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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

The Sierra Discovery Adventures

Among the most rewarding hidden gems in Sierra’s voluminous catalog must be the games of the Discovery Series, the company’s brief-lived educational line of the early 1990s. Doubtless because of that dreaded educational label, these games are little-remembered today even by many hardcore Sierra fans, and, unlike most of the better-known Sierra games, have never been reissued in digital-download editions.

In my book, that’s a real shame. For reasons I’ve described at exhaustive length by now in other articles, I’m not a big fan of Sierra’s usual careless approach to adventure-game design, but the games of the Discovery Series stand out for their lack of such staple Sierra traits as dead ends, illogical puzzles, and instant deaths, despite the fact that they were designed and implemented by the very same people who were responsible for the “adult” adventure games. These design teams were, it seems, motivated to show children the mercy they couldn’t be bothered to bestow upon their adult players. While it’s true that even the Discovery games weren’t, as we’ll see, entirely free of regrettable design choices, these forgotten stepchildren ironically hold up far better today than most of their more popular siblings. For that reason, they’re well worth highlighting as part of this ongoing history.

I’ve already written about the Discovery Series’s two Dr. Brain games, creative and often deceptively challenging puzzle collections that can be enjoyed by adults as easily as children. Today, then, I’d like to complete my coverage. Although some of the other Discovery games were aimed at younger children, and are thus outside the scope of our usual software interests, three others could almost have been sold as regular Sierra adventure games. So, I’ll use this article to look at this trio more closely — the first of which in particular is a true classic, in my opinion the best Sierra adventure of any stripe released during 1992.


Gano Haine and Jane Jensen

One of the ways in which Sierra stood out in a positive way from their peers was their willingness to employ women in the roles of writer and designer. At a time when almost no one else in the computer-games industry had any women in prominent creative roles, Sierra’s gender balance approached fifty-fifty at times.

Gano Haine, one of these female designers, was also a fine example of what we might call a second-generation adventure designer — someone who had seen the genre evolve from the perspective of a player in the 1980s, and was now ready to make her own mark on it in the 1990s. She took a roundabout route into the industry. A mother and junior-high teacher of fifteen years standing, hers was a prominent voice in the Gamers Forum on CompuServe in the latter 1980s. She wrote extensively there about the good and bad of each game she played. “I don’t think it’s something you do to yourself on purpose,” she said of her adventure-game addiction. “I soon realized that I needed to find a way to make it a profession or I’d starve.” Luckily, Sierra hired her, albeit initially only as an informal consultant. Soon, though, she moved to Oakhurst, California, to become a full-time Sierra game designer. That happened in 1991, just as the Discovery Series was being born.

Everyone among the designers, whether a wizened veteran or a fresh-faced recruit, was given an opportunity to pitch an idea for the new line. The stakes were high because those whose pitches were not accepted would quite probably wind up working in subservient roles on those projects which had been given the green light. Yet Haine was motivated by more than personal ambition when she offered up her idea. One teenage memory that had never left her came to the fore.

I worked a lot in children’s summer camps. There was a beach where we took the children every Wednesday, a beautiful beach, with rocks and glittering sand. I remember once we sat on the rocks and watched a whole school of porpoises jumping in the waves.

Anyway, the next season when we went there, the whole beach was covered with litter. As I walked down to the water with the kids, I looked down, and there was human sewage running across the sand and into the ocean. To see that beautiful place trashed was tremendously painful to me.

Thus was born EcoQuest: an adventure game meant to teach its young players about our precious, fragile natural heritage. After her idea was accepted, Haine was assigned Jane Jensen, a former Hewlett Packard programmer and frustrated novelist who had been hired at almost the same time as her, to work with her as co-designer. This meant that EcoQuest would not only have a female lead designer, but would become the first computer game in history that was the product of an all-female design team.

Thinking, as Sierra always encouraged their designers to do, in terms of an all-new game’s series potential, Haine and Jensen created a young protagonist named Adam. Adam’s father is an ecologist who spends his life traveling the globe dealing with various environment catastrophes, and his lonely son tags along, finding his friends among the animals living in the places they visit.

In light of the disturbing memory that had spawned the series, the first game had always been destined to take place in the ocean. Adam gets recruited by one of his anthropomorphic animal friends, a dolphin named Delphineus, to search for Cetus, the great sperm whale whom all of the other undersea creatures look to for guidance, but who’s now gone missing. (One guess which species of bipedal mammal is responsible…) The game was therefore given the subtitle of The Search for Cetus to join the EcoQuest series badge.

Sierra was by no means immune to the allure of the trendy, and certainly there was a whiff of just that to making this game at this time. The first international Earth Day had taken place on April 22, 1990, accompanied by a well-orchestrated media campaign that turned a spotlight — arguably a brighter spotlight than at any earlier moment in history — onto the many environmental catastrophes that were facing our planet even then. This new EcoQuest series was very much of a piece with Earth Day and the many other media initiatives it spawned. Still, the environmental message of EcoQuest isn’t just a gimmick; anthropomorphic sea creatures aside, it’s very much in scientific earnest. Haine and Jensen worked with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, California, to get the science right, and Sierra even agreed to donate a portion of the profits to the same organization.

There’s a refreshing sweetness to the game that some might call naivete, an assumption that the most important single factor contributing to the pollution of our oceans is simple ignorance. For example, Adam meets a fishing boat at one point whose propeller lacks a protective cage to prevent it from injuring manatees and other ocean life. He devises a way of making such a cage and explains its importance to the fisherman, who’s horrified to learn the damage his naked propeller had been causing and more than happy to be given this solution. The only glaring exception to the rule of human ignorance rather than malice is the whaling ship that, it turns out, has harpooned poor Cetus.

The message of The Search for Cetus would thus seem to be that, while there are a few bad apples among us, most people want to keep our oceans as pristine as possible and want the enormous variety of species which live in them to be able to survive and thrive. Is this really so very naive? From my experience, at any rate, most people would react just the same as the fisherman in an isolated circumstance like his. It’s the political and financial interests that keep getting in the way, preventing large-scale change by inflaming passions that have little bearing on the practicalities at hand. Said interests are obviously outside the scope of this children’s adventure game, but the same game does serve as a reminder that many things in this world aren’t really so complicated in themselves; they’re complicated only because some among us insist on making them so, often for disingenuous purposes.

Yet The Search for Cetus is never as preachy as the paragraph I’ve just written. Jane Jensen would later go on to become one of the most famed adventure designers in history through her trilogy of supernatural mysteries starring the reluctant hero Gabriel Knight. The talent for characterization that would make those games so beloved is also present, at least in a nascent form, in The Search for Cetus. From an hysterical hermit crab to a French artiste of a blowfish, the personalities are all a lot of fun. “The characters’ voices and personalities are used to humanize their plight,” said Jensen, “giving a voice to the faceless victims of our carelessness.” Most critically, the characters all feel honestly cute or comic or both; The Search for Cetus never condescends to its audience. This is vitally important to the goal of getting the game’s environmental message across because children can smell adult condescension from a mile away, and it’s guaranteed to make them run screaming.

The techniques the game uses to educate in a natural-feeling interactive context are still worthy of study today. For example, a new verb is added to the standard Sierra control panel: “recycle.” This comes to function as a little hidden-object game-within-the-game, as you scan each screen for trash, getting a point for every piece that you recycle. Along the way, you’ll be astonished both by the sheer variety of junk that makes its way into our oceans and the damage it causes: plastic bags suffocate blowfish, organic waste causes algae to grow out of control, plastic six-pack rings entangle swordfish and dolphins, balloons get eaten by turtles, bleach poisons the water, tar and oil kills coral. In the non-linear middle section of the game, you solve a whole series of such problems for the ocean’s inhabitants, learning a great deal about them in the process. You even mark a major chemical spill for cleanup. The game refuses to throw up its hands at the scale of the damage humanity has done; it’s lesson is that, yes, the damage is immense, but we — and even you, working at the individual level — can do something about it. This may be the most important message of all to take away from The Search for Cetus.

The game isn’t hard by any means, but nor is it trivial. Jane Jensen:

Gano and I are both Sierra players, so when we started to design our first Sierra game, we designed a game that we would want to play. The puzzles in EcoQuest are traditional Sierra adventure-game puzzles, with an ecological and educational slant. You can’t die in the game, but other than that, it’s a real Sierra adventure. Because it is aimed at an older audience, the gameplay isn’t simplified like Mixed-Up Mother Goose or Fairy Tales. The puzzles are challenging, and lots of fun.

Thus the concessions to the children that were expected to become the primary audience take the form not of complete infantilization, but rather a lack of pointless deaths, a lack of of unwinnable states, and a number of optional puzzles which score points but aren’t required to finish the game. Many outside Sierra’s rather insular circle of designers, of course, would call all of these things — especially the first two — simply good design, full stop.

Released in early 1992, The Search for Cetus did well enough that Sierra funded a CD-ROM version with voice acting to supplement the original floppy-based version about a year later. And they funded a further adventure of young Adam as well, which was also released in early 1993. In Lost Secret of the Rainforest, he and his father head for the Amazon, where they confront the bureaucrats, poachers, and clear-cutters that threaten another vital ecosystem’s existence.

With this second game in the series, Sierra clearly opted for not fixing what isn’t broken: all of the educational approaches and program features we remember from the original, from the anthropomorphic animals to the recycling icon, make a return. There’s even a clever new minigame this time around, involving an “ecorder,” a handheld scanner that identifies plants and animals and other things you encounter and provides a bit of information about them. So, in addition to hunting for toxic trash, you’re encouraged to try to find everything in the ecorder’s database as you explore the jungle.

Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t all come together as well as it did the first time around. Jane Jensen didn’t work on Lost Secret, leaving the entirety of the game in the hands of Gano Haine, who lacked her talent for engaging characters and dialog. She obviously strove mightily, but the results too often come across as labored, unfunny, and/or leaden. (Haine did mention in an interview that, responding to complaints from some quarters that the text in Search for Cetus was too advanced for some children, she made a conscious attempt to simplify the writing in the sequel; this may also have contributed to the effect I’m describing.)

The puzzle design as well is unbalanced, being fairly straightforward until a scene in the middle which seems to have been beamed in from another game entirely. This scene, in which Adam has been captured by a group of poachers and needs to escape, all but requires a walkthrough to complete for players of any age, combining read-the-author’s mind puzzles with the necessity for fiddly, pinpoint-precise clicking and timing. And then, after you clear that hurdle, the game settles back down into the old routine, running on to the end in its old straightforward manner, as if it nothing out of the way had ever happened. It’s deeply strange, and all by itself makes Lost Secret difficult to recommend with anything like the same enthusiasm as its predecessor. It’s not really a bad game on the whole — especially if you go into it forewarned about its one truly bad sequence — but it’s not a great one either.

The poacher named Slaughter has a pink-river dolphin carcass hanging over his door, book stands made from exotic horns, a jaguar-skin rug on his floor, and a footstool made from an elephant’s foot. Laying it on just a bit thick, perhaps?

And on that somewhat disappointing note, the EcoQuest series ended. The science behind the two games still holds up, and the messages they impart about environmental stewardship are more vital than ever. From the modern perspective, the infelicities in the games’ depiction of environmental issues mostly come in their lack of attention to another threat that has become all too clear in the years since they were made: the impact global warming is having on both our oceans and our rain forests. This lack doesn’t, however, invalidate anything that EcoQuest does say about ecological issues. The second game in particular definitely has its flaws, but together the two stand as noble efforts to use the magic of interactivity as a means of engagement with pressing real-world issues — the sort of thing that the games industry, fixated as it always has been on escapist entertainment, hasn’t attempted as much as it perhaps ought to. “Environmental issues are very emotional,” acknowledges Gano Haine, “and you inevitably contact people who have very deep disagreements about those issues.” Yet the EcoQuest series dares to present, in a commonsense but scientifically rigorous way, the impact some of our worst practices are having on our planet, and dares to ask whether we all couldn’t just set politics aside and try to do that little bit more to make the situation better.

In that spirit, I have to note that some of the most inspiring aspects of the EcoQuest story are only tangentially related to the actual games. A proud moment for everyone involved with the series came when Sierra received a letter from a group of kids in faraway Finland, who had played The Search for Cetus and been motivated to organize a cleanup effort at a polluted lake in their neighborhood. Meanwhile the research that went into making the games caused the entire company of Sierra Online to begin taking issues of sustainability more seriously. They started printing everything from game boxes to pay stubs on recycled paper; started reusing their shipping pallets; started using recycled disks; started sorting their trash and sending it to the recycler. They also started investigating the use of water-based instead of chemical-based coatings for their boxes, soybean ink for printing, and fully biodegradable materials for packing. No, they didn’t hesitate to pat themselves on the back for all this in their newsletter (which, for the record, was also printed on recycled paper after EcoQuest) — but, what the hell, they’d earned it.

The words they wrote in their newsletter apply more than ever today: “It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Saving the planet isn’t a passing fad. It’s critical, for our own future and for the future of our children.” One can only hope that the games brought some others around to the same point of view — and may even continue to do so today, for those few who discover them moldering away in some archive or other.



Pepper’s Adventures in Time, the third and final adventure game released as part of the Discovery Series, was a very different proposition from EcoQuest. Its original proposer wasn’t one of Sierra’s regular designers, but rather Bill Davis, the veteran television and film animator who had been brought in at the end of the 1980s to systematize the company’s production processes to suit a new era of greater audiovisual fidelity and exploding budgets. His proposal was for a series called Twisty History, which would teach children about the subject by asking them to protect history as we know it from the depredations wrought by the evil inventor of a time machine. Because Davis wasn’t himself a designer, the first game in the planned series became something of a community effort, a collaboration that included Gano Haine and Jane Jensen as well as Lorelei Shannon and Josh Mandel. (That is, for those tracking gender equality in real time, three female designers and one male.)

Lockjaw has been captured by a spoiled brat of a Royalist!

The star of the series, as sketched by Bill Davis and filled in by the design team, is a girl named Pepper Pumpernickel, a spunky little thing who doesn’t take kindly to the opposite sex telling her what she can and can’t do. Her costar is Lockjaw, her pet dog. Davis:

We’d recently lost a dog to leukemia, had gone through an extended period of mourning, and had decided it was time to adopt. So my wife and son headed for our favorite adoption agency, the local animal shelter. They came home with a German shepherd/terrier mix. The terrier turned out to be Staffordshire terrier. For those in the dark, as we were, Staffordshire terrier is synonymous with “pit bull.” Anyway, she turned out to be a lovable little mutt with a bit of an attitude. Thirty pounds of attitude, to be precise. Well, as I was sitting at the drawing board designing characters for Twisty, she shoved her attitude up my behind and into the game proposal.

Lockjaw threatens at times to steal the game from Pepper — as, one senses, he was intended to. The player even gets to control him rather than Pepper from time to time, using his own unique set of doggie verbs, like a nose icon for sniffing, a paw icon for digging, and a mouth icon for eating — or biting. It’s clear that the designers really, really want you to be charmed by their fierce but lovable pooch, but for the most part he is indeed as cute as they want him to be, getting himself and Pepper into all kinds of trouble, only to save the day when the plot calls for it.

Ben Franklin’s doctrine of sober industriousness has been corrupted into hippie indolence. It’s up to Pepper to right the course of history as we know it.

Otherwise, the theme of this first — and, as it would turn out, only — game in the series is fairly predictable for a work of children’s history written in this one’s time and place. Pepper travels back to “Colonial” times, that semi-mythical pre-Revolutionary War period familiar to every American grade-school student, when Ben Franklin was flying his kite around, Thomas Paine was writing about the rights of the citizen, and the evil British were placing absurd levies on the colonists’ tea supply. (Perish the thought!)

While its cozily traditional depiction of such a well-worn era of history doesn’t feel as urgent or relevant as the environmental issues presented by EcoQuest, the game itself is a lot of fun. The script follows the time-tested cartoon strategy of mixing broad slapstick humor aimed at children with subtler jokes for any adults who might be playing along: referencing Monty Python, poking fun at the tedious professors we’ve all had to endure. Josh Mandel had worked as a standup comedian before coming to Sierra, and his instinct for the punchline combined with Jane Jensen’s talent for memorable characterization can’t help but charm.

