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This Week on The Analog Antiquarian

The Great Wall of China, Chapter 16: Radicals and Reactionaries

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Discworld on Page and Screen, Part 2: The First Three Discworld Games

As a man of wide-ranging curiosity, Terry Pratchett was drawn to personal computers early. In 1981, he purchased a Sinclair ZX81 in kit form and soldered it together successfully. He soon upgraded to a Sinclair Spectrum and then to an Amstrad CPC 464, which was his first computer strong enough to run a practical word processor. From the second Discworld novel on, he wrote all of his books digitally; this was undoubtedly a factor in the prodigious writing and publishing pace he maintained for so many years. But computers were more than a tool to him: right from the beginning, he also played computer games enthusiastically. In a 1986 interview, for example, he mentions being obsessed with Infocom’s interactive version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The first Discworld computer game came surprisingly quickly, courtesy of a teenage entrepreneur named Fergus McNeill and his little company Delta 4, who had made a name for themselves by writing slapstick fantasy parodies as Quill-based text adventures, with names like Bored of the Rings (which didn’t share anything but a name and a certain sensibility with the book of the same name) and The Boggit. While it would be a stretch to say that they transcended their author’s age and the technology used to create them, they were amusing in their way, and became quite popular. Some of them reportedly sold as many as 20,000 copies, a very impressive number in the British games industry of the mid-1980s. They made McNeill a natural to adapt Terry Pratchett to an interactive medium, given that the latter’s first couple of Discworld novels were content to plow much the same satirical territory, albeit in a more erudite and sophisticated way.

The Boggit contains its share of literal toilet humor.

McNeill says that he originally bought the novel The Colour of Magic “as a present for someone else, but I accidentally started reading it myself and found myself unable to stop.” It was he who suggested an adaptation to Pratchett’s publisher, to capitalize on the British appetite for bookware. “It’s important to remember that this was Olden Times — the 1980s, for goodness sake,” he says. “So, when I said ‘Terry Pratchett,’ people didn’t laugh at my audacity for wanting to work with the great man. They frowned and said, “Who’s he?'”

Thus McNeill was able to make the deal, and created his Colour of Magic text adventure in short order, with some direct input from Pratchett himself. The end result, which was released in late 1986 in Britain and Europe only, is an abbreviated version of the novel, walking through its plot scene by scene. Solving it entails looking up what Rincewind did in the same situation in the book, then figuring out how to express the concept to the balky, fiddly parser. Those who have read the book, in other words, will vacillate between boredom and frustration, while those who haven’t will be utterly lost. Even in its day, when a disconcerting number of players were willing to accept fighting the parser as an inherent part of the challenge of playing a text adventure, the game was less popular than its license might suggest.

The Colour of Magic replaces the standard text-adventure compass directions with those of the Disc: “hubward,” “rimward,” “turnwise,” and “widdershins.” One plus for verisimilitude, but ten minuses for annoying the heck out of the player.

McNeill speaks of his communications with Pratchett fondly, going so far as to call him “a big inspiration for me,” whilst calling being allowed to make the game at all “a huge privilege.” Yet Pratchett was enough of a gamer himself to recognize how underwhelming the final product really was. In his view, it cheapened the Discworld brand, of which he was always keenly protective; he would refer to the interactive Colour of Magic only as a “bad experience” in later years. It was enough to make him shy away from further game adaptations for quite some time, despite his personal fondness for computers and the games they played. It wasn’t until mid-1993, when Discworld mania was in full swing, that someone managed to convince Pratchett to give the idea of ludic Discworld a second chance.

Actually, there were two someones, the first of whom was one Angela Sutherland, who had gotten her start in the games industry back in 1983. She had been studying to become a sculptor at that time at the Edinburgh College of Art, when a fellow student and good friend named Sandy White had showed her a simple action game called Ant Attack which he had been writing on his Sinclair Spectrum. She helped him to flesh it out and get it published, whereupon it became one of the big early hits on the Speccy. Sutherland worked with White on several more games after that, moved on to become head of development for Firebird and Rainbird, and then became a producer for the British division of Beam Software, the Australian software house famous for The Hobbit, probably the best-selling text adventure of all time (and the thing which Fergus McNeill’s early games were really parodying, at least as much as Tolkien’s books).

Seeing an opportunity in the market, she left Beam and founded her own studio, Teeny Weeny Games, in 1991. Its name reflected its focus: games for handheld systems like the Nintendo Game Boy. Such gadgets were not yet hugely popular among consumers in her home country, but the average British wage was lower than that of the average American or Japanese, making a British studio such as the one she was setting up a good option for big publishers looking to get a product onto the international market quickly and fairly inexpensively, but also competently. So, Teeny Weeny cut their teeth on playable but forgettable licensed fare and ports. For all that it was the games industry’s version of flyover country, this was also a space where a pragmatist like Sutherland could do very well for herself. These sorts of projects would remain the studio’s bread and butter throughout its lifetime.

Teeny Weeny enjoyed an unusual symbiotic relationship with another studio called Perfect 10 Productions, founded at almost the same time by Gregg Barnett, a former colleague of Sutherland from Beam. Perfect 10 had much the same business philosophy as Teeny Weeny, but focused on the full-sized console systems; this created an opportunity for the two developers to collaborate in order to bring the same game out on living-room and handheld consoles. And indeed, they came to share code, assets, strategies, and even office space and to some extent employees with one another, until it became difficult for the outside observer to see where one stopped and the other began.

Thus it was Sutherland and Barnett together who made the pitch to Terry Pratchett for a Discworld adventure game. It seems that their pragmatism had served to conceal a streak of more ambitious creativity, a desire to make something more exciting than the games that were currently keeping the lights on in their offices. But at the same time, they were still hard-nosed enough to appreciate the value of licenses — particularly a license of the biggest literary phenomenon in Britain, a series of novels which Sutherland and Barnett happened to adore, just like millions of their countryfolk.

Angela Sutherland, Terry Pratchett, and… Death.

Pratchett, however, was not easy to convince. It took six months of tireless courting, and ultimately the presentation of a complete design document written by Barnett himself, to get him to say yes. “The main reason he signed,” says Barnett, “was that we did a design, which showed we were willing to put in the work without any initial reward, and that we understood and respected the property.” Sutherland and Barnett promised Pratchett that they would wash away the bad taste of the Colour of Magic text adventure by sparing no expense or effort this time around. They would make a fully-voiced point-and-click graphic adventure for the latest CD-ROM-capable personal computers, one that was as good or better than any of the big titles coming out of the United States.

In fact, the Discworld game almost came out under one of those American publishers’ imprint. Using their international connections to maximum advantage, Sutherland and Barnett signed a deal with Sierra, along with LucasArts one of the two biggest names of all in adventure gaming. The agreement would let them make their game using that company’s state-of-the-art SCI engine, with the support of some Sierra personnel who would temporarily relocate to the project’s South London headquarters. But the American publisher didn’t quite seem to grasp what a huge license Discworld really was on the other side of the Atlantic. Bleeding money from their visionary but unprofitable online gaming space The Sierra Network, they backed out of the deal. Talks with the American giant Electronic Arts also fell through, whereupon Sutherland and Barnett finally signed with the homegrown publisher Psygnosis, best known for the global hit Lemmings, the most popular British-developed videogame prior to the Grand Theft Auto franchise many years later. By virtue of their location at Ground Zero of Discworld mania, Psygnosis knew very well how big a Discworld game could be, such that they had already tried without success to pitch the idea directly to the wary Pratchett. At their first meeting with Sutherland and Barnett, they became the suitor rather than the courted: they “wouldn’t leave until we did a deal,” says Barnett.

Pratchett himself was if anything even more into games now than he had been during the previous decade. For a man who had grown up in a house without electricity or an indoor toilet, the games of the 1990s were nothing short of wondrous. “I play games a lot — and I mean a lot,” he said in a contemporary interview. “Sitting in front of a screen writing, you need some relaxation, and what better way than to load in something like Wing Commander, which is one of my faves. One of the nice things about making lots of money from books is that I can go down to the local Virgin Store and buy what I want!” This habit, combined with his protectiveness of Discworld as a property, ensured that he would take a healthy interest in the Discworld game. He went so far as to rewrite some of Gregg Barnett’s dialog.

Barnett’s script borrows heavily from Pratchett’s 1989 novel Guards! Guards!. Given how close Watch Commander Sam Vimes, its protagonist, was to his creator’s heart, it must have rankled Pratchett a bit when Barnett elected to write him out of the story, replacing him with Rincewind as chief investigator and player’s avatar. Ditto when Barnett cut out most of the novel’s serious subtext, leaving behind only the gags, jokes, and tropes. And double ditto when the game’s developers eventually cast Eric Idle of Monty Python — a part of the archly absurdist Oxbridge comedy tradition that also included the likes of Douglas Adams, and to which Pratchett did not see Discworld as belonging — to voice the part of Rincewind.

