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The Last Days of Zork

If you follow the latest developments in modern gaming even casually, as I do, you know that Microsoft and Activision Blizzard recently concluded the most eye-watering transaction ever to take place in the industry: the former acquired the latter for a price higher than the gross national product of more than half of the world’s countries. I find it endlessly amusing to consider that Activision may have lived long enough to set that record only thanks to Infocom, that humble little maker of 1980s text adventures, whose annual revenues — revenues, mind you, not profits — never exceeded $10 million before Activision acquired it in 1986. And just how did this David save a Goliath? It happened like this:

After Bobby Kotick arranged a hostile takeover of a bankrupt and moribund Activision in 1991, he started rummaging through its archives, looking for something that could start bringing some money in quickly, in order to keep the creditors who were howling at his door at bay for a wee bit longer. He came upon the 35 text adventures which had been made by Infocom over the course of the previous decade, games which, for all that they were obviously archaic by the standards of the encroaching multimedia age, were still fondly remembered by many gamers as the very best of their breed. He decided to take a flier on them, throwing twenty of them onto one of those shiny new CD-ROMS that everyone was talking about — or, if that didn’t work for you, onto a pile of floppy disks that rattled around in the box like ice cubes in a pitcher of lemonade. Then he photocopied the feelies and hint books that had gone with the games, bound them all together into two thick booklets, and stuck those in the box as well. He called the finished collection, one of the first notable examples of “shovelware” in gaming, The Lost Treasures of Infocom.

It sold 100,000 or more units, at $60 or $70 a pop and with a profit margin to die for. The inevitable Lost Treasures II that followed, collecting most of the remaining games,[1]The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures. was somewhat less successful, but still more than justified the (minimal) effort that had gone into its curation. The two products’ combined earnings were indeed enough to give pause to those creditors who had been pushing for the bankrupt company to be liquidated rather than reorganized.

With a modicum of breathing room thus secured, Kotick scraped together every penny he could find for his Hail Mary pass, which was once again to rely upon Infocom’s legacy. William Volk, his multimedia guru in residence, oversaw the production of Return to Zork, a splashy graphical adventure with all the cutting-edge bells and whistles. In design terms, it was an awful game, riddled with nonsensical puzzles and sadistic dead ends. Yet that didn’t matter at all in the marketplace. Return to Zork rammed the zeitgeist perfectly by combining lingering nostalgia for Zork, Infocom’s best-selling series of games, with all of the spectacular audiovisual flash the new decade could offer up. Upon its release in late 1993, it sold several hundred thousand copies as a boxed retail product, and even more as a drop-in with the “multimedia upgrade kits” (a CD-ROM drive and a sound card in one convenient package!) that were all the rage at the time. It left Activision, if not quite in rude health yet, at least no longer on life support. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick.

With an endorsement like that from the man at the top, a sequel to Return to Zork seemed sure to follow. Yet it proved surprisingly long in coming. Partly this was because William Volk left Activision just after finishing Return to Zork, and much of his team likewise scattered to the four winds. But it was also a symptom of strained resources in general, and of currents inside Activision that were pulling in two contradictory directions at once. The fact was that Activision was chasing two almost diametrically opposing visions of mainstream gaming’s future in the mid-1990s, one of which would show itself in the end to have been a blind alley, the other of which would become the real way forward.

Alas, it was the former that was exemplified by Return to Zork, with its human actors incongruously inserted over computer-generated backgrounds and its overweening determination to provide a maximally “cinematic” experience. This vision of “Siliwood” postulated that the games industry would become one with the movie and television industry, that name actors would soon be competing for plum roles in games as ferociously as they did for those in movies; it wasn’t only for the cheaper rents that Kotick had chosen to relocate his resuscitated Activision from Northern to Southern California.

The other, ultimately more sustainable vision came to cohabitate at the new Activision almost accidentally. It began when Kotick, rummaging yet again through the attic full of detritus left behind by his company’s previous incarnation, came across a still-binding contract with FASA for the digital rights to BattleTech, a popular board game of dueling robot “mechs.” After a long, troubled development cycle that consumed many of the resources that might otherwise have been put toward a Return to Zork sequel, Activision published MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat in the summer of 1995.

Mechwarrior 2 was everything Return to Zork wasn’t. Rather than being pieced together out of canned video clips and pre-rendered scenes, it was powered by 3D graphics that were rendered on the fly in real time. It was exciting in a viscerally immersive, action-oriented way rather than being a passive spectacle. And, best of all in the eyes of many of its hyper-competitive players, it was multiplayer-friendly. This, suffice to say, was the real future of mainstream hardcore computer gaming. MechWarrior 2′s one similarity with Return to Zork was external to the game itself: Kotick once again pulled every string he could to get it included as a pack-in extra with hardware-upgrade kits. This time, however, the upgrades in question were the new 3D-graphics accelerators that made games like this one run so much better.

In a way, the writing was on the wall for Siliwood at Activision as soon as MechWarrior 2 soared to the stratosphere, but there were already a couple of ambitious projects in the Siliwood vein in the works at that time, which together would give the alternative vision’s ongoing viability a good, solid test. One of these was Spycraft, an interactive spy movie with unusually high production values and high thematic ambitions to go along with them: it was shot on film rather than the standard videotape, from a script written with the input of William Colby and Oleg Kalugin, American and Soviet spymasters during the Cold War. The other was Zork Nemesis.



Whatever else you can say about it, you can’t accuse Zork Nemesis of merely aping its successful predecessor. Where Return to Zork is goofy, taking its cues from the cartoon comedies of Sierra and LucasArts as well as the Zork games of Infocom, Zork Nemesis is cold and austere — almost off-puttingly so, like its obvious inspiration Myst. Then, too, in place of the abstracted room-based navigation of Return to Zork, Zork Nemesis gives you more granular nodes to jump between in an embodied, coherent three-dimensional space, again just like Myst. Return to Zork is bursting with characters, such as that “Want some rye?” guy who became an early Internet meme unto himself; Zork Nemesis is almost entirely empty, its story playing out through visions, written records, and brief snatches of contact across otherwise impenetrable barriers of time and space.

Which style of adventure game you prefer is a matter of taste. In at least one sense, though, Zork Nemesis does undeniably improve upon its predecessor. Whereas Return to Zork’s puzzles seem to have been slapped together more or less at random by a team not overly concerned with the player’s sanity or enjoyment, it’s clear that Zork Nemesis was consciously designed in all the ways that the previous Zork was not; its puzzles are often hard, but they’re never blatantly unfair. Nor do they repeat Return to Zork’s worst design sin of all: they give you no way of becoming a dead adventurer walking without knowing it.

The plot here involves a ruthless alchemical mastermind, the Nemesis of the title, and his quest for a mysterious fifth element, a Quintessence that transcends the standard Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The game is steeped in the Hermetic occultism that strongly influenced many of the figures who mark the transition from Medieval to Modern thought in our own world’s history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton. This is fine in itself; in fact, it’s a rather brilliant basis for an adventure game if you ask me, easily a more interesting idea in the abstract than yet another Zork game. The only problem — a problem which has been pointed out ad nauseam over the years since Zork Nemesis’s release — is that this game does purport to be a Zork game in addition to being about all that other stuff, and yet it doesn’t feel the slightest bit like Zork. While the Zork games of Infocom were by no means all comedy all the time — Zork III in particular is notably, even jarringly austere, and Spellbreaker is not that far behind it — they never had anything to do with earthly alchemy.

I developed the working theory as I played Zork Nemesis that it must have been originally conceived as simply a Myst-like adventure game, having nothing to do with Zork, until some marketing genius or other insisted that the name be grafted on to increase its sales potential. I was a little sad to be disabused of my pet notion by Laird Malamed, the game’s technical director, with whom I was able to speak recently. He told me that Zork Nemesis really was a Zork from the start, to the point of being listed as Return to Zork II in Activision’s account books before it was given its final name. Nevertheless, I did find one of his choices of words telling. He said that Cecilia Barajas, a former Los Angeles district attorney who became Zork Nemesiss mastermind, was no more than “familiar” with Infocom’s Zork. So, it might not be entirely unfair after all to say that the Zork label on Zork Nemesis was more of a convenient way for Barajas to make the game she wanted to make than a wellspring of passion for her. Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean for any of the preceding to come across as fannish gatekeeping, something we have more than enough of already in this world. I’m merely trying to understand, just as you presumably are, why Zork Nemesis is so very different from the Activision Zork game before it (and also the one after it, about which more later).

Of course, a game doesn’t need to be a Zork to be good. And indeed, if we forget about the Zork label, we find that Nemesis (see what I did there?) is one of the best — arguably even the best — of all the 1990s “Myst clones.” It’s one of the rare old games whose critical reputation has improved over the years, now that the hype surrounding its release and the angry cries of “But it’s not a Zork!” have died away, granting us space to see it for what it is rather than what it is not. With a budget running to $3 million or more, this was no shoestring project. In fact, the ironic truth is that both Nemesis’s budget and its resultant production values dramatically exceed those of its inspiration Myst. Its principal technical innovation, very impressive at the time, is the ability to smoothly scroll through a 360-degree panorama in most of the nodes you visit, rather than being limited to an arbitrary collection of fixed views. The art direction and the music are superb, maintaining a consistently sinister, occasionally downright macabre atmosphere. And it’s a really, really big game too, far bigger than Myst, with, despite its almost equally deserted environments, far more depth to its fiction. If we scoff just a trifle because this is yet one more adventure game that requires you to piece together a backstory from journal pages rather than living a proper foreground story of your own, we also have to acknowledge that the backstory is interesting enough that you want to find and read said pages. This is a game that, although it certainly doesn’t reinvent any wheels, implements every last one of them with care.

My own objections are the same ones that I always tend to have toward this sub-genre, and that thus probably say more about me than they do about Nemesis. The oppressive atmosphere, masterfully inculcated though it is, becomes a bit much after a while; I start wishing for some sort of tonal counterpoint to this all-pervasively dominant theme, not to mention someone to actually talk to. And then the puzzles, although not unfair, are sometimes quite difficult — more difficult than I really need them to be. Nemesis is much like Riven, Myst’s official sequel, in that it wants me to work a bit harder for my fun than I have the time or energy for at this point in my life. Needless to say, though, your mileage may vary.


Zork Nemesis’s story is told through ghostly (and non-interactive) visions…

…as well as through lots of books, journals, and letters. Myst fans will feel right at home.

The puzzles too are mostly Myst-style set-pieces rather than relying on inventory objects.

The macabre atmosphere becomes downright gruesome in places.

Venus dispenses hints if you click on her. What is the ancient Roman goddess of love, as painted by the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, doing in the world of Zork? Your guess is as good as mine. Count it as just one more way in which this Zork can scarcely be bothered to try to be a Zork at all.



Released on the same day in April of 1996 as Spycraft, Activision’s other big test of the Siliwood vision’s ongoing viability, Zork Nemesis was greeted with mixed reviews. This was not surprising for a Myst clone, a sub-genre that the hardcore-gaming press never warmed to. Still, some of the naysayers waxed unusually vitriolic upon seeing such a beloved gaming icon as Zork sullied with the odor of the hated Myst. The normally reliable and always entertaining Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World, the print journal of record for the hobby, whose reviews could still make or break a game as a marketplace proposition even in this dawning Internet age, dinged Zork Nemesis for not having much of anything to do with Infocom’s Zork, which was fair. Yet then he went on to characterize it as a creatively bankrupt, mindless multimedia cash-in, which was not: “Give ’em a gorgeous photo-realistic environment full of fantastic landscapes, some quasi-liturgical groaning on the soundtrack, and a simple puzzle every so often to keep their brains engaged, and you’re off to the bank to count your riches. Throw in some ghostly visions and a hint of the horrific and you can snag the 7th Guest crowd too.” One can only assume from this that Ardai never even bothered to try to play the game, but simply hated it on principle. I maintain that no one who has done so could possibly describe Zork Nemesis‘s puzzles as “simple,” no matter how much smarter than I am he might happen to be.

Even in the face of headwinds like these, Zork Nemesis still sold considerably better than the more positively reviewed Spycraft, seemingly demonstrating that Bobby Kotick’s faith in “Zork on a brick” might not yet be completely misplaced. Its lifetime sales probably ended up in the neighborhood of 150,000 to 200,000 copies — not a blockbuster hit by any means, and certainly a good deal less than the numbers put up by Return to Zork, but still more than the vast majority of Myst clones, enough for it to earn back the money it had cost to make plus a little extra.[2]In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there. Whereas there would be no more interactive spy movies forthcoming from Activision, Zork Nemesis did just well enough that Kotick could see grounds for funding another Zork game, as long as it was made on a slightly less lavish budget, taking advantage of the engine that had been created for Nemesis. And I’m very glad he could, because the Zork game that resulted is a real gem.



With Cecilia Barajas having elected to move on to other things, Laird Malamed stepped up into her role for the next game. He was much more than just “familiar” with Zork. He had gotten a copy of the original Personal Software “barbarian Zork — so named because of its hilariously inappropriate cover art — soon after his parents bought him his first Apple II as a kid, and had grown up with Infocom thereafter. Years later, when he had already embarked on a career as a sound designer in Hollywood, a chance meeting with Return to Zork put Activision on his radar. He applied and was hired there, giving up one promising career for another.

He soon became known both inside and outside of Activision as the keeper of the Infocom flame, the only person in the company’s senior ranks who saw that storied legacy as more than just something to be exploited commercially. While still in the early stages of making Activision’s third graphical Zork, he put together as a replacement for the old Lost Treasures of Infocom collections a new one called Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces: 33 of the canonical 35 games on a single CD, with all of their associated documentation in digital format. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Shogun, Infocom’s only two licensed titles, were the only games missing, in both cases because their licensing contracts had expired). He did this more because he simply felt these games ought to be available than because he expected the collection to make a lot of money for his employer. In the same spirit, he reached out to the amateur interactive fiction community that was still authoring text adventures in the Infocom mold, and arranged to include the top six finishers from the recently concluded First Interactive Fiction Competition on the same disc. He searched through Activision’s storage rooms to find a backup of the old DEC mainframe Infocom had used to create its games. This he shared with Graham Nelson and a few other amateur-IF luminaries, whilst selecting a handful of interesting, entertaining, and non-embarrassing internal emails to include on the Masterpieces disc as well.[3]This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at archive.org. No one at Activision had ever engaged with the company’s Infocom inheritance in such an agenda-less, genuine way before him; nor would anyone do so after him.

He brought to the new graphical Zork game a story idea that had a surprisingly high-brow inspiration: the “Grand Inquisitor” tale-within-a-tale in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, an excerpt which stands so well on its own that it’s occasionally been published that way. I can enthusiastically recommend reading it, whether you tackle the rest of the novel or not. (Laird admitted to me when we talked that he himself hadn’t yet managed to finish the entire book when he decided to use a small part of it as the inspiration for his game.) Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is a leading figure of the Spanish Inquisition, who harangues a returned Jesus Christ for his pacifism, his humility, and his purportedly naïve rejection of necessary hierarchies of power. It is, in other words, an exercise in contrast, setting the religion of peace and love that was preached by Jesus up against what it became in the hands of the Medieval Catholic popes and other staunch insitutionalists.

