Monthly Archives: October 2022

Titanic Visions, Part 3: An Adventure Out of Time

It’s disarmingly easy to underestimate Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, by far the best-selling game in history about the doomed luxury liner. At first glance, after all, it looks like just another of the lifeless multimedia Myst clones that were cluttering up store shelves in such quantities in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile the studio behind it was known as CyberFlix, a name which positively reeks of the era when equally misbegotten “interactive movies” were all the rage. And indeed, CyberFlix really was founded by folks convinced that the future of games would be a collision between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

But the prime mover behind the operation, a 30-something Tennessean named Bill Appleton, wasn’t just another of the clueless bandwagon jumpers who were using off-the-shelf middleware packages like Macromedia Director to cobble together dodgy games where the video clips took center stage and the interactivity was an afterthought. On the contrary, Appleton knew how to make innovative technology of his own, and had a lengthy resumé to prove it. His early software oeuvre was the ironic polar opposite of interactive movies, those ultimate end-user products that seemed designed to convince the human being behind the monitor that she couldn’t possibly create anything like this. In the beginning, Appleton was all about empowering people to make stuff for themselves.

A youthful overachiever from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Appleton studied painting and philosophy at university before settling on economics. He was weeks away from earning his master’s degree in that field from Vanderbilt University in the spring of 1984, when he saw an Apple Macintosh for the first time. Like any number of other curious minds who hadn’t heretofore taken much interest in computers, he allowed all of his plans for his life to be utterly derailed by the encounter. He dropped out of university, moved back into his parents’ basement, and rededicated his life to making the Mac do amazing things.

He created an adventure game called Enchanted Scepters, which combined vestiges of the text adventures that were popular on other platforms at the time with simple pictures, sounds, and mouse-driven interactions. In this sense, it was similar to such other early Mac graphic adventures as ICOM Simulations’s Deja Vu, although considerably less refined. The real stroke of genius came when Appleton, a year after releasing the game itself through a small publisher called Silicon Beach Software, packaged up all of the tools he had used to make it and released them as well, under the name of World Builder. The do-it-yourself toolkit spawned a small but dedicated amateur community of adventure makers and players that persisted well into the 1990s. Appleton also adapted World Builder into another product called Course Builder, aimed at educators who wanted to create interactive experiences for the classroom.

With its ethos of empowering a fairly non-technical end user to create original multimedia content, Course Builder especially was veering into the territory soon to be staked out by HyperCard, Apple’s own revolutionary hypertext-authoring system. It’s thus no surprise that, when that software did debut in 1987, Appleton first greeted it as a threat. He quickly decided, however, to adopt the old adage of can’t beat ’em, join ’em — or rather enhance ’em. He moved to Silicon Valley, took control of a team of programmers hired by Silicon Beach Software, and made SuperCard, a system that could run existing HyperCard “stacks” as-is, but that added a whole slew of additional native features to the environment. It attracted some interest in the Macintosh world, but proved unable to compete with HyperCard’s huge existing user base, the result of being bundled with every single new Mac. So, Appleton turned back to games. Hooking up with a Chicago-based developer and publisher called Reactor, he made a beat-em-up game in the tradition of Karateka called Creepy Castle, then embarked on an action-packed 3D extravaganza called Screaming Metal, only for Reactor to go out of business midway through development.

It was thus a thoroughly frustrated Bill Appleton who returned to Tennessee in 1992. His eight years in software had resulted in a pair of cults in the form of the World Builder and SuperCard communities, but he hadn’t ever managed to hit the commercial bullseye he was aiming for. He was a man of significant ambition, and the status of cult hero just wasn’t good enough for him. “I’ve built a lot [of programs] for Silicon Valley,” he said, then went on to air his grievances using the precious diction of a sniffy artiste: “This isn’t about money or power or technology. It’s about art. I’m an artist, and I’ve got to be able to control my work.” Like Bob Dylan and The Band retreating to that famous pink house in Woodstock, he decided he could do so as easily right there in Tennessee as anywhere else.

Appleton recruited a few other bright sparks, none of them your prototypical computer nerds. There were Scott Scheinbaum, a musician and composer who had spent the last fifteen years playing in various local rock bands and working in record stores to make ends meet; Jamie Wicks, an accomplished young visual artist, described by a friend from school as “the quiet guy who sits next to you in class and draws pictures of monsters”; Andrew Nelson, a journalist by education who had grown tired of writing puff pieces for glossy lifestyle magazines; and Eric Quist, an attorney and childhood friend of Appleton. “Bill inoculated [sic] us with his vision of becoming multimedia superstars and taking over the world,” says Scheinbaum. The five of them hatched their plans for world domination in Appleton’s basement before officially founding CyberFlix in May of 1993, with Appleton as the majority stakeholder and decider-in-chief. The division of labor on their games broke down obviously enough: Appleton would be the programmer, Scheinbaum the composer and sound-effects man, Wicks the pixel artist and 3D modeller, Nelson the designer and writer, and Quist the business guy. In fact, by this time they had their first game just about ready to go.


It went by the name of Lunicus. More of a tech demo than a carefully designed game, it began as a graphic adventure that took place on the titular Moonbase Lunicus, only to turn into a frantic corridor shooter, a slightly more sophisticated Castle Wolfenstein that came complete with a pounding rock-and-roll soundtrack. But everyone seemed to agree that its most impressive feature was the sheer speed with which it unspooled from the CD-ROM, thanks to some proprietary software technology developed by Appleton. Called a “mindblower” by no less a pundit than Steven Levy (author of the seminal book Hackers), the game sold 50,000 copies on the Macintosh, then was picked up by Paramount Interactive and ported to Microsoft Windows, where it did rather less well in the face of much stiffer competition. A follow-up called Jump Raven that was still faster did even better in a Mac marketplace that was starving for just this style of flashy action game, selling by some reports almost 100,000 copies.

Jump Raven

CyberFlix was riding high, basking in the glowing press they were receiving inside the small and fairly insular milieu of Mac gaming. Being so thoroughly immersed in that world could distort the founders’ perspective. Jump Raven “was the fastest thing on the Mac,” says one early CyberFlix employee. “And that was back when the Mac was going to take over everything.”

CyberFlix moved into a snazzy loft in the center of Knoxville, Tennessee, and set about burnishing their hipster credibility by throwing parties for the downtown set, with live bands and open bars. Knoxville wasn’t quite the country-bumpkin town that East and West Coast media sometimes like to stereotype it as; its three largest employers were the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Many people in local government and business were eager to see CyberFlix as the progenitors of a new line for the city in multimedia. In a major publicity coup, Newsweek magazine was enticed to come down and write a two-page feature on the company, in which the wide-eyed reporter said that Appleton had become “something of a legend” during his time in Silicon Valley — this was something of a stretch — and called the house in whose basement the founding quintet had gotten together a literal log cabin. Others, however, were less credulous. One consultant who was hired to help the company work out a proper business plan remembers that Appleton “absolutely would not listen. He would sit and seem to listen, and then he was off to something else. It was exasperating.”

One of the things he was off to was CyberFlix’s next big game, a Western homage or send-up — the distinction is never clear, and therein lies many of the game’s problems — called Dust: A Tale of the Wired West. It was to be an unadulterated adventure game, whose action elements were limited to a few anodyne mini-games. CyberFlix used mostly employees and friends to play its characters — and therein lies another of the problems. Like many games of its technological ilk and era, Dust lacks the courage of its convictions, resulting in a fatal case of split personality. It seems that CyberFlix first intended to tell a fairly serious story. But as the amateurish acting and the limitations of their tools presented themselves, it drifted further and further into camp as a sort of defense mechanism, albeit without excising the would-be “dramatic” beats that had already been laid down. The result was, as Arinn Dembo noted in a scathing review for Computer Gaming World magazine, a comedy with dramatic relief, an approach that doesn’t work nearly as well as the opposite. Dembo’s concluding paragraphs are so well-stated, and apply so well not just to this game but to many other adventure games, that I’d like to quote them here.

