Monthly Archives: September 2021
Book publishers, book authors, and booksellers first discovered computer software in 1983. Spurred by the commercial success of early text adventures like Zork and The Hobbit and by the rhetoric surrounding them, which described the new frontier of text-based digital interactive storytelling as the beginning of a whole new era in literature, publishers like Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Random House made significant investments in the field, even as authors from Isaac Asimov to Roger Zelazny signed on for book-to-text-adventure conversions. Meanwhile B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, the two largest bookstore chains in the United States, set aside substantial areas in their stores for software. (Ditto W.H. Smith in Britain.) Those shelves were soon groaning with “computer novels,” “interactive novels,” and “living literature.” Well-known books in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, along with mysteries, thrillers, horror novellas, comic novels… all became computer games. Even the venerable likes of William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen, and Robert Louis Stevenson appeared in shiny new interactive editions. A future American Poet Laureate wrote a text adventure, and Simon & Schuster came within a whisker of buying Infocom, the king of what the latter now preferred to call “interactive fiction” rather than mere text adventures.
This era of “bookware” was as short-lived as it was heady. In 1983, contracts were signed and groundwork was laid; in 1984, bookware products began reaching the public in large numbers; in 1985, with only Infocom’s adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy having lived up to its maker’s commercial expectations, book publishers began nervously formulating their exit strategies; in 1986, the last stragglers reached the market almost unremarked and bookware passed into history. With computer graphics and sound rapidly improving, game makers now set off to hunt the chimera of the interactive movie instead of the interactive book. It seemed that bookware had been nothing more than an exercise in faulty metaphors.
But then, exactly one decade after the beginning of the first bookware boom, it all started up again, as many of the same big names from last time around woke up to the potential of computer software all over again. Instead of parser-driven text adventures, however, they were now entranced by the notion of the CD-ROM-based electronic book: a work of non-fiction or fiction that was designed to be read non-linearly, for which purpose it was strewn with associative hyperlinks, and that incorporated photographs, illustrations, diagrams, sound effects, music, and video clips to augment the text wherever it seemed appropriate. In the face of all these affordances, some believed that the days of the paper-based book must surely be numbered. The big book publishers themselves weren’t so sure, but were terrified of being left behind by something they didn’t quite understand. “Everyone knows this business [of multimedia CD-ROMs] is potentially enormous,” said Alberto Vitale, Random House’s hard-driving CEO. “But what kind of shape it will take, how big it will actually be, and how it will evolve remains a very big question mark.” Laurence Kirshbaum of Warner Books was blunter: “I don’t know if there’s the smell of crisis in the air, but there should be. Publishers should be sleeping badly these days. They have to be prepared to compete with software giants like Bill Gates.”
The book publishers coped with the uncertainty in the way that big companies often do: by throwing their weight and money around in an attempt to bludgeon their way into continued relevance. And none of them did so more energetically than Alberto Vitale’s Random House. In 1993, they signed a high-profile deal with Broderbund Software to produce multimedia versions of Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s books, sending the smaller company’s share price soaring from $3.75 to $41 and sending a sum of money “well into the seven figures” to the late author’s widow. They also invested in Humongous Entertainment, a publisher of children’s edutainment founded by the Lucasfilm Games veteran Ron Gilbert, to create a series of “Junior Encyclopedias.” They formed their own software-distribution arm, under the tech-trendy portmanteau appellation of RandomSoft, to move the products of their partners and friends into bookstores. And, in the summer of 1994, in a deal that represented the most obvious throwback yet to the previous era of bookware, they invested $2.5 million in Legend Entertainment.
The investment didn’t come out of the blue: the two companies had worked together before. In 1991, Legend had sought and acquired a license to make a pair of games based on Random House author Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. That deal had been followed by two more, to make games based on Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Death Gate series. Legend, in other words, had been making bookware games for Random House on their own initiative since before the latter even knew they wanted such things. Now that that realization had dawned, Random House’s investment would serve to bind Legend closer to them and ensure that more of their books could become well-executed games. They already had a first candidate in mind: the bestselling Shannara series of high-fantasy novels.
The Sword of Shannara, the first book in the series, had appeared in 1977, one of the early heralds of a post-Dungeons & Dragons boom in fantasy fiction that would soon cause the fantasy genre to utterly eclipse its traditional sibling genre of science fiction in sales. The author of the 700-plus-page epic was Terry Brooks, a 33-year-old attorney who had spent the last ten years working on it intermittently in his spare time. The very first novel to be published by the new science-fiction and fantasy imprint Del Rey Books, it was a huge success right from the start; it sold 125,000 copies in its first month and became the first fantasy novel to make the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperbacks. But at the same time, it was savaged by even much of the genre-fiction establishment as little more than bad Lord of the Rings fan fiction. The prominent editor and critic Lin Carter, for example, pronounced it “the single most cold-blooded, complete ripoff of another book that I have [ever] read.” From a further remove in time, the J.R.R. Tolkien expert John Lennard can describe it only slightly more kindly today as “the first of a number of overt imitations of The Lord of the Rings that are, however popular, manifestly inferior works, but testify to the taste for [the] high and extended fantasy epic that Tolkien created.”
As Lennard’s recent dismissal of Shannara suggests, the combination of big sales and deep-seated critical antipathy has clung to the series right to the present day, as has Terry Brooks’s status as Public Offender #1 in the rogue’s gallery of Tolkien ripoff artists. Shannara is, the scoffers say, a simulacrum of the surface elements of The Lord of the Rings — warriors and wizards, magical swords and apocalyptic battles — without any of its thematic depth or philosophical resonance, a charge which even Brooks’s fans must find difficult to entirely refute. On the other hand, the same description applies to thousands of other works of fantasy in book, movie, and game form, so why single this one out so particularly? Brooks himself was and is by all indications a decent sort, who loves his work and has few illusions about his place in the literary pantheon. “I don’t have any desire to write the great American novel,” he said in 1986. “Why experiment with something that’s an unknown quantity when I’m comfortable working with fantasy?” He noted forthrightly in 1995 that he wasn’t exactly catering to the most refined literary tastes: “I think you are most intense in your reading habits when you’re in your teenage years. Magic is ‘real,’ your hormones are raging, and you’re more open. When I’m writing, I’m always writing to that group of people.” For all that I may have no personal use for the likes of a Terry Brooks novel at this stage of my life, I and every other critic should keep in mind the wise words of Edmund Wilson before rushing to condemn his books too lustily: “If other persons say they respond, and derive from doing so pleasure or profit, we must take them at their word.”
Brooks himself was not a gamer in 1994, but his twelve-year-old son was: “I enjoy watching him,” he said at the time. He hit it off wonderfully with Bob Bates of Legend at their first meeting, and was excited enough to describe this partnership as the potential beginning of a whole new, trans-media era for the Shannara series: “I like the idea that I will continue to write the books and others will work on projects which surround the timeline, characters, and settings I’ve established.”
It sounded like an excellent plan to everyone involved. But alas, Shannara‘s computer debut would turn into a “troubled” project, the first of that infamous breed of game in Legend’s relatively drama-free history up to that point. It was plagued by communications problems and a mismatched set of expectations on the part of Legend and Corey and Lori Ann Cole, the game’s out-of-house design team. But, having talked at length to both Bob Bates and Corey Cole about what went down, I can confidently say that no one involved is angry or vindictive about any of it today; “sad” would be a more accurate adjective. Everyone involved was genuinely trying to make his or her own vision of Shannara into the best game it could possibly be. And, as we’ll see in due course, the end result actually succeeds pretty darn well in spite of itself.
