Author Archives: Jimmy Maher
Warning: this article contains images of pixelated male genitalia.
On December 9, 1993, members of the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information and its Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice held a joint hearing on the topic of violence and sex in videogames. Educators, social scientists, activists, and several prominent figures from the videogame industry itself spoke there for almost three hours. More heat than light was on display for much of that time: the middle-aged politicians often displayed a comprehensive ignorance of the subject at hand, the supposed experts often treated nuanced issues with stubborn stridency, and the industry figures often proved more interested in attacking each other than mounting a coordinated defense against the charge of being the corruptors of America’s youth.
But history sometimes moves in surprising ways. The hearing prompted far-reaching changes in gaming out of all proportion to its worthiness as a good-faith debate about a significant social concern. The first and to-date only industry-wide standard for rating the content in videogames — the same system that is still in use today — was one outcome. And another, much stranger result was the splashy trade show that has since come to dominate the industry’s public-relations calendar. One might say that December 9, 1993, was the day that the games industry began to wake up to a sense of itself as a distinct mass-media entity in its own right.
This is the story of how those things came to be.
Videogames have been causing intermittent moral panics for almost as long as they’ve existed. The first of them to ignite public ire dates all the way back to 1976 and a small company called Exidy. The year before, Exidy had made a standup-arcade game called Destruction Derby, about the time-honored American motorsports pastime of the demolition derby, a staple of county fairs and other rural gatherings. When Chicago Coin, the company who had agreed to distribute the game to arcades, failed to pay them their royalties, Exidy revamped it into something called Death Race and released it on their own. Instead of other cars, you were now expected to collide with stick figures, called “gremlins” or “monsters” in Exidy’s official terminology, in order to score points. When you hit one, it was replaced with a little gravestone.
As it happened, though, a recent B-movie called Death Race 2000 was generating enraged headlines at the very same time. Starring a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, it dealt with a cross-country road race of the dystopian future where the drivers were rewarded with bonus points for mowing down pedestrians en route. It’s very difficult to say what the connection between the film and the game actually was. The programmer who created the latter has insisted to this day that he was unaware of the movie at the time he did so. Still, the shared title remains quite a coincidence. Perhaps a marketer at Exidy belatedly elected to capitalize on the film’s notoriety by giving the already finished game the same name?
At any rate, the shared title certainly wasn’t lost on the media at the time. Several television-news programs, including the highly respected nationwide 60 Minutes, ran segments about the game after receiving a flood of complaints from parents and other concerned adults, and many or most arcade owners removed it from their floor. Nolan Bushnell, the founder and chief executive of industry leader Atari, was very displeased with the negative attention Death Race brought to a burgeoning new form of entertainment: “We had an internal rule that we wouldn’t allow violence against people. You could blow up a tank or you could blow up a flying saucer, but you couldn’t blow up people. We felt that was not good form.” But Pete Kaufman, the founder of Exidy, was unrepentant. Those arcade owners who weren’t scared away by the controversy, he noted, did a booming business with Death Race.
The young industry was already learning an important lesson: that extreme violence in a videogame is dangerous because of the unwanted attention it can attract, but that it also has the potential to be very, very profitable. The industry’s future would be marked by a delicate dance between these two realities, as it attempted to be outrageous enough to attract customers with a taste for violence without going so far as to bring the heavy hand of government down upon its head.
Atari and their American and Japanese competitors went from strength to strength in the years after Death Race. First arcades became centerpieces of adolescent social life, and then, thanks to the Atari VCS home console, videogames took over American living rooms as well. The elder generation reacted to these things in much the same way that their parents had to such youth phenomena as Elvis and the Beatles: with a shrug of complete incomprehension, followed in many cases by concerns about the influence of this strange new pop-culture development on their children’s mental and even moral well-being.
The city council of the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite went so far as to ban children from visiting arcades without an adult escort. A legal challenge raised by the American Civil Liberties Union in response made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck the law down as unconstitutional in 1982. Undaunted, Dr. C. Everett Koop, President Ronald Reagan’s unusually prominent surgeon general, became a vocal critic of videogames and an advocate for laws to limit their pernicious influence, claiming that they were consciously engineered to addict children, “body and soul.”
It’s an odd truism of American culture that, while violence in media may upset various people at various times, nothing brings out the censors in the body politic like a little sex. In October of 1982, a company called Mystique, with ties to the pornography industry, proved this once again with an Atari VCS game called Custer’s Revenge, which combined violence and sex, then added a concluding flourish of racism. In it, you played a reincarnation of the benighted general. His most prominent onscreen feature was his outlandishly long penis, which he used to rape the Native American women he found scattered about the battlefield, already helpfully tied to stakes.
Controversy had clearly been the whole point of the game, and it was rewarded with its full measure, managing to unite the American Indian Community House, the National Organization for Women, and Women Against Pornography for a shared protest outside the New York City venue where it was shown to the press for the first time. Robin Quinn of the last-named organization proclaimed, accurately enough, that the game “says that rape is not only a legitimate form of revenge but a legitimate form of entertainment.” Even the aged George Armstrong Custer III came out of the woodwork to complain that his grandfather’s reputation was being “maligned,” while Atari filed a dubious lawsuit claiming that the very existence of the game on their console created a “wrongful association” in the minds of the public. Arnie Katz, the founding editor of Electronic Games magazine, remembers telling the leadership of the protest movement that “the best way to keep the game from selling is to ignore it.” In the absence of a willingness to heed that perhaps wise advice, Custer’s Revenge wound up selling about 80,000 copies, at $50 a pop. Two later, similarly tasteless “adult” games from Mystique attracted less attention from groups who had largely spent their outrage on the first game, and, just as Katz had predicted, proved much less commercially successful.
Still, the arrival of games of this ilk would surely have led to more controversy and eventually to serious calls for legislation, if only what struck many as the passing fad for videogames hadn’t ended abruptly the following year, in the series of events that have gone down in history as the Great Videogame Crash. By the beginning of 1984, the arcade market was greatly diminished, the home-console market effectively destroyed. For the next few years, for the first and only time in the history of digital gaming, computers rather than consoles became the most popular way to play games in the home; the Commodore 64 home computer became the new heart of the gaming mass market.
But even that machine, ultra-popular though it was as a computer model, wasn’t a patch on what the Atari VCS had been. Likewise, the market for floppy-disk-based entertainment software was a small fraction of the size of the former market for console cartridges — so small that it existed out of the sights and minds of the sort of public agencies that had raised concerns about the videogames of the earlier era. Thus software publishers felt little or no compunction about including whatever content struck their fancy and seemed most likely to appeal to their primarily young and male audience. Strip-poker games, many featuring digitized photographs of real models, were a dime a dozen; casual profanity was everywhere; the CRPG Wasteland gave you the option of visiting a house of ill repute (and catching “Wasteland herpes” as a reward for your effort).
Sometimes the lack of condemnation from the fuddy-duddy set could be downright frustrating. When Steve Meretzky of the text-adventure maker Infocom failed to generate any controversy with A Mind Forever Voyaging, his brutal take-down of the Reagan administration’s conservative politics, he decided to make a sex comedy called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. He confidently expected that, as he wrote in the game’s self-congratulatory opening text, people would soon be “indignantly huffing toward their dealer, their lawyer, or their favorite repression-oriented politico.” The actual result? Crickets — and a bunch of other adventure games, such as Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, that were even naughtier, and included graphics to boot.
The return of concerns about videogame content to the public consciousness unsurprisingly coincided with the return of console systems, and the vastly greater number of players they’ve always tended to attract, to the center of the mass market. The Nintendo Entertainment System was first imported to North America from Japan in a rather quiet and cautious fashion in late 1985. But by 1987, it was gaining steam quickly, and by decade’s end its market penetration exceeded even that of the Atari VCS in its heyday.
The fact was, the executives at Nintendo, both those in Japan and in the United States, had made a careful study of what Atari had gotten right and wrong back in the day, and developed a plan for how they could do things in a better, more sustainable way. Nintendo exercised complete control over the NES and everything associated with it. They created an ironclad legal framework which allowed them to decide who was allowed to make NES games, what sort of games these were allowed to be down to the very last detail, and even how many cartridges their software “partners” were allowed to manufacture and sell. Then, as the icing on the cake, Nintendo took a cut of every NES game anyone sold. Not only did this approach make the company extraordinarily profitable, but it ensured that they wouldn’t have to contend with any examples of a Custer’s Revenge and the ensuing public-relations nightmare. Nintendo hewed to a firm “family-friendly” policy. Anecdotes about their censorship regime abound, from the swimsuit calendar which they forced LucasFilm Games to pull down from a wall inside Maniac Mansion to the gravestone crosses which Capcom had to remove from DuckTales — for, in Nintendo’s zeal not to offend, religious symbols of even the most understated stripe were strictly prohibited.
Nevertheless, plenty of Americans found plenty of room in their hearts to be offended by Nintendo’s success. In many cases, their concerns about the heavy-handed tactics which the company used to control both the medium and the message of the NES were perfectly reasonable. Still, a distinct whiff of xenophobia and/or outright racism clung to many of the criticisms, manifested in dark mutterings about the latest Pearl Harbor, couched in stereotypes about the shifty Oriental character. When Nintendo introduced the Game Boy handheld console in 1989 and saw it blow up as big as the NES, the mutterings threatened to become a chorus.
Believing that the winds of public opinion were at their back, Atari Games and Atari Corporation, the two halves into which the old king of American videogames had been split back in 1984, launched a series of legal challenges that attempted to tear down the barriers around Nintendo’s walled garden. These would drag on for years, but would never provide the decisive victory the deposed kings of gaming were looking for; they soon learned that Nintendo could afford good lawyers too. Ditto a probe by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission; the smoking gun these would-be trust busters were looking for either didn’t exist or was very well-hidden.
But there was also another reason that the government investigation fizzled out anticlimactically in 1992, two years after its beginning: Nintendo had some genuine competition in the console space by that point, making it hard for the agencies to stick them with the monopoly tag. The Sega Genesis console, another product of a Japanese company, had first reached American shores in August of 1989. It thoroughly outclassed the NES in technical terms, with a 16-bit rather than an 8-bit processor and far better graphics and sound. Justifiably alarmed, Nintendo did everything they could to snuff out Sega’s North American operation, pressuring everyone from game publishers to retail stores to shun the alternative platform or face the consequences. Their efforts kept Sega on the ropes for quite some time, but Nintendo never could completely finish the job. A turning point came when Electronic Arts, one of the largest American game publishers, chose to make Sega rather than Nintendo their platform of first choice.
By 1992, following years of dogged effort, Sega had brought their brand to a place of near commercial parity with Nintendo, despite the appearance in 1991 of a new Super NES which made up for most of the NES’s failings in comparison to the Genesis and then some. Sega owed their success at least partially to their willingness to embrace edgier and often more violent content, pitched to a slightly older adolescent demographic than the stereotypical Nintendo fanatic. The differences in corporate personality were vividly illustrated by the two companies’ de-facto mascots. Nintendo’s Mario was cute and sweet and harmless; Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog was manic and a little unhinged — a little bit more dangerous than the cuddly Italian plumber. Sega didn’t hesitate to call out their target by name: “Sega Genesis does what Nintendon’t,” ran one of their most-used slogans. But it could just as easily have read, “Sega Genesis does what Nintendo won’t,” in terms of content. The two companies’ North American management absolutely loathed one another. Soon they would parade their antipathies before no less august a body than the United States Senate.
Although that landmark hearing would purport to examine questionable videogame content in general, its story is inextricably bound up with that of two games in particular, as different from one another as they could be in their genres, format, and to some extent even the audiences they attempted to reach. One was notable for its extreme level of violence, while the other was notable for its combination of sex and violence — or rather was made notable by politicians and others who convinced themselves that it contained far more of both than was actually the case. We’ll take the two suspects one at a time.
Arcades were still blundering along at this late date, sustained by the impressive audiovisuals that were made possible by their specialized hardware, which not even the likes of the SNES could match. By far the biggest arcade hit of 1992 was a game called Mortal Kombat, the latest in what was already a long line of so-called “fighting games.” (“Aren’t most videogames fighting games?” says the naïve observer…)
The premise was simplicity itself: you and an opponent — in the form of either the computer or, for maximum entertainment, your human buddy — controlled avatars who stood face to face on the screen and beat the ever-loving crap out of one another. Mortal Kombat won special favor in a crowded field for the variety of fighters you could choose to control, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses; for its many moves, counter-moves, and power-move combinations; for its rambunctiously over-the-top depiction of the action, including copious amounts of blood; and for the so-called “fatalities” that finished a match, where a fighter’s heart might get pulled right out of his chest or his head ripped off his shoulders. Jeff Greeson, a student of the game and its lore, notes that “Mortal Kombat not only shocked anyone who had ever played the game, but those who simply walked by the game were mesmerized by its gore.” No arcade game had ever been as extreme as this. How could it not become a hit?
The life cycle of a hit arcade game in those days was much like that of a hit movie: it would remain an arcade exclusive for nine to twelve months in order to maximize that revenue stream, then come home in a version for consoles and/or computers. Midway Games, the maker of the original Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet, placed its home ports in the hands of the software publisher Acclaim Entertainment, who had contracts with both Nintendo and Sega. True to form, Sega encouraged Acclaim to put in as much of the arcade edition’s lurid violence as would fit within the more limited audiovisual capabilities of the Genesis. But Nintendo was different: while they certainly wanted the game on the SNES, they insisted that Acclaim tone it down — for example, by replacing flying blood with flying sweat, and by removing the gory fatalities entirely. Howard Lincoln, a Nintendo of America executive who is widely and justly regarded as one of the two principal architects of the brand’s success, remembers an extended back-and-forth with Acclaim over the issue: “Look, we’re going to make the Sega version, and it’s going to be right in line with the coin-op game. Having a toned-down version for Nintendo… Do you guys really want us to do that? Does that really make sense?” But Nintendo held firm to the family-friendly standards that had gotten them this far.
