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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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The Shareware Scene, Part 3: The id Boys

On December 14, 1990, Scott Miller of Apogee Software uploaded the free first installment of his company’s latest episodic game. He knew as he did so that this release would be, if you’ll pardon the pun, a game changer for Apogee. To signal that this was truly a next-generation Apogee game, he doubled his standard paid-episode asking price from $7.50 to $15.

Rather than relying on the character graphics or blocky visual abstractions of Apogee’s previous games, Commander Keen 1: Marooned on Mars was an animated feast of bouncy color. Rather than looking like a typical boxed game of five to ten years earlier, it looked quite literally like nothing that had ever been seen on an MS-DOS-based computer before. In terms of presentation at least, it was nothing less than computer gaming’s answer to Super Mario Bros., the iconic franchise that had done so much to help Nintendo sell more than 30 million of their videogame consoles in the United States alone.

Yet even Miller, who has been so often and justly lauded for his vision in recognizing that many computer owners were craving something markedly different from what the big game publishers were offering them, could hardly have conceived of the full historical importance of this particular moment. For it introduced to the world a small group of scruffy misfits with bad attitudes and some serious technical chops, who were living and working together at the time in a rundown riverfront house in Shreveport, Louisiana. Within a few months, they would begin to call themselves id Software, and under that name they would remake the face of mainstream gaming during the 1990s.



I must admit that I find it a little strange to be writing about humble Shreveport for the second time in the course of two articles. It’s certainly not the first place one would look for a band of technological revolutionaries. The perpetually struggling city of 200,000 people has long been a microcosm of the problems dogging the whole of Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the nation. It’s a raggedly anonymous place of run-down strip malls and falling-down houses, with all of the crime and poverty of New Orleans but none of that city’s rich cultural stew to serve as compensation.

Life in Shreveport has always been defined by the Red River which flows through town. As its name would imply, the city was founded to serve as a port in the time before the nation’s rivers were superseded by its railroads and highways. When that time ended, Shreveport had to find other uses for its river: thanks to a quirk of Louisiana law that makes casinos legal on waterways but not on dry land, residents of northeastern Texas and southern Arkansas have long known it primarily as the most convenient place to go for legal gambling. The shabbily-dressed interstate gamblers who climb out of the casino-funded buses every day are anything but the high rollers of Vegas lore. They’re just ordinary working-class folks who really, really should find something more healthy to do with their time and money than sitting behind a one-armed bandit in a riverboat casino, dropping token after token into the slot and staring with glazed eyes at the wheels as they spin around and around. This image rather symbolizes the social and economic condition of Shreveport in general.

By 1989, Al Vekovius of Shreveport’s Softdisk Publications was starting to fear that the same image might stand in for the state of his business. After expanding so dramatically for much of the decade, Softdisk was now struggling just to hold onto its current base of subscribers, much less to grow their numbers. The original Softdisk and Loadstar, their two earliest disk magazines, catered to aged 8-bit computers that were now at the end of their run, while Big Blue Disk and Diskworld, for MS-DOS computers and the Apple Macintosh respectively, were failing to take up all of their slack. Everything seemed to be turning against Softdisk. In the summer of 1989, IBM, whose longstanding corporate nickname of “Big Blue” had been the source of the name Big Blue Disk, threatened a lawsuit if Softdisk continued to market a disk magazine under that name. Knowing better than to defy a company a thousand times their size, Softdisk felt compelled to rename Big Blue Disk to the less catchy On Disk Monthly.

While the loss of hard-won brand recognition always hurts, Softdisk’s real problems were much bigger and more potentially intractable than that of one corporate behemoth with an overgrown legal department. The fact was, the relationship which people had with the newer computers Softdisk was now catering to tended to be different from the one they had enjoyed with their friendly little Apple II or Commodore 64. Being a computer user in the era of Microsoft’s ascendancy was no longer a hobby for most of them, much less a lifestyle. People had less of a craving for the ramshackle but easily hackable utilities and coding samples which Softdisk’s magazines had traditionally published. People were no longer interested in rolling up their sleeves to work with software in order to make it work for them; they demanded more polished programs that Just Worked right off the disk. But this was a hard field for Softdisk to compete on. Programmers with really good software had little motivation to license their stuff to a disk magazine for a relative pittance when they could instead be talking to a boxed-software publisher or testing the exploding shareware market.