The Coles first came to work with Legend due to a pressing lack of in-house designers capable of taking on the Shannara project. At the time the Random House deal was consummated, Bob Bates was working on an “ethics training game” for the American Department of Justice, an odd but profitable sideline from Legend’s main business of making adventure games, while Steve Meretzky had recently moved on to start his own software studio. Of the three trainee designers who had made Gateway a few years before — a project consciously conceived as a sort of designer boot camp — Glen Dahlgren was finishing up Death Gate, Mike Verdu was in the planning stages of a non-licensed game called Mission Critical, and Michael Lindner was planning a sequel to the non-Legend game Star Control II. Programmers were in similarly short supply. Legend was a company with more food on its plate than it could eat, which was definitely better than the opposite situation, but a problem nonetheless. They wanted very much to please Terry Brooks and Random House by making a great Shannara game in a timely fashion, but they just didn’t have the bodies to hand to do so. So, they decided to look for outside help.
Bob Bates had met the Coles for the first time before Legend even existed, at a dinner hosted by Computer Gaming World editor Johnny L. Wilson during the late 1980s. He liked them personally, and was pleased for them when the Quest for Glory series which they were creating for Sierra did well. He started to talk seriously with them about doing a game for Legend in early 1994, when their future with Sierra was looking more and more uncertain in light of that company’s push into bigger-budget interactive movies starring real actors. Within weeks of that conversation, the worst happened: Quest for Glory V was cancelled in its early design phase and the Coles were told that their services were no longer required by Sierra.
Thus when Random House strongly suggested that Legend make a Shannara game, it seemed like kismet to everyone concerned. Not only were the Coles highly respected adventure-game designers, but specialists in the fantasy breed of same. Still, the source material initially “gave us pause,” admits Corey.
Both Lori and I had read The Sword of Shannara in college, and we weren’t impressed. We considered it a blatant Lord of the Rings copy. Sad to say, we enjoyed both Raymond E. Feist and David Eddings more than Terry Brooks.
However, we decided to keep our minds open and reread The Sword of Shannara. My revised opinion was that the first one-third of the book was a blatant ripoff, but after that, the book delved into new territory and became its own work. We went on to read The Elfstones of Shannara [the second book in the series] and agreed that it had merit. Our belief is that Brooks started out as a beginning writer thinking the way to make a book as successful as The Lord of the Rings was to essentially write the same book. But as he went along, he developed his own authorial voice and became a much stronger writer.
Terry Brooks gave the Coles his all-important nod of approval after they met with him and showed themselves to be familiar with his work. “There’s the matter of losing control,” he conceded, “but when I talked to these folks and realized how much they cared about the books and the characters, I felt better.” The Coles proposed slotting an original story between the first and second books in the series — for here there was, as Bob Bates puts it, “a generational gap”: “the hero of the second book was the grandson of the hero of the first book.”
The hero of the Coles’ game, then, would be the son of the hero of the first book. The game would take place about ten years after said book’s conclusion, casting the player in the role of Jak Ohmsford, son of Shea. (The Ohmsfords and their fellow residents of the bucolic Shady Vale are the equivalent of Tolkien’s hobbits of the Shire). Jak would learn from the wizard Allanon (Gandalf) that Brona (Sauron) was feeling his oats once again and was up to no good. The quest that followed would take Jak and the party of companions he would acquire across the length and breadth of Brooks’s well-developed if less than breathtakingly original fantasy world, at minimal cost to the continuity of the extant novels.
The Coles were friendly with a fellow named Bob Heitman, who had worked for years at Sierra as one of the company’s best software engineers, until he had left with Sierra’s chief financial officer Edmond Heinbockel and Police Quest designer Jim Walls to form Tsunami Media, a somewhat underwhelming attempt to do what Sierra was already doing. (Tsunami was also another player in the second bookware boom, creating a pair of poorly received games based on Larry Niven’s Ringworld series.) Now, Heitman had cut ties with Tsunami as well and set up his own software house, which he called Triton Interactive. Between them, the Coles and Triton should be able to make the Shannara game using Legend’s technology, with only light supervision from Bob Bates and company — which was good, considering that Legend was located in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chantilly, Virginia, the Coles and Triton three time zones away in rural Oakhurst, California. The project began in earnest in the fall of 1994. All parties agreed that the Shannara computer game would be finished within one year — i.e., in time for the Christmas of 1995 — for a budget of $362,000.
The problems began to crop up on several separate fronts soon after the new year of 1995. Heitman could be abrasive; Corey liked to say that “some people do not suffer fools gladly, but Bob Heitman doesn’t suffer them at all.” Bob Bates, whom Heitman may or may not have considered a fool, was unimpressed with his counterpart’s shoot-from-the-hip way of running his development studio. Following a visit to Oakhurst in February, his assessment of Triton’s performance was not good:
1) No one is really taking charge of project management.
2) The animation requirement is up to 60 man-weeks, and they haven’t been able to hire any artists yet.
3) One background artist we supplied simply isn’t producing.
4) They’re not segmenting text from code, so there’s a big localization problem coming.
5) Internal personality problems are plaguing the team.
Bob Bates was also worried that Triton might use the software technology Legend was sharing with them in other companies’ projects, and almost equally worried that other companies’ code might sneak into Shannara with potential legal repercussions, given the chaos that reigned in their offices.
With tempers flaring, the Coles stepped in to try to calm the waters. They formed their own company, which they called FAR Productions, after Flying Aardvark Ranch, their nickname for their house in Oakhurst. Officially, FAR took over responsibility for the project, but the arrangement was something of a polite fiction in reality: FAR leased office space from Triton and continued to work with largely the same team of people. Nevertheless, the arrangement did serve to paper over the worst of the conflicts.
Meanwhile Bob Bates had other issues with the Coles themselves — issues which had less to do with questions of competence or even personality and more to do with design philosophy. The Coles had enjoyed near-complete freedom to make the Quest for Glory games exactly as they wanted them, and were unused to working from someone else’s brief. They wanted to make their Shannara game an heir to their previous series in the sense of including a smattering of CRPG elements, including a combat engine. Bob Bates, a self-described “adventure-game purist,” saw little need for them, but, perhaps unwisely, never put his foot down to absolutely reject their inclusion. Instead they remained provisionally included — included “for now,” as Bob wrote in February — as the weeks continued to roll by. In July, with the ship date just a few months away, combat was still incomplete and thus untested on even the most superficial level. “This would have been a good time to drop it,” admits Bob, “but we did not.”
While the one source of tension arose from a feature that the Coles dearly wanted and Bob Bates found fairly pointless, the other was to some extent the opposite story. From the very beginning, Bob had wanted the game to include an “emotion-laden scene” near the climax that would force the player to make a truly difficult ethical decision, of the sort with no clear-cut right or wrong answer. The Coles had agreed, but without a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of Lori, the primary writer of the pair. Considering Bob’s cherished ethical dilemma little more than a dubious attempt to be “edgy,” she proved slow to follow through. This caused Bob to nag the Coles incessantly about the subject, until Lori finally wrote a scene in which the player must decide the fate of Shella, the daughter of another character from the first novel and a companion in Jak’s adventures. (We’ll return to the details and impact of that scene shortly.)
But the ironic source of the biggest single schedule killer was, as Corey Cole puts it, having too few constraints rather than too many: “A mentor once told me that the hardest thing [to do] is to come up with an idea, or build something, with no constraints.” Asked by Bob Bates what they might be able to do to make the game even better if they had an extra $50,000 to hand, the Coles, after scratching their heads for a bit, suggested adding some pre-rendered 3D cut scenes. “If I had known then what I found out by the end of the project,” says Corey, “I’d have said, ‘No, thanks, we’ll finish what we started.’ I ended up sleeping at the office, since each render required hand-tweaking and took about four hours.”
Still more problems arose as the months went by. The father of the art director had a heart attack, and his son was forced to cut his working hours in order to care for him. Another artist — the same one who “simply isn’t producing” in the memo extract above — finally confessed to having terminal cancer; he wished to continue working, and no one involved was heartless enough not to honor that request, but his productivity was inevitably affected.