Versions of Mortal Kombat for the SNES, the Game Boy, the Genesis, and the Game Gear — the last being Sega’s handheld competitor to the Game Boy — shipped simultaneously on September 13, 1993, on the back of a marketing budget that was higher than the combined cost of creating them. Just as Acclaim had intended, “Mortal Monday” became a major event in the lives of countless young fans, who greeted the game the way their parents might have a new Led Zeppelin album. The merchandising manager of Electronics Boutique, one of the country’s biggest videogame retailers, called it “the largest new release we’ve ever had.” Later that week, the New York Times could already report that the Sega versions were handily outselling the Nintendo versions.
Over the next two months, 1 million SNES Mortal Kombat cartridges were sold. This was an impressive showing – except that 2 million Genesis cartridges were sold over the same period. It was a triumphant moment for Sega, who had struggled so long and hard to reach this point, even as it struck Nintendo’s management as the most palpable sign yet that they were in danger of being dismissed as a kiddie company by the teenagers who were now flocking to Sega, bringing along with them their greater reserves of precious disposable income. The defeat had twice the sting in light of the fact that, missing gore aside, the SNES version was by far the better looking and better playing of the two, thanks to running on a newer and more capable console. For the first time, a serious internal debate began at Nintendo over the commercial sustainability of their family-friendly approach.
Despite or because of its outrageous violence, Mortal Kombat was and is a good game in the estimation of most connoisseurs of its genre. Even if it had never prompted a public controversy, it would probably still be fondly remembered by them today; it proved the starting point of a franchise that has encompassed thirteen more games to date. But the other game destined to take center stage before the United States Senate was not so good, and would almost certainly be completely forgotten today if not for its strange moment of infamy in the halls of government.
If nothing else, the game in question does have a fascinating origin story. It begins with Tom Zito, a journalist and music critic for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker, who in 1984 was assigned by the last of these to profile Nolan Bushnell of Atari fame. He parlayed that meeting into a job with the Sunnyvale, California-based Axlon, one of the legendary technologist’s several companies, marketing baby monitors and talking Teddy bears which were distributed by the toy giant Hasbro.
But Bushnell always encouraged his proteges to think expansively rather than narrowly. Thus early in his tenure with Axlon, Zito allowed himself to become intrigued by the new video technology of the laser disc, and by the possibility of overlaying conventional computer graphics onto its pre-recorded random-access imagery. In 1986, he stumbled upon the NES and the burgeoning excitement around it during a routine visit to a department store. Deciding that a laser-disc-powered videogame console was just the ticket, he hired a small team to cobble together a Rube Goldberg contraption they called the Nemo. When the limitations of laser discs began to bite — they could fit only 30 minutes of video onto a side, and the hardware was expensive to boot — they tried to make the concept work with the even blunter instrument of a videotape player under the control of an attached computer. “What I truly believed was that interactive television could be something akin to today’s casual gaming,” says Zito. “I really believed it could be something very, very big.” But Bushnell, alas, displayed more and more skepticism as the technical challenges to the concept became more and more clear. So, Zito secured support directly from Hasbro to develop the gadget further, and he and his team of programmers and engineers split from Bushnell to work on it independently.
They decided that the best way to proceed was to create a full-length, playable game to demonstrate the potential of the Nemo. But what kind of game could they hope to make, given all the limitation of their prototype hardware?
As it happened, a game destined to go down in history as one of the schlockiest of all time was inspired by a much more high-brow piece of artistry. An experimental theatrical play called Tamara was enjoying an extended run at the time in a grand old American Legion mansion in Hollywood. Instead of sitting in one place and watching the show unfold on one stage, the audience could move around the mansion’s three floors on the trail of equally mobile actors; each spectator was encouraged to decide for herself which of the play’s many characters and sub-plots were most interesting and to see them through for herself, as it were.
Two of Zito’s associates, by the names of Rob Fulop and Jim Riley, went to see the play in question one evening. Then they saw it again, and then again. This was not atypical in itself: with so much happening simultaneously, the only way to piece together anything like the complete picture was to attend multiple performances. Yet the precise nature of Fulop and Riley’s curiosity was unusual: rather than trying to piece together the full plot, they were trying to understand how the play really worked, and how its approach might be adapted to interactive video. When they thought they had an understanding of those things, they produced a design document for something called Night Trap.
Night Trap was a bizarre creation by any standard, being the (interactive) story of a group of vampires in training who attack a mansion full of college girls having a weekend sleepover party. Not yet having won their fangs, the vampires have to suck the girls’ blood with a weird contraption of plastic tubing. These are unusually diffident — not to say nerdy — vampires: instead of overpowering the girls bodily, they’ve installed a network of surveillance cameras in the house, along with traps which they can activate remotely to capture the girls for blood extraction. The player’s role is that of a good Samaritan who has hacked into the surveillance system, with the goal of turning the tables on the vampires and catching them in their own booby traps. While by no means completely bereft of a certain creepy voyeuristic vibe — how could it be when it combined college girls in their pajamas, vampires, and a secret surveillance system? — the final script was far from sexually explicit, and likewise more silly than violent. The developers did, after all, envision the game someday being sold by Hasbro, a maker of children’s toys. Indeed, they allowed that company’s management to review the script and remove or change anything they found objectionable.
Fulop, Riley, and Zito spent sixteen days in 1987 shooting the footage for the game with a Hollywood crew that included the future cinematographer of Forrest Gump and the former producer of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The shoot wound up costing $1 million, several times the budget of even the most elaborate conventional videogames of the time.
For all the richly deserved schlocky reputation which it would later earn, Night Trap was a genuinely pioneering effort in its way. The combination of real-world footage featuring real actors with conventional graphics would become one of the dominant trends of computer gaming during the early- and mid-1990s. Many of the dubious hallmarks of this so-called “full-motion-video” era appeared for the first time in Night Trap. There was, for example, the way that it tried to make up for the cheesiness that was an inevitable result of its ultra-low cinematic budget by affecting a knowing, ironic attitude — i.e., it’s supposed to be terrible! That’s the joke? Get it? Well then, what are you complaining about? This sort of thing can work occasionally, but most of the time it just comes across as the cheaply disingenuous ploy it really is.
And then there was the use of actors who were vaguely recognizable, but not — or no longer — truly sought-after. “Interactive ‘moviegames’ were populated by performers either on their way up or on their way down the Hollywood ladder,” says Rob Fulop. “Nobody aspired to appear in a moviegame.” Night Trap‘s big catch was Dana Plato, a young actress who had had a prominent role in the hit sitcom Diff’rent Strokes from 1978 until 1986, but whose struggles with alcohol and drugs, and the erratic behavior they brought on, had now all but derailed her career. “She’d come in late and never wanted to rehearse,” remembers Fulop. “Her doing this project was obviously a step down from her previous popularity, and she didn’t make a great deal of effort to hide this fact.” This sort of thing too would become all too typical of later interactive movies.
When the shoot was complete, the developers returned to Sunnyvale to try to figure out how to turn their pile of videotapes into a playable game on the Nemo. In the best spirit of Tamara, you were supposed to be able to switch between the video feeds from eight different cameras set up around the mansion; you would need to be in just the right place at just the right time to trigger a trap and catch each of the vampires. But making this random-access concept work using the fundamentally sequential medium of videotape was, needless to say, a tall order.
Amazingly, Hasbro allowed Zito and company to shoot the footage for a second interactive movie while they were still struggling to implement their first one. Zito conceived Sewer Shark as a visual-effects extravaganza, and therefore gave the director’s chair to John Dykstra, the effects supervisor for such films as Silent Running, Star Wars, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He spent most of his time setting up shots of the tunnels down which the player would fly a spacecraft; think of an interactive-movie version of the later 3D action game Descent, if your imagination can encompass such a thing. Any way you look at it, Sewer Shark is a well-nigh ludicrous technological stew. Just as Hollywood was beginning to embrace computer-generated imagery in place of many physically-constructed special effects, Sewer Shark flipped that formulation on its head; it was filmed using old-fashioned physical scale models, which were then digitized and displayed on a computer. Shot in exotic Hawaii for reasons no one can seem to explain, the Sewer Shark footage wound up costing $2 million.
When not supervising film shoots, Zito was spending a lot of time hobnobbing with the Hollywood set, trying to interest them in a concept that still had no practical delivery device. He talked to Jane Fonda about an interactive workout video; talked to Jerry Bruckheimer about an interactive Top Gun; talked to Paramount about an interactive Star Trek; talked to the rock band Yes about an interactive music video; talked to George Miller about an interactive Mad Max; talked to ESPN about interactive sports broadcasting. He even flew to London for a meeting with Stanley Kubrick. None of it went anywhere.
It isn’t clear how much progress his technical team made on the task of turning Night Trap and Sewer Shark into playable games on the Nemo while he was away. We can say for sure, however, that their progress wasn’t fast enough for Hasbro’s taste. The latter came to suspect, by no means entirely unreasonably, that Zito was more interested in enjoying his Hollywood jet-setter lifestyle than buckling down and delivering the finished product he had promised them. They finally pulled the plug on the Nemo in 1989 — ironically, just as the evolution of computer technology, especially the onset of CD-ROM, was beginning to make what Zito had first proposed to do some three years before seem at least potentially practical. But Zito, for his part, was well aware that the science-fictional was slowly moving into the realm of the possible. He convinced Hasbro to sell him the rights and all of the footage earmarked for Night Trap and Sewer Shark for a song.
Two years later, what had once seemed so pie-in-the-sky was now striking many people who weren’t named Tom Zito as gaming’s necessary future. That year, there appeared Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, the first published game to make extensive use of filmed live-action footage. It did very, very well.
Suddenly afraid that his five-year-old brainstorm was about to take off without him, Zito founded a company called Digital Pictures. Its first objective would be to make a pair of interactive movies built around the live-action footage which he had carried away from the Nemo project. His rhetoric, once so bizarre, was now right in line with the emerging conventional wisdom: “Ultimately, I believe the [videogame] business will be more like traditional Hollywood stuff than what’s coming out of Silicon Valley today: some dinky animated guys running around the screen. We’ll be doing interactive game shows, talk shows, dramas, sitcoms.” “Why watch a movie where you can’t have any effect over it?” asked the Digital Pictures artist Josh Solomon. “Why not be able to put your own stamp on it?”
There was one important difference to separate Digital Pictures from most of the others jumping on the full-motion-video bandwagon. These others tended to focus on the high-end personal-computer marketplace, where CD-ROM drives were slowly but steadily winning acceptance, and where the hardware in general dramatically outclassed that of the consoles. But Zito was a mass-media populist by instinct; he wanted to bring his interactive movies to the living rooms of everyone, not just to the dens, offices, and bedrooms of a privileged few.
Both Nintendo and Sega were also aware of CD-ROM, and both were contemplating whether and how they could use the technology. But the former, after first partnering with Sony to make a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES, abruptly pulled out of the deal; an optical drive wouldn’t finally make it to a Nintendo console until the release of the GameCube in 2001. Nintendo’s abandonment of the field left only Sega, who planned to make a CD add-on of their own for the Genesis. So, Zito signed on with them.
Re-purposing the aged footage wasn’t easy. First it had to be digitized, then downgraded dramatically to fit a venerable console that in all truth was thoroughly unsuited to the task it had been assigned: it could display just 61 colors at a time from a palette of just 512. Compared to the full-motion-video productions on personal computers — not exactly marvels of high-fidelity in themselves — Sewer Shark on the Genesis was a bad joke. Digital Pictures programmer Ken Melville:
All our video had to be tortured, kicking and screaming, into the most horrifying, blurry, reduced-color-palette mess imaginable. I shudder to think about it. The audio, the video, the accessing of data on the sloooow-crawling 10 K per second bandwidth CD was all torturous and disastrous. The limitations presented were enormous.
The actual gameplay that was shoehorned in on top of the video was as simplistic as could be, consisting of little more than cross-hair and some grainy targets to shoot at.
Sega’s CD add-on shipped on September 15, 1992; the two-and-a-half minute television advertisement that was rolled out to mark the occasion had cost more to make than three or four typical videogames. The gadget had sold 1.5 million units by the time anyone managed to complete the first tally. As one of the first games to be made available for Sega CD, Sewer Shark did very well. In 1993, it was bundled with the add-on for a period of time, thereby making a lot more money for Digital Pictures.
Night Trap appeared soon after Sewer Shark. It was more formally ambitious than the simple rail shooter that was Sewer Shark — the original, Tamara-inspired gameplay concept had traveled the long and winding road to the Genesis intact — but it was no more attractive to look at and no more fun to play, being in the end an exercise in trial and error and rote timing. Predictably enough, the magazine reviews fixated on the novelty of its use of video and the nubile girls it featured so prominently, and especially on Dana Plato’s starring role. Over the five years since the footage had been shot, she had become one of Hollywood’s most infamous burnouts, having recently been arrested twice: once for robbing a liquor store (“I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes,” said the clerk when he phoned the police), then again for forging a drug prescription. But even her involvement constituted a paltry — not to mention rather mean-spirited — ground for playing a game, as some of the more perceptive or less beholden reviewers reluctantly acknowledged.
Night Trap didn’t sell in particularly big numbers in comparison to its predecessor. Had it never come to a certain senator’s attention, it would doubtless have become no more than a minor footnote to gaming history, like the rest of Digital Pictures’s underwhelming output. As it was, though, it got to join Mortal Kombat as the public face of videogame depravity.
