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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

Master of Orion

 

Given the shadow which the original Master of Orion still casts over the gaming landscape of today, one might be forgiven for assuming, as many younger gamers doubtless do, that it was the very first conquer-the-galaxy grand-strategy game ever made. The reality, however, is quite different. For all that its position of influence is hardly misbegotten for other very good reasons, it was already the heir to a long tradition of such games at the time of its release in 1993. In fact, the tradition dates back to well before computer games as we know them today even existed.

The roots of the strategic space opera can be traced back to the tabletop game known as Diplomacy, designed by Allan B. Calhamer and first published in 1959 by Avalon Hill. Taking place in the years just prior to World War I, it put seven players in the roles of leaders of the various “great powers” of Europe. Although it included a playing board, tokens, and most of the other accoutrements of a typical board game, the real action, at least if you were playing it properly, was entirely social, in the alliances that were forged and broken and the shady deals that were struck. In this respect, it presaged many of the ideas that would later go into Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. It thus represents an instant in gaming history as seminal in its own way as the 1954 publication of Avalon Hill’s Tactics, the canonical first tabletop wargame and the one which touched off the hobby of experiential gaming in general. But just as importantly for our purposes, Diplomacy‘s shifting alliances and the back-stabbings they led to would become an essential part of countless strategic space operas, including Master of Orion 34 years later.

Because getting seven friends together in the same room for the all-day affair that was a complete game of Diplomacy was almost as hard in the 1960s as it is today, inventive gamers developed systems for playing it via post; the first example of this breed would seem to date from 1963. And once players had started modifying the rules of Diplomacy to make it work under this new paradigm, it was a relatively short leap to begin making entirely new play-by-post games with new themes which shared some commonalities of approach with Calhamer’s magnum opus.

Thus in December of 1966, Dan Brannon announced a play-by-post game called Xeno, whose concept sounds very familiar indeed in the broad strokes. Each player started with a cluster of five planets — a tiny toehold in a sprawling, unknown galaxy waiting to be colonized. “The vastness of the playing space, the secrecy of the identity of the other players, the secrecy of the locations of ships and planets, the total lack of information without efforts of investigation, all these factors are meant to create the real problems of a race trying to expand to other planets,” wrote Brannon. Although the new game would be like Diplomacy in that it would presumably still culminate in negotiations, betrayals, and the inevitable final war to determine the ultimate victor, these stages would now be preceded by those of exploration and colonization, until a galaxy that had seemed so unfathomably big at the start proved not to be big enough to accommodate all of its would-be space empires. Certainly all of this too will be familiar to any player of Master of Orion or one of its heirs. Brannon’s game even included a tech tree of sorts, with players able to acquire better engines, weapons, and shields for their ships every eight turns they managed to survive.

In practice, Xeno played out at a pace to which the word “glacial” hardly does justice. The game didn’t really get started until September of 1967, and by a year after that just three turns had been completed. I don’t know whether a single full game of it was ever finished. Nevertheless, it proved hugely influential within the small community of experiential-gaming fanzines and play-by-post enthusiasts. The first similar game, called Galaxy and run by H. David Montgomery, had already appeared before Xeno had processed its third turn.

But the idea was, literally and figuratively speaking, too big for the medium for which it had been devised; it was just too compelling to remain confined to those few stalwart souls with the patience for play-by-post gaming. It soon branched out into two new mediums, each of which offered a more immediate sort of satisfaction.

In 1975, following rejections from Avalon Hill and others, one Howard Thompson formed his own company to publish the face-to-face board game Stellar Conquest, the first strategic space opera to appear in an actual box on store shelves. When Stellar Conquest became a success, it spawned a string of similar board games with titles like Godsfire, Outreach, Second Empire, and Starfall during this, the heyday of experiential gaming on the tabletop. But the big problem with such games was their sheer scope and math-heavy nature, which were enough to test the limits of many a salty old grognard who usually reveled in complexity. They all took at least three or four hours to play in their simplest variants, and a single game of at least one of them — SPI’s Outreach — could absorb weeks of gaming Saturdays. Meanwhile they were all dependent on pages and pages of fiddly manual calculations, in the time before spreadsheet macros or even handheld calculators were commonplace. (One hates to contemplate the plight of the Outreach group who have just spent the last two months resolving who shall become master of the galaxy, only to discover that the victor made a mistake on her production worksheet back on the second turn which invalidated all of the numbers that followed…) These games were, in other words, crying out for computerization.

Luckily, then, that too had already started to happen by the end of the 1970s. One of the reasons that play-by-post games of this type tended to run so sluggishly — beyond, that is, the inherent sluggishness of the medium itself — came down to the same problem as that faced by their tabletop progeny: the burden their size and complexity placed on their administrators. Therefore in 1976, Rick Loomis, the founder of a little company called Flying Buffalo, started running the commercial play-by-post game Starweb on what gaming historian Shannon Appelcline has called “probably the first computer ever purchased exclusively to play games” (or, at least, to administrate them): a $14,000 Raytheon 704 minicomputer. He would continue to run Starweb for more than thirty years — albeit presumably not on the same computer throughout that time.

But the first full-fledged incarnation of the computerized strategic space opera — in the sense of a self-contained game meant to be played locally on a single computer — arrived only in 1983. Called Reach for the Stars, it was the first fruit of what would turn into a long-running and prolific partnership between the Aussies Roger Keating and Ian Trout, who in that rather grandiose fashion that was so typical of grognard culture had named themselves the Strategic Studies Group. Reach for the Stars was based so heavily upon Stellar Conquest that it’s been called an outright unlicensed clone. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement for the way that it manages to capture that sense of size and scope that is such a huge part of these games’ appeal on 8-bit Apple IIs and Commodore 64s with just 64 K of memory. Although the whole is necessarily rather bare-bones compared to what would come later, the computer players’ artificial intelligence, always a point of pride with Keating and Trout, is surprisingly effective; on the harder difficulty level, the computer can truly give you a run for your money, and seems to do so without relying solely on egregious cheating.

It doesn’t look like much, but the basic hallmarks of the strategic space opera are all there in Reach for the Stars.

Reach for the Stars did very well, prompting updated ports to more powerful machines like the Apple Macintosh and IIGS and the Commodore Amiga as the decade wore on. A modest trickle of other boxed computer games of a similar stripe also appeared, albeit none which did much to comprehensively improve on SSG’s effort: Imperium Galactum, Spaceward Ho!, Armada 2525, Pax Imperia. Meanwhile the commercial online service CompuServe offered up MegaWars III, in which up to 100 players vied for control of the galaxy; it played a bit like one of those years-long play-by-post campaigns of yore compressed into four to six weeks of constant — and expensive, given CompuServe’s hourly dial-up rates — action and intrigue. Even the shareware scene got in on the act, via titles like Anacreon: Reconstruction 4021 and the earliest versions of the cult classic VGA Planets, a game which is still actively maintained and played to this day. And then, finally, along came Master of Orion in 1993 to truly take this style of game to the next level.

Had things gone just a little bit differently, Master of Orion too might have been a shareware release. It was designed in the spare time of Steve Barcia, an electrical engineer living in Austin, Texas, and programmed by Steve himself, his wife Marcia Barcia, and their friend Ken Burd. Steve claims not ever to have played any of the computer games I’ve just mentioned, but, as an avid and longtime tabletop gamer, he was very familiar with Stellar Conquest and a number of its successors. (No surprise there: Howard Thompson and his game were in fact also products of Austin’s vibrant board-gaming scene.)

After working on their computer game, which they called Star Lords, on and off for years, the little band of hobbyist programmers submitted it to MicroProse, whose grand-strategy game of Civilization, a creation of their leading in-house designer Sid Meier, had just taken the world by storm. A MicroProse producer named Jeff Johannigman — himself another member of the Austin gaming fraternity, as it happened, one who had just left Origin Systems in Austin to join MicroProse up in Baltimore — took a shine to the unpolished gem and signed its creators to develop it further. Seeing their hobby about to become a real business, the trio quit their jobs, took the name of SimTex, and leased a cramped office above a gyro joint to finish their game under Johannigman’s remote supervision, with a little additional help from MicroProse’s art department.

A fellow named Alan Emrich was one of most prominent voices in strategy-game criticism at the time; he was the foremost scribe on the subject at Computer Gaming World magazine, the industry’s accepted journal of record, and had just published a book-length strategy guide on Civilization in tandem with Johnny Wilson, the same magazine’s senior editor. Thanks to that project, Emrich was well-connected with MicroProse, and was happy to serve as a sounding board for them. And so, one fateful day very early in 1993, Johannigman asked if he’d like to have a look at a new submission called Star Lords.

As Emrich himself puts it, his initial impressions “were not that great.” He remembers thinking the game looked like “something from the late 1980s” — an eternity in the fast-changing computing scene of the early 1990s. Yet there was just something about it; the more he played, the more he wanted to keep playing. So, he shared Star Lords with his friend Tom Hughes, with whom he’d been playing tabletop and computerized strategy games for twenty years. Hughes had the same experience. Emrich:

After intense, repeated playing of the game, Tom and I were soon making numerous suggestions to [Johannigman], who, in turn, got tired of passing them on to the designer and lead programmer, Steve Barcia. Soon, we were talking to Steve directly. The telephone lines were burning regularly and a lot of ideas went back and forth. All the while, Steve was cooking up a better and better game. It was during this time that the title changed to Master of Orion and the game’s theme and focus crystallized.

I wrote a sneak preview for Computer Gaming World magazine where I indicated that Master of Orion was shaping up to be a good game. It had a lot of promise, but I didn’t think it was up there with Sid Meier’s Civilization, the hobby’s hallmark of strategy gaming at that time. But by the time that story hit the newsstands, I had changed my mind. I found myself still playing the game constantly and was reflecting on that fact when Tom called me. We talked about Master of Orion, of course, and Tom said, “You know, I think this game might become more addicting even than Civilization.” I replied, “You know, I think it already is.”

I was hard on Emrich in earlier articles for his silly assertion that Civilization‘s inclusion of global warming as a threat to progress and women’s suffrage as a Wonder of the World constituted some form of surrender to left-wing political correctness, as I was for his even sillier assertion that the game’s simplistic and highly artificial economic model could somehow be held up as proof for the pseudo-scientific theory of trickle-down economics. Therefore let me be very clear in praising him here: Emrich and Hughes played an absolutely massive role in making Master of Orion one of the greatest strategy games of all time. Their contribution was such that SimTex took the unusual step of adding to the credits listing a “Special Thanks to Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes for their invaluable design critiquing and suggestions.” If anything, that credit would seem to be more ungenerous than the opposite. By all indications, a pair of full-fledged co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of proportion to the reality of their contribution. The two would go on to write the exhaustive official strategy guide for the game, a tome numbering more than 400 pages. No one could have been more qualified to tackle that project.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Emrich did one more great service for Master of Orion and, one might even say, for gaming in general. In a “revealing sneak preview” of the game, published in the September 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World, he pronounced it to be “rated XXXX.” After the requisite measure of back-patting for such edgy turns of phrase as these, Emrich settled down to explain what he really meant by the label: “XXXX” in this context stood for “EXplore, EXpand, EXploit, and EXterminate.” And thus was a new sub-genre label born. The formulation from the article was quickly shortened to “4X” by enterprising gamers uninterested in making strained allusions to pornographic films. In that form, it would be applied to countless titles going forward, right up to the present day, and retroactively applied to countless titles of the past, including all of the earlier space operas I’ve just described as well as the original Civilization — a game to which the “EXterminate” part of the label fits perhaps less well, but such is life.

Emrich’s article also creates an amusing distinction for the more pedantic ludic taxonomists and linguists among us. Although Master of Orion definitely was not, as we’ve now seen at some length, the first 4X game in the abstract, it was the very first 4X game to be called a 4X game. Maybe this accounts for some of the pride of place it holds in modern gaming culture?

However that may be, though, the lion’s share of the credit for Master of Orion‘s enduring influence must surely be ascribed to what a superb game it is in its own right. If it didn’t invent the 4X space opera, it did in some sense perfect it, at least in its digital form. It doesn’t do anything conceptually new on the face of it — you’re still leading an alien race as it expands through a randomly created galaxy, competing with other races in the fields of economics, technology, diplomacy, and warfare to become the dominant civilization — but it just does it all so well.

A new game of Master of Orion begins with you choosing a galaxy size (from small to huge), a difficulty level (from simple to impossible), and a quantity of opposing aliens to compete against (from one to five). Then you choose which specific race you would like to play; you have ten possibilities in all, drawing from a well-worn book of science-fiction tropes, from angry cats in space to hive-mind-powered insects, from living rocks to pacifistic brainiacs, alongside the inevitable humans. Once you’ve made your choice, you’re cast into the deep end — or rather into deep space — with a single half-developed planet, a colony ship for settling a second planet as soon as you find a likely candidate, two unarmed scout ships for exploring for just such a candidate, and a minimal set of starting technologies.

You must parlay these underwhelming tools into galactic domination hundreds of turns later. You can take the last part of the 4X tag literally and win out by utterly exterminating all of your rivals, but a slightly less genocidal approach is a victory in the “Galactic Council” which meets every quarter-century (i.e., every 25 turns). Here everyone can vote on which of the two most currently populous empires’ leaders they prefer to appoint as ruler of the galaxy, with “everyone” in this context including the two leading emperors themselves. Each empire gets a number of votes determined by its population, and the first to collect two-thirds of the total vote wins outright. (Well, almost… it is possible for you to refuse to respect the outcome of a vote that goes against you, but doing so will cause all of your rivals to declare immediate and perpetual war against you, whilst effectively pooling all of their own resources and technology. Good luck with that!)