Yet Pratchett was also a reasonable man with a good grasp of what it took to sell creative product, and he could see the logic behind each of Barnett’s decisions. Rincewind was still the series’s most well-known character at this stage in its evolution; serious themes are even harder to bring off in a comic adventure game than they are in a comic novel; and the casting of a real live member of Monty Python in any game was a tremendous coup, even if Eric Idle wasn’t Barnett’s first choice of John Cleese. (According to Barnett, “Fuck off! I don’t do games,” was the latter’s response to his inquiry…) The finished game does absorb some of the flavor of Monty Python — Barnett admits to making the onscreen Rincewind into something of a doppelgänger of Idle’s typically disheveled Python personae — but the combination works. I dare you to try to read a Discworld novel that stars Rincewind after playing this game without hearing Idle’s voice in your head.

The voice-acting cast was rounded out with some other enviable comedic talents: Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s perpetual sidekick; Kate Robbins of Spitting Image; Jon Pertwee, the third incarnation of Doctor Who; and Rob Brydon, a relative newcomer with a prolific career still in front of him (international audiences may know him best today for starring in the very funny Trip series of travel mockumentaries). The only problem with the cast is that there just aren’t enough of them, meaning that everyone with the exception of Idle is juggling many roles, a fact which mugging and accent-switching can’t completely obscure. Still, if one must settle for a cast of less than half a dozen, one couldn’t do much better these actors. It’s a pleasure to listen to the game’s collection of skittish, skeevy, occasionally lovable characters, every single one of them more or less off their nut, prattle on about nothing much in particular. “Is this fish fresh?” Rincewind asks a fishmonger. “Fresh? Fresh?” he replies. “It just made a pass at my wife, sir!”

The game’s visuals are equally distinctive. Under the direction of veteran artist Paul Mitchell, the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, where the entire game takes place, becomes a Disney film as viewed by a cock-eyed drunk: everything is subtly warped and shifted, with nary a straight line to be seen (or heard, for that matter). Rincewind shuffles from location to location in his bedraggled wizard’s robes, looking like he would rather be anywhere else. (Maybe that’s understandable, given that every other character in the game asks him why he’s wearing a “dress.”) He’s trailed all the time by The Luggage, an inexplicably sentient suitcase with the legs of a centipede, the disposition of a pit bull, and the teeth of a bear trap; this movable feast serves as the means of conveyance of the incredible amount of stuff Rincewind will eventually collect and tote through the city.

As in the novel Guards! Guards!, the plot hinges on a fire-breathing dragon which a cabal of less-than-upstanding Ankh-Morpork citizens have summoned. Thwarting the monster and its minions requires playing through three lengthy, non-linear acts, followed by the climactic showdown with the dragon. Two of the main acts are scavenger hunts: find the five ridiculous things that are needed to build a Dragon’s Lair Revealer; steal the six golden talismans from the dragon-summoning cabal. We’ve all been here before — as has Rincewind apparently, judging from the scorn he is constantly heaping on the whole enterprise. Many adventure games use this sort of self-referential humor as a lazy excuse for derivative, uninspired design, and perhaps Discworld cannot be fully absolved of this sin. It does, however, have the virtue of being much, much funnier than the vast majority of such exercises. And, given that it’s meant to evoke the aesthetic of the early Discworld novels, which lampooned the conventions of paperback fantasy fiction in a similar way, the sin is venal rather than mortal.

Still, the game’s satire is at its best when it aims slightly higher in a meta-fictional sense. The point of the third act is to manipulate circumstances so that Rincewind will have exactly a million-to-one chance against the dragon. Because, as Terry Pratchett himself once put it, “we know — it is built into our very understanding of the narrative universe — that if it is a million-to-one chance that might just work, it will work. Because no one has ever heard of a million-to-one chance that just might work not working. In other words, a million-to-one chance is a certainty. It’s a cliché that we accept. We accept it from James Bond and from Bilbo Baggins.”


Josh Kirby, Terry Pratchett’s longtime cover illustrator, provided the art for the Discworld game box as well.

Rincewind with the Luggage.

Unseen University, where Rincewind has been studying without any obvious benefit to himself or society for years and years.

Death makes a cameo in the first Discworld graphic adventure. He will take a starring role in the second.

“A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end of it…”


Released in Britain in early 1995 under the name of simply Discworld, the game was praised to the skies by reviewer after reviewer. PC Zone magazine wasn’t that much of an outlier in calling it “possibly the best point-and-click adventure game ever made.” Everyone marveled over the graphics, the voice acting, and the humor, declaring that it really was like seeing the world of the novels come to life. Most of all, though, they marveled over the sheer size of the thing. They noted, accurately, that each of the game’s first three acts could easily have been a standalone game in its own right. It was and remains abundantly obvious that the people who made this game did so for all the right reasons, that they genuinely loved Anhk-Morpork and wanted to shove as much of it as possible onto a CD.

Unfortunately, these same people had never actually made an adventure game before. And, once the initial euphoria died down, players could all too plainly see this too in the finished product. It is — or at least ought to be — a truism in adventure design that every puzzle you make is ten times harder than you think it is. The only way to calibrate your game’s difficulty is to put it in front of real players and see how much they struggle. Sadly, it is all too clear that the people who made this game failed to do that in the midst of their zeal to keep adding more, more, more to it.

Discworld is for all intents and purposes insoluble. There is simply no way to reason out many of its puzzles; this is where the cockamamie nature of the world comes back to bite. The designers have paid no heed to what Bob Bates calls the “else” rule of good puzzle design. It states that, if the player has not done the correct thing, but she has done some other thing that might make some degree of logical or comedic sense, the game should recognize and acknowledge that in some way, ideally whilst embedding within its response a hint as to the correct way forward. In this game, though, everything you try to do that isn’t the One True Way Forward is met only by a scornful Eric Idle telling you, “That doesn’t work!” This is the one quote from Discworld that absolutely everyone remembers. Long before you finish the first act, it will have begun to haunt your very dreams, will pop back into your head to enrage you at random moments throughout your day. And just to ensure that you get to hear it even more often than you otherwise might, the game is littered with red herrings that have no purpose whatsoever.

To sum up, then, we have a huge environment to wander around in, one which provides no shortcuts to get from place to place, just Rincewind’s lackadaisical stroll; an enormous pile of objects, many of which are literally good for nothing; puzzles whose solutions are amusing in retrospect but cannot possibly be anticipated before the fact; and no middle ground between wrong and right when it comes to solving them, to provide useful feedback or at least some small dollop of amusement. Oh, and there are also dead ends that you can stumble into without realizing it, after which you’ll get to spend hours banging your head against brick walls even more fruitlessly than usual. As a piece of game design, Discworld is hopeless.

When the game came out in the United States several weeks after its British release, the reviewers there were clearer-eyed, being carried away with neither excitement over the very existence of a Discworld game nor home-country partisanship. Computer Gaming World magazine wrote that “the overall impression the game conveys is not one of richness but one of clutter and surfeit.” It sold in only middling numbers in the American market.

But that was not the case in Britain and much of Europe. There the game sold hundreds of thousands of copies before second takes started to appear in the gaming press and on the Internet, noting belatedly that labeling it “best adventure game of all time” may have been laying it on a bit thick. Needless to say, it was full speed ahead on the sequel.

Before starting on it in earnest, Angela Sutherland and Gregg Barnett finally did the logical thing and merged their two companies together as Perfect Entertainment. The new entity continued to devote the preponderance of its effort to workaday projects for the console market, but the connections forged thereby brought more than financial benefits to the passion projects: both Discworld and its sequel would be ported to the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, opening up whole new worlds of potential sales. (Their publisher Psygnosis had in fact been bought by Sony in 1993.)

If the first Discworld game is a sad story of good intentions and soaring ambitions derailed by a lack of experience with the nuts and bolts of adventure design, Discworld II: Missing, Presumed…!? is a happier tale of a development team willing and able to learn from their failures — a less common phenomenon than one might expect in the world of adventure games. It doesn’t so much try to break new ground as to perfect the experience which Perfect Entertainment had attempted to deliver last time around. And it succeeds on these terms rather magnificently. Right from the first page of the manual, where they promise that this Discworld game is “a little easier,” the makers make it clear that they understand what they did wrong last time.

Interestingly, Pratchett was less involved with the sequel. “I let them have their heads a bit more,” he said after its release. “It seemed that they could create a game that had the right kind of feel to it, so I didn’t have to shepherd them so much. There wasn’t quite so much shouting this time around.”

Once again the broad plot is lifted from a beloved Discworld novel: this time it’s 1991’s Reaper Man, in which Death decides to quit his job and retire to the countryside, with chaotic results for the whole Disc. As in the last game, matters are rejiggered to insert Rincewind into the story as the protagonist, while space is also made for elements of the 1990 Discworld novel Moving Pictures, an entertaining if not particularly deep pastiche of old Hollywood (“Holy Wood” on the Disc), with motion-picture cameras which consist of fast-painting imps trapped inside windowed boxes.