The puzzle design too is pretty solid, with just a couple of places that could have used a bit more guidance for the player and/or a bit more practical thinking-through on the part of the designers. (Someone really should have told the designers that fresh tomatoes and ketchup aren’t remotely the same thing when it comes to making fake blood…) And, once again, the games does a good job of blending the educational elements organically into the whole. This time around, you have a “truth” icon you can use to find out what is cartoon invention and what is historically accurate; the same icon provides more background on the latter. You use what you have (hopefully) learned in this way to try to pass a quiz that’s presented at the end of each chapter, thus turning the study of history into a sort of scavenger hunt that’s more entertaining than one might expect, even for us jaded adults.

What had been planned as the beginning of the Twisty History series was re-badged as the one-off Pepper’s Adventures in Time just before its release in the spring of 1993. This development coincided with the end of the Discovery Series as a whole, only two years after it had begun. Sierra had just acquired a Seattle software house known as Bright Star Technology, who were henceforward to constitute their official educational division. Bright Star appropriated the character of Dr. Brain, but the rest of the budding collection of series and characters that constituted the Discovery lineup were quietly retired, and the designers who had made them returned to games meant strictly to entertain. And so passed into history one of the most refreshing groups of games ever released by Sierra.

(Sources: the book Jane Jensen: Gabriel Knight, Adventure Games, and Hidden Objects by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, and June 1993; Compute! of January 1993; Questbusters of March 1992; materials in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. And my thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.

Feel free to download EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, EcoQuest: Lost Secret of the Rainforest, and Pepper’s Adventures in Time from this site, in a format that will make them as easy as possible to get running using your platform’s version of DOSBox.)

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes

In 1989, Trip Hawkins reluctantly decided to shift Electronic Arts’s strategic focus from home computers to videogame consoles, thereby to “reach millions of customers.” That decision was reaching fruition by 1992. For the first time that year, EA’s console games outsold those they published for personal computers. The whole image of the company was changing, leaving behind the last vestiges of the high-toned “software artists” era of old in favor of something less intellectual and more visceral — something aimed at the mass market rather than a quirky elite.

Still, corporate cultures don’t change overnight, and the EA of 1992 continued to release some computer games which were more in keeping with their image of the 1980s than that of this new decade. One of the most interesting and rewarding of these aberrations — call them the product of corporate inertia — was a game called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, whose origin story doesn’t exactly lead one to expect a work of brilliance but which is in fact one of the finest, most faithful interpretations of the legendary detective in the deerstalker cap ever to make its way onto a monitor screen.

The initial impetus for Lost Files was provided by an EA producer named Christopher Erhardt. After studying film and psychology at university, Erhardt joined the games industry in 1987, when he came to Infocom to become the in-house producer for their latter-day lineup of graphical games from outside developers, such as Quarterstaff, BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, and Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur. When Infocom was shuttered in 1989, he moved on to EA in the same role, helming a number of the early Sega Genesis games that did so much to establish the company’s new identity. His success on that front gave him a fair amount of pull, and so he pitched a pet idea of his: for a sort of computerized board game that would star Sherlock Holmes along with a rotating cast of suspects, crimes, and motives, similar to the old 221B Baker Street board game as well as a classic computer game from Accolade called Killed Until Dead. It turned out that EA’s management weren’t yet totally closed to the idea of computer games that were, as Erhardt would later put it, “unusual and not aimed at the mass market” — as long, that is, as they could be done fairly inexpensively.

Mythos Software. On the top row are James Ferguson, Elinor Mavor, and Scott Mavor. On the bottom row are John Dunn and David Wood.

In order to meet the latter condition, Erhardt enlisted a tiny Tempe, Arizona, company known as Mythos Software — not to be confused with the contemporaneous British strategy-games developer Mythos Games. This Mythos was being run by one James Ferguson, its fresh-out-of-university founder, from the basement of his parents’ house. He was trying to break into the wider world of software development that lay outside the bounds of the strictly local contracts he had fulfilled so far; his inexperience and eagerness ensured that Mythos would work cheap. And in addition to cut-rate pricing, Ferguson had another secret weapon to deploy: an artist named Scott Mavor who had a very special way with pixel graphics, a technique that EA’s in-house employees would later come to refer to as “the Mavor glow.” The highly motivated Mythos, working to Erhardt’s specifications, created a demo in less than two weeks that was impressive enough to win the project a tentative green light.

Eric Lindstrom and R.J. Berg.

Another EA employee, a technical writer named Eric Lindstrom, saw the demo and suggested turning what had been planned as a computerized board game into a more narratively ambitious point-and-click adventure game. When Erhardt proved receptive to the suggestion, Lindstrom put together the outline of a story, “The Mystery of the Serrated Scalpel.” He told Erhardt that he knew the perfect person to bring the story to life: one of his colleagues among EA’s manual writers, a passionate Sherlock Holmes aficionado — he claimed to have read Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete canon of Holmes stories “two or three times” — named R.J. Berg.

The project’s footing inside EA was constantly uncertain. Christopher Erhardt says he “felt like I was playing the Princess Bride, and the dread pirate Roberts was coming It was always, ‘Yep – we may cancel it.'” But in the end the team was allowed to complete their point-and-click mystery, despite it being so utterly out of step with EA’s current strategic focus, and it was quietly released in the fall of 1992.

I find the critical dialog that followed, both in the immediate wake of Lost Files‘s release and many years later in Internet circles, to be unusually interesting. In particular, I’d like to quote at some length from Computer Gaming World‘s original review, which was written by Charles Ardai, one of the boldest and most thoughtful — and most entertaining — game reviewers of the time; this I say even as I find myself disagreeing with his conclusions far more often than not. His review opens thus:

If there is any character who has appeared in more computer games than Nintendo’s plump little goldmine, Mario, it has to be Sherlock Holmes. There have been almost a dozen Holmes-inspired games over the years, one of the best being Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which is currently available in two different CD-ROM editions from ICOM. Other valiant attempts have included Imagic’s Sherlock Holmes in Another Bow, in which Holmes took a sea voyage with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Thomas Edison, and Houdini, among others; and Infocom’s deadly serious Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels.

The difference between Holmes and Mario games, however, is that new Mario games are always coming out because the old ones sold like gangbusters, while new Sherlock Holmes games come out in spite of the fact that their predecessors sold like space heaters in the Sahara. It is noteworthy that, until ICOM, no company had ever released more than one Sherlock Holmes game, while all the Mario games come from the same source. It is also worth noting that the Holmes curse is not limited to games: the last few Holmes movies, such as Without a Clue and Young Sherlock Holmes, were not exactly box-office blockbusters.

The paradox of Sherlock Holmes can be stated so: while not that many people actually like the original Sherlock Holmes stories, everyone seems to think that everyone else adores them. Like Tarzan and Hawkeye, Holmes is a literary icon, universally known and much-beloved as a character in the abstract — not, however, as part of any single work. Finding someone who has actually read and enjoyed the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Fenimore Cooper, or Arthur Conan Doyle requires the patience of Diogenes. Most people know the character from television and the movies, at best; at worst, from reviews of television shows and movies they never bothered to see.

So, why do new Holmes adaptations surface with such regularity? Because the character is already famous and the material is in the public domain (thereby mitigating the requisite licensing fees associated with famous characters of more recent vintage. Batman or Indiana Jones, for instance.) Another answer is that Sherlock Holmes is seen as bridging the gap between entertainment and literature. Game companies presumably hope to cash in on the recognition factor and have some of the character’s ponderous respectability rub off on their product. They also figure that they can’t go wrong basing their games on a body of work that has endured for almost a century.

Unfortunately for them, they are wrong. There are only so many copies of a game that one can sell to members of the Baker Street Irregulars (the world’s largest and best-known Sherlock Holmes fan club), and a vogue for Victoriana has never really caught on among the rest of the game-buying population. The result is that, while Holmes games have been good, bad, and indifferent, their success has been uniformly mediocre.

This delightfully cynical opening gambit is so elegantly put together that one almost hesitates to puncture its cogency with facts. Sadly, though, puncture we must. While there were certainly Sherlock Holmes games released prior to Lost Files that flopped, there’s no evidence to suggest that this was the fault of the famous detective with his name on the box, and plenty of evidence to the contrary: that his name could, under the right circumstances, deliver at least a modest sales boost. In addition to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective CD-ROM productions, a counter-example to Ardai’s thesis that’s so huge even he has to acknowledge it — the first volume of that series sold over 1 million units — there’s also the Melbourne House text adventure Sherlock; that game, the hotly anticipated followup to the bestselling-text-adventure-of-all-time The Hobbit, likely sold well over 100,000 units in its own right in the much smaller market of the Europe of 1984. Even Infocom’s Riddle of the Crown Jewels, while by no means a smash hit, sold significantly better than usual for an Infocom game in the sunset of the company’s text-only era. (Nor would I describe that game as “deadly serious” — I could go with “respectful” at most — but that’s perhaps picking nits.)

Still, setting aside those inconvenient details, it’s worth considering this broader question of just why there have been so many Sherlock Holmes games over the years. Certainly the character doesn’t have the same immediate appeal with the traditional gaming demographic as heavyweight properties like Star Wars and Star Trek, Frodo Baggins and Indiana Jones — or, for that matter, the born-in-a-videogame Super Mario. The reason for Sherlock’s ubiquity in the face of his more limited appeal is, of course, crystal clear, as Ardai recognizes: he’s in the public domain, meaning anyone who wishes to can make a Sherlock Holmes game at any time without paying anyone.1

If you’re going to do Sherlock Holmes, you just have to get the fog right.

As such, Holmes occupies a nearly unique position in our culture. He’s one of the last great fictional icons, historically speaking, who’s so blessedly free of intellectual-property restrictions. Absolutely everyone, whether they’ve ever read a story or seen a film featuring him or not, knows him. The only characters with a remotely similar degree of recognizability who postdate him are Dracula, the Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan — and neither of the latter two at least presents writers with quite the same temptation to tell new story after story after story.

As is noted in Lost Files‘s manual, Sherlock Holmes has become such an indelible part of our cultural memory that when we see him we experience a sort of vicarious nostalgia for a London none of us ever knew: “Gas lamps, the sound of horses’ hooves, steam locomotives, and romantic street cries. And then there is the atmosphere of that cozy room in Baker Street: Holmes in his armchair before a roaring coal fire, legs stretched out before him, listening with Dr. Watson to yet another bizarre story.” One might say that Sherlock Holmes gets the chronological balance just right, managing to feel both comfortably, nostalgically traditional and yet also relevant and relatable. In contrast to the Victorian scenery around him, his point of view as a character feels essentially modern, applicable to modern modes of storytelling. I’m not sure that any other fictional character combines this quality to quite the same extent with a freedom from copyright lawyers. These factors have fostered an entire creative subculture of Sherlockia which spans the landscape of modern media, dwarfing Arthur Conan Doyle’s canonical four novels and 56 short stories by multiple orders of magnitude.

The relative modernity of Sherlock Holmes is especially important in the context of interactive adaptations. The player of any narrative-driven game needs a frame of reference — needs to understand what’s expected of her in the role she’s expected to play. Thankfully, the divide between Sherlock Holmes and the likes of C.S.I. is a matter of technology rather than philosophy; Sherlock too solves crimes through rationality, combining physical evidence, eyewitness and suspect interviews, and logical deduction to reach a conclusion. Other legendary characters don’t share our modern mindset; it’s much more difficult for the player to step into the role of an ancient Greek hero who solves problems by sacrificing to the gods or an Arthurian knight who views every event as a crucible of personal honor. (Anyone doubtful of Sherlock Holmes’s efficacy in commercial computer games should have a look at the dire commercial history of Arthurian games.)

With so much material to make sense of, post-Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes get sorted on the basis of various criteria. One of these is revisionism versus faithfulness. While some adaptations go so far as to transport Sherlock and his cronies hook, line, and sinker into our own times, others make a virtue out of hewing steadfastly to the character and setting described by Arthur Conan Doyle. This spirit of Sherlockian fundamentalism, if you will, is just one more facet of our long cultural dialog around the detective, usually manifesting as a reactionary return to the roots when other recent interpretations are judged to have wandered too far afield.

No matter how much the Sherlockian fundamentalists kick and scream, however, the fact remains that the Sherlock Holmes of the popular imagination has long since become a pastiche of interpretations reflecting changing social mores and cultural priorities. That’s fair enough in itself — it’s much of the reason why Doyle’s timeless sleuth remains so timeless — but it does make it all too easy to lose sight of Holmes and Watson as originally conceived in the stories. Just to cite the most obvious example: Holmes’s famous deerstalker cap is never mentioned in the text of the tales, and only appeared once in the illustrations that originally accompanied them (that instance being a picture drawn by Sidney Paget for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”). The deerstalker became such an iconic part of the character only after it was sported by the actor Basil Rathbone as an item of daily wear — an odd choice for the urban Holmes, given that it was, as the name would imply, a piece of hunting apparel normally worn by sporting gentlemen in the countryside — in a long series of films, beginning with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939.

Although Lost Files doesn’t go so far as to forgo the deerstalker — there are, after all, limits to these things — it does generally try to take its cue from the original stories rather than the patchwork of interpretations that followed them. Berg:

I definitely aimed for Holmesian authenticity. I’d like to think that, if he were alive, Doyle would like the game. After all, the characters of Holmes and Watson have been manipulated quite a bit by the various media they’ve appeared in, especially the films. For example, the Watson of Lost Files is definitely Doyle’s Watson, competent and intelligent, rather than the bumbling character portrayed in many of the movies. I also wanted to retain Holmes’s peculiar personality. He’s really not that likable a character; he’s arrogant, a misogynist, and extremely smug.

This spirit of authenticity extends to the game’s portrayal of Victorian London. There are, I’ve always thought, two tiers when it comes to realistic portrayals of real places in fiction. Authors on the second tier have done a whole lot of earnest research into their subject, and they’re very eager to show it all to you, filling your head with explicit descriptions of things which a person who actually lived in that setting would never think twice about, so ingrained are they in daily existence. Authors on the top tier, by contrast, have seemingly absorbed the setting through their pores, and write stories that effortlessly evoke it without beating you over the head with all the book research they did to reach this point of imaginative mastery.

Indeed, Sherlock. Leaving the cozy environs of 221B Baker Street.

Lost Files largely meets the latter bar as it sends you around to the jewelers and tobacconists, theaters and pubs, opulent mansions and squalid tenements of fin-de-siècle London. The details are there for when you need them or decide to go looking for them; just try mousing around the interior of 221B Baker Street. (“A typical sitting-room chair. The sheen of its wine-red velveteen covering shows that it is well-used. A dark purple silk dressing gown with a rolled collar is carelessly crumpled on the seat and the antimacassar requires changing.”) More impressive, though, is the way that the game just breathes its setting in that subtle way that can only be achieved by a writer with both a lighter touch and countless hours of immersion in the period at his command. For example Berg spent time reading Charles Dickens as well as Arthur Conan Doyle in order to capture the subtle rhythms of Victorian English in his conversations. This version of Holmes’s London isn’t the frozen-in-amber museum exhibit it sometimes comes off as in other works of Sherlockia. “We wanted a dirty game,” says Eric Lindstrom. “We wanted people to feel that people were burning coal, that they could see who was walking in the streets. Just as it was in London at the time.”

There is, however, one important exception to the game’s rule of faithfulness to the original stories: Lost Files presents a mystery that the reader can actually solve. In light of the place Holmes holds in our cultural memory as the ultimate detective, one of the great ironies of Doyle’s stories is that they really aren’t very good mysteries at all by the standard of later mystery fiction — a standard which holds a good mystery to be an implicit contest between writer and reader, in which the reader is presented with all the clues and challenged to solve the case before the writer’s detective does so. Doyle’s stories cheat egregiously by this standard, hiding vital evidence from the reader, and often positing a case’s solution on a chain of conjecture that’s nowhere near as ironclad as the great detective presents it to be. Eric Lindstrom:

The [original] stories do not work the way we are used to today. They are not whodunnits; whodunnits only became popular later. Readers have virtually no way of finding out who the culprit is. Sometimes the offender does not even appear in the plot. These are adventure stories narrated from the perspective of Dr. Watson.

