Monthly Archives: March 2014

This Tormented Business, Part 3

In the June 1985 issue of Compute! magazine, in an otherwise innocuous editorial about font sizes and page layouts and column lengths, Richard Mansfield casually dropped a bombshell: that the number of companies in the PC industry had shrunk by 80% over the past year. Now, the reality was not quite so apocalyptic as that number (not to mention lots of fevered pundits) would make it seem. Many of the people and companies included within it were doubtless dabblers, who saw a chance to jump on a hot new trend, then saw the money wasn’t going to come so easily after all and walked away again. But still… 80%. Let’s look at some more numbers to try to unpack what that figure means.

Home computer installed base, 1978-1982

The chart above shows the numbers of actively used computers in American homes between 1978 and 1982. The first big spike came in the latter year, when cheap machines like the Commodore VIC-20, the Texas Instruments 99/4A, and the Timex Sinclair came online in a big way just as the videogame console market began to go soft. Home computers, the pundits said, were the logical successors to that fad, and consumers seemed to agree by almost quintupling their numbers in the space of a single year.

Actual and projected installed base of home computers, 1982-1987

The chart above shows the actual and forecasted installed base of active home-computer users between 1982 and 1987. As you can see, things continued to go swimmingly through 1983 — the peak of the home-computer wars, Jack Tramiel and Commodore’s year of triumph. By year’s end, following the most spectacular Christmas of the 1980s for the home-computer industry, the number of computers in American homes was over 250% of what it had been at the beginning of the year. With millions upon millions of American homes still unconverted, everyone assumed that this was only the beginning of the beginning, that growth by leaps and bounds was inevitable until the end of the decade at least.

Things didn’t work out that way. Not only did 1984 fall short of projections by more than 50%, but sales to first-time buyers weren’t even sufficient to make up for those who got bored with their balky toys from the previous year or two and relegated them to closets, first step on their long, gradual journeys to the dumpster. (One research firm would later estimate that consumers threw out 1.5 million home computers in 1985 alone.) I’ve talked in earlier articles about the many perfectly good, sensible reasons that consumers grew so quickly disillusioned with their purchases, a list which includes a complete lack of killer apps — beyond games, that is — for the average household, the pain of actually using these primitive machines, and hidden costs in the form of all of the extra hardware and software needed to do much of anything with one of them. Home computers just didn’t live up to the hype; at least the old Atari VCS really was cheap and simple and fun, exactly as advertised. Most Americans found home computers to be none of these things. Their experience of 1982 and 1983 was bad enough to sour many of them on computers for a decade or more.

As bad as the chart above looks, it took a surprising amount of time for the industry to realize just how far off-track things had gone. 1984 was a paradoxical year of mixed messages in many respects, one that saw for instance the Apple II and Infocom both enjoy their biggest sales years ever. It wasn’t until 1984 became 1985, and the industry counted its dollars and woke up to the realization that the Christmas just past had been a deeply disappointing one, that the full scale of the problems set in and the dying-home-computer-industry became as big a media meme as the home-computer-as-social-revolution had been just a year or two before.

Still, some knew long before that something was very, very wrong. The bellweather of virtually any consumer-facing industry has always been — prior, at least, to the Internet age — its magazines. A healthy, growing industry means lots of readers buying at newsstands and signing up for subscriptions, as well as lots of vigorous new companies eager to advertise, to tell the public about all the new stuff they have to sell them. Conversely, when interest and sales begin to flag the newsstands start to reduce their magazine selection to make more room for other subjects, subscriptions are allowed to lapse, and advertising budgets are the quickest and least immediately painful things to cut. And as the first companies start to fold, those with whom they’ve signed advertising contracts tend to be about the last creditors to get paid. Woe betide the magazine that’s let itself go too far out on a limb — like, you know, one assuming it’s a part of an industry likely to grow almost exponentially for years to come — when that happens. The carnage in the magazines, those engines of excitement and advice and community, was appalling during the eighteen months between mid-1984 and the end of 1985.

The period was bookended by two particularly painful losses. Softalk, the de facto voice of the Apple II community, simply never appeared again after an apparently business-as-usual August 1984 issue. An even sadder loss was that of Creative Computing, which at least got to say goodbye in a last editorial (“Great While It Lasted”) in its last issue in December of 1985. The first newsstand magazine devoted to personal and, well, creative computing, it had been founded by David Ahl, a visionary if ever there was one, in October of 1974, months before the Altair. Ahl sold the magazine to the big conglomerate Ziff-Davis in 1982, but remained on as editor-in-chief right through to that last editorial. Throughout its run Creative Computing remained relentlessly idealistic about the potential for personal computing, always thinking about next year and of what the products they reviewed meant in the context of the ongoing PC revolution as a whole. Just to take one example: in response to the arrival of the first prototype laser-disc players in 1976, the magazine laid out a manifesto for what would come to be known as multimedia computing well over ten years later.

David H. Ahl

David H. Ahl

Creative Computing also published books, the best selling, most important, and most beloved of which was titled simply BASIC Computer Games, a compendium of type-in listings featuring games that had been making the rounds of The People’s Computer Company and the pages of Creative Computing itself for years. BASIC Computer Games sold a staggering one-million copies in English and in translations to French and German, years before any pre-packaged computer game would come close to such a feat. Many a young hacker pecked out its listings and then started to experiment by changing a variable here or a statement there, learning in the process the wonderful quality that separates computers from game consoles and just about every other form of electronic entertainment: that you can use the same device you play games on to also make games, or just about anything else you want. Creative computing indeed. The voice of Ahl, every bit as much a pioneer as a Steve Wozniak or Steve Jobs, would be sorely missed in the years to come. Ironically, his magazine’s end came just as machines like the Macintosh and Amiga were arriving to begin to bring to fruition some of his more expansive predictions of earlier years. (One of Creative Computing‘s last issues featured a gushing review of the Amiga which called it nothing less than “a new medium of expression.”) It’s a sign of the immense respect with which Ahl and his magazine were still viewed in the industry that several competing magazines took the time to remark the loss of Creative Computing and offer a warm eulogy — an act of graciousness unusual indeed in the increasingly cutthroat world of computer publishing. As Info magazine noted, “There could be no better history of personal computing than a complete collection of Creatives.”

In 1985 the pain spread in earnest to the software industry. Many pioneering companies, including some we’ve met in earlier articles on this blog, collapsed during the year. Any company that hadn’t shed its old crufty hacker’s skin and learned to start behaving like professionals was doomed, as were many who had listened a bit too much to the professionals and pundits and over-expanded and over-borrowed in the expectation of the perpetually-exploding industry that had been promised them. Also doomed was anyone whose creations just weren’t good enough; those users who had chosen to stick with this computer thing were far savvier and more demanding than the neophytes of earlier years. Muse Software of Castle Wolfenstein fame was amongst the victims, as was our more recent acquaintance Synapse Software, who were shuttered by Brøderbund barely a year after they acquired them. The Carlstons may have been nice folks, but their company didn’t survive by throwing good money after bad, and neither of Synapse’s principal assets — their expertise with the fading Atari 8-bit line and their Electronic Novel line — were worth much of anything in the evolving industry order.