A typical game of Master of Orion plays out over three broad stages. The first stage is the land grab, the wide-open exploration and colonization phase that happens before you meet your rival aliens. Here your challenge is to balance the economic development of your existing planets against your need to settle as many new ones as possible to put yourself in a good position for the mid-game. (When exactly do I stop spending my home planet’s resources on improving its own infrastructure and start using them to build more colony ships?) The mid-game begins when you start to bump into your rivals, and comes to entail much jockeying for influence, as the various races begin to sort themselves into rival factions. (The Alkaris, bird-like creatures, loathe the Mrrshans, the aforementioned race of frenzied pussycats, and their loathing is returned in kind. I don’t have strong feelings about either one — but whose side would it most behoove me to choose from a purely strategic perspective?) The end-game is nigh when the there is no more room for anyone to expand, apart from taking planets from a rival by force, and the once-expansive galaxy suddenly seems claustrophobic. It often, although by no means always, is marked by a massive war that finally secures somebody that elusive two-thirds majority in the Galactic Council. (I’m so close now! Do I attack those stubbornly intractable Bulrathi to try to knock down their population and get myself over the two-thirds threshold that way, or do I keep trying to sweet-talk and bribe them into voting for me?) The length and character of all of these stages will of course greatly depend on the initial setup you chose; the first stage might be all but nonexistent in a small galaxy with five rivals, while it will go on for a long, long time indeed in a huge galaxy with just one or two oppoenents. (The former scenario is, for the record, far more challenging.)

And that’s how it goes, generally speaking. Yet the core genius of Master of Orion actually lies in how resistant it is to generalization. It’s no exaggeration to say that there really is no “typical” game; I’ve enjoyed plenty which played out in nothing like the pattern I’ve just described for you. I’ve played games in which I never fired a single shot in anger, even ones where I’ve never built a single armed ship of war, just as I’ve played others where I was in a constant war for survival from beginning to end. Master of Orion is gaming’s best box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get when you jump into a new galaxy. Everything about the design is engineered to keep you from falling back on patterns universally applicable to the “typical” game. It’s this quality, more so than any other, that makes Master of Orion so consistently rewarding. If I was to be stranded on the proverbial desert island, I have a pretty good idea of at least one of the games I’d choose to take with me.

I’ll return momentarily to the question of just how Master of Orion manages to build so much variation into a fairly simple set of core rules. I think it might be instructive to do so, however, in comparison with another game, one I’ve already had occasion to mention several times in this article: Civilization.

As I’m so often at pains to point out, game design is, like any creative pursuit, a form of public dialog. Certainly Civilization itself comes with a long list of antecedents, including most notably Walter Bright’s mainframe game Empire, Dani Bunten Berry’s PC game Seven Cities of Gold, and the Avalon Hill board game with which Civilization shares its name. Likewise, Civilization has its progeny, among them Master of Orion. By no means was it the sole influence on the latter; as we’ve seen, Master of Orion was also greatly influenced by the 4X space-opera tradition in board games, especially during its early phases of development.

Still, the mark of Civilization as well can be seen all over its finished design. (After all, Alan Emrich had just literally written the book on Civilization when he started bombarding Barcia with design suggestions…) For example, Master of Orion, unlike all of its space-opera predecessors, on the computer or otherwise, doesn’t bother at all with multiplayer options, preferring to optimize the single-player experience in their stead. One can’t help but feel that it was Civilization, which was likewise bereft of the multiplayer options that earlier grand-strategy games had always included as a matter of course, that empowered Steve Barcia and company to go this way.

At the same time, though, we cannot say that Jeff Johannigman was being particularly accurate when he took to calling Master of OrionCivilization in space” for the benefit of journalists. For all that it’s easy enough to understand what made such shorthand so tempting — this new project too was a grand-strategy game played on a huge scale, incorporating technology, economics, diplomacy, and military conflict — it wasn’t ultimately fair to either game. Master of Orion is very much its own thing. Its interface, for example, is completely different. (Ironically, Barcia’s follow-up to Master of Orion, the fantasy 4X Master of Magic, hews much closer to Civilization in that respect.) In Master of Orion, Civilization‘s influence often runs as much in a negative as a positive direction; that is to say, there are places where the later design is lifting ideas from the earlier one, but also taking it upon itself to correct perceived weaknesses in their implementation.

I have to use the qualifier “perceived” there because the two games have such different personalities. Simply put, Civilization prioritizes its fictional context over its actual mechanics, while Master of Orion does just the opposite. Together they illustrate the flexibility of the interactive digital medium, showing how great games can be great in such markedly different ways, even when they’re as closely linked in terms of genre as these two are.

Civilization explicitly bills itself as a grand journey through human history, from the time in our distant past when the first hunter-gatherers settled down in villages to an optimistic near-future in space. The rules underpinning the journey are loose-goosey, full of potential exploits. The most infamous of these is undoubtedly the barbarian-horde strategy, in which you research only a few minimal technologies necessary for war-making and never attempt to evolve your society or participate in any meaningful diplomacy thereafter, but merely flood the world with miserable hardscrabble cities supporting primitive armies, attacking everything that moves until every other civilization is extinct. At the lower and moderate difficulty levels at least, this strategy works every single time, albeit whilst bypassing most of what the game was meant to be about. As put by Ralph Betza, a contributor to an early Civilization strategy guide posted to Usenet: “You can always play Despotic Conquest, regardless of the world you find yourself starting with, and you can always win without using any of the many ways to cheat. When you choose any other strategy, you are deliberately risking a loss in order to make the game more interesting.”

So very much in Civilization is of limited utility at best in purely mechanical terms. Many or most of the much-vaunted Wonders of the World, for example, really aren’t worth the cost you have to pay for them. But that’s okay; you pay for them anyway because you like the idea of having built the Pyramids of Giza or the Globe Theatre or Project Apollo, just as you choose not to go all Genghis Khan on the world because you’d rather build a civilization you can feel proud of. Perhaps the clearest statement of Civilization‘s guiding design philosophy can be found in the manual. It says that, even if you make it all the way to the end of the game only to see one of your rivals achieve the ultimate goal of mounting an expedition to Alpha Centauri before you do, “the successful direction of your civilization through the centuries is an achievement. You have survived countless wars, the pollution of the industrial age, and the risks of nuclear weapons.” Or, as Sid Meier himself puts it, “a game of Civilization is an epic story.”

We’re happy to preach peace and cooperation, as long as we’re the top dogs… er, birds.

Such sentiments are deeply foreign to Master of Orion; this is a zero-sum game if ever there was one. If you lose the final Galactic Council vote, there’s no attaboy for getting this far, much less any consolation delivered that the galaxy has entered a new era of peaceful cooperation with some other race in the leadership role. Instead the closing cinematic tells you that you’ve left the known galaxy and “set forth to conquer new worlds, vowing to return and claim the renowned title of Master of Orion.” (Better to rule in Hell, right?) There are no Wonders of the World in Master of Orion, and, while there is a tech tree to work through, you won’t find on it any of Civilization‘s more humanistic advances, such as Chivalry or Mysticism, or even Communism or The Corporation. What you get instead are technologies — it’s telling that Master of Orion talks about a “tech tree,” while Civilization prefers the word “advances” — with a direct practical application to settling worlds and making war, divided into the STEM-centric categories of Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetology, Propulsion, and Weapons.

So, Civilization is the more idealistic, more educational, perhaps even the nobler of the two games. And yet it often plays a little awkwardly — which awkwardness we forgive because of its aspirational qualities. Master of Orion‘s fictional context is a much thinner veneer to stretch over its mechanics, while words like “idealistic” simply don’t exist in its vocabulary. And yet, being without any high-flown themes to fall back on, it makes sure that its mechanics are absolutely tight. These dichotomies can create a dilemma for a critic like yours truly. If you asked me which game presents a better argument for gaming writ large as a potentially uplifting, ennobling pursuit, I know which of the two I’d have to point to. But then, when I’m just looking for a fun, challenging, intriguing game to play… well, let’s just say that I’ve played a lot more Master of Orion than Civilization over the last quarter-century. Indeed, Master of Orion can easily be read as the work of a designer who looked at Civilization and was unimpressed with its touchy-feely side, then set out to make a game that fixed all the other failings which that side obscured.

By way of a first example, let’s consider the two games’ implementation of an advances chart — or a tech tree, whichever you prefer. Arguably the most transformative single advance in Civilization is Railroads; they let you move your military units between your cities almost instantaneously, which makes attacks much easier and quicker to mount for warlike players and enables the more peaceful types to protect their holdings with a much smaller (and thus less expensive) standing army. The Railroads advance is so pivotal that some players build their entire strategy around acquiring it as soon as possible, by finding it on the advances chart as soon as the game begins in 4000 BC and working their way backward to find the absolute shortest path for reaching it. This is obviously problematic from a storytelling standpoint; it’s not as if the earliest villagers set about learning the craft of Pottery with an eye toward getting their hands on Railroads 6000 years later. More importantly, though, it’s damaging to the longevity of the game itself, in that it means that players can and will always employ that same Railroads strategy just as soon as they figure out what a winner it is. Here we stumble over one of the subtler but nonetheless significant axioms of game design: if you give players a hammer that works on every nail, many or most of them will use it — and only it — over and over again, even if it winds up decreasing their overall enjoyment. It’s for this reason that some players continue to use even the barbarian-horde strategy in Civilization, boring though it is. Or, to take an outside example: how many designers of CRPGs have lovingly crafted dozens of spells with their own unique advantages and disadvantages, only to watch players burn up everything they encounter with a trusty Fireball?

Master of Orion, on the other hand, works hard at every turn to make such one-size-fits-all strategies impossible — and nowhere more so than in its tech tree. When a new game begins, each race is given a randomized selection of technologies that are possible for it to research, constituting only about half of the total number of technologies in the game. Thus, while a technology roughly equivalent to Civilization‘s Railroads does exist in Master of Orion — Star Gates — you don’t know if this or any other technology is actually available to you until you advance far enough up the tree to reach the spot where it ought to be. You can’t base your entire strategy around a predictable technology progression. While you can acquire technologies that didn’t make it into your tree by trading with other empires, bullying them into giving them to you, or attacking their planets and taking them, that’s a much more fraught, uncertain path to go down than doing the research yourself, one that requires a fair amount of seat-of-your-pants strategy in its own right. Any way you slice it, in other words, you have to improvise.

We’ve been lucky here in that Hydrogen Fuel Cells, the first range-extending technology and a fairly cheap one, is available in our tree. If it wasn’t, and if we didn’t have a lot of stars conveniently close by, we’d have to dedicate our entire empire to attaining a more advanced and thus more expensive range-extending technology, lest we be left behind in the initial land grab. But this would of course mean neglecting other aspects of our empire’s development. Trade-offs like this are a constant fact of life in Master of Orion.

This one clever design choice has repercussions for every other aspect of the game. Take, for instance, the endlessly fascinating game-within-a-game of designing your fleet of starships. If the tech tree was static, players would inevitably settle upon a small set of go-to designs that worked for their style of play. As it is, though, every new ship is a fresh balancing act, its equipment calibrated to maximize your side’s technological strengths and mitigate its weaknesses, while also taking into careful account the strengths and weaknesses of the foe you expect to use it against, about which you’ve hopefully been compiling information through your espionage network. Do you build a huge number of tiny, fast, maneuverable fighters, or do you build just a few lumbering galactic dreadnoughts? Or do you build something in between? There are no universally correct answers, just sets of changing circumstances.

Another source of dynamism are the alien races you play and those you play against. The cultures in Civilization have no intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, just sets of leader tendencies when played by the computer; for your part, you’re free to play the Mongols as pacifists, or for that matter the Russians as paragons of liberal democracy and global cooperation. But in Master of Orion, each race’s unique affordances force you to play it differently. Likewise, each opposing race’s affordances in combination with those of your own force you to respond differently to that race when you encounter it, whether on the other side of a diplomats’ table or on a battlefield in space. Further, most races have one technology they’re unusually good at researching and one they’re unusually bad at. Throw in varying degrees of affinity and prejudice toward the other races, and, again, you’ve got an enormous amount of variation which defies cookie-cutter strategizing. (It’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of asymmetry here; Steve Barcia and his helpers didn’t share so many modern designers’ obsession with symmetrical play balance above all else. Some races are clearly more powerful than others: the brainiac Psilons get a huge research bonus, the insectoid Klackons get a huge bonus in worker productivity, and the Humans get huge bonuses in trade and diplomacy. Meanwhile the avian Alkaris, the feline Mrrshan, and the ursine Bulrathis have bonuses which only apply during combat, and can be overcome fairly easily by races with other, more all-encompassing advantages.)

There are yet more touches to bring yet more dynamism. Random events occur from time to time in the galaxy, some of which can change everything at a stroke: a gigantic space amoeba might show up and start eating stars, forcing everyone to forget their petty squabbles for a while and band together against this apocalyptic threat. And then there’s the mysterious star Orion, from which the game takes it name, which houses the wonders of a long-dead alien culture from the mythical past. Taking possession of it might just win the game for you — but first you’ll have to defeat its almost inconceivably powerful Guardian.

One of the perennial problems of 4X games, Civilization among them, is the long anticlimax, which begins at that point when you know you’re going to conquer the world or be the first to blast off for Alpha Centauri, but well before you actually do so. (What Civilization player isn’t familiar with the delights of scouring the map for that one remaining rival city tucked away on some forgotten island in some forgotten corner?) Here too Master of Orion comes with a mitigating idea, in the form of the Galactic Council whose workings I’ve already described. It means that, as soon as you can collect two-thirds of the vote — whether through wily diplomacy or the simpler expedient of conquering until two-thirds of the galaxy’s population is your own — the game ends and you get your victory screen.