For obvious reasons, Lost Files can’t get away with being faithful to this aspect of the Sherlock Holmes tradition. And so the mystery it presents is straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle — except that it plays fair. Notably, you play as Holmes himself, not, as in the original stories, as Watson. Thus you know what Holmes knows, and the game can’t pull the dirty trick on you, even if it wanted to, of hiding information until the big reveal at the end. Many other works of Sherlockia — even the otherwise traditionalist ones — adapt the same approach, responding to our post-nineteenth-century perception of what a good mystery story should be.

And make no mistake: “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” is a very good mystery indeed. I hesitate to spoil your pleasure in it by saying too much, and so will only state that what begins as the apparently random murder of an actress in an alley behind the Regency Theatre — perhaps by Jack the Ripper, leaving Whitechapel and trying his hand in the posher environs of Mayfair? — keeps expanding in scope, encompassing more deaths and more and more Powerful People with Secrets to Keep. As I played, I was excited every time I made a breakthrough. Even better, I felt like a detective, to perhaps a greater extent than in any computer game I’ve ever played. Among games in general, I can only compare the feeling of solving this mystery to that of tackling some of the more satisfying cases in the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective tabletop game.

Part of the reason the mystery comes together so well is just down to good adventure-game design principles, of the sort which eluded so many other contemporary practitioners of the genre. Berg:

The idea was to produce a game that was different from existing adventures, which I frankly felt were often tedious. We wanted to eliminate the elements that tend to detract from the reality of the experience — things like having to die in order to learn some crucial information, constantly having to re-cover the same territory, and the tendency to simply pick up and use every object you encounter. We wanted to give players a deeper experience.

So, there are none of the dreaded adventure-game dead ends in Lost Files. More interestingly, the design does, as Berg alludes above, mostly eschew the typical use-unlikely-object-in-unlikely-place model of gameplay. Tellingly, the few places where it fails to do so are the weakest parts of the game.

As I’ve noted before, the classic approach to the adventure game, as a series of physical puzzles to solve, can be hugely entertaining, but it almost inevitably pushes a game toward comedy, often in spite of its designers’ best intentions. Most of us have played alleged interactive mysteries that leave you forever messing about with slider puzzles and trivial practical problems of the sort that any real detective would solve in five minutes, just by calling for backup. In Infocom’s Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels, for example, you learn that a stolen ruby is hidden in the eye of the statue of Lord Nelson on top of Nelson’s Column, and then get to spend the next little while trying to get a pigeon to fetch it for you instead of, you know, just telling Inspector Lestrade to send out a work crew. Lost Files does its level best to resist the siren call of the trivial puzzle, and, with only occasional exceptions, it succeeds. Thereby is the game freed to become one of the best interactive invocations of a classic mystery story ever. You spend your time collecting and examining physical evidence, interviewing suspects, and piecing together the crime’s logic, not solving arbitrary road-block puzzles. Lost Files is one of the few ostensibly serious adventure games of its era which manages to maintain the appropriate gravitas throughout, without any jarring breaks in tone.

This isn’t to say that it’s po-faced or entirely without humorous notes; the writing is a consistent delight, filled with incisive descriptions and flashes of dry wit, subtle in all the ways most computer-game writing is not. Consider, for example, this description of a fussy jeweler: “The proprietor is a stern-looking woman, cordial more through effort than personality. She frequently stares at the cleaning girl who tidies the floor, to make sure she is still hard at work.” Yes, this character is a type more than a personality — but how deftly is that type conveyed! In two sentences, we come to know this woman. I’d go so far as to call R.J. Berg’s prose on the whole better than that of the rather stolid Arthur Conan Doyle, who tended to bloviate on a bit too much in that all too typical Victorian style.

The fine writing lends the game a rare quality that seems doubly incongruous when one considers the time in which it was created, when multimedia was all the rage and everyone was rushing to embrace voice acting and “interactive movies.” Ditto the company which published it, who were pushing aggressively toward the forefront of the new mass-media-oriented approach to games. In spite of all that, darned if Lost Files doesn’t feel downright literary — thoughtful, measured, intelligent, a game to take in slowly over a cup of tea. Further enhancing the effect is its most unique single technical feature: everything you do in the game is meticulously recorded in an in-game journal kept by the indefatigable Dr. Watson. The journal will run into the hundreds of onscreen “pages” by the time you’re all done. It reads surprisingly well too; it’s not inconceivable to imagine printing it out — the handy option to print it or save it to a file is provided — and giving it to someone else to read with pleasure. That’s a high standard indeed, one which vanishingly few games could meet. But I think that The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes just about manages it.

Having given so much praise to Lindstrom and Berg’s design and writing, I have to give due credit as well to Mythos Software’s efforts to bring it all to life. The interface of Lost Files is thoroughly refined and pleasant to work with, a remarkable achievement considering that this was the first point-and-click graphic adventure to be made by everyone involved. An optional but extremely handy hotspot finder minimizes the burden of pixel hunting, and the interface is full of other thoughtful touches, like a default action that is attached to each object; this saves you more often than not from having to make two clicks to carry out an action.

Finally, praise must be given to Scott Mavor’s “Mavor glow” graphics as well. To minimize the jagged edges typical of pictures drawn in the fairly low resolution of 256-color VGA graphics, Mavor avoided sharp shifts in color from pixel to pixel. Instead he blended his edges together gradually, creating a lovely, painterly effect that does indeed almost seem to glow. Scott’s mother Elinor Mavor, who worked with him to finish up the art in the latter stages of the project:2

Working with just 256 colors, Scott showed me how he created graduating palettes of each one, which allowed him to do what he called “getting rid of the dots” in each scene. To further mute the pixels, he kept the colors on the darker side, which also enhanced the Victorian mood.

Weaving the illusion of continuous-tone artwork with all those little “dots” made us buggy-eyed after a long day’s work. One night, I woke up, went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and the world just pixilated in front of me. Scary imprints on my retinas had followed me away from the computer monitor, rendering my vision as a pointillistic painting à la George Seurat.

While the graphics of its contemporaries pop out at you with bright, bold colors, the palette of Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes smacks more of the “brown sauce” of the old masters — murky, mysterious, not initially jaw-dropping but totally in keeping with the mood of the script. As you, playing the diligent detective, begin to scan them carefully, the pictures reveal more and more details of the sort that are all too easy to overlook at a quick glance. It makes for an unusually mature aesthetic statement, and a look that can be mistaken for that of no other game.

Backstage at the opera.

Given all its strengths, I find it surprising that Lost Files has gotten more than its share of critical flak over the years. I have a theory as to why that should be, but before I get to that I’ll let one of the naysayers share his point of view. Even after admitting that the story is “a ripping yarn,” the graphics atmospheric, the period details correct, and the writing very good, Charles Ardai concludes his review thusly:

Don’t get me wrong: the dialogue is well-written, the choices are entertaining, and in most cases the actions the game requires the player to perform are very interesting. The story is good and the game is a pleasure to watch. Yet, that is what one does — watch.

This game wants, more than anything in the world, to be a Sherlock Holmes movie. Though it would be a very good one if it were, it is not. Therefore, it is deeply and resoundingly unsatisfying. The plot unfolds quite well, with plenty of twists, but the player has no more control over it than he would if he were reading a novel. The player is, at best, like an actor in a play. Unfortunately, said actor has not been given a copy of the script. He has to hit his marks and say his lines by figuring out the cues given by the other characters and reading his lines off the computer equivalent of cue cards.

If this is what one wants — a fine Sherlock Holmes pastiche played out on the computer screen, with the player nominally putting the lead character through his paces — fine. “The Case of the Serrated Scalpel” delivers all that one could hope for in that vein. If one wants a game — an interactive experience in which one’s decisions have an effect on what happens — this piece of software is likely to disappoint.

The excellent German podcast Stay Forever criticized the game along similar — albeit milder — lines in 2012. And in his mostly glowing 2018 review of the game for The Adventure Gamer joint-blogging project, Joe Pranevich as well noted a certain distancing effect, which he said made him feel not so much like he was playing Sherlock Holmes and solving a mystery as watching Sherlock do the solving. The mystery, he further notes — correctly — can for the most part be solved by brute force by the patient but obtuse player, simply by picking every single conversation option when talking to every single character and showing each of them every single object you’ve collected.

At the extreme, criticisms like these would seem to encroach on the territory staked out by the noted adventure-game-hater Chris Crawford, who insists that the entire genre is a lie because it cannot offer the player the ability to do anything she wants whenever she wants. I generally find such complaints to be a colossal bore, premised on a misunderstanding of what people who enjoy adventure games find most enjoyable about them in the first place. But I do find it intriguing that these sorts of complaints keep turning up so often in the case of this specific game, and that they’re sometimes voiced even by critics generally friendly to the genre. My theory is that the mystery of Lost Files may be just a little bit too good: it’s just enticing enough, and just satisfying enough to slowly uncover, that it falls into an uncanny valley between playing along as Sherlock Holmes and actually being Sherlock Holmes.

But of course, playing any form of interactive fiction must be an imaginative act on the part of the player, who must be willing to embrace the story being offered and look past the jagged edges of interactivity. Certainly Lost Files is no less interactive than most adventure games, and it offers rich rewards that few can match if you’re willing to not brute-force your way through it, to think about and really engage with its mystery. It truly is a game to luxuriate in and savor like a good novel. In that spirit, I have one final theory to offer you: I think this particular graphic adventure may be especially appealing to fans of textual interactive fiction. Given its care for the written word and the slow-build craftsmanship of its plotting, it reminds me more of a classic Infocom game than most of the other, flashier graphic adventures that jostled with it for space on store shelves in the early 1990s.

Which brings me in my usual roundabout fashion to the final surprising twist in this very surprising game’s history. After its release by a highly skeptical EA, its sales were underwhelming, just as everyone had been telling Christopher Erhardt they would be all along. But then, over a period of months and years, the game just kept on selling at the same slow but steady clip. It seemed that computer-owning Sherlock Holmes aficionados weren’t the types to rush out and buy games when they were hot. Yet said aficionados apparently did exist, and they apparently found the notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure game intriguing when they finally got around to it. (Somehow this scenario fits in with every stereotype I carry around in my head about the typical Sherlock Holmes fan.) Lost Files‘s sales eventually topped the magical 100,000-unit mark that separated a hit from an also-ran in the computer-games industry of the early- and mid-1990s.

It wasn’t a very good idea, but they did it anyway. R.J. Berg on a sound stage with an actress, filming for the 3DO version of Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. Pictures like this were in all the games magazines of the 1990s. Somehow such pictures — not to mention the games that resulted from them — seem far more dated than Pong these days.

Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes may not have challenged the likes of John Madden Football in the sales sweepstakes, but it did make EA money, and some inside the company did notice. In 1994, they released a version for the 3DO multimedia console. For the sake of trendiness, this version added voice acting and inserted filmed footage of actors into the conversation scenes, replacing the lovely hand-drawn portraits in the original game and doing it no new aesthetic favors in the process. In 1996, with the original still selling tolerably well, most of the old team got back together for a belated sequel — The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Rose Tattoo — that no one would ever have dreamed they would be making a couple of years before.

But then, almost everything about the story of Lost Files is unlikely, from EA of all companies deciding to make it — or, perhaps better said, deciding to allow it to be made — to a bunch of first-time adventure developers managing to put everything together so much better than many established adventure-game specialists were doing at the time. And how incredibly lucky for everyone involved that such a Sherlock Holmes devotee as R.J. Berg should have been kicking around writing manuals for EA, just waiting for an opportunity like this one to show his chops. I’ve written about four Sherlock Holmes games now in the course of this long-running history of computer gaming — yet another measure of the character’s cultural ubiquity! — and this one nudges out Riddle of the Crown Jewels to become the best one yet. It just goes to show that, no matter how much one attempts to systematize the process, much of the art and craft of making games comes down to happy accidents.

(Sources: Compute! of April 1993 and June 1993; Computer Gaming World of February 1993; Questbusters of September 1988 and December 1992; Electronic Games of February 1993. Online sources include Elinor Mavor’s remembrances of the making Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, the comprehensive Game Nostalgia page on the game, the Stay Forever podcast episode devoted to the game, Joe Pranevich’s playthrough for The Adventure Gamer, the archived version of the old Mythos Software homepage, and Jason Scott’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents.

Feel free to download Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes from right here, in a format designed to be as easy as possible to get running under your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


  1. There have been occasional questions about the extent to which Sherlock Holmes and his supporting cast truly are outside all bounds of copyright, usually predicated on the fact that the final dozen stories were published in the 1920s, the beginning of the modern copyright era, and thus remain protected. R.J. Berg remembers giving “two copies of the game and a really trivial amount of money” to Arthur Conan Doyle’s aged granddaughter, just to head off any trouble on that front. When a sequel to Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1996, no permission whatsoever was sought or demanded. 

  2. Scott Mavor died of cancer in 2008 

 
 

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Whither the Software Artist? (or, How Trip Hawkins Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Consoles)

One of the places we ran the “Can a computer make you cry?” [advertisement] was in Scientific American. Scientific American readers weren’t even playing videogames. Why the hell are you wasting any of this really expensive advertising? You’re competing with BMW for that ad.

— Trip Hawkins (EA Employee #1)

Consumers were looking for a brand signal for quality. They didn’t lionize the game makers as these creators to fawn over. They thought of the game makers almost as collaborators in their experience. So apostatizing didn’t make sense to the consumers.

— Bing Gordon (EA Employee #7)

In the ’80s that was an interesting experiment, that whole trying-to-make-them-into-rock-stars kind of thing. It was certainly a nice way to recruit top talent. But the reality is that computer programmers and artists and designers are not rock stars. It may have worked for the developers, but I don’t think it had any impact on consumers.

— Stewart Bonn (EA Employee #19)

One of the stories that gamers most love to tell each other is that of Electronic Arts’s fall from grace. If you’re sufficiently interested in gaming history to be reading this blog, you almost certainly know the story in the broad strokes: how Trip Hawkins founded EA in 1982 as a haven for “software artists” doing cutting-edge work; how he put said artists front and center in rock-star-like poses in a series of iconic advertisements, the most famous of which asked whether a computer could make you cry; how he wrote on the back of every stylish EA “album cover” not about EA as a company but as “a collection of electronic artists who share a common goal to fulfill the potential of personal computing”; and how all the idealism somehow dissipated to give us the EA of today, a shambling behemoth that crushes more clever competitors under its sheer weight as it churns out sequel after sequel, retread after retread. The exact point where EA became the personification of everything retrograde and corporate in gaming varies with the teller; perhaps the closest thing to a popular consensus is the rise of John Madden Football and EA Sports in the early 1990s, when the last vestiges of software artistry in the company’s advertisements were replaced by jocks shouting, “It’s in the game!” Regardless of the specifics, though, everyone agrees that It All Went Horribly Wrong at some point. The story of EA has become gamers’ version of a Biblical tragedy: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Of course, as soon as one starts pulling out Bible quotes, it profits to ask whether one has gone too far. And, indeed, the story of EA is often over-dramatized and over-simplified. Questions of authenticity and creativity are always fraught; to imagine that anyone is really in the arts just for the art strikes me as hopelessly naive. The EA of the early 1980s wasn’t founded by artists but rather by businessmen, backed by venture capitalists with goals of their own that had little to do with “fulfilling the potential of personal computing.” Thus, when the software-artists angle turned out not to work so well, it didn’t take them long to pivot. This, then, is the history of that pivot, and how it led to the EA we know today.


Advertising is all about image making — about making others see you in the light in which you wish to be seen. Without realizing that they were doing anything of the sort, EA’s earliest marketers cemented an image into the historical imagination at the same time that they failed in their more practical task of crafting a message that resonated with the hoped-for customers of their own time. The very same early EA advertising campaign which speaks so eloquently to so many today actually missed the mark entirely in its own day, utterly failing to set the public imagination afire with this idea of programmers and game designers as rock stars. When Trip Hawkins sent Bill Budge — the programmer of his who most naturally resembled a rock star — on an autograph-signing tour of software stores and shopping malls, it didn’t lead to any outbreak of Budgomania. “Nobody would ever show up,” remembers Budge today, still wincing at the embarrassment of sitting behind a deserted autograph booth.

