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Silas Warner and Muse Software

Silas Warner was born in Chicago on August 18, 1949, the first and only child of Forrest and Ann Warner. Their family situation was fraught, with Ann and Silas allegedly suffering physically and mentally at the hands of Forrest. Although they couldn’t prove it, it’s a measure of how bad the situation was that both believed that Forrest attempted to kill them by tampering with the brakes on Ann’s car when Silas was 5. Shortly after, they fled Chicago to return to Ann’s home town of Bloomington, Indiana. With the support of her family, Ann earned a degree in education from Indiana University and began teaching. Silas never had any personal contact with his father for the rest of his life.

Ann never remarried, but rather built her emotional world around Silas. She could happily talk for hours about her son, whom she devoutly believed was “special,” destined for great things. As evidence, she claimed that he had already begun reading at the age of two. Later she would brag about his alleged perfect score on his SAT test, or his scholarship offers. She encouraged him to immerse himself in books and intellectual pursuits even as he physically grew up to be a veritable giant, almost seven feet in height and well over 300 pounds in weight. The portrait that emerges on a site offering reminiscences is of an intellectually prodigious and essentially good-hearted but — to put it mildly — socially challenged person. He often struck others as just a little bit sad. A cousin writes about playing on visits with the elaborate train set he’d constructed, but also says that “it was really hard to talk to him. He didn’t seem to know how to carry on a conversation or even really how to ‘play.’ I have to say I just felt sorry for him.” His mother didn’t help the situation by actively discouraging him from having much contact with even his cousins, whom she judged “not up to his caliber of intelligence.” With his social ineptitude, his weight, and the clothes that Ann made for him because she couldn’t purchase any big enough, Silas had a predictably rough time of it in high school. Even a flirtation with football only left him with an injury that would bother him for the rest of his life. On the other hand, his size was intimidating, and he could display a vicious temper when sufficiently roused; he knocked at least one bully unconscious.

Silas entered Indiana University’s physics program in 1966. (It’s a funny thing that so many hackers — Will Crowther and Ken Williams also among them — first entered university as physics majors in the days when computer-science programs and computer access in general weren’t so common. It must have something to do with being attracted to complex systems.) At university Silas continued his eccentric ways. A fellow student speaks of him “walking campus in his long black trench coat reading advanced chemistry and physics textbooks only inches from his face.” More surprisingly, he became “a reporter for the campus radio station, toting his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder gathering stories.”

He also discovered computers at Indiana University. In fact, he found a job working with them before he even graduated, dividing his senior year between his studies and a contract programming job developing accident-analysis software in COBOL for an IBM mainframe. After finishing his degree in 1970, he stayed at the university as an “undergraduate assistant,” an interface of sorts between the student body and the arcane world of the university’s computer systems. That put him in an idyllic position when PLATO came to Indiana University.

I’ve had occasion to mention the PLATO system before on this blog when I described the earliest computerized adaptations of Dungeons and Dragons that were hosted there. I’ve also mentioned Control Data Corporation, who built the mainframe and custom graphical terminals that ran PLATO in addition to giving a young Ken Williams his entree into the computer industry. What I haven’t done, however, is describe the link between the two.

CDC’s co-founder and CEO through its rise, glory years, and eventual downfall in the 1980s at the hands of the new microcomputers was a man named Bill Norris, who refused to accept the currently fashionable business dogma that a corporation’s only duty to society was to maximize profits and shareholder value. An odd combination of shrewd businessman and dreamy idealist, he attempted to use CDC as a force for social good by opening factories in economically depressed areas and funding experimental wind farms amongst a multitude of other projects. Even the Control Data Institute that gave Ken Williams his start was something of a do-gooder project of Norris’s, founded to give bright kids without university credentials a chance to build a career in the computer industry as well as to provide a pool of inexpensive workers for CDC. At a time when even most of his fellow computer-industry executives saw the machines primarily as tools of business, he believed that they could also be a source of social good. He therefore signed CDC on to be the technological and industrial partner of the PLATO system in 1963, just three years after Donald Blitzer had produced the first proofs of concept at the University of Illinois. With steady funding from the National Science Foundation, PLATO grew rapidly from there, with much of its development taking place at a new independent entity, the Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL), which stood halfway between the business pole of the program (CDC) and the academic pole (the University of Illinois). It would be silly to claim that CDC had no legitimate business interest in PLATO; CERL and PLATO delivered a steady stream of innovative new technologies and ideas to the company. Still, the relationship also reflected Norris’s unique approach to business with a social conscience.

As I wrote in that earlier post, PLATO really came of age with the PLATO IV iteration in 1972, which brought graphical display terminals out of Illinois for the first time to hundreds of institutions spread around the country and, eventually, the world. One of the first of those institutions was the University of Indiana, where Silas helped to set up the first terminals. Soon he was not just administering the system but contributing major pieces of courseware and other software. For instance, he authored “HELP,” a standard tutorial and introduction to the system for new users, and a “massive lesson menu system named IUDEMO.”

PLATO programs — optimistically called “lessons” — were programmed in a language called TUTOR that was accessible to every user. This relatively easy-to-use language enabled much of the creativity of the PLATO community. It allowed educators and students with no knowledge of the vagaries of bits and bytes to design serviceable programs while also being powerful enough to create some surprisingly elaborate games, from dungeon crawls to flight simulators, board-game adaptations to shoot-em-ups. Many if not most of these games were multiplayer; you simply navigated to a “big board” of eager players, found a partner (or two, or more; some could support more than 50 simultaneous players, amounting to virtual worlds in their own right as well as games), and dived in. In addition to his more legitimate activities, Silas became deeply involved with this generally tolerated-if-not-encouraged side of PLATO. He helped John Daleske get started developing Empire, an early — possibly the first — multiplayer action game. Later, he developed his own variant of Empire, which he called Conquest. Another project was possibly the world’s first multiplayer flight simulator, called Air Race. On the theory that guns make everything more fun, Brand Fortner built from Air Race the multiplayer air-combat simulation Air Fight, which became one of PLATO’s biggest hits as well as one of its administrators’ biggest scourges; 50 or 60 active Air Fight players could bring PLATO’s million-dollar CDC mainframe to its knees.

CERL and CDC sometimes hired particularly promising PLATO programmers to work for them. That’s how Silas came to leave Indiana University at last in 1976, moving to Baltimore to work for Commercial Credit, a consumer lending company that was, oddly enough, wholly owned by CDC. Silas came in to develop various in-house training programs on PLATO, such as “Sales-Call Simulator,” an “educational adventure.” While he was about it, he also created his first hit game, Robot War. Each player would program the AI routines for her own robot, using a language Silas devised for the purpose that was essentially a subset of the TUTOR language that virtually every serious PLATO user already had at least some familiarity with. Then the robots would go at it, while the players watched and hoped. Robot War was the first of its kind, the first of a whole genre of programming games that remain a beloved if obscure preoccupation of some hackers to this day. (I’ll have much more to say about Robot War soon).

Silas became particular friends with two other Commercial Credit employees: Ed Zaron, a programmer in the credit scoring department; and Jim Black, an accountant in the billing department. Zaron describes his introduction to the always eccentric Silas:

Silas is one of a kind. I’ll never forget first meeting him. Silas is a big guy, maybe 6’8″ and say 320lbs. Here’s the picture, he was walking down mainstreet in downtown Baltimore wearing a huge, sagging sports coat. He had a car battery (yes, car battery!) in one pocket, a CB radio in the other pocket and a whip antenna stuck down the back of his jacket. He was occasionally talking on the CB as he held two magazines open in one hand. One of Silas’s favorite things was to read two mags simultaneously, kinda one inside the other, flipping back and forth.

This was just about the time that the microcomputer trinity of 1977 arrived. Silas, Zaron, and Black all became very early Apple II adopters; Silas, for instance, ended up with serial number 234. Like Scott Adams and others with the programming skills to make the machines do something at least ostensibly fun or useful, the three decided to form a company — Muse Software. Their first products were, like most early Apple II software, programmed in BASIC.

Muse debuted with two games. There was Zaron’s Tank Wars, a multiplayer arcade-style game similar to the Atari 2600’s original Combat. And there was a maze game by Silas, which presented its world to the player via a first-person, three-dimensional rendering, possibly the first such ever crafted for a microcomputer. The concept was, however, old hat on PLATO, where similar so-called “maze runners” were a popular genre. Indeed, Muse’s PLATO experiences would prove to be a fecund source of inspiration, as they continued to adapt ideas born of that system’s flourishing games community for the little micros. Within a few months Silas had expanded his maze game to create Escape!, the game which inspired Richard Garriott to make 3D dungeons a part of Akalabeth and, by extension, the Ultimas. Escape! killed productivity inside Apple itself, as described by David Gordon, the man responsible for introducing it there:

On one of my first trips to Apple Computer in 1978 I took with me a simple maze game called Escape by a fledgling company called Muse. Apple had 50 or 60 employees at the time and I created a work loss of approximately 60 man weeks because everyone at Apple was playing that game instead of working. They were charting out the mazes and trying to solve the puzzle.

Muse’s simple programs, which they pumped out at a prodigious rate and packaged themselves using art provided by Black’s girlfriend, proved to be surprisingly popular. Weary of spending their evenings copying cassettes and their weekends touring the East Coast trade-show circuit, Zaron and Black soon quit their jobs at Commercial Credit to make a real, entrepreneurial go of it, although a more cautious Silas stayed on there until 1980. With public-relations skills like this, maybe it was for the best that Silas didn’t have so much time for the shows:

I remember in the early days of MUSE, I attended a “Computer Show” in Philadelphia with my dad and Silas. He had just written that Voice/Music program for the Apple II, which attracted a pretty big crowd. The big thing then was selling and trading programs recorded on cassette tapes. Hilarious! Anyway, it was great to see Silas pitching the programs and working with people. You really got to see what they were made of when he would stop talking, reach into his nose and pull out a gigantic booger, and then wipe it on the underside of the nearest table or chair, and continue with the demonstration. He was really great.

Muse’s early catalogs contained a shambolic line of programs typical of other early software houses like Adventure International and On-Line Systems. In addition to the games, there were drawing programs, programming utilities, educational drills, text editors. By 1980, however, disks and the spacious 48 K of memory that came in the Apple II Plus were becoming the accepted standard, and customers were beginning to expect more of their software. Muse created a development system of its own that allowed them to write fast assembly language programs while still having access to some of the conveniences and structure of higher level languages. With Silas on board full time at last, they also moved from their first office, a cramped space above a gun store, to lease a two-story building for themselves in downtown Baltimore. The top floor housed the business and software development arms, which now consisted of half a dozen employees, while the lower floor became the “Muse Computer Center,” a retail computer store selling Muse’s products as well as those of others. One non-obvious advantage of operating a store was that it allowed Muse to order products at dealer prices, making it easy to keep up with the competition’s latest in the fast-moving game of oneupsmanship that the Apple II software market was becoming.

In that spirit: Muse’s two major products of 1980 both advanced the state of the art. Zaron’s Super-Text was the most powerful and usable of the early Apple II word processors. And Silas’s The Voice let the user, incredibly, record her own voice and play it back, after a fashion, on the Apple II’s primitive sound hardware. This was absolutely unprecedented stuff. Both programs would play a big role in Silas’s two landmark games of the following year, about which more in my next post.

 
 

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Hall of Fame

One of the problems with trying to experience the history of gaming for yourself, by actually playing games, is that so many games are so very, very bad. I obviously can’t do much about that directly, but I can offer a roughly chronological list of games that balances claims of historical importance against playability and fairness. That’s what you’ll find below, slowly growing as we continue to work our way through history on the blog proper. If you’re just looking for an interesting game to play, you can feel pretty confident selecting any title from this list. And if you’re a serious student of computer-gaming history and want to experience it from the beginning, I suppose you might just have a project here that could absorb many years as this list continues to grow. In the name of painting as accurate an historical portrait as I can while still offering a list of games that are actually fun to play, I’ve substituted for some historically important games that I consider pretty much unplayable today (like the Sierra Hi-Res Adventure line) others that give a good impression of the genre or movement they represent while working better as satisfying games (in the case of the Hi-Res Adventures, for instance, that would largely be Transylvania).

I hope you find this list enlightening and/or useful.


1. Eliza (1966)

Joseph Weizenbaum’s psychologist simulator is one of the most important computer programs ever written, prompting its players for the first time to suspend their disbelief and join with the computer in a shared interactive fiction.