Indeed, adventure-game makers were if anything hit even harder than the rest of the industry. By mid-1985 it was becoming clear that bookware had been a blind alley; virtually nothing in the category, excepting only Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, did much of anything commercially. Companies like Spinnaker (owner of the Telarium and Windham Classics brands) and Brøderbund now began to divest themselves of their bookware assets almost as eagerly as they had acquired them. So much for the dream of a new interactive literature. Other expectations were also dramatically tempered. Trip Hawkins, for instance, was finally forced to give up on his dream of game designers as the rock stars of the 1980s and a shelf of games joining a shelf of records inside every hip living room. Electronic Arts now retrenched and refocused on becoming a big, highly respected fish in the relatively tiny pond of hardcore gaming (the only kind of gaming there was in this window between the Atari VCS’s collapse and the arrival of Nintendo). Yes, computer games were just computer games again.

Almost unremarked amidst all of the bankruptcies and retractions and cancellations was the collapse of Scott Adams’s Adventure International, one of the oldest of all the companies we’ve met on this site. Whether due to stubbornness or lack of funds or failure of vision or simple loyalty to what had brung’em, Adams had refused for years to upgrade his core technology, continuing to sell the same little 16 K, two-word-parser games he had started writing back in 1978. Their revamp into the SAGA line added crude graphics to the equation, but little else. Thus Infocom had long since stolen Adams’s crown as the king of adventure-gaming, not so much by besting him as by Adams not even trying to compete. Adams instead fed — and, for a time, quite well — on the ultra-low-end market, those machines like the Commodore VIC-20 and Texas Instruments 99/4A that weren’t a whole lot more capable than the original TRS-80 on which he’d first written Adventureland. These machines, unfortunately, were exactly the ones which found their way into closets and attics with the most frequency after the home-computer boom passed its heyday. Therein lay the root of AI’s troubles.

By 1984 much or most of Adventure International’s revenue was coming from Britain, thus belatedly justifying the company’s name, chosen in a fit of optimism when Adams and his wife were still making packaging out of baby-bottle liners and struggling to grasp the vagaries of wholesale pricing; expansion across an ocean must have seemed far-fetched indeed at that time. With their more modest cassette-based computers, their absolute mania for adventures, and their accompanying willingness to forgive faults and limitations Americans no longer were, Britons offered Adams a more hospitable market all around. An independent quasi-subsidiary, Adventure International UK, offered not just the classic dozen original Scott Adams games and the OtherVentures titles, but also many more games written in Britain by British authors like the prolific Brian Howarth using Adams’s engine. Adams himself was a celebrity amongst British adventurers. Everyone knew him for his crazy Afro that made him easy to spot across a crowded trade-show floor, and the magazines jostled for quotes and interviews and the fans for autographs whenever he made one of his occasional trips across the pond.

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

In late 1983 or early 1984 a tremendous opportunity to improve Adventure International’s standing on both continents virtually fell into Adams’s lap. Joe Calamari, an executive vice president with Marvel Comics, called Adams out of the blue to propose that Marvel and AI collaborate on a line of games and accompanying comic books starring the Marvel superheroes. While it would take many years for Marvel to catch up to their perpetual arch-rivals DC Comics in bringing their brand to the masses via the multiplexes, Marvel at this time was making a modest but in its way innovative push into trans-media storytelling via deals like this one and the one they inked around the same time with TSR of Dungeons and Dragons fame to do a Marvel tabletop RPG. Their choice of Adventure International for the computer-game license could be read as surprising; AI was hardly at the cutting edge of the game industry, and given the huge demographic overlap between gamers and comics readers the Marvel license would certainly have been appealing to other, slicker publishers. Perhaps AI’s support for the cheap low-end machines, not to mention their games’ typical price of $12 or so as opposed to $30 or more, led Marvel to consider them a better fit for their generally younger readers. (As with science fiction, the golden age for superheroes is about twelve.) As possible evidence of exactly this thought process, consider that Commodore, who may have suggested AI to Marvel and apparently did play some sort of intermediary role in the negotiations, had been doing very well with cartridge versions of the first five Scott Adams adventures on the VIC-20 throughout the peak years of the home-computer boom.

It’s hard not to compare this early, crude experiment in trans-media storytelling with the Marvel of today, whose characters feature in cinematic extravaganzas costing hundreds of millions to produce. We’ve certainly come a long way. (Whether it’s a change for the better is of course in the eye of the beholder.) It’s also yet another sign of just how huge text adventures were for a few years there that Marvel chose this format for the games at all. The cerebral pleasures of text and puzzles hardly feel like an obvious fit for the “Wham! Bam! Pow!” action of a superhero comic — not that this marks the strangest mismatch between form and content of the bookware era.

Marvel's Hulk QuestProbe issue

Adams signed a deal to make a dozen games with Marvel, one that gave him a crazy amount of creative freedom. He gave the series its truly awful name, the uncomfortably medicinal-sounding QuestProbe. (It’s choices like this that distinguish companies like AI, who couldn’t afford PR firms and image advisers or just couldn’t be bothered, from companies like Infocom who could. As for Marvel, who knows what they were thinking…) He also got a pleasure that would turn any superhero-loving kid — and more than a few superhero-loving adults — a Hulk-like green with envy: he outlined a story to accompany each game, then gave it to Marvel to be turned into a full-blown comic book to be sold as part of a “Scott Adams/Marvel Comics Limited Series.”

The Human Torch and The Thing

The Human Torch and The Thing

Alas, the Marvel deal, AI’s last, best chance to live and possibly even prosper, turned into an opportunity squandered. The QuestProbe games are painfully, shamefully bad by just about every criterion. The graphics are crude and ugly, the prose strangled, the situations all but incomprehensible (especially if you aren’t lucky enough to have the accompanying comic to hand), and the puzzles a hopeless mix of the inane and the inscrutable. They are, in other words, pretty much like all the other Scott Adams games after the first half-dozen or so, and that just wasn’t good enough anymore, even for the patience of twelve-year-olds. After the first game, which featured the Hulk, was roundly panned even by the forgiving gaming press (the making of a game bad enough to achieve that was something of a feat in itself), Adams did begin to include some modest innovations: the next game, featuring Spider-Man, debuted at last a parser capable of understanding more than two words (not that it was otherwise up to much); and the third and as it turned out final game, featuring the Human Torch and the Thing, had you controlling both characters, able to switch between them at will — an interesting idea badly executed. By the time that third game trickled out in mid-1985, AI was already collapsing.

Adams today notes the immediate cause of AI’s failure, no doubt accurately, as a rash of returned product from distributors who had over-ordered in anticipation of a big Christmas rush that never materialized. AI, which had never attracted the injections of venture capital and the accompanying professional financial oversight of fellow pioneers like Sierra, found themselves unable to pay back their distributors. With no one willing to extend them credit given conditions in the industry as a whole, there was no viable recourse but bankruptcy. Yet the deeper cause was Adams’s inability or unwillingness to change his games with the times. He’s stated many times in interviews that he virtually never looked at any of the games produced by his rivals; for instance, he never played an Infocom game after Zork. His logic was that he didn’t want to have his designs “polluted” by ideas and puzzles of others. This is, at best, an odd stance to take; try to imagine a novelist who refuses to read books, or a musician who doesn’t listen to music. It perhaps does much to explain the time-warp quality of the QuestProbe games. It’s strange that the man who had the vision and the technical chops to get viable adventures working on 16 K microcomputers in the first place should prove so unable to further iterate on that first masterful leap, but there you have it. Adams went on with his professional life as a programmer outside of the games industry, and Adventure International passed quietly into history.