For its part, Zork: Grand Inquisitor doesn’t venture into quite such politically fraught territory as this. Its titular character is an ideological rather than religious tinpot dictator, of the sort all too prevalent in the 20th and 21st centuries on our world. He has taken over the town of Port Foozle, where he has banned all magic and closed all access to the Great Underground Empire that lies just beneath the town. You play a humble traveling salesperson who comes into possession of a magic lantern — a piece of highly illegal contraband in itself — that contains the imprisoned spirit of Dalboz of Gurth, the rightful Dungeon Master of the Empire. He encourages and helps you to make your way into his forbidden realm, to become a literal underground resistance fighter against the Grand Inquisitor.

The preceding paragraphs may have led you to think that Zork: Grand Inquisitor is another portentous, serious game. If so, rest assured that it isn’t. Not at all. Its tone and feel could hardly be more different from those of Zork Nemesis. Although there are some heavy themes lurking in the background, they’re played almost entirely for laughs in the foreground. This strikes me as no bad approach. There are, after all, few more devastating antidotes to the totalitarian absurdities of those who would dictate to others what sort of lives they should lead and what they should believe in than a dose of good old full-throated laughter. As Hannah Arendt understood, the Grand Inquisitors among us are defined by the qualities they are missing rather than any that they possess: qualities like empathy, conscience, and moral intelligence. We should not hesitate to mock them for being the sad, insecure, incompletely realized creatures they are.

Just as I once suspected that Zork Nemesis didn’t start out as a Zork game at all, I was tempted to assume that this latest whipsaw shift in atmosphere for Zork at Activision came as a direct response to the vocal criticisms of the aforementioned game’s lack of Zorkiness. Alas, Laird Malamed disabused me of that clever notion as well. Grand Inquisitor was, he told me, simply the Zork that he wanted to make, initiated well before the critics’ and fans’ verdicts on the last game started to pour in in earnest. He told me that he practically “begged” Margaret Stohl, who has since gone on to become a popular fantasy novelist in addition to continuing to work in games, to come aboard as lead designer and writer and help him to put his broad ideas into a more concrete form, for he knew that she possessed exactly the comedic sensibility he was going for.

Regardless of the original reason for the shift in tone, Laird and his team didn’t hesitate to describe Grand Inquisitor later in its development cycle as a premeditated response to the backlash about Nemesis’s Zork bona fides, or rather its lack thereof. This time, they told magazines like Computer Gaming World, they were determined to “let Zork be Zorky”: “to embrace what was wonderful about the old text adventures, a fantasy world with an undercurrent of humor.”

Certainly Grand Inquisitor doesn’t lack for the concrete Zorkian tropes that were also all over Return to Zork. From the white house in the forest to Flood Control Dam #3 to Dalboz’s magic lantern itself, the gang’s all here. But all of these disparate homages are integrated into a larger Zorkian tapestry in a way Activision never managed elsewhere. Return to Zork is a compromised if not cynical piece of work, its slapstick tone the result of a group of creators who saw Zork principally as a grab bag of tropes to be thrown at the wall one after another. And Nemesis, of course, has little to do with Zork at all. But Grand Inquisitor walks like a Zork, talks like a Zork, and is smart amidst its silliness in the same way as a Zork of yore. In accordance with its heritage, it’s an unabashedly self-referential game, well aware of the clichés and limitations of its genre and happy to poke fun at them. For example, the Dungeon Master here dubs you the “AFGNCAAP”: the “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person,” making light of a longstanding debate, ancient even at the time of Grand Inquisitor’s release, over whether it must be you the player in the game or whether it’s acceptable to ask you to take control of a separate, strongly characterized protagonist.

It’s plain from first to last that this game was helmed by someone who knew Zork intimately and loved it dearly. And yet the game is never gawky in that obsessive fannish way that can be so painful to witness; it’s never so much in thrall to its inspiration that it forgets to be its own thing. This game is comfortable in its own skin, and can be enjoyed whether you’ve been steeped in the lore of Zork for decades or are coming to it completely cold. This is the way you do fan service right, folks.

Although it uses an engine made for a Myst-like game, Grand Inquisitor plays nothing like Myst. This game is no exercise in contemplative, lonely puzzle-solving; its world is alive. As you wander about, Dungeon Master Dalboz chirps up from his lantern constantly with banter, background, and subtle hints. He becomes your friend in adventure, keeping you from ever feeling too alone. In time, other disembodied spirits join you as well, until you’re wandering around with a veritable Greek chorus burbling away behind you. The voice acting is uniformly superb.

Another prominent recurring character is Antharia Jack, a poor man’s Indiana Jones who’s played onscreen as well as over the speakers by Dirk Benedict, a fellow very familiar with being a stand-in for Harrison Ford in his most iconic roles, having also played the Han Solo-wannabee Starbuck in the delightfully cheesy old television Star Wars cash-in Battlestar Galactica. Benedict, one of those actors who’s capable of portraying exactly one character but who does it pretty darn well, went on to star in The A-Team after his tenure as an outer-space fighter jockey was over. His smirking, skirt-chasing persona was thus imprinted deeply on the memories of many of the twenty-somethings whom Activision hoped to tempt into buying Grand Inquisitor. This sort of stunt-casting of actors a bit past their pop-culture prime was commonplace in productions like these, but here at least it’s hard to fault the results. Benedict leans into Antharia Jack with all of his usual gusto. You can’t help but like the guy.

When it comes to its puzzles, Grand Inquisitor’s guiding ethic is to cut its poor, long-suffering AFGNCAAP a break. All of the puzzles here are well-clued and logical within the context of a Zorkian world, the sort of puzzles that are likely to stump you only just long enough to make you feel satisfyingly smart after you solve them. There’s a nice variety to them, with plenty of the “use object X on thing Y” variety to go along with some relatively un-taxing set-piece exercises in pushing buttons or pulling levers just right. But best of all are the puzzles that you solve by magic.

Being such a dedicated Infocom aficionado, Laird Malamed remembered something that most of his colleagues probably never knew at all: that the canon of Infocom Zork games encompassed more than just the ones that had that name on their boxes, that there was also a magic-oriented Enchanter trilogy which took place in the same universe. At the center of those games was one of the most brilliant puzzle mechanics Infocom ever invented, a system of magic that had you hunting down spell scrolls to copy into your spell book, after which they were yours to cast whenever you wished. This being Infocom, however, they were never your standard-issue Dungeons & Dragons Fireball spells, but rather ones that did weirdly specific, esoteric things, often to the point that it was hard to know what they were really good for — until, that is, you finally stumbled over that one nail for which they were the perfect hammer. Grand Inquisitor imports this mechanic wholesale. Here as well, you’re forever trying to figure out how to get your hands on that spell scroll that’s beckoning to you teasingly from the top of a tree or wherever, and then, once you’ve secured it, trying to figure out where it can actually do something useful for you. This latter is no trivial exercise when you’re stuck with spells like IGRAM (“turn purple things invisible”) and KENDALL (“simplify instructions”). Naturally, much of the fun comes from casting the spells on all kinds of random stuff, just to see what happens. Following yet again in the footsteps of Infocom, Laird’s team at Activision implemented an impressive number of such interactions, useless though they are for any purpose other than keeping the AFGNCAAP amused.

Grand Inquisitor isn’t an especially long game on any terms, and the fairly straightforward puzzles mean you’ll sail through what content there is much more quickly than you might through a game like Nemesis. All in all, it will probably give you no more than three or four evenings’ entertainment. Laird Malamed confessed to me that a significant chunk of the original design document had to be cut in the end in order to deliver the game on-time and on-budget; this was a somewhat marginal project from the get-go, not one to which Activision’s bean counters were ever going to give a lot of slack. Yet even this painful but necessary surgery was done unusually well. Knowing from the beginning that the scalpel might have to come out before all was said and done, the design team consciously used a “modular” approach, from which content could be subtracted (or added, if they should prove to be so fortunate) without undermining the structural integrity, if you will, of the game as a whole. As a result of their forethought, Grand Inquisitor doesn’t feel like a game that’s been gutted. It rather feels very complete just as it is. Back in the day, when Activision was trying to sell it for $40 or $50, its brevity was nevertheless a serious disadvantage. Today, when you can pick it up in a downloadable version for just a few bucks, it’s far less of a problem. As the old showbiz rule says, better to leave ’em wanting more than wishing you’d just get off the stage already.


 

“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.” Unfortunately, the property has been condemned by the Grand Inquisitor. “Who is the boss of you? Me! I am the boss of you!”

The “spellchecker” is a good example of Grand Inquisitor’s silly but clever humor, which always has time for puns. The machine’s purpose is, as you might have guessed, to validate spell scrolls.

This subway map looks… complicated. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to simplify it in a burst of magic? Laird told me that this puzzle was inspired by recollections of trying to make sense of a map of the London Underground as a befuddled tourist.

Nothing sums up the differences between Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor quite so perfectly as the latter’s chess puzzle. In Nemesis, you’d be futzing around with this thing forever. And in Grand Inquisitor? As Scorpia wrote in her review for Computer Gaming World, “Think of what you’ve [always] felt like doing with an adventure-game chess puzzle, and act accordingly.”

There are some set-piece puzzles that can’t be dispatched quite so easily. An instruction booklet tells you to never, ever close all four sluices of Flood Control Dam Number 3 at once. So what do you try to do?

Playing Strip Grue, Fire, Water with Antharia Jack. The cigars were no mere affectation of Dirk Benedict. His costars complained repeatedly about the cloud of odoriferous smoke in which he was constantly enveloped. A true blue Hollywood eccentric of the old-school stripe, Benedict remains convinced to this day that the key to longevity is tobacco combined with a macrobiotic diet. Ah, well… given that he’s reached 79 years of age and counting as of this writing, it seems to be working out for him so far.

Be careful throwing around them spells, kid! Deaths in Grand Inquisitor are rendered in text. Not only is this a nice nostalgic homage to the game’s roots, it helped to maximize the limited budget by avoiding the expense of portraying all those death scenes in graphics.



Laird Malamed had no sense during the making of Grand Inquisitor that this game would mark the end of Zork’s long run. On the contrary, he had plans to turn it into the first game of a new trilogy, the beginning of a whole new era for the venerable franchise. In keeping with his determination to bring Zork back to the grass roots who knew and loved it best, he came up with an inspired guerrilla-marketing scheme. He convinced the former Infocom Implementors Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn to write up a short text-adventure prelude to the story told in Grand Inquisitor proper. Then he got Kevin Wilson, the organizer of the same Interactive Fiction Competition whose games had featured on the Masterpieces CD, to program their design in Inform, a language that compiled to the Z-Machine, Infocom’s old virtual machine, for which interpreters had long been available on countless computing platforms, both current and archaic. Activision released the end result for free on the Internet in the summer of 1997, as both a teaser for the graphical game that was to come and a proof that Zork was re-embracing its roots. Zork: The Undiscovered Underground isn’t a major statement by any means, but it stands today, as it did then, as a funny, nostalgic final glance back to the days when Zork was nothing but words on a screen.

Unfortunately, all of Laird’s plans for Zork’s broader future went up in smoke when Grand Inquisitor was released in November of 1997 and put up sales numbers well short of those delivered by Nemesis, despite reviews that were almost universally glowing this time around. Those Infocom fans who played it mostly adored it for finally delivering on the promise of its name, even if it was a bit short. The problem was that that demographic was now moving into the busiest phase of life, when careers and children tend to fill all of the hours available and then some. There just weren’t enough of those people still buying games to deliver the sales that a mass-market-focused publisher like Activision demanded, even as the Zork name meant nothing whatsoever to the newer generation of gamers who had cut their teeth on DOOM and Warcraft. Perhaps Bobby Kotick should have just written “Zork” on a brick after all, for Grand Inquisitor didn’t sell even 100,000 units.

And so, twenty years after a group of MIT graduate students had gotten together to create a game that was even better than Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure, Zork’s run came to an end, taking with it any remaining dregs of faith at Activision in the Siliwood vision. Apart from one misconceived and blessedly quickly abandoned effort to revive the franchise as a low-budget MMORPG during the period when those things were sprouting like weeds, no Zork game has appeared since. We can feel sad about this if we must, but the reality is that nothing lasts forever. Far better, it seems to me, for Zork to go out with Grand Inquisitor, one of the highest of all its highs, than to be recycled again and again on a scale of diminishing returns, as has happened to some other classic gaming franchises. Likewise, I’m kind of happy that no one who made Grand Inquisitor knew they were making the very last Zork adventure. Their ignorance caused them to just let Zork be Zork, meant they were never even tempted to turn their game into some over-baked Final Statement.

In games as in life, it’s always better to celebrate what we have than to lament what might have been. With that in mind, then, let me warmly recommend Zork: Grand Inquisitor to any fans of adventure games among you readers who have managed not to play it yet. It really doesn’t matter whether you know the rest of Zork or not; it stands just fine on its own. And that too is the way it ought to be.



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Sources: the books Zork Nemesis: The Official Strategy Guide by Peter Spear and Zork: Grand Inquisitor: The Official Strategy Guide by Margaret Stohl; Computer Gaming World of August 1996, February 1997, and March 1998; InterActivity of May 1996; Next Generation of August 1997; Los Angeles Times of November 30 1996.

Online sources include a 1996 New Media profile of Activision and “The Trance Experience of Zork Nemesis at Animation World.

My thanks to Laird Malamed for taking the time from his busy schedule to talk to me about his history with Zork. Note that any opinions expressed in this article that are not explicitly attributed to him are my own.

Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor are both available as digital purchases at GOG.com.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures.
2 In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there.
3 This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at archive.org.
 

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An Unlikely Savior

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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The Worlds of Ultima

Proud papa Warren Spector with a copy of Worlds of Ultima II: Martian Dreams.

In the very early days of Ultima, Richard Garriott made a public promise which would eventually come back to haunt him. Looking for a way to differentiate his CRPG series from its arch-rival, Wizardry, he said that he would never reuse an Ultima engine. Before every new installment of his series, he would tear everything down to its component parts and rebuild it all, bigger and better than ever before. For quite some time, this policy served Garriott very well indeed. When the first Ultima had appeared in 1981, it had lagged well behind the first Wizardry in terms of sales and respect, but by the time Ultima III dropped in 1983 Garriott’s series had snatched a lead which it would never come close to relinquishing. While the first five Wizardry installments remained largely indistinguishable from one another to the casual fan, Ultima made major, obvious leaps with each new release. Yes, games like The Bard’s Tale and Pool of Radiance racked up some very impressive sales of their own as the 1980s wore on, but Ultima… well, Ultima was simply Ultima, the most respected name of all in CRPGs.

And yet by 1990 the promise which had served Richard Garriott so well was starting to become a real problem for his company Origin Systems. To build each new entry in the series from the ground up was one thing when doing so entailed Garriott disappearing alone into a small room containing only his Apple II for six months or a year, then emerging, blurry-eyed and exhausted, with floppy disks in hand. It was quite another thing in the case of a game like 1990’s Ultima VI, the first Ultima to be developed for MS-DOS machines with VGA graphics and hard drives, a project involving four programmers and five artists, plus a bureaucracy of others that included everything from producers to play-testers. Making a new Ultima from the ground up had by this point come to entail much more than just writing a game engine; it required a whole new technical infrastructure of editors and other software tools that let the design team, to paraphrase Origin’s favorite marketing tagline, create their latest world.

