a shooting budget for any movie in “about a minute.” It was soon circulating amongst his peers in Hollywood.

Thus when the folks at Telarium started thinking about authors who might be interested in licensing their books and maybe even working with them on the resulting adaptations, Crichton was a natural. Seth Godin approached him in late 1983. He returned with extraordinary news: not only was Crichton interested, but he already had a largely completed game for them, based on his most recent novel, Congo.

Crichton had first started thinking he might like to write a game as long as two years before Godin’s inquiry. He’d grown frustrated with the limitations of the adventure games he’d played, limitations which seemed to spring not just from the technology but also from the lack of dramatic chops of their programmers.

I simply didn’t understand the mentality that informed them. It was not until I began programming myself that I realized it was a debugger’s mentality. They could make you sit outside a door until you said exactly the right words. Sometimes you had to say, “I quit,” and then it would let you through.

Well, that’s life in the programming world. It’s not life in any other world. It’s not an accepted dramatic convention in any other arena of entertainment. It’s something you learn to do when you’re trying to make the computer work.

Here’s what I found out early on: you can’t have extremely varied choices that don’t seem to matter. I can go north, south, east, or west, and who cares? You can only do that for a while, and then if you don’t start to have an expectation of what will happen, you’ll stop playing the game. You’d better get right going and you’d better start to have something happen.

If I play a game for a half-hour and it doesn’t make any sense to me, I’ll just quit and never go back. Say I’m locked in this house and I don’t know what the point of the house is and why I can’t get out and there’s no sort of hint to me about the mentality that would assist me in getting out — I don’t know. I could say “Shazam!” or I could burn the house down or — give me a break. I just stop.

Crichton started to sketch out his own adventure game based on Congo, whose simple quest plot structure made it a relatively good choice for conversion to the new format. Realizing that his programming skills weren’t up to the task of implementing his ideas, he hired programmer Stephen Warady to write the game in Apple II assembly language. The little team was eventually completed by David Durand, an artist who normally worked in film graphics. The game as it evolved was as much a mixed-media experience as text adventure, incorporating illustrations, simple action games, and other occasional graphical interludes that almost qualify as cut scenes, perfectly befitting this most cinematic of writers (and, not incidentally, making the game a perfect match with Telarium’s other games once they finally came calling). Crichton would sometimes program these sequences himself in BASIC, then turn them over to Warady to redo in much faster assembly language. Given Crichton’s other commitments, work on Congo the game proceeded in fits and starts for some eighteen months. They were just getting to the point of thinking about a publisher when Godin arrived to relieve them of that stress.

When Spinnaker started their due diligence on the deal, however, a huge problem quickly presented itself: Crichton, as was typical for him by this time, had already sold the media rights to Congo to Hollywood. (After they languished there for many years, the success of the Jurassic Park film would finally prompt Paramount Pictures to pick them up and make a Congo movie at last in 1995. Opinions are divided over whether that movie was just bad or so cosmically bad that it became good again.) Those rights unfortunately included all adaptations, including computer games, something the usually business-savvy Crichton had totally failed to realize. Spinnaker may have been a big wheel in home computers, but they didn’t have much clout in Hollywood. So, they came up with another solution: they excised the specifics of the novel from the game, leaving just the plot framework. The Congo became the Amazon; Amy the signing gorilla became Paco the talking parrot; Earth Resources Technology Services became National Satellite Resources Technology; a diamond mine became an emerald mine; African cannibals and roving, massacring army troops became South American cannibals and roving, massacring army troops. It may not have said much for Crichton and Spinnaker’s appreciation for cultural diversity, but it solved their legal problems.

Amazon was written for the Apple II in native assembly language. Spinnaker, however, took advantage of the rare luxury of time — the game was in an almost completed state when Crichton signed in late 1983, fully one year before the Telarium line’s launch — to turn it over to Byron Preiss Video Productions to make a version in SAL for the all-important Commodore 64 platform. The result wasn’t quite as nice an experience as the original, but it was acceptable. And it was certainly a wise move: Amazon became by all indications the most successful of all the Telarium games. Some reports have it selling as many as 100,000 copies, very good numbers for a member of a line whose overall commercial performance was quite disappointing. The majority of those were most likely the Commodore 64 version, if sales patterns for Amazon matched those for the industry as a whole.

I do want to talk about Amazon in more detail; it’s an historically important game thanks if nothing else to Crichton’s involvement and also a very interesting one, with some genuinely new approaches. But we’ll save that discussion for next time. In the meantime, feel free to download the Apple II version from here if you’d like to get a head start. Note that disk 3 is the boot disk.