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

One part of the brief-lived AI empire did survive. Mike Woodroffe, head of the still-viable Adventure International UK, disentangled that organization from its erstwhile namesake and renamed it Adventure Soft. The company would go on to a long if only sporadically active life as a developer of graphic adventures, whose biggest games became the Simon the Sorcerer series, The Feeble Files, and two Elvira-themed pseudo-CRPGs. Adventure Soft continues as an at least nominally going concern today, although their website is little more than a storefront for sometimes decades-old titles.

All told, then, 1985 was a brutal year in American software and particularly games software, one that weeded out the weak sisters like Adventure International, Muse, Synapse, and countless others without remorse — not to mention the casualties in publishing and hardware and still other, ancillary areas. Old timers who had grown up as hackers with many of the year’s casualties can be forgiven for seeing it in terms as apocalyptic as did the more hyperbole-prone members of the media. David Ahl, from his final Creative Computing editorial:

The personal-computing industry is largely composed of adolescent companies and inexperienced managers being forced to grow up much too fast by market forces that they themselves created. The big guys are sailing in with battleships, and the friendly competition of a few years ago has become all-out war with no holds barred. The media smells blood and death, which makes for interesting reading (and sales). Their alarmist disaster stories have simply exacerbated the situation.

Still, if we’re seeking silver linings they aren’t that hard to come by. Just to take the obvious: another look at the chart above will show that, if the home-computer user base wasn’t growing much, it also — that one brief blip in 1984 aside — wasn’t shrinking either. There was still a very viable, even vibrant market there. It was just a market that had reached an equilibrium far, far sooner than anyone had anticipated. The pain of 1985 was the pain of adjusting expectations to match that reality — the reality that numbers of computers in homes wouldn’t increase in big jumps again until the arrival of the Internet and cheap multimedia PCs in the early 1990s gave everyone a good reason to own one. The generation of microcomputers sandwiched between those and the old 8-bits — the Apple Macintosh, the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, the Tandy 1000 and a rash of other ever cheaper and more capable MS-DOS-based machines — would seldom be sold to complete neophytes. They would rather go to people looking to upgrade their old Apple IIs, Commodore 64s, Atari 800s, and TRS-80s. A tempering of expectations, especially for hardware makers, would be necessary. Not everyone would upgrade, after all, meaning home-computer sales wouldn’t come close to their 1983 peak for many years to come. As David Thornburg noted in a perceptive article for Compute! magazine, computers were and would for years remain a hobby, not an everyday home appliance.

If you go to someone’s house and see a computer sitting in the den, I’ll bet you say, “Hey, I see you’re into computers. How about that!”

Have you ever gone into someone’s house and said, “Hey! I see you’re into refrigerators. Wow! Automatic ice-cube maker too! I was going to get one of those myself — thought I’d get a 16-cube model, but then I heard that the 32-cubers were going to come out soon.”

If the home computer was an appliance, we would talk about it like one.

David Ahl offered another comparison to explain why the home computer hadn’t yet achieved appliance status and wasn’t likely to for some time to come.

People who don’t have computers are looking for user friendliness of a sort that just isn’t available today. You can rent a car virtually anywhere in the world and in a minute or two be familiar enough with the vehicle and local traffic laws to drive off with a reasonable degree of confidence. When it is that easy to use a computer, then manufacturers can legitimately speak of user friendliness. We are a long way from that point today.

When a reeling software industry proved unable to fill the space allocated for it at the 1985 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, a big chunk was instead given over to pornographic videos, an industry that was thriving on the back of booming VCR sales in exactly the way the software industry wasn’t on lukewarm home-computer sales. Game consoles and home computers may come and go, but some interests are eternal.

If you were a committed gamer in for the long haul, however, the outcome of all this chaos was arguably at least as positive as it was negative. With computer owners an ever savvier and more experienced lot unwilling to suffer bad or even mediocre games anymore, with publishers all competing frantically for a big enough slice of a fixed pie to keep them alive, games in general just kept getting better at a prodigious rate. By 1986 developers would be taking the Commodore 64 in particular to places that would have been simply unimaginable when the machine debuted back in 1982. And as for the next-generation machines… well, even more splendid work was in the offing there. Everything was improving: not just graphics and sound but also the craft of design.

But before we can revel too much in the positives we have more pain to address. Next time we’ll look at Infocom’s disastrous 1985, the year that came within a whisker of cutting off the most beloved canon in interactive fiction at the halfway mark.

(My huge thanks to C. David Seuss, former CEO of Spinnaker Software, who answered my questions about this era, pointed me to a useful Harvard Business School Case Study, and provided the charts shown above and other documents. The usual thanks also to Jason Scott, whose interview with Scott Adams for Get Lamp was also invaluable. Useful magazine sources this time included: Compute! of March 1985, June 1985, and January 1986; Your Computer of November 1985; Creative Computing of December 1985; Computer Gaming World of January 1985; Computer and Video Games of May 1986; Info of December 1985/January 1986. Finally, if you don’t believe me that the QuestProbe games are really, really bad, feel free to download them in their Commodore 64 incarnations and see for yourself.)



Essex and Brimstone

The next two entrants in the Electronic Novel line trickled out of Synapse/Brøderbund some eight months after Mindwheel and with vastly less fanfare. Both are flawed efforts that together serve to take a lot of the shine off Synapse’s boldly literary take on the text adventure.


The premise of Essex is The Love Boat meets Star Trek. You play one of an array of disparate passengers who come together for a cruise on the Essex, the sleekest and most luxurious star liner in the galaxy. Before all is said and done, you’ll have unmasked one of your fellow travelers as a spy and another as a thief, rescued a “Klangorn” warrior from unjust captivity, beamed down to a planet to collect some fresh “trilithium crystals” to power the Essex, and — the real crux of the matter — rescued from another unjust captivity on another planet the only scientist capable of closing an inter-dimensional wormhole and thus preventing an alien invasion. Whew! Whatever else you can say about it, Essex doesn’t lack for ambition.

Unlike the other Electronic Novels, for which Synapse turned to outside writers, Essex author Bill Darrah was also a programmer at Synapse. He doesn’t manage to transcend his other calling; we’re back pretty firmly in the realm of programmer writing here, which comes as a particular letdown after the likes of Mindwheel. Like many unpracticed writers straining to sound “literary,” Darrah frequently confuses elegant language with stilted language. Tortured passive-voice constructions abound: “A newspaper is picked up and pocketed,” the game tells us after we “GET NEWSPAPER” as our first command of the game. More fundamentally, Essex doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be, staking out some shaky territory somewhere between Star Trek parody and homage, with a bit of Douglas Adams at his “zaniest” and least compelling, without ever really committing to anything. So we end up with a fairly serious space-adventure premise which nevertheless has the aforementioned “Klangorn” and “trilithium crystals” along with a Chief Engineer McKinley who hangs pictures of the Highlands in his office and speaks in a bizarre faux-Scottish diction that suggests that the only Scottish accent Darrah has ever heard is James Doohan’s. Even more bizarre combinations of drama and comedy have worked in the hands of talented writers, but suffice to say that Darrah is not one of these writers.