The confusion in the design of this game brings up a general point, which is this: if you want to use dramatic elements in any narrative, you have to earn them. That means taking your subject seriously, even if it is “just a computer game.” Someone has to go to the trouble of fashioning characters deeper than your average mud puddle (and that includes giving them names that aren’t farcical), and writing dialog for them that sounds like something a real person might say.

If, on the other hand, your intention is to satirize the form and make fun of its tropes and limitations, you lay your cards on the table from the start; you don’t try to tap into drama that you don’t deserve. It’s either Blazing Saddles or The Unforgiven — you can’t mix the two. Computer-game writers need to learn that comedy is not a fallback position, something you do when you don’t believe you’re competent to sustain the drama. Satire and farce can be done well, and I’m not against them, but I’m against using them as a screen for poor storytelling.

All of this was made even more problematic by the way that even the jokes usually failed to land. The name of Dust, for example, was intended as a strained “ironic play” on the name of Myst. But this literally no one cottoned onto, until a peeved-sounding CyberFlix employee revealed it in an interview.

Dust: A Tale of the Wired West

The same CyberFlix representative said that, of 90 publications that reviewed Dust, 88 of them recommended it. If so, I managed to stumble on both of the exceptions, and, unfortunately for CyberFlix, they were both biggies: the aforementioned Computer Gaming World, the journal of record among the hardcore set, and Entertainment Weekly, a major taste-maker among the mainstream-entertainment set which the company wanted desperately to reach. Released in late 1995, Dust sold only 30,000 copies between its Macintosh and Windows incarnations. In the aftermath of its failure, CyberFlix was forced to take on more plebeian contract work, such as porting software from Windows to Mac and implementing pre-written design briefs for educational products. Other folks at the company turned to simpler, less expensive sorts of original games. For many both inside and outside of Cyberflix were now beginning to wonder whether interactive movies were really destined to be the future of mainstream entertainment after all. But CyberFlix had one more big game of the old style still in them — the one that would write them into gaming history as something more than just another flash in the pan from the 1990s multimedia boom.

It must be conceded that Titanic: Adventure Out of Time did not have a very auspicious gestation. Its mastermind Andrew Nelson admits that he was prompted to make it by a logic far more plebeian than any of the grand philosophical meditations about fate and hubris that the great ship’s sinking has so often inspired. Back when CyberFlix was just getting off the ground, he’d had an interesting conversation with his sister-in-law: she “was intrigued with these new CD-ROM games, but she had heard they take forever and she didn’t have that much time.”  Soon after, he read a magazine article about the Titanic, which noted that the ship had sunk two and a half hours after hitting the iceberg. That seemed like just about the right amount of time for an interactive movie that could appeal to busy adults like his sister-in-law. He decided to take the idea up with Bill Appleton and his other colleagues.

Initially, he didn’t have any more luck than Steve Meretzky had enjoyed at Infocom or Legend with his own Titanic concept. Appleton was particularly unenthusiastic. But Nelson kept hammering away at him, and finally, after Appleton’s own brainchild of Dust had proved a bust, he got his way. The company would go all-in on one last big adventure game.

The project may have been born out of practical commercial reasoning, but that didn’t keep it from taking on a more idealistic personality now. Nelson and many of those around him became full-bore Titanic fanatics. “We read all the books, listened to tapes of survivors, looked at 750 different pictures,” says Scott Scheinbaum. They laid out their virtual ship from the builder’s blueprints that had been used for the original — the very same documents, in fact, that James Cameron and friends were using to build their Titanic replica out of real steel down in Mexico at the very same time, although no one at CyberFlix was aware of this. Computer games which are labelled as “historical” tend to be strategic war games, exercises in moving abstract units around abstract fields of battle. CyberFlix was attempting a different kind of historical re-creation — a living, immersive view of history that dropped you right into the past as an individual on the scene.

In that spirit, Nelson and his colleagues set out to present as accurate a reproduction of the ship as the resources at their disposal would allow; again, they took their own endeavor as seriously as James Cameron was taking his. They tried to make every detail of every room as authentic as possible, knowing all the while that, while a movie director’s cameras had the luxury of gliding quickly over the surface of things, their players would be able to move around of their own free will in the spaces CyberFlix created and linger over what they saw to their heart’s content. This only made it that much more important to get things right.

A journalist named J.C. Herz came to visit CyberFlix in Knoxville for part of a book she was writing about videogame culture. She found an office with a “24-hour Kinko’s Copies atmosphere — full of equipment and overworked twentysomethings, simultaneously frenetic and oddly mellow.” She was especially taken by a “photo researcher” named Billy, who in his country boy’s baseball cap looked and talked like Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard. “I do the carpeting for the Titanic,” he told her by way of introduction.

We have a room where you start out in the game, and I’ve outfitted the desk with postcards that you can actually flip over and read, and magazines like Brave New World, and I’ve designed the covers for ’em, so you can pick those up and look at ’em. There’s a lot of detail in there that we don’t even expect people to actually look at. It’s like, if you were just tryin’ to half-ass it and get through it, you might make a lamp, but you might not make the electric cord that goes behind the desk. We’re tryin’ to get all the detail in there. There’s a lot of games that you look at today, and a lot of people don’t take the time and energy to go in and really work with their maps to make ’em look real, so they end up coming out lookin’ plastic or fake. I made it so that when you click on [a] scrapbook, it opens up, and then all the pages are just full of imagery, you know, ephemera, things like that. So I go out and I find all the stuff to go in the scrapbook and put it in there. That’s the fun job. I could spend a day or I could spend a month on that book.

I worked 36 hours in two days last week. But they try to make it as accommodating as possible. We’ve got showers, you know. And they stock the refrigerators with Cokes. Everybody gives you Cokes. They want you gettin’ wired so you stay there all the time. And they got some couches. So, I mean, you can stay here forever.

Another of the employees she met was named Alex, a rough-looking character with a Mohawk haircut, earrings, and tattoos to complement his “lengthy criminal record,” who had recently discovered a latent talent for computer art. He demonstrated that not quite everyone working on the Titanic game shared Billy’s passion for it. Long force of habit kept him talking about the people who ran CyberFlix as The Man, even though they let him get away with just about anything.

Whatever it takes to keep us here. Whatever we want. You can come in looking like a wreck, reeking of booze, whatever, and they’re never gonna fire you for it because they need you.

Luckily enough, they’ve been thoughtful not to force any kind of real schedule on us. Just get in when you can and do your shit. So, I just go to work doing whatever I have to do, build sets and do props, little things here and there where it needs to fit in, do movies and help. While I’ve got big jobs off running on the SGI [graphics workstation], I just jump around and do little different things, 2D work or whatever. As long as it takes is as long as you’ve got to spend, and if you’re here friggin’ eighteen hours a day, so be it.