Legend had agreed to handle quality control themselves from the East Coast. But in these days before broadband Internet, testing a game of 500 MB or more from such a distance wasn’t easy. Bob Bates:
All development work had to cease while a CD was being burnt. Then it was Fed-Exed across the country, and then we would boot it. Sometimes it just didn’t work, or if it did work, there would be a fatal bug early in the program. The turnaround cycle on testing was greatly reducing our efficiency. By the time testers reported bugs, the developers believed they had already fixed them. Sometimes this was true, sometimes it wasn’t.
On October 2, 1995, about five weeks before the game absolutely, positively needed to be finished if it was to reach store shelves in time for Christmas, Bob Bates delivered another damning verdict after his latest trip to Oakhurst:
* There is no doc for the rest of the handling in the game. [This cryptic shorthand refers to “object-on-object handling,” a constant bone of contention. Bob perpetually felt like the game wasn’t interactive enough, and didn’t do enough to acknowledge the player’s actions when she tried reasonable but incorrect or unnecessary things. Lori Ann Cole, says Corey, “felt that would distract players from the meaningful interactions; she refused to do that work as a waste of her time, and potentially harmful to her vision of the game.”]
* The final game section is not coded.
* Combat is not done.
* Lots of screen flashes and pops.
* Adventurer’s Journal is not done.
* Too many long sequences of non-interaction.
* Too many places where author’s intent is not clear.
* Map events (major transitions) are not done.
* Combat art is blurred.
* Final music hasn’t arrived from composer.
As Bob saw it, there was only one alternative. He flew Corey Cole and one other Oakhurst-based programmer to Virginia and started them on a “death march” alongside whatever Legend personnel he could spare. Legend was struggling to finish up Mission Critical at the same time, meaning they were suddenly crunching two games simultaneously. “The fall of 1995 was really enjoyable at Legend,” Bob says wryly. “We coded like hell until the thirteenth of November. We hand-flew the master to the duplicators and the game came out Thanksgiving week. Irreparable damage [was done] to the team. We have not worked together since.” The final cost of the game wound up being $528,000.
The scale of Legend’s great Problem Project is commensurable with the company’s size and industry footprint. The development history of Shannara isn’t an epic that stretches on for years and years, like LucasArts’s The Dig; still less is it a tale of over-the-top excess, like Ion Storm’s Daikatana. Shannara didn’t even ship notably late by typical industry standards. Still, everything is relative: as a small company struggling to survive in an industry dominated more and more by a handful of big entities, Legend simply couldn’t afford to let a project drag on for years and years. In their position, every delay represented an existential threat, and outright cancellation of a project into which they’d invested significant money was unthinkable. For those inside Legend, the drama surrounding Shannara was all too real.
But the Shannara story does have an uncommon ending for tales of this stripe: the game that resulted is… not so bad at all, actually. It’s not without its flaws, but it mostly overcomes them to leave a good taste in the mouth when all is said and done. In the interest of being a thorough critic, however, let me be sure to address said flaws, which are exactly the ones you would expect to find after reading about the game’s development.
One might say that Shannara is at its worst when it’s trying to be a Quest for Glory. Lacking the time and resources to make the game into a full-fledged CRPG/adventure hybrid, but determined not to abandon what had become their design trademark, the Coles settled for a half-baked combat engine that’s unmoored from the rest of the game and ultimately, as Bob Bates noted above, rather pointless. With no system of experience points or levels being implemented, you earn nothing from fighting monsters, even as the whole exercise further fails to justify its existence by being any fun in its own right. There are the seeds of some interesting player choices in the combat engine, but they needed much more work to result in something compelling. Legend’s last-minute solution to the problem during that hellish final crunch was to dial the difficulty way, way back, thereby trivializing the combat without eliminating it. Such compromises serve no one well in the end.
In the name of fairness, I should note that Corey Cole offers a different argument for the combat being there at all and taking the form it does — one that I don’t find hugely convincing on the face of it, but to each his own:
The “pointless combat” is very much as planned in the design. It’s an anti-war point that fits closely into the Sword of Shannara zeitgeist, and which we reinforced in the game text: there are no winners in war (or in battle). The enemy forces are vast, and our hopefully realistic characters are not superheroes. Their object is to traverse the map while fighting as little as possible. When they do fight, it is risky and saps the party’s strength. Think of the hobbits vs. the ringwraiths atop Amon Sul (Weathertop). They had no chance. That’s Jak and Shella’s situation against the forces of Brona. The “win condition” is escaping with their lives.
I must confess that I struggle to identify much of an “anti-war point” in a series of books which revels in an endless series of apocalyptic wars, but I’ve only skimmed the surface of Terry Brook’s huge oeuvre. Perhaps I’m missing something.
Bob Bates’s own hobby horse — his big ethical dilemma — doesn’t fare much better in my opinion. Near the end of the game, Jak’s companion Shella is mortally wounded by an evil shifter. (Shifters are Brooks’s version of Tolkien’s ringwraiths). If allowed to expire on her own, her soul will be claimed by Brona. Another of Jak’s companions can heal her using the magical Elfstones he carries, but expending them now will mean he can’t use them for their intended purpose of stopping Brona’s plans for world domination in their tracks. Jak’s only other choice is to kill Shella himself, then perform a Ritual of Release to free her soul; this is what she herself is begging him to do. It certainly sounds like a difficult choice in the abstract. Once again, though, a difference in design priorities resulted in a half-baked compromise in practice. In the finished game, saving Shella with the Elfstones results in a few screens of text followed by a game over — meaning that the ethical choice isn’t really a choice at all for any player who wishes to actually finish the game she paid good money for. The whole comes across as overwrought rather than moving, manipulative rather than earnest.
Yet neither the halfhearted combat nor the half-baked moral choice fills enough of the game to ruin it. Constrained though the Coles may have been from indulging in another of the delightful free-form rambles that their Quest for Glory series was at its best, they remained witty writers well able to deliver an entertaining guided tour through Terry Brooks’s world. And despite all the day-to-day problems on the art front, the final look of the game lives up to Legend’s usual high standards, as does the voice acting and the music by the legendary game composer George “The Fat Man” Sanger. If the puzzles are seldom anything but trivially easy — a conscious design choice for a game that everyone hoped would, as Corey Cole puts it, “attract many Terry Brooks fans who had no previous adventure-game experience” — they give the game a unique and not unwelcome personality: Shannara plays almost like an interactive picture book or visual novel rather than a traditional hardcore adventure game. With so little to impede your progress, you move through the story quickly, but there’s still enough content here to fill several enjoyable evenings.
Upon its release, Shannara approached 100,000 units in sales, enough to turn a solid profit. Although its impact on the market was ultimately less than what Random House and Terry Brooks had perhaps hoped for, its relative success came as a relief by this point to Bob Bates and everyone else at Legend, who had had such cause to question whether the game would ever be finished at all. Reviews, on the other hand, tended to be unkind; hardcore gamers looking for a challenge were all too vocally unimpressed with the game’s simple storybook approach. Computer Gaming World‘s adventure columnist Scorpia went on a rather bizarre rant about the fate of Shella, which she somehow twisted into a misogynistic statement:
I would not have minded had she died gloriously in battle; that is often the fate of heroes and heroines. What happens is: Shella is mortally wounded, but lingering on, and Jake — to save her soul — must kill her on the spot and perform a certain ritual. The only woman in the entire game, and she not only dies, but goes out a helpless lump.
I’ve heard that game designers are wondering how they can get more women playing games; if they keep presenting us with garbage like this, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Far too many products these days have exclusively male heroes doing this, that, and the other; women are either nonexistent or mere adjuncts, at best.
While I agree wholeheartedly with Scorpia’s last sentence in the context of the times, the rest of her outrage seems misplaced, to say the least. Shella is never presented as anything other than strong, smart, and brave in Shannara, and she dies nobly in the end. Any number of other games would have made a more worthy target for Scorpia’s ire.
