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Monthly Archives: April 2019

An Unlikely Savior

Activision Blizzard is the largest game publisher in the Western world today, generating a staggering $7.5 billion in revenue every year. Along with the only slightly smaller behemoth Electronic Arts and a few Japanese competitors, Activision for all intents and purposes is the face of gaming as a mainstream, mass-media phenomenon. Even as the gaming intelligentsia looks askance at Activision for their unshakeable fixation on sequels and tried-and-true formulas, the general public just can’t seem to get enough Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush Saga. Likewise, Bobby Kotick, who has sat in the CEO’s chair at Activision for over a quarter of a century now, is as hated by gamers of a certain progressive sensibility as he is loved by the investment community.

But Activision’s story could have — perhaps by all rights should have — gone very differently. When Kotick became CEO, the company was a shambling wreck that hadn’t been consistently profitable in almost a decade. Mismanagement combined with bad luck had driven it to the ragged edge of oblivion. What to a large degree saved Activision and made the world safe for World of Warcraft was, of all things, a defunct maker of text adventures which longtime readers of this ongoing history have gotten to know quite well. The fact that Infocom, the red-headed stepchild a previous Activision CEO had never wanted, is directly responsible for Activision’s continuing existence today is one of the strangest aspects of both companies’ stories.



The reinvention of Activision engineered by Bobby Kotick in the early 1990s was actually the company’s third in less than a decade.

Activision 1.0 was founded in 1979 by four former Atari programmers known as the “Fantastic Four,” along with a former music-industry executive named Jim Levy. Their founding tenets were that Atari VCS owners deserved better games than the console’s parent was currently giving them, and that Atari VCS game programmers deserved more recognition and more money than were currently forthcoming from the same source. They parlayed that philosophy into one of the most remarkable success stories of the first great videogame boom; their game Pitfall! alone sold more than 4 million copies in 1982. It would, alas, be a long, long time before Activision would enjoy success like that again.

Following the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, Levy tried to remake Activision into a publisher of home-computer games with a certain high-concept, artsy air. But, while the ambitions of releases like Little Computer People, Alter Ego, and Portal still make them interesting case studies today, Activision 2.0 generated few outright hits. Six months after Levy had acquired Infocom, the preeminent maker of artsy computer games, in mid-1986, he was forced out by his board.

Levy’s replacement was a corporate lawyer named Bruce Davis. He nixed the artsy fare, doubled down on licensed titles, and tried to establish Activision 3.0 as a maker of mass-market general-purpose computer software as well as games. Eighteen months into his tenure, he changed the company’s name to Mediagenic to reflect this new identity. But the new products were, like the new name, mostly bland in a soulless corporate way that, in the opinion of many, reflected Davis’s own personality all too accurately. By decade’s end, Mediagenic was regarded as an important player within their industry at least as much for their distributional clout, a legacy of their early days of Atari VCS success, as for the games and software they published under their own imprint. A good chunk of the industry used Mediagenic’s network to distribute their wares as members of the company’s affiliated-labels program.

Then the loss of a major lawsuit, combined with a slow accretion of questionable decisions from Davis, led to a complete implosion in 1990. The piggy bank provided by Activision 1.0’s success had finally run dry, and most observers assumed that was that for Mediagenic — or Activision, or whatever they preferred to call themselves today.

But over the course of 1991, a fast-talking wiz kid named Bobby Kotick seized control of the mortally wounded mastodon and put it through the ringer of bankruptcy. What emerged by the end of that year was so transformed as to raise the philosophical question of whether it ought to be considered the same entity at all. The new company employed just 10 percent as many people as the old (25 rather than 250) and was headquartered in a different region entirely (Los Angeles rather than Silicon Valley). It even had a new name — or, rather, an old one. Perhaps the smartest move Kotick ever made was to reclaim the company’s old appellation of “Activision,” still redolent for many of the nostalgia-rich first golden age of videogames, in lieu of the universally mocked corporatese of “Mediagenic.” Activision 4.0, the name reversion seemed to say, wouldn’t be afraid of their heritage in the way that versions 2.0 and 3.0 had been. Nor would they be shy about labeling themselves a maker of games, full stop; Mediagenic’s lines of “personal-productivity” software and the like were among the first things Kotick trashed.

Kotick was still considerably short of his thirtieth birthday when he took on the role of Activision’s supreme leader, but he felt like he’d been waiting for this opportunity forever. He’d spent much of the previous decade sniffing around at the margins of the industry, looking for a way to become a mover and shaker of note. (In 1987, for instance, at the tender age of 24, he’d made a serious attempt to scrape together a pool of investors to buy the computer company Commodore.) Now, at last, he had his chance to be a difference maker.

It was indeed a grand chance, but it was also an extremely tenuous one. He had been able to save Activision — save it for the time being, that is — only by mortgaging some 95 percent of it to its numerous creditors. These creditors-cum-investors were empowered to pull the plug at any time; Kotick himself maintained his position as CEO only by their grace. He needed product to stop the bleeding and add some black to the sea of red ink that was Activision’s books, thereby to show the creditors that their forbearance toward this tottering company with a snot-nosed greenhorn at the head hadn’t been a mistake. But where was said product to come from? Activision was starved for cash even as the typical game-development budget in the industry around them was increasing almost exponentially year over year. And it wasn’t as if third-party developers were lining up to work with them; they’d stiffed half the industry in the process of going through bankruptcy.

To get the product spigot flowing again, Kotick found a partner to join him in the executive suite. Peter Doctorow had spent the last six years or so with Accolade (a company ironically founded by two ex-Activision developers in 1984, in a fashion amusingly similar to the way that restless Atari programmers had begotton Activision). In the role of product-development guru, Doctorow had done much to create and maintain Accolade’s reputation as a maker of attractive and accessible games with natural commercial appeal. Activision, on the other hand, hadn’t enjoyed a comparable reputation since the heyday of the Atari VCS. Jumping ship from the successful Accolade to an Activision on life support would have struck most as a fool’s leap, but Kotick could be very persuasive. He managed to tempt Doctorow away with the title of president and the promise of an opportunity to build something entirely new from the ground up.