And it’s kind of very strange for me because until I came up here to do this I was always working construction, my whole life, and I felt sorry for all the poor bastards trapped in air-conditioned prisons all day, and I thought it was so much fun to be roaming around on the job site, getting sun and running and hollering and screaming. And that’s all well and good, but you ain’t never gonna make shit. You’re gonna die poor or you’re gonna die pissing away your social-security check in some stinking little bar, and that’s no good. So, I just decided to take the step and at least do this for a few years to say that I could do it, and make some money out of it. If something went horribly wrong here tomorrow and I got kicked out or fired or I had to leave, I would just throw some things in the truck, get out, and go someplace else and do it. Because this industry is just replicating itself at such a disgusting rate, and everybody’s got something to do. And sure, not everything is quality, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like, you got money? All right, pay me, I’ll do it. Give it up. And then you just do it and move on again.

Of course, a game consists of more than just its graphical presentation, regardless of whether the latter is created lovingly or for reasons of filthy lucre. What, then, was CyberFlix’s Titanic game actually all about, beyond the obvious?

Andrew Nelson named his game Titanic: Adventure Out of Time because it really does involve time travel — which, as readers of the previous article in this series will recognize, is rather an ongoing theme in ludic Titanic fictions. It opens not in 1912 in the North Atlantic but in 1942. You play a former agent in His Majesty’s Secret Service who has fallen on hard times. You’ve been drinking your life away in your dingy flat, still haunted by the mission that destroyed your promising career — an espionage mission which took place aboard the Titanic. (Shades of Graham Nelson’s Jigsaw, although the similarities would appear to be completely coincidental.) Then a German bomb falls on your head, but instead of killing you it opens up a rift in space-time, sending you back to April 14, 1912, to try again.

You arrive in your cabin aboard the Titanic at 9:30 on that fateful evening, two hours before the collision with the iceberg. After an introductory spiel from the ship’s steward, you’re free to start exploring. Indeed, the meticulously re-created ship lies at the heart of this game’s appeal. You can roam freely through First Class, Second Class, and steerage; up to the promenade decks and into the bridge and wireless room; to the ship’s gym, complete with state-of-the-art exercise equipment like the “electric camel”; to the gentlemen’s smoking lounge and the Café Parisien; to the squash court and the Turkish sauna, with its alarmingly named “electric bath”; even down into the boiler rooms and the cargo holds. All of these and more are presented as node-based spaces pre-rendered in first-person 3D — in the superficial style of Myst, in other words. But do remember the opening to this article, when I warned you not to underestimate this game. CyberFlix’s technology was better than the vast majority of Myst clones that were flooding the market at this time, and their ambitions for this project at least were higher.

There are in fact only a handful Myst-style set-piece puzzles here, none of them terribly difficult. Instead of fiddling endlessly with esoteric mechanics in a deserted environment, you spend your time here — when not just taking in the views like a virtual tourist, that is — actually talking to a diverse cast of characters whom you meet scattered all over the ship, who in the aggregate are a pretty good representation of the many nationalities, professions, and social classes that were aboard the real Titanic. Having apparently learned a lesson from Dust, CyberFlix splashed out for mostly professional actors this time. The accents are pretty good, and the voice acting in general is, if not always inspired, serviceable enough by the standard of most productions of this nature and vintage.

Prior to the Titanic‘s tragic rendezvous with the iceberg, Adventure Out of Time runs on plot rather than clock time. That’s to say that time aboard the ship, which you can keep track of via your handy pocket watch, advances in increments of anywhere from five to fifteen minutes only when you complete certain milestones. If you choose to do nothing but wander around taking in the scenery, in other words, you have literally forever in which to do so — which isn’t a bad thing, given how big a part of the game’s appeal this virtual tourism really is. In another testimony to just that reality, CyberFlix included a “tour mode” separate from the game proper, which lets you explore the ship whilst listening to historical commentary. One has to assume that, just as most of the people who bought Myst never got off the first island, most of the people who casually plucked this game off a shop shelf were content just to poke around the Titanic for a while and call it a day.

But let’s assume that you’re one of the minority who chose to go deeper. As noted above, progressing through the milestones doesn’t entail solving logic puzzles so much as it does social ones. You scurry all over the ship, from the top of the crow’s nest to the bowels of the engine rooms, talking to everyone you can find, running fetch quests and conducting third-party diplomacy. It goes without saying that a real person on the real ship could never possibly have covered this much ground in a bare two hours, but it doesn’t really matter. Thankfully, in most situations you can jump from place to place by clicking on a map of the ship given to you by the steward at the beginning of the game. You soon learn that there’s a bewildering amount of stuff going on aboard this version of the Titanic well before it hits the iceberg. British and German and Russian and Serbian spies and double agents are all aboard, intriguing their little hearts out in the name of great-power politics.There’s a jewelry-smuggling ring, a servant girl who’s blackmailing the steel kingpin who got her pregnant, even a former flame of your own begging you to help her out with this and that for old times’ sake. And then there’s a rather mediocre painting being passed around, which the epilogue will reveal is from the hand of an obscure Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler…

Finding out about everything that’s going on aboard will likely require multiple playthroughs. For every time you do something to add minutes to the clock, you run the risk of losing the chance to see things that were taking place during the time window that’s just passed. It’s occasionally possible to get all of the intricate plot machinery fouled up and end up with someone talking to you familiarly about things you know nothing about, but this is relatively unusual. Very few other adventure games have attempted to offer their players such a freewheeling story space as this one, and even fewer have succeeded this well. There are no complete dead ends here that I know of; every player’s story can eventually be brought to a resolution of some kind if she just keeps poking at things long enough.

These two hours before disaster strikes are charged with the dreadful foreknowledge of what’s coming — with the knowledge that, if the law of averages holds true, two out of every three of the people you talk to won’t live to see the dawn. I played this game last winter, when we were in the process of moving house and my wife was already working and staying in another town. Sitting all alone in an empty living room on a cold, dark Scandinavian evening, surrounded by the souvenirs of our life together packed up in moving boxes, now strikes me as the perfect environment in which to appreciate it. Others have similar memories. Andrew Nelson:

People use the word “haunting” a lot to describe this game. And I know the feeling, because late at night while I was checking out if the dialog was working and I was strolling down those hallways — and how they were lit by our designers, and the amazing score that Scott Scheinbaum did, it had a very otherworldly feeling to it. Sometimes even I would get chills walking through it and encountering some of these passengers.

It’s debatable to what extent these feelings are the product of real aesthetic intent and to what extent they’re mere artifacts of the technology used to create the game, not to mention the knowledge we possess that’s external to its world. Yet we shouldn’t be too eager to look askance at any game that manages for whatever reason to evoke feelings in its player that go beyond the primary emotional colors, as this one does. And then, too, some things plainly are done, cleverly and deliberately, to heighten the sense of encroaching doom. For example, little establishing cut scenes play from time to time, showing the ship sailing inexorably onward toward its date with a cruel destiny.

After said destiny comes to a head and the iceberg is struck, everything begins to feel more immediate and urgent, as it should. At this point, plot time goes away in favor of something close to if not quite the same as clock time: the clock ticks a handful of seconds every time you make a move as you attempt to wrap up your espionage mission and get certain vital objects safely off the ship along with your own person. One might say that this is the real stress test for the game as a fiction. Can it muster the gravitas to depict a tragedy as immense as this one in an honest, unflinching way?