With high-quality submissions from outside drying up just as he needed them most, Vekovius hired more and more internal staff to create the software for On Disk. Yet even here he ran up against many of the same barriers. The programmers whom he could find locally or convince to move to a place like Shreveport at the salaries which Softdisk could afford to pay were generally not the first ones he might have chosen in an ideal world. For all that some of them would prove themselves to be unexpectedly brilliant, as we’ll see shortly, virtually every one of them had some flaw or collection thereof that prevented him from finding gainful employment elsewhere. And the demand that they churn out multiple programs every month in order to fill up the latest issue was, to say the least, rather inimical to the production of quality software. Vekovius was spinning his wheels in his little programming sweatshop with all the energy of those Shreveport riverboat gamblers, but it wasn’t at all clear that it was getting him any further than it was getting them.

Thus he was receptive on the day in early 1990 when one of his most productive if headstrong programmers, a strapping young metalhead named John Romero, suggested that Softdisk start a new MS-DOS disk magazine, dedicated solely to games — the one place where, what with Apogee’s success being still in its early stages, shareware had not yet clearly cut into Softdisk’s business model. After some back-and-forth, the two agreed to a bi-monthly publication known as Gamer’s Edge, featuring at least one — preferably two — original games in each issue. To make it happen, Romero would be allowed to gather together a few others who were willing to work a staggering number of hours cranking out games at an insane pace with no resources beyond themselves for very little money at all. Who could possibly refuse an offer like that?


The id boys: John Carmack, Kevin Cloud, Adrian Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall, and Jay Wilbur.

The team that eventually coalesced around Romero included programmer Tom Hall, artist Adrian Carmack, and business manager and token adult-in-the-room Jay Wilbur. But their secret weapon, lured by Wilbur to Shreveport from Kansas City, Missouri, was a phenomenal young programmer named John Carmack. (In a proof that anyone who says things like “I don’t believe in coincidences” is full of it, John is actually unrelated to Adrian Carmack despite having the same not-hugely-common last name.) John Carmack would prove himself to be such a brilliant programmer that Romero and Hall, no slouches themselves in that department by most people’s standards, would learn to leave the heavy lifting to his genius, coding themselves only the less important parts of the games along with the utilities that they used to build them — and they would also design the games, for Carmack was in reality vastly more interested in the mathematical abstraction of code as an end unto itself than the games it enabled.

But all of these young men, whom I’ll call the id boys from here on out just because the name suited them so well even before they started id Software, will be more or less important to our story. So, we should briefly meet each of them.

Jay Wilbur was by far the most approachable, least intimidating member of the group. Having already reached the wise old age of 30, he brought with him a more varied set of life experiences that left him willing and able to talk to more varied sorts of people. Indeed, Wilbur’s schmoozing skills were rather legendary. While attending university in his home state of Rhode Island, he’d run the bar at his local TGI Friday’s, where his ability to mix drinks with acrobatic “flair” made him one of those selected to teach Tom Cruise the tricks of the trade for the movie Cocktail. But his love for the Apple II he’d purchased with an insurance settlement following a motorcycle accident finally overcame his love for the nightlife, and he accepted a job for a Rhode Island-based disk magazine called UpTime. When that company was bought out by Softdisk in 1988, he wound up in Shreveport, working as an editor there. The people skills he’d picked up tending bar would never desert him; certainly his new charges at Gamer’s Edge had sore need of them, for they were an abrasive collection of characters even by hacker standards.

These others loved heavy metal and action movies, and aimed a well-sharpened lance of contempt at anything outside their narrow range of cultural and technical interests. Their laser focus on their small collection of obsessions would prove one of their greatest strengths, if perhaps problematic for gaming writ large in the long run, in the way that it diminished the scope of what games could do and be.

Yet even this band of four, the ones who actually made the games for Gamer’s Edge under Wilbur’s benevolent stewardship, was not a monolith. Once one begins to look at them as individuals, the shades of difference quickly emerge.

Like Wilbur, the 25-year-old Wisconsinite Tom Hall was a middle-class kid with a university degree, but he had none of his friend and colleague’s casual bonhomie with the masses. He lived in a fantasy world drawn from the Star Wars movies, the first of which he’d seen in theaters 33 times, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, which he could all but recite from heart. At Softdisk, to which he’d come after deciding that he couldn’t stand the idea of a job in corporate data processing, he ran around talking in a cutsey made-up alien language: “Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!” He was the kind of guy you either found hilarious or were irritated out of your mind by.

The 21-year-old Adrian Carmack also lived in a world of fantasy, but his fantasies had a darker hue. Growing up right there in Shreveport, he had spent many hours at arcades, attracted not so much by the games themselves as by the lurid art on their cabinets. He worked for a time as an aide at a hospital, then went home to sketch gunshot wounds, severed limbs, and festering bedsores with meticulous accuracy. Instead of a cat or a dog, he chose a scorpion as a pet. He’d come to Softdisk on a university internship after telling his advisor he wanted to work in “fine art” someday.