But, while development costs thus skyrocketed, sales weren’t increasing to match. Each new entry in the series since Ultima IV had continued to sell a consistent 200,000 to 250,000 copies. These were very good numbers for the genre and the times, but it seemed that Origin had long ago hit a sales ceiling for games of this type. The more practical voices at the company, such as the hard-nosed head of product development Dallas Snell, said that Origin simply had to start following the example of their rivals, who reused their engines many times as a matter of course. If they wished to survive, Origin too had to stop throwing away their technology after only using it once; they had to renege at last on Richard Garriott’s longstanding promise. Others, most notably the original promise-maker himself, were none too happy with the idea.

Origin’s recently arrived producer and designer Warren Spector was as practical as he was creative, and thus could relate to the concerns of both a Dallas Snell and a Richard Garriott. He proposed a compromise. What if a separate team used the last Ultima engine to create some “spin-off” games while Garriott and his team were busy inventing their latest wheel for the next “numbered” game in the series?

It wasn’t actually an unprecedented idea. As far back as Ultima II, in the days before Origin even existed, a rumor had briefly surfaced that Sierra, Garriott’s publisher at the time, might release an expansion disk to connect a few more of the many pointlessly spinning gears in that game’s rather sloppy design. Later, after spending some two years making Ultima IV all by himself, Garriott himself had floated the idea of an Ultima IV Part 2 to squeeze a little more mileage out of the engine, only to abandon it to the excitement of building a new engine of unprecedented sophistication for Ultima V. But now, with the Ultima VI engine, it seemed like an idea whose time had truly come at last.

The spin-off games would be somewhat smaller in scope than the core Ultimas, and this, combined with the reuse of a game engine and other assets from their big brothers, should allow each of them to be made in something close to six months, as opposed to the two years that were generally required for a traditional Ultima. They would give Origin more product to sell to those 200,000 to 250,000 hardcore fans who bought each new mainline installment; this would certainly please Dallas Snell. And, as long as the marketing message was carefully crafted, they should succeed in doing so without too badly damaging the Ultima brand’s reputation for always surfing the bleeding edge of CRPG design and technology; this would please Richard Garriott.

But most of all it was Warren Spector who had good reason to be pleased with the compromise he had fashioned. The Ultima sub-series that was born of it, dubbed Worlds of Ultima, would run for only two games, but would nevertheless afford him his first chance at Origin to fully exercise his creative muscles; both games would be at bottom his babies, taking place in settings created by him and enacting stories outlined by him. These projects would be, as Spector happily admits today, “B” projects at Origin, playing second fiddle in terms of internal resources and marketing priority alike to the mainline Ultima games and to Wing Commander. Yet, as many a Hollywood director will tell you, smaller budgets and the reduced scrutiny that goes along with them are often anything but a bad thing; they often lend themselves to better, more daring creative work. “I actually liked being a ‘B’ guy,” remembers Spector. “The guys spending tons of money have all the pressure. I was spending so little [that] no one really paid much attention to what I was doing, so I got to try all sorts of crazy things.”

Those crazy things could only have come from this particular Origin employee. Spector was almost, as he liked to put it, the proud holder of a PhD in film studies. Over thirty years old in a company full of twenty-somethings, he came to Origin with a far more varied cultural palette than was the norm there, and worked gently but persistently to separate his peers from their own exclusive diets of epic fantasy and space opera. He had a special love for the adventure fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this love came to inform Worlds of Ultima to as great a degree as Lord of the Rings did the mainline Ultima games or Stars Wars did Wing Commander. Spector’s favored inspirations even had the additional advantage of being out of copyright, meaning he could plunder as much as he wanted without worrying about any lawyers coming to call.

The Savage Empire, the first Worlds of Ultima, is thus cribbed liberally from The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 adventure novel about a remote region of South America where dinosaurs have survived extinction. The novel’s narrator, an opportunistic journalist named Edward Malone, becomes Jimmy Malone in the game, a companion of yours who bends his journalistic talents to the task of becoming a sort of walking, talking quest log. As in the book, your ultimate goal in the game is to unite the feuding native tribes who live in the lost valley in order to defeat a threat to them all — said threat being a race of ape-men in the book, a race of giant insects in the game. (The closest thing to the ape-men in the game is a tribe of Neanderthals who actually fight on your side.) And yes, as in the book, there are dinosaurs in The Savage Empire — dinosaurs of all types, from harmless herbivores to the huge, ferocious, and deadly tyrannosaurus rex. Along with the insect race, who are known as the Myrmidex, they’re your primary enemies when it comes to combat.

The Savage Empire does add to the book’s plot the additional complication of a mad scientist who has already arrived in the Valley of Eodon. He isn’t bad by nature, but has been driven to his current insanity by a mysterious stone found there. Now, he plots to use the stone to take over the world. In an affectionate tribute to their guiding light, he was named by the development team Dr. Johann Spector, with a dead ringer of a portrait to match.

Evil Warren… err, Johann Spector.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiastic proponent of much of the flawed pseudo-science of his day, from eugenics to phrenology and craniometry to, late in his life, the spiritualist movement. He was likewise afflicted with most of the prejudices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It’s thus not hard to imagine how The Savage Empire could have gone horribly off the rails, what with the leather-bikini-clad princess who serves as your romantic interest and the many “savage” dark-skinned tribes — each modeled on (stereotypes of) an example of same from real-world history — waiting for your party of white men to swoop in and save the day. One might feel especially worried upon learning that Warren Spector wasn’t even around very much to oversee his young charges. After laying out the setting, characters, and basic plot in the form of a twenty-page outline, he moved on to act as producer on the first Wing Commander game, leaving The Savage Empire in the hands of its producer Jeff Johanningman — the source of Dr. Spector’s first name — its designer Aaron Allston, and its “director” Stephen Beeman. [1]Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.

The Savage Empire‘s cover art marks a major departure from Richard Garriott’s noble policy of refusing to fill his Ultima covers with the buxom women in chainmail bikinis that dominated among the series’s peers. The Avatar’s companion here isn’t dressed in chainmail, but the leather bikini she is wearing is positively straining to keep her naughty bits under wraps. On the other hand, the cover art is right in keeping with the pulpy adventure stories the game evokes, so we can perhaps forgive it.
 
Note also that “Lord British” takes first-writer credit for a game he had nothing to do with. Cheeky fellow, isn’t he? Royalty evidently did have its privileges. Meanwhile the contributions of poor Warren Spector, whose 20-page treatment got the whole project started, went completely unacknowledged, not only on the box but in the credits list found in the manual.

But I’m happy to say that Johanningman, Allston, Beeman, and the others on their team did a surprisingly good job of skirting a fine line. The Savage Empire is definitely pulpy — it was always intended to be — but it never spills over into the offensive. Origin paid a dedicated researcher named Karen E. Bell, holder of a completed PhD, to help them get the feeling of the times right. The various tribes are handled, if not quite with nuance — this just isn’t a very nuanced game — with a degree of respect. At the same time, the game manages to absolutely nail the homage it was aiming for. The manual, for instance, takes the form of an issue of Ultimate Adventures magazine, and can stand proudly alongside the best feelies of Infocom. Clearly the development team embraced Spector’s vision with plenty of passion of their own.

The worst failing of the fiction — a failing which this game shares with its sequel — is the attempt to integrate the pulpy narrative with that of Britannia in the mainline Ultima games; Origin was still operating under the needless stipulation that the hero of every successive Ultima, going all the way back to the first, was the same “Avatar.” For The Savage Empire, this means among other things that the game has to take place in our time rather than in that of Arthur Conan Doyle — albeit a version of our time full of weird anachronisms, like the big box camera with the big magnesium flash that’s carried around by Jimmy Malone.

Origin may have hired a PhD to help with their research, but they don’t take their commitment to anthropology too seriously. I don’t think any real native people had a Larry, Moe, and Curly of their own.

The game design proper, on the other hand, is impressively nonlinear in the best Ultima tradition. Once you’ve figured out that your mission is to convince all of the eleven tribes to make common cause against the Myrmidex, you can begin negotiating with whichever of them you please. Naturally, the negotiations will always boil down to your needing to accomplish some task for the tribe in question. These quests are interesting and entertaining to see through, forcing you to employ a variety of approaches — and often, for that matter, admitting themselves of multiple approaches — and giving you good motivation for traipsing through the entirety of the Valley of Eodon.

The Savage Empire stands out for the superb use it makes of the “living world” concept which had been coming more and more to the fore with every iteration of the mainline Ultima series. Indeed, it does even more with the concept than Ultima VI, the game whose engine it borrowed. The Savage Empire is a game where you can make charcoal by pulling a branch from a tree and burning it in a native village’s fire pit. Then make a potassium-nitrate powder by collecting special crystals from a cave and grinding them down with a mortar and pestle. Then get some sulfur by sifting it out of a pit with a wire screen. Combine it all together, and, voila, gunpowder! But, you ask, what can you actually do with the gunpowder? Well, you can start by borrowing a digging stick from the villagers, taking it down to a riverbank, and pulling up some fresh clay. Fire the clay in the village kiln to make yourself a pot. Put your gunpowder in the pot, then cut a strip off your clothing using some handy scissors you brought along and dip it in the local tar pit to make a fuse. Stuff the cloth into the top of the pot, and you’ve got yourself a grenade; just add fire — luckily, you also brought along some matches — at the appropriate time. This is just one example of the many intriguing science experiments you can indulge in. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Yet for all its strengths, and enjoyable as it is in its own right, The Savage Empire is just the warm-up act for Martian Dreams, the real jewel of the Worlds of Ultima series. This time around, Spector got to do more than just write an outline of the game: he was in charge of this project from beginning to end, thus making Martian Dreams the first game published by Origin — and, for that matter, the first computer game period — that was a Warren Spector joint from beginning to end.

Martian Dreams‘s version of Ultima‘s gypsy is none other than Sigmund Freud. It’s evidently been a hard life so far for Sigmund, who would have turned 39 years old the year the game begins. More seriously, my cursory research would indicate that about 90 percent of players misread the intent of his initial question. He’s not really asking you which parent you felt closer to; he’s trying to find out what gender you are. Many a player, myself included, has gone through the character-creation process trying to answer the questions honestly, only to be confused by arriving in the game as the opposite gender. Call it all those distant fathers’ revenge…

Martian Dreams‘s premise is certainly unique in the annals of CRPGs. In fact, it’s kind of batshit insane. Are you ready for this? Okay, here goes…

Our story begins with the historical character Percival Lowell, the amateur astronomer who popularized the idea of “canals” on Mars, and along with them the fantasy of a populated Mars whose people had built the canals in an effort to recover water from the icecaps of a doomed planet slowly dying of drought. It’s 1893, and Lowell has built a “space cannon” capable of traveling to Mars. He’s showing it off at the Chicago World’s Fair to many of the “leaders of the Victorian era” when a saboteur ignites the cannon’s propellant, sending the whole gang rocketing off to Mars. In addition to Lowell himself, the unwilling crew includes names like Sarah Bernhardt, Calamity Jane, Andrew Carnegie, Marie Curie, Wyatt Earp, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst, Robert Peary, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Fast-forward two years. Signals from Mars indicate to the folks back on Earth that the gang survived the trip and landed safely. Now you’re to try to rescue them in a second space cannonball, accompanied by — because why not? — Nellie Bly, Sigmund FreudNikola Tesla, and a dodgy doctor named C.L. Blood (the most obscure historical figure of the lot but one of the most interesting). Also along for the ride is your old friend Dr. Johann Spector, now freed from the insanity that led to megalomania in The Savage Empire and happy just to be your genial boon companion in adventure.

The good Johann Spector.

Upon arriving on the red planet, you find that the air is breathable, if a bit thin, and that sentient — and often deadly — plants roam the surface. You soon begin to make contact with the previous ship’s crew, who are now scattered all over the planet, and the game coalesces around the interrelated goals of learning about the Martian civilization that once existed here and figuring out a way to get your own lot back to Earth; in what can only be described as a grave oversight on your part, it seems that you neglected to devise a means of returning when you set off on your “rescue” mission.

Your reaction to Martian Dreams will hinge on your willingness to get behind a premise as crazy as this one. If the idea of getting fired out of a cannon and winding up on Mars doesn’t put you off, the million smaller holes you can poke in the story very well might; suffice to say that the fact that you boarded a cannonball headed for Mars without any semblance of a return plan is neither the only nor even perhaps the most grievous of the plot holes. Chet Bolingbroke, better known to his readers as The CRPG Addict and a critic whose opinion I respect within his favorite genre, dismisses the game’s whole premise with one word: “stupid.”

In defense of the game, I will note that this is very much a period piece, and that within that context some of the stupider aspects of the overarching concept may begin to seem slightly less so. Jules Verne, a writer who always strove for scientific accuracy according to the lights of his time, published in 1865 From the Earth to the Moon, in which a trio of Victorian astronauts flies to the Moon rather than Mars using the technique described in Martian Dreams. The same technique then cropped up again in Georges Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. (Méliès, a French illusionist who became the father of cinematic special effects through that film and others, is another of the historical figures who make it into Martian Dreams.) And then, too, the question of whether there might be an oxygen atmosphere and an alien civilization to breathe it on Mars was by no means settled until well after the turn of the twentieth century; Percival Lowell went to his deathbed in 1916 still a devout believer in his Martian canals, and he was by no means alone in his belief.

Other incongruities may be more difficult to dismiss with a hand-wave to the nineteenth century, but the fact remains that vanishingly few CRPGs have ever made much sense as coherent fictions. Players who love running around inside fantasy worlds in the character of dwarves and elves, casting spells at dragons, might want to be just a little careful when throwing around adjectives like “stupid.” After all, what do all those monsters in all those dungeons actually eat when there aren’t any adventurers to hand? And wouldn’t the citizens of all these assorted fantasy worlds do better to put together a civil-defense force instead of forever relying on a “chosen one” to kill their evil wizards? Martian Dreams‘s premise, I would submit, isn’t really all that much stupider than the CRPG norm. It’s merely stupid in a very unique way which highlights incongruities that long exposure has taught us to overlook in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. One might say that just about all CRPG stories are pretty stupid at bottom; we forgive them an awful lot because they make for a fun game.

If we can see our way clear to bestowing the same courtesy upon Martian Dreams, there’s a hell of a lot to like about its premise. Certainly the historical period it evokes is a fascinating one. Much of what we think of as modern life has its origins in the 1800s, not least the dizzying pace of progress in all its forms. For the first time in human history, the pace of technological change meant that the average person could expect to die in a very different world from the one she had been born into. Many of the changes she could expect to witness in between must have felt like magic. The invention of the railroad transformed concepts of distance almost overnight, turning what had been arduous journeys, requiring a week or more of carriage changes and nights spent in inns, into day trips; just like that, a country like England became a small place rather than a big one. And if the railroad didn’t shrink the world enough for you, telegraph cables — aptly described by historian Tom Standage as the “Victorian Internet” — were being strung up around the world, making it possible to send a message to someone thousands of miles away in seconds.