Alas, the short answer is no, not really. Some of this can be blamed on technological constraints; a Myst-style engine is better suited to contemplative exploration than the mass chaos the game is now attempting to project. Yet there’s no denying that the writing also fails the test in the breach. One or two of the characters behave just about believably. The most unnervingly realistic reaction comes from a snobby old First Class busybody who has refused to get into the first lifeboat offered to her because it’s “full of people I don’t know,” and because, like so many passengers, she didn’t truly believe the ship would sink. Now she clutches her pearls alone there on the deck and begs forlornly for assurance that surely there will be more lifeboats, won’t there? But the majority of characters fall victim to the old Dust syndrome. Unable or unwilling to stare down tragedy without blinking, the game falls back on jarringly inappropriate comedy. In terms of its fiction, the actual sinking is by far the weakest part of the game; we can feel thankful that this climax takes up a fairly small portion of the full playing time. Still, it does have one practical saving grace: it gives you one last chance to wrap up any loose ends you failed to get to earlier — one last chance, as it turns out, to change history, hopefully for the better.

For in the epilogue the game returns you to 1942 and presents your actions aboard the Titanic as having determined the course of world history over the last 30 years; think of it as the ultimate riposte to Graham Nelson’s claim that the disaster was not any “turning point” in history. The history for which you’re responsible can be much the same as the timeline we know or even worse. There’s an element of black comedy to many of these scenarios, as when you avert both the First World War and the rise of Adolf Hitler (who has vanquished the monster called Envy that was lurking in the depths of his soul by becoming a successful painter selling vacantly pleasant landscapes to middle-class housewives), only to see the entire world get steamrolled by the Soviet Union. It makes me think of dodging the iceberg in Dateline Titanic: “Oh, no! You hit another one!” But in the ideal case, where you’ve chased down every single plot thread and wrapped them all up neatly, history turns out markedly better, with neither a First World War, a Second World War, nor (presumably, in that there is no Soviet Union) a Cold War.

Adventure Out of Time is an impressive piece of work in many respects, standing out not least because it’s so much more ambitious and, well, just better than CyberFlix’s track record before it would ever tempt one to suspect. It’s possible to finish it with a very different story to tell about your time aboard the Titanic than someone else who has accomplished the same feat. And that is a very rare quality in adventure games.

That said, I can’t quite say that I love this game unabashedly. Its failings in the writing department — its inability to make me really care about any of the characters aboard or to build upon the vague sense of dread it has so masterfully engendered when the time comes for sharper emotions — keep it from joining my own top rank of games. Nevertheless, its rich grounding in real history and the formal ambition it displays mark it as the labor of love it so clearly was. It remains well worth playing as an example of a path seldom taken in adventure games, a welcome example of a game that’s much, much more than it first appears to be.

Its commercial trajectory, on the other hand, is a case study in how those things sometimes don’t matter a whit. Sometimes, all you need to do to have a hit is to get the timing right.

Aboard the Titanic. The eeriness of wandering the doomed ship, which is almost deserted thanks to the limitations of the technology used to re-create it, is what most players seem to remember best about the game.

Penny Pringle, your intelligence contact aboard the ship. Stills of real people in costume were spliced over the computer-generated graphics. Their lips and facial expressions were then painstakingly hand-animated to match their dialog.

One of the relatively few mechanical puzzles involves a decoding machine. More shades of Graham Nelson’s Jigsaw, whose Enigma machine is one of text adventuring’s all-time classic puzzles.

Fans of James Cameron’s movie will recognize the Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville automobile in which Jack and Rose make love for the first and only time. It’s used for less carnal purposes here, as a handy source of illumination in a dark cargo hold. There really was such a vehicle aboard the Titanic, a car that a wealthy American coal and iron heir named William Carter had purchased and was taking home with him after a family vacation in Europe. Unlike their new car, Carter and his family survived the sinking. He filed a claim with the White Star Line and was reimbursed $5000.

Another amusing parallel with the movie is this pair of characters, named Jack and… Shailagh. (Okay, the parallel isn’t perfect.) They’re brother and sister rather than star-struck lovers, but Jack is as noble as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, and like him sacrifices himself in the end to save the one he loves.

It all starts to go a bit sideways when the ship starts to actually sink, a tragedy which the game seems constitutionally incapable of facing, instead giving us awkward attempts at comedy.

We always knew how this game was going to end, didn’t we?

The Titanic was already having one of its recurring moments in media when Adventure Out of Time was released in late 1996, under CyberFlix’s own imprint because the old-media mavens that had been serving as their publishers until this point were all bailing out of games in the wake of disappointing sales. One of the biggest literary novels of the year, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man For Himself, about a young American who sails aboard the ship and interacts with many historical figures before and on the night of the disaster. The following April, a full-blown song-and-dance musical about the ship opened on Broadway, a dubious proposition on the face of it that would nonetheless run for 804 performances.

Tailwinds like these, along with the eternal recognizability of the Titanic name itself, were enough to lift Adventure Out of Time to sales of 100,000 copies in its first year on the market, despite reviews from the hardcore gaming press that were unenthusiastic at best about a product that was widely dismissed as just another tired Myst clone. “If the ocean were as shallow as Titanic‘s gameplay,” wrote Computer Gaming World in a valiant but confused attempt at clever wordplay, “the real ship would never have sunk.” But such reviews really didn’t matter at all by this point; even during this first year, the people who bought Adventure Out of Time generally weren’t the ones who read the likes of Computer Gaming World. Be that as it may, 100,000 copies sold would no doubt have been the limit of the game’s success, had not James Cameron’s movie dropped on December 19, 1997, just as Adventure Out of Time was getting decidedly long in the tooth by the standards of the novelty-obsessed games industry.

The tide had begun to turn for Cameron’s over-time, over-budget film some weeks before that date, when critics traveled to Tokyo to catch some early screenings. They came back raving about what they proclaimed to be that rarest of beasts, a showy blockbuster that could also make its audience think and feel something that went beyond the adrenal emotions. One critic stated that “Titanic plumbs personal and philosophical story depths not usually found in event-scale movies.” “It is a masterwork of big-canvas storytelling,” said another, “broad enough to entrance and entertain yet precise and delicate enough to educate and illuminate.”

The movie earned $29 million in the United States on its opening weekend, then $35 million the next weekend. Just twelve days after its debut, it was already halfway to earning back its much-mocked $200 million budget from domestic receipts alone. Four weeks after that, that milestone was already $100 million in its rear-view mirror, with Hollywood Reporter declaring that it had “shattered all previous models of film performance at the nation’s theaters.” On February 24, 1998 —  just nine weeks after its release — it officially became the most successful film in history. One week later, its worldwide gross surpassed $1 billion. It was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards and won eleven of them, including those for Best Director and Best Picture.

Titanic was simply inescapable during 1998. When you turned on the radio, there it was, in the form of Celine Dion’s gloriously overwrought theme song; when you turned on the television, someone was bound to be talking about the film and/or the disaster that inspired it; when you went to work, your colleagues were discussing it around the water cooler; when you came home, you found that your teenage daughter had bought yet another poster of Leonardo DiCaprio to watch over her from her bedroom wall. Not everybody loved the film, mind you; some contrary souls dared to point out that the dialog was a bit trite and the love story more than a little contrived. But absolutely everyone had to reckon with it — not least among them its two young stars and its director, condemned to spend the rest of their careers answering as best they could the question of what you did next after you had already made the biggest movie in the history of the world.

All of this redounded to the immense benefit of some modest little CD-ROMs sitting on the shelves of software stores all over the country, due shortly to be sent back to the distributors that had sent them out. Now, thanks to the film, they suddenly started to sell again — to sell faster than they ever had before, so fast that store owners were soon clamoring for more of them from those selfsame distributors, causing a mad scramble at CyberFlix to crank up the presses once again. Adventure Out of Time enjoyed a whole new commercial life, an order of magnitude larger than its first one. Now companies were knocking at CyberFlix’s door to release the game to European and Asian markets; it was localized into seven different languages in a matter of weeks. By the end of 1998, worldwide sales had surpassed 1 million units. Well after the heyday of interactive movies and adventure games in general, it became the very last of its breed to hit that magical milestone.