According to his own account, Joseph A. Lieberman, a United States Senator for the Democratic Party from the state of Connecticut, first heard about Mortal Kombat when his chief of staff Bill Andresen told the senator in casual conversation how his nine-year-old son had asked for a copy, and how he had refused because he had read in the newspaper that the game was “incredibly violent.” His curiosity kindled, Lieberman suggested that the two of them have a look at the game themselves. Lieberman:
I was startled. It was very violent, and rewarded violence. At the end, if you really did well, you’d get to decide how to kill the other guy, how to pull his head off. And there was all sorts of blood flying around.
Then we started to look into it, and I forget how I heard about Night Trap. I looked at that game too, and there was a classic. It ends with this attack scene on this woman in lingerie, in her bathroom. I know that the creator of the game said it was all meant to be a satire of Dracula, but nonetheless, I thought it sent out the wrong message.
Of course, the player’s objective in Night Trap was to protect the girls rather than attack them, and the nerdy trainee vampires were unusually non-violent by the traditional standards of their kind. Yet Lieberman would continue to spout misleading statements like these for months to come — before, during, and after the Senate hearing on videogame content which he instituted and oversaw.
In light of his manifest ignorance, many have questioned the senator’s own professed origin story of his investigation; did he and his chief of staff really have the wherewithal to go out and buy Mortal Kombat, buy or otherwise procure a Sega Genesis to play it on, and then get far enough into it to see its trademark fatalities? Tom Zito, for his part, claims that the investigation began in a very different way: that Nintendo, or one of their Washington lobbyists, arranged to show the good senator what sorts of filth their rival Sega was peddling. And indeed, the bad blood between the two companies was so pronounced that this conspiracy theory sounds more plausible than it perhaps ought to. We can say for sure only that, if Nintendo did touch off the affair in an attempt to stick it to their arch-rival, it would soon snowball hopelessly out of their control as well.
Naturally, we cannot hope to know what was really in Senator Lieberman’s mind in the midst of all this — whether he simply saw it as an easy way to win favor with his constituents (videogame players were not a large voting bloc in comparison to nervous parents and grandparents), or whether he really, truly felt the deep-seated concern he expressed on numerous occasions. In Lieberman’s defense, however, it should be noted that violent crime in the real world and its causes constituted a big part of Washington’s agenda that year and the next, in the midst of a spate of well-publicized incidents. For example, on October 1, 1993, a twelve-year-old girl named Polly Klaas was abducted from a slumber party in rural California at knife point, then murdered and buried in a shallow grave. Although the connection was never explicitly made during the Senate hearings, it isn’t a huge leap to presume that the slumber-party aspect of Night Trap may have been what tipped the balance and singled it out for so much overheated condemnation.
Whatever his motivation or combination thereof, Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information, reached out to his friend Herbert Kohl, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice. The two announced a joint hearing on the subject of videogame content and its effects on the psychology of children and adolescents, advertising it as the first step toward an eventual law that would require videogame publishers to mark any of their products which contained violent and/or sexual content on their boxes.
The videogame industry was about to get its day in a decidedly hostile court, with Mortal Kombat and Night Trap in the role of its two most flagrant offenders. The games made for quite the odd couple. Mortal Kombat was, for all its envelope-pushing violence, traditionalist in spirit, engineered to appeal to the teenage boys who had always been the biggest market for videogames; Night Trap, despite its manifestly clumsy execution, was an attempt to do something genuinely new in games, with the potential to appeal to new types of players. Mortal Kombat would later be remembered as a very good game; Night Trap as a very, very bad one. Mortal Kombat was a game whose content a reasonable person could reasonably object to in at least some contexts; Night Trap was most offensive in its sheer ineptness, and was hardly the grisly interactive slasher flick which Lieberman apparently believed it to be. Nevertheless, here they both were. December 9, 1993, would change the games industry forever.
(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent, Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood by Jamie Russell, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Edge of February 1994; New York Times of October 15 1982 and September 16 1993; Retro Gamer 54; the article “Regulating Violence in Video Games: Virtually Everything” by Alex Wilcox in the Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, Volume 31, Issue 1. Online sources include Kevin D. Impellizeri’s look back at the videogame hearings, “When Two Tribes Go to War: A History of Video Game Controversy” at GameSpot, “The 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming” at GameSpy, and Shannon Symonds’s blog post about Death Race at the Strong Museum of Play’s website.)
We approached games as immersive simulations. We wanted to build game environments that reacted to player’s decisions, that behaved in natural ways, and where players had more verbs than simply “shoot.” DOOM was not an influence on System Shock. We were trying something more difficult and nuanced, [although] we still had a lot of respect for the simplicity and focus of [the id] games. There was, to my recollection, a vague sense of fatalism about the parallel tracks the two companies were taking, since it was clear early on that id’s approach, which needed much less player education and which ran on adrenaline rather than planning and immersion, was more likely to be commercially successful. But we all believed very strongly in Looking Glass’s direction, and were proud that we were taking games to a more cerebral and story-rich place.
— Dorian Hart
We hope that our toiling now to make things work when it is still very hard to do effectively will mean that when it is easier to do, we can concentrate on the parts of the game that are less ephemeral than polygons per second, and distinguish ourselves by designing detailed and immersive environments which are about more than just the technology.
— Doug Church
In late 1992, two separate studios began working on two separate games whose descriptions sound weirdly identical to one another. Each was to make you the last human survivor on a besieged space station. You would roam its corridors in real time in an embodied first-person view; both studios prided themselves on their cutting-edge 3D graphics technology. As you explored, you would have to kill or be killed by the monsters swarming the complex. Yet wresting back control of the station would demand more than raw firepower: in the end, you would have to outwit the malevolent intelligence behind it all. Both games were envisioned as unprecedentedly rich interactive experiences, as a visceral new way of living through an interactive story.
But in the months that followed, these two projects that had started out so conceptually similar diverged dramatically. The team that was working on DOOM at id Software down in Dallas, Texas, decided that all of the elaborate plotting and puzzles were just getting in the way of the simpler, purer joys of blowing away demons with a shotgun. Lead programmer John Carmack summed up id’s attitude: “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” id discovered that they weren’t really interested in making an immersive virtual world; they were interested in making an exciting game, one whose “gameyness” they felt no shame in foregrounding.
Meanwhile the folks at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based studio Looking Glass Technologies stuck obstinately to their original vision. They made exactly the uncompromising experience they had first discussed, refusing to trade psychological horror in for cheaper thrills. System Shock would demand far more of its players than DOOM, but would prove in its way an even more rewarding game for those willing to follow it down the moody, disturbing path it unfolded.
It was in this moment, then, that the differences between id and Looking Glass, the yin and the yang of 1990s 3D-graphics pioneers, became abundantly clear.
Looking Glass arrived at their crossroads moment just as they were completing their second game, Ultima Underworld II. Both it and its predecessor were first-person fantasy dungeon crawls set in and around Britannia, the venerable world of the Ultima CRPG series to which their games served as spinoffs. And both were very successful, so much so that they almost overshadowed Ultima VII, the latest entry in the mainline series. Looking Glass’s publisher Origin Systems would have been happy to let them continue making games in this vein for as long as their customers kept buying them.
But Looking Glass, evincing the creative restlessness that would define them throughout their existence, was ready to move on to other challenges. In the months immediately after Ultima Underworld II was completed, the studio’s head Paul Neurath allowed his charges to start three wildly diverse projects on the back of the proceeds from the Underworld games, projects which were unified only by their heavy reliance on 3D graphics. One was a game of squad-level tactical combat called Terra Nova, another a civilian flight simulator called Flight Unlimited. And the third — actually, the first of the trio to be officially initiated — was System Shock.
Doug Church, the driving creative force behind Ultima Underworld, longed to create seamless interactive experiences, where you didn’t so much play a game as enter into its world. The Underworld games had been a big step in that direction within the constraints of the CRPG form, thanks to their first-person, free-scrolling perspective, their real-time gameplay, and, not least, the way they cast you in the role of a single embodied dungeon delver rather than that of the disembodied manager of a whole party of them. But Church believed that there was still too much that pulled you out of their worlds. Although the games were played entirely from a single screen, which itself put them far ahead of most CRPGs in terms of immediacy, you were still switching constantly from mode to mode within that screen. “I felt that Underworld was sort of [four] different games that you played in parallel,” says Church. “There was the stats-based game with the experience points, the inventory-collecting-and-managing game, the 3D-moving-around game, and there was the talking game — the conversation-branch game.” What had seemed so fresh and innovative a couple of years earlier now struck Church as clunky.
Ironically, much of what he was objecting to is inherent to the CRPG form itself. Aficionados of the genre find it endlessly enjoyable to pore over their characters’ statistics at level-up time, to min-max their equipment and skills. And this is fine: the genre is as legitimate as any other. Yet Church himself found its cool intellectual appeal, derived from its antecedents on the tabletop which had no choice but to reveal all of their numbers to their players, to be antithetical to the sort of game that he wanted to make next:
In Underworld, there was all this dice rolling going on off-screen basically, and I’ve always felt it was kind of silly. Dice were invented as a way to simulate swinging your sword to see if you hit or miss. So everyone builds computer games where you move around in 3D and swing your sword and hit or miss, and then if you hit you roll some dice to simulate swinging a sword to decide if you hit or miss. How is anyone supposed to understand unless you print the numbers? Which is why, I think, most of the games that really try to be hardcore RPGs actually print out, “You rolled a 17!” In [the tabletop game of] Warhammer when you get a five-percent increase and the next time you roll your attack you make it by three percent, you’re all excited because you know that five-percent increase is why you hit. In a computer game you have absolutely no idea. And so we really wanted to get rid of all that super opaque, “I have no idea what’s going on” stuff. We wanted to make it so you can watch and play and it’s all happening.
So, there would be no numbers in his next game — no character levels, no character statistics, not even quantifiable hit points. There would just be you, right there in the world, without any intervening layers of abstraction.
Over the course of extensive discussions involving Doug Church himself, Paul Neurath, Looking Glass designer and writer Austin Grossman, and their Origin Systems producer Warren Spector, it was decided to make a first-person science-fiction game with distinct cyberpunk overtones, pitting you against an insane computer known as SHODAN. Cyberpunk was anything but a novelty in the games of the 1990s, a time when authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson all occupied prominent places on the genre-fiction bestseller charts and the game developers who read their novels rushed to bring their visions to life on monitor screens. Still, cyberpunk would suit Looking Glass’s purposes unusually perfectly by presenting a credible explanation for the diegetic interface Church was envisioning. You would play a character with a neural implant that let you “see” a heads-up display sporting a life bar for yourself, an energy bar for your weapons and other hardware, etc. — all of it a part of the virtual world rather than external to it. When you switched between “modes,” such as when bringing up the auto-map or your inventory display, it would be the embodied you who did so in the virtual world, not that other you who sat in front of the computer telling a puppet what to do next.
Dissatisfied with what he saw as the immersion-killing conversation trees of Ultima Underworld, Church decided to get rid of two-way conversation altogether. When the game began, there would be enticing signs that other humans were still alive somewhere on the space station, but you would be consistently too late to reach them; you would encounter them only as the zombies SHODAN turned them into after death. Of course, all of this too was highly derivative, and on multiple levels at that. Science-fiction fans had been watching their heroes take down out-of-control computers since the original Star Trek television series if not before; “I don’t think if you wrote the novel [of System Shock] it would fly off the shelves,” admits Church. Likewise, computer games had been contriving ways to place you in deserted worlds, or in worlds inhabited only by simple-minded creatures out for your blood, for as long as said games had existed, always in order to avoid the complications of character interaction; the stately isolation of the mega-hit adventure game Myst was only the most recent notable example of the longstanding tradition at the time System Shock was in development.
But often it’s not what you do in any form of media, it’s how well you do it. And System Shock does what it sets out to do very, very well indeed. It tells a story of considerable complexity and nuance through the artifacts you find lying about as you explore the station and the emails you receive from time to time, allowing you to piece it all together for yourself in nonlinear fashion. “We wanted to make the plot and story development of System Shock be an exploration as well,” says Church, “and that’s why it’s all in the logs and data, so then it’s very tied into movement through the spaces.”
Moving through said spaces, picking up bits and pieces of the horrible events which have unfolded there, quickly becomes highly unnerving. The sense of embodied realism that clings to every aspect of the game is key to the sense of genuine, oppressive fear it creates in its player. Tellingly, Looking Glass liked to call System Shock a “simulation,” even though it simulates nothing that has ever existed in the real world. The word is rather shorthand for its absolute commitment to the truth — fictional truth, yes, but truth nevertheless — of the world it drops you into.
Story is very important to System Shock — and yet, in marked contrast to works in the more traditionally narrative-oriented genre of the adventure game, its engine also offers heaps and heaps of emergent possibility as you move through the station discovering what has gone wrong here and, finally, how you might be able to fix it. “It wasn’t just, ‘Go do this sequence of four things,'” says Church. “It was, ‘Well, there are going to be twelve cameras here and you gotta take out eight of them. Figure it out.’ We [also] gave you the option [of saying], ‘I don’t want to fight that guy. Okay, maybe I can find another way…'”
Thus System Shock manages the neat trick of combining a compelling narrative with a completely coherent environment that never reduces you to choosing from a menu of options, one where just about any solution for any given problem that seems like it ought to work really does work. Just how did Looking Glass achieve this when so many others before and since have failed, or been so daunted by the challenges involved that they never even bothered to try? They did so by combining technical excellence with an aesthetic sophistication to which few of their peers could even imagine aspiring.