Still, and with all due respect to these others, the id boys would come to be defined most of all by their two Johns. The 22-year-old John Romero was pure id, a kettle of addled energy that was perpetually spilling over, sending F-bombs spewing every which way; David Kushner, author of the seminal history Masters of Doom, memorably describes him as “a human exclamation point.” The not-quite-20-year-old John Carmack was as quiet and affectless as Romero was raucous, often disturbingly so; Sandy Petersen, a game designer who will come to work with him later in our story, remembers musing to himself after first meeting Carmack that “he doesn’t know anything about how humans think or feel.”

Yet for all their surface differences, the two Johns had much in common. Both were brought up in broken homes: Romero was physically abused by his stepfather while growing up in the Sacramento area, while Carmack suffered under the corporeal and psychological rigors of a strict private Catholic school in Kansas. Both rebelled by committing petty crimes among other things; Carmack was sentenced to a year in a boys’ detention center at age 14 after breaking into his school using a homemade bomb. (The case notes of the police officer who interviewed him echo the later impressions of Sandy Petersen: “Boy behaves like a walking brain… no empathy for other human beings.”)

Both found escape from their circumstances through digital means: first via videogames at the local arcades, then via the Apple II computers they acquired by hook or by crook. (Carmack’s first computer was a stolen one, bought off the proverbial back of a truck.) They soon taught themselves to program well enough to put professionals to shame.

Romero got his games published regularly by print magazines as type-in listings, then parlayed that into a job with the disk magazine UpTime, where he became friends with Jay Wilbur. After that, he got a job as a game porter for Origin Systems of Ultima fame. Meanwhile Wilbur moved on to Softdisk while Romero was at Origin. When Romero found himself bored by the life of a porter, he came to Shreveport as well to join his friend.

John Carmack, being more than two years younger than Romero and much more socially challenged, brought a shorter résumé with him to Shreveport when he became the only id boy to be hired specifically to work on Gamer’s Edge rather than being transferred there from another part of Softdisk. He had mostly sold his games for $1000 apiece to a little mom-and-pop company near his home called Nite Owl Productions, who had made them a sideline to their main business of supplying replacement batteries for Apple II motherboards. But he had also sold one or two games to Jay Wilbur at Softdisk. Finding these to be very impressive, the id boys asked Wilbur to deploy his considerable charm to recruit the new kid for Gamer’s Edge. After a concerted effort, he succeeded.

Gamer’s Edge was far more than just a new job or a workplace transfer for the young men involved. It was a calling; they spent virtually all day every day in one another’s company. Pooling all of their meager salaries, Wilbur rented them a rambling old four-bedroom house on the Red River, complete with a Jacuzzi and a swimming pool and a boat deck which he soon complemented with a battered motorboat. It was an Animal House lifestyle of barbecuing, skiing, and beer drinking in between marathon hacking sessions, fueled by pizza and soda. Wilbur — in many ways the unsung hero of this story — acted as their doting den mother, keeping the lights on, the basement beer keg filled, the refrigerator stocked with soda and junk food, and the pizza deliveries coming at all hours of the day and night.


Inside the riverfront house in Shreveport. John Carmack sits near center frame, while John Romero is to his left, mostly hidden behind a pillar.

For the first issue of Gamer’s Edge, the two Johns agreed to each port one of their old Apple II games to MS-DOS. Romero chose a platformer called Dangerous Dave, while Carmack chose a top-down action-adventure called Catacomb. They raced one another to see who could finish first; it was after losing rather definitively that Romero realized he couldn’t hope to compete with Carmack as a pure programmer, and should probably leave the most complicated, math-intensive aspects of coding to his friend while he concentrated on all the other things that make a good game. For the second issue, the two Johns pooled their talents with that of the others to make a completely original shoot-em-up called Slordax: The Unknown Enemy. So far, so good.

And then came John Carmack’s first great technical miracle — the first of many that would be continually upending everything the id boys were working on in the best possible way. To fully explain this first miracle, a bit of background is necessary.

Although they were making games for MS-DOS, the id boys had little use for the high-concept themes of most other games that were being made for that platform in 1990; neither complicated simulations nor elaborate interactive movies did anything for them. They preferred games that were simple and visceral, fast-paced and above all action-packed. Tellingly, most of the games they preferred to play these days lived on the Nintendo Entertainment System rather than a personal computer.

Much of the difference between the two platforms’ design aesthetics was cultural, but there was also more to it than that. As I’ve often taken pains to point out in these articles, the nature of games on any given platform is always strongly guided by that platform’s technical strengths and weaknesses.