But, surprisingly in an industry where one profitable game tends to beget another one just like it, CyberFlix never even tried to make anything else like Adventure Out of Time. After the game’s initial release and modest initial success, Andrew Nelson had wanted to continue to plow the same ground, with a game set aboard another glamorous and doomed means of conveyance: the airship Hindenburg. (Adventure Out of Time itself includes a hint about what was gestating in Nelson’s mind, via a Hindenburg ticket stub you can stumble across in your desk drawer in 1942.) “We’ve got this historical-fiction genre nailed,” said Nelson. “We have this new audience of people who never played a computer game.” But Bill Appleton, looking back on a 1996 which hadn’t yielded any huge adventure hits like in earlier years, wasn’t so sure. Nelson finally gave up trying to convince him and left the company in April of 1997, eight months before Cameron’s film changed everything. CyberFlix released only one major game after Adventure Out of Time, a pirate caper called Redjack: Revenge of the Brethren that returned to the model of Lunicus and Jump Raven, combining multimedia-heavy adventure-style gameplay with 3D action. It sank without a trace even as Adventure Out of Time was soaring to new heights; by some accounts, it sold as few as 10,000 copies in all.

That was enough to convince Bill Appleton, an unsentimental realist about the games market, that his company simply wasn’t made for these times. He was able to face what most others in his position would have closed their eyes to: that the success of Adventure Out of Time was sui generis, a fluke driven by a fortuitous happenstance, a stroke of blind luck that would never, ever come again, no matter how great an adventure game they made next time out. For it did nothing to change the fact that the multimedia boom, which had always been more wishful thinking than reality, was over, and the styles of game it had favored were in precipitous decline. So, he set about dismantling his company even as millions were still pouring into it from Adventure Out of Time. Better to pocket that money and go out a winner than to piss a fortune away on some grandiose new production that was as doomed to fail as the Titanic had been doomed to strike that iceberg. It was a brutal decision, but, from a pure business standpoint at least, it’s hard to argue that it was the wrong one.

Still, there are lingering questions about the way Appleton went about it, especially the bonuses of close to $2 million which he awarded to himself over the course of 1998 even as he was busily shedding staff. On November 30 of that year, he announced to the last of his employees that CyberFlix was done as anything but a holding company to collect the last of the revenues from Adventure Out of Time. Then he decamped for Silicon Valley to “build enterprise software for small companies,” never even saying goodbye to the four other dreamers who had once gathered in his cellar. Of them, only visual artist Jamie Wicks stayed in the games industry, going on to work on the hugely popular EA Sports lineup.

Neither Billy nor Alex, those two unlikely game developers interviewed by J.C. Herz when they were making Adventure Out of Time, ever worked in the industry again either. Likewise, Knoxville’s dream of becoming a new locus of artsy high tech died with CyberFlix. A 1999 history of the company’s rise and fall, written by one Jack Neely for the alternative urban newspaper Metro Pulse, describes the old offices standing “empty and silent,” bringing to mind those haunted corridors of the Titanic in Adventure Out of Time.

“This weekend I was in a mall in Atlanta,” said one former CyberFlix employee whom Neely interviewed for his article, “going through [a] store, and they had a copy of [Adventure Out of Time] on the cheap rack. It’s still around. But it’s kind of sad to see it there.” Already by then, the best game by far to come out of Cyberflix had met the inevitable fate of all Titanic productions, just another unmoored piece of ephemera in the ever-growing debris field of pop culture that surrounds the most famous sunken ship in the world.

(Sources: the books Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi and Joystick Nation by J.C. Herz; InfoWorld of September 14 1987; Compute! of March 1989; Computer Play of April 1989; MacWorld of May 1989, June 1989, April 1992, June 1992, January 1994, and February 1995; Computer Gaming World of August 1993, April 1994, December 1995, and March 1997; MacUser of October 1993 and January 1996; Next Generation of November 1996; Knoxville News Sentinel of November 20 2006; Dragon of February 1987; JOM volume 50 number 1; Knoxville Metro Pulse 942; Newsweek of August 28 1994; Entertainment Weekly of September 22 1995. Online source include an Adventure Out of Time retrospective at PC Gamer, a Game Developer interview with Andrew Nelson, and Stay Forever‘s interview with Andrew Nelson.

Titanic: Adventure Out of Time is available for digital purchase at


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Titanic Visions, Part 2: A Night to Remember

Why does the sinking of the Titanic have such a stranglehold on our imaginations? The death of more than 1500 people is tragic by any standard, but worse things have happened on the world’s waters, even if we set aside deliberate acts of war. In 1822, for example, the Chinese junk Tek Sing ran into a reef in the South China Sea, drowning all 1600 of the would-be immigrants to Indonesia who were packed cheek-by-jowl onto its sagging deck. In 1948, the Chinese passenger ship Kiangya struck a leftover World War II mine shortly after departing Shanghai, killing as many as 4000 supporters of Chiang Kai-shek’s government who were attempting to flee the approaching Communist armies. In 1987, the Philippine ferry Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker near Manila, killing some 4300 people who were just trying to get home for Christmas.

But, you may object, these were all East Asian disasters, involving people for whom we in the West tend to have less immediate empathy, for a variety of good, bad, and ugly reasons. It’s a fair point. And yet what of the American paddle-wheel steamer Sultana, whose boiler exploded as it plied the Mississippi River in 1865, killing about 1200 people, or only 300 fewer than died on the Titanic?

I’m comfortable assuming that, unless you happen to be a dedicated student of maritime lore or of Civil War-era Americana, you probably don’t know much about any of these disasters. But everyone — absolutely everyone — seems to know at least the basic outline of what happened to the Titanic. Why?

It seems to me that the sinking of the Titanic is one of those rare occasions when History stops being just a succession of one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Arnold Toynbee, and shows some real dramatic flair. The event has enough thematic heft to curl the toes of William Shakespeare: the pride that goeth before a fall (no one will ever dare to call a ship “unsinkable” again); the cruelty of fate (experts have estimated that, if the Titanic somehow could have been raised and put into service once again, it could have made a million more Atlantic crossings without bumping into any more icebergs); the artificiality of money and social status (a form of communism far purer than anything ever implemented in the Soviet Union or China reigned in the Titanic‘s lifeboats); the crucible of character in the breach (some people displayed tremendous, selfless bravery when faced with the ultimate existential impasse of their lives, while others behaved… less well). Unlike the aforementioned shipwrecks, all of which were short, sharp shocks, the sinking of the Titanic was a slow-motion tragedy that took place over the course of two and a half hours. This gave ample space for all of the aforementioned themes to play out. The end result was almost irresistibly dramatic, if you’ll excuse my callousness in writing about it like a film prospectus.

And then, of course, there is the power of the Titanic as a symbol of changing times, as an almost tangible way point in history. The spirit of a century doesn’t always line up neatly with the numbers in our calendars; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were actually unusual in setting the tone for our muddled, complicated 21st-century existences so soon after we were all cheering our escape from the Y2K crisis and drinking toasts to The End of History on January 1, 2000. By way of contrast, one might say that the nineteenth century didn’t really get going in earnest until Napoleon was defeated once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Similarly, one could say that the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 makes for a much more satisfying fin de siècle than anything that occurred in 1900. On that cold April night in the North Atlantic, an entire worldview sank beneath the waves, a glittering vision of progress as an inevitability, of industry and finance and social refinement as a guarantee against any and all forms of unpleasantness, of war — at least war between the proverbial great powers — as a quaint relic of the past. Less than two and a half years after the Titanic went down, the world was plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever known.