2. The Oregon Trail (1971)

Schoolteacher Don Rawitsch’s attempt to introduce his students to the rigors of the pioneer life lives on to this day, as important to the history of interactive narrative as it is to that of computers in education.


3. Hunt the Wumpus (1972)

Gregory Yob’s “topological computer game” introduced to the world the representation of a consistent geography inside a game and the joys (?) of mapping the same.


4. Adventure (1977)

The urtext of adventure gaming in all of the forms it’s taken in the decades since, Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure combined Eliza‘s model of interaction as a conversation between player and program with The Oregon Trail‘s narrative elements and Hunt the Wumpus‘s representation of geographic space to become the game that changed everything.


5. Adventureland (1978)

Scott Adams’s 16 K miniature masterstroke brought adventure gaming to microcomputers.


6. The Count (1979)

Scott Adams’s only really successful attempt to break out of the mold of “treasures for points” was also his first, managing to introduce an element of time and dynamic plotting to a game that still ran in just 16 K.


7. The Prisoner (1980)

The first game on this list to feature graphics, David Mullich’s unlicensed knockoff of the old television show turned into a fascinating homage to its inspiration and gaming’s first unabashed striving toward Art.


8. Zork (1980)

Infocom’s first and most commercially successful game of all could be described as “just” Adventure with a better parser and a better world model, except that those two things made all the difference in the world.


9. Ultima (1981)

The urtext of an entire school of CRPG design, the first Ultima also becomes the most enjoyable and playable of Richard Garriott’s early works by keeping the size reasonable and the player’s goals relatively clear.


10. Softporn (1981)

A rare example of a game that’s better than its reputation, Chuck Benton’s evocation of singles life in the disco era is worth a play, even if the actual game is destined to be eternally overshadowed by that cover art.


11. Castle Wolfenstein (1981)

Silas Warner’s movie-inspired World War II caper is a masterpiece of Apple II programming and the first successful action/adventure hybrid on a computer, not to mention the starting point of one of the most long-lived franchises in the history of gaming.


12. Wizardry (1981)

The yin to Ultima‘s yang, Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg’s Wizardry did the tactical dungeon crawl so well that future games, including its own sequels, would struggle to really improve upon it for years to come.


13. Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds (1982)

The first sequel to Wizardry is more like an expansion pack that introduces the joys of high-level dungeon crawling and completes the story of the intrepid party you created in the first game.


14. Transylvania (1982)

Penguin’s very first adventure game as well as one of the best examples of the “hi-res” school of illustrated text adventures that dominated on the Apple II during the early 1980s, Antonio Antiochia’s homage to the old Universal monster movies is a B-grade Gothic delight.


15. Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982)

Zork II has some dodgy puzzles and is generally skippable, but Marc Blank’s haunting conclusion to the trilogy is not, showcasing as it does Infocom’s rapidly evolving sense of craft in writing and game design alike.


16. Starcross  (1982)

Dave Lebling’s first solely-authored game for Infocom had you exploring a huge alien spaceship that was one of the most coherent settings yet constructed for an adventure game.


17. M.U.L.E. (1983)

Danielle Bunten Berry’s lighthearted multiplayer game of economic strategy is one of the best examples of pure design craft I’ve ever seen, and certainly the game that has provided me with more hours of fun per kilobyte than any other.


18. The Witness (1983)

Marc Blank’s earlier Deadline would have been on this list if it was made purely with an eye to historical importance, but since it isn’t I include instead Infocom’s second mystery, this time by Stu Galley, which offers the same revolutionary new approach to adventure games as dynamic systems rather than static maps while also managing to be be much more fair about the whole thing.


19. Planetfall (1983)

Steve Meretzky’s first game for Infocom introduced Floyd, lovable robot sidekick and the first character you could really care about inside an adventure game.


20. Enchanter (1983)

Originally conceived as Zork IV, Marc Blank and Dave Lebling’s latest fantasy romp for Infocom added a hugely entertaining and influential spellcasting system to the old equation.


21. Infidel (1983)

The world’s first interactive tragedy, Mike Berlyn’s workmanlike game of adventurous Egyptology culminates in a very shocking and controversial ending that continues to spark debates on the very nature of adventure games.


22. King’s Quest (1984)

It’s hard to convey today just how amazing Roberta Williams’s free-roaming cartoon adventure was in 1984, the year it saved Sierra On-Line from an early extinction.


23. Summer Games (1984)
24. Summer Games II (1985)
25. Winter Games (1985)
26. World Games (1986)
27. California Games (1987)

Perhaps unjustly, I’ve used Epyx’s Games series in the blog proper mainly to illustrate the evolving art of Commodore 64 graphics and sound, but they’re still immensely entertaining to play with the right group of friends.


28. Sorcerer (1984)

Steve Meretzky’s sequel to Enchanter reflects his goofier style of humor, but the magic-based puzzles are no less entertaining for it.


29. Seastalker (1984)

The debut of a would-be new line of Infocom Interactive Fiction Junior for children, this gee-whiz undersea adventure was largely written by Jim Lawrence, whose pedigree as a ghostwriter for Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift made him the perfect man for the job.


30. Dragonworld (1984)

Telarium’s line of illustrated adventure games based on popular books had its problems, but this is one of the best, perhaps because a coauthor of the book in question, Byron Preiss, was also the driving force behind Telarium itself.


31. Amazon (1984)

The other really good Telarium game is this jungle adventure written by none other than Michael Crichton of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park fame.


32. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984)

This collaboration between Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky stands as one of the most self-aware, delightfully subversive text adventures ever written as well as the high point in Infocom’s commercial fortunes.


33. Suspect (1984)

The third of Infocom’s original trilogy of hardcore mysteries, Dave Lebling’s Suspect is harder than The Witness but fairer than Deadline.


34. Elite (1984)

A universe in 32 K, an icon of British game development, and the urtext of a genre of space-combat simulations, the sheer scope of David Braben and Ian Bell’s game of combat, exploration, and trade can inspire awe even today.


35. Deus Ex Machina (1984)

More a piece of multimedia art than a conventional game, Mel Croucher’s countercultural magnum opus tried to pack a lifetime into a 48 K Sinclair Spectrum and a handy nearby stereo system.


36. Déjà Vu (1985)

While Sierra had gotten the ball rolling with King’s Quest, it was left to ICOM Simulations to fully embrace the computing paradigm of the new Apple Macintosh by dumping the parser completely from this entertaining two-fisted detective caper, inventing the genre of the point-and-click graphic adventure and numbering the days of the commercial text adventure.


37. Mindwheel (1985)

This surreal psychological fantasy, the only of Synapse’s ambitious line of Electronic Novels to fully succeed artistically, was written by Robert Pinsky, future Poet Laureate of the United States and the most prestigious literary figure ever to turn his hand to the humble text adventure.


38. Wishbringer (1985)

Infocom’s first attempt at an introductory game for adults was this artful mixture of foreboding and whimsy written by Brian Moriarty.


39. A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985)

Infocom’s first and only foray into almost entirely puzzleless interactive fiction, Steve Meretzky’s time-traveling mixture of hard science fiction and contemporary political commentary bites off at least three or four more Big Ideas than it can chew, but is nevertheless fascinating for what it attempts and for the considerable degree to which its ambitions are in fact realized.


40. Spellbreaker (1985)

Dave Lebling’s conclusion to Infocom’s Enchanter trilogy is something of an extended proof of the theorem that adventure games don’t need to be unfair to be really, really challenging.


41. Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (1985)

An icon of edutainment to rival The Oregon Trail, Brøderbund’s game puts you on the trail of a ring of international thieves, crisscrossing the globe with your trusty World Almanac and Book of Facts — or, these days, Wikipedia — at your side.


42. Borrowed Time (1985)

The best of Interplay’s early illustrated text adventures, Borrowed Time is a hard-boiled private-eye tale with a cutting sense of humor.


43. Leader Board Golf (1986)

Particularly when played with others, Access’s minimalist masterpiece is far more compelling than a golf game in which the terrain consists solely of flat green land and equally featureless blue water really ought to be.


44. Oo-Topos (1986)
45. The Coveted Mirror (1986)

These two remakes of earlier adventures written using Penguin/Polarware’s new Comprehend engine represent the culmination of the “hi-res” tradition of illustrated text adventures.


46. Starflight (1986)

A feat of high-wire software engineering that became the first popular MS-DOS-exclusive game, Binary Systems’s space opera took full advantage of those machines’ memory and processing power to offer an awe-inspiring persistent galaxy to explore and a compelling intergalactic mystery to unravel in one of the first games that amply justifies the adjective of “epic.”


47. Portal (1986)

Rob Swigart’s Computer Novel for Activision is a minor jewel of science-fiction worldbuilding and also our own world’s first notable example of serious literary hyperfiction, predating HyperCard, Storyspace, and the World Wide Web.


48. Killed Until Dead (1986)

Artech’s delightful casual mystery game offers 21 snack-sized cases to solve and a palpable love for the history of the literary genre on which they’re based.


49. Trinity (1986)

For me, Brian Moriarty’s mournful atomic-age tragedy is the Big One, Infocom’s greatest single achievement and a work of interactive poetry which moves me like no other.


50. Leather Goddess of Phobos (1986)

Steve Meretzky returns to his wheelhouse of science-fiction comedy, this time with the additional spice of sex that turned it into Infocom’s last genuine hit.


51. Defender of the Crown (1986)

The game that introduced Cinemaware’s concept of interactive movies to the world and showed for the first time what the new Commodore Amiga could really do in the process, Defender of the Crown‘s mouthwatering atmosphere makes up for a multitude of minor gameplay sins.


52. King of Chicago (1986)

Written almost singlehandedly by Doug Sharp in its original Macintosh incarnation, Cinemaware’s most ambitious attempt at creating a responsive interactive story is still fascinating and instructive today, both in where it fails and the surprising degree to which it sometimes succeeds.


53. Guild of Thieves (1987)

Magnetic Scrolls’s most archetypal game is this sprawling old-school treasure hunt full of gorgeous pictures, puzzles of many stripes, and a delicate seasoning of English whimsy.


54. Gnome Ranger (1987)

The second Level 9 text adventure to use the KAOS system with its active non-player characters who can follow your instructions, Gnome Ranger has some of the most unique puzzles mechanics you’ll ever see, and is in my opinion Level 9’s most playable, most soluble, and all-around best game.


55. Giant Killer (1987)

Peter Killworth’s educational “maths adventure” is one of the most-played text adventures in history, for years a fixture of British schools and today an accessible introduction to the otherwise intimidating Phoenix/Topologika tradition of hyper-intellectual adventuring.


56. Accolade’s Comics (1987)

The first original game by Distinctive Software was this charming interactive comic book with its almost 400 original panel illustrations and 8 action games.


57. Pirates! (1987)

The first addictive Sid Meier masterpiece is in my opinion simply the finest game ever born on the Commodore 64.


58. Maniac Mansion (1987)

The best graphic adventure ever made for the Commodore 64 and the starting point of the LucasArts tradition of saner, fairer puzzling, this intricately nonlinear and endlessly likable multi-character caper deserves a spot here despite a few rough edges.


59. Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987)

While its bullying personality isn’t always completely to my taste, the first Leisure Suit Larry is a very well-designed adventure game — the first Sierra game for which I can unabashedly make such a claim — and its hapless protagonist an icon of the genre.


60. Bureaucracy (1987)

It’s a shaggy, disjointed beast to be sure, but Infocom’s only interactive social satire is also both archly funny and a deliciously tempting nightmare come true for lovers of punishing but fair puzzles.


61. Stationfall (1987)

Steve Meretzky’s final all-text adventure game starts as another of his goofy science-fiction comedies and then slowly turns into… something else entirely.


62. The Lurking Horror (1987)

Despite marking the first full-fledged work of Lovecraftian horror in computer gaming, Dave Lebling’s final all-text adventure game is almost more interesting and significant as a nostalgic look back to life at MIT, the place where Zork and Infocom were born.


63. Plundered Hearts (1987)

Infocom’s only interactive romance lives up to the ideal of “waking up inside a story” better than any other game they ever released, being a rollicking ride through pirates, powder kegs, and pieces of eight sufficient to make the most stalwart romance hater’s bosom heave.


64. Border Zone (1987)

The real-time gimmick used in this interactive spy story is perhaps problematic, but the game itself transcends it, delivering three sustained cinematic action sequences that get the blood pumping in a way that no other entry in Infocom’s catalog can quite match.