Nor were customers flocking into stores to buy the games EA’s rock stars had created. Sales remained far below initial projections during the eighteen months following EA’s official launch in June of 1983, and the company skated on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy on multiple occasions. While their first year yielded the substantial hits Pinball Construction Set, Archon, and One-on-One, 1984 could boast only one comparable success story, Seven Cities of Gold. Granted, four hits in two years was more than plenty of other publishers managed, but EA had been capitalized under the expectation that their games would open up whole new demographics for entertainment software. “The idea was to make games for 28-year-olds when everybody else was making games for 13-year-olds,” says Bing Gordon, Trip Hawkins’s old university roommate and right-hand man at EA. When those 28-year-olds failed to materialize, EA was left in the lurch.

For better or for worse, One-on-One is the spiritual forefather of the unstoppable EA Sports lineup of today.

The most important architect of EA’s post-launch retrenchment was arguably neither Trip Hawkins nor Bing Gordon, but rather Larry Probst, who left the free-falling Activision to join EA as vice president for sales in 1984. Probst, who had worked at the dry-goods giants Johnson & Johnson and Clorox before joining Activision, had no particular attachment to the idea of software artists. He rather looked at the business of selling games much as he had that of selling toilet paper and bleach. He asked himself how EA could best make money in the market that existed rather than some fanciful new one they hoped to create. Steve Peterson, a product manager at EA, remembers that others “would still talk about how we were trying to create new forms of entertainment and break new boundaries.” But Probst, and increasingly Trip Hawkins as well, had the less high-minded goal of “going public and being a billion-dollar company.”

Probst had the key insight that distribution, more so than software artists or perhaps even product quality in the abstract, was the key to success in an industry that, following a major downturn in home computing in general in 1984, was only continuing to get more competitive. EA therefore spurned the existing distribution channels, which were nearly monopolized by SoftSel, the great behind-the-scenes power in the software industry to which everyone else was kowtowing; SoftSel’s head, Robert Leff, was the most important person in software that no one outside the industry had ever heard of. Instead of using SoftSel, EA set up their own distribution network piece by painful piece, beginning by cold-calling the individual stores and offering cut-rate deals in order to tempt them into risking the wrath of Leff and ordering from another source.

Then, once a reasonable distribution network was in place, EA leveraged the hell out of it by setting up a program of so-called “Affiliated Labels” — other publishers who would pay EA instead of a conventional distributor like SoftSel to get their products onto store shelves. It was a well-nigh revolutionary idea in game publishing, attractive to smaller publishers because EA was ready and able to help out with a whole range of the logistical difficulties they were always facing, from packaging and disk duplication to advertising campaigns. For EA, meanwhile, the Affiliated Labels yielded huge financial rewards and placed them in the driver’s seat of much of the industry, with the power of life and death over many of their smaller ostensible competitors.

Unsurprisingly, Activision, the only other publisher with comparable distributional clout, soon copied the idea, setting up a similar program of their own. But even as they did so, EA, seemingly always one step ahead, was becoming the first American publisher to send games — both their own and those of others — directly to Europe without going through a European intermediary like Britain’s U.S. Gold label.

There was always something a bit contrived, in that indelible Silicon Valley way, about how EA chose to present themselves to the world. Here we have Bing Gordon, head of technology Greg Riker, and producer Joe Ybarra indulging in some of the creative play which, an accompanying article is at pains to tell us, was constantly going on around the office.

Larry Probst’s strategy of distribution über alles worked a treat, yielding explosive growth that more than made up for the company’s early struggles. In 1986, EA became the biggest computer-game publisher in the United States and the world, with annual revenues of $30 million. Their own games were doing well, but were assuming a very different character from the “simple, hot, and deep” ideal of the launch — a phrase Trip Hawkins had once loved to apply to games that were less stereotypically nerdy than the norm, that he imagined would be suitable for busy young adults with a finger on the pulse of hip pop culture. Now, having failed to attract that new demographic, EA adjusted their product line to appeal to those who were already buying computer games. A case in point was The Bard’s Tale, EA’s biggest hit of 1985, a hardcore CRPG that might take a hundred hours or more to complete — fodder for 13-year-olds with long summer vacations to fill rather than 28-year-olds with jobs and busy social calendars.

If “simple, hot, and deep” and programmers as rock stars had been two of the three pillars of EA’s launch philosophy, the last was the one written into Hawkins’s original mission statement as “stay with floppy-disk-based computers only.” Said statement had been written, we should remember, just as the first great videogame fad, fueled by the Atari VCS, was passing its peak and beginning the long plunge into what would go down in history as the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. At the time, it certainly wasn’t only the new EA who believed that the toy-like videogame consoles were the past, and that more sophisticated personal computers, running more sophisticated games, were the future. “I think that computer games are fundamentally different from videogames,” said Hawkins on the Computer Chronicles television show. “It becomes a question of program size, when you want to know how good a program can I have, how much can I do with it, and how long will it take before I’m bored with it.” This third pillar of EA’s strategy would take a bit longer to fall than the others, but fall it would.

The origins of EA’s loss of faith in the home computer in general as the ultimate winner of the interactive-entertainment platform wars can ironically be traced to their decision to wholeheartedly endorse one computer in particular. In October of 1984, Greg Riker, EA’s director of technology, got the chance to evaluate a prototype of Commodore’s upcoming Amiga. His verdict upon witnessing this first truly multimedia personal computer, with its superlative graphics and sound, was that this was the machine that could change everything, and that EA simply had to get involved with it as quickly as possible. He convinced Trip Hawkins of his point of view, and Hawkins managed to secure Amiga Prototype Number 12 for the company within weeks. In the months that followed, EA worked to advance the Amiga with if anything even more enthusiasm than Commodore themselves: developing libraries and programming frameworks which they shared with their outside developers; writing tools internally, including what would become the Amiga’s killer app, Deluxe Paint; documenting the Interchange File Format, a set of standard specifications for sharing pictures, sounds, animations, and music across applications. All of these things and more would remain a part of the Amiga platform’s basic software ecosystem throughout its existence.

When the Amiga finally started shipping late in 1985, EA actually made a far better public case for the machine than Commodore, taking out a splashy editorial-style advertisement just inside the cover of the premiere issue of the new AmigaWorld magazine. It showed the eight Amiga games EA would soon release and explained “why Electronic Arts is committed to the Amiga,” the latter headline appearing above a photograph of Trip Hawkins with his arm proprietorially draped over the Amiga on his desk.

Trip Hawkins with an Amiga

But it all turned into an immense disappointment. Initially, Commodore priced the Amiga wrong and marketed it worse, and even after they corrected some of their worst mistakes it perpetually under-performed in the American marketplace. For Hawkins and EA, the whole episode planted the first seeds of doubt as to whether home computers — which at the end of the day still were computers, requiring a degree of knowledge to operate and associated in the minds of most people more with work than pleasure — could really be the future of interactive entertainment as a mass-media enterprise. If a computer as magnificent as the Amiga couldn’t conquer the world, what would it take?

Perhaps it would take a piece of true consumer electronics, made by a company used to selling televisions and stereos to customers who expected to be able to just turn the things on and enjoy them — a company like, say, Philips, who were working on a new multimedia set-top box for the living room that they called CD-I. The name arose from the fact that it used the magical new technology of CD-ROM for storage, something EA had been begging Commodore to bring to the Amiga to no avail. EA embraced CD-I with the same enthusiasm they had recently shown for the Amiga, placing Greg Riker in personal charge of creating tools and techniques for programming it, working more as partners in CD-I’s development with Philips than as a mere third-party publisher.

Once again, however, it all came to nought. CD-I turned into one of the most notorious slow-motion fiascos in the history of the games industry, missing its originally planned release date in the fall of 1987 and then remaining vaporware for years on end. In early 1989, EA finally ran out of patience, mothballing all work on the platform unless and until it became a viable product; Greg Riker left the company to go work for Microsoft on their own CD-ROM research.

CD-I had cost EA a lot of money to no tangible result whatsoever, but it does reveal that the idea of gaming on something other than a conventional computer was no longer anathema to them. In fact, the year in which EA gave up on CD-I would prove the most pivotal of their entire history. We should therefore pause here to examine their position in 1989 in a bit more detail.

Despite the frustrating failure of the Amiga and CD-I to open a new golden age of interactive entertainment, EA wasn’t doing badly at all. Following years of steady growth, annual revenue had now reached $63 million, up 27 percent from 1988. EA was actively distributing about 100 titles under their own imprint, and 250 more under the imprint of the various Affiliated Labels, who had become absolutely key to their business model, accounting for some 45 percent of their total revenues. About 80 percent of their revenues still came from the United States, with 15 percent coming from Europe — where EA had set up a semi-independent subsidiary, the Langley, England-based EA Europe, in 1987 — and the remainder from the rest of the world. The company was extremely diversified. They were producing software for ten different computing platforms worldwide, had released 40 separate titles that had earned them at least $1 million each, and had no single title that accounted for more than 6 percent of their total revenues.

What we have here, then, is a very healthy business indeed, with multiple revenue streams and cash in the bank. The games they released were sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes mediocre; EA’s quality standards weren’t notably better or worse than the rest of their industry. “We tried to create a brand that fell somewhere between Honda and Mercedes,” admits Bing Gordon, “but a lot of the time we shipped Chevy.” Truth be told, even in the earliest days the rhetoric surrounding EA’s software artists had been a little overblown; many of the games their rock stars came up with were far less innovative than the advertising that accompanied them. The genius of Larry Probst had been to explicitly recognize that success or failure as a games publisher had as much to do with other factors as it did with the actual games you released.

For all their success, though, no one at EA was feeling particularly satisfied with their position. On the contrary: 1989 would go down in EA’s history as the year of “crisis.” As successful as they had become selling home-computer software, they remained big fish in a rather small pond, a situation out of keeping with the sense of overweening ambition that been a part of the company’s DNA since its founding. In 1989, about 4 million computers were being used to play games on a regular or semi-regular basis in American homes, enough to fuel a computer-game industry worth an estimated $230 million per year. EA alone owned more than 25 percent of that market, more than any competitor. But there was another, related market in which they had no presence at all: that of the videogame consoles, which had returned from the dead to haunt them even as they were consolidating their position as the biggest force in computer games. The country was in the grip of Nintendo mania. About 22 million Nintendo Entertainment Systems were already in American homes — a figure accounting for 24 percent of all American households — and cartridge-based videogames were selling to the tune of $1.6 billion per year.

Unlike many of their peers, EA hadn’t yet suffered all that badly under the Nintendo onslaught, largely because they had already diversified away from the Commodore 64, the low-end 8-bit computer which had been the largest gaming platform in the world just a couple of years before, and which the NES was now in the process of annihilating. But still, the future of the computer-games industry in general felt suddenly in doubt in a way that it hadn’t since at least the great home-computer downturn of 1984. A sizable coalition inside EA, including Larry Probst and most of the board of directors, pushed Trip Hawkins hard to get EA’s games onto the consoles. Fearing a coup, he finally came around. “We had to go into the [console-based] videogame business, and that meant the world of mass-market,” Hawkins remembers. “There were millions of customers we were going to reach.”

But through which door should they make their entrance? Accustomed to running roughshod over his Affiliated Labels, Hawkins wasn’t excited about the prospect of entering Nintendo’s walled garden, where the shoe would be on the other foot, thanks to that company’s infamously draconian rules for its licensees. Nintendo’s standard contract demanded that they receive the first $12 from every game a licensee sold, required every game to go through an exhaustive review process before publication, and placed strict limits on how many games a licensee was allowed to publish per year and how many units they were allowed to manufacture of each one. For EA, accustomed to being the baddest hombre in the Wild West that was the computer-game marketplace, this was well-nigh intolerable. Bing Gordon insists even today that, thanks to all of the fees and restrictions, no one other than Nintendo was doing much more than breaking even on the NES during this, the period that would go down in history as the platform’s golden age.

So, EA decided instead to back a dark horse: the much more modern Sega Genesis, which hadn’t even been released yet in North America. It was built around the same 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU found in computers like the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh, with audiovisual capabilities not all that far removed from the likes of the Amiga. The Genesis would give designers and programmers who were used to the affordances of full-fledged computers a far less limiting platform than the NES to work with, and it offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a brand-new market, as opposed to the saturated NES platform. The only problem was that Sega’s licensing fees were comparable to those of Nintendo, even though they could only offer their licensees access to a much more uncertain pool of customers.

Determined to play hardball, Hawkins had a team of engineers reverse-engineer the Genesis, sufficient to let them write games for it with or without Sega’s official development kit. Then he met with Sega again, telling them that, if they refused to adjust their licensing terms, he would release games on the console without their blessing, forcing them to initiate an ugly court battle of the sort that was currently raging between Nintendo and Atari if they wished to bring him to heel. That, he was gambling, was expense and publicity of a sort which Sega simply couldn’t afford. And Sega evidently agreed with his assessment; they accepted a royalty rate half that being demanded by Nintendo. By this roundabout method, EA became the first major American publisher to support the new console, and from that point forward the two companies became, as Hawkins puts it, “good partners.”

EA initially invested $2.5 million in ten games for the Genesis, some of them original to the console, some ports of their more popular computer games. They started shipping the first of them in June of 1990, ten months after the Genesis itself had first gone on sale in the United States. This first slate of EA Genesis titles arrived in a marketplace that was still starving for quality games, just as Hawkins had envisioned it would be. Among them was the game destined to become the face of the new, mass-market-oriented EA: John Madden Football, a more action-oriented re-imagining of a 1988 computer game of the same name.

John Madden Football debuted as a rather cerebral, tactics-heavy computer game in 1988, just another in an EA tradition of famous-athlete-endorsed sports games stretching back to 1983’s (Dr. J and Larry Bird Go) One-on-One. No one in 1988 could have imagined what it would come to mean in the years to come for either its publisher or its spokesman/mascot, both of whom would ride it to iconic heights in American pop culture.

The Sega Genesis marked the third time EA had taken a leap of faith on a new platform. It was the first time, however, that their faith paid off. About 25 percent of the games EA sold in 1990 were for the Genesis. And when the console really started to take off in 1991, fueled not least by their own games, EA was there to reap the rewards. In that year, four of the ten best-selling Genesis games were published by EA. At the peak of their dominance, EA alone was publishing about 35 percent of all the games sold for the Genesis. Absent the boost their games gave it early on, it’s highly questionable whether the Genesis would have succeeded at all in the United States.

In the beginning, few of EA’s outside developers had been terribly excited about writing for the consoles. One of them remembers Hawkins “reading us the riot act” just to get them onboard. Indeed, Hawkins claims today that about 15 percent of EA’s internal employees were so unhappy with the new direction that they quit. Certainly his latest rhetoric could hardly have been more different from that of 1983:

I knew we had to let go of our attachment to machines that the public did not want to buy, and support the hardware that the public would embrace. I made this argument on the grounds of delivering customer satisfaction, and how quality is in the eye of the beholder. If the customer buys a Genesis, we want to give him the best we can for the machine he bought and not resent the consumer for not buying a $1000 computer.

By this point, Hawkins had finally bit the bullet and done a deal with Nintendo, who, in the face of multiple government investigations and lawsuits over their business practices, were becoming somewhat more generous with both their competitors and licensees. When games like Skate or Die, a port of a Commodore 64 hit that just happened to be perfect for the Nintendo and Sega demographics as well, started to sell in serious numbers on the consoles, Hawkins’s developers’ aversion started to fade in the face of all that filthy lucre. Soon the developers of Skate or Die were happily plunging into a sequel which would be a console exclusive.

Even the much-dreaded oversight role played by Nintendo, in which they reviewed every game before allowing it to be published, proved less onerous than expected. When Will Harvey, the designer of an action-adventure called The Immortal, finally steeled himself to look at Nintendo’s critique thereof, he was happily surprised to find the list of “suggestions” to be very helpful on the whole, demonstrating real sensitivity to the effect he was trying to achieve. Even Bing Gordon, who had been highly skeptical of getting into bed with Nintendo, had to admit in the end that “the rating system is fair. On a scale from zero to a hundred, where zero meant the system was totally manipulated for Nintendo’s self-interest and a hundred meant that it was absolutely democratic, they’d probably get a ninety. I’ve seen a little bit of self-interest, but this is America, the land of self-interest.”