That, anyway, is how we see the sinking of the Titanic today. Many people of our own era are surprised, even though they probably shouldn’t be, that the event’s near-mythic qualities went completely unrecognized at the time; the larger currents of history tend to make sense only in retrospect. While the event was certainly recognized as an appalling tragedy, it was not seen as anything more than that. Rather than trying to interrogate the consciousness of the age, the governments of both Britain and the United States took a more practical tack, endeavoring to get to the bottom of just what had gone wrong, who had been responsible, and how they could prevent anything like this from ever happening again. There followed interminable hearings in the Houses of Parliament and the Capitol Building, while journalists gathered the stories of the 700-odd survivors and wrote them up for a rapt public. But no one wrote or spoke of the event as any sea change in history, and in due course the world moved on. By the time the British luxury liner Lusitania, the queen of the Atlantic-crossing trade prior to the construction of the Titanic and its two sister ships, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915 — loss of life: 1200 — the Titanic was fading fast from the public consciousness, just another of those damn things that had happened before the present ones.

“Had the Titanic been a mud scow with the same number of useful workingmen on board and had it gone down while engaged in some useful social work,” wrote a muckraking left-wing Kansan newspaper, “the whole country would not have gasped with horror, nor would all the capitalist papers have given pages for weeks to reciting the terrible details.” This was harsh, but undeniably true. The only comfort for our Kansan polemicists, if it was comfort, was that the Titanic looked likely to be forgotten just as completely as that hypothetical mud scow would have been in the fullness of time.

But then, in the 1950s, the Titanic was scooped out of the dustbin of history and turned into an icon for the ages by a 30-something American advertising executive and part-time author named Walter Lord, who had crossed the Atlantic as a boy aboard the Titanic‘s sister the Olympic and been fascinated by the ships’ stories ever since. Lord’s editor was unenthusiastic when he proposed writing the first-ever book-length chronicle of that fateful night, but grudgingly agreed to the project at last, as long as Lord wrote “in terms of the people involved instead of the ship.” Accordingly, Lord interviewed as many of the living survivors and their progeny as he could, then wove their stories together into A Night to Remember, a vividly novelistic minute-by-minute account of the night in question that has remained to this day the classic book about the Titanic, a timeless wellspring of lore and legend. It was Lord, for example, who first told the story of the ship’s band bravely playing on in the hope of comforting their fellow passengers, until the musicians and their music were swallowed by the ocean along with their audience. Ditto the story of the ship’s stoic Captain Edward Smith, who directed his crew to save as many passengers as they could and then to save themselves if possible, while he followed the unwritten law of the sea and went down with his ship. Published in November of 1955, A Night to Remember became an instant bestseller and a veritable cultural sensation. Walter Lord became Homer to the Titanic‘s Trojan War, pumping tragedy full of enough heroism, romance, and melodrama to almost — almost, mind you — make us wish we could have been there.

The book was soon turned into an American teleplay that was reportedly seen by an astonishing 28 million people. “Millions, perhaps, learned about the disaster for the first time,” mused Lord later about the evening it was broadcast. “More people probably thought about the Titanic that night than at any time since 1912.” (Sadly, every trace of this extraordinary cultural landmark has been lost to us because it was shot and broadcast live without ever touching film or videotape, as was the norm in those days). The book then became a lavish British feature film in 1958. Surprisingly, the movie was a failure in the United States. Walter Lord blamed this on poor Stateside distribution on the part of the British producers and a newspaper strike in New York. A more convincing set of causes might begin with its lack of big-name stars, continue with the decision to shoot it in stately black and white rather than garish Technicolor, and conclude with the way it echoed the book in weaving together a tapestry of experiences rather than giving the audience just one or two focal points whom they could get to know well and root for.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 1950s the Titanic had been firmly lodged in the public’s imagination as mythology and metaphor, and it would never show any sign of coming unstuck. The first Titanic fan club — for lack of a better term — was founded in Massachusetts in 1960, whence chapters quickly spread around the country and the world. Initially called the Titanic Enthusiasts Society, the name was changed to the Titanic Historical Society after it was pointed out that being an “enthusiast” of a disaster like this one was perhaps not quite appropriate.  But whatever the name under which they traveled, these were obsessive fans in the classic sense, who could sit around for hours debating the minutiae of their favorite ship’s brief but glamorous life in the same way that others of their ilk were dissecting every detail of the starship Enterprise. (Doug Woolley, the first person to propose finding the wreck and raising it back to the surface, was every inch a product of this milieu.)

“The story of the Titanic is a curious one because it rolled on and on,” said Walter Lord decades after writing his seminal book, “becoming more newsworthy as time went by.” Needless to say, A Night to Remember has never come close to going out of print. Even as the 83 survivors who were still around in 1960 died off one by one and the mass-media spotlight shifted from them to the prospects of finding the wreck of the ship on which they had sailed all those years ago, it was always the stories of that one horrible night, with all of their pathos and their bizarre sort of glamour, that undergirded the interest. If there had been no Walter Lord to turn a disaster into a mythology, it would never have occurred to Jack Grimm and Robert Ballard to go in search of the real ship. It was thanks to 30 years of tellings and retellings of the Titanic story that those first pictures of the ship sent up from the depths by Ballard felt like coming face to face with Leviathan. For by the 1980s, you could use the Titanic as a simile, a metaphor, a parable, or just a trope in conversation with absolutely anyone, whether aged 9 or 90, and be certain that they would know what you were talking about. That kind of cultural ubiquity is extremely rare.

Thus we shouldn’t be stunned to learn that this totem of modern culture also inspired the people who made computer games. Even as some of their peers were casting their players as would-be Robert Ballards out to find and explore the wreck, others were taking them all the way back to the night of April 14, 1912, and asking them to make the best of a no-win situation.

The very first Titanic computer game of any stripe that I know of was written by an American named Peter Kirsch, the mastermind of SoftSide magazine’s “Adventure of the Month” club, whose members were sent a new text adventure on tape or disk every single month. Dateline Titanic was the game for May of 1982. Casting you as the ship’s captain, it begins with one of the cruelest fake-outs in any game ever. It seems to let you spot and dodge the deadly iceberg and change the course of history — until the message, “Oh, my God! You hit another one!” pops up. Simple soul that I am, I find this kind of hilarious.

Anyway, we’re back in the same old boat, so to speak. The game does permit you to be a bit less of a romantic old sea dog than the real Captain Smith and to save yourself, although you’re expected to rescue as many passengers as you can first. In an article he wrote for SoftSide a few months after making the game, Kirsch noted that “the days of simply finding treasure and returning it to a storage location are gone forever.” But, stuck as he was with an adventure engine oriented toward exactly this “points for treasures” model, he faced a dilemma when it came time to make his Titanic game. He ended up with a design where, instead of scarfing up treasures and putting them in your display case for safe keeping, you have to grab as many passengers as possible and chunk them into lifeboats.

That said, it’s a not a bad little game at all, given the almost unimaginable technological constraints under which it was created. The engine is written in BASIC, and it combined with the actual game it enables have to be small enough to fit into as little as 16 K of memory. You can finish the game the first time whilst rescuing no one other than yourself, if necessary, then optimize your path on subsequent playthroughs until you’ve solved all of the puzzles in the right order, collected everyone, and gotten the maximum score; the whole experience is short enough to support this style of try-and-try-again gameplay without becoming too annoying. Whether it’s in good taste to treat a tragedy in this cavalier way is a more fraught question, but then again, it’s hard to imagine any other programmer doing much better under this set of constraints. It’s hard to pay proper tribute to the dead when you have to sweat every word of text you include as if you’re writing a haiku.