When first looking at the NES and an MS-DOS personal computer of 1990 vintage, one might assume that the latter so thoroughly outclasses the former as to make further comparison pointless. The NES was built around a version of the MOS 6502, an 8-bit CPU dating back to the 1970s, running at a clock speed of less than 2 MHz; a state-of-the-art PC had a 32-bit CPU running at 25 MHz or more. The NES had just 2 K of writable general-purpose memory; the PC might have 4 MB or more, plus a big hard drive. The NES could display up to 25 colors from a palette of 48, at a resolution of 256 X 240; a PC with a VGA graphics card could display up to 256 colors from a palette of over 262,000, at a resolution of 320 X 200. Surely the PC could effortlessly do anything the NES could do. Right?

Well, no, actually. The VGA graphics standard for PCs had been created by IBM in 1987 with an eye to presenting crisp general-purpose displays rather than games. In the hands of a talented team of pixel artists, it could present mouth-watering static illustrations, as adventure-game studios like Sierra, LucasArts, and Legend were proving. But it included absolutely no aids for fast animation, no form of graphical acceleration whatsoever. It just gave the programmer a big chunk of memory to work with, whose bytes represented the pixels on the screen. When she wanted to change said pixels, she had to sling all those bytes around by main force, using nothing but the brute power of the CPU. All animation on a PC was essentially page-flipping animation, requiring the CPU to redraw every pixel of every frame in memory, at the 20 or 30 frames per second that were necessary to create an impression of relatively fluid motion, and all while also finding cycles for all of the other aspects of the game.

The graphics system of the NES, on the other hand, had been designed for the sole purpose of presenting videogames — and in electrical engineering, specialization almost always breeds efficiency. Rather than storing the contents of the screen in memory as a linear array of pixels, it operated on the level of tiles, each of which was 8 X 8 or 8 X 16 pixels in size. After defining the look of each of a set of tiles, the programmer could mix and match them on the screen as she wished, at a fairly blazing speed thanks to the console’s custom display circuitry; this enabled the smooth scrolling of the Super Mario Bros. games among many others. She also had up to 64 sprites to work with; these were little 8 X 8 or 8 X 16 images that were overlaid on the tiled background by the display hardware, and could be moved about almost instantaneously, just by changing a couple of numbers in a couple of registers. They were, in other words, perfect for showing Super Mario bouncing around on a scrolling background, at almost no cost in CPU cycles. Freed from the heavy lifting of managing the display, the little 6502 could concentrate almost entirely on the game logic.

The conventional wisdom of 1990 held that the PC, despite all its advantages in raw horsepower, simply couldn’t do a game like Super Mario Bros. The problem rankled John Carmack and his friends particularly, given how much more in tune their design aesthetic was with the NES than with the current crop of computer games. And so Carmack turned the full force of his giant brain on the problem, and soon devised a solution.

As so often happens in programming, said solution turned out to be deceptively simple. It hinged on the fact that one could define a virtual screen in memory that was wider and/or taller than the physical screen. In this case, Carmack made his virtual screen just eight pixels wider than the physical screen. This meant that he could scroll the background with silky smoothness through eight “frames” by changing just two registers on the computer — the ones telling the display hardware where the top left corner of the screen started in the computer’s memory. And this in turn meant that he only had to draw the display anew from scratch every eighth frame, which was a manageable task. Once he had the scrolling background working, he added some highly optimized code to draw and erase in software alone bouncing sprites to represent his pseudo-Mario and enemies. And that was that. His technique didn’t even demand VGA graphics; it could present a dead ringer for the NES Super Mario Bros. 3 — the latest installment in the franchise — using the older MS-DOS graphics standard of EGA.

I should note at this point that the scrolling technique which John Carmack “invented” was by no means entirely new in the abstract; programmers on computers like the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga had in fact been using it for years. (I point readers to my article on the techniques used by the Commodore 64 sports games of Epyx and particularly to my book-length study of the Amiga for more detailed explanations of it than the one I’ve provided here.) A big part of the reason that no one had ever done it before on an MS-DOS computer was that no one had ever been hugely motivated to try, in light of the types of games that were generally accepted as “appropriate” for that platform; technological determinism is a potent force in game development, but it’s never the only force. And I should also note a certain irony that clings to all this. As we’ll see, John Carmack would soon toll the death knell for the era of bouncing sprites superimposed over scrolling 2D backgrounds. How odd that his first great eureka moment should have come in imitation of just that classic videogame style.

Carmack first showed his innovation to Tom Hall, the biggest Super Mario fan of all among the id boys, late in the afternoon of September 20, 1990. Hall recognized its significance immediately, and suggested that he and Carmack recreate some of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 right then and there as a proof of concept. They finally stumbled off to bed at 5:30 the following morning.