Much of modern entertainment as well has its roots in the nineteenth century, with the genre literatures arriving to greet a new mass audience of readers. While the mystery novel was being invented by Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, science fiction was being invented by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (the latter of whom we meet on our trip to Mars). Meanwhile the soap opera was being invented by Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, who published monthly installments of their novels for a fan base who gathered around the nineteenth century’s version of the office water cooler, obsessing over what would happen next to Little Nell or Oliver Twist. Celebrity too as we know it today has its origins in this period. When Dickens would give public readings of his novels, his female fans would scream and swoon in the throes of a sort of proto-Beatlemania, while Buffalo Bill Cody’s globe-trotting Wild West Show made his face by some accounts the most recognizable in the world by the turn of the century. (Buffalo Bill too is to be found on Mars.) And modern consumer culture begins here, with the first shopping malls opening in Paris and then spreading around the world. I could go on forever, but you get the point.

Martian Dreams proves adept at capturing the spirit of the age, conveying the boundless optimism that surrounded all of this progress in a period before the world wars and the invention of the atomic bomb revealed the darker sides of modernity. The Ultima VI engine’s look has been reworked into something appropriately steampunky, and a period-perfect music-hall soundtrack accompanies your wanderings. The writing too does its job with aplomb. To expect deep characterizations of each of the couple of dozen historical figures stranded on Mars along with you would be to ask far, far too much of it. Still, the game often does manage to deftly burrow underneath the surface of their achievements in ways that let you know that Spector and his team extended their research further than encyclopedia entries.

Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as an awkwardly self-conscious mix of bravado and insecurity rather than the heroic Rough Rider and Trust Buster of grade-school history textbooks. Martian Dreams‘s take on the man seems to hew rather close to that of Gore Vidal, who in one of his more hilarious essays labelled Roosevelt “an American sissy.”

Martian Dreams‘s portrayal of Vladimir Lenin manages in a single sentence of dialog to foreshadow everything that would go wrong with Karl Marx’s noble dream of communism as soon as it took concrete form in the Soviet Union.

Some of the more obscure historical figures have the most amazing and, dare I say it, inspiring stories of all to share. Do you know about Nellie Bly, the young woman who checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to report first-hand the abuses suffered there by patients? Do you know about George Washington Carver, a black man who was born into slavery and became the foremost expert of his era on the techniques of sustainable farming, publishing research that has saved literally millions of lives? Even the travelers who wind up being the antagonists of the group — Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “mad monk” of late Czarist Russia, and Emma Goldman, an American anarchist activist and occasional terrorist — have intriguing things to say.

Thanks to some technology left behind by the Martians, you’ll eventually get a chance to visit many of these people inside their dreams — or nightmares. These sequences, the source of the game’s name, illuminate their personalities and life stories still further. In the case of Mark Twain, for instance, you’ll find yourself riding down a river on a paddle wheeler, trying to collect the pieces of his latest manuscript and get them to the publisher before the money runs out — about as perfect an evocation of the life the real Twain lived, writing works of genius in order to remain always one step ahead of the creditors dogging his heels, as can be imagined.

A Gallery of Eminent Victorians



The purely fictional story of the apparently dead Martian civilization is crafted with equal love. Over the course of the game, you’ll slowly revive the technology the Martians left behind, restoring power to the planet and getting the water flowing once again through Percival Lowell’s beloved canals. In the process, you’ll learn that some of the Martians still live on, at least after a fashion. I won’t say more than that so as to preserve for you the pleasure I got out of Martian Dreams. I approached the game completely cold, and found myself highly motivated to make the next discovery and thereby set into place the next piece of a mystery I found genuinely tantalizing. The story that gradually emerges fits right in with the classic lore of the red planet, with echoes of Lowell’s pseudo-science, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of John Carter on Mars. By the time of Martian Dreams, Origin was at long last beginning to hire dedicated people for the role of writer, instead of handing the task to whatever programmer or artist happened to not have much else going on at the moment. Games like this one were the happy result. Notably, Martian Dreams is the first Origin game to credit one Raymond Benson, a veteran of musical theater who would go on to make a profound impact as the head writer on Ultima VII, the next entry in the mainline series.

The worst aspect of the storytelling is, once again, Origin’s insistence that Martian Dreams fit into the overall story of Ultima‘s Avatar. With this Worlds of Ultima installment being explicitly rather than implicitly set in the past of our own Earth, the contortions the writing must go through to set up the game are even more absurd than those of The Savage Empire. This game whose premise already had the potential to strain many gamers’ credibility past the breaking point was forced to introduce a layer of time travel in order to send the Avatar and his companion Dr. Spector back to 1895, then to engage in yet more hand-waving to explain why our historians haven’t recorded trips to Mars in the 1890s. It’s all thoroughly unnecessary and, once again, best ignored. The game works best as alternate history with no connection to any other Ultima except perhaps The Savage Empire.

The dust storms evidently did one hell of a number on Mars…

I prefer Martian Dreams to The Savage Empire largely thanks to better writing and a richer theme; it doesn’t play all that radically different from its predecessor. It makes somewhat less use of the Ultima VI engine’s crafting potential — there’s nothing here close to the complexity of making grenades in The Savage Empire — but it is a longer game. Thanks to its more developed story, it can’t avoid being a bit more linear than its predecessor over the course of that length, but it never feels unduly railroaded. In my book, then, The Savage Empire is a very good game, while Martian Dreams is a great one.

I must admit that I enjoy both of these games more than any of the mainline Ultima games that preceded them. The latter by the dawn of the 1990s had accumulated a lot of cruft in the form of fan service that just had to be in each new installment. These games, by contrast, were able to start with clean slates — aside from the dodgy attempts to insert the Avatar into them, that is — and the results are tighter, more focused designs. And what a relief it is to escape for a little while from Renaissance Fair fantasy and all that excruciating faux-Elizabethan English! In an uncharacteristic fit of bravado, Warren Spector a few years after Martian Dreams‘s release called it “the best Ultima game ever.” On some days, I’m sorely tempted to agree. Only Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII — both released after Martian Dreams — make the debate at all complicated for me.

The biggest single improvement Worlds of Ultima made to the Ultima VI engine was to move conversations from the corner of the screen, as shown above…

…and into the main display.

Still, it wouldn’t do just to praise these two games that I like so very much without pointing out some significant weaknesses. I wasn’t overly kind to the Ultima VI engine in my review of that game, and most of the criticisms I levied there apply to one degree or another here as well. The Worlds of Ultima teams did take some steps to improve the engine, most notably by moving the text that accompanies conversations into the main window instead of cramming it into a tiny space in the corner of the screen. At bottom, however, the Ultima VI engine remains caught out in an uncertain no man’s land between the keyboard-based “alphabet soup” interface of the earlier Ultima games and the entirely mouse-driven interfaces that were yet to come. Some things are much easier to do with the keyboard, some with the mouse — an awkward arrangement that’s only made more frustrating by the way that the divisions between the two categories are so arbitrary. You can get used to it after an hour or two, but nobody would ever accuse the interface of being elegant or intuitive. I’m sure that plenty of players over the years have found it so bafflingly opaque that they’ve given up in disgust without ever getting a whiff of the real joy of the game hidden underneath it.

The Ultima VI engine has a peculiar problem conveying depth. What looks like a stair step here is actually meant to represent an unscaleable cliff. As it is, it looks like we’ve joined the long tradition of videogame characters who can walk and run hundreds of miles but can’t hop up two feet.

In light of this reality, I’ve often seen the Worlds of Ultima games called, in reviews both from their own day and from ours, good games trapped inside a bad game engine. It’s a pithy formulation, but I don’t feel like it quite gives the whole picture. The fact is that some of the problems that dog these games have little or nothing to do with their engine. The most pernicious design issue is the fact that there just isn’t quite enough content for the games’ geographies. It’s here that one fancies one can really start to feel their status as “B” projects at Origin. The Savage Empire sports an absolutely massive abandoned underground city — as big as the entire jungle valley above it — that’s for all intents and purposes empty, excepting only a couple of key locations. I don’t know the full story behind it, but it certainly seems like a map that’s still waiting for the development team to come back and fill it up with stuff. Martian Dreams has nothing quite this egregious, but points of interest on the vast surface of Mars can nevertheless feel few and far between. Coupled with a strange lack of the alternative modes of transport that are so typical in other Ultima games — one teleportation mechanism does eventually arise, but even it’s very limited in its possible destinations — it means that you’ll spend a major percentage of your time in Martian Dreams trekking hither and yon in response to a plot that demands that you visit — and then revisit, sometimes multiple times — locations scattered willy-nilly all over the planet. Warren Spector himself put his finger on what he cogently described as “too much damn walking around” as the biggest single design issue in this game of which he was otherwise so proud.

Mars is mostly just a whole lot of nothing.

Another description that’s frequently applied to these games — sometimes dismissively, sometimes merely descriptively — is that they aren’t really CRPGs at all, but rather adventure games with, as Computer Gaming World‘s adventure critic Scorpia once put it, “a thin veneer of CRPG.” Once again, I don’t entirely agree, yet I do find the issues raised by such a description worthy of discussion.

Proponents of this point of view note that combat is neither terribly important nor terribly interesting in Worlds of Ultima, that magic has been reduced to a handful of voodoo-like spells in The Savage Empire and removed altogether from Martian Dreams, and that character development in the form of leveling-up is neither all that frequent nor all that important. All of which is true enough, but does it really mean these games aren’t CRPGs at all? Where do we draw the lines?

The Savage Empire‘s limited graphics and uninspiring combat manages to make the idea of encountering dinosaurs — dinosaurs, for Pete’s sake! — feel kind of ho-hum.

A long time ago, when I was going through a taxonomical phase, I tried to codify the differences between the adventure game and the CRPG. The formulation I arrived at didn’t involve combat, magic, or experience levels, but rather differing philosophical approaches. Adventure games, I decided, offered a deterministic, bespoke experience, while CRPGs left heaps of room for emergent, partially randomized behavior. Or, to put it more shortly: the adventure game is an elaborate puzzle, while the CRPG is a simulation. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether it’s possible to write a walkthrough listing every single action a player should take in a game, knowing the game will always respond in the same way every time and that said walkthrough will thus be guaranteed to get the player to the winning screen. If you can, you certainly have an adventure game. If you can’t, you may very well be looking at a CRPG.

When I first made my little attempt at taxonomy, I was thinking of early text adventures and the earliest primitive CRPGs. Yet the distinctions I identified, far from fading over time, had become even more pronounced by the time of Worlds of Ultima. Early text adventures had a fair number of logistical challenges — limited light sources, inventory limits, occasional wandering creatures, even occasional randomized combat — which were steadily filed away concurrent with the slow transition from text to graphics, until the genre arrived at 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, perhaps the most iconic exemplar of the classic point-and-click graphic adventure. CRPGs, meanwhile, remained much more simulation-oriented, emergent experiences.

So, where does this leave us with the Worlds of Ultima? Well, these definitely aren’t games that can be played by rote from a walkthrough. They sport monsters and people wandering of their own free will, a day-to-night cycle, character attributes which have a significant effect on game play, emergent logistical concerns in the form of food (The Savage Empire), oxygen rocks which allow you to breathe more easily (Martian Dreams), and ammunition (both). Many of the problems you encounter can be dealt with in multiple ways, most or all of which arise organically from the simulation. All of these qualities hew to the simulational focus of the CRPG. Sometimes they can be a bit annoying, but in general I find that they enhance the experience, making these games feel like… well, like real adventures, even if they aren’t the sorts of things that are generally found in adventure games.

Yet I do agree that these games aren’t quite CRPGs in the old-school 1980s sense either. Layered on top of the foundation of emergent simulation is a deterministic layer of narrative, dialog, and even set-piece puzzles. The closest philosophical sibling I can find among their contemporaries is Sierra’s Quest for Glory series, although the latter games have radically different looks and interfaces and were generally purchased, one senses, by a different audience.

Some of the infelicities that can arise in the course of playing the Worlds of Ultima games have at their root a failure of the two layers to account for one another properly. When I played The Savage Empire, I broke the narrative completely by exploiting the simulation layer in a way that the game’s developers apparently never anticipated. Well into the game, after recruiting eight of the eleven tribes onto my team, I got confused about what my next goal should be in a way that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that, instead of uniting the rest of the tribes and leading them in a coordinated attack on the Myrmidex lair, I went after the murderous insects on my own, accompanied only by an indestructible robot I’d befriended. I devised a strategy for hiding behind the robot when the insects attacked, and thereby made it at last to the heart of the nest, destroying the mystical stone that was the source of the Myrmidex’s power (and of Dr. Spector’s insanity). Just like that, and much to my shock, the finale started to play; I had thought I was just solving another quest. In its way, this anecdote is an impressive testament to the emergent possibilities of the game engine — although it would have been even more impressive had the narrative layer recognized what had happened and accounted for my, shall we say, alternative solution to the problem of the Myrmidex. As it was, I saw an endgame movie that assumed I’d done a whole bunch of stuff I hadn’t done, and thus made no sense whatsoever.

Exterminating bugs with the help of my trusty (and indestructible) robot pal.

Whatever else you can say about it, it’s hard to imagine something like this happening in The Secret of Monkey Island. As CRPGs in general received ever more complex stories in the years that followed the Worlds of Ultima games, they took on more and more of the traditional attributes of adventure games, without abandoning their dedication to emergent simulation. Sometimes, as in Worlds of Ultima, the layers chafe against one another in these more modern games, but often the results are very enjoyable indeed. Largely forgotten by gaming history though they have been, the Worlds of Ultima games can thus be read as harbingers of games to come. In their day, these games really were the road not taken — in terms of adventure games or CRPGs, take your pick. Indeed, I’m kind of blown away by what they managed to achieve, and not even bothered unduly by my rather unsatisfying final experience in The Savage Empire; somehow the fact that I was able to break the narrative so badly and still come out okay in the end counts for more than a final movie that didn’t make much sense.

Unfortunately, gamers of the early 1990s were rather less blown away. Released in October of 1990, The Savage Empire was greeted with a collective shrug which encompassed nonplussed reviews — Computer Gaming World‘s reviewer bizarrely labeled it a “caricature” of Ultima — and lousy sales. With the release of Martian Dreams in May of 1991, Origin re-branded the series Ultima Worlds of Adventure — not that that was an improvement in anything other than word count — but the results were the same. CRPG fans’ huge preference for epic fantasy was well-established by this point; pulpy tales of adventure and Victorian steampunk just didn’t seem to be on the radar of Origin’s fan base. A pity, especially considering that in terms of genre too these games can be read as harbingers of trends to come. In the realm of tabletop RPGs, “pulp” games similar in spirit to The Savage Empire have become a welcome alternative to fantasy and science fiction since that game’s release. Steampunk, meanwhile, was just coming to the fore as a literary sub-genre of its own at the time that Martian Dreams was published; the hugely popular steampunk novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was published less than a year before the game.

For all that the games were thus ahead of their time in more ways than one, Worlds of Ultima provided a sobering lesson for Origin’s marketers and accountants by becoming the first games they’d ever released with the Ultima name on the box which didn’t become major hits. The name alone, it seemed, wasn’t — or was no longer — enough; the first chink in the series’s armor had been opened up. One could of course argue that these games should never have been released as Ultimas at all, that we should have been spared all the plot contortions around the Avatar and that they should have been allowed simply to stand on their own. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a move would have improved sales any. There just wasn’t really a place in the games industry of the early 1990s for these strange beasts that weren’t quite adventure games and weren’t quite CRPGs as most people thought of them. Players of the two genres had sorted themselves into fairly distinct groups by this point, and Origin dropped Worlds of Ultima smack dab into the void in between them. Nor did the lack of audiovisual flash help; while both games do a nice job of conveying the desired atmosphere with the tools at their disposal, they were hardly audiovisual standouts even in their day. At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1991, Martian Dreams shared Origin’s booth with Wing Commander II and early previews of Ultima VII and Strike Commander. It’s hard to imagine it not getting lost in that crowd in the bling-obsessed early 1990s.