Indeed, one of the overarching design themes of Master of Orion is its determination to minimize the boring stuff. It must be admitted, of course, that boredom is in the eye of the beholder. Non-fans have occasionally dismissed the whole 4X space-opera sub-genre as “Microsoft Excel in space,” and Master of Orion too requires a level of comfort with — or, better yet, a degree of fascination with — numbers and ratios; you’ll spend at least as much time tinkering with your economy as you will engaging in space battles. Yet the game does everything it can to minimize the pain here as well. While hardly a simple game in absolute terms, it is quite a streamlined example of its type; certainly it’s much less fiddly than Civilization. Planet management is abstracted into a set of five sliding ratio bars, allowing you decide what percentage of that planet’s total output should be devoted to building ships, building defensive installations, building industrial infrastructure, cleaning up pollution, and researching new technologies. Unlike in Civilization, there is no list of specialized structures to build one at a time, much less a need to laboriously develop the land square by square with a specialized unit. Some degree of micro-management is always going to be in the nature of this type of game, but managing dozens of planets in Master of Orion is far less painful than managing dozens of cities in Civilization.

The research screen as well operates through sliding ratio bars which let you decide how much effort to devote to each of six categories of technology. In other words, you’re almost always researching multiple advances at once in Master of Orion, whereas in Civilization you only research one at a time. Further, you can never predict for sure when a technology will arrive; while each has a base cost in research points, “paying” it leads only to a slowly increasing randomized chance of acquiring the technology on any given turn. (That’s the meaning of the “17%” next to Force Fields in the screenshot above.) You also receive bonuses for maintaining steady research over a long run of turns, rather than throwing all of your research points into one technology, then into something else, etc. All of this as well serves to make the game more unpredictable and dynamic.

In short, Master of Orion tries really, really hard to work with you rather than against you, and succeeds to such a degree that it can sometimes feel like the game is reading your mind. A reductionist critic of the sort I can be on occasion might say that there are just two types of games: those that actually got played before their release and those that didn’t. With only rare exceptions, this distinction, more so than the intrinsic brilliance of the design team or any other factor, is the best predictor of the quality of the end result. Master of Orion is clearly a game that got played, and played extensively, with all of the feedback thus gathered being incorporated into the final design. The interface is about as perfect as the technical limitations of 1993 allow it to be; nothing you can possibly want to do is more than two clicks away. And the game is replete with subtle little conveniences that you only come to appreciate with time — like, just to take one example, the way it asks if you want to automatically adjust the ecology spending on every one of your planets when you acquire a more efficient environmental-cleanup technology. This lived-in quality can only be acquired the honest, old-fashioned way: by giving your game to actual players and then listening to what they tell you about it, whether the points they bring up are big or small, game-breaking or trivial.

This thoroughgoing commitment to quality is made all the more remarkable by our knowledge of circumstances inside MicroProse while Master of Orion was going through these critical final phases of its development. When the contract to publish the game was signed, MicroProse was in desperate financial straits, having lost bundles on an ill-advised standup-arcade game along with expensive forays into adventure games and CRPGs, genres far from their traditional bread and butter of military simulations and grand-strategy games. Although other projects suffered badly from the chaos, Master of Orion, perhaps because it was a rather low-priority project entrusted largely to an outside team located over a thousand miles away, was given the time and space to become its best self. It was still a work in progress on June 21, 1993, when MicroProse’s mercurial, ofttimes erratic founder and CEO “Wild Bill” Stealey sold the company to Spectrum Holobyte, a publisher with a relatively small portfolio of extant games but a big roll of venture capital behind them.

Master of Orion thus became one of the first releases from the newly conjoined entity on October 1, 1993. Helped along by the evangelism of Alan Emrich and his pals at Computer Gaming World, it did about as well as such a cerebral title, almost completely bereft of audiovisual bells and whistles, could possibly do in the new age of multimedia computing; it became the biggest strategy hit since Civilization, and the biggest 4X space opera to that point, in any medium. Later computerized iterations on the concept, including its own sequels, doubtless sold more copies in absolute numbers, but the original Master of Orion has gone on to become one of the truly seminal titles in gaming history, almost as much so as the original Civilization. It remains the game to which every new 4X space opera — and there have been many of them, far more than have tried to capture the more elusively idealistic appeal of Civilization — must be compared.

Sometimes a status such as that enjoyed by Master of Orion arrives thanks to an historical accident or a mere flashy technical innovation, but that is definitively not the case here. Master of Orion remains as rewarding as ever in all its near-infinite variation. Personally, I like to embrace its dynamic spirit for everything it’s worth by throwing a (virtual) die to set up a new game, letting the Universe decide what size galaxy I play in, how many rivals I play with, and which race I play myself. The end result never fails to be enjoyable, whether it winds up a desperate free-for-all between six alien civilizations compressed into a tiny galaxy with just 24 stars, or a wide-open, stately game of peaceful exploration in a galaxy with over 100 of them. In short, Master of Orion is the most inexhaustible well of entertainment I’ve ever found in the form of a single computer game — a timeless classic that never fails to punish you for playing lazy, but never fails to reward you for playing well. I’ve been pulling it out to try to conquer another random galaxy at least once every year or two for half my life already. I suspect I’ll still be doing so until the day I die.

(Sources: the books Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay, Designers & Dragons, Volume 1: The 1970s by Shannon Appelcline, and Master of Orion: The Official Strategy Guide by Alan Emrich and Tom E. Hughes, Jr.; Computer Gaming World of December 1983, June/July 1985, October 1991, June 1993, August 1993, September 1993, December 1993, and October 1995; Commodore Disk User of May 1988; Softline of March 1983. Online sources include “Per Aspera Ad Astra” by Jon Peterson from ROMchip, Alan Emrich’s historical notes from the old Master of Orion III site, a Steve Barcia video interview which originally appeared in the CD-ROM magazine Interactive Entertainment., and the Civilization Usenet FAQ, lasted updated by “Dave” in 1994.

Master of Orion I and II are available for purchase together from GOG.com. I highly recommend a tutorial, compiled many years ago by Sirian and now available only via archive.org, as an excellent way for new players to learn the ropes.)

 
 

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This Week on The Analog Antiquarian

The Oracle of Delphi, Chapter 7: The Voyage of the Argonauts

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space (and Space-Program Games in General)

“Demography is destiny,” said the French sociologist Auguste Comte apocryphally in the nineteenth century. That truism has been taken to heart by many in the time since — not least by our political classes. Yet it applies equally in the world of the arts and entertainment. For in any free market, the nature of production is dictated as much by the consumers as by the producers.

Certainly this is true of computer games. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they were largely the province of a rather specific demographic indeed: single white males between the ages of ten and thirty from relatively privileged socioeconomic circumstances, with a bent toward intellectual rather than active pursuits — i.e., the stereotypical “nerds” of pop culture. Computer games reflected the tastes of these boys and young men in other kinds of entertainment and leisure-time hobbies: Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, jet fighters, World War II, action movies, heavy-metal music, fast cars, and, when they could get a glimpse of them, fast women. Although I too have liked all of these things to a greater or lesser degree at some point in my life — I did, after all, grow up as a member of exactly the demographic in question — their extreme prevalence in the cultural ghetto about which I write has often left me searching, sometimes in vain, for games with a different set of values and antecedents.

But this article is not about one or more of those interesting cultural outliers. It’s rather about an interestingly scanty subgenre of games which seems like it ought to have been perfect for the demographic I’ve just described, but that for some reason just never quite took off. Specifically, I speak of games based on the realities of space exploration in a contemporary context, as opposed to the outer-space fantasias of Star Wars and the like. After all, just about every nerdy teenage boy goes through a race-for-the-Moon phase at some point. (And why not? Has humanity ever embarked on a grander collective adventure?) Further, games on this subject would seemingly have fit in well with the broader craze for realistic simulation, as manifested by everything from F-15 Strike Eagle to SimCity, which had taken a firm grip on the industry by the end of the 1980s.

And yet there just weren’t many simulations of this particular type, and even fewer of them that did very well. It strikes me that it’s worth asking why this is so. Was there something about this subject that just didn’t work as a game, or are we dealing with a mere historical accident here? Let’s begin with a brief survey of the field of earlier games that did venture out into this territory before we turn to the one that will be our main focus for today. To help in doing so, we’ll further divide the field into two categories: vehicular simulations of spaceflight and games of space-program management.

The earliest game of the former type actually predates the personal computer. Created on a big DEC PDP-8 by a Massachusetts high-school student named Jim Storer, inspired by the real Neil Armstrong’s nerve-wracking manual landing on the Moon in 1969, the very year it was first programmed, Lunar demanded that you set your own landing craft down gently before your fuel ran out. Implemented entirely in text — you simply entered the number of fuel units you wished to burn each turn in response to a changing textual status display — it inspired dozens of clones and variants, most going under the more accurately descriptive name of Lunar Lander. By the dawn of the personal-computing age in 1978, David Ahl was able to write in his landmark book BASIC Computer Games that Lunar Lander in all its incarnations was “far and away the most popular computer game” of them all. It was even converted into a graphical standup-arcade game by Atari in 1979, in which form its quiet, cerebral tension made it an incongruous outlier indeed in an arcade full of shoot-em-ups.

Other programmers got inevitably more expansive in their ambitions for spaceflight simulation after Lunar Lander. By 1986, with the release of Spectrum HoloByte’s Orbiter, they had graduated to offering up a complete Space Shuttle flight simulator, covering all the stages of a mission from liftoff to landing. (Sadly, it arrived just in time for the Challenger disaster…) In 1992, Virgin Software published an even more complex and complete iteration on the concept, entitled simply Shuttle.

Yet neither of these later simulations came close to matching their simplistic predecessor in popularity. Their subject matter, it seemed, just didn’t quite work as a hardcore simulation. A simulation of a jet fighter flying into a war zone — such as the popular and long-lived Falcon series which Spectrum HoloByte produced after Orbiter — offered an intriguing range of tactical possibilities which a simulation of a Space Shuttle did not. A fighter pilot flying into combat is lord of his domain, in complete control of his airplane; the outcomes of his battles are entirely up to him. An astronaut flying into space, on the other hand, is merely the tip of a long spear of cooperative hierarchy; situations like those last few minutes before the Eagle landed, when Neil Armstrong was making all of the decisions and executing them all alone, have been vanishingly rare in the history of space flight. If, as Sid Meier likes to say, a good game is “a series of interesting decisions,” this fact makes spaceflight as it has existed so far in our historical reality problematic as the subject of a compelling simulation. Too often, Orbiter and Shuttle felt like exercises in rote button-mashing — button-mashing which you were expected to do exactly when and how ground control told you. Perhaps you weren’t quite the spam in a can the test-pilot peers of the earliest astronauts had so mocked them for being, but it sure felt that way at times. “As strange as it may seem,” wrote Computer Gaming World magazine of Orbiter, “a lot of flying the Shuttle is boring — a lot of pushing buttons, running computer programs, and the like — and it shows.”

In light of this, it’s telling that arguably the most entertaining of these spaceflight simulators opted for a less hardcore, more impressionistic approach. Apollo 18, developed by the Canadian studio Artech and published by Accolade in 1987, posited an alternative history where at least one of NASA’s final trio of cancelled Moon missions actually did take place. In keeping with Artech designer and theoretician-in-chief Michael Bate’s concept of “aesthetic simulation,” Apollo 18 portrayed a mission to the Moon not as a holistic vehicular simulation but as a series of mini-games, jumping from the perspective of ground control to that of the astronauts in space whenever it felt the need. This more free-wheeling, almost cinematic approach, combined perhaps with the fact that going to the Moon is inherently more exciting than releasing yet another whatsit from the Shuttle’s cargo bay in low Earth orbit, made the game a more riveting experience than its Shuttle-centric peers. Still, even it ran out of legs fairly quickly; once you’d worked through the steps of getting to the Moon and back once or twice, there just wasn’t much motivation to do so again.

So much for simulation. In the category of strategic space-program managers, we have an equally mixed bag.

Just as with the venerable Lunar Lander, one of the very first attempts to portray the contemporary conquest of space in this way was also the most successful of its era, in both financial and artistic terms. I wrote at some length long ago about 1984’s Project: Space Station, an earnest effort, masterminded by a fellow named Lawrence Holland who would go on to become LucasArts’s flight-simulator guru, to portray the construction and operation of a commercial space station in Earth orbit. Both space stations and private enterprise in space were much in vogue at the time, thanks respectively to President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of plans to build a station called Freedom in his 1984 State of the Union address and the realities of a terminally underfunded NASA whose priorities shifted with the political winds — realities which would ensure that Freedom itself never got off the drawing board, although it would gradually morph into the joint project known as the International Space Station. As I wrote in that older article, Project: Space Station, which blended an overarching strategy game with light vehicular simulation, came heartbreakingly close to greatness. But in the end, it was somewhat undone by a lack of feedback mechanisms and poor command and control — weaknesses which, it should be said, feel more like a result of the limited 8-bit hardware on which it ran than a failure of design in the abstract. But whatever its failings, it was by all indications reasonably successful in its day, enough so that, when its original publisher HESware went bankrupt within a year of its release, it was picked up at auction by Accolade and re-released by them in the same year they published Apollo 18.

Alas, Project: Space Station‘s immediate successors would prove markedly less rewarding as games to play or products to sell. Space MAX, created and self-published by a former Jet Propulsion Laboratories engineer named Tom Keller in 1986, poured on the detail at the expense of playability, until it came to resemble one of NASA’s long-range planning tools more than a computer game. And Karl Buiter’s Earth Orbit Stations of 1987 buried a very appealing premise, focusing more on the mechanical details of building a modular space station than had either of the earlier games of its type, under an atrocious presentation layer which Computer Gaming World described as “a textbook case of how not to design a [GUI] interface.” And after those two less-than-compelling efforts, the strategic space-program-management subgenre pretty much dried up.

This, then, was the underwhelming state of contemporary-spaceflight games in general in 1993, when Interplay published a new take on the subject matter bearing the name of one of the most famous astronauts of all — in fact, the one who had actually been sitting there beside Neil Armstrong when he was making that hair-raising landing on the Moon. Like Apollo 18, Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space chose to turn back the clock to those glory days of the Moon race rather than focusing on present-day space stations engaged in the comparatively plebeian labor of developing new industrial-chemical compounds and new medical treatments, important though such things undoubtedly are. The managerial perspective it adopted, however, had more to do with Project: Space Station than Apollo 18. A noble effort in its way, as indeed were all those games I’ve just written about, its own points of failure have perhaps even more to tell us about game design than theirs do.