For my own part, I can happily recommend Shannara to anyone looking for a bit of comfortable, non-taxing fantasy fun. “In hindsight, we’re very proud of the game we made,” says Corey Cole. That pride is justified.
(Sources: the books Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of The Lord of the Rings by John Lennard, Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 by Edmund Wilson, and the post-1991 edition of Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks; Computer Gaming World of November 1994, November 1995, and March 1996; Starlog of June 1986; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994 and January 1995; New York Times of September 11 1993 and May 22 1995; Newsweek of August 13 1995; Los Angeles Times of April 21 1994; Atlantic of September 1994. Most of this article, however, is drawn from an interview with Bob Bates and internal Legend documents shown to me by him, as well as an email correspondence with Corey Cole. My huge thanks go out to both of them for taking the time.
Shannara is not available for purchase today, but you might find the CD image archived somewhere — hint, hint — if you look around. I’ve prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and a BIN/CUE or ISO image of the CD-ROM.)
For all that it was a period with some significant sparks of heat and light, we might reasonably call the time between 1989 and 1994 the Dark Ages of Interactive Fiction. It was only in 1995 that the lights were well and truly turned on again and the Interactive Fiction Renaissance began in earnest. This was the point when a number of percolating trends — the evolving TADS and Inform programming languages, the new generation of Z-Machine interpreters, the serious discussions of design craft taking place on Usenet — bore a sudden and rather shockingly verdant fruit. It became, one might say, Year One of the interactive-fiction community as we know it today.
The year is destined always to be remembered most of all for the very first Interactive Fiction Competition, better known as simply the “IF Comp” to its friends. Its influence on the design direction of what used to be called text adventures would soon become as undeniable as it was unwelcome in the eyes of some ultra-traditionalists: its guidance that entries should be finishable in two hours or so led in the course of things to an interest in depth in place of breadth, in literary and formal experimentation in place of the “gamier” pleasures of point-scoring and map-making.
But the Comp’s influence would take time to make itself known. This first edition of it, organized by an early community pillar named G. Kevin Wilson, was a relatively modest affair, with just twelve entries, six in each of the two categories into which it was divided: one for TADS games, one for Inform games. (This division would fall by the wayside in future Comps.) The entries did prefigure some of the self-referential experimentation to come: Undo by Neil deMause placed you at the very end of a (deliberately) broken, corrupted game and expected you to muddle your way to victory; Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents Detective by C.E. Forman made somewhat mean-spirited, television-inspired fun of a really, really bad game released a few years earlier by a twelve-year-old author; The Magic Toyshop by Gareth Rees took place all in one room, thus becoming the perfect treat for mapping haters. Yet in my opinion none of these games join the ranks of the year’s very best works.
In retrospect, the lineup of games in that first Comp is perhaps most notable for becoming the venue for the first polished work of interactive fiction by Andrew Plotkin; his influence on the future direction of the community, in terms of both aesthetics and technology, would be comparable only to that of Mike Roberts and Graham Nelson among the figures we’ve already met in previous articles. But his A Change in the Weather, a punishingly difficult meta-puzzle of a game which one couldn’t hope to solve without many replays, stands as a fairly minor entry in his impressive oeuvre today, despite winning the Inform category of that first Comp.
So, I’d like to reserve any more discussion of this and subsequent IF Comps for future articles, and focus today on what I consider to be the real standout text adventures of 1995, of which there are a gratifying number. The games below evince no concern whatsoever about keeping their playing time down to a couple of hours. On the contrary: all of the games that follow are big enough that Infocom could conceivably have released them, while at least one or two of them are actually bigger than Infocom’s technology could possibly have allowed. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that works like these are my personal sweet spot for interactive fiction: big, puzzly works which are well-written but which aren’t afraid to be games — albeit games which incorporate the design lessons of those pioneers that came before them. Neo-classical interactive fiction, if you will. (Yes, I’m aware that we’ve jumped from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism with dizzying speed. Such is life when you’re making broad — overly broad? — historical metaphors.) If your preferences are anything like mine, the games that follow will be heaven for you.
In fact, let me close this introduction with something of a personal plea. I’ve noticed a reluctance on the part of many diehard Infocom fans to give what came afterward a fair shake. I do understand that nostalgia is a big part of the reason people read sites like this one and play the games that are featured here, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Although I do try very hard to keep nostalgia out of my own game criticism, I firmly believe that no reason to play a game is ever a wrong one, as long as you’re enjoying yourself. And yet I also believe, and with equal firmness, that the games you’ll find below aren’t just as good as those of Infocom: in a lot of ways, they’re superior. There’s nothing postmodern or pretentious or precious here (all of these being labels I’ve heard applied to other strands of post-Infocom interactive fiction as a reason for not engaging with it), just good clean old-school fun, generally absent the worst old-school annoyances. Please do consider giving one or more of these games a try, if you happen to be a fan of Infocom who hasn’t yet explored what came afterward. Nostalgia is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to make new memories.
You haven't seen your brother Malcolm since he received his fellowship at Biblioll College - pressure of work was his excuse not to come down to London. So when you received that telegram from him you leapt at the excuse to come up to the university town of Christminster for the day and visit him.
It’s all too easy to dismiss Gareth Rees’s “interactive conspiracy” Christminster as a sort of Curses-lite. It shares with Graham Nelson’s epic a droll, very English prose style, an arch sense of humor, and a casual erudition manifested in a love of literary quotations and classical references. Indeed, the connections between the games go deeper still: Graham and Gareth were not only both Oxbridge academics but friends who helped one another out creatively and technically. If you spend enough time poking around in Christminster‘s library, you’ll discover that their games apparently belong to the same universe, when you uncover numerous references to the Meldrew family of Curses fame. But going too far with this line of description is doing Christminster a disservice. It may be smaller than Curses — to be fair, very few games aren’t — but it’s plenty rich in its own right, whilst being vastly more soluble by a reasonably motivated person in a reasonable amount of time.
Christminster takes place in the fictional English university town of the same name, but is obviously drawn to a large extent from the author’s lived experience.For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Dr. Jarboe,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a maths undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.” The time in which it occurs is kept deliberately vague; I vote for the 1950s, but one could almost equally opt for any point within a few decades to either side of that one. You play Christabel, a prim young lady who’s come up to Christminster to visit her brother Malcolm. But she soon discovers that he’s nowhere to be found, and that a shadowy occult enterprise seems to be afoot within his college’s ivy-covered walls. And so the hunt is on to find out what’s become of him and who is responsible.
None of this need be taken overly seriously. The game’s milieu of bumbling, slightly cracked old dons comes straight from the pages of Waugh, Amis, and Wodehouse, while its gloriously contrived central mystery would doubtless have pleased Agatha Christie. Thankfully, Christminster runs on plot time rather than clock time: the story evolves in response to your progress rather than placing you in thrall to some inexorable turn counter, in the way of the polarizing early Infocom mysteries. This leaves plenty of time to poke at every nook and cranny of the musty old campus and to enjoy some ingenious puzzles. In a few places, the design does show its age; the very first puzzle of the game is one of the very hardest, leaving you trapped outside of the college’s walls with nothing to do until you solve it — not exactly the most welcoming opening! But by all means do try to carry on, as the English like to say. If you do, you might just find Christminster to be one of the best cozy mysteries you’ll ever play.
It’s a cold weekend in December of 1990, and it’s been far too long since you have seen your friend John Baker! But you’ve finally managed to take some time out of your schedule to drive to Columbus and spend some “quality time” together. Quality time, of course, means that you and he are going to sample every bar that Ohio State University’s High Street has to offer.
John was to meet you at a favorite pizza and beer spot to start off the evening, but he hasn’t showed up. John’s always been rather spontaneous (read that as ‘erratic’), so you think he’ll show up eventually. But as the night wears on and you tire of downing beers by yourself, you decide to drive to his place and see if he’s left a note or something for you there.