Of course, building materials for the new thing could and should still be scrounged from the ruins of Mediagenic whenever possible. After arriving at Activision, Doctorow thus made his first priority an inventory of what he already had to work with in the form of technology and intellectual property. On the whole, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Activision had never been particularly good at spawning the surefire franchises that gaming executives love. There were no Leisure Suit Larrys or Lord Britishes lurking in their archives — much less any Super Marios. Pitfall!, the most famous and successful title of all from the Atari VCS halcyon days, might be a candidate for revival, but its simple platforming charms were at odds with where computer gaming was and where it seemed to be going in the early 1990s; the talk in the industry was all about multimedia, live-action video, interactive movies, and story, story, story. Pitfall! would have been a more natural fit on the consoles, but Kotick and Doctorow weren’t sure they had the resources to compete as of yet in those hyper-competitive, expensive-to-enter walled gardens. Their first beachhead, they decided, ought to be on computers.

In that context, there were all those old Infocom games… was there some commercial potential there? Certainly Zork still had more name recognition than any property in the Activision stable other than Pitfall!.

Ironically, the question of a potential Infocom revival would have been moot if Bruce Davis had gotten his way. He had never wanted Infocom, having advised his predecessor Jim Levy strongly against acquiring them when he was still a mere paid consultant. When Infocom delivered a long string of poor-selling games over the course of 1987 and 1988, he felt vindicated, and justified in ordering their offices closed permanently in the spring of 1989.

Even after that seemingly final insult, Davis continued to make clear his lack of respect for Infocom. During the mad scramble for cash preceding the ultimate collapse of Mediagenic, he called several people in the industry, including Ken Williams at Sierra and Bob Bates at the newly founded Legend Entertainment, to see if they would be interested in buying the whole Infocom legacy outright — including games, copyrights, trademarks, source code, and the whole stack of development tools. He dropped his asking price as low as $25,000 without finding a taker; the multimedia-obsessed Williams had never had much interest in text adventures, and Bates was trying to get Legend off the ground and simply didn’t have the money to spare.

When a Mediagenic producer named Kelly Zmak learned what Davis was doing, he told him he was crazy. Zmak said that he believed there was still far more than $25,000 worth of value in the Infocom properties, in the form of nostalgia if nothing else. He believed there would be a market for a compilation of Infocom games, which were now available only as pricey out-of-print collectibles. Davis was skeptical — the appeal of Infocom’s games had always been lost on him — but told Zmak that, if he could put such a thing together for no more than $10,000, they might as well give it a try. Any port in a storm, as they say.

As it happened, Mediagenic’s downfall was complete before Zmak could get his proposed compilation into stores. But he was one of the few who got to keep his job with the resurrected company, and he made it clear to his new managers that he still believed there was real money to be made from the Infocom legacy. Kotick and Doctorow agreed to let him finish up his interrupted project.

And so one of the first products from the new Activision 4.0 became a collection of old games from the eras of Activision 3.0, 2.0, and even 1.0. It was known as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, and first entered shops very early in 1992.

Activision’s stewardship of the legacy that had been bequeathed to them was about as respectful as one could hope for under the circumstances. The compilation included 20 of the 35 canonical Infocom games. The selection felt a little random; while most of the really big, iconic titles — like all of the Zork games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Enchanter trilogy, and Planetfall — were included, the 100,000-plus-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Wishbringer were oddly absent. The feelies that had been such an important part of the Infocom experience were reduced to badly photocopied facsimiles lumped together in a thick, cheaply printed black-and-white manual — if, that is, they made the package at all. The compilers’ choices of which feelies ought to be included were as hit-and-miss as their selection of games, and in at least one case — that of Moonmist — the loss of an essential feelie rendered a game unwinnable without recourse to outside resources. Hardcore Infocom fans had good reason to bemoan this ugly mockery of the original games’ lovingly crafted packaging. “Where is the soul?” asked one of them in print, speaking for them all.

But any real or perceived lack of soul didn’t stop people from buying the thing. In fact, people bought it in greater numbers than even Kelly Zmak had dared to predict. At least 100,000 copies of The Lost Treasures of Infocom were sold — numbers better than any individual Infocom game had managed since 1986 — at a typical street price of about $60. With a response like that, Activision wasted no time in releasing most of the remaining games as The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, to sales that were almost as good. Along with Legend Entertainment’s final few illustrated text adventures, Lost Treasures I and II mark the last gasps of interactive fiction as a force in mainstream commercial American computer gaming.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom — the only shovelware compilation ever to spark a full-on artistic movement.

Yet these two early examples of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous practice of the shovelware compilation constitute a form of beginning as well as ending.  By collecting the vast majority of the Infocom legacy in one place, they cemented the idea of an established Infocom canon of Great Works, providing all those who would seek to make or play text adventures in the future with an easily accessible shared heritage from which to draw. For the Renaissance of amateur interactive fiction that would take firm hold by the mid-1990s, the Lost Treasures would become a sort of equivalent to what The Complete Works of William Shakespeare means to English literature. Had such heretofore obscure but groundbreaking Infocom releases as, say, Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It and Plundered Hearts not been collected in this manner, it’s doubtful whether they ever could have become as influential as they would eventually prove. Certainly a considerable percentage of the figures who would go on to make the Interactive Fiction Renaissance a reality completed their Infocom collection or even discovered the company’s rich legacy for the first time thanks to the Lost Treasures compilations.

Brian Eno once famously said that, while only about 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album, every one of them who did went out and started a band. A similar bit of hyperbole might be applied to the 100,000-and-change who bought Lost Treasures. These compilations did much to change perceptions of Infocom, from a mere interesting relic of an earlier era of gaming into something timeless and, well, canonical — a rich literary tradition that deserved to be maintained and further developed. It’s fair to ask whether the entire vibrant ecosystem of interactive fiction that remains with us today, in the form of such entities as the annual IF Comp and the Inform programming language, would ever have come to exist absent the Lost Treasures. Their importance to everything that would follow in interactive fiction is so pronounced that anecdotes involving them will doubtless continue to surface again and again as we observe the birth of a new community built around the love of text and parsers in future articles on this site.

For Activision, on the other hand, the Lost Treasures compilations made a much more immediate and practical difference. What with their development costs of close to zero and their no-frills packaging that hadn’t cost all that much more to put together, every copy sold was as close to pure profit as a game could possibly get. They made an immediate difference to Activision’s financial picture, giving them some desperately needed breathing room to think about next steps.