The second game is another joy to listen to; Eric Idle agreed to return, as did Kate Robbins and Rob Brydon. Tony Robinson elected not to, however, while the elderly Jon Pertwee was too ill to participate. (He died in May of 1996, leaving Discworld I as one of his last media legacies.) To take up some of the slack, Perfect hired Nigel Planer, another stalwart comedy veteran, who would go on to narrate almost all of the audio-book versions of the Discworld novels. Barnett tried to recruit Christopher Lee for the role of Death — an inspired choice by any standard — but Perfect couldn’t afford his asking price in the end. So, Rob Brydon took the role instead, and did very well with it, bringing out the mix of fussiness, petulance, and compassion that has since made Death arguably the most popular Discworld character of all time. On the whole, then, the voice acting in Discworld II is on a level with that of the first game — including, alas, the same major weakness of there just not being enough different actors. Kate Robbins, for example, voices every single female character in both games, and most of the children to boot.

The truly striking change from the first game to the second is the look of the production; the difference here is truly night and day. The switchover in the mid-1990s from the VGA graphics standard, with a typical resolution of 320 X 200, to SVGA, with a resolution of 640 X 480 or more, strikes me as the second of the two most dramatic inflection points in the history of computer-game graphics. (The first, for the record, is the arrival of the Commodore Amiga in the mid-1980s, followed soon after by VGA on MS-DOS machines.) The first and second Discworld graphic adventures stand on either side of the VGA/SVGA Rubicon, which divides games that look undeniably old today from those that can at least potentially still look quite contemporary. I would place Discworld II among this group without hesitation.

The higher resolution allowed Perfect to outsource the animation to Hanna-Barbera’s studio in the Philippines, a decision which would have made no sense under the constraints of VGA. Characters and backgrounds that looked a bit muddy and blurry in the first game pop on the screen in sharp, vivid cartoon colors this time around. Meanwhile the static views of the first game are replaced by fades, pans, and close-ups; it’s like going from the typical 1930s film to Citizen Kane.

Most importantly of all, Discworld II plays better. We have the same three-act structure as last time, with all of the acts no more than scavenger hunts at bottom. But this time we get to venture beyond Ankh-Morpork to other locations on the Disc. Counterintuitively with this last, the game as a whole is a bit smaller — and yet this is by no means a bad thing. The combinatorial explosion is much reduced, thanks to fewer locations, fewer objects, almost no red herrings, an absence of dead ends, and a much more concentrated effort to calibrate the puzzles to that sweet spot which lies equidistant from the trivial and the impossible. Discworld II isn’t an easy game; its puzzle-dependency chains are sometimes nested a dozen layers deep. Yet it is a soluble one, with puzzles that make a modicum of sense on the vast majority of occasions. Rincewind even deigns to say something other than “That doesn’t work!” some of the time when you try something that, well, doesn’t work. And the world of the game is even more of a delight than last time just to explore, being stuffed to the brim with eccentric characters and curious sights. Meaty, funny, generous, and yet unabashedly traditionalist, it succeeds in actually being everything its predecessor tried but failed to be.


Josh Kirby again provided the cover art for Discworld II.

Eric Idle, who was always Monty Python’s go-to song-and-dance man, contributed an original song to Discworld II.

On a “Holy Wood” set, complete with troll security for the actors’ trailers.

You can move around on a larger world map this time. Notice the Luggage swimming behind Rincewind’s ship.

Visiting Death’s home, which is as Gothic chic as a Bauhaus song.

Oh, my, what’s happened here? In one of the best gags in a game that delights in pulverizing the fourth wall at every opportunity, Rincewind 2.0 gets transported for a few minutes back into the world of Discworld I, where he meets his low-res counterpart.


Thanks to already-built tools and the outsourcing of the animation, Perfect Entertainment was able to finish their second Discworld game in less than eighteen months, and Psygnosis released it in late 1996. By this time the adventure market in the United States was showing undeniable signs of mushiness, but it was still holding up comparatively well in Britain and Germany; Broken Sword, another homegrown British production from Revolution Software, would be a substantial hit that holiday season. Still, a sense of gloom was creeping in even on this side of the Atlantic. Discworld II testifies to this with a considerable amount of gallows humor about its genre. “Aren’t you gonna miss it when they stop making these games?” says Rincewind at one point.

Discworld II did reasonably well in the friendliest markets, but not as well as the first game. And it again made even less of an impact in the United States, despite a gushing review from Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s long-tenured, infamously cantankerous adventure columnist. “It’s been too long since I could unreservedly recommend a game,” she wrote. “I can do it now.”

Between its computer and console versions, Discworld II sold just well enough to justify one more game. This would be a brave effort which eschewed the low-hanging fruit of cartoon comedy in favor of a dramatically different direction, enough so as to justify comparisons with Equal Rites, the Terry Pratchett novel which proved that the literary Discworld was more than just a fantasy version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We’ll turn to that final Discworld computer game to date, as well as the later years in Pratchett’s life and literary career, in due course, in another article.

For now, though, let me echo Scorpia’s unreserved endorsement of Discworld II. Its predecessor is an interesting but badly flawed creation, best left for hardcore fans of Rincewind who are willing to play with a walkthrough by their side, but the sequel deserves to be better remembered today as the minor classic it is. It represents the Discworld comedy game perfected.

(Sources: the books The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: The Official Strategy Guide by Glen Eldridge; Starlog of August 1990; CD-ROM Today of April 1995; Computer Gamer of January 1987; Computer Gaming World of June 1995 and May 1997; Computer and Video Games of September 1986; Electronic Entertainment of July 1995; GameFan of September 1997; Next Generation of August 1997; PC Zone of January 1995, August 1996, November 1996, and May 1999; PC Powerplay of November 1996 and July 1997; Sinclair User of December 1986; The One of September 1993; Retro Gamer 94 and 164.

None of the Discworld game are available for legal purchase today, doubtless due to complications with the literary license. Thankfully, Perfect Entertainment’s Discworld and Discworld II are available in ready-to-play Windows versions on The Collection Chamber. Mac and Linux users can import the data files there into their computer’s version of ScummVM.)

 
 

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Discworld on Page and Screen, Part 1: Serious Comedy

One American writer said to me, “Your books will never sell in America because you can’t hear the elves sing. Americans go in for fantasy books where you can hear the elves sing.”

I would like that put on my gravestone: “At least you can say that in Pratchett’s books, the bloody elves never sang!”

— Terry Pratchett

Two arguments are commonly trotted out for the genre literature of the fantastic as actually or potentially something more than mere escapism. One, which applies only to the science-fiction side of the science-fiction/fantasy divide, claims that it can be a form of useful social prognostication. By observing the trends of the current day, the writer can extrapolate where we are likely to end up in the future and present it vividly on the page, whether as a prophecy or a warning. Granted, science fiction’s record of prediction is not particularly good; the writers of just a handful of decades ago almost all believed we would have settled Mars by now, while vanishingly few of them imagined anything like the modern Internet. Still, if you believe that a society’s hopes and fears for the future say a lot about its present, there is a certain sociological value even in the failed prognostications. (Indeed, the academic critic Farah Mendlesohn goes so far as the claim that much classic science fiction is “a sense of wonder combined with [a] presentism” which only masquerades as futurism.)

But it’s the other argument for fantastic literature’s enduring worth that I find most convincing: by transporting some of our most fraught current problems and conflicts into another, less familiar context, we can examine them in a fresh light. Many of us have thought at one time or another how weird our ceaselessly squabbling planet must look to any aliens who happen to stumble across it, what with all the trivialities we continue to fight and kill one another over and the looming existential threats we continue to leave woefully under-addressed. Not only science-fiction but also fantasy literature can literally or figuratively put us in the shoes of those aliens (assuming they wear shoes), allowing us to examine ideas and values with fresh eyes, less cultural baggage, and less of a knee-jerk response.

From the mid-1980s until the mid-2010s, the writer who made perhaps the most consistent case of all for fantasy literature as a laboratory of ideas that are eminently relevant to the real world was Terry Pratchett. And if that didn’t do it for you — well, he really was quite funny to boot.


Terry and Lyn Pratchett on their wedding day in 1968. On their honeymoon, Terry would grow the beard which he would sport for the rest of his life.

Terence David John Pratchett was born on April 28, 1948, in a rural village in Buckinghamshire, England. The only child of an auto mechanic and a secretary, he grew up in a house with no indoor toilet, no hot water, and no electricity. But a less economically advantaged upbringing does not automatically mean a bad one: young Terry spent his days rambling over the same green and pleasant English landscapes that had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, while in the evenings he read books by the light of an oil lamp. Amidst it all, he absorbed his parent’s commonsense belief in what the British call “common decency.” He was not a member of the social class that typically went to university, and this was never regarded as a serious option for him by his teachers or his parents even when he showed an unusual talent for reading and writing. Instead he walked into the office of his local newspaper at the age of seventeen and asked to become an apprentice journalist.

And so he embarked on what his peers and his betters would have considered a perfectly respectable if not quite exciting life for one of his social station. He spent a decade and a half working as a small-town beat reporter, columnist, and editor, before switching to a less demanding job with the civil service, as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board. Betwixt and between his professional accomplishments, he married his first-ever girlfriend before he turned 21, fathered a daughter with her, and lived with his family in a tidy little cottage no better nor worse than a thousand others in its corner of England.