You find his front door unlocked and John nowhere to be found. Pretty tired from your earlier drive, and also buzzing a bit from the beer you drank, you quickly doze off in the living room.
It is now morning. A terrible snow storm is raging outside, the worst you’ve ever seen. You can’t believe how much snow has piled up over the night. You still haven’t heard from John, and you seem to now be trapped in his apartment.
John’s Fire Witch by John Baker is an example of what we used to call “snack-sized interactive fiction” back in the day. Although the shortest game featured in this collection of reviews, it would be considered medium-sized today, with a typical play time in the range of two to five hours — i.e., not much if any shorter than, say, Infocom’s The Witness.
But no self-respecting member of the interactive-fiction literati would dare to release a game that opens like this one today. Waking up in your slovenly friend’s apartment is just one step removed from that ultimate in text-adventure clichés: the game that starts in your — or rather the author’s — bedroom. Make that half a step removed: note that the guy whose apartment you wake up in and the author of this game are the same person. “John, like many IF characters,” wrote David Welbourn in an online play-through of the game, “seems to live in a pigsty and eat nothing but snow.”
So, John’s Fire Witch is willfully unambitious; all it wants to do is entertain you for a few hours. Poking around your vanished friend’s apartment, you discover that he’s gotten himself caught up in a metaphysical struggle between an “ice wizard” and a “fire witch.” It’s up to you to rescue him by completing a number of unlikely tasks, such as collecting a handy grab bag of the seven deadly sins for a certain pitchfork-wielding character who dwells in the Down Below. (Luckily, good old John tends to partake in just about all of them on a regular basis, so his apartment makes a pretty good hunting ground.)
For two and a half decades now, critics like me have been intermittently trying to explain why John’s Fire Witch succeeds in being so appealing almost in spite of itself. Its prose treads that fine line between breezy and tossed-off, its thematic aspirations are non-existent, its puzzles are enjoyable but never breathtaking. In the end, maybe it just comes down to being good company. Its author’s personality comes through in droves, and you can’t help but like him. Beyond that… well, if it it never does anything all that amazingly great, it never does anything all that egregiously wrong either.
The real John Baker disappeared without a trace after making this modest little game — good luck Googling that name! — leaving it behind as his only interactive-fiction legacy. He tells us that he’d like his players to send him $6, for lunch: “My favorite lunch is a soup & sandwich combo at a restaurant on Sawmill Road.” I for one would be happy to pay. Just drop me a line, John.
A cool wind whips across the peak you stand on, sending tiny dust-devils whirling about your feet. The stars above you seem especially bright tonight, their silver light reaching across generations to speak to you. It is midnight, the hour of magic. The moon is not in sight tonight. All is still. All is waiting.
Perhaps it was a mistake to come and camp out here on this night. Not something you could have predicted in advance, of course, but still ... perhaps it was a little foolish. All Hallows’ Eve is not the most auspicious of nights. Still, you packed your bags up, tossed them next to the one-man tent in your trunk, and drove out here to spend a few days and get your life sorted out.
You were awakened in the middle of the night by something. You weren’t quite sure what, but you could tell something was wrong when you woke up. The desert was too quiet, too dark ... too eager. Like a sleep walker, you stumbled to the cliff nearby. You stood for a minute, catching your breath, and looked around. Behind you, at the other end of the shaky dirt trail, your car and tent wait patiently for your return. In other directions, you have a wide-open view of the desert, and can see it stretches in all directions, until it touches the feet of the mountains. The missing moon, curiously, does not concern you, nor does the fact that you can see as well now as if it were there.
You absentmindedly take another step forwards. If possible, the night becomes even more quiet, and the stars even brighter. Another step, and then another. You stand silently at the very edge of the cliff, looking outwards.
Then the ground gives way. “I’ve gone too far,” you think, almost casually. Not even screaming, you fall from the edge of the cliff.
There is a sudden sense of a presence around you as you fall. When you are rescued in mid-air, the event seems almost natural – bluesilver wings surround you, feathers caress you, and merciful darkness embraces you.
You awaken, and find yourself in a grassy field. The sun is shining brightly overhead, and a brook babbles gently as it flows along. A small tree grows in the center of the field, its branches ripe with apples.
If John Fire’s Witch is the My Stupid Apartment sub-genre of interactive fiction elevated to a weirdly sublime pitch, then Dan Shiovitz’s Lethe Flow Phoenix does the same for another hackneyed perennial of the post-commercial era: the Deeply Meaningful Exploration of the Subconscious. One always seems to find one or two games of this stripe, generally the products of younger scribes whose earnestness is almost painfully palpable, sloshing about in the lower rungs of any given IF Comp. Alas, their attempts to reveal inner truths through surrealistic imagery tend to come off as more banal than profound — rather like reading the diary of that angst-ridden fifteen-year-old so many of us used to be.
Dan Shiovitz was himself a fairly young man when he wrote Lethe Flow Phoenix, a game whose labored Latinate title doesn’t appear to bode well. Yet it turns out to be far better than one would ever dare to hope. Shiovitz has a knack for devising and describing beautifully twisted landscapes, through which he then proceeds to thread a series of deviously satisfying puzzles. At times, this game almost plays like a textual version of Myst, with much the same atmosphere of stately desolation and the same style of otherworldly but oddly logical dilemmas to overcome.
And then, around the halfway point, Lethe Flow Phoenix turns into something else entirely. Shiovitz provides an explanation for his protagonist’s personal problems, and it’s not at all what you might expect. I hesitate to say too much more here, but will go so far as to reveal that aliens from outer space — as opposed to just alienated humans — suddenly come into the picture. Again, this development should be disastrous, but somehow it works. The game manages to maintain your interest right up to its happy ending.
Dan Shovitz went on to write several other text adventures after this one, perhaps most notably Bad Machine, an exploration of the frontiers of language sufficient to set any postmodern linguistic theorist’s heart aflutter. But even that experimental masterstroke shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow this early piece of work. Yes, the author of Lethe Flow Phoenix is clearly a young man, but this particular young man is also an observant, talented writer. His protagonist’s final redemption is genuinely moving, the journey to that point satisfying on several levels. Lethe Flow Phoenix pairs heart with craftsmanship, and the results are pretty great.
A strangeness has fallen. You first became aware of it with the darkening of the skies: the majestic, threatening storm clouds that seemed on the verge of deluging the earth in a torrent, yet hung motionless, impatient, as though awaiting further instructions from some unseen and malignant higher power. Of course Holcroft had on many occasions disproved to you the existence of such higher beings with his charts and calculations, and you do not believe in such foolishness as ghosts, gods and goblins, but events such as those unfolding before you now are causing you to question all that you have learned.
First the clouds, then the sudden silence of the birdsong, and the people. Where were the people? The village was deserted as you passed through. Not a soul to be seen. You knew you had to alert Barclay and Holcroft that something was terribly wrong with the balance of things, but before you had reached even the main gate an impenetrable mist had rolled in from below the cliffs and obscured the path to the lighthouse.
You decided to wait in the drum shed until the mist had lifted, rather than risk life and limb on the cliff walk, but you were weary from your journey and fell into a deep sleep. When you awoke it was near nightfall. The mist had barely dissipated, but your task was too important, so you took your chances on the cliff walk regardless. It was so dark. Why hadn’t Barclay or Holcroft lit the beacon? In the two years since beginning your apprenticeship you had never known the Regulators to neglect their duties. On the contrary, you found them to be slavishly by the book. “Routine begets knowledge,” Barclay once told you. (He had obviously never cleaned the septic tank every month for two straight years).
When, at last, you reached the courtyard entrance, something even stranger happened. You began to feel suddenly and inexplicably weak, as though the very life were being drawn from your bones. You had eaten well on the train journey from the Commission’s headquarters in the capital city, and passed your last physical with glowing colors, yet you felt as though you were at death’s door.