Observing the success of the compilations, Peter Doctorow was inclined to return to the Infocom well again. In fact, he had for some time now been eyeing Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Infocom’s last genuine hit, with interest. In the time since it had sold 130,000 copies in 1986, similarly risque adventure games had become a profitable niche market: Sierra’s Leisure Larry series, Legend’s Spellcasting series, and Accolade’s Les Manley series had all done more or less well. There ought to be a space, Doctorow reasoned, for a sequel to the game which had started the trend by demonstrating that, in games as just about everywhere else, Sex Sells. Hewing to this timeless maxim, he had made a point of holding the first Leather Goddesses out of the Lost Treasures compilations in favor of giving it its own re-release as a standalone $10 budget title — the only one of the old Infocom games to be accorded this honor.

Doctorow had a tool which he very much wanted to use in the service of a new adventure game. Whilst casting through the odds and ends of technology left over from the Mediagenic days, he had come upon something known as the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, the work of a small internal team of developers headed by one William Volk. MADE had been designed to facilitate immersive multimedia environments under MS-DOS that were much like the Apple Macintosh’s widely lauded HyperCard environment. In fact, Mediagenic had used it just before the wheels had come off to publish a colorized MS-DOS port of The Manhole, Rand and Robyn Miller’s unique HyperCard-based “fantasy exploration for children of all ages.” Volk and most of his people were among the survivors from the old times still around at the new Activision, and the combination of the MADE engine with Leather Goddesses struck Doctorow as a commercially potent one. He thus signed Steve Meretzky, designer of the original game, to write a sequel to this second most popular game he had ever worked on. (The most popular of all, of course, had been Hitchhiker’s, which was off limits thanks to the complications of licensing.)

But from the beginning, the project was beset by cognitive dissonance, alongside extreme pressure, born of Activision’s precarious finances, to just get the game done as quickly as possible. Activision’s management had decided that adventure games in the multimedia age ought to be capable of appealing to a far wider, less stereotypically eggheaded audience than the games of yore, and therefore issued firm instructions to Meretzky and the rest of the development team to include only the simplest of puzzles. Yet this prioritization of simplicity above all else rather belied the new game’s status as a sequel to an Infocom game which, in addition to its lurid content, had featured arguably the best set of interlocking puzzles Meretzky had ever come up with. The first Leather Goddesses had been a veritable master class in classic adventure-game design. The second would be… something else.

Which isn’t to say that the sequel didn’t incorporate some original ideas of its own; they were just orthogonal to those that had made the original so great. Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X really wanted to a be a CD-based title, but a critical mass of CD-ROM-equipped computers just wasn’t quite there yet at the time it was made. So, when it shipped in May of 1992 it filled 17 (!) floppy disks, using the space mostly for, as Activision’s advertisements proudly trumpeted in somewhat mangled diction, “more than an hour of amazing digital sound track!” Because a fair number of MS-DOS computer owners still didn’t have sound cards at this point, and because a fair proportion of those that did had older models of same that weren’t up to the task of delivering digitized audio as opposed to synthesized sounds and music, Activision also included a “LifeSize Sound Enhancer” in every box — a little gadget with a basic digital-to-analog circuit and a speaker inside it, which could be plugged into the printer port to make the game talk. This addition pushed the price up into the $60 range, making the game a tough sell for the bare few hours of content it offered — particularly if you already had a decent sound card and thus didn’t even need the hardware gadget you were being forced to pay for. Indeed, thanks to those 17 floppy disks, Leather Goddesses 2 would come perilously close to taking most gamers longer to install than it would to actually play.

That said, brevity was among the least of the game’s sins: Leather Goddesses 2 truly was a comprehensive creative disaster. The fact that this entire game was built from an overly literal interpretation of a tossed-off joke at the end of its predecessor says it all really. Meretzky’s designs had been getting lazier for years by the time this one arrived, but this game, his first to rely solely on a point-and-click interface, marked a new low for him. Not only were the brilliant puzzles that used to do at least as much as his humor to make his games special entirely absent, but so was all of the subversive edge to his writing. To be fair, Activision’s determination to make the game as accessible as possible — read, trivially easy — may have largely accounted for the former lack. Meretzky chafed at watching much of the puzzle design — if this game’s rudimentary interactivity can even be described using those words — get put together without him in Activision’s offices, a continent away from his Boston home. The careless writing, however, is harder to makes excuses for.

In the tradition of the first Leather Goddesses, the sequel lets you choose to play as a man or a woman — or, this time, as an alien of indeterminate sex.

Still, this game is obviously designed for the proverbial male gaze. The real question is, why were all these attempts to be sexy in games so painfully, despressingly unsexy? Has anyone ever gotten really turned on by a picture like this one?

Earlier Meretzky games had known they were stupid, and that smart sense of self-awareness blinking through between the stupid had been their saving grace when they wandered into questionable, even borderline offensive territory. This one, on the other hand, was as introspective as one of the bimbos who lived within it. Was this really the same designer who just seven years before had so unabashedly aimed for Meaning in the most literary sense with A Mind Forever Voyaging? During his time at Infocom, Meretzky had been the Man of 1000 Ideas, who could rattle off densely packed pages full of games he wanted to make when given the least bit of encouragement. And yet by this point in 1992, he had made basically the same game four times in a row, with diminishing returns every time out. Just how far did he think he could ride scantily clad babes and broad innuendo? The shtick was wearing thin.

The women in many games of this ilk appear to be assembled from spare parts that don’t quite fit together properly.

Here, though, that would seem to literally be the case. These two girls have the exact same breasts.

In his perceptive review of Leather Goddesses 2 for Computer Gaming World magazine, Chris Lombardi pointed out how far Meretzky had fallen, how cheap and exploitative the game felt — and not even cheap and exploitative in a good way, for those who really were looking for titillation above all else.

The treatment of sex in LGOP2 seems so gratuitous, and adolescent, and (to use a friend’s favorite adjective for pop music) insipid. The game’s “explicit” visual content is all very tame (no more explicit than a beer commercial, really) and, for the most part, involves rather medicore images of women in tight shirts, garters, or leather, most with impossibly protruding nipples. It’s the stuff of a Wally Cleaver daydream, which is appropriate to the game’s context, I suppose.

It appears quite innocuous at first, yet as I played along I began to sense an underlying attitude running through it all that can best be seen in the use of a whorehouse in the game. When one approaches this whorehouse, one is served a menu of a dozen or so names to choose from. Choosing a name takes players to a harlot’s room and affords them a “look at the goods.” Though loosely integrated into the storyline, it is all too apparent that it is merely an excuse for a slideshow of more rather average drawings of women.