(Although Dateline Titanic was made in versions for the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Atari 8-bit line, only the last appears to have survived. Feel free to download it from here. Note that you’ll need an Atari emulator such as the one called simply Atari800. And you’ll also need Atari’s BASIC cartridge. Unfortunately, the emulator is not a particularly user-friendly piece of software, with an interface that is entirely keyboard-driven. You access the menu by hitting the F1 key. From here, you want to first mount the BASIC cartridge: “Cartridge Management -> Cartridge.” Press the Escape key until you return to the emulator’s main screen. You should see a “READY” prompt. Now you can run the “.atr” file by pressing F1 again, then choosing “Run Atari Program.” Be patient; it will take the game a moment to start up fully.)

Four years later, in the midst of the full-blown Titanic mania ignited by Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, another Titanic text adventure appeared, again as something other than a standard boxed game. Beyond the Titanic by Scott Miller is interesting today mostly as a case of humble beginnings. After releasing this game and a follow-up text adventure as shareware to little notice and less profit, Miller switched his focus to action games. He and his company Apogee Entertainment then became the primary impetus behind an underground movement which bypassed the traditional publishers and changed the character of gaming dramatically in the early 1990s by providing a more rough-and-ready alternative to said publishers’ obsession with high-concept “interactive movies.” For all that it belongs to a genre whose commercial potential was already on the wane by 1986, Beyond the Titanic does display the keen instinct for branding that would serve Miller so well in later years. The Titanic was a hot topic in 1986, and it was a name in the public domain, so why not make a game about it?

Beyond the Titanic itself is a strange beast, a game which is soundly designed and competently coded but still manages to leave a laughably bad final impression. Miller obviously didn’t bother to do much if any research for his game. Playing the role of a sort of anti-Captain Smith, you escape from the sinking ship all by yourself in one of its lifeboats and leave everyone else to their fate. Luckily for you, in Miller’s world a lifeboat is apparently about the size of a canoe and just as easy for one person to paddle. (In reality, the lifeboats were larger than many ocean-going pleasure boats, being 30 feet long and 9 feet wide.)

Your escape doesn’t mark the end of the game but its real beginning. Now aliens enter the picture, sucking you into a cave complex hidden below the ocean. From this point on, the game lives up to its title by having nothing else to do with the Titanic; the plot eventually sends you into outer space and finally on a trip through time. “Overstuffed” is as kind a descriptor as I can find for both the plot and the writing. This one is best approached in the spirit of an Ed Wood film; Miller tries valiantly to grab hold of the right verbs and adjectives, but they’re forever flitting out of his grasp like fireflies on a summer night. Suffice to say that Beyond the Titanic won’t leave anyone regretting that he abandoned text adventures for greener pastures so quickly.

(Beyond the Titanic has been available for free from Scott Miller’s company 3D Realms since 1998. In light of that, I’ve taken the liberty of hosting a version here that’s almost ready to run on modern computers; just add your platform’s version of DOSBox.)

A relatively more grounded take on the Titanic‘s one and only voyage appeared in 1995 as one of the vignettes in Jigsaw, Graham Nelson’s epic time-travel text adventure, which does have the heft to support its breadth. Indeed, Nelson’s game was the first ever to deliver a reasonably well-researched facsimile of what it was actually like to be aboard the doomed ship before and after it struck the iceberg. A fine writer by any standard, he describes the scenes with the appropriate gravity as you wander a small subsection of the ship’s promenades, staterooms, lounges, and crew areas.

Making a satisfying game out of the sinking of the Titanic presents a challenge for a designer not least in that really is the very definition of a no-win scenario: to allow the player to somehow avert the disaster would undercut the whole reason we find the ship so fascinating, yet to make a game simply about escaping doesn’t feel all that appropriate either. Many designers, including Scott Miller and now Graham Nelson in a far more effective way, therefore use the sinking ship and all of the associated drama as a springboard for other, original plots. (Because you’re a time traveler in Jigsaw, escape isn’t even an issue for you; you can ride the time stream out of Dodge whenever you feel like it.) Nelson imagines that the fabulously wealthy Benjamin Guggenheim, one of the glitterati who went down with the ship, is also a spy carrying a vital dispatch meant for Washington, D.C. Because Guggenheim, honorable gentleman that he is, would never think of getting into a lifeboat as long as women and children are still aboard the ship, he entrusts you with getting the message into the hands of a co-conspirator whose gender gives her a better chance of surviving: the “rich and beautiful heiress Miss Shutes.”

It must be emphasized that the Titanic is only a vignette in Jigsaw, one of fifteen in the complete game. Thus it comes as no surprise that the espionage plot isn’t all that well developed, or even explained. In addition, there are also a few places where Nelson’s background research falls down. The Titanic was not the first vessel ever to send an “SOS” distress signal at sea, as he claims. And, while there was an Elizabeth Shutes aboard the ship, she was a 40-year-old governess employed by a wealthy family, not a twenty-something socialite. On the more amusing side, Jigsaw walkthrough author Bonni Mierzejewska has pointed out that the compass directions aboard the ship would seem to indicate that it’s sailing due east — a good idea perhaps in light of what awaits it on its westward progress, but a decidedly ahistorical one nonetheless.

Still, Jigsaw gets more right than wrong within the limited space it can afford to give the Titanic. I was therefore surprised to learn from Graham Nelson himself just a couple of years ago that “the Titanic sequence is the one I would now leave out.” While it’s certainly a famous event in history and an enduring sign of changing times, he argues, it wasn’t of itself a turning point in history like his other vignettes, at least absent the insertion of the fictional espionage plot: “Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their place, and history wasn’t much dented.” This is true enough, but I for one am glad the Titanic made the cut for one of my favorite text adventures of the 1990s.

(Jigsaw is available for free from the IF Archive. Note that you’ll need a Z-Machine interpreter such as Gargoyle to run it.)

Yet the most intriguing Titanic text adventure of all is undoubtedly the one that never got made. Steve Meretzky, one of Infocom’s star designers, was one of that odd species of Titanic “fan”; his colleagues remember a shelf filled with dozens of books on the subject, and a scale model of the ship he built himself that was “about as big as his office.” Shortly after his very first game for Infocom, the 1983 science-fiction comedy Planetfall, became a hit, Meretzky started pushing to make a Titanic game. Just like the previous two designers in this survey, he felt he had to add another, “winnable” plot line to accompany the ship’s dramatic sinking.

You are a passenger on the Titanic, traveling in Third Class to disguise the importance of your mission: transporting a MacGuffin from London to New York. As the [game] opens and you feel a long, drawn-out shudder pass through the ship, you must begin the process of escaping the restricted Third Class section, retrieving the MacGuffin from the purser’s safe amidst the confusion, and surviving the sinking to complete your delivery assignment. The actual events of those 160 minutes between iceberg and sinking would occur around you. I see this as a game of split-second timing that would require multiple [playthroughs] to optimize your turns in order to solve the puzzles in the shortest possible time. But you could also ignore all the puzzles and simply wander around the ship as a “tourist,” taking in the sights of this amazing event.