So, Origin wrote off their Worlds of Ultima series as a failed experiment. They elected to stop, as Spector puts it, “going to weird places that Warren wants to do games about.” A projected third game, which was to have taken place in Arthurian England, was cancelled early in pre-production. The setting may sound like a more natural one for Ultima fans, but, in light of the way that Arthurian games have disappointed their publishers time and time again, one has to doubt whether the commercial results would have been much better.

The Worlds of Ultima games will occasionally reward major achievements with a lovely graphic like the one above, but it’s clear that their audiovisual budgets were limited.

I’m a little sheepish to admit that I very nearly overlooked these games myself. In light of the awkward engine that powers them, I was totally prepared to dismiss them in a passing paragraph or two, but several commenters urged me to give them a closer look after I published my article on Ultima VI. I’m grateful to them for doing so. And I have a final bit of wonderful news to share: both The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams have been officially re-released as free downloads on GOG.com. Whether you’re a fan of Ultima and/or old-school CRPGs in general or not, I can only suggest as strongly as I know how that you give these games the chance they were denied in their own time, promising yourself beforehand that you’ll make a good solid effort to get used to the interface before you drag them back over to the trashcan of history that’s sitting there on your computer’s desktop. You might just find that your perseverance is amply rewarded.

(Sources: the book Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: An American Legend by R.L. Wilson; New York Review of Books of August 13, 1981; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 17 1991, June 21 1991, and August 7 1991; Computer Gaming World of March/April 1983, March 1986, March 1991 and September 1991; Questbusters of August 1990, January 1991, and August 1991. Online sources include an interview with Warren Spector published in the fanzine Game Bytes in 1993 and republished on The Wing Commander Combat Information Center; RPG Codex‘s 2013 interview with Spector.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.
 
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Posted by on February 23, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Full-Motion-Video Consulting Detective

Over the course of six months in 1967, 50 million people visited Expo ’67 in Montreal, one of the most successful international exhibitions in the history of the world. Representatives from 62 nations set up pavilions there, showcasing the cutting edge in science, technology, and the arts. The Czechoslovakian pavilion was a surprisingly large one, with a “fairytale area” for children, a collection of blown Bohemian glassware, a “Symphony of Developed Industry,” and a snack bar offering “famous Pilsen beer.” But the hit of the pavilion — indeed, one of the sleeper hits of the Expo as a whole — was to be found inside a small, nondescript movie theater. It was called Kinoautomat, and it was the world’s first interactive movie.

Visitors who attended a screening found themselves ushered to seats that sported an unusual accessory: large green and red buttons mounted to the seat backs in front of them. The star of the film, a well-known Czech character actor named Miroslav Horníček, trotted onto the tiny stage in front of the screen to explain that the movie the visitors were about to see was unlike any they had ever seen before. From time to time, the action would stop and he would pop up again to let the audience decide what his character did next onscreen. Each audience member would register which of the two choices she preferred by pressing the appropriate button, the results would be tallied, and simple majority rule would decide the issue.

As a film, Kinoautomat is a slightly risque but otherwise harmless farce. The protagonist, a Mr. Novak, has just bought some flowers to give to his wife — it’s her birthday today — and is waiting at home for her to return to their apartment when his neighbor’s wife, an attractive young blonde, accidentally locks herself out of her own apartment with only a towel on. She frantically bangs on Mr. Novak’s door, putting him in an awkward position and presenting the audience with their first choice. Should he let her in and try to explain the presence of a naked woman in their apartment to his wife when she arrives, or should he refuse the poor girl, leaving her to shiver in the altogether in the hallway? After this first choice is made, another hour or so of escalating misunderstanding and mass confusion ensues, during which the audience is given another seven or so opportunities to vote on what happens next.

Kinoautomat played to packed houses throughout the Expo’s run, garnering heaps of press attention in the process. Radúz Činčera, the film’s director and the entire project’s mastermind, was lauded for creating what was called by some critics one of the boldest innovations in the history of cinema. After the Expo was over, Činčera’s interactive movie theater was set up several more times in several other cities, always with a positive response, and Hollywood tried to open a discussion about licensing the technology behind it. But the interest and exposure gradually dissipated, perhaps partly due to a crackdown on “decadent” art by Czechoslovakia’s ruling Communist Party, but almost certainly due in the largest part to the logistical challenges involved in setting up the interactive movie theaters that were needed to show it. It was last shown at Expo ’74 in Spokane, Washington, after which it disappeared from screens and memories for more than two decades, to be rescued from obscurity only well into the 1990s, after the Iron Curtain had been thrown open, when it was stumbled upon once again by some of the first academics to study seriously the nature of interactivity in digital mediums.

Had Činčera’s experiment been better remembered at the beginning of the 1990s, it might have saved a lot of time for those game developers dreaming of making interactive movies on personal computers and CD-ROM-based set-top boxes. Sure, the technology Činčera had to work with was immeasurably more primitive; his branching narrative was accomplished by the simple expedient of setting up two film projectors at the back of the theater and having an attendant place a lens cap over whichever held the non-applicable reel. Yet the more fundamental issues he wrestled with — those of how to create a meaningfully interactive experience by splicing together chunks of non-interactive filmed content — remained unchanged more than two decades later.

The dirty little secret about Kinoautomat was that the interactivity in this first interactive film was a lie. Each branch the story took contrived only to give lip service to the audience’s choice, after which it found a way to loop back onto the film’s fixed narrative through-line. Whether the audience was full of conscientious empathizers endeavoring to make the wisest choices for Mr. Novak or crazed anarchists trying to incite as much chaos as possible — the latter approach, for what it’s worth, was by far the more common — the end result would be the same: poor Mr. Novak’s entire apartment complex would always wind up burning to the ground in the final scenes, thanks to a long chain of happenstance that began with that naked girl knocking on his door. Činčera had been able to get away with this trick thanks to the novelty of the experience and, most of all, thanks to the fact that his audience, unless they made the effort to come back more than once or to compare detailed notes with those who had attended other screenings, was never confronted with how meaningless their choices actually were.

While it had worked out okay for Kinoautomat, this sort of fake interactivity wasn’t, needless to say, a sustainable path for building the whole new interactive-movie industry — a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — which some of the most prominent names in the games industry were talking of circa 1990. At the same time, though, the hard reality was that to create an interactive movie out of filmed, real-world content that did offer genuinely meaningful, story-altering branches seemed for all practical purposes impossible. The conventional computer graphics that had heretofore been used in games, generated by the computer and drawn on the screen programmatically, were a completely different animal than the canned snippets of video which so many were now claiming would mark the proverbial Great Leap Forward. Conventional computer graphics could be instantly, subtly, and comprehensively responsive to the player’s actions. The snippets in what the industry would soon come to call a “full-motion-video” game could be mixed and matched and juggled, but only in comparatively enormous static chunks.

This might not sound like an impossible barrier in and of itself. Indeed, the medium of textual interactive fiction had already been confronted with seemingly similar contrasts in granularity between two disparate approaches which had both proved equally viable. As I’ve had occasion to discuss in an earlier article, a hypertext narrative built out of discrete hard branches is much more limiting in some ways than a parser-driven text adventure with its multitudinous options available at every turn — but, importantly, the opposite is also true. A parser-driven game that’s forever fussing over what room the player is standing in and what she’s carrying with her at any given instant is ill-suited to convey large sweeps of time and plot. Each approach, in other words, is best suited for a different kind of experience. A hypertext narrative can become a wide-angle exploration of life-changing choices and their consequences, while the zoomed-in perspective of the text adventure is better suited to puzzle-solving and geographical exploration — that is, to the exploration of a physical space rather than a story space.

And yet if we do attempt to extend a similar comparison to a full-motion-video adventure game versus one built out of conventional computer graphics, it may hold up in the abstract, but quickly falls apart in the realm of the practical and the specific. Although the projects exploring full-motion-video applications were among the most expensive the games industry of 1990 had ever funded, their budgets paled next to those of even a cheap Hollywood production. To produce full-motion-video games with meaningfully branching narratives would require their developers to stretch their already meager budgets far enough to shoot many, many non-interactive movies in order to create a single interactive movie, accepting that the player would see only a small percentage of all those hours of footage on any given play-through. And even assuming that the budget could somehow be stretched to allow such a thing, there were other practical concerns to reckon with; after all, even the wondrous new storage medium of CD-ROM had its limits in terms of capacity.

Faced with these issues, would-be designers of full-motion-video games did what all game designers do: they worked to find approaches that — since there was no way to bash through the barriers imposed on them — skirted around the problem.

They did have at least one example to follow or reject — one that, unlike Kinoautomat, virtually every working game designer knew well. Dragon’s Lair, the biggest arcade hit of 1983, had been built out of a chopped-up cartoon which un-spooled from a laser disc housed inside the machine. It replaced all of the complications of branching plots with a simple do-or-die approach. The player needed to guide the joystick through just the right pattern of rote movements — a pattern identifiable only through extensive trial and error — in time with the video playing on the screen. Failure meant death, success meant the cartoon continued to the next scene — no muss, no fuss. But, as the many arcade games that had tried to duplicate Dragon’s Lair‘s short-lived success had proved, it was hardly a recipe for a satisfying game once the novelty wore off.

Another option was to use full-motion video for cut scenes rather than as the real basis of a game, interspersing static video sequences used for purposes of exposition in between interactive sequences powered by conventional computer graphics. In time, this would become something of a default approach to the problem of full-motion video, showing up in games as diverse as the Wing Commander series of space-combat simulators, the Command & Conquer real-time strategy series, and even first-person shooters like Realms of the Haunting. But such juxtapositions would always be doomed to look a little jarring, the ludic equivalent of an animated film which from time to time switches to live action for no aesthetically valid reason. As such, this would largely become the industry’s fallback position, the way full-motion video wound up being deployed as a last resort after designers had failed to hit upon a less jarring formula. Certainly in the early days of full-motion video — the period we’re interested in right now — there still remained the hope that some better approach to the melding of computer game and film might be discovered.

The most promising approaches — the ones, that is, that came closest to working — often used full-motion video in the context of a computerized mystery. In itself, this is hardly surprising. Despite the well-known preference of gamers and game designers for science-fiction and fantasy scenarios, the genre of traditional fiction most obviously suited for ludic adaptation is in fact the classic mystery novel, the only literary genre that actively casts itself as a sort of game between writer and reader. A mystery novel, one might say, is really two stories woven together. One is that of the crime itself, which is committed before the book proper really gets going. The other is that of the detective’s unraveling of the crime; it’s here, of course, that the ludic element comes in, as the reader too is challenged to assemble the clues alongside the detective and try to deduce the perpetrator, method, and motive before they are revealed to her.

For a game designer wrestling with the challenges inherent in working with full-motion video, the advantages of this structure count double. The crime itself is that most blessed of things for a designer cast adrift on a sea of interactivity: a fixed story, an unchanging piece of solid narrative ground. In the realm of interactivity, then, the designer is only forced to deal with the investigation, a relatively circumscribed story space that isn’t so much about making a story as uncovering one that already exists. The player/detective juggles pieces of that already extant story, trying to slot them together to make the full picture. In that context, the limitations of full-motion video — all those static chunks of film footage that must be mixed and matched — suddenly don’t sound quite so limiting. Full-motion video, an ill-fitting solution that has to be pounded into place with a sledgehammer in most interactive applications, suddenly starts seeming like an almost elegant fit.

The origin story of the most prominent of the early full-motion-video mysteries, a product at the bleeding edge of technology at the time it was introduced, ironically stretches back to a time before computers were even invented. In 1935, J.G. Links, a prominent London furrier, came up with an idea to take the game-like elements of the traditional mystery novel to the next level. What if a crime could be presented to the reader not as a story about its uncovering but in a more unprocessed form, as a “dossier” of clues, evidence, and suspects? The reader would be challenged to assemble this jigsaw into a coherent description of who, what, when, and where. Then, when she thought she was ready, she could open a sealed envelope containing the solution to find out if she had been correct. Links pitched the idea to a friend of his who was well-positioned to see it through with him: Dennis Wheatley, a very popular writer of crime and adventure novels. Together Links and Wheatley created four “Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers,” which enjoyed considerable success before the undertaking was stopped short by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, mysteries in game form drifted into the less verisimilitudinous but far more replayable likes of Cluedo, while non-digital interactive narratives moved into the medium of experiential wargames, which in turn led, in time, to the great tabletop-gaming revolution that was Dungeon & Dragons.

And that could very well have been the end of the story, leaving the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers as merely a road not taken in game history, works ahead of their time that wound up getting stranded there. But in 1979 Mayflower Books began republishing the dossiers, a complicated undertaking that involved recreating the various bits of “physical evidence” — including pills, fabric samples, cigarette butts, and even locks of hair — that had accompanied them. There is little indication that their efforts were rewarded with major sales. Yet, coming as they did at a fraught historical moment for interactive storytelling in general — the first Choose Your Own Adventure book was published that same year; the game Adventure had hit computers a couple of years before; Dungeons & Dragons was breaking into the mainstream media — the reprinted dossiers’ influence would prove surprisingly pervasive with innovators in the burgeoning field. They would, for instance, provide Marc Blank with the idea of making a sort of crime dossier of his own to accompany Infocom’s 1982 computerized mystery Deadline, thereby establishing the Infocom tradition of scene-setting “feelies” and elaborate packaging in general. And another important game whose existence is hard to imagine without the example provided by the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers appeared a year before Deadline.

Prior to the Mayflower reprints, the closest available alternative to the Crime Dossiers had been a 1975 Sherlock Holmes-starring board game called 221B Baker Street: The Master Detective Game. It plays like a more coherent version of Cluedo, thanks to its utilization of pre-crafted mysteries that are included in the box rather than a reliance on random combinations of suspects, locations, and weapons. Otherwise, however, the experience isn’t all that markedly different, with players rolling dice and moving their tokens around the game board, trying to complete their “solution checklists” before their rivals. The competitive element introduces a bit of cognitive dissonance that is never really resolved: this game of Sherlock Holmes actually features several versions of Holmes, all racing around London trying to solve each mystery before the others can. But more importantly, playing it still feels more like solving a crossword puzzle than solving a mystery.

Two of those frustrated by the limitations of 221B Baker Street were Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg, amateur scholars of Sherlock Holmes living in San Francisco. “A game like 221B Baker Street doesn’t give a player a choice,” Grady noted. “You have no control over the clue you’re going to get and there’s no relationship of the clues to the process of play. We wanted the idea of solving a mystery rather than a puzzle.” In 1979, with the negative example of 221B Baker Street and the positive example of the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers to light the way, the two started work on a mammoth undertaking that would come to be known as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective upon its publication two years later. Packaged and sold as a board game, it in truth had much less in common with the likes of Cluedo or 221B Baker Street than it did with the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers. Grady and Goldberg provided rules for playing competitively if you insisted, and a scoring system that challenged you to solve a case after collecting the least amount of evidence possible, but just about everyone who has played it agrees that the real joy of the game is simply in solving the ten labyrinthine cases, each worthy of an Arthur Conan Doyle story of its own, that are included in the box.