Fritz Bronner

The driving force behind Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space wasn’t its astronaut mascot — no surprise there, right? — but rather one Fritz Bronner, a less famous American whose name would have fit perfectly to one of the German rocket scientists who helped Wernher von Braun build the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon. In the early 1980s, as a young man with dreams of becoming an actor, Bronner spent many an evening playing a variety of tabletop wargames and RPGs with his buddies in his home state of Florida. On one of those evenings, he had just finished an RPG session when he turned on the television to see a rocket launch on the news — an event he always watched with interest, being a self-described “space fanatic.” The thought process he went through then, with his mind still addled by game systems and dice rolls, will waken immediate recognition in anyone who has ever played Race into Space. For the most fundamental mechanic in that game has its origin right here:

The game player in me suddenly wondered what the odds were for a successful launch. The next thought I had was the chance of failure. I formulated in my mind a guess on the total number of [successful] launches versus failures. I quickly concluded that out of ten previous launches, nine of them were successful. Just before liftoff, I rolled the percentile dice and rolled below the range, which indicated to me that the launch would be successful. A few minutes later, another satellite reached orbit. I was elated that I had come up with a pseudo-model for launch success.

Immediately I wondered how a manned launch would work. I started to play with some rough mathematical figures. I selected a one-stage rocket and a two-stage rocket and then realized that I would have to devise a safety factor for a capsule. I think I came up with around 85 percent for the capsule. Then I plunged into what mission steps would occur in spaceflight. I rolled the dice on a three-step suborbital flight and to my excitement it worked! Suddenly each step of the mission was monumentally important. I became tense as I rolled the dice. It reminded me of the flavor of the early spaceflights.

I called [my friend] Steve [Stipp] over and told him of my successful suborbital flight. After his own successful flight, we both gleefully started scribbling notes on possible payload weights and additional mission steps. Soon we had scraps of paper filled with my horribly drawn stick figures of capsules that were lofting astronauts into space.

At this point, it was success or total failure on a mission step. We both realized that it was too crude and unrealistic for a rocket to always blow up on the pad. There were cancelled launches and aborts that should be considered. We laughed and played and scribbled more notes and sketched drawings for several hours, and then folded it up and forgot about it for several years.

In 1985, Bronner’s acting dream took him from Florida to New York City. His wife was working as a long-haul flight attendant, leaving him with plenty of solitude for contemplation in between auditions there in the big city. A television documentary called Spaceflight refreshed his memories of playing that improvised dice-throwing game of space launches. Just as importantly, it shifted his thinking toward an historical perspective. What if he made a game about the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, with one player in the role of the Americans and the other of the Soviets, each trying to be the first to reach the Moon? Each player would have to research the technology necessary for each stage of the endeavor, then test it with a live launch. The tension that would make for interesting choices was clear: that between researching everything exhaustively to achieve the best possible safety rating and pushing the timetable to beat out your opponent. At bottom, then, it would be a “press your luck” game — an evergreen in tabletop game design, but implemented here in the service of a thoroughly unique theme. For the next couple of years, Bronner continued to develop and refine the concept, even sending samples to many board-game publishers, albeit without managing to stir up much interest.

In 1987, Bronner’s acting dream took him from New York City to Hollywood. While he would never become the movie star he might have imagined back in Florida, he would carve out a solid career for himself as one of the film industry’s unglamorous but indispensable utility players; he would take bit parts in dozens of movies and television shows alongside starring roles in hundreds of commercials, and eventually also take on small-time writing, directing, and producing gigs. A year after arriving in Hollywood, he wrangled a meeting with the Los Angeles-based Task Force Games, best known for their Star Fleet Battles tactical space-combat games which took place in the Star Trek universe. He finally got a positive response from this publisher, and soon signed a contract with them to publish the board game Liftoff!.

Liftoff! made its public bow in the summer of 1989 at the Origins International Game Expo, one of the tabletop hobby’s two biggest American events, which happened to be held that year right there in Los Angeles. The reaction to Bronner’s game at Origins was cautiously favorable, but it never translated into much in the way of sales in the months that followed. Task Force Games had been bought by the computer-game publisher New World Computing the year before they signed the contract with Bronner; it was for this reason that they were in the Los Angeles area at all, having been moved there from Amarillo, Texas, to join their new parent. Yet the relationship wasn’t living up to either partner’s expectations. Profits, which tended to be scant at the best of times in the tabletop industry, had become nonexistent, as the expected synergies between the computer and the tabletop business failed to materialize. In 1990, Task Force’s founder John Olsen scraped together enough funding to buy his company back out from under New World and moved with it back to Amarillo. Necessity forced the downsized entity to focus its resources on Star Fleet Battles, its most well-known and marketable franchise. Liftoff! died on the vine.

But Fritz Bronner wasn’t willing to let his game go so gently into that good night. Although he had never owned a computer in the past, his arrival in Hollywood had coincided with the beginnings of a buzz from the more forward-thinking members of the media elite about the future of interactive video and multimedia computing. It certainly hadn’t been lost on Bronner when signing the contract with Task Force Games that the company’s parent was a publisher of computer games. In fact, he had tried to interest New World in a digital version of Liftoff! repeatedly, but could never really get their attention. Fortunately, his attorney had assured that the contract he signed with Task Force/New World gave them just one year to develop a computerized version, if they wished to do so; afterward, those rights reverted to Bronner himself. He soon bought his first computer, a used Commodore Amiga 500, to consider the possibilities. In the summer of 1990, he started talking with a young programmer named Michael K. McCarty. At year’s end, the two of them formed a company which they named Strategic Visions, and began working on a demo to show to publishers.

It perhaps says something about the zeitgeist of gaming on the cusp of the multimedia age that Bronner and McCarty elected to make their demo a non-interactive video rather than an interactive game. From the start, Bronner’s vision for the project had been to move the mechanics of the board game onto the computer essentially intact, then spice them up with lots of video footage from the archives of NASA and the Soviet space program. His timing in this respect was perfect: the fall of the Iron Curtain helped immensely in getting access to the latter’s videos. Meanwhile the fact that all of the footage was the product of government agencies, and thus released into the public domain, helped in another way. Less positively, this overweening focus on the multimedia aspects of the project, which would continue throughout its duration, would rather distract from some worrisome flaws in the foundation of the actual rules set — an issue we’ll return to a bit later.

In the short term, though, the non-interactive demo served its purpose. In contrast to the relative lack of interest the tabletop design had garnered, the proposed digital version attracted lots of publishers when Bronner and McCarty brought their demo to the Summer Consumer Electronics Show for private screenings in June of 1991. The videos Bronner showed of rockets soaring and exploding were well-nigh irresistible to an industry all abuzz with talk of interactive movies incorporating just this type of real-world footage. Over thirty potential partners viewed the demo reel in the course of the show, and several of them came forward with serious offers.

Bronner settled on Interplay Productions for several reasons: they were also Los Angeles-based, always a nice advantage; he got on well with Interplay’s head Brian Fargo; and Fargo had immediately run with an idea Bronner had mentioned in passing, that of signing up Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin — by far the most gregarious and ambitious of the Apollo 11 astronauts in terms of media and marketing — to lend his endorsement to the game. Indeed, Fargo already had Aldrin on board when the contract was signed in August of 1991. Thus did Liftoff! become Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space.

Aldrin’s direct participation encompassed nothing more than marketing — he regaled a long string of trade-show attendees and magazine editors with his well-worn tales of landing on the Moon, while saying next to nothing about the game itself — but it did lead to the computer game’s most significant substantive addition to the board game. Bronner added a roster of astronauts to be recruited and trained, who manifested differing strengths and weaknesses and even differing personalities which could cause them to be more or less effective when combined into crews. The idea and approach are so similar to the astronaut management found in Project: Space Station that one suspects they must have been inspired by that earlier game. That said, I have no proof that this was so.

Otherwise, though, Race into Space is a fairly straightforward re-implementation of Liftoff! rather than a major expansion upon it. In fact, some parts of the board game are actually trimmed away, such as the ability to play as the head of a fictional European or Asian space agency, which Bronner had included in order to allow up to four players to gather around the tabletop. Race into Space, on the other hand, is limited to two players, each of them controlled either by a human or the computer.

Pitched to Interplay with an absurdly optimistic six-month development timeline, Race into Space ran over that estimate by a factor of three. Indeed, it became the first game in history to get two feature-length previews in Computer Gaming World, one in January of 1992 and one in December of the same year. An early decision to switch development from the fading Amiga to MS-DOS didn’t help matters; nor did Strategic Visions’s need to rely on Interplay’s art team for most of the non-digitized graphics, work that got done only as time allowed betwixt and between other in-house projects. Most of all, though, the project began just a little bit too early, before the typical consumer computer was quite able to live up to Bronner’s multimedia ambitions. Even the version of the game that finally did ship on floppy disk in March of 1993 was heavily compromised by the limitations of its storage medium, with digitized still photographs standing in for most of the videos the original demo had promised. Players would have to wait for the CD-ROM version, which didn’t arrive until fourteen months later, to truly see the game as its designer had imagined it.



Race into Space is played in turns lasting six months each, beginning in 1957 and stretching until either 1977 arrives or someone manages to land on the Moon. Economics will play a big role in your success or lack thereof; you’re provided with a semiannual budget which increases only gradually, with the completion of major milestones according it a more substantial boost — especially if you manage them before your opponent — and catastrophic failures having the opposite effect. This approach is rather ahistorical on the face of it — in a classic example of throwing money at a problem until it bears fruit, the budget of NASA in particular was dictated more by the achievements of the Soviets than by the agency’s own accomplishments — but is probably necessary for Race into Space to work as a game.

As the game goes on, you build up your program’s facilities — adding things like additional launch pads to let you carry out more launches per turn.

Still, the core of the experience remains what it was when a young Fritz Bronner first started experimenting with the idea of a space-program-management game in the early 1980s: watching with bated breath from mission control as your rockets go up, hoping each successive step will go off without a hitch to get you your next mission milestone. Said milestones encompass everything from launching the first unmanned satellite — the game begins in the year of Sputnik — to the Moon landing itself. Yet, beyond the first few milestones at any rate, they don’t break down into a mere linear progression of steps to be mindlessly walked through. You can combine milestones into one mission; for example, you might make your first flight of eight days or more duration the same one where your astronauts first execute a space walk. And you can also skip some of them entirely, if you’re pressed for time and are willing to forgo the budget boosts with which they tempt you; the aforementioned space walk, for example, isn’t even strictly necessary for a Moon landing.

Most importantly, Race into Space lets you implement not only the historical method of getting to the Moon — that of employing a space capsule which orbits the Moon and a separate landing craft to take part of the crew down to the surface — but also a number of other approaches that were discussed at the time, such as an all-in-one-spacecraft approach (this requires developing a monster rocket that makes a Saturn V look like a kid’s toy) or even a reusable space shuttle (this requires both an enormous investment of time and money and a really slow opponent). The variety of alternate histories the game allows is not infinite — more on that momentarily — but is enough to provide for at least a few interesting and even educational playthroughs. If nothing else, you’ll walk away from your failed attempts to rewrite history with a better understanding of why NASA chose the approach they did.

Achieving firsts is extremely important because it increases your program’s prestige — which in turn leads to an increase in its budget. If things go too disastrously wrong, you can even be fired from your post as program director.

But alas, Race into Space soon begins to show those cracks in its foundation which I alluded to earlier, which are partly born from the lack of a clear sense of its own goals as a game. One can imagine at least three abstract approaches fitting into the general framework of “a managerial game about the race to the Moon.” One would be a heavily experiential game, in the spirit of Michael Bate’s aesthetic simulations, de-emphasizing the competitive aspects in favor of taking the player on a journey through those heady early days of the space age. Another would be a replayable game of hardcore strategy, in which the fiction of the Moon race functions as a mere thematic skin for the mechanical underpinnings which quickly become the player’s real focus. And still another would be an open-ended sandbox, a learning tool that lets the player experiment with many different approaches to landing on the Moon and to spaceflight in general.

Race into Space never firmly commits to any one of these approaches, but rather feints toward all of them in various places. The end result is a confusing mishmash of elements that are constantly cutting against one another. The heavy reliance on photographs, video, and sound clips from the period in question seem to push it into the experiential camp, but its board-game-derived mechanics and relatively short play time — a full game usually takes no more than two or three hours to play — pull it in the second direction I outlined. And so the cognitive dissonances start to add up. The video clips lose their appeal when you’re forced to click through the same ones over and over, every time you play, even as it remains debatable whether the mechanics are really compelling enough to make it a game you want to return to again and again under any circumstances; there are really only one or two best paths to follow to get to the Moon, and once you’ve found them there’s little reason to keep playing. Meanwhile the game’s educational sandbox potential, while by no means nonexistent, is also sharply limited. True to its board-game roots, Race into Space doesn’t simulate spaceflight at all beyond rolling dice against an arbitrary set of success-or-failure percentiles. In terms of spaceflight hardware, it lets you mix and match a set of pieces it provides for you, and pour money into each piece’s research to push its reliability percentage up, but it’s nowhere near sophisticated enough to let you develop your own components from scratch. Here too, then, it feints in a promising direction without going far enough to truly satisfy over the long term.