You have to wonder what Activision was thinking. Do they imagine adults are turned on or, at minimum, entertained by this stuff? If they do, then I think they’ve misunderstood their market. And that must be the case, for the only other possibility is to suggest that their real target market is actually, and more insidiously, a younger, larger slice of the computer-game demographic pie.

On the whole, Lombardi was kinder to the game than I would have been, but his review nevertheless raised the ire of Peter Doctorow, who wrote in to the magazine with an ad hominem response: “It seems clear to me that you must be among those who long for the good old days, when films were black and white, comic books were a dime, and you could get an American-made gas guzzler with a distinct personality, meticulously designed taillights, and a grill reminiscent of a gargantuan grin. Sadly, the merry band that was Infocom can no longer be supported with text adventures.”

It seldom profits a creator to attempt to rebut a reviewer’s opinion, as Doctorow ought to have been experienced enough to know. His graceless accusation of Ludditism, which didn’t even address the real concerns Lombardi stated in his review, is perhaps actually a response to a vocal minority of the Infocom hardcore who were guaranteed to give Activision grief for any attempt to drag a beloved legacy into the multimedia age. Even more so, though, it was a sign of the extreme financial duress under which Activision still labored. Computer Gaming World was widely accepted as the American journal of record for the hobby in question, and their opinions could make or break a game’s commercial prospects. The lukewarm review doubtless contributed to Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2‘s failure to sell anywhere near as many copies as the Lost Treasures compilations — and at a time when Activision couldn’t afford to be releasing flops.

So, for more reasons than one, Leather Goddesses 2 would go down in history as an embarrassing blot on the CV of everyone involved. Sex, it seemed, didn’t always sell after all — not when it was done this poorly.

One might have thought that the failure of Leather Goddesses 2 would convince Activision not to attempt any further Infocom revivals. Yet once the smoke cleared even the defensive Doctorow could recognize that its execution had been, to say the least, lacking. And there still remained the counterexample of the Lost Treasures compilations, which were continuing to sell briskly. Activision thus decided to try again — this time with a far more concerted, better-funded effort that would exploit the most famous Infocom brand of all. Zork itself was about to make a splashy return to center stage.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1992, July 1992, and October 1992; Questbusters of February 1992 and August 1992; Compute! of November 1987; Amazing Computing of April 1992; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; .info of April 1992. Online sources include Roger J. Long’s review of the first Lost Treasures compilation. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk and Bob Bates for sharing their memories and impressions with me in personal interviews.)

 
 

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Posted by on April 12, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

Interplay Takes on Trek

Original-series Star Trek is the only version I’ve ever been able to bring myself to care about. Yet this Star Trek I once cared about a great deal.

Doubtless like many of you of a similar age, I grew up with this 1960s incarnation of the show — the incarnation which its creator Gene Roddenberry so famously pitched to the CBS television network as Wagon Train to the Stars, the one which during my childhood was the only Star Trek extant. Three or four Saturdays per year, a local UHF television station would run a Star Trek marathon, featuring nine or ten episodes back to back, interspersed with interviews and other behind-the-scenes segments. Strange as it now sounds even to me in this era when vintage media far more obscure than Star Trek is instantly accessible at any time, these marathons were major events in my young life. I particularly loved the give and take on the bridge of the starship Enterprise during episodes such as “Balance of Terror,” which were heavily inspired by the naval battles of World War II. Upon realizing this, I became quite the little war monger for a while there, devouring every book and movie I could find on the subject. Even after it had slowly dawned on me that in the final reckoning the death and suffering brought on by war far outweigh any courage or glory it might engender, the fascination with history which had been thus awakened never died.

I loved the Star Trek movies of the 1980s as well. Young though I was, I recognized the poignancy inherent in watching the now middle-aged cast cram their increasingly substantial frames back into the confines of their Starfleet uniforms every couple of years. Yes, this made effortless fodder for the late-night comedians, but there was also a wry wisdom to these movies that one doesn’t usually find in such blockbuster fare, as the actors’ aging off-screen selves merged with their onscreen personas in a way we don’t often see in mainstream mass media. Think, for example, of the scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where McCoy comes to visit Kirk and present him with his first pair of reading glasses. Decades before I fully understood what that moment — not to mention an expanding middle-aged waistline! — means in real life, I could sense the gravitas of the scene. I credit this side of Star Trek with showing me that there is as much drama and interest in ordinary life as there is in fantastic adventures in outer space. It primed me for the evening I begrudgingly opened Ethan Frome for my English class, and proceeded to devour it over the course of the next several rapt, tear-streaked hours. My English teacher was right, I realized; books without any spaceships or dragons in them really could be pretty darn great. Some years later, I took my bachelor degree in literature.

It must have been about the time I was discovering Ethan Frome that Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted on television. Like most of my peers, I was hugely excited by the prospect, and tuned in eagerly to the first episode. Yet I was disappointed by what I saw. The new incarnation of the Enterprise seemed cold and antiseptic in comparison to the old ship’s trusty physicality. Nor did I care for the new crew, who struck me as equally bland and bloodless. Being smart enough even at this tender age to recognize that fictional personalities, like real ones, need time to ripen and deepen, I gave the show another chance — repeatedly, over the course of years. But it continued to do nothing for me. Instead of Wagon Train to the Stars, this version struck me as Bureaucrats in Space.

All of this, I’ll freely admit, may have more to do with the fact that The Next Generation came along after I had passed science fiction’s golden age of twelve than anything else. Nevertheless, it does much to explain why I’m the perfect audience for our subject of today: the two Star Trek adventure games which Interplay made in the early 1990s. Throwbacks to the distant past of the franchise even when they were brand new, they continue to stand out from the pack today for their retro sensibilities. Fortunately, these are sensibilities which I unabashedly share.



Star Trek hadn’t been well-served by commercial computer games prior to the 1990s. Corporate nepotism had placed its digital-game rights in the slightly clueless hands of the book publisher Simon & Schuster, which was owned, like the show’s parent studio Paramount Pictures, by the media conglomerate known as Gulf and Western. The result had been a series of games that occasionally flirted with mediocrity but more typically fell short of even that standard. Even as each new Star Trek film topped the box-office charts, and even after Star Trek: The Next Generation became the most successful first-run series in the history of syndicated television, Simon & Schuster’s games somehow managed not to become hits. At decade’s end, Paramount granted the rights to a game based on the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier to the dedicated computer-game publisher Mindscape, but the end product proved little better than what had come before in terms of quality or commercial success. Still, the switch to Mindscape did show that an inkling of awareness of the money all these half-assed Star Trek games were leaving on the table was dawning at last upon Paramount.