Although EA cut their Nintendo teeth on the NES, it was on the long-awaited follow-up console, 1991’s Super Nintendo, that they really began to thrive. That machine boasted capabilities similar to those of the Sega Genesis, meaning EA already had games ready to port over, along with developers with considerable expertise in writing for a more advanced species of console. Just in time for the Christmas of 1991, EA released a new version of John Madden FootballJohn Madden Football ’92 — simultaneously on the Super Nintendo and the Genesis. The sequel had been created, according to the recollections of several EA executives, against the advice of market researchers and retailers: “All you’re going to do is obsolete our old game.” But Trip Hawkins remembered how much, as a kid, he had loved the Strat-O-Matic Football board game, for which a new set of player and team cards was issued every year just before the beginning of football season, ensuring that you could always recreate in the board game the very same season you were watching every Sunday on television. So, he ignored the objections of the researchers and the retailers, and John Madden Football ’92 became an enormous hit, by far the biggest EA had yet enjoyed on any platform — thus inaugurating, for better or for worse, the tradition of annual versions of gaming’s most evergreen franchise. Like clockwork, we’ve gotten a new Madden every single year since, a span of time that numbers a quarter-century and change as of this writing.

All of this had a transformative effect on EA’s bottom line, bringing on their biggest growth spurt yet. Revenues increased from $78 million in 1990 to $113 million in 1991; then they jumped to $175 million in 1992, accompanied by a two-for-one stock split that was necessary to keep the share price, which had been at $10 just a few years before, from exceeding $50. In that year, six of the fifteen most popular console games, across all platforms, were published by EA. Their Sega Genesis games alone generated $77 million, 18 percent more than the entirety of the company’s product portfolio had managed in 1989. This was also the first year that EA’s console games in the aggregate outsold their offerings for computers. They were leaving no doubt now as to where their primary loyalty lay: “The 16-bit consoles are far better for games than PCs. The Genesis is a very sophisticated machine…” The disparity between the two sides of the company’s business would only continue to get more pronounced, as EA’s sales jumped by an extraordinary 70 percent — to $298 million — in 1993, a spurt fueled entirely by console-game sales.

But, despite all their success on the consoles, EA — and especially their founder, Trip Hawkins — continued to chafe under the restrictions of the walled-garden model of software distribution. Accordingly, Hawkins put together a group inside EA to research the potential for a CD-ROM-based multimedia set-top box of their own, one that would be used for more than just playing games — sort of a CD-I done right. “The Japanese videogame companies,” he said, “are too shortsighted to see where this is going.” In contrast to their walled gardens, his box would be as open as possible. Rather than a single new hardware product, it would be a set of hardware specifications and an operating system which manufacturers could license, which would hopefully result in a situation similar to the MS-DOS marketplace, where lots of companies competed and innovated within the bounds of an established standard. The marketplace for games and applications as well on the new machine would be far less restricted than the console norm, with a more laissez-faire attitude to content and a royalty fee of just $3 per unit sold.

In 1991, EA spun off the venture under the name of 3DO. Hawkins turned most of his day-to-day responsibilities at EA over to Larry Probst in order to take personal charge of his new baby, which took tangible form for the first time with the release of the Panasonic “Real 3DO Player” in late 1993. It and other implementations of the 3DO technology managed to sell 500,000 units worldwide — 200,000 of them in North America — by January of 1995. Yet those numbers were still a pittance next to those of the dedicated game consoles, and the story of 3DO became one of constant flirtations with success that never quite led to that elusive breakthrough moment. As 3DO struggled, Hawkins’s relations with his old company worsened. He believed they had gone back on promises to support his new venture wholeheartedly; “I didn’t feel like I was leaving EA, but it turned out that way,” he says today with lingering bitterness. The long, frustrating saga of 3DO wouldn’t finally straggle to a bankruptcy until 2003.

EA, meanwhile, was flying ever higher absent their founder. Under Larry Probst — always the most hard-nosed and sober-minded of the executive staff, the person most laser-focused on the actual business of selling videogames — EA cemented their reputation as the conservative, risk-averse giant of their industry. This new EA was seemingly the polar opposite of the company that had once asked with almost painful earnestness if a computer could make you cry. And yet, paradoxically, it was a place still inhabited by a surprising number of the people who had come up with that message. Most prominent among them was Bing Gordon, who notes cryptically today only that “people’s ideals get tested in the face of love or money.” Part of the problem — assuming one judges EA’s current less-than-boldly-innovative lineup of franchises to be a problem — may be a simple buildup of creative cruft that has resulted from being in business for so long. Every franchise that debuts in inspiration and innovation, then goes on to join John Madden Football on the list of EA perennials, sucks some of the bandwidth away that might otherwise have been devoted to the next big innovator.

In the summer of 1987, when EA was still straddling the line between their old personality and their new, Trip Hawkins wrote the following lines in their official newsletter — lines which evince the keenly felt tension between art and commerce that has become the defining aspect of EA’s corporate history for so many in the years since:

Unfortunately, simply being creative doesn’t always mean you’ll be wildly successful. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Lots of people would still rather go see Porky’s Revenge IV, ignoring well-produced movies like Amadeus or Chariots of Fire. As a result, film producers take fewer risks, and we get less variety, and pretty soon the Porky’s and Rambo clones are all you can find on a Friday night. Software developers have the same problem. (To this day, all of us M.U.L.E. fans wonder why the entire world hasn’t fallen in love with our favorite game.)

The only way to solve the problem is to do it together. On our end, we’ll keep innovating, researching, experimenting with new ways to use this new medium; on your end, you can support our efforts by taking an occasional risk, by buying something new and different… maybe Robot Rascals, or Make Your Own Murder Party.

You may be very pleasantly surprised — and you’ll help our software artists live to innovate another day.

Did EA go the direction they did because of gamers’ collective failure to support their most innovative, experimental work? Does it even matter if so? The more pragmatic among us might note that the EA of today is delivering games that millions upon millions of people clearly want to play, and where’s the harm in that?

Still, as we look upon this industry that has so steadfastly refused to grow up in so many ways, there remain always those pictures of EA’s first generation of software artists — pictures that, yes, are a little pretentious and a lot contrived, but that nevertheless beckon us to pursue higher ideals. They’ve taken on an identity of their own now, quite apart from the history of the company that once splashed them across the pages of glossy lifestyle magazines. Long may they continue to inspire.

(Sources: the book Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Harvard Business School’s case study “Electronic Arts in 1995”; ACE of April 1990; Amazing Computing of July 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1988, October 1988, and June 1989; MicroTimes of April 1986; The One of November 1988; Electronic Arts’s newsletter Farther from Summer 1987; AmigaWorld premiere issue; materials relating to the Software Publishers Association included in the Brøderbund archive at the Strong Museum of Play; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Computer Games.” Online sources include “We See Farther — A History of Electronic Arts” at Gamasutra, “How Electronic Arts Lost Its Soul” at Polygon, and Funding Universe‘s history of Electronic Arts.)

 
 

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Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (or, Of Movies and Games and Whether the Twain Shall Meet)

You ask why there are movements in movie history. Why all of a sudden there are great Japanese films, or great Italian films, or great Australian films, or whatever. And it’s usually because there are a number of people that cross-pollinated each other.

— Francis Ford Coppola

Over the course of the late 1970s and early 1980s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg remade the very business of film-making for better or for worse, shifting its focus from message movies and character dramas to the special-effects-heavy, escapist blockbusters that still drive Hollywood’s profits to this day. These events, which we might call the rise of the culture of the blockbuster, have long since been enshrined into the canonical history of film, filed under the names of these two leading lights.

Yet no two personalities could possibly have brought about such a dramatic shift on their own. Orbiting around Lucas and Spielberg was an entire galaxy of less prominent talents whose professional lives were profoundly affected by their association with these two new faces of modern Hollywood. They were the fellow travelers who helped Lucas and Spielberg to change the movie industry, all without ever quite being aware that they were part of any particular movement at all. Among the group were names like John Milius, Walter Murch, Willard Huyck, Randall Kleiser, Matthew Robbins, and Hal Barwood. “I can’t speak for the others,” says Robbins, “but it was my impression that nobody had the foggiest idea that there was any ‘next wave’ coming. Nobody had set their sights — except perhaps for George [Lucas].”

Out of this group of slightly lesser but undeniably accomplished lights, Hal Barwood is our special person of interest for today. He first met George Lucas in the mid-1960s, when the two were students together in the University of Southern California’s film program. Lucas, who had only recently abandoned his original dream of driving race cars in favor of this new one of making movies, was shy almost to the point of complete inarticulateness, and was far more comfortable futzing over a Moviola editing machine than he was trying to cajole live actors into doing his bidding. Nevertheless, there was a drive to this awkward young man that gradually revealed itself over the course of a longer acquaintance, and Barwood — on the surface, a far more assertive, impressive personality — soon joined Lucas’s loose clique in the role of follower rather than leader. Flying in the face of a Hollywood culture which valued realistic character dramas above all else, Lucas, Barwood, and their pals loved science fiction and fantasy, didn’t consider escapism to be a dirty word, and found the visual aesthetics of film to be every bit as interesting as their actors’ performances.

The bond thus forged would remain strong for many years. When Lucas, through the intermediation of his friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, got the chance to direct an actual feature film, Barwood added the first professional film credit to his own CV by helping out with the special effects on what became THX-1138, a foreboding, low-budget work of dystopic science fiction that was released to little attention in 1971. When Lucas hit it big two years later with his very different second film, the warmly nostalgic coming-of-age story American Graffiti, he bought a big old ramshackle mansion in San Anselmo, California, with the first of the proceeds, and Barwood became one of several fellow travelers who joined him and his wife in this first headquarters of a nascent corporate entity called Lucasfilm.

George Lucas, standing at far right, discusses Star Wars with his sounding board in the mid-1970s. Steve Spielberg is wearing the orange cap, and Hal Barwood sits on the fence behind him.

Working together with his good friend Matthew Robbins, Barwood wrote a science-fiction script called Star Dancing during the same period. The two commissioned a former Boeing technical illustrator and CBS animator named Ralph McQuarrie to paint some concept art, thereby to help them pitch the project to the studios. In the end, though, Star Dancing never went anywhere — until Lucas, who was toying with ideas for a second, more crowd-pleasing science-fiction movie of his own, saw McQuarrie’s paintings and was greatly inspired by them, hiring him to develop the vision further for what would become Star Wars. McQuarrie’s concept art had much to do with the eventual green-lighting of Star Wars by 20th Century Fox, and he would continue to shape the look of that film and its two sequels over the long course of their production.

Barwood and Robbins, for their part, became two of the eight people entrusted to read the first draft of the film’s script. He and the others in that San Anselmo house then proceeded to slowly shape the Star Wars script we know today over the course of draft after draft.

Even as they helped Lucas with Star Wars, Barwood and Robbins were still trying to make it as screenwriters in their own right. They sold their first script, a chase caper called The Sugarland Express, to George Lucas’s up-and-coming pal Steven Spielberg, a more recently arrived member of the San Anselmo collective; he turned it into his feature-film directorial debut in 1974. More screenwriting followed, including an uncredited rewrite of the 1977 Spielberg blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first film to benefit in a big way commercially from the new interest in science fiction ignited by Star Wars, which had been released about six months prior to it.

Yet the pair found screenwriting to be an inherently frustrating profession in an industry which regarded the director as a movie’s ultimate creative voice. “In writing, you’re always watching directors ruin your stuff,” says Barwood. “As a writer, you have a certain flavor, style, and emphasis in mind when you write the script, and you’re always shocked when the director comes back with something else. There’s a tendency to want to get your hands on the controls and do it yourself.” Accordingly, Matthew Robbins personally directed the duo’s 1978 comedy Corvette Summer, starring Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — in his first big post-Star Wars role. The film was a commercial success, even if the reviews weren’t great; it turned out that there was only so much you could do with Hamill, the very archetype of an actor who’s good in one role and one role only.

The duo’s next big project that was their most ambitious, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking yet. Dragonslayer was a fantasy epic based loosely on the legend of St. George and the dragon, and was once again directed by Robbins. The special effects were provided by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. In fact, Dragonslayer became the very first outside, non-Star Wars project the famous effects house took on. Being at least as challenging as anything in any of the Star Wars films, the Dragonslayer effects took them some eighteen months to complete.

Dragonslayer‘s pedigree was such that it was widely heralded in the Hollywood trade press as a “surefire success” prior to its release. But it had the misfortune to arrive in theaters on June 26, 1981, two weeks after Lucas and Spielberg’s new blockbuster collaboration, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The latter film shared with Dragonslayer the distributor Paramount Pictures. “Paramount was quite satisfied to go through the summer with the money they were going to get from Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Barwood, “and paid no attention to our movie. They just dropped it. They just forgot about it.” Dragonslayer flopped utterly, badly damaging the duo’s reputation inside Hollywood as purveyors of marketable cinema.

Barwood got his one and only chance to direct a feature film in 1985, when he took the reins of Warning Sign, yet another screenplay by himself and Robbins. In a telling sign of the damage Dragonslayer‘s failure had done to their careers, this latest film, a fairly predictable thriller about a genetic-engineering project run amok, had a budget of about one-quarter what the duo had had to work with on their fantasy epic. It garnered mediocre reviews and box-office receipts, and no one seemed eager to entrust its first-time director with more movies. Barwood and Robbins, both frustrated by the directions their careers had taken since Corvette Summer, decided their long creative partnership had run its course.

George Lucas (far left) and some of his old compatriots at Skywalker Ranch in the mid-1980s. Matthew Robbins is third from left, Hal Barwood fourth from left.

So, Hal Barwood found himself at something of a loose end as the 1980s drew to a close. He was still friendly with George Lucas, if perhaps not quite the bosom buddy he once had been, and he still knew many of the most powerful people in the movie industry, starting with Steven Spielberg — who had gradually shown himself to be, even more so than Lucas, the personification of the new, blockbuster-oriented Hollywood, his prolific career cruising along with hit after hit. But, as Spielberg basked in his success, Barwood had parted ways with his partner and seen his directorial debut become a bust. He hadn’t had a hand in a real hit since 1978, and he hadn’t sold a script at all in quite some time. Just to rub salt into the wounds, his old compatriot Matthew Robbins managed to score another modest hit of his own at last just after the breakup, with the distinctly Spielbergian science-fiction comedy Batteries Not Included, which he directed and whose screenplay he had written with others.

Perhaps it was time for Hal Barwood to try something completely different. He had actually been mulling over his future in this cutthroat industry for some time already. During the promotional tour for Warning Sign, he had made a rather odd comment to Starlog magazine, accompanied by what his interviewer described as a “nervous laugh”: “If movies don’t pan out for me, I have a second career lurking around the corner in entertainment software, working on animated computer games, which I’m doing right now. They’re very sophisticated, animated adventure games.”

Barwood had in fact been fascinated by computers for a long time, ever since he had first encountered the hulking number-crunching monstrosities of the 1960s at university. In 1980, while hanging around the set of Dragonslayer, he had programmed his first game on a state-of-the-art HP-41C calculator as a way of passing the time between takes. Soon after, he joined the PC Revolution, buying an Apple II and starting to tinker. He worked for years on a CRPG for that machine in his spare time — worked for so long that it was still in progress when the Apple II games market began to collapse. Undaunted, he moved on to a Macintosh, where he programmed a storyboarding system for movie makers like himself in HyperCard, selling it as shareware under the name of StoryCard.

With all this experience behind him, it was natural for Barwood now to consider a future in games instead of movies — a future in an industry where the budgets were smaller, the competitors were fewer, and it was much easier to come up with an idea and actually see it through from beginning to end in something like its original form. All of this made quite a contrast to the industry where he had cut his teeth. “The movie business is very difficult for most of us,” he says. “We don’t usually get a majority of our projects to completion. Most of our dreams turn into screenplays, but they stall out at that stage.”

Given his long association with George Lucas, Barwood decided to talk to Lucasfilm Games. They were more than happy to have him, and could certainly relate to the reasons that brought him to their doorstep — for, like Barwood, they had had a somewhat complicated life of it to date in the long shadow cast by Lucas.