You had to see Holcroft. He, perhaps, could explain....
Colm McCarthy’s The Light: Shelby’s Addendum is another game that’s better than its ambiguously pretentious name. You play the eponymous Shelby, a junior — very junior — apprentice in a lonely lighthouse that provides more than just illumination: its beam maintains a delicate balance between our reality and other, alternate planes of existence. The hows and wherefores of its functioning are never explained all that well; ditto just when and where this story is supposed to be taking place. (We’re definitely on the Earth, probably in the near future, but is this our Earth or an alternate Earth?) In the end, the vagueness matters not a whit. A more thorough explanation would only interfere with the game’s atmosphere of mysterious Lovecraftian dread. You can almost smell the fetid seaside air as you play.
As the game opens, you’re returning to your post from a much-deserved holiday, only to find the lighthouse and even the village near it devoid of their usual inhabitants. Worse, the beacon itself has gone haywire, and the multiverse is slipping out of harmony as a result, producing unsettling effects all around you. Exploring the environs, you turn up evidence of the all-too-human disputes that gave rise to this slow-moving cosmic disaster. It looks like you are the only one who can correct the fault in our stars.
A big, lavish game, carefully written and implemented in most ways, The Light does from time to time trade in its polished personality for a more ramshackle old-school feel. If you don’t solve a pivotal puzzle within the first 100 turns — and you almost certainly won’t the first time through — it’s game over, thanks for playing. And there’s a mid-game submarine ride where the atmosphere suddenly changes from Lovecraftian dread to a scene straight out of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Like most reviewers, I can only shake my head at this bit’s existence and wonder what the heck McCarthy was thinking.
Still, such breakdowns are very much the exception to the rule here. I’m nonplussed by some reviewers’ struggles with the puzzles; I solved the entire game without a hint, a feat which I’m happy to consider a testament to good design rather than any genius on my part. I’m kind of bummed that the sequel Colm McCarthy promises us in his denouement has never materialized. I’d love to know whether poor Shelby finally got a promotion after saving the multiverse and all.
Another day, another dollar! Life is good at the moment, the property market is booming. Still, it does have its down side; when showing those Mulluer Corporation executives around that old theatre dump, err, opportunity you must have left your pager down in the basement. Better hurry, you have to meet the others at the opera in an hour, and be careful. It wouldn’t do to show up with your clothes all dirty.
Brendon Wyber’s “interactive night of horror” Theatre does us the favor of including its inspiration right in the game itself. As Wyber writes in his introduction, he made Theatre after reading an allegedly true haunted-house story by Joel Furr, one of the early Internet’s more prominent online characters, whose claims to fame include popularizing the term “spam.” Furr’s story, which is readable in its entirety via an in-game menu, is riveting whether you choose to go on to play said game itself or not. It involves the Lyric Theatre of Blacksburg, Virginia, a rambling old place stemming from 1930 that has been restored and is enjoying a new lease on life today, but was at its lowest ebb when Furr made its acquaintance in the early 1990s. As a Kiwi, Wyber had never been to the Lyric, yet that didn’t stop him from using Furr’s description of it as the basis for the setting if not the plot of his game.
You play a yuppie real-estate agent who rushes back inside the old theater he’s trying to unload to retrieve his forgotten pager — this is the 1990s, after all! — only to emerge again to find his car stolen. Rather than venturing out into the seedy neighborhood around the theater on foot, you opt to spend the night inside. Let the haunting begin…
Our frustrations with the medium understandably cause us to spend a lot of time talking about the things that textual interactive fiction, and adventure games in general for that matter, struggle to do well. For better or for worse, we tend to spend less time on the medium’s natural strengths. I’ll just note here, then, that setting must top any list of same. All of the games I’ve featured in this piece make this point, but none do it better than this one. Its name is no misnomer: the theater truly is this game’s main attraction. Its geography expands slowly and organically as you solve puzzles to open up new areas; there’s always some new cranny or crawlspace to uncover in the building, always some new aspect of its sinister history to bring to light. And it’s a fresh spine-shivering delight every time you do.
Before you become a full-fledged participant in the proceedings, you learn about the horror story at the center of it all through the journal pages you discover as you worm your way deeper and deeper into the theater’s bowels, deeper and deeper into its past. I must say that I like the first two-thirds of the game best, when it has a Gothic flavor in complete harmony with Joel Furr’s story. In time, however, it goes full Lovecraft, and not even in the relatively understated way of The Light. Still, one can’t accuse Wyber of pulling any punches; the big climax is as exciting as you could ask for.
Through it all, the real star remains the theater itself, whose faded elegance and delicious decay will remain with you long after you’ve exorcised the malevolent spirits that roam its spaces. You might want to save this one for Halloween.
New Year's Eve, 1999, a quarter to midnight and where else to be but Century Park! Fireworks cascade across the sky, your stomach rumbles uneasily, music and lasers howl across the parkland... Not exactly your ideal party (especially as that rather attractive stranger in black has slipped back into the crowds) - but cheer up, you won't live to see the next.
As the follow-up to his two-year-old Curses, Graham Nelson’s “interactive history” Jigsaw was the most hotly anticipated text adventure of 1995. This game is even bigger than Curses — so big that Nelson had to employ a new, post-Infocom incarnation of the Z-Machine, a version 8 standard with the ability to handle story files of up to 512 K in size, in order to run the full version.Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file. Although it will never be able to compete with its predecessor in terms of its importance to the history of its medium, in this critic’s opinion Jigsaw is the more accessible and enjoyable of the two games to play today.
It definitely doesn’t lack for ambition. Written just as millennial jitters were beginning to find a home in the minds of many of us, it’s a time-travel caper focusing on the horrible, magnificent century that was about to pass away, ranging in time and space from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the day of the Wright brothers’ first flight to Berlin on the day the Wall came down. The principal antagonist and possible love interest — a timeline-wrecking “rather attractive stranger” of indeterminate gender, whom the game refers to only as “Black” after his or her choice of wardrobe — is misguided rather than evil, attempting to alleviate some of the century’s many injustices rather than bring on any apocalypse. But such retroactive changes are out of our mortal purview, of course, and can only lead to worse tragedies. “The time is out of joint,” as Hamlet said. Now, it’s up to you to set it right.
The amount of research required for the game’s fourteen historical vignettes was considerable to say the least — and that before a universe of information was only a visit to Wikipedia away, when one still had to go to brick-and-mortar libraries with printed encyclopedias on their shelves. Nelson doesn’t always get every detail correct: I could nitpick that the Titanic was actually not the first ship in history to send an SOS distress signal, for example, or note that his depiction of the Beatles of 1967 (“lurching wildly from one project to the next, hardly collaborating, always arguing”) seems displaced in time by at least a year.Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on… Likewise, he’s sometimes a bit too eager to place ironic twists on the things we learned in our grade-school history classes. In light of what Nelson took on here, though, we can forgive him for all of this. He does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of each historical event. I also appreciate that his choices of historical linchpins aren’t always the obvious ones. For every voyage aboard a Titanic, there’s a visit to the cork-lined Parisian flat of Marcel Proust; for every trip to the Moon, there’s a sojourn in the filthy and disorganized laboratory of Alexander Fleming, the luckiest microbiologist who ever lived.
The episodic structure keeps Jigsaw manageable despite its overall sprawl, in marked contrast to Curses. Nelson, who had been thinking and writing seriously about design since his first game, went so far as to include a helpful little gadget which can alert you as to whether you’re leaving behind anything vital in each time period. Meanwhile the puzzles themselves are never less than solid, and are often inspired. One of them, in which you must decode a secret message using an only slightly simplified example of the German Enigma machines from the Second World War, has justly gone down in interactive-fiction lore as one of the best ever. Like so much of Jigsaw, it teaches even as it intrigues and entertains. I missed an important clue when I played through the game recently, which made this particular puzzle much harder than it was supposed to be. No worries — I enjoyed my two or three hours as a member of Alan Turing’s legendary team immensely, and positively jumped for joy when I finally produced a clear, cogent message from a meaningless scramble of letters.