A few hours later, John Romero woke up to find a floppy disk sitting on his keyboard. He popped it into the drive, and his jaw hit the floor when he saw a Nintendo game playing there on his computer monitor. He went off to find Jay Wilbur and Adrian Carmack. They all agreed that this was big — way too big for the likes of Softdisk.

In one 72-hour marathon, the id boys recreated all of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, along with bits and pieces of those that followed. Then Wilbur typed up a letter to Nintendo of America and dropped it in the mail along with the disk; it said that the id boys were ready and willing to license their PC port of Super Mario Bros. 3 back to the Nintendo mother ship. This was a profoundly naïve thing to do; virtually anyone in the industry could have told them that Nintendo never let any of their intellectual property escape from the walled garden of their own console. And sure enough, the id boys would eventually receive a politely worded response saying no thank you. Given Nintendo’s infamous ruthlessness when it came to matters of intellectual property, they were probably lucky that a rejection letter was all they received, rather than a lawsuit.

At any rate, the id boys weren’t noted for their patience. Long before Nintendo’s response arrived, they would be on to the next thing: an original game using John Carmack’s scrolling technique.



For some time now, John Romero had been receiving fawning fan mail care of Softdisk, not a usual phenomenon at all. His gratification was lessened somewhat, however, by the fact that the letters all came from the same address near Dallas, Texas, all asked him to call the fan in question at the same phone number, and were all signed with suspiciously similar names: “Byron Muller,” “Scott Mulliere,” etc.

It was in fact our old friend Scott Miller. His attention had been captured by Romero’s games for On Disk and Gamer’s Edge; they would be perfect for Apogee, he thought. But how to get in touch? The only contact information he had was that of Softdisk’s main office. He could hardly write them a letter asking if he could poach one of their programmers. His solution was this barrage of seemingly innocent fan mail. Maybe, just maybe, Romero really would call him…

Romero didn’t call, but he did write back, and included his own phone number. Miller rang it up immediately. “Fuck those letters!” he said when Romero started to ask what kind of prank he thought he was pulling. “We can make a ton of money together selling your games as shareware.”

“Dude, those old games are garbage compared to the stuff we can make now,” said Romero, with John Carmack’s new scrolling technique firmly in mind. They struck a deal: Miller would send the id boys an advance of $2000, and they would send him a brand-new three-part game as soon as possible.

The Gamer’s Edge magazine, which just six months ago had seemed like the perfect job, now fell to the back burner in light of the riches Miller was promising them. Since they were making a Nintendo-like game in terms of action, it seemed logical to copy Nintendo’s bright and cheerful approach in the new game’s graphics and fiction as well. This was Tom Hall’s moment to shine; he already seemed to live every day in just such a primary-colored cartoon fantasy. Now, he created an outline for Commander Keen, blending Nintendo with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and old science-fiction serials — the last being perfect for an episodic game.

Billy Blaze, eight-year-old genius, working diligently in his backyard clubhouse, has created an interstellar spaceship from old soup cans, rubber cement, and plastic tubing. While his folks are out on the town and the babysitter is asleep, Billy sneaks out to his backyard workshop, dons his brother’s football helmet, and transforms into… Commander Keen, Defender of Justice! In his ship, the Bean with Bacon Megarocket, Keen dispenses justice with an iron hand!

In this episode, aliens from the planet Vorticon VI find out about the eight-year-old genius and plan his destruction. While Keen is out exploring the mountains of Mars, the Vorticons steal his ship and leave pieces around the galaxy! Can Keen recover all the pieces of his ship and repel the Vorticon invasion? Will he make it back before his parents get home? Stay tuned!

Commander Keen

When Miller received the first Commander Keen trilogy in the post barely two months later, he was thrilled beyond his wildest dreams. He had known that the id boys were talented, but this… he had never imagined this. This wasn’t a throwback to the boxed games of yore, wasn’t even on a par with the boxed games of current times. It was something entirely different, something never seen on an MS-DOS computer at all before, as visually striking and technically innovative within its chosen sphere as any of the latest boxed games were within theirs. Just like that, shareware games had come of age.

All of Apogee’s games together had been earning about $7000 per month. Commander Keen alone made $20,000 in the first month of its availability. It caused such a stir online that the established industry took a casual notice for the first time of this new entity called Apogee with this odd new way of selling games. Computer Gaming World magazine even deigned to give Commander Keen a blurb in the new-releases section. It was “of true commercial quality,” they noted, only slightly condescendingly.

Despite their success in shareware and the big checks that started coming in the mail from Apogee as a result, the id boys continued to make games for Gamer’s Edge throughout 1991. Betwixt and between, they provided Miller with a second Commander Keen trilogy, which did every bit as well as the first. No one could ever accuse them of being lazy.