Before there was Lucasfilm Games, there was the Lucasfilm Computer Division, founded in 1979 to experiment with computer animation and digital effects, technologies with obvious applications for the making of special-effects-heavy films. Lucasfilm Games had been almost literally an afterthought, an outgrowth of the Computer Division that was formed in 1982, a time when George Lucas and Lucasfilm were flying high and throwing money about willy-nilly.

In those days, a hit computer game, one into which Lucasfilm Games had poured their hearts and souls, might be worth about as much to the parent company’s bottom line as a single Jawa action figure — such was the difference in scale between the computer-games industry of the early 1980s and the other markets where Lucasfilm was a player. George Lucas personally had absolutely no interest in or understanding of games, which didn’t do much for the games division’s profile inside his company. And, most frustrating of all for the young developers who came to work for The House That Star Wars Built, they weren’t allowed to make Star Wars games — nor, for that matter, even Indiana Jones games — thanks to Lucas having signed away those rights to others at the height of the Atari VCS fad. Noah Falstein, one of those young developers, would later characterize this situation as “the best thing that could have happened” to them, as it forced them to develop original fictions instead — leading, he believes, to better, more original games. At the time, however, it couldn’t help but frustrate that the only Lucasfilm properties the games division had access to were middling fare like Labyrinth.

Still, somebody inside Lucasfilm apparently believed in the low-profile division’s potential, for it survived the great bloodletting of the mid-1980s. In response to George Lucas’s expensive divorce settlement and the realization that, with the Star Wars trilogy now completed, there would be no more enormous guaranteed paydays in the future, the company’s executives, with Lucas’s tacit blessing, took an axe to many of their more uncertain or idealistic ventures at that time. Among the divisions that were sold off was the rest of the Computer Division that had indirectly spawned Lucasfilm Games; it would go on to worldwide fame and fortune under the name of Pixar. As for the games people: in 1986, they got to move into some of the vacant space all the downsizing had opened up at Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm’s sprawling summer camp cum corporate campus in Marin County, California.

The wall separating Lucasfilm Games from the parent company’s most desirable intellectual properties finally began to fall at the end of the 1980s, when the games people were given access to… no, not yet to Star Wars, but to the next best thing: Indiana Jones, George Lucas’s other great cinematic success story. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first breakneck tale of the adventurous 1930s archaeologist, as conceived by Lucas and passed on to Steven Spielberg to direct, had become the highest-grossing film of 1981 by nearly a factor of two over its nearest competitor; as we’ve seen, it had trampled less fortunate rivals like poor Hal Barwood’s Dragonslayer into the dust during that year’s summer-blockbuster season. A 1984 sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, had done nearly as well. Now a third and presumably final film, to be called Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, was in the offing. With the earlier licensing deals they had made for the property now expired, the parent company wanted their games division to make an adventure game out of it.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure1 was designed by Noah Falstein, David Fox, and Ron Gilbert, all of whom had worked on previous Lucasfilm adventure games, and written using the division’s established SCUMM adventuring engine. This committee approach to the game’s design is typical of the workaday nature of the project as a whole. The designers were given a copy of the movie’s shooting script, and were expected not to deviate too much from it. Ron Gilbert, a comedy writer by disposition and talent, found the need to play it relatively straight particularly frustrating, but it seems safe to say that all of the designers’ creative instincts were somewhat hemmed in by the project’s fixed rules. The end result, while competently executed, hasn’t the same vim and vinegar as Maniac Mansion, the first SCUMM adventure, nor even Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, the rather less satisfying second SCUMM game.

The boxing scene which opens the game of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a part of the film’s original script which was cut in the editing room. Scenes like these make the game almost of more interest to film historians than game historians, serving as a window into the movie as it was conceived by its screenwriter Jeffrey Boam.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game arises from the fact that its designers were adapting from the shooting script rather than the finished movie, which they got to see in the Skywalker Ranch theater only when their own project was in the final stages of bug-swatting and polishing. They actually implemented parts of Jeffrey Boam’s script for the movie far more faithfully than Steven Spielberg wound up doing, including numerous scenes — like the boxing sequence at the very beginning of the game — that wound up being cut from the movie. Nevertheless, the game suffers from the fundamental problem of all such overly faithful adaptations from other media: if you’ve seen the movie — and it seemed safe to assume that just about everybody who played the game had seen the movie — what’s the point in walking through the same story again in game form? The designers went to considerable lengths to accommodate curious (or cantankerous) players who make different choices from those of Indiana Jones in the movie, turning their choices into viable alternative pathways rather than mere game overs. But there was only so much they could do in even that respect, given the constraints under which they labored.

Of course, licensed games exist first and foremost because licenses sell games, not because they lead to better ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade became the cinematic blockbuster of the year upon its release in May of 1989, and the game also did extremely well when it hit stores a few weeks later. Having taken this first step into the territory of Lucasfilm’s biggest franchises and been so amply rewarded for it, the people at the games division naturally wanted to keep the good times going. There were likely to be no more Indiana Jones movies; Harrison Ford, the series’s famously prickly star, was publicly declaring himself to be through with playing the character. But did that necessarily mean that there couldn’t be more Indiana Jones games? With the license now free and clear for their use, no one at Lucasfilm Games saw any reason to assume so.


It was at this juncture that Hal Barwood entered the picture, interested in trying a new career in games on for size. Just about any developer in the industry would have jumped at the chance to bring someone like him aboard. Talk of a merger of games with cinema to create a whole new genre of mass-media entertainment — the interactive movie, preferably published on CD-ROM complete with voice acting and perhaps even real-world video footage — dominated games-industry conferences and magazine editorials alike as the 1990s began. But for all their grandiose talk, the game developers clustered in Northern California were all too aware that they lacked the artistic respectability necessary to tempt most of those working with traditional film and video in the southern part of the state into working with them on interactive projects. Hal Barwood might have been no more than a mid-tier Hollywood player at best, but suffice to say that there wasn’t exactly a surfeit of other Hollywood veterans of any stripe who were willing to work on games.

In an online CompuServe conference involving many prominent adventure-game designers that was held on August 24, 1990, not long after Barwood’s arrival at Lucasfilm Games, Noah Falstein could hardly keep himself from openly taunting his competitors about what he had and they didn’t:

One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.

Falstein was in a position to learn so much from Barwood because he had been assigned to work with him as his design partner on his first project — the idea being that Barwood would take care of all the “basic” cinematic techniques Falstein enthuses about above, while Falstein would keep the project on track and make sure it worked as a playable adventure game, with soluble puzzles and all the rest.

Ironically given what Raiders of the Lost Ark had done to Dragonslayer, Hal Barwood’s one big chance to become a truly major Hollywood player, the game in question was to be another Indiana Jones game — albeit one with an original story, not bound to any movie. The initial plan had been to sift through the pile of rejected scripts for the third Indiana Jones film and select a likely candidate from them for adaptation into a game. But it turned out that the scripts were all pretty bad, or at least not terribly suitable for interactive adaptation.

The Azores is one of the many exotic locations Indy visits in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, all of which are brought to life with aplomb by Lucasfilm Games’s accomplished art team.

So, Barwood and Falstein decided to invent their own story, and thus went looking for legends of lost civilizations that might be worthy of an intrepid archeologist who had already found the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. “George [Lucas] has established a criterion for Indiana Jones adventures,” said Barwood, “and it’s basically that he should only find things that actually existed — or at least could have existed.” The fabled sunken island of Atlantis seemed the right mixture of myth and history. Barwood:

Our eyes fell upon Atlantis because not only is it an ancient myth known by almost everyone, but it also has wonderful credentials, in that it was first mentioned by Plato a couple thousand years ago. In addition to that, in the early part of this century, the idea was taken over by spiritualists and mystics, who attributed to the Atlanteans this fantastic technology, with airships flying 100 milers per hour, powered by vrill and firestone. When we found this out, we thought to ourselves, “Does this sound as interesting as the Holy Grail? Yes, it does.” Even though it’s a myth, the myth is grounded in a wonderful collection of lore.

The legend’s wide-ranging wellsprings would allow them to send Indy traipsing between exotic locations scattered over much of the world: New York City, Iceland, Guatemala, the Azores, Algiers, Monte Carlo, Crete, Santorini, finally ending up under the ocean at the site of Atlantis itself.

The game known as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis hits all the notes familiar to anyone who has seen an Indiana Jones film. It seems that the mythical Atlanteans were quite a clever lot, having harnessed energies inconceivable to modern scientists. The Nazis have gotten wind of this, and are fast piecing together the clues that will let them find the undersea site of Atlantis, enter it, and take the technology for themselves, thereby to conquer the world. It’s a fine premise for a globetrotting story of thrills and spills — silly but no more silly than any of those that got made into movies. There’s even a female sparring partner/love interest for Indy, just like in the films. This time her name is Sophia, and she’s a former archaeologist who’s become a professional psychic, much to the scientific-minded Indy’s dismay. Let the battle of barbs begin!

Barwood’s first interactive script really is a good one, with deftly drawn plot beats and characters that, if not exactly deep, nobly fulfill their genre-story purposes as engines of action, tension, or comic relief. Other game writers of the early 1990s weren’t always or even usually all that adept at such basic techniques of fiction as “pacing, tension, and character.” To see how painful a game can be that wants to be like the Indiana Jones movies but lacks the writers to pull it off, one need look no further than Dynamix’s Heart of China, with its humor that lands with the most leaden of thuds, its hero who wants to be a charming rogue but misplaced his charm, and its dull supporting characters who are little more than crude ethnic stereotypes. When you play Fate of Atlantis, by contrast, you feel yourself to be in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The game is full of callbacks to the movies’ most famous catchphrases.

That said, the degree to which Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is truly cinematic can be and too often is overstated. Games are not movies — an obvious point that game developers of the early 1990s frequently lost sight of in their rush to make their interactive movies. Hal Barwood, the Hollywood veteran brought into Lucasfilm Games to apply his cinematic expertise, was ironically far more aware of this fact than were many other game designers who lacked his experience in the medium they were all so eager to ape. Speaking to the science-fiction writer and frequent games-industry commentator Orson Scott Card in 1990, Barwood made some telling observations:

“The companies making animated games keep talking as if games resembled movies,” he [Barwood] said. “But they don’t resemble movies all that much.”

He granted some resemblances, of course, especially with animated film. The dependence on artists; the trickle rate of production, where you’re producing the game or film at the rate of only minutes, or even seconds, of usable footage a day; and the dominant role of the editing process.

Still, though, when it comes to the art of composing a game, inventing it, he said, “What it really resembles is theater. Plays.”

Why? Because as with a play, you have only a few settings you can work with, and they can usually be viewed from only a single angle and at the same distance. You can’t do any meaningful work with closeups (to design and program genuine realistic facial expressions just isn’t worth the huge investment in time and disk space). It’s so hard to make actions clear that you must either rely on dialogue, like most plays, or show only the simplest, most obvious actions.

In movies, it’s just the opposite. You control the pace and rhythm of film by cutting and shifting the action from place to place. The camera never gazes at any one thing for long.

The computer games of this era which most clearly did understand the kinetic language of cinema — the language of a roving camera and a keen-eyed editor — weren’t any of the avowed interactive movies that were being presented in the form of plot- and dialog-heavy adventure games, but rather the comparatively minimalist action games Prince of Persia and Another World, both essentially one-man productions that employed few to no words. Both of these games were aesthetically masterful, but somewhat more problematic in terms of providing their players with interesting forms of interactivity, thus inadvertently illustrating some of the drawbacks of fetishizing movies as the ideal aesthetic model for games.

All the other people who thought they were making interactive movies were “filming” their productions the way only the very earliest movie directors had filmed, before a proper language of film had been created: through a single static “camera.” The end results were anything but cinematic in the way a fellow like Hal Barwood, steeped throughout his life in the language of film, understood that term. His long experience in film-making allowed him to see the essential fact that games were not movies. They might borrow the occasional technique from cinema, but games were a medium — or, perhaps better stated, a matrix of mediums, only one of which was the point-and-click adventure game — with their own unique sets of aesthetic affordances. Countless game developers seemed to be using the term “interactive movie” to designate any game that had a lot of story, but the qualities of being cinematic and being narrative-oriented were really orthogonal to one another.

As in the first Indiana Jones movie, a Nazi submarine features prominently in Fate of Atlantis.

In later years, Hal Barwood would describe a narrative-driven game as more akin to a vintage Russian novel than a movie, a “continuous experience in a fictional world”: something the player lives with over a period of days or weeks, working through it at her own pace, mulling it over even when she isn’t actively sitting in front of the computer. The control or lack thereof of pacing is a critical distinction: a game which leaves any reasonable scope of agency to its player must necessarily cede much or all of the control of pacing to her. And yet pacing is absolutely key to the final effect of any movie, so much so that the director may very well spend months in the editing room after all the shooting is done, trying to get the pacing just right. The game designer doesn’t have anything like the same measure of direct control over the player’s experience, and so must deliver a very different sort of fiction.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis works because it understands these differences in media. It plays with the settings, characters, and themes of the Indiana Jones movies to fine effect, but never forgets that it’s an adventure game. The driving mechanic of an adventure game — the solving of intellectual puzzles — is quite distinct from that which drives the movies, and the plot points must be adapted to match. Can you imagine the cinematic Indy sticking wads of chewing gum to the soles of his shoes so as to climb up a coal chute? Or using a bathroom plunger as a handy replacement for a missing control lever inside a Nazi submarine? Puzzles of this nature inevitably make Indy himself into a rather different sort of personality — one a little less cool and collected, a little more prone to be the butt of the joke rather than the source of it. It’s clear from the very opening scenes of Fate of Atlantis, an innovative interactive credits sequence in which poor Indy must endure pratfall after pratfall, that this isn’t quite the same character we thrilled to in the movies. Harrison Ford would have walked out if asked to play a series of scenes like these.

This phenomenon, which we might called the Guybrush Threepwoodization of the hero, is very common in adventure games adapted from other media, given that the point-and-click adventure game as a medium wants always to collapse back into comedy as its default setting. (See, for example, the Neuromancer game, which similarly turns the cool cat Case from its source novel into a put-upon loser, and winds up becoming a pretty great game in the process.) Barwood and Falstein as well decided that Indiana Jones must adapt to the adventure-game genre rather than the adventure-game genre adapting to Indiana Jones. This was most definitely the right approach to take, and is the overarching reason why this game succeeds when so many other interactive adaptations fail.

The one place where the otherwise traditionalist Fate of Atlantis clearly does try to do something new has nothing directly to do with its source material. It rather takes the form of three possible narrative through lines, depending on the player’s individual predilections. After playing through the introductory stages of the game, you’re given a choice between a “Team” path, where Indy and Sophia travel together and cooperate to solve problems; a “Wits” path, where Indy travels largely alone and solves problems using his noggin; and a “Fists” path, where Indy travels alone and solves some though by no means all of his problems using more, shall we say, active measures, which translate into little action-oriented minigames for the player. The last is seemingly the closest to the spirit of the films, but is, tellingly, almost universally agreed to be the least interesting way to play the game.

The Team path, like all of them, has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to have Sophia around to help out with things — until she falls down a pit and needs your help getting out.

Although the message would get a little muddled once the game reached stores — “three games in one!” was a tagline few marketers could resist — Barwood and Falstein’s primary motivation in making these separate paths wasn’t to create a more replayable game, but rather a more accessible one. Lucasfilm Games always placed great emphasis on giving their players a positive, non-frustrating experience. Different players would prefer to play in different ways, Barwood and Falstein reasoned, and their game should adapt to that. “Socially-oriented” players — possibly including the female players they were always hoping to reach — would enjoy the Team path with its constant banter and pronounced romantic tension between Indy and Sophia; the stereotypically hardcore, cerebral adventure gamers would enjoy the Wits path; those who just wanted to get through the story and check out all the exotic destinations could go for the Fists path.

Falstein liked to call Fate of Atlantis a “self-tuning game.” In this spirit, until very late in development the branching pathways were presented not as an explicit choice but rather as a more subtle in-game personality test. Early on, Indy needs to get into a theater even though he doesn’t have a ticket. There are three ways to accomplish this: talking his way past the guard at the door; puzzling his way through a maze of boxes to find a hidden fire-escape ladder; or simply sucker-punching the guard. Thus would the player’s predilections be determined. In the interest of transparency and as a sop to replayability, however, the personality test wound up being replaced by a simple menu for choosing your pathway.