65. The Fool’s Errand (1987)

Occasionally called the “greatest puzzle game ever made,” The Fool’s Errand is in its way even more compelling than that description would imply, an onion of unfathomed depths just waiting to be peeled back layer by delicious layer.


66. Dungeon Master (1987)

The most technically and formally innovative CRPG since Ultima and Wizardry laid down the ground rules, history’s first grid-based real-time dungeon crawler might also be its best, with level design to die for — and, trust me, die you will.


67. Three Stooges (1988)

Okay, it’s a trifle, but it makes me and my wife laugh, and sometimes after a long day that’s all you really need, isn’t it?


68. Pool of Radiance (1988)

The first game in SSI’s Gold Box line of officially licensed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs is not without its irritations and frustrations, but they are far outweighed by one of the best tactical-combat systems ever made and a general design philosophy of sparing you most of the boring stuff so endemic to its contemporaries.


69. Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels (1988)

Infocom’s final all-text adventure game is as good a way to say farewell to the era as any, a sturdily constructed scavenger hunt set in the lovingly recreated gas-lit environs of Victorian London.


70. Fish! (1988)

A riot of fishy puns and surrealistic humor, Fish! manages to be bizarre, challenging, and fair at the same time — no mean achievement — and is on the whole my favorite of Magnetic Scrolls’s games.


71. A Dudley Dilemma (1988)

The first really good game of the AGT era and a fine addition to the long tradition of collegiate interactive fiction, Lane Barrow’s A Dudley Dilemma manages to do for life at Harvard what Infocom’s The Lurking Horror did for life at MIT.


72. The Manhole (1988)

Far more than just the first stop on the road to Myst, Rand and Robyn Miller’s goalless and puzzless “fantasy exploration for children of all ages” is intriguing and delightful in its own right.


73. Neuromancer (1988)

Though it’s kind of a terrible adaptation of William Gibson’s novel of the same name, Neuromancer the game is great as a game, a thoroughly enjoyable, content-rich experience unlike any other of its era — or, for that matter, of any era since.


74. Son of Stagefright (1989)

Mike McCauley’s AGT creation is both a love letter to plays, play-makers, and playgoers and a great, genial puzzler of a text adventure.


75. Hero’s Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero (1989)

Later renamed Quest for Glory for legal reasons, the first game in Lori and Corey Cole’s delightful series of adventure/CRPG hybrids sets the generous standard for the series as a whole, allowing you to play it exactly how you want to.


76. It Came from the Desert (1989)

Cinemaware’s finest hour, It Came from the Desert really does kind of make you feel like you’re starring in your own interactive B-movie.


77. Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989)

This sequel to Pool of Radiance mostly maintains the high design standard set by its predecessor, and lets you advance your characters from the previous game to a point just before leveling up in Dungeons & Dragons stops being much fun anyway.


78. Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire (1990)

The second game in the series moves the character you created in Hero’s Quest into a setting drawn from the Arabian Nights.


79. Wonderland (1990)

Magnetic Scrolls’s swansong is this fine old-school Lewis Carroll pastiche.


80. Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls (1990)

Marking the debut of Legend Entertainment, the implicit heir to Infocom, Steve Meretzky’s fantasy farce mixes dumb humor with smart puzzles as only he could.


81. Loom (1990)

Brian Moriarty’s minimalist masterpiece of a graphic adventure doesn’t take that long to play, but you’ll never forget it after you finish it.


82. The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

The archetypal LucasArts adventure game, Ron Gilbert’s comic tale showed that deaths and dead ends aren’t necessary to make a challenging graphic adventure, becoming in the process one of the most influential adventure games ever made.


83. Railroad Tycoon (1990)

Sid Meier’s second masterpiece was like nothing anyone had ever seen at the time of its release, and remains today one of the finest and most influential strategy games ever made.


84. Wing Commander (1990)

Wing Commander combined a space-combat simulator with a cinematic narrative and wound up being not only more than the sum of its parts but a blueprint for a good chunk of gaming’s future.


85. Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990)

Applying the Ultima VI engine to a setting drawn from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World rather than Renaissance Fair fantasy was one of the best ideas Warren Spector ever had.


86. Lemmings (1991)

Arguably the greatest single game ever born on the Amiga and certainly the most popular, Lemmings is an immaculate creation, a stunningly original concept nearly perfectly executed across its 120 intriguing, delightful, infuriating levels — and yes, it’s pretty darn cute to boot.


87. Cosmoserve (1991)

A perfect time capsule of online circa 1991, Cosmoserve is also a great, challenging adventure game — and the most technically impressive thing ever done with the AGT programming language.


88. The Dungeon of Dunjin (1991)

If you’ve ever wished for a Zork that didn’t hate its player quite so much, Magnus Olsson’s game, a sprawling old-school treasure hunt without the worst old-school design sins, will fit the bill very nicely.


89. Castle of Dr. Brain (1991)

Don’t let the “educational” label scare you away; this collection of puzzles is great fun for adults as well as children, coming complete with all of designer Corey Cole’s usual charm, generosity, and horrid puns.


90. Worlds of Ultima II: Martian Dreams (1991)

The only thing better than an Ultima set in a lost valley full of dinosaurs is an Ultima set on the late nineteenth century’s idea of Mars, inhabited by some of the most fascinating historical personages of the period, from Sarah Bernhardt to H.G. Wells.


91. Civilization (1991)

Sid Meier’s third masterpiece, a strategy game of insane ambition and scope, with a view of history that gives as much weight to dreamers and artists as it does to soldiers and statesman — a game that really shouldn’t work but somehow does, and does so in about the most inspiring way imaginable.


92. The Island of Dr. Brain (1992)

The sequel to one of Sierra’ finest games of the early 1990s can stand up proudly alongside its predecessor even absent the involvement of Corey Cole, offering many more great puzzles to solve, covering an even wider range of subject matter.


93. The Incredible Machine (1992)

The urtext of countless casual physics puzzlers, The Incredible Machine can still hold its own among even the best of its more modern descendants thanks to its superb level design.


94. Shades of Gray (1992)

A study in moral ambiguity in life and politics that provides much food for thought but no fast answers, this unusual team-authored text adventure doesn’t forget, as do too many overtly “artsy” interactive works, to be a well-designed and engaging game as well.


95. Gateway (1992)

I actually enjoy this roller coaster of a multimedia text adventure — the interactive equivalent of great summer beach read — more than I do the Frederik Pohl novels that inspired it.


96. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)

LucasArts’s point-and-click adaptation of their parent company’s second most beloved property starts by dropping Indiana Jones into a globetrotting caper worthy of any of the films, but finishes by forcing him to adapt to the adventure-game genre rather than the other way around.


97. The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes (1992)

This graphic adventure with an unusually literary feel is not just one of the best games ever made featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective but one of the best interactive mysteries, period — one of the few which gives you the feeling of actually solving a mystery rather than fiddling with arbitrary roadblock puzzles.


98. EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus (1992)

This game was marketed under Sierra’s Discovery imprint of educational software, and its message about the precious natural heritage that is our planet’s oceans and what we can do to preserve them is more timely than ever today — and yet it’s never preachy, functioning perfectly well as just an unusually funny, friendly, and fair Sierra adventure game.


99. Dune (1992)

A model for the intelligent adaptation of linear to interactive media, Cryo Interactive’s game of Frank Herbert’s novel and David Lynch’s film manages to capture all of the themes and atmosphere of its source materials while being enjoyable and thoroughly playable as an innovative adventure/strategy hybrid in its own right.


100. Ultima Underworld (1992)

The first texture-mapped first-person 3D game in history boasts a painstakingly simulated world, bursting with emergent possibility and setting a high bar for all the 3D games that would follow it  — and it’s also one of the greatest CRPG dungeon crawls in history, the seminal next step after the equally seminal Wizardry and Dungeon Master.


101. Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992)

The ultimate (sorry!) incarnation of the vision Richard Garriott had been pursuing since the late 1970s, Ultima VII is occasionally infuriating but more often delightful, thanks not least to some of the finest writing yet seen in a computer game this side of Infocom.


102. Eric the Unready (1993)

Bob Bates’s comic farce about the most inept knight ever is both great fun in its own right and a nostalgic treasure trove of early 1990s pop culture.


103. Gateway II: Homeworld (1993)

The last boxed parser-driven adventure game in history to find its way onto store shelves, this sequel is every bit as good as its predecessor, and is about as fine a commercial sendoff for its medium as one could ask for.


104. Star Trek: Judgment Rites (1993)

The second and best of Interplay’s two episodic Star Trek adventure games, Judgment Rites is a loving tribute to the original 1960s incarnation of the show — territory no game since has bothered to explore.


105. Perdition’s Flames (1993)

Taking place in an amusingly postmodern, corporate version of Hell, this sprawling puzzlefest is the Secret of Monkey Island of text adventures: an extended proof that making it impossible for the player to die or lock herself out of victory doesn’t prevent a text adventure from being intriguing, challenging, and fun.


106. Day of the Tentacle (1993)

Funny, clever, and polished to the finest of sheens in terms of both its audiovisual aesthetics and its design, this belated sequel to Maniac Mansion is, if not the best point-and-click adventure game ever made, at least a strong contender for the crown of best cartoon-comedy adventure game ever made.


107. Sam and Max Hit the Road (1993)

LucasArts’s other cartoon-comedy adventure game of 1993 is every bit as funny as Day of the Tentacle, but it has an edgier sensibility that feels appropriate for a game derived from an underground comic book.


108. Master of Orion (1993)

So much more than “Civilization in space,” Steve Barcia’s 4X space opera is carefully calibrated to make rote strategies impossible, and is so infinitely rewarding in all its dynamic variation that I’ve been playing it on and off since 1993 without ever getting tired of it.


109. Myst (1993)

It might not quite live up to all the hype — what game possibly could? — but once you set aside the baggage that goes with being the best-selling adventure game of all time you find a set of thoughtfully constructed puzzles in an evocative, desolately beautiful environment.


 

 

On S.D.I. (Just a Little) and King of Chicago (Quite a Lot)

In addition to Defender of the Crown, Bob Jacob and Cinemaware were able to deliver two more of their planned four launch titles to Mindscape before the end of 1986. Only Bill Williams’s Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon fell hopelessly behind schedule, getting pushed well into the following year. Of the games that did make it, Sculptured Software’s Atari ST game S.D.I. is mildly interesting as a time capsule of its era, Doug Sharp’s Macintosh game King of Chicago much more so as an important experiment in interactive narrative. Today I’ll endeavor to give each game its just desserts.

S.D.I.

The scenario of S.D.I. is almost hilariously of its time, a weird stew of science fiction and contemporary geopolitics that quotes Ronald Reagan’s speeches in its manual and could never have emerged more than a year or so earlier or later. It’s 2017, the Cold War has gone on business-as-usual for another thirty years, and Ronald Reagan’s vaunted Strategic Defense Initiative is approaching completion at last. In response, a large group of hardliners in the Soviet military have siezed control of many of their country’s ICBM sites to launch a preemptive first strike, while also — this being 2017 and all — flooding Earth orbit with fighter planes to blow up those S.D.I satellites that are already online. This being a computer game and all, the nascent trillion-dollar S.D.I. program comes down to one guy with the square-jawed name of Sloan McCormick, who’s expected to jump into his spaceship to shoot down the rebel fighters in between manually shooting rogue ICBMs out of the sky using the S.D.I. satellites. He’s of course played by you. If you succeed in holding the hardliners’ attacks at bay for long enough, you’ll get a distress call from the legitimate Soviet government’s central command station, whereupon — just in case anyone was thinking you hadn’t done enough for the cause already — you’ll have to singlehandedly enter the station and rescue it from a final assault by the hardliners. Succeed and you’ll get your trademark Cinemaware reward in the form of Natalya, the sultry commander of the station who’s inexplicably in love/lust with you. Who said glasnost was dead?

S.D.I.