My one real design complaint is the endgame, which takes place in a surreal fantasy landscape of the sort we’ve seen in too many other adventure games already. It feels both extraneous and thoroughly out of keeping with what has come before — and too darn hard to boot. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: by the time an adventurer reaches the endgame, especially of a work of this size, she just wants to be made to feel smart once or twice more and then to win. The designer’s job is to oblige her rather than to try to make himself feel smart. I must confess that I broke down and used hints for the endgame of Jigsaw, after solving the entirety of the rest of the game all by myself.
But the frustration of the endgame pales before the other delights on offer here. Nelson would never attempt a game of this size and scope again, making Jigsaw only that much more worth cherishing. Curses may be his most important game, but by my lights Jigsaw is his masterpiece.
Graham Nelson on Jigsaw
Curses had been written under the spell of the great cave games – Colossal Cave, Zork, Acheton. Games delving into a miscellany of doors, light puzzles, collection puzzles, and the like. Games written incrementally which ended up with epic, sprawling maps, but which started out only as entertainments written for friends. Each of those things is true about Curses as well.
But not Jigsaw. Once again Gareth Rees and Richard Tucker were the playtesters and de-facto editors, and the two games were recognisably from the same stable. There are many similarities, even down to having a one-word title, which I liked because it meant that the filename on an FTP server would likely be the whole title. It was always going to be a Z-machine story file once again, written with Inform. And it was playable under the same .z5 format as Curses, though I also offered a sort of director’s cut version with some extra annotation using the new .z8 format. (This was a sneaky way to try to persuade interpreter-writers to adopt .z8, which I worried people might think bogus and non-canonical, and so would not implement.)
Unlike Curses, though, Jigsaw was conceived holistically, had a rigorous plan, and was meant for the public rather than for friends. I set out to make the sort of rounded cultural artefact which middle-period Infocom might have offered — Dave Lebling’s Spellbreaker and Brian Moriarty’s Trinity are the obvious antecedents, but not the only ones. (Let me also praise Mike Dornbrook here, who was instrumental in making those games into clearly delineated works.) Those mature works of Infocom were satisfying to start, and satisfying to finish, and distinctive from each other. Infocom wasn’t big on historical settings (a shame that Stu Galley never completed his draft about the Boston of 1776), but in presentation, Jigsaw wouldn’t look out of place in their catalogue. In that sense, it’s rather derivative, even imitative, but this wasn’t seen as an eccentric or retro choice at the time; more of a mark of quality. But in any case, Jigsaw had other ambitions as well, and it’s on those other ambitions that it stands or falls.
Jigsaw strains to be a work of art, and though the strain shows from time to time, I think it mostly gets there. There are little embedded prose poems, generally at hinges in the story. Certain images – the nightjar, for example – are suggestive rather than explicated. There is also something a little poetic — and here I’m perhaps thinking more of the modernism of Ezra Pound’s cantos than of his more famous friend Eliot — about the interleaving of old formulations, old turns of speech. Jigsaw plays on the tantalising way that past times were so confident at being themselves. Nobody using an Apollo Guidance Computer thought of it as twee or retro. And you could say the same about a tram-ticket or a gas lamp, things that people used without a second thought. We have absolute confidence only about our own present moment, while the past seems hazy and uncertain. But the people who lived in that past felt exactly the same about their own present moments. For historical fiction to work, it has to side with them, not with us.
And on the other hand, while it is a modernist impulse to clash the old and the new, it’s a Romantic one to re-enact the old, to imaginatively take part in it. I’ve always liked the biographer Richard Holmes’s observation that to write a biography is an inherently Romantic act.
As I wrote Jigsaw in 1995, the twentieth century was coming to a relatively placid end — I hope anyone caught up in the Yugoslav civil wars will forgive me writing that. It was zeitgeisty to see the story of the age as being mostly done, even with a few years still to go. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992) was less sceptically received at the time than its later reputation might suggest. People were already gathering and tidying up the twentieth century. So I wasn’t the only one to jump the gun in writing about it.
Jigsaw has a classical IF structure, with a prologue, a middle game, and an end game. Less conventionally, a form of the end game – an area called “The Land” – is seen in a ghostly way throughout, while the middle game is divided into a grid of what amount to mini-games. Notably, these have named chapter headings.
The prologue takes place on the final night of 1999, on the margins of a public festival. I anticipated an event at a London park, and that was indeed the English response, though it turned out to be the ultra-modern Millennium Dome at Greenwich (begun in 1997) and not my more Victorian-sounding “Century Park”. The setting has something of the flavour of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but in fact I semi-lifted it from an episode of Charles Chilton’s iconic BBC radio serial Journey into Space. That involved an enigmatic character named Whittaker who had been taken out of normally-running time in 1924 from a London park celebration (“There are special trains from Baker Street”). Other than scene-setting, the prologue’s goal is to make the complex jigsaw mechanism comprehensible. It’s a familiar IF travel-around-the-map mechanism, with the puzzle pieces serving as objects of desire which unlock further play. But at the same time, it is also the game’s organising metaphor. So these mechanics have to seem natural and fun to players. Getting the textual display and command verbs right was a major concern in early play-testing.
With prologue out of the way, we enter the past. Jigsaw claims in its banner to be “an interactive history”, which is awfully bold of it. As we’ve already established, it’s a work of fantasy. But perhaps the claim to be “a history” can just about be made. Attempts to define what that even means — cf. E. H. Carr, “What Is History?”; Richard Evans, “In Defence of History” — end up devoting much of their space just to enumerating lines of approach, after all. Mine is odder than most, but less odd than some. At its crudest, the historian’s choice is between asking “who took what decisions?” and asking “what was life like?”. Is 19th-century Europe the story of Napoleon and Bismarck and Garibaldi, who started wars and redrew maps, or is all of that froth compared to railways, manufacturing, anesthetics, and newspapers? Jigsaw goes the second way, with Lenin being I think the only world leader seen close up.
The Titanic sequence, the first one I wrote, is the one I would now leave out. Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their places, and history wasn’t much dented. Perhaps it left a greater sense of possible catastrophe in the popular imagination, but the Sarajevo 1914 sequence makes that point better anyway. Besides, having an accidental time traveller arrive on the Titanic is a very hackneyed plot device. (I’ve just been dismayed to find from Wikipedia that it’s even the pilot episode plot of Irwin Allen’s spangly TV show The Time Tunnel.) Still, the ocean liner was fun to recreate as a period piece. The bit where a passenger says, “Never mind, worse things happen at sea,” is my favourite joke in the whole game. And researching this did lead to one happy accident. Going through a heap of books and pamphlets in the Bodleian Library, I chanced on something I remembered from somewhere else, and this led to a short paper in the literary-discoveries journal Notes & Queries. That squib of a paper is still occasionally cited, and I was amused to see “Nelson, Graham” back to back with “Nietzsche, Friedrich” in the bibliography of a monograph as a result.
A better choice was the Apollo programme. The lunar module was controlled using VERB and NOUN commands, which made it pleasingly IF-sounding: why not send the player to the moon? I also wanted to have something about the mid-century zenith of big-state action — a world in which Kennedy could just decide that the United States would do something immense, and it would happen. (The Manhattan Project is another example, but Trinity had already done that.) Another take on Apollo would be that it changed our sensibility, forcing us to see ourselves from the outside. The cover art for Jigsaw is the Apollo 8 shot of the earth rising from lunar orbit, maybe the most reproduced photo of the century. But I also tried to evoke Apollo’s troubling sense of abandonment. First steps were last steps. The century’s most powerful civilisation did something astonishing and then just lost interest. To me, the question about the Pyramids is not why the pharaohs built them, but why they stopped.