He had just one obvious eccentricity: he loved science-fiction and especially fantasy literature, and wrote some of it himself on and off. By 1982, he had published three competent if derivative novels, in small print runs with the help of a friend with the requisite connections. Yet his closest brush with real literary fame remained the letter he had received from J.R.R. Tolkien back in 1968, in response to a piece of fan mail he had sent to the aging Oxford don.

By this point, fantasy literature had well and truly come into its own, thanks to the ongoing popularity of Tolkien and an odd new tabletop game called Dungeons & Dragons that was reaching Britain from American shores. Bookstore shelves were filling up with fat, multi-volume epics from other authors like Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist, who were all straining so hard to be Tolkien that one could almost hear them huffing and puffing in the background as one turned the pages. But Terry Pratchett, despite loving Tolkien so much himself that he claimed to have read The Lord of the Rings at least once per year ever since discovering it at the age of thirteen, wasn’t at all sure that such slavish imitation was the best form of flattery. He decided to write a book making fun of the trend.

To be sure, it wasn’t the highest-hanging of fruit as targets of satire went; these ponderous, interminable, oh-so-serious tomes could almost be read as parodies of Tolkien already, albeit inadvertent ones. Nor was Pratchett the first writer to have the idea; as early as 1969, when “Frodo Lives!” could be found emblazoned on the walls of the Boston subway alongside “Clapton is God!”, a pair of Harvard students had published a satire of the counterculture’s favorite fantasist called Bored of the Rings. But thankfully, Pratchett had a cleverer approach in mind than their frat-boy slapstick.

The germ of it dated back to 1978, and a column he had written poking gentle fun at the Star Wars craze. His long experience as a reporter had taught him that the proverbial little people of our own or, presumably, any other world are more exercised by mundane concerns than epic adventure. Applying this lesson to Star Wars, he offered up a science-fictional take on the banality of evil, in the form of the chief personnel officer on the Death Star, fielding complaints about the lousy coffee in the canteen, parrying worries over all those droids that were taking so many human Stormtroopers’ jobs.

Now, taking the same approach over to a world of epic fantasy, Pratchett considered what the little people there would be doing while the heroes were prattling on about Courage and Sacrifice and all the rest of that rot. The star of this “realist fantasy” — a term invented by Pratchett’s biographer Marc Burrows — would be an inept wizard named Rincewind, a perpetual graduate student at a school of magic called Unseen University. His greatest talent would be that of shirking danger and, when push came to shove, simply running away as fast as his knobby-kneed little legs could carry him. For, as Burrows writes, “when faced with violence and the threat of death, most people do not throw themselves honourably into the fray: they get the hell out of there. Rincewind is the very distillation of Pratchett’s central premise of treating a fantasy world literally.”

The fantasy world in question is, as Pratchett wrote at the beginning of the book and then proceeded to spend the next 30 years patiently repeating at the beginning of every interview he gave to the mainstream media, a flat disc borne on the backs of four giant elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle swimming through the outer space of “a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly”; the premise displays Pratchett’s lifelong interest in astronomy and Hindu cosmology, as well as his love of dreadful puns. The chronically exasperated Rincewind and his unlikely companion, a naïve tourist named Twoflower whose insatiable curiosity causes him to run toward every danger from which Rincewind wants to run away, spend the book traveling across the Discworld and getting caught up in a series of comic misadventures that expose countless inviolate fantasy clichés to the cold, harsh light of real-world logic. At the time, Pratchett seems to have seen the book he called The Colour of Magic as little more than a palate cleanser between more substantial ones. The cliffhanger ending was just another concession to the genre he was lampooning; maybe he’d actually write a sequel someday, maybe he wouldn’t.

The original, rather drab-looking hardcover edition of The Colour of Magic.

The Colour of Magic was published in November of 1983, in a British print run of just 506 copies, a testament to its publisher’s low expectations. Nothing happened right away to prove they were mistaken; the books languished on shelves for months. But then Pratchett had the stroke of luck which every budding superstar author needs. Some years ago now, the BBC had broadcast a radio serial by one Douglas Adams, a comedic send-up of science fiction that was similar in spirit to what Pratchett was now doing for (or to) the fantasy genre. Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had gone on to become a very hot property indeed, spawning three internationally bestselling novels to date along with record albums, a BBC television series, and, soon, a hit computer game. In light of all this, the BBC decided to give The Colour of Magic a try over the airwaves. Between June 27 and July 10, 1984, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an abridged reading of the book by Nigel Hawthorne, one of the stars of the hugely popular television sitcom Yes, Minister. The programs received a very good response, putting Terry Pratchett’s name on the lips of everyday Britons for the first time ever. Just like that, things started to happen. In January of 1985, Corgi, a British division of Bantam Books, published The Colour of Magic in paperback, with an initial print run of no less than 26,000 copies. A second print run was needed well before the end of the year. Discworld was off and running.

With his fiction receiving widespread attention for the first time ever, Pratchett needed little encouragement to write that sequel to The Colour of Magic now rather than later. The Light Fantastic, which was published in June of 1986, was largely more of the same, notable mostly for having a slightly more focused plot and for giving prominent place to the character of Death — you know, the skeleton dressed all in black, with the scythe and so on. Belying his terrifying appearance, Death’s Discworld persona is that of an overworked, sometimes irascible, but basically well-meaning bureaucratic functionary. In time, he became arguably the most beloved of all Pratchett’s recurring characters. Many Discworld fans, facing the last days of a loved one or even their own final exit, have found surprising comfort in the seven-foot-tall, cat-loving apparition who brings peace with him rather than pain or judgment. He was an early sign that there might be something more to Discworld than just a succession of clever gags.

Pratchett was very fortunate to connect with an artist named Josh Kirby, whose colorful, winsome, but often subtly subversive covers became the indelible look of Discworld, impossible to separate in the minds of most fans from the words on the page.

Still, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable even at this stage to see Pratchett as an author trying his derivative darnedest to be fantasy fiction’s answer to Douglas Adams. It hadn’t helped his cause when, in a couple of unguarded early interviews, he had admitted that he had been reading the Hitchhiker’s books at the same time he was writing The Colour of Magic. Now, though, he was bristling at the comparison more and more. Adams’s works, he claimed with some truth, were archer, colder, and crueler than his own humor; Adams laughed at his characters, while Pratchett laughed with them at the absurdity of the universe.

Whether it was written in response to the accusations of unoriginality or was just a natural progression, the next book in the Discworld series made the argument that Pratchett was nothing more than a second-rate Douglas Adams untenable. That said, the leap Pratchett made with Equal Rites, the third Discworld novel, was in some ways a fairly obvious one. He was already mining humor from portraying a world of heroic fantasy in a “realistic” way, imagining the experience of the characters there who weren’t larger-than-life heroes on epic quests, and showing how even the fantastic becomes by definition mundane as soon as it becomes the stuff of everyday life. (If you doubt this truism, just look at the technological wonders all around us today which would have seemed almost like magic 30 years ago, but to which we hardly give a thought…) From here, it was a relatively short leap to begin using Discworld as a philosophical laboratory to address the questions and problems with which our own mundane societies are grappling. And yet, short leap though it may have been, it was an audacious one nonetheless. “I want to get away from the idea that I’m automatically sending fantasy up,” Pratchett would say a few years later. “What I’m concerned about now is sending up ideas, ways of looking at the world, people’s expectations.”

The phallic wand the female protagonist of Equal Rites is carrying as she claims powers usually reserved for men is a fine example of Josh Kirby’s subversive edge. Pratchett absolutely loved the image. As his characters loved to sing, “A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end…”

Published barely six months after The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites was the first Discworld novel that could be reasonably said to have overarching themes and a moral compass. Abandoning Rincewind and Twoflower for the time being, it’s a bildungsroman about the coming of age of a young girl — dangerous territory for a middle-aged male author to venture into, but Pratchett pulls it off pretty well. Of course, this being still a fantasy novel, her coming of age involves her coming into her own as a magic user, which in turn involves being apprenticed to the local witch and having many ensuing adventures. Nevertheless, the message the book hammers home relentlessly is as relevant to our own world as any message can possibly be. It’s right there in the book’s title (overlooking another dreadful pun): that women are every bit as capable as men, and deserve to be treated that way. There’s also an even broader and equally important theme, about the value of empathy in general. To illustrate this, Pratchett invents the magical skill of “borrowing,” which lets a being quite literally walk a mile in another being’s shoes — or, rather, in another being’s mind — experiencing the world as they do. If only all of us could and would do the same before we pass judgment…

The next Discworld book, Mort, was published in November of 1987, and remains among the most beloved of the canon, often recommended as an ideal place for beginners to start thanks to its very straightforward, self-contained plot. It involves Mortimer, a hapless young fellow who has just been hired for the dubious position of apprentice to Death. Among other things, the book is a sort of companion piece to Equal Rites, this story being about the travails of male adolescence. Even more so than its predecessor, Mort is elevated by its author’s essential humanity; there is no cruelty in Terry Pratchett. Pratchett:

In Mort, I keep referring to the “sex scenes,” and somebody who was interviewing me said, “But there aren’t any sex scenes in Mort!” I said, “No, but that’s what’s funny!” You see two young people who are terribly embarrassed in each other’s presence, which was about 90 percent of sex when I was a kid. That’s what it was all about: being horribly tongue-tied and embarrassed the whole time.