Like Defender of the Crown, S.D.I. very nearly missed its planned launch. It took John Cutter stepping in and riding herd over a Sculptured Software that seemed to be just a little out of their depth to push the project along to completion. It isn’t a terrible game, but it is the Cinemaware game that feels least like a Cinemaware game, well earning its status as the forgotten black sheep of the family. Natalya aside, its cinematic influences are minimal. The manual tries heroically to draw a line of concordance through heroes like Flash Gordon and Han Solo to end up at Sloan McCormick, but even it must admit to an important difference: “This time the danger comes, not from an alien invasion, but from a force here on Earth.” Likewise, S.D.I. doesn’t conform to the normal Cinemaware ethos of (in Jacob’s words) “no typing, get you right into the game, no manual.” Flying around in space blasting rebels requires memorizing a number of keyboard commands that can be found nowhere other than the ideally unnecessary manual. What with its demanding, non-stop action broken down into distinct stages, S.D.I. reminds me of nothing so much as Access Software’s successful line of Commodore 64 action games that included Beach-Head and Raid Over Moscow; S.D.I. also shares something of a theme with the latter game, although it didn’t provoke anything like the same controversy. Unfortunately, Cinemaware’s take on the concept just isn’t executed as well. The “flight simulator” where you spend the majority of your time is a particular disappointment; your enemies follow a few distressingly predictable flight patterns, while your control over your own ship is nonsensically limited to gentle turns, climbs, and dives. And the Elite-inspired docking mini-game you have to go through every time you return to your base is just infuriating. But perhaps most distressing, especially to the Amiga owners who finally got their hands on the game when it was ported to their platform almost a year later, were the workmanlike graphics, created in-house by Sculptured Software. One could normally count on great graphics even from Cinemaware games whose gameplay was a bit questionable, but not so much this time. Even Natalya, well-endowed as she was, couldn’t compete with those fetching Saxon lasses from Defender of the Crown.

King of Chicago

King of Chicago is a far more innovative game. This interactive gangster flick stars you as Pinky Callahan, an ambitious young hoodlum in 1931 Chicago. Al Capone has just been sent away for tax evasion, creating an opening for you and your North Side gang of Irishmen, principal rivals of Capone’s Chicago Outfit. But to unite the Chicago underworld under your personal leadership you’ll first have to oust the Old Man who currently runs your own gang. Only then you can start on the Chicago Outfit — or, as the game calls them, the “South Siders.” Swap out medieval England for Prohibition-era Chicago and the scenario isn’t all that far removed from Defender of the Crown: conquer all of the territory on the map that’s held by your ethnic rivals. The experience of playing the two games, however, could hardly be more different.

Like Defender of the Crown, King of Chicago isn’t so interested in the actual history it references as it is in movie history. It doesn’t even bother to get the dates right; the game begins months before the real Capone was sentenced and sent away. Victory in King of Chicago must mean the North Siders rising again to take over the whole city, a scenario as ahistorical as the Saxons defeating the Normans to regain control of England. (Cinemaware did seem to have a thing for historical lost causes, didn’t they?) Prohibition-era Chicago is just a stage set for King of Chicago, Al Capone just a name to drop. The only place where the game notably departs from gangster-movie clichés is in making you and your gang a bunch of Irishmen rather than Italians — and if you don’t pay attention to one or two last names it’s easy to miss even that, given that there’s no voice acting and thus no accents to spot. Otherwise all of the expected tropes are there, from Pinky’s weeping mother who gives all the money he sends her to the church to his devious, high-maintenance girlfriend Lola. But then, as Bob Jacob so memorably put it, all Cinemaware really had to do was “rise to the level of copycat, and we’d be considered a breakthrough.” Fair enough. As homages go — and you’ll find very few computer-game fictions of the 1980s that aren’t an homage to more established media of one sort of another — King of Chicago is one of the better of its era.

Indeed, some may find it a bit too true to its inspirations. King of Chicago is notable for just how hardcore a take on the gangster genre it is. Pinky is a punk. You can play him as a devious sneak or a violent, impulsive psychopath, but he remains a punk. There’s no redemption to be found amongst King of Chicago‘s many possible story arcs, just crime and bloody murder and revenge and, if all goes well, control of the whole of Chicago. While the ledger quietly omits the brothels that provided so much of the real Chicago mob’s income, that’s about the only place where the game soft-pedals. Even Pinky’s interactions with Lola are peppered with crude remarks about how her skills in bed make up for her other failings. Bob Jacob’s original conception of Cinemaware as games for adults finds its fullest expression here, at least if what constitutes “adult” in your view is jaded sex and casual violence.

King of Chicago

More interestingly, King of Chicago represents one of Cinemaware’s most earnest and ambitious attempt at creating an interactive narrative with at least a modicum of depth. You could convert a play-through into a screenplay and have it read as, if not precisely a good screenplay, at least one that wasn’t totally ridiculous. Not coincidentally, King of Chicago contains far more text than the average Cinemaware game. Its formal approach is also unique: it’s essentially a hypertext narrative, years before that term came into common usage. You control Pinky through a bewildering thicket of story branches by clicking on multiple-choice thought bubbles above his head. Occasionally a little action game emerges to provide a change of pace, but these are relatively deemphasized in comparison with most Cinemaware games. If S.D.I. stands at the purely reactive, action-oriented end of the Cinemaware scale, King of Chicago stands at the opposite pole of cerebral storymaking. It has a certain — and I know Bob Jacob would hate this description — literary quality about it in comparison to its stablemates. You can see its unusual narrative sophistication not least in its female cast. While not exactly what you’d call progressive in its handling of women, King of Chicago does give them actual personalities and roles to enact in the drama, rather than regarding them strictly as prizes for a job well done. In this respect it once again stands out as almost unique in the Cinemaware catalog.

Doug Sharp dressed as a gangster for a King of Chicago promotional shoot.

Doug Sharp dressed as a gangster for a King of Chicago promotional photo shoot.

King of Chicago was the creation of a thirty-something former fifth-grade teacher named Doug Sharp, another of Jacob’s old contacts from his days as a software agent that were serving him so well now as a software entrepreneur in his own right. Sharp had first been exposed to microcomputers during the late 1970s, when he was teaching school in the educational-computing hotbed of Minnesota, home of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and their seminal edutainment game The Oregon Trail amongst other innovations. His habit of taking his school’s Apple IIs home with him on weekends soon led to a job writing educational software for Control Data and Science Research Associates. In 1984 he and a partner, Mike Johnson, started working on a spiritual successor to Silas Warner’s Robot War that they called ChipWits. Programmable robots remained the theme, but they were now programmed using a visual, icon-based language instead of Robot Wars‘s cryptic assembly-language-style code. ChipWits represented a kindler, gentler approach to recreational robot programming all the way around. Instead of focusing on free-form robot-against-robot combat, the game was built as a series of missions, a collection of discrete challenges that the player’s cute little robot had to overcome in the course of a grand and non-violent adventure. Written initially for the Commodore 64, ChipWits became one of the breakout stars of the January 1985 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, and did moderately well once released by Epyx shortly thereafter. The agent who brokered that publishing deal was, you guessed it, Bob Jacob, while Kellyn Beeck, soon to become Cinemaware’s most prolific game designer but then in charge of software acquisitions at Epyx, was the latter company’s signatory to the contract.

Sharp’s next game King of Chicago became the first of the eventual Cinemaware titles to go into development, several months before Jacob would even officially form his company. Sharp threw himself into the project with a will. He “collected all the classic gangster films. I picked apart what I enjoyed most about them and used this information to come up with my characters and storyline.” He worked with a graduate student in the University of Toronto’s drama department named Paul Walsh to learn the subtle nuances of pacing and dialog that make a good play or movie. Walsh became quite taken with the project for a while there in his own right. He had a blast coming up with new episodes for Sharp to sort through, chop up, and, truth be told, often discard. “When you work on a play,” Walsh said, “you have to cut out so much good stuff. With this, all your good ideas get thrown in.” True as ever to Cinemaware’s theme, Jacob would wind up giving Walsh a credit as “Dialog Coach” in the finished product. (Walsh would go on to a long and still-ongoing career as a professor, playwright, dramaturg, and translator of Ibsen.)

King of ChicagoApart from Walsh and some music contributed by Eric Rosser, that original Macintosh King of Chicago was the work of Doug Sharp alone. When the coding and writing got to be too much, he would retreat into his workshop to mold the heads of his various characters out of clay. Once crudely digitized and imported into the game, their grotesque shapes — some of the gangsters seem to have been afflicted with whatever strange illness led to Elephant Man Joseph Merrick — certainly gave the game a unique look, if one perhaps more appropriate to a horror movie than a gangster flick.

But no matter. What’s most interesting about King of Chicago is what’s going on beneath its surface. What might first appear to be a simple branching narrative in the tradition of Choose Your Own Adventure turns out to be something much more sophisticated. It is in fact a hugely innovative leap into uncharted waters in the fraught field of ludic narrative. I want to take some time here to talk about what King of Chicago does and how it does it because these qualities make it, so much less splashy than Defender of the Crown though its surface appearance and commercial debut may have been, of equal importance in its own way. More hypertext narrative than traditional adventure game, King of Chicago does its level best to make a story with you rather than merely tell you a story. This distinction is a very important one.

The story in a storytelling game lies waiting to be discovered — but not written — by you as you make your way through the game. Storytelling games can offer strong, interesting stories, but do so at the expense of player freedom. You generally have local agency only, meaning that you may have some options about the order in which you explore the storyworld and even how you cause events to progress, but you’re nevertheless tightly bound to the overall plot created by the game’s designer. The canonical example of a storytelling game, a perpetual touchstone of scholars from Janet Murray to Chris Crawford, is Infocom’s Planetfall, particularly the death therein of your poor little robot companion Floyd. Every player who completes Planetfall will have experienced the same basic story. She may have seen that story in a slightly different order than another player and even solved its problems in slightly different ways, but Floyd will always sacrifice himself at the climactic moment, and all of the other major plot events will always play out in the same way. Storytelling games are Calvinist in philosophy: free will is just an illusion, your destiny foreordained before you even get started. Still, fixed as their overall plots may be, they allow plenty of space for puzzle solving, independent investigation of the environment, and all those other things we tend to wrap up under the convenient term of “gameplay.” I’m of the opinion that experiencing a story through the eyes of a person who represents you the player, whom you control, can do wonders to immerse you in that story and deepen the impact it has on you. Some folks, however, take the Infocom style of interactive fiction’s explicit promise of an interactivity that turns out to exist only at the most granular level as a betrayal of the medium’s potential. This has led them to chase after an alternative in the form of the storymaking game.

The idealized storymaking game is one that turns you loose in a robustly simulated storyworld and allows you to create your own story in conjunction with the inhabitants of that world.1 Unfortunately, it remains an unsolved and possibly unsolvable problem, for we lack a computerized intelligence capable of responding to the player when the scope of action allowed to her includes literally anything she can dream of doing. Since an infinite number of possibilities cannot be anticipated and coded for by a human, the computer would need to be able to improvise on the fly, and that’s not something computers are notably good at doing. If we somehow could find a way around this problem, we’d just ram up against another: stories of any depth almost universally require words to tell, and computers are terrible at generating natural language. In a presentation on King of Chicago for the 1989 Game Developers Conference, Sharp guessed that artificial intelligence would reach a point around 2030 where what he calls “fat and deep,” AI-driven storymaking games would become possible. As of today, though, it doesn’t look like we’ll get there within the next fifteen years. We may never get there at all. Strong AI remains, at it always has, a chimera lurking a few decades out there in some murky future.

That said, there’s a large middle ground between the fixed, unalterable story arc of a Planetfall and the complete freedom of our idealized storymaking game. Somewhere inside that middle ground rests the field of choice-based or hypertext literature, which generally gives the player a great deal of control over where the story goes in comparison to a traditional adventure game of the Infocom stripe, if nothing close to the freedom promised by a true storymaking game. The hypertext author figures out all of the different ways that she is willing to allow the story to go beforehand and then hand-crafts lots and lots of text to correspond with all of her various narrative tributaries. The player still isn’t really making her own story, since she can’t possibly do anything that hasn’t been anticipated by the story’s author. Yet if the choices are varied and interesting enough it almost doesn’t matter.

The adventure game and the hypertext are two very distinct forms; fans of one are by no means guaranteed to be fans of the other. Each is in some sense an exploration of story, but in very different ways. If the adventure game is concerned with the immersive experience of story, the hypertext is concerned with possibilities, with that question we all ask ourselves all the time, even when we know we should know better: what would have happened if I had done something else? The natures of the two forms dictate the ways that we approach them. Most adventure games are long-form works which players are expected to experience just once. Most hypertexts by contrast are written under the assumption that the player will want to engage with them multiple times, making difference choices and exploring the different possible outcomes. This makes up for the fact that the average playthrough of the average hypertext, with its bird’s-eye view of the story, takes a small fraction of the time of the average playthrough of the average adventure game, with its worm’s-eye view. It also, not incidentally for Doug Sharp’s purposes, dovetails nicely with the Cinemaware concept of games that play out in no more time than it takes to watch a film, but that, unlike (most) films, can be revisited many times.