Taken as a game — or, if you like, a systemEssex is more interesting. In fact, it’s by far the most complex piece of programming of all the Electronic Novels. If we take classic adventures as almost all formed in the Adventure mold (the vast majority), being relatively static environments that change only at the prompting of you the player, or the Deadline mold, being dynamic, living story systems in which not just what but also when becomes a factor, Essex is firmly in the dynamic camp. Life is happening around you constantly. Not only does the Essex itself suffer a series of crises, but a cast of a dozen or so others is all constantly moving about, pursuing their own agendas and (ideally) reacting to your own actions in believable ways. It’s impressive — except when it doesn’t quite work right, which is often. Making a believable world/simulation of this sort is still one of the hardest things to do in an adventure game, which does much to explain the form’s still-strong love for deserted environments and straitjacketed, linear plotting. In Essex mimesis is constantly shattered. You can beat one of your fellow passengers to a pulp in front of others while they just continue chatting about the vacation they’re having; use an energy bomb to free a dangerous prisoner from the brig while the guard just yawns and looks on. At points the various daemons controlling plot developments seem to get out of whack, so that a landing party can beam down to a planet before the ship has actually arrived there. Essex needed a lot more testing than it apparently received, serving as yet another example of how the process at Infocom just as much as the vision of their writers led to their own unrivaled catalog of games. This was something that Synapse like so many others, whatever vows they may have made about doing “everything Infocom does plus one,” couldn’t duplicate.

Another thing was Infocom’s parser. Synapse made much out of the BTZ parser, bragging about its ability to understand some 1500 words, over twice that of a typical Infocom game. But word counts alone aren’t enough; ever-present concerns about disk and memory usage aside, they are in fact the easy part of the problem. It’s the grammatical patterns used to deduce meaning from those words that are the hard part. Here Synapse took the same wrong-headed approach as Telarium and many others, doing simple pattern matching as often as real parsing and trying to guess at the meanings of commands which couldn’t be interpreted by more rigorous methods. The BTZ parser is a “lying parser,” in other words, which tries to pretend it knows more than it does. Mindwheel had of course used the same parser, but there it oddly seemed to work at least some of the time, aided by that game’s surreal atmosphere and general disinterest in grubby materialism; witness the Oedipal interaction that so delighted Robert Pinsky. In Essex, full of more traditional object-oriented puzzles, it’s much less successful. Conversations are particularly prone to non sequiturs: asking another crewman, “WHERE IS CAPTAIN DEE?” results in, “At the same time Dee was building the Essex, the economies of three major planets collapsed.” Good to know… I guess. Infuriatingly, solving Essex requires beating your head against the conversation system; one or two other people on the ship have essential information that you can gather only by asking about random things until you stumble across it.

Indeed, Essex is a very difficult game, requiring like so many others of its dynamic stripe many restarts and restores to solve. In the end, I must admit I judged it not worth the effort. Which was a particular disappointment because the big hardcover book, while still having a surfeit of blank pages, is actually used pretty well here to introduce your fellow passengers and set everything up. Thanks to it, I was actually excited to get started. Alas, that initial excitement wasn’t enough to sustain me.


Even more initially promising is Brimstone: The Dream of Gawain, written by another up-and-coming poet living in the San Francisco area named James Paul, who wouldn’t go on to quite the same heights as Robert Pinsky but has continued to write poetry and prose and teach creative writing at Hunter College. In Brimstone you take the role of Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table best known as the main character of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a recurrent tale of the Arthurian mythos that is most often read today in its translation by J.R.R. Tolkien (it also likely had a little something to do with inspiring one of the more beloved set-pieces in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The game is in fact exactly what its subtitle says it is: as it begins Gawain is drifting off to sleep after a day of relaxation at Camelot. Brimstone is what he experiences within the nocturnal, infernal landscape of his dream.

Paul, owner of a PhD in Medieval English literature, isn’t much interested in the King Arthur of flashing swords and chivalric derring-do. He rather connects with the murkier, more mystical aspects of the tradition which you can practically breathe in with the mists during an autumn walk around Glastonbury. Nor does he restrict himself to the Arthurian mythos. Brimstone owes much to — where have we heard this before? — Dante. Like Mindwheel, there’s little in the way of straightforward plotting or concrete theme here, but lots of evocative suggestions and a whole pile of deftly rendered references that hover on the edge of the unconscious — not only to Dante and King Arthur but also to the Book of Genesis, to The Pilgrim’s Progress, to the Greek myths (Charon makes an inevitable cameo), even to Kafka (Morgan Le Fay is the star witness in an absurdist trial in which Gawain is the accused). Presiding over much of the affair as Paul’s version of Dante’s Virgil is none other than William Blake. There’s also an homage to a more modern celebrated work by another Medievalist (among many other things), Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose had reached American shores in translation just the year before Paul set to work on Brimstone. The frame story of Brimstone, as presented in the accompanying hardcover, is a dead ringer for that of The Name of the Rose: fussily pretentious academic discovers a heretofore unknown manuscript behind the Iron Curtain. It’s pretty funny — the academic in question has the perfect name of “Jeremy Diddler” — if not quite as drolly perfect as Eco’s.

Much of the imagery in Brimstone proper concerns sin and redemption; much also Greatness versus Goodness. Here’s a bit I particularly like, a forest of frozen hypocrites:

The knight found himself at the northern end of the Vale of the Titans. To the south, Gawain saw what appeared to be figures of men, standing still in the ice.

The figures were men, or their shapes, in any case. Here a multitude of statues of ice crowded a small valley to the south of the knight. Each statue was twice as large as Gawain, each was intricately carved, and each wore what seemed at first to be expressions of virtue, dignity, honesty and courage. Here the track turned, running north and west.

> s

Each figure was labeled with a name: Agamemnon, Bonaparte, Bowdler, Burr, and so on. The knight's heart sank as he walked on. Alphabetical orders always weighed heavily upon him. It was a cold place, and the hills bristled with statues.

> s

The knight felt worse and worse as he walked through this forest of hypocrites. He could look at the statues no longer, though they ran on and on, both men and women, most of whom the knight did not know. The knight came to a marshy area.

Here the ground oozed a gray substance, and wide-leafed plants burst through the mud, their leaves bearing white designs like those the knight had seen on the backs of spiders. A single firm path bore many tracks of a single creature east, and a path also ran south. What next? thought the knight, noting the sign.

> read sign

There in the rock above the well were some words, written by hand. "Expect poison from standing water," it read.

The excerpt above, of course, also shows the most immediately striking aspect of Brimstone: all of its text is rendered in the third-person past tense. Given the sheer quantity of text adventures that precede it, I wouldn’t want to claim absolutely that it’s the first to experiment with this alternative. It is, however, the first of which I’m aware; virtually all previous games had used either the first-person present (as popularized by Scott Adams) or the second-person present (as popularized by Adventure and later Infocom). In the hands of a lesser writer, it might come off as just a gimmick, but here it suits Paul’s oft-lovely prose and the somewhat removed, dreamlike temper of the whole experience perfectly.