As the new decade began, the silver anniversary of the original series’s first broadcast on September 8, 1966, was beginning to loom large. Paramount decided to celebrate the occasion with something of a media blitz, anchored by a two-hour television special that would air in 1991 as close as possible to the show’s exact 25th anniversary. For the first time on this occasion, Paramount decided to make digital games into a concerted part of their media strategy rather than an afterthought. They signed a contract with the Japanese company Konami to make a game, entitled simply Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the heart of the videogame mass market, and for the Nintendo Gameboy, the hot new handheld videogame system. Rather than the Next Generation crew or even the original Enterprise crew in their most recent, most rotund incarnations, these games were to wind the clock all the way back to those heady early days of 1966, when Captain Kirk was still happy to appear on camera with his shirt off.

That deal still left a space for an anniversary title in the computer-game market. Said market was, it was true, much smaller than the one for Nintendo games, but it was notable for its older, more well-heeled buyers willing to pay more money for more ambitious games. Yet computer-game publishers proved more reluctant to sign on for the project than the broad popularity of the Star Trek brand in general might lead one to believe.

It didn’t require the benefit of hindsight to see that the Star Trek franchise, although it was indeed more popular than ever before, was going through a period of transition in 1990. The Next Generation had been on the air for three seasons now and was heading into a fourth; it was thus about to exceed the on-air longevity of the series that had inspired it. Meanwhile the cast of that older series were bowing to the realities of age at last; it had been announced that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, due for release in late 1991, was to be the last feature film in which they would star. A time when the Next Generation crew would become the default face of Star Trek, the original crew creaky anachronisms, was no longer impossible to imagine.

Given this passing of the torch that seemed to be in progress, most computer-game publishers were skeptical of Paramount’s plans for games featuring the original Enterprise and its crew in their youngest incarnations. They felt that this version of Star Trek was already all but dead in commercial terms, what with the success of all of the franchise’s more recent productions.

Brian Fargo of Interplay Entertainment was among the few who didn’t agree with this point of view. He pitched a computer game to Paramount that would share a name with Konami’s efforts, but would otherwise be a completely separate experience. Aided by his natural charm and the relative disinterest of most of Interplay’s competitors, he made the deal.

Disinterested competitors or no, it was quite a coup for his company, nowhere close to the largest or most prominent in its industry, to secure a license to make Star Trek games — especially given that the deal was made just months after Interplay had acquired the rights to another holy totem of nerd culture, The Lord of the Rings. While the Tolkien games would prove rather a disappointment, the Star Trek license would work out better all the way around.

Interplay signed an open-ended contract with Paramount which allowed them to make Star Trek games all the way until the year 2000, with some significant restrictions: they would be subject to the studio’s veto power over any and all of their aspects, and they could be set only in the time of Captain Kirk and company’s first five-year mission. With these restrictions in mind, Interplay set out to make a game that would be slavishly faithful to the original television series’s format. Instead of a single epic adventure, the game would consist of eight independent “episodes,” each roughly equivalent in plot complexity and geographic scope to those that had aired on television back in the day.

The structure of each episode would be the same: the Enterprise would be called upon by Starfleet to handle some new crisis at the episode’s beginning, whereupon the player would have to warp to the correct star system and engage in some action-oriented space combat, before beaming down to the real heart of the problem and sorting it all out in the guise of an adventure game. Interplay noted that the episodic format could make for a refreshing change from the norm in adventure games, being amenable to a more casual approach. Each episode would be designed to be completable in an evening; after finishing one of them, you could start on the episode that followed the next day, the next week, or the next month, without having to worry about all of the plot and puzzle threads you left dangling last time you played. From Fargo’s perspective, the episodic structure also had the advantage that each part of the game could be designed without much reference to or dependence on any of the others; this made things vastly easier from the standpoint of project management.

Fargo turned to a familiar source for the episodes’ scripts: Michael Stackpole, a member of the Arizona Flying Buffalo fraternity who had played a leading role on Interplay’s Wasteland CRPG and contributed to such other titles as Neuromancer. Stackpole had been busying himself recently with writing tie-in novels set in the universe of the BattleTech tabletop-game franchise. He thus thought that he knew what to expect from working with a licensed property, but he was unprepared for the degree of micromanagement that a bureaucratic giant like Paramount, stewarding one of the most valuable media properties of the age, was willing to engage in. He submitted scripts for fifteen episodes for a game that was anticipated to contain only eight, assuming that should surely cover all his bases; Interplay and Paramount could decide between themselves which eight they actually wanted to include.

To everyone’s shock, Paramount outright rejected all but a handful of them weeks later, usually for the most persnickety of reasons. Interplay’s frustration was still evident in a preview of the game published much later in Computer Gaming World magazine, which noted that “the film studio decided against plot elements derived from episodes which were already part of the Star Trek legend.” With Stackpole having returned to writing his novels, Fargo brought in Elizabeth Danforth, another Flying Buffalo alumnus who had worked with Interplay before, to write more episodes and shepherd them through the labyrinthine approval process.

All of this was happening during one of the most chaotic periods in Interplay’s history. Their distributor Mediagenic had just collapsed, defaulting on hundreds of thousands of dollars they had owed to Interplay and destroying the company’s precious pipeline to retail. The Lord of the Rings game, which was supposed to have been their savior, missed the Christmas 1990 buying season and, when it did finally ship early the following year, met with lukewarm reviews and disappointing sales. Only the strategy game Castles, an out-of-left-field hit from a third-party developer, kept them alive.

Amidst it all, the team making Star Trek: 25th Anniversary kept plugging away — but, inevitably, the game fell behind schedule. September of 1991 arrived, bringing with it the big television special and the Nintendo Entertainment System game, but Interplay’s own tie-in product remained far from complete. It didn’t ship until March of 1992, by which time all of the anniversary hoopla was in the past. Interplay’s game had all the trappings of an anticlimax; it really should have been known as Star Trek: 26th Anniversary, noted more than one commentator pointedly. For those inside the company, the story of the game was taking on some worrisome parallels to that of their Lord of the Rings title: a seeming surefire hit of a high-profile licensed game that arrived late and wound up underwhelming everyone.