(All of the references I listed in my first article on bookware still apply. Useful interviews with Crichton appeared in the February 1985 Creative Computing and February 1985 Compute!. Other articles and programs by Crichton appeared in Creative Computing‘s March 1983, June 1984, and November 1984 issues.)


Posted by on October 11, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton

It’s easy to dismiss Michael Crichton. Following his shocking 2008 death from throat cancer at age 66 (few had even been aware he was ill), virtually all of the obituaries and memorials took a tack similar to that of Charles McGrath in The New York Times: “No one — except possibly Mr. Crichton himself — ever confused them [his novels] with great literature, but very few readers who started a Crichton novel ever put it down.” One somehow feels the need to qualify that, yes, one understands he’s not great literature or anything before one admits to enjoying a Michael Crichton book. That’s kind of odd when you think about it. Readers of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King don’t seem to wax defensive quite so quickly or in quite such quantities.

If we take the relatively accepted and non-controversial definition of hard science fiction as a story that begins with the words “What if…” and then proceeds to try to rationally work through the consequences of that opening proposition, many of Crichton’s stories are virtual textbook examples of the genre. His breakout novel, The Andromeda Strain, asked what if a satellite returned to earth bearing a deadly extraterrestrial microbe; his most successful of all, Jurassic Park, asked what if dinosaur DNA could be recovered and cloned. Yet he was never really embraced by hardcore science-fiction readers. Something about Crichton was just too slick, too commercially calculated, too darn ubiquitous to be embraced by scruffy fan communities. He just wasn’t one of them. Instead he became the king of that genre unto itself of airport fiction, his latest bestseller — everything he released after The Andromeda Strain was a bestseller — to be found clutched under the arms of business travelers, as much a part of that strange artificial environment as X-ray machines, processed air, and canned announcements saying something about baggage left unattended. These folks wanted something to read that was neither embarrassing nor aggressively stupid but also not too taxing while they hurried up and waited. Crichton knew exactly where that perfect median lay, and he delivered every time.

All of which can make it a little bit hard to get really excited about Michael Crichton. I have a theory that, for all his ubiquity, relatively few people would claim him as their favorite writer — and those who do probably in all honesty don’t read a whole lot of books. Still, his achievements are kind of amazing. Educated as a doctor but never actually licensed to practice medicine, he was seemingly interested in everything and pretty good at a fair number of those things. And, like Steve Jobs and Byron Preiss, Crichton had looks and charm on his side as well. (People magazine named him one of their “50 Most Beautiful People” in the world in 1992, a rare honor indeed for a writer and general behind-the-camera type.) In 1970, in the aftermath of The Andromeda Strain‘s success, he abandoned his medical fellowship and set out to conquer the world of film. Despite having no background whatsoever in filmmaking, he convinced MGM to let him direct his own screenplay of Westworld in 1973. From there Crichton maintained parallel careers in the worlds of letters and film. It’s difficult to say which was more successful, especially since the latter so obviously fed off the former; every one of his first ten novels became a film, often with Crichton himself screenwriting, directing, and/or producing. And then, from the realm of Things Completely Different, let’s not forget that Crichton also created one of the most long-running and popular television dramas in history, E.R.

Clearly Crichton’s commercial instincts were well-honed. He always seemed to have the right book for the times, jumping on the newest trends and fears in popular science and the zeitgeist in general: the Hong Kong Flu (The Andromeda Strain, 1969); the first widespread discussion of cloning and its implications (Jurassic Park, 1990); workplace sexual harassment in the wake of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings (Disclosure, 1994); the global-warming debate (State of Fear, 2004). If he was still with us, I’m sure Crichton would have a book for the latest pop-science fad for all things neuroscience.

So, yes, there was a certain amount of calculation to Michael Crichton — but that’s not all there was. Yes, sometimes he oversimplified, and sometimes he got things just plain wrong, but most of Crichton’s books evidence more research than their sensational thriller plots — not to mention the feckless Hollywood blockbusters based on them — might suggest. Crichton was genuinely curious about the world around him, and genuinely worked to inform as well as entertain. Or, perhaps better stated, to entertain by informing, because the subjects he tackled are often genuinely fascinating. His peculiar genius was really composed of three parts: a deep sense of the current zeitgeist in science, technology, politics; a flair for explaining complicated ideas in an understandable, readable way (he could have been one heck of a “pure” pop-science writer if he’d wanted to); and the ability to tie the aforementioned talents to breakneck plots guaranteed to keep you turning the pages. We can see all of these elements at work in 1980’s Congo, generally regarded as one of his better books if also one that demonstrates some of his failings.