Just as the 3D engine that powers Ultima Underworld is more advanced than the pseudo-3D of id’s contemporaneous Wolfenstein 3D, the System Shock engine outdoes DOOM in a number of important respects. The enormous environments of System Shock curve over and under and around one another, complete with sloping floors everywhere; lighting is realistically simulated; you can jump and crouch and look up and down and lean around corners; you can take advantage of its surprisingly advanced level of physics simulation in countless ingenious ways. System Shock even boasts perspective-correct texture mapping, a huge advance over Ultima Underworld, and no easy thing to combine with the aforementioned slopes.
That said, it’s also abundantly true that a more advanced engine doesn’t automatically make for a better game. Any such comparison must always carry an implied addendum: better for whom? Certainly DOOM succeeded beautifully in realizing its makers’ ambitions, even as its more streamlined engine could run well on many more of the typical computers of the mid-1990s than System Shock‘s could. By no means do the engines’ respective advantages all run one way: in addition to being much faster than the System Shock engine, the DOOM engine allows rooms of arbitrary sizes and non-orthogonal walls, neither of which is true of its counterpart from Looking Glass.
In the end, System Shock wants to be a very different experience than DOOM, catering to a different style of play, and its own engine is designed to allow it to realize its own ambitions. It demands a more careful approach from its player, where you must constantly use light and shadow, walls and obstacles, to aid you in your desperate struggle. For you are not a superhuman outer-space marine in System Shock; you’re just, well, you, scared and alone in a space station filled with rampaging monsters.
A fine example of the lengths to which Looking Glass’s technologists were willing to go in the service of immersion is provided by the mini-games you can play. Inspired by, of all things, the similarly plot-irrelevant mini-games found in the LucasArts graphic adventure Sam and Max Hit the Road, they contribute much more to the fiction in this case than in that other one. As with everything in System Shock, the mini-games are not external to the world of the main game. It’s rather you playing them through your neural implant right there in the world; it’s you who cowers in a safe corner somewhere, trying to soothe your soul with a quick session of Breakout or Missile Command. You get the chance to collect more and better games as you infiltrate the station’s computer network using the cyberspace jacks you find scattered about — a reward of sorts for a forlorn hacker trying to survive against an all-powerful entity and her horrifying minions.
Sean Barret, a programmer who came to Looking Glass and to the System Shock project well into the game’s development, implemented the most elaborate by far of the mini-games, a gentle satire of Origin Systems’s Wing Commander that goes under the name of Wing 0. The story of its creation is a classic tale of Looking Glass, a demonstration both of the employees’ technical brilliance and their insane levels of commitment to the premises of their games. Newly arrived on the team and wishing to make a good impression, Barrett saw a list of mini-game ideas on a whiteboard; a “Wing Commander clone” was among them. So, he set to work, and some days later presented his creation to his colleagues. They were as shocked as they were delighted; it turned out that the Wing Commander clone had been a joke rather than a serious proposal. In the end, however, System Shock got its very own Wing Commander after all.
Still, there were many other technically excellent and crazily dedicated games studios in the 1990s, just as there are today. What truly set Looking Glass apart was their interest in combining the one sort of intelligence with another kind that has not always been in quite so great a supply in the games industry.
As Looking Glass grew, Paul Neurath brought some very atypical characters into the fold. Already in late 1991, he placed an advertisement in the Boston Globe for a writer with an English degree. He eventually hired Austin Grossman, who would do a masterful job of scattering the puzzle pieces of Doug Church’s story outline around the System Shock space station. There soon followed another writer with an English degree, this one by the name of Dorian Hart, who would construct some of the station’s more devious internal spaces using the flair for drama which he had picked up from all of the books he had read. He was, as he puts it, “a liberal-arts nobody with no coding skills or direct industry experience, thrown onto arguably the most accomplished and leading-edge videogame production team ever assembled. It’s hard to explain how unlikely that was, and how fish-out-of-water I felt.” Nevertheless, there he was — and System Shock was all the better for his presence.
Another, even more unlikely set of game developers arrived in the persons of Greg LoPiccolo and Eric and Terri Brosius, all members of a popular Boston rock band known as Tribe, who had been signed to a major label amidst the Nirvana-fueled indie-rock boom of the early 1990s, only to see the two albums they recorded fail to duplicate their local success on a national scale. They were facing a decidedly uncertain future when Doug Church and Dan Schmidt — the latter being another Looking Glass programmer, designer, and writer — showed up in the audience at a Tribe show. They loved the band’s angular, foreboding songs and arrangements, they explained afterward, and wanted to know if they’d be interested in doing the music for a science-fiction computer game that would have much the same atmosphere. Three members of the band quickly agreed, despite knowing next to nothing about computers or the games they played. “Being young, not knowing what would happen next, that was part of the magic,” remembers Eric Brosius. “We were willing to learn because it was just an exciting time.”
Terri Brosius became the voice of SHODAN, a role that fell to her by default: artificial intelligences in science fiction typically spoke in a female voice, and she was the only woman to be found among the Looking Glass creative staff. But however she got the part, she most definitely made it her own. She laughs that “people tend to get freaked out” when they hear her speak today in real life. And small wonder: her glitchy voice ringing through the empty corridors of the station, dripping with sarcastic malice, is one of the indelible memories that every player of System Shock takes away with her. Simply put, SHODAN creeps you the hell out. “You had a recurring, consistent, palpable enemy who mattered to you,” notes Doug Church — all thanks to Austin Grossman’s SHODAN script and Terri Brosius’s unforgettable portrayal of her.
As I think about the combination of technical excellence and aesthetic sophistication that was Looking Glass, I find one metaphor all but unavoidable: that of Looking Glass as the Infocom of the 1990s. Certainly Infocom, their predecessors of the previous decade on the Boston-area game-development scene, evinced much the same combination — the same thoroughgoing commitment to excellence and innovation in all of their forms — during their own heyday. If the 3D-graphics engines of Looking Glass seem a long way from the text and parsers of Infocom, let that merely be a sign of just how much gaming itself had changed in a short span of time. Even when we turn to more plebeian matters, there are connections to be found beyond a shared zip code. Both studios were intimately bound up with MIT, sharing in the ideas, personnel, and, perhaps most of all, the culture of the university; both had their offices on the same block of CambridgePark Drive; two of Looking Glass’s programmers, Dan Schmidt and Sean Barrett, later wrote well-received textual interactive fictions of their own. The metaphor isn’t ironclad by any means; Legend Entertainment, founded as it was by former Infocom author Bob Bates and employing the talents of Steve Meretzky, is another, more traditionalist answer to the question of the Infocom of the 1990s. Still, the metaphor does do much to highlight the nature of Looking Glass’s achievements, and their importance to the emerging art form of interactive narrative. Few if any studios were as determined to advance that art form as these two were.
But Looking Glass’s ambitions could occasionally outrun even their impressive abilities to implement them, just as could Infocom’s at times. In System Shock, this overreach comes in the form of the sequences that begin when you utilize one of those aforementioned cyberspace jacks that you find scattered about the station. System Shock‘s cyberspace is an unattractive, unwelcoming place — and not in a good way. It’s plagued by clunky controls and graphics that manage to be both too minimalist and too garish, that are in fact almost impossible to make head or tail of. The whole thing is more frustrating than fun, not a patch on the cyberspace sequences to be found in Interplay’s much earlier computer-game adaption of William Gibson’s breakthrough novel Neuromancer. So, it turns out that even the collection of brilliant talent that was assembled at Looking Glass could have one idea too many. Doug Church:
We thought [that] it fit from a conceptual standpoint. You’re a hacker; shouldn’t you hack something? We thought it would be fun to throw in a different movement mode that was more free-form, more action. In retrospect, we probably should have either cut it or spent more time on it. There is some fun stuff in it, but it’s not as polished as it should be. But even so, it was nice because it at least reinforced the idea that you were the hacker, in a totally random, arcadey, broken kind of way. But at least it suggested that you’re something other than a guy with a gun. We were looking at ourselves and saying, “Oh, of course we should have cyberspace! We’re a cyberpunk game, we gotta have cyberspace! Well, what can we do without too much time? What if we do this crazy thing?” Off we went…
By way of compounding the problem, the final confrontation with SHODAN takes place… in cyberspace. This tortuously difficult and thoroughly unfun finale has proven to be too much for many a player, leaving her to walk away on the verge of victory with a terrible last taste of the game lingering in her mouth.
Luckily, it’s possible to work around even this weakness to a large extent, thanks to another of the generous affordances which Looking Glass built into the game. You can decide for yourself how complex and thus how difficult you wish the game to be along four different axes: Combat (the part of the game that is most like DOOM); Mission (the non-combat tasks you have to accomplish to free the station from SHODAN’s grip); Puzzle (the occasional spatial puzzles that crop up when you try to jigger a lock or the like); and Cyber (the cyberspace implementation). All of these can be set to a value between zero and three, allowing you to play System Shock as anything from a straight-up shooter where all you have to do is run and gun to an unusually immersive and emergent pure adventure game populated only by “feeble” enemies who “never attack first.” The default experience sees all of these values set at two, and this is indeed the optimal choice in my opinion for those who don’t have a complete aversion to any one of the game’s aspects — with one exception: I would recommend setting Cyber to one or even zero in order to save yourself at lot of pain, especially at the very end. (The ultimate challenge for System Shock veterans, on the other hand, comes by setting the Mission value to three; this imposes a time limit on the whole game of about seven hours.)
System Shock was released in late 1994, almost two full years after Ultima Underworld II, Looking Glass’s last game. It sold acceptably but not spectacularly well for a studio that was already becoming well-acquainted with the financial worries that would continue to dog them for the rest of their existence. Reviews were quite positive, yet many of the authors of same seemed barely to have noticed the game’s subtler qualities, choosing to lump it in instead with the so-called “DOOM clones” that were beginning to flood the market by this point, almost a year after the original DOOM‘s release. (One advantage of id Software’s more limited ambitions for their game was the fact that it was finished much, much quicker than System Shock; in fact, a DOOM II was already on store shelves by the time System Shock made it there.)
Although everyone at Looking Glass took the high road when asked about the DOOM connection, the press and public’s tendency to diminish their own accomplishment in 3D virtual-world-building had to rankle at some level; former employees insist to this day that DOOM had no influence whatsoever on their own creation, that System Shock would have turned out the same even had DOOM never existed. The fact is, Looking Glass’s own claim to the title of 3D-graphics pioneers is every bit as valid as that of id, and their System Shock engine actually was, as we’ve seen, more advanced than that of DOOM in a number of ways. No games studio in history has ever deserved less to be treated as imitators rather than innovators.
Alas, mainstream appreciation would be tough to come by throughout the remaining years of Looking Glass’s existence, just as it had sometimes been for Infocom before them. A market that favored the direct, visceral pleasures of id’s DOOM and, soon, Quake didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Looking Glass’s more nuanced 3D worlds. And so, yet again as with Infocom, it would not be until after Looking Glass was no more that the world of gaming would come to fully appreciate everything they had achieved. When asked pointedly about the sales charts which his games so consistently failed to top, Doug Church showed wisdom beyond his years in insisting that the important thing was just to earn enough back to make the next game.
id did a great job with [DOOM]. And more power to them. I think you want to do things that connect with the market and you want to do things that people like and you want to do things that get seen. But you also want to do things you actually believe in and you personally want to do. Hey, if you’re going to work twenty hours a day and not get paid much money, you might as well do something you like. We were building the games we were interested in; we had that luxury. We didn’t have spectacular success and a huge win, but we had enough success that we got to do some more. And at some level, at least for me, sure, I’d love to have huge, huge success. But if I get to do another game, that’s pretty hard to complain about.
Today, free of the vicissitudes of an inhospitable marketplace, System Shock more than speaks for itself. Few games, past or present, combine so many diverse ideas into such a worthy whole, and few demonstrate such uncompromising commitment to their premise and their fiction. In a catalog filled with remarkable achievements, System Shock still stands out as one of Looking Glass’s most remarkable games of all, an example of what magical things can happen when technical wizardry is placed in the service of real aesthetic sophistication. By all means, go play it now if you haven’t already. Or, perhaps better said, go live it now.
(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III and System Shock: Strategies and Secrets by Bernie Yee; Origin’s official System Shock hint book; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 3 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, and May 5 1995; Electronic Entertainment of December 1994; Computer Gaming World of December 1994; Next Generation of February 1995; Game Developer of April/May 1995. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: The History of Looking Glass” and “From Looking Glass to Harmonix: The Tribe,” both by Mike Mahardy of Polygon. Most of all, huge thanks to Dorian Hart, Sean Barrett, and Dan Schmidt for talking with me about their time at Looking Glass.
System Shock is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)
Movies and computer games are my two favorite things. If I weren’t doing one I’d be doing the other.
— Chris Roberts
Prior to the release of DOOM in late 1993, Wing Commander I and II and their assorted spinoffs and expansion packs constituted not just the most popular collection of outer-space shoot-em-ups since the heyday of Elite but the most popular computer-gaming franchise of the new decade in any genre.
Upon its release in September of 1990, the first Wing Commander had taken the world by storm by combining spectacular graphics with a secret weapon whose potency surprised even Origin Systems, its Austin, Texas-based developer and publisher: a thin thread of story connected its missions together, being conveyed through the adventure-game style interface that was employed for the scenes taking place on the Tiger’s Claw, the outer-space “aircraft” carrier from which you and your fellow fighter pilots flew in a life-or-death struggle against the Kilrathi, a race of genocidal space cats who regarded humans the same way that Earthbound cats do mice. Having seen what their customers wanted, Origin doubled down on the drama in Wing Commander II, which was released in August of 1991; it told a much more elaborate and ambitious story of betrayal and redemption, complete with plenty of intrigue of both the political and the romantic stripe.