Narrative-oriented computer games in the early days hewed almost uniformly to the adventure-game model. Partly this was a matter of tradition; parsers and puzzles had become so established in the wake of Adventure and Scott Adams that it was seemingly hard for many authors to even conceive of alternative models of interaction (witness Nine Princes in Amber, a game that founders on the rocks between text adventure and hypertext). And partly this was a matter of technical constraints; those early machines were so starved for memory that the idea of a complex branching narrative, most of which the player would never see in any given playthrough, was a luxury authors could barely even conceive of affording. Thus during the early 1980s hypertexts were commonly found not on computers but in the hugely popular Choose Your Own Adventure line of children’s books and the many spin-offs and competitors it spawned.

The firewall began to come down at last in 1986, after designers began to realize that it was okay to dump parsers and puzzles if their design goals leaned in another direction, and after microcomputers had progressed enough from the days of 16 K and cassette tapes to crack open the door to more narrative experimentation. We’ve already looked closely at a couple of the works that resulted. Portal and Alter Ego each had the courage to abandon the parser, but neither takes full advantage of the new possibilities that come with placing a computer program — a real simulated storyworld — behind the multiple choices of Choose Your Own AdventurePortal is an exploration of a fixed, immutable story that has already happened rather than an exercise in making a new one. Alter Ego is more ambitious in its way, being an interactive story of a life that keeps track of your alter ego’s level of psychological, interpersonal, and economic achievement. Still, it doesn’t adapt the story it tells all that well to either your evolving personality or your evolving life situation, forcing you to power through largely the same set of vignettes every single time you play. King of Chicago, on the other hand, pushes the envelope of narratogicial possibility harder than any game that had yet appeared on a PC at the time of its release.

Here’s how Sharp describes his conception of his interactive movie:

A guy in a projection booth with hours and hours of film about a group of gangsters. The film is not on reels but in short clips of from a few seconds to a few minutes long. The clips hang all over the walls of the projection room. The projectionist knows exactly what’s on each clip and can grab a new one and thread it into the projector instantly. The audience is out there in the theater shouting out suggestions and the projectionist is listening and taking the suggestions into account but also factoring in what clips he’s already shown, because he wants to put together a real story with a beginning, middle, and end, subplots, introduction and development of characters and the whole narrative works. I wanted to minimize hard branches, to keep the cuts between clips as unpredictable as possible. Yet the story had to make sense, guys couldn’t die and reappear later, you couldn’t treat the gangster’s moll like dirt and expect her to cover your back later.

The second-to-last sentence is key. Hypertexts prior to King of Chicago had almost all been built out of predictable hard branches: “If you decide to do A, turn to page X; if you decide to do B, turn to page Y.” Such an approach all too often devolves after a play or two into a process of methodically lawn-mowering through the branches, looking for the path not yet taken until branches or patience is exhausted. Sharp, however, wanted a story that could feel fresh and surprising over many plays. In short, he wanted to deliver an exciting new gangster movie to his player each time. To do so, he would have to avoid the predictability of hard branches. He dubbed the system he came up with to do so Dramaton.

Like real life, Dramaton deals in probabilities and happenstance as much as cause and effect. The game as a whole can be thought of as a big bag of potential scenes, each described and “shot” much like a single scene from a movie, with the important difference that each offers Pinky one or more choices to make as it plays out. These choices can lead to a limited amount of the dreaded hard branching within each scene. Where Dramaton mixes things up, though, is in the way it chooses the next scene. Rather than inflexibly dictating what comes next via a hard branch, each episode alters a variety of variables reflecting the state of the storyworld and Pinky’s place within it. Some of these are true/false flags. (Has Pinky bumped off the Old Man to assume control of the gang? Has the eminently bribeable Alderman Burke been elected mayor?) Others are numeric measurements. (How happy is Pinky’s girl Lola with her beau? How does the rest of the gang feel about him? How well are the North Siders doing in Chicago at large? How agitated are the police by the gangsters’ activities?)

After an episode is complete, a narrative generator — what Sharp calls the Narraton — looks at all of these factors, then adds a healthy dose of good old randomness to choose an appropriate next episode that fits with what has come before. The player’s specific choices in an episode can also have a direct impact on what happens next, but with rare exceptions such choices are used more to whittle down the field of possibilities than to force a single, pre-determined follow-up episode. For example, if the player has just decided it might be a good idea to go see what’s up with Lola, the following episode will be restricted to those involving her.

To facilitate choosing an appropriate episode, each is assigned “keys,” amounting to the state of affairs in the storyworld that would ideally hold sway for it to fit perfectly into the overall context of the current story. For instance, an episode in which Lola goads Pinky, Lady Macbeth-style, for his failings and lack of ambition might require a low “Lola Happiness” number and a low “Pinky Reputation” score. An episode in which Pinky hears some other gangsters grumbling about the Old Man and must decide how to respond might require a relatively low “Old Man Reputation” number but a high “Gang Confidence” score (thus leading them to feel empowered to speak up). The closer the current reality of the storyworld corresponds with a given episode’s indexes, the more likely that episode is to be chosen.

This method of weaving scenes together had some interesting implications for Sharp himself as he wrote the game, turning the process into something more akin to guiding a child’s growth than constructing a dead piece of technology. He could “improvise” as an author: “If I got a great idea for a new episode, I could set it up in its own sequence, assign it keys, and trust that it would be selected appropriately.” Thus he was actually approaching the storymaking ideal despite being forced to work with fixed chunks of story rather than being able to cause the computer to improvise its own story; he was creating a narrative capable of surprising even him, the author. He notes that there are quite likely episodes in King of Chicago that have never been seen by any player ever because the indexes assigned to them can never be matched closely enough to trigger them — dead ends left behind as the storyworld organically grew and evolved under his careful stewardship.

For the ordinary player of the finished product, there must obviously come a point where episodes begin to repeat themselves and King of Chicago loses its interest. Sharp did his best, however, to delay that point as long as possible. He estimates that all of the episodes in the game played one after another would take about eight hours to get through, while the player is likely to see no more than 20 percent of them in any given playthrough. For a while anyway each of the gangster movies you and King of Chicago generate together really does feel unique. Even the opening scene that kicks off the movie varies with the vicissitudes of the random-number generator. The storyworld of King of Chicago, where your actions have an effect on your own fate and that of those around you but aren’t the whole of the story, can feel shockingly real in contrast to both the canned fictions of adventure games and the hard branches of those less ambitious hypertext narratives that still dominate the genre even today.

Managing a criminal empire by the twenty-question method.

Managing a criminal empire by the twenty-question method.

Unfortunately less effective is the simple economic strategy game that’s grafted onto the interpersonal stories. Here you control how much effort you put into your various criminal endeavors — speakeasies, gambling, and rackets — as well as how much you pay your right-hand man and bean counter Ben, the various officials you bribe, the foot soldiers in the gang, Lola, and of course yourself. In the original Macintosh version of the game this process is almost unbelievably tedious. You’re forced to learn about and control your empire via a question-and-answer session with Ben that takes absolutely forever and that has to be repeated over and over as the months pass. You can easily end up spending more total time having these inane dialogs with Ben then you do with the entire rest of the game.

King of Chicago on the Amiga.

King of Chicago on the Amiga.

Thankfully, the Macintosh version is not the final or definitive one. Over a year after the original release the game finally appeared on the Amiga in a version that isn’t so much a port as a complete remake. While Sharp still acted as programmer and narratologist, Cinemaware’s in-house team completely redid the graphics, ditching Sharp’s Potato Heads in favor of hand-drawn portraits of tough mugs and pouting dames that could be dropped easily into any vintage James Cagney flick. Sharp, meanwhile, took the opportunity to tighten up the narrative, removing some wordy exposition and pointless scenes, rewriting others. The occasional action games were also vastly improved to reflect the Amiga’s capabilities. Best of all, the endless question-and-answer sessions with Ben were replaced with a simple interactive ledger giving an easily adjustable overview of the state of your criminal empire. The strategy angle is still a bit undercooked — the numbers never quite add up from month to month, and cause and effect is far from consistently clear — but it goes from being a tedious time sink to an occasional distraction. The Amiga version plays out in about half the time of the original, with a corresponding additional dramatic thrust.

The Amiga's much-improved economic interface.

The Amiga version’s much-improved economic interface.

Of S.D.I. and King of Chicago, the latter would turn out to be the more successful in the long run, managing to sell more than 50,000 copies — albeit most of them in its vastly improved version for the Amiga and (eventually) the Atari ST, Apple IIGS, and IBM PC rather than its original Macintosh incarnation. Despite its relative commercial success, it’s always been amongst the most polarizing of the Cinemaware games, dismissed by some — unfairly in my opinion, for all the reasons I’ve just so copiously documented — as little more than a computerized Choose Your Own Adventure book. Future Cinemaware games would take their cue from Defender of the Crown rather than its companions on the label’s debut marquee. I wish I could say I expect to be revisiting the ideas behind Doug Sharp’s Dramaton soon, whether via a game from Cinemaware or anyone else, but such bold experiments in interactive narrative have been much less common than one might wish in the history of computer gaming. This just makes it all the more important to credit them when we find them.

(The sources listed in the previous article apply to this one as well. In addition: Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Doug Sharp’s blog; and two presentations given by Sharp, one from the 1989 Game Developers Conference and the other from 1995 American Association of Artificial Intelligence Symposium on Interactive Story Systems.

King of Chicago is available in the emulated Amiga version for iOS and Android for those of you interested in experiencing it today.)


  1. I should note at this point that the terms “storytelling game” and “storymaking game” are hardly set in stone. Some prefer to talk of “canned narratives” and “emergent narratives.” Some, such as Brian Moriarty, have even flipped the terms around, considering the stories in storymaking games to be stories made beforehand by a human designer, and the stories in storytelling games to be stories made up and told on the fly by the computer. Doug Sharp himself seems to favor Moriarty’s usage, but I find my approach more intuitive. Regardless, it’s best not to get too hung-up on ever-shifting terminology in this area, and just try to understand the concepts. 

 
 

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Defender of the Crown

Defender of the Crown

If you rushed out excitedly to buy an Amiga in the early days because it looked about to revolutionize gaming, you could be excused if you felt just a little bit disappointed and underwhelmed as the platform neared its first anniversary in shops. There was a reasonable amount of entertainment software available — much of it from the Amiga’s staunchest supporter, Electronic Arts — but nothing that felt quite as groundbreaking as EA’s early rhetoric about the Amiga would imply. Even the games from EA were mostly ports of popular 8-bit titles, modestly enhanced but hardly transformed. More disappointing in their way were the smattering of original titles. Games like Arcticfox and Marble Madness had their charms, but there was nothing conceptually new about them. Degrade the graphics and sound just slightly and they too could easily pass for 8-bit games. But then, timed to neatly correspond with that one-year anniversary, along came Defender of the Crown, the Amiga’s first blockbuster and to this day the game many old-timers think of first when you mention the platform.

Digital gaming in general was a medium in flux in the mid-1980s, still trying to understand what it was and where it fit on the cultural landscape. The preferred metaphor for pundits and developers alike immediately before the Amiga era was the book; the bookware movement brought with it Interactive Fiction, Electronic Novels, Living Literature, and many other forthrightly literary branded appellations. Yet in the big picture bookware had proved to be something of a commercial dud. Defender of the Crown gave the world a new metaphorical frame, one that seemed much better suit to the spectacular audiovisual capabilities of the Amiga. Cinemaware, the company that made it, had done just what their name would imply: replaced the interactive book with the interactive movie. In the process, they blew the doors of possibility wide open. In its way Defender of the Crown was as revolutionary as the Amiga itself — or, if you like, it was the long-awaited proof of concept for the Amiga as a revolutionary technology for gaming. All this, and it wasn’t even a very good game.