In typical Crichton fashion, Congo begins with an attack: an expedition encamped next to a heretofore undiscovered ancient city deep in the Congo Rainforest is ambushed and massacred by gorillas, or at least some somethings that are distinctly gorilla-like. The expedition had come there not for the sake of archaeology but to search for diamonds — special diamonds, meant to serve not as ornamentation but as the heart of a new generation of computers to be built using optical circuits instead of electric, made out of diamonds instead of silicon. Current computers, Crichton eventually explains, have gotten just as small and fast as they can with silicon chips. Like many specific predictions and extrapolations in Crichton novels, this is spectacularly wrong, as a quick comparison between, say, an Apple II and an iPad, both based on good old silicon, will demonstrate. But hey, where would a thriller writer (or pop-science writer, for that matter) be without a bit of hyperbole?

More prescient and interesting is the nature of the company that sent the unfortunate team into the field. Earth Resources Technology Services is like the Google of geology, scouring the planet on behalf of their clients to find mineral deposits of all stripes and stake claim to them. They are, to use a modern term, a data-driven organization, at least by the standards of 1980; ERTS stores “two million images” on their central computer, with new ones coming in at the staggering rate of “thirty images an hour.” They must inevitably send teams of people out to investigate promising sites in person, but the teams do their best to maintain satellite connections with ERTS headquarters in Houston. It’s thanks to this that ERTS gets to watch their team get killed in real-time. Not being idealistic sorts, they judge that this site is just too juicy to let a few killer apes and dead employees stand in their way. They mount a new expedition, which becomes the subject of the book. It’s led by one Karen Ross, who looks “the very flower of virile Texas womanhood” but entered MIT at age 13. For reasons that are rather tenuous at best, she decides to bring along a sign-language-using gorilla named Amy and her trainer, the diffident scientist Peter Elliot. The cast is rounded out by a grizzled ex-mercenary with a shady past named Munro and a jolly but mysterious group of native porters whom you just know are going to be the first to die. With our adventure-novel archetypes all in place, we’re off.

The structure of what follows is lumpy and kind of odd, but very typical of Crichton. About half of the text is devoted to a thrill-a-minute adventure story as the team penetrates deeper and deeper into the heart of the Dark Continent and into ever greater peril. Crichton meant it to be, besides being a crackerjack thriller in its own right, an homage to classic adventure fiction like The Lost World and King Solomon’s Mines; Crichton’s Lost City of Zinj and its diamond mines are in fact sourced from the same legends as the latter book. But Crichton, to his credit, doesn’t just try to ape adventure fiction of earlier generations. His heroes are thoroughly up to date, with all the latest gadgets. Thus they may be wandering through the jungle dodging cannibals, rampaging army troops, and strange hostile gorillas, but they’re also using their portable computer to link up with ERTS for all manner of assistance as they try to beat a rival high-tech consortium to the prize. (Admittedly, this assistance can sometimes be a bit too helpful, leaving Crichton with something of the classic Star Trek transporter dilemma: i.e., how can we have real drama when Captain Kirk can just shout “Beam me up, Scotty!” into his communicator as soon as things start to get hairy? Like the Star Trek writers, Crichton must often contrive circumstances — a freak solar flare, etc. — to cut off his heroes from their lifeline.)

Crichton, as even his worst detractors will admit, is good at constructing the skeleton of compelling suspense fiction. He knows how to build a roller coaster of a plot and let it run, knows how to keep you turning the pages to find out how they’re gonna get out of this one — even if he does wrap things up in this case via a classic deus ex machina of a volcano that’s been dormant for thousands of years suddenly deciding to erupt the very week our heroes visit.

But intertwined with the thriller is the pop-science book. Crichton loves his research, and loves to share what he’s learned with us. So we get often pages-long digressions on all sorts of things: the state of computing circa 1980 (lots of this, delving into lots of sub-topics); primates’ capacities for language learning (ditto); satellite-imaging technology; volcanoes; the strange customs of African cannibal tribes; the race among China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to exploit Africa’s vast mineral wealth; the hippopotamus in nature and in human culture; the vanishing rain forests; etc, etc. The pattern is always the same: during the story part of the novel some character, or Crichton the narrator himself, will make reference to some scientist, some event, some technology. Then it’s time to put the story on hold and start with the infodump.

By all rights this structure ought to be infuriating — but somehow Crichton makes it work. Perhaps it’s partly because most of the topics he writes about are genuinely interesting. Certainly it’s largely down to the fact that Crichton is a good writer within his sphere, able to make his factual material as engaging as his fiction. But maybe it’s also caught up with something else about Crichton, something I don’t even know whether I should label a flaw precisely because I think it’s actually a big part of his appeal as an author of airport fiction: the peculiar sense of distance about the whole exercise.