After that, the spinoffs and expansion packs had to carry the franchise’s water for quite some time, while Chris Roberts, its father and mastermind, brought its trademark approach to a near-future techno-thriller called Strike Commander, which was released after considerable delay in the spring of 1993. It was only when gamers proved less receptive to the change in milieu than Roberts and Origin had hoped that the former turned his full attention at last to Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger.
At the time, the game that would eventually be released under that name was already in development, but the company’s ambitions for it were much smaller than they would soon become. The project was in the hands of what Robin Todd, a programmer on the project,1 today calls a “small and inexperienced team”: “three main programmers with minimal game-dev experience, working cheap.” Their leader was one Frank Savage, an Origin-fan-turned-Origin-programmer so passionate about the Wing Commander franchise that his car bore the personalized license plate “WNGCMDR.” Had the group completed the game according to the original plan, it would likely have been released as yet another spinoff rather than the next numbered title in the series.
As it was, though, the project was about to take on a whole new dimension: Chris Roberts stepped in to become the “director” of what was now to be Wing Commander III. Having been recently acquired by Electronic Arts, Origin felt keenly the need to prove themselves to their new owners by delivering an unequivocal, out-of-the-ballpark home run, and the third major iteration of their biggest franchise seemed as close to a guaranteed commercial winner as one could hope to find in the fickle world of computer gaming.
Roberts had built his reputation on cutting-edge games that pushed the state of the art in personal-computer technology to its absolute limit; the first Wing Commander had been one of the first games to require an 80386 processor to run at all well, while Compaq had used Strike Commander as an advertisement for their latest Pentium-based computer models. Now, he decided that Wing Commander III ought to employ the latest technological development to take the industry by storm: not a new processor but rather the inclusion of live human actors on the monitor screen — as captured on videotape, digitized, overlaid onto conventional computer graphics, and delivered on the magical new storage medium of CD-ROM. From a contemporary interview with Roberts:
If you wanted to show your hot machine off back in 1990, Wing I was the game to do it. I think that right now we are in a phase where CD-ROM is becoming standard and everyone is getting a multimedia machine, but I don’t really think the software is out there yet that truly shows it off. That’s what I think Wing III is going to do.
Everyone’s been talking about interactive movies, but we hadn’t heard of anyone doing it right, so we wanted to go out and do it properly. With Wing III, we tried to apply the production values to an interactive movie that we’d applied on the computer side with the previous Wing Commanders. The goal was, if someone said, “What’s an interactive movie?” we’d just hand them the CDs from Wing Commander III and say, “Here, check this out.”
In keeping with his determination to make his interactive movie “right,” Roberts wanted to involve real film professionals in the production. Through the good offices of the California-based Electronic Arts, Hollywood screenwriters Frank DePalma and Terry Borst were hired; they were a well-established team who had demonstrated their ability to deliver competent work on time on several earlier projects, among them a low-budget feature film entitled Private War. Their assignment now was to turn Roberts’s plot outline into a proper screenplay, with the addition of occasional branch points where the player could make a choice to affect the flow of the narrative. After they did so, a Hollywood-based artist turned their script into a storyboard, the traditional next step in conventional film-making.
The thoroughgoing goal was to make Wing Commander III in just the same way that “real” movies were made. Thus a director of photography, assistant director, and art director as well were brought over from the film industry. And then came the hair and makeup people, the caterers, the Hollywood sound stage itself. Origin even spent some $15,000 trying to figure out how to digitize 35-millimeter film prints before being forced to acknowledge that humdrum videotape was vastly more practical.
The one great exception to the rule of film professionals doing what they did best was Chris Roberts himself, a 25-year-old programmer and game designer who knew precisely nothing about making movies, but who nevertheless sat in the time-honored canvas-backed director’s chair throughout the shoot with a huge how-did-I-get-here grin on his face. And why not? For a kid who had grown up on Star Wars, making his own science-fiction film was a dream come true.
That said, Wing Commander III was dramatically different from Star Wars when it came to the very important question of its budget: Origin anticipated that it would cost $2.8 million in all. This was an astronomical budget for a computer game at the time — the budgets of the most expensive, most high-profile games had begun to break the $1 million barrier only in the last year or two — but a bad joke by the standards of even the cheapest Hollywood production. Origin made up the difference by not building any sets whatsoever; their actors would perform on an empty sound stage in front of an expansive green screen, with all of the scenery to be inserted behind them after the fact by Origin’s computer artists.
Truly sought-after actors would cost far more than Origin had to spend, so they settled for a collection of hopeful up-and-comers mixed with older names whose careers were not exactly going gangbusters at the time, all spiced up with a certain amount of stunt casting designed to appeal to the typical computer-gaming demographic of slightly nerdy young men. At the head of the list, a real catch by this standard, was Mark Hamill — none other than Luke Skywalker himself. If some of his snobby Hollywood peers might have judged his appearance in a computer game as another sign of just how much his post-Star Wars career had failed to live up to popular expectations, Hamill himself, a good egg with both feet planted firmly on the ground, seemed to have long since made peace with that same failure and adopted a “just happy to have work” attitude toward his professional life. Wing Commander III wasn’t even his first computer game; he had previously voice-acted one of the roles in the adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. He was originally recruited to Wing Commander III for the supporting role of Maniac, one of the player’s fellow pilots, who lives up to his name with a rather, shall we say, rambunctious flying style; only late in negotiations did he agree to take the role of Colonel Blair, the player-controlled protagonist of the story.
Joining him were other veteran actors who had lost some of their mojo in recent years, but who likewise preferred working to sitting at home: Malcolm McDowell, best known for his starring roles in the controversial A Clockwork Orange and the even more controversial Caligula during the 1970s; John Rhys-Davies, who had played Indiana Jones’s sidekick Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (he would go on to enjoy something of a late-career renaissance when he was cast as Gimli the dwarf in the Lord of the Rings films); Jason Bernard, a perennial supporting actor on 1970s and 1980s television; Tom Wilson, who had played the cretinous bully Biff Tannen in the three Back to the Future movies. (He replaced Hamill in the role of Maniac — a role not that far removed from his most famous one, come to think of it.)
A more eyebrow-raising casting choice was Ginger Lynn Allen, a once and future porn star whose oeuvre may perhaps have been more familiar to more of Origin’s customers than might have admitted that fact to their mothers. (She played Blair’s sexy mechanic, delivering her innuendo with enthusiastic abandon: “Are we going to kick in the afterburners here?”; “There’s a lot more thrust in those jets than I imagined…”)
On the Set with Wing Commander III
Computer Gaming World magazine would later reveal how much some of these folks were paid for their performances. As the star, Mark Hamill got $153,000 up-front and a guaranteed 1.75 percent of the game’s net earnings after the first 175,000 copies were sold; Jason Bernard got a lump sum of $60,000; Malcolm McDowell earned $50,000; Ginger Lynn Allen received just $10,000. (The same article reveals that Origin sought Charlton Heston for the game, but balked at his agent’s asking price of $100,000.)
Principal photography lasted most of the month of May 1994, although not all of the actors were present through the whole of filming. “More than 80 experienced film professionals worked up to eighteen-hour days in order to realize Chris Roberts’s vision of the final chapter of the Terran-Kilrathi struggle,” wrote Origin excitedly in their in-house newsletter to commemorate the shoot’s conclusion. “Although always intense and frequently frustrating, the shoot progressed without any major complications, thanks in part to a close monitoring of contracts, budgets, and schedules by resident ‘suits’ in both Austin and San Mateo.” (The latter city was the home of Electronic Arts.) Few to none of the actors and other Hollywood hands understood what the words “interactive movie” actually meant, but they all did their jobs like the professionals they were. In all, some 200 hours of footage was shot, to eventually be edited down to around three hours in the finished game.
The presence of so many recognizable actors on the set, combined with the broader mass-media excitement over multimedia and CD-ROM, brought a parade of mainstream press to the shoot. The Today show, VH-1, the Los Angeles Times, Premiere magazine, the Associated Press, USA Today, Newsweek, Forbes, and Fortune were just some of the media entities that stopped in to take some pictures, shoot some video, and conduct a few interviews. At a time when the likes of DOOM was still well off the mainstream radar, Wing Commander III was widely accepted as the prototype for gaming’s inevitable future. Even many of the industry’s insiders accepted this conventional wisdom about “Siliwood” — a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, as described by Alex Dunne that year in Game Developer magazine:
Ninety years after it first burst onto the scene, cinema is undergoing a renaissance. More than just a rebirth actually, it’s really a fusion with computer and video games that’s resulting in some cool entertainment: a new breed of interactive, “live-action” games featuring Hollywood movie stars. Such games, like Hell, Under a Killing Moon, and Wing Commander III, are coming out with more frequency, and they’re boosting the acting careers of some people in Tinseltown.
As Siliwood comes into its own, the line between games and movies will rapidly fade. Ads in game magazines already look like blockbuster movie ads, and we’ve begun to see stars’ mug shots alongside blurbs detailing the minimum system requirements. Interactive game drama is here, so forget the theater and renting movies — fire up the Intel nickelodeon.
Amidst all the hype, peculiarly little attention was paid to the other part of Wing Commander III, the ostensible heart of the experience: the actual missions you flew behind the controls of an outer-space fighter plane. This applied perhaps as much inside Origin as it did anywhere else. Chris Roberts was a talented game designer and programmer — he had, after all, been responsible for the original Wing Commander engine which had so wowed gamers back in 1990 — but his attention was now given over almost entirely to script consultations, film shoots, and virtual set design. Tellingly, Origin devoted far more resources to the technology needed to make the full-motion video go than they did to that behind the space simulator.
On the other hand, that choice may have been a perfectly reasonable one, given that they already had what they considered to be a perfectly reasonable 3D-simulation engine, a legacy of Strike Commander. Although that game had used VGA graphics only, at a resolution of 320 X 200, its engine had been designed from the start with the necessary hooks to enable Super VGA graphics, at a resolution of 640 X 480, when the time came. And that time was now. No one would be able to say that Wing Commander III‘s spaceflight sequences didn’t look very nice indeed. For its was a full-fledged 3D engine, complete with texture mapping and all the other bells and whistles. As such, it was a major upgrade over the one found in Wing Commander I and II, which had been forced by the hardware limitations of its time to substitute scaled sprites for real 3D models. With Roberts so busy scripting and filming his interactive movie, most of the responsibility for what happened in the cockpit continued to rest on the shoulders of Frank Savage, whose official title was now “game development director.”
Wing Commander III was a high-risk project for Origin. Since being acquired by Electronic Arts in September of 1992, they had yet to come up with a really big hit: Strike Commander had, as already noted, under-performed relative to expectations upon its release in the spring of 1993, while the launch of Ultima VIII a year later had been an unmitigated disaster. Under the assumption that you have to swing for the fences to hit a home run — or simply that you have to spend money to make money — Origin and their nervous corporate parent didn’t object even when Wing Commander III‘s budget crept up to $4 million, making it the most expensive computer game ever made by a factor of more than two. Their one inflexible requirement was that the game had to ship in time for the Christmas of 1994. And this it did, thanks to the absurdly long hours put in by everyone; not for nothing would Origin go down in history as the company that largely invented crunch time as the industry knows it today. Programmer Robin Todd:
In retrospect the crunch was vicious, but at the time I had nothing else to compare it to. Everything was a blur during the months before we shipped. At whatever time I was too tired to go on programming, I’d go back to my apartment to sleep. And when I woke up, I’d go back to the office. And that was it. What time of day it was didn’t matter. I remember the apartment manager knocking on my door one morning because I was so spaced from working that I’d forgotten to pay my rent for weeks. Sleeping under our desks started as something of a joke, but it quickly became true. There was one designer who wanted to take the evening off for his mom’s birthday, and was told that if he did, then he shouldn’t bother coming back.
I shared an office with two designers, and during a particularly late evening, one of the them turned to me and said, “If I’m still here when the sun comes up, I quit.” And sure enough, we were still there at dawn. He got up and turned in his resignation.
The day the project went gold I tendered my resignation.
At the last minute, it was discovered that the four CDs which were required to contain the game were packed a little too full; some CD-ROM drives were refusing to read them. A hasty round of cuts resulted in a serious plot hole. But so be it; the show went on.
Publicly at least, Chris Roberts himself expressed no concern whatsoever about the game’s commercial prospects. “I have a name brand,” he said, adopting something of the tone of the Hollywood executives with whom he’d recently been spending so much time. “I am not going to lose money on it.” He predicted that Wing Commander III would sell 500,000 copies easily at a suggested list price of $70, enough to bank a tidy profit for everyone — this despite the fact that it required a pricey Pentium-based computer with a fast SVGA graphics card to run optimally, a double-speed CD-ROM drive to run at all.
His confidence was not misplaced. Three major American gaming magazines put Wing Commander III on their covers to commemorate its release in November of 1994, even as features appeared across mainstream media as well to greet the event. Ginger Lynn Allen appeared on Howard Stern’s nationally syndicated radio show, while Malcolm McDowell turned up on MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show. Segments appeared on Entertainment Tonight and CNN; even Japan’s Fuji TV aired a feature story. In short, Wing Commander III married its title of most expensive game ever to that of the most widely covered, most widely hyped computer-game debut in the history of the industry. Within ten months of its release, Next Generation magazine could report that its sales had surpassed Roberts’s predicted half a million copies. Once ported to the Apple Macintosh computer and the 3DO and Sony PlayStation consoles, its total sales likely approached 1 million copies.
It doubtless would have sold even better in its original MS-DOS incarnation if not for those high system requirements and its high price. As it was, though, Origin and Electronic Arts were satisfied. The Hollywood experiment had proved a roaring success; Wing Commander IV was quickly green-lit.