In fact, even as I wrote, Apollo’s posthumous reputation was beginning a slow comeback. A new generation of geeks devoured Andrew Chaikin’s landmark book A Man on the Moon (1994). Also, the Internet had arrived. In 1995, Eric Jones’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal became an extremely useful website. I corresponded a little with Eric at the time; he was, tellingly, having trouble finding a publisher. But thanks to his work, the Apollo sequence of Jigsaw — whatever its fantastical additions — is quite true to the actual Taurus-Littrow valley of the moon, and not a grey abstraction.
Fourteen historical vignettes is too many. It was hard to do much in so few rooms and items each, especially as they had to be playable in multiple orders. A fundamentally un-cave-like quality of Jigsaw is that you can’t wander about from era to era, and it is only rarely that something in one era is helpful in another. (Even then, alternative solutions are sometimes provided.) But I worried that the lack of space made these mini-games too easy, and over-compensated with highly convoluted device-based puzzles. Fly your very own B-52! I truly repent of how difficult that sequence is to play.
A happier example was the Enigma machine. I’ve used one in real life, encoding a very short message on a surviving Enigma which belongs to the science writer Simon Singh. Still, this section was really based on the oral histories of Bletchley Park edited by Hinsley and Stripp in 1993; accounts which, a bit madly, had only just been declassified. I imbibed some of the recherché jargon of the codebreakers, who lived in a strangely appealing world of their own. I was very taken with the vulnerability of Enigma, caused by the frequent presence of double letters in German words. One of the myths of Bletchley was that the invention of the computer flat-out defeated Enigma, as if you just had to press a button. It would be fairer to say that the computer made breaking the code just on the edge of what was possible. A certain cunning was still needed, and luck as well. They found ways to make their own luck, but there were also terrible periods when they failed, and when many sailors went to the bottom of the Atlantic as a result. My grandfather served on two Royal Navy convoys to Murmansk, and he was fortunate that those coincided with a good run at Bletchley, though he never knew it. That, and the thought that I might have been there myself if I had been an Oxford maths post-doc in 1942 rather than 1995, made this vignette more personal to me.
Fourteen vignettes is also too few. I chose Marcel Proust and the Beatles as my artists of the century, for example, and with them I had used up the entire space available for cultural history. My fourteen moments have to spread themselves very thinly over a lot of ground, and there is clearly no single or perfect solution to this. Still, Jigsaw has a clear Western bias. I probably should have chosen the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Africa appears only tangentially, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, which has to stand for the whole of postcolonialism. Even then, my main inspiration was Christopher Hampton’s autobiographical play White Chameleon, and Hampton is British. China does not appear at all, which from a 21st-century viewpoint seems very jarring. From the vantage point of 2021, civil rights also look pretty salient, but in 1995 it did not seem that way: the movement for women’s suffrage is all you get. Why no M.L.K.? That now seems very odd, except that I had plenty of the 1960s already. Some potential topics were also dropped just for lack of puzzles about them, or because they didn’t really fit anywhere. Though I don’t know to what extent players were ever aware of it, the connection points on the jigsaw pieces tried to suggest thematic links. The Wright brothers to Apollo, and so on.
Another consideration was, for want of a better word, taste. Fascism seemed mostly done in 1995, but it had clearly been a big part of the story. It isn’t a big part of Jigsaw because, in the end, is there any ethical way to recreate the experience of being massacred for no reason? The Holocaust does have a presence in Jigsaw, but very indirectly. Buried somewhere is a little anecdote about a young Jewish boy in Berlin in the 1930s, who had picked up a shiny badge in the street with no understanding that it was Nazi regalia which he could be killed just for touching – one of the few moments in Jigsaw told to me by an eye-witness, the boy himself, who survived to be a retired professor. What I really did not want to do was to recreate a version of Auschwitz which came with an escape hatch. And then of course Vietnam, Cambodia, the genocide of the Armenian Turks, Kosovo, Rwanda, you name it. Quite the charnal house we made for ourselves, you have to say. In a room of the end game which, if memory serves, was called the Toll Gate, there is a cumulative graph of humans deliberately killed, plotted against time. This graph surges at the World Wars but it certainly isn’t flat in between them.
There are a few other grim moments like that in the endgame, too. The endgame is the strangest part of Jigsaw and probably the least successful. But here’s what I think I was trying for. The Land does partly bring in concerns not tied to specific moments – pollution, for example, though not global warming, which we were all cheerfully ignoring in 1995. (But not now, right? Right?) At the same time, I didn’t want bleakness to dominate, and I wanted to end on brighter, more fantastical colours. There is supposed to be a sort of Eden-like rebirth as another century is coming, with this endgame area as the Garden of that Eden. Underlying all of history, but often invisible from it, there is always the goodness of the world, our one place of happiness. The chapter title for the endgame is “The Living Land”, and it’s about life in opposition to death.
But it is also too fiddly and is not the enjoyable romp I intended it to be. I don’t like the self-indulgent references to past IF games: what are they even for? The extent of the Land was a more understandable mistake — it’s because of the structural obsession of Jigsaw with its key mechanic. Rooms in The Land correspond to the original pieces, but that meant having quite a lot of them, which in turn meant padding out this space with puzzles. In fact, the endgame is so long that it has a little endgame of its own, taking us back to Century Park. But that was absolutely the right way to end. When you are composing a set of variations, finish on a da capo repetition of the original theme.
Finally, whereas Curses has no significant characters other than the protagonist, in Jigsaw the player has a significant other, called Black. In timecop sci-fi novels, the hero generally does battle with a rival time traveller. One tries to rewrite history, the other to keep it on track. Well, that is basically the situation here. Emphasising this, Black is a symbolic and non-human sort of name: White’s opponent in a game. (The Apollo lunar lander shared with Black has the call-sign “Othello”, and this is a reference to the strategy game, not the Shakespeare play.) The neutral name Black also worked better for blurring gender than having to use contrived unisex forenames like Hilary, Pat, or Stevie.
In retrospect, this genderless romance is the main thing people remember about Jigsaw. I wouldn’t make much claim for the depth or solidity of that romantic subplot: but at least it was there, and was something you wouldn’t find in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys sort of milieu of most earlier IF. There is even, however glancingly, a presence of sex. That much was deliberate. But when I was writing, the absence of genders seemed just another narrative choice. I wanted a certain universalism, a sort of every-person quality to the player. And I didn’t want some sort of performative nonsense like the barroom scene at the start of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, where you demonstrate your gender by picking a bathroom, but have no way to demonstrate your orientation.
Anyway, this seemed like a statement only after publication, when I began to get rather touching emails from players. I think Jigsaw may have been quite widely played, and this was easily the aspect most responded to. Happy emails were often from women. I did also get a smaller amount of homophobic mail, and that was invariably from men, who reacted as if they’d been catfished.
We easily forget now that in 1995 gay relationships were socially invisible. There were no openly gay characters in The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or Star Trek: The Next Generation. A handful of New York sitcoms were just starting to go there, but for the most part, in popular culture, gay people existed as people with problems. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia in 1993, but it’s a movie about a closeted man with AIDS. Sleepless in Seattle, the same year, could easily have played some non-binary games with its two lovers, since they don’t meet until the very end. But it doesn’t. In the 1990s, romance in popular culture was almost exclusively straight. Nobody thought that odd at the time, and nor did I. I didn’t write a gay romance at all, I simply wrote a romance which was whatever you wanted to imagine it was. I would like to say that the gender games in Jigsaw were a nod to the gradual emancipation of love in the twentieth century. But that was the one thing about Jigsaw which was completely unplanned.
One of those emails I received was from the young Emily Short, though we did not meet for many years, and it was in another century that we married. History is full of surprises.
(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and are playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)
|↑1||For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Dr. Jarboe,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a maths undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.”|
|↑2||Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file.|
|↑3||Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on…|