I wish I could leave it at that, leave Brimstone as a piece of interactive poetry almost the equal of Mindwheel. But sadly, commercial considerations do much to undo the experience. Until quite late in the day, Brimstone seems like a kind game which is not puzzleless but not all that interested in its puzzles either, using them largely to provide direction and impetus to explore its enchanted dreamscape. Some of the puzzles are actually pretty good: there’s a free-association exercise that’s almost the equal of any of Mindwheel‘s poetic puzzles. But this version of Brimstone would have been a lovely experience lasting perhaps two or three hours — unacceptable for a game that people would be spending $30 or more on. So, you’ll eventually come to the realization that, starting in the mid-game, Brimstone had begun layering on increasingly obscure puzzles, many of which you probably never recognized as puzzles at all. The ultimate goal turns out to be to collect five magic words needed to defeat Gawain’s nemesis the Green Knight. At least three of these are extremely difficult to find; you’re all but guaranteed to end the game having been locked out of victory long ago. The most absurd word-acquisition strategy of all requires you to start talking to a flower who’s given no prior sign of sentience. To make matters worse, once you collect the words you have to figure out their correct order largely by trial and error and type them really, really fast thanks to one of the more pointless innovations of the BTZ system: the games play in a sort of pseudo-real time, with turns passing as if in response to a “WAIT” command if you don’t type something quickly enough. Mostly that’s just an occasional annoyance, but here it’s enough to make you want to pull out the (virtual) disk and throw it across the room. So, having ended my last article with an elegiac to the dream of a commercial marketplace for literary interactive fiction, let me end this one by noting how wonderful it is that many later experiments with interactive literature were allowed to be their best selves without such dull metrics as dollars spent and hours of gameplay provided getting in the way.

It’s unfortunately a bit more complicated to play Essex and Brimstone today than it is to play Mindwheel. All of the Apple II disk images of both that I could find floating around the Internet have corruptions that, cruelly, don’t show up until well into the game. Your best bet for a decent — read, 80-column — experience is to go for the MS-DOS versions, which you can run through DOSBox. I’m providing a download of each of them here; each zip also contains the manual and a configuration file for DOSBox that should work for you. There’s just one tricky thing you need to know: when you enter the name of a file to save or restore, you need to hit CTRL-ENTER to conclude your input. While Essex is probably best left to the truly hardcore, I’m tempted to recommend Brimstone in spite of its issues. Just keep a walkthrough handy, and don’t be ashamed to use it.

There was one final Electronic Novel, but we’ll save that for later. Instead we’ll pull the camera back next time to take a wider view of the American software industry in 1985 — one hell of a year, as Synapse amongst many others would agree.

(Update: Peter Ferrie has just put together a working version of Brimstone for the Apple II. If you’d prefer to play that version, feel free to download it. Note that you will still need the manual from the original zip file above.

Second Update: And now he’s done the same for Essex. Thanks, Peter!)


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Mindwheel (or, The Poet and the Hackers)


Excepting only Adventure and a handful of works by Infocom, Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel has received far more academic attention than any other work of interactive fiction’s commercial era. If you’re of a practical — not to say cynical — turn, you can posit a pretty good theory as to why that should be without ever looking to the game itself. Pinsky, you see, is by far the most respectable and respected literary figure ever to turn his hand to the humble text adventure. His resume is impressive to say the least: United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000; author of nineteen books, nine of them full of poems; translator of Dante; professor of literature at Berkeley and Boston University amongst other places; editor of literary magazines and anthologies; scholar of the Biblical David and Shakespeare. For any graduate student looking to justify a thesis or article about interactive fiction, Pinsky is a riposte to die for when colleagues and advisers ask whether text adventures are really all that significant as literary works. If they were good enough for Pinsky, they should be good enough for anyone.

Mindwheel is the product of a strange historical moment; it’s hard to imagine it appearing more than a year before or after its February 1985 release date. This was the era of bookware, when interactive fiction was seen as the future of the book and the future of computerized entertainment all rolled into one; when action games were seen as relics of the recently passed age of the Atari VCS; when a company called Synapse Software, known already as the makers of some of the slickest and most graphically impressive action games on the Atari 8-bit line, could decide to stake much of their future on textual interactive fiction not out of some suicidal artistic impulse but because doing so seemed a perfectly reasonable commercial calculation. Strange, strange times.

Ihor Wolosenko

Ihor Wolosenko

The story of Synapse Software is largely the story of Ihor Wolosenko, whose family had immigrated to the United States from Ukraine when he was still a toddler and who had filled the nearly forty years that elapsed in his life before Synapse with a bewildering array of activities and avocations. He had studied drama at the City University of New York; been a professional photographer; worked as a physical therapist; counseled and conducted personal workshops using a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and the controversial branch of psychology known as neuro-linguistic programming; delved deeply into linguistics and hypnosis. By 1980, the year he bought an Atari 800, he had ended up like so many other drifting dreamers in Berkeley, California. He chose the Atari because it could play Star Raiders and the Apple II couldn’t.

Wolosenko soon made a more technical friend, a vice president in charge of data processing at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank named Ken Grant who had been toying with an Atari 800 database application in his spare time. The two worked on it together for nearly a year, then founded Synapse out of Wolosenko’s apartment to release it in August of 1981. It wasn’t an auspicious start; the first hundred or so copies of FileManager 800 that they shipped were so buggy that they had to recall the whole production run. But by the end of the year Synapse was truly up and running at last, with not just FileManager but a game or two as well.

Wolosenko was already putting together the team of crack programmers whose games would make Synapse’s reputation. Games like Shamus, Blue Max, The Pharaoh’s Curse, and their most beloved title of all Alley Cat mixed superb graphics with addictive playability and a welcome sense of whimsy. Little extra touches distinguished Synapse’s games from the competition. In Alley Cat, for instance, if you don’t do anything for a few seconds your avatar will start to move around on his own and meow impatiently to you, decades before such “juicy” touches would become a widely accepted requirement for casual games.

It wouldn’t be out of line to compare Synapse’s mystique in North America with that of Ultimate Play the Game in Britain. Both developed all of their games in-house, insuring that they all shared a similar look and design sensibility. Both were absolute masters of their chosen platforms (the Spectrum for Ultimate, the Atari 8-bits for Synapse) and consistently delivered games that were far slicker than virtually anything the competition had to offer. Synapse, like Ultimate, did write for other platforms, but their core competency and core loyalty remained with the Atari machines. Atari users in turn loved them. Because Synapse’s games were born on Ataris, they could take full advantage of the best graphics and sound in the industry, capabilities matched only (and if you listen to Atari loyalists only arguably) by those of the Commodore 64.

While Wolosenko usually refused formal credit on his programmers’ designs, much of the character of Synapse’s games was down to him. His company may have been making relatively simple action games, but he nevertheless thought seriously about the nature of the medium, the relationship between player and avatar, the standard approach of graduated difficulty levels (bad) and the alternative of adaptive gameplay (good). He shepherded every game and every programmer through the process of development, giving a little nudge here, a little tweak there to make the end result that much better. Synapse programmer Steve Hales called Wolosenko the Steve Jobs of games: “Every product that Synapse produced had Ihor’s touch. I believe that because of Ihor our quality was better, the designs were more unique, and I was pushed beyond what I thought was possible.”

