Essex and Brimstone

17 Mar

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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11 Responses to Essex and Brimstone

  1. matt w

    March 20, 2014 at 3:09 am

    Since this post isn’t getting any love, I just wanted to say thanks for the pointer to two games I’d never heard of.

    I wonder if there’s any point to trying to play Brimstone and pretend it doesn’t have an endgame?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 20, 2014 at 11:25 am

      I’d say yes. It’s really not very hard at all to progress to the last stage of the game. It’s just that you realize once you get there that you’re missing things you need to actually win. So, just play until you come to the part with the giant orchids and the River Styx, then call it a day. The prose is often quite good, and the environment interesting enough to be worth it.

      • matt w

        March 21, 2014 at 11:22 am

        I’ll put it on my list, then!

        And I realized my first comment might sound a bit flip — it was a very interesting post and I’m grateful for more than just the pointer.

  2. David Boddie

    March 20, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    You need to include typos to give us obsessive types something to correct. ;-)

    Is there an indication why the starship in the first game is called the Essex? Was there an historical precedent for it – a ship, perhaps?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 20, 2014 at 1:24 pm

      Nothing that I can immediately recall from the game or the manual. My guess would be that it’s another very roundabout (and possibly unconscious) Star Trek call-out. The famed World War II aircraft carrier Enterprise had more than a little influence on the original show’s choice of that name for the starring ship. (I remember as a kid my love for Star Trek led me to the World War II vessel, which in turn led me to read The Big E by Edward Stafford — a great book.) The Essex was the first of a long line of carriers that were built slightly later in the war.

      That’s all I got, anyway…

    • Jason Kankiewicz

      January 16, 2017 at 4:48 pm

      “You need to include typos to give us obsessive types something to correct. ;-)”

      He did but I noticed them first. ;-)

  3. ZUrlocker

    March 21, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Even though I was not familiar with these particular games, I found it a great story.

  4. Rob

    March 26, 2014 at 3:34 am

    Fantastic story! I stumbled upon this while looking for more information about Brimstone, the last of the Synapse/Broderbund games missing from my Atari 800 collection.

  5. Jason Kankiewicz

    January 16, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    Should “fresh “trilithum crystals”” be “fresh “trilithium crystals”” or should “and “trilithium crystals”” be “and “trilithum crystals””?
    There’s an extra “to” in “prone to to non sequiturs”.
    The phrase “he experience within” should be “he experiences within”.
    The phrase “might comes off” should be “might come off”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 17, 2017 at 8:46 am


  6. Beth

    May 22, 2022 at 11:19 pm

    I believe Bill Darrah has passed away and his notes and developer copies of all the games he worked on for Atari and Synapse are going up for auction on Youtube and Ebay. The guy who runs Locker Nuts just purchased 6 storage lockers full of his work and collections at the family’s estate sale. He didn’t mention Darrah by name but he read enough of the guys resume online that I surmised that must be who it was. It’s going to be a treasure trove for folks into this kind of vintage stuff and history. Just look for Locker Nuts on Youtube.


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