By the final chapters of Congo the situation is truly desperate. Our hardy band of heroes camped on the outskirts of Zinj are enduring nightly attacks by hundreds of remorseless killer gorillas. Already almost half their party — all native porters naturally; can’t start killing the heroes too soon — have been killed. Supplies are dwindling, ammunition almost exhausted. Worst of all, they can’t even try to escape back out into the jungle and take their chances with the roving bands of cannibals; the gorillas wait in ambush at the choke point which is the only way out of the valley in which they’ve encamped. And now, to top it all off, the volcano just above them is rumbling ominously. The horror of the situation should be palpable. Yet Crichton continues merrily along in the mode he established from the beginning, ticking off events as they occur and infodumping in between about gorilla behavior, gorilla populations, the cause and frequency of solar flares, the nature of language. He doesn’t do our imaginations any favors; any palpable fear or sense of real identification with the party will have to come from ourselves alone. Even his heroes seem oddly oblivious to their situation. No one seems to care all that much when the porters start getting killed. They’re much more concerned about their satellite connection and where those diamonds might be buried.

This strangely disembodied quality infects the whole book. Instead of giving us a tactile sense of the still primordial continent of Africa, inspiration for so many truly great books (Heart of Darkness; Out of Africa; The Green Hills of Africa), he infodumps statistics at us: that each tree has a trunk 40 feet in diameter and rises 200 feet, that there are four times as many species of animal life here as in a typical forest ecosystem. Add in Crichton’s less than engaging characters, who are if anything even more wooden than Arthur C. Clarke’s, and we’re left feeling, shall we say, somewhat removed from the action. We’re interested to find out what’s going to happen, but almost as an intellectual exercise rather than out of any sense of empathy. Nobody’s going to lose a lot of sleep if such refugees from Hollywood central casting as Karen Ross the Frigid Beauty or Munro the Shady Former Mercenary should buy it. By far the most memorable and endearing character in the book is Amy the signing gorilla.

Despite all of his research, there’s a certain facile quality to Crichton’s writing even when he sticks to facts. He is indeed shockingly prescient in imagining a company like ERTS, who deal only in hard data and seek to quantify absolutely everything, including the percentage chance their team has for finding diamonds and for getting themselves killed, which they coldly use to balance corporate risk and reward; diamonds are obviously worth some lives and the associated bad press and insurance payments. Yet he’s content to present ERTS’s corporate philosophy as just a neat new thing and move on. He never asks whether ERTS’s calculations and probabilities can replace more innate forms of human wisdom, or what it means that ERTS seem to think they can. Similarly, he mentions that Peter Elliot, trainer of Amy the gorilla, is being targeted by animal-rights groups, but he’s content to use this situation largely as a plot device to get Peter and Amy to Africa. Once that’s accomplished, it’s never mentioned again; he never addresses the legitimate ethical questions raised by inculcating an intelligent, empathetic animal into a human society in which it can never truly have a place beyond age seven or eight (the age at which a gorilla becomes too large, strong, and dangerous to safely interact with one-on-one). No, Crichton is happy to just label Elliot’s oppressors kooks and move on.

Like the wonks at ERTS, Crichton throws lots of facts at us and even comes to lots of conclusions, but never digs all that far beneath the surface. I think it’s this very facileness, this unwillingness to ever really make his reader — or, perhaps more importantly, himself — uncomfortable, that many people are subconsciously connecting with when they rush to make the disclaimer that Crichton certainly isn’t great literature or anything. Yet it also may be just what made him so popular. When all is said and done, and despite all the chaos and death and violence and potentially world-ending threats his books contain, he’s a comfort read. You’ll emerge from reading one of his books feeling pleasantly distracted and even a bit more educated about various esoteric subjects, but with worldview intact and bedrock assumptions unchallenged (assuming, of course, that said worldview and assumptions are comfortably Middle American like Crichton’s in the first place).

All of which probably reads more harshly than I really intend it. After I reread Congo for this blog for the first time in many years, my reaction may have been typical: “I enjoyed that… but I don’t need to read anything else by this author again.” On the other hand, if I was trapped alone in an airport somewhere with time on my hands, and Jurassic Park or Sphere or The Andromeda Strain was in the display window of the bookstore… well, I might just take the plunge. What else can I say? Crichton knew exactly what he was doing and did it well. If that makes him a craftsman rather than an artist, well, many other bestselling authors are neither.

Amongst his other accomplishments, Crichton was also the most famous name ever to actively work in the medium of interactive fiction. (His only rival would be Stephen King — but while King’s story The Mist was adapted to interactive fiction, it was purely an exercise in licensing; thus the “actively.”) We’ll talk about how that happened and the game that resulted next time.

(The photo was taken from the February 1985 issue of Compute!.)


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