According to Hales, it was he and another of Wolosenko’s favorite programmers, William Mataga, who planted the idea of doing adventure games in Wolosenko’s head in late 1983. (William Mataga now lives as Cathryn Mataga. I refer to her by her previous name and gender in this article only to avoid historical anachronisms.) Hales and Mataga believed that Infocom had “old technology,” and Synapse could do better. Wolosenko didn’t take much convincing. Showing his usual enthusiasm, he laid out an ambitious if not entirely cogent manifesto for Synapse’s engine, which would be the work largely of Mataga.

The problem with these adventure games thus far, even the more interactive ones, is that you have the feeling of being in a corral. You go this way and someone says, “You can’t go that way.” If I say, “Toss something,” and it says, “I don’t understand that word,” when it just used that word in a description it drives me up the wall. It totally stops the experience for me. We’re going to have to work with some of those obstructions until we can solve some of the problems: not processing time, just putting the computer’s power to better use.

The most intricate puzzle is not a Rubik’s Cube, it’s a person. And it’s a character that changes. When you read bad fiction, the character comes in, he interacts with a lot of people, and he goes out exactly the way he came in. When you read a Tolstoy novel, the character is totally different at the end of the novel than when he came in at the beginning. And that’s what we’re trying to do. There is no reason why you have to be the same person during a game either. You could have a changeling-type game, where you’re a person at one point, you’re a dog at another, a bat at another.

Mataga dubbed his system BTZ — “Better than Zork” — to keep the end goal inescapable for everyone. Crucially, the vision was for pure text from the outset. Whereas rivals like Telarium sought to one-up Infocom by adding graphics and sound and even occasional action games to the mix to hopefully distract from their less than Infocom-quality parsers, prose, and world models, Synapse would go against them head to head, strength against strength. The games themselves Wolosenko first wanted to call “Microworlds” in light of the freedom and sense of realism they would offer. That soon changed, however, when he had his next brain storm: to hire the best outside writers he could find — real writers — to craft the worlds and write the text. His Microworlds thus became Electronic Novels.

There is some evidence that the poet Robert Pinsky was far from Wolosenko’s first choice to craft the first Electronic Novel. In an interview published in the February 1984 issue of Ahoy! magazine, he claimed that, while the contracts were not yet all signed, Synapse hoped to be employing the services of “top, top novelists [emphasis mine].” But Telarium and many others, some with pockets and connections much deeper than Synapse’s, were already trolling these waters. Wolosenko apparently soon decided that, if he couldn’t sign “top” writers in terms of sales and commercial appeal, he could hire the most prestigious, thereby underscoring the literary credibility of Synapse’s line. Somehow he jumped to the inspired choice of targeting not novelists but poets; perhaps he figured that, what with the term “popular poet” having been largely an oxymoron for decades already, they’d be more likely to jump at the chance for any sort of recognition. Surveying the possibilities, he came across the name of Robert Pinsky, who was teaching at UC Berkeley and thus an easy mark logistically. The resume of Pinsky, then about the same age as Wolosenko, was nowhere near as impressive as it is today, but he nevertheless had a burgeoning literary reputation, with two well-received books of poetry already published and a third in the galley stage. (Wolosenko would soon also tap another respected young poet, Jim Paul, for another game in the line.)

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

One day as Pinsky was sitting in his office in Berkeley’s English department having spent the last several hours dealing with some of the more tedious administrative details that come with being a professor, his phone rang. It was Ihor Wolosenko on the line.

He said, “Are you familiar with computer text adventures?”

I said, “No.”

He asked whether I owned a computer.

I said, “No.”

Had I ever heard of Zork?


Would I be interested in writing the text for an interactive computer work?

I said, “Yes, I might be.”

Pinsky drove out to visit Synapse’s offices. Wolosenko introduced him to some of his programmers and also to the concept of text adventures.

I liked it. My romantic idea was that it was like those first guys figuring out what movies were going to be on Long Island — playing with movie cameras. I didn’t see any reason that you couldn’t make a work of art. Art is alternate realities — realities that are in some ways like the reality we experience and in some ways quite unlike it. This was that. And it was clear to me from my small experience of adventures — the description of Zork, the stuff I saw on those monochrome monitors — that this was largely about the quest plot, one of the basic plots of great works. The Gilgamesh epic is a quest for the nature of immortality — or the nature of death, the nature of mortality. “KILL DWARF,” “GET SWORD,” etc., was completely in that line. Indeed, the imagery was very traditional.

It was agreed that Pinsky would come up with five or six ideas for possible games. Then Synapse would decide which one might be the most intriguing and realizable. The one that Pinsky himself considered the “silliest” sent the player on a journey through four minds: an assassinated rock star with a messiah complex, clearly modeled on John Lennon; a bloody dictator inspired by Hitler and Stalin and the rest of the twentieth century’s sad litany; a brilliant scientist reminiscent of Marie Curie; and a poet, a nod to the game’s creator himself. Much to Pinsky’s surprise, this treatment was the one that Wolosenko and company opted for.

One of the loveliest aspects of the Mindwheel project is the genuinely warm, respectful relationship that developed between Pinsky and the young hackers at Synapse, these men who normally inhabited what might as well have been separate planets. Pinsky worked most closely with Steve Hales, who did the actual coding for the game in Mataga’s BTZ language. Hales, who had never voluntarily read a line of verse in his life, slowly discovered through the soft-spoken, thoughtful Pinsky a new respect for the written word and the power of literature: “He changed the way I read and write words forever.” For his part, Pinsky found the youthful can-do spirit at Synapse a relief from the “oppressive” corridors of academia; he was soon “making up excuses” to visit Synapse and “hang out.” Hales endeared himself to Pinsky from his first words: “I’d like to talk to you about your world,” a turn of phrase Pinsky found almost inexpressibly fresh and exciting. He took to using — and often charmingly misusing — the fascinating jargon, a delight to his poet’s soul, that was always flying through the air at Synapse. He accepted what he wryly refers to as his “assignments” from Hales and company with cheerful equanimity: write a “dialog table” for a given character for queries involving a given set of topics; write responses in which each of these fifty verbs is used successfully and unsuccessfully. The terms attached to even the framework of the game took a poetic turn under Pinsky’s influence, with “drivel” coming to mean amusing incidental messages that were essentially random, not germane to the plot or puzzles, and “weather” those that were.

While the experience of actually developing Mindwheel was by everyone’s account an almost entirely positive one, its story is also one of crossed purposes between Pinsky and Wolosenko. Wolosenko clearly wanted to create a work of art that transcended the notion of a mere computer game. Thus the involvement of Pinsky in the first place, as well as the term “Computer Novel” and his plan to package each title in the line inside a hardcover book of at least a hundred pages. (This latter was also, of course, a challenge to Infocom’s superb packaging, yet another reflection of a determination to do “everything that Infocom does, plus one.”) Pinsky, meanwhile, took the project as a chance to let his hair down and maybe reach the sort of popular readership that had inevitably eluded him thus far despite his stellar reputation inside the ivory tower. He was teaching a class about Shakespeare at the time, and thinking a lot about how the Bard had become the greatest writer in the history of the English language not by appealing to the highbrows but by writing popular entertainments for the masses. (Pinsky still remains admirably free of literary snobbery today, listing for example South Park as one of the “tremendous works of our time,” its creators amongst our “leading moralizers.”)