Each case is housed in a booklet of its own, whose first page or two sets up the mystery to be solved in rich prose that might indeed have been lifted right out of a vintage Holmes story. The rest of the booklet consists of more paragraphs to be read as you visit various locations around London, following the evidence trail wherever it leads. When you choose to visit someplace (or somebody), you look it up in the London directory that is included, which will give you a coded reference. If that code is included in the case’s booklet, eureka, you may just have stumbled upon more information to guide your investigation; at the very least, you’ve found something new to read. In addition to the case books, you have lovingly crafted editions of the London Times from the day of each case to scour for more clues; cleverly, the newspapers used for early cases can contain clues for later cases as well, meaning the haystack you’re searching for needles gets steadily bigger as you progress from case to case. You also have a map of London, which can become unexpectedly useful for tracing the movements of suspects. Indeed, each case forces you to apply a whole range of approaches and modes of thought to its solution. When you think you’re ready, you turn to the “quiz book” and answer the questions about the case therein, then turn the page to find out if you were correct.

If Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective presents a daunting challenge to its player, the same must go ten times over for its designers. The amount of effort that must have gone into creating, collating, intertwining, and typesetting such an intricate web of information fairly boggles the mind. The game is effectively ten Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers in one box, all cross-referencing one another, looping back on one another. That Grady and Goldberg, working in an era before computerized word processing was widespread, managed it at all is stunning.

Unable to interest any of the established makers of board games in such an odd product, the two published it themselves, forming a little company called Sleuth Publications for the purpose. A niche product if ever there was one, it did manage to attract a champion in Games magazine, who called it “the most ingenious and realistic detective game ever devised.” The same magazine did much to raise its profile when they added it to their mail-order store in 1983. A German translation won the hugely prestigious Spiel des Jahres in 1985, a very unusual selection for a competition that typically favored spare board games of abstract logic. Over the years, Sleuth published a number of additional case packs, along with another boxed game in the same style: Gumshoe, a noirish experience rooted in Raymond Chandler rather than Arthur Conan Doyle which was less successful, both creatively and commercially, than its predecessor.

And then these elaborate analog productions, almost defiantly old-fashioned in their reliance on paper and text and imagination, became the unlikely source material for the most high-profile computerized mysteries of the early CD-ROM era.

The transformation would be wrought by ICOM Simulations, a small developer who had always focused their efforts on emerging technology. They had first made their name with the release of Déjà Vu on the Macintosh in 1985, one of the first adventure games to replace the parser with a practical point-and-click interface; in its day, it was quite the technological marvel. Three more games built using the same engine had followed, along with ports to many, many platforms. But by the time Déjà Vu II hit the scene in 1988, the interface was starting to look a little clunky and dated next to the efforts of companies like Lucasfilm Games, and ICOM decided it was time to make a change — time to jump into the unexplored waters of CD-ROM and full-motion video. They had always been technophiles first, game designers second, as was demonstrated by the somewhat iffy designs of most of their extant games. It therefore made a degree of sense to adapt someone else’s work to CD-ROM. They decided that Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, that most coolly intellectual of mystery-solving board games, would counter-intuitively adapt very well to a medium that was supposed to allow hotter, more immersive computerized experiences than ever before.

As we’ve already seen, the limitations of working with chunks of static text are actually very similar in some ways to those of working with chunks of static video. ICOM thus decided that the board game’s methods for working around those limitations should work very well for the computer game as well. The little textual vignettes which filled the case booklets, to be read as the player moved about London trying to solve the case, could be recreated by live actors. There would be no complicated branching narrative, just a player moving about London, being fed video clips of her interviews with suspects. Because the tabletop game included no mechanism for tracking where the player had already been and what she had done, the text in the case booklets had been carefully written to make no such presumptions. Again, this was perfect for a full-motion-video adaptation.

Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg were happy to license their work; after laboring all these years on such a complicated niche product, the day on which ICOM knocked on their door must have been a big one indeed. Ken Tarolla, the man who took charge of the project for ICOM, chose three of the ten cases from the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective to serve as the basis of the computer game. He now had to reckon with the challenges of going from programming games to filming them. Undaunted, he had the vignettes from the case booklets turned into scripts by a professional screenwriter, hired 35 actors to cast in the 50 speaking parts, and rented a sound stage in Minneapolis — far from ICOM’s Chicago offices, but needs must — for the shoot. The production wound up requiring 70 costumes along with 25 separate sets, a huge investment for a small developer like ICOM. In spite of their small size, they evinced a commitment to production values few of their peers could match. Notably, they didn’t take the money-saving shortcut of replacing physical sets with computer-generated graphics spliced in behind the actors. For this reason, their work holds up much better today than that of most of their peers.

Indeed, as befits a developer of ICOM’s established technical excellence — even if they were working in an entirely new medium — the video sequences are surprisingly good, the acting and set design about up to the standard of a typical daytime-television soap opera. If that seems like damning with faint praise, know that the majority of similar productions come off far, far worse. Peter Farley, the actor hired to play Holmes, may not be a Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or Benedict Cumberbatch, but neither does he embarrass himself. The interface is decent, and the game opens with a video tutorial narrated by Holmes himself — a clear sign of how hard Consulting Detective is straining to be the more mainstream, more casual form of interactive entertainment that the CD-ROM was supposed to precipitate.

First announced in 1990 and planned as a cross-platform product from the beginning, spanning the many rival CD-ROM initiatives on personal computers, set-top boxes, and game consoles, ICOM’s various versions of Consulting Detective were all delayed for long stretches by a problem which dogged every developer working in the same space: the struggle to find a way of getting video from CD-ROM to the screen at a reasonable resolution, frame rate, and number of colors. The game debuted in mid-1991 on the NEC TurboGrafx-16, an also-ran in the console wars which happened to be the first such device to offer a CD-ROM drive as an accessory. In early 1992, it made its way to the Commodore CDTV, thanks to a code library for video playback devised by Carl Sassenrath, long a pivotal figure in Amiga circles. Then, and most importantly in commercial terms, the slow advance of computing hardware finally made it possible to port the game to Macintosh and MS-DOS desktop computers equipped with CD-ROM drives later in the same year.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective became a common sight in “multimedia upgrade kits” like this one from Creative Labs.

As one of the first and most audiovisually impressive products of its kind, Consulting Detective existed in an uneasy space somewhere between game and tech demo. It was hard for anyone who had never seen actual video featuring actual actors playing on a computer before to focus on much else when the game was shown to them. It was therefore frequently bundled with the “multimedia upgrade kits,” consisting of a sound card and CD-ROM drive, that were sold by companies like Creative Labs beginning in 1992. Thanks to these pack-in deals, it shipped in huge numbers by conventional games-industry terms. Thus encouraged, ICOM went back to the well for a Consulting Detective Volume II and Volume III, each with another three cases from the original board game. These releases, however, did predictably less well without the advantages of novelty and of being a common pack-in item.

As I’ve noted already, Consulting Detective looks surprisingly good on the surface even today, while at the time of its release it was nothing short of astonishing. Yet it doesn’t take much playing time before the flaws start to show through. Oddly given the great care that so clearly went into its surface production, many of its problems feel like failures of ambition. As I’ve also already noted, no real state whatsoever is tracked by the game; you just march around London watching videos until you think you’ve assembled a complete picture of the case, then march off to trial, which takes the form of a quiz on who did what and why. If you go back to a place you’ve already been, the game doesn’t remember it: the same video clip merely plays again. This statelessness turns out to be deeply damaging to the experience. I can perhaps best explain by taking as an example the first case in the first volume of the series. (Minor spoilers do follow in the next several paragraphs. Skip down to the penultimate paragraph — beginning with “To be fair…” — to avoid them entirely.)

“The Mummy’s Curse” concerns the murder on separate occasions of all three of the archaeologists who have recently led a high-profile expedition to Egypt. One of the murders took place aboard the ship on which the expedition was returning to London, laden with treasures taken — today, we would say “looted” — from a newly discovered tomb. We can presume that one of the other passengers most likely did the deed. So, we acquire the passenger manifest for the ship and proceed to visit each of the suspects in turn. Among them are Mr. and Mrs. Fenwick, two eccentric members of the leisured class. Each of them claims not to have seen, heard, or otherwise had anything to do with the murder. But Louise Fenwick has a little dog, a Yorkshire terrier of whom she is inordinately fond and who traveled with the couple on their voyage. (Don’t judge the game too harshly from the excerpt below; it features some of the hammiest acting of all, with a Mrs. Fenwick who seems to be channeling Miss Piggy — a Miss Piggy, that is, with a fake English accent as horrid as only an American can make it.)


The existence of Mrs. Fenwick’s dog is very interesting in that the Scotland Yard criminologist who handled the case found some dog hair on the victim’s body. Our next natural instinct would be to find out whether the hair could indeed have come from a Yorkshire terrier — but revisiting Scotland Yard will only cause the video from there which we’ve already seen to play again. Thus stymied on that front, we probe further into Mrs. Fenwick’s background. We learn that the victim once gave a lecture before the Royal Society where he talked about dissecting his own Yorkshire terrier after its death, provoking the ire of the Anti-Vivisection League, of which Louise Fenwick is a member. And it gets still better: she personally harassed the victim, threatening to dissect him herself. Now, it’s very possible that this is all coincidence and red herrings, but it’s certainly something worth following up on. So we visit the Fenwicks again to ask her about it — and get to watch the video we already saw play again. Stymied once more.

This example hopefully begins to illustrate how Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective breaks its promise to let you be the detective and solve the crime yourself in the way aficionados of mystery novels had been dreaming of doing for a century. Because the game never knows what you know, and because it only lets you decide where you go, nothing about what you do after you get there, playing it actually becomes much more difficult than being a “real” detective. You’re constantly being hobbled by all these artificial constraints. Again and again, you find yourself seething because you can’t ask the question Holmes would most certainly be asking in your situation. It’s a form of fake difficulty, caused by the constraints of the game engine rather than the nature of the case.

Consider once more, then, how this plays out in practice in “The Mummy’s Curse.” We pick up this potentially case-cracking clue about Mrs. Fenwick’s previous relations with the victim. If we’ve ever read a mystery novel or watched a crime drama, we know immediately what to do. Caught up in the fiction, we rush back to the Fenwicks without even thinking about it. We get there, and of course it doesn’t work; we just get the same old spiel. It’s a thoroughly deflating experience. This isn’t just a sin against mimesis; it’s wholesale mimesis genocide.

It is true that the board-game version of Consulting Detective suffers from the exact same flaws born of its own statelessness. By presenting a case strictly as a collection of extant clues to be put together rather than asking you to ferret them out for yourself — by in effect eliminating from the equation both the story of the crime and the story of the investigation which turned up the clues — the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers avoid most of these frustrations, at the expense of feeling like drier, more static endeavors. I will say that the infelicities of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective in general feel more egregious in the computer version — perhaps because the hotter medium of video promotes a depth of immersion in the fiction that makes it feel like even more of a betrayal when the immersion breaks down; or, more prosaically, simply because we feel that the computer ought to be capable of doing a better job of things than it is, while we’re more forgiving of the obvious constraints of a purely analog design.

Of course, it was this very same statelessness that made the design such an attractive one for adaptation to full-motion video in the first place. In other words, the problems with the format which Kinoautomat highlighted in 1967 aren’t quite as easy to dodge around as ICOM perhaps thought. It does feel like ICOM could have done a little better on this front, even within the limitations of full-motion video. Would it have killed them to provide a few clips instead of just one for some of the key scenes, with the one that plays dependent on what the player has already learned? Yes, I’m aware that that has the potential to become a very slippery slope indeed. But still… work with us just a bit, ICOM.

While I don’t want to spend too much more time pillorying this pioneering but flawed game, I do have to point out one more issue: setting aside the problems that arise from the nature of the engine, the cases themselves often have serious problems. They’ve all been shortened and simplified in comparison to the board game, which gives rise to some of the issues. That said, though, it must also be said that not everything in the board game itself is unimpeachable. Holmes’s own narratives of the cases’ solutions, which follow after you complete them by answering all of the questions in the trial phases correctly, are often rife with questionable assumptions and intuitive leaps that would never hold up on an episode of Perry Mason, much less a real trial. At the conclusion of “The Mummy’s Curse,” for instance, he tells us there was “no reason to assume” that the three archaeologists weren’t all killed by the same person. Fair enough — but there is also no reason to assume the opposite, no reason to assume we aren’t dealing with a copycat killer or killers, given that all of the details surrounding the first of the murders were published on the front page of the London Times. And yet Holmes’s entire solution to the case follows from exactly that questionable assumption. It serves, for example, as his logic for eliminating Mrs. Fenwick as a suspect, since she had neither motive nor opportunity to kill the other two archaeologists.

To be fair to Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg, this case is regarded by fans of the original board game as the weakest of all ten (it actually shows up as the sixth case there). Why ICOM chose to lead with this of all cases is the greatest mystery of all. Most of the ones that follow are better — but rarely, it must be said, as airtight as our cocky friend Holmes would have them be. But then, in this sense ICOM is perhaps only being true to the Sherlock Holmes canon. For all Holmes’s purported devotion to rigorous logic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales never play fair with readers hoping to solve the mysteries for themselves, hinging always on similar logical fallacies and superhuman intuitive leaps. If one chooses to read the classic Sherlock Holmes stories — and many of them certainly are well worth reading — it shouldn’t be in the hope of solving their mysteries before he does.

The three volumes of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective would, along with a couple of other not-quite-satisfying full-motion-video games, mark the end of the line for ICOM. Faced with the mounting budgets that made it harder and harder for a small developer to survive, they left the gaming scene quietly in the mid-1990s. The catalog of games they left behind is a fairly small one, but includes in Déjà Vu and Consulting Detective two of the most technically significant works of their times. The Consulting Detective games were by no means the only interactive mysteries of the early full-motion-video era; a company called Tiger Media also released a couple of mysteries on CD-ROM, with a similar set of frustrating limitations, and the British publisher Domark even announced but never released a CD-ROM take on one of the old Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers. The ICOM mysteries were, however, the most prominent and popular. Flawed though they are, they remain fascinating historical artifacts with much to teach us: about the nature of those days when seeing an actual video clip playing on a monitor screen was akin to magic; about the perils and perhaps some of the hidden potential of building games out of real-world video; about game design in general. In that spirit, we’ll be exploring more experiments with full-motion video in articles to come, looking at how they circumvented — or failed to circumvent — the issues that dogged Kinoautomat, Dragon’s Lair, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective alike.

(Sources: the book Media and Participation by Nico Carpentier; Byte of May 1992; Amazing Computing of May 1991, July 1991, March 1992, and May 1992; Amiga Format of March 1991; Amiga Computing of October 1992; CD-ROM Today of July 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1991, August 1991, June 1992, and March 1993; Family Computing of February 1984; Softline of September 1982; Questbusters of July 1991 and September 1991; CU Amiga of October 1992. Online sources include Joe Pranevich’s interview with Dave Marsh on The Adventure Gamer; the home page of Kinoautomat today; Expo ’67 in Montreal; and Brian Moriarty’s annotated excerpt from Kinoautomat, taken from his lecture “I Sing the Story Electric.”