The first substantial interactive scene in the game, taking place outside and inside a theater in New York City where Indy’s adventuring partner-to-be Sophia is giving a lecture, was intended to function as a personality test of sorts, determining whether the player was sent down the Team, Wits, or Fists path. In the end, though, its finding were softened to a mere recommendation preceding an explicit choice of paths which is offered to the player at its conclusion.

The idea of multiple pathways turned out not to be as compelling in practice as in theory. Most players did take it more as an invitation to play the game three times than an opportunity to play it once their way, and were disappointed to discover that the branching pathways encompass only about 60 percent of the game as a whole; the first 10 percent or so, as well as the lengthy climax, are the same no matter which pathway you choose. Nor are the Team and Wits pathways different enough from one another to give the game all that much of a different flavor; they both ultimately come down to solving a series of logic puzzles. The designers’ time would probably have been better spent making one pathway through the game that combined elements of the Team and Wits pathways. Lucasfilm Games never tried anything similar again. The branching pathways were an experiment, and in that sense at least they served their purpose.

A substantial but by no means enormous game, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis nevertheless spent some two years in development, a lengthy span of time indeed by the standards of the early 1990s, being at least three times as long as it had taken to make the Last Crusade game. The protracted development cycle wasn’t a symptom of acrimony, lack of focus, or disorganization, as such things so often tend to be. It was rather a byproduct of the three pathways and, most of all, of Lucasfilm Games’s steadfast commitment to getting everything right, prioritizing quality and polish over release dates in that way that always set them apart from the majority of their peers.

Shortly before the belated release of Fate of Atlantis in the summer of 1992, Lucasfilm Games became LucasArts. The slicker, less subservient appellation was a sign of their rising status within the hierarchy of their parent company, as their games sold in bigger quantities and became a substantial revenue stream in their own right, less and less dwarfed by the money that could be made in movies. Those changing circumstances would prove a not-unmixed blessing for them, forcing them to move out of the rustic environs of Skywalker Ranch and shed much of the personality of a quirky artists’ collective for that of a more hard-nosed media enterprise. On the other hand, at least they’d finally get to make Star Wars games…

But that’s an article for another day. I should conclude this one by noting that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis2 was greeted with superlative reviews and equally strong sales; even Steven Spielberg, who unlike his friend George Lucas was a big fan of games, played through it and reportedly enjoyed it very much. A year after the original floppy-disk-based release, LucasArts made a “talkie” version for CD-ROM. Getting Harrison Ford to play Indiana Jones was, as you might imagine, out of the question, but they found a credible soundalike, and handled the voice acting as a whole with their usual commitment to quality, recruiting professional voice talent in Hollywood and recording them in the state-of-the-art facilities of Skywalker Sound.

While hard sales numbers for LucasArts’s adventure games have never surfaced to my knowledge, Noah Falstein claims that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis sold the most of all of them — a claim I can easily imagine to be correct, given its rapturous critical reception and the intrinsic appeal of its license. Today, it tends to be placed just half a step down from the most-loved of the LucasArts adventures, lacking perhaps some of the manic inspiration of the studio’s completely original creations. Nonetheless, it’s a fine, fine game, well worth playing through twice or thrice — at least its middle section, where the pathways diverge — to experience all it has to offer. This game adapted from a movie franchise, which succeeds by not trying to be a movie, marked a fine start for Hal Barwood’s new career.

(Sources: the books The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski and Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin; LucasArts’s Adventurer magazine of Fall 1991, Spring 1992, and Spring 1993; Starlog of July 1981, September 1981, August 1982, May 1985, September 1985, November 1985, December 1985, and February 1988; Amiga Format of February 1992; Compute! of February 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1992; CU Amiga of June 1992; Electronic Games of October 1992; MacWorld of June 1989; Next Generation of October 1998; PC Review of September 1992; PC Zone of January 2000; Questbusters of September 1992; Zero of August 1991 and March 1992. Online sources include Arcade Attack‘s interviews with Noah Falstein and Hal Barwood; Noah Falstein’s Reddit AMA; MCV‘s articles on “The Early Days of LucasArts”; Noah Falstein’s presentation on LucasArts at Øredev 2017.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is available for purchase on GOG.com.)


  1. An Action Game was also published under the auspices of Lucasfilm Games, but its development was outsourced to a British house. 

  2. Once again, there was also a Fate of Atlantis action game, made in Britain with a particular eye to the 8-bit machines in Europe which couldn’t run the adventure game. And once again, it garnered little attention in comparison to its big brother. 

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Gateway Games of Legend (Preceded by the Legend of Gateway)

Frederik Pohl was still a regular speaker at science-fiction conventions in 2008.

Frederik Pohl, who died on September 2, 2013, at age 93, had one of the most multifaceted careers in the history of written science fiction. Almost uniquely, he played major roles in all three of the estates that constitute science fiction’s culture: the first estate of the creators, in which he wrote stories and novels over a span of many decades; the second estate of the publishers and other business interests, in which he served as a highly respected and influential agent, editor, and anthologist over a similar period of time; and the third estate of fandom, in which his was an important voice from the very dawn of the pulp era, and for which he never lost his enthusiasm, attending science-fiction conventions and casting his votes on fan committees right up to the end.

Growing up between the world wars in Brooklyn, New York, Pohl discovered the nascent literary genre of science fiction in 1930 at the age of 10, when he stumbled upon an issue of Science Wonder Stories. From that moment on, he spent his time at every opportunity with the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars and Doc Smith’s Lensmen — catnip for any red-blooded young boy with any sense of wonder at all. In comparison to other young science-fiction fanatics, however, Pohl stood out for his personableness, his ambition, his spirit of innovation, and his sheer commitment to the things he loved. He became a founding member of the Brooklyn Science Fiction League, one of the earliest instances of organized science-fiction fandom anywhere in the country, and by the ripe old age of 13 or so had become a prolific editor and publisher of fanzines, many of which enjoyed a total circulation reaching all the way into two figures.

The world of science fiction was indeed still a small one, but that had its advantages in terms of access, especially when one was fortunate enough to live in the pulp publishing capital that was New York City. The boundaries between science-fiction fan and the “profession” of science-fiction writer were porous, and by the latter half of the 1930s Pohl was hobnobbing with such luminaries as Isaac Asimov and Cyril Kornbluth in an informal club of like-minded souls who called themselves the Futurians. He stumbled into the job of acting as the Futurians’ literary agent, which entailed buying stamps and envelopes in bulk, mailing off his friends’ stories to every pulp publisher in the Big Apple, and collecting lots of rejection slips alongside the occasional letter of acceptance in the return post.

In 1939, a 19-year-old Frederik Pohl got himself an editor’s job at the pulp house Popular Publications by virtue of knocking on their door and asking for one. He was given responsibility for Astonishing and Super Science Stories, second-tier magazines that paid their writers a penny per word and trafficked in the stories that weren’t good enough for John W. Campbell’s Astounding, the class of the field. Most of the authors whose stories Pohl accepted are justifiably forgotten today, but he did get his hands every now and then on a sub-par offering from the likes of a Robert A. Heinlein or L. Sprague de Camp that Campbell had rejected; Pohl, alas, was in no position to be so choosy.

But then along came the Second World War to put everything on hold for a while. Pohl wound up joining the Army Air Force, and was rewarded with what he freely described as a “cushy” war experience, working as meteorologist for a B-24 squadron based in Italy. When he returned from Europe, he returned to publishing as well but, initially, not to science fiction. Now a married man with familial responsibilities, he worked for a few years as an advertising copywriter, then as an editor for the book adjuncts to the magazines Popular Science and Outdoor Life; this constitutes the only substantial period of his entire professional life spent outside science fiction.

Yet the pull of science fiction remained strong, and in the early 1950s Pohl resumed his old role of literary agent for his writer buddies, albeit now on a slightly more professional footing. The locus of science-fiction profits was moving from the pulps to paperback novels and short-story collections in book form; thus Pohl became an editor for Ballantine’s new line of science-fiction paperbacks. By this point, the name of Frederik Pohl, while still fairly obscure to most readers, was known to everyone inside the community of science-fiction writers. He really was on a first-name basis with everyone who was anyone in the field, from hard science fiction’s holy trinity of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke to lyrical science fiction’s patron saint Ray Bradbury.

In 1960, a 41-year-old Pohl accepted what was destined to become his most influential behind-the-scenes role of all when he agreed to become editor of a troubled ten-year-old also-ran of a magazine called Galaxy Science Fiction. “The pay was miserable,” he would later remember. “The work was never-ending. It was the best job I ever had in my life.”

At that time, science fiction was on the precipice of a new era, as a more culturally, racially, sexually, and stylistically diverse generation of up-and-coming writers — the so-called “New Wave” — began to arrive on the scene with a new interest in prose quality and formal experimentation, alongside an interest in exploring the future in terms of human psychology rather than technology alone. Many or most of the old guard who had cut their teeth in the pulp era, whose politics tended to veer conservative in predictable middle-aged-white-male fashion, greeted this invasion of beatnik radicals with dismay and contempt. The card-carrying John Birch Society member John W. Campbell, who was still editing Astounding — or rather, as it had recently been renamed, Analog Science Fiction — was particularly vocal in his criticism of all this new-fangled nonsense.

Frederik Pohl, however, was different from most of his peers. He had always read widely outside the field of science fiction as well as inside it, and was as comfortable discussing the stylistic experiments of James Joyce and Marcel Proust as he was the clockwork plots of Doc Smith. And as for politics… well, he had spent four years as a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party — take that, John Campbell! — and even after disillusionment with the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin had put an end to that phase he had retained his leftward bent.

In short: Frederik Pohl welcomed the new arrivals and their new ideas with open arms, making Galaxy a haven for works at the cutting edge of modern science fiction, superseding Campbell’s increasingly musty-smelling Analog as the genre’s journal of record. He had to, as he later put it, “encourage, coax, and sometimes browbeat” his charges to get the very best work out of them, but together they changed the face of science fiction. Indeed, it was arguably helping other writers be their best selves that constituted this multifariously talented man’s most remarkable talent of all. Perhaps his most difficult yet rewarding writer was the famously irascible Harlan Ellison, who burst to prominence in the pages of Galaxy and If, its sister publication, with stories whose names were as scintillatingly trippy as their contents: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.” Such stories were painfully shaped over the course of a series of bloody rows between editor and writer. Most readers would agree that Ellison’s later fiction has never approached the quality of these early stories, churned out under the editorship of Frederik Pohl.

Burned out at last by the job of editing Galaxy, Pohl stepped down at the end of the 1960s, a decade that had transformed the culture of science fiction every bit as much as it had the larger American culture that surrounded it. In the following decade, however, he continued to push the boundaries as an editor for Bantam Books. It was entirely thanks to him that Bantam in 1975 published Samuel R. Delany’s experimental masterpiece or colossal con job — depending on the beholder — Dhalgren, nearly 900 pages of digressive, circular prose heavily influenced by James Joyce’s equally controversial Finnegans Wake. Whatever else you could say about it, science fiction had come a long way from the days of Science Wonder Stories and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All of which is to say that Frederik Pohl would have made a major impact on the field of science fiction had he never written a word of his own. In actuality, though, he managed to combine all of the work I’ve described to this point with an ebbing and flowing output of original short stories and novels, beginning with, of all things, a rather awkwardly adolescent poem called “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1937. Through the ensuing decades, Pohl was regarded as a competent but second-tier writer, the kind who could craft a solid tale but seldom really dazzled. Yet he kept at it; if nothing else, continuing to work as a writer in his own right gave him a feeling for what the more high-profile writers he represented and edited were going through. In 1967, he even switched roles with his frenemy Harlan Ellison by contributing a story to the latter’s Dangerous Visions anthology, a collection of deliberately provocative stories — the sorts of things that could never, ever have gotten into print in earlier years — from New Age writers and adventurous members of the old guard; it went on to become what many critics consider the most important and influential science-fiction anthology of all time.

But even Pohl’s contribution there — “The Day After the Day After the Martians Came,” a parable about the eternal allure of racism and xenophobia that was well-taken then and now but far less provocative than many of the anthology’s other stories — didn’t really change perceptions of him as a fine editor with a sideline in writing rather than the opposite. That shift didn’t happen until a decade later, when the now 58-year-old Pohl published a novel called Gateway. Coming after the most important work of the vast majority of his pulpy peers was well behind them, Pohl’s 21st solely-authored or co-authored novel constitutes the most unlikely story of a late blooming in the history of science fiction.

Described in the broadest strokes, Gateway sounds like the sort of rollicking space opera which John W. Campbell would have loved to publish back in the heyday of Astounding. In our solar system’s distant past, when the primitive ancestors of humanity had yet to discover fire, an advanced star-faring race, later to be dubbed the Heechee by humans, visited, only to abandon their bases an unknown period of time later. As humans begin to explore and settle the solar system in our own near future, they discover a deserted Heechee space station in an elliptical orbit around our sun. They find that the station still contains bays full of hundreds of small spaceships, and discover the hard way that, at the press of a mysterious button, these spaceships sweep their occupants away on a non-negotiable faster-than-light journey to some other corner of the galaxy, then (hopefully) back to Earth at the press of another button; for this reason, they name the station Gateway, as in, “Gateway to the Stars.” Many of the destinations the spaceships visit are pointless; some, such as the interior of a black hole, are deadly. Sometimes, though, the spaceships travel to habitable planets and/or to planets containing other artifacts of Heechee technology, worth a pretty penny to scientists, engineers, and collectors back on Earth.

Earth itself is not in very good shape socially, culturally, or environmentally. Overpopulation and runaway capitalism have all but ruined the planet and created an underclass of have-nots who make up the vast majority of the population, working in unappetizing industries like “food shale mines.” The so-called Gateway Corporation, which has taken charge of the station, runs a lottery for people interested in climbing into a Heechee spaceship, pressing a button, and seeing where it takes them. Possibly they can end up rich; more likely, they might wind up dead, their bodies left to decay hundreds of light years from home. But, conditions being what they are among the teeming masses, there’s no shortage of volunteers ready and willing to take such a long shot. These intrepid — or, rather, desperate — explorers are known as the Gateway “prospectors.”


That, then, is the premise —  a premise offering a universe of possibility to any writer with an ounce of the old pulpy space-opera spirit. Who are (or were) the Heechee? Why did they disappear? Did they intend for humans to discover their technology and start using it to explore the galaxy, or is that just a happy (?) accident? Will the two races meet someday? Or, if you like, table all those Big Mysteries for some series finale off in the far distance. Just the premise of flying off to parts unknown in all these Heechee spaceships admits of an infinite variety of adventures. Gene Roddenberry may have once famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” but the starship Enterprise has got nothing on this idea.

Here’s the thing, though: having come up with this spectacular idea that the likes of a Doc Smith could have spent an entire career milking, Frederik Pohl perversely refused to turn it into the straightforward tales of interstellar adventure that it was crying out to become. Gateway engages with it instead only in the most subversively oblique fashion. Half of the novel consists of a series of therapy sessions involving a robot psychologist and a Gateway prospector named Robinette Broadhead who’s neither conventionally adventurous nor even terribly likable. Robinette is the only survivor — under somewhat suspicious circumstances — of a recent five-person prospecting expedition. He’s now rich, but he’s also a deeply damaged soul, just one of the many who inhabit Gateway, a rather squalid place beset by rampant drug abuse, a symptom of the literal dead-enders who inhabit it between prospecting voyages. We spend far more time exploring the origins and outcomes of Robinette’s various psycho-sexual hangups than we do gallivanting about the stars. It’s as if we wandered into a Star Trek movie and got an Ingmar Bergman film that just happens to be set in space instead. Gateway is a shameless bait-and-switch of a novel. Robinette Broadhead, I’m afraid, lost his sense of wonder a long time ago, and it seems that he took Frederik Pohl’s as well.