The idea of making the package for Mindwheel into a hardcover book was very much Ihor Wolosenko’s idea. I didn’t like it; I resisted it. I happened to refer to what we were doing as “the game.” To me, that was fresh and exciting. The guys at Synapse who were promoting it wanted to call it an “Electronic Novel,” because from their viewpoint that was fresh and interesting.

I was disappointed that the package would be a book. They wanted me to write the stuff for the book. I declined. It was produced by committee; I wound up sort of editing it. The book was the least interesting part for me. I’ve written books; I’ve published lots of books; I wasn’t particularly excited by the romance of having a book. Ihor’s marketing idea was that this would be somehow “highbrow.” I liked the idea that it was an entertainment, that it was a game. I wanted to get away from the “literary” genre. I wanted to write a really exciting, artistic game.

Pinsky noted in a contemporary interview that he didn’t particularly care if Mindwheel got a writeup in The Partisan Review because his name had already appeared there many times. Wolosenko, of course, would have killed for such a marker of literary status.

The book, which is credited to BTZ project manager Richard Stanford, is a rather labored piece; it’s quite clear that Synapse struggled to come up with material to fill its pages, resorting to leaving dozens of pages entirely blank in the name of an “Adventurer’s Diary” for note taking. Those pages which are filled strain to set up a believable science-fictional reason for the mind-delving you do in the game proper. It seems that the social order on Earth is about to collapse thanks to humankind’s ongoing irresponsibility and the sheer inertia of thousands of years of petty human history. The only hope for salvation rests, for reasons poorly defined at best, in the science of “neuro-electronic matrix research” (the terminological similarity to Wolosenko’s personal interest of neuro-linguistic programming is interesting), which will allow a traveler to visit “four minds of unusual power” whose echoes still persist in the very atmosphere — shades of Carl Jung’s ideas about a collective unconscious. The four minds will eventually lead you to the “Cave Master,” “the mysterious prehistoric, apelike being who apparently invented the lever, the flint blade, cave paintings, and the rhythmical group chant” and who holds the “Wheel of Wisdom” that can save humankind. The winning passage of Mindwheel, after the Wheel has been retrieved, indicates about how seriously Pinsky took this earnest frame.

"This formula," says Virgil through happy tears, "can disable every weapon of mass destruction on the planet! And that is only the first benefit. Your courage and brains have given us a glorious new chance!

"Already, the planet's magnetic field is changed, so that any politician who lies on television will be afflicted with instant, debilitating diarrhea, and immediate, spectacular skin blemishes!"

He beams and detaches your electrodes.

Exalted but a little drained, you wish only to rest a while, and then unwind, maybe by playing some harmless game.

No, Mindwheel is more electronic poem than electronic novel. The world of the four minds is a surrealistic, impressionistic riot of emotional imagery. The premise and that very description raise immediate warning flags to a jaded old IFer like me; the history of amateur interactive fiction is strewn with surrealistic explorations of the inner consciousness, generally from younger writers with a wide streak of overwrought self-indulgence. They’re almost uniformly awful. But — to state the obvious — the authors of these works are (presumably) not future Poet Laureates. Pinsky’s prose is bracing, his imagery consistently surprising and consistently as right as it is bizarre. To play Mindwheel is an overwhelming sensory experience — even as all of its sensations are evoked through pure text.

The Concert

The first mind you enter is that of Bobby Clemons, the rock star.

You stand on an immense stage. In front of you, a crowd roars like thunder. Someone has thrown a rose and a Baby Ruth candy bar onto the stage. High overhead, a huge video screen displays, over and over, the film of Bobby Clemons' assassination. In tight, sequined costumes, a chorus of singers writhes, imitating the gestures of the fatally wounded figure on the screen.

A ramp juts south into the crowd that pleads for you to come forward. A keyboard is on the east part of the stage, while to the west, some thugs seem about to overpower your bodyguard. They have clubs, and you hold only your harmonica; your pockets are empty. While the crowd screams for more, one of the singers beckons you to come offstage by the door northward behind you.

The scene is vaguely hilarious and vaguely disturbing. As you stalk the stage panties are flying, dancers are grinding, bodyguards and thugs are brawling, and the crowd is baying for your love or your blood, or more likely both. It’s rock and roll in all its Dionysian danger and splendor. The other minds are only slightly less crowded and just as evocative: the poet’s full of more wistful imagery of sex and love and life and death; the dictator’s, a barren, ugly place of stunted growth and pathetic posturing; the scientist’s, an immense chess board of cool, classical beauty.

The obvious literary antecedent of the whole endeavor is Dante’s The Divine Comedy, particularly its first part The Inferno. Pinsky makes his homage about as explicit as homages can be by naming the scientist who sends you on your journey into the minds Doctor Virgil, a reference to the Roman poet who served as Dante’s guide to humanity in all its facets. Other more subtle references are sprinkled throughout Mindwheel. More importantly, the feel of the environment is similar. Dante has been a long-term fixation of Pinsky, resulting most notably in the popular translation of The Inferno which he published a decade after Mindwheel, and which has led Nick Montfort to cheekily note Mindwheel as “the first work of interactive fiction to have influenced The Inferno.”

Like The Divine Comedy, Mindwheel manages to be personal as well as epic. Amidst all the other imagery you’ll find within it a brief homage to Pinsky’s early mentor, the iconoclastic poet Yvor Winters, as well as a more extended one to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, those “boys of summer” who are the subject of the best book ever written about baseball. Indeed, the final puzzle of the game is a technically unfair one which requires you to do a bit of outside research into the only Brooklyn team to win the World Series. But go ahead and do the research; it’s good for you, and it’s trivial in the age of the Internet. Pinsky, who grew up in neighboring New Jersey, obviously followed the Brooklyn Bums and loved them dearly, obviously was as heartbroken as the rest of their fans when the team upped and moved to Los Angeles.

But the most personal of all parts of Mindwheel is, as you might expect, your excursion into the mind of the poet. Pinsky has since noted that one of the few sources of occasional tension between him and Hales stemmed from the former’s desire to just keep piling on more crazy world to explore while the latter insisted that there needed to be puzzles, pacing, the structure that would result in a real game with a score of sorts — presented as a summarized list of your achievements rather than a numerical value — and the possibility for victory. (Yes, this would seem to suddenly put Pinsky and Synapse on the opposite sides of the positions they had already staked in the novel/game dialectic. What can I say, other than that few philosophical positions survive contact with practicality.) Still, and for all that they were apparently a somewhat grudging addition on Pinsky’s part, Mindwheel‘s puzzles are mostly pretty good, managing to serve the themes with an emphasis on poetics, dialog, and symbolism rather than a bunch of mechanistic operations. Occasionally they’re more than pretty good, as in the case of the most intricate, rewarding, and personal puzzle of all: the completion of a sonnet using words gathered from the environment around you. The sonnet in question originated with the Renaissance poet Fulke Greville. The lines were, however, too long to fit on the 40-column screens used by many of Synapse’s customers, so Pinsky converted the poem from pentameter to tetrameter. The puzzle is brilliant because it so perfectly connects with the daily labors of the mind you’re exploring. You’re counting beats, looking at the rhyme scheme, seeking that word that fits mechanically and also just, well, fits. Pinsky, who labored always to find ways to make poetry relevant in people’s lives, was delighted when he saw a group of playtesting high-school kids “just trying to figure them [the sonnet and some other poetry-related puzzles] out because they’re having fun and want to do it.”

