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Trinity Postscript: Selling Tragedy

Like A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity seemed destined to become a casualty of an industry that just wasn’t equipped to appreciate what it was trying to do. Traditional game-review metrics like “fun” or “value for money” only cheapened it, while reviewers lacked the vocabulary to even begin to really address its themes. Most were content to simply mention, in passing and often with an obvious unease, that those themes were present. In Computer Gaming World, for instance, Scorpia said that it was “not for the squeamish,” would require of the player “some unpleasant actions,” that it was “overall a serious game, not a light-hearted one,” and then on to the firmer ground of puzzle hints. And that was downright thoughtful in comparison to Shay Addams’s review for Questbusters, which tried in a weird and clunky way to be funny in all the ways that Trinity doesn’t: “It blowed up real good!” runs the review’s tagline, which goes on to ask if they’ll be eating “fission chips” in the Kensington Gardens after the missiles drop. (Okay, that one’s dumb enough to be worth a giggle…) But the review’s most important point is that Trinity is “mainly a game” again after the first Interactive Fiction Plus title, A Mind Forever Voyaging, so disappointed: “The puzzles are back!”

Even Infocom themselves weren’t entirely sure how to sell or even how to talk about Trinity. The company’s creative management had been unstintingly supportive of Brian Moriarty while he was making the game, but “marketing,” as he said later, “was a little more concerned/disturbed. They didn’t quite know what to make of it.” The matrix of genres didn’t have a slot for “Historical Tragedy.” In the end they slapped a “Fantasy” label on it, although it doesn’t take a long look at Trinity and the previous games to wear that label — the Zork and Enchanter series — to realize that one of these things is not quite like the others.

Moriarty admits to “a few tiffs” with marketing over Trinity, but he was a reasonable guy who also understood that Infocom needed to sell their games and that, while the occasional highbrow press from the likes of The New York Times Book Review had been nice and all, the traditional adventure-game market was the only place they had yet succeeded in consistently doing that. Thus in interviews and other promotions for Trinity he did an uncomfortable dance, trying to talk seriously about the game and the reasons he wrote it while also trying not to scare away people just looking for a fun text adventure. The triangulations can be a bit excruciating: “It isn’t a gloomy game, but it does have a dark undertone to it. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.” (Actually, it is.) Or: “It’s kind of a dark game, but it’s also, I like to think, kind of a fun game too.” (With a ringing endorsement like “I like to think it’s kind of a fun game,” how could anyone resist?)

Trinity‘s commercial saving grace proved to be a stroke of serendipity having nothing to do with any of its literary qualities. The previous year Commodore had released what would prove to be their last 8-bit computer, the Commodore 128. Despite selling quite well, the machine had attracted very little software support. The cause, ironically, was also the reason it had done so well in comparison to the Plus/4, Commodore’s previous 8-bit machine. The 128, you see, came equipped with a “64 Mode” in which it was 99.9 percent compatible with the Commodore 64. Forced to choose between a modest if growing 128 user base and the massive 64 user base through which they could also rope in all those 128 users, almost all publishers, with too many incompatible machines to support already, made the obvious choice.

Infocom’s Interactive Fiction Plus system was, however, almost unique in the entertainment-software industry in running on the 128 in its seldom-used (at least for games) native mode. And all those new 128 owners were positively drooling for a game that actually took advantage of the capabilities of their shiny new machines. A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity arrived simultaneously on the Commodore 128 when the Interactive Fiction Plus interpreter was ported to that platform in mid-1986. But the puzzleless A Mind Forever Voyaging was a bit too outré for most gamers’ tastes. Plus it was older, and thus not getting the press or the shelf space that Trinity was. Trinity, on the other hand, fit the bill of “game I can use to show off my 128” just well enough, even for 128 users who might otherwise have had little interest in an all-text adventure game. Infocom’s sales were normally quite evenly distributed across the large range of machines they supported, but Trinity‘s were decidedly lopsided in favor of the Commodore 128. Those users’ numbers were enough to push Trinity to the vicinity of 40,000 in sales, not a blockbuster — especially by the standards of Infocom’s glory years — but enough to handily outdo not just A Mind Forever Voyaging but even more traditional recent games like Spellbreaker. Like the Cold War Trinity chronicles, it could have been much, much worse.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Trinity

Trinity

During 1983, the year that Brian Moriarty first conceived the idea of a text adventure about the history of atomic weapons, the prospect of nuclear annihilation felt more real, more terrifyingly imaginable to average Americans, than it had in a long, long time. The previous November had brought the death of longtime Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and the ascension to power of Yuri Andropov. Brezhnev had been a corrupt, self-aggrandizing old rascal, but also a known, relatively safe quantity, content to pin medals on his own chest and tool around in his collection of foreign cars while the Soviet Union settled into a comfortable sort of stagnate stability around him. Andropov, however, was to the extent he was known at all considered a bellicose Party hardliner. He had enthusiastically played key roles in the brutal suppression of both the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring.

Ronald Reagan, another veteran Cold Warrior, welcomed Andropov into office with two of the most famous speeches of his Presidency. On March 8, 1983, in a speech before the American Society of Evangelicals, he declared the Soviet Union “an evil empire.” Echoing Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Adolf Eichmann, he described Andropov and his colleagues as “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice,” committing outrage after outrage “in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices.” Having thus drawn an implicit parallel between the current Soviet leadership and the Nazis against which most of them had struggled in the bloodiest war in history, Reagan dropped some big news on the world two weeks later. At the end of a major televised address on the need for engaging in the largest peacetime military buildup in American history, he announced a new program that would soon come to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars: a network of satellites equipped with weaponry to “intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reach our own territory or that of our allies.” While researching and building SDI, which would “take years, probably decades, of effort on many fronts” with “failures and setbacks just as there will be successes and breakthroughs” — the diction was oddly reminiscent of Kennedy’s Moon challenge — the United States would in the meantime be deploying a new fleet of Pershing II missiles to West Germany, capable of reaching Moscow in less than ten minutes whilst literally flying under the radar of all of the Soviet Union’s existing early-warning systems. To the Soviet leadership, it looked like the Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse, with Reagan in the role of Khrushchev.

Indeed, almost from the moment that Reagan had taken office, the United States had begun playing chicken with the Soviet Union, deliberately twisting the tail of the Russian bear via feints and probes in the border regions. “A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace and their radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and go home,” remembers former Undersecretary of State William Schneider. Even as Reagan was making his Star Wars speech, one of the largest of these deliberate provocations was in progress. Three aircraft-carrier battle groups along with a squadron of B-52 bombers all massed less than 500 miles from Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, home of many vital Soviet military installations. If the objective was to make the Soviet leadership jittery — leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether making a country with millions of kilotons of thermonuclear weapons at its disposal jittery is really a good thing — it certainly succeeded. “Every Soviet official one met was running around like a chicken without a head — sometimes talking in conciliatory terms and sometimes talking in the most ghastly and dire terms of real hot war — of fighting war, of nuclear war,” recalls James Buchan, at the time a correspondent for the Financial Times, of his contemporaneous visit to Moscow. Many there interpreted the speeches and the other provocations as setting the stage for premeditated nuclear war.

And so over the course of the year the two superpowers blundered closer and closer to the brink of the unthinkable on the basis of an almost incomprehensible mutual misunderstanding of one another’s national characters and intentions. Reagan and his cronies still insisted on taking the Marxist rhetoric to which the Soviet Union paid lip service at face value when in reality any serious hopes for fomenting a worldwide revolution of the proletariat had ended with Khrushchev, if not with Stalin. As the French demographer Emmanuel Todd wrote in 1976, the Soviet Union’s version of Marxism had long since been transformed “into a collection of high-sounding but irrelevant rhetoric.” Even the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, interpreted by not just the Reagan but also the Carter administration as a prelude to further territorial expansion into the Middle East, was actually a reactionary move founded, like so much the Soviet Union did during this late era of its history, on insecurity rather than expansionist bravado: the new Afghan prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, was making noises about abandoning his alliance with the Soviet Union in favor of one with the United States, raising the possibility of an American client state bordering on the Soviet Union’s soft underbelly. To imagine that this increasingly rickety artificial construct of a nation, which couldn’t even feed itself despite being in possession of vast tracts of some of the most arable land on the planet, was capable of taking over the world was bizarre indeed. Meanwhile, to imagine that the people around him would actually allow Reagan to launch an unprovoked first nuclear strike even if he was as unhinged as some in the Soviet leadership believed him to be is to fundamentally misunderstand America and Americans.

On September 1, 1983, this mutual paranoia took its toll in human lives.  Korean Air Lines Flight 007, on its way from New York City to Seoul, drifted hundreds of miles off-course due to the pilot’s apparent failure to change an autopilot setting. It flew over the very same Kamchatka Peninsula the United States had been so aggressively probing. Deciding enough was enough, the Soviet air-defense commander in charge scrambled fighters and made the tragic decision to shoot the plane down without ever confirming that it really was the American spy plane he suspected it to be. All 269 people aboard were killed. Soviet leadership then made the colossally awful decision to deny that they had shot down the plane; then to admit that, well, okay, maybe they had shot it down, but it had all been an American trick to make their country look bad. If Flight 007 had been an American plot, the Soviets could hardly have played better into the Americans’ hands. Reagan promptly pronounced the downing “an act of barbarism” and “a crime against nature,” and the rest of the world nodded along, thinking maybe there was some truth to this Evil Empire business after all. Throughout the fall dueling search parties haunted the ocean around the Kamchatka Peninsula, sometimes aggressively shadowing one another in ways that could easily lead to real shooting warfare. The Soviets found the black box first, then quickly squirreled it away and denied its existence; it clearly confirmed that Flight 007 was exactly the innocent if confused civilian airliner the rest of the world was saying it had been.

The superpowers came as close to the brink of war as they ever would — arguably closer than during the much more famed Cold War flash point of the Cuban Missile Crisis — that November. Despite a “frenzied” atmosphere of paranoia in Moscow, which some diplomats described as “pre-war,” the Reagan administration made the decision to go ahead with another provocation in the form of Able Archer 83, an elaborately realistic drill simulating the command-and-control process leading up to a real nuclear strike. The Soviets had long suspected that the West might attempt to launch a real attack under the cover of a drill. Now, watching Able Archer unfold, with many in the Soviet military claiming that it likely represented the all-out nuclear strike the world had been dreading for so long, the leaderless Politburo squabbled over what to do while a dying Andropov lay in hospital. Nuclear missiles were placed on hair-trigger alert in their silos; aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons stood fueled and ready on their tarmacs. One itchy trigger finger or overzealous politician over the course of the ten-day drill could have resulted in apocalypse. Somehow, it didn’t happen.

On November 20, nine days after the conclusion of Able Archer, the ABC television network aired a first-run movie called The Day After. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, fresh off the triumph of Star Trek II, it told the story of a nuclear attack on the American heartland of Kansas. If anything, it soft-pedaled the likely results of such an attack; as a disclaimer in the end credits noted, a real attack would likely be so devastating that there wouldn’t be enough people left alive and upright to make a story. Still, it was brutally uncompromising for a program that aired on national television during the family-friendly hours of prime time. Viewed by more than 100 million shocked and horrified people, The Day After became one of the landmark events in American television history and a landmark of social history in its own right. Many of the viewers, myself among them, were children. I can remember having nightmares about nuclear hellfire and radiation sickness for weeks afterward. The Day After seemed a fitting capstone to such a year of brinksmanship and belligerence. The horrors of nuclear war were no longer mere abstractions. They felt palpably real.

This, then, was the atmosphere in which Brian Moriarty first conceived of Trinity, a text adventure about the history of atomic weaponry and a poetic meditation on its consequences. Moriarty was working during 1983 for A.N.A.L.O.G. magazine, editing articles and writing reviews and programs for publication as type-in listings. Among these were two text adventures, Adventure in the Fifth Dimension and Crash Dive!, that did what they could within the limitations of their type-in format. Trinity, however, needed more, and so it went unrealized during Moriarty’s time at A.N.A.L.O.G. But it was still on his mind during the spring of 1984, when Konstantin Chernenko was settling in as Andropov’s replacement — one dying, idea-bereft old man replacing another, a metaphor for the state of the Soviet Union if ever there was one — and Moriarty was settling in as the newest addition to Infocom’s Micro Group. And it was still there six months later, when the United States and the Soviet Union were agreeing to resume arms-control talks the following year — Reagan had become more open to the possibility following his own viewing of The Day After, thus making Meyer’s film one of the few with a real claim to having directly influenced the course of history — and Moriarty was agreeing to do an entry-level Zorkian fantasy as his first work as an Imp.

Immediately upon completion of his charming Wishbringer in May of 1985, Moriarty was back to his old obsession, which looked at last to have a chance of coming to fruition. The basic structure of the game had long been decided: a time-jumping journey through a series of important events in atomic history that would begin with you escaping a near-future nuclear strike on London and end with you at the first test of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 — the Trinity test. In a single feverish week he dashed off the opening vignette in London’s Kensington Gardens, a lovely if foreboding sequence filled with mythic signifiers of the harrowing journey that awaits you. He showed it first to Stu Galley, one of the least heralded of the Imps but one possessed of a quiet passion for interactive fiction’s potential and a wisdom about its production that made him a favorite source of advice among his peers. “If you can sustain this, you’ll have something,” said Galley in his usual understated way.

Thus encouraged, Moriarty could lobby in earnest for his ambitious, deeply serious atomic-age tragedy. Here he caught a lucky break: Wishbringer became one of Infocom’s last substantial hits. While no one would ever claim that the Imps were judged solely on the commercial performance of their games, it certainly couldn’t hurt to have written a hit when your next proposal came up for review. The huge success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for instance, probably had a little something to do with Infocom’s decision to green-light Steve Meretzky’s puzzleless experiment A Mind Forever Voyaging. Similarly, this chance to develop the commercially questionable Trinity can be seen, at least partially, as a reward to Moriarty for providing Infocom with one of the few bright spots of a pretty gloomy 1985. They even allowed him to make it the second game (after A Mind Forever Voyaging) written for the new Interactive Fiction Plus virtual machine that allowed twice the content of the normal system at the expense of abandoning at least half the platforms for which Infocom’s games were usually sold. Moriarty would need every bit of the extra space to fulfill his ambitions.

The market at the site of the Trinity test, as photographed by Moriarty on his 1985 visit.

The marker at the site of the Trinity test, as photographed by Moriarty on his 1985 visit.

He plunged enthusiastically into his research, amassing a bibliography some 40 items long that he would eventually publish, in a first and only for Infocom, in the game’s manual. He also reached out personally to a number of scientists and historians for guidance, most notably Ferenc Szasz of the University of Albuquerque, who had just written a book about the Trinity test. That July he took a trip to New Mexico to visit Szasz as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory and other sites associated with early atomic-weapons research, including the Trinity site itself on the fortieth anniversary of that fateful day. His experience of the Land of Enchantment affected him deeply, and in turn affected the game he was writing. In an article for Infocom’s newsletter, he described the weird Strangelovean enthusiasm he found for these dreadful gadgets at Los Alamos with an irony that echoes that of “The Illustrated Story of the Atom Bomb,” the gung-ho comic that would accompany the game itself.

“The Lab” is Los Alamos National Laboratory, announced by a sign that stretches like a CinemaScope logo along the fortified entrance. One of the nation’s leading centers of nuclear-weapons research. The birthplace of the atomic bomb.

The Bradbury Museum occupies a tiny corner in the acres of buildings, parking lots, and barbed-wire fences that comprise the Laboratory. Its collection includes scale models of the very latest in nuclear warheads and guided missiles. You can watch on a computer as animated neutrons blast heavy isotopes to smithereens. The walls are adorned with spectacular color photographs of fireballs and mushroom clouds, each respectfully mounted and individually titled, like great works of art.

I watched a teacher explain a neutron-bomb exhibit to a group of schoolchildren. The exhibit consists of a diagram with two circles. One circle represents the blast radius of a conventional nuclear weapon; a shaded ring in the middle shows the zone of lethal radiation. The other circle shows the relative effects of a neutron bomb. The teacher did her best to point out that the neutron bomb’s “blast” radius is smaller, but its “lethal” radius is proportionally much larger. The benefit of this innovation was not explained, but the kids listened politely.

Trinity had an unusually if not inordinately long development cycle for an Infocom game, stretching from Moriarty’s first foray into Kensington Gardens in May of 1985 to his placing of the finishing touches on the game almost exactly one year later; the released story file bears a compilation datestamp of May 8, 1986. During that time, thanks to the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and Perestroika and a less belligerent version of Ronald Reagan, the superpowers crept back a bit from the abyss into which they had stared in 1983. Trinity, however, never wavered from its grim determination that it’s only a matter of time until these Pandorean toys of ours lead to the apocalyptic inevitable. Perhaps we’re fooling ourselves; perhaps it’s still just a matter of time before the wrong weapon in the wrong hands leads, accidentally or on purpose, to nuclear winter. If so, may our current blissful reprieve at least stretch as long as possible.

I’m not much interested in art as competition, but it does feel impossible to discuss Trinity without comparing it to Infocom’s other most obviously uncompromising attempt to create literary Art, A Mind Forever Voyaging. If pressed to name a single favorite from the company’s rich catalog, I would guess that a majority of hardcore Infocom fans would likely name one of these two games. As many of you probably know already, I’m firmly in the Trinity camp myself. While A Mind Forever Voyaging is a noble experiment that positively oozes with Steve Meretzky’s big old warm-and-fuzzy heart, it’s also a bit mawkish and one-note in its writing and even its themes. It’s full of great ideas, mind you, but those ideas often aren’t explored — when they’re explored at all — in all that thoughtful of a way. And I must confess that the very puzzleless design that represents its most obvious innovation presents something of a pacing problem for me. Most of the game is just wandering around under-implemented city streets looking for something to record, an experience that leaves me at an odd disconnect from both the story and the world. Mileages of course vary greatly here (otherwise everyone would be a Trinity person), but I really need a reason to get my hands dirty in a game.

One of the most noteworthy things about Trinity, by contrast, is that it is — whatever else it is — a beautifully crafted traditional text adventure, full of intricate puzzles to die for, exactly the sort of game for which Infocom is renowned and which they did better than anyone else. If A Mind Forever Voyaging is a fascinating might-have-been, a tangent down which Infocom would never venture again, Trinity feels like a culmination of everything the 18 games not named A Mind Forever Voyaging that preceded it had been building toward. Or, put another way, if A Mind Forever Voyaging represents the adventuring avant garde, a bold if problematic new direction, Trinity is a work of classicist art, a perfectly controlled, mature application of established techniques. There’s little real plot to Trinity; little character interaction; little at all really that Infocom hadn’t been doing, albeit in increasingly refined ways, since the days of Zork. If we want to get explicit with the comparisons, we might note that the desolate magical landscape where you spend much of the body of Trinity actually feels an awful lot like that of Zork III, while the vignettes you visit from that central hub parallel Hitchhiker’s design. I could go on, but suffice to say that there’s little obviously new here. Trinity‘s peculiar genius is to be a marvelous old-school adventure game while also being beautiful, poetic and even philosophically profound. It manages to imbed its themes within its puzzles, implicating you directly in the ideas it explores rather than leaving you largely a wandering passive observer as does A Mind Forever Voyaging.

To my thinking, then, Trinity represents the epitome of Infocom’s craft, achieved some nine years after a group of MIT hackers first saw Adventure and decided they could make something even better. There’s a faint odor of anticlimax that clings to just about every game that would follow it, worthy as most of those games would continue to be on their own terms (Infocom’s sense of craft would hardly allow them to be anything else). Some of the Imps, most notably Dave Lebling, have occasionally spoken of a certain artistic malaise that gripped Infocom in its final years, one that was separate from and perhaps more fundamental than all of the other problems with which they struggled. Where to go next? What more was there to really do in interactive fiction, given the many things, like believable characters and character interactions and parsers that really could understand just about anything you typed, that they still couldn’t begin to figure out how to do? Infocom was never, ever going to be able to top Trinity on its own traditionalist terms and really didn’t know how, given the technical, commercial, and maybe even psychological obstacles they faced, to rip up the mold and start all over again with something completely new. Trinity is the top of mountain, from which they could only start down the other side if they couldn’t find a completely new one to climb. (If we don’t mind straining a metaphor to the breaking point, we might even say that A Mind Forever Voyaging represents a hastily abandoned base camp.)

Given that I think Trinity represents Infocom’s artistic peak (you fans of A Mind Forever Voyaging and other games are of course welcome to your own opinions), I want to put my feet up here for a while and spend the first part of this new year really digging into the history and ideas it evokes. We’re going to go on a little tour of atomic history with Trinity by our side, a series of approaches to one of the most important and tragic — in the classical sense of the term; I’ll go into what I mean by that in a future article — moments of the century just passed, that explosion in the New Mexico desert that changed everything forever. We’ll do so by examining the same historical aftershocks of that “fulcrum of history” (Moriarty’s words) as does Trinity itself, like the game probing deeper and moving back through time toward their locus.

I think of Trinity almost as an intertextual work. “Intertextuality,” like many fancy terms beloved by literary scholars, isn’t really all that hard a concept to understand. It simply refers to a work that requires that its reader have a knowledge of certain other works in order to gain a full appreciation of this one. While Moriarty is no Joyce or Pynchon, Trinity evokes huge swathes of history and lots of heady ideas in often abstract, poetic ways, using very few but very well-chosen words. The game can be enjoyed on its own, but it gains so very much resonance when we come to it knowing something about all of this history. Why else did Moriarty include that lengthy bibliography? In lieu of that 40-item reading list, maybe I can deliver some of the prose you need to fully appreciate Moriarty’s poetry. And anyway, I think this stuff is interesting as hell, which is a pretty good justification in its own right. I hope you’ll agree, and I hope you’ll enjoy the little detour we’re about to make before we continue on to other computer games of the 1980s.

(This and the next handful of articles will all draw from the same collection of sources, so I’ll just list them once here.

On the side of Trinity the game and Infocom, we have, first and foremost as always, Jason Scott’s Get Lamp materials. Also the spring 1986 issue of Infocom’s newsletter, untitled now thanks to legal threats from The New York Times; the September/October 1986 and November 1986 Computer Gaming World; the August 1986 Questbusters; and the August 1986 Computer and Video Games.

As far as atomic history, I find I’ve amassed a library almost as extensive as Trinity‘s bibliography. Standing in its most prominent place we have Richard Rhodes’s magisterial “atomic trilogy” The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun, and Arsenals of Folly. There’s also Command and Control by Eric Schlosser; The House at Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church; The Nuclear Weapons Encyclopedia; Now It Can Be Told by Leslie Groves; Hiroshima by John Hershey; The Day the Sun Rose Twice by Ferenc Morton Szasz; Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas; and Prompt and Utter Destruction by J. Samuel Walker. I can highly recommend all of these books for anyone who wants to read further in these subjects.)

 
 

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The Neo-Classical Interactive Fiction of 1995

For all that it was a period with some significant sparks of heat and light, we might reasonably call the time between 1989 and 1994 the Dark Ages of Interactive Fiction. It was only in 1995 that the lights were well and truly turned on again and the Interactive Fiction Renaissance began in earnest. This was the point when a number of percolating trends — the evolving TADS and Inform programming languages, the new generation of Z-Machine interpreters, the serious discussions of design craft taking place on Usenet — bore a sudden and rather shockingly verdant fruit. It became, one might say, Year One of the interactive-fiction community as we know it today.

The year is destined always to be remembered most of all for the very first Interactive Fiction Competition, better known as simply the “IF Comp” to its friends. Its influence on the design direction of what used to be called text adventures would soon become as undeniable as it was unwelcome in the eyes of some ultra-traditionalists: its guidance that entries should be finishable in two hours or so led in the course of things to an interest in depth in place of breadth, in literary and formal experimentation in place of the “gamier” pleasures of point-scoring and map-making.

But the Comp’s influence would take time to make itself known. This first edition of it, organized by an early community pillar named G. Kevin Wilson, was a relatively modest affair, with just twelve entries, six in each of the two categories into which it was divided: one for TADS games, one for Inform games. (This division would fall by the wayside in future Comps.) The entries did prefigure some of the self-referential experimentation to come: Undo by Neil deMause placed you at the very end of a (deliberately) broken, corrupted game and expected you to muddle your way to victory; Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents Detective by C.E. Forman made somewhat mean-spirited, television-inspired fun of a really, really bad game released a few years earlier by a twelve-year-old author; The Magic Toyshop by Gareth Rees took place all in one room, thus becoming the perfect treat for mapping haters. Yet in my opinion none of these games join the ranks of the year’s very best works.

In retrospect, the lineup of games in that first Comp is perhaps most notable for becoming the venue for the first polished work of interactive fiction by Andrew Plotkin; his influence on the future direction of the community, in terms of both aesthetics and technology, would be comparable only to that of Mike Roberts and Graham Nelson among the figures we’ve already met in previous articles. But his A Change in the Weather, a punishingly difficult meta-puzzle of a game which one couldn’t hope to solve without many replays, stands as a fairly minor entry in his impressive oeuvre today, despite winning the Inform category of that first Comp.

So, I’d like to reserve any more discussion of this and subsequent IF Comps for future articles, and focus today on what I consider to be the real standout text adventures of 1995, of which there are a gratifying number. The games below evince no concern whatsoever about keeping their playing time down to a couple of hours. On the contrary: all of the games that follow are big enough that Infocom could conceivably have released them, while at least one or two of them are actually bigger than Infocom’s technology could possibly have allowed. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that works like these are my personal sweet spot for interactive fiction: big, puzzly works which are well-written but which aren’t afraid to be games — albeit games which incorporate the design lessons of those pioneers that came before them. Neo-classical interactive fiction, if you will. (Yes, I’m aware that we’ve jumped from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism with dizzying speed. Such is life when you’re making broad — overly broad? — historical metaphors.) If your preferences are anything like mine, the games that follow will be heaven for you.

In fact, let me close this introduction with something of a personal plea. I’ve noticed a reluctance on the part of many diehard Infocom fans to give what came afterward a fair shake. I do understand that nostalgia is a big part of the reason people read sites like this one and play the games that are featured here, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Although I do try very hard to keep nostalgia out of my own game criticism, I firmly believe that no reason to play a game is ever a wrong one, as long as you’re enjoying yourself. And yet I also believe, and with equal firmness, that the games you’ll find below aren’t just as good as those of Infocom: in a lot of ways, they’re superior. There’s nothing postmodern or pretentious or precious here (all of these being labels I’ve heard applied to other strands of post-Infocom interactive fiction as a reason for not engaging with it), just good clean old-school fun, generally absent the worst old-school annoyances. Please do consider giving one or more of these games a try, if you happen to be a fan of Infocom who hasn’t yet explored what came afterward. Nostalgia is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to make new memories.


Christminster

You haven't seen your brother Malcolm since he received his fellowship at Biblioll College - pressure of work was his excuse not to come down to London. So when you received that telegram from him you leapt at the excuse to come up to the university town of Christminster for the day and visit him.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Gareth Rees’s “interactive conspiracy” Christminster as a sort of Curses-lite. It shares with Graham Nelson’s epic a droll, very English prose style, an arch sense of humor, and a casual erudition manifested in a love of literary quotations and classical references. Indeed, the connections between the games go deeper still: Graham and Gareth were not only both Oxbridge academics but friends who helped one another out creatively and technically. If you spend enough time poking around in Christminster‘s library, you’ll discover that their games apparently belong to the same universe, when you uncover numerous references to the Meldrew family of Curses fame. But going too far with this line of description is doing Christminster a disservice. It may be smaller than Curses — to be fair, very few games aren’t — but it’s plenty rich in its own right, whilst being vastly more soluble by a reasonably motivated person in a reasonable amount of time.

Christminster takes place in the fictional English university town of the same name, but is obviously drawn to a large extent from the author’s lived experience.[1]For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Professor Bungay,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a history undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.” The time in which it occurs is kept deliberately vague; I vote for the 1950s, but one could almost equally opt for any point within a few decades to either side of that one. You play Christabel, a prim young lady who’s come up to Christminster to visit her brother Malcolm. But she soon discovers that he’s nowhere to be found, and that a shadowy occult enterprise seems to be afoot within his college’s ivy-covered walls. And so the hunt is on to find out what’s become of him and who is responsible.

None of this need be taken overly seriously. The game’s milieu of bumbling, slightly cracked old dons comes straight from the pages of Waugh, Amis, and Wodehouse, while its gloriously contrived central mystery would doubtless have pleased Agatha Christie. Thankfully, Christminster runs on plot time rather than clock time: the story evolves in response to your progress rather than placing you in thrall to some inexorable turn counter, in the way of the polarizing early Infocom mysteries. This leaves plenty of time to poke at every nook and cranny of the musty old campus and to enjoy some ingenious puzzles. In a few places, the design does show its age; the very first puzzle of the game is one of the very hardest, leaving you trapped outside of the college’s walls with nothing to do until you solve it — not exactly the most welcoming opening! But by all means do try to carry on, as the English like to say. If you do, you might just find Christminster to be one of the best cozy mysteries you’ll ever play.


John’s Fire Witch

It’s a cold weekend in December of 1990, and it’s been far too long since you have seen your friend John Baker! But you’ve finally managed to take some time out of your schedule to drive to Columbus and spend some “quality time” together. Quality time, of course, means that you and he are going to sample every bar that Ohio State University’s High Street has to offer.

John was to meet you at a favorite pizza and beer spot to start off the evening, but he hasn’t showed up. John’s always been rather spontaneous (read that as ‘erratic’), so you think he’ll show up eventually. But as the night wears on and you tire of downing beers by yourself, you decide to drive to his place and see if he’s left a note or something for you there.

You find his front door unlocked and John nowhere to be found. Pretty tired from your earlier drive, and also buzzing a bit from the beer you drank, you quickly doze off in the living room.

It is now morning. A terrible snow storm is raging outside, the worst you’ve ever seen. You can’t believe how much snow has piled up over the night. You still haven’t heard from John, and you seem to now be trapped in his apartment.

John’s Fire Witch by John Baker is an example of what we used to call “snack-sized interactive fiction” back in the day. Although the shortest game featured in this collection of reviews, it would be considered medium-sized today, with a typical play time in the range of two to five hours — i.e., not much if any shorter than, say, Infocom’s The Witness.

But no self-respecting member of the interactive-fiction literati would dare to release a game that opens like this one today. Waking up in your slovenly friend’s apartment is just one step removed from that ultimate in text-adventure clichés: the game that starts in your — or rather the author’s — bedroom. Make that half a step removed: note that the guy whose apartment you wake up in and the author of this game are the same person. “John, like many IF characters,” wrote David Welbourn in an online play-through of the game, “seems to live in a pigsty and eat nothing but snow.”

So, John’s Fire Witch is willfully unambitious; all it wants to do is entertain you for a few hours. Poking around your vanished friend’s apartment, you discover that he’s gotten himself caught up in a metaphysical struggle between an “ice wizard” and a “fire witch.” It’s up to you to rescue him by completing a number of unlikely tasks, such as collecting a handy grab bag of the seven deadly sins for a certain pitchfork-wielding character who dwells in the Down Below. (Luckily, good old John tends to partake in just about all of them on a regular basis, so his apartment makes a pretty good hunting ground.)

For two and a half decades now, critics like me have been intermittently trying to explain why John’s Fire Witch succeeds in being so appealing almost in spite of itself. Its prose treads that fine line between breezy and tossed-off, its thematic aspirations are non-existent, its puzzles are enjoyable but never breathtaking. In the end, maybe it just comes down to being good company. Its author’s personality comes through in droves, and you can’t help but like him. Beyond that… well, if it it never does anything all that amazingly great, it never does anything all that egregiously wrong either.

The real John Baker disappeared without a trace after making this modest little game — good luck Googling that name! — leaving it behind as his only interactive-fiction legacy. He tells us that he’d like his players to send him $6, for lunch: “My favorite lunch is a soup & sandwich combo at a restaurant on Sawmill Road.” I for one would be happy to pay. Just drop me a line, John.


Lethe Flow Phoenix

A cool wind whips across the peak you stand on, sending tiny dust-devils whirling about your feet. The stars above you seem especially bright tonight, their silver light reaching across generations to speak to you. It is midnight, the hour of magic. The moon is not in sight tonight. All is still. All is waiting.

Perhaps it was a mistake to come and camp out here on this night. Not something you could have predicted in advance, of course, but still ... perhaps it was a little foolish. All Hallows’ Eve is not the most auspicious of nights. Still, you packed your bags up, tossed them next to the one-man tent in your trunk, and drove out here to spend a few days and get your life sorted out.

You were awakened in the middle of the night by something. You weren’t quite sure what, but you could tell something was wrong when you woke up. The desert was too quiet, too dark ... too eager. Like a sleep walker, you stumbled to the cliff nearby. You stood for a minute, catching your breath, and looked around. Behind you, at the other end of the shaky dirt trail, your car and tent wait patiently for your return. In other directions, you have a wide-open view of the desert, and can see it stretches in all directions, until it touches the feet of the mountains. The missing moon, curiously, does not concern you, nor does the fact that you can see as well now as if it were there.

You absentmindedly take another step forwards. If possible, the night becomes even more quiet, and the stars even brighter. Another step, and then another. You stand silently at the very edge of the cliff, looking outwards.

Then the ground gives way. “I’ve gone too far,” you think, almost casually. Not even screaming, you fall from the edge of the cliff.

***


There is a sudden sense of a presence around you as you fall. When you are rescued in mid-air, the event seems almost natural – bluesilver wings surround you, feathers caress you, and merciful darkness embraces you.

***

You awaken, and find yourself in a grassy field. The sun is shining brightly overhead, and a brook babbles gently as it flows along. A small tree grows in the center of the field, its branches ripe with apples.

If John Fire’s Witch is the My Stupid Apartment sub-genre of interactive fiction elevated to a weirdly sublime pitch, then Dan Shiovitz’s Lethe Flow Phoenix does the same for another hackneyed perennial of the post-commercial era: the Deeply Meaningful Exploration of the Subconscious. One always seems to find one or two games of this stripe, generally the products of younger scribes whose earnestness is almost painfully palpable, sloshing about in the lower rungs of any given IF Comp. Alas, their attempts to reveal inner truths through surrealistic imagery tend to come off as more banal than profound — rather like reading the diary of that angst-ridden fifteen-year-old so many of us used to be.

Dan Shiovitz was himself a fairly young man when he wrote Lethe Flow Phoenix, a game whose labored Latinate title doesn’t appear to bode well. Yet it turns out to be far better than one would ever dare to hope. Shiovitz has a knack for devising and describing beautifully twisted landscapes, through which he then proceeds to thread a series of deviously satisfying puzzles. At times, this game almost plays like a textual version of Myst, with much the same atmosphere of stately desolation and the same style of otherworldly but oddly logical dilemmas to overcome.

And then, around the halfway point, Lethe Flow Phoenix turns into something else entirely. Shiovitz provides an explanation for his protagonist’s personal problems, and it’s not at all what you might expect. I hesitate to say too much more here, but will go so far as to reveal that aliens from outer space — as opposed to just alienated humans — suddenly come into the picture. Again, this development should be disastrous, but somehow it works. The game manages to maintain your interest right up to its happy ending.

Dan Shovitz went on to write several other text adventures after this one, perhaps most notably Bad Machine, an exploration of the frontiers of language sufficient to set any postmodern linguistic theorist’s heart aflutter. But even that experimental masterstroke shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow this early piece of work. Yes, the author of Lethe Flow Phoenix is clearly a young man, but this particular young man is also an observant, talented writer. His protagonist’s final redemption is genuinely moving, the journey to that point satisfying on several levels. Lethe Flow Phoenix pairs heart with craftsmanship, and the results are pretty great.


The Light: Shelby’s Addendum

A strangeness has fallen. You first became aware of it with the darkening of the skies: the majestic, threatening storm clouds that seemed on the verge of deluging the earth in a torrent, yet hung motionless, impatient, as though awaiting further instructions from some unseen and malignant higher power. Of course Holcroft had on many occasions disproved to you the existence of such higher beings with his charts and calculations, and you do not believe in such foolishness as ghosts, gods and goblins, but events such as those unfolding before you now are causing you to question all that you have learned.

First the clouds, then the sudden silence of the birdsong, and the people. Where were the people? The village was deserted as you passed through. Not a soul to be seen. You knew you had to alert Barclay and Holcroft that something was terribly wrong with the balance of things, but before you had reached even the main gate an impenetrable mist had rolled in from below the cliffs and obscured the path to the lighthouse.

You decided to wait in the drum shed until the mist had lifted, rather than risk life and limb on the cliff walk, but you were weary from your journey and fell into a deep sleep. When you awoke it was near nightfall. The mist had barely dissipated, but your task was too important, so you took your chances on the cliff walk regardless. It was so dark. Why hadn’t Barclay or Holcroft lit the beacon? In the two years since beginning your apprenticeship you had never known the Regulators to neglect their duties. On the contrary, you found them to be slavishly by the book. “Routine begets knowledge,” Barclay once told you. (He had obviously never cleaned the septic tank every month for two straight years).

When, at last, you reached the courtyard entrance, something even stranger happened. You began to feel suddenly and inexplicably weak, as though the very life were being drawn from your bones. You had eaten well on the train journey from the Commission’s headquarters in the capital city, and passed your last physical with glowing colors, yet you felt as though you were at death’s door.

You had to see Holcroft. He, perhaps, could explain....

Colm McCarthy’s The Light: Shelby’s Addendum is another game that’s better than its ambiguously pretentious name. You play the eponymous Shelby, a junior — very junior — apprentice in a lonely lighthouse that provides more than just illumination: its beam maintains a delicate balance between our reality and other, alternate planes of existence. The hows and wherefores of its functioning are never explained all that well; ditto just when and where this story is supposed to be taking place. (We’re definitely on the Earth, probably in the near future, but is this our Earth or an alternate Earth?) In the end, the vagueness matters not a whit. A more thorough explanation would only interfere with the game’s atmosphere of mysterious Lovecraftian dread. You can almost smell the fetid seaside air as you play.

As the game opens, you’re returning to your post from a much-deserved holiday, only to find the lighthouse and even the village near it devoid of their usual inhabitants. Worse, the beacon itself has gone haywire, and the multiverse is slipping out of harmony as a result, producing unsettling effects all around you. Exploring the environs, you turn up evidence of the all-too-human disputes that gave rise to this slow-moving cosmic disaster. It looks like you are the only one who can correct the fault in our stars.

A big, lavish game, carefully written and implemented in most ways, The Light does from time to time trade in its polished personality for a more ramshackle old-school feel. If you don’t solve a pivotal puzzle within the first 100 turns — and you almost certainly won’t the first time through — it’s game over, thanks for playing. And there’s a mid-game submarine ride where the atmosphere suddenly changes from Lovecraftian dread to a scene straight out of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Like most reviewers, I can only shake my head at this bit’s existence and wonder what the heck McCarthy was thinking.

Still, such breakdowns are very much the exception to the rule here. I’m nonplussed by some reviewers’ struggles with the puzzles; I solved the entire game without a hint, a feat which I’m happy to consider a testament to good design rather than any genius on my part. I’m kind of bummed that the sequel Colm McCarthy promises us in his denouement has never materialized. I’d love to know whether poor Shelby finally got a promotion after saving the multiverse and all.


Theatre

Another day, another dollar! Life is good at the moment, the property market is booming. Still, it does have its down side; when showing those Mulluer Corporation executives around that old theatre dump, err, opportunity you must have left your pager down in the basement. Better hurry, you have to meet the others at the opera in an hour, and be careful. It wouldn’t do to show up with your clothes all dirty.

Brendon Wyber’s “interactive night of horror” Theatre does us the favor of including its inspiration right in the game itself. As Wyber writes in his introduction, he made Theatre after reading an allegedly true haunted-house story by Joel Furr, one of the early Internet’s more prominent online characters, whose claims to fame include popularizing the term “spam.” Furr’s story, which is readable in its entirety via an in-game menu, is riveting whether you choose to go on to play said game itself or not. It involves the Lyric Theatre of Blacksburg, Virginia, a rambling old place stemming from 1930 that has been restored and is enjoying a new lease on life today, but was at its lowest ebb when Furr made its acquaintance in the early 1990s. As a Kiwi, Wyber had never been to the Lyric, yet that didn’t stop him from using Furr’s description of it as the basis for the setting if not the plot of his game.

You play a yuppie real-estate agent who rushes back inside the old theater he’s trying to unload to retrieve his forgotten pager — this is the 1990s, after all! — only to emerge again to find his car stolen. Rather than venturing out into the seedy neighborhood around the theater on foot, you opt to spend the night inside. Let the haunting begin…

Our frustrations with the medium understandably cause us to spend a lot of time talking about the things that textual interactive fiction, and adventure games in general for that matter, struggle to do well. For better or for worse, we tend to spend less time on the medium’s natural strengths. I’ll just note here, then, that setting must top any list of same. All of the games I’ve featured in this piece make this point, but none do it better than this one. Its name is no misnomer: the theater truly is this game’s main attraction. Its geography expands slowly and organically as you solve puzzles to open up new areas; there’s always some new cranny or crawlspace to uncover in the building, always some new aspect of its sinister history to bring to light. And it’s a fresh spine-shivering delight every time you do.

Before you become a full-fledged participant in the proceedings, you learn about the horror story at the center of it all through the journal pages you discover as you worm your way deeper and deeper into the theater’s bowels, deeper and deeper into its past. I must say that I like the first two-thirds of the game best, when it has a Gothic flavor in complete harmony with Joel Furr’s story. In time, however, it goes full Lovecraft, and not even in the relatively understated way of The Light. Still, one can’t accuse Wyber of pulling any punches; the big climax is as exciting as you could ask for.

Through it all, the real star remains the theater itself, whose faded elegance and delicious decay will remain with you long after you’ve exorcised the malevolent spirits that roam its spaces. You might want to save this one for Halloween.


Jigsaw

New Year's Eve, 1999, a quarter to midnight and where else to be but Century Park! Fireworks cascade across the sky, your stomach rumbles uneasily, music and lasers howl across the parkland... Not exactly your ideal party (especially as that rather attractive stranger in black has slipped back into the crowds) - but cheer up, you won't live to see the next.

As the follow-up to his two-year-old Curses, Graham Nelson’s “interactive history” Jigsaw was the most hotly anticipated text adventure of 1995. This game is even bigger than Curses — so big that Nelson had to employ a new, post-Infocom incarnation of the Z-Machine, a version 8 standard with the ability to handle story files of up to 512 K in size, in order to run the full version.[2]Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file. Although it will never be able to compete with its predecessor in terms of its importance to the history of its medium, in this critic’s opinion Jigsaw is the more accessible and enjoyable of the two games to play today.

It definitely doesn’t lack for ambition. Written just as millennial jitters were beginning to find a home in the minds of many of us, it’s a time-travel caper focusing on the horrible, magnificent century that was about to pass away, ranging in time and space from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the day of the Wright brothers’ first flight to Berlin on the day the Wall came down. The principal antagonist and possible love interest — a timeline-wrecking “rather attractive stranger” of indeterminate gender, whom the game refers to only as “Black” after his or her choice of wardrobe — is misguided rather than evil, attempting to alleviate some of the century’s many injustices rather than bring on any apocalypse. But such retroactive changes are out of our mortal purview, of course, and can only lead to worse tragedies. “The time is out of joint,” as Hamlet said. Now, it’s up to you to set it right.

The amount of research required for the game’s fourteen historical vignettes was considerable to say the least — and that before a universe of information was only a visit to Wikipedia away, when one still had to go to brick-and-mortar libraries with printed encyclopedias on their shelves. Nelson doesn’t always get every detail correct: I could nitpick that the Titanic was actually not the first ship in history to send an SOS distress signal, for example, or note that his depiction of the Beatles of 1967 (“lurching wildly from one project to the next, hardly collaborating, always arguing”) seems displaced in time by at least a year.[3]Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on… Likewise, he’s sometimes a bit too eager to place ironic twists on the things we learned in our grade-school history classes. In light of what Nelson took on here, though, we can forgive him for all of this. He does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of each historical event. I also appreciate that his choices of historical linchpins aren’t always the obvious ones. For every voyage aboard a Titanic, there’s a visit to the cork-lined Parisian flat of Marcel Proust; for every trip to the Moon, there’s a sojourn in the filthy and disorganized laboratory of Alexander Fleming, the luckiest microbiologist who ever lived.

The episodic structure keeps Jigsaw manageable despite its overall sprawl, in marked contrast to Curses. Nelson, who had been thinking and writing seriously about design since his first game, went so far as to include a helpful little gadget which can alert you as to whether you’re leaving behind anything vital in each time period. Meanwhile the puzzles themselves are never less than solid, and are often inspired. One of them, in which you must decode a secret message using an only slightly simplified example of the German Enigma machines from the Second World War, has justly gone down in interactive-fiction lore as one of the best ever. Like so much of Jigsaw, it teaches even as it intrigues and entertains. I missed an important clue when I played through the game recently, which made this particular puzzle much harder than it was supposed to be. No worries — I enjoyed my two or three hours as a member of Alan Turing’s legendary team immensely, and positively jumped for joy when I finally produced a clear, cogent message from a meaningless scramble of letters.

My one real design complaint is the endgame, which takes place in a surreal fantasy landscape of the sort we’ve seen in too many other adventure games already. It feels both extraneous and thoroughly out of keeping with what has come before — and too darn hard to boot. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: by the time an adventurer reaches the endgame, especially of a work of this size, she just wants to be made to feel smart once or twice more and then to win. The designer’s job is to oblige her rather than to try to make himself feel smart. I must confess that I broke down and used hints for the endgame of Jigsaw, after solving the entirety of the rest of the game all by myself.

But the frustration of the endgame pales before the other delights on offer here. Nelson would never attempt a game of this size and scope again, making Jigsaw only that much more worth cherishing. Curses may be his most important game, but by my lights Jigsaw is his masterpiece.

Bonus:

Graham Nelson on Jigsaw


Curses had been written under the spell of the great cave games – Colossal Cave, Zork, Acheton. Games delving into a miscellany of doors, light puzzles, collection puzzles, and the like. Games written incrementally which ended up with epic, sprawling maps, but which started out only as entertainments written for friends. Each of those things is true about Curses as well.

But not Jigsaw. Once again Gareth Rees and Richard Tucker were the playtesters and de-facto editors, and the two games were recognisably from the same stable. There are many similarities, even down to having a one-word title, which I liked because it meant that the filename on an FTP server would likely be the whole title. It was always going to be a Z-machine story file once again, written with Inform. And it was playable under the same .z5 format as Curses, though I also offered a sort of director’s cut version with some extra annotation using the new .z8 format. (This was a sneaky way to try to persuade interpreter-writers to adopt .z8, which I worried people might think bogus and non-canonical, and so would not implement.)

Unlike Curses, though, Jigsaw was conceived holistically, had a rigorous plan, and was meant for the public rather than for friends. I set out to make the sort of rounded cultural artefact which middle-period Infocom might have offered — Dave Lebling’s Spellbreaker and Brian Moriarty’s Trinity are the obvious antecedents, but not the only ones. (Let me also praise Mike Dornbrook here, who was instrumental in making those games into clearly delineated works.) Those mature works of Infocom were satisfying to start, and satisfying to finish, and distinctive from each other. Infocom wasn’t big on historical settings (a shame that Stu Galley never completed his draft about the Boston of 1776), but in presentation, Jigsaw wouldn’t look out of place in their catalogue. In that sense, it’s rather derivative, even imitative, but this wasn’t seen as an eccentric or retro choice at the time; more of a mark of quality. But in any case, Jigsaw had other ambitions as well, and it’s on those other ambitions that it stands or falls.

Jigsaw strains to be a work of art, and though the strain shows from time to time, I think it mostly gets there. There are little embedded prose poems, generally at hinges in the story. Certain images – the nightjar, for example – are suggestive rather than explicated. There is also something a little poetic — and here I’m perhaps thinking more of the modernism of Ezra Pound’s cantos than of his more famous friend Eliot — about the interleaving of old formulations, old turns of speech. Jigsaw plays on the tantalising way that past times were so confident at being themselves. Nobody using an Apollo Guidance Computer thought of it as twee or retro. And you could say the same about a tram-ticket or a gas lamp, things that people used without a second thought. We have absolute confidence only about our own present moment, while the past seems hazy and uncertain. But the people who lived in that past felt exactly the same about their own present moments. For historical fiction to work, it has to side with them, not with us.

And on the other hand, while it is a modernist impulse to clash the old and the new, it’s a Romantic one to re-enact the old, to imaginatively take part in it. I’ve always liked the biographer Richard Holmes’s observation that to write a biography is an inherently Romantic act.

As I wrote Jigsaw in 1995, the twentieth century was coming to a relatively placid end — I hope anyone caught up in the Yugoslav civil wars will forgive me writing that. It was zeitgeisty to see the story of the age as being mostly done, even with a few years still to go. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992) was less sceptically received at the time than its later reputation might suggest. People were already gathering and tidying up the twentieth century. So I wasn’t the only one to jump the gun in writing about it.

Jigsaw has a classical IF structure, with a prologue, a middle game, and an end game. Less conventionally, a form of the end game – an area called “The Land” – is seen in a ghostly way throughout, while the middle game is divided into a grid of what amount to mini-games. Notably, these have named chapter headings.

The prologue takes place on the final night of 1999, on the margins of a public festival. I anticipated an event at a London park, and that was indeed the English response, though it turned out to be the ultra-modern Millennium Dome at Greenwich (begun in 1997) and not my more Victorian-sounding “Century Park”. The setting has something of the flavour of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but in fact I semi-lifted it from an episode of Charles Chilton’s iconic BBC radio serial Journey into Space. That involved an enigmatic character named Whittaker who had been taken out of normally-running time in 1924 from a London park celebration (“There are special trains from Baker Street”). Other than scene-setting, the prologue’s goal is to make the complex jigsaw mechanism comprehensible. It’s a familiar IF travel-around-the-map mechanism, with the puzzle pieces serving as objects of desire which unlock further play. But at the same time, it is also the game’s organising metaphor. So these mechanics have to seem natural and fun to players. Getting the textual display and command verbs right was a major concern in early play-testing.

With prologue out of the way, we enter the past. Jigsaw claims in its banner to be “an interactive history”, which is awfully bold of it. As we’ve already established, it’s a work of fantasy. But perhaps the claim to be “a history” can just about be made. Attempts to define what that even means — cf. E. H. Carr, “What Is History?”; Richard Evans, “In Defence of History” — end up devoting much of their space just to enumerating lines of approach, after all. Mine is odder than most, but less odd than some. At its crudest, the historian’s choice is between asking “who took what decisions?” and asking “what was life like?”. Is 19th-century Europe the story of Napoleon and Bismarck and Garibaldi, who started wars and redrew maps, or is all of that froth compared to railways, manufacturing, anesthetics, and newspapers? Jigsaw goes the second way, with Lenin being I think the only world leader seen close up.

The Titanic sequence, the first one I wrote, is the one I would now leave out. Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their places, and history wasn’t much dented. Perhaps it left a greater sense of possible catastrophe in the popular imagination, but the Sarajevo 1914 sequence makes that point better anyway. Besides, having an accidental time traveller arrive on the Titanic is a very hackneyed plot device. (I’ve just been dismayed to find from Wikipedia that it’s even the pilot episode plot of Irwin Allen’s spangly TV show The Time Tunnel.) Still, the ocean liner was fun to recreate as a period piece. The bit where a passenger says, “Never mind, worse things happen at sea,” is my favourite joke in the whole game. And researching this did lead to one happy accident. Going through a heap of books and pamphlets in the Bodleian Library, I chanced on something I remembered from somewhere else, and this led to a short paper in the literary-discoveries journal Notes & Queries. That squib of a paper is still occasionally cited, and I was amused to see “Nelson, Graham” back to back with “Nietzsche, Friedrich” in the bibliography of a monograph as a result.

A better choice was the Apollo programme. The lunar module was controlled using VERB and NOUN commands, which made it pleasingly IF-sounding: why not send the player to the moon? I also wanted to have something about the mid-century zenith of big-state action — a world in which Kennedy could just decide that the United States would do something immense, and it would happen. (The Manhattan Project is another example, but Trinity had already done that.) Another take on Apollo would be that it changed our sensibility, forcing us to see ourselves from the outside. The cover art for Jigsaw is the Apollo 8 shot of the earth rising from lunar orbit, maybe the most reproduced photo of the century. But I also tried to evoke Apollo’s troubling sense of abandonment. First steps were last steps. The century’s most powerful civilisation did something astonishing and then just lost interest. To me, the question about the Pyramids is not why the pharaohs built them, but why they stopped.

In fact, even as I wrote, Apollo’s posthumous reputation was beginning a slow comeback. A new generation of geeks devoured Andrew Chaikin’s landmark book A Man on the Moon (1994). Also, the Internet had arrived. In 1995, Eric Jones’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal became an extremely useful website. I corresponded a little with Eric at the time; he was, tellingly, having trouble finding a publisher. But thanks to his work, the Apollo sequence of Jigsaw — whatever its fantastical additions — is quite true to the actual Taurus-Littrow valley of the moon, and not a grey abstraction.

Fourteen historical vignettes is too many. It was hard to do much in so few rooms and items each, especially as they had to be playable in multiple orders. A fundamentally un-cave-like quality of Jigsaw is that you can’t wander about from era to era, and it is only rarely that something in one era is helpful in another. (Even then, alternative solutions are sometimes provided.) But I worried that the lack of space made these mini-games too easy, and over-compensated with highly convoluted device-based puzzles. Fly your very own B-52! I truly repent of how difficult that sequence is to play.

A happier example was the Enigma machine. I’ve used one in real life, encoding a very short message on a surviving Enigma which belongs to the science writer Simon Singh. Still, this section was really based on the oral histories of Bletchley Park edited by Hinsley and Stripp in 1993; accounts which, a bit madly, had only just been declassified. I imbibed some of the recherché jargon of the codebreakers, who lived in a strangely appealing world of their own. I was very taken with the vulnerability of Enigma, caused by the frequent presence of double letters in German words. One of the myths of Bletchley was that the invention of the computer flat-out defeated Enigma, as if you just had to press a button. It would be fairer to say that the computer made breaking the code just on the edge of what was possible. A certain cunning was still needed, and luck as well. They found ways to make their own luck, but there were also terrible periods when they failed, and when many sailors went to the bottom of the Atlantic as a result. My grandfather served on two Royal Navy convoys to Murmansk, and he was fortunate that those coincided with a good run at Bletchley, though he never knew it. That, and the thought that I might have been there myself if I had been an Oxford maths post-doc in 1942 rather than 1995, made this vignette more personal to me.

Fourteen vignettes is also too few. I chose Marcel Proust and the Beatles as my artists of the century, for example, and with them I had used up the entire space available for cultural history. My fourteen moments have to spread themselves very thinly over a lot of ground, and there is clearly no single or perfect solution to this. Still, Jigsaw has a clear Western bias. I probably should have chosen the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Africa appears only tangentially, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, which has to stand for the whole of postcolonialism. Even then, my main inspiration was Christopher Hampton’s autobiographical play White Chameleon, and Hampton is British. China does not appear at all, which from a 21st-century viewpoint seems very jarring. From the vantage point of 2021, civil rights also look pretty salient, but in 1995 it did not seem that way: the movement for women’s suffrage is all you get. Why no M.L.K.? That now seems very odd, except that I had plenty of the 1960s already. Some potential topics were also dropped just for lack of puzzles about them, or because they didn’t really fit anywhere. Though I don’t know to what extent players were ever aware of it, the connection points on the jigsaw pieces tried to suggest thematic links. The Wright brothers to Apollo, and so on.

Another consideration was, for want of a better word, taste. Fascism seemed mostly done in 1995, but it had clearly been a big part of the story. It isn’t a big part of Jigsaw because, in the end, is there any ethical way to recreate the experience of being massacred for no reason? The Holocaust does have a presence in Jigsaw, but very indirectly. Buried somewhere is a little anecdote about a young Jewish boy in Berlin in the 1930s, who had picked up a shiny badge in the street with no understanding that it was Nazi regalia which he could be killed just for touching – one of the few moments in Jigsaw told to me by an eye-witness, the boy himself, who survived to be a retired professor. What I really did not want to do was to recreate a version of Auschwitz which came with an escape hatch. And then of course Vietnam, Cambodia, the genocide of the Armenian Turks, Kosovo, Rwanda, you name it. Quite the charnal house we made for ourselves, you have to say. In a room of the end game which, if memory serves, was called the Toll Gate, there is a cumulative graph of humans deliberately killed, plotted against time. This graph surges at the World Wars but it certainly isn’t flat in between them.

There are a few other grim moments like that in the endgame, too. The endgame is the strangest part of Jigsaw and probably the least successful. But here’s what I think I was trying for. The Land does partly bring in concerns not tied to specific moments – pollution, for example, though not global warming, which we were all cheerfully ignoring in 1995. (But not now, right? Right?) At the same time, I didn’t want bleakness to dominate, and I wanted to end on brighter, more fantastical colours. There is supposed to be a sort of Eden-like rebirth as another century is coming, with this endgame area as the Garden of that Eden. Underlying all of history, but often invisible from it, there is always the goodness of the world, our one place of happiness. The chapter title for the endgame is “The Living Land”, and it’s about life in opposition to death.

But it is also too fiddly and is not the enjoyable romp I intended it to be. I don’t like the self-indulgent references to past IF games: what are they even for? The extent of the Land was a more understandable mistake — it’s because of the structural obsession of Jigsaw with its key mechanic. Rooms in The Land correspond to the original pieces, but that meant having quite a lot of them, which in turn meant padding out this space with puzzles. In fact, the endgame is so long that it has a little endgame of its own, taking us back to Century Park. But that was absolutely the right way to end. When you are composing a set of variations, finish on a da capo repetition of the original theme.

Finally, whereas Curses has no significant characters other than the protagonist, in Jigsaw the player has a significant other, called Black. In timecop sci-fi novels, the hero generally does battle with a rival time traveller. One tries to rewrite history, the other to keep it on track. Well, that is basically the situation here. Emphasising this, Black is a symbolic and non-human sort of name: White’s opponent in a game. (The Apollo lunar lander shared with Black has the call-sign “Othello”, and this is a reference to the strategy game, not the Shakespeare play.) The neutral name Black also worked better for blurring gender than having to use contrived unisex forenames like Hilary, Pat, or Stevie.

In retrospect, this genderless romance is the main thing people remember about Jigsaw. I wouldn’t make much claim for the depth or solidity of that romantic subplot: but at least it was there, and was something you wouldn’t find in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys sort of milieu of most earlier IF. There is even, however glancingly, a presence of sex. That much was deliberate. But when I was writing, the absence of genders seemed just another narrative choice. I wanted a certain universalism, a sort of every-person quality to the player. And I didn’t want some sort of performative nonsense like the barroom scene at the start of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, where you demonstrate your gender by picking a bathroom, but have no way to demonstrate your orientation.

Anyway, this seemed like a statement only after publication, when I began to get rather touching emails from players. I think Jigsaw may have been quite widely played, and this was easily the aspect most responded to. Happy emails were often from women. I did also get a smaller amount of homophobic mail, and that was invariably from men, who reacted as if they’d been catfished.

We easily forget now that in 1995 gay relationships were socially invisible. There were no openly gay characters in The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or Star Trek: The Next Generation. A handful of New York sitcoms were just starting to go there, but for the most part, in popular culture, gay people existed as people with problems. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia in 1993, but it’s a movie about a closeted man with AIDS. Sleepless in Seattle, the same year, could easily have played some non-binary games with its two lovers, since they don’t meet until the very end. But it doesn’t. In the 1990s, romance in popular culture was almost exclusively straight. Nobody thought that odd at the time, and nor did I. I didn’t write a gay romance at all, I simply wrote a romance which was whatever you wanted to imagine it was. I would like to say that the gender games in Jigsaw were a nod to the gradual emancipation of love in the twentieth century. But that was the one thing about Jigsaw which was completely unplanned.

One of those emails I received was from the young Emily Short, though we did not meet for many years, and it was in another century that we married. History is full of surprises.


(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and are playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Professor Bungay,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a history undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.”
2 Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file.
3 Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on…
 
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Posted by on September 3, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Dig

As you would imagine, a lot of the things you can do in a comedy game just don’t work when trying to remain serious. You can’t cover up a bad puzzle with a funny line of self-referential dialog. Er, not that I ever did that. But anyway, it was also a challenge to maintain the tone and some semblance of a dramatic arc. Another challenge was cultural — we were trying to build this game in an environment where everyone else was building funny games, telling jokes, and being pretty outlandish. It was like trying to cram for a physics final during a dorm party. It would have been a lot easier to join the party.

— Sean Clark, fifth (and last) project lead on The Dig

On October 17, 1989, the senior staff of LucasArts[1]LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article. assembled in the Main House of Skywalker Ranch for one of their regular planning meetings. In the course of proceedings, Noah Falstein, a designer and programmer who had been with the studio almost from the beginning, learned that he was to be given stewardship of an exciting new project called The Dig, born from an idea for an adventure game that had been presented to LucasArts by none other than Steven Spielberg. Soon after that bit of business was taken care of, remembers Falstein, “we felt the room start to shake — not too unusual, we’d been through many earthquakes in California — but then suddenly it got much stronger, and we started to hear someone scream, and some glass crash to the floor somewhere, and most of us dived under the mahogany conference table to ride it out.” It was the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which would kill 63 people, seriously injure another 400, and do untold amounts of property damage all around Northern California.

Perhaps Falstein and his colleagues should have taken it as an omen. The Dig would turn into a slow-motion fiasco that crushed experienced game developers under its weight with the same assiduity with which the earthquake collapsed Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway. When a finished version of the game finally appeared on store shelves in late 1995, one rather ungenerous question would be hard to avoid asking: it took you six years to make this?



In order to tell the full story of The Dig, the most famously troubled project in the history of LucasArts, we have to wind the clock back yet further: all the way back to the mid-1980s, when Steven Spielberg was flying high on the strength of blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. During this period, many years before the advent of Prestige TV, Spielberg approached NBC with a proposal for a new anthology series named Amazing Stories, after the pulp magazine that had been such an incubator of printed science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. He would direct the occasional episode himself, he promised, but would mostly just throw out outlines which could be turned into reality by other screenwriters and directors. Among those willing to direct episodes were some of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood: people like Martin Scorsese, Irvin Kershner, Robert Zemeckis, and Clint Eastwood. Naturally, NBC was all over it; nowhere else on the television of the 1980s could you hope to see a roster of big-screen talent anything like that. The new series debuted with much hype on September 29, 1985.

But somehow it just never came together for Amazing Stories; right from the first episodes, the dominant reaction from both critics and the public was one of vague disappointment. Part of the problem was each episode’s running time of just half an hour, or 22 minutes once commercials and credits were factored in; there wasn’t much scope for story or character development in that paltry span of time. But another, even bigger problem was that what story and characters were there weren’t often all that interesting or original. Spielberg kept his promise to serve as the show’s idea man, personally providing the genesis of some 80 percent of the 45 episodes that were completed, but the outlines he tossed off were too often retreads of things that others had already done better. When he had an idea he really liked — such as the one about a group of miniature aliens who help the residents of an earthbound apartment block with their very earthbound problems — he tended to shop it elsewhere. The aforementioned idea, for example, led to the film Batteries Not Included.

The episode idea that would become the computer game The Dig after many torturous twists and turns was less original than that one. It involved a team of futuristic archaeologists digging in the ruins of what the audience would be led to assume was a lost alien civilization. Until, that is, the final shot set up the big reveal: the strange statue the archaeologists had been uncovering would be shown to be Mickey Mouse, while the enormous building behind it was the Sleeping Beauty Castle. They were digging at Disneyland, right here on Planet Earth!

The problem here was that we had seen all of this before, most notably at the end of Planet of the Apes, whose own climax had come when its own trio of astronauts stranded on its own apparently alien world had discovered the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand. Thus it was no great loss to posterity when this particular idea was judged too expensive for Amazing Stories to produce. But the core concept of archaeology in the future got stuck in Spielberg’s craw, to be trotted out again later in a very different context.

In the meantime, the show’s ratings were falling off quickly. As soon as the initial contract for two seasons had been fulfilled, Amazing Stories quietly disappeared from the airwaves. It became an object lesson that nothing is guaranteed in commercial media, not even Steven Spielberg’s Midas touch.

Fast-forward a couple of years, to when Spielberg was in the post-production phase of his latest cinematic blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which he was making in partnership with his good friend George Lucas. Noah Falstein of the latter’s very own games studio had been drafted to design an adventure game of the movie. Despite his lack of a games studio of his own, Spielberg was ironically far more personally interested in computer games than Lucas; he followed Falstein’s project quite closely, to the point of serving as a sort of unofficial beta tester. Even after the movie and game were released, Spielberg would ring up LucasArts from time to time to beg for hints for their other adventures, or sometimes just to shoot the breeze; he was clearly intrigued by the rapidly evolving world of interactive media. During one of these conversations, he said he had a concept whose origins dated back to Amazing Stories, one which he believed might work well as a game. And then he asked if he could bring it over to Skywalker Ranch. He didn’t have to ask twice.

The story that Spielberg outlined retained futuristic archaeology as its core motif, but wisely abandoned the clichéd reveal of Mickey Mouse. Instead the archaeologists would be on an actual alien planet, discovering impossibly advanced technology in what Spielberg conceived as an homage to the 1950s science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Over time, the individual archaeologists would come to distrust and eventually go to war with one another; this part of the plot hearkened back to another film that Spielberg loved, the classic Western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Over to you, Noah Falstein — after the unpleasant business of the earthquake was behind everybody, that is.

Noah Falstein

The offices of LucasArts were filled with young men who had grown up worshiping at the shrines of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and who now found themselves in the completely unexpected position of going to work every day at Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by the memorabilia of their gods and sometimes by the deities themselves. Their stories of divine contact are always entertaining, not least for the way that they tend to sound more like a plot from one of Spielberg’s films than any plausible reality; surely ordinary middle-class kids in the real world don’t just stumble into a job working for the mastermind of Star Wars, do they? Well, it turns out that in some cases they do. Dave Grossman, an aspiring LucasArts game designer at the time, was present at a follow-up meeting with Spielberg that also included Lucas, Falstein, and game designer Ron Gilbert of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island fame. His account so magnificently captures what it was like to be a starstruck youngster in those circumstances that I want to quote it in full here.

The Main House at Skywalker is a pretty swanky place, and the meeting is in a boardroom with a table the size of a railroad car, made of oak or mahogany or some other sort of expensive wood. I’m a fidgety young kid with clothes that come pre-wrinkled, and this room makes me feel about as out of place as a cigarette butt in a soufflé. I’m a little on edge just being in here.

Then George and Steven show up and we all say hello. Now, I’ve been playing it cool like it’s no big deal, and I know they’re just people who sneeze and drop forks like everybody else, but… it’s Lucas and Spielberg! These guys are famous and powerful and rich and, although they don’t act like any of those things, I’m totally intimidated. (I should mention that although I’ve been working for George for a year or so at this point, this is only the second time I’ve met him.) I realize I’m really fairly nervous now.

George and Steven chit-chat with each other for a little bit. They’ve been friends a long time and it shows. George seems particularly excited to tell Steven about his new car, an Acura I think – they’re not even available to the public yet, but he’s managed to get the first one off the boat, and it’s parked conspicuously right in front of the building.

Pretty soon they start talking about ideas for The Dig, and they are Rapid-Fire Machine Guns of Creativity. Clearly they do this a lot. It’s all very high-concept and all over the map, and I have no idea how we’re going to make any of it into a game, but that’s kind of what brainstorming sessions are all about. Ron and Noah offer up a few thoughts. I have a few myself, but somehow I don’t feel worthy enough to break in with them. So I sit and listen, and gradually my nervousness is joined by embarrassment that I’m not saying anything.

A snack has been provided for the gathering, some sort of crumbly carbohydrate item, corn bread, if I remember correctly. So I take a piece – I’m kind of hungry, and it gives me something to do with my hands. I take a bite. Normally, the food at Skywalker Ranch is absolutely amazing, but this particular corn bread has been made extra dry. Chalk dry. My mouth is already parched from being nervous, so it takes me a while before I’m able to swallow the bite, and as I chomp and smack at it I’m sure I’m making more noise than a dozen weasels in a paper bag, even though everyone pretends not to notice. There are drinks in the room, but they have been placed out of the way, approximately a quarter-mile from where we’re sitting, and I can’t get up to get one without disrupting everything, and I’m sure by now George and Steven are wondering why I’m in the meeting in the first place.

I want to abandon the corn bread, but it’s begun falling apart, and I can’t put it down on my tiny napkin without making a huge mess. So I eat the whole piece. It takes about twenty minutes. I myself am covered with tiny crumbs, but at least there aren’t any on the gorgeous table.

By now the stakes are quite high. Because I’ve been quiet so long, the mere fact of my speaking up will be a noteworthy event, and anything I say has to measure up to that noteworthiness. You can’t break a long silence with a throwaway comment, it has to be a weighty, breathtaking observation that causes each person in the room to re-examine himself in its light. While I’m waiting for a thought that good, more time goes by and raises the bar even higher. I spend the rest of the meeting in a state of near-total paralysis, trying to figure out how I can get out of the room without anyone noticing, or, better yet, how I can go back in time and arrange not to be there in the first place.

So, yes, I did technically get to meet Steven Spielberg face-to-face once while we were working on The Dig. I actually talked to him later on, when he called to get hints on one of our other games (I think it was Day of the Tentacle), which he was playing with his son. (One of the lesser-known perks of being a famous filmmaker is that you can talk directly to the game designers for hints instead of calling the hint line.) Nice guy.

The broader world of computer gaming’s reaction to Spielberg’s involvement in The Dig would parallel the behavior of Dave Grossman at this meeting. At the same time that some bold industry scribes were beginning to call games a more exciting medium than cinema, destined for even more popularity thanks to the special sauce of interactivity, the press that surrounded The Dig would point out with merciless clarity just how shallow their bravado was, how deep gaming’s inferiority complex really ran: Spielberg’s name was guaranteed to show up in the first paragraph of every advertisement, preview, or, eventually, review. “Steven Spielberg is deigning to show an interest in little old us!” ran the implicit message.

It must be said that the hype was somewhat out of proportion to his actual contribution. After providing the initial idea for the game — an idea that would be transformed beyond all recognition by the time the game was released — Spielberg continued to make himself available for occasional consultations; he met with Falstein and his colleagues for four brainstorming sessions, two of which also included his buddy George Lucas, over the course of about eighteen months. (Thanks no doubt to the prompting of his friend, Lucas’s own involvement with The Dig was as hands-on as he ever got with one of his games studio’s creations.) Yet it’s rather less clear whether these conversations were of much real, practical use to the developers down in the trenches. Neither Spielberg nor Lucas was, to state the obvious, a game designer, and thus they tended to focus on things that might yield watchable movies but were less helpful for making a playable game. Noah Falstein soon discovered that heading a project which involved two such high-profile figures was a less enviable role than he had envisioned it to be; he has since circumspectly described a project where “everyone wanted to put their two cents in, and that can be extremely hard to manage.”

In his quest for a game that could be implemented within the strictures of SCUMM, LucasArts’s in-house point-and-click adventure engine, Falstein whittled away at Spielberg’s idea of two teams of archaeologists who enter into open war with one another. His final design document, last updated on January 30, 1991, takes place in “the future, nearly 80 years since the McKillip Drive made faster-than-light travel a possibility, and only 50 years since the first star colonies were founded.” In another nod back to Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories outline that got the ball rolling, an unmanned probe has recently discovered an immense statue towering amidst other alien ruins on the surface of a heretofore unexplored planet; in a nod to the most famous poem by Percy Shelley, the planet has been named Ozymandias. Three humans have now come to Ozymandias to investigate the probe’s findings — but they’re no longer proper archaeologists, only opportunistic treasure hunters, led by a sketchy character named Major Tom (presumably a nod to David Bowie). The player can choose either of Major Tom’s two subordinates as her avatar.

A series of unfortunate events ensues shortly after the humans make their landing, over the course of which Major Tom is killed and their spaceship damaged beyond any obvious possibility of repair. The two survivors have an argument and go their separate ways, but in this version of the script theirs is a cold rather than a hot war. As the game goes on, the player discovers that a primitive race of aliens living amidst the ruins are in fact the descendants of far more advanced ancestors, who long ago destroyed their civilization and almost wiped out their entire species with internecine germ warfare. But, the player goes on to learn, there are survivors of both factions who fought the apocalyptic final war suspended in cryogenic sleep beneath the surface of the planet. Her ultimate goal becomes to awaken these survivors and negotiate a peace between them, both because it’s simply the right thing to do and because these aliens should have the knowledge and tools she needs to repair her damaged spaceship.

This image by Ken Macklin is one of the few pieces of concept art to have survived from Noah Falstein’s version of The Dig.

For better or for worse, this pared-down but still ambitious vision for The Dig never developed much beyond that final design document and a considerable amount of accompanying concept art. “There was a little bit of SCUMM programming done on one of the more interesting puzzles, but not much [more],” says Falstein. He was pulled off the project very early in 1991, assigned instead to help Hal Barwood with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. And when this, his second Indiana Jones game, was finished, he was laid off despite a long and largely exemplary track record.

Meanwhile The Dig spent a year or more in limbo, until it was passed to Brian Moriarty, the writer and designer of three games for the 1980s text-adventure giant Infocom and of LucasArts’s own lovely, lyrical Loom. Of late, he’d been drafting a plan for a game based on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the franchise’s slightly disappointing foray into television, but a lack of personal enthusiasm for the project had led to a frustrating lack of progress. Moriarty was known as one of the most “literary” of game designers by temperament; his old colleagues at Infocom had called him “Professor Moriarty,” more as a nod to his general disposition than to the milieu of Sherlock Holmes. And indeed, his Trinity is as close as Infocom ever got to publishing a work of high literature, while his Loom possesses almost an equally haunting beauty. Seeing himself with some justification as a genuine interactive auteur, he demanded total control of every aspect of The Dig as a condition of taking it on. Bowing to his stellar reputation, LucasArts’s management agreed.

Brian Moriarty

Much of of what went on during the eighteen months that Moriarty spent working on The Dig remains obscure, but it plainly turned into a very troubled, acrimonious project. He got off on the wrong foot with many on his team by summarily binning Falstein’s vision — a vision which they had liked or even in some cases actively contributed to. Instead he devised an entirely new framing plot.

Rather than the far future, The Dig would now take place in 1998; in fact, its beginning would prominently feature the Atlantis, a Space Shuttle that was currently being flown by NASA. A massive asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Humanity’s only hope is to meet it in space and plant a set of nuclear bombs on its surface. Once exploded, they will hopefully deflect the asteroid just enough to avoid the Earth. (The similarity with not one but two terrible 1998 movies is presumably coincidental.) You play Boston Low, the commander of the mission.

But carrying the mission out successfully and saving the Earth is only a prelude to the real plot. Once you have the leisure to explore the asteroid, you and your crew begin to discover a number of oddities about it, evidence that another form of intelligent being has been here before you. In the midst of your investigations, you set off a booby trap which whisks you and three other crew members light years away to a mysterious world littered with remnants of alien technology but bereft of any living specimens. Yet it’s certainly not bereft of danger: one crew member gets killed in gruesome fashion almost immediately when he bumbles into a rain of acid. Having thus established its bona fides as a serious story, a million light years away from the typical LucasArts cartoon comedy, the game now begins to show a closer resemblance to Falstein’s concept. You must explore this alien world, solve its puzzles, and ferret out the secrets of the civilization that once existed here if you ever hope to see Earth again. In doing so, you’re challenged not only by the environment itself but by bickering dissension in your own ranks.

This last element of the plot corresponded uncomfortably with the mood inside the project. LucasArts had now moved out of the idyllic environs of Skywalker Ranch and into a sprawling, anonymous office complex, where the designers and programmers working on The Dig found themselves in a completely separate building from the artists and administrators. Reading just slightly between the lines here, the root of the project’s troubles seems to have been a marked disconnect between the two buildings. Moriarty, who felt compelled to create meaningful, thematically ambitious games, became every accountant and project planner’s nightmare, piling on element after element, flying without a net (or a definitive design document). He imagined an interface where you would be able to carry ideas around with you like physical inventory items, a maze that would reconfigure itself every time you entered it, a Klein bottle your characters would pass through with strange metaphysical and audiovisual effects. To make all this happen, his programmers would need to create a whole new game engine of their own rather than relying on SCUMM. They named it StoryDroid.

A screenshot from Moriarty’s version of The Dig. Note the menu of verb icons at the bottom of the screen. These would disappear from later versions in favor of the more streamlined style of interface which LucasArts had begun to employ with Sam and Max Hit the Road.

There were some good days on Moriarty’s Dig, especially early on. Bill Tiller, an artist on the project, recalls their one in-person meeting with Steven Spielberg, in his office just behind the Universal Studios Theme Park. Moriarty brought a demo of the work-in-progress, along with a “portable” computer the size of a suitcase to run it. And he also brought a special treat for Spielberg, who continued to genuinely enjoy games in all the ways George Lucas didn’t. Tiller:

Brian brought an expansion disk for one of the aerial battle games Larry Holland was making. Spielberg was a big computer-game geek! He was waiting for this upgrade/mission expansion thing. He called his assistant in and just mentioned what it was. She immediately knew what he meant and said she’d send it home and tell someone to have it installed and running for him when he arrived. I decided at that moment I would have an assistant like that someday.

Anyway, when we were through we told him we had a few hours to kill and wondered what rides we should get on back at the theme park. He said the E.T. ride, since he helped design it. It was brand new at the time. His people said that he was really crazy about it and wanted to show it off to everyone. One of his assistants took us there on a back-lot golf cart. We didn’t have to get another taxi. We didn’t even have to stand in line! They took us straight to the ride and cut us in the line in front of everyone, like real V.I.P.s. Everyone had to stand back and watch, probably trying to figure out who we were. All I remember is Brian with the stupid giant suitcase going through the ride.

But the best part of the whole thing for me was [Spielberg’s] enthusiasm. He really likes games. This wasn’t work to him to have to hear us go on about The Dig.

Brian Moriarty’s version of The Dig was more violent than later versions, a quality which Steven Spielberg reportedly encouraged. Here an astronaut meets a gruesome end after being exposed to an alien acid rain.

But the bonhomie of the Universal Studios visit faded as the months wore on. Moriarty’s highfalutin aspirations began to strike others on the team — especially the artists who were trying to realize his ever-expanding vision — as prima-donna-ish; at the end of the day, after all, it was just a computer game they were making. “I used to tell Brian, when he got all excited about what people would think of our creation, that in ten years no one will even remember The Dig,” recalls Bill Eaken, the first head artist to work under him. He believes that Moriarty may even have imagined Spielberg giving him a screenwriting or directing job if The Dig sufficiently impressed him. Eaken:

I liked Brian. Brian is a smart and creative guy. I still have good memories of sitting in his office and just brainstorming. The sky was the limit. That’s how it should be. Those were good times. But I think as time went on he had stars in his eyes. I think he wanted to show Spielberg what he could do and it became too much pressure on him. After a while he just seemed to bog down under the pressure. When all the politics and Hollywood drama started to impede us, when it wasn’t even a Hollywood gig, I [got] temperamental.

The programming was a complete disaster. I had been working for several years at LucasArts at that time and had a very good feel for the programming. I taught programming in college, and though I wasn’t a programmer on any games, I understood programming enough to know something was amiss on The Dig. I went to one of my friends at the company who was a great programmer and told him my concerns. He went and tried to chat with the programmers about this or that to get a look at their code, but whenever he walked into the room they would shut off their monitors, things like that. What he could see confirmed my worries: the code was way too long, and mostly not working.

The project was “completely out of control and management wouldn’t listen to me about it,” Eaken claims today. So, he quit LucasArts, whereupon his role fell to his erstwhile second-in-command, the aforementioned Bill Tiller. The latter says that he “liked and disliked” Moriarty.

Brian was fun to talk with and was very energetic and was full of good ideas, but he and I started to rub each other the wrong way due to our disagreement over how the art should be done. I wanted the art organized in a tight budget and have it all planned out, just like in a typical animation production, and so did my boss, who mandated I push for an organized art schedule. Brian bristled at being restricted with his creativity. He felt that the creative process was hindered by art schedules and strict budgets. And he was right. But the days of just two or three people making a game were over, and the days of large productions and big budgets were dawning, and I feel Brian had a hard time adjusting to this new age.

Games were going through a transition at that time, from games done by a few programmers with little art, to becoming full-blown animated productions where the artists outnumber the programmers four to one. Add to the mix the enormous pressure of what a Spielberg/Lucas project should be like [and] internal jealousy about the hype, and you have a recipe for disaster.

He wanted to do as much of the game by himself as possible so that it was truly his vision, but I think he felt overwhelmed by the vastness of the game, which required so much graphics programming and asset creation. He was used to low-res graphics and a small intimate team of maybe four people or less. Then there is the pressure of doing the first Spielberg/Lucas game. I mean, come on! That is a tough, tough position for one guy to be in.

One of LucasArt’s longstanding traditions was the “pizza orgy,” in which everyone was invited to drop whatever they were doing, come to the main conference room, eat some pizza, and play a game that had reached a significant milestone in its development. The first Dig pizza orgy, which took place in the fall of 1993, was accompanied by an unusual amount of drama. As folks shuffled in to play the game for the very first time, they were told that Moriarty had quit that very morning.

We’re unlikely ever to know exactly what was going through Moriarty’s head at this juncture; he’s an intensely private individual, as it is of course his right to be, and is not at all given to baring his soul in public. What does seem clear, however, is that The Dig drained from him some fragile reservoir of heedless self-belief which every creative person needs in order to keep creating. Although he’s remained active in the games industry in various roles, those have tended to be managerial rather than creative; Brian Moriarty, one of the best pure writers ever to explore the potential of interactive narratives, never seriously attempted to write another one of them after The Dig. In an interview he did in 2006 for Jason Scott’s film Get Lamp, he mused vaguely during a pensive interlude that “I’m always looking for another Infocom. But sometimes I think we won’t give ourselves permission.” (Who precisely is the “we” here?) This statement may, I would suggest, reveal more than Moriarty intended, about more of his career than just his time at Infocom.

At any rate, Moriarty left LucasArts with one very unwieldy, confused, overambitious project to try to sort out. It struck someone there as wise to give The Dig to Hal Barwood, a former filmmaker himself who had been friends with Steven Spielberg for two decades. But Barwood proved less than enthusiastic about it — which was not terribly surprising in light of how badly The Dig had already derailed the careers of two of LucasArts’s other designers. Following one fluffy interview where he dutifully played up the involvement of Spielberg for all it was worth — “We’re doing our best to capture the essence of the experience he wants to create” — he finagled a way off the project.

At this point, the hot potato was passed to Dave Grossman, who had, as noted above, worked for a time with Noah Falstein on its first incarnation. “I was basically a hedge trimmer,” he says. “There was a general feeling, which I shared, that the design needed more work, and I was asked to fix it up while retaining as much as possible of what had been been done so far — starting over yet again would have been prohibitively expensive. So I went in with my editing scissors, snip snip snip, and held a lot of brainstorming meetings with the team to try to iron out the kinks.” But Grossman too found something better to do as quickly as possible, whereupon the game lay neglected for the better part of a year while much of Moriarty’s old team went to work on Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle: “a project that the company loved,” says Bill Tiller, drawing an implicit comparison with this other, unloved one.

In late 1994, The Dig was resurrected for the last time, being passed to Sean Clark, a long-serving LucasArts programmer who had moved up to become the producer and co-designer of Sam and Max Hit the Road, and who now saw becoming the man who finally shepherded this infamously vexed project to completion as a good way to continue his ascent. “My plan when I came in on the final incarnation was to take a game that was in production and finish it,” he says. “I didn’t get a lot of pressure or specific objectives from management. I think they were mainly interested in getting the project done so they could have a product plan that didn’t have The Dig listed on it.” Clark has admitted that, when he realized what a sorry state the game was actually in, he went to his bosses and recommended that they simply cancel it once and for all. “I got a lot of resistance, which surprised me,” he says. “It was hard to resist the potential [of having] a game out there with a name like Spielberg’s on it.” In a way, George Lucas was a bigger problem than Spielberg in this context: no one wanted to go to the boss of bosses at LucasArts and tell him they had just cancelled his close friend’s game.

Sean Clark with a hot slice. Pizza was a way of life at LucasArts, as at most games studios. Asked about the negative aspects of his job, one poor tester said that he was “getting really, really tired of pizza. I just can’t look at pizza anymore.”

So, Clark rolled up his sleeves and got to work instead. His first major decision was to ditch the half-finished StoryDroid engine and move the project back to SCUMM. He stuck to Brian Moriarty’s basic plot and characters, but excised without a trace of hesitation or regret anything that was too difficult to implement in SCUMM or too philosophically esoteric. His goal was not to create Art, not to stretch the boundaries of what adventure games could be, but just to get ‘er done. Bill Tiller and many others from the old team returned to the project with the same frame of reference. By now, LucasArts had moved offices yet again, to a chic new space where the programmers and artists could mingle: “Feedback was quick and all-encompassing,” says Tiller. If there still wasn’t a lot of love for the game in the air, there was at least a measure of esprit de corps. LucasArts even sprang for a couple more (reasonably) big names to add to The Dig‘s star-studded marque, hiring the science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, author of the much-admired Ender’s Game among other novels, to write the dialogue, and Robert Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s principal antagonist from Terminator 2, to head up the cast of voice actors. Remarkably in light of how long the project had gone on and how far it had strayed from his original vision, Steven Spielberg took several more meetings with the team. “He actually called me at home one evening as he was playing through a release candidate,” says Sean Clark. “He was all excited and having fun, but was frustrated because he had gotten stuck on a puzzle and needed a hint.”

Clark’s practicality and pragmatism won the day where the more rarefied visions of Falstein and Moriarty had failed: The Dig finally shipped just in time for the Christmas of 1995. LucasArts gave it the full-court press in terms of promotion, going so far as to call it their “highest-profile product yet.” They arranged for a licensed strategy guide, a novelization by the king of tie-in novelists Alan Dean Foster, an “audio drama” of his book, and even a CD version of Michael Land’s haunting soundtrack to be available within weeks of the game itself. And of course they hyped the Spielberg connection for all it was worth, despite the fact that the finished game betrayed only the slightest similarity to the proposal he had pitched six years before.

Composer Michael Land plays a timpani for The Dig soundtrack. One can make a strong argument that his intensely atmospheric, almost avant-garde score is the best thing about the finished game. Much of it is built from heavily processed, sometimes even backwards-playing samples of Beethoven and Wagner. Sean Clark has described, accurately, how it sounds “strange and yet slightly familiar.”


But the reaction on the street proved somewhat less effusive than LucasArts might have wished. Reviews were surprisingly lukewarm, and gamers were less excited by the involvement of Steven Spielberg than the marketers had so confidently predicted. Bill Tiller feels that the Spielberg connection may have been more of a hindrance than a help in the end: “Spielberg’s name was a tough thing to have attached to this project because people have expectations associated with him. The general public thought this was going to be a live-action [and/or] 3D interactive movie, not an adventure game.” The game wasn’t a commercial disaster, but sold at less than a third the pace of Full Throttle, its immediate predecessor among LucasArts adventures. Within a few months, the marketers had moved on from their “highest-profile product yet” to redouble their focus on the Star Wars games that were accounting for more and more of LucasArts’s profits.

One can certainly chalk up some of the nonplussed reaction to The Dig to its rather comprehensive failure to match the public’s expectations of a LucasArts adventure game. In a catalog that consisted almost exclusively of cartoon comedies, it was a serious, even gloomy game. In a catalog of anarchically social, dialog-driven adventures that were seen by many gamers as the necessary antithesis to the sterile, solitary Myst-style adventure games that were now coming out by the handful, it forced you to spend most of its length all alone, solving mechanical puzzles that struck many as painfully reminiscent of Myst. Additionally, The Dig‘s graphics, although well-composed and well-drawn, reflected the extended saga of its creation; they ran in low-resolution VGA at a time when virtually the whole industry had moved to higher-resolution Super VGA, and they reflected as well the limitations of the paint programs and 3D-rendering software that had been used to create them, in many cases literally years before the game shipped. In the technology-obsessed gaming milieu of the mid-1990s, when flash meant a heck of a lot, such things could be ruinous to a new release’s prospects.

But today, we can presumably look past such concerns to the fundamentals of the game that lives underneath its surface technology. Unfortunately, The Dig proves far from a satisfying experience even on these terms.

An adventure game needs to be, if nothing else, reasonably good company, but The Dig fails this test. In an effort to create “dramatic” characters, it falls into the trap of merely making its leads unlikable. All of them are walking, talking clichés: the unflappable Chuck Yeager-type who’s in charge, the female overachiever with a chip on her shoulder who bickers with his every order, the arrogant German scientist who transforms into the villain of the piece. Orson Scott Card’s dialog is shockingly clunky, full of tired retreads of action-movie one-liners; one would never imagine that it comes from the pen of an award-winning novelist if it didn’t say so in the credits. And, even more unusually for LucasArts, the voice acting is little more inspired. All of which is to say that it comes as something of a relief when everyone else just goes away and leaves Boston Low alone to solve puzzles, although even then you still have to tolerate Robert Patrick’s portrayal of the stoic mission commander; he approaches an unknown alien civilization on the other side of the galaxy with all the enthusiasm of a gourmand with a full belly reading aloud from a McDonald’s menu.

Alas, one soon discovers that the puzzle design isn’t any better than the writing or acting. While the puzzles may have some of the flavor of Myst, they evince none of that game’s rigorous commitment to internal logic and environmental coherence. In contrast to the free exploration offered by Myst, The Dig turns out to be a quite rigidly linear game, with only a single path through its puzzles. Most of these require you just to poke at things rather than to truly enter into the logic of the world, meaning you frequently find yourself “solving” them without knowing how or why.

But this will definitely not happen in at least two grievous cases. At one point, you’re expected to piece together an alien skeleton from stray bones when you have no idea what said alien is even supposed to look like. And another puzzle, involving a cryptic alien control panel, is even more impossible to figure out absent hours of mind-numbing trial and error. “I had no clue that was such a hard puzzle,” says Bill Tiller. “We all thought it was simple. Boy, were we wrong.” And so we learn the ugly truth: despite the six years it spent in development, nobody ever tried to play The Dig cold before it was sent out the door. It was the second LucasArts game in a row of which this was true, indicative of a worrisome decline in quality control from a studio that had made a name for themselves by emphasizing good design.

At the end of The Dig, the resolution of the alien mystery is as banal as it is nonsensical, a 2001: A Space Odyssey with a lobotomy. It most definitely isn’t “an in-depth story in which the exploration of human emotion plays as important a role as the exploration of a game world,” as LucasArts breathlessly promised.

So, The Dig still manages to come across today as simultaneously overstuffed and threadbare. It broaches a lot of Big Ideas (a legacy of Falstein and Moriarty’s expansive visions), but few of them really go anywhere (a legacy of Grossman and Clark’s pragmatic trimming). It winds up just another extended exercise in object manipulation, but it doesn’t do even this particularly well. Although its audiovisuals can create an evocative atmosphere at times, even they come across too often as disjointed, being a hodgepodge of too many different technologies and aesthetics. Long experience has taught many of us to beware of creative expressions of any stripe that take too long to make and pass through too many hands in the process. The Dig only proves this rule: it’s no better than its tortured creation story makes you think it will be. Its neutered final version is put together competently, but not always well, and never with inspiration. And so it winds up being the one thing a game should never be: it’s just kind of… well, boring.

As regular readers of this site are doubtless well aware, I’m a big fan of LucasArts’s earlier adventures of the 1990s. The one complaint I’ve tended to ding them with is a certain failure of ambition — specifically, a failure to leave their designers’ wheelhouse of cartoon comedy. And yet The Dig, LucasArts’s one concerted attempt to break that mold, ironically winds up conveying the opposite message: that sometimes it’s best just to continue to do what you do best. The last of their charmingly pixelated “classic-look” adventure games, The Dig is sadly among the least satisfying of the lot, with a development history far more interesting than either its gameplay or its fiction. A number of people looked at it with stars in their eyes over the six years it remained on LucasArts’s list of ongoing projects, but it proved a stubbornly ill-starred proposition for all of them in the end.

(Sources: the book The Dig: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, September 1994, September 1995, October 1995, December 1995, and February 1996; Starlog of October 1985; LucasArts’s customer newsletter The Adventurer of Spring 1993, Winter 1994, Summer 1994, Summer 1995, and Winter 1995. Online sources include Noah Falstein’s 2017 interview on Celebrity Interview, Falstein’s presentation on his history with Lucasfilm Games for Øredev 2017, the “secret history” of The Dig at International House of Mojo, the same site’s now-defunct Dig Museum,” ATMachine’s now-defunct pages on the game, Brian Moriarty’s 2006 interview for Adventure Classic Gaming, and Moriarty’s Loom postmortem at the 2015 Game Developers Conference. Finally, thank you to Jason Scott for sharing his full Get Lamp interview archives with me years ago.

The Dig is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 LucasArts was known as Lucasfilm Games until the summer of 1992. To avoid confusion, I use the name “LucasArts” throughout this article.
 

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The Dream of Flight

After Edison’s original phonograph came out, people said that they could not detect a difference between a phonograph and a real performance. Clearly the standard that they had for audio fidelity back in 1910 was radically different from the standard we have. They got the same enjoyment out of that Edison phonograph that we do out of [a] high-fidelity [stereo]. As audio fidelity has gotten better and better, our standards have gotten higher and higher; if we listen to a phonograph from 1910, it sounds horrible to our modern ears.

The same thing has obviously happened to flight simulators.

— Brand Fortner, 2010

It seems to me that vintage flight simulators have aged worse than just about any other genre of game. No, they weren’t the only games that required a large helping of imagination to overlook their underwhelming audiovisuals, that had sometimes to ask their players to see them as what they aspired to be rather than what they actually were. But they were perhaps the ones in which this requirement was most marked. When we look back on them today, we find ourselves shaking our heads and asking what the heck we were all thinking.

Growing up in the 1980s, I certainly wasn’t immune to the appeal of virtual flight; I spent many hours with subLogic’s Flight Simulator II and MicroProse’s Gunship on my Commodore 64, then hours more with F/A-18 Interceptor on my Commodore Amiga. Revisited today, however, all of those games strike me as absurdly, unplayably primitive. Therefore they and the many games like them have appeared in these histories only in the form of passing mentions.

The case of flight simulators thus serves to illustrate some of the natural tensions implicit in what I do here. On the one hand, I want to celebrate the games that still stand up today, maybe even get some of you to try them for the first time all these years later — and I’ve yet to find a vintage flight simulator which I can recommend on those terms. But on the other hand, I want to sketch an accurate, non-anachronistic picture of these bygone eras of gaming as they really were. In this latter sense, my efforts to date have been sadly inadequate in the case of flight simulators; the harsh fact is that these games which I’ve neglected so completely were in fact among the most popular of their time, accounting on occasion for as much as 25 percent of the computer-game industry’s total revenue. Microsoft Flight Simulator, the prototypical and perennial product of its type, was the most commercially successful single franchise in all of computer gaming between 1982 and 1995 — all despite having no goals other than the ones you set for yourself and for the most part no guns either. (Let that sink in for a moment!)

All of which is to say that a reckoning is long overdue here. This article, while it may not quite give Microsoft Flight Simulator and its siblings their due, will at least begin to redress the balance.



Many people assumed in the 1980s, as they still tend to do today, that the early microcomputer flight simulators were imperfect imitations of the bigger simulators that were used to train pilots for real-world flying. In point of fact, though, the relationship between the two was more subtle — even more symbiotic — than one might guess. To appreciate how this could be, we need to remember that the 3D-graphics techniques that were being used to power all flight simulators by the 1980s were a new technology at the time — new not just to microcomputers but to all computers. Until the 1980s, the “big” flight simulators made for training purposes were very different beasts from the ones that came later.

That said, the idea of flight simulation in general goes back a long, long way, almost all the way back to the dawn of powered flight itself. It took very little time at all after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for people to start asking how they might train new pilots in some more forgiving, less dangerous way than putting them behind the controls of a real airplane and hoping for the best. A 1910 issue of Flight magazine — the “first aero weekly in the world” — describes the “Sanders Teacher,” a mock-up of a real airplane mounted on a pivoting base so that it could sway with the wind in response to control inputs; unlike the fragile real aircraft of its era, this one was best “flown” when there was a stiff breeze.

The Sanders Teacher, one of the earliest attempts to simulate flight.

In 1929, Edwin Link of Binghamton, New York, created the Link Trainer, the first flight simulator that we might immediately recognize as such today. An electro-mechanical device driven by organ bellows in its prototype form, it looked like an amputated single-seater-airplane cockpit. The entire apparatus pitched and turned in response to a trainee’s movements of the controls therein, while an instructor sat next to the gadget to evaluate his performance. After an initially skeptical response from the market, usage of the Link Trainer around the world exploded with the various military buildups that began in the mid-1930s. It was used extensively, in both its official incarnation and in unlicensed knock-offs, by virtually every combatant nation in World War II; it was a rite of passage for tens of thousands of new pilots, marking the most widespread use of technology in the cause of simulation to that point in the history of the world.

An American student pilot in a Link Trainer, circa 1943.

The programmable digital computers which began to appear after the war held out the prospect of providing a more complete simulation of all aspect of flight than analog devices like the Link Trainer and its successors could hope to achieve. Already in 1950, the United States Navy funded a research effort in that direction at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet it wasn’t until ten years later that the first computerized flight simulators began to appear. Once again, Link Aviation Devices provided the breakthrough machine here, in the form of the Link Mark 1, whose three processors shared 10 K of memory to present the most credible imitation of real flight yet, with even wind and engine noise included if you bought the most advanced model. By 1970, virtually all flight simulators had gone digital.

But there was a persistent problem afflicting all of these efforts at flight simulation, even after the dawn of the digital age. Although the movements of cockpit instruments and even the physical motion of the aircraft itself could be practically implemented, the view out the window could not. What these machines thus wound up simulating was a totally blind form of flying, as in the heaviest of fogs or the darkest of nights, when the pilot has only her instruments to guide her. Flying-by-instruments was certainly a useful skill to have, but the inability of the simulators to portray even a ground and horizon for the pilot to sight on was a persistent source of frustration to those who dreamed of simulating flight as it more typically occurred in the real world.

Various schemes were devised to remedy the situation, some using reels of film that were projected on the “windows” of the cockpit, some even using a moving video camera which “flew” over model terrain. But snippets of static video are a crude tool indeed in an interactive context, and none of these solutions yielded anything close to the visual impression of real flight. What was needed was an out-the-window view that was generated on the fly in real time by the computer.

In 1973, McDonnell-Douglas introduced the VITAL II, a computerized visual display which could be added to existing flight simulators. Even its technology, however, was different in a fairly fundamental sense from that of the flight simulators that would appear later. The computers which ran the latter would use what’s known as raster-based or bitmap graphics: a grid of pixels stored in memory, which are painted to the monitor screen by the computer’s display circuitry without additional programming. VITAL II, by contrast, used something known as vector graphics, in which the computer’s processor directly controls the electron gun inside the display screen, telling it where to go and when to fire to produce an image on the screen. Although bitmap graphics are far easier for the programmer to work with and more flexible in countless ways, they do eat up memory, a commodity which most computers of the early 1970s had precious little of to spare. Therefore vector graphics were still being used for many applications, including this one.

Thanks to the limitations of its hardware, the VITAL II could only show white points of light on the surface of a black screen, and thus could only be used to depict a night flight. Indeed, it showed only lights — the lights of runways, airports, and to some extent their surrounding cities.


Such was the state of the art in flight simulation during the mid-1970s, when a young man named Bruce Artwick was attending the University of Illinois in Champaign.



Flight simulators aside, this university occupies an important place in the history of computing in that it was the home of PLATO, the pioneering computer network that anticipated much of the digital culture that would come two decades or more after it. A huge variety of games were developed for PLATO, including the first CRPGs and, most importantly for our purposes today, the first flight simulator to be intended for entertainment and casual exploration rather than professional pilot training. Brand Fortner’s game of Airfight wasn’t quite a real-time simulation as we think of it today — you had to hit the NEXT key over and over to update the screen — but it could almost feel like it ran in real time to those willing and able to pound their keyboards with sufficient gusto. Brian Dear described the experience in his book about the PLATO system:

By today’s standards, Airfight’s graphics and realism, like every other PLATO game, are hopelessly primitive. But in the 1970s Airfight was simply unbelievable. These rooms full of PLATO terminals weren’t “PLATO classrooms,” they were PLATO arcades, and they were free. If you were lucky enough to get in (there were always more people wanting to play than the game could handle), you joined the Circle or the Triangle teams, chose from a list of different airplane types to fly, and suddenly found yourself in a fighter plane, looking out of the cockpit window at the runway in front of you, with the control tower far down the runway… You’d hit “9” to set the throttle at maximum, “a” for afterburners, “w” a few times to pull the stick back, and then NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT to update the screen as you rolled down the runway, lifted off, and shot up into the sky to join the fight. It might be seconds or minutes, depending on how far away the enemy airplanes were, before you saw dots in the sky, dots that as you flew closer and closer turned into little circles and triangles. (So they weren’t photorealistic airplanes — it didn’t matter. You didn’t notice. This was battle. This was Airfight.) As you got closer and closer to one of these planes, the circles and triangles got more defined — still small, still pathetically primitive by today’s standards — but you knew you were getting closer and that’s all that mattered. As you got closer and closer you hit “s” to put up your sights, to aim. Eventually, if you were good, lucky, or both, you would be so close that you’d see a little empty space, an opening, inside the little circle or triangle icon. That’s when you were close enough to see what players called “the whites of their eyes” and that’s when you let ’em have it: SHIFT-S to shoot. SHIFT-S again. And again. Until you’d run out of ammo and KABOOM! It was glorious.

And it was addictive. People stayed up all night playing Airfight. If you went to a room full of PLATO terminals, you’d hear the clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-CLACKETY-CLACK-CLACK-BAM-BAM!-WHAM!-CLACK-CLACK! of everyone’s keyboards, as the gamers pounded them, mostly NEXT-NEXT-NEXT’ing to update their view and their radar displays (another innovation of this game — in-cockpit radar displays, showing you where the enemy was).

The standard PLATO terminal at that time was an astonishingly advanced piece of hardware to place at the disposal of everyday university students: a monochrome bitmap display of no less than 512 X 512 pixels. Thus Airfight, in addition to being the first casual flight simulator, was the first flight simulator of any kind to use a bitmap display. This fact wasn’t lost on Bruce Artwick when he first saw the game in action — for Artwick already knew a little something about the state of the art in serious flight simulation.

The University of Illinois’s Institute of Aviation was one of the premiere aerospace programs in the country, training both engineers and pilots. Artwick happened to be pursuing a master’s degree in general electrical engineering, but he roomed with one of the university’s so-called “aviation jocks”: an accomplished pilot named Stu Moment, who was training to become a flight instructor at the same time that he pursued a degree in business. “We agreed that Stu would teach me to fly if I taught him about digital electronics,” Artwick remembers. Although Artwick’s electrical-engineering program would seemingly mark him as a designer of hardware, the technological disciplines were more fluid in the 1970s than they’ve become today. His real passion, indulged willingly enough by his professors, had turned out to be the nascent field of bitmap 3D graphics. So, he found himself with one foot in the world of 3D programming, the other in that of aviation: the perfect resumé for a maker of flight simulators.

Airfight hit Artwick like a revelation. In a flash, he understood that the PLATO terminal could become the display technology behind a flight simulator used for more serious purposes. He sought and received funding from the Office of Naval Research to make a prototype 3D display useful for that purpose as his master’s thesis. Taking advantage of his knowledge of hardware engineering, he managed to connect a PLATO terminal to one of the DEC PDP-11 minicomputers used at the Aviation Institute. He then employed this setup to create what his final thesis called “a versatile computer-generated flight display,” submitting his code and a 60-page description of its workings to his instructors and to the Office of Naval Research.

It’s hard to say whether Artwick’s thesis, which he completed in May of 1976, was at all remarked among the makers of flight simulators already in use for pilot training. Many technical experiments like it came out of the aerospace-industrial complex’s web of affiliated institutions, sometimes to languish in obscurity, sometimes to provide a good idea or two for others to carry forward, but seldom to be given much credit after the fact. We can say, however, that by the end of the 1970s the shift to bitmap graphics was finally beginning among makers of serious flight simulators. And once begun, it happened with amazing speed; by the mid-1980s, quite impressive out-the-cockpit views, depicting nighttime or daytime scenery in full color, had become the norm, making the likes of the VITAL II system look like the most primordial of dinosaurs.

This photo from a 1986 brochure by a flight-simulator maker known as Rediffusion Simulation shows how far the technology progressed in a remarkably short period of time after bitmap 3D graphics were first introduced on the big simulators. Although the graphical resolution and detail are vastly less than one would find in a simulator of today, the Rubicon has already been crossed. From now on, improvements will be a question of degree rather than kind.

Meanwhile the same technology was coming home as well, looking a bit less impressive than the state-of-the-art simulators in military and civilian flight schools but a heck of a lot better than VITAL II. And Artwick’s early work on that PLATO terminal most definitely was a pivotal building block toward these simulators, given that the most important person behind them was none other than Artwick himself.



After university, Artwick parlayed his thesis into a job with Hughes Aircraft in California, but found it difficult to develop his innovations further within such a large corporate bureaucracy. His now-former roommate Stu Moment started working as a flight instructor right there in Champaign, only to find that equally unsatisfying. In early 1977, the two decided to form a software company to serve the new breed of hobbyist-oriented microcomputers. It was an auspicious moment to be doing so; the Trinity of 1977 — the Apple II, Radio Shack TRS-80, and Commodore PET, constituting the first three pre-assembled personal computers — was on the near horizon, poised to democratize the hobby for those who weren’t overly proficient with a soldering iron. Artwick and Moment named their company subLogic, after a type of computer circuit. It would prove a typical tech-startup partnership in many ways: the reserved, retiring Artwick would be the visionary and the technician, while the more flamboyant, outgoing Moment would be the manager and the salesman.

Artwick and Moment didn’t initially conceive of their company as a specialist in flight simulators; they rather imagined their specialty to be 3D graphics in all of their potential applications. Accordingly, their first product was “The subLogic Three-Dimensional Micrographics Package,” a set of libraries to help one code one’s own 3D graphics in the do-it-yourself spirit of the age. Similar technical tools continued to occupy them for the first couple of years, even as both partners continued to work their day jobs, hoping that grander things might await them in the future, once the market for personal computers had had time to mature a bit more.

In June of 1979, they decided that moment had come. Artwick quit his job at Hughes and joined Moment back in Champaign, where he started to work on subLogic’s first piece of real consumer software. Every time he had attempted to tell neophytes in the past about what it was his little company really did, he had been greeted with the same blank stare and the same stated or implied question: “But what can you really do with all this 3D-graphics stuff?” And he had learned that one response in particular on his part could almost always make his interlocutors’ eyes light up with excitement: “Well, you could use it to make a flight simulator, for instance.” So, subLogic would indeed make a flight simulator for the new microcomputers. Being owned and operated by two pilots — one of them a licensed flight instructor and the other one having considerable experience in coding for flight simulators running on bigger computers — subLogic was certainly as qualified as anyone for the task.

They released a product entitled simply Flight Simulator for the Apple II in January of 1980. One can’t help but draw comparisons with Will Crowther and Don Woods’s game of Adventure at this point; like it, Flight Simulator was not only the first of its kind but would lend its name to the entire genre of games that followed in its footsteps.

Fearing that his rudimentary, goal-less simulation would quickly bore its users, Artwick at the last minute added a mode called “British Ace,” which featured guns and enemy aircraft to be shot down in an experience distinctly reminiscent of Airfight. But he soon discovered, rather to his surprise, that most people didn’t find those additional accoutrements to be the most exciting aspect of the program. They enjoyed simply flying around this tiny virtual world with its single runway and bridge and mountain — enjoyed it despite all the compromises that a host machine with six-color graphics, 32 K of memory, and a 1 MHz 8-bit CPU demanded. It turned out that a substantial portion of early microcomputer owners were to a greater or lesser degree frustrated pilots, kept from taking to the air by the costs and all of the other logistics involved with acquiring a pilot’s license and getting time behind the controls of a real airplane. They were so eager to believe in what Flight Simulator purported to be that their imaginations were able to bridge the Grand Canyon-sized gap between aspiration and reality. This would continue to be the case over the course of the many years it would take for the former to catch up to the latter.

Flight Simulator on the Apple II.

Still, subLogic didn’t immediately go all-in for flight simulation. They released a variety of other entertainment products, from strategy games to arcade games. They even managed one big hit in the latter category, one that for a time outsold all versions of Flight Simulator: Bruce Artwick’s Night Mission Pinball was a sensation in Apple II circles upon its release in the spring of 1982, widely acknowledged as the best game of its type prior to Bill Budge’s landmark Pinball Construction Set the following year. subLogic wouldn’t release their last non-flight simulator until 1986, when an attempt to get a sports line off the ground fizzled out with subLogic Football. In the long run, though, it was indeed flight simulation that would make subLogic one of the most profitable companies in their industry, all thanks to a little software publisher known as Microsoft.

In late 1981, Microsoft came to subLogic looking to make a deal. IBM had outsourced to the former the operating system of the new IBM PC, whilst also charging them with creating or acquiring a variety of other software for the machine, including games. So, they wanted Artwick to create a “second generation” of his Flight Simulator for the IBM PC, taking full advantage of its comparatively torrid 4.77 MHz 16-bit processor.

Artwick spent a year on the project, working sixteen hours or more per day during the last quarter of that period. The program he turned in at the end of the year was both a dramatic improvement on what had come before and a remarkably complete simulation of flight for its era. Its implementation of aeronautics had now progressed to the point that a specific airplane could be said to be modeled: a Cessna 182 Skylane, a beloved staple of private and recreational aviation that was first manufactured in 1956 and has remained in production to this day. Artwick replaced the wire-frame graphics of the Apple II version with solid-filled color, replaced its single airport with more than twenty of them from the metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. He added weather, as well as everything you needed to fly through the thickest fog or darkest night using instruments alone; you could use radio transponders to navigate from airport to airport. You could even expect to contend with random engine failures if you were brave enough to turn that setting on. And, in a move that would have important implications in the future, Artwick also designed and implemented a coordinate system capable of encompassing the greater portion of North America, from southern Canada down to the Caribbean, although it was all just empty green space at this point outside of the four metropolitan areas.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0

This first Microsoft Flight Simulator was released in late 1982, and promptly became ubiquitous on a computer that was otherwise not known as much of a game machine. Many stodgy business-oriented users who wouldn’t be caught dead playing any other game seemed to believe that this one was acceptable; it was something to do with the label of “simulator,” something to do with its stately, cerebral personality. Microsoft’s own brief spasm of interest in games in general would soon peter out, such that Flight Simulator would spend half a decade or more as the only game in their entire product catalog. Yet it would consistently sell in such numbers that they would never dream of dropping it.

When the first wave of PC clones hit the market soon after Flight Simulator was released, the computer magazines took to using it as a compatibility litmus test. After all, it pushed the CPU to its absolute limit, even as its code was full of tricky optimizations that took advantage of seemingly every single quirk of IBM’s own Color Graphics Adapter. Therefore, went the logic, if a PC clone could run Flight Simulator, it could probably run just about anything written for a real IBM PC. Soon all of the clone makers were rushing to buy copies of the game, to make sure their machines could pass the stringent test it represented before they shipped them out to reviewers.

Meanwhile Artwick began to port Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s innovations into versions for most other popular computers, under the rather confusing title of Flight Simulator II. (There had never been a subLogic Flight Simulator I on most of the computers for which this Flight Simulator II was released.) Evincing at least a modest spirit of vive la différence, these versions chose to simulate a Piper Cherokee, another private-aviation mainstay, instead of the Cessna.

Although the inexpensive 8-bit computers for which Flight Simulator II was first released were far better suited than the IBM PC for running many types of games, this particular game was not among them. Consider the case of the Commodore 64, the heart of the mid-1980s computer-gaming market. The 64’s graphics system had been designed with 2D arcade games in mind, not 3D flight simulators; its sprites — small images that could be overlaid onto the screen and moved about quickly — were perfect for representing, say, Pac-Man in his maze, but useless in the context of a flight simulator. At the same time, the differences between an IBM PC and a Commodore 64 in overall processing throughput made themselves painfully evident. On the IBM, Flight Simulator could usually manage a relatively acceptable ten frames or so per second; on the 64, you were lucky to get two or three. “We gave it a try and did the best we could,” was Artwick’s own less-than-promising assessment of the 8-bit ports.

Nevertheless, the Commodore 64 version of Flight Simulator II is the one that I spent many hours earnestly attempting to play as a boy. Doing so entailed peering at a landscape of garish green under a sky of solid blue, struggling to derive meaning from a few jagged white lines that shifted and rearranged themselves with agonizing slowness, each frame giving way to the next with a skip and a jerk. Does that line there represent the runway I’m looking for, or is it a part of one of the handful of other landmarks the game has deigned to implement, such as the Empire State Building? It was damnably hard to know.

Flight Simulator II on the Commodore 64.

As many a real pilot who tried Flight Simulator II noted, a virtual Piper Cherokee was perversely more difficult to fly than the real thing, thanks to the lack of perspective provided by the crude graphics, the clunky keyboard-based controls — it was possible to use a joystick, but wasn’t really recommended because of the imprecision of the instrument — and the extreme degree of lag that came with trying to cram so much physics modeling through the narrow aperture of an 8-bit microprocessor. Let’s say you’re attempting a landing. You hit a key to move the elevators a little bit and begin your glide path, but nothing happens for several long seconds. So, getting nervous as you see the white line that you think probably represents the runway getting a bit longer, you hit the same key again, then perhaps once more for good measure. And suddenly you’re in a power dive, your view out the screen a uniform block of green. So you desperately pound the up-elevator key and cut the throttle — and ten or twenty seconds later, you find the sky filling your screen, your plane on the verge of stalling and crashing to earth tail-first. More frantic course corrections ensue. And so it continues, with you swaying and bobbling through the sky like a drunken sailor transported to the new ocean of the heavens. Who needed enemy airplanes to shoot at in the face of all these challenges? Just getting your plane up and then down again in one piece — thankfully, the simulator didn’t really care at the end of the day whether it was on a runway or not! — was an epic achievement.

Needless to say, Flight Simulator II‘s appeal is utterly lost on me today. And yet in its day the sheer will to believe, from me and hundreds of thousands of other would-be pilots like me, allowed it to soar comfortably over all of the objections raised by its practical implementation of our grand dream of flight.

At a time when books on computer games had yet to find a place on the shelves of bookstores, books on Flight Simulator became the great exception. It began in 1985, when a fellow named Charles Gulick published 40 Great Flight Simulator Adventures, a collection of setups with exciting-sounding titles — “Low Pass on the Pacific,” “Dead-Stick off San Clemente” — that required one-tenth Flight Simulator and nine-tenths committed imagination to live up to their names. Gulick became the king of the literary sub-genre he had founded, writing five more books of a similar ilk over the following years. But he was far from alone: the website Flight Sim Books has collected no less than twenty of its namesake, all published between the the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, ranging from the hardcore likes of Realistic Commercial Flying with Flight Simulator to more whimsical fare like A Flight Simulator Odyssey. The fact that publishers kept churning them out indicates that there was a solid market for them, which in turn points to just how committed to the dream the community of virtual fliers really was.

Of course, the game that called itself simply Flight Simulator was by no means the only one in the genre it had spawned. While a few companies did try to sell their own civilian flight simulators, none managed to seriously challenge the ones from subLogic. But military flight simulators were a different matter; MicroProse Software in particular made their reputation with a string of these. Often designed and programmed by Sid Meier, MicroProse’s simulators were distinguished by their willingness to sacrifice a fair amount of realism to the cause of decent frame rates and general playability, with the added attraction of enemy aircraft to shoot down and cities to bomb. (While the old “British Ace” mode did remain a part of the subLogic Flight Simulator into the late 1980s, it never felt like more than the afterthought it was.) Meier’s F-15 Strike Eagle, the most successful of all the MicroProse simulators, sold almost as well as subLogic’s products for a time; some sources claim that its total sales during the ten years after its initial release in 1984 reached 1 million units.

subLogic as well did dip a toe into military flight simulation with Jet in 1985. Programmed by one Charles Guy rather than Bruce Artwick, this F-16 and F/A-18 simulator was a bit more relaxed and a bit more traditionally game-like than the flagship product, offering air-, land-, and sea-based targets for your guns and bombs that could and did shoot back. Still, its presentation remained distinctly dry in comparison to the more gung-ho personality of the MicroProse simulators. Although reasonably successful, it never had the impact of its older civilian sibling. Instead Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon, which debuted in 1987 for 16-bit and better machines only, took up the banner of realism-above-all-else in the realm of jet fighters — almost notoriously so, in fact: it came with a small-print spiral-bound manual of almost 300 pages, and required weeks of dedication just to learn to fly reasonably well, much less to fly into battle. And yet it too sold in the hundreds of thousands.

In the meantime, Artwick was continuing to plug steadily away, making his Flight Simulator slowly better. A version 2.0 of the Microsoft release, with four times as many airports to fly from and many other improvements, appeared already in 1984, soon after the 8-bit Flight Simulator II; it was then ported to the new Apple Macintosh, the only computing platform beside their own which Microsoft had chosen to officially support. When the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga appeared in 1985, sporting unprecedented audiovisual capabilities, subLogic released versions of Flight Simulator II for those machines with dazzling graphical improvements; these versions even gave you the option of flying a sleek Learjet instead of a humble single-prop airborne econobox. Version 3.0 of Microsoft Flight Simulator arrived in 1988, coming complete with the Learjet, support for the latest VGA graphics cards, and an in-game flight instructor among other enhancements.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 included the first attempt at in-program flight instruction. It would continue to appear in all subsequent releases, being slowly refined all the while, much like the simulator itself.

Betwixt and between these major releases, subLogic took advantage of Artwick’s foresight in designing a huge potential world into Flight Simulator by releasing a series of “scenery disks” to fill in all of that empty space with accurately modeled natural features and airports, along with selected other human-made landmarks. The sufficiently dedicated — i.e., those who were willing to purchase a dozen scenery disks at $20 or $30 a pop — could eventually fly all over the continental United States and beyond, exploring a virtual world larger than any other in existence at the time.

Indeed, the scenery disks added a whole new layer of interest to Flight Simulator. Taking in their sights and ferreting out all of their secrets became a game in itself, overlaid upon that of flying the airplane. It could add a much-needed sense of purpose to one’s airborne ramblings; inevitably, the books embraced this aspect with gusto, becoming in effect tour guides to the scenery disks. When they made a scenery disk for Hawaii in 1989, subLogic even saw fit to include “the very first structured scenery adventure”:

Locating the hidden jewel of the goddess Pele isn’t easy. You’ll have to find and follow an intricate set of clues scattered about the islands that, with luck, will guide you to your goal. This treasure hunt will challenge all of your flying skills, but the reward is an experience you’ll never forget!



The sales racked up by all of these products are impossible to calculate precisely, but we can say with surety that they were impressive. An interview with Artwick in the July 1985 issue of Computer Entertainment magazine states that Flight Simulator in all its versions has already surpassed 800,000 copies sold. The other piece of hard data I’ve been able to dig up is found in a Microsoft press release from December of 1995, where it’s stated that Microsoft Flight Simulator alone has sold over 3 million copies by that point. Added to that figure must be the sales of Flight Simulator II for various platforms, which must surely have been in the hundreds of thousands in their own right. And then Jet as well did reasonably well, while all of those scenery disks sold well enough that subLogic completed the planned dozen and then went still further, making special disks for Western Europe, Japan, and the aforementioned Hawaii, along with an ultra-detailed one covering San Francisco alone.

When we start with all this, and then add in the fact that subLogic remained a consistently small operation with just a handful of employees, we wind up with two founders who did very well for themselves indeed. Unsurprisingly, then, Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, those two college friends made good, were a popular subject for magazine profiles. They were a dashing pair of young entrepreneurs, with the full complement of bachelor toys at their disposal, including a Cessna company plane which they flew to trade shows and, so they claimed, used to do modeling for their simulations. When David Hunter from the Apple II magazine Softalk visited them for a profile in January of 1983, he went so far as to compare them to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Sadly, he didn’t clarify which was which…)

Speed is exhilarating. Uncontrolled growth is intoxicating. As long as youth can dream, life will never move fast enough.

Whether it’s motorcycles, cars, planes, skiing, volleyball, or assembly language, Bruce Artwick likes speed. He likes Winchester disk drives, BMWs, zooming through undergraduate and graduate school in four years, and tearing down the Angeles Crest Highway on a Suzuki at a dangerous clip. The president of subLogic, Artwick is a tall, quiet, 29-year-old bachelor. He possesses a remarkable mind, which has created several of the finest programs ever to grace the Apple’s RAM.

Contrast Artwick with Stu Moment. Outgoing, of medium height, and possessed of an exceptional love of flying, Moment is subLogic’s chairman of the board. A businessman, Moment has steered the company to its present course, complementing Artwick’s superior software-engineering talents with organizational and financial skills. He’s even picked up some modest programming skills, designing a system for logging flight hours at a fair-sized flying institute.

Redford and Newman. Lewis and Clark. Laurel and Hardy. Jobs and Wozniak. Artwick and Moment. The grand adventurers riding the hard trail, living and playing at lives larger than life. It’s an old story.

Stu Moment and Bruce Artwick with their Cessna on a cold morning for flying, 1982.

When the journalists weren’t around, however, the dynamic duo’s relationship was more fractious than the public realized. Artwick wanted only to pursue the extremely profitable niche which subLogic had carved out for themselves, while Moment’s natural impulse was to expand into other areas of gaming. Most of all, though, it was likely just a case of two headstrong personalities in too close a proximity to one another, with far too much money flying through the air around them. That, alas, is also an old story.

As early as 1981, the two spent some time working out of separate offices, so badly were they treading on one another’s toes in the one. In 1984, Artwick, clearly planning for a potential future without Moment, formed his own Bruce Artwick Organization and started providing his software to subLogic, which was now solely Moment’s company, on a contract basis.

The final split didn’t happen until 1989, but when it did, it was ugly. Lawsuits flew back and forth, disputing what code and other intellectual property belonged to subLogic and what belonged to Artwick’s organization. To this day, each man prefers not to say the other’s name if he can avoid it.

This breakup marked the end of the Flight Simulator II product line — which was perhaps just as well, as the platforms on which it ran were soon to run out of rope anyway in North America. Moment tried to keep subLogic going with 1990’s Flight Assignment: Airline Transport Pilot, a simulation of big commercial aircraft, but it didn’t do well. He then mothballed the company for several years, only to try again to revive it by hiring a team to make an easier flight simulator for beginners. He sold both the company and the product to Sierra in November of 1995, and Flight Light Plus shipped three months later. It too was a failure, and the subLogic name disappeared thereafter.

It was Artwick who walked away from the breakup with the real prize, in the form of the ongoing contract with Microsoft. So, Microsoft Flight Simulator continued its evolution under his steady hand. Version 4.0 shipped in 1989, version 5.0 in 1993. Artwick himself names the latter as the entire series’s watershed moment; running on a fast computer equipped with one of the latest high-resolution Super-VGA graphics cards, it finally provided the sort of experience he’d been dreaming of when he’d written his master’s thesis on the use of bitmap 3D graphics in flight simulation all those years before. Any further audiovisual improvements from here on out were just gravy as far as he was concerned.

Flying above San Francisco in Microsoft Flight Simulator 5.0.



Such a watershed strikes me as a good place to stop today. Having so belatedly broken my silence on the subject, I’ll try to do a better job now of keeping tabs on Flight Simulator as it goes on to become the most long-lived single franchise in the history of computer gaming. (As of this writing, a new version has just been released, spanning ten dual-layer DVDs in its physical-media version, some 85 GB of data — a marked contrast indeed to that first cassette-based Flight Simulator for the 16 K TRS-80.) Before I leave you today, though, we should perhaps take one more moment to appreciate the achievements of those 1980s versions.

It’s abundantly true that they’re not anything you’re likely to want to play today; time most definitely hasn’t been kind to them. In their day, though, they had a purity, even a nobility to them that we shouldn’t allow the passage of time to erase. They gave anyone who had ever looked up at an airplane passing overhead and dreamed of being behind its controls a way to live that dream, in however imperfect a way. Although it billed itself as a hardcore simulation, Flight Simulator was in reality as much an exercise in fantasy as any other game. It let kids like me soar into the heavens as someone else, someone leading a very different sort of life. Yes, its success was a tribute to its maker Bruce Artwick, but it was also, I would argue, a tribute to everyone who persevered with it in the face of a million reasons just to give up. The people who flew Flight Simulator religiously, who bought the books and worked through a pre-flight checklist before taking off each time and somehow managed to convince themselves that the crude pixelated screen in front of them actually showed a beautiful heavenly panorama, did so out of love of the idea of flight. For them, the blue-and-green world of Flight Simulator was a wonderland of Possibility. Far be it from me to look askance upon them from my perch in their future.

(Sources: the book The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture by Brian Dear and Taking Flight: History, Fundamentals, and Applications of Flight Simulation by Christopher D. Watkins and Stephen R. Marenka; Flight of December 10 1910 and March 22 1913; Softalk of January 1983; Kilobaud of October 1977; Softalk IBM of February 1983; Data Processing of April 1968; Compute!’s Gazette of January 1985; Computer Gaming World of April 1987 and September 1990; Computer Entertainment of July 1985; PC Magazine of January 1983; Illinois CS Alumni News of spring 1996; the article “High-Power Graphic Computers for Visual Simulation: A Real-Time Rendering Revolution” by Mary K. Kaiser, presented to the 1996 symposium Supercomputer Applications in Psychology; Bruce Artwick’s Masters thesis “A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display”; flight-simulator product brochures from Link and Rediffusion; documents from the Sierra archive housed at The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York; a brochure from an exhibition on the Link Trainer at the Roberson Museum and Science Center in 2000. Online sources include a VITAL II product-demonstration video; an interview with Bruce Artwick by Robert Scoble; a panel discussion from the celebration of PLATO’s 50th anniversary at the Computer History Museum; “A Brief History of Aircraft Flight Simulation” by Kevin Moore; the books hosted at Flight Sim Books. My guiding light through this article has been Josef Havlik’s “History of Microsoft Flight Simulator.” He did at least half of the research so that I didn’t have to…)

 
 

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