Much to Pratchett’s gratification, these most recent two, more ambitious Discworld novels sold even better than the first two, allowing him to quit his job in the civil service with the confidence of an established, bankable author. It was at this point that he separated himself from Douglas Adams in another way. If the latter had lived on the Discworld, he would doubtless have been written up as one of the practical jokes the gods there love to play on mortals: he was a brilliant writer who would rather do almost anything else than write, who, as he once memorably put it, preferred to spend his days soaking in a cozy bath and listening to deadlines whooshing by outside the window. Pratchett, on the other hand, had the work ethic of an ant colony. In the first five years after quitting his day job, he published ten Discworld novels, three non-Discworld novels for children, and the standalone novel Good Omens, a much-heralded collaboration with Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comic books. And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, Pratchett also found time to write a few short stories and a non-fiction book about cats.

The middle-aged family man Terry Pratchett and the too-cool-for-school hipster Neil Gaiman, hobnobber with rock stars, made an odd couple to be sure, but the two genuinely liked and respected one another, and many fans consider Good Omens to be among the best things either ever wrote.

Needless to say, we can’t hope to analyze this fire hose of output in any depth here. Suffice to say that Pratchett kept pushing at the boundaries of what a Discworld novel could be, producing everything from intricately plotted detective yarns to poignant character studies, along with the occasional unabashed satirical romp for diehard fans of Rincewind and Twoflower and their ilk. We shouldn’t get too precious about Pratchett’s books from this or any other period; as he would be the first to admit, he was first and foremost a commercial author writing with at least one eye on the needs of the market. He wasn’t above gloating a bit over each huge check that rolled in from his publisher, and very much wanted to keep the money spigot open. Doubtless many of his books could have been even better if he had spent more time with them, if he hadn’t felt compelled to rush pell-mell to the next one. On the other hand, much the same thing can be said of many another highly regarded author, and not just in the genre literatures; the names of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens come to mind as just two of history’s insanely prolific writers-for-hire with a surfeit of genius.

We might pull out just a few books from this era by way of illustrating just how far Discworld could stray from the template of The Colour of Magic. Take, for example, the 1989 novel Guards! Guards!, another one often recommended by the Discworld cognoscenti as an excellent starting point.

In it, a cabal summons a dragon to lay piecemeal waste to the sprawling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, the biggest city on the Disc. One of the usually shiftless Ankh-Morpork police force, a fellow named Sam Vimes who would go on to become the most frequently recurring Discworld-novel protagonist of all, has the bright idea of actually investigating for a change, leading to both comedy and drama. Guards! Guards! can be considered a landmark in the evolution of the Discworld series thanks to the presence of Vimes alone. He is, claims Pratchett’s biographer Burrows, “a character that grew out of Pratchett’s need to put his personality on the page. Vimes is a deposit for the author’s burning anger, and is fueled by a deep sense of injustice that Pratchet had so far managed to keep a lid on. The character is utterly flawed. He’s a drunk, he spends his life miserable, and, despite a keen intelligence, has a habit of speaking truth to power that has kept him from rising further than the city’s least-desirable command — captain of the night watch.”

Writing in a genre famous for seeing good and evil as (sometimes all too literally) white and black, Pratchett understands how the gray of ordinary people leading ordinary lives can slowly but surely turn into deepest ebony.

There are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a touch of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

Or take 1991’s Reaper Man, the second Discworld novel with Death as a main protagonist. The books begins with a crazy premise: that Death has retired to become a farmhand, which causes serious problems on the Disc as everyone currently alive becomes suddenly immortal. What initially seems like nothing but another clever gag becomes in due course a wise, compassionate meditation on time and its passing, on how birth and death are the natural, necessary way of the universe, on how old lives must ultimately end to make space for young ones.

No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away — until the clock he made winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life is only the core of their actual existence.

Or take 1992’s Small Gods, a simultaneously satirical and sympathetic examination of the eternal human quest for Higher Truths, told from the standpoint of both idealists and cynics.

Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place…

Here’s a riff on Plato that comes about as close as any passage can to summing up Pratchett’s philosophy of a happy life:

Life in this world is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, “Go on, do Deformed Rabbit… it’s my favorite.”

And then there’s my very favorite, as cogent an argument for the value of blue-sky research as I’ve ever read:

It’s always worth having a few philosophers around the place. One minute it’s all Is Truth Beauty and Is Beauty Truth, and Does A Falling Tree in the Forest Make A Sound if There’s No One There to Hear It, and then, just when you think they’re going to start dribbling, one of ’em says, “Incidentally, putting a thirty-foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy’s ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles.”

By the early 1990s, Pratchett had managed an incredible, not to say paradoxical, feat: he had busted right out of the fantasy ghetto whilst remaining an unapologetic genre author in outlook and orientation. You were guaranteed to see at least one or two Discworld novels during any given trip on the London Underground, as often as not clutched in the hands of riders who were not your stereotypical fantasy nerds. Discworld cut across all the usual boundaries of class, age, race, and gender. In 1992, W.H. Smith, the biggest bookstore chain in Britain, stated that 10 percent of their total science-fiction and fantasy sales consisted of Terry Pratchett books. By 1998, Pratchett accounted for 2 percent of all their revenues. When you combined the sales of all of his novels together, he became simply the most popular single British author of the 1990s. There was something comforting in the way that these unpretentiously entertaining, gently wise books were able to hold their own and then some against all of the latest controversial political screeds and tawdry celebrity memoirs. If Discworld wasn’t quite great literature, it was certainly a cut above most of the rest of the bestseller list.

Pratchett himself was only slightly slowed by the interviews and book signings that came with being Britain’s most popular living author; he continued to crank out a reliable two books per year. Unlike so many authors whose names have become a brand, Pratchett never stooped to hiring ghostwriters to create his content; every word in every Discworld novel was his own. He became a very rich man, but that didn’t slow him down either. Clearly money wasn’t the main reason he wrote. While he enjoyed it in a way, that way was mostly as a handy measure of his success; his actual lifestyle changed surprisingly little.

Pratchett at a 1996 Discworld convention with a costumed fan.

For all of Discworld‘s 1990s popularity in Britain and some other parts of Europe — Germany proved another especially strong market — it never became more than a cult phenomenon in the United States. (Tellingly, the British edition of Good Omens listed Pratchett’s name first as the more salable author, while the American edition did just the opposite.) This relative failure irked Pratchett, who went so far as to rewrite parts some of his books to better suit what he judged to be the American comedic sensibility. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t manage to place a book on the New York Times bestseller list until 2004.

There really are no obvious American analogues for Pratchett’s place in British pop culture during the decade before that one. Piers Anthony churned out whimsical fantasy novels set in his own pun-strewn world of Xanth at almost as prodigious a pace, and fostered a similarly personal connection with his readers, but his series was vastly more crass, formulaic, and juvenile, not at all the sort of thing most respectable adults were willing to be caught reading on a train.

Confined to Europe though it was, the 1990s Discworld mania was very real and very huge. In addition to the novels themselves, there were television cartoons, audio books, music CDs, collectible figures and toys, tee-shirts and other clothing, jewelry, candles, maps, companion source books, quiz books, a tabletop role-playing game, paper fanzines, conventions, websites, and one of the most popular newsgroups on Usenet: alt.fan.Pratchett, where the author himself occasionally dropped by to leave a post. “Anyone could be a Discworld fan,” writes Marc Burrows, “and sometimes it felt like just about everybody was.”

Naturally, then, there were also computer games…

(Sources: the books The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows and The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; Starlog of August 1990 and May 2000. And of course the many books of Terry Pratchett!)

 

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Transfixed by 1996

I’m afraid I don’t have a regular article for you this week. By way of compensation, I do have a new ebook for you, compiling all of the articles from our recently concluded historical year of 1995, along with the special “Web Around the World” series about the birth of worldwide communications networks and (eventually!) the Internet. Because some of you have requested it, Richard Lindner and I have also prepared a special ebook volume that includes only the latter series. If you enjoy these ebooks, don’t hesitate to drop Richard a line at the email address on their frontispieces to thank him for his efforts.