The Cinemaware story begins with Bob Jacob, a serial entrepreneur and lifelong movie buff who fulfilled a dream in 1982 by selling his business in Chicago and moving along with his wife Phyllis to Los Angeles, cradle of Hollywood. With time to kill while he figured out his next move, he became fascinated with another, newer form of media: arcade and computer games. He was soon immersing himself in the thriving Southern California hacker scene. Entrepreneur that he was, he smelled opportunity there. Most of the programmers writing games around him were “not very articulate” and clueless about business. Jacob realized that he could become a go-between, a bridge between hackers and publishers who assured that the former didn’t get ripped off and that the latter had ready access to talent. He could become, in other words, a classic Hollywood agent transplanted to the brave new world of software. Jacob did indeed became a modest behind-the-scenes player over the next couple of years, brokering deals with the big players like Epyx, Activision, Spinnaker, and Mindscape for individuals and small development houses like Ultrasoft, Synergistic, Interactive Arts, and Sculptured Software. And then came the day when he saw the Amiga for the first time.

Jacob had gotten a call from a developer called Island Graphics, who had been contracted by Commodore to write a paint program to be available on Day One for the Amiga. But the two companies had had a falling out. Now Island wanted Jacob to see if he could place the project with another publisher. This he succeeded in doing, signing Island with a new would-be Amiga publisher called Aegis; Island’s program would be released as Aegis Images. (Commodore would commission R.J. Mical to write an alternate paint program in-house; it hit the shelves under Commodore’s own imprint as GraphiCraft.) Much more important to Jacob’s future, however, was his visit to Island’s tiny office and his first glimpse of the prototype Amigas they had there. Like Trip Hawkins and a handful of others, Jacob immediately understood what the Amiga could mean for the future of gaming. He understood so well, in fact, that he made a life-changing decision. He decided he wanted to be more than just an agent. Rather than ride shotgun for the revolution, he wanted to drive it. He therefore wound down his little agency practice in favor of spearheading a new gaming concept he dubbed “Cinemaware.”

Jacob has recounted on a number of occasions the deductions that led him to the Cinemaware concept. A complete Amiga system was projected to cost in the neighborhood of $2000. Few of the teenagers who currently dominated amongst gamers could be expected to have parents indulgent enough to spend that kind of money on them. Jacob therefore expected the demographic that purchased Amigas to skew upward in age — toward people like him, a comfortably well-off professional in his mid-thirties. And people like him would not only want, as EA would soon be putting it, “the visual and aural quality our sophisticated eyes and ears demand,” but also more varied and nuanced fictional experiences. They would, in other words, like to get beyond Dungeons and Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Star Trek as the sum total of their games’ cultural antecedents. At the same time, though, their preference for more varied and interesting ludic fictions didn’t necessarily imply that they wanted games that were all that demanding on their time or even their brainpower. This is the point where Jacob diverged radically from Infocom, the most prominent extant purveyor of sophisticated interactive fictions. The very first computer game that Jacob had ever bought had been Infocom’s Deadline. He hadn’t been all that taken with the experience even at the time. Now, what with its parser-based interface and all the typing that that entailed, its complete lack of audiovisual flash, its extensive manual and evidence reports that the player was expected to read before even putting the disk in the drive, and the huge demands it placed on the player hoping to actually solve its case, it served as a veritable model for what Jacob didn’t want his games to be. Other forms of entertainment favored by busy adults weren’t so demanding. Quite the opposite, in fact. His conception of adult gaming would have it be as easy-going and accessible as television. Thus one might characterize Jacob’s vision as essentially Trip Hawkins’s old dictum of “simple, hot, and deep,” albeit with a bit more emphasis on the “hot” and a bit less on the “deep.” The next important question was where to find those more varied and nuanced fictional experiences. For a movie buff living on the very doorstep of Tinsel Town, the answer must have all but announced itself of its own accord.

Bookware aside, the game industry had to some extent been aping the older, more established art form of film for a while already. The first attempt that I’m aware of to portray a computer game as an interactive movie came with Sierra’s 1982 text-adventure epic Time Zone, the advertising for which was drawn as a movie poster, complete with “Starring: You,” “Admission: $99.95,” and a rating of “UA” for “Ultimate Adventure.” It was also the first game that I’m aware of to give a credit for “Producer” and “Executive Producer.” Once adopted and popularized by Electronic Arts the following year, such movie-making terminology spread quickly all over the game industry. Now Bob Jacob was about to drive the association home with a jackhammer.

Each Cinemaware game would be an interactive version of some genre of movies, drawn from the rich Hollywood past that Jacob knew so well. If nothing else, Hollywood provided the perfect remedy for writer’s block: “Creatively it was great because we had all kinds of genres of movies to shoot for.” Many of the movie genres in which Cinemaware would work felt long-since played-out creatively by the mid-1980s, but most gaming fictions were still so crude by comparison with even the most hackneyed Hollywood productions that it really didn’t matter: “I was smart enough and cynical enough to realize that all we had to do was reach the level of copycat, and we’d be considered a breakthrough.”

Cynicism notwithstanding, the real, obvious love that Jacob and a number of his eventual collaborators had for the movies they so self-consciously evoked would always remain one of the purest, most appealing things about Cinemaware. Their manuals, scant and often almost unnecessary as they would be, would always make room for an affectionate retrospective on each game’s celluloid inspirations. At the same time, though, we should understand something else about the person Jacob was and is. He’s not an idealist or an artist, and certainly not someone who spends a lot of time fretting over games in terms of anything other than commercial entertainment. He’s someone for whom phrases like “mass-market appeal” — and such phrases tend to come up frequently in his discourse — hold nary a hint of irony or condescension. Even his love of movies, genuine as it may be, reflects his orientation toward mainstream entertainment. You’ll not find him waiting for the latest Criterion Collection release of Bergman or Truffaut. No, he favors big popcorn flicks with, well, mass-market appeal. Like so much else about Jacob, this sensibility would be reflected in Cinemaware.

Financing for a new developer wasn’t an easy thing to secure in the uncertain industry of 1985. Perhaps in response, Jacob initially conceived of his venture as a very minimalist operation, employing only himself and his wife Phyllis on a full-time basis. The other founding member of the inner circle was Kellyn Beeck, a friend, software acquisitions manager at Epyx, fellow movie buff, and frustrated game designer. The plan was to give him a chance to exorcise the latter demon with Cinemaware. Often working from Jacob’s initial inspiration, he would provide outside developers with design briefs for Cinemaware games, written in greater or lesser detail depending on the creativity and competency of said developers. When the games were finished, Jacob would pass them on to Mindscape for publication as part of the Cinemaware line. One might say that it wasn’t conceptually all that far removed from the sort of facilitation Jacob had been doing for a couple of years already as a software agent. It would keep the non-technical Jacob well-removed from the uninteresting (to him) nuts and bolts of software development. Jacob initially called his company Master Designer Software, reflecting both an attempt to “appeal to the ego of game designers” and a hope that, should the Cinemaware stuff turn out well, he might eventually launch other themed lines. Cinemaware would, however, become such a strong brand in its own right in the next year or two that Jacob would end up making it the name of his company. I’ll just call Jacob’s operation “Cinemaware” from now on, as that’s the popular name everyone would quickly come to know it under even well before the official name change.

After nearly a year of preparation, Jacob pulled the trigger on Cinemaware at last in January of 1986, when in a manner of a few days he legally formed his new company, signed a distribution contract with Mindscape, and signed contracts with outsiders to develop the first four Cinemaware games, to be delivered by October 15, 1986 — just in time for Christmas. Two quite detailed design briefs went to Sculptured Software of Salt Lake City, a programming house that had made a name for themselves as a porter of games between platforms. Of Sculptured’s Cinemaware projects, Defender of the Crown, the title about which Jacob and Beeck were most excited, was inspired by costume epics of yesteryear featuring legendary heroes like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, while SDI was to be a game involving Ronald Reagan’s favorite defense program and drawing its more tenuous cinematic inspiration from science-fiction classics ranging from the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s to the recent blockbuster Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The other two games went to proven lone-wolf designer/programmers, last of a slowly dying breed, and were outlined in much broader strokes. King of Chicago, given to a programmer named Doug Sharp who had earlier written a game called ChipWits, an interesting spiritual successor to Silas Warner’s classic Robot War, was to be an homage to gangster movies. And Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon was given to one Bill Williams, who had earlier written such Atari 8-bit hits as Necromancer and Alley Cat and had just finished the first commercial game ever released for the Amiga, Mind Walker. His game would be an homage to Hollywood’s various takes on the Arabian Nights. Excited though he was by the Amiga, Jacob hedged his bets on his platforms just as he did on his developers, planning to get at least one title onto every antagonist in the 68000 Wars before 1986 was out. Only Defender of the Crown and Sinbad were to be developed and released first on the Amiga; King of Chicago would be written on the Macintosh, SDI on the Atari ST. If all went well, ports could follow.

All of this first wave of Cinemaware games as well as the ones that would follow will get their greater or lesser due around here in articles to come. Today, though, I want to concentrate on the most historically important if certainly not the best of Cinemaware’s works, Defender of the Crown.

Our noble Saxon hero on the job

Our noble Saxon hero on the job.

Defender of the Crown, then, takes place in a version of medieval England that owes far more to cinema than it does to history. As in romantic depictions of Merry Olde England dating back at least to Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the stolid English Saxons are the heroes here, the effete French Normans — despite being the historical victors in the struggle for control of England — the villains. Thus you play a brave Saxon lord struggling against his Norman oppressors. Defender of the Crown really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as history, fiction, or legend. A number of its characters are drawn from Ivanhoe, which might lead one to conclude that it’s meant to be a sequel to that book, taking place after Richard I’s death has thrown his kingdom into turmoil once again. But if that’s the case then why is Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, who was killed in Ivanhoe, running around alive and well again? Should you win Defender of the Crown, you’ll be creating what amounts to an alternate history in which the Saxons throw off the Norman yoke and regain control of England. Suffice to say that the only history that Defender of the Crown is really interested in is the history of Hollywood. What it wants to evoke is not the England of myth or reality, but the England of the movies so lovingly described in its manual. It has no idea where it stands in relation to Ivanhoe or much of anything else beyond the confines of a Hollywood sound stage, nor does it care. Given that, why should we? So, let’s agree to just go with it.

The core of Defender of the Crown: Risk in Merry Olde England

The core of Defender of the Crown: Risk played in Merry Olde England

Defender of the Crown is essentially Risk played on a map of England. The other players in the game include three of the hated Normans and two other Saxon lords, who generally try to avoid attacking their ethnic fellows unless space starts getting really tight. Your goal is of course to wipe the Normans from the map and make of England a Saxon kingdom again. Woven into the simple Risk-like strategy game are a handful of action-oriented minigames that can be triggered by your own actions or those of the other lords: a grand jousting tournament, a midnight raid on an enemy castle, a full-on siege complete with a catapult that you use to knock down a beleaguered castle’s walls. In keeping with Jacob’s vision of Cinemaware games as engaging but light entertainments, a full game usually takes well under an hour to play, and there is no provision for saving or restoring.

From the beginning, it was Jacob’s intention to really pull out all the stops for Defender of the Crown in particular amongst his launch titles, to make of it an audiovisual showcase the likes of which had never been seen before. Shortly after signing Sculptured Software to do the programming, he therefore signed Jim Sachs to work with them, giving him a title familiar to Hollywood but new to the world of games: Art Director.

A Jim Sachs self-portrait

A Jim Sachs self-portrait, one of his early Amiga pictures that won him the job of Art Director for Defender of the Crown.

A self-taught artist from childhood and a programmer since he’d purchased a Commodore 64 just a few years before, Sachs had made quite a name for himself in quite a short time in Commodore circles. He’d written and released a game of his own for the Commodore 64, Saucer Attack, that mixed spectacular graphics with questionable gameplay (an accusation soon to be leveled against Defender of the Crown as well). He’d then spent a year working on another game, to be called Time Crystal, that never got beyond a jawdropping demo that made the rounds of Commodore 64 BBSs for years. He’d been able to use this demo and Saucer Attack to convince Commodore to give him developer’s status for the Amiga, allowing him access to pre-release hardware. Sach’s lovely early pictures were amongst the first to be widely distributed amongst Amiga users, making him the most well-known of the Amiga’s early hacker artists prior to Eric Graham flooring everyone with his Juggler animation in mid-1986. Indeed, Sachs was quite possibly the best Amiga painter in the world when Jacob signed him up to do Defender of the Crown — Andy Warhol included. He would become the most important single individual to work on the game. If it was unusual for an artist to become the key figure behind a game, that itself was an illustration of what made Cinemaware — and particularly Defender of the Crown — so different from what had come before. As he himself was always quick to point out, Sachs by no means personally drew every single one of the many lush scenes that make up the game. At least seven others contributed art, an absolutely huge number by the standards of the time, and another sign of what made Defender of the Crown so different from everything that had come before. It is fair to say, however, that Sachs’s virtual brush swept over every single one of the game’s scenes, tweaking a shadow here, harmonizing differing styles there. His title of Art Director was very well-earned.