To his immense frustration, Meretzky never was able to drum up any enthusiasm for the idea at Infocom. In 1985, he was finally allowed to make a serious game as his reward for co-authoring the third best-selling text adventure in history, but even then his colleagues convinced him to opt for a science-fiction exercise called A Mind Forever Voyaging instead of the Titanic game. The latter remained something of a running joke at Meretzky’s expense for years. “It was almost a cliché,” says his colleague Dave Lebling. “Steve would say, ‘We should do a Titanic game!’ And we would all say, “No, no Titanic game. Go away, Steve.'”

The dream didn’t die for Meretzky even after Infocom closed up shop in 1989, and he moved on to design games for Legend Entertainment, a company co-founded by his fellow Infocom alum Bob Bates. Sadly, Bates too saw little commercial potential in a Titanic game, leaving Meretzky stuck in his comedy niche for all four of the games he made for Legend.

And still the fire burned. When Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook, another old Infocom colleague, decided to start their own studio called Boffo Games in 1994, the Titanic game was high on the agenda. The changing times meant that it had by now evolved from a text adventure into a point-and-click graphic adventure, with a fully fleshed-out plot that was to place aboard the ship the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, which really was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. (Ever since the painting was recovered from the thieves two years later, conspiracy theories claiming that the Mona Lisa which was hung once again in the Louvre is a face-saving forgery have abounded.) Meretzky and Dornbrook pitched their Titanic game to anyone and everyone who might be willing to fund it throughout Boffo’s short, frustrating existence, and even created a couple of rooms as a prototype. But they never could get anyone to bite. “We were saying, you know, there’s this new movie coming out,” says Dornbrook. “And it might do well. It will come out about the time the game will. It’s [James] Cameron. He sometimes does good stuff…” But it was to no avail. Meretzky made his very last adventure game to date in 1997, and it had nothing to do with the Titanic.

Instead it was left to another graphic adventure to ride the wave kicked up by the movie Dornbrook mentioned to sales that bettered the combined totals of all of the other Titanic games I’ve mentioned in these last two articles by an order of magnitude. I’ll examine that game in detail in the third and final article in this series. But first, allow me to set the table for its success via the origin story of the highest-grossing movie of the twentieth century.

After the failures of the film versions of A Night to Remember and Raise the Titanic, the Hollywood consensus had become that nothing sank a feature film’s prospects faster than the Titanic. This was weird, given that the book A Night to Remember had spawned a cottage industry in print publishing and a whole fannish subculture to go along with it, but box-office receipts didn’t lie. The movers and shakers of Hollywood could only conclude that the public wanted a happy ending when they handed over their hard-earned money on a Friday night, which spelled doom for any film about one of the most infamously unhappy endings of all time. Even the full-fledged Titanic mania that followed Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck failed to sway the conventional wisdom.

But one prominent Hollywood director begged to differ. James Cameron was coming off the twin triumphs of The Terminator and Aliens in 1987, when he saw a National Geographic documentary that prominently featured Ballard’s eye-popping underwater footage of the wreck. An avid scuba diver, Cameron was entranced. He began to imagine a film that could unite the two halves of the Titanic‘s media legacy: the real sunken ship that lay beneath the waves and the glamorously cursed vessel of modern mythology. He jotted his thoughts down in his journal:

Do story with bookends of present-day scene of wreck using submersibles inter-cut with memory of a survivor and re-created scenes of the night of the sinking. A crucible of human values under stress. A certainty of slowly impending doom (metaphor). Division of men doomed and women and children saved by custom of the times. Many dramatic moments of separation, heroism, and cowardice, civility versus animal aggression. Needs a mystery or driving plot element woven through with all this as background.

The last sentence would prove key. Just like Scott Miller, Graham Nelson, and Steve Meretzky in the context of games, Cameron realized that his film couldn’t succeed as a tapestry of tragedy only. If it was to capture a wide audience’s interest, it needed the foreground plot and obvious set of protagonists that the film of A Night to Remember had so sorely lacked.

Yet Cameron’s own Titanic film would be a long time in coming. The melancholy splendor of that National Geographic documentary first did much to inform The Abyss, his moody 1989 movie about an American nuclear submarine’s close encounter with aliens. There then followed two more straightforward action vehicles starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator 2 and True Lies.

Always, though, his Titanic movie stayed in the back of his mind. By 1995, he had more than a decade’s worth of zeitgeist-defining action flicks behind him, enough to make him the most bankable Hollywood crowd-pleaser this side of Steven Spielberg, with combined box-office receipts to his credit totaling more than $1.7 billion. With his reputation thus preceding him, he finally managed to convince an unusual pairing of 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures to share the risk of funding his dream project. Hollywood’s reluctance was by no means incomprehensible. In addition to the Titanic box-office curse, there was the fact that Cameron had never made a film quite like this one before. In fact, no one was making films like this in the 1990s; Cameron was envisioning an old-fashioned historical epic, a throwback to the likes of War and Peace, Cleopatra, and Gone with the Wind, complete with those films’ three-hour-plus running times.

Cameron’s plan for his movie had changed remarkably little from that 1987 journal outline. He still wanted to bookend the main story with shots of the real wreck. He filmed this footage first, borrowing a Russian research vessel and deep-ocean submersible in September of 1995 in order to do so. Then it was time for the really challenging part. The production blasted out a 17-million-gallon pool on Mexico’s Baja coast and replicated the Titanic inside it at almost a one-to-one scale, working from the original builder’s blueprints. The sight of those iconic four smokestacks — the Titanic is the one ship in the world that absolutely everyone can recognize — looming up out of the desert was surreal to say the least, but it was only the beginning of the realization of Cameron’s vision. Everything that came within the view of a camera was fussed over for historical accuracy, right down to the pattern of the wainscotting on the walls.

Still hewing to the old-school formula for Hollywood epics, Cameron decided to make his foreground protagonists a pair of starstruck lovers from different sides of the economic divide: a prototypical starving artist from Steerage Class and a pampered young woman from First Class. This suited his backers very well; the stereotype-rooted but nevertheless timeless logic of their industry told them that men would come for the spectacle of seeing the ship go down, while women would come for the romance. The lead roles went to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a pair of uncannily beautiful young up-and-comers. Pop diva Celine Dion was recruited to sing a big, impassioned theme song. For, if it was to have any hope of earning back its budget, this film would need to have something for everyone: action, romance, drama, a dash of comedy, and more than a little bit of sex appeal. (DiCaprio’s character painting Winslet’s in the altogether remains one of the more famous female nude scenes in film history.) But whether that would make it an entertainment spectacle for the ages or just an unwieldy monstrosity was up for debate.

The press at least knew where they were putting their money. When the project passed the $170 million mark to officially become the most expensive movie ever made, they had a field day. The previous holder of the record had been a deliriously misconceived 1995 fiasco called Waterworld, and the two films’ shared nautical theme was lost on no one. Magazines and newspapers ran headlines like “A Sinking Sensation” and “Glub! Glub! Glub!” before settling on calling Titanic — Cameron had decided that that simple, unadorned name was the only one that would suit his film — “the Waterworld of 1997.” By the time it reached theaters on December 19, 1997, six months behind schedule, its final cost had grown to $200 million.

And then? Well, then the press and public changed their tune, much to the benefit of the latest Titanic game.

(Sources: the books Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone, Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi, A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, and The Way It Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books edited by Jenny Lawrence; SoftSide of August 1982; the Voyager CD-ROM A Night to Remember. The information on Steve Meretzky’s would-be Titanic game is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me many years ago now, and from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Another online source was “7 of the World’s Deadliest Shipwrecks” at Britannica. My thanks to reader Peter Olausson for digging up a vintage newspaper headline that labels the Titanic “unsinkable” and letting me link to it.)


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