We’re a couple of articles into 1996 already; I’ve covered Toonstruck and the first Broken Sword game. In keeping with a developing Digital Antiquarian tradition, let me tell you what else I have planned for the year as a whole:

  • The Discworld and Discworld II adventures, preceded by a short digression about Terry Pratchett and his literary Discworld universe in general, which has intersected with games on multiple occasions. (As many of you doubtless know, Terry Pratchett himself was a dedicated gamer, and his daughter Rhianna Pratchett has become a notable games journalist and designer in her own right.)
  • The second (and, sadly, last) Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes game, which plunges you even deeper into Victoriana than does its predecessor.
  • Rama and The Martian Chronicles, which are by no means great games. Nevertheless, they are on one level fairly typical exemplars of the Myst variants that were everywhere in the mid-1990s, and make for worthy objects of inquiry on that basis alone. And on another level, I think it will be interesting, constructive, and maybe even a bit nostalgic to compare them with earlier adaptations of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, from the first era of bookware. (The Martian Chronicles was even created by Byron Preiss Productions, the same folks behind the old Telarium bookware line.)
  • Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, the penultimate million-selling adventure of the 1990s, a case study in being in the right place at the right time — said time being in this case very close to the release date of a certain blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
  • The Pandora Directive. Enough said. Tex Murphy needs no justification.
  • Spycraft, an interactive spy movie by Activision, one of the more elaborate multimedia productions of its day, which courted controversy by letting you torture prisoners while playing the role of a CIA agent. Almost a decade later, the revelations about Guantánamo Bay would give this scene an uncomfortable aura of verisimilitude.
  • Star Control 3, Legend Entertainment’s much-maligned sequel to a much-beloved game.
  • Wing Commander IV. If anyone was wondering why Toonstruck‘s $8 million budget made it only the second most expensive computer game ever as of 1996, this article will provide the answer.
  • Battlecruiser 3000 AD. Because sometimes you just need a good laugh, and this story is like an Onion satire of the games industry come to life.
  • Terra Nova, Looking Glass’s next, somewhat less successful but nevertheless innovative experiment with immersive, emergent 3D world-building after the seminal System Shock.
  • Civilization II, Master of Orion II, and Heroes of Might and Magic II. I lump these three games together here because they are all strategy sequels — a thought-provoking concept in itself, in that they are iterations on gameplay rather than the next chapters of ongoing stories. They will, however, each get an article of their own as part of a mini-series.
  • The post-DOOM generation of first-person shooters, up to Quake and the advent of hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. I know some of you have been itching for more coverage of these topics, to which I can only plead that they just aren’t my favorite sorts of games; chalk me up as too old, too slow, too pacifistic, and/or too bookish. This means I’m really not the best person to cover most first-person shooters in great individual depth. But I’ll try to do a group of them some sort of historical justice here, and spend some time on the software and hardware technology behind them as well, which I must confess to finding more interesting in some ways than the actual games.
  • Tomb Raider. Lara Croft has become arguably the most famous videogame character in the world in the years since her debut in 1996, as well as a lightning rod for discussion and controversy. Is she a sadly typical example of the objectification of women for the male-gamer gaze, or a rarer example of a capable, empowered female protagonist in a game? Or is she perhaps a little of both? We shall investigate.
  • Her Interactive. The story of the earliest games of Her Interactive, who would later carve out a permanent niche for themselves making Nancy Drew adventure games, is another fascinating and slightly bizarre tale, about attempting to sell games to teenage girls through partnerships with trendy fashion labels, with plots that might have been lifted from Beverly Hills 90210, in boxes stuffed with goodies that were like girlie versions of the Infocom gray boxes of yore. Do the games stay on the right side of the line between respectful outreach and pandering condescension? Again, we shall investigate.
  • Windows 95. The biggest topic for the year, this will serve as a continuation of not one but two earlier series: “Doing Windows” and the recently concluded “A Web Around the World.” Windows 95 was anything but just another Microsoft operating system, reflecting as it did its maker’s terror about a World Wide Web filled with increasingly “active” content that might eventually make traditional operating systems — and thus Microsoft themselves — irrelevant. And Windows 95 also introduced a little something called DirectX, which finally provided game developers with a runtime environment that was comprehensively better than bare-bones MS-DOS. But why, you may be asking, am I including Windows 95 in the coverage for 1996? Simply because it shipped very late in its titular year, and it took a while for its full impact to be felt.

To answer another question that will doubtless come up after reading the preceding: no, I’m not going to skip over Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo, one of the most popular games of the decade. I’ve just decided to push it into 1997, given that it appears not to have reached store shelves in most places until just after the new year. And I’ll make time for a round-up of real-time-strategy games, from Blizzard and others, before covering Diablo.

As always, none of this is set in stone. Feel free to make your case in the comments for anything I’ve neglected that you think would make a worthy topic for an article, or just to register your voice as a conscientious objector in the case of the games I won’t be able to get around to.

And if what’s coming up seems exciting to you and you haven’t yet signed up to support this project, please do think about doing so. Of course, I realize all too well that much in the world is uncertain right now and many of us feel ourselves to be on shaky ground, not least when it comes to our finances. By all means, take care of yourself and yours first. But if you have a little something left over after doing so and want to ensure that my voluminous archives continue to grow, anything you can spare would be immensely appreciated. See the links at the top right of this page!

And thank you — a million times thank you — to all of you who have already become Patreon patrons or made one-time or recurring PayPal donations. Your pledges and donations are the best validation a writer could have, in addition to being the only reason I’m able to keep on doing this. It’s been quite a ride already, and yet we have a long, long way still to go. See you next week for a proper article!

 

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

The games of Revolution Software bore the stamp of the places in which they were conceived. Work on Beneath a Steel Sky, the company’s breakthrough graphic adventure, began in Hull, a grim postindustrial town in the north of England, and those environs were reflected in the finished product’s labyrinths of polluted streets and shuttered houses. But by the time Revolution turned to the question of a follow-up, they had upped stakes for the stately city of York. “We’re surrounded by history here,” said Revolution co-founder Tony Warriner. “York is a very historical city.” Charles Cecil, Revolution’s chief motivating force in a creative sense, felt inspired to make a very historical game.

The amorphous notion began to take a more concrete form after he broached the idea over dinner one evening to Sean Brennan, his main point of contact at Revolution’s publisher Virgin Interactive. Brennan said that he had recently struggled through Umberto Eco’s infamously difficult postmodern novel Foucault’s Pendulum, an elaborate satire of the conspiratorial view of history which is so carefully executed that its own conspiracy theories wind up becoming more convincing than most good-faith examples of the breed. Chasing a trail of literally and figuratively buried evidence across time and space… it seemed ideal for an adventure game. Why not do something like that? Perhaps the Knights Templar would make a good starting point. Thus was born Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.



Our respectable books of history tell us that the Knights Templar was a rich and powerful but relatively brief-lived chivalric order of the late Middle Ages in Europe. It was founded in 1119 and torn up root and branch by a jealous King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V in 1312. After that, it played no further role in history. Or did it?

People have been claiming for centuries that the order wasn’t really destroyed at all, that it just went underground in one sense or another. Meanwhile other conspiracy theories — sometimes separate from, sometimes conjoined with the aforementioned — have posited that the Knights left a fabulous hidden treasure behind somewhere, which perchance included even the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.

In the 1960s, the old stories were revived and adapted into a form suitable for modern pop culture by a brilliant French fabulist named Pierre Plantard, who went so far as to plant forged documents in his homeland’s Bibliothèque Nationale. Three Anglo authors ingeniously expanded upon his deceptions — whether they were truly taken in by them or merely saw them as a moneymaking opportunity is unclear — in 1982 in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It connected the Knights Templar to another, more blasphemous conspiracy theory: that Jesus Christ had not been celibate as stated in the New Testament, nor had his physical form actually died on the cross. He had rather run away with Mary Magdalene and fathered children with her, creating a secret bloodline that has persisted to the present day. The Knights Templar were formed to guard the holy bloodline, a purpose they continue to fulfill. Charles Cecil freely admits that it was The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that really got his juices flowing.

It isn’t hard to see why. It’s a rare literary beast: a supposedly nonfiction book full of patent nonsense that remains thoroughly entertaining to read even for the person who knows what a load of tosh it all is. In his review of it back in 1982, Anthony Burgess famously wrote that “it is typical of my unregenerable soul that I can only see this as a marvelous theme for a novel.” Many others have felt likewise over the years since. If Umberto Eco’s unabashedly intellectual approach doesn’t strike your fancy, you can always turn to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s decidedly more populist take on the theme from 2003 — one of the most successful novels of the 21st century, the founder of a veritable cottage industry of sequels, knock-offs, and cinematic adaptations. (Although Brown himself insists that he didn’t use The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail for a crib sheet when writing his novel, pretty much no one believes him.)

For all their convoluted complexity, conspiracy theories are the comfort food of armchair historians. They state that the sweeping tides of history are not the result of diffuse, variegated, and ofttimes unease-inducing social and political impulses, but can instead all be explained by whatever shadowy cabal they happen to be peddling. It’s a clockwork view of history, A leading to B leading to C, which conveniently absolves us and our ancestors who weren’t pulling the strings behind the scenes of any responsibility for the state of the world. I’ve often wondered if the conspiratorial impulse in modern life stems at least in part from our current obsession with granular data, our belief that all things can be understood if we can just collect enough bits and bytes and analyze it all rigorously enough. Such an attitude makes it dangerously easy to assemble the narratives we wish to be true out of coincidental correlations. The amount of data at our fingertips, it seems to me, has outrun our wisdom for making use of it.