But making a metaphorical name for themselves outside of Softdisk meant that they needed a literal name for the world to know them by. When they had sent their Super Mario Bros. 3 clone to Nintendo, they had called themselves “Ideas from the Deep.” Deciding that was too long-winded, they became “ID” when they started releasing games with Apogee — short for “In Demand.” The only one of their number who cottoned onto the Freudian implications of the acronym was Jay Wilbur; none of the other id boys knew Sigmund Freud from Siegmund the Norse hero. But when Wilbur explained to them how Freud’s id was the seat of a person’s most basic, impulsive desires, they were delighted. By this happenstance, then, id Software got a name which a thousand branding experts could never have bettered. It encapsulated perfectly their mission to deconstruct computer gaming, to break it down into a raw essence of action and reaction. The only ingredient still missing from the eventual id Software formula was copious violence.

And that too was already in the offing: Tom Hall’s cheerful cartoon aesthetic had started to wear thin with John Romero and Adrian Carmack long before they sent the first Commander Keen games to Scott Miller. Playing around one day with some graphics for the latest Gamer’s Edge production, Adrian drew a zombie clawing out the eyes of the player’s avatar, sending blood and gore flying everywhere. Romero loved it: “Blood! In a game! How fucking awesome is that?”

Adrian’s reply was weirdly pensive. “Maybe one day,” he said in a dreamy voice, “we’ll be able to put in as much blood as we want.”

In September of 1991, the id boys’ lease on their riverside frat house expired, and they decided that it was time to leave the depressing environs of Shreveport, with its crime, its poverty, and its homeless population who clustered disturbingly around the Softdisk offices. Their contract stipulated that they still owed Gamer’s Edge a few more games, but Al Vekovius had long since given up on trying to control them. The id boys decamped for Madison, Wisconsin, at the suggestion of Tom Hall, who had attended university there. He promised them with all of his usual enthusiasm that it was the best place ever. Instead they found the Wisconsin winter to be miserable. Cooped up inside their individual apartments, missing keenly their big old communal house and their motorboat, they threw themselves more completely than ever into making games. Everyone, with the exception only of Tom Hall, was now heartily sick and tired of Commander Keen. It was time for something new.

Whilst working at Origin Systems in the late 1980s, John Romero had met Paul Neurath, who had since gone on to start his own studio known as Blue Sky Productions. During their occasional phone calls, Neurath kept dropping hints to his friend about the game his people were working on: an immersive first-person CRPG, rendered using texture-mapped 3D graphics. When Romero mentioned it to John Carmack, his reply was short, as so many of them tended to be: “Yeah, I can do that.”

Real-time 3D graphics in general were hardly a new development. Academic research in the field stretched back to well before the era of the microchip. Bruce Artwick had employed them in the original Radio Shack TRS-80 Flight Simulator in 1980, and Ian Bell and David Braben had used them in Elite in 1984; both games were among the best sellers of their decade. Indeed, the genre of vehicular simulations, one of the most popular of them all by the late 1980s, relied on 3D graphics almost exclusively. All of which is to say that you didn’t have to look very hard in your local software store to find a 3D game of some stripe.

And yet, according at least to the conventional wisdom, the limitations of 3D graphics made them unsuitable for the sort of visceral, ultra-fast-paced experience which the id boys preferred. All of the extra affordances built into gaming-oriented platforms like the NES to enable 2D sprite-based graphics were useless for 3D graphics. 3D required radical compromises in speed or appearance, or both: those early versions of Flight Simulator were so slow that it could take the program a full second or two to respond to your inputs, which made flying their virtual airplanes perversely more difficult than flying the real thing; Elite managed to be more responsive, but only by drawing its 3D world using wire-frame outlines instead of filled surfaces. The games-industry consensus was that 3D graphics had a lot of potential for many types of games beyond those they were currently being used for, but that computer hardware was probably five to ten years away from being able to realize most of it.

John Carmack wasn’t that patient. If he couldn’t make true 3D graphics run at an acceptable speed in the here and now, he believed that he could fake it in a fairly convincing way. He devised a technique of presenting a fundamentally 2D world from a first-person perspective. Said world was a weirdly circumscribed place to inhabit: all angles had to be right angles; all walls had to stretch uniformly from floor to ceiling; all floors and ceilings had to be colored in the same uniform gray. Only interior scenes were possible, and no stairways, no jumping, no height differences of any kind were allowed; in this egalitarian world, everything and everyone had to stay permanently on the same level. You weren’t even allowed to look up or down. But, limited though it was, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen.