The Wheel

The central image of the Mindwheel itself is one that also appears in “The Figured Wheel,” a poem Pinsky published almost contemporaneously with the game. It’s another element that has continued to recur in Pinsky’s later work.

Imagine a wheel — a colossal, rotating wheel into which is drawn all of the images of a culture: every experience, every event, every object, every person’s mind and body. This wheel is a vortex which you must try to manipulate and understand.

It involves the idea of striving for control and mastery, and the world being so complicated that every time you strive you’re creating another system that becomes part of this big whirling thing which is everything everybody’s ever known or thought or dreamed up to amuse themselves. Jokes and technologies and mythologies and religions and roads and… just everything.

Such heady concepts aside, the question of what Mindwheel ultimately all means is a fraught one. There’s a telling moment near the end of the game where in order to progress you have to cold-bloodedly sacrifice a certain frog who’s been your loyal companion through most of the game. Trinity, Brian Moriarty’s masterpiece which we’ll be getting to in a future article, has a similar moment which is among its most moving and important, serving as a critique of the whole atomic doctrine of mutually assured destruction and the idea of sacrificing the few for the needs of the many which led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Before you rush to comment, do know that the decision to drop those bombs is one with which I must unhappily agree.) But then Trinity is a work with some very clear messages to impart. In Mindwheel the sacrifice is played almost for laughs; the frog returns in the finale as a happy zombie.

Does this make Mindwheel a lesser work than Trinity? Well, it certainly takes itself less seriously, but we need not condemn it for that. There was a time when poets would compete to do their patrons proud by taking a well-known vignette out of the Bible or mythology and embellishing it over hundreds or thousands of lines of verse, adding layer after layer of pathos and sensuality and imaginative gilding, like a literary version of a guitar-shredding contest; see Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” for spectacular examples of the genre. There’s some of that same spirit to Mindwheel. Pinsky is having fun here. Poetry should be, whatever else it is, fun.

Pinsky was never more delighted by Mindwheel than when it managed to surprise him, which it did more often than you might expect thanks to the rather loosy-goosy and free-association-inclined BTZ parser.

I was playing the game with my fifteen-year-old son, and we got up a tree. There was a lizard at the base of the tree that would repeatedly kill us. I knew that it was random, but we were on a bad run. We also had our friend the frog with us in the tree. So we gave the disk to the frog and said, “Frog, go down and kill the lizard.” By God, he did it. And the message appeared that the lizard died spewing blood and pus. The creators of the game didn’t know what was going to happen.

One of his favorite anecdotes is that of the beautiful lady to which a friend typed, “You look like my mother.” “I will look the way you want me to” was her alleged reply. (Unfortunately, the published version of the game yields the far less satisfying “Okay, I’ll look.” The problem with a parser like Synapse’s is that it might deliver something unexpected and brilliant from time to time in response to some unusual input, but nine times out of ten it just delivers gibberish or takes your command as meaning something that you really, really didn’t want to do.)

The period of Mindwheel‘s development was a happy and fulfilling one for Pinsky, but a difficult one for Synapse. In addition to the Electronic Novel line, the company had just launched another bold new initiative: to develop a line of business applications — SynFile, SynCalc, and SynTrend — to be marketed and distributed by Atari themselves. In July of 1984, however, Jack Tramiel bought Atari (a story we’ll be getting to in detail in a future article), and promptly told Synapse that he didn’t want their applications and didn’t intend to pay for them. Synapse, who had invested heavily in the work, became just the latest of a long line of Tramiel suppliers to be double-crossed and financially destroyed by the old business warrior. Meanwhile the rest of the Atari 8-bit market, still Synapse’s bread and butter, was in increasingly dire straits, being pummeled by the Commodore 64. Flying high barely six months before, Synapse suddenly faced bankruptcy before they could release a single one of the Electronic Novels that they hoped would stake out for them a new place in the industry. A savior appeared in the form of Brøderbund, who agreed to buy Synapse and take them under their wing in October. The Carlstons knew and liked Wolosenko and the rest of the Synapse folks, and wanted their expertise in action-game programming as well as the promising Electronic Novel line; it was still the era of bookware, after all, with Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the talk of the industry.


The release date for Mindwheel slipped a bit amidst all the chaos, from the planned late 1984 to February of 1985. It generated the last big wave of the already dying bookware storm, with some images that can seem as surreal today as anything in the game proper: Pinsky blinking amidst the strobe lights at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show; Pinsky waxing philosophical in those noted literary magazines Compute!’s Gazette and A.N.A.L.O.G. (“The #1 Magazine for Atari Computer Owners!”). It’s questionable, though, to what degree the press buzz translated into sales, although Mindwheel undoubtedly became by far the best selling of the Electronic Novel line as a whole — not, alas, a high bar to clear.

I’ve long since made my peace with the fact that traditional parser-driven interactive fiction is, due to various irresistible forces, just an intriguing blip in the histories of literature and/or gaming (take your pick) that will quite likely die entirely with my generation. In general, I think that’s fine; Shakespeare is still as beautiful and relevant as ever despite the fact that modern theater has as little in common with the Elizabethan stage as does textual interactive fiction with a modern graphical game. Certainly elaborate counter-factuals, whether in life or in history, are seldom all that productive. Yet it’s hard not to feel just a little bit wistful reading those old interviews with Pinsky where he throws out ideas of what he’d like to try in his next game whenever someone “asks me to do another of these”; wistful for that world, widely accepted as inevitable for a brief instant in the mid-1980s, when major writers — good writers — would be routinely asked whether their next work would be interactive or non-interactive.

Ah, well, at least we have Mindwheel. The Apple II version I’m providing for download here is probably your best bet, being very playable and also quite easy to get up and running in any number of slick Apple II emulators like AppleWin; be sure to answer “yes” to 80 columns and to turn on faster disk-drive emulation. It’s worth the effort. (Edit: Steve Hales has now made a web page that hosts Mindwheel for play online in a browser. You unfortunately can’t save, but this is by far the easiest way to get a taste of the experience.) Whatever the reasons for Mindwheel‘s academic reputation today, it’s definitely not undeserved.

(This article draws heavily from Jason Scott’s interview with the ever thoughtful and articulate Robert Pinsky for Get Lamp. Magazine sources this time were: A.N.T.I.C. of April 1983, November 1984, and July 1985; Ahoy! of February 1984; Compute!’s Gazette of June 1985; Analog of December 1985; QuestBusters of March 1985. There’s an interesting discussion of Mindwheel in Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages and also in an article Pinsky himself wrote for the Autumn 1987 New England Review. Finally, Steve Hales’s brief recollections of working with Pinsky can be found in two places online.)


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