But I digress. As Burgess, Eco, and Brown all well recognized, outlandish conspiracy theories can be outrageously entertaining, and are harmless enough if we’re wise enough not to take them seriously. Add Charles Cecil to that list as well: “I was convinced a game set in the modern day with this history that resonated from Medieval times would make a very compelling subject.”

As he began to consider how to make a commercial computer game out of the likes of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Cecil realized that he needed to stay well away from the book’s claims about Jesus Christ; the last thing Revolution Software or Virgin Interactive needed was to become the antichrist in the eyes of scandalized Christians all over the world. So, he settled on a less controversial vision of the Knights Templar, centering on their alleged lost treasure — a scavenger hunt was, after all, always a good fit for an adventure game — and a fairly nondescript conspiracy eager to get their hands on it for a spot of good old world domination for the sake of it.

Cecil and some of his more committed fans have occasionally noted some surface similarities between his game and The Da Vinci Code, which was published seven years later, and hinted that Dan Brown may have been inspired by the game as well as by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In truth, though, the similarities would appear to be quite natural for fictions based on the same source material.

Indeed, I’ve probably already spent more time on the historical backstory of Broken Sword here than it deserves, considering how lightly it skims the surface of the claims broached in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and elsewhere. Suffice to say that the little bit of it that does exist here does a pretty good job of making you feel like you’re on the trail of a mystery ancient and ominous. And that, of course, is all it really needs to do.



In addition to being yet another manifestation of pop-culture conspiracy theorizing, Broken Sword was a sign of the times for the industry that produced it. Adventure games were as big as they would ever get in 1994, the year the project was given the green light by Virgin. Beneath a Steel Sky had gotten good reviews and was performing reasonably well in the marketplace, and Virgin was willing to invest a considerable sum to help Revolution take their next game to the proverbial next level, to compete head to head with Sierra and LucasArts, the titans of American adventure gaming. Broken Sword‘s final production cost would touch £1 million, making it quite probably the most expensive game yet made in Britain.

Having such a sum of money at their disposal transformed Revolution’s way of doing business. Some 50 different people in all contributed to Broken Sword, a five-fold increase over the staff hired for Beneath a Steel Sky. Artist Dave Gibbons, whose distinctive style had done so much to make the previous game stand out from the pack, was not among them, having moved on to other endeavors. But that was perhaps for the best; Gibbons was a comic-book artist, adept at crafting striking static images. Broken Sword, on the other hand, would have lots of motion, would be more of an interactive cartoon than an interactive comic.

To capture that feel, Charles Cecil went to Dublin, Ireland, where the animator Don Bluth ran the studio behind such films as The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Thumbelina. There he met one Eoghan Cahill, who had been working with Bluth for years, and got a hasty education on what separates the amateurs from the professionals in the field. Cecil:

I have to say, I didn’t take layout all that seriously. But he asked me about layout, and I showed him some of the stuff we were working on. And he looked at me and said, “This is not good enough.” I felt rather hurt. He said, “You need to see my stuff and you need to employ me.” So I had a look at his stuff, and it was so beautiful.

I said, “I think I really do need to employ you.” And indeed, he came to work at Revolution as a layout artist.

Although Don Bluth himself had nothing to do with the game, Broken Sword is as marked by the unique sensibility he inculcated in his artists as Beneath a Steel Sky is by that of Dave Gibbons. The opening movie is a bravura sequence by any standard, a tribute not only to the advantages of Super VGA graphics and CD-ROM — Revolution’s days of catering to more limited machines like the Commodore Amiga were now behind them — but to the aesthetic sophistication which Cahill brought to the project. Broken Sword‘s “pixel art,” as the kids call it today, remains mouth-wateringly luscious to look upon, something which most certainly cannot be said of the jaggy 3D productions of the mid-1990s.

The view with which the intro movie begins is a real one from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral.

It’s worth dwelling on this movie a bit, for it does much to illustrate how quickly both Revolution and the industry to which they belonged were learning and expanding their horizons. Consider the stirring score by the noted film, television, and theater composer and conductor Barrington Pheloung, which is played by a real orchestra on real instruments — a growing trend in games in general at the time, which would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier for both technical and budgetary reasons.

Then, too, consider the subtle sophistication of the storytelling techniques that are employed here, from the first foreshadowing voice-over — the only dialog in the whole sequence — to the literal bang that finishes it. Right after the movie ends, you take control amidst the chaos on the sidewalk that follows the explosion. Assuming you aren’t made of the same stuff as that Notre Dame gargoyle, you’re already thoroughly invested at this point in figuring out what the heck just happened. The power of an in medias res opening like this one to hook an audience was well known to William Shakespeare, but has tended to elude many game developers. Charles Cecil:

There are two ways to start a game. You can give lots of background about a character and what he or she is doing or you can start in a way that is [in] the player’s control, and that’s what I wanted. I thought that since the player controlled the character and associated with him, I could afford to start a game without giving away a great deal about the character. So in the first scene, I didn’t want a long exposition. George is drawn into the plot unwillingly, having been caught up in an explosion, and he wants to do the right thing in finding out what was behind it.

All told, the jump in the quality of storytelling and writing from Beneath a Steel Sky to Broken Sword is as pronounced as the audiovisual leap. Beneath a Steel Sky isn’t really a poorly written game in comparison to others of its era, but the script at times struggles to live up to Dave Gibbons’s artwork. It bears the telltale signs of a writer not quite in control of his own material, shifting tones too jarringly and lapsing occasionally into awkward self-referential humor when it ought to be playing it straight.

None of that is the case with Broken Sword. This game’s writers know exactly where they want to go and have the courage of their conviction that they can get there. This is not to say that it’s dour — far from it; one of the greatest charms of the game is that it never takes itself too seriously, never forgets that it is at bottom just an exercise in escapist entertainment.

Remarkably, the improvement in this area isn’t so much a credit to new personnel as to the usual suspects honing their craft. Revolution’s games were always the vision of Charles Cecil, but, as he admits, he’s “not the world’s greatest writer.” Therefore he had relied since the founding of Revolution on one Dave Cummins to turn his broad outlines into a finished script. For Broken Sword, Cummins was augmented by a newcomer named Jonathan Howard, but the improvement in the writing cannot be down to his presence alone. The veterans at Revolution may have become harder to spot amidst the sea of new faces, but they were working as hard as anyone to improve, studying how film and television were put together and then applying the lessons to the game — but sparingly and carefully, mind you. Cecil:

When Broken Sword came out, we were riding on the back of these interactive movies. They were a disaster. The people knocking them out were being blinded; they wanted to rub shoulders with movie stars and producers, and the gaming elements were lost. They were out of touch with games. Of course, I am interested in film script-writing and I felt then and still do that there can be parallels with games. I felt we needed to learn from the movies with Broken Sword, but not mimic them. It was my intention to make Broken Sword cinematic — with great gameplay.

Revolution may have had global ambitions for Broken Sword, but it’s a deeply British game at heart, shot through with sly British humor. To properly appreciate any of that, however, we really need to know what the game is actually about, beyond the Knights Templar and international conspiracies of evil in the abstract.



Broken Sword‘s protagonist is an American abroad with the pitch-perfect name of George Stobbart, who is winningly portrayed in the original game and all four of its official sequels to date by voice actor Rolf Saxon. George is a painfully earnest everyman — or at least every-American — who in an earlier era might have been played on the silver screen by Jimmy Stewart. He wanders through the game’s foreign settings safely ensconced in the impenetrable armor of his nationality, a sight recognizable to any observer of Americans outside their natural habitat. To my mind the funniest line in the entire script comes when he’s accosted by an overzealous French police constable brandishing a pistol. “Don’t shoot!” he yells. “I’m an American!” Whole volumes of sociology and history could be written by way of unpacking those five words…

Anyway, as we saw in the movie above, the vacationing George is sitting in a Parisian café when a killer clown bombs the place to smithereens, in what seems to have been a deliberate — and unfortunately successful — act of murder against one particular patron. Earnest fellow that he is, George takes it upon himself to solve the crime, which proves to be much more than a random act of street violence. As he slowly peels the onion of the conspiracy behind it all, he has occasion to visit Ireland, Syria, Spain, and Scotland in addition to roaming the length and breadth of Paris, the home base for his investigations. And why does Paris feature so prominently? Well, it was close enough to Britain to make it easy for Revolution to visit in the name of research, but still held a powerful romantic allure for an Englishman of Cecil’s generation. “England was very poor in the 1960s and 1970s, and London was gray and drab,” he says. “Paris was smart. People walked differently and they wore brighter clothes. You sat in restaurants and ate amazing food. The mythology of Paris [in] Broken Sword came from that imagery of my younger days.”