Some of the folks who once were ICOM Simulations have remastered the three cases from the first volume of the series and now sell them on Steam. The Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective tabletop line is in print again. While I don’t love it quite as much as some do due to some of the issues mentioned in this article, it’s still a unique experience today that’s well worth checking out.)

 
 

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A Time of Beginnings: Legend Entertainment (or, Bob and Mike’s Excellent Adventure-Game Company)

As the dust settled and the shock faded in the months that followed the shuttering of Infocom, most of the people who had worked there found they were able to convince themselves that they were happy it was finally over, relieved that a clean sharp break had been made. Sure, they had greeted the initial bombshell that the jig was finally up with plenty of disbelief, anger, and sadness, but the fact remained that the eighteen months before that fateful day, during which they had watched their company lose its old swagger, its very sense of itself, had been if anything even more heartbreaking. And yes, there would be plenty of second-guessing among them in the years to come about what might have been if Cornerstone had never existed or if Bruce Davis hadn’t taken over control of Mediagenic, [1]Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. but Infocom’s story did nevertheless feel like it had run its natural course, leaving behind something that all of the Bruce Davises in the world could never take away: that stellar 35-game catalog, unmatched by any game developer of Infocom’s era or any era since in literacy, thoughtfulness, and relentless creative experimentation. With that along with all of their fine memories of life inside Infocom’s offices to buoy them, the former employees could move on to the proverbial next chapter in life feeling pretty good about themselves, regarding their time at Infocom as, as historian Graham Nelson so memorably put it, “a summer romance” that had simply been too golden to stay any longer.

Yet there was at least one figure associated with Infocom who was more inclined to rage against the dying of the light than to go gentle into that good night. Bob Bates had come to the job of making text adventures, a job he enjoyed more than anything else he had ever done, just a little bit too late to share the sense of closure felt by the rest of Infocom. Which isn’t to say he hadn’t managed to accomplish anything in the field: Bob had formed a company to challenge Infocom — a company named, appropriately enough, Challenge — that wound up joining them as the only outside developer ever allowed to copy Infocom’s in-house tools and make games for them under contract. Still, it had all happened very late in the day. When all was said and done, he had the dubious distinction of having made the last all-text Infocom game ever, followed by their very last game of all. His summer romance, in other words, had started in the last week of the season, and he’d barely gotten past first base. When he returned from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his home near Washington, D.C., on the stormy evening of May 5, 1989, having just been informed by Infocom’s head Joe Ybarra that Infocom’s Cambridge offices were being closed and Challenge’s services wouldn’t be needed anymore, his brief life in text adventures just felt so incomplete. And then, he found his roof was leaking. Of course it was.

Some of Bob’s restless dissatisfaction must have come across when, after that unhappy weekend was in the past, he called up Mike Verdu to tell him he would no longer be able to employ Mark Poesch and Duane Beck, the two programmers Mike’s company had sent out to work with Challenge. A remarkably young executive even in a field that has always favored the young, Mike was only in his mid-twenties, but already had an impressive CV.  In his second year at university, he had dropped out to form a consulting company he named Paragon Systems, which had come to employ Poesch and Beck. The two had been sent to Challenge when Bob came calling on Paragon, looking for help programming the games he had just signed a contract with Infocom to create. During the period when Challenge was making games for Infocom, Mike had sold Paragon to American Systems Corporation, a computer-integration firm that did significant business with the Department of Defense. He had stayed on thereafter with the bigger company as director of one of their departments, and Poesch and Beck had continued to work with Challenge, albeit under the auspices of ASC rather than Paragon. But now that would all be coming to an end; thus Bob’s phone call to Mike to inform him that he would have to terminate Challenge’s arrangement with ASC.

In truth, Bob and Mike didn’t know each other all that well prior to this conversation. Mike had always loved games, and had loved having a game company as a client, but Challenge had always had to remain for him as, as he puts it today, “one of many.” The call that Bob now made to Mike therefore began more as a simple transaction between customer and service provider than as a shared commiseration over the downfall of Bob’s business. Still, something that Bob said must have sparked Mike’s interest. The call continued far longer than it ought to have, and soon multiplied into many more conversations. In fairly short order, the conversations led to a suggestion from Mike: let’s start a new company to make and publish text adventures in the Infocom tradition. He even believed he could convince ASC to put up the bulk of the funding for such a company.

Set aside the fact that text adventures were allegedly dying, and the timing was oddly perfect. In 1989 the dominoes were toppling all over Eastern Europe, the four-decade Cold War coming to an end with a suddenness no one could have dreamed of just a few years before. Among the few people in the West not thoroughly delighted with recent turns of events were those at companies like ASC, who were deeply involved with the Department of Defense and thus had reason to fear the “peace dividend” that must lead to budget cuts for their main client and cancelled contracts for them. ASC was eager to diversify to replace the income the budget cuts would cost them; they were making lots of small investments in lots of different industries. In light of the current situation, an investment in a computer-game company didn’t seem as outlandish as it might have a year or two before, when the Reagan defense buildup was still booming, or, for that matter, might have just a year or two later, when the Gulf War would be demonstrating that the American military would not be idle on the post-Cold War world stage.

Though they had a very motivated potential investor, the plan Bob and Mike were contemplating might seem on the face of it counter-intuitive if not hopeless to those of you who are regular readers of this blog. As I’ve spent much time describing in previous articles, the text adventure had been in commercial decline since 1985. That very spring of 1989 when Bob and Mike were starting to talk, what seemed like it had to be the final axe had fallen on the genre when Level 9 had announced they were getting out of the text-adventure business, Magnetic Scrolls had been dropped by their publisher Rainbird, and of course Infocom had been shuttered by their corporate parent Mediagenic. Yet Bob and Mike proposed to fly in the face of that gale-force wind by starting a brand new company to make text adventures. What the hell were they thinking?

I was curious enough about the answer to that question that I made it a point to ask it to both Bob and Mike when I talked to them recently. Their answers were interesting enough, and said enough about the abiding love each had and, indeed, still has for the genre of adventures in text that I want to give each of them a chance to speak for himself here. First, Mike Verdu:

I believed that there was a very hardcore niche market that would always love this type of experience. We made a bet that that niche was large enough to support a small company dedicated to serving it. The genre was amazing; it was the closest thing to the promise of combining literature and technology. The free-form interaction a player could have with the game was a magical thing. There’s just nothing else like it. So, it didn’t seem like a dying art form to me. It just seemed that there were these bigger companies that the market couldn’t support that were collapsing, and that there was room for a smart niche player that had no illusions about the market but could serve that market directly.

I will say that when Bob and I were looking for publishing partners, and went to some trade conferences — through Bob’s connections we were able to meet people like Ken and Roberta Williams and various other luminaries in the field at the time — everybody said, “You have no idea what you’re doing. The worst idea in the world is to start a game company. It’s the best way to take a big pile of money and turn it into a small pile of money. Stay away!” But Bob and I are both stubborn, and we didn’t listen.

Understanding your market opportunity is really key when you’re forming a company. With Legend, we were very clear-eyed about the fact that we were starting a small company to serve a small market. We didn’t think it would grow to be a thousand people or take over the world or sell a million units of entertainment software per year. We thought there was this amazing, passionate audience that we could serve with these lovingly crafted products, and that would be very fulfilling creatively. If you’re a creative person, I think you have to define how big the audience is that is going to make you feel fulfilled. Bob and I didn’t necessarily have aspirations to reach millions of people. We wanted to reach enough people that we could make our company viable, make a living, and create these products that we loved.

And Bob Bates:

We recognized the risk, but basically we just still believed in the uniqueness of the parser-driven experience — in the pleasure and the joy of the parser-driven experience. By then, there were no other major parser-driven games around, and we felt that point-and-click was a qualitatively different experience. It was fun, but it was different. It was restrictive in terms of what the player could do, and there was a sense of the game world closing in on you, that you could only do what could be shown. Brian Moriarty had a great quote that I don’t remember exactly, but it was something like “you can only implement what you can afford to show, and you can’t afford to show anything.” As a player, I loved the freedom to input whatever I wanted, and I loved the low cost of producing that [form of interaction]. If there’s an interesting input or interaction, and I can address it in a paragraph of text, that’s so much cheaper than having an artist spend a week drawing it. Text is cheap, so we felt we could create games economically. We felt that competition in that niche wasn’t there anymore, and that it was a fun experience that there was still a market for.

Reading between the lines just a bit here, we have a point of view that would paint the failure of Infocom more as the result of a growing mismatch between a company and its market than as an indication that it was genuinely impossible to still make a living selling text adventures. Until 1985, the fulcrum year of the company’s history, Infocom had been as mainstream as computer-game publishers got, often placing three, four, or even five titles in the overall industry top-ten sales lists each month. Their numbers had fallen off badly after that, but by 1987 they had stabilized to create a “20,000 Club”: most games released that year sold a little more or less than 20,000 copies. Taking into account the reality that every title would never appeal enough to every fan to prompt a purchase — especially given the pace at which Infocom was pumping out games that year — that meant there were perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 loyal Infocom fans who had never given up on the company or the genre. Even the shrunken Infocom of the company’s final eighteen months was too big to make a profit serving that market, which was in any case nothing Bruce Davis of Mediagenic, fixated on the mainstream as he was, had any real interest in trying to serve. A much smaller company, however, with far fewer people on the payroll and a willingness to lower its commercial expectations, might just survive and even modestly thrive there. And who knew, if they made their games really well, they might just collect another 30,000 or 40,000 new fans to join the Infocom old guard.

This wasn’t to say that Bob and Mike could afford to return to the pure text that had sufficed for 31 of Infocom’s 35 adventure games. To have any chance of attracting new players, and quite possibly to have any chance of retaining even the old Infocom fans, they were well aware that some concessions to the realities of the contemporary marketplace would have to be made. Their games would include an illustration for every location along with occasional additional graphics, sound effects, and music to break up their walls of text. Their games would, in other words, enhance the Infocom experience to suit the changing times rather than merely clone it.

In the same spirit of maximizing their text adventures’ contemporary commercial potential, they very early on secured the services of Steve Meretzky, Infocom’s single most well-known former Implementor, who had worked on some of the company’s most iconic and successful titles. With Meretzky’s first game for their company, Bob and Mike would try to capitalize on his reputation as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” — a reputation he enjoyed despite the fact that he had only written one naughty adventure game in his career to date. Nevertheless, Bob encouraged Meretzky to “take the gloves off,” to go much further than he had even in his previous naughty game Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Meretzky’s vision for his new game can perhaps be best described today as “Animal House meets Harry Potter” (although, it should be noted, this was many years before the latter was published). It would be the story of a loser who goes off to Sorcerer University to learn the art and science of magic, whilst trying his best to score with chicks along the way. Of course, this being an adventure game, he would eventually have to save the world as well, but the real point was the spells and the chicks. The former would let Meretzky revisit one of the most entertaining puzzle paradigms Infocom had ever devised: the Enchanter series’s spell book full of bizarre incantations that prove useful in all sorts of unexpected ways. The latter would give Bob and Mike a chance to prove one more time the timeless thesis that Sex Sells.

So, the Meretzky game seemed about as good as things could get as a commercially safe bet, given the state of text adventures in general circa 1989. Meanwhile, for those players less eager to be titillated, Bob Bates himself would make what he describes today as a “classical” adventure, a more sober-minded time-travel epic full of intricately interconnected puzzles and environments. Between the two, they would hopefully have covered most of what people had liked about the various games of Infocom. And the really hardcore Infocom fans, of course, would hopefully buy them both.

In making their pitch to ASC and other potential investors, Bob and Mike felt ethically obligated to make careful note of the seeming headwinds into which their new company would be sailing. But in the end ASC was hugely eager to diversify, and the investment that was being asked of them was relatively small in the context of ASC’s budget. Bob and Mike founded their company on about $500,000, the majority of which was provided by ASC, alongside a handful of smaller investments from friends and family. (Those with a stake in Bob’s old company Challenge also saw it rolled over into the new company.) ASC would play a huge role during this formative period, up to and including providing the office space out of which the first games would be developed.

An ASC press release dated January 8, 1990, captures the venture, called GameWorks at the time, at this embryonic stage of high hopes and high uncertainty. Bob Bates is quoted as saying that “GameWorks products combine the best of several existing technologies in an exciting new format,” while Mike Verdu, who would remain in his old role at ASC in addition to his new one as a software entrepreneur for another couple of years, says that “ASC’s interest in this venture stems from more than just making money over the short term. The goal is to establish a self-sustaining software-publishing company.” Shortly after this press release, the name of said company would be changed from GameWorks to Legend Entertainment, harking back to the pitch for an “Immortal Legends” series of games that had first won Bob a contract with Infocom.

The part of the press release that described GameWorks/Legend as a “software-publishing company” was an important stipulation. Mike Verdu:

I remember making these spreadsheets early on, trying to understand how companies made money in this business. It became very clear to me very quickly that life as an independent developer, without the publishing, was very tough. You scrambled for advances, and the royalties you got off a game would never pay for the advances unless you had a huge hit. Your destiny was so tied to the publisher, to the vagaries of the producer that might get assigned to your title, that it just was not an appealing path at all.

In a very fundamental way, Legend needed to be a publisher as well as a developer if they were to bring their vision of text adventures in the 1990s to fruition. It was highly doubtful whether any of the other publishers would be willing to bother with the niche market for text adventures at all when there were so many other genres with seemingly so much greater commercial potential. In addition, Bob and Mike knew that they needed to have complete control of their products, from the exact games they chose to make to the way those games were packaged and presented on store shelves. They recognized that another part of becoming the implicit successor to Infocom must be trying as much as possible to match the famous Infocom packaging, with the included “feelies” that added so much texture and verisimilitude to their interactive fictions. One of the most heartbreaking signs of Infocom’s slow decline, for fans and employees alike, had been the gradual degradation of their games’ physical presentation, as the cost-cutters in Mediagenic’s Silicon Valley offices took away more and more control from the folks in Cambridge. Bob and Mike couldn’t afford to have their company under a publisher’s thumb in similar fashion. At the same time, though, a tiny company like theirs was in no position to set up its own nationwide distribution from warehouse to retail.

It was for small publishers facing exactly this conundrum that Electronic Arts and Mediagenic during the mid-1980s had pioneered the concept of the “affiliated label.” An affiliated label was a small publisher that printed their own name on their boxes, but piggy-backed — for a fee, of course — on the network of a larger publisher for distribution. By the turn of the decade, the American computer-games industry as a whole had organized itself into eight or so major publishers, each with an affiliated-label program of one stripe or another of its own, with at least several dozen more minor publishers taking advantage of the programs. As we’ve seen in other articles, affiliated-label deals were massive potential minefields that many a naive small publisher blundered into and never escaped. Nevertheless, Legend had little choice but to seek one for themselves. Thanks to Mike Verdu’s research, they would at least go in with eyes open to the risk, although nothing they could do could truly immunize them from it.