This knight, first distributed by Jim Sachs as a picture file, would find his way into Defender of the Crown almost unaltered.

This knight, first distributed by Jim Sachs as a standalone picture, would find his way into Defender of the Crown almost unaltered.

By June of 1986 Sachs and company had provided Sculptured Software with a big pile of mouth-watering art, but Sculptured had yet to demonstrate to Jacob even the smallest piece of a game incorporating any of it. Growing concerned, Jacob flew out to Salt Lake City to check on their progress. What he found was a disaster: “Those guys were like nowhere. Literally nowhere.” Their other game for Cinemaware, SDI, was relatively speaking further along, but also far behind schedule. It seemed that this new generation of 68000-based computers had proved to be more than Sculptured had bargained for.

Desperate to meet his deadline with Mindscape, Jacob took the first steps toward his eventual abandonment of his original concept of Cinemaware as little more than a creative director and broker between developer and publisher. He hired his first actual employee beyond himself and Phyllis, a fellow named John Cutter who had just been laid off following Activision’s acquisition of his previous employer Gamestar, a specialist in sports games. Cutter, more technical and more analytical than Jacob, would become his right-hand man and organizer-in-chief for Cinemaware’s many projects to come. His first task was to remove Sculptured Software entirely from Defender of the CrownS.D.I. they were allowed to keep, but from now on they’d work on it under close supervision from Cutter. Realizing he needed someone who knew the Amiga intimately to have a prayer of completing Defender of the Crown by October 15, Jacob called up none other than R.J. Mical, developer of Intuition and GraphiCraft, and made him an offer: $26,000 if he could take Sachs’s pile of art and Jacob and Beeck’s design, plus a bunch of music Jacob had commissioned from a composer named Jim Cuomo, and turn it all into a finished game within three months. Mical simply said — according to Jacob — “I’m your man.”

Defender of the Crown

He got it done, even if it did nearly kill him. Mical insists to this day that Jacob wasn’t straight with him about the project, that the amount of work it ended up demanding of him was far greater than what he had been led to expect when he agreed to do the job. He was left so unhappy by his rushed final product that he purged his own name from the in-game credits. Sachs also is left with what he calls a “bitter taste,” feeling Jacob ended up demanding far, far more work from him than was really fair for the money he was paid. Many extra graphical flourishes and entire additional scenes that Mical simply didn’t have time or space to incorporate into the finished product were left on the cutting-room floor. Countless 20-hour days put in by Sachs and his artists thus went to infuriating waste in the name of meeting an arbitrary deadline. Sachs claims that five man-weeks work worth of graphics were thrown out for the jousting scenes alone. Neither Sachs nor Mical would ever work with Cinemaware again.

Jousting, otherwise known as occasionally knocking the other guy off his horse but mostly getting unhorsed yourself for no discernible reason

Jousting, otherwise known as occasionally knocking the other guy off his horse for no discernible reason but mostly getting unhorsed yourself.

Many gameplay elements were also cut, while even much of what did make it in has an unfinished feel about it. Defender of the Crown manages the neat trick of being both too hard and too easy. What happens on the screen in the various action minigames feels peculiarly disconnected from what you actually do with the mouse. I’m not sure anyone has ever entirely figured out how the jousting or swordfighting games are even supposed to work; random mouse twiddling and praying would seem to be the only viable tactics. And yet the Risk-style strategic game is almost absurdly easy. Most players win it — and thus Defender of the Crown as a whole — on their second if not their first try, and then never lose again.

Given this, it would be very easy to dismiss Defender of the Crown entirely. And indeed, plenty of critics have done just that, whilst often tossing the rest of Cinemaware’s considerable catalog into the trash can of history alongside it. But, as the length of this article would imply, I’m not quite willing to do that. I recognize that Defender of the Crown isn’t really up to much as a piece of game design, yet even today that doesn’t seem to matter quite as much as it ought to. Simplistic and kind of broken as it is, it’s still a more entertaining experience today than it ought to be — certainly enough so to be worth a play or two. And back in 1986… well, I united England under the Saxon banner a ridiculous number of times as a kid, long after doing so became rote. In thinking about Defender of the Crown‘s appeal, I’ve come to see it as representing an important shift not just in the way that games are made but also in the way that we experience them. To explain what I mean I need to get a bit theoretical with you, just for a moment.

Whilst indulging in a bit of theory in an earlier article, I broke down a game into three component parts: its system of rules and mechanics, its “surface” or user interface, and its fictional context. I want to set aside the middle entry in that trio and just think about rules and context today. As I also wrote in that earlier article, the rise in earnest of what I call “experiential games” from the 1950s onward is marked by an increased interest in the latter in comparison to the former, as games became coherent fictional experiences to be lived rather than mere abstract systems to be manipulated in pursuit of a favorable outcome. I see Defender of the Crown and the other Cinemaware games as the logical endpoint of that tendency. In designing the game, Bob Jacob and Kellyn Beeck started not with a mechanical concept — grand strategy, text adventure, arcade action, etc. — but with a fictional context: a recreation of those swashbuckling Hollywood epics of yore. That the mechanical system they came up with to underlie that fiction — a simplified game of Risk peppered by equally simplistic action games — is loaded with imperfections is too bad but also almost ancillary to Defender of the Crown the experience. The mechanics do the job just well enough to make themselves irrelevant. No one comes to Defender of the Crown to play a great strategy game. They come to immerse themselves in the Merry Olde England of bygone Hollywood.

For many years now there have been voices stridently opposed to the emphasis a game like Defender of the Crown places on its its fictional context, with the accompanying emphasis on foreground aesthetics necessary to bring that context to life. Chris Crawford, for instance, dismisses not just this game but Cinemaware as a whole in one paragraph in On Game Design as “lots of pretty pictures and animated sequences” coupled to “weak” gameplay. Gameplay is king, we’re told, and graphics and music and all the rest don’t — or shouldn’t — matter a whit. Crawford all but critically ranks games based entirely on what he calls their “process intensity”: their ratio of dynamic, interactive code — i.e., gameplay —  to static art, sound, music, even text. If one accepts this point of view in whole or in part, as many of the more prominent voices in game design and criticism tend to do, it does indeed become very easy to dismiss the entire oeuvre of Cinemaware as a fundamentally flawed concept and, worse, a dangerous one, a harbinger of further design degradations to come.

Speaking here as someone with an unusual tolerance for ugly graphics — how else could I have written for years now about all those ugly 8-bit games? — I find that point of view needlessly reductive and rather unfair. Leaving aside that beauty for its own sake, whether found in a game or in an art museum, is hardly worthy of our scorn, the reality is that very few modern games are strictly about their mechanics. Many have joined Defender of the Crown as embodied fictional experiences. This is the main reason that many people play them today. If beautiful graphics help us to feel embodied in a ludic world, bully for them. I’d argue that the rich graphics in Defender of the Crown carry much the same water as the rich prose in, say, Mindwheel or Trinity. Personally — and I understand that mileages vary here — I’m more interested in becoming someone else or experiencing — there’s that word again! — something new to me for a while than I am in puzzles, strategy, or reflex responses in the abstract. I’d venture to guess that most gamers are similar. In some sense modern games have transcended games — i.e., a system of rules and mechanics — as we used to know them. Commercial and kind of crass as it sometimes is, we can see Defender of the Crown straining toward becoming an embodied, interactive, moving, beautiful, fictional experience rather than being just the really bad take on Risk it unquestionably also is.

A fetching lass. Those partial to redheads or brunettes have other options.

A fetching lass gives you the old come-hither stare. Those partial to redheads or brunettes also have options.

A good illustration of Defender of the Crown‘s appeal as an experiential fiction as well as perhaps a bit of that aforementioned crassness is provided by the game’s much-discussed romantic angle. No Hollywood epic being complete without a love interest for the dashing hero, you’ll likely at some point during your personal epic get the opportunity to rescue a Saxon damsel in distress from the clutches of a dastardly Norman. We all know what’s bound to happen next: “During the weeks that follow, gratitude turns to love. Then, late one night…”

Consummating the affair. Those shadows around waist-level are... unfortunate. I don't actually think they're supposed to look like what they look like...

Consummating the affair. Those shadows around waist-level are… unfortunate. I don’t think they’re actually supposed to look like what they look like, although they do give a new perspective to the name of “Geoffrey Longsword.”

After the affair is consummated, your new gal accompanies you through the rest of the game. It’s important to note here that she has no effect one way or the other on your actual success in reconquering England, and that rescuing her is actually one of the more difficult things to do in Defender of the Crown, as it requires that you engage with the pretty terrible swordfighting game; I can only pull it off if I pick as my character Geoffrey Longsword, appropriately enough the hero with “Strong” swordfighting skills. Yet your game — your story — somehow feels incomplete if you don’t manage it. What good is a hero without a damsel to walk off into the sunset with him? There are several different versions of the virgin (sorry!) that show up, just to add a bit of replay value for the lovelorn.

As I’ve written earlier, 1986 was something of a banner year for sex in videogames. The love scene in Defender of the Crown, being much more, um, graphic than the others, attracted particular attention. Many a youngster over the years to come would have his dreams delightfully haunted by those damsels. Shortly after the game’s release, Amazing Computing published an unconfirmed report from an “insider” that the love scene was originally intended to be interactive, requiring “certain mouse actions to coax the fair woman, who reacted accordingly. After consulting with game designers and project management, the programmer supposedly destroyed all copies of the source code to that scene.” Take that with what grains of salt you will. At any rate, a sultry love interest would soon become a staple of Cinemaware games, for the very good reason that the customers loved them. And anyway, Jacob himself, as he later admitted in a revelation bordering on Too Much Information, “always liked chesty women.” It was all horribly sexist, of course, something Amazing Computing pointed out by declaring Defender of the Crown the “most anti-woman game of the year.” On the other hand, it really wasn’t any more sexist than its cinematic inspirations, so I suppose it’s fair enough when taken in the spirit of homage.

Defender of the Crown

Cinemaware wasn’t shy about highlighting one of Defender of the Crown‘s core appeals. Did someone mention sexism?

The buzz about Defender of the Crown started inside Amiga circles even before the game was done. An early build was demonstrated publicly for the first time at the Los Angeles Commodore Show in September of 1986; it attracted a huge, rapt crowd. Released right on schedule that November through Mindscape, Defender of the Crown caused a sensation. Amiga owners treated it as something like a prophecy fulfilled; this was the game they’d all known the Amiga was capable of, the one they’d been waiting for, tangible proof of their chosen platform’s superiority over all others. And it became an object of lust — literally, when the gorgeously rendered Saxon maidens showed up — for those who weren’t lucky enough to own Commodore’s wunderkind.  You could spend lots of time talking about all of the Amiga’s revolutionary capabilities — or you could just pop Defender of the Crown in the drive, sit back, and watch the jaws drop. The game sold 20,000 copies before the end of 1986 alone, astounding numbers considering that the total pool of Amiga owners at that point probably didn’t number much more than 100,000. I feel pretty confident in saying that just about every one of those 80,000 or so Amiga owners who didn’t buy the game right away probably had a pirated copy soon enough. It would go on to sell 250,000 copies, the “gift that kept on giving” for Jacob and Cinemaware for years to come. While later Cinemaware games would be almost as beautiful and usually much better designed — not to mention having the virtue of actually being finished — no other would come close to matching Defender of the Crown‘s sales numbers or its public impact.

Laying seige to a castle. The Greek fire lying to the left of the catapault can't be used. It was cut from the game but not the graphics, only to be added back in in later ports.

Laying siege to a castle. The Greek fire lying to the left of the catapult can’t be used. It was cut from the game but not the graphics, only to be added back in in later ports.

Cinemaware ported Defender of the Crown to a plethora of other platforms over the next couple of years. Ironically, virtually all of the ports were much better game games than the Amiga version, fixing the minigames to make them comprehensible and reasonably entertaining and tightening up the design to make it at least somewhat more difficult to sleepwalk to victory. In a sense, it was Atari ST users who got the last laugh. That, anyway, is the version that some aficionados name as the best overall: the graphics and sound aren’t quite as good, but the game behind them has been reworked with considerable aplomb. Even so, it remained and remains the Amiga version that most people find most alluring. Without those beautiful graphics, there just doesn’t seem to be all that much point to Defender of the Crown. Does this make it a gorgeous atmospheric experience that transcends its game mechanics or just a broken, shallow game gussied up with lots of pretty pictures? Perhaps it’s both, or neither. Artistic truth is always in the eye of the beholder. But one thing is clear: we’ll be having these sorts of discussions a lot as we look at games to come. That’s the real legacy of Defender of the Crown — for better or for worse.