They needn’t have worried. Star Trek: 25th Anniversary was a much more polished, more fully realized evocation of its source material than The Lord of the Rings had been, and it came at one of the Star Trek franchise’s high-water marks in popularity. Star Trek VI, which had hit theaters just three months before Interplay’s game, had become everything one could have hoped for from the original crew’s valedictory lap, garnering generally stellar reviews and impressive box-office receipts. Meanwhile The Next Generation was now in its fifth season on television and more popular than ever. The only shadow over proceedings was the death of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, on October 24, 1991. Yet even that event was more help than hindrance to the Interplay game’s commercial prospects, in that it created an appetite among wistful fans to look back to the franchise’s beginnings.

Interplay dedicated Star Trek: 25th Anniversary to Gene Roddenberry.

Indeed, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary thrived in this febrile atmosphere of contemporary success tinged with nostalgia. It became the biggest Interplay hit since Battle Chess, selling over 250,000 copies in all and doing much to set the company’s feet back on firm financial ground after the chaos of the previous couple of years.



The game continues to stand up fairly well today, with a few caveats. Undoubtedly its least satisfying aspect is the space-combat sequence that must be endured at the beginning of each episode. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is one of the few places where the game isn’t faithful to the spirit of Star Trek.

Science fiction’s two most successful media franchises take very different approaches to battles in outer space: while Star Trek portrays its combatants as lumbering naval vessels, jockeying for position in a slow-paced tactical game of cat and mouse, Star Wars looks to the skies of World War II for inspiration, opting for frenetic dog fights in space. But 25th Anniversary goes all-in for Star Wars instead of Star Trek in this respect; the Enterprise turns into Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter, dodging and weaving and spinning on a dime in response to the joystick. The reason for the switch can be summed up in two words: Wing Commander. Origin Systems’s cinematic action game of outer-space dog-fighting was taking the market by storm as Interplay was starting work on their own science-fiction game, and the company wanted to capitalize on their rival’s success. They described their game as “Sierra meets Wing Commander” at early trade-show presentations, and even made it possible to engage in randomized fights just for fun by visiting star systems other than those to which you’ve been directed, just in case the fighting you get to do in the episodes proper isn’t enough for you.

That was quite the stretch; the combat in 25th Anniversary really isn’t much fun as anything more than an occasional palate cleanser, and it’s hard to imagine anyone voluntarily deciding to look for more of it. Not only does this part of the game clash with its faithfulness to Star Trek in just about every other respect, but it doesn’t work even on its own terms. The controls are awkward, it’s hard to understand where your enemies are in relation to you, and it’s simply too hard — a point I’ll be returning to later. For now, suffice to say that Star Trek: 25th Anniversary ain’t no Wing Commander.

The worst part by far of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary.

Thankfully, the rest of the game — the “Sierra” in Interplay’s pithy formulation — is both more engaging and more faithful to the Star Trek of old. When you leave the Enterprise‘s bridge, the game turns into a point-and-click graphic adventure, marking the first time Interplay had dabbled in the format since Tass Times in Tonetown back in 1986. You control Kirk directly, but Spock, McCoy, and some poor expendable redshirt also come along, ready to offer their advice and use their special talents when needed — or, in the case of the redshirt, to take one for the team, dying so that none of the regulars have to do so.

The interface can be a little confusing at first; it’s not always clear when you should be “using” Spock or McCoy themselves on something and when you should be using their tricorders. But you start to get a feel for things after just a few minutes, and soon the interface fades into the background of what could stand on its own as a solid little graphic adventure — or, rather, eight solid little mini-adventures. Some of the puzzles can get a bit fiddly, but there are no outrageously unfair ones. The episodic nature of the game does much to make it manageable by limiting the possibility space you need to explore in order to solve any given puzzle; most of the episodes play out over just half a dozen or so locations.

Still, what elevates a fairly workmanlike adventure game to something far more memorable is the Star Trek connection. This is clearly a game made by and for fans of the source material. If you count yourself among them, you almost can’t help but be delighted. The writers do a great job of evoking the characters we know and love; McCoy lays into Spock like the old racist country doctor he is, Spock plays such a perfect straight man that one can’t help but suspect that he’s laughing up his sleeve behind his facade of “logic,” and Kirk still loves to egg them both on and enjoy the fireworks.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary apes the look of its source material down to the title card that opens each episode.

The interactive episodes are true to the rhythms of their non-interactive antecedents; each one begins with a title card superimposed over a stately Enterprise soaring toward its latest adventure, and ends with some humorous banter on the bridge and a final command from Kirk of “Warp factor 4!” to send it on its way to the next. Even the visuals, presented in slightly pixelated low-res VGA, conjure up the low-rent sets of the show; more photo-realistic graphics, one suspects, would only ruin the effect. For the music, George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett, whose work was everywhere during this period — they scored Wing Commander and Ultima Underworld as well, among many others — mix the familiar Star Trek theme with their own period-perfect motifs. The only things missing from their score in comparison to that of the original show are those oh-so-sixties orchestral stabs at dramatic moments. (There does come a point, Sanger and Govett must have decided, when nostalgia descends into outright cheese.)

It’s true that the episodes work more on the level of pastiche than that of earnest attempts at storytelling — another reason that enjoying this game probably does require you be a fan of vintage Star Trek. Most of the scripts read like a Mad Libs take on the original series, mixing and matching its most familiar tropes. The crew has to shut down another misguided computer (a la “A Taste of Armageddon”), engage in some gunboat diplomacy with the Romulans (“The Enterprise Incident”), and negotiate an earthly religious mythos transplanted to another planet (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”). Harry Mudd, the intergalactic con man whose antics featured in two episodes of the original series, makes a third appearance here. Even Carol Marcus, scientist and Kirk paramour, shows up to foreshadow the major role she’ll later play in the movie Star Trek II.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary in its graphic-adventure mode. The gang’s all here, including the poor terrified red shirt hiding behind a pillar.

If none of the interactive episodes can challenge the likes of “The City on the Edge of Forever” for the crown of Best of Trek, they’re certainly far less embarrassing than most of what the series produced during its painfully bad third season. They encompass the full tonal palette of the show, from screwball comedy to philosophical profundity. The graphic-adventure format does force a shift in emphasis away from dialog and action to more cerebral activities — the Kirk on television never had to slow down to solve set-piece logic puzzles like some of the ones we see here — but that shift is entirely understandable.