George’s companion — constantly in research, from time to time in adventure, and potentially in romance — is one Nico, a French reporter with a sandpaper wit whom he meets at the scene of the bombing. She was originally created by the game’s writers to serve a very practical purpose, a trick that television and movie scriptwriters have been employing forever: in acting as a diegetic sounding board for George, she becomes a handy way to keep the player oriented and up to date with the ramifications of his latest discoveries, helping the player to keep a handle on what becomes a very complex mystery. In this sense, then, her presence is another sign of how Revolution’s writers were mastering their craft. “It meant we didn’t need to have lengthy one-man dialogs or 30 minutes of cut scenes,” says Charles Cecil.

The sexual tension between the oft-bickering pair — that classic “will they or won’t they?” dilemma — was initially a secondary consideration. It’s actually fairly understated in this first game, even as Nico herself is less prominent than she would later become; she spends the bulk of the game sitting in her apartment conducting vaguely defined “inquiries,” apparently by telephone, and waiting for another visit from George. [1]It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.

So much for the characters. Now, back to the subject of humor:

There’s the time when George tells Nico that he’s just visited the costume shop whence he believes the bomber to have rented his clown suit. “Yeah, I like it. What are you supposed to be?” she asks. Da-dum-dum!

“I didn’t hire a costume,” answers our terminally earnest protagonist. “These are my clothes and you know it.”

And then there’s Nico and (a jealous) George’s discussion with a French historian about Britain’s status during the time of the Roman Empire. “To the Romans, the Mediterranean was the center of the universe,” says the historian. “Britain was a remote, unfriendly place inhabited by blue-painted savages.”

“It hasn’t changed much,” says Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum!

“Well, they’ve stopped painting themselves blue,” says our straight man George.

“Except when they go to a football match,” deadpans Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum-dum!

You get the idea. I should say that all of this is made funnier by the performances of the voice cast, who are clearly having a grand old time turning their accents up to eleven. (Like so many Anglosphere productions, Broken Sword seems to think that everyone speaks English all the time, just in funny ways and with a light salting of words like bonjour and merci.)

And yet — and this is the truly remarkable part — the campiness of it all never entirely overwhelms the plot. The game is capable of creating real dramatic tension and a palpable sense of danger from time to time. It demands to be taken seriously at such junctures; while you can’t lock yourself out of victory without knowing it, you can die. The game walks a tenuous tightrope indeed between drama and comedy, but it very seldom loses its balance.


It wasn’t easy being a writer of geopolitical thrillers in the 1990s, that period of blissful peace and prosperity in the West after the end of the Cold War and before the War on Terror, the resurgence of authoritarianism, a global pandemic, and a widespread understanding of the magnitude of the crisis of global warming. Where exactly was one to find apocalyptic conflicts in such a milieu? It’s almost chilling to watch this clip today. What seemed an example of typically absurd videogame evil in 1996 feels disturbingly relevant today — not the Knights Templar nonsense, that is, but all the real-world problems that are blamed on it. If only it was as simple as stamping out a single cabal of occultists…

It’s hard to reconcile Broken Sword‘s Syria, a place where horror exists only in the form of Knights Templar assassins, a peddler of dodgy kebobs, and — most horrifying of all — an American tourist in sandals and knee socks, with the reality of the country of today. The civil war that is now being fought there has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and shattered tens of millions more.

With Nico in her Parisian flat.

Wars and governments may come and go, but the pub life of Ireland is eternal.

A villa in Spain with a connection to the Knights Templar and a grouchy gardener whom George will need to outwit.

Amidst ruins of a Scottish castle fit for a work of Romantic art, on the cusp of foiling the conspirators’ nefarious plot.



Revolution spent an inordinate amount of time — fully two and a half years — honing their shot at the adventure-game big leagues. They were silent for so long that some in the British press consigned them to the “where are they now?” file. “Whatever happened to Revolution Software?” asked PC Zone magazine in January of 1996. “Two releases down the line, they seem to have vanished.”

Alas, by the time Broken Sword was finally ready to go in the fall of 1996, the public’s ardor for the adventure genre had begun to dissipate. Despite a slew of high-profile, ambitious releases, 1996 had yet to produce a million-selling hit like the previous year’s Phantasmagoria, or like Myst the year before that. Especially in the United States, the industry’s focus was shifting to 3D action-oriented games, which not only sold better but were cheaper and faster to make than adventure games. In what some might call a sad commentary on the times, Virgin’s American arm insisted that the name of Broken Sword be changed to Circle of Blood. “They wanted it to be much more ‘bloody’ sounding,” says Charles Cecil.

For all of its high production values, the game was widely perceived by the American gaming press as a second-tier entry in a crowded field plagued by flagging enthusiasm. Computer Gaming World‘s review reads as a more reserved endorsement than the final rating of four stars out of five might imply. “The lengthy conversations often drag on before getting to the point,” wrote the author. If you had told her that Broken Sword — or rather Circle of Blood, as she knew it — would still be seeing sequels published in the second decade after such adventure standard bearers as King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight had been consigned to the videogame history books, she would surely have been shocked to say the least.

Ah, yes, Gabriel Knight… the review refers several times to that other series of adventure games masterminded by Sierra’s Jane Jensen. Even today, Gabriel Knight still seems to be the elephant in the room whenever anyone talks about Broken Sword. And on the surface, there really are a lot of similarities between the two. Both present plots that are, for all their absurdity, extrapolations on real history; both are very interested in inculcating a sense of place in their players; both feature a male protagonist and a female sidekick who develop feelings for one another despite their constant bickering, and whose rapport their audience developed feelings for to such an extent that they encouraged the developers to make the sidekick into a full-fledged co-star. According to one line of argument in adventure-game fandom, Broken Sword is a thinly disguised knock-off of Gabriel Knight. (The first game of Sierra’s series was released back in 1993, giving Revolution plenty of time to digest it and copy it.) Many will tell you that the imitation is self-evidently shallower and sillier than its richer inspiration.

But it seems to me that this argument is unfair, or at least incomplete. To begin with, the whole comparison feels more apt if you’ve only read about the games in question than if you’ve actually played them. Leaving aside the fraught and ultimately irrelevant question of influence — for the record, Charles Cecil and others from Revolution do not cite Gabriel Knight as a significant influence — there is a difference in craft that needs to be acknowledged. The Gabriel Knight games are fascinating to me not so much for what they achieve as for what they attempt. They positively scream out for critical clichés about reaches exceeding grasps; they’re desperate to elevate the art of interactive storytelling to some sort of adult respectability, but they never quite figure out how to do that while also being playable, soluble adventure games.

Broken Sword aims lower, yes, but hits its mark dead-center. From beginning to end, it oozes attention to the details of good game design. “We had to be very careful, and so we went through lots of [puzzles], seeing which ones would be fun,” says Charles Cecil. “These drive the story on, providing rewards as the player goes along, so we had to get them right.” One seldom hears similar anecdotes from the people who worked on Sierra’s games.

This, then, is the one aspect of Broken Sword I haven’t yet discussed: it’s a superb example of classic adventure design. Its puzzles are tricky at times, but never unclued, never random, evincing a respect for its player that was too often lost amidst the high concepts of games like Gabriel Knight.

Of course, if you dislike traditional adventure games on principle, Broken Sword will not change your mind. As an almost defiantly traditionalist creation, it resolves none of the fundamental issues with the genre that infuriate so many. The puzzles it sets in front of you seldom have much to do with the mystery you’re supposed to be unraveling. In the midst of attempting to foil a conspiracy of world domination, you’ll expend most of your brainpower on such pressing tasks as luring an ornery goat out of an Irish farmer’s field and scouring a Syrian village for a kebob seller’s lucky toilet brush. (Don’t ask!) Needless to say, most of the solutions George comes up with are, although typical of an adventure game, ridiculous, illegal, and/or immoral in any other context. The only way to play them is for laughs.

And this, I think, is what Broken Sword understands about the genre that Gabriel Knight does not. The latter’s puzzles are equally ridiculous (and too often less soluble), but the game tries to play it straight, creating cognitive dissonances all over the place. Broken Sword, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to lean into the limitations of its chosen genre and turn them into opportunities — opportunities, that is, to just be funny. Having made that concession, if concession it be, it finds that it can still keep its overarching plot from degenerating into farce. It’s a pragmatic compromise that works.

I like to think that the wisdom of its approach has been more appreciated in recent years, as even the more hardcore among us have become somewhat less insistent on adventure games as deathless interactive art and more willing to just enjoy them for what they are. Broken Sword may have been old-school even when it was a brand-new game, but it’s no musty artifact today. It remains as charming, colorful, and entertaining as ever, an example of a game whose reach is precisely calibrated to its grasp.

(Sources: the books The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln and Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Retro Gamer 31, 63, 146, and 148; PC Zone of January 1996; Computer Gaming World of February 1997. Online sources include Charles Cecil’s interviews with Anthony Lacey of Dining with Strangers, John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun, Marty Mulrooney of Alternative Magazine Online, and Peter Rootham-Smith of Game Boomers.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars is available for digital purchase as a “director’s cut” whose additions and modifications are of dubious benefit. Luckily, the download includes the original game, which is well worth the purchase price in itself.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.
 

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