Defender of the Crown

(Sources: On the Edge by Brian Bagnall; Computer Gaming World of January/February 1985, March 1987 and August/September 1987; Amazing Computing #1.9, February 1987, April 1987, and July 1987; Commodore Magazine of October 1987 and November 1988; AmigaWorld of November/December 1986. Jim Sachs has been interviewed in more recent years by Kamil Niescioruk and The Personal Computer Museum. Matt Barton and Tristan Donovan have each interviewed Bob Jacob for Gamasutra.

Defender of the Crown is available for purchase for Windows and Mac from GOG.com, in the Apple Store for iOS, and on Google Play for Android for those of you wanting to visit Merry Olde England for yourselves. All emulate the historically definitive if somewhat broken Amiga version, featuring the original Amiga graphics and sound.)

 
 

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Castle Wolfenstein

One night circa early 1981, Silas Warner of Muse Software dropped by a local 7-Eleven store, where he saw an arcade game called Berzerk.

Berzerk essentially played like an interactive version of the programming game Warner had just finished writing on the Apple II, Robot War. The player controlled a “humanoid” who looked more than a little like a robot himself, battling an array of other robots each equipped with their own armaments and personalities. But most impressively, Berzerk talked. The enemy robots shouted out science-fiction cliches like “Intruder alert!” and, Dalek style, single-word imperatives like “Attack!,” “Kill!,” and “Destroy!” Warner was entranced, especially considering that one of Muse’s flagship products was Warner’s own The Voice, an Apple II voice-synthesis system. Still, he’d had enough of robots for a while.

Then one night the old World War II flick The Guns of Navarone came on the television. The most successful film of 1961, it’s the story of a tiny group of Allied commandos who make their way across a (fictional) Greek island to destroy a vital German gun installation. Like most films of its ilk, it can be good escapist fun if you’re in the right frame of mind, even if most of its plot is forehead-slappingly silly. After seeing Navarone, Warner started thinking about whether it might be possible to replace robots with Nazis. One nice thing about filmic Nazis, after all, is that they tend to be as aggressively stupid as videogame robots, marching blithely into trap after ambush after deception while periodically shouting out “Achtung!,” “Jawohl!,” and “Sieg Heil!” in lieu of Berzerk‘s “Attack!,” “Kill!,” and “Destroy!” (One imagines that the Greeks in the movie, when not engaging in ethnically appropriate song and dance or seducing our heroes with their dewy-eyed, heroic-resistance-fighter gazes, must be wondering just how the hell they managed to get themselves conquered by this bunch of clowns.) Other elements of the movie also held potential. The heroes spend much of the latter half disguised in German uniforms, sneaking about until someone figures out the ruse and the killing has to start again. What a game mechanic!

So, from the odd couple of Berzerk and The Guns of Navarone was born Castle Wolfenstein.

Given Wolfenstein‘s position in the history of ludic narrative, it’s appropriate that it should have resulted from the pairing of an arcade game with a work of fiction. Wolfenstein was the first game to unify the two strands of computer gaming I described in my previous post, combining a real story and fictional context with action mechanics best carried out with a joystick or set of paddles. Yet even this gameplay also demanded considerable thought, even strategizing, for success. In the console world, Warren Robinett had attempted a similar fusion a couple of years earlier with the Atari VCS game Adventure, which was directly inspired by Crowther and Woods’s game of the same name. Still, the VCS was horribly suited to the endeavor. Because it couldn’t display text at all, Adventure couldn’t set the scene like Wolfenstein did when the player first started a game. The following is mouthed by a dying cellmate in the castle/fortress in which you are being held prisoner:

“WELCOME TO CASTLE WOLFENSTEIN, MATE! THE NAZIS BROUGHT YOU HERE TO GET INFORMATION OUT OF YOU BEFORE THEY KILL YOU. THAT’S WHAT THIS PLACE IS FOR – IF YOU LISTEN YOU CAN HEAR THE SCREAMS. THEY’VE ALREADY WORKED ME OVER AND I’LL NEVER GET OUT ALIVE, BUT MAYBE YOU CAN WITH THIS GUN. I GOT IT OFF A DEAD GUARD BEFORE THEY CAUGHT ME. IT’S STANDARD ISSUE – EACH CLIP HOLDS 10 BULLETS, AND IT’S FULLY LOADED.

“BE CAREFUL, MATE, BECAUSE EVERY ROOM IN THE CASTLE IS GUARDED. THE REGULAR GUARDS CAN’T LEAVE THEIR POSTS WITHOUT ORDERS, BUT WATCH OUT FOR THE SS STORMTROOPERS. THEY’RE THE ONES IN THE BULLETPROOF VESTS AND THEY’RE LIKE BLOODY HOUNDS. ONCE THEY’VE PICKED UP YOUR TRAIL THEY WON’T STOP CHASING YOU UNTIL YOU KILL THEM AND YOU ALMOST NEED A GRENADE TO DO THAT.

“CASTLE WOLFENSTEIN IS FULL OF SUPPLIES TOO. I KNOW ONE CHAP WHO FOUND A WHOLE GERMAN UNIFORM AND ALMOST SNEAKED OUT PAST THE GUARDS. HE MIGHT HAVE MADE IT IF HE HADN’T SHOT SOME POOR SOD AND GOT THE SS ON HIS TRAIL. IF YOU CAN’T UNLOCK A SUPPLY CHEST, TRY SHOOTING IT OPEN. NOW I WOULDN’T GO SHOOTING AT CHESTS FULL OF EXPLOSIVES…

“ONE MORE THING. THE BATTLE PLANS FOR OPERATION RHEINGOLD ARE HIDDEN SOMEWHERE IN THE CASTLE. I’M SURE YOU KNOW WHAT IT WOULD MEAN TO THE ALLIED HIGH COMMAND IF WE COULD GET OUR HANDS ON THOSE…

“THEY’RE COMING FOR ME! GOOD LUCK!

“AIIIIEEEEEEE….”

Once into the game proper the text dries up, but there are still elements that make it feel like some facsimile of a real situation rather than an exercise in abstract arcade mechanics. The “verbs” available to the player are very limited in comparison to, say, even an old-school text adventure: move, aim, shoot, search a surrendered soldier or corpse, open a door or chest, throw a grenade, use a special item, take inventory. Yet the game’s commitment to simulation is such that this limited suite of actions yields a surprising impression of verisimilitude. One can, for example, use a grenade to blow up guards, but one can also use it to blast holes in walls. Such possibilities make the game a tour de force of early virtual worldbuilding; arguably no one had created a simulated world so believable on such a granular level prior to Wolfenstein.

There is even some scope for moral choice. If you catch them by surprise, guards will sometimes lift their arms in surrender, at which point you are free to kill them or leave them alive, as you will. Similarly, the game allows different approaches to its central problem of escape. One can attempt to methodically dispatch every single guard in every single room, but one can also try to dodge past them or outrun them, only killing as a last resort. Or one can find a uniform, and (in the game’s most obvious homage to The Guns of Navarone) try to just walk right out the front door that way. These qualities have led many to call Wolfenstein the first ancestor of the much later genre of stealth-based games like Metal Gear Solid and Thief. I don’t know as much about such games as I probably ought to, but I see no reason to disagree. The one limiting factor on the “sneaking” strategy is the need to find those battle plans in order to achieve full marks. To do that you have to search the various chests you come across, something which arouses the guards’ suspicion. (These may be videogame Nazis, but they aren’t, alas, quite that stupid.)

In order to make the game a replayable exercise (shades of the arcade again), the castle is randomly stocked with guards and supplies each time the player begins a new game. In addition, play progresses through a series of levels. The first time you play you are a private, and things are appropriately easier — although, it should be noted never easy; Wolfenstein is, at least for me, a punishingly difficult game. Each time you beat the game on a given level, you increase in rank by one, and everything gets more difficult the next time around. The ultimate achievement is to become a field marshal.

In Warner’s own words, he threw “everything” Muse had on their shelf of technical goodies into Wolfenstein. For instance, we once more see here the high-res character generator Warner had also used in Robot War.

But most impressive was the inclusion of actual speech, a first for a computer game. To really appreciate how remarkable this was, you first have to understand how extraordinarily primitive the Apple II’s sound hardware actually was. The machine contained no sound synthesizer or waveform generator. A program could make sound only by directly toggling current to the speaker itself. Each time it did this, the result was an audible click. Click the speaker at the appropriate frequency, and you could create various beeps and boops, but nothing approaching the subtlety of human speech — or so went the conventional wisdom. The story of Wolfenstein‘s talking Nazis begins back in 1978, when a programmer named Bob Bishop released a pair of programs called Apple-Lis’ner and Appletalker.

Every Apple II shipped with a port that allowed a user to connect to it a standard cassette drive for storage, as well as the internal hardware to convert binary data into sound for recording and vice versa. Indeed, cassettes were the most common storage medium for the first few years of the Apple II’s life. Bishop realized that, thanks to the cassette port, every Apple II effectively contained a built-in audio digitizer, a way of converting sound data into binary data. If he attached a microphone to the cassette port, he should be able to “record” his own speech and store it on the computer. He devised a simplistic 1-bit sampling algorithm: for every sample at which the level of the incoming sound was above a certain threshold, click the speaker once. The result, as played back through Appletalker, was highly distorted but often intelligible speech. Warner refined Bishop’s innovations in 1980 in The Voice. It shipped with a library of pre-sampled phonemes, allowing the user to simply enter text at the keyboard and have the computer speak it — if the program properly deduced what phoneme belonged where, of course.

For Wolfenstein, Warner took advantage of an association that Muse had with a local recording studio, who processed Muse’s cassette software using equalizers and the like to create tapes that Muse claimed were more robust and reliable than those of the competition. Warner: “We went down there [to the studio] one fine day, and I spent several hours on the microphone saying, ‘Achtung!'” Given the primitive technology used to create them (not to mention Warner’s, um, unusual German diction), Wolfenstein‘s assorted shouts were often all but indecipherable. Rather than hurting, however, the distortion somehow added to the nightmare quality of the scenario as a whole, increasing the tension rather than the contrary.

[audio:https://www.filfre.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/wolfenstein.mp3|titles=Castle Wolfenstein]

Warner’s magnum opus as a designer and programmer, Castle Wolfenstein remained Muse’s most successful product and reliable seller from its release in September of 1981 through Muse’s eventual dissolution, not only in its original Apple II incarnation but also in ports to the Atari 400 and 800, MS-DOS, and (most notably) the Commodore 64. Muse produced a belated sequel in 1984, Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, in which the player must break into Adolf Hitler’s underground bunker to assassinate the Fuhrer himself rather than break out of a generic Nazi fortress. However, while Warner was involved in design discussion for that game, the actual implementation was done by others. The following year, Muse suddenly collapsed, done in by a string of avoidable mistakes in a scenario all too common for the early, hacker-led software publishers. Warner stayed in the games industry for another decade after Muse, but never found quite the creative freedom and that certain spark of something that had led to Robot War and Castle Wolfenstein in his banner year of 1981. He died at the age of 54 in 2004. Wolfenstein itself, of course, lived on when id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, the precursor to the landmark Doom, in 1992.

Whether we choose to call Castle Wolfenstein the first PC action adventure or the first stealth game or something else, its biggest importance for ludic narrative is its injection of narrative elements into a gameplay framework completely divorced from the text adventures and CRPGs that had previously represented the category on computers. As such it stands at the point of origin of a trend that would over years and decades snowball to enormous — some would say ridiculous — proportions. Today stories in games are absolutely everywhere, from big-budget FPSs to casual puzzlers. With its violence and cartoon-like Nazi villains, Wolfenstein is perhaps also a harbinger of how cheap and coarse so many of those stories would be. But then again, we can’t really blame Warner for that, can we?

If you’d like to try Silas Warner’s greatest legacy for yourself, you can download the Apple II disk image and manual from here.

Next time we have some odds and ends to clean up as we begin to wrap up 1981 at last.

 
 

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