One of my briefs in articles like this one is to place the game in question into its historical context; another is to examine it outside of that context, to ask how it holds up today, what other designers might learn from it, and whether some of you readers might find it worth playing. This is the point in the article where I would normally transition from the one brief to the other. In this case, though, it strikes me as unfair to do so without at least a little bit of preamble.
For, if it’s self-evident that all games are products of their time, it’s also true that some seem more like products of their time than others — and Wing Commander III most definitely belongs in this group. There is a very short window of years, stretching from about 1993 to 1996, from which this game could possibly have sprung; I mean that not so much in terms of technology as in terms of concept. This was the instant when the “Siliwood” approach, as articulated by Alex Dunne above, was considered the necessary, well-nigh inevitable future of gaming writ large. But of course that particular version of the future did not come to pass, and this has left Wing Commander III in an awkward position indeed.
Seen from the perspective of today, a project like this one seems almost surreal. At what other moment in history could a complete neophyte like Chris Roberts have found himself behind the camera directing veteran Hollywood talent who had previously worked under the likes of George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick? It was truly a strange time.
The foregoing is meant to soften the blow of what I have to say next. Because, if you ask me whether Wing Commander III is a good game in the abstract, my answer has to be no, it really is not. It’s best reserved today for those who come to it for nostalgia’s sake, or who are motivated by a deep — not to say morbid! — curiosity about the era which it so thoroughly embodies.
I can hardly emphasize enough the extent to which gaming during the 1990s was a technological arms race. Developers and publishers rushed to take advantage of all the latest affordances of personal computers that were improving with bewildering speed; every year brought faster processors and CD-ROM drives, bigger memories and hard drives, graphics and sound cards of yet higher fidelity. The games that exploited these things to raise the audiovisual bar that much higher dazzled the impressionable young journalists who were assigned to review them so utterly that these earnest scribes often described and evaluated their actual gameplay as little more than an afterthought. Computer Gaming World was the most mature and thoughtful of the major American magazines, and thus less prone to this syndrome than most of its peers. By no means, however, was it entirely immune to it, as Martin E. Cirulis’s five-stars-out-of-five review of Wing Commander III illustrates.
They say that every successful person carries within her the seeds of her own destruction. In the same spirit, many a positive review contains the makings of a negative one. After expounding at length on how “simply incredible” the game is, Cirulis has this to say:
I’m afraid I’ve come to the conclusion that the space-combat aspect of Wing Commander III is almost incidental to playing the thing. The story you are moving through is so interesting and the characters so well-detailed that you almost wish you didn’t have to strap into the fighter just to see what happens next. The story line of a Wing Commander game used to be a gimmick to make what was basically a space-combat game seem more interesting, especially to people who weren’t dedicated sim pilots; but things have come full circle now, and it’s the story that is the point and the flight sim that is the gimmick.
I realize that there will be those who think that I have been blinded by chrome and taken in by pretty pictures and have failed to “critique the game.” Well, more power to them.
Another writer — perhaps even one named Martin E. Cirulis at another moment in time — might frame a review of a game whose cut scenes are its most entertaining part rather differently. Sadly, I’m afraid that I have to become that writer now.
By the standards of most productions of this nature, the game’s cinematic sequences don’t acquit themselves too horribly. If you can look past the inherent cheesiness of pixelated human actors overlaid upon computer-generated backgrounds, you can see some competent directing and acting going on. The game’s eleven-minute opening sequence in particular shows a familiarity with the language of cinema that eludes most other interactive movies. Throughout the game, there is a notable lack of the endless pregnant pauses, the painful periods where the director seems to have no idea where to point the camera, the aura of intense discomfort and vague embarrassment radiating from the actors that was such par for the course during the full-motion-video era. Likewise, the script shows an awareness of how to set up dialog and use it to convey information clearly and concisely.
I give the film-making professionals who helped Chris Roberts to “direct” his first feature film more credit for all of this than I do that young man himself. (Anyone who has seen the later, non-interactive Wing Commander movie knows that Roberts is no natural-born cinematic auteur.) Rather credit him and the rest of Origin for realizing that they needed help and going out and getting it. This unusual degree of self-awareness alone placed them well ahead of most of their peers.
At the same time, though, the production’s competence never translates into goodness. There’s a sort of fecklessness that clings to the thing, of professionals doing a professional job out of professional pride, but never really putting their hearts into it. It’s hard to blame them; the plot outline provided by Roberts was formulaic, derivative stuff, right down to climaxing with a breakneck flight down a long trench. (Star Wars much, Mr. Roberts?) And the less said the better about the inevitable love triangle, in which you must choose between a good girl and a bad girl who both have the hots for you; it’s just awful, on multiple levels.
In cinematic terms, the whole thing is hopelessly stretched in length to boot, a result of the need to give customers their $70 worth. One extended blind alley, involving a secret weapon that’s supposed to end the war with the Kilrathi at a stroke, ends up consuming more than a quarter of the script before it’s on to the next secret weapon and the next last remaining hope for humanity… no, for real this time. The screenwriters noted that their movie wound up having seventeen or eighteen acts instead of the typical three. Putting the best spin they could on things, they said said that scripting Wing Commander III was like scripting “a little miniseries.”
The acting as well is a study in competence without much heart. The actors do their jobs, but never appear to invest much of themselves into their roles; Mark Hamill seems to have had much more fun playing the slovenly Detective Moseley in Gabriel Knight that he did playing the straight-laced Colonel Blair here. Again, though, the script gives the actors so little to work with that it’s hard to blame them. The parade of walking, talking war-movie clichés which they’re forced to play are all surface on the page, so that’s how the actors portray them on the screen. Only Tom Wilson and Ginger Lynn Allen bring any real gusto to their roles. Tellingly, they do so by not taking things very seriously, chewing the (virtual) scenery with a B-movie relish. I don’t know whether more of that sort of thing from the others would have made Wing Commander III a better film under the criteria Chris Roberts was aiming for, but it certainly would have made it a more knowing, entertaining one in my eyes.
Instead, and as usual for a Chris Roberts production, the painful earnestness of the whole affair just drags it down. For all its indebtedness to Star Wars, Wing Commander III lacks those movies’ sense of extravagant fun. Roberts wants us to take all of this seriously, but that’s just impossible to do. The villains are giant cats, for heaven’s sake, who look even more ridiculous here than they do in the earlier games, like some overgrown conglomeration of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh and the anthropomorphic chimpanzees from Planet of the Apes.
As is the norm in games of this style, your degree of actual plot agency in all of this is considerably less than advertised. Yes, you can pick the good girl or the bad girl, or reject them both; you can pick your wingman for each mission; you can choose your character’s attitude in dialog, which sometimes has some effect on others’ attitudes toward you later on. But your agency is sharply circumscribed by the inherent limitations of pre-shot, static snippets of video and the amount of storage space said video requires; it was enough of a challenge for Origin to pack one movie onto four CDs, thank you very much. These limitations mean you can’t steer the story in genuinely new directions during the movie segments. The “interactive” script is, in other words, a string of pearls rather than a branching tree; when you make a choice, the developers’ priority is to acknowledge it more or less perfunctorily and then to get you back into the main flow of their pre-ordained plot.
The developers did design a branching mission tree into the game, but your progression down it is dictated by your performance in the cockpit rather than by any conscious choices you make outside your spacecraft. Nevertheless, there are some generous touches here, including a heroic but doomed last stand of a mission if the war goes really badly. But Origin knew well by this point that most players preferred to replay failed missions instead of taking their lumps and continuing down the story’s “losing” branch, and this knowledge understandably influenced the amount of work they were willing to put into crafting missions which most players would never see; the alleged mission tree in this game is really a linear stream with just a few branching tributaries which either end or rejoin the main flow as quickly as possible. Certainly the most obvious problem with the approach — the fact that the branching mission tree gives less skilled players harder missions so that they can fail even worse after failing the first time, while it gives more skilled players easier missions that might well bore them — is not solved by Wing Commander III.
When it comes to its nuts and bolts as a space simulator, Wing Commander III surprises mostly by how little it’s progressed in comparison to the first two games. The 3D engine looks much better than what came before, is smoother and more consistent, and boasts the welcome addition of user-selectable difficulty levels. At bottom, though, the experience in space remains the same; neither the ships you fly nor their weapons load-outs have changed all that much. The engine’s one genuinely new trick is an ability to simulate flight over a terrestrial landscape, a legacy of its origins with the twentieth-century techno-thriller Strike Commander. Yet even this new capability isn’t utilized until quite late in the game.
Each of the 50 or so missions which you have to fly before you get to that bravura climax breaks down into one of just a few types — patrol these waypoints, destroy that target, or protect this vessel — that play out in very similar ways each time. There’s never much sense of a larger unfolding battle, just a shooting gallery of Kilrathi coming at you. The artificial triggers of the mission designs are seldom well-concealed: reaching this waypoint magically spawns a Kilrathi fighter squadron from out of nowhere, reaching that one spawns a corvette. Meanwhile the need to turn on the auto-pilot and slew your way between the widely separated waypoints within most missions does little for your sense of immersion. Wing Commander III isn’t a complete failure as an arcadey space shooter; some players might even prefer its gung-ho, run-and-gun personality to more nuanced approaches. But I would venture to say that even some of them might find that it gets a little samey well before the 50 missions are complete. (Personally, I maintain that the first Wing Commander, which didn’t stretch itself so thin over so many missions and which was developed first and foremost as a compelling action game rather than an interactive movie, remains the best of the series from the standpoint of excitement in the cockpit.)
Looking back on 1994 from the rarefied heights of 2021, I find that Wing Commander III‘s weaknesses as both interactive movie and space simulator are highlighted by the strengths of a contemporary competitor in both categories.
In the former category, we have Access Software’s Under a Killing Moon, which was released almost simultaneously with Wing Commander III; the two games were often mentioned in the same breath by the trade press because each packed four CDs to the bursting point, giving each an equal claim to the title of largest game ever in terms of sheer number of bytes. Under a Killing Moon was a more typical early full-motion-video production than Wing Commander III in many ways, being a home-grown project that utilized the talents of only a few hired guns from Hollywood. But, for all that the actors’ performances and the camera work often betray this, the whole combines infectious enthusiasm — “We’re making a movie, people!” — with that edge of irony and humor that Chris Roberts’s work always seems to lack. If Wing Commander III is the glossy mainstream take on interactive cinema, Under a Killing Moon is the upstart indie version. It remains as endearing as ever today, one of the relatively few games of its ilk that I can unreservedly recommend. But then, I do tend to prefer the ditch to the middle of the road…
In the realm of space simulators, we have LucasArts’s Star Wars: TIE Fighter, which shipped about six months before Wing Commander III. Ironically given its own cinematic pedigree, TIE Fighter had no interest in Hollywood actors, love triangles, or even branching mission trees, but was rather content merely to be the best pure space simulator to date. Here you can’t hope to succeed as the lone hero charging in with guns blazing; instead you have to coordinate with your comrades-in-arms to carry out missions whose goals are far more complex than hitting a set sequence of waypoints, missions where dozens of ships might be pursuing individual agendas at any given time in dynamic unfolding battles of awesome scale. It’s true that TIE Fighter and its slightly less impressive predecessor X-Wing would probably never have come to exist without the example of the Wing Commander franchise — but it’s also true that LucasArts had well and truly bettered their mentors by the time of TIE Fighter, just their second attempt at the genre.
And now, reading back over what I’ve written, I see that I’ve been as unkind to Wing Commander III as I’d feared I would. Therefore let me say clearly now that neither half of the game is irredeemably bad; I’ve enjoyed action and simulation games with much more hackneyed storytelling, just as I’ve enjoyed narrative-oriented games whose writing and aesthetics are more interesting than their mechanics. The problem with Wing Commander III is that neither side of it is strong enough to make up for the failings of the other. Seen in the cold, hard light of 2021, it’s a poorly written low-budget movie without any vim and vinegar, married to an unambitious retread of a space shooter.
But in the context of 1994, of course, it was a very different story. The nerdy kitsch that most of us see when we look at the game today in no way invalidates the contemporary experiences of those who, like Computer Gaming World‘s Martin E. Cirulis, looked at it and decided that “we are witnessing the birth of something new.” The mid-1990s were a period of tremendous ferment in the world of computing, with new possibilities seeming to open up by the month. Wing Commander III is, whatever else it may be, a reflection of that optimistic time, as it is of the spirit of its wide-eyed creator and its hundreds of thousands of players who were not all that different from him, who came to it ready and willing to be wowed by it. Its unprecedented budget alone made a powerful statement, being tangible proof that computer gaming was becoming a big business that everyone in media had to take seriously.
Created in the best of faith and with the noblest of intentions to move gaming forward, Wing Commander III seemed like a dispatch from the future for a brief window of time. In the long run, though, the possible future it came from was not the one that its medium would wind up embracing, leaving it stranded today on an island of its own making. Such is sometimes the fate of pioneers.
Some Scenes from the Film
(Sources: The books Origin’s Official Guide to Wing Commander III and Wing Commander III: Authorized Combat Guide; Computer Gaming World of September 1994, December 1994, and February 1995; Game Developer of February/March 1005 and June/July 1995; CD-ROM Today of August/September 1994; Next Generation of November 1995; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 6 1994, June 3 1994, July 15 1994, September 9 1994, October 7 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, April 7 1995, and May 3 1995. Online sources include the Wing Commander Combat Information Center‘s treasure trove of information on the game. And thank you to Robin Todd for sharing with me her memories of working on Wing Commander III, crunch time included.