Yet this sense of confusion about what Race into Space actually wants to be constitutes only its second biggest problem. Its biggest problem of all doesn’t require as much design philosophy to explain: the darn thing is just too darn hard. Something is badly off with the math behind this game — something you sense more than you can know. Playing it quickly begins to feel like that memorable montage of exploding and misguided rockets from the film The Right Stuff. You can recover in fairly short order from failed launches in the early phases, when you’re mostly launching unmanned craft, but they turn devastating when they start chewing through your astronaut corps like a wolf in a chicken coop. Failed missions not only destroy the morale of your surviving astronauts, causing them to perform worse, but knock the reliability of the failed component almost all the way back to zero, forcing you to research it up again from scratch. This of course makes no sense in strictly logical terms; in the absence of any new inputs, a defective component should be defective to exactly the same extent on the next flight. Rather than conveying the rounds of investigation and soul-searching that always accompanied a real loss of life in the space program, as it was doubtless intended to do, this mechanic just furthers the impression that the game is out to get you at any cost. The fact that the computer player mysteriously seems to be able to cut more corners than you without killing astronauts by the dozens contributes strongly to the same impression.

Screens like this one appear distressingly frequently, almost regardless of how thoroughly you research and develop your components. Either the real NASA was incredibly lucky, or something is off inside this game’s numbers. Perhaps a bit of both?

Unkind though it may sound to say, I can’t help but suspect that Race into Space‘s issues in this area reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics on the part of a younger Fritz Bronner — a misunderstanding that somehow never got corrected through all his years of working on his game. A mission does not, as one might initially imagine, have a chance of success equal to the reliability percentage of its dodgiest hardware component. On the contrary: the various components actually undergo reliability checks at various times — often at multiple times — during a mission. Therefore even a stack of components which have all been researched up to a reliability of 95 percent still has a substantial chance of failing in some more or less disastrous way on a more complex mission. And yet you simply don’t have time to laboriously research every component up to its maximum reliability, which for many of them is substantially below 95 percent anyway. You’re in a Moon race, after all. You have to roll the dice. Small wonder that so many players over the years have advocated save-scumming — that dastardly practice of saving and reloading until the dice roll your way — as the only practical way to play. That, or play a two-human-player game, but just click through your “opponent’s” turns without doing anything. Playing that way, you might just be able to get to the Moon before 1977.

So, despite the historical verisimilitude it works so hard to inculcate via its video clips and all the other period-specific touches, Race into Space‘s mechanics lead to a simple game of luck at bottom, and one where the odds are stacked against you at that. There is no opportunity to jump in and make decisions when a mission starts to go wrong — no chance, in other words, to improvise your way through a drama like the Apollo 13 mission. You’re a mere helpless bystander from the moment a mission begins until it ends.

The game’s delight in making its players’ rockets go boom provoked such howls of protests from early purchasers of the original floppy-based release that Interplay soon released a patch to tweak the numbers somewhat — although still nowhere near enough in the opinion of most. The very fact that Bronner felt able to manipulate the numbers in this way, of course, demolished any remaining belief players might have harbored that the numbers had any real historical basis at all. Clearly they were strictly arbitrary. Bronner never did achieve a balance that felt both playable and true to history. And that failure makes it difficult to consider Race into Space as a whole as anything but another interestingly failed attempt at making a game out of real-world space exploration.

Race into Space sold in reasonable numbers for Interplay, but never huge ones, especially after word of just how frustrating it could be got around on the street. Thus none of Bronner’s plans for sequels, which he had publicly discussed at some length in the run-up to release, ever got off the metaphorical launching pad. Strategic Visions soon folded up shop, and Bronner continued his career in Hollywood. He’s never designed another game.

Ironically, the sequels Bronner discussed may actually have made for better games than this one. One idea, for example, would have focused on a manned mission to Mars. Removed from the context of real history, not being surrounded by all those grainy old video clips reminding players of what once was, such a game would have been able to exist entirely on its own terms, and may have wound up feeling more satisfying because of it even if its mechanics had been left largely unchanged.

As it is, though, Race into Space displays that most telling sign of an ingenious game idea with questionable execution: players lining up with ways to fix it. Their efforts were confined to the realms of speculation and hex editors until 2005, when, the rights having reverted to Fritz Bronner, he generously released the game and all of its source code under the General Public License. In the time since, a small community of enthusiasts has continued to port and refine the game on a sporadic basis, but it’s never managed to garner a critical mass of developers or players. Ditto an attempt at a full-fledged commercial revival of the concept by the wargame publisher Slitherine, which arrived complete with the original game’s astronaut mascot in 2014 under the name Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager.


While Race into Space‘s most specific, practical design mistakes aren’t too hard to identify, the more generalized failings of it and its peers in the scanty tradition of contemporary-space-program games do rather prompt one to ask another question: is there something about the subject matter itself that causes it not to work as a satisfying game? I believe I’ve actually done a reasonable job of answering that question already for the case of spaceborne vehicular simulations: as I noted near the beginning of this article, an astronaut in space just doesn’t have enough independent agency in most situations to make for a reasonably realistic simulation that’s also engaging as a game. But what of the other broad category of games I’ve addressed today, the one to which Race into Space belongs: that of space-program managerial games?

For a long, long time after Race into Space, one might have been forgiven for assuming that space-program managers as well were indeed nonstarters as satisfying games. But then, in 2015, a game called Kerbal Space Program came along to prove such naysayers wrong. I don’t usually write about modern games here, but I will briefly outline the premise of this one.

The titular Kerbals are a species of furry green aliens who run a space program of their own on their planet of Kerbin. Despite their cartoony cuteness, said space program itself is simulated with meticulous attention to detail, including all of the particulars of physics and aeronautics which Race into Space so conspicuously lacks. Players with an interest in rocketry or aeronautical engineering can and do lose years of leisure time to it. It may or may not be a game for you, but it is, by any objective definition, an impressive piece of work, far more intrinsically fascinating than any other that I’ve written about today.

And how does it accomplish this feat? One obvious answer is that it knows what it wants to be first and foremost: a sandbox for exploring the practical possibilities and limitations of space travel using the technology of our own recent past, present, and near future. A dedicated modding community has helped the designers to graft on additional layers of competitive strategy and economics for those who want them. Nevertheless, the game’s central delight remains that of creation and discovery. Kerbal Space Program is, in other words, one of the preeminent sandbox games of our time. And it’s completely comfortable with itself in that role, being free of the cognitive dissonances of Race into Space.

This stronger sense of itself is certainly one of the secrets to Kerbal Space Program‘s success. And here’s another: having noted earlier that the proposed non-historical sequels to Race into Space may have led to more compelling games, I’ll now submit Kerbal Space Program as Exhibit One in evidence for that argument. Freed from the weight of all that real human history, existing as it does in a world of cartoon aliens, it can just be a game.

Games can be great tools for exploring other lives and other times, but sometimes you just want to play. History, after all, doesn’t occur for our ludic amusement. Every wargamer knows that the number of unaltered historical battles that lead to good games is very small indeed; most real battles have their outcomes foreordained before they even begin. Perhaps the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station and all the rest just don’t have the right stuff to make a worthy game. But that’s okay — because it means that, instead of recreating the storied past, we can imagine an exciting future. That goal is at least equally worthy — and, as Kerbal Space Program so thoroughly illustrates, it’s something that a game about space exploration can most definitely do, and do well at that.

When you play Race into Space as the Americans, each turn begins with a newscast from “Carter Walcrite” — a nod to Walter Cronkite, the television anchorman whose dulcet tones were the voice of the space race for many Americans, whom a number of surveys revealed to be the most trusted person in the United States during the turbulent 1960s. (I’ll leave the comparisons with contemporary attitudes toward journalism as an exercise for the reader…) Although the inclusion of all this loving period detail is wonderful on one level, on another it can be oddly stultifying to your attempts to write your own history.

(Sources: the books The Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space Companion by Fritz Bronner, Designers & Dragons, Volume 2 by Shannon Appelcline, and BASIC Computer Games by David Ahl; Computer Gaming World of August 1986, March 1987, October 1987, February 1988, January 1992, May 1992, December 1992, and August 1993; Strategy & Tactics 212. Online sources include Leon Baradat’s comprehensive Race into Space site, the article “The Buzz is Gone” at The Escapist, and Steve Stipp’s homepage.

You can download the current open-source edition of Race into Space for free, or purchase its spiritual successor Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager.)

 
 

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Companions of Xanth (Preceded by the Worrisome Case of Piers Anthony)

I first read Piers Anthony’s thick 1969 novel Macroscope when I was in my early teens, and haven’t returned to it since. Nevertheless, I still remember the back-of-the-jacket text on my dog-eared old first paperback edition: “Existence is full of a number of things, many of them wondrous indeed — and these are the things of this soaring novel.” This high-flown blurb has remained so memorable to me because it’s so unlike anything anybody would ever write about Anthony’s work today.

Piers Anthony was born in 1934, and first made a name for himself in literary circles as one of the slightly lesser lights among science fiction’s New Wave of the 1960s. He was no Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin, or Harlan Ellison, but he was regarded as a modestly promising young writer in his own right; he even contributed a story to the second of Ellison’s landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies in 1972.

But that honor, along with Macroscope, which became his second and last novel to be nominated for a Hugo award in 1970, actually mark the high point of Anthony’s respectable literary career. It had always been difficult for him to pay the bills as a second-string writer of serious speculative fiction, and it only grew more difficult as the luster faded from the New Wave in the 1970s and his books attracted even less attention. He was saved from a perhaps not-undeserved obscurity by Lester del Rey, one of genre fiction’s most legendary editors and curators. As the first to nurture and publish such writers as Stephen R. Donaldson, Terry Brooks, and David Eddings, del Rey became largely responsible for the post-Tolkien, post-New Wave boom in epic fantasy fiction. But, apparently seeing a different set of strengths and weaknesses in Anthony than he did in those other charges, del Rey guided him down a rather less epic path. Thus in 1977 Anthony came to write A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in an endless series of them set in the pun-infested light-fantasy world of Xanth.

A Spell for Chameleon certainly wasn’t the worst fantasy novel to be published that year. While it had nothing of any substance on its mind whatsoever, its very lightness made it a welcome alternative to the likes of the three other writers I’ve just mentioned, whose books came complete with all the labored self-seriousness of an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album. The fact is, there really wasn’t much else like A Spell for Chameleon on bookstore shelves in 1977; it felt like a genuine breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, that book was as good as Xanth ever got. When it became the best-selling novel he had ever written by far, Anthony recognized it for what it was: a formula for maximum sales with minimum labor investment. And from that point on, he never looked back.

Still, even the first few Xanth novels after A Spell for Chameleon weren’t horribly written by the standards of their kind. Eventually, though, Anthony decided that such niceties as editing were incompatible with his desire to publish one of them every year, along with two or more other books from his other series. In time, he admitted to writing his novels using a “template” in his word processor — ah, the wonders of technology! — that he needed merely fill in, Mad Libs-style. He was actually able to outsource much of the writing to his readers, by inviting them to submit their own jokes and plots and character outlines. But where the rubber meets the road, in the form of sentences on the page, none of these assistants could make up for his refusal to take the time to be any good at his craft. There are sentences in latter-day Anthony in particular which are simply appalling from a writer with decades of experience. Consider, for example, this extract: “So why would I break with him? Because I came to the conclusion that he was a loose cannon. The problem with such a cannon is that it is more dangerous to its friends than to its enemies. I had suffered such looseness before…” If ever a court is established for crimes against the English language, Piers Anthony ought to be one of the first writers it indicts.

Between 1977 and today, Anthony has churned out no less than 42 Xanth novels, with another four reportedly complete and merely awaiting release as of this writing. And in between all those Xanth novels, he’s written dozens of other books. His guiding principle appears to be that not one word he writes should ever be put to waste; he wants somebody to pay for every last stroke of the keyboard. Thus he’s written two rambling, unfocused “autobiographies” which seem to be composed of journal extracts and “how to be a successful writer” advice columns he wasn’t able to place anywhere else. And thus when he wrote a series of letters to a twelve-year-old Xanth fan who had been paralyzed in a car crash, he irretrievably tainted the kindness he had evinced in doing so by compiling all of them into a book and publishing that too.

Anthony’s great stroke of genius for promoting all of these books came right out of the modern social-media playbook: he built his brand out of himself, building a cult of personality that superseded pesky details like the quality of his prose or the originality of his plots. For most people, Xanth fandom has a definite expiration date; it generally begins in one’s preteen years, and is over around the time one learns to drive a car. Within that window of time, however, many youngsters are all in for Xanth, and this is due not least to the connection they feel to its mastermind. Early on, Anthony took to appending an “author’s note” to each of his novels, in which he mused about the circumstances of its creation. That anyone, much less impatient youngsters, should have found these interesting was rather bizarre on the face of it. Anthony didn’t travel much or have adventures in the real world or build or do unusual things. He mostly just sat in front of his computer in his suburban home — not exactly a memorably unusual lifestyle in this modern world of ours. In the context of his author’s notes at least, the purchase of some extra memory for his computer or the switch to a new word processor counted as major life events for him.

And yet his fans absolutely ate it up. Most of them were still at an age when books and other creative works seemed to fall out of the sky fully-formed from a realm completely isolated from their own experience. Their glimpses of a real person behind the curtain of the Xanth novels marked for many of them their first exposure to the idea of artistic creation as a human labor — perhaps one they could even engage in themselves. And so, far from being a disadvantage, this sweeping away of the creative mystique was a big part of Xanth’s appeal, inculcating enormous loyalty in Anthony’s young readers. A memorable 2012 episode of the radio show This American Life illustrates the real bond that existed (and presumably still exists) between Anthony and his fans by telling the story of a picked-on teenage boy who ran away to the house of his favorite author — and was, it must be said, treated by said author with great kindness and compassion when he arrived there.

Yet even as he was nurturing such a warm relationship with his fans, Anthony was cementing his reputation among his peers as one of the biggest jerks in genre publishing. His career has been a long string of feuds and shattered friendships, which he describes at length in his autobiographies. His most longstanding battle has been with the Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization he claims to have “blacklisted” him during his lean years; no one actually involved with the SFWA is quite sure what he’s talking about. The real core of Anthony’s anger would seem to be his frustration at not being taken seriously by such establishment organs as this one. He’s long since been dismissed — admittedly, on pretty good evidence — as a hack; there will be no more Hugo talk in his future. Anthony complains endlessly about how all of his more “adult” fiction has been overshadowed by the Xanth novels which have made him a rich man, but has never taken the obvious step of simply not writing any more of the latter. The tension between artistic and commercial demands has tortured the psyche of many a writer, but in Anthony’s case it feels more comical than tragic, given that his adult books all tend to read like Xanth novels with more explicit violence — and, most especially, with much more explicit sex. And so we arrive at the really disturbing side of Piers Anthony.