The best way to understand Gateway may be through the lens of the times in which it was written: this is very much a novel of the 1970s, that long, hazy morning after to the rambunctious 1960s. The counterculture of the earlier decade had focused on collective struggles for social justice, but the 1970s turned inward to focus on the self. Images of feminist activists like Betty Friedan shouting through bullhorns at rallies were replaced in the media landscape with the sitcom character Mary Tyler Moore, the career gal who really did have it all; rollicking songs of mass protest were replaced by the navel-gazing singer-songwriter movement; the term Me Generation was coined, and suddenly everyone seemed to be in therapy of one kind or another, trying to sort out their personal issues instead of trying to fix society writ large. Meanwhile a pair of global oil crises, acid rain, and the thick layer of smog that hovered continually over Hollywood — the very city of dreams itself — were driving home for the first time what a fragile place this planet of ours actually is. Oh, well… on the brighter side, if you were into that sort of thing, lots of people were having lots and lots of casual sex, still enjoying the libertine sexual mores of the 1960s before the specter of AIDS would rear its head and put an end to all that as well in the following decade.

It’s long been a truism among science-fiction critics that this genre which is ostensibly about our many possible futures usually has far more interesting things to say about the various presents that create it. And nowhere is said truism more true than in the case of Gateway. For better or for worse, all of the aspects of fashionable 1970s culture which I’ve just mentioned fairly leap off its pages: the therapy and accompanying obsessive self-examination, the warnings about ecology and environment, the sex. It was so in tune with its times that the taste-makers of science fiction, who so desperately wanted their favored literary genre to be relevant, able to hold its head up proudly alongside any other, rewarded the novel mightily. Gateway won pretty much everything it was possible for a science-fiction novel to win, including its year’s Hugo and Nebula, the most prestigious awards in the genre; it sold far better than anything else Frederik Pohl had ever written; it made Pohl, four decades on from publishing that first awkward adolescent poem in Amazing Stories, a truly hot author at last.

The modern critical opinion tends to be more mixed. In fact, Gateway stands today as one of the more polarizing science-fiction novels ever written. Plenty of readers find its betrayal of its brilliant space-operatic setup unforgivable, and/or find its unlikable, self-absorbed protagonist insufferable, and/or find its swinging-70s social mores and dated ideas about technology simply silly. I confess that I myself largely belong to this group, although more for the latter two reasons than the first. Other readers, though, continue to find something hugely compelling about the novel that’s never quite come through for me. And yet even some of this group might agree that some aspects of Gateway haven’t aged terribly well. With some of the best writers in the world now embracing or at least acknowledging science fiction as as valid a literary form as any other, the desperate need to prove the genre’s literary bona fides at every turn that marked the 1960s and 1970s no longer exists. Gateway today feels like it’s trying just a bit too hard.

In at least one sense, Gateway did turn into a case of business as usual for a popular genre novel: Frederik Pohl published three sequels plus a collection of Gateway short stories during the 1980s. These gradually peeled back the layers of mystery to reveal who the Heechee were, why they had once come to our solar system, and why they had left, using the same oblique approach that had so delighted and infuriated readers of the first book. None of the them had the same lightning-in-a-bottle quality as that first book, however, and Pohl’s reputation gradually declined back to join the mid-tier authors with which he had always been grouped prior to 1977. Perhaps in the long run that was simply where he belonged — a solid writer of readable, enjoyable fiction, but not one overly likely to shift any paradigms inside a reader’s psyche.

At any rate, such was the position Pohl found himself in in early 1991, when Legend Entertainment came calling with a plan to make a computer game out of Gateway.


As a tiny developer and publisher in a fast-growing, competitive industry, Legend was always doomed to lead a somewhat precarious existence. Nevertheless, the first months of 1991 saw them having managed to establish themselves fairly well as the only company still making boxed parser-driven adventure games — the natural heir to Infocom, co-founded by an ex-Infocom author named Bob Bates and publishing games written not only by him but also by Steve Meretzky, the most famous Infocom author of all. Spellcasting 101, the latter’s fantasy farce that had become Legend’s debut product the previous year, was selling quite well, and a sequel was already in the works, as was Timequest, a more serious-minded time-travel epic from Bates.

Taking stock of the situation, Legend realized that they needed to increase the number of games they cranked out in order to consolidate their position. Their problem was that they only had two game designers to call upon, both of whom had other distractions to deal with in addition to the work of designing new Legend adventure games: Bates was kept busy by the practical task of running the company, while Meretkzy was working from home as a freelancer, and as such was also doing other projects for other companies. A Legend “Presentation to Stockholders” dated May of 1991 makes the need clear: “We need to find new game authors,” it states under the category of “Product Issues.” Luckily, there was already someone to hand — in fact, someone who had played a big part in drawing up the very document in question — who very much wanted to design a game.

Mike Verdu had been Bates’s partner in Legend Entertainment from the very beginning. Although not yet out of his twenties, he was already an experienced entrepreneur who had founded, run, and then sold a successful business. He still held onto his day job with ASC, the computer-services firm with many Defense Department contracts which had acquired the aforementioned business, even as he was devoting his evenings and weekends to Legend. Verdu:

I was the business guy. I was the CFO, the COO, the guy who went and got money and made sure we didn’t run out of it, who figured out the production plans for the products, tried to get them done on time, figured out the milestone plans and the software-development plans. I was a product guy inasmuch as I was helping to hire programmers and putting them to work, but I wasn’t a game designer, and I wasn’t writing code or being the creative director on products. And I really wanted to do that.

So, there was this moment when I had to decide between continuing to work with ASC and doing Legend part time or doing Legend full time. I decided to do Legend full time. But as a condition of that, I said, “I’d like to be a part of the teams that are actually making the games.”

But I didn’t believe I had the chops to create a whole world and write a game from scratch. I was sort of looking for a world I could tell a story in. So I talked to Bob about licensing. I was incredibly passionate about Frederik Pohl’s novels. So we talked about Gateway, and Bob made the connection and negotiated the deal. It went so much smoother and easier than I thought it would. I was so excited!

The negotiations were doubtless sped along by the fact that the bloom was already somewhat off the rose when it came to Gateway. The novel’s sequels had been regarded by even many fans of the original as a classic case of diminishing returns, and the whole body of work, which so oozed that peculiar malaise of the 1970s, felt rather dated when set up next to hipper, slicker writers of the 1980s like William Gibson. Nobody, in short, was clamoring to license Gateway for much of anything by this point, so a deal wasn’t overly hard to strike.

Just like that, Mike Verdu had his world to design his game in, and Legend was about to embark on their first foray into a type of game that would come to fill much of their catalog in subsequent years: a literary license. For this first time out, they were fortunate enough to get the best kind of literary license, short of the vanishingly rare case of one where an active, passionate author is willing to serve as a true co-creator: the kind where the author doesn’t appear to be all that interested in or even aware of the project’s existence. Mike Verdu never met or even spoke to Frederik Pohl in the process of making what would turn out to be two games based on his novels. He got all the benefits of an established world to play in with none of the usual drawbacks of having to ask for approval on every little thing.

Yet the Gateway project didn’t remain Verdu’s baby alone for very long. Bates and Verdu, eager to expand their stable of game designers yet further, hit upon the idea of using it as a sort of training ground for other current Legend employees who, like Verdu, dreamed of breaking into a different side of the game-development business. Verdu agreed to divide his baby into three pieces, taking one for himself and giving the others to Glen Dahlgren, a Legend programmer, and to Michael Lindner, the company’s music-and-sound guru. All would work on their parts under the loose supervision of the experienced Bob Bates, who stood ready to gently steer them back on course if they started to stray. Verdu:

We learned how to write code. We learned the craft of interactive-fiction design from Bob, then we would huddle as a group and hash out the storylines and puzzles for our respective sections of the game, then try to tie them all together. That was one of the best times of my career, turning from a defense-industry executive into a game designer who could write code and bring a game to life. Magical… incredibly great!

You were writing, compiling, and testing in this constant iteration. You would write something, then you would see the results, then repeat. I think that was the most powerful flow state I’ve ever been in. Hours would just evaporate. I’d look up at four in the morning and there’d be nobody in the office: Good God, where did the last eight hours go? It was a wonderful creative process.

It was an unorthodox, perhaps even disjointed way to make a game, but the Legend Trade School for Game Design worked out beautifully. When it shipped in the summer of 1992, Gateway was by far the best thing Legend had done to that point: a big, generous, well-polished game, with lots to see and do, a nice balance between plot and free-form exploration, and meticulously fair puzzle design. It’s the adventure-game equivalent of a summer beach read, a page turner that just keeps rollicking along, ratcheting up the excitement all the while. It isn’t a hard game, but you wouldn’t want it to be; this is a game where you just want to enjoy the ride, not scratch your head for long periods of time over its puzzles. It even looks much better than the occasionally garish-looking Legend games which came before it, thanks to the company’s belated embrace of 256-color VGA graphics and their growing comfort working with multimedia elements.

You might already be sensing a certain incongruity between this description of Gateway the game and my earlier description of Gateway the novel. And, indeed, said incongruity is very much present. A conventional object-oriented adventure game is hardly the right medium for delving deep into questions of individual psychology. A player of a game needs a through line to follow, a set of concrete goals to achieve; this explains why adventure games share their name with adventure fiction rather than literary fiction. Do you remember how I described Gateway the novel as setting up a perfect space-opera premise, only to obscure it behind therapy sessions and a disjointed, piecemeal approach to its narrative? Well, Gateway the game becomes the very space opera that the novel seemed to promise us, only to jerk it away: a big galaxy-spanning romp that Doc Smith could indeed have been proud of. Mike Verdu, the designer most responsible for the overarching structure of the game, jettisoned Pohl’s sad-sack protagonist along with all of his other characters. He also dispensed with the foreground plot, such as it is, about personal guilt and responsibility that drives the novel. What he was left with was the glorious wide-frame premise behind it all.

The game begins with you, a lucky (?) lottery winner from the troubled Earth, arriving at Gateway Station to take up the job of prospector. In its first part, written by Mike Verdu, you acclimate to life on the station, complete your flight training, and go on your initial prospecting mission. In the second part, written by Michael Lindner, you tackle a collection of prospecting destinations in whatever order you prefer, visiting lots of alien environments and assembling clues about who the Heechee were and why they’ve disappeared. In part three, written by Glen Dahlgren, you have to avert a threat to Earth posed by another race of aliens known as the Assassins — that race being the reason, you’ve only just discovered to your horror, that the Heechee went into hiding in the first place. The plot as a whole is expansive and improbable and, yes, more than a little silly. In other words, it’s space opera at its best. There’s nothing wrong with a little pure escapism from time to time.

Gateway the game thus becomes, in my opinion anyway, an example of a phenomenon more common than one might expect in creative media: the adaptation that outdoes its source material. It doesn’t even try to carry the same literary or thematic weight that the novel rather awkwardly stumbles along under, but by way of compensation it’s a heck of a lot more fun. As an adaptation, it fails miserably if one’s criterion for success is capturing the unadulterated flavor and spirit of the source material. As a standalone adventure game, however, it’s a rollicking success.

Legend had signed a two-game deal with Frederik Pohl right from the start, and had always intended to develop a sequel to Gateway if its sales made that idea viable. And so, when the first Gateway sold a reasonable 35,000 units or so, Gateway II: Homeworld got the green light. Michael Lindner had taken on another project of his own by this point, so Mike Verdu and Glen Dahlgren divided the sequel between just the two of them, each taking two of the sequel’s four parts.

Reaching stores almost exactly one year after its predecessor, Gateway II became both the last parser-driven adventure Legend published and the last boxed game of that description from any publisher — a melancholy milestone for anyone who had grown up with Infocom and their peers during the previous decade. The text adventure would live on, but it would do so outside the conventional computer-game industry, in the form of games written by amateurs and moonlighters that were distributed digitally and usually given away rather than sold. Never again would anyone be able to make a living from text adventures.

As era enders go, though, Gateway II: Homeworld is pretty darn spectacular, with all the same strengths as its predecessor. In its climax, you finally meet the Heechee themselves on their hidden homeworld — thus the game’s subtitle — and save the Earth one final time while you’re at it. It’s striking to compare the driving plot of this game with the static collections of environments and puzzles that had been the text adventures of ten years before. The medium had come a long way from the days of Zork. This isn’t to say that Legend’s latter-day roller-coaster text adventures, sporting music, cut scenes, and heaps of illustrations, were intrinsically superior to the traditional approach — but they certainly were impressive in their degree of difference, and in how much fun they still are to play in their own way.

One thing that Zork and the Gateway games do share is the copious amounts of love and passion that went into making them. Unlike so many licensed games, the Gateway games were made for the right reasons, made by people who genuinely loved the universe of the novels and were passionate about bringing it to life in an interactive medium.

For Mike Verdu, Michael Lindner, and Glen Dahlgren, the Gateway games did indeed mark the beginning of new careers as game designers, at Legend and elsewhere. The story of Verdu, the business executive who became a game designer, is particularly compelling — almost as compelling, one might even say, as that of Frederik Pohl, the mid-tier author, agent, and editor who briefly became the hottest author in science fiction almost five decades after he decided to devote his life to his favorite literary genre, in whatever capacity it would have him. Both men’s stories remind us that, for the lucky among us at least, life is long, and as rich as we care to make it, and it’s a shame to spend it all doing just one thing.

Gateway and Gateway II: Homeworld in Pictures


Gateway employs Legend’s standard end-stage-commercial-text-adventure interface, with music and sound and graphics and several screen layouts to choose from, straining to satisfy everyone from the strongly typing-averse to the purists who still scoff at anything more elaborate than a simple stream of text and a blinking command prompt.

Mike Verdu wanted a license to give him an established world to play with. Having gotten his wish, he used it well. Gateway puts enormous effort into making its environment a rich, living place, building upon what is found in Frederik Pohl’s novels. Much of this has nothing to do with the puzzles or other gameplay elements; it’s there strictly to add to the experience as a piece of fiction. Thanks to an unlimited word count and heaps of new multimedia capabilities, it outdoes anything Infocom could ever have dreamed of doing in this respect.

We spend a big chunk of Gateway II in a strange alien spaceship — the classic “Big Dumb Object” science-fiction plot, reminding us not just of classic novels but of earlier text adventures like Infocom’s Starcross and Telarium’s adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama. In fact, there are some oddly specific echoes of the former game, such as a crystal rod and a sort of zoo of alien lifeforms to deal with. That said, you’ll never mistake one game for the other. Starcross is minimalist in spirit and presentation, a cerebral exercise in careful exploration and puzzle-solving, while Gateway II is just a big old fun-loving thrill ride, full of sound and color, that rarely slows down enough to let you take a breath. I love them both equally.

Many of the illustrations in Gateway II in particular really are lovely to look at, especially when one considers the paucity of resources at Legend’s disposal in comparison to bigger adventure developers like Sierra and LucasArts. There were obviously some fine artists employed by Legend, with a keen eye for doing more with less.

Some of the cut scenes in Gateway II are 3D-modeled. Such scenes were becoming more and more common in games by 1993, as computing hardware advanced and developers began to experiment with a groundbreaking product called 3D Studio. The 3D Revolution, which would change the look and to a large extent the very nature of games as the decade wore on, was already looming in the near distance.

The parser disappeared from Legend’s games not so much all at once as over a series of stages. By Gateway II, the last Legend game to be ostensibly parser-based, conversations and even some puzzles had become purely point-and-click affairs for the sake of convenience and variety. It already feels like you spend almost as much time mousing around as you do typing, even if you don’t choose to use the (cumbersome) onscreen menus of verbs and nouns to construct your commands for the parser. Having come this far, it was a fairly straightforward decision for Legend to drop the parser entirely in their next game. Thus do most eras end — not with a bang but with a barely recognized whimper. At least the parser went out on a high note…

(Sources: I find Frederik Pohl’s memoir The Way the Future Was, about his life spent in science fiction, more compelling than his actual fiction, as I do The Way the Future Blogs, an online journal which he maintained for the last five years or so of his life, filling it with precious reminiscences about his writing, his fellow authors, his nearly century-spanning personal life, and his almost equally lengthy professional career in publishing and fandom. I’m able to tell the Legend Entertainment side of this story in detail thanks entirely to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu, both of whom sat down for long interviews, the former of whom also shared some documents from those times.

Feel free to download the games Gateway and Gateway II, packaged to be as easy as possible to get running under DOSBox on your modern computer, from right here. As noted in the article proper, they’re great rides that are well worth your time, two of the standout gems of Legend’s impressive catalog.)

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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