Unfortunately, all of the good will the game engenders is undermined to a considerable extent by one resoundingly terrible design decision — a decision that’s ironically built upon a foundation of very good design choices. Each episode permits multiple solutions to most of the problems it places before you; this is, of course, a good thing. At the end of each episode, assuming you don’t get yourself killed, you receive an evaluation from Starfleet Command in the form of a percentile grade. You’re rewarded with a better grade if you’ve managed to keep the poor redshirt who beamed down with you alive — this game’s writers show far more compassion for the expendable crew members than the original series’s writers ever did! — and if you’ve accomplished things with a minimum of violence — i.e., if you’ve kept your metaphorical and sometimes literal phasers on “stun” rather than “kill.” All of this too is a good thing, seeming evidence of a progressive design sensibility that’s become ubiquitous today, when countless games let you finish each scenario with a bronze, silver, or gold star, allowing you to be exactly as completionist and perfectionist as you choose to be.

But now the bad part comes in. The final grades you receive on the episodes affect the performance of your crew during the remaining space-combat sequences, which themselves become steadily more difficult as you progress through the game. In fact, the final battle is so hard that you virtually have to have scored 100 percent on all of the preceding episodes to even have a chance in it. It turns out that the seeming easygoing attitude of the game, encouraging you to do better but letting you slide if you just want to move on through the episodes, has been a colossal lie, an ugly trap to get you 90 percent of the way to the finish line and then stop you cold. This is like a caricature of awful, retrograde game design — something even Sierra at their absolute nadir would have thought twice about. Either tell the player at the end of the episode that she just hasn’t done well enough and make her do it again, or honor your promise to let her continue with a less than stellar score. Don’t lie to her about it and then cackle about how you got her in the end.

Pro tip: this is not good enough to get you through the game.

Not only is this design decision terrible on its own terms, but it clashes with all of the implications of Interplay’s own characterization of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary as a more casual sort of adventure game than the norm, one that will let you play through a satisfying episode in a single relaxing evening. Interplay heard about this cognitive dissonance from their fans — heard so much about it that they begrudgingly issued an optional patch that let players skip past the combat sequences altogether by triggering a hot key. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it was better than nothing.

This discordant note aside, the worst complaint you could make about Star Trek: 25th Anniversary in 1992 is one that doesn’t apply anymore today: that it was just a bit short in light of its $40 street price. And yet, worthy effort though Interplay’s first Star Trek game is on the whole, they would comprehensively top it with their second.



Given 25th Anniversary‘s commercial success and the open-ended license Interplay had acquired from Paramount, a sequel was rather inevitable. There wasn’t much point in making bold changes to a formula that had worked so well. Indeed, when they made the sequel they elected to change nothing whatsoever on the surface, retaining the same engine, the same episodic structure, and even the same little-loved combat sequences. Yet when we peer beneath the surface we see the product of a development team willing to learn from their mistakes. As sometimes happens in game development, the fact that the necessary enabling technology was already in place in the form of an existing engine allowed design in the abstract to come even more to the fore in the sequel. The end result is a game that, while hardly a transformative leap over its predecessor, is less frustrating, more narratively ambitious, and even more fun to play.

Although Star Trek: Judgment Rites continues with the episodic structure of its predecessor, it adapts it to a format more typical of television shows of the 1990s than those of the 1960s. An overarching “season-long” story arc is woven through the otherwise discrete episodes, to come to a head in a big finale episode. This gives the game a feeling of unity that its predecessor lacks.

Even more welcome, however, is a new willingness within the individual episodes to move beyond pastiche and into some narratively intriguing spaces of their own. Virtually all of Judgment Rites‘s episodes, written this time by the in-house Interplay employees Scott Bennie and Mark O’Green in addition to the returning contractors Michael Stackpole and Elizabeth Danforth, mix things up rather than stick with the unbending 25th Anniversary formula of a space combat followed by Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a semi-anonymous redshirt beaming down somewhere. Combat this time around is neither as frequent nor as predictably placed in the episodes, and the teams that beam down now vary considerably; Scotty, Uhura, and Sulu all get at least one chance of their own to come along and use their special talents.

My favorite episode in Judgment Rites also happens to be the longest and most complex in either of the games. In Bennie’s “No Man’s Land,” a team from the Enterprise beams down to a planet which is being forced to reenact a simulacrum of Earth’s World War I by Trelane, the childish but almost infinitely powerful demigod who was introduced in the original-series episode “The Squire of Gothos.” As his inclusion would indicate, “No Man’s Land” is very aware of Star Trek lore. It’s plainly meant partially as an homage to the original show’s occasional “time-travel” episodes, like “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” “A Piece of the Action,” or “Patterns of Force.” These were beloved by fans for giving the familiar crew the chance to act out a bit in an entirely different milieu. (They were beloved by the show’s perpetually cash-strapped producers for another reason: they let them raid their studio’s stash of stock sets, props, and costumes).

Yet “No Man’s Land” transcends homage to become a surprisingly moving meditation on the tragedy of a pointless war.

Another standout is Stackpole’s “Light and Darkness,” a pointed allegory about the folly of eugenics.

In addition to showing far more confidence in its storytelling, Judgment Rites also addresses the extreme difficulty of the space-combat sequences in its predecessor and the false promise that is letting you continue after completing an episode with a less-than-perfect score. You now have a choice between no combat at all, easy combat, and hard combat. The middle setting is calibrated just about right. Combat at this level, while still a long way from the likes of Wing Commander, becomes an occasional amusing diversion that doesn’t overstay its welcome instead of an infuriating brick wall that kills the rhythm of the game. And, at this level, moving on from any given episode with a score of less than 100 percent is no longer a fool’s gambit.

Although a better game than its predecessor in almost every respect, Judgment Rites couldn’t muster the same sales. It didn’t ship until December of 1993 — i.e., almost two full years after 25th Anniversary — and by that time the engine was beginning to show its age. Nor did it help that Interplay themselves undercut its launch by releasing a “talkie” version of the first game on CD-ROM just a month later.

That said, it’s not hard to understand Interplay’s eagerness to get the talkie version onto the market. In what can only be described as another major coup, Interplay, working through Paramount, brought in the entirety of the original cast to voice their iconic roles. At a time when many CD-ROM-based games were still being voiced by their programmers, it promised to be quite a thrill indeed to listen to the likes of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley in the roles that had made them famous.