I want to be especially careful in what I say next because I’ve always tried to separate the creator from his work when writing criticism of any stripe. Certainly there’s no shame in writing disposable children’s entertainment. And certainly there have been plenty of other writers who have also been jerks, including some whose talents far exceeded those of Anthony. And certainly writers need to be able to address difficult, uncomfortable subject matter without being accused of promoting or glorifying the things they describe; Vladimir Nabokov should not be deemed a pedophile because he wrote Lolita. But, even having taken all of that to heart, it remains hard for me to avoid the feeling when reading Piers Anthony on the subject of sex that something is simply wrong with this guy.

Anthony’s wrongness about sex, I should emphasize, isn’t the usual science-fiction author’s clunky mawkishness. It’s more extreme even than Robert A. Heinlein during his Dirty Old Man phase, when he wrote about sex like an alien with no understanding of human psychology might, describing it like any other mechanical process might be described by any of the dozens of stock Competent Men who populated his novels: “Now, you see, Friday, it’s just a matter of inserting Tab A here into Slot B, then moving it in and out like so.” No, Anthony’s obsession with girls just past the age of puberty — or in some eye-opening cases with girls who have not yet reached puberty — is more pernicious than this sort of rank cluelessness. It’s the reason that, if I saw a youngster I was fond of reading an Anthony novel, I wouldn’t just shrug my shoulders, but would actively try to steer her toward something I consider more healthy. For there really is, I think, a sickness — moral if not psychological in the clinical sense — running through this man’s body of work.

This side of Anthony isn’t new, although it has grown more pronounced over time as he’s become less beholden to editors. A Spell for Chameleon‘s gender politics weren’t particularly progressive even by the standards of the late 1970s. Its hero is a young man named Bink who wants something which his author considers to be impossible under normal circumstances: a girl with whom he can enjoy a warm friendship-of-intellectual-equals and whom he also finds sexually attractive — for it’s taken as a given by Anthony that a smart girl can never be a sexy one. The solution to Bink’s problem arrives in a girl with the unsubtle name of Chameleon, who cycles over the course of a month between a hideous but brilliant hag and a beautiful but moronic nymphomaniac. (Yes, Anthony’s idea of allegory really is that banal.) And so Bink’s problem is solved. The solution comes complete with a bit of teenage philosophizing, which Bink delivers to Chameleon’s nympho-bimbo incarnation just before they go at it again.

“I like beautiful girls,” he said. “And I like smart girls. But I don’t trust the combination. I’d settle for an ordinary girl, except she’d get dull after a while. Sometimes I want to talk with someone intelligent, and sometimes I want to –” He broke off. Her mind was like that of a child; it wasn’t really right to impose such concepts on her.

“That’s the point,” he said. “I like variety. I would have trouble living with a stupid girl all the time — but you aren’t stupid all the time. Ugliness is no good for all the time — but you aren’t ugly all the time either. You are — variety. And that is what I crave for the long-term relationship — and what no other girl can provide.”

Cringe-inducingly adolescent though this take on guys and chicks might be — especially when one considers that it was written without any apparent irony by a 43-year-old man — it’s pretty harmless compared to where the Xanth novels went later on. Uncomfortably young girls get put in sexually charged situations, often with much older men, over and over. There’s little to no explicit sex — note where Bink “breaks off” in the extract above — but the subtext keeps getting more and more creepy. By 1992, Anthony felt free to entitle one of his Xanth novels The Color of Her Panties. At this point, it was hard to avoid the feeling that he was deliberately trolling the critics who had by now been calling him out for his books’ pervy subtexts for quite some time.

Still, Anthony’s allegedly prurient interest in his young female subjects would be much more speculative — and I would probably not be writing this article — were it not for those other, “adult” books of his. Many of these ooze the same disturbing fixations as the Xanth books, but are able to carry them through to, shall we say, consumation. Exhibit Number One in this category must be Firefly, a 1990 attempt at horror dealing primarily with what Anthony himself describes as “inflamed and perverted sexual desire.” It includes a lengthy sex scene between an adult man and a five-year-old girl, described in minute detail. In fact, the scene is another, rather horrifying example of Anthony’s habit of outsourcing the writing of his books: it came from an imprisoned pedophile with whom he corresponded. Anthony, in other words, literally published child porn. It’s quite simply the most disturbing thing I’ve ever read in a lifetime of prolific reading. Not even Mein Kampf bothers me like this. Needless to say, I won’t be quoting it here.

But, you counter, this was a horror novel, a genre meant to shock and transgress norms. Don’t confuse the author with the work, etc. And I might reluctantly agree with you, even if I didn’t have any personal desire to ever read anything by this writer again. But then comes the author’s note, in which Anthony justifies the rape of this five-old-girl because… she wanted it. She was asking for it, tempting the man who had sex with her into the deed. (Did I mention that she is five years old?) Her name is Nymph. (Did I mention that Anthony isn’t subtle?)

There seems to be a broad spectrum of human desire, and what we call normal is only the central component. It may be that the problem is not with what is deviant, but with our definitions. I suggest in the novel that little Nymph was abused not by the man with whom she had sex, but by members of her family who warped her taste, and by the society that preferred to condemn her lover rather than address the source of the problem in her family.

Those who feel that [the imprisoned pedophile’s] stories represent abnormal taste should read My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, which details some of the sexual fantasies of women. Neither is Nymph an invention; similar cases are all too frequent. These aspects were from my research rather than my imagination. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong; I merely hope to raise some social questions along with the entertainment provided in the novel. I suspect our priorities are confused. We have problems enough with world hunger and injustice, without making more by punishing people for deviant but perhaps harmless behavior.

Here we have it from the horse’s mouth. The rape of a five-year-old girl is “perhaps harmless.”

We often see this pattern of argument — the “hey, I’m just asking questions!” pattern — among those who wish to say something much of the society around them will consider reprehensible but who lack the courage to stand right up and do so. (You see it constantly, for example, in the toxic arena that is present-day American politics.) Added to all of the other circumstantial evidence swirling around Piers Anthony — his many almost-as provocative statements made in interviews; his correspondences with multiple imprisoned pedophiles, not just this one; the unending fascination with pubescent and prepubescent girls running through most of his novels — it raises a strong feeling that something is indeed wrong inside this fellow’s head. I should emphasize that I have no reason to believe that Anthony has ever acted on the urges in question, if they do in fact exist. Has he found a way to satisfy them through his writing instead? That would be a good thing, if so; the crime exists not in the unfortunate psychological kink of being a pedophile, but in acting upon it. Or, that is, it would be a good thing — if only his books weren’t being read.

Once you’ve seen these things, you can never unsee them. Anthony’s cherished relationships with his young fans — and again, I have no reason to believe he has ever abused their trust in any physical sense — takes on a new, creepy flavor. Suddenly all those long letters to the paralyzed girl, as collected in the book Letters to Jenny, begin to read disturbingly like… well, like he’s flirting with her. And suddenly we breathe a sigh of relief that the teenage runaway whose story was chronicled on This American Life was a boy rather than a girl. How much of this is real and how much is projection? It’s impossible to say. (Hey, I’m just asking questions…) I will say only this: please, read someone else’s books, and try to get your children to do so as well. I smell something rotten at the core of this writer’s output, and I know I’m not alone.


All of the foregoing ruminations were prompted by my ostensible “real” subject for today, the 1993 Legend Entertainment game Companions of Xanth. Ironically, I find myself with somewhat less to say about that subject than I do about Piers Anthony’s odd and disturbing career arc as a writer. The game is… reasonably good, actually, if hardly one of the most memorable works in the history of adventure gaming. The creepiness factor is kept surprisingly low under the circumstances, the humor is hit-and-miss but always good-natured, and the design, with one glaring exception which we’ll get to momentarily, is up to Legend’s usual high standard. Further, in one sense at least, the game represents a real landmark in Legend’s history: it marks the point where they finally dumped their parser and embraced the point-and-click paradigm, thus ushering in the second of the three broad phases of the company’s history and ushering out the age of the commercial text adventure writ large.

Companions of Xanth came to exist at all entirely thanks to Legend’s everyday composer and music programmer Michael Lindner, who also happened to be one of those rare readers who defy the usual age-circumscribed window of Xanth fandom; he had retained his affection for the series right into his adult years. He had first supplemented his usual duties at Legend with those of a writer and designer on 1992’s Gateway, a project consciously engineered by the company’s co-founder Bob Bates to serve as a sort of boot camp for training up new designers. Having duly completed that apprenticeship, Lindner begged for permission to make a Xanth game as his first project as a head designer. His managers obligingly made inquiries, and soon brought home a contract to make a game version of Piers Anthony’s latest Xanth novel-in-progress, which was to be titled Demons Don’t Dream. As was more usual than not for licensed projects like this, Lindner had very little direct contact with Anthony in the course of making the game. He largely had to content himself with pre-release proofs of the novel in question, whose plot the game he made follows fairly closely but not slavishly.

We can probably feel pleased for Anthony’s lack of involvement, in that it means that most of the pervier elements of Xanth are missing. While Anthony in his novel dwells at length over the “luscious young women” in the story, Lindner lays it on considerably less thickly.

The pervy aspects of Xanth aren’t overly prevalent in the game, but aren’t entirely absent either. You can look up “panties” in the in-game encyclopedia…

Still, the plot is rife with other Xanthian staples — not least the meta-fictional elements that had become such a hallmark of the series by this point, sixteen books in. Many of the jokes, situations, and characters in both the book and the game come courtesy of Anthony’s army of fans, who are scrupulously credited by name in the book’s author’s note. The most notable example of fan service is the character of Jenny Elf, based on the author’s young friend Jenny, the car-crash victim he wrote to at such length. (By this point, Anthony tells us in his author’s note, she had recovered from her paralysis sufficient to sit and even stand briefly without support. She would make further strides in the years to come, although she would never regain her full range of motion.) Jenny Elf, who is blessedly not overly sexualized even in the book, appears alongside Sammy Cat, the real girl’s favorite pet.

You yourself play as a teenage boy named Dug who lives in Mundania, the non-magical alternative to Xanth; Mundania, that is to say, is our world. As a hater of computer games, Dug has made a bet with his friend Ed that he won’t like one called Companions of Xanth. If his faith in the pointlessness of the gaming hobby holds true, he wins Ed’s motorcycle; if this game proves an exception to the rule, Ed gets a date with Dug’s estranged girlfriend. (“But what if she doesn’t want to go out with you?” asks Dug. “That’s a technicality we’ll deal with at the appropriate time,” answers Ed. Okay, the game isn’t totally without creepy elements…)

So, the earliest stages of the real Companions of Xanth require you to open this virtual Companions of Xanth and boot it up on your in-game computer. (Confused yet?) After some preliminaries, you get sucked through the monitor screen into Xanth. (That is to say, your character in the game you’re playing gets sucked through the monitor of the computer running the game he’s playing.)

Companions of Xanth resoundingly fails to put its best foot forward. Just as you’re about to enter Xanth and get started properly, it lives up to its name by asking you to choose a companion for your adventures from four possibilities. A nice little addition, this, you think to yourself, as you choose the companion that looks most interesting and entertaining. This must be a way to make the game replayable, a la Maniac Mansion. But nope! Think again! There’s just one “correct” companion to be chosen. Naturally, this being a Piers Anthony creation, that companion is the nubile serpent chick named Naga. If you make the supremely non-Xanthian move of choosing any of the others, the game lets you play for a few minutes longer, then dead-ends you; it’s time to restart or restore, my friend.

Such a colossal design fail is downright bizarre to see in a Legend game of this vintage. It struck me immediately that it must be an artifact of an earlier, more ambitious plan to offer four genuinely divergent experiences — a plan which got chopped down to size once the realities of time, labor, and money came home to roost. Unfortunately, neither Bob Bates nor Mike Verdu can recall what might have gone down here, and I haven’t been able to locate Michael Lindner. So, all we can do is speculate.

After a beginning like that, whatever the reason for its existence, one goes into the rest of Companions of Xanth decidedly nervous, wondering if it’s going to be one of those sorts of games. Thankfully, it isn’t; the aforementioned is its only real design pratfall. After it gets going properly, it evinces the meticulous commitment to fair play which the Legend brand was coming to stand for by 1993.

Much of the humor, and with it many of the puzzles, revolve around puns and wordplay, long a Xanth staple. Mind you, Companions of Xanth isn’t as clever as something like Infocom’s Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It in this respect. It is, after all, implicitly written for a less sophisticated audience, yet it can still be good fun in its own right. You’ll spend time here battling a censor ship, finding a way to get beyond the pail, and visiting the Fairy Nuff. Sometimes the puns go a little too far out on a limb — the “com-pewter,” an interactive compendium made out of pewter, is one example — but the puzzles themselves are always comprehensible, which is the most important thing. Only those who struggle a bit with idiomatic English in general, such as non-native speakers, are likely to have any major problems solving the game.

Companions of Xanth as a whole is as lightweight as the novels which inspired it. If it never quite dazzles, it never annoys overmuch either, at least once you get past that first hump, and it might even prompt a chuckle or two. It’s a sort of baseline standard game for Legend, never really managing to distinguish itself in either a positive or a negative way. Yet its interface did mark it as something truly new for the four-year-old company at the time of its release, and as such is perhaps worthy of more attention than the game it supports.