Wing Commander III is available today as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)
Robin Todd was living as Chris Todd at the time, and is credited under that name in the game’s manual. ↩
In 1994, Origin Systems’s Ultima series was the most universally lauded franchise in computer gaming. Over the course of seven mainline games and five spinoffs and side stories, the Ultima brand had consistently stood for elaborate but doggedly nonlinear plots which seriously engaged with questions of ethics; for the familiar but ever-evolving and ever-welcoming world of Britannia in which most of the games took place; for a merry group of recurring boon companions with whom the Avatar, the player-defined protagonist of the games, adventured each time; for complex rules systems and knotty central mysteries that required brainpower and lots of notepaper rather than reflexes to work through.
But then, for the eighth game in the mainline Ultima series, Origin decided to try something just a little bit different. They made a game in which you played a thoughtless jerk moving on rails through a linear series of events; in which you never went to Britannia at all, but stayed instead on a miserable hellhole of a world called Pagan; in which you spent the whole game adventuring alone (after all, who would want to adventure with a jerk like you?); in which the core mechanics were jumping between pedestals like Super Mario and pounding your enemies over the head with your big old hammer.
Tens of thousands of eager Ultima fans, some of whom had been buying every installment of the series for ten years or more, rushed home from their local software stores with Ultima VIII: Pagan in their hot little hands. An hour later, they were one and all sitting there scratching their heads and asking themselves what the hell had happened. Had they bought the wrong game entirely? No, it said “Ultima” right there on the box!
For the past quarter century, Ultima fans have continued to ask themselves that same question: what the hell happened with Ultima VIII? It stands today as one of the most bizarre would-be series continuations in gaming history, such a colossal failure to meet its players’ expectations that, alone and unaided, it killed dead at a stroke the most venerable franchise in computer gaming. No, really: Origin couldn’t have shot Ultima in the head more efficiently if they’d tried. And so we ask ourselves again: what the hell happened? What the hell was Origin thinking?
In seeking to explain the seemingly unexplainable, Ultima fans have tended to hew to a simple, naturally appealing narrative that paints Electronic Arts — gaming’s very own Evil Empire — as the unmitigated villain. After acquiring Origin in late 1992, so the story goes, EA forced them to abandon all of the long-established principles of Ultima in order to reach the mass market of lowest-common-denominator players to which EA aspired. Richard Garriot — a.k.a. “Lord British,” the father of Ultima and co-founder of Origin — has embraced this explanation with gusto, part and parcel of a perhaps too prevalent tendency with His Lordship to lay his failures at the feet of others. From Garriott’s 2017 memoir:
The reality is that EA earns most of its revenue with terrific games like Madden Football. Every year they publish a new edition, which reflects the changes in the NFL. They don’t have to create much that’s new — they just tweak their football-game engine and update the rosters. The rules of football change slowly. At the deadline they wrap it up and release it. The audience is pre-sold.
Conversely, the games we were making could easily take two years or more to create. We released them when we were done. That was not EA’s way of doing business. “Richard,” they told me, “your release of games is incredibly unreliable.” They wanted us to change our development process to meet their deadlines. The game we were developing when we sold Origin was Ultima VIII; EA wanted it on the shelves in time for the following Christmas. This was the first time in my life that the realities of business became more important than the quality of a product. They were adamant: “Richard, you need to cut whatever needs to be cut to get this game done.” So I cut it; I cut it and I cut it and I cut it, and as a result I shipped the most incomplete, dumb, buggy game I’ve ever shipped. I still believe that if we had waited until it was complete, Ultima VIII would have been a great game. We would have been the first to market with a variety of features that eventually proved very popular in other games. But we didn’t wait, and that was my fault. I bowed to the outside pressure.
Most distressing was seeing the results of making those cuts on both the game and my team. The team saw past the warts, knew what we were up against, and loved the game for what it was; they appreciated the innovations in it rather than bemoaning what it could have been. But the press, as well as a number of players, didn’t like it at all. The reviews were terrible. All the money I’d been paid had no meaning. I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA.
And a lot of people had made serious sacrifices to meet EA’s schedule. Many of our programmers had worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week for ten months. We would bring dinner in for them because we were afraid if they left, they might not come back. The last month or so we gave them every other Sunday off so, as one of them pointed out, they could see their family or do some laundry. The creative joy we’d once shared in developing a game had been replaced by the prosaic demands of running a business. It was hard to believe how much had changed; only a few years earlier our people would happily work all night and love every minute of it, and now we had become a sweatshop.
At least partially as a consequence of that disappointment, management told me, basically, that they didn’t want me making big games like Ultima anymore.
This classic passive-aggressive apology — “I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA” doesn’t exactly ring out with contrition — isn’t even internally consistent; if the development team loved their game so much, why was Origin’s management forced to devise stratagems to keep them from going home out of the fear that they wouldn’t come back? Nevertheless, it does contain a fair amount of truth alongside its self-serving omissions; one would be foolish to deny that the EA acquisition played a major role in the Ultima VIII debacle. And yet the discussion should perhaps be framed rather differently. It might be more accurate to see Origin’s acquisition by EA and the eventual Ultima VIII as mutual symptoms rather than cause and effect, both being the result of Origin trying to negotiate trends that seemed to leave Ultima with less and less space to be what it had always been.
Let’s start by looking more closely at the timeline than Garriott deigns to do above. EA and Origin signed the acquisition contract in September of 1992, just five months after Ultima VII: The Black Gate had shipped. Ultima VIII would still have been in the early-concept phase at best at that point. When he refers to “the following Christmas” above, Garriott thus presumably means the Christmas of 1993. While this release date may have been a stated aspiration, it’s hard to believe it was a serious one; it would have marked the swiftest turnaround time between two mainline Ultima games since the first three of them in the early 1980s. As it was, Ultima VIII wouldn’t ship until March of 1994, still in a woefully unfinished state.
Yet the story of Ultima VIII is more than that of just one more game that was released before its time. Even had all of Origin’s plans for it come off perfectly, it would still have been a radical, seemingly nonsensical departure from everything Ultima had been in the past. Multiple sources confirm that it was in fact Richard Garriott himself rather than any soulless suit from EA who decided that the latest installment in Origin’s epic CRPG series ought to become a… platformer. He was inspired in this not by Super Mario Bros., as many fans would later suspect, but rather by Prince of Persia, Broderbund Software’s hugely popular, widely ported, elegantly minimalist, intensely cinematic linear action game. Prince of Persia was and is a more than worthy game in its own right, but it seems a strange choice indeed to use as inspiration for the latest Ultima. We should try to understand where the choice came from in the context of the times.
Garriott has often joked that he spent the first twelve years of his career making essentially the same game over and over — merely making said game that much bigger and better each time out. If so, then Ultima VII was the ultimate, if you will, version of that game. Today its reputation is as hallowed as that of any game of its era; it remains a perennial on lists of the best CRPGs of all time. Yet its mixed reception in 1992 rather belies its modern reputation. Many reviewers expressed a certain ennui about the series as a whole, and ordinary gamers seemed less excited by its arrival than they had been by that of Ultima IV, V, or VI. Ultima Underworld, a more action-oriented spinoff which was created by the outside studio Blue Sky Productions and published by Origin just a month before Ultima VII, collected more critical praise and, likely most frustratingly of all for the hyper-competitive Garriott, continued to outsell its supposed big brother even after the latter’s release. A survey in the March 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine is particularly telling: Ultima VII is rated as the 30th favorite game of the magazine’s readers, while Ultima Underworld is in a tie for third favorite. Meanwhile Origin’s eighteen-month-old Wing Commander II, a cinematic action game of Star Wars-style space combat, still sits at number six.
Indeed, the role of Wing Commander in all of this should not be neglected. The brainchild of an enthusiastic young Englishman named Chris Roberts, the first game in that series had upon its release in 1990 surprised everyone by handily outselling that same year’s Ultima VI. The Wing Commander franchise had kept on outselling Ultima ever since, whilst being faster and easier to make on an installment-by-installment basis.This too could hardly have sat well with Garriott. The House That Ultima Built had become The Home of Wing Commander, and Chris Roberts was now more in demand for interviews than Lord British. The harsh truth was that EA had been far more excited about Wing Commander than Ultima when they decided to acquire Origin.
Taken as a whole, all of this must have seemed intensely symbolic of a changing industry. As computers got faster and came to sport higher-fidelity audiovisual capabilities, visceral action titles were taking a bigger and bigger slice of computer-game sales, as evinced not only by the success of Ultima Underworld and Wing Commander but by other big hits like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. Onscreen text was out of fashion, as was sprawl and complexity and most of the other traditional markers of an Ultima. Shorter, more focused games of the sort that one could pick up and play quickly were in. Origin had to keep up with the trends if they hoped to survive.
In fact, Origin was in an extremely perilous financial state just before the EA acquisition. EA’s deep pockets would allow them to keep pace with spiraling development costs for the time being. But in return, the games they made had to have enough mass-market appeal to recoup their larger budgets.
This, then, was the calculus that went into Ultima VIII, which begins to make the inexplicable at least somewhat more comprehensible. At this juncture in time, epic CRPGs were at literally their lowest ebb in the entire history of computer games. Therefore Ultima, the series that was virtually synonymous with the epic CRPG in the minds of most gamers, needed to become something else. It needed to become simpler and faster-paced, and if it could also jump on the trend toward grittier, more violent ludic aesthetics — I point again to the rise of id Software — so much the better. It may not have been a coincidence that, when Ultima VIII eventually shipped, it did so in a box sporting garish orange flames and a huge pentagram — the same general graphics style and even iconography as was seen in DOOM, id’s latest ultra-violent hit.
Of course, the flaws in the thought process that led to Ultima VIII aren’t hard to identify in retrospect. Games which lack the courage of their own convictions seldom make for good company, any more than do people of the same stripe. The insecure child of a nervous creator who feared the world of gaming was passing him by, Ultima VIII could likely never have aspired to be more than competent in a derivative sort of way.
The biggest blunder was the decision to slap the Ultima name on the thing at all, thereby raising expectations on the part of the franchise’s preexisting fan base which the game was never designed to meet. Ironically, the audience for an Ultima was every bit as “pre-sold,” as Garriott puts it above, as the audience for the latest Madden. And yet one game that fails to meet fan expectations can destroy just such a pre-sold audience really, really quickly, as Garriott was about to prove. (An analogy to the radical change in course of Ultima VIII might be a Madden installment that suddenly decided to become a cerebral stat-based game of football management and strategy instead of an exercise in fast-paced on-the-field action…) It would have been better to announce that Ultima was taking a break while Lord British tried something new. But it seems that Garriott identified so strongly with the only line of games he had ever seriously worked on that he couldn’t imagine not calling his latest one Ultima VIII.
So much for the conceptual flaws in the project. Alas, its execution would prove even more of a disaster.
Richard Garriott’s involvement in the day-to-day work of game development had been decreasing almost year by year, ever since he had first agreed to let other programmers help him with Ultima V back in 1986. The Ultima VIII project was set up in the same way that the last couple had been: Garriott provided a set of general design goals and approaches along with a plot outline, then dropped in occasionally on the Origin staff who were assigned to the project while they made it all happen. This time the role of project director fell to one Mike McShaffry, who had come to Origin in 1990 to work as a programmer on Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams, then held the same role on Ultima VII. Meanwhile the nuts-and-bolts designers of Ultima VIII became John Watson and Andrew Morris.
None of these people were incompetent; all would continue to pursue fruitful careers in the games industry after Ultima VIII was behind them. But on this occasion they found themselves in an untenable situation, given neither the time nor the support they needed to make a competent game even of the dubious type for which Garriott was asking. Ultima VIII would not employ the talents of Raymond Benson, the accomplished wordsmith who had made Ultima VII‘s script so exceptionally rich and subtle; he was now gone from the company, driven away like many of his peers by the insanely long hours Origin demanded of their employees. Rather than replacing him with another proper writer, Origin cobbled together a collection of programmers, artists, and designers to provide all of its comparatively scant text, most of them doing double duty with their other roles on the project. After all, it was now the age of multimedia action. How much did mere words really matter anymore?
As 1993 wore on, external events heaped more and more pressure on the team. Chris Roberts’s latest game Strike Commander appeared in the spring of 1993; it moved his patented Wing Commander approach into the milieu of a near-future techno-thriller. Everyone confidently expected it to become Roberts’s latest blockbuster hit, EA’s first great dividend on the price of the Origin acquisition. But instead it under-performed relative to expectations; gamers seemed nonplussed by the change in setting, and their computers struggled to meet its high system requirements. Origin would manage to score some successes on a more modest scale in 1993 with other, cheaper Wing Commander spinoffs and an Ultima VII Part Two, but their big cannon for the year had shot a dud. It was now up to Ultima VIII to put smiles on the faces of EA’s management.
For all that the EA acquisition certainly was a major factor in the story of Ultima VIII, it’s difficult to say for sure how much of the pressure Origin felt was brought directly to bear by their new corporate parent and how much was merely perceived. As we’ve seen, Richard Garriott hasn’t hesitated to chalk the failure of Ultima VIII up to EA’s interference, full stop. Yet the actual EA executives in question have vociferously denied micromanaging the project, insisting on the contrary that it was conceived, created, and finally shipped on terms dictated by no one outside of Origin. Even some Origin employees have admitted that EA handled their new charge with a fairly light touch for the first couple of years; it was only after such disappointments as Strike Commander and Ultima VIII had convinced them that adult supervision was sorely needed down in Austin that they took a more hands-on approach. In the end, then, we can say for sure only that the appalling state in which Ultima VIII was released was down to some gradation in between an earnest desire on Origin’s behalf to please their parent and a stern dictate from said parent to ship it now, or else!