“You know,” said John Romero one day when they were all sitting around discussing what to do with the new technology, “it’d be really fucking cool if we made a remake of Castle Wolfenstein and did it in 3D.” With those words, id’s next game was born, one that would make all the success of Commander Keen look like nothing.


The original Castle Wolfenstein.

Written by Silas Warner, one of the Apple II scene’s early superstar programmers, and published by the long-defunct Muse Software, Castle Wolfenstein was an established classic from 1981, a top-down action-adventure that cast you as a prisoner of the Nazis who must escape, preferably taking his captors’ secret war plans with him. It remains historically notable today for incorporating a significant stealth component; ammunition was scarce and your enemies tough, which often made avoidance a better strategy than confrontation.

But avoidance wasn’t the id boys’ style. Very early on, they jettisoned everything beyond the core theme of the original Castle Wolfenstein. Wolfenstein 3D was to be, as Romero put it, “a totally shocking game. There should be blood, lots of blood, blood like you never see in games. When the player gets really low in health, at like 10 percent, he could run over the bloody guts of a dead Nazi soldier and suck those up for extra energy. It’s like human giblets. You can eat up their gibs!” In other words, Tom Hall’s aesthetic vision was out; John Romero and Adrian Carmack’s was in. “Hey, you know what we should have in here? Pissing! We should make it so you can fucking stop and piss on the Nazi after you mow him down! That would be fucking awesome!”

In early 1992, the id boys came face to face with the gaming establishment for the first time thanks to Wolfenstein 3D. They sent an early demo of the game to Sierra, and that company’s founder and CEO Ken Williams invited them to fly out to California and have a chat. Sierra was one of the three biggest computer-game publishers in the world, and was at the forefront of the interactive-movie trend which the id boys loathed. King’s Quest VI, the upcoming new installment in Sierra’s flagship series, would be so weighted down with multimedia that most reviewers, hopelessly dazzled, could spare only a few sentences for the rather rote little adventure game underneath it all. Williams himself was widely recognized as one of the foremost visionaries of the new era, proclaiming that by the end of the decade much or most of the Hollywood machine would have embraced interactivity. A meeting between two more disparate visions of gaming than his and that of the id boys can scarcely be imagined.

And yet the meeting was a cordial one on the whole. Williams had been quick to recognize when he saw Wolfenstein 3D that id had some remarkable technology, while the id boys remembered the older Apple II games of Sierra fondly. Williams took them on a tour of the offices where many of those games had come from, and then, after lunch, offered to buy id Software for $2.5 million in Sierra stock. The boys discussed it for a bit, then asked for an additional $100,000 in cash. Williams refused; he was willing to move stock around to pay for the Wolfenstein 3D technology, but he wasn’t willing to put his cash on the table. So, the negotiation ended. Instead Williams bought Bright Star Technologies, a specialist in educational software, for $1 million in cash later that year — for educational software, he believed, would soon be bigger than games. Time would prove him to be as wrong about that as he was about the future of Hollywood.

Not long after the Sierra meeting, the id boys left frigid Wisconsin in favor of Dallas, Texas, home of Scott Miller, who had been telling them about the warm weather, huge lakes, splendid barbecue, and nonexistent state income tax of the place for more than eighteen months now. One Kevin Cloud, who had held the oft-thankless role of being the id boys’ liaison with Softdisk but also happened to be a talented artist, joined them in Dallas as a sixth member of their little collective, thereby to relieve some of the burden on Adrian Carmack.

After making the move, they broke the news to Softdisk that they wouldn’t be doing Gamer’s Edge anymore. Al Vekovius was disappointed but not devastated. Oddly given how popular Commander Keen had become, the gaming disk magazine had never really taken off; it still only had about 3000 subscribers.

And so Softdisk Publications of Shreveport, Louisiana, that unlikely tech success story in that most unlikely of locales, finally exits our story permanently at this point. Nothing if not a survivor, Vekovius would keep the company alive through the 1990s and beyond by transitioning into the next big thing in computing: he turned it into an Internet service provider. He was bought out circa 2005 by a larger regional provider.


Wolfenstein 3D

This screenshot of the Wolfenstein 3D map editor illustrates why the game’s name is a misnomer: the environment is really a 2D maze much like that of the original game, albeit shown from a first-person perspective. At bottom, the engine understands just two dimensions rather than three.