As I noted in my last article, in reality the parser disappeared more gradually than suddenly from Legend games; the full run of titles the company released between 1990 and 1993 shows a slow marginalization of the parser, until finally, beginning with Companions of Xanth, it just wasn’t there at all anymore. In fact, this same evolutionary process could be said not to have really ended even here. Although the move to point-and-click has forced the loss of that sense of infinite possibility that so delights people like me and Bob Bates, what remains here is about as text-adventure-like an interface as can be imagined under the new paradigm. Indeed, it smacks of the old ICOM Simulations interface from the mid-1980s, the industry’s earliest serious attempt to recast the classic adventure game in this mold, more so than it does the contemporary interfaces of Sierra and LucasArts. In a sense, one might even say, the parser still exists in this game. It’s just that you now build your imperative sentences with the mouse instead of the keyboard. Such an approach had always been an option in the earlier Legend games; now, it merely becomes a requirement.

Given that the screenshots of the interface included with this article are all but self-explanatory, I won’t dwell too long on its mechanics. Clicking a hotspot in the onscreen picture will highlight a default verb in the list on the left of the screen. Simply clicking on the hotspot again at this point will take that action, but you can also choose another verb from the list, if you wish. Many objects also have unique verbs which show up below the standard list when they’re highlighted; a rock, for example, might have an additional “throw” verb. And indirect objects are connected to certain actions; throwing the rock will require a third click, specifying what to throw it at. As you’re doing all of this, you see your command being built right there on the screen, just as if you were typing it in via a parser. It’s even possible to specify a verb first, then choose the object it acts upon, although this approach is of limited utility in that it doesn’t give you access to the special verbs connected to some objects.

All of which is to say that the new interface truly does represent another evolutionary rather than revolutionary technological step for Legend. What we have here is not a whole new game engine, bur rather the old one with a different front end. Once it gets past the stage of interpreting the player’s command, there’s less difference than you might expect between this Legend game and those that came before it.

This fact is most clearly illustrated in the screenshots by that little “Undo” button in the corner, something you would never — could never — see in a Sierra or LucasArts game. For those games run in real time, while Companions of Xanth, like a text adventure or an ICOM game, is still turn-based. This distinction has an enormous impact on the character of the game, reaching far beyond the welcome ability to instantly undo your last action when you get yourself killed or otherwise try something unfortunate. Legend games even after the parser went away have a more relaxed, contemplative, literary sensibility than the works of Legend’s peers. There’s still quite a lot of text here, and that text is still treated with unusual care and respect. It isn’t hard to divine, after playing around with one of their point-and-click games for just a few minutes, why Legend became the go-to studio for literary adaptations during the 1990s. While it had proved possible to take the type-in parser out of Legend’s engine, it was more difficult to take the literary spirit of the text adventure out of the company’s collective design aesthetic.

One holdover from text adventures that may not thrill some players is the maze…

This held true even when Legend was otherwise embracing the multimedia era with gusto. Although Eric the Unready and Gateway 2: Homeworld had both been released in CD-ROM versions prior to Companions of Xanth, those were mere repackagings of the floppy-disk-based versions into a more convenient format. But when the subject of this article appeared on CD-ROM about six months after its original floppy-based release, it sported voice acting for the first time in a Legend title. And yet even here the voice acting only covered words said by the characters you met; there was no global narrator. Such an approach felt very much in keeping with that overarching literary sensibility that so marked Legend’s work. In this game, and in the next several Legend games to come, you were still expected to do a lot of reading for yourself.

For the record, the voice acting that is to be found in the CD-ROM Companions of Xanth is excellent — an impressive feat considering that this was Legend’s first foray into such a thing. Even here, their first time out, they were wise enough to employ professional actors recruited from the local union for same and recorded at a professional sound studio. It’s obvious that the actors had fun with their roles; my favorite part of the whole game might just be the blooper reel of outtakes which plays over the closing credits.

In the end, though, I find myself torn on the subject of Companions of Xanth in a way I can’t recall being for any other game I’ve written about here. If it existed in a vacuum, shorn of its association with Piers Anthony, I would call it a fun, frothy little fantasy romp, a solid debut for a new interface which retains more of the spirit of the old than we might have dared to hope for. And I would be happy enough to leave it at that. But, even as I believe it’s wrong to judge art on external factors in the vast majority of cases, there are exceptions, and I’m not sure this isn’t one of them.

I don’t blame Legend in any sense for making this game. Many of the more worrisome aspects of Anthony’s oeuvre become obvious only in the aggregate; most or all of those who worked on this game at Legend doubtless believed that they were merely capitalizing on a popular, harmless series of lightweight fantasy books. And yet I do find myself wishing that they had chosen some other series, just as I wish any current readers of Xanth, young or old, would do likewise. In my role of critic, I can tell you that Companions of Xanth is a (mostly) well-constructed game that’s relatively inoffensive in itself. But should you play it? That is, as always — but perhaps here even more so than usual — something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

(Sources: the Piers Anthony books Bio of an Ogre, How Precious was that While, Letters to Jenny, Macroscope, A Spell for Chameleon, The Color of Her Panties, Firefly, and Demons Don’t Dream; Computer Gaming World of July 1993 and March 1994; Questbusters 108. My thanks go to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu for talking with me about this period of Legend’s history — but I must emphatically state that all of the opinions expressed herein, especially of Piers Anthony and his work, are mine alone.

Companions of Xanth has not been re-released as a digital edition, doubtless owing to the complications involved with licensed titles. I’d prefer not to host it here due to my distaste for Piers Anthony, but you can find it elsewhere without too much trouble.)

 

BONUS:

The Compiled Life Wisdom of Piers Anthony, as Found in His Autobiographies



Writers like Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany got awards because of their sophistication as writers, which sophistication I do not question, but I was regarded from the outset as an entertainment writer. What I was doing was too complex and subtle, not only for others to understand, but for them even to realize that it existed.



The best guide for a book to avoid is an award winner.



I worried that I would not be able to write fantasy well without Lester del Rey’s editing. But instead it was like a burden lifting from my shoulders. Suddenly I was free of oppressive editing.



Then Lester tried to cut the entire Author’s Note from the fourth Incarnations novel, Wielding a Red Sword. He said it was too long, and anyway, they were in the business of publishing fiction, not nonfiction. This was the Note in which I described my computerization — I had until then written my novels in pencil and then typed them with a manual machine, so it was a significant step for me.



When I read Isaac Asimov’s massive two-volume autobiography I found it interesting, but concluded that the minutia of daily existence are seldom worth recording for posterity.



I dumped SFWA, and have remained hostile to it since. There is evidence that some of its members are still spreading falsehoods about me. If ever push comes to shove, I will put it out of business. Because today I have the resources to sue. All I need is the pretext.



I, like most boys, would have been capable of orgasm at any time in childhood, had I known how to masturbate.



A formula I invented for explaining the ways of publishers: TPB = SOD. What does it mean? Typical Publisher Behavior is Shitting On Dreams.



So are publishers really as rapacious and idiotic as they seem? Yes and no. Just as the intelligence and conscience of a lynch mob may be less than that of any individual person within it, so may the net savvy of a publisher be below that of any of its components.



I feel like a beautiful woman. That is, a lovely woman is pursued by many men — but when she mentions commitment, most of them vanish. Some vanish when they find they can’t get her into bed on the first date. Others vanish after they do get her into bed. So she becomes cynical; it is evident that most of those ardent suitors are insincere; all they want is her body for a night, rather than an enduring relationship, unless she happens to be rich. All the publishers really wanted from me was my best-selling series, Xanth — and those who lost it and those who got it tended to vanish as far as my other novels went.

I pondered, and my agent pondered, and it was my wife, who evidently understands the situation of beautiful women, who came up with an effective notion: link the one to the other. Make a package deal. So when the time for a new multi-novel Xanth contract came up, we put it to TOR: double or nothing. If this man wanted to get this woman in bed again, there would have to be marriage — though TOR’s chief editor is female, and I’m male.



[My wife and I] have what I call a conventional marriage: I earn the money, she spends it. In fact she keeps accounts and does the taxes, which are complicated. I decide on the big things, like the significance of world events, and she decides the small things, like everything else. I’m glad I married her, and believe that I would not be where I am today without her. But if I should find myself alone, I would then consider more carefully what else offers, with strong cautions from my life experience. Meanwhile I have a small category of correspondents I treat politely: those who profess or imply love for me.



Women of any age are interesting, and as a general rule, the younger a woman is, the more interesting she is, because natural selection dictates that the man who controls the greatest part of a woman’s fertile years will have the most children. A girl of twelve may have breasts and be a young woman in appearance; she is sexually desirable, regardless of law or custom. A girl of eleven may lack the breasts but be of similar general appearance, and her clothing masks her lack of maturity. So it is evident that some men aren’t concerned about the distinction, and go for the vagina regardless.



I have an insatiable curiosity about the nature of the universe and mankind’s place in it, and my profession of writing allows me to explore it all, seeking answers. I have fathomed a number of things to my satisfaction before they were clarified by the scientists.



Sometimes I’m stupid. This is annoying when I’m taking an IQ test.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Eric the Unready

In September of 1991, Bob Bates of Legend Entertainment flew to Florida for a meeting of the Software Publishers Association. One evening there after a long day on the job, still dressed in his business suit, he took a walk along the beach, enjoying a gorgeous sunset as he anticipated a relaxing dinner with his wife and infant son, who had joined him on the trip.

Yet his mind wasn’t quite as peaceful as was the scenery around him. He was in fact wrestling with a tension which everybody who does creative work for a living must face at some point: the tension between what the artist wants to create and what the audience wants to buy. Bob had made Timequest, his first game after co-founding Legend, as a self-conscious experiment, meant to determine whether a complicated, intricate, serious, difficult parser-driven adventure game was still a commercially viable proposition in 1991. The answer was, as Bob puts it today, “kind of”: Timequest hadn’t flopped utterly, but it hadn’t sold in notably big numbers either. Steve Meretzky’s decidedly lower-brow games Spellcasting 101 and 201, which had bookended Timequest on Legend’s release schedule, had both done considerably better. Bob had already started making notes for a Timequest II by the time the first one shipped, but he soon had to face the reality that the sales numbers just weren’t there to support more iterations on the concept.

Now, in the midst of his walk on the beach, a name sprang unbidden into his head: “Eric the Unready.” Such a gift from God — or from his subconscious — had never come to him before in that manner, and never would again. But no matter; once in a lifetime ought to be enough for anyone. He found the name hilarious, and chuckled to himself over it the rest of the way to the restaurant. At last, he knew what his next game would be: a straight-up farce about a really, really unready knight named Eric. With that decision made, he was ready to enjoy his evening.

The more he thought about the idea upon returning to daily life inside Legend’s Virginia offices, the more he realized that it had more going for it in practical terms than most rarefied bolts from the blue can boast. Indeed, it was an idea about which no marketer could possibly have complained, being well-nigh precision-targeted to hit the industry’s commercial sweet spot as accurately as any Legend title could hope to. If the success of Legend’s Spellcasting games hadn’t sufficiently proved to the company how potent a combination comedy and fantasy could be, there was plenty of other evidence on offer. Adventure gamers loved comedy, which was just as well given that it was the default setting the form always wanted to collapse back into, a gravitational attraction that could be defied by a designer only through serious, single-minded effort; these realities explained why Sierra made so many comedies, and why LucasArts’s adventure catalog contained very little else. And gamers in general just couldn’t get enough fantasy; this explained the quantity of dungeon-crawling CRPGs clogging store shelves, not to mention the success of Sierra’s King’s Quest adventure series. To complete the formula for sales gold, Bob soon decided that Eric the Unready would also toss aside all of Timequest‘s puzzle complexity to jump onto what Legend saw as another emerging industry trend: that of making adventure games friendlier, more accessible to the non-hardcore. In short, Bob’s latest game would be easy.

So, Eric the Unready was to be an unabashed bid for mainstream success, as safe a play as Legend knew how to make at this juncture. But such a practical commercial profile isn’t necessarily an artistic kiss of death; like all of the best of such efforts, Eric the Unready is executed with such panache that even a jaded old critic like me just can’t help but love it in spite of his snobbishness.

Inveterate student of history that he is, Bob’s first impulse upon starting any project is always to head to the library. In fact, one might say that his research for Eric the Unready began long before he even thought to make the game. The name itself actually has an historical antecedent, one which was doubtless bouncing around somewhere in the back of Bob’s mind when he had his brainstorm: Æthelred the Unready is the name of an English king from shortly before the Norman Conquest. The epithet had always amused Bob inordinately. (For the record: the word “unready” in this context means something closer to poorly advised than personally incompetent. Nevertheless, it was the latter, anachronistic meaning which Bob was about to embrace with glee.)

After the project began in earnest, Bob’s research instinct meant lots of reading of contemporary fantasy, a genre he had heretofore known little about. More out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm, he worked through Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman’s Dragonlance and Death Gate novels, Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, and even Stephen R. Donaldson’s terminally turgid Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

In the end, none of it would prove to have been necessary — and this was all for the best. Eric the Unready has little beyond its “fantasy” label in common with such po-faced epics. The milieu of the finished game is vaguely Arthurian, as you might expect of a game written by the Anglophile creator of Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur. This time out, though, Bob tempered his interest in Arthurian myth with a willingness to toss setting and even plot coherence overboard at any time in the name of a good joke. As such, the game inevitably brings to mind a certain Monty Python movie — and, indeed, there is much of that beloved British comedy troupe in the game. Other strong influences which Bob himself names include Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and, hitting closer to home, Steve Meretzky.

The humor of Eric the Unready might best be summarized as “maximalism with economy.” Bob:

My [plots] were always meant to be scrupulously well-designed,. There was never a logical inconsistency. All of them were solidly constructed. But with Eric the Unready, I consciously said, “If I see the opportunity for a joke that doesn’t quite make sense, I’m going to do it anyway.” Toward the end of the project, I wondered how many jokes there were in Eric. I can remember counting that there were over a thousand of them. It’s just crammed full of funny material: in the newspapers, hidden in the conversations, hidden all over the place.