In seeking a distribution deal, Legend wasn’t just evaluating potential partners; said partners were also evaluating them, trying to judge whether they could sell enough games to make a profitable arrangement for both parties. This process, like so much else, was inevitably complicated by Legend’s determination to defy all of the conventional wisdom and continue making text adventures — yes, text adventures with graphics and sound, but still text adventures at bottom. And yet as Bob and Mike made the rounds of the industry’s biggest players they generally weren’t greeted with the incredulity, much less mockery, one might initially imagine. Even many of the most pragmatic of gaming executives felt keenly at some visceral level the loss of Infocom, whose respect among their peers had never really faded in tune with their sales figures — who, one might even say, had had a certain ennobling effect on their industry as a whole. So, the big players were often surprisingly sympathetic to Legend’s cause. Whether such sentiments could lead to a signature on the bottom line of a contract was, however, a different matter entirely. Most of the people who had managed to survive in this notoriously volatile industry to this point had long since learned that idealism only gets you so far.

For some time, it looked like a deal would come together with Sierra. Ken Williams, who never lacked for ambition, was trying to position his company to own the field of interactive storytelling as a whole. Text adventures looked destined to be a very small piece of that pie at best in the future, but that piece was nevertheless quite possibly one worth scarfing up. If Sierra distributed Legend’s games and they proved unexpectedly successful, an acquisition might even be in the cards. Yet somehow a deal just never seemed to get done. Mike Verdu:

There seemed to be genuine interest [at Sierra], but it was sort of like Zeno’s Paradox: we’d get halfway to something, and then close that distance by half, and then close that distance by half, and nothing ever actually happened. It was enormously frustrating — and I never could put my finger on quite why, because there seemed to be this alignment of interests, and we all liked each other. There was always a sense of a lot of momentum at the start. Then the momentum gradually died away, and you could never actually get anything done. Now that I’ve become a little more sophisticated about business, that suggests to me that Ken was probably running around trying to make a whole bunch of things happen, and somebody inside his company was being the sort of check and balance to his wanting to do lots and lots of stuff. There were probably a lot of things that died on the vine inside that company.

Instead of Sierra, Legend wound up signing a distribution contract with MicroProse, who were moving further and further from their roots in military simulations and wargames in a bid to become a major presence in many genres of entertainment software. Still, “Wild Bill” Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant chief, had little personal interest in the types of games Legend proposed to make or the niche market they proposed to serve. Mike Verdu characterizes Sierra’s interest as “strategic,” while MicroProse’s was merely “convenient,” a way to potentially boost their revenue picture a bit and offset a venture into standup-arcade games that was starting to look like a financial disaster. MicroProse hardly made for the partner of Legend’s dreams, but needs must. Wild Bill was willing to sign where Ken Williams apparently wasn’t.

In the midst of all these efforts to set up the infrastructure for a software-publishing business, there was also the need to create the actual software they would publish. Bob Bates’s time-travel game fell onto the back-burner, a victim of the limited resources to hand and the fact that so much of its designer’s time was being monopolized by practical questions of business. But not so Steve Meretzky’s game. As was his wont, Meretzky had worked quickly and efficiently from his home in Massachusetts to crank out his design. Legend’s two-man programming team, consisting still of the Challenge veterans Duane Beck and Mark Poesch, was soon hard at work alongside contracted outside artists and composers to bring Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, now planned as Legend’s sole release of 1990, to life in all its audiovisual splendor.

Setting aside for the moment all those planned audiovisual enhancements, just creating a reasonable facsimile of the core Infocom experience presented a daunting challenge. Throughout Infocom’s lifespan, from the 1980 release of Zork I through Bob Bates’s own 1989 Infocom game Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, no other company had ever quite managed to do what Legend was now attempting to do: to create a parser as good as that of Infocom. Legend did have an advantage over most of Infocom’s earlier would-be challengers in that they were planning to target their games to relatively powerful machines with fast processors and at least 512 K of memory. The days of trying to squeeze games into 64 K or less were over, as were the complications of coding to a cross-platform virtual machine; seeing where the American market was going, Legend planned to initially release their games only for MS-DOS systems, with ports to other platforms left only as a vague possibility if one of their titles should prove really successful. Both the Legend engine and the games that would be made using it were written in MS-DOS-native C code instead of a customized adventure programming language like Infocom’s ZIL, a decision that also changed the nature of authoring a Legend game in comparison to an Infocom game. Legend’s designers would program many of the simpler parts of their games’ logic themselves using their fairly rudimentary knowledge of C, but would always rely on the “real” programmers for the heavy lifting.

But of course none of these technical differences were the sort of things that end users would notice. For precisely this reason, Bob Bates was deeply worried about the legal pitfalls that might lie in attempting to duplicate the Infocom experience so closely from their perspective. The hard fact was that he, along with his two programmers, knew an awful lot about Infocom’s technology, having authored two complete games using it, while Steve Meretzky, who had authored or coauthored no less than seven games for Infocom, knew it if anything even better. Bob worried that Mediagenic might elect to sue Legend for theft of trade secrets — a worry that, given the general litigiousness of Mediagenic’s head Bruce Davis, strikes me as eminently justified. To address the danger, Legend elected to employ the legal stratagem of the black box. Bob sat down and wrote out a complete specification for Legend’s parser-to-be. (“It was a pretty arcane, pretty strange exercise to do that,” he remembers.) Legend then gave this specification for implementation to a third-party company called Key Systems who had never seen any of Infocom’s technology. “What came back,” Bob says, “became the heart of the Legend engine. Mark and Duane then built additional functionality upon that.” The unsung creators of the Legend parser did their job remarkably well. It became the first ever not to notably fall down anywhere in comparison to the Infocom parser. Mediagenic, who had serious problems of their own monopolizing their attention around this time, never did come calling, but better safe than sorry.


The Legend Interface in a Nutshell

A game can be played in one of three modes. This one, the default, is the most elaborate — not to say cluttered. Note the long menus of verbs — 120 (!) of them, with a commonly used subset thankfully listed first — and nouns to the left. (And don’t worry, this area from Spellcasting 101 is a “fake” maze, not a real one.)

A second mode, which I suspect was the most commonly used by real players in the wild, removes the command-entry menus in favor of allowing more space for the text window, but retains the compass rose and illustrations.

Finally, strict adherents to the ethos of text-and-only-text can indeed play the game as a text-only adventure. The existence of significant numbers of such purists was probably more theoretical than actual, but Legend accommodated them nevertheless.

By tapping the function keys, you can replace the illustration with the current room description or your current inventory without having to burn a turn on the task.

Or you can show a map where the picture usually lives.


 

Anxious to make their games as accessible as possible despite their equally abiding determination to become the implicit heir to Infocom, Legend designed for their new engine a menu-based system for inputting commands that could serve as an alternative to typing them in. Bob Bates, the mastermind behind the system:

One of the biggest barriers to text adventures at the time was that people didn’t know how to type. I knew how to type only because the principal of my high school forced me in my sophomore year to take a typing class instead of a third language. At the time, typing was for girls; men didn’t type. It was a barrier for players.

So, we said that we need an interface that will let somebody play using only the mouse. This was a huge problem. How do you do that without giving too much away? One day as I was pondering this, I realized that once you select a verb you don’t need another verb. So, the menu that contains verbs can go away. You’re looking at a list of verb/noun [combinations]: “get box,” “kick wall.” But if you want a sentence with a preposition, once you’ve clicked on the verb you don’t need another verb, so you can replace that first [verb] list with prepositions — and not only that, but prepositions that are only appropriate to that verb. That was an actual insight; that was a cool idea.

The menu on the left had the twenty or so most common verbs first, but underneath that, going down in alphabetical order, was a list of many, many more verbs. You could scroll down in that list, and it might actually suggest interactions you hadn’t thought of. Basically it preserved the openness of the interaction, but avoided the other big bugaboo of parser-driven games: when the parser will come back and say, “I don’t understand that.” With this system, that could never happen. And that was, I thought, huge. Everything was there in front of you if you could figure out what to do. [Parsing errors] became a thing of the past if you wanted to play in that mode.

Then of course we had full-screen text mode if you wanted to play that way, and we had a sort of hybrid half-and-half mode where there was parser-driven text across the bottom, but you still had graphics at the top. I thought it was important that players could play the game the way they wanted to, and I thought it added to the experience by taking away two of the big problems. One was people who didn’t like to type or couldn’t type or were two-finger typists. Number two was when you would type a whole command and there was an error in the first word; the parser says, “I don’t know that word,” and you have to type the whole command again. That interface took away that pain in the ass.

While Bob’s points are well taken, particularly with regard to the lack of typing skills among so much of the general public at the time, the Legend menu-based interface looks very much of its time today. Having the menu appear onscreen by default has had the unfortunate side-effect of making the Legend games look rather cluttered and ugly in contrast to the Infocom classics, with their timeless text-only approach. That does a real disservice to the games hidden inside the Legend interface, which often stand up very well next to many of the works of Infocom.

Aesthetics aside, I remain skeptical of the real long-term utility of these sorts of interfaces in general, all the rage though they were during the twilight of the text adventure’s commercial era. Certainly there must come a point where picking through a list of dozens of verbs becomes as confusing as trying to divine the correct one from whole cloth. A better solution to the guess-the-verb problem is to create a better parser — and, to be fair, Legend games give no ground for complaint on that score; text-adventure veteran though I admittedly am, I can’t recall ever struggling to express what I was trying to do to a Legend game. The problem of correcting typos without having to type the entire command again, meanwhile, could have been efficiently addressed by including a command-history buffer that the player could navigate using the arrow keys. The omission of such a feature strikes me as rather inexplicable given that the British company Level 9 had begun to include it in their games as far back as 1986.

Although I don’t believe any serious surveys were ever made, it would surprise me if most Legend players stuck with the menu-based interface for very long once they settled down to play. “I played the game this way for fifteen minutes before deciding to bag it and type in all my commands,” wrote one contemporary Spellcasting 101 reviewer who strikes me as likely typical. “For me, this was quicker.” “Frankly, I find the menu to be of little use except to suggest possible commands in tough puzzle situations,” wrote another. Even Steve Meretzky, the author of Legend’s first game, wasn’t a fan:

The impetus for the interface was not a particular feeling that this was a good/useful/friendly/clever interface, but rather a feeling that text adventures were dying, that people wanted pictures on the screen at all times, and that people hated to type. I never liked the interface that much. The graphic part of the picture was pretty nice, allowing you to move around just by double-clicking on doors in the picture, or pick things up by double-clicking on them. But I didn’t care for the menus for a number of reasons. One, they were way more kludgey and time-consuming than just typing inputs. Two, they were giveaways because they gave you a list of all possible verbs and all visible objects. Three, they were a lot of extra work in implementing the game, for little extra benefit. And four, they precluded any puzzles which involved referring to non-visible objects.

Like Meretzky, I find other aspects of the Legend engine much more useful than the menu-based command interface. In the overall baroque-text-adventure-interface sweepstakes, Magnetic Scrolls’s Magnetic Windows-based system has the edge in features and refinement, but the Legend engine does show a real awareness of how real players played these types of games, and gives some very welcome options for making that experience a little less frustrating. The automap, while perhaps not always quite enough to replace pen and paper (or, today, Trizbort), is nevertheless handy, and the ability to pull up the current room description or your current inventory without wasting a turn and scrolling a bunch of other text away is a godsend, especially given that there’s no scrollback integrated into the text window.

The graphics and music in the Legend games still hold up fairly well as well, adding that little bit of extra sizzle. (The occasional digitized sound effects, on the other hand, have aged rather less well.) Right from the beginning with Spellcasting 101, Legend proved willing to push well beyond the model of earlier, more static illustrated text adventures, adding animated opening and closing sequences, interstitial graphics in the chapter breaks, etc. It’s almost enough to make you forget at times that you’re playing a text adventure at all — which was, one has to suspect, at least partially the intention. Certainly it pushes well beyond what Infocom managed to do in their last few games. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone since Legend has ever tried quite so earnestly to make a real multimedia production out of a parser-based game. It can make for an odd fit at times, but it can be a lot of fun as well.

Spellcasting 101 was released in October of 1990, thereby bringing to a fruition the almost eighteen months of effort that had followed that fateful Cinco de Mayo when Bob Bates had learned that Infocom was going away. I plan to discuss the merits and demerits owed to Spellcasting 101 as a piece of game design in my next article. For now, it should suffice to say that the game and the company that had produced it were greeted with gushing enthusiasm by the very niche they had hoped to reach. Both were hailed as the natural heirs to the Infocom legacy, carrying the torch for a type of game most had thought had disappeared from store shelves forever. Questbusters magazine called Spellcasting 101 the “Son of Infocom” in their review’s headline; the reviewer went on to write that “what struck me most about the game is that it is exactly as I would have expected Infocom games to be if the company was still together and the veteran designers were still working in the industry. I kid you not when I say to watch Legend over the years.” “It’s such a treat to play an Infocom adventure again,” wrote the adventuring fanzine SynTax. “I know it isn’t an Infocom game as such, but I can’t help thinking of it as that.”

This late in the day for the commercial text adventure, it was these small adventure-centric publications, along with the adventure-game columnists for the bigger magazines, who were bound to be the most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Spellcasting 101 succeeded in proving the thesis on which Bob Bates and Mike Verdu had founded Legend Entertainment: that there were still enough of those enthusiasts out there to support a niche company. In its first six months on the market, Spellcasting 101 sold almost 35,000 units, more than doubling Bob and Mike’s cautious prediction of 16,000 units. By the same point, the Legend hint line had fielded over 35,000 calls. For now — and it would admittedly be just for a little while longer — people were buying and, as the hint-line calls so amply demonstrated, playing a text adventure again in reasonable numbers, all thanks to the efforts of two men who loved the genre and couldn’t quite let it go.

A “Presentation to Stockholders and Directors” of Legend from May of 1991 provides, like the earlier ASC press release, another fascinating real-time glimpse of a business being born. At this point Timequest, Bob Bates’s “classical” time-travel adventure, is about to be released at last, Spellcasting 201 is already nearing completion, and a first licensed game is in the offing, to be based on Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. “MicroProse has done an outstanding job of selling and distributing the product,” notes the report, but “has been less than responsive on the financial side of the house. Our financial condition is precarious. We spent most of the Spellcasting 101 revenues in development of Timequest. We are living hand to mouth. We have come a long way and we are building a viable business, but the costs were greater than expected and the going has often been rough.”

Rough going and living hand to mouth were things that Legend would largely just have to get used to. The games industry could be a brutal place, and a tiny niche publisher like Legend was all but foreordained to exist under a perpetual cloud of existential risk. Still, in return for facing the risk they were getting to make the games they loved, and giving the commercial text adventure a coda absolutely no one had seen coming on that unhappy day back in May of 1989. “We did more things right than we did wrong,” concludes the May 1991 report. “This is a workable definition of survival.” Survival may have been about the best they could hope for — but, then again, survival is survival.

(Sources: Questbusters of March 1991; SynTax Issue 11; Computer Gaming World of November 1990 and March 1991; the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Bob Bates’s interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, which Jason was kind enough to share with me in its entirety. But the vast majority of this article is drawn from my interviews with Bob Bates and Mike Verdu; the former dug up the documents mentioned in the article as well. My heartfelt thanks to both for making the time to talk with me and to answer my many nitpicky questions about events of more than 25 years ago.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article.
 
 

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