If the id boys were worried about how Scott Miller would react to the ultra-violence of Wolfenstein 3D, they needn’t have been. Apogee had already been moving in this direction with considerable success; their only game to rival Commander Keen in sales during 1991 had been Duke Nukem by Todd Replogle, whose titular protagonist was a cigar-chomping Arnold Schwarzenegger facsimile with a machine gun almost as big around as his biceps. When Miller saw Wolfenstein 3D for the first time, he loved the violence as much as he did John Carmack’s pseudo-3D graphics engine. He knew what his customers craved, and he knew that they would swoon over this. He convinced the id boys to make enough levels to release a free episode followed by five paid ones rather than the usual two. On May 5, 1992 — the very same day on which the boys had handed the final version to Miller — the free installment appeared on Software Creations, Apogee’s new online service.

As it happened, Paul Neurath’s Blue Sky Productions had released their own immersive first-person 3D game, which had spent roughly five times as long in production as Wolfenstein 3D, just two months before. It was called Ultima Underworld, and was published as a boxed product by Origin Systems. It boasted a far more complete implementation of a 3D world than did id’s creation. You could look up, down, and all around; could jump and climb ledges; could sneak around corners and hide in shadows; could swim in rivers or fly through the air by means of a levitation spell. But Ultima Underworld was cerebral, old school — dull, as the id boys and many of their fan base saw it. Combat was only a part of its challenge. You also had to spend your time piecing together clues, collecting spells, solving puzzles, annotating maps, leveling up and assigning statistics and skills to your character. Even the combat happened at a speed most kindly described as “stately” if you didn’t have a cutting-edge computer.

Wolfenstein 3D, by contrast, ran like greased lightning on just about any computer, thanks to John Carmack’s willingness to excise any element from his graphics engine that he couldn’t render quickly. After all, the id boys really only wanted to watch the blood spurt as they mowed down Nazis; “just run over everything and destroy” was their stated design philosophy. And many others, it seemed, agreed with their point of view.

For, while Ultima Underworld became a substantial hit, Wolfenstein 3D became a phenomenon. It made $200,000 in the first month, then kept selling at that pace for the next eighteen months. It was, as Scott Miller would later put it, a “paradigm shift” in shareware games. Whatever that elusive “it” was that so many gamers found to be missing in the big boxed offerings — immediacy? simplicity? violence? id in the Freudian sense? all of the above? — Wolfenstein 3D had it in spades.

The shareware barbarians were truly at the gates now; they could no longer be ignored by the complacent organs of the establishment. This time out, id got a feature review in Computer Gaming World to go along with the full-page color advertisements which Apogee was now able to pay for. “I can’t remember a game making such effective use of perspective and sound and thereby evoking such intense physiological responses from its player,” the review concluded. “I recommend gamers take a look at this one, if only for a cheap peek at part of interactive entertainment’s potential for a sensory-immersed ‘virtual’ future.”

Yet, as that “if only” qualifier intimates, the same magazine was clearly bothered by all of the gleefully gory violence of the game. An editorial by editor-in-chief Johnny Wilson, the former pastor who had built Computer Gaming World into the most thoughtful and mature journal in the industry, drove the point home: “What are we saying when we depict lifelike carnage in a game where the design is geared for you to kill nearly everyone you encounter?”

If Wilson thought id’s first 3D shooter was disturbing, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Their next game would up the ante on the violence and gore even as their first competitors jumped into the act, starting a contest to see who could be most extreme. Everyone working in games or playing them would soon have to reckon with the changes — distributional, technical, and cultural — which a burgeoning new genre, born on the streets instead of in the halls of power, was wreaking.

Crashing the halls of power: Tom Hall, Jay Wilbur, and John Romero in black tie for the Shareware Industry Awards of 1992.

(Sources: the books Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein 3D by Fabien Sanglard, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, Sophistication & Simplicity: The Life and Times of the Apple II Computer by Steven Weyhrich, and I Am Error by Nathan Altice; PC Magazine of September 12 1989; InfoWorld of June 12 1989; Retro Gamer 75; Game Developer premiere issue and issues of June 1994 and February/March 1995; Computer Gaming World of August 1991, January 1992, August 1992, and September 1992; The Computist 88; inCider of November 1989. Online sources include “Apogee: Where Wolfenstein Got Its Start” by Chris Plante at Polygon, “Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Era of First-Person Shooters” by David L. Craddock at Shack News, Samuel Stoddard’s Apogee FAQ, Benj Edwards’s interview with Scott Miller for Gamasutra, Jeremy Peels’s interview with John Romero for PC Games N, Lode Vandevenne’s explanation of the Wolfenstein 3D rendering engine, and Jay Wilbur’s old Usenet posts, which can now be accessed via Google Groups.

The company once known as Apogee, which is now known as 3D Realms, has released many of their old shareware games for free on their website, including Commander Keen. All of the Wolfenstein 3D installments are available as digital purchases at GOG.com.)

 

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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 deserts.

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]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. 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.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
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.

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 Fūhrer 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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