The economy comes in, however, with Eric the Unready‘s determination never to beat any single joke into the ground — something that even Steve Meretzky was prone to do in too much of his post-Infocom work. As Graham Nelson and others have pointed out, one of Infocom’s secret weapons was, paradoxical though it may sound, the very limitations of their Z-Machine. The sharply limited quantity of text it allowed, combined with the editorial oversight of Jon Palace, Infocom’s unsung hero, kept their writers from rambling on and on. But text had become cheap on the computers of the 1990s, and thus Legend’s software technology, unlike Infocom’s, allowed the author an effectively unlimited number of words — a dangerous thing for any writer. A Legend author was under no compulsion whatsoever to edit himself.

Luckily, Bob Bates’s dedication to doing the research came through for him here, in a way that ultimately proved far more valuable than his study of fantasy fiction. He had been interested in the mechanics and theory of comedy long before starting on the game, and now reread what some of the past masters of the form — people like Milton Berle and Johnny Carson — had to say about it. He recalled an old anecdote from the latter, which he paraphrases as, “Not everybody is going to like every joke. But if you can get 60 percent of the people to laugh at 60 percent of your jokes, you’re a success.” One of the funniest writers ever once noted in the same spirit that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Combining these two ideals, Bob’s approach to the humor in Eric the Unready became not to stress over or belabor anything. He would crack a joke, then be done with it and move on to the next one; rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. “There’s always another bus coming,” says Bob by way of summing up his comedy philosophy. “If you don’t get this one, don’t worry; you’ll get the next one.”

At this point, then, I’d like to share some of Eric the Unready‘s greatest comedic hits with you. One of the pleasures for me in revisiting this game a quarter-century on has been remembering all of the contemporary pop culture it references, pays homage to, or (more commonly) skewers. Thus many of the screenshots you see below are of that sort — wonderful for remembering the somehow more innocent media landscape of the United States during the immediate post-Cold War era, that window of peace and prosperity before history caught up with us again on September 11, 2001. (Why does the past always strike us as more innocent? Is it because we know what will come after, and familiarity breeds quaintness?)

But another of my agendas is to commemorate Legend’s talented freelance art team, whose work was consistently much better than we had any right to expect from such a small studio. Being a writer myself, I have a tendency to emphasize writing and design while giving short shrift to the visual aesthetics of game-making. So, let me remedy that for today at least. The quality of the artwork below is largely thanks to Tanya Isaacson and Paul Mock, Legend’s two most important artists, who placed their stamp prominently on everything that came out of the company during this period.


Each chapter includes a copy of the newspaper for that day. Together, they provide a running commentary on Eric’s misadventures of the previous chapters — and lots of opportunities for more jokes. Shay Addams, the publisher of the Questbusters newsletter and book series and a ubiquitous magazine commentator and reviewer, rivaled Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia for the title of most prominent of all the American adventure-game superfans who parleyed their hobbies into paychecks. (Scorpia as well showed up in games from time to time — perhaps most notably, as a poisonous monster in New World Computing’s Might and Magic III, her comeuppance for a negative review of Might and Magic II.) Alas, Addams disappeared without a trace about a year after Eric the Unready was published. Rumor had it that he took up a career as a professional gambler (!) instead.

A really old-school shout-out, to Scott Adams, the first person to put a text adventure on a microcomputer. “Yoho” was a magic word in his second and most popular game of all, Pirate Adventure.

The computer-game industry of the early 1990s still had some of the flavor of pre-Hays Code Hollywood. Even as parents and politicians were fretting endlessly over what Super Mario Bros. was doing to Generation Nintendo, computer games remained off their radar entirely. That would soon change, however, bringing with it the industry’s first attempts at content rating and self-censorship.

The “tastes great, less filling” commercials for Miller Lite were an inescapable presence on American television for almost two decades, placing athletes and B-list celebrities in ever more elaborate beer-drinking scenarios which always concluded with the same tagline. They still serve as a classic case study in marketing for the way they convinced stereotypically manly, sports-loving male beer drinkers that it was okay to drink a (gasp!) light beer.

We couldn’t possibly skip an explicit homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, could we?

Wheel of Fortune — and the bizarre French obsession with Jerry Lewis.

More risque humor…

David Letterman’s top-ten lists were a pop-culture institution for almost 35 years. Note the presence on this one of Vice President Dan Quayle, who once said that Mars had air and canals filled with water, and once lost a spelling bee to a twelve-year-old by misspelling “potato.”

Rob Schneider’s copy-machine guy was one of the more annoying Saturday Night Live characters to become an icon of his age…

Speaking of Saturday Night Live: in one of the strangest moments in the history of the show, the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor belted out a well-intentioned but ham-fisted a-capella scold against human-rights abuse in lieu of one of her radio hits. At the end of the song, she tore up a picture of the pope as a statement against the epidemic of child molestation and abuse in the Catholic Church.

Some of Miller Lite’s competition in terms of iconic beer commercials for manly men came in the form of Old Milwaukee and its “It just doesn’t get any better than this” tagline. (Full disclosure: Old Milwaukee was my dad’s brew of choice, I think mostly because it was just about the cheapest beer you could buy. I have memories of watching John Wayne movies on his knee, coveting the occasional sip of it I was vouchsafed.)

Madonna was at her most transgressive during this period: she had just released an album entitled Erotica and a coffee-table book of softcore porn entitled simply Sex. Looked back on today, her desperate need to shock seems more silly than threatening, but people reacted at the time as if the world was ending. (I should know; I was working at a record store when the album came out. Ah, well… even as an indie-rock snob, I had to recognize that her version of “Fever” slays.) Meanwhile the picture that accompanies the newspaper article above pays tribute to another pop diva: Grace Jones.

My favorite chapter has you exploring a “galaxy” of yet more pop-culture detritus with the unforgettable Captain Smirk, described as “250 pounds of captain stuffed into a 175-pound-captain’s shirt.” (This joke might just be my favorite in the whole game…)

Fantasy Island, in which a new collection of recognizable faces was gathered together each week to live out their deepest desires and learn some life lessons in the process, was one of the biggest television shows of the pop-culture era just before Eric the Unready, when such aspirational lifestyle fare set in exotic locations — see also Fantasy Island‘s more family-friendly sibling The Love Boat — was all the rage. It all really does feel oddly quaint and innocent today, doesn’t it?

Eric the Unready manages to combine all three of actor and decadent lifestyle icon Ricardo Montalbán’s most recognizable personas in one: as Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island, as Khan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and as a pitchman for Chrysler.

And at last we come to Gilligan’s Island, a place within a three-hour sailing tour of civilization which has nevertheless remained uncharted — the perfect scene for a sitcom as breathtakingly stupid as its backstory.


Eric the Unready is the first Legend game to fully embrace the LucasArts design methodology of no player deaths and no dead ends. Even if you deliberately try to throw away or destroy essential objects out of curiosity or sheer perversity, the game simply won’t let you; the object in question is always restored to you, often by means that are quite amusing in themselves. Just as in a LucasArts comedy, the sense of freedom this complete absence of danger provides often serves the game well, empowering you to try all sorts of crazy and funny things without having to worry that doing so will mean a trip back to your collection of save files. Unlike many LucasArts games, though, Eric the Unready doesn’t even try all that hard to find ways of presenting truly intriguing puzzles that work within its set of player guardrails. In fact, if there’s a problem with Eric the Unready, it must be that the game offers so little challenge; Bob Bates’s determination to make it the polar opposite of Timequest in this respect carried all the way through the project.

The game is really eight discrete mini-games. At the start of each of these “chapters,” Eric is dumped into a new, self-contained environment that exists independently of what came before or what will come later. By limiting the combinatorial-explosion factor, this structure makes both the designer’s and the player’s job much easier. Even within a chapter, however, there are precious few head-scratching moments. You’re told what you need to do quite explicitly, and then you proceed to do it in an equally straightforward manner — and that’s pretty much all there is to solving the game. Bob long considered it to be the easiest game by far he had ever designed. (He was, he noted wryly when I spoke to him recently, forced by popular demand to make his recent text adventure Thaumistry even easier, which serves as something of a commentary on the ways in which player expectations have changed over the past quarter-century.)

All that said, it should also be noted that Eric the Unready‘s disinterest in challenging its player was more of a problem at the time of its original release than it is today. Whatever their other justifications, difficult puzzles served as a way of gumming up the works for the player back in the day, keeping her from burning through a game’s content too quickly at a time when the average game’s price tag in relation to its raw quantity of content was vastly higher than today. Without challenging puzzles, a player could easily finish a game like Eric the Unready in less than five hours, in spite of its having several times the amount of text of the average Infocom game (not to mention the addition of graphics, music, and sound effects). At a retail price of $35 or $40, this was a real issue. Today, when the game sells as a digital download for a small fraction of that price, it’s much less of one. Modern distribution choices, one might say, have finally allowed Eric the Unready to be exactly the experience it wants to be without apologies.

Certainly Bob has fantastically good memories of making this game; he still calls it the most purely enjoyable creative endeavor of his life. Those positive vibes positively ooze out of the finished product. Yet there was a shadow lurking behind all of Bob’s joy, lending it perhaps an extra note of piquancy. For he knew fairly early in Eric the Unready‘s development cycle that this would be the last game of this type he would get to design for the foreseeable future. Legend, you see, was on the verge of dumping the parser at last.

They had fought the good fight far longer than any of their peers. By the time Eric the Unready shipped in January of 1993, Legend had been the only remaining maker of parser-based adventure games for the mainstream, boxed American market for over two years. As part of their process of bargaining with marketplace realities, they had done everything they could think of to accommodate the huge number of gamers who regarded the likes of an Infocom game much as the average contemporary movie-goer regarded a Charlie Chaplin film. In a bid to broaden their customers demographic beyond the Infocom diehards, Legend from the start had added an admittedly clunky method of building sentences by mousing through long menus of verbs, nouns, and prepositions, along with copious multimedia gilding around the core text-adventure experience.

As budgets increased and the market grew still more demanding, Legend came to lean ever more heavily on both the mouse and their multimedia bells and whistles. By the time they got to Eric the Unready, their games was already starting to feel as much point-and-click as not, as the regular text-and-parser window got superseded for long stretches of time by animated cut scenes, by full-screen static illustrations, by mouseable onscreen documents, by mouse-driven visual puzzles. Even when the parser interface was on display, you could now choose to click on the onscreen illustrations of the scenes themselves instead of the words representing the things in them if you so chose.

Still, it was obvious that even an intermittent recourse to the parser just wouldn’t be tenable for much longer. In this new era of consumer computing, a command line had become for many or most computer users that inscrutable, existentially terrifying thing you got dumped into when something broke down in your Windows. The last place these people wanted to see such a thing was inside one of their games. And so the next step — that of dumping the parser entirely — was as logical as it was inevitable.

Eric the Unready wouldn’t quite be the absolute last of its breed — Legend’s Gateway 2: Homeworld would ship a few months after it — but it was the very last of Bob’s children of the type. Once Eric the Unready and Gateway 2 shipped, an era in gaming history came to an end. The movement that had begun when Scott Adams shipped the first copies of Adventureland on hand-dubbed cassette tapes for the Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1978 had run its course. Yes, there was a world of difference between Adams’s 16 K efforts with their two-word parsers and pidgin English and the tens of megabytes of multimedia splendor of an Eric the Unready or a Gateway 2, but they were all nevertheless members of the same basic gaming taxonomy. Now, though, no more games like them would ever appear again on the shelves of everyday software stores.

And make no mistake: something important — precious? — got lost when Legend finally dumped the parser entirely. Bob felt the loss as keenly as anyone; through all of his years in games which would follow, he would never entirely stop regretting it. Bob:

What you’re losing [in a point-and-click interface] is the sense of infinite possibility. There may still be a sense that there’s lots you can do, and you can still have puzzles and non-obvious interactions, but you’ve lost the ability to type anything you want. And it was a terrible thing to lose — but that’s the way the world was going.

I found the transition personally painful. That’s evidenced by the fact that I went back and wrote another parser-based game more than twenty years later. A large part of the joy of making this type of game for me is the sense that I’m the little guy in the box. It’s me and the player. The player senses my presence and feels like we’re engaged in this activity together. There’s a back-and-forthing — communication — between the two of us. It’s obviously all done on my part ahead of time, but the player should feel like there’s somebody behind the curtain, that it’s a live exchange. It should feel like somebody is responding as an individual to the player.

As Bob says, point-and-click games are … not necessarily worse, but definitely different. The personal connection with the designer is lost.

A long time ago now in what feels like another life, I entitled the first lengthy piece I ever wrote about interactive fiction “Let’s Tell a Story Together.” At its best, playing a text adventure really can feel like spending time one-on-one with a witty narrator, raconteur, and intellectual sparring partner. I would even go so far as to admit that text adventures have cured me of loneliness once or twice in my life. There’s nothing else in games comparable to this experience; only a great book might possibly compare, but even it lacks the secret sauce of interactivity. Indeed, text adventures may be the only truly literary form of computer game. Just as a book is the most personal, intimate form of traditional artistic expression, so is a text adventure its equivalent in interactive terms.

Granted, some of those qualities may initially be obscured in Eric the Unready by all the flash surrounding the command prompt. But embrace the universe of possibilities that are still offered up by that blinking cursor, sitting there asking you to try absolutely anything you wish to, and you’ll find that the spirit which changed the lives of so many of us when we encountered our first Infocom game lives on even here. Don’t just rush through the fairly trivial task of solving this game; try stuff, just to see what the little man behind the curtain says back. Trust me when I say that he’s very good company. One can only hope that all of those who bought Eric the Unready in 1993 appreciated him while he was still around.

(My huge thanks go to Bob Bates for setting aside yet another few hours to talk about the life and times of Legend circa 1992 to 1993.

Eric the Unready can be purchased on GOG.com. It’s well worth the money.)

 
 

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