The reality was perhaps a little less compelling than the promise. While no one would ever accuse any member of the show’s cast of being a master thespian in the abstract, they had been playing these roles for so long that doing so once more for a computer game ought to have presented little problem on the face of it. Yet they plainly struggled with this unfamiliar medium. Their voice acting runs the gamut from bored to confused, but almost always sounds like exactly what it is: actors in front of microphones reading lines on a page. It seems that none of them knew anything about the stories to which the lines related, which can only be construed as a failure on Interplay’s part — albeit one perhaps precipitated by the sharply limited amount of time during which they had the actors at their disposal. Over the course of a scant few days, the cast was asked to voice all of the dialog not for one but for two complete games; the voices for a CD-ROM version of Judgment Rites were recorded at the same time. And they had to do it all bereft of any dramatic context whatsoever.

Somewhat disapointing though the final result is, these sessions represent a melancholy milestone of their own in Trek history, marking the last time the entire cast to the original show was assembled for a new creative project. As such, the talkie versions of these games are the last gasps of an era.

Personally, though, I prefer the games without voices — not only because of the disappointing voice work but because Interplay chose to implement it in a really annoying way, with Kirk/Shatner saying each choice in every dialog menu before you choose one. Interplay, like most of their peers, was still scrambling to figure out what did and didn’t work in this new age of multimedia computing.

Despite holding a license to the original series for the balance of the decade, Interplay would never release another game set in this era of Star Trek after the talkie version of Judgment Rites shipped in March of 1994. The company did work intermittently on an ambitious 3D action-adventure featuring Kirk and the rest of the classic crew, tentatively entitled Secret of Vulcan Fury, near the end of the decade, but never came close to finishing it. Gamers and Trekkies were moving on, and the newer incarnations of the show were becoming, just as some had predicted they would, the default face of the franchise. Indeed, no Star Trek game since the two Interplay titles discussed in this article has revisited the original show. This fact only makes 25th Anniversary and especially Judgment Rites all the more special today.



That would make for a good conclusion to this article, but we do have one more thing to cover — for no article about Interplay’s takes on classic Trek could be complete without the media meme they spawned.

Like a fair number of other memes, this one involves William Shatner, for more than half a century now one of the odder — and more oddly endearing — characters on the media landscape. Back when he was a struggling young actor trying to make it in Hollywood, it was apparently drilled into him by his agents that he should never, ever turn down paying work of any kind. He has continued to live by this maxim to this day. Shatner will do absolutely anything if you pay him enough: pitch any product, sing-talk his way through fascinatingly terrible albums, “write” a new memoir every couple of years along with some of the worst science-fiction novels in history. He’s the ultimate cultural leveler, seeing no distinction between a featured role in a prestigious legal drama and one in a lowest-common-denominator sitcom based on someone’s Twitter feed.

And yet he manages to stay in the public’s good graces by doing it all with a wink and a nod that lets us know he’s in on the joke; when he goes on a talk show to plug his latest book, he can’t even be bothered to seriously pretend that he actually wrote it. He’s elevated crass commercialism to a sort of postmodern performance art. When the stars align, the kitschy becomes profound, and the terrible becomes wonderful. (“Why is this good?” writes a YouTube commenter in response to his even-better-than-the-original version of “Common People.” “It has no right to be this good.”) For this reason, as well as because he’s really, truly funny — one might say that he’s a far better comedian than he ever was an actor — he gets a pass on everything. At age 88 as of this writing, he remains the hippest octogenarian this side of Willie Nelson.

In keeping with his anything-for-a-buck career philosophy, Shatner is seldom eager to spend much time second-guessing — much less redoing — any of his performances. His reputation among media insiders as a prickly character with a taste for humiliation has long preceded him. It’s especially dangerous for anyone he perceives as below him on the totem pole to dare to correct him, challenge him, or just voice an opinion to him. Like a dog, he can smell insecurity, and, his eagerness to move on to the next gig notwithstanding, he’s taken a malicious delight in tormenting many a young assistant director. Craig Duman, the Interplay sound engineer who was given the task of recording Shatner’s lines for the CD-ROM versions of 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites, can testify to this firsthand.

The problem began when Shatner was voicing the script for the first episode of Judgment Rites. Coming to the line, “Spock, sabotage the system,” he pronounced the word “sabotage” rather, shall we say, idiosyncratically: pronouncing the vowel of the last syllable like “bad” rather than “bod.” A timid-sounding Duman, all too obviously overawed to be in the same room as Captain Kirk, piped up to ask him to say the line again with the correct pronunciation — whereupon Shatner went off. “I don’t say sabotahge! You say sabotahge! I say sabotage!” (You say “potato,” I say “potahto?”) His concluding remark was deliciously divaish: “Please don’t tell me how to act. It sickens me.”


This incident would have remained an in-joke around Interplay’s offices had not an unknown employee from the sound studio they used leaked it to the worst possible person: morning-radio shock jock Howard Stern. Driving to work one morning, Brian Fargo was horrified to hear the outtake being broadcast across the country by this self-proclaimed “King of All Media.” Absent the “it sickens me,” the clip wouldn’t have had much going for it, but with it it was absolutely hilarious; Stern played it over and over again. Fargo was certain he had just witnessed the death of one of Interplay’s most important current projects.

He was lucky; it seems that Shatner wasn’t a regular Howard Stern listener, and didn’t hear about the leak until after both of the talkies had shipped. But the clip, being short enough to encapsulate in a sound file manageable even over a dial-up connection, became one of the most popular memes on the young World Wide Web. It also found a receptive audience within Hollywood, where plenty of people had had similar run-ins with Shatner’s prickly off-camera personality. It finally made its way into the 1999 comedy film Mystery Men, where Ben Stiller parrots, “Please don’t tell me how to act. It sickens me,” on one occasion, and Janeane Garofalo later inserts a pointed, “You say sabotahge! I say sabotage!”

Thank to Howard Stern, Mystery Men, and the mimetic magic of the Internet, this William Shatner outtake has reached a couple of orders of magnitude more people than ever played the game which spawned it; most of those who have engaged with the meme have no idea of its source. If it seems unfair that this of all things should be the most enduring legacy of Interplay’s loving re-creations of the Star Trek of yore, well, such is life in a world of postmodern media. As Shatner himself would attest, just reaching people, no matter how you have to do it, is an achievement of its own. And if you can make them laugh while you’re about it, so much the better.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of December 1991, May 1992, March 1994, and May 1994; Questbusters of April 1992; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of December 9 1991; the special video features included with the Star Trek: Judgment Rites Collector’s Edition. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo and Fargo’s appearance on Angry Centaur Gaming’s International Podcast. Finally, some of this article is drawn from the collection of documents that Brian Fargo donated to the Strong Museum of Play.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites are both available for purchase from GOG.com.)

 

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