It must be said as well that the reality of crunch time at Origin prior to Ultima VIII was somewhat different from the rosy picture which Garriott paints above. The bad-cop counterpart to Garriot the lunch-providing good cop was Dallas Snell, Origin’s hard-driving production manager. The company’s internal newsletters from the early 1990s are littered with complaints about the stresses of crunch time, sometimes accompanied by Snell’s strident but unconvincing attempts to defend the practice on the basis of passion, dedication, and esprit de corps. As a result, Raymond Benson was only one of a steady stream of talented people who came to Origin, stayed there a relatively brief period of time, and then moved on to other parts of the games industry or to other industries entirely, having made the perfectly sensible decision that no job is worth sacrificing one’s health and general well-being for.
Still, the crunch that produced Ultima VIII was extreme even by Origin’s usual standards, and the stress was undoubtedly compounded by the bad vibe of compromise and trend-chasing that had clung to the project from the start. It didn’t help that Mike McShaffry had never attempted to manage a software-development project of any sort before; he was completely unequipped to bring any semblance of order to all of the frantic effort, as he freely admits today:
To a lot of people on the development team, Ultima VIII unfortunately was a very negative development experience. Most of the team who were managing Ultima VIII — myself especially — you know, it was our first really big management task, and so…to say I really screwed it up doesn’t really come close, I don’t think, to the truth.
You can’t just put anybody at the helm of an oil tanker and say, “Take it through the strait!” and not expect something really horrible to happen. And Ultima’s a big ship to steer, and it was unfortunate that I never had the chance to figure out how to manage a team that large. It took me another ten years to really get better at it.
All of these factors led to Ultima VIII shipping in a state that almost defies critical description; seldom has a game so blatantly unfinished been allowed onto store shelves. The writing is so sparse and unrefined that it often seems like placeholder text, and yet still manages to leave threads dangling and plot holes yawning everywhere; the cloth map that is included in the box bears almost no relation to the world in the game itself, what with so much of the latter having gone missing in action; what’s left of the CRPG mechanics are so broken that it’s possible to max out your character in less than an hour of play; every place in the game looks the same, being all too clearly built from the same handful of pre-rendered graphics (giant mushrooms everywhere for the win!); every single chest in the game explodes, even if it doesn’t contain anything, as if the developers didn’t have time to address each one individually and so just set a global flag somewhere; your unresponsive lunk of a character drowns instantly if he falls into two feet of water. Tellingly, the one part of Ultima VII that is painstakingly preserved in Ultima VIII is its most annoying: an impossible inventory-management system that forces you to spend minutes at a time dragging around tiny overlapping icons just to find anything.
But none of that was quite enough to make the original version of Ultima VIII worthy of the adjective “unplayable.” What served for that was the absurdly broken jumping system. Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia had been designed for joypads and joysticks. Seeking to translate those paradigms to a moused-based computer, Origin came up with a relativistic jumping system whereby the length of your leap would be determined by the distance the cursor was from your character when you clicked the mouse, rather than opting for the more intuitive solution whereby you simply pointed at and clicked on a would-be destination to attempt to jump there. McShaffry:
I think, for us, it was such a departure from what we were used to. And honestly, a jumping mechanic like what we were trying to do… I think that we just didn’t have enough people on the team who were really hardcore platformer players. Something like Mario, where you have an intuitive feel for what works in a jumping system and what doesn’t work in a jumping system. I certainly hadn’t played a lot of those games until then, and so I honestly didn’t know what I was looking for.
Honestly, that’s a case where we should have listened a whole lot more to QA. They were platformers! They played every Nintendo console [game] out there, and they came back to us and said, “Hey, this jumping is kind of busted.”
I think sometimes in product development we’d get on the high horse and go, “It’s not busted; we know what we’re doing.” And in that case… that was a horrible mistake on our part to not listen to them. But hey, we were in our twenties; when you’re in your twenties, you think you’ve got god-like powers and you’re immortal.
In truth, jumping in Ultima VIII wasn’t “kind of busted” at all; it was completely, comprehensively busted. Figuring out where any given jump would land you was a black art, thanks to the sloppy mouse cursor and the impossibility of accurately judging depths in the game’s canted isometric view. The only way to get anywhere was to save before each jump and give it a try, then reload and adjust until you got it right. After four or five attempts, you might just manage it if you were lucky. Then you got to rinse and repeat for the next jump, out of what might be a dozen or more in all to get across a single obstacle. In order to fully appreciate the horror of all this, you have to remember that every single save or restore would have taken on the order of 30 seconds back in 1994. And now imagine trying to work through this process when some of the platforms you need to jump from and to are moving. On release day, Ultima VIII really was perilously close to being literally unplayable.
In keeping with a tradition dating back to the early 1980s, Richard Garriott, Mike McShaffry, and several other members of the development team turned up on CompuServe for an online conference with fans just a couple of weeks after the game’s release. These affairs were heavily moderated, and this prevented the outrage that was already percolating through the fan community from being expressed too aggressively. Nevertheless, the developers quickly learned that this meetup was not to be the usual love fest. Instead they got an earful from the fans:
Let me say that I have been playing Ultimas since I was charmed and amazed by Ultima IV on my Commodore 64. One of the best things about Ultimas was the rich, detailed world and intricate, lengthy storylines. I could look forward to easily over 100 hours with each new Ultima, an excellent value for the money. Ultima VIII, on the other hand, is way too short…
It seems like there were a lot of bugs in Ultima VIII…
I thought the game was a little rough around the edges, especially the jumping. Since many Ultima players don’t like the heavy arcade element, are you set on keeping Ultima a CRPG/action game?…
My favorite part of Ultima VII was the large world. I was a little disappointed when I found that the world in Ultima VIII was actually smaller. Will Ultima IX have a larger world and more puzzles that require thinking, as opposed to jumping and running?…
I note with some trepidation your interest/fascination with “action” and “digital speech.” I think that too many game companies are spending too many resources on the latest graphics, sounds, etc., and nowhere near enough on character development and story and interaction. Is the swing to action/arcade a marketing-driven decision, your personal [decision], or [down to] some other reason?…
I have noticed a trend toward a single-threaded story line. Any hopes of returning to the original roots with the Ultima IX story line?…
What I and a lot of other old Ultima fans saw disappear after Ultima VII was the great ability to interact. Like baking bread, etc., and I would like to know if you plan for this to return in Ultima IX. And will you pay more attention to the plot?…
I’m concerned about the decline in the Avatar’s principles. I spent two days trying to solve Bane and Vordion without breaking my oath…
I am disappointed about the length of Ultima VIII, as others have said. There’s too much running around, and the clues to locations are far too vague…
I’m disappointed in Ultima VIII. I’ve played every single Ultima, and I feel Ultima VIII is a serious step back from previous Ultimas. I hope you realize that it takes more than glitz and sound to make a good CRPG. Lastly, I really do hope you’ll fix more bugs. I had to reformat my whole hard drive because of Ultima VIII…
Are we ever going to get various sexes and races of Avatars to choose from again?…
If they didn’t know it before, Origin must have realized by the time this conference ended that they had a big, big problem on their hands. The subsequent fan reactions to Ultima VIII were and remain far more entertaining than the game itself; few games have inspired as many unhinged, poetically profane rants as this one. Writing in the fannish newsletter Questbusters, Charles Don Hall struggled to reconcile this awful game with the Lord British cult of personality that so much of hardcore Ultima fandom had always been: “My best guess is that Lord British had nothing at all to do with it, and turned development over to soulless drones who were capable of playing the earlier Ultimas but incapable of understanding what made them such great games.”
The glossier magazines weren’t quite sure what to do about Ultima VIII. Torn between the need to serve their readerships and Origin’s advertising dollars, they equivocated like crazy, often settling on an “it’s not the game, it’s me” approach: i.e., I didn’t much enjoy Ultima VIII, but you might.
The big exception was Computer Gaming World, the most long-lived and respected of all the journals, whose status gave it a degree of insulation from the need to chase advertisers. Scorpia, the magazine’s influential adventure-gaming columnist, ripped the game to shreds in her review. I’ll share just a few highlights here:
Pagan, the purported Ultima VIII, is unlike any other Ultima you may have played. If you were expecting characterization, rich story, role-playing — you’re expecting it from the wrong game…
The game might easily have been called, as a friend of mine put it, “Mario: The Avatar.” If the name “Ultima” wasn’t on the box, you might think you’d picked up the latest Sega or Nintendo game by mistake…
Pagan could well be subtitled “School Daze,” as a good 75 percent of it is having the Avatar prove he is worthy to belong to a particular magic organization. “You want to be a Necromancer? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Theurgist? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Sorcerer? First you must be tested!”…
The story, such as it is, can be summed up as “Homeward-Bound Avatar Wrecks World…”
[The Avatar] lies to become a Necromancer; joins the Theurgists solely to steal an item (thereby negating their spell-casting abilities); betrays a Sorcerer who trusted him (thereby becoming an accessory to murder); kills (in supposed self-defense) the Master of Sorcerers to obtain another needed item; and frees the two bound Titans, so the world is wracked by continual violent storms and lava rain…
Overall, Pagan is a disaster, and an embarrassment to Origin, Lord British, and Ultima fans everywhere. It tries to go in two directions at once, and succeeds only in tearing itself apart, failing dismally on all fronts…
Instead of giving a smattering of hints and tips for Ultima VIII, as was her wont with the games she reviewed, Scorpia published an outright walkthrough, in order to “help anyone playing it to finish quickly and move on to better things.” For the following issue, she wrote a detailed retrospective of Ultima IV, her avowed favorite game of all time, pointing out all the ways in which it was the archetypal Ultima — and, by pointed implication, all of the ways in which Ultima VIII had failed to live up to its legacy.
In that very same issue, Origin offered an unprecedented mea culpa for Ultima VIII. Having clearly decided that this installment was beyond hope, they tried to save the franchise’s future by throwing it, and to at least some extent its project leader Mike McShaffry, under the bus. Richard Garriott had, he said, “heard the cry of his fans”; he admitted that “the latest game design had moved too close to action gaming and strayed too far from the strengths of the series.” Origin would, they promised, place the rock-steady Warren Spector — the man who had helmed Ultima VI, Martian Dreams, and the two Ultima Underworld games — in charge of Ultima IX. “If,” Spector pleaded, “we can get some of our followers who were disappointed in Pagan to try Ultima IX, we don’t think they’ll be disappointed.” In the meantime, an all-but-complete Ultima VIII expansion disk was axed as part of a general desire to forget that the game had ever happened.
One man, however, could not possibly forget. Mike McShaffry says today that he “felt like persona non grata at Origin because I personally felt like I was being blamed for the mistakes.” After months of ineffectual bad feelings, he finally decided to do something about it. He took all of the Ultima VIII code home with him over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1994 and, as he puts it, “fixed the jumping myself,” replacing the weird system of relative leaps with a simple click-here-to-jump-here approach. Despite their wish to flush the whole thing down the memory hole, Origin agreed to put out a patch incorporating this change and a number of other desperately needed quality-of-life improvements.
It’s this version of Ultima VIII that you’ll find hosted on digital storefronts today. It’s definitely a vast improvement over the original, even taking into account the philosophical objection that it turns the jumping — intended to be a major part of the experience — into a triviality. Much respect to Mike McShaffry for making it; if he hadn’t done so, the game’s reputation would be even worse today. Even Scorpia took note of the patch in her column, and was prompted to soften her stance toward the game ever so slightly. (“I can’t guarantee the game will be more fun, but it will certainly be less frustrating.”)
Indeed, it’s quite common to hear today that Ultima VIII really wasn’t a bad game at all — that it was merely a bad Ultima, in departing way too radically from that series’s established traditions. Some fuel for this argument is provided by Crusader: No Remorse and Crusader: No Regret, a pair of science-fiction action games that used the engine developed for Ultima VIII, but were able to do so without the baggage which the Ultima name brought with it. Both were well-received upon their release in 1995 and 1996 respectively, and are still fondly remembered in some circles today. Some have gone so far as to claim that the engine influenced Diablo, Blizzard Entertainment’s 1996 mega-hit of a streamlined, story-light action-CRPG.
Still, to say that McShaffry’s patch makes a good game out of Ultima VIII strikes me as a leap too far (pun intended). At best, it moves it from unplayable to the lower end of mediocre: the boring environments, uninteresting and/or broken mechanics, poor and sometimes nonexistent writing, and general air of unpleasantness remain unpatched. Ultima VIII is not the misunderstood classic that a few thoroughgoing contrarians would have it be.
Ultima VIII is best studied not as an exercise in game design in the abstract but as an endlessly illustrative sign of its times, showing what happened when the changes being wrought upon the culture of computer gaming by the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM — not to mention Wing Commander! — collided head-on with one of that culture’s traditional standard bearers. In this case, the standard bearer in question would never be the same again. The Ultima IX which certain factions inside Origin were so eager to make as a way of spitting out the bad taste of Ultima VIII would keep getting pushed down in the priority queue after Wing Commander III appeared in late 1994 and finally provided the big hit which Origin had been looking for ever since the EA acquisition. With that event, Wing Commander‘s takeover of Origin was complete. It would be over two and a half years before gamers would hear the name of Ultima from Origin again.
(Sources: the books Explore Create by Richard Garriott with David Fisher and Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, July 1994, August 1994, and May 1995; Electronic Entertainment of April 1994; Questbusters 111; PC Gamer of May/June 1994; PC Zone of June 1994; Dragon of August 1994; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of December 1993, March 1994, and May 5 1995. Online sources include Sheri Graner Ray’s memories of her time at Origin Systems, “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, and the Ultima Codex interviews with Mike McShaffry and Jason Ely. My huge thanks to Judith Pintar for digging up the online CompuServe conference that followed Ultima VIII‘s release. Note that I’ve heavily edited the excerpts that are included here for grammar, clarity, and brevity; feel free to download the full, unedited transcript.